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The Lonely Quiet

Updated: Mar 25

It was a shock. There he stood, all alone. In 15 years he had never been entirely alone. But worse yet. Worse than being alone. He had been left behind.

As the warm southerly wind blew across the field, he tilted his head and watched his companions lift away to the northwest. A deafening sound of wings and cackles, yet he didn’t even try. Without reason or understanding it was pointless. The will to move had vanished. And in five minutes it was over, and they were gone.

The man watched him for a moment, walking, searching for bits of grain laying in the barren dirt. A few white feathers blew away in the background. The sun was setting and the man wondered, how would it survive a night of coyotes and foxes, and the lonely quiet, hunkered between clumps of dirt, silent, alert, uncertain. A night like no other in his life.

Born on a vast open plain 1,700 miles away, not far from Hudson Bay, he always lived within eyeshot of the flock, and for 10 years with a single mate, until she disappeared three years ago on the journey home. He still looks for her in the spring during the great gathering, occasionally calling, listening for her response. But their time together, for whatever reason, is past. And this year, when a million of his kind are assembled and staging for the return north, another voice will be absent from the cacophony of white goose music, and the man wondered, will it be missed?

A life of patterns and cues, he travelled through the sky for many thousands of miles, through the vulnerabilities of sunshine, storms, heat, cold, sickness, and hunting seasons. There was a day in the midst of a familiar whirlwind, travelling with his clan, 500 or more. Circling downward into the middle of a winter wheat field to join the calls from below, and in a sudden moment of panic and suspicion there was commotion and he felt a sharp pain radiate from his chest. He could feel his eyes quickly dilate, subside, and then a tremor and weakness on his right side. But the will and drive to keep moving overrode, and he pushed a little harder, faltering only for a moment, recovering quickly, pulling away with the others with only the slightest hesitation. Twelve years later he still carries that tiny piece of steel in his chest, occasionally triggering a piercing discomfort and a memory of a confusing moment on an early spring day in north Missouri. Never again would he be so easily fooled.

A day ago he and the others loafed in warm weather some 700 miles away until an urge fell over the clan, and on a bright moon-lit night, they rose from a southern marsh and headed north much as they had done many times over many years. A discordant skein of geese spread out over a few miles, moving with purpose and calculation against a backdrop of darkness and constellations.

Catching the draft of the flock and nearby companions, he struggled some to keep pace but inherited memory and determination demanded a response. By mid-morning, after hours of continuous flight, the flock paused mid-air, and began a cyclonic downward movement over the wetland, eventually landing in a nearby field where they would rest and prepare for the next leg of the journey, absent one.

Two days later the man walked the wetland to watch the migration of the season. Pintails, mallards, and a few buffleheads flew, swam, and loafed. A pair of Canada geese fussed over his presence as a bald eagle soared and floated overhead on the thermal currents above the marsh. A single greater yellowlegs bobbed on a mud flat. In the distance a white dot could be seen in the matted smartweed, along the edge of the willows. Through the binoculars, the form was indistinct. The man walked through the cordgrass, closing the distance, pausing again to look through his field glasses at the shape in the shallows. A single white goose, head down, feet up, floating.

The man stepped into the water and felt a cool wet seepage in the top of one of his rubber boots. He reached out to grab the foot of the dead goose and saw the gray metal around the base of the goose’s leg. In the world of white goose anonymity, this bird had an identity, or at least, a number, and unlike most of his kind, his passing would be noted. His life was a contribution.

In the realm of wild things, encounters are usually momentary. Mostly short-lived. We see it and then it’s gone, and maybe we wonder. Where did it come from? Where is it going? Does it think? Does it have memories? Is it afraid? A single moment in time taken for granted. The man ponders the conclusions and is glad death chose his wetland for the final hours of a single white goose, for here his life was considered and his passing was grieved.

Dan Zekor

(Photo Credit: Missouri Department of Conservation)


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