Each month we feature a focus on a resident – it might be an interview, a long biography, or a short story from a specific time in a resident’s life. This month, resident Ina Bray’s autobiographical short story “My Gander” is our focus. “My Gander” was originally published in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.
Is it possible to become friends with a gander? To anthropomorphize this feathered creature? War can be a catalyst for wondrous occurrences.
Nazi Germany had annexed our Lithuanian corner of the world, and overnight our surroundings became German. This happened in 1939. I was barely four years old.
It was a painful period for us, the local Lithuanian population. To make room for Germans waiting to be relocated from western Germany, most of the local Lithuanians were forced to leave – leave to Lithuania, leave to whatever country would accept us. Property was confiscated, our livelihood vanished, our language forbidden. The few who were able to remain, my family among them, had become enemies of the German State on our own soil. “Undesirables” we were termed, and that is how we were treated.
Very soon food became a major concern. Germany was preparing for war, rationing was instigated for everybody, and the allotment to us non-Germans was even more limited.
My parents lived outside the city of Klaipeda (Memel in German), on the edge of an endless forest and in a somewhat rural area. That provided certain possibilities to grow our own food. Even though she was a city girl, my mother decided she would try raising geese. She already had some experience with hens, so geese should be no problem. For her, that is.
So, one warm spring day she came back from the farmers market with seven cheeping goslings in her basket. Each the size of a large potato on stilts, a hand-full of golden fluff. Boy-goslings or girl-goslings? Who knows, time would tell.
As the weeks went by and the goslings grew, little white feathers began to replace the golden fuzz, and after some more weeks six full-grown white geese and one grey and white gander were strutting around the back yard. The white geese turned out to be female, the grey and white one – a very male alpha gander who dominated a most docile harem.
To my great chagrin, the gander decided that I represented a threat to his geese. No sooner would I appear in the yard than he would honk making a terrific racket, spread his wings, and nip me wherever he could reach me. By then I was some eight years old, always wearing a dress, so there was lots of leg surface to pinch, resulting in painful blue bruises.
Just running away was useless. With his outstretched wings, instantly he was practically airborne and I had absolutely no chance of evading him. But I had chores, which meant I had to cross the yard: feed the hens and the geese with fodder from the shed; get all these feathered creatures into the chicken coop for the night; in the morning release them; the hens laid eggs, which I had to collect; laundry had to be hung and later taken down; radishes or lettuce or tomatoes from the enclosed garden needed to be harvested.
This darting across the yard to the designated area became more and more of a panicky sprint, so usually I came armed with a stick or two. At times I did succeed when something diverted the gander’s attention, but too often he would get me.
One day, when escape again become impossible, I scampered up a ladder that had been left leaning against the shed. Desperately I scurried up several rungs, and to my utter surprise, the gander did not follow me. He did not even make an attempt, but stayed by the bottom rung and just honked in anger and frustration. But I gleefully watched him from my safe perch. After a while, he must have tired of making such a racket, and just stared at me. I stared back. Minutes and more minutes passed. Finally both of us must have gotten bored with this standoff, and I started talking to him.
I wish I could remember what persuasive words I used. As my feet got more and more tired of holding on to the rung, and my tone of voice began to lose its annoyance and became softer, slowly the gander began to lower his head and waved it slightly back and forth. His sounds turned into a monosyllabic conversation, almost in the same tone as mine.
How long this “dialogue” continued, I don’t remember, but I do remember my legs beginning to shake from my uncomfortable balancing act. After quite some time, ever so slowly and hesitatingly, and still perched up on the ladder, I decided to hold out my hand to him. Would he lunge at it? Neither one of us could have fully trusted the other, but then neither of us retreated. Almost imperceptibly I moved toward him, and ever so tenuously, he allowed me to touch his back! What an unforgettable moment! I held back tears of joy.
But, now what. Will this armistice hold? Slowly I came down to the ground. Nothing happened. No nipping. No honking. No lunging at me. Nothing but gentle goose noises, as if to tell me that all is well. Had his wild aggression really turned into tenderness?
As the days turned into weeks, amazingly, this big bird, this “stupid goose” – or in this case – gander, developed into a most lovable and trusted companion, a friend that I so desperately needed at that time in my life. My Lithuanian playmates were long gone. To the German kids I was the face of the enemy, the whipping boy. Seldom would the girls include me in the tea parties served to their dolls, but some did. For hide and seek, I was rarely chosen. The train ride, or later the walk to school usually was a lonesome trek, but that was easier than the relentless bullying. The sandbox in our backyard, where the high water level provided never-ending building material for castles and canals, stood mostly empty except for me and my much younger brother Alex.
Oh, but what wonders peace can precipitate, even if it’s only with a gander. Now whenever I appeared in the back yard, my gander – I named him “Guzhinas” after the sounds he was making – would almost fly to me and greet me. His snow-white harem was never far behind, and like a Greek chorus, with their gentle chatter would join in in the welcoming. Guzhinas would hear from me about the day’s events, the hurts and the good parts. He was a most sympathetic listener.
Sandbox activities were special to him. His orange beak would try out the little sand cakes that I had lined up on the edge of the box. (I had “baked” them just for him.) His ever-busy beak would look for “fish” in the waters in the moats that I had built. A particularly favorite game for him was to climb up on my back as I was on my hands and knees digging those canals. Once he felt stable on his perch, he would look for buttons on my clothes. His velvety-soft, warm neck would reach around mine, searching and searching, tickling me, then push his beak under my hair, invariably pulling out some strands; or if luck was with him, he would discover a row of buttons on the back of my dress and nibble, nibble one by one, until he had gotten them all off.
Bonded to his harem, to the hens, and now to me, he appointed himself “guard dog” of our yard – very much to the detriment of our visitors or stray animals that came by. His little beak continued to be a daunting and painful weapon.
Yet Guzhinas knew where the boundaries of his domain lay. Our property bordered on a sandy alley beyond our gate, and occasionally he and his geese would go out exploring. A watery ditch at one end of the alley always provided some delicacies, and frequently that was their destination.
If one followed that alley to the right, it ended in a “T”. At that point if one turned left, the path then lead to the train station. Amazingly the geese sensed when we had gone to the city. Usually we returned by the two o’clock train.
It was at this “T” intersection that Guzhinas and harem would position themselves, waiting and watching intently who was approaching. They all remained in formation, Guzhinas in front, all heads held high, beaks slightly raised, on guard, but not threatening. But, as soon as they spotted us at the end of that alley and no one obstructed their passage, it was as if a fire cracker had exploded: instantly a “trumpet” blared recognition, wings spread, little orange feet set in motion, and with a chorus of honking this cloud of white flew toward us. For some hundred feet, this wild exuberance of our flock of geese filled the air. And then, as suddenly as they had burst forth, they stopped, rearranged their wings and their direction, and with gentle chattering guided us home.
This feathered celebration never failed to amuse us and amaze fellow travelers or neighbors. No other welcome home moments in my life came close to being as dramatic and absolutely heart-felt as these greetings by my beloved Guzhinas.
Over the seasons, the size of the harem waxed and waned as Christmas or other events required special dinners. Goslings hatched, and new goose families established themselves, always under the tutelage of Guzhinas.
But, war leaves very few unaffected and in the summer of 1944 the Soviet front was approaching rapidly. To escape the terror there was no choice but to flee to the West, taking only what we could carry. With enormous difficulty, my mother had arranged for some winter clothing, blankets, a stuffed doggie, perhaps some household items to be shipped to friends in the western part of Germany. If possible we would pick up these vital necessities once we had landed somewhere.
And so, late in the afternoon on a summery August day, just hours before our exodus, a truck arrived. All kinds of crates already were stacked on its flatbed with just enough room left for our small wooden box. The commotion in our house was enormous. My father, Juozas Bertulis, had been taken to the front to dig ditches so he was gone. It was my mother who now was packing and preparing, and giving orders; several families that had arrived from Lithuania, scurrying about, getting ready to flee with us. My hands were full as I was the designated babysitter for all the smaller children, and they were constantly under-foot. Visible tension hung in the air. For some days already, the hens were gone to where I did not know, and now I wondered what would happen to my geese. With rising apprehension I kept asking, but nobody would tell me. Nobody.
The sun began to sink behind the forest. The time came for the truck to take off. As all kinds of strangers were milling about, I rushed to watch the final preparations. I ran out the front door and looked at the truck and – my hand flew to my mouth to hold back a scream.
There on the crates, lay the bodies of the geese and that of my Guzhinas. All in a row, as if on display, lifeless bodies on the crates, lifeless bloody heads hanging over the edges. Oh my Guzhinas, my dear and only trusted friend. I still remember being convulsed with sobs, even after the truck had long disappeared down the dusty road, into the early evening shadows.
After that, it no longer mattered where the next morning would take us and what would happen to us then. It no longer mattered what would become of our home, the home that had brought so much anguish in the last years, in the last moments. Boom – boom – boom, the canons thundered in the distance.
I t n o l o n g e r m a t t e r e d…
Ina Bertulyte Bray