The Christmas Goose

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England, 1944

The train car jolted heavily as the train pulled into the village station. It was December 24th, 1944. The Second World War had been ravaging the English countryside for the past four years. Even such small little towns as this could not quite hide the devastating effects of the strife.

The nearby woods were filled with trees long stripped of their autumn leaves, and in some places where the snow was not so heavy, thin blades of withered grass peeped out from beneath the fallen snow.

The Watsons owned a cabin in the woods, but the children’s father, Guy Watson, worked in town, lodging with an acquaintance to spare the expense of commuting to work via the train. He was a clerk for the Benton Banking Company. However, due to the massive funds needed to support the war effort, the branch in which he was employed was falling behind in its ledgers. The bank’s manager, Clarence Benton, said that if decent capital did not catch them up soon, the bank would be forced to close.

That was why Donna was traveling with the Watsons. She was a close friend of Guy’s wife, Hannah, and was like a second mother to the children. With hard times growing steadily worse, Hannah was often in need of Donna’s encouragement and comfort.

Hannah and the children were going to visit Guy before continuing on to the cabin. The next train was scheduled to leave at 11:45am, two hours’ time. As Donna stepped down from the train, she turned and noticed two men standing at the end of the platform. She recognized them instantly: Will Bates, a young man studying to be an army medic, soon to be sent to the warfront, and Alan Striver, an American soldier wounded in combat who was unable to fight any longer. A machine gun had laced his right leg with bullets and the doctors said it was unlikely that he would ever walk properly again.

Promising she would join them again at the station, Donna left the Watsons and hurried toward her two friends. She had known Will for many years, but Alan she had met that spring when his platoon encamped on English soil before crossing the channel to fight the Germans in France. Both had fallen in love shortly after their first meeting, but Alan wanted to wait until he returned before officially proposing.

As she observed his tall form leaning rigidly against his cane, Donna sighed inwardly. The horrors of war had affected Alan. He hadn’t been the same ever since he was sent back among the wounded soldiers. She tried to be cheerful, tried to coax the Alan she knew out of his cold mask, but it was no use. Sometimes, she wondered if he was the same man she had fallen in love with.

Both men turned at the sound of her approach. Will greeted her warmly, but Alan only nodded, a corner of his mouth curling very slightly before straightening again. All three walked together from the platform into the nearby fields. A heavy snowfall had covered the fields in a thick carpet of white, and the hardened snow crunched loudly beneath their shoes.

To make up for Alan’s silence, Will inquired how Donna was faring. She told them of the Watsons’ predicament, adding how she wished there was something she could do to help them. As she was lamenting their troubles, Alan sighed and shook his head, but said nothing. Will was very sympathetic to their plight and promised Donna that he would help where he could until he was sent overseas.

Alan walked a little ahead of his companions, shuffling painfully on his healthy leg and trailing his wounded one along the ground. Donna permitted a sigh of pity to escape her. Soft though it was, Will heard it. He looked down at Donna with a smile.

“Well, never mind these wearisome thoughts,” he said cheerfully. “Christmas is a season of joy. This is the time for the Lord to send His angels to all those in need, bringing peace on earth and good will to men.”

“Or perhaps He’ll send the Christmas Goose,” Donna smiled.

“The Christmas Goose?” Will laughed. “Why, for our dinner?”

“Haven’t you heard the tale?” she asked. “It’s a story that’s been passed down in my family for generations,” and she regaled them with all that she had told the children on the train. Will was quite taken with the tale, but as she was telling it, Donna thought she heard Alan grunt once or twice in displeasure. He never once turned in their direction, but continued silently walking about ten paces in front of them.

“My, that is a goose I would like to keep about me,” Will said when Donna had finished.

“Did you know that my family wrote a carol about the goose?” She asked.

Will laughed in surprise at this, and Alan stopped walking and looked back, confusion and mortification written clearly on his face.

Donna pretended not to notice and she began to sing,

Christmas Goose, spread thy wings

Tell the tale of a newborn King

Tell of the love and the hope that He brings

Christmas Goose, spread thy wings

As she sang, the group neared one of the many pockets of water frozen solid by the cold. She began to skate across the small pond, drawing Will with her as she continued to the next stanza.

Christmas Goose, wing your way

Guide our steps on Christmas Day

For true peace and good will we do pray

Christmas Goose, wing your way

The song maintained a similar strain. The skaters continued their merry dancing on the ice, and Alan stood off to the side watching them. He never was a good skater, even when he had both his legs, so he told himself he was not missing anything. The pair skated off the one pond and hurried toward another, while Donna repeated her song.

She looks happy, Alan thought. No thanks to me.

His eyes wandered over the panorama while he waited for the others to rejoin him. It was cold, but a cold he could take. He had felt colder inside when he was on the warfront. That was an icy, piercing cold. This cold was just empty. He liked it that way.

The fields were sloped in some patches, creating ditches where the collected water had turned to ice. A small rocky hill stuck out like a giant thumb next to one pond and its awkward bulk caught Alan’s attention. The gray, jagged edges dripped with frozen icicles. Alan followed the trail of the icicles with his eyes and marked where each ended. One particularly long one seemed to travel like a frozen stream down the whole length of the rock face, slipping its way down, down, down until it reached the glossy feathers of a goose.

A goose?! Alan blinked in amazement. There on the frozen pond stood a white and very well-fed goose. That alone would have been enough of a surprise, but at the base of the goose’s neck was a slender but conspicuous red incision.

Alan was tempted to call to the others, more to make sure that he was still of sound mind than to tell them there was a goose on the ice. He glanced aside and saw they were too far away to hear him. Returning to the goose, he blinked hard several times to prove that he had just been imagining things. However, every time he opened his eyes, there was the goose with its wide girth and its red mark, gaping at him.

Great, Donna’s conjured up a goose, Alan grunted to himself. The only thing it’s good for is a meal.

This last thought gave Alan an idea. The goose was clearly domestic. Why else would it have that mark, so suggestive of the carver’s knife? Having escaped its previous owner, the fowl was wandering about, waiting for someone to find it. Thinking of the Watson’s plight, Alan was sure they would be grateful to have such a fine roast for Christmas Dinner.

The difficulty now lay in getting the goose off the ice. Alan was so engrossed in this strange predicament, he only vaguely heard Will and Donna call to him, telling him they were going to town and would meet him later at the station. Hardly realizing what he did, Alan shouted an affirmative to them. He did not hear Donna remind him not to stay too long in the cold.

Only after they disappeared did Alan realize that either one of them could easily capture the goose. He shouted after them, but only wind answered him. Alan turned back to the goose. The bird cleaned behind a few snowy feathers with its bill, then calmly returned Alan’s look with its black eyes.

Alan took a few steps in the goose’s direction. The goose did not move. He came to the edge of the pond, and the feathered fowl simply watched him silently. It did not even twitch. Alan was staring at the goose so intently, that it was only after he heard a hard scraping sound that he realized he had walked off of the snow and onto the ice!

Alan looked back. He was almost a yard from the snowbank!

What the Sam hill was I thinking? He thought in exasperation. I can’t skate, and how am I going to carry a goose?

As he cursed his own foolishness in venturing onto the ice, he felt a sudden tingling in his ankles. Before he had time to remark on the strange sensation, he lurched forward as if someone had shoved him and slid across the ice. He was barely able to catch himself against the rock wall, but clung to it as though it were a lifeline. His cane lay on the ice where he had dropped it when he slid forward. And there he was, trapped on the ice, staring down at a goose.

The goose was either stupid or its feet were stuck to the pond. In any case, it returned Alan’s annoyed bewilderment with a black, blank stare. They looked at each other silently for a time before Alan began to wonder if there was any possible way that he could make it back to the snow bank—in one piece. He glanced around, while still safely holding onto the rocks. After ascertaining that he really was trapped, Alan turned back toward the goose, to find that his feathered companion had sauntered across the pond and was standing safely on the padded snow at its edge.

“Thanks,” Alan called after it. The goose stared at him, not sure why he was angry. “Sure, lure me onto the ice, then walk off like you own it. Real helpful.”

The goose cocked its head and peered keenly at Alan with one eye, almost as if trying to understand his complaint. Alan tried to take a step forward, but he slipped on the thick ice. Fortunately he had been holding onto the rock wall and so did not fall completely.

That was a close call, Alan thought. I better stay put. Can’t afford to break any more bones.

He looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Donna or Will or somebody. Not a soul was in sight. Alan almost wished the tingle in his ankles would return and push him again as it had magically before.

As he remembered the strange sensation, he heard a loud “honk!” Surprised, he looked at the goose.

“Honk!” the goose trumpeted again. As Alan watched, it stepped onto the ice. Turning its face toward the rock wall, the goose fastened its bill to one of the hard stones. Still holding the rock, it moved its great girth parallel to the wall as far as it could. Then the fowl unhooked its bill from the wall, grasped another stub, and moved along the wall again. Then it stopped, looked up at Alan, and said, “Honk, honk!”

Alan realized the goose was giving him a hint. He was too relieved to care that it was a goose telling him how to get off the ice and tried to interpret its instructions. He held the wall firmly and began to move himself gingerly along it. It was tediously slow going, for Alan’s wounded leg did not always move the way he wanted it to, and sometimes one of his hands would slip and lose grasp of the wall.

The goose, however, had turned its webbed feet around and waddled back to the snow bank. It either thought Alan wouldn’t make it or wasn’t interested in freezing on the ice while waiting. Alan noticed its departure, but gave it no thought, engrossed as he was in getting back to the pond’s edge.

At last he was the end of the wall. It did not reach right to the edge of the pond, but by throwing himself forward, Alan bridged the rest of the distance and landed heavily, face down, in the snow. He rolled onto his side and supported himself on one arm. The snow was as cold as the ice had been, but for some reason, it had never felt so inviting as it did now.

Alan was still catching his breath when he heard a soft padding of feet. Looking up, he saw the goose waddling towards him, with his cane somehow wedged in its beak. Alan observed the odd spectacle with mixed emotions. The goose continued towards him until it plopped the cane in the snow beside him.

Tilting its head, it peered at him keenly with one eye, then the other, and finally said, “Honk!”

“Honk!” Alan mimicked.

Startled, the goose bounced back and peered at him again through each eye before answering, “Honk, honk!"

“Oh, bellow in your own ears, feathers.” Alan groaned. He managed to pull himself painfully to his knees and picked up the cane. Planting it firmly in the snow, he used it as a support and after two long, torturing minutes was at last on his feet again.

Alan looked down. The goose looked up. There they stood facing each other. The red mark was still as clear as ever on the goose’s neck. Alan had been with the goose long enough to know that the wound was not his own imagination—though he greatly wished that the wound (and the goose!) was.

The goose’s clear advice on how to escape the ice and its dexterity in retrieving Alan’s cane proved it had too much intelligence to be an ordinary bird. However, everything inside of Alan rebelled at the notion that he would actually permit himself to believe this was the fabled “Christmas Goose.”

“I’ve battled Nazis, dodged bombshells, almost gotten killed under fire,” Alan muttered in annoyance, “and I’m thinkin’ this bird here—”

“Honk!”

"Goose here is magical; as if geese can ‘grant wishes on—’”

A shrill whistle cut through the air, followed by a large billow of smoke in the distance. The 11:45PM train was warning its passengers that there were only 10 minutes ’til departure. Alan’s attention was drawn to the sound and a thought crossed his mind.

He looked again at the goose and exhaled deeply.

“...if you can—what am I doing?”

He shook his head and began to walk toward the station, leaving the goose behind. He was halfway to the station when he stopped and looked back to see if the goose was still there. To his relief, the bird had disappeared. He relaxed and his eyes followed the trail of footprints he left in the snow

Something seemed peculiar about them, though. A set of indentations walked beside his wide footprints. A sudden realization dawned on him. He turned forward quickly and looked down at his feet—and right into two round black eyes framing an orange beak.

“Honk, honk!”

“Scram, birdbrain!” Alan said, shooing it with his cane. Honking in surprise, the goose flapped its wings and flew away. That is, it would have flown away. Unfortunately for the bird, Alan was right in the line of its flight trajectory and it thudded heavily against his chest before landing in his startled arms.

Alan almost fell over. He dropped the goose to the ground and barely caught himself against his cane. The goose plopped heavily into the snow, calmly stood up, shook the snow from its feathers and stared once more at Alan.

Alan was greatly annoyed by the goose. Pushing the goose aside with his cane, he turned and started once more for the station. He was listening now and could hear the goose’s webbed feet padding the snow beside him.

Stupid bird, he thought. He’ll make the Watsons a good meal. His loss if he follows me around like a dog.

The bird followed him all right. When Alan stepped onto the platform, the goose leapt up and landed beside him. To Alan’s relief, most of the passengers were already on the train; but Peggy, Matthew, and the twins were still standing on the platform. Hannah had boarded the train ahead of time with Little Jane and the baby and was settling them to sleep on the seats in their compartment. The others were waiting for Donna to return. They wanted to share a compartment with her.

The children’s attention was at once drawn to the goose. The red mark was just as visible to them as it was to Alan, and they reacted at once.

“It can’t be.” Matthew said incredulously.

“I told you Miss Donna wouldn’t lie, Matthew!” Peggy cried exultantly.

“It’s the Christmas Goose!” Billy and Timmy shouted together.

All four children rushed down the platform. The goose did not move at first, but as the children came close, it suddenly flapped its wings, flew up, and settled on Alan’s shoulder. The shoulder was not broad enough to hold up the goose without hurting Alan, so Alan reached up and took the bird in his arms. Peggy and the boys slowed to a respectful walk when they saw Alan touching the Christmas Goose so familiarly.

“He must be a messenger of the goose,” Timmy whispered.

“Where—where did you find him, sir?” Peggy asked in awe.

“On an ice pond nearby.” Alan answered. “You’re the Watsons, right?”

The children gasped. They had never been introduced to Alan and did not know that Donna had pointed them out to him before. His unexplained knowledge only added to his mysterious air.

“How did you know we were the Watsons?” Matthew asked.

“Donna told me.” Alan shrugged.

“Donna Sidney!” The twins cried.

“Then it simply must be the goose!” Peggy exulted. “Oh, sir, please may we touch the goose and make a wish?”

“I don’t care.” Alan said honestly.

The children crowded close and each put a hand on the goose’s back, even Matthew.

“All together, everyone.” Peggy instructed.

The children chanted with one voice, “We wish that Father—”

A shrill whistle bellowed loudly. The train was about to leave. Startled, the children instinctively shook and drew back. Alan winced at the deafening sound. Worst of all, the goose was so frightened by the noise that, with a great honking and flapping of wings, it broke out of Alan’s arms, flew over the heads of the Watsons, and disappeared from sight.

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