Illustration by Na Kim.
In March 2020 the entire human world was out walking. I, too, was walking, longer and farther than I’d ever gone on foot from my house. When I wasn’t walking, I was watching clips of people walking—of hundreds of thousands of workers laid off in the cities of India and setting out on foot across the country toward home. And I watched clips of people not walking—as in Italy, where, we read, people could not go outside for a month and they stood at their windows and sang. Here in Texas we did not have to walk, but we could if we wanted, and walk we did, everyone out on the street, waving from a distance. I found places near my home I had no idea were there, including a tiny forest a couple of blocks wide, and the Colorado River, which—if I’d ever looked at a map—I would have known was right there.
I had an old dog and a contemplative husband, who was going through a religious conversion of some kind that he didn’t like to talk about but was clearly changing him in ways neither of us understood and that were making him less familiar to me. He was also taking walks, and at first we walked together. After being in our house all day Zooming in to work a few feet apart, we fought in the open air. We fought about his religious conversion or about the terrible things unfolding around the country. Or else about our families far away and what we should do about them. Once he stomped off, near tears. After that we walked alone. One of us would put on our shoes and say, “I’m going for my own private Idaho!” as we’d taken to calling it, after the movie with the actor who had died young long ago when we were also young.
On my walk, I came upon a landing. I had no real experience with that word as a noun: landing, a place where small boats float to shore and humans come greet them and tug them away. It had a tiny pier, a patch of grass, a bench. I began to go to this landing every day, walking the thirty-odd minutes, stepping out onto the pier, and sitting at the end of it. The little pier was so low it felt like you were on the water itself, levitating over it; like the water was moving all around, pulling you out with it. It was still the early days of living in a worldwide panic. Every day I sat and the sun lowered in the sky, turning the ripples into flashes of red and pink and orange, and slowly the river became a dark blue mass. When the old boathouse on the other shore lit up dimly, I got up and walked back to our house through the tall trees, a few giant cockroaches skittering out of the way. I didn’t feel at home in that house or that neighborhood, and I’m not sure where I’ve ever felt at home, other than Chicago, which was gritty, cold, angry—the opposite of this clean city—and where I’d grown up awkward and nervous.
One day, I arrived at the landing to see people scattering, grabbing their belongings and backing away frightened. The landing had been taken over by a wild goose, who was stalking around, honking and chasing the children and dogs. He was as tall as a mailbox, and had an enormous wingspan. His feet made loud flapping sounds on the parking-lot pavement. I tried to meditate on the pier, focusing on the water as I normally did, but the goose was a monster. He came up behind me, hissing, and I hurried away.
He was there the next time I went. And the next.
One day I saw him paddling alongside a few people with rods. He was diving and fishing, and people shooed him away.
One day I saw him trying to sit next to a young couple snuggling on a bench. He tried to scramble up onto it beside them. The couple fled, distraught.
One day I saw him standing beside an old man smoking a cigarette. The goose’s long neck stretched straight up, high and peaceful. The two of them looked like old drinking buddies.
What could I do? Slowly I began to befriend the goose. Goo, I called him, after the Sonic Youth song “My Friend Goo,” which meant so much to many of my generation that we will still sometimes chant in greeting, Goo, Goo, Goo, my friend Goo, like code words.
Now when I went to the landing, I no longer focused on the water. As soon as I arrived, I’d look for Goo in the spot he liked to sit, half-hidden in the branches by the water. I’d call to him, “Goo, hey, Goo,” and something in my voice must have calmed him because instead of marching over looking for a fight, he’d come waddling out, softly honking and purring—because he would purr at you, you see, if he liked you, and Goo came to like me.
We’d go on walks together, pacing the grass around the landing. He pecked and squawked at people. We stopped by the water and he’d urge me toward it. When I demurred, he would give a sort of shrug and dive in. We’d continue along, me walking, Goo swimming and diving under the water for fish and moss. We’d go up and down the length of the landing, calling back and forth. At last he’d lead us to his little corner and he’d hop out and do an elaborate grooming dance, purring at me and getting closer and closer until he was only a couple feet away, running his hard beautiful beak along his feathers, twisting his long neck under his wings, and sometimes getting a little stuck, so he had to wiggle his head free.
We’d walk a little more. He was feisty, the town bully, and I was his sidekick. He’d pick targets, as if to say, See, me and my friend here, we play by the bench on Tuesdays. And seeing as how this is Tuesday … People got very upset. I’d say, “He’s harmless.” I do think he just wanted to make more friends, grow our gang, but they scurried away.
Before I left each night the sun would start to set. We stood together, he and I, on the pier. I looked at him against the water. The ripples captured all the colors of the sunsets and took on their own mysterious colors. And Goo, with his own mysterious iridescent feathers, caught every color at once, tiny rainbows flashing in the gray. He was an African goose, I’d learned from Google: the gray of gray doves, the gray of liquid unpoured concrete, of some rare gray eyes. He was slim and elegant, with orange feet. He had a stripe of soft black running down his neck, and the undersides of his wings were a plushy white. How had he come to be here? I did not know.
Finally I’d say goodbye. He seemed taken enough with the water that he didn’t mind my leaving. I’d walk back under the trees in the coming darkness, the cicadas and crickets singing me home.
I had a brother, who died of cancer many years ago. If he’d been born today, he would likely have been cushioned by a soft blanket of accommodation letters and cool-nerd cred, but when we were growing up he was simply “difficult.” I followed him everywhere, ditched school with him though I was only in first grade. I crocheted him a Doctor Who scarf. He loved to dance, loved clocks and time. As a teen his favorite mode of travel was a high, jubilant skip, which people, including cops, found suspicious. We skulked around in trench coats. Once we tied up the whole apartment, doorknobs, lamps, and table legs, in knots of string (I don’t remember why, but I do recall our father’s rage). He was irrepressible, hilarious. The year before he died, he accidentally set a classroom on fire doing a magic trick, while working as a substitute teacher.
In the weeks after his death, I dreamed he came back to talk to me. I dreamed it three times. The first time, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, the two of us hanging out, like the old days. The second time I asked him if we could keep meeting like this, but he shook his head sadly. In the last dream, our whole family was there. We were standing outside an amusement park. We could see the rides spinning in the sky on the other side of the wall. He was eager to go back in, but we couldn’t go in with him. We were saying goodbye. He took my sister and me aside. “Listen,” he told us, “don’t forget your other brother.”
Other brother? What other brother?
“You have another brother you forgot.”
We forgot our other brother?
I woke, not knowing who the other brother was and having the feeling that I wouldn’t dream of my brother again, and I’d been right.
I’ve looked for my other brother ever since, often mistaking animals and humans and even trees for him. I’ve gone off on long terrible detours to follow someone I thought might be him. If they have just the right quality of difficult, just the right balance of unacceptable to most and delightful to me, my mind blinks Mine. The next thing I know they’re in my apartment, piling up their suitcases, their boxes of papers, their musical instruments, or worse, on my floor.
During the early days of the pandemic, my brother came back to me, walked into my dreams, and said hello.
I thought about my friend Goo all the time. I looked at pictures and videos of him on my phone on the days I couldn’t make it to the landing, all through late summer, then fall, into winter, as the number of deaths from the pandemic rose, surpassing the number of deaths from other historic catastrophes, mass illnesses, wars—war after war, the New York Times announcing each once we’d exceeded it in casualties, alongside a little history lesson about the battles and the brave soldiers who died for their country long ago.
Then, in Texas, we heard there was going to be a freeze—that it was coming, was nearly here, was upon us—but we didn’t know what that meant. My husband and I smiled and recalled the time they’d closed the university for a bit of snow that had melted away in the sunshine by noon.
The temperature dropped and I drove to the landing. I’d never seen it so barren and windy. I was the only person there besides Goo, who came out purring. I poured corn, seeds, and chopped vegetables onto the dirt. I hadn’t brought him food before and now I wondered why I had not, and what he liked and whether he was starving and why the simplest things always seemed to slip past me. But he was totally uninterested, stomping over the corn to reach me. He wanted only for us to take our walk. I wasn’t dressed warmly. Goo seemed not to notice the cold. He made his leap into the water and called to me, and I chattered back. At last, when he was out of the water and grooming, I said my goodbyes and pointed again to the food I had spilled on the ground, which he continued to ignore. I made for my car. He flew into a rage, flapping through the park, honking. When I got into my car he wouldn’t let me leave, first blocking the car and then coming around to the window and poking his head in as I lowered the window to beg him to calm down. He attacked my car, pecking it with his powerful beak, making tiny dents that are still there. I apologized again and again. I drove away, leaving him behind me on the deserted landing. As I looked in my rearview he was running across the lot, wings open, beak forward in a gesture of battle.
My brother went down fast, once he was diagnosed. He was supposed to live for five years. That’s what I thought the doctors had said—five years—but now I know they’d said “Up to five years,” and we’d heard what we wanted. I thought I had five years. It was thirteen weeks from his diagnosis to his death. In the final week, our family was assembled in the hospital room, collapsed in detritus: sweaters and snacks and extra pillows. He was in pain and getting confused as the cancer spread into his liver and brain, crawling through his body and taking over like a horror-movie alien. I recall he tried to stand, saying, “Let’s just get out of here. Call a taxi, call a cab.” He had tubes attached to him and he was trying to pull them out. We were telling him he couldn’t go anywhere, we were trying to calm him down. That was one moment.
I couldn’t get to the landing for ten days. This was the Great Texas Freeze of 2021. The grid failed and whole cities fell dark for a week. No heat, no lights, no internet, then no water. The roads were too icy to get away on, and anyway the gas stations were closed. The world is ending, we thought. I remember my husband outside in the yard in his coat, shoveling snow into a bucket.
When I think of my husband during the first year of the pandemic, I think of him sitting with his head in his hands, crying, because he cried so much. He cried over the people dying; he cried over his religious conversion, over the citizens battling with the police; he cried over our arguments, our new distance from each other during this time—we’d always been so close. For entertainment he watched videos of Donald Trump. It was the only thing that made him laugh. He watched those awful White House COVID press conferences, cackling. He watched Trump’s Facebook videos after the election, the ones with the charts and graphs. He tried to get me to watch with him, but I couldn’t stand it. I hid in the other room.
But during the freeze he was stoic. Our power was flickering, then miraculously stayed on, so he made big pots of food every night, for me and the humans and animals who had come to stay with us, until we ran out of food and our faucets stopped running. Then he got a bucket and went out to fill it with snow.
When at last the temperature rose and the streets began to thaw, I walked to the landing to look for Goo. The air was filled with the buzz of chain saws toppling the trees that had been killed by the ice. The landing was still deserted. The ice crystals on the river reminded me of the freezing lake in Chicago and I felt an anchor of homesickness sink through me. Why had I ever left my beautiful city?
I called to Goo. He didn’t answer. I called again. “Goo!” I yelled. “Hey, Goo!”
He was gone. I stood on the pier and looked out.
I heard a honk. Then another.
Him. He sounded far away, behind me. I left the pier and jogged through the parking lot, then up and down the neighborhood streets, calling to him. The sound of him calling back to me seemed to come from everywhere, echoing and drifting. It seemed to come up from under the earth. I followed it to a parking garage and I stood outside it shouting, “Goo! Goo!” He honked back. I ran in. And there he was, on the basement floor, my silly beautiful friend.
I’m leaving out a lot.
There were other animals at the landing. Ducks, scooting around in little groups on the water. Dogs chasing objects humans had thrown into the water, a game which, though I knew better, always seemed mean. There were two Egyptian geese who showed up before the freeze and reappeared after. Strange-looking and unfriendly, but dazzling. Goo ignored them like they were stones, but one day after the freeze I brought corn, which he still disdained, and the Egyptian geese came swimming up. They hopped out of the water and ran over. They stood there, gobbling and honking in appreciation. They hung around for a few weeks. One disappeared. Then the other.
I loved only Goo.
It was after the freeze that I finally touched him. I got down on the ground and beckoned. He came dancing over and let me stroke his long neck, his soft wings.
There was another moment. It was the day before my brother died, though we thought we still had another week. Or at least five days. The family was gathered around him, petting him, the way one does—Mom, Dad, sister, me. Grandmother over on the hard hospital sofa. He couldn’t talk much anymore, beyond a few words. He did a strange thing. He took our hands and tugged them toward him and then put them into each other’s hands. He took my hand and put it into my sister’s. He took our mother’s and put it into my mine. He took my sister’s and put it into our father’s. He sped up, moving our hands into one another’s and taking them out again quickly. Mom’s into Dad’s, Dad’s into mine, my sister’s into Mom’s, back and forth, arms crossing over and under, weaving, webbing. It went on and on, him making dissatisfied sighs and sounds and gestures as he worked, like he was trying to get it right, like he was making an arrangement with our hands, drawing a picture with our arms, recreating what he saw in his mind, like we were his art piece, and that art piece was us: hands joined but in constant motion, reaching, grasping, holding on, letting go.
At last, he sank onto the bed. He turned his head to our grandmother, still on the sofa, as witness. He said his last word.
We always did love our grandmother so much.
One more thing happened. It was March 2021, a few days before the anniversary of my brother’s death. I had been coming to the landing for a year. I’d gotten into the habit of stretching my arms out and stroking Goo for a moment before I left, never getting too close. I know now that this was a mistake, that I was teaching Goo that he could touch humans. I saw him try to play with them and I reassured them, but they fled, hiding their children behind them. I recall one poor girl whom Goo was adorably pecking. “He just wants to be petted,” I said, but she was frozen in terror, gasping. “I don’t know how to pet a goose,” she whispered.
That day in March, I was sitting on the ground, as was my custom. Goo began to walk around me in circles. He swept his huge wing over me so that I had to duck. He twirled behind my back, then spun around and settled at my feet. He hopped up and twirled around me again, cooing and purring, his wing crossing my face. At one point he lay his long neck and head over my shoulders, then he flapped away, honking. This all lasted maybe ninety seconds, and I went home, singing in my head, Goo, Goo, Goo.
The next time I went to the landing, he wasn’t there. That happened once in a while, but I went back the next day and the next, and couldn’t find him. Goo, my friend, a refugee stranded among humans, had disappeared. I asked people on the landing if they’d seen a goose and they shook their heads. Had someone called Animal Control on an aggressive goose out there attacking people? I went back day after day. The corner where he liked to sit stayed empty.
As the days passed, I wandered out onto the pier, looking at the water. When I turned to look back at the landing, it seemed different. Shaved grass, cement, strangers, SUVs hauling motor boats and Jet Skis. There were more cars on the streets, more noise. But, strangely, spring had come, exultant, haphazard as always. All that had died in the storm was returning, bursting from the ground in uneven stalks, growing inches a day, as if to make up for lost time.
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, including the novel Barn 8 and the story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance. She is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
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