We took the train to the very top of Manhattan, exiting the subway into a neighborhood of large boulevards and boarded-up storefronts. Black sedans cruised by and occasionally stopped to ask us if we needed a taxi. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning, it was already steamy.
This was only our fifth Sunday in the city. My fiancé and I had come to Highbridge Park that morning to volunteer. We wore old jeans tucked into hiking boots, and t-shirts that were already dirty. We carried plastic bags full of water, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and apples. We were ready to work, and maybe make some friends.
The site leader gathered us around, ten in all, and explained that we would be picking up trash in the woods on the other side of the park’s playing fields. She handed out trash bags and trash pickers, whose three-pronged gripping tools we could open and close mechanically. None of us wore gloves.
Highbridge Park sits on a large plateau on the east side. Down a steep, craggy slope, and across the Harlem River, is another New York, filled with suburban wooden enclaves. Mostly Dominicans live around the park; they come there at night and on weekends for baseball and cookouts, bringing fritos verdes, yaniqueques, and different brands of cola.
We admired the views of the old water tower and of High Bridge, New York’s oldest bridge, built to carry water from Westchester County to the nineteenth-century city. George Washington headquartered nearby in the fall of 1776; the revolutionary Battle of Washington lent the neighborhood its name: Washington Heights. After that, people cultivated large farms and lived in grand houses. Today, as it gentrifies, some residents and real estate agents call the area WaHi or Hudson Heights.
Scrambling along the roots and rocks, we filled our bags with beer cans, wrappers, condoms, comforters, and syringes. There was a small vegetable garden, in which someone or some people grew cabbage and what looked like cauliflower; we carefully stepped between the rows to pick up empty potato chip bags.
The heat made us sluggish. A volunteer called out, and we ambled over to where she stood, poking at a large dark mass next to a bush. We began to hold our breath. Fanning out around the site leader, we watched as she lifted away some dirty towels to reveal a goat’s head.
Its eyes were open, staring. A half-burned candle had been pressed between the horns. The black fur looked greasy with blood, maybe. Someone flipped it over, and we saw how cleanly the head had been severed. We gagged watching the maggots writhe in what remained of its brain.
The site leader did not hesitate to put the head in a bag, nor did we urge her not to do so. Shortly after, the shift ended. We carried all the bags through the woods, back across the grass, and onto Amsterdam Avenue. We took the subway south, and showered.
What haunts me about Highbridge is neither horror nor repulsion, although I felt both that Sunday. When I think back, I don’t see the goat’s head. Instead, I imagine the scene as it might have been a night or two before: darkness punctuated by weak candlelight and the bleating of a goat before slaughter. I see several souls gathered together over a voodoo tableau, desperately trying to make this island home.