Twas our forte to pass for this,
Proper sack of sense to borrow,
Wings and legs, and bills that clatter,
And the horizon of To-morrow.
– The Flight of the Wild Geese, William Ellery Channing, 1818-1901
It is warm for October. The little lake, a pond really, depending on which map you use, suggests that at least the dog could enjoy a swim. Long ago, when we were still infatuated with our new home across from the pond-lake in Vermont, I jumped off the old bridge into the October water with a friend and we screamed in such freezing breathless delight and agony that all the school children rushed off the bus to see what was happening. It was just us, our thin sweatshirts clinging to our post-menopausal breasts, horrifying the children who ran off, my daughter never quite getting over the brash display of her mother’s hardened nipples and ridiculous hysteria. It was only water. Jeezum crow. As they say in these parts.
This year was quite the same, temperature wise. But that friend is long gone, the school bus doesn’t stop in the village anymore, and life has kicked the pluck quite out of me. I pull a cashmere shawl around myself as I head out, because I can now afford cashmere, clutching gloves for my numb hands. The dog shows great interest in a swim but I don’t have the energy to deal with him today–toweling him off will hurt my fingers.
A few Canada geese settle on the south end of the pond and I note their presence and the season changing. Too few for a chevron in the sky, too warm yet to leave.
By Halloween their numbers have tripled. Their squawking wakes me in the middle of the night and at first I believe it to be coy-dogs up the hill, or a bad dream which my husband sleeps through.
It will just be the three of us this year for Thanksgiving if my daughter can get enough time off from work to drive up from Boston where she now lives. I press my fingertips to my eyes, hard, and stop thinking about Thanksgiving. Across the pond a decorative star lights up the hillside in anticipation of the holiday season. Years ago I told the owners of the cabin with the star that it was comforting to me each year to see it, how silly and sentimental I am, and they told me they were thinking of not putting it up anymore. Years later it is still there and I like to think my appreciation had something to do with that. I have developed a tendency to see my dead mother in stars which contributes to my insomnia as the geese begin their morning routine many hours before a working person needs to get up.
They start screaming at 3 AM. More like barking. Hypnogogic visions of hounds locked in a truck, or chained in a barn emerge but these are images from another part of our village, past the pond, way up on West Street. Only in a nightmare would their captivity be close enough to hear. It’s just the geese floating on the pond. When it finally gets light out I go to the bridge. Each step moves me closer as the flotilla slides further south but they don’t fly away. The surface of the water is dark with anxious bird bodies. I think of Hitchcock, I wonder where they are coming from and why they are still here.
Mid-afternoon they take off, whooshing scribbles in the sky, going east without formation. They come back at dinner time. Their hysteria reminds me of my own in the cold water. Cacophony might be an overused term but not inaccurate.
It’s again pitch dark except for the illuminated star on the hill by the time my husband gets home from work. Since I had the day off, I was privy to the goings and comings of the geese, which I share with him. He insists that it is the same every year. “Are you kidding?” I say back to him. “There are hundreds of them and they aren’t leaving. They don’t know what to do. It’s never like this.”
Curiousity has long turned to concern. I brave the now slick bridge to check on them in small careful steps, yanking the dog on his leash, as he is enamored of this spectacle and not smart enough to stay put. The geese are screeching through my cashmere and my fleece as if there is something I should do. The thin lips of ice, east to west, are almost meeting on the surface of the water. By January the ice should be two feet thick and there will be a festival to celebrate the history of the ice harvest, when once upon a time the pristine blue shadowed ice from our little pond was exported in iron bottomed boats to lands as far away as China.
I am thinking two things. One, that once we are frozen, there will be no water for the geese to drink. And two, how pristine will the water be after months of goose shit and piss and the inevitable decay of their frozen bodies? I pick my way back to the house to report this to my husband.
My husband drinks his coffee in front of the wood stove and tells me they are different geese every day. He insists new ones fly down from Canada, they overnight on our pond, relax a bit, drink some water, eat some fish, and fly on to the south. I know my husband would like to do the same, but I enticed him to move here and we are stuck and my regret is a dark puddle between us that he is too kind to mention.
“They are the same geese!” I am almost stamping my foot. How am I even sure of this? “They aren’t leaving. They don’t fly off in a V. They are just meandering around and honking. They don’t know what to do.” I recall an old song by Joan Armatrading, about wild geese flying off–or not flying off–I can’t remember, time is running out, she warbles, what more can we do? It’s minor chords get stuck in my head and I plan to download it later.
My husband tells me the geese have instincts. Rely on their instincts, he says. They will be fine. This is not about climate change or sinister diplomacies. I no longer believe in instinct. Look at us.
The world is not in order. Our claws trapped in the ice. The first snow falls and it hushes them but they are still here.
I called our neighbor who works for the Nature Conservancy, there was a smile in his voice as he responded to my worries and interpretations. He described the birds as “opportunistic,” keyed into the easy amenities here. Given that the lack of snow leaves the rich cornfields uncovered, and the availability of water as the geese’s warm bodies prevent the freeze, “they are just pretty much hanging out while they can.” A safe place to roost at night, predators can’t get them, and they are doing just fine. Temperature has nothing to do with their instincts, just with their survival. We’ll freeze over this week and they’ll be gone.
At dusk I wandered back out to see them. The dog broke away and slid to the thin edge of the ice. I screamed, the geese screamed back, shifting slightly to the south, lazily, no longer alarmed by us. Accustomed to our hospitality. I ran along the bridge begging the dog to come to the thickening part of the ice, promising him treats, and he finally made his way back.
I rushed home to update my husband who finds it all very funny. “We were both wrong,” he says. Not different geese, but also no danger. See? Good thing the dog didn’t drown.
I just wonder where I’ll be as they take off when they are done with us. A big storm is predicted for Tuesday. I wonder if I’ll miss their perfect V disappearing into the heavy sky leaving behind a solitary quiet.