THE WINTER GEESE
The geese form huge chevrons in the sky and sail over us with squawking voices. Who knows what they talk about as they angle in and out of formation. It's cold, and the wings are wide, with air rushing along the flight feathers and their legs folded straight back. The brown earth is a sluggish wasteland with half-frozen undulations of water among the wiry grass. The geese are like sea turtles bobbing on the vast ocean deeps. Only the sea is over them, gray and stiff as the icing on a birthday cake someone left in the refrigerator. You wonder what the geese make of this part of the year, with its raw edges, the dark corners full of gloomy shadows. They can only go so high before the air turns into needles; they watch the contours below them as they bank and wheel on an ancient path toward a pond or a sedgy, hidden lake. It's all in a day's work.
When they land among the tall reeds and paddle around for a comfortable niche among the icy banks, the silence is infinite. No one needs to say more now that the navigation is over for the day. Night will come on in another hour, and the tiny fish life beneath them is enough to secure a light dinner. There is a kind of fellowship among the geese, a camaraderie that permits of some beak clicking and a few affectionate elbows. I could imagine a worse fate than to be a goose with all that oiled down keeping me comfortable on such an afternoon. Love comes and goes at distant intervals, so the sexes are without friction at this time of year. One need only stay alert for the occasional fox or coyote, and the stray human hunter who might venture this far into the wetlands. Paradise was intended to be this free of peril and necessity.
A goose has never posed a question it couldn't answer with a single blow from its long throat. The issues that torment man's imagination are not part of the goose kingdom. No one lies about daily affairs; it would be unthinkable to report the threat of a dog nearby if one were not in fact staring at you with teeth bared. Geese have no more morality than what nature provides, a few tangles with rivals, some knacking at aggressive strangers. Otherwise, the government of geese is run by anyone who wishes to signal the return to flight at daybreak. Leadership is open to anyone with stamina and the will to swallow thin granules of ice drifting below the dark clouds. The way forward is always readable, a map of predictable destinations. Everyone is imprinted with the same information and can calculate the sun's angle without math. The earth is small and round and hard as a rubber ball if you are a goose. You do not have visionary longings for anything beyond its horizons.
A girl sits in a car on a lonely country road waiting for her boyfriend to come back with his fishing rod. He has been out all morning trying to catch a few brown bullheads or a walleye for dinner. But he's having a hard time and she watches as the reeds bend slowly in the occasional breeze. When the lake appears through the shaggy latticework, she sees the heads of geese bobbing slowly. She has no idea what such creatures are up to; they are as foreign to her as the aliens from a space ship. But they fascinate her. She gathers her sweater around her and hums to herself, keeping an eye on the small black globes of wet feathers congregating a few yards away. She imagines herself among them, and then shivers when she thinks how cold the water is.
The boy curses his luck; he wants to show what a fine angler he is, but he comes back with an empty creel. His dad is a far better fisherman and can sense game the moment he gets near water. He knows what to put on the hook and where to cast, and then slumps down on a tree root and waits as if his heart had gone to sleep. When the line is tugged, he picks up his reel and the clicks are erratic at first, mere toying with the creature in the dark. He can sense what he has and says so under his breath. He tells his son to be quiet. The hush is palpable. When the rod is flicked backward, the hook is set deep in the mouth of the fish. His face wears a grim expression; he has lost fish by being too eager to bring in his prey. So he lets the fish wander around with the hook jutting from his jaw. The fish could easily panic and tear itself free. But in this quiet water, he can rely upon his instincts to demand nothing of the fish but its fatigue.
When the fish concedes its life is done, the man pulls him in and his son scoops under the silvery body with the net. That's how it is when he goes out with his father. But when he's alone, as he is now, on the edge of the black ooze, with the earth formless under his rubber boots, he is incapable of acting like a hero. He has no sediment in his spine to draw upon. He lacks the desire to capture some wayward spirit he has enticed to his hook. The fish are still, lying in a greater depth of water than he calculates. It is winter, and the earth is tired. He is sleepy and annoyed at his lack of cunning. He has no more philosophy in him than do the geese he can't see. The girl is unhappy at his long absence. She imagines a black bear is hiding behind some fallen logs and tree stumps, and would gladly approach the car if he thought there was food in it. But the disheveled forest lies as still as her breath. She wants to kiss her boyfriend, hold his arms; she would like him to whisper to her and show his kindness.
In winter, mortality grows thin. You wear it lightly under your heavy clothes. You could as easily slough off your life as you could your woolen scarf, your puffy down-filled jacket. It would come off like a snake's skin; like some bit of dark cloud that hangs on the side of a mountain. No one would notice. But because one is filled with the heat of life, you go on. You don't mull over the consequences of giving up. The water is dark and hovers at the edge of freezing. It is thick, like syrup, and waits for some invisible hand to alter the temperature. The boy comes down the ruts of the lake edge and sees the car, the girl staring at him. Home is tucked away in a dusty piece of grass, a shallow place where the clock measures the tedium of each afternoon. He doesn't want to go home. He wants to take the girl with him, take her far away into a place where the earth has no rules, no conscience. His father is reading a magazine under a floor lamp, sipping tea now and then. His mother is upstairs in her bed, burdened with a cold she can't quite cure. She is wan and thin, and won't come down to dinner tonight. Someone must fix a plate and take it up to her, to eat in the fading light from the window.
He enters the car and the girl smiles at him, kisses his mouth. He holds her close to him, then starts the car. She is kind enough not to ask about the fish. They move slowly, the tires crunching last summer's ruins under foot. Just then, around the next turn, are seven young deer standing in the twilight. They don't move. They stare deep into the eyes of the two of them, as if they were looking for some answer to a riddle. Nothing happens. He stops the car and turns off the motor and they sit there holding hands. They are on the edge of a miracle, a transformation of the world. The knowledge they possess is inadequate to explain what could happen next. God could appear in a white robe and open his hands to bless them. Or a chipmunk could scamper up a tree and look down. The wind could lift the veil of innocence from their eyes and urge them to be bold. But they sit and the girl has no will to alter her fate. She sits there and the deer move toward the car and walk on either side of it to the dark behind them.
The geese are tucking their beaks into their back feathers. The night will be long, an uneventful cascade of stars behind the velour of the fog. The night animals will make tiny rustling noises in the damp hay. The forest will lower its doors over the scene and embrace the flimsy magic of dreams.