Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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I don’t see eye to eye with the large white geese now sharing our hilltop, home to three neighbors and myself. For one thing, the endless days of rain have made them ecstatic — and why not? Every day their watery home grows larger, adds another wing, while I become morose and resentful, watching the margins of my outdoor living space grow smaller, mud and goose droppings at every step.
It’s bad enough, isn’t it, that I live alone in this tiny cottage surrounded by families? That Tom has plowed the orchard to within a yard of my door so I can’t even walk there without hip boots, but since he is the owner and has no need to listen to me, I am left voiceless? That the lover who once made this a sanctuary is gone and will not even answer my letters?
Now the rain falls day in and day out, the road down the hill is studded with stop signs where it’s fallen away to one lane, and I must tiptoe each day through the leavings of this ecstatic pair of geese. That’s another thing about them: this mating for life. While I like it in concept, particularly against the stark backdrop of my own unmatedness, in practice it seems hazardous — especially for Mrs. Goose, whom Mr. Goose never lets out of his sight except when she’s walking a step behind as he, long goose neck protruding in front of him, stalks the pond’s perimeter. He does all the talking, the most you hear from her being an occasional pale echo of his vociferous honk.
Alleged spring, in any case. The rain will not stop, nor the cold. The few blossoms the trees have put out are soggy and pale. Days and weeks slide by, and the space Laura occupied in my life is empty. No, not empty, for I think of her, dream of her, know her scent better than my own, hope still for some mending. Not empty but silent.
My niece LeeAnn visits, and I tell her the story of the geese, how they once lived ten miles farther down the coast at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, but for some reason last fall Mrs. Goose disappeared and Mr. Goose struck out in search of her. They both ended up at Wildlife Rescue, where their rapturous reunion made it clear they were mated. I’ve often imagined that reunion, their eyes wide with joy on seeing each other, their piercing cries, probably a great flapping of wings.
My landlady, Paula, Tom’s wife, frequents Wildlife Rescue, and brought them home to the pond. I never thought to ask why they weren’t returned to Pinto Lake. Thinking back, though, to the way Mr. Goose began to claim his territory, I see that he might not have been an ideal park resident. He swaggered around what I began to think of as his compound, managing to make his waddling goose gait imperious. Every few steps, and certainly when any other living thing approached, he thrust his beak to the sky with an earsplitting honk, almost always followed shortly by a big dollop of teal green poop dropping behind.
And he charged whatever appeared in his path — children, dogs, cats, adults, and cars — his neck becoming a sort of missile launcher, thrusting at least two feet in front of him, tipped by the fiery orange bill. All the kids began carrying sticks wherever they went, but almost everyone got bitten at least once anyway, on the back of the leg or the butt while in flight.
LeeAnn and I have just escaped one of his car attacks — he actually pecks at the sides of the car once you have evaded him, jumped into it, and begun up the driveway — when we begin discussing names, something more personal than Mr. and Mrs. Goose. Actually, I’ve begun referring to him as the Terminator, so after some discussion we settle on Arnold, which seems perfect. I’m not sure how we come up with Cissy, but it strikes the right chord as a feminine counterpoint to Arnold. So the geese have become, to me at least, Arnold and Cissy.
Occasional days of rain continue as the tireless El Niño gradually gives way to the usual summer coastal fog. The trees are not yet fully leafed, and plums that were ripe by this time two years ago are still hard green knots. Still, the new bunnies and quail are making forays out into the grasses of the orchard. The full pond is home to overnighting wild geese, mallards, coots, and an occasional egret, and the symphony of the bullfrogs is in full force, making me believe in summer, though I can’t see or feel it.
Arnold and Cissy have settled in a bit. Though Arnold is only minimally less aggressive, they do spend more time now wandering the farther reaches of the compound, floating on the pond, and diving for whatever it is they dive for — heads shooting straight down until only tufted white bottoms and peachy feet are left waving in the air. Thus, there is somewhat less time for deafening honks and making us run for our lives. I’ve accepted the trade-off of goose poop for not having to mow the little patch of weedy grass in front of my cottage, which they keep cropped. I talk to them as I go about chores outside. “Hey, Arnold, Cissy, how’s it going?” And I stop sometimes just to admire their preened beauty, both stark white, with strips of fawn brown down the backs of their necks.
On a July morning I wake long before dawn to find the room radiant with moonlight. I walk from window to window, each made luminous by the glistening limbs of the almond tree, the vivid jade off the pond. And I realize how I’ve longed for her light through this winter and spring with unclouded night skies so rare, and into this summer closed in by fog. Drenched in her absence, I could not remember what was lost. But in her presence now I recall the clear, warm nights of my first summer here, how I stalked the night windows and even moved my bed, to be where the moon- and starlight would touch me as I slept.
Longing. And how my longing has worn Laura’s face, her long body. Confessing now how much more deeply I let her in than I believed I had. Yet not knowing, really, how much the longing and loneliness is for Laura and how much it only wears her face but opens wide beyond her — to all that I won’t name, even to myself.
Arnold stands outside my front door. His sharp cries echo off the pond, slice through the hot Labor Day air again and again until I yell at him, “Arnold, stop it! Go away.” He eyes me through the screened window, his body shudders slightly, and he raises his head to repeat the earsplitting call, his harp-shaped breast pumping in and out.
Cissy disappeared suddenly two or three days ago, and Arnold is inconsolable. It’s a dangerous world that you and I inhabit, Arnold, I think. The heads of the sunflowers, which lifted toward the sun only days ago, have been lopped off and thrown onto the compost pile. While Paula shelters several baby squirrels in her house, bottle-feeding them around the clock, yesterday her cat Milo caught a wild one to torture before eating it for lunch. I momentarily considered leaving it to its fate, then locked Milo in my cottage until the baby had run, its brushy red tail waving, back to the trees.
Arnold seems to listen now, and I think I do hear some sound from the other end of the pond. I hope it is Cissy. I first thought that she’d become confused, or fed up, and lifted into the early-morning air with the wild geese who often spend the night on the pond. But domestic geese aren’t much for flying, so it seems unlikely. Paula thinks she may be nesting somewhere, but it seems too late in the year for that. I’d already given up hope of seeing Cissy and Arnold followed across the water by ten or twelve little goslings. Anyway, if she were somewhere nesting, Arnold would not be so disconsolate, and he seems to grow more so daily. Our unspoken fear, of course, is that a coyote has taken her.
In the early morning a day later, I wake to the screaming (there’s no other word for it) of some small animal, and bound to the door to call my cat Reuben, who appears instantly. I step out onto the porch to look into the moon-washed clearing, scanning the pond and the garden: no movement, no sound. I take in a dim Orion, Venus off by herself, three or four other stars visible in the washed-out sky, then step back into the house and walk to the bathroom. Twenty feet from the window there, half in and half out of the shadow of the pear tree — the coyote, watching me. Moonlight brushes the surprisingly lush fur of its rising and falling breast. I feel I should shout or knock on the window to scare it, but I don’t. I only watch as it turns and trots through the orchard toward the brush at the edge of the clearing.
I go back to bed and dream of Laura, of unexpectedly finding myself in the same office building with her and hiding so that she won’t see me. She walks directly to me anyway, and we look into each other’s eyes without speaking. Then she is sitting down and I am walking behind her. I reach out to touch her but pull back my hand, remembering that I am not supposed to touch her now. The urge is like a fire in me.
Awake again, I feel Arnold’s cries echo inside me. I lie in bed, covered only by a sheet, and my heart lies above me like the torn-open animal I imagined earlier somewhere out in the weeds. I cover it with my hand and the warmth eases the pain, comforts me.
Arnold’s grief has been unflagging. Because I work at home much of the day while everyone else is gone, he now, like the neighbors’ dogs and cats, tends to focus his attention here. But while the others maintain a respectable distance, at least until they see a door open, Arnold comes right up on the porch, knocking and demanding. I know I’ve brought this on myself. There is something about his ceaseless lament that draws me. The days shorten and cool, and as the slanted sun throws its deep shadows around everything, my own losses pull at me. Listening to Arnold trumpet his grief to the heavens day after day, I have wanted both to comfort him and to join him.
At first I just stood near him and talked softly: “Oh, Arnold, I am so sorry Cissy is gone; yes, I know you’re sad.” He quieted then. Tentatively I reached a hand toward him, and he wove his long ribbon neck away to avoid me, looking quizzically up, but did not step away. I reached again, beyond the orange bill, behind the round eyes, and slid my hand lightly down his delicate downy neck. He stood absolutely still. I could almost feel a sigh in him, and I passed my hand again and again down this fragile stem of life, then out onto the fan of feathers across his back, the narrow spiny ridges and silken expanse. I was entranced, and Arnold, for once, was silent.
But the silence lasts only as long as I am with him. As soon as I come back into the house, the honking begins again. It is the first sound I hear on waking and lets up only intermittently until sunset.
My office is just off the small covered porch at the back of the cottage, where Reuben often sleeps on a carpet remnant. But now Arnold has discovered me here. Sometimes I gradually become aware of a light knock-knocking on the glass and look up to see him two feet from me, pecking at the French doors. Or I am roused from concentration by a terrible racket on the porch — hissing (goose and cat), yowling, wing flapping, pots and water bowls turning over, and barking when the dogs get into the act. The upshot, generally, is that Reuben is gone and Arnold is stationed at the door, pecking at the glass and honking till it vibrates my bones.
Sometimes when I leave the house, I have to shoo Arnold off the steps to get out the door, and often have to warn him with a kick in his direction when he comes at me, because I’ve ignored or challenged him. He’s back to attacking the car as I leave, and each time I am amazed at just how outrageous he is. Also, there is something in his attitude now, the way he wants to keep me in his sight, that is an uncomfortable reminder of the way he treated Cissy. A small, and I suppose silly, suspicion grows in me that Arnold has taken me as his new mate.
Laura and I ran into each other at a workshop two weeks ago. So strange to be near her — her dense physical presence drawing me. We said a sort of shocked hello in the morning, at lunch sat at a table with other people, but near each other. By evening I could stand it no longer, and we found a room to talk alone.
We argued, but to me it felt like arguing that went somewhere, went through. Finally, things were being said. Before leaving she asked me for a hug, and it was long and close.
The next day, though, Laura called me, angry again, saying that I had tricked her into feeling that something was different, that it was safe. But because she had felt anxious when she woke up that morning, she knew it had been a trick, something I had done to her. Anything I said was just more treachery. I am not allowed to have a voice.
Arnold’s voice, on the other hand, is unrelenting. This afternoon, yet another altercation on the back porch interrupts my work, and this time I go out to drive him away. The dogs come bounding over, and I encourage them to chase him, then feel like a betrayer. But ten minutes later, just as I am settling back into work, Arnold is on the front steps. After another twenty minutes of yelling out the window at him, I am losing my mind. I push open the screen door, which forces him off the narrow steps, but he goes no farther.
I go down the steps and begin to kick in his direction, yelling at him to get the hell away from me. Arnold backs off about a yard, then rams his neck straight out and, with a venomous hiss, comes at me. I have no way to defend myself — he’s already too close to kick — and fear grips me. I do the only thing there is to do: reach out and grab his neck. Arnold stops instantly, and we are eye to eye. Images and emotions pour through me: my mother wringing the necks of white pullets, Laura’s eyes the day I admitted that sometimes I did not like her, the mixture of rage and tenderness in me.
I use my other hand to turn Arnold’s body around, letting his neck swivel within my fingers, and then release him, giving a little kick to his butt to send him away from me. Arnold walks to the middle of the driveway and sits down. I have never seen him sit down. He is smaller, and quiet, shaking his neck and moving it around.
Overcome with remorse, I can think only of the feel of his neck in my hand, the frail vertebrae and tendons, think only that he trusted me, allowed me to touch the most vulnerable part of him. I cannot decide if what I did was a reasonable act of self-protection or an unreasonable act of treachery. I move toward him on the driveway: “Arnold, are you all right?” He rises and moves away from me into the grass near the pond.
I come into the house, sit down, listen to the silence, wipe away tears, finally go to the window and see that Arnold is sitting again, still adjusting his neck. Unable to bear the thought that I have injured him, I go out and very slowly approach him, talking. “Arnold, I am so sorry if I hurt you, but you scared me. You’re driving me crazy. I don’t know what to do for you. . . . I don’t know what to do for either of us.”
The following morning Arnold is up and walking around, but sticking fairly close to the pond. By afternoon he’s trying out a few honks, and the next day he is pretty much back to normal, though he keeps some distance from my cottage.
A few days later I stop by the post office to pick up my mail and find the letter I’ve been dreading from Laura. I sit reading it in the car. She says she wants no further contact with me.
I come home tired and bereft. Arnold is waiting for me in the driveway and waddles beside me toward the door. I stop and look at him, sighing: “Arnold.” Knowing I shouldn’t, I reach and let my fingers touch that softness. He doesn’t even flinch.
I couldn’t leave well enough alone. Now Arnold is back to his old behavior, and I am contemplating on a daily basis saying to Paula that he must either have a new mate or a new home or something. He is putting me over the edge. Then Tom is home one day, in and out of their house with workmen, when suddenly the air is filled, not with Arnold’s shrieks, for once, but with Tom’s curses: “Damn it! Damn it! He bit me! Shit, did you see that? He bit me!”
This is the second time that Arnold has gotten Tom, and I’m not surprised when I learn it will be the last. Late that day Paula tells me she has Arnold in the back of her car, where Tom put him. After she picks up the kids, she’s going to take him back to Pinto Lake. I am enormously relieved and try not to think of Arnold squatting somewhere in Paula’s car, his soft whiteness against gray vinyl. I don’t go to say goodbye.
The rains have come back, and after a dry fall, the pond has begun to grow again. While there have been some hard rainstorms, La Niña, if that’s who we have now, is kinder than her brother and breaks them up with days of sun, though she also brings nights of hard frost and air that keeps its bite throughout the day.
It may be that the cold has made the coyote more desperate. Two weeks ago he dug under the fence of the chicken pen and killed two of the three brown hens who’ve lived there peacefully and safely for the last two years. He injured the third, who occupies the pen now all on her own, hiding at the back unless I call her out to feed her greens left in the garden.
A month after Arnold’s departure, I finally go to Pinto Lake on a sunny midafternoon to visit him. The first thing I see is a gigantic pair of geese preening themselves at the grassy edge of the park. They are larger than Arnold and Cissy, with black-and-brown backs, coarser voices, and bills that are shorter and of a deeper orange color. I never doubted that I would recognize Arnold, or he me, but I am surprised I can see these differences so clearly.
Three young girls arrive with bread and immediately clamber, squealing, to the top of a picnic table as literally hundreds of ducks, gulls, and coots swarm toward them. The two geese wander over, too. One of the girls throws chunks of bread to duck after duck while the male goose, standing patiently right beneath her, bobs his head this way and that, following each thrown piece. I find myself silently urging her to throw one to him, but she doesn’t.
Skirting willow, sycamore, and pine, I walk the accessible perimeter of the blue lake nestled among coastal-range hills. My eyes graze the landscape, the inlets of water, the unreachable boundaries of the lake for Arnold’s hefty snow-whiteness. I listen among the quacks, shrieks, and caws for a piercing honk, and can neither fathom nor deny my disappointment at not finding it.
TEN DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Reuben gets me out of bed in the predawn. When I open the front door to let him out, the moon is slipping toward the eastern horizon, the whole of her pale, round face illuminated by the fiery crescent burning at one side. The barn owl hoots twice; otherwise it is silent.
A deep sigh rises and falls in me. It wasn’t silence that I wanted, I think. Does anyone understand that? It wasn’t silence I was looking for.
I loved Rita Townsend’s story “The Year in Geese” [January 2001], but I was dismayed by the following sentence: “The moon is slipping toward the eastern horizon, the whole of her pale, round face illuminated by the fiery crescent burning at one side.”
Our moon doesn’t slip toward the eastern horizon. Like our sun, it moves across the sky from east to west, which Townsend would have noticed if she’d watched the moon as much as her character in the story did. I was shocked that neither Townsend nor the editors caught this glaring error. It’s somehow painful to me that so many people are oblivious to such a fundamental and beautiful part of our universe.