Here’s a story that you don’t hear every day: I once knew a man who owned the last red-feathered Austrian goose. He said that it came from a wintry mountainside, where the lakes had just about frozen over, and now he was adapting the goose to the winters of the Bronx. Well, I said, it just about makes sense that the poor thing would die off, seeing as geese can’t survive on mountaintops. Their feathers freeze and they can’t huddle together close enough to sustain the heat. But my friend shook his head. No, he said. It’s the people that do it. The geese’s feathers can withstand the snow and the ice, but the people can’t seem to stop hunting them. Anyway, said my friend. You should come and see the goose sometime before it’s too late. I think you’d like him.
I told my friend all right, but I didn’t go over that night or the next. Instead, I spent my evenings out with friends at this jazz club, where some solo saxophonist played lounge covers of the nation’s top 50 hits, and we laughed and drank martinis with dark green olives in them and we spilled over ourselves. One night I even brought a man with me. He was a tall, strong man with big arms and a good laugh—the sort of laugh you might’ve recorded for a laugh track back in the nineties to really drive the joke home. An earnest laugh. The sort of laugh that you couldn’t fake.
On this night, he wrapped his big, hairy arm around my shoulder and whispered in my ear that he didn’t think that the jazz player was very good. Well, I said, if you think I can do better. Oh, I don’t think, said the man, I know. Ben, I said (his name was Ben, though I don’t think it was a very suitable name for a guy like him; Joe or Bertrand, maybe—something fuller, with more of a sound). Ben, I said, you don’t know how to play a single instrument. I saw from your Tinder profile. Oh, but I could, he said. And he looked off sad as though I had startled and then embarrassed him, like the deer I spotted alongside the highway three years ago. It was a deer that ate the garbage by the roadside, and her dark eyes widened with regret, as though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to forage through the discarded crimson cans, but I continued on without making a scene into the darkness that lie ahead. I told Ben that he probably could sing it or something—make a noise that would entertain just as much, and he said all right, he supposed so; and then he was satisfied.
I went home feeling empty, and I checked my text messages to find a note from my friend with the red-feathered Austrian goose asking when I might come over. It’s so ephemeral, read the text. If you could just see the red-feathered Austrian goose before it’s too late. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just swiped out of the text message, see, because I couldn’t bring myself to realize that I would be the last to see this enchanting red-feathered Austrian goose that could withstand ice and snow and nature’s torment generally. I told myself that it would be a mistake to go tonight. It was already so late, and I had just gotten changed, and The Bachelor marathon was ongoing, so why would I trek out into the brumal streets just to see some duck with red feathers? I camped before the television in my big gray robe and with a cup of coffee as though I could feel the wind through the Styrofoam-sealed windows. I did everything that I could to keep the winter out those days. Winter in Manhattan had a terrible bite, and I had no tolerance for the cold, though I was pretty chilly.
I told myself that I wouldn’t see anyone, but, lo and behold, there came a text from Ben, who asked might I come over. Of course not, I thought, but each second I spent holding the phone, I felt the burgeoning desire, and, finally, I caved and took the next L Train out to Brooklyn. All the ride there, I thought that the train would flood from the hurricane damage, but I said nothing and gripped the metal frame around the seats and watched the people sway back and forth gently like reeds—each head bobbing up and down, some before half-opened books with folded pages and ten-point type; others above cellphones aglow with the tanned faces of pop singers; some with shut eyes and others staring out into the black nothingness.
I waded through the snow to Ben’s apartment, and he offered me a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. I opted for the wine, though my conscience insisted otherwise, and soon I was drunk with Ben, who was eating crackers over the kitchen table, round and wooden and splintered. It could break so easily, he said. And that’s the beauty of it. Wouldn’t you want something to last? I asked. He shook his head. No, where’s the beauty in that? It’s the absence of eternity that makes things attractive. This ancient scroll that crumbles at your touch. You can never look too closely. He wrapped his big, hairy arm around me once more and I thought they were strange words from a man who seemed built to last, to withstand. The fortitude of Ben struck me all at once as a façade, and I told him that I had an early morning, but he insisted that I stay, and so I stayed for another minute as he unwound along his chair and leaned against me. When he started to kiss my shoulder, I told him I had to go, and he insisted that I stay, but I couldn’t, you see, because I had an early morning. Now he seemed to understand, and he said sadly, All right. Strange tone, I thought, from a man who doesn’t want anything to last.
On the subway, I was overcome with an urge to see the red-feathered Austrian goose and I tried to text my friend that I was on my way, but I couldn’t seem to reach him because every stop went too fast and, in each tunnel, I lost my signal, so all I could do was wait. Then, toward the final stop, the train slowed down, and the few passengers who stood alongside me lurched forward, and the conductor announced that another train was passing. The whole time, I thought that the train would flood there in the darkness, and I was very afraid to see out of every window only shadows looking in. Please, I thought. Move forward. But we could only remain in the blackness, and I gripped onto my metal beam as though it would stay me against the eternal night, like a single candle that I held against oblivion.
And, even more disheartening, I could sense something amiss. A fading or breaking. A baseball bat through a window. Something shockingly awful sinking into my proverbial gut. I told myself it didn’t have to do with my absence that night, though I secretly knew otherwise. I knew that if I had stayed with my friend, then maybe the night would’ve ended differently, and that, like a newcomer to adventure books, I had made the incorrect choice and would soon face the repercussions. Please, I told myself. It’s just a goose. But it wasn’t just a goose. It was something larger—a whole ecosystem, generations of flocks. I told myself that it would be fine, though I knew otherwise—the way a dog knows when it’s about to rain, or how the flowers know to upturn their great vibrant heads toward the day.
I got off about two blocks away and rushed over to his apartment. By now, he was expecting me, as I had sent a flurry of apologetic texts and pretty much begged him to let me see the goose, but when I got to the door, he could only ask: What do you want? I want to see the goose, of course, I said, and I tried to rush past him, but he blocked my entry. I could see now that his eyes looked sore and red and raw, but I tried to ignore the conclusion that I somehow caused this, even though I knew otherwise. I told myself that it was late and I had bothered him with my ceaseless texting, and that he had no reason to let me in now that he could probably smell the wine and see me sway back and forth like the ocean. But he looked behind him when he heard a wailing like a cat’s meow and he said, Come on.
We walked past the kitchen and into a small den. I’ve never seen your place before, I said, and then he showed me this small cardboard box lying open in the middle of the room, amid unpacked boxes of Styrofoam and steel wool, and I approached carefully the cardboard box, as though afraid I might somehow destroy it by accident, and I saw therein a goose with feathers blood-red and a black beak and swollen black eyes and its dark spindly legs bent like a cyclist mid-cruise, and from the parting of its midnight beak came this wail not unlike that of a screeching saxophone or high-pitched trombone.
I covered my ears. It’s a real tragedy, I said, but all my friend could do was look away toward the opened boxes. He had dug his hands into his pockets and offered me something to drink. I said, No thank you, and we stood there a while just listening to the bird. If you have courage, he started to say, but then stopped, I think, because he didn’t know what it would mean. We waited until morning for the wailing to stop, and then he had to make some phone calls to some animal societies.
The whole ride back I was thinking about the goose and how the sunrise resembled its feathers and the parting night resembled its beak. Toward the horizon emerged this washed-out white. It poured over the high-rise buildings and onto the snow, giving everything a frosty, clinical sort of gleam, and the people were chatting lively on their cellphones as we breezed past on a rail high above everything. It’s not fair, I thought as I gripped my bag lightly. But I was not afraid. I looked forward—out toward the streets bustling with snow-topped cars, and people in long coats fluffed with snow, and, alongside them, the dogs bounding gladly—their eyes wide open and purplish tongues wagging out. You can see everything from a high vantage point. It makes it easier to witness the small affronts. A misplaced streetlamp, a skewed corner, a backward-facing walk sign. Below me, the people dawdled, certain that there could not be a red-feathered Austrian goose. I told myself that it was fine. That there could not be a better ending. That there were all sorts of special geese. That we were too important. The darkness of a tunnel enveloped all of us, and the chattering ceased, and once more I gripped the rail, though only to steady myself. We were stuck in a tunnel for a long time, and I thought that the conductor might say anything, but he stayed silent on the intercom until we started moving again. He made up some story about a delay in the communications or static interference. Some reason.
E. Y. Smith’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Portland Review, The Brooklyn Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Offing among other literary journals. Smith’s work has also appeared at Dixon Place.