94. The Tale of the Goose

94. The Tale of the Goose

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

The Tale of the Goose

He felt now that he was not simply close to her,
but that he did not know where he ended and she began.

~Leo Tolstoy

More than a decade ago, my wife Barbara and I bought a wonderful five-acre property on a small mountain. We feel incredibly lucky to live where we do. Every day we marvel at the beauty of our land, and we like sharing it with the fish, ducks and deer, as well as the hordes of birds that grace it year-round.

The geese are a different story entirely. I must confess that for the most part I have never liked geese. They tend to travel in large flocks, make an awful din, are unpleasantly aggressive, and above all, they make a terrible mess. When they come in waves each spring and fall, it’s a war of attrition. I want them to go; they are determined to stay. They settle at the edge of the pond and I run at them, flapping my arms and shouting.

The idea is to make them so edgy and uncomfortable they will decide to leave. For years I won; each gaggle would stay a few hours, or at most a day or two. Then they would decide it just was too unfriendly a place and off they would go.

Six years ago they came again, but something was different. Two of the geese, clearly a pair, stayed away from the others, both on land and in the water. It was as if they were saying, “We‘re different. Don’t include us with our brethren.” When the others finally left, honking in anger, the pair left with them, but I knew something was up. I was sure they would be back. Two days later, they came back, quietly, in the evening, alighting in the pond.

They watched with concern as I walked to its edge. I knew they were waiting to see what I would do. As I looked at them, trying to figure what approach to take, Barbara joined me. “They are a pair. You know they mate for life. They won’t bother us. Let them stay.”

And so I did.

The ducks continued to come for their regular feedings. At first, the geese watched from a distance as the ducks ate. A few days later, I could see them watching from the far side of the pond and then, suddenly, with a huge flourish of honking, they charged over to join the ducks.

For six years they held sway on the pond. Each year the female nested, but only once did that result in goslings. When they were gone for any period, you could hear them coming from miles away; it sounded like an entire gaggle. And when they landed in the pond with great fanfare, they would talk to each other, honking loudly for a few minutes before settling down.

They were clearly devoted to each other, and gradually we found ourselves becoming quite attached to them. They had decided this was their pond: Ducks were okay, but not other geese.

At first they left it up to me to get rid of the other geese. Finally, after one particularly difficult time persuading some unwanted geese to leave, I turned to Mr. Goose whom we had named George and said, “Some help you are. It’s your pond; you get them to leave.”

Now I know geese do not understand English, and I knew it was pure coincidence, but after that George and Mrs. George took a very active role in flying at the intruders. Most of the time they succeeded, but when they couldn’t make the invaders fly off, I would help out.

Our geese, like most geese, were very smart. Often they would join the intruders, and when I rushed them, they would squawk loudly and fly off. Invariably the whole gaggle would follow. Then the next morning or later that night, George and Mrs. George would return, boisterous as ever.

Almost always when we arrived home, as our car passed a small bridge at the bottom of the pond, the two of them would start a huge din, necks out straight, honking at the top of their voices.

“Our watch-geese,” said Barbara. And so they were.

After any event on the pond that aroused their attention, they would face each other and talk. Their conversations were a marvel to watch. They communicated more in a given day than most human couples do in a week.

Their devotion was extraordinary. They were paired for life, together twenty-four hours a day, never far apart either in the confines of the pond or on the adjacent rolling lawns. It was easy to tell they enjoyed each other’s company.

Gradually, they began to trust us. At first, they would stand on the edge as I fed the ducks, waiting impatiently until I went off a distance, then they would rush in, pushing the ducks aside to grab their share. It took several years before they led the run (or more properly, the waddle) for the food. George always came first, hissing if he felt I was too close.

They spent the day in the pond or at its edge. Sometimes George would stand on one leg, his neck and head buried in his wing, but at our approach, even fifty or a hundred yards away, he would stretch his neck and keep one eye riveted on us, suspiciously watching our every move.

As he became more trusting, George would stay with his head buried, but I could still see that eye fixed on me. It took a year before he would completely ignore me, letting me come within ten feet of them as I removed algae or leaves from the pond.

Then one day as I threw the corn, he came running up ahead of the ducks, stopping seven or eight feet away and talking softly without any hissing. And when I threw the corn on the ground, George eagerly pecked at it, eating and talking at the same time. I marveled at this feat — I couldn’t figure out how he could eat and talk all at once.

And so it went. They became our friends; we were captivated by their devotion. We never spoke about it, but I think we both wondered if it could be that their bond to each other was greater than ours, even though we had been married for decades.

In early April they made a nest, but it was in a different site. Every other time it had been on the far side of the pond, behind a willow tree. This time it was close to us, in a wooded, protected area at the edge of the pond. I could see Mrs. George sitting on that nest — awake, watching, protecting. Perhaps they thought that a change of scenery, of nesting site, would change their luck and produce a gaggle of goslings.

At the same time George’s personality changed dramatically; he would not permit the deer on the front lawn. He would honk loudly and angrily, then charge, running or flying just above the ground, wings fully spread, making an enormous din.

His behavior was clearly purposeful. He wanted a full pail of corn on the ground, and he saw to it that the marauding deer did not gobble it up. He tolerated the few ducks, but he knew they would not eat much of it. He wanted it there for the infrequent occasions when Mrs. George would leave the nest, eat and drink hurriedly, and then return to her maternal labors.

Sometimes when Barbara was gardening, he would come close to her and stand there until she got up and filled the pail with corn and threw it on the ground near the pond. Then Mrs. George would appear and feed while George, eating nothing, would stand guard.

And so it went for weeks. Then one day early in May, I arose as usual, dressed and ambled to the garage to get the pail of corn. George was in the pond, but unlike every other day he seemed uninterested in my activities. I walked to the area at the edge of the pond where I ordinarily threw the corn. He remained in the pond, still uninterested. I threw the corn on the ground as usual. Thirty minutes later when I left for work, eight deer were there, and George didn’t chase them. That’s strange, I thought.

The next day George was sitting at the edge of the pond, not far from the nest. Again I threw a pail of corn. Again he paid no attention. I had a very queasy feeling. Something was wrong. I tried to locate Mrs. George, but she wasn’t visible; perhaps she was behind the tree.

On the morning of the third day, George was sitting in the same place. I threw the corn down. Still no response. I looked at him. Something was very wrong. I walked to within a few feet of him and asked, “What’s wrong, old man?”

With that he turned to me, and as I looked at him, I gasped, for in that eye there was an unmistakable look of terrible despair, of sadness, of overwhelming sorrow. And in that moment of communication between goose and man, I blurted out, “I’m so sorry.”

Then, shaken by that look, I walked around to the nest. It was empty, but undisturbed. There were no eggs, no sign of a struggle.

I was to learn later that a coyote had killed Mrs. George in the middle of the night. Not knowing that his beloved partner was dead and puzzled by the benign appearance around the nest, I walked back to where George had been sitting, but he had left.

Later, after we knew the full story, Barbara said, “Maybe he has not gone forever. Maybe he’ll be back. Sometimes they find new partners.”

She was giving voice to that wellspring of inner hope that helps us all deal with tragic events. But we knew it was not to be. George, heartbroken, was not coming back.

That look of overwhelming sorrow in his eye has haunted me ever since.

Of course, life goes on. The flocks of geese returned almost immediately. There was no goose couple to tell them the pond was already taken and to drive them off. I still didn’t want the pond overrun with geese, and, as in the past, I made it clear they were not welcome. They were tenacious, but so was I, and I harassed them until, protesting loudly, they flew off.

This went on for several weeks, and then I noticed that a pair stayed apart from the rest. One day after the larger gaggle had gone, they came back and stayed a few hours. They watched me closely, obviously testing whether I would let an isolated pair stay. When I left them undisturbed that first evening, they got the message. The next afternoon they were back, and the day after that. They haven’t adopted the pond as their own just yet, but we think they will.

I hug my wife a lot more now. Whenever we walk, she has always been the one to take my hand. Now I seek her hand as often as she takes mine. She thinks it’s my mellowing with age.

There is some truth in that, but for the most part it’s George and his wife. Mostly, it is the tale of the goose.

 

~Donald Louria
Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover’s Soul

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