The lots were cast and Hain ben Zedekiah was chosen amongst the many to lead the goat of expiation into the wilderness. His family huddled unto each other and could not face him; the others in his tribe cried out wailing and averted their eyes as he passed. Only the high priest caught his eye, and then only for a moment as he passed the tether into into Hain’s trembling hand.
The walk among the tents from the sacred grounds to the edge of the encampment was as silent and breathless as if the world itself had stopped for a moment. Those who had cried out had since ran off; people drew their tents shut as he passed; and of those few remaining, they quickly turned their back on him and stood straight as a rod until he had gone forth from their presence.
The sun glowered upon Hain after he found himself half an hour’s walk from the tents behind him. He had not been permitted to bring water or bread with him, had not been permitted to carry anything else that might be misconstrued as an extra offering to this foreign god. He only held the goat’s tether, and that he still held with an uneasy hand.
When the sun reached its height in the sky, he stopped and settled himself on the ground as he had been instructed. A few leafy plants poked up from the sand around him and the goat began feasting; Hain merely sat uncomfortably upon the uneven rocks, looking to and fro for any sign of what was to come, of the god in flesh he was now destined to meet.
Go no further than the time of no shadows, he thought as he waited still in silence, for to journey to the god himself is to make an offering. He must come and take the goat, or else the sins cast upon it shall not leave the people.
Hain woke with a start at a sudden sound nearby. He yanked on the tether to ensure the goat was still at his side, but its presence did not calm him. He narrowed his eyes to pierce the darkness, strange shadows twisted here and there in the milky light of the moon. There was a misshapen boulder not far off that he had not taken note of before falling asleep. He stared at it intently.
Then the rock was no longer a rock, but a crouching figure. Tufts of matted wool covered it, two slender, curving horns poking up from what must have been its head. It turned only slightly, to face Hain, and the pale light caught its eyes and tinted them yellow.
The god made a sound like an off-center grinding stone, “Pretense broken, should I presume,” and then stood up to his full height. In the half-light Hain might have taken him for a large, burly man covered in mud and undressed to bathe, but he was larger than a normal man, and his hands–his hands had three fingers and flat ends like hooves.
“Are you Azazel?”
The wild god bleated, a scathing laugh in the clear night.
“Am I, of course. Who I am, they have told you. For I have seen many, not the first you are, not the first.”
Hain gripped the tether more tightly.
“You–you can’t have the goat!”
Azazel bleated once more and took a step to the left, a slow and unsteady step that put him more into shadow than into light.
“Fool with me not, messenger among the chosen, it shall be mine.” Azazel tilted his head, his eyes glinting as he moved until they were like candle flames bleeding their tainted light upon Hain. “The tether, hand me, and part in peace, shall we.”
Hain held the tether more tightly, but did not speak.
“Ask you this, let me: To you, what is the beast?”
Hain looked at the goat, a mass of fur bundled amid itself and sleeping. The priest had cast the sins of the people upon it. Sins of violence and misspoken words, sins of hatred and hardened hearts, sins of immorality and inaction. The goat was captive of the wrongs of his people with no way to rid itself of the burden just as he now was captive of this god with no way to free himself of its presence.
Azazel’s hoof stomped the ground to draw Hain’s attention, and he looked back, frowning, at the goat god.
“Made your decision, have you?”
Hain knew he needed Azazel to take the goat, but knew he could not give the goat willingly. It had to be taken for the expiation to be made.
He shook his head.
“You can’t have it.”
Azazel stared at him silently for a long moment, then turned and began walking into the wilderness. “Go, shall I. Farewell.”
Hain jumped up, but caught his tongue. He could not tell the goat god to come back, because then it would be clear he needed to give the goat to him–and then it could not be taken by force, but would become a forbidden offering. He could not do it, but as he stood there, Azazel continued to wander farther and farther away.
Yet he had to do something, or else the sins of the nation would rest on his hands, the lack of expiation, a failure of God’s command, would haunt him till his life’s end.
He mustered his voice and shouted, “Farewell, Azazel.”
Hain–trembling and shaking, his insides inverted at the audacity of his fast-thought plan–tugged the goat till it had woken and risen, and then he turned round with the rope in his unsteady grasp and began walking away.
He moved three paces before the clopping sounds of Azazel’s footsteps stopped. He moved three more before they began again, and after yet three more, the sounds were growing louder, if somehow softer and more deliberate, behind him.
Hain smiled, knowing the god had fallen into his trap–or perhaps he had fallen into the god’s? Had Azazel planned on Hain’s departure, planned an opening to steal the goat?
Hain swallowed uneasily and resisted the urge to look behind him. If he saw Azazel, if Azazel knew he knew the god walked behind them, then it was all over. Hain pressed on.
After a few moments, his inverted insides now turned to quaking stones knotted around his stomach, he noticed the sounds of footsteps had passed. He looked down at the goat, but it still walked beside him, indifferent. Hain felt a sudden tingling at the base of his spine and stopped walking. If he could no longer hear Azazel, and yet if he still held onto the goat’s tether, then it could only mean that–
Hain whirled around, saw the rock held above his head, and let go of the tether as he pulled his hands before his face and braced for the attack. He lost his balance, fell onto his back, and cowered there until everything was silent.
He slowly pried his eyes open and when he looked up, he was alone. The goat was gone. So was Azazel. And neither had left any trace of their existence.
Hain waited a few minutes before getting to his feet. He patted off the dust and dirt. He shook the wrinkles free from his robes. He began the walk toward their encampment, thinking his heart should be racing, but instead unusually calm.
Morning had just touched the horizon when he reached the edge of the outermost tents. There he found a basin of water and a washboard. He disrobed in silence, scrubbed his clothes until they were free of all stains, and then set them aside to bathe. He stood in the basin, watching the sun rise, and almost forgot he still had to dress when he finally stepped back upon the sandy earth.
He returned in silence to the sacred grounds, unhindered by those who dared not show him their faces, not yet certain if he had completed his task or damned them all.
Hain saw the high priest waiting, but the other man said nothing. Hain walked before him, waiting, but only received silence.
Then finally Hain said, “The deed is done. Azazel is gone.”
The priest smiled, but said nothing, and went inside.
Hain stood there. As the day went on, people walked about, but none took note of him standing there, no one looked his way or spoke to him or even spoke about him. They lived their lives as if blind to his presence.
Then he felt a hand close around his shoulder, thick fingers flat like hooves at their ends.
“With me, you shall come.”
Hain turned, but the god was gone. All that was left was a lonely goat, bleating at him, yellow-eyed. It began walking, turned from the sacred grounds, aimed at the horizon. Hain followed, into the wilderness, into the land of the forgotten, the unforgiven.