Maya Schenwar


Maya Schenwar is a writer, journalist and editor of the news website Truthout. Her journalistic work has been published in Truthout, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and others. She lives in Chicago, and is working on a book about the effect of prison on families and communities, which will be released in November with Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Barnacle Goose

Anastasia had been Carolyn's only friend at the office, and maybe her only true friend anywhere. So, after she died a month ago, Carolyn began to read online encyclopedia entries at an astounding rate. She now knew the capitals of all the countries in Africa and northern Europe, and the intimate details of the lives of the major figures of the House of Plantagenet, and that a wildebeest was the same as a gnu.

Lately, she had been reading a lot about Greenland. It wasn't that property values were predicted to rise exponentially, like the sea levels, or because although the Barnacle Goose made its permanent home in Greenland and wintered in the UK, once in a great while a very lucky Illinoisan could spot one in a backyard or ambling beside the road. (These were things she told coworkers who noticed the Greenland tourism website on her computer screen and asked her why.) It was, rather, because the suicide rate in Greenland was now the highest in the world—an incredible statistic, considering no suicides had been reported there before 1960. The "suicide epidemic" began in 1970, Carolyn read. Researchers linked it to the assimilation of the island into modern Danish ways, the loss of the lifestyles that allowed Greenlanders to forge meaningful lives out of the permafrost.

But the story of the suicides, Carolyn thought, might also be one of melting. As the ice turned to icy water, the dogsleds spun off their trails, the hunters came home empty-handed, the huskies grew sad. Every day, the great frozen mountains loomed a little lower in the distance. Carolyn thought of what it would be like to see your home drooping all around you, growing soggier and grayer by the year.

She thought briefly of saving up for a trip, but it'd likely add up to more than $3,000, and you could only fly in from Nunavut, Canada, which required three additional flights. The whole ordeal—much of it carried out on small, feeble-looking planes and in near-empty airports—just made Carolyn want to take a nap, not in Greenland, but here in Central Illinois, in the office building where she'd worked as an editor for a discount publishing company for the past five years. She could always take a nap.

In the early days, both in their late 20s and still mildly thrilled by disobedience, Carolyn and Anastasia used to stake out empty rooms in the building where they could take catnaps. When one went in, the other would keep an eye on the door and create a diversion if any of the senior editors crept too close. There was not much to do besides nap, anyway—the bargain books sections of grocery stores were not an expanding market—but the department managers still preferred that you sit in your cubicle and appear as if you were working. The company needed to maintain the façade of its own necessity; Carolyn and Anastasia understood that, and plus, it gave the pursuit of a midday nap a sense of shimmery, quiet adventure.

"Do you think we'd need this much sleep if we were doing something we liked to do?" Anastasia was in the habit of asking.

"We'd probably need more," Carolyn would say, "since we would be using energy. But maybe we would sleep at night."

(Before the advent of artificial light, Carolyn had learned from the online encyclopedia, people slept intermittently over a 14-hour period, rising in the middle of the night for inner contemplation and, sometimes, shadowy escapades.)

After a couple of the other mid-level editors noticed the Greenland-related windows on Carolyn's monitor, it became a popular discussion topic in the cafeteria.

"Did you know the Vikings called Greenland Greenland because they were hoping to attract settlers?" asked Holly Sheinberg, who had previously owned a kosher bakery named Holly's Chally, though Holly sounded like such a Christian name. "Iceland is really the green one. That's the joke of it."

This was old news to Carolyn.

"Don't go to Greenland with your one vacation," said Peter, who everyone had a crush on. "You'll get there and after five minutes you'll be like, OK, this is Greenland. And then you'll be stuck, and you won't be able to go to Hawaii, or Wisconsin Dells, or something."

Carolyn liked to think that Anastasia would have understood about Greenland. This was probably not true: Anastasia liked the things that most people liked—beaches, romantic comedies, s'mores, social media, generous dosages of mood-enhancing prescription drugs. Wisconsin Dells. (Carolyn had never warmed up to s'mores; it was the texture, the simultaneous crispiness and oozing. She thought of internal organs and bones.)

It was OK that her coworkers were making fun of Greenland, though. It was better than the other things they were saying to her: "Are you OK?" "Let me know if you need anything." "I know how close you two were." "Day by day!"

Relocating to Greenland would be a good identifier if she ever left the office, Carolyn thought. "Which one was Carolyn, again?" "Oh, she was the quiet one that moved to Greenland."

The weekend before Thanksgiving, a week before she did it, Anastasia checked herself into the psych ward at St. Andrews hospital. To get to the psych ward, you had to take a special private elevator at the end of three narrow corridors, with an elevator man who stared at the ground the whole ride up.

Carolyn had visited every day. Anastasia's room was strikingly small and smelled like Lysol. The first time, rushing in after work, Carolyn had been caught off guard by how little space Anastasia took up, her tall wiry frame folded onto a plastic chair in the corner, head on her knees, hands gripping the armrest so the blue knuckles looked like pebbles engraved into each finger.

"Hi there! No lamp, huh?" Carolyn said chattily. She knew Anastasia despised fluorescent lighting; it was one of the reasons she'd always cited for hating their office, and all offices, and public buildings in general.

"People probably use lamps to kill themselves," Anastasia responded, muffled. "They use all kinds of things." She raised her eyes, scanning the space behind Carolyn's head.

"What have you been doing?" Carolyn tried. "I think they have aerobics classes here." Her voice sounded like it was on the radio. It was a voice that didn’t expect a response. She waited minutes.

"Did you know that the Moon was formed when a giant, planet-like body crashed into the Earth’s surface and blasted off millions of chunks, which then coalesced to create the Moon, much like a planetary Adam’s rib?" Carolyn asked. "I learned that on the internet today at work."

"Huh," said Anastasia.

"We miss you there," Carolyn said.

"You miss me."

"I do."

"No one else has visited, Car," Anastasia said. "Not even my parents."

"Do they even know you're here?"

Anastasia looked away, her eyes flicking between the wall and the floor. "I want to throw up," she said, slow and barely audible, leaving her mouth open afterwards.

"A sentence!" Carolyn said, ridiculously.

Anastasia spent five days in the ward and then checked herself out. "I think it worked," she told Carolyn over the phone, the fourth word trailing off, its final consonant lost. She had a new medication, with a name that sounded like a supermodel-endorsed perfume from the future.

After it happened, there was a lot of commotion at work. Though she wasn't experienced in suicide aftermaths, Carolyn had thought it would be a hush-hush kind of thing. But their floor had gathered at noon in the conference room. Miniature submarine sandwiches were ordered (Carolyn noticed that this time there were plenty of vegetarian sandwiches for her; usually they forgot), and they raised their hands in turn and shared memories of Anastasia.

"I remember her laughter," said Holly, who had probably never spoken to Anastasia. "It just sort of echoed around the cafeteria. I'm going to miss that."

"She was a free spirit," said Liza, the receptionist, who set out the worst kinds of candy in a plastic dish on her desk and cast disapproving glances at anyone who took some. She did not elaborate.

"Anastasia was one of my favorites," Peter proclaimed. This had been true until recently—Peter was one of the few guys in the office who was taller than Anastasia, and they'd flirted in the hallway next to the row of stout printers that resided along the office's eastern wall. (Anastasia confessed that when she was bored, she timed her trips to the printer around his, glimpsing his head of artfully disheveled curls bobbing along the top of her cubicle wall; he was the only person whose head was so high off the ground.) But the hallway dalliances had waned when Alinda, an even taller editor with stylish glasses and lip gloss the color of shortbread, had moved into a cubicle in closer proximity to the printer station.

"That girl had a way with the toaster oven," said Patsy, their boss, a 72-year-old litigator-turned-cookbook-editor who'd grown up in Georgia and retained her accent, probably by choice. Carolyn liked that one the best.

Carolyn passed when her turn came. To her credit, so did Alinda.

Liza suggested purchasing an oversized sympathy card for Anastasia's parents, so everyone on the floor could sign it. Everyone agreed it was the right thing to do.

For the past month, Carolyn had avoided lunchtime chatter and hollow lunchtime silences by packing leftovers that didn't need reheating and eating them in the parking lot of a different building. She'd slip out the back exit around 12:02 and zigzag past the other seven near-identical buildings in the corporate park. Her favorite was the last in the back, belonging to a statistics company populated by harried-looking people with neat beards. Among the nine buildings in the park, this one had the finest exterior, a distinguished dark gray trimmed with silver, shrouded in nicely sculpted forsythia bushes that shielded it from the other buildings' pimpled, cottage-cheese white. Behind this building, a swarm of geese often clustered. Carolyn would toss bits of her leftovers to the geese, then sit down on the icy concrete, on a pile of unhelpful napkins, to eat the rest. (Come on, weirdo, Anastasia would have said, with a kind smile. I can't believe I'm suggesting this, but if you're going to eat lunch alone, wouldn't it be better to just eat in your cube?) The statistics company had a good name: Salve, Inc. Carolyn had no idea what it had to do with statistics.

Now that she was alone, she spent a lot of time thinking about the reasons for things—this was, most likely, the inspiration for the first few long stints of online-encyclopedia wandering. Maybe it had started with Anastasia: When her depression had set in ("re-emerged," Anastasia called it, explaining that it visited on a reliable seven-year cycle, like a very generously spaced menstrual period), Carolyn, who had never been a particularly science-minded individual, set about looking for origins.

First, she wondered, was it simply the mechanic rituals of comma-placing, double-spell-checking, sentence-splitting? Was it their job's unfettered lack of soul, a lived parody of the proposition that life might have some inherent meaning?

"No," Anastasia had told her. "I like the commas. Most people don't have jobs that affirm the meaning of life, and it seems like they're doing OK."

"Most people?" Carolyn had asked. "Most people are doing OK?" They were sitting on Anastasia's couch, eating—or rather, Carolyn was eating—strawberry ice cream that she'd brought over to cheer Anastasia up. Almost annoyingly, even at her worst, Anastasia jogged daily and avoided most sweets, eating well-balanced breakfasts, lunches, and early dinners.

Anastasia shrugged. She was facing forward, watching the dusty TV, which was off. "Seems like it."

"Well, they're not," Carolyn said.

How about the lack of variety in her non-work activity, Carolyn wondered? A predictable rotation of exercise, online dating, TV, romance novels, a few isolated friends that had each adhered themselves to her at a different phase of life and now wanted to get coffee or catch a movie twice a month?

"Also normal," Anastasia said. "You're not going to solve it, Car. It's just a thing I get. Like some people have allergies."

"There's not something deep down?" Carolyn had asked, more than once, though it felt like a question for a five-year-old. "You really, really don't want to see someone?"

"I already know what they're going to say. And we've got shitty insurance. And therapy is boring. I'll go if it gets really bad."

After a while, Carolyn was just skulking around Anastasia's apartment, watching reruns on television, eating Anastasia's food, waiting for that benchmark—the "really bad" that would bring the change.

In Greenland, she had learned since, it would have been different: Even if you were eventually going to kill yourself, you’d at least have been offered a full menu of treatment options courtesy of the Danish government, and been subject to a variety of awareness campaigns and a widely publicized national suicide hotline, as well as the constant reminder of your potential future imparted by the sight of wooden crosses—frail graves, striking in their homogeneity—that occupied not only cemeteries, but also the sides of footpaths, the spaces between houses. At least the reasons might have presented themselves more clearly, so the people left behind had something to latch onto, a concrete point of departure for their obsessive, mind-wrenching sadness.

Maybe that wasn't true at all.

"You can't dig it up and pull it out," Anastasia explained that day on the couch, in a supercilious monotone, a timbre Carolyn hadn't heard before the re-emerged depression. "It's just a fact. The depression. A fact like The Depression."

It was a terrible simile, but no one was in the mood for rhetorical commentary. Carolyn finished the ice cream all by herself, methodically, without even developing a stomachache, while Anastasia looked on, eating at her knuckles. Anastasia had recently picked up this habit of chewing the skin on her hands—not the cuticles, the obvious pick, but her upper knuckles and the emergent wrinkles at the bottom of her thumb and the side of her pinky. She was giving herself new wrinkles, systematically accelerating the aging process for those isolated squares of skin. It gave her, she told Carolyn in an atypically self-reflective disclosure, a weird sense of control. Carolyn presented her with several purse-size bottles of scented lotion, before she realized it was pointless.

Things changed abruptly, though, after Veterans' Day. Carolyn had been to Iowa to see her parents, and she drove the two hours back early Monday morning and got to work late, quietly shuffling in through the freight entrance, into the musty, curmudgeonly stockroom and past the bathroom, where winsome Peter stood listening to Alinda recount her trip to a vintage record store on the outskirts of town. "You have to look on the insides of the covers," Alinda was saying. "Sometimes there are the most fascinating inscriptions."

Carolyn paused at Anastasia's desk. She was surprised to see that Anastasia quite noticeably had not brushed her hair, and it hung in chestnut clumps, stray pieces poking out at odd angles. She didn't say hello, just glanced briefly up at Carolyn with crimson-rimmed eyes and pushed a tear around her desk with a chewed-up fingertip.

In the few days that followed, before the hospital, Anastasia came to work but didn't leave her cubicle. She avoided the bathroom and the cafeteria, skipping coffee and even water. Carolyn would wheel a chair into her cubicle and ask hushed questions, but Anastasia could hardly utter a full sentence without her voice crumbling chalkily.

So Carolyn came over after work and stood while Anastasia sat, stroking her friend's hair, even though Anastasia had never been one for physical nurturing. She squirmed, but kept her head relatively still, as if out of politeness, some fragile vestige of her previous tendency toward social graces.

"Is this what really bad looks like?" Carolyn finally asked. She stopped stroking. Anastasia kept her head in place.

They sat and stood in silence. Carolyn listened to the faint ticking of Anastasia's grandmother's wristwatch, which encircled Anastasia's pulse. She listened until she felt she could not stand one more tick.

"I'm going to go to the bathroom," Carolyn said, handing Anastasia a pen from her purse and snatching a sheet of paper from the printer hunched melancholically in the corner of the room. "While I'm in there, why don't you write it down. What you're thinking."

Carolyn backed into the bathroom and closed the door. Shameful thoughts descended on her like sudden sleet. What would she be doing right now if she'd befriended a different officemate on her first day, sitting around the conference table while they waited for often-tardy Patsy to show? What if it had been Holly who'd complimented Carolyn's mediocre bracelet and smiled encouragingly when she described the shop in Chicago where she'd bought it years ago, before she moved here for English grad school, dropped out, and stayed? If it had been Holly's cubicle she'd lurked outside for more than a minute later that day, before poking her head in and tentatively asking about lunch? If it had been Holly who’d invited her to see a bland, easy romance movie the following Saturday, and then tried good-naturedly to explain its merits over diluted martinis? And if it had been Holly, would Carolyn still be 32 and single for the past four years, her life pulled taut and sore, thrown this way and that by the psychological vicissitudes of this one person, selected almost at random?

Sometimes it seemed like this, Carolyn thought, leaning against the cool tiles of the bathroom wall: At a certain point you chose—I want this life and not this other one—and then the years behind you shriveled like frozen peas swept into a corner; all attempts at revival would inevitably fail. She wondered briefly if her long-term memory was evaporating. It had been awhile since she'd unearthed a forgotten childhood adventure. Maybe this was because she was watching more television at Anastasia's place, filling her body with other people's memories, other people's concoctions of the memories of people they'd imagined into Anastasia's living room. This was a sad thought, but perhaps at a different time, this breaking down of the singleness and boundedness of the individual ego would have dampened her terror of nonexistence. Did Anastasia have that conscious terror? Carolyn wondered. Or had The Depression simply done away with it, like winter banished the fear of a heat wave?

But then Carolyn was opening the door, tiptoeing to the corner of the couch, placing a hand on Anastasia's shoulder, bending down. Anastasia had not written a word, but she had drawn a picture. It was of her own face: the small and careful mouth, the faint freckles, the soft crescents of her eyebrows, even the stray hairs poking out the sides of her listless ponytail. It was spare but magnetic; the ovals of the eyes, pupil-less, seemed to pull in the air around them. Carolyn put a fingertip on one.

"I didn't know you could draw," she said. "How come I didn't know that?"

Anastasia turned and looked her in the eye, a smile sparking at the corners of her mouth. "Your finger's in my eye!" she said, giggling. "Ouch!"

Carolyn started laughing, too, because it was hilarious—who draws a mesmerizing, nuanced portrait of herself in three minutes, with no prior warning of her artistic prowess, after four years of best-friendship?

"Are you a tightrope walker, too?" Carolyn giggled. "Are you a renowned stamp collector? Do you make perfect soufflés?"

"Soufflés!" Anastasia howled. "That's great—soufflés!"

They laughed and laughed. Tears cascaded down Anastasia's pink cheeks. She actually slapped her thigh. And when Carolyn's laughter faded, Anastasia was still going strong, her guffaws big and hearty, intermingled with joyous gasps and exclamations. They seemed to overlap each other, like a sitcom laugh track: a cluster of voices united in chuckling harmony. Anastasia finished it off with a round of triumphant hiccups.

"I think what you needed was a good laugh," Carolyn nodded, smiling and rising, retrieving the pen and picking up her purse. "Sometimes, that's just the ticket." Had she ever said "just the ticket?" It was exactly the right thing to say.

She left with a warm hug—Anastasia hugged back with gusto, still hiccupping—and promises to call the next morning.

Carolyn slept with the phone tucked against her cheek. At 7:25 a.m., it vibrated, jerking her awake.

"I'm in the hospital," Anastasia said. "You were right about really bad."

And a week later, the morning call was from Anastasia's mother. Carolyn had been dreaming uncomfortably: She was in preschool, sitting round the sharing circle with the other toddlers, singing ten-word songs that involved clapping your hands and sticking out your tongue. She was wearing her printed overalls and her favorite pink sneakers and her hair in two pert pigtails springing out the sides of her head—but she was her now self, her adult self, amid the children, and, devastatingly, she knew it the whole time. It was a dream she had started interpreting even before she woke.

Carolyn had never heard Anastasia's mother's voice before, but she'd imagined her as soft-spoken, with compassionate eyes, a wearer of twin-set sweaters and quietly expensive suede shoes: a person who would weep understatedly and convey the news barely audibly and rush to hang up and nurse her grief alone in an afghan-covered armchair. But this phone call was a siren, a battle cry. Anastasia's mother was not sobbing but screaming. It was like a second dream—Carolyn closed her eyes and she was still in her toddler clothes and pigtails, hearing the story in short, vociferous bursts. It had been pills—the new, supermodel pills—and Anastasia had called the paramedics herself, but too late, and the funeral would be a real funeral and not a sunny "memorial" of Anastasia's life, because this shouldn't have been a life to look back on now, it should have kept going, this was not a thing to celebrate, and then the great long wordless scream returned.

Carolyn wanted to join her, to agree with the scream. But her own throat had closed up like a mollusk.

Finally, she managed to whisper, "Is the funeral soon? When is the funeral?"

The scream tapered off and Anastasia's mother drew an enormous breath.

"Sunday," she said brusquely, as if she'd said it a thousand times already. "Sunday, Sunday, the funeral is Sunday." She would call back with the time and location. It would be a graveside funeral, and Carolyn should tell anyone else who might want to come—in four days, on Sunday.

Carolyn brought Anastasia's self-portrait to the funeral, but when she met her parents—briefly hugging them, not having anything to say—she'd kept it folded in her pocket, a functionless memento, not old or sweet enough to evoke nostalgia.

Alinda and Peter and Holly and four or five others from work were hovering round, and when they saw her, each in turn rushed forward and embraced her carefully yet tightly, as if they planned to care for her in the following days and months of sorrow.

"You OK, honey?" Patsy kept asking. "You OK, sweetie? Come here, sweetie."

Arms wrapped themselves around her as the priest intoned and the mourners bowed their heads and closed their eyes. People were rocking her. Alinda was actually saying, "There, there." Carolyn kept her eyes on their feet, their clean, shiny black shoes.

While clasping her hands, Peter offered, "It seems like you'll always feel this way, but you won't always feel this way. Little by little. You'll see."

Holly had baked a batch of tiny muffins for Carolyn, and she pressed the tin into her hands.

"Anything you need," she said, "just let me know. My aunt died last month. I know how it is. I'll be here."

Though she knew that Holly didn't mean it, that none of them meant it, that they'd all go home or to a dive diner and change back into brighter clothing and tuck Anastasia away into an insignificant corner of their memory, Carolyn let herself believe it for the time being.

In a way, Peter was right; she did not continue feeling entirely the way she had felt at the funeral. A month later, she had started to wake up frequently in the middle of the night, pulsing with nightmares she could not remember, her mind racing with facts: Queen Anne of Britain died childless after no less than 17 pregnancies. The phrase "hot dog" dated back to a 19th century suspicion that sausages often contained dog meat. The walrus (or rustngr, in Greenlandic) was the only living species in the Odobenidae family. In back of the Salve, Inc. building, she cried openly, relishing the starkness of the sound against the near-silent background of the parking lot. But she did start saying hi to her coworkers in the hallway again. She was no longer using the office printer to print out tall stacks of online encyclopedia entries.

Today, the heat in the office was turned up abnormally high, and people had taken off their sweaters and arranged them around the shoulders of their chairs so that they wouldn't wrinkle. The temperature supplied a ready topic of hallway conversation, and Carolyn even paused to listen on her way to the bathroom.

"I wish I could take a little of this hot air and bottle it up to bring back to my freezing apartment," Alinda was saying. She had apparently been wearing only a tiny beige camisole under the sweater she had shed, and as she gesticulated, Carolyn, from five inches below, could see that she hadn't shaved her armpits in about a week. Unlike the glistening sunflower-yellow hair on Alinda's head, the hairs sprouting from her armpit were thick and brown. This made Carolyn feel a little bit better.

"My place is cold, too," she offered. "I've been wearing my coat to bed."

"Oh honey!" said Patsy. "You should come over to my house. We've got a fireplace. Nothing can ever quite replace a fireplace. And hot apple cider."

"Yeah, true," Carolyn replied. This was the problem with temperature-based conversations: You usually had to chime in with a solid anecdote to keep them going, and Carolyn's mind was already trotting off to Salve, Inc. and the geese, and lunch in a half hour. She hoped the geese hadn't grown dependent on her sandwich crumbs over the past few weeks. Should they have departed for New Orleans or Guatemala by now? Patsy picked the thread back up again, since she was the better conversationalist.

"It's darn near zero out there, with wind chill—how 'bout that global warming, huh?" Patsy was the only Republican in the office, but she was so kind that everyone indulged her.

"Mmm hmmm," chorused Alinda and Carolyn. Alinda turned and shot her a split-second smile. This was something!

When Carolyn arrived at the back of the Salve, Inc. lot that day, she saw nothing but cars and ice. She set her lunch down on the pavement and did a solemn lap. A couple of churlish pigeons picked through each other's feathers atop the building. (Pigeons liked rooftops because, back in Asia, they were originally cliff-dwelling birds.) A hoary, grimacing statistician clutching a black briefcase hobbled out of Salve, Inc.'s front door, a yard or two away from Carolyn. She nodded a greeting at the side of his face.

"Any idea where the parking lot geese have gone?" she heard herself say. He lowered his head in her direction, and his spectacles slid down his nose a bit. For a moment, it looked as though he might disclose a never-before-heard waterfowl-related secret.

"Better they've left," he said, dispiritedly. "Geese consume up to five pounds of grass per day. That's 1,825 pounds of grass per year. And that's only one goose!"

"But they do mate for life," Carolyn said.

"That's beside the point." He shook his head and hurried away, exclaiming, "Ten geese: 18,250 pounds of grass per year!"

Carolyn returned to the back lot and bent over her lunch, realizing it was practically useless. She'd packed five pieces of seed-filled bread and a couple of stale corn tortillas: goose food. (Now maybe you'll start packing real sandwiches and eating in the cafeteria? Anastasia suggested brightly, in her head. Interact with some normal humans? Get a little protein and calcium in your mouth?)

Carolyn sat down on her napkin pile, wrapped her thick-jacketed arms around her knees and stuck her nose between them to warm it. She nestled her head down further to cover her ears, closed her eyes and listened to her breath moving in and out, thunderous, mingling with the wind. What would do it, she wondered: Would the turning of the season—the shrinking of the ice—send her soaring into a slew of increasingly more heartfelt weather-based conversations in the cafeteria and bathroom corridor, until Alinda or Holly or even Patsy issued a plausible invitation for a drink or a lunchtime walk? Would the revenant of Anastasia then, shyly, many days and pounds of goose grass later, slide away into the nether stockrooms of Carolyn's mind? She let her white, numbing fingertips graze the jagged ice beyond her napkin pile, and tried to conjure forth thoughts like: Why should she not finish her Masters degree and thus terminate the ostensible reason for lingering in this town—the reason that was not Anastasia? Why should she not then proceed to become a person perched in the thinly strung web of the "job market," mobile by necessity, probably destined for a bumpy-but-ultimately-satisfactory relocation of 100 miles or more?

She shifted her posture ever so slightly in the direction of rising to claim one of these futures. But something froze her: a solitary honk. The honk was followed by an insistent flapping of feathers and a lighter, more tentative honk, a honk that was a question. Carolyn raised her nose above her knees.

The goose that met her gaze was not like its predecessors. Its neck and breast were a shimmering black, smooth as polished stone. Its face shone white, a moon rising against the pavement. Carolyn stared into the beads of its eyes. She suppressed a peculiar urge to say something. There was no doubt here; she could visualize the online encyclopedia's photo as clearly as she could see the goose before her. This was a Barnacle Goose.

Facts came spilling forth unsummoned: The species typically wintered in Western Europe, though strays sometimes surfaced on the northeastern seaboard of the United States, and, on very rare occasions, the Midwest. This visitor was practically unfathomable. Perhaps it had escaped from an unfriendly Illinoisan bird collector. But there was no denying that the Barnacle Goose summered—and made its breeding grounds and permanent home—in Greenland.

To feed such a goose seemed beneath it. So Carolyn stood and left her slices of seed bread lying on the ground, a subtle offering. The goose ignored it. It cocked its head slightly as if in challenge. Carolyn turned and walked slowly away, throwing a glance over her shoulder every few seconds. The goose followed, its carriage utterly balanced, modest yet dignified. Carolyn wound her way back across the nine lots.

At last, they were standing before her building's front doors. Carolyn was conscious that a great deal of time had passed. She'd been walking slowly, sitting slowly. She didn't know how long she'd been staring into the Greenlandic goose's eyes. She thought of the stolen naps she'd taken as Anastasia stood watch—how time had elapsed so effortlessly, her surroundings shedding their significance like so many dead skin cells.

She squatted on the curb in front of the building, and the Barnacle Goose walked a languorous circle around her, its wings lying still. And for just a moment, Carolyn thought she might comprehend how the Earth felt, hugged at a comforting distance by its small and trusted moon. As long as the moon revolved, the Earth was assured of its own existence, riding along nestled in its designated place in the universe, necessary for the business of another who, without it, might go spinning off into the wilds of the galaxy, whirling maniacally until it happened to stumble into another's orbit, perhaps at random, perhaps to its fiery detriment—or, maybe, into a place of rare new love.

She knew how the Moon felt, too, carrying on with its customary rotations and revolutions, dodging the occasional meteor, but always still gazing out into the cosmic forever: its traps and its tentacles, its sordid kidnappings, its playful and grave competitions, its infinite brightnesses, and its relentless bustle of birth and galactic annihilation and all the unbearable, spectacular things in between.