Thursday, 22 October 2015

Greylag {A Short Story}: The goose, the girl, and the midnight mystery

He came on the last breath of a nor’easter, an apparition gathered out of the morning mist. His form, that of a goose, but his substance of something yet unseen.  She did not recognize his orange beak, nor the pattern on his wings – feathers dark, the grey of a winter storm, but edged faintly white.  He stood in the bent grass beneath the spruce, a study in stillness, while the morning rolled on over the riverbank.
At first she doubted, but there was no mistake. He was looking straight at her, eyes pooled black with secrets. Rushes whispered, blackbirds chattered, rain pattered off the big old spruce limbs, but still he did not move. He was obviously the vagrant, yet poised without a quiver of fear. Was he waiting for something, or someone? The call of a mate? A lull in the wind?
She took a small step toward him.
He blinked.
She took another.
He tipped his head aside.
She stretched out her hand and crept slowly forward.
He shook the droplets from his feathers and stepped out from under the tree.
She paused and knelt in the wet grass, hand trembling out. Blackbirds quieted. The wind caught in her throat, and all the world slowed to still.
He walked over and laid his head in her hand, one black eye upturned.
She could feel the warmth, the weightless intimacy of each feather, the wild wing beating of the creature’s heart. She could feel him breathing, and somehow it was enough for both of them.
When she finally exhaled, he lifted his head. She met his gaze and whispered, “Hello.”

Her voice cracked with this faltering word, the first she had spoken aloud in weeks. And then, the wave of all that had been hit her again, like it had every morning, the rush of an emptiness too barren for grief. But this time, though it swept over her wholly, it receded and drew out a tiny rivulet of tears.
The goose stood beside her till her eyes cleared. Then he shook his head and raised wings to the sky, revealing a striking white web of plumage. With a slight nod, he turned and waddled to the riverbank. She was sure he would fly away, disappear as quickly as he had come, leave her there to drown with the next storm surge. But he returned to the spruce and settled in its shelter.

She walked down later in the day, this time with half a loaf of stale bread. He held back until she had torn and tossed all the pieces in his direction, then made short work of the meal.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. He only stared until the question seemed to echo back.

The next morning, when she opened the door, there he stood next to the stoop, head tipped and beak half open. This time she laughed. She went and got a fresh loaf.

On the third day, watching the goose parade around the yard, she picked up the phone.
“Honey? Is that you sweetheart? Are you ok? I’ve been so worried . . .”
“Dad, I found a goose.”
“A what?”
“A goose. I found a goose, Dad. Well, I think it’s lost. After that big storm. It’s not anything I’ve seen before. “
The silence of confusion. And then, a break in the grey.
“Hold on, let me get my book.”

On the fourth day, the phone rang.
“Honey? Still got your goose?”
Picking up the old rotary from the kitchen counter, she moved to the window where she could see the bird paddling and diving on the calm river surface.
 “From what I can tell by your description – white coverts, right? – it sounds like a Greylag. A wild goose, native to the Old World. It must have gone off course somehow, or got blown over in a storm current. They don’t usually travel alone. A pretty rare sighting from what I can tell. Definitely newsworthy, among the bird world anyway. Maybe you could get someone to come take a look?”
The phone cord twisted in curls around her fingers. “Maybe.”
“Is he friendly?”
“He waits outside the back door for breakfast every morning, so yeah, I’d say so.”
“Hmm. I wonder if he’s part of somebody’s domestic flock, or from a zoo.”
“Never heard of anything like that around here, though him coming all the way from the other side of the Atlantic is just as unlikely. But he seems wild to me. Even with breakfast.”
“Well, God knows how these creatures get around. Migratory instinct. That’s just the scientific name for mystery. Stupid car GPS couldn’t even get me to your place the last time . . .” Words tangled into a laugh.
She tugged unsuccessfully at a kink in the phone cord.
“You know, the ancient Celts figured the Holy Spirit was more like a wild goose than a dove. For what it’s worth.”
She gazed out at the strange bird, graceful on the water.
“Did you read that in one of your books?”
“Well, I’ve never talked to a dove. So maybe they were on to something.”

That night the wind blew unsettled. Out the window the old spruce swayed like a spectre, growling at the moon. She was worried about Greylag. She must have stood there for an hour, maybe two, staring into the dark. Finally, she flipped the lights off and went to bed.
A sudden cacophony startled her awake. Fighting to make sense of the pounding – was it in her ears or without? – the sound came into focus. Geese.  
She leapt out of bed, grabbing an old sweater, and ran outside. There were hundreds of them flying over the river, circling, calling. Dozens more were swooping down to the water, bracing, landing and dashing the moon tipped waves. Her eyes scanned frantic for Greylag.
All around her swirled beating wings, honking cries, the river alive with the dance of webbed feet. They were Canada Geese, the familiar black and white, yet here in the moonlight they had never seemed so deafeningly wild. And she was alive with fear and wonder and the frosty grass beneath her toes, and the storm of feathers raged, and she stood wide and bracing and then she saw it – the eye of the storm.
Greylag, there on the water, wings raised, conducting the whole movement, calling down the night. He turned and lowered his head in a quick bob. The rondo went on till every last goose had spun through the centre and back out into the sky, finally forming into silhouette V’s and disappearing to the south.
Greylag stayed.
When the noise faded at last, he swam to the bank.
She dropped to her knees.
He came once more and laid his head in her hand, and this time the salt river within her burst. When all was calm again, she knew only a silver web rocking her to sleep.

She woke to a playful midday sun, warm in her tousled bed and the old sweater. She would call Dad, tell him to come and identify the goose himself. Tell him to get out the GPS and bring his books and camera. Newsworthy, he had said. She pulled on her jeans and padded out to the kitchen. A honk sounded from the yard.
“Coming!” she sang, tearing into a new loaf of bread. “I know I’m late.”
She opened the door.
“Greylag?”  She threw the pieces out on the grass. “Breakfast is ready!”
She stuffed a chunk into her own mouth and stepped into a pair of boots. Her eyes scanned the yard. Empty. Maybe he had decided on minnows instead. She strode down to the river. Nothing.
“Greylag,” she whispered, searching the clear sky.
And then all at once her cheeks burned foolish. I’m talking to a goose. And then, the panic. The moon, the strange dance, the strange goose, the whole thing – a dream.
She closed her eyes, desperate for some evidence. She had none. No pictures, no other witnesses. Only shadows in the mist and the ravings of a sick mind.
Eyes snapped open. The tree. She crept under the ragged spruce to where the brown grass had been flattened and formed in a gentle circle. She reached out her hand and felt the softness, the warmth, the real presence of what she had seen.
She took the remaining bread, broke it, and laid it in the grass with a whisper. “Good-bye.”

She walked to the house, went to the phone and dialed a number by heart.
“Dad? How’s your migratory instinct today?”


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