ISSUE NO. 17 | Barnaby’s Goose by André-Marcel Adamek
from Contes tirés du vin bleu
One Easter, Barnaby received a visit from a distant cousin. They hadn’t seen each other for thirty years, and she insisted on a memorable gift for the only man who’d ever shown her, in their teenaged games, the interest a boy might bear a girl, braiding her crowns of wildflowers he set majestically atop her red hair.
As Barnaby raised poultry in his corner of the countryside, she had the idea of giving him a gosling with foam-white plumage. It chirped in its wicker cage.
“What a strong little duckling,” said Barnaby, who’d never kept anything but hens.
“It’s a goose,” said the cousin. “She’ll give you eggs big as your fist and protect you from thieves much better than your poor old Nero.”
Hearing his name, Nero gave a swish of his tail on the tiled floor. He was a dark-feathered crossbreed whose eyes with their hazy film of blue betrayed his age. He’d killed a thousand rats, chased greedy martens from the henhouse, and followed his master down paths both icy and stormy, always ten paces behind, beak ready to tear into any intruder. He eyed the gosling glumly, but his whole body quivered with worry at the newcomer’s magnificent energy.
“You sure it’s not a gander?” asked Barnaby, a bit taken aback by the bird’s boldness.
“I’m sure. She’ll start laying in four months.”
“I’ll call her Nelly,” said Barnaby. On the table he set out a golden cake that owed its hue to yolks from his ten hens, pampered as sultanas.
The goose soon revealed her terrible nature as a merciless conqueror. At barely six months of age, she picked out the only pretender to absolute power in the courtyard, an Irish cock redder than a ripe strawberry who violated each of the frail hens under his watch thrice daily. He carried out these misdeeds casually, falling on his prey with his claws and giving each a few solid thrusts with his rump before wandering off like a tabernacle saint, soul at ease and loins voided.
Nelly, whose head hovered three inches over the rooster’s comb, didn’t even bother challenging her rival to single combat. While he was rummaging about in the dungheap, chuckling like a senator, she lunged at his genitals, and with a twist of her neck tore off his male wiles, which she spat out disgustedly in the runnels of slurry before reassuming her noble, immaculate air.
As the speechless rooster fled with the sparrows, the goose turned toward the harem of horrified hens.
Barnaby liked his summer mornings on the back porch, when the shadows of the world shrank before the sunny east. The air there was pure, rich as pomegranate juice. No sooner would he drag a chair across the old planks than the goose would pop up out of nowhere and keep him company. He’d hear the sound of her feet on the worn wood, see her coming: head outthrust, a playful look in her eye, honking even before the blackbirds had woken.
All he would say was, “Here, Nelly.”
Then it was as if her long neck would soften to curve over the man’s hands. She too would watch the sun, which had begun flickering over the foothills. No cry would come from her beak, and sometimes she seemed to be seeking an unfamiliar warmth in the hollow of her wings. It resembled a gesture of retreat, of remorse.
“Nelly, you shouldn’t bother the hens,” Barnaby would say. And he’d caress her neck, knowing he could have broken it with the merest pressure from his fingers. Nelly exulted before the rising sun. Every tuft of her finery grew tinged with pink. Barnaby’s murmurs would exhilarate her, and the hens, still asleep, confirm her in her feeling of power and impunity.
By autumn, Barnaby had lost half his birds. Nelly had developed the habit of harassing the hens’ crests, reducing their fiery millinery to a few bloody barbs. She also ate the chicks and even terrorized old Nero, who no longer dared poke his beak into the courtyard.
One day, when Ballefroid the poacher came by to split a bottle of wine on the porch, he let out a terrible pronouncement: “I’ve never seen a meaner bird in my life. You should slit its throat before it ruins you.”
“A rundown old rooster and five dead egg layers won’t be the ruin of me.”
“You won’t have a single living hen by spring. That demon will’ve killed Nero and hamstrung you. That’s the white death right there, fallen on your house!”
“If you could see how gentle she is in the mornings, when she comes to keep me company—”
“You’re talking like it’s a woman.”
“She is, for birds.”
“It’s an animal, Barnaby! Talk like that is blasphemy. One day you’ll be begging me to come and rid you of your Nelly.” Ballefroid emptied his glass and walked off at a quick, rough pace.
Barnaby shrugged. He went to pick fresh lettuce from the garden and, like a lover counting petals on a rose, plucked the leaves off one by one, stuffing them down the goose’s great open beak.
Though it hurt him bitterly, Barnaby had to admit the poacher was right. There was nothing left of the five surviving hens but a pile of reddish feathers whirling at the winds’ whim.
Old Nero would be dead by first snow, likely more from jealousy and spite than the weight of the years.
Deprived, like all domestic fowl, of the ability to fly, Nelly nevertheless managed to climb her wire pen. Terrifying in her affection, she would persist in pecking at the door and shutters, rousing Barnaby, pale with interrupted slumber, from his quietude. He’d put up with everything up till now, but refused to yield kitchen and bedroom—his final ramparts—to the goose. He resolved to shut Nelly in the tool shed, a little windowed shack at the back of the yard.
Complaints from the neighbors started flowing in. For a radius of three hundred yards you could hear the goose honking, beating her wings all night long against the floorboards, sending the tools clattering this way and that, trying to punch through the flimsy roof with her beak.
As the ruckus violated Article 87 of the rural code relating to stray and troublesome domestic animals, villagers didn’t need to ask the local game warden twice to go and harangue the guilty breeder.
“See to it that bird’s in no state to be a nuisance. You’ve got three days,” said the lawman, stroking the gold braid on his kepi. “Any longer and I’ll have to write you up, charge you a fine, and have the bird confiscated. Ask the butcher to take care of it: it’ll be better for everyone.”
Barnaby waited out the deadline, trying every way he could to calm his bird. On the third day, worn down by grief and exhaustion, he called Ballefroid.
“I don’t want you to cut her head off,” he said. “She’s in the shed. Just go in gently and put one in her heart. Above all, make sure she doesn’t suffer, doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
“Don’t worry. The animals I kill always die untroubled.”
Ballefroid entered the shed while Barnaby, soul reeling, plugged his ears.
Nothing was heard in the minutes that followed save the harsh cries of crows flying over the snowy land.
Soon Ballefroid emerged from the shed. No smoke came from his rifle, pointed at the ground.
“Well?” said Barnaby, who’d bitten his nails to the bloody quick.
“I swear, Barnaby, I’ve slaughtered animals without remorse all my bitch of a life. My hands’ve never trembled before the eyes of a fawn still wet with mother’s milk, or a baby partridge cozy in its downy coat. I’ve snapped the spines of kids without flinching, heart at peace, cut the heads off hundred year old pike… but that bird of yours! The flame in its eye when I raised my rifle! The power of a hundred thousand candles! And those spread wings, smashing the darkness like a great cross of light! Barnaby, I’d have an easier time killing your mother, or even your son.”
“I don’t have a son,” said Barnaby, “and my mother’s been dead for more than twenty years. You can’t help me.”
He thought Nelly had too much dignity to bow before lead from a rifle or the blade of an ax. Only the noble jaws of a fox or badger could do her the justice she deserved.
That very night, he wound a thick hemp rope around the goose’s neck and led her deep into the forest, where the carnivores reigned.
A solid knot around an oak and Barnaby fled, ashamed, haunted by the wailing of the betrayed bird.
Once home, he lay down in bed without taking off his clothes. His soul was snuffed; he tried to rekindle it with flames of a distant future. When spring came, he would buy a dozen pullets and a handsome rooster. He’d go pick out a sheepdog puppy who’d live by his side at least twelve, maybe even fifteen years; they’d have an uncomplicated friendship. But a tremor of white wings persisted at his side, ruining his dreams. He would never be able to forget Nelly, neither the silken softness of her neck nor the cowardice he’d proven capable of in order to escape domestic bother. He should have fought to keep the bird’s ardent friendship. Before the night was over, he’d lost all respect for himself.
It had been three days since he’d left the goose defenseless to the wild beasts of the wood. Barnaby pictured, at the end of the rope, nothing but a chewed-over carcass beneath a shroud of bloody feathers. To escape his horrible memory, he awaited with lethal impatience the first signs of spring. But the jewels of the hawthorn branches remained unassuming and sealed against a stubborn north wind that brought violet clouds gorged with snow.
Barnaby was always prowling around the hayloft, his pants pocket misshapen with thick rope. One night, he vanished suddenly into the shadows.
Ballefroid, who’d dropped by with a nice hare, came upon him climbing onto an old barrel, trying to tie the rope around a roof beam.
“Don’t be stupid, Barnaby. You know the rope won’t hold you. You’ll find yourself flat on your ass with a backache.”
“Don’t make me out fatter than I am. Twenty ton trucks use this rope for towing.”
“Maybe. But it’s frayed thinner than a rat’s tail.”
Barnaby examined the rope, letting it slip between his fingers. “It’s not frayed at all! Let me destroy myself in peace!”
“I’d never let you do a thing like that. And for what? A swan of ill repute! Come help me dress this rabbit. It’s a young male I shot so quick he didn’t even see it coming. We’ll have a feast.”
“Like the foxes, badgers, and buzzards? They’re the ones who feasted. Besides, he who lives by the rope dies by the rope… it’s written.”
“If you don’t get down from there right now, I’m going to shoot you in the foot.”
With a sigh, Barnaby abandoned his perch. As he left the loft, he heard the familiar cry. His jaw hanging open, he rubbed his eyes once, then again.
Standing very still before the door to the shed, Nelly fixed the two men with her black pearl of a stare. Barely any mud spattered her plumage. She seemed to glow with health. So she’d come back; after so many days and nights she’d found her way through the briars and swamps. How had she gotten rid of the rope? She’d probably pecked through it patiently.
Barnaby wasn’t undecided about letting himself explode with joy. Of course he was elated at the sight of the bird, but on the other hand, the prospect of sleepless nights, complaining neighbors, and visits from the game warden threw his mind into turmoil. He found himself in that strange state of a man with one foot in happiness and the other in bitterness, who does not know whether to burst out laughing, or into sobs and tears.
“You ask me,” said Ballefroid, “she probably ate the foxes and the buzzards.”
“But what will I do with her?” Barnaby moaned, smacking his forehead with his palm.
“Maybe she’ll be good after the lesson you taught her.”
The poacher was too optimistic. That very night, Nelly was up to her tricks again, and complaints rang out in the neighborhood once more.
And so, one night when the moon lit the slate steeple roof, Barnaby opened his door to the bird at last. Her feet on the tiles of the kitchen floor sounded like soft kisses. And when Nelly crossed the threshold into the bedroom, she took refuge straightaway beneath the quilt.
A mild spring followed the final days of cold. Yet Barnaby’s garden was overgrown with primrose, young nettles, and dandelions. The henhouse in the courtyard remained empty and through the shutters, always drawn, no light fell.
Ballefroid, who spent almost every day in the environs, grew worried by this silence and lethargy. He resolved one day to knock on Barnaby’s door. He had to wait a long time before his friend appeared.
“So,” the poacher said, “you’re just going to lock yourself away now?”
Barnaby took a step forward, into the light of day. His eyes shone like black pearls and his lips, a shockingly orangy color, seemed to lengthen as they moved. A weak, harsh, and nasal sound came out.
“My God,” the poacher shouted, “what the hell’s happened to you?”
His only answer, as he let his cape fall, was to spread two wings broad as a condor’s before closing them again on his flanks where fluttered the infinite pain of earthbound birds.
André-Marcel Adamek (1946-2011) is the pen name of one of Belgium’s finest contemporary storytellers. The author of more than fifteen books of fiction, poetry, and teleplays, he also holds several patents, and has been a cruise ship steward, a toymaker, a paper wholesaler, a goat farmer, an editor, and a ghost writer. His awards include the Prix Jean Macé, the Prix triennal du roman, the Prix du Parlement de la Communauté française, and the Prix Rossel, Belgium’s top literary prize. His sweetly postapocalyptic fable “The Ark” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders.
The winner of the 2010 John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alum Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Conjunctions, and PEN America, among others. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, Lerner, and Self Made Hero. He writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.