There’s a soccer field behind the Big R store in my town of Farmington in the northwest New Mexico desert where the Canada geese always stop as they make their way from the north to somewhere south. The field is a patch of beautiful green grass in the middle of a desert where even the banks of the San Juan River are brown. The geese spend only a short time here. They fold their heads and necks under their wings and look like inert sacks of earth. Then suddenly they are all in the air, very quickly, very high up and in formation.
I pointed them out to my husband, Richard, as we drove by last winter. We pulled over in time to see the sacks of earth grow wings and long necks. He said, “It’s good to see them here.”
“They have a ways to go if they’re going to Mexico.”
“I don’t think they go to Mexico. They’ve begun to over-winter here. The desert is a supportive enough winter climate compared with Canada. But why do you call them Canada geese? Why don’t you say ‘Canadian’ geese? Sometimes you sound like you just got here. You’ve been here over thirty years, Josey.”
“Canadian geese,” I repeated, unconvinced.
As the geese began moving on the field, like newborn birds, he said, “That makes grammatical sense. When you talk, sometimes I just don’t know what you mean.”
I didn’t reply, bristling and doubting myself. I resolved not to say anything at all.
I craned my short neck out the window to see the Canada geese swiftly gathering into a kind of dark moving continent on the field. At the wheel, Richard also watched intently through the windshield for them to begin making distance. When they did, it was an unbelievable sight, always was, this time three birds heaving into the air before they were overwhelmed and swarmed. Then there they were making distance, thinning out, finding one another’s wingtips, small.
They were finding their formation now. Were they making for the warm banks at Berg Park there to stay, or were they mindlessly following instinct season after season to Mexico? Their struggling-to-form inverted V was becoming clear. “Chevron,” Richard corrected me softly as we both continued gazing up at the clear drum skin October sky long after, to anyone else, the sky contained no geese.
As Richard started the car, I felt something I could not put my finger on, neither sad nor hopeful, but if I had to put a name to it, maybe it was grief.
Words really matter, I thought. It’s a luxury to say they don’t. I felt like crying for the cloudless blue sky that contained so little, nothing at all today. The Malaysian languages were all spiced up and infused with diverse Chinese, Malay, English and Tamil words. Being away from that, even after thirty years, was difficult. After thirty years I was as good as I ever could be at anything adopted. I thought I was quite good actually at English, even if I didn’t get words like “chevron.” People didn’t use that word in speech around me, and I didn’t remember seeing it in any recent book or magazine. It was a gas station brand name. It wasn’t important to know words like that, I thought. Also, Canada geese sounded right. Chinese didn’t modify words to use them to define other words, you just put the words close together. I had the urge to move on, if not from the town of Farmington, then to get out of the car and walk a little, but I stayed seated.
Richard and I had been married now for seventeen years, no children because of my uterine fibroids. As we grew older, the absence of children took on weight. It was the weight that came between us, I thought, that made him grow more and more critical of me. But neither children nor the distance between us was on my mind as I watched the invisible geese.
Were they Canada geese or Canadian geese?
Richard pulled the car away from the curb then, picking up speed slowly, advanced up the winding, gently upward climbing side street. There was a 4-way stop sign after which the road climbed steeply if you continued on. If you turned right, you drove on a different winding road that passed beneath very old and shady trees that made you feel nestled in wider woods and not a desert place on the high plateau. He turned onto the shady road. As we drove, the car seemed to gather and dissolve the road’s almost spongy shadows made by thin branches of small starved-looking leaves.
The curving road straightened out, the trees were left behind and we passed short old homes with wide front lawns, all of them screened at their backs by medium sized oaks and pines, except for one home with one headed old oak tree in front that must have been a beauty once, but which was monstrous looking in its present state, its original limbs gone and what looked like ragged broomsticks growing from its limb stumps.
Someone had spent a lot of money to save it from a disease, and must have known that it would be a different tree from now on, a freak of what it was.
Those trees behind the homes fed on irrigation ditches from the Animas and San Juan Rivers, where the Canada geese had gone. The San Juan would flow another thirty miles to the Navajo reservation where it used to flood farms from Shiprock all the way to Utah, but the Federal Corp of Engineers had made a dam that now choked those farms of water.
Maybe Richard was a strange husband for a traditional-minded Malaysian Chinese woman to have. He loved to cook, and had taken over grocery shopping and the kitchen. We never shopped more than two days in advance of any meal because that was how he was raised. He used to nurture my imagination. We would go into the wilderness, and I would feel his hopes for me and for him that couldn’t be put in words. It had to do with an arc of being. It had to do with being in a canyon sometimes, on the reservation or at Simon Canyon, and believing I could hear strings, the gu-zheng, Chinese keyboard lute, and my husband’s open hands and open expression somehow ready to experience the rising of music from the ground.
As we drove down Ute, suddenly a shadow appeared. We saw a bird gliding fast over our car then well ahead of us. It was large with a blue body and I thought not from these parts. It was headed across Ute toward the west side of town, flying low and straight as an arrow just above the wide lawns, disappearing. Richard said, “Looked like a turkey vulture.” I said, “But they don’t come blue.” Then he insisted, “It was a turkey vulture, that blue was a trick of light.”
We turned north on Butler, heavy with traffic for this town. As we turned, sunlight was thrown through my car window. I closed my eyes and dreamed of simply being in sunshine, on foot, my aging body becoming more balanced, my aging mind becoming more displaced, yet balanced too.
Richard pulled into the Smith’s parking lot, half-filled at this time of day. Together we strolled toward the supermarket, then Richard walked on ahead to get a shopping cart and entered the store as I lingered outside, looking for Canadian geese on my phone. What came up on Wikipedia was:
The Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is a large wild goose species with a black head and neck, white patches on the face, and a brown body. Native to arctic and temperate regions of North America, . . . it tends to be found on or close to fresh water. Extremely successful at living in human-altered areas, Canada geese have proven able to establish breeding colonies in urban and cultivated areas, which provide food and few natural predators.
I looked up at the overhead skies and saw them, the Canada geese, moving low now in their chevron formation. A few other people in the parking lot paused to watch them too.