I have spent the greater part of my life, more than fifty years, doing what I am doing now, writing in ink on a lined white pad, hoping not to be interrupted, alone and grateful for my solitude. Weekends are a waiting period, most uninvited talk (the phone, repairmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses) drives me to distraction; national holidays are an annoyance, vacations – when I am unable to avoid them – make me impatient, unless I find a quiet place to read. Travel for me is not a vacation but rather an immersion, a long spell of dedicated observation during which I write in the evening, summing up the day. I hope to live like this until I die, selfishly you might say, but it is the only way I can think straight and write well.
For the past thirty years I have lived in a remote part of a Hawaiian island, on a steep bluff among my own clumping bamboo, surrounded by hills covered in dense forests of casuarina trees. The beach is half a mile down the hill, and if the day is sunny, which it usually is, after lunch I set up my folding chair under the palms and continue to write. When I’m done, I go for a swim. I feel lucky to have lived a life with the whole day to myself. In the evening, I usually make dinner, and when my wife comes home we drink, we eat, we share the news of our day. Sometimes we see friends. Apart from one man on the other side of the island, no one I know in Hawaii reads anything I write.
In the mid-1990s a friend from down the hill came for a drink and remarked on the tall grass in the meadow in front of my house. I said I’d been meaning to cut it, but the amount and the height was daunting; it was up to my chest, and thick – guinea grass, not pretty, and regarded as invasive in Hawaii, pushing aside and smothering native plants. You can’t use a lawnmower on it; a scythe perhaps. This neighbour, the late Peregrine Eliot, was a large landowner in Cornwall, and familiar with farming life. In Hawaii he was usually barefoot and bone idle, wearing an aloha shirt and shorts, always with a smile. ‘What you want are some geese,’ he said, gesturing to the grass.
A feed store sold me three Embden goslings, which grew quickly into two good-sized ganders and one plump goose. The breed originated in Germany: pure white, orange beaked; the stark purity of their feathers gives prominence to their eyes, as blue and luminous as the Pacific. Being heavy – a gander twenty pounds, a goose somewhat less – they are usually raised for their meat.
They went to work on my grass, they were good tempered and alert; one gander paired with the goose, the remaining gander seemed to imprint on me. After a year or so the goose was sitting on eggs, on a nest in a sheltered spot under the house. A commotion one day, panicky shrieks from the gander, agonising honks from the goose. A neighbour’s dog had burst through the woods, killed the goose and injured her mate; both lay in a mass of bloodstained feathers.
‘I’ll buy you another goose,’ the neighbour said, when I confronted him.
‘If I kill your dog,’ I said, ‘I’ll get you another from the humane society.’
I did not see his dog again; though I do battle with other predators and pests – feral cats, wild pigs, mongooses, climbing roof rats and tenacious half-pound Norway rats.
I put three still warm eggs under a duck that had just begun to sit on a large clutch – a Muscovy duck, used to brooding for 35 days. And one morning, before the duck eggs hatched, I saw a wet yellow gosling tumble from beneath the Muscovy. This was in 2008, on 23 April – Shakespeare’s birthday.
The first moving creature Willy saw was me, and he snuggled in my hand, and when I put him in a warm cage I kept it at eye level and made sure he had plenty to eat. He doubled in size in ten days, and within a month grew pinfeathers, and then fledged in earnest, spiky feathers that gave him bulk and turned him white. When I held him I could feel his pulsing heart, his warm body. And very soon, when I said, ‘Willy’, he responded with a little caw.
For the first time since my children finished school my writing day was changed, brightened in unexpected ways. Willy was to be attended to, fed with pellets, the horse trough filled with water so he could climb in and splash, diving, beating his wings and then grooming himself as he dried off in the sun, pecking at his feathers, combing them smooth with his beak.
The other geese snapped at the grass, now an acre of close-cropped lawn, as Perry Eliot had promised; Willy lingered near the door of my studio and squawked in recognition when I appeared at lunchtime to feed him by hand. Often he simply lingered, working his beak, sniffing, lowering his head and lengthening his neck if another goose came near, possessive of me.
Geese are usually in motion, except at night, though their sleeping habits are a riddle: they seem to stay awake all night, napping selectively during the day, tucking their head under one wing for brief periods. The gander remains with the goose and can be extremely aggressive in the mating season, attacking any intruder – even me. But Willy served as my protector and would often chase away any gander that assumed a threat posture or aimed his beak at my shins. Unlike the others, Willy could be stillness itself, sated with food, when I rested with him after my own lunch on the low lava stone wall and stroked his feathers. The density of down over a goose’s breast is a pillow of warmth you can sink your fingers into.
The flocking instinct of geese keeps them in a loose gaggle, but it’s accurate to see them as a little family, because a gaggle’s apparent cohesiveness is an illusion, as in many human families. One or two birds in a gaggle always lag behind, pecked at by the others, especially the strongest male. Willy’s reflex was to associate with the others, but there was tentativeness in it, because the other birds objected with fleering squawks when he got too close, poking at him, body-checking him, crowding him away from the pellets when I fed them together. He was of the gaggle but not in it.
This oblique behaviour I recognised from my own family life when, as one of seven children, my instinct was to stay with the group even when I was rebuffed, or mocked, or bullied by my older brothers, or by my sisters who, as girls, were licensed to tease with impunity. Or when older, imposed on by the petty alliances of my siblings, I remained at the periphery in the magnetic field of affinity, but did not completely separate myself from the dominant others in the family flock.
I don’t say Willy was me, but I could identify with his being sidelined and always watchful. And I saw his remedy, the way he often hurried – goose-stepped – away from the others at feeding time to meet me covertly at the side of the house to be given his own meal, which he ate alone, round about the time of day I was eating alone.
He hurried to me when I called him by name. On my arrival at the long driveway he emitted a squawk of recognition from a hundred yards away when the iron wheels of the entrance gate clanked against their rail. I might have been away for months, but when I returned he flew to me, low to the ground as Embdens do, and settled by my side. Geese vocalise in various ways; I grew to know the sounds he made – the caw of contentment, the shriek, the harsh squawk, the hiss, and loudest of all the trumpeting after overcoming an adversary. All these sounds are very different from the soft notes of a female, her honks and grunts. Now and then Willy scissored his beak without a sound, as though in a silent stammer.
Like the other geese, he spent a good part of his day preening, cleaning and ordering his feathers with his beak. Geese bathe rather than swim, diving and immersing their heads, and beating their wings in the water to sluice them. A pool or basin of shallow water seems necessary for geese to mate, a ritual which is brief and smothering. For a time, Willy had a companion goose, but in the clash of ganders during the mating season he was driven from this partnership, forcibly separated from the goose, and spent more time with me. And in those days and weeks when I felt uninspired and superfluous as a writer he was a consolation.
The gaggle increased to eight big birds. I sold some to people on the understanding that they would use them to trim their grass and would not kill them. Willy remained, mild tempered and protective, isolated in a way I understood, often occupying a sheltered spot near the garage, nibbling grass, or – as all geese seem to do – testing the greenery of any plants within a beak’s reach, devouring some, leaving roulettes of bite marks on others. He became a fixture, in the grassy acre, at the house, near the studio, in my life – a certainty, dependable and unassertive, as true as a compass point, but looming, a graceful ornament, like one of those trophy boasts on a large estate, a marble figure set on a conspicuous plinth, just as lovely, the whiteness of his feathers giving him a marmoreal distinction. Yet he was a living ornament, squawking when he saw me in the morning, strutting to his chosen spot to be fed; and then at one o’clock when I left my studio calling out again; awake when I locked up at night, usually waiting by the gate on my return after a few hours, or six months. Years of this.
No night-time sight can compare with the singular beauty of a pure white goose, or several, their motionless, luminous contours on dark moonstruck grass that absorbs the light, the contrast of each bird’s brilliance, glowing as if lit from within.
It was my conceit that Willy wasn’t like my other geese. He was himself: distinctive, intelligent, resourceful, congenial, loyal, self-sufficient when I was away, dependent when I was at home, healthy, able to defend himself against the other geese, knowing when to fight and when to give them a wide berth. And he could summon a sharp defence against humans too. I recall with such pleasure the way he whipped around and seized the buttock of a ten-year-old who’d teased him, the howl of the boy, his flesh pinched in the wicked serrations of Willy’s beak, a lesson learned.
I often thought: if only people knew what my geese are like when I am alone with them – the solitary pleasure only the pet-owner is privileged to know. It is impossible for anyone except the owner to see the creature as it actually is, because in the presence of others the animal behaves differently – fusses, gets nervy and loud or silly or hostile, playing the fool as children often do in the presence of strangers. No one knows except the parent, or pet-owner, what a marvel the creature is, in repose, and that when you’re alone you are nearly always at peace – such intelligence and serenity and mutual understanding the visitor never sees. I often sat with five silent geese as though I was one of the flock; they took little interest in me, or in one another, and were patient and calm. Ten years of Willy’s society and such satisfactions.
One day I saw that Willy was limping, favouring his left leg and spending all his time away from the others. He’d obviously fought with them and had been driven off by the alpha gander who led the gaggle. Though I could not see a wound, he’d been injured. I needed to separate him in a pen, because the other geese would bully him, pecking at him, as they do any weakened bird.
I felt his pain. Around this time my brothers picked a fight with me over my novel Mother Land, sending me insulting messages, needling me. One of them on a pretext demanded money from me. I soothed myself by sitting with Willy and attending to him. I badly needed him now.
Something else was strange; his droppings were an unnaturally bright shade of green, the neon green dye of rat poison – a colour that is a warning to indicate a child or a pet has eaten it. It seemed that in addition to his battle wounds he might have pecked at a small block of rodenticide the exterminator had somehow left out. Rat poison contains anticoagulants and causes internal bleeding; Willy showed signs of poisoning – lethargy and loss of appetite – even when he’d begun to walk with a little more certainty and strut.
I took him to the vet, who said that poisoning was a possibility. He gave me vitamin K pills to put down his throat, one a day. This seemed to stabilise him, but he was still weak. I knew him to have a strong constitution, and he responded to me with all his old soft caws of recognition. Yet a few days after the visit to the vet I called to him and for the first time ever he did not reply – nor could I see him. I found him at the edge of his protective fence: he had fallen on his side, and was beating his wings to balance himself, his legs splayed. I rushed to pick him up and when I did he pressed his head against my arm as he had done in better days and turned his head in a spasm I could feel and stared wildly at me, his blue eyes going grey. He went still, his neck slackened, and was dead.
And in that moment it was as if a part of me had died too, or been torn out, leaving a void in my mind, in my body. Something suddenly missing in my life, missing within me too, a sustaining presence now gone.
I had smiled at people who cuddled their puppies, or who voluptuously stroked their cats, or affectionately reprimanded their ornery dogs. Assigning human personalities to animals is the chief trait of the pet-owner: the doting dog-lover with baby-talk, the smug stay-at-home holding a fat lump of fur who says ‘Me, I’m a cat person,’ and the granny who puts her nose against the cage and makes kissing noises at her parakeet. They had strong opinions about their pets’ behaviour, how teachable they were, how they responded, like the horsey set who assert that the horse is always smarter than the rider; or the dog-owner who shrugs and eyes you sideways and says, ‘Nugget is always a little nervous around really selfish people.’
I had known other deaths – close friends, Peregrine Eliot and others; the passing of my father twenty years before had saddened me, the death of my mother more recently at the great age of 104 too, but we had not been close. This was so much worse I could not explain it, even in terms of the substitute grief that a person might feel for the death of a pet after the death of a loved one (V.S. Pritchett wrote about this once). I burst into tears when I told my wife over the telephone, and could not talk further, could scarcely think about it without pain verging on agony, thinking irreplaceable. I had spent more time with this goose than with any other living creature except my wife. In my solitude and loss, I could not believe my grief.