They followed me here. I saw whole squadrons of them cutting through clouds after my two-bit Chevy, straight out Route 78 from Jersey.
My parents retired to Lancaster County in the 90s. For my birthday they gave me a 3-day, 3-night stay at a bed and breakfast not far from their house in Ephrata, so I could finish the novel that’s been slowly driving me insane for two years. The weekend before Halloween, I took Friday and Monday off, kissed Julie, and set out on the three-hour drive to Pennsylvania Dutch country.
For several months, I now admit, I’ve felt growing pressure. Finishing the drive Friday in late afternoon light, the sun falling like a dragon struck, I could feel hot blood rising. Julie is due in March with our first. After that, who knows? We need more money, too. I can’t tell what sort of father I’ll be. Then there’s this novel, the one I’ve been writing since grad school. I can’t seem to close on it. But if I don’t before March---
The novel is about my stint in the army. It’s what I know. But nobody likes it. My classmates panned the first four chapters. I showed it to a close friend. He asked, “What exactly did you do in there?” “It’s in the book,” I said. “I had a couple rifle platoons. We’d get instruction in classrooms, then we’d go shoot for a while, then we’d tromp around the woods for a few weeks, and after that we’d go to some desert or swamp and train for a month.” “There’s your problem,” he said. “It’s a novel full of guns and maneuvers, but no fighting.” “It was stressful. I learned a lot.” “But it was pre-Iraq. You never faced death. You only shot blanks. Pow pow pow! Who cares?”
I pulled off 78 and snaked down Route 512. The geese flew on overhead. They come from Canada, but they take over space like Americans. I’ve heard that geese in flight at dusk are really the souls of the departed war dead haunting the land where they fell. But I wouldn’t know anything about war or the dead.
Rupp’s Bed & Breakfast is a few miles west of Lititz. A bonechip moon followed me down the long driveway straight into a stubble-cut field. The lane terminates between a red brick farmhouse, connected by flagstones to a smaller cabin. The farmhouse was dark and silent, enshrouded in indigo. The cabin had a chimney and floral drapes in the windows folded like wings over artificial candles.
They had carpet-bombed everything with dung. Close by two of them stood in a pumpkin patch raked clean. They stared as I trod on their waste, carrying a six-pack of Guinness. Their long black necks and beaks nearly swallowed by the encroaching shadows so that they resembled decapitated gray ducks frozen rigid where their heads had been lopped.
The entrance is in back. There’s a small patio with a rocking chair. Harvested corn stalks stretch as far as the horizon.
It was not until I circled around the first time that I saw, fifty yards off, a massive barn in disrepair that seemed older than the gnarled black tree beside it. Its ruined phalanges curling and uncurling like those of Dickens’ third ghost.
An hospitable handwritten note greeted me with all the warmth one could expect from a piece of paper. It told me that the owners had left two days before to bring their three grandchildren to Disney World. The hostess expressed unflappable faith that everything I could need or want was there for me. “Your parents tell us you’re a writer,” the note mocked. “So fall to, and Godspeed.”
There’s a brick fireplace, a black iron kettle, a tidy kitchen, coffee maker, couch, lamp. A nautilus of stairs leads to a second floor, little more than a dormer, with two puny windows, a king-size bed, and a washroom so tight you can steady yourself in the shower by putting hands on hips.
Everything I could need. I set down my things and wrote well into the night, shooting words into the void. Pow pow pow!
I was in an indoor carnival ride, floating down a canal. At first I recognized nothing. In front of me were a snowy-haired elderly couple with three small sunburned boys stuffed between them, roughhousing. There was piped-in music, a sunny tune from long ago. Bright colors were everywhere, and hundreds of mechanical dolls, twirling, kicking their legs, strumming fake guitars or blowing tiny horns. I sat alone in back, looking around, forgetting something. The old woman spoke inaudibly and the boys exploded in giggles. Up ahead there was a round tunnel leading through to another color-strewn chamber. As we drew near I saw a dark form hanging from the ceiling. Like an oversized, misshapen bat. Small World! “It’s a small world…” As we passed below I looked up. The thing blew open like an obscene lotus, huge dirty wings descending, a black beak and slickened red worm hurtling into my eyes----
I bolted upright. Shadows and shapes flickered. Outside in the night thousands of them were screaming, crying over the rush of wind.
Even though I worked late I got up and went out for a run, shirtless, in the autumn air. A writer needs stamina, and running supplies that. It fires blood to the brain, too.
I’ve always been amazed at the way the land here dips and rolls like an earthen surf. Over every rise are waves upon waves of crops, silos, the newest outbreak of McMansions. But in the early morning as you negotiate the hills you get that sea-feeling Melville once described that I associate weirdly with fertility, of mind and soil. You half expect a great swell of mud and molten rock, wafting you towards that terminal shore.
On the final stretch the sky was a black-blue that I imagine is aped only in some dark chamber of the sea. There was an absolutely brilliant crescent moon. Passing before it was the largest cluster of chevrons in the sky I had ever seen. The cacophony was deafening.
I returned to the cabin and flopped into the rocking chair. The cool air dried me as the light began to expand. In my head I was planning the day’s work. I had figured a way out. A way that had fighting, a confrontation....
When I awoke sunlight flooded my vision. One of them stood directly before me. Its wings were spread and it was hissing. Thrusting myself up, I tried to stand on the chair. The goose charged. We both fell backwards, my head slamming the brick. It leapt right onto my chest and thrust its beak into my face repeatedly. The skin opened on the bridge of my nose. I hammered the bird’s swollen, damp gut with my fists. Then it was gone, and I was lying next to the overturned chair, bleeding on the stones.
That afternoon I calmed myself only by drinking the last four Guinness bottles. It helped drown out the taunting. Tomorrow, I thought, it ends. But first, the work. I was writing furiously. I’d solved the problem. Two disgruntled soldiers had found their way into the arms room somehow, requisitioned the Hog and a few belts of 7.62, and started mowing down troopies from the woods in the middle of PT. My young lieutenant spontaneously mounted a foot patrol to take them out. You want real bullets? Now you got ‘em. Pow pow pow!
Out here it smells like something exhumed. It’s Sunday morning. I stink, too. I never even put the shirt back on. Last night, after dark, I went out to the abandoned barn with a flashlight and rummaged til I found what’s needed. There were several, hanging from long nails. I set them on the patio and went inside. The novel was completed near midnight, I think. I stuffed the notebook back in my bag, then laid down.
The geese wouldn’t allow the comfort of sleep. But these things are settled only at first light. After a while, I came back here and waited in the rocking chair. Now, finally, gray streaks are fanning from the horizon.
I see them: a huge convocation in the distance; a demon congress assembled among the shorn stalks; a spirit-dance; the souls of the dead who have targeted me, according to the logic of some pre-ordained judgment.
It’s time. I stand up, then reach to grab what I have appropriated. They clink against one another. I jump off the porch and start running, sprinting, across the decayed remains of corn. The geese natter for a second. Then, en masse, they lift off and fly low. At me.
“You think I can’t face you!?” I scream. “How you like these wings!?” I extend my arms, a 30-inch sickle in each fist, and keep running.