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The Goose Who Got Away

THIS morning, like every morning, I made sure my garden gate was open and the two geese, Ruby and Groucho, were in view.

Once the wind had quieted, the barn fowl were out and about, waddling into my plot to feast on composting scraps and fertilize my ground. The Cochins, bantams, Blue Andalusians, Indian Runner ducks, and smaller, squatter blue, brown, and white ducks of various types - Groucho rounded them all up and herded them inside the fence.

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He stretched his neck and hissed, pecking at their tail feathers until they filed in at his command. Today, it was up and over the melting snow, the roosters hopping to the highest peak where they screeched out their crows to the hens. The females scratched at the hay covering my wide garden rows and pecked at the dried vines of a squash plant that had escaped the fall cleanup.

THE geese love the cold. Ruby burrows down into the snow, unfurls and flaps her mighty wings, as if testing the air for takeoff. I worry every time she appears ready to launch, for one time she did leave, her long orange beak lifting into the sky. Friends, too soft-hearted to slaughter their multiplying flock, had given me these geese, warning me to keep them confined for several days when they first arrived.

``They need to adjust to your place and decide it's their new home,'' they'd told me.

Once unlocked from the dog carrier in which I'd transported them, Ruby and Groucho hunkered down for a four-day sentence in the coop. At first, they huddled in the corner, their long necks straining to take in the new surroundings, but by the end of the second day they'd begun to venture out into the middle of the coop to assess the situation.

By day three, Groucho had become ruler of the roost, hissing at the chickens and ducks, sending the bantams scurrying back behind the nesting boxes in terror. Even Speedy the rooster perched on top of a feed bag well out of the gander's way. Groucho, who received his name that day, honked and scolded every human or bird who came near, his wings arched, tail pointed upward, his bill widening just enough for his pink, pulsating tongue to jet out in warning to his comrades.

Released, Ruby and Groucho stepped into the yard and hugged the fence. The chickens squawked in delight at their liberation from Groucho's domination, and the ducks spilled toward the road in perfect step, a web-footed drill team, splashing in puddles left from tractor tracks. Scalawag, the nanny pygmy goat, who has free run of the place, wandered over to inspect the new residents, trotting toward the fence. She shook her head, quickly backing off when accosted by Groucho.

Suddenly, Ruby extended her wings and was in flight. She circled my house, her gray feathers cutting through the cool morning air, arching down toward Picayune Creek, buzzing my neighbor's machine shed and dipping and diving over his harvested fields, his Herefords gleaming the last kernels of corn.

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She wound back and tipped her wings over Moses and Miriam's farm, the home place of the extended Amish families that live in the surrounding area. She flapped above their corn crib and around their silo, then past the old windmill that sits in the yard, rusted but still functioning. Finally, she made her way back to my place, where Groucho still stood near the fence, staring up at the sky, his beak shut. She careened westward over the next ridge and was gone - in the direction of her former owners, a hundred miles away.

``Oh, Ruby,'' Groucho seemed to wail, his beak wide open now, head bobbing, his honking carrying out across the whole valley. He stood there the rest of the day, head back, eyes scanning the sky. And he stayed there the whole night when the other fowl dutifully climbed out of the pond, shook off their feathers and trudged up the hill, taking up their perches in the coop, locked away safely for the night from the fox.

``Oh, Ruuuby,'' Groucho crooned. Geese mate for life, their relationships surviving thousands of miles of travel, constant searches for good nesting sites, and the never-ending chore of raising new broods of goslings - a more enduring bond than many human pairings. I could only guess at Groucho's sorrow, his neck rubbing against the pine boards, wings folded in, his macho display forgotten.

Yet, I held out some hope for Ruby's return. After all, I'd known a family in northeastern Iowa near Decorah who owned a pair of geese named Salt and Pepper. Every morning, Salt walked the family's two young boys down their farm lane to the school bus.

While the boys waited near the mailbox, Salt pecked at a few weeds in the ditch, then lifted into the air with the arrival of the bus. The goose flew above, over the limestone cliffs and bluffs, down between the rolling hills, never loosing sight of the bus as it bounced and lurched the 18-mile trip to Decorah.

When the boys hopped off the bus and scrambled across the playground, the first bell beckoning them into the building, Salt dove down close to their heads, circled the school, then glided a straight path homeward. She reunited with Pepper, then stationed herself again at the mailbox waiting for the boy's return in the afternoon. She did this all year long, through rain, fog, ice, snow, and rain. Salt earned her salt, and my image of the ``mean'' goose, the guard dog of the barnyard, softened. The idea of ``Mother Goose'' took on new meaning.

Sure enough, exactly 24 hours after Ruby's departure, I spotted a single gray goose circling my house. Clocked almost to the minute she'd disappeared the day before, Ruby reentered my slice of sky.

In unison, Groucho and I raised and lowered our eyes in line with her flight pattern. Groucho honked a noisy greeting. Finally, wings curling in, she landed, her feet - bright orange, webbed, and wet with dew - coming to rest on the other side of the fence, just inches from her mate.

GROUCHO squawked and screeched, dash-ing back and forth, rubbing against the fence, furiously trying to find a way to reach Ruby. She poked her neck through the boards, nuzzling him. They bowed and beckoned, twitched and swayed, their beaks brushing against one another, then apart, exploring every knot in the wood, every ounce of air between the boards.

At last, Groucho unfurled his wings, launching himself from his matted spot in the grass, and rose westward through the sky. I feared he was now lost, returning to his original home, his body blocked from sight in the sun.

This time, Ruby stood alone, her eyes riveted on the clouds, her honking a cry of distress. My distress was equally intense. In attempting to provide a good home for these creatures, I'd become a home wrecker.

Then, almost as quickly as he had headed west, Groucho circled around to the north, looping down toward the creek, then south again and over the lightning rod on the top of my house. Ruby let out one last mournful honk, her eyes dark and penetrating. Groucho hovered above the garden, then carefully, ever so carefully, alighted on the other side of the fence right next to Ruby - both geese reunited and here to stay.

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