This morning will be our first day in half of our time here at the Hillhouse without a resident goose. It’s already been a sad enough time for us, and this is adding to the emotional toll. But in spite of the tears I watched my son cry in the rear view mirror as we left Maximus at his new, beautiful home, I know that things will be ok. Maybe even better. At least that’s what we hope.
Because lately, things had gotten worse. Perhaps because of plain old cabin fever, or perhaps driven by an ancient imprint on his being that made him vent his unexpressed urge to procreate in other, more violent ways, or some other unknown issue, whatever reason was to blame, Max had killed four hens over the past week and had very nearly killed our one resident rooster. That last one was a bizarre and bloody incident, and I knew at that point we’d turned a corner. I did have the means to separate them – either keep the recuperating rooster on his own in the small brooding pen, or confine Maximus to the same small space, but neither was appealing, as it represented another chore to do each and every morning, each and every night. I need all my birds in one place, and I need ease of maintenance. And I will not tolerate violent behavior. If I were retired and had no job but to tend to my flock and home, it might be acceptable. But at this time in our lives, I can’t stop to settle disputes like this. Change was imperative.
Both Elihu and I forgive our beloved goose for his actions, because we know that he was simply acting as he was programmed to. He’s a goose, yes, and he has diligently guarded our property against strangers and unknown vehicles as well as an assortment of predators, but he’s had a softer side too. And since Elihu and I personally knew him in this quiet, tender way, it’s been a bit harder on us. Most folks have little sympathy for Max anymore. My mother especially, who for the past few months has used the most venomous tone when suggesting we get rid of him (or a bit more light-heartedly implied he might end up on a platter). Piano students must pull in close to the house, brooms are left leaning against trees to be picked up as tools of defense, people call ahead when they visit, and the UPS guy just drops the box by the garage and splits. Yeah, it had become a drag to have a guard goose. It wasn’t always thus; my theory is that when he was biologically speaking still a gosling, he was rather charming. He was never threatening, in fact he lived up to his breed’s reputation of being good with kids and people in general. But I believe things turned a corner last year when a certain spark lit within him and he became a young gander.
It first started one day as I was squatting down at the hose to fill a five gallon bucket. The container was white, about Max’s size, and I too, appeared close to the ground. Something in him clicked, and he began honking as he beat his great, six foot wings and ran down the hill from the coop to join me. But rather than stop short to watch as he had so many times before, this time he made a clumsy attempt to mount me, scooting me encouragingly beneath him with his long neck, clearly hoping I’d acquiesse in some cooperative sort of posture. In the moment I didn’t get it, and actually thought he might be attacking me, but he did not hurt me. He nibbled at me gently, but didn’t bite. He cupped his wings around me, but didn’t hit me with them. I was a bit flustered, so I stood up, and instantly he came to, as is he’d been overtaken by some strange force and was now embarrassed and self-conscious of himself. I stood back and watched as the mysterious behavior came over him once more, and he began a second, unsuccessful attempt to get busy with the bucket. First he tried to get on top of it. The bucket fell over and he seemed encouraged. He tried again, but was flustered at the way it rolled out from underneath him. Then he took another tack, and tried to enter the bucket, head first, but found there was no room, and clearly no satisfying end to this choice either. Poor Max. Poor, dear, sexually mature Maximus. He was being just as he was born to be, and there was no natural outlet to his deep, innate desires. Oh dear. I even wondered if I might surrender myself to him just once; crouch down again and give him some feeling of success as he did his best… Flashes of Swan Lake came to me – the strange morphing of a lover into a swan, the strange netherworld of a horrible manbeast – and I quickly dismissed the idea. No, this poor guy was on his own. And we knew if we’d gotten him a mate that it would likely throw off the relationship we two had with him. It’d be him and his gal against us. He’d defend her, and we’d be on the same end as the UPS guy.
After keeping the convalescing rooster in our kitchen for a week – and then our adjacent mudroom as the sour stink of chicken grew – I found I’d reached the end. The nightmare of the Studio’s new situation had just been discovered, and I suppose it was that which tipped the scales. I had too much to do, and if I might have justified a more labor-intensive solution to the bird problem before, I sure wasn’t about to now. I made up my mind that we had to find a new – and good – home for Max. I was resolute, and it was fixed in my heart. On Saturday a tiny voice told me that we should drop in on our neighbors (the ones with the old model T) and pay a visit. I had nothing in my mind about Max specifically, but of course he came up in conversation. They suggested a family in the hills that might very likely take him. I held no high hopes, but imagine my surprise when I dialed the number upon returning home that day, and before I could even offer my backstory, the gal on the other end simply said “I’ll take him”. I’d heard they were not only softies for animals, but that they were good to their animals. The two don’t always go together. I was beside myself with joy, and shared the earpiece of the phone with Elihu as she began to tell me about her pond, the fields, the way she had things set up…. Elihu covered his mouth to stop from squealing with joy. We made arrangements to come by with Maximus the following day. Wow. Ask and ye shall receive.
It’s one thing that we found Max a new home, it’s another that we have visiting rights, it’s still another that they’ll likely continue to call him by his name, but for me the crowning discovery in all of this is that Maximus now lives on a farm that I’ve admired since I was little. When I first got my driver’s license and was free to re-discover all those hidden-away places that my parents were always whizzing past, this was one of the places I came to. Many a time have I put on my flashers and pulled to the side of the road just to stop and gaze at this lovely farmstead. Nestled in the shelter of wooded hills, its open fields undulate up gently to meet the forest, there’s even a two acre pond behind the large farmhouse…. I cannot possibly imagine a more perfect home for our beloved fellow. He’s the only breed of his kind, he’s white and stands taller than them all, so we will easily be able to pick him out when we spot the flock dabbling in the low, swampy patches of the field.
When we dropped him off, the husband and wife owners took us on a short, circular walk around their outbuildings to see the other critters; pygmy goats, a strange, miniature donkey (named Brea – and man, what a sound she makes. Yeeks.) a sheep and some fine looking chickens. In the pasture across the way were a shaggy bull and cow, each with longhorns the likes of which I’d never seen but in images of far-off places. They too were miniature. Was there a horse? I seem to think there was… it was really a lot to take in for a first-time visitor. Above our heads a flock of some twenty or so pigeons wheeled in the sky… this place was heaven. As we walked, Max walked with us, tipping his head every so often to take in a new sight, stopping to listen to the whereabouts of the resident flock of geese. They were loud and rather raspy-sounding, and every now and then Maximus would himself honk, and we both noticed that his tone sounded so much richer and deeper. He was more beautiful than the others, we thought, and now we could hear that he was much more sonorous a goose, too. We were proud, and perhaps just a bit sadder still at having now compared our baby to these strangers. Eventually our visit came to a close, we got into the car and left Max, a bit confused, behind. He talked to us as we drove away, running beside the car as he’d done so very many times before, walking us to the gate where his new mama was waiting to let us out. That’s when Elihu started to cry. In this moment, this bird was still our Maxie, he was still engaging with us as he always had, he still knew us. We both knew in our hearts that the next time we came to see him, he very likely would not.
After Elihu’s tears finally stopped and he’d had a moment to just sit in silence and thought, he told me from the back seat on the drive home “Mommy, that’s the kind of farm I want when I grow up. That kind of farm.” I agreed with him quietly. There was nothing to say now. We knew we’d done the right thing. In fact, we knew we’d given Maximus a far better life in this new place than we were ever able to give him. We knew all of this. But still, the sadness in the car was heavy. Coming home was strange. For years we’d been greeted by that familiar head atop that long, graceful neck, the curious tilt of his head, the peering of that eye, the initial assessment; stranger or family? Family. Max would walk alongside the car, then meander off to do his thing. Shortly after we’d go inside, he might follow us up the back steps and just sit down outside the door, as if wanting simply to be near us. In warmer months, an open kitchen door almost always meant a goose in the kitchen before too long. But a house is no place for a goose. And we’re no substitute for a family of his own kind.
Last night, as we lay down to bed, we looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of Elihu’s bedroom and wondered how our beloved Max was, right now. We had learned that the geese there slept outside – rain, snow or shine, no matter. A far cry from the treatment he got here – heat lamp on cold nights, the kitchen on really cold ones. Would he be ok? Would there be a lot of fighting as he sorted it all out with the other ganders? We realized that Max had never even seen another goose until that day. He’d only ever lived with chickens or people. We guessed by now he knew he was a goose. We prayed that he was able to nestle in with the flock to share in the warmth. We prayed that he’d get enough sleep on this first night. It took Elihu himself over an hour to finally drop off. I too had some trouble sleeping, and somehow felt our homestead to be missing something on this first night. I took a last look at our coop, now goose-less, and sighed. Our lives were changing in so many ways, and I had to go with it. I reminded myself once again that while change is sad, there are new, joyful things yet to come into our lives. Change makes way for the new.
And we here at the Hillhouse are getting ourselves ready for a whole lot of new things to come…
Our beloved ‘snow goose’, Maximus. He finds the sweet spots where he can graze, mid-winter.
(He is in actuality a “Lavender Ice” which is, as we understand, the newest registered breed in North America. The breed is supposed to be friendlier than other domestic geese, and good with kids and pets. Our experience tells us this is partly so, but in the end, he is still a goose. And geese are tough birds.)
On his way back up the hill to the coop.
In the coop with his very best bird-friend, male Guinea fowl, Austin (lowest rung to the right)
Mama enjoys a final moment with Max.
That lovely face.
Elihu feeds Maximus his second favorite treat – he loves frozen peas best.
Maximus waits around for more, even when Elihu’s gone back inside.
The kiss goodbye.
A very sad time for Elihu and me both. We hope Maximus goes on to enjoy the best life a goose could ever know. That’ll make it a little easier to adjust to a goose-free life here at the Hillhouse.