My best friend Jenna became Queen of the Geese in college.
This was not a nickname either kind or cruel or arbitrarily granted. This was and is her title which she won in single-dance-combat with the King of the Geese one balmy night at Gazebo Isle on the shores of Radio Springs.
This sounds absurd but I assure you every word I’m about to say is the truth. I know because I was there.
It was the middle of spring. The best time to be in northern Missouri when the nights are just starting to get warm and muggy but not too buggy and magnolias blooming with flowers the size of your face and honeysuckle bushes full of bees from sunup to sunset when, if you were lucky, you might catch a lightning bug or three if the weather was warm enough.
Right at sunset, when the sun was low over the corn and highway, if you watched closely enough you could see spiders making their webs in the tops of the hedges. Spiders with bellies bigger than grapes floating through the air. They would never quite touch the founder of our college; a hundred-twenty years dead and she still did her rounds in the evenings making sure we weren’t out and about up to no good in the twilight. Half-corporeal she was fond of long skirts and stationary — more than once I woke up in short shorts with scratches down my legs from fingernails headed the wrong direction from my hands, had sticky notes come flying at my head from across the room if I put off homework too long.
Our founder minded us well. Taught us the important lessons. The spiders wouldn’t touch her.
Jenna and I didn’t go out right after sunset. Rather, we waited, wished for red wine where we had none, courted nervous breakdowns chasing the promise of final exams. That liminal week before commencement where the halls smelled of cardboard and lilacs, girl sweat and the bitter tang of packing ourselves into the basement for another summer at home. We were, succinctly, a hot mess.
We walked in flip flops and short cotton pajamas down to the lake in the close dark talking about our mothers. They were alike as Jenna and I were alike. Women who did not know how to love themselves and could not fathom why their daughters did not fill the void in their chests for them. Jenna and I grew a little crooked. Complementary. Strong. Strange. The crickets sang and in the dark up the hills bracketing the road leading ever downward toward the lake the deer hummed their quiet music to accompany our conversation. It was always a little like that late at night. None of the wildlife had the sense to sound atonal.
One o’clock in the morning saw us sitting on the low wall that marked the edge of Gazebo Island. Lit orange by a lonely street lamp, grass bridging toward cold with dew that shouldn’t have settled until dawn.
Jenna and I talked about lovers, and the geese began to gather. To listen. We talked about girls and boys. How they betrayed us, how we missed them anyway, how our hearts were eldritch things we did not quite understand but oh how there was so much we could give from them.
I don’t know when it got quiet. When the night insects ceased their music and the deer wandered off to sweeter grass. But I know when we decided it was too late to stay awake any longer, too late to justify the cost of the night spent out of bed at the expense of daylight hours in classes, socializing with those daywalking friends of ours– when we decided that, a goose sat between us and our only route of exit.
He was big. The size of my torso and worth slow roasting for Christmas dinner if you had to have a goose for Christmas dinner. We approached. He stood, feathers puffed in indignation, and gave a single warning flap.
I glanced to my left. Jenna had a look in her eye I couldn’t quite place– it wasn’t befuddlement, it wasn’t discomfort– it was intense and it worried me. She took half a step back.
“Do you want me to scare it off?” The goose was big but, I reasoned, running toward it shouting with my arms outstretched would be sufficient to frighten it off.
Jenna broke eye contact with the goose for just a moment. Shook her head. Declared in the most solemn tone: “Nah, I got this.”
Her posture shifted in a way that I can neither describe nor mimic bodily except to say that it was positively avian. The goose followed suit, bobbing his head in insult, summoning from the water hissing, feathered minions. We were outnumbered. Jenna had no patience for this– she doubled down, returning the insult with gusto, and advanced on the King of Geese.
With undulating, articulated steps in time to a wardrum only she could hear Jenna walked forth and with a mighty honk sent the King of Geese and all his court fleeing across the lake.
We stared after them in silence for no less than half a minute then burst into laughter.
“Does this mean you’re their queen now?”
We were troubled by geese no more on our nighttime adventures to the lake or anywhere else in town. In the act of crowning herself Jenna became known as the Queen of the Geese throughout the county. Geese on campus will nod and bow their respects when she passes to this very day.