Houdini’s rules: a carding chronicle

Among the more memorable characters in Carding, Vermont is a goat named Houdini. He’s owned by Lee and Chris Tennyson, and he’s named Houdini for good reason.

This week, the Tennysons are taking their two boys camping up on the Champlain Islands. While they’re gone, their friend Jacob Brown has agreed to stay at the farm to keep an eye on things.

Houdini senses opportunity in this first of a three-part story.

I’m so glad you stopped by to give Jacob a hand.

“Has Houdini always kept a harem?” Jacob Brown asked as he leaned on the fence that surrounded Lee Tennyson’s pasture.

Lee grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Yep. That’s one of the old goat’s rules.”


“Yeah, rules. Houdini doesn’t have too many of them but the ones he does have are absolute,” Lee said.

Jacob settled in. He could spot an oncoming story with the best of them, and he’d always enjoyed Lee’s.

“And the rules are?”

Lee raised his index finger. “One: Thou shalt always have a clutch of no less and no more than three nannies at a time. I think it’s an ego thing because he mostly leaves the older girls alone.”

“Bippity and Boppity?” Jacob asked. The names of the she-goats in Houdini’s harem were widely known all over Carding.

“Yeah. We got them when my oldest boy, Scott, was three and at the time, Cinderella was his favorite movie.” Lee chuckled. “In fact, Scott’s the reason we have three nannies because he kept insisting that we needed a ‘Boo.’ It’s probably a good thing overall because she’s the only one who tolerates the old guy.”

“You know, I’ve never asked—how old is Houdini? I can’t remember a time when you didn’t have him,” Jacob said.

“Neither can I, to tell you the truth. We bought him as a kid from a farm in the southern part of the state when my wife got interested in making goat cheese.” Lee paused to count back the years and the result made him shake his head. “Wow, we’re getting close to ten years now. That’s a long time to be ruled by a goat.”

“So what are his other rules?”

Lee raised a second finger. “Don’t interrupt him when he’s eating, especially during winter, and especially when he’s in the barn. He’s quite territorial about his food.”

“Are there any more?”

Lee raised a third finger. “Accept the fact that there’s never been a fence or wall that Houdini can’t conquer. In fact, I think he looks at them as a challenge. That’s another reason I’m glad we have three nannies. Boo will follow Houdini anywhere but the two other girls won’t budge from the pasture. I’ve stood here and watched Bippity butt him when he tries to get her to go on one of his adventures into Carding. And sometimes, the two older females stand around the younger one so she can’t go either.”

“I take it that he doesn’t like to travel alone,” Jacob said.

“I don’t know about the alone part. I think he just wants an audience,” Lee said. “My wife says it’s typical male behavior.” The two men laughed.

“Are you talking about Houdini?” Christine said as she joined them, setting a basket of eggs on the ground.

“Yeah, about his three rules,” Jacob said.

Christine snorted, and Jacob’s eyebrows rose. He’d always considered Christine Tennyson one of the prettiest and most elegant women he’d ever known, not someone who could snort as well as a horse.

“Did Lee tell you about Houdini’s fourth rule yet?” she asked.

“There’s a fourth?”

“Oh yeah, Houdini believes he has the right to make any other damn rule he pleases without telling you,” she said.

Lee’s grin got bigger as he tugged his wife’s ponytail. “Chris and Houdini have had a rather explosive relationship at times.”

“Hmph, you tell me how you would feel chasing that fool goat all the way down Meetinghouse Road and then seeing your picture on the front page of the paper. I looked totally crazed,” she said, cocking an eyebrow at Jacob. “It was not my finest moment.”

Lee turned toward his friend. “Aside from Houdini, do you have any other questions about what needs to be done around the farm while we’re gone?”

The Tennysons and their children were headed north for a family vacation before school did—or did not—open, and Jacob had volunteered to watch over the farm while they were gone. Chickens, goats, a dog, and a cat, what could go wrong?

“I think I’ll be fine,” Jacob said. “You said Cassie Handy is going to take care of milking the nannies, right?”

“Yes, she’s been helping me in the cheese house so she knows what to do, and the harem are used to the way she milks them so she should be fine,” Chris said.

Suddenly, Houdini’s harem appeared at the top of the pasture, followed by their five kids. A few moments later, Houdini appeared.

“Has he got a little strut to his step or is that just my imagination?” Jacob asked. Like everyone who knew the Tennysons’ cantankerous billy, Jacob had a grudging respect for Houdini. The goat had calmed down as he aged but everyone who’d lived in Carding long enough had a tale to tell about the goat’s many escapes from the Tennyson pastures.

There was the time he walked into the Crow Town Bakery and walked out with a loaf of bread, and the time he barged into a game of tag on the elementary school playground, and then there was the time that Reverend Lloyd opened the doors of the Episcopal Church one morning to find Houdini munching the flowers on the altar.

And the time that…well, you get the idea.

“As Lee said, Houdini’s got to have an audience and with you here, he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to show off his male prowess,” Chris said.

Her husband swung his head around. “Speaking of male prowess, where are our outstanding kids?”

Chris gave him a poke in the ribs, and then the three of them leaned in together to watch the young goats.

“No matter how many times I watch them, I always get a kick out of the way that they cavort,” Jacob said. “Cavort…somehow that word just fits what they do.”

Two of the kids started racing around the pasture, jumping over imaginary obstacles as well as the real jumps that the Tennyson boys had constructed out of posts and tree branches. It didn’t take long for the rest of the young ones to join in while the adults—human as well as goat—watched with benign amusement.

“Just be sure to keep the little ones out of the apple orchard,” Lee said. “The fruit is just this side of ripe, and if they get into it, they’ll eat themselves sick.”

“I promise they’ll be in the barn before the sun is down,” Jacob said. He’d been toying with the idea of farming for a while, and he figured taking care of the Tennyson place for a week would be a good chance to get a little firsthand experience. He knew it was a lot of work but he liked being outdoors and enjoyed working with animals. And truth be known, it would get him out of working in the heavy construction business owned by his domineering father, Harry.

And that would be a notable benefit.

As he watched the goats play and amble through the pasture, he asked himself again: What could go wrong?

Sonja Hakala lives on a river in Vermont and is the author of the Carding, Vermont novels and the upcoming Red City mystery, An Inappropriate Man.

The Carding, Vermont novels are available on Amazon, and they are, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Light in Water, Dancing

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