Breathing the cold autumn air off the still pond, and coughing from time to time, Cliff, wearing pajamas, dropped into a patio chair to spark his lighter and smoke. Head down, from a distance he could be praying. The L.I.R.R. midnight run broke the silence miles away and in the shadows a cricket chirped. The male field cricket sang his mating call at intervals; his chirping might also be prayer.
At 6 a.m. Cliff slid the door open to light another cigarette. All around him the yard was drenched, from the pond to his patio. The humming of the distant traffic on Sunrise Highway drifted in and out of his ears.
That main artery carried people spinning their wheels, racing to work. He hadn’t returned to work after his open heart surgery. He was told never to smoke again. Forgetaboutit! He ignored the rhythmical dub-lubbing, lub-dubbing of his heart.
At 6:30 a commuter train resounded far off. Its mournful whistle was commented on by a couple of songbirds; otherwise it was still. Light slowly overcame dark when stealthily something emerged — a power within the pond.
Looking at the pond, deep and black, spring-fed from 10,000 years ago when the glacier retreated to form Long Island, Cliff felt an all-consuming longing.
Out of the water in a soft kind of light, the figure of a black-necked Canada goose formed in silhouette. It shivered and shook itself after 12 hours half-submerged. Its webbed feet squished slowly over the clipped grass, too short to eat. The goose came over to Cliff’s patio and made a sonorous sound: “Bok!”
“Did you hang out there all night? Buck? Were you in the pond all night, out there alone?”
“Sure,” he replied. “Raw-rrh-rrn.” (That’s “yes” in goose speak.) Buck turned his head to the side.
“Bok!” said Cliff, pinching his nose closed to imitate the goose’s sound. “Raw-rrh-rrh.” (That’s “good morning.”) He notices the bird’s face has dots and white feathers on its nose, not just black feathers. “You’re a senior!” he tells the bird.
Buck answered back, “Hey, geese live to 20 years old!” There is a gleam in his ebony eye near the white chinstrap.
In a blue dish over on the grass the wild bird began to dabble corn and drink water, his head tipped up elegantly to swallow, his bill pointed to the sky.
Out of habit, he vigorously wagged his tail feathers after every gulp. Hastily, he dipped his bill into the water after each scoop of corn. Later he combed his beak through his wet breast feathers and started to pull up the grass.
His shoulders sagging a bit, Cliff left the patio to get his checkbook, thinking about the checks he must write.
“Ninety percent of success is showing up,” Buck ‘boked’ to Cliff.
“Don’t try to cheer me up, Buck,” Cliff said to the goose. “I’ll be honest with you, I lost my car, I lost my job, and I lost my boat — the whole nine yards!”
The goose stations himself on the grass, doing neck rolls, oiling his feathers in the sun. When he hears the “bok, bok, bok” of other geese, in rapid sequence, he answers, issuing a similar primitive call.
In a few minutes, the flock lands on the pond like a group of schoolchildren. The gentle motion of the water is a playground for them. They fill in between a pair of floating mute swans. Time for a little mischief, they set up a flotilla, zigzagging in lines noisily.
Buck looked over, but came back to his blue bowl of cracked corn. The morning sun rose higher and down at the far end of the pond the two swans rested peacefully on the grass.
Then a long call, “Bok, bok, bok,” rang out. The flock knew it was the signal: “We’re going! Goodbye! If you’re coming, c’mon!”
Twenty pairs of wings flared out as 40 webbed black feet paddled across the water. Buck started to run with them. They took off at an angle, uplifted to 45 degrees and flew forward into formation, rising in unison with a “swoosh.”
Buck ran down the grass with wings flared. His feet pushed him aloft with a great lurch. He lifted off the ground, cleared the hedge, flew over the water and landed back on his feet. In the blink of an eye the flock was gone. He had taken off, flown a few seconds — and that was it.
“Let the woeful experience fade,” said Cliff.
Who would have thought he was grounded, not to fly again? So many times he tried, but the effort was futile. Cliff watched. Buck sauntered back and ate lunch.
The first time the goose had shown up was right after Hurricane Irene. He was blown around by the tropical storm. Before Irene made landfall in Manhattan the uncertainty, imminent danger, and evacuation warnings stressed Cliff. Out on the island he choked on the steamy air, smoking in his garage. Behind, on the hilltop, the waving line of pine trees made him shiver, just like the cormorant that took refuge floating on a tire in the pond.
Tracking Irene on the big screen, his wife, Ginger, played solitaire with the air-conditioning on. Cliff opened the slider. “Don’t smoke in my living room!” she commanded.
Ginger-the-black-witch flew off to work most days, thank God. Cliff thought, “What’s the use in living after you’ve lost everything that makes you happy?”
He couldn’t handle looking at the storm’s white swirl, a looming mass 700 miles across that looked peaceful but was actually menacing. He felt powerless against the evil in human nature.
The next day, the bewildered goose slept under a fallen branch from the mimosa tree. He hung around, then went over to Cliff’s patio looking for his first human contact. There was something wrong with both of them.
“You have your feet in the water all of the time,” Cliff told the goose. He responded, “Bok! I’ll be honest with you, I’ve found my peace in Nature.”
Cliff decided the talking goose was bucking the system, so he called him Buck.
The Canadian goose taught Cliff goose speak. He’d say “Ruh-ruh-ruh,” and Cliff imitated it: “Ruh-ruh-ruh.” They had simple conversations — about questions. In his chair by the window, Cliff relaxed, not worried about anything. It was dark out except for the moon and the lights on the bridge. Buck liked standing near Cliff’s door when it got colder. He left it open a bit, and they stood a foot apart.
This went on until his wife came home. Cliff retired to a warm bedroom, closed the door, and wondered if the goose would get out of the wind.
Their neighbors disliked the goose droppings collecting on the sidewalks. Cliff swept up. Ginger saw him put the blue dish under the tree one day, and insisted he move her white flowers out from around the tree. “I won’t have food in my flowers!” she shouted angrily.
“Oh, I’m sorry you pulled your flowers out, did I disturb them?” the goose asked her. But she did not understand goose speak. “Well, they looked beautiful,” added the goose, “and they were going to die naturally, anyway.”
He saw a worm wiggle in the grass and walked around her to peck at it like a robin, a protein dinner. She swatted her broom at him and went back inside.
After two months, Buck the bird grew stronger. Ginger called him a lawn ornament. He just stayed there, sleeping in the grass in front of their patio, where the grass turned sort of brown.
She told Cliff, “I see him watching for you! Stop feeding him water and cracked corn!” The patio looked clean, however she poured soapy water in front of the sliding door. “That bird must go!” she screamed.
But Cliff, with his healing heart, wanted to help the bird. The goose was his company; solace bonded them. They felt a certain amount of trust and comfort together.
Buck was different. The feathers on his back were stringy feathers that weren’t right; they stood up. They weren’t long and smooth.
Cliff wondered why the bird couldn’t fly away. Maybe he’d had a disease he fought off. He called his brother-in-law, André, for help.
“André, listen to me,” he said. “This goose cannot survive here all winter on a frozen pond without my help. What if something happens to me?”
“We’ll help him in the morning,” André said. A little while later he called back. “I talked to a guy named Rick over at the Wildlife Rescue Center,” he said. “I told him the bird cleared the hedge and crashed. He will send someone to look at him. He’ll call you.”
In a minute, Rick called and then he and a couple of volunteers came by. When they arrived Cliff showed them the goose standing on one foot, sleeping.
“We don’t want to startle him, because once we stress him, he’s going to be impossible to catch,” Rick said.
They were not quite sure if they should just leave him for the time being and see if he ended up in a better position where they could corner him. “If he gets into the water, you know . . . it’s useless, so . . .”
Cliff decided not to talk to Buck in front of them. He would try feeding him a little bit at a time. Unknown to Buck, he was about to be lured into a trap.
The goose focused on Cliff, who walked him slowly backward from the grass toward the patio. Cliff kept shaking his corn, pouring water and backing up.
As usual, Buck felt safe and he ignored the two men he saw attempting to walk up slowly behind him. They followed behind and closed in slowly, forming a V, with the open patio door at one side.
Buck continued to back up, sensing he was being followed, or that they were moving closer, perhaps just to eat his food.
When the big mute swans closed in on his food dish, Buck usually backed off. The men were larger, but not threatening to him, and he let them close in on him.
The men saw him getting nervous, but his head was erect, facing them, and he wasn’t defending anything. He backed inside, but never took his eye off them.
Once inside, they closed the sliding door and one of the men ran around to the front door. He came in from behind and covered Buck with a towel and placed him in a large tote.
All three humans drove him back to the Wildlife Rescue Center, where he received the case number 11-1173, for rehabilitation.
Afterward, Cliff signed an adoption certificate, to sponsor the bird, and received a letter from him talking goose:
“Bok! Bok! Bok!” it said. “When you hear a call from the flock, it’s time you know, to unfold your wings, move on, and grow!”
Mym Tuma is a resident of Southampton. Her story, “Talking Swan,” appeared in The Star in 2008.