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Wild Geese

 

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Wild Geese

Ed DeMattia

The long ribbon of Canadas and Snows raveled out across the blue morning sky. No discernable tailwind lifted them, yet they loafed along, squawking casually, headed northeast, some wings beating hardly at all. Fifty or sixty birds at a time came by, in family gatherings perhaps. Occasionally, a pair of junior geese, separated by some teenage distraction, called out in their exertions to rejoin the formation ahead.

The old man leaned on his maul handle and watched the undulating lines. He pulled off his old woolen shirt, with the worn-out elbows, and tossed it aside. The bright sun bathed the greening grass. He watched the geese admiringly, pleased to witness their return again this year.

He was also pleased with the way the hard maple was splitting, the great lightning-scarred blocks still holding the winter frost. The splitting maul made a big baritone thock!! as it bit through the wood. Back in October, he had sat by the large window and watched a flock of turkeys play out here. He had not ever seen their behavior before. They ran at each other, fluttering and pushing each other off the woodpile…but enough of that, he thought, the geese are back.

Hour after hour, the geese passed low overhead. With all that sky, he mused, it was a wonder so many came his way. Hundreds floated past, acknowledging his existence with a fluting call. At least he hoped that’s what they were doing. It was personal to him; it made him feel special to be there this day.

He set a chunk of wood on the big splitting block. The grain curled around a crotch where a branch had grown, so he twisted the spot out of the way. He drove the maul desultorily into a likely crack, and a thick slice popped off. He moved a bit and repeated the stroke. He kept looking up, more interested in the transient birds than the work that would be waiting for him tomorrow.

The old man knew there was something else he must do today. He knew the nurses expected him. He knew he was supposed to visit his brother at the home. He knew that is why he hadn’t attended church this morning, that he was instead worshipping in the woodlot. He knew the widow would have reminded him. But the brother of the old man didn’t recognize him anymore, hadn’t for weeks now. The old man would sit next to that industrial bed, look at the tubes and the breathing apparatus, hold his brother’s hand, and tell his brother things remembered from their youth. And he would leave the room eventually, with his head down, and with an aide saying nothing more could be done. “Today is different,” he whispered. “Today they came home.” He gestured upward and muttered, “Maybe I could join them some day, see where they go, fly where they fly.”

He listened to the gentle tootling above, letting his breath sink deep into his chest. Under that noise, a red squirrel took up a position on an oak limb nearby, whirring and smacking like an old hit-n-miss engine. He felt the warmth of the sun sinking into his back. He felt like dozing there in the bright heat. His brother would wait one day, he hoped.

The old man was half afraid the widow would drive over. She would bake a pie, or those molasses cookies, he knew. Some pretense for stopping. He knew she was concerned for him, alone as he was. But he savored his aloneness; the old house was packed to the rafters with memories to keep him occupied. The widow was neater than the old man, and she would fuss about and straighten things, and it would disconcert him.

The geese kept coming. The old man wondered how they all flew at the same speed. The geese only passed each other when they changed positions in their chevrons. But they all moved across the sky together.

She would come, he knew. She would bring the pie and the program from church. She would admonish him, tell him he was sliding, and pull out his Bible and read the verses to him that he had missed.

“Maybe,” he thought, “maybe I should see my brother after all.” He looked skyward. There were more Snow geese now. He noticed that the Snow geese were in the middle and the rear, but never leading a flight. The sun was as high as it would get this day. The warmth held him there, resting against the blocks of firewood. The chuckling of the passing birds soothed him.

The widow had been hesitant to stop. She always felt that way, afraid that some day he would ask her to leave or that he would be gone, slumped in his chair. Her niece drove her there, still in her dark blue Sunday dress with the lace trim.

She explained to him that she had telephoned the nursing home, thinking that he must have gone there instead of attending church, and came to tell him his brother was slipping fast. The old man reluctantly agreed to be driven to see his brother. His sense of calm soon left him, replaced by a low-grade agitation.

They reached the home and went to the room. The old man saw immediately that his brother’s life was ending. His breathing was raspy and sporadic. The old man hoisted himself up onto the bed, stretched out next to his brother, and stroked his arm. His brother was unresponsive now. The widow and her niece retreated into the hall, where they waited. The old man was talking to his brother and was talking for almost an hour after his brother’s last breath.

The old man had heard nothing from the widow, and he welcomed the silence. He knew she had a hand in making funeral arrangements, but she had not consulted him about them. He thought a lot about his brother’s life: the war wounds, the disability, how his brother’s wife, brought home from the war, had changed everything. He tried to recall his brother’s return so many years ago.

After a time, the old man began to sort through his brother’s things, what few belongings he had left. The remains of a life he knew little of, he mused. Not much history in these cardboard containers.

He found the letters in a box of old weekly magazines. There were two bundles, in unmarked manila envelopes, clasped and taped. He was half afraid to look at them. He took a deep breath and rifled through the first bundle. From the postage, he knew they had been written during and just after the war.

The first was addressed to “Buster,” was three pages long, and was signed “your dearest Bunny.” The old man couldn’t recall hearing either name used by his brother. For two hours he read and re-read them. The letters described a world the old man barely knew—of wartime; of love, longing, and promises; and of dreams of a life together when “Buster” came home. He could not imagine who might have written them, but she was young, hopeful, and very much in love.

The widow’s arrival, unannounced as usual, flustered him. He stuffed the box of letters under his easy chair. She bustled around, brewing coffee and setting out the pie. She brightly informed him that she came to help with his brother’s belongings. She would take any usable clothes to the home. He didn’t see the need to rush, and he didn’t respond immediately.

He was anxious for her to leave so he could get back to the letters, but the widow was in no hurry. She clucked and puttered around all afternoon, oblivious to his mood.

He wished he were back at the woodpile with his friends the geese. The effort of sorting his brother’s possessions during the past week, and the effort of remembrance, tired him. He stayed away from the letters. Reading them made him feel awkward, like a peeping Tom.

His agitation became more defined when he looked at his own disheveled stock of amenities. Who would sort them when he passed on? What would his own belongings say about him? He decided to clean his own house after finishing with his brother’s things.

The letters! The old man was wide awake now, before daylight, awake and clearheaded with insight. He dressed quickly, pulled on his boots, threw on his old woolen shirt, picked up the large envelopes, and hurried outside. He was startled that the matter had baffled him for so long.

After about an hour of walking, the old man banged on the widow’s door. It was barely light out, but he didn’t care how early it was. The widow appeared at the window, parting the curtain to see who had disturbed her. She pulled open the door, half awake. The old man shoved the packets of letters into her arms. “For you, Bunny,” he said. He turned and stumbled away before her tears came.