by Amanda Miller
Carina had always wondered where Lyall’s property line ended and the park’s began. Not Lyall’s property, our property, she could imagine her mom scolding her for the hundredth time. Carina had pictured an invisible curtain, where the song of the forest drowned out any cars from the main road. The humming of engines was replaced with a melody of snapping of branches, bird song, and the crunch of Arlo bounding ahead, zig zagging along with his nose to the ground. The little dog would be full of brambles before long and she would have to sit in the sun room and pick them out before Lyall saw.
They crossed that invisible curtain and listened to the layer of noises that seeped out from the shadows of the trees. Autumn was sighing its last breath. One strong rainfall would knock the last of the leaves from their branches and winter would settle in, in the quiet way it does one morning each year. She checked each pocket for the crackers she took after dinner. Even though most smashed into crumbs, they were still there. Her step quickened. Both she and Arlo saw the unmarked path to the clearing. It was past a rickety old pavilion that sometimes held birthday or retirement parties. Carina looped around it and over a wooden walk way crossing the stream. There’s a knowing in being quiet. Sometimes she heard other people yelling somewhere in the woods, in merriment. She only spoke when Arlo seemed distracted by the scent of chipmunks and wild turkey. And she always made sure she stayed on the side of his still intact eye. He found her that first night in Lyall’s big, too empty house. Arlo seemed to of materialized from the border of trees at the edge of the yard. He sensed grief and the salt in the air from Carina’s tears, as animals do. A lick to the back of the hand was the kiss she didn’t know she had needed.
The bellow of their language, the honking and clattering rose steadily until the trees thinned and the clearing came into sight. Corina took in the flock of geese. At lease a hundred of them were out in the quickly falling eve. Some laid in two and threes. Some were out in the shallow lake. Some stretched their black necks to the new sounds. Arlo bounded after some and they opened their wings to flap away in a blur of gray and brown. A few snapped at the dog, dwarfed by the geese. Others knew Carina by sight and waddled up to her in curiosity. She fed them first by hand. A quick jab and the crackers were gone from her hand by one of the biggest in the flock. There was never enough for them all and others gathered around. She tossed the crumbs for the more timid geese who turned their shining black eyes on her. She removed her shoes and settled down on her elbows and watched, taking in each tilt of the black and white head, the preening and shake of their feathers. Arlo settled down beside her, out of breath but ears always at attention. Minutes melt the fear of the geese and soon it makes no difference to the earth beneath her, water in front of her, and animals on all sides if she was there or not. She closed her eyes and thought on the first time she ever visited the geese. Some of these geese could be the ones she first fed’s grandparents or great-grandparents. This thought made her smile. The spirit of ease was broken by the sounds of people, the heavy footfall and clunky tongues. Carina woke out of her day dream to two park rangers standing a ways from the geese, surveying them. She gathered herself and eased back into the woods.
Their presence unnerved her. She didn’t stop to look for faerie houses or gnome prints. The night gathered faster in the autumn and it was nearly dark when she arrived back to Lyall’s house. The rangers probably work under Lyall anyway. She just never wanted it to get back to her stepdad where she spent her evenings. A secret under glass. Before she could go into the house, her fingers worked through Arlo’s wiry fur to get the bits of wild forest off of him. Lyall’s voice trailed in through the screen windows. He was talking to old Ms. Margaret in the driveway. They often did this but this time her voice became increasingly shrill and she took more breaks to cough before reaching her point.
“They’re dangerous, Lyall. I’ve been telling ya that all along.”
“Yes, I understand Mrs. Margaret. I’m not even arguing with you.”
“Now my Archimedes is sick. And I know it’s from those droppings all up in the back of my yard.”
There came a faint wail from the cat. Mrs. Margaret squeezed the cat’s ribs and held him to her chest. Their conversation faded and Carina worked the last of the brush out of Arlo’s fur. Then the screen door opened. Lyall stood there and looked from her to the dog and back again. He was still in his business clothes. He retreated into the house without a word.
The bedroom Carina occupied once belonged to Lyall’s grandmother. She kept pictures of the geese all throughout the house. Sketches of them in their V shaped flight of ink and charcoal. Endless paintings and by so many different artists, portraits of the geese and other ducks grazing near a wooden old mill or goslings crossing a silver bridge all lined up in a row. Carina’s favorite sat above her bed and she stared at it when she couldn’t sleep. That was her favorite time to look upon it, the shadows made the painting dance. Or maybe it was Lyall’s grandma, showing her things she couldn’t quite interpret. A heavy wooden from encased the painting that was all shades of browns, greens, and black. It looked most like her geese, capturing their personalities. It was a family of them among tall cordgrass in the wetlands, eyes turned gazing at the watcher. When the curtains rustled against the floor from an unseen breeze Carina was sure it was the old woman. All she knew about her was that she dedicated her life to the public park that links fingers with the trees in the back. The big picture window looked down into slanted yard. Even when no moon is out, the salt licks hang for the deer were visible. She was dreading winter; she could only stay out in the woods for so long when the snow reached past her ankles. She wondered how the much more time she had before the geese migrated and snow stuck to the earth.
On the walk home from school Carina didn’t even need to wear her gloves. There was a warm break in the frosty weather. The sun felt great on her cheeks and back of her neck. It was a great day to be among her geese. Carina was greeted by the smell of thick stew as she entered the kitchen. Her mom always went to the local Italian bakery to buy thick crusty breads to serve alongside. The geese’s favorite. When it was time to eat it was just Carina and her mother, which suited her just fine. Carina just picked at her multigrain bread full of seeds pocketing as much as she could. She threw Arlo a carrot smothered in sauce here and there under the table. Arlo licked at the floor greedily and he mom pretended not to notice or maybe she just didn’t care. The conversation was light between them. It always was. Her mom talked of a colicky baby in the day care that she was worried about. Carina longed to hear any news of her dad. But she didn’t expect it. And it didn’t happen. She learned not to ask.
Carina didn’t hear the car pull up in the driveway. But she did hear the front door open and close. The creak and rattle on old hinges. She cursed to herself because she didn’t get nearly enough bread as she would have liked for her birds. Lyall put his stuff away in the office and Carina tried to excuse herself but Lyall was already in the kitchen. He kissed her mom on the cheek and Carina looked away. He was a head shorter than dad, not nearly as muscular, and so light skinned. Carina never understood what she her mom saw in him. She didn’t even know how they met. Instead of smelling like pinecones and dried roses bushes, the nature that surrounded his namesake building, Lyall smelled of bleached paper and the scratch of ink pen. He gave Carina’s shoulder a small squeeze.
“How was school today?”
He turned his attention back to her mom and served himself a bowl of stew. “Well, let me tell you about my day. I’ve been sitting in meetings since seven am. Big decisions are being made in the park this month. Tomorrow I’ll probably be home even later, so you gals just enjoy yourselves without me, ok?”
This was Carina’s chance to get out of the house. She absently stood by the bread on the counter as they talked more. She broke the bread off pretending to pick at it and started towards the door when Lyall’s voice stopped her.
“Don’t take that for the geese.”
She paused but didn’t want to turn around.
“Lyall, what’s the harm? She’s not hurting anything.”
“There’s signs posted all over the goddam park for a reason. You think we do that for fun? When you feed the geese they don’t look for natural food sources on their own. Their babies won’t learn how to feed themselves; they’ll always rely on people. Furthermore, it leads to overpopulation of those things. They don’t migrate and their shit carries disease. They’re getting more and more aggressive, too. So, don’t feed them. Just stay in tonight, and tomorrow for that matter.”
Those things? Carina thought. She turned around, looked at Lyall who was holding a spoon right to his mouth. She shot out her arm grabbed the last remnants of the loaf of bread and ran out the back door, through the sunroom with Arlo on her heals.
She ran as fast as she could to the clearing. Leaves kicked out underneath her feet. Arlo barked and dodged through the trees. The forest broke and she had to catch her breath at the edge of the clearing. Tears threatened to leak out of her eyes but she wouldn’t let them. She broke hunks of bread then stopped. The first thing Arlo ran to was another dog, a golden lab the color summer. Just beyond the dog was a family with young children. They had a whole twisted loaf of bread that they were feeding the geese. The picnic bench had a bunch of college aged kids enjoying hot dogs. Geese and ducks surrounded the table and the kids laughed as they threw spare food. A small number of them were near an elderly couple, arm in arm, dumping more popcorn onto the ground than the geese could eat at a time. A mom and toddler crumbled potato chips and sent the crumbs to catch the wind.
A lone goose ambled up to Carina. It was almost to her shoulders it stood so tall. She held out a piece. The animal curled its neck and as it bit the bread it struck her fingers. She pulled back, surprised by the sting. The rest of the bread she just left for them later. It was the first time she didn’t think about her dad, the first time she didn’t kick off her shoes and compare her toes to their almost blue webbed feet, the first time she didn’t taste the still water on her tongue when the breeze turned her way. She called to Arlo, put her hands in her pockets, and walked back to the house.
By the time she reached the yard she fingers and nose were cold. But defiant heat warmed her insides. She opened the screen door and a shape was on the sunroom’s bench. It was just her mom, so she let out a breath. Her mom was wrapped in an oversized blanket and she opened it up wide to welcome Carina inside it. Carina scooped up Arlo and nestled into her mom’s warmth. There were wooden figures of the Canadian geese, smooth edged and faded, that decorated the porch. In silence, that’s where she allowed herself to cry, though she didn’t why.
Carina didn’t see Lyall and she was glad for it. He left before she even got up for school. It was the first frost of the season, it crystallized the pumpkins and gourds. No birds perched on the icy birdbath. The winds howled and whistled through house. Carina and her mom were supposed to go out after school but when Carina came home she heard the shower running. She wrote her mom a note. Something was pulling her towards the geese today. She wouldn’t stay long. She needed to see them after yesterday. In some way to offer and apology or set her own self right, whatever it was she couldn’t ignore it. Arlo was happy to go with her, though the wind kept him close to her side and his tongue didn’t loll out for long. The leaves were almost all gone but the sun still didn’t seem to shine through the almost bare branches. It didn’t reach them and didn’t give her any comfort.
Through the thickets of forest she could see unnatural shapes. She approached with caution and hushed Arlo. Big white trucks were in the meadow. She furrowed her brow and cut through the forest to get closer to the water. People in matching jackets stood around clutching loose squares of chain link fence. The cattails hid her as she came up to marsh. Some geese were standing nervously on the bank. People were in the water in kayaks. Carina had never seen this before, then one of the people turned sharply near the flock of geese swimming in the water. The kayak was guiding them towards land. She parted the tall grass and peered at the people and trucks. The geese were squawking, running to and fro from the people. Large square silver boxes were in the back of each truck. Carina’s breath came in faster. Were they relocating the geese? Is this because they weren’t migrating?
“Migrate!” she whispered at the nearest geese. They turned their heads but looked at her blankly. Then they got spooked and waddled towards the people with the fence-like shilds in hand. “Go on, get out of here. Fly! What are you waiting for?”
The large flock was now on shore and the people with the fences moved closer to the geese. Even more were being rounded up from the opposite side. Ones with yellow brown tufts, not even feathers yet followed along their older counterparts. Then that’s when she saw him step out of one of the trucks. It was Lyall. He was wearing a matching jacket over his suit and hat. He took some steps closer to watch the action and folded his arms over his chest. She couldn’t read his expression.
He unlocked a door she didn’t even notice on the back of the big silver box in the bed of the truck. It glinted in the light. There had to be a hundred geese enclosed in the human made fence. One made a run for it and a ranger corralled it back to the shuffle. With so many of them together they sang in a chorus that was chaotic. The sounds scattered and echoed through Carina. Feathers flew in the struggle. Arlo whimpered next to her then took off back into forest. She didn’t want to look and didn’t want to look away. She went back to the covering of the wood.
It was a slaughter.
Lyall held the door open and someone came over and talked to him. Just talked, didn’t even seem to be about anything in particular. One by one the geese were thrown into the open doors on each truck. Their wings opened in a mock flight before they were shoved into the tiny space. The cries sounded almost human to Carina. She threw her hand over her mouth to stifle her own piercing gasp. Lyall closed the door when no more could fit and locked it back up. With his hand still on the lock, he looked right to where Carina crouched in the woods. His gaze lingered too long and she threw herself backwards. A yelp escaped her lips. The thorn bush she was hiding in closed in around her. It latched onto her jacket and scrapped her skin. She struggled out of it.
This is all my fault, she thought. All my fault. People must have seen me come here. I fed the ducks too much. They weren’t scared of people anymore. My fault. They didn’t migrate. It’s all because of me. Her fingers were numb, tiny cuts welled with blood but she balled her fists up. Hot tears shocked her cold cheeks. I did this to them. They didn’t migrate. They were never my secret. I could never keep it.
Carina threw open the sunroom door. Her mom called to her and she ignored it. She went right to her room, to the painting above her bed. She looked at it then hit it with all her might. The painting ripped right where the careful strokes of swamp green met the curve of underbelly and brown feathers. She sat back onto her bed now having something new to stare into.