The boy, watching her cautiously, noted her plump compacted frame and a set of neat furrows on her neck.
These furrows, he saw out of the corner of his eye, were caused by a differing in the feathering. The feathers were concave, which separated them from one another, making a texture of ridges which he considered graceful.
Presently the young goose gave him a shove with her bill. She had been acting sentry.
‘You next,’ she said.
She lowered her head without waiting for an answer, and began to graze in the same movement. Her feeding took her from his side.
He stood sentry. He did not know what he was watching for, nor could he see any enemy, except the tussocks and his nibling mates. But he was not sorry to be trusted sentinal for them.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, passing him after half and hour.
‘I was on guard.’
‘Go on with you,’ she said with a giggle, or should it be a gaggle? ‘You are silly!’
‘Honestly,’ he said, ‘I don’t. Am I doing it wrong? I don’t understand.’
‘Peck the next one. You have been on for twice your time at least.’
He did as he was told, at which the grazer next to him took over, and then he walked along to feed beside her. They nibbled, noting one another out of beady eyes.
‘You think I am stupid?’ he said shyly, confessing the secret of his real species for the first time to an animal, ‘but it is because I am a goose. I was born as a human. This is my first flight really.’
She was mildly surprised.
‘It is unusual,’ she said. ‘The humans generally try the swans. The last lot we had were the Children of Lir. However, I suppose we’re all anseriformes together.’
‘I have heard of the Children of Lir.’
‘They didn’t enjoy it. They were hopelessly nationalistic and religious, always hanging about round one of the chapels in Ireland. You could say that they hardly noticed the other swans at all.’
‘I am enjoying it.’
‘I thought you were. What were you sent for?’
‘To learn my education.’
They gazed in silence, until his own words reminded him of something he had wanted to ask.
‘The sentries,’ he asked. ‘Are we at war?’
She did not understand the word.
‘Are we fighting people?’
‘Fighting?’ she asked doubtfully. ‘The men fight sometimes about their wives and that. Of course there is no bloodshed only scuffling, to find the better man. Is that what you mean?’
‘No. I meant fighting against armies against other geese , for instance.’
She was amused.
‘How ridiculous! You mean a lot of geese all scuffling at the same time. It would be fun to watch.’
Her tone surprised him, for his heart was still a kind one, being a boy’s.
‘Fun to watch them kill each other?’
‘To kill each other? An army of geese to kill each other?’
She began to understand this idea slowly and doubtfully, an expression of distaste coming over her face. When it had sunk in, she left him. She went away to another part of field in silence. He followed, but she turned her back. Moving round to get a glimpse of her eyes, he was startled by their dislike a look as if he had made some obscene suggestion.
He said lamely: ‘I am sorry. I don’t understand.’
‘Leave talking about it.’
‘I am sorry.’
Later he added, with annoyance, ‘A person can ask, I suppose. It seems a natural question, with the sentries.’
But she was thoroughly angry.
‘Will you stop about it at once! What a horrible mind you must have! You have no right to say such things. And of course there are sentries. There are the jar-falcons and the peregrines, aren’t there: the foxes and the ermines and the humans with their nets? These are natural enemies. But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?’
‘Ants do,’ he said obstinately. ‘And I was only trying to learn.’
She relented with an effort to be good-natured. She wanted to be broad-minded if she could, for she was rather a blue-stocking.
‘My name is Lyó-lyok. You had better call yourself Kee-kwa, and then the rest will think you come from Hungary.’
‘Do you all come here from different places?’
‘Well in parties of course. There are some here from Siberia, some from Lapland and I can see one or two from Iceland.
‘But don’t they fight each other for the pasture?’
‘Dear me, you are a silly,’ she said. ‘There are no boundaries among geese.’
‘What are boundaries, please?’
‘Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose. How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours and the humans too would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.’
‘I like fighting,’ said the Wart. ‘It is knightly.’
‘Because you’re a baby.’
Lyó-lyok took a rational interest in the wide world in her prudent way, and, although she was puzzled by his questions, she learned not to be disgusted by them. Most of these questions were based on his experience among the ants, and that was why they puzzled her.
He wanted to know about nationalism, about state-control, individual liberty, property and so forth: the things whose importance had been mentioned in the ‘Combination Room,’ or which he had noticed in the ant-hill. As most of these things had to be explained to her, before she could explain herself, there were interesting things to talk about.
They conversed amiably, and, as his education prospered, he began to feel a sort of deep humility and even an affection for her geese: rather like the feelings which Gulliver must have had, among the horses.
No, she explained to him: there was no state-control among the grey people. They had no communal possessions, nor did they make a claim to any part of the world. The lovely globe, they thought, could not belong to anybody except itself, and all their geese had access to its raw materials. Neither was any state discipline imposed upon the individual bird. The story of how a returning ant could be sentenced to death if it did not disgorge some food when asked for it, revolted her.
Among the geese, she said, anybody ate as much as he could get hold of, and, if you trespassed upon an individual who had found a succulent patch of grass, he would very properly peck you soundly. And yes, she said, they did have private property besides their meals: a married couple would repair to the same nest, year by year, although they might have travelled many thousand miles between. The nest was private, and so was family life. Geese, she explained, were not promiscuous in their love-affairs, except in adolescence; which, she believed was as it should be.
When they were married, they were married for their lives. Their politics, so far as they had any, were patriarchal or individualistic, founded on free choice. And of course they never went to war.
He asked her about the system of leadership. It was obvious that certain geese were accepted as leadersgenerally they were venerable old gentlemen whose breasts were deeply mottledand that these leaders flew at the head of their formations. Remembering the queen ants, who, like Borgias, slew one another for the highest place, he wondered how the captains of the geese had been elected.
They were not elected, she said, not in a formal way. They simply became captains.
When he pressed her on the point, she went off into a long talk about migration. This was how she put it. ‘The first goose,’ she said, ‘I suppose, who made the flight from Siberia to Lincolnshire and back again, must have brought up a family in Siberia. Then, when the winter came upon them and it was necessary to find new food, he must have groped his way over the same route, being the only one who knew it.
He will have been followed by his growing family, year after year, their pilot and their admiral. When the time came for him to die, obviously the next best pilots would have been his eldest sons, there would have been some who were notoriously muddle-headed, and the family would hardly care to trust to them.
‘This,’ she said, ‘is how an admiral is elected. Perhaps Wink-wink will come to our family in the autumn, and he will say: ‘Excuse me, but have you by any chance got a reliable pilot in your lot? Poor grand-dad died at cloud-berry time, and Uncle Onk is inefficient. We were looking for somebody to follow.’ Then we will say: ‘Great-uncle will be delighted if you care to hitch up with us; but mind, we cannot take responsibility if things go wrong.’ ‘Thank you very much,’ he will say. ‘I am sure your great-uncle can be relied upon. Do you mind if I mention this matter to the Honks, who are, I happen to know, in the same difficulty?’ ‘Not at all.’
‘And that,’ she explained, ‘is how great-uncle became an admiral.
‘It seems an excellent way.’
‘Look at his bars,’ she said respectfully, and they both glanced at the portly patriarch, whose breast was indeed barred with black stripes, like the gold rings on an admiral’s sleeve.
On another occasion, he asked about the joys and ambitions of the geese. He told her apologetically that among the human beings a life without spectacular acquisitions, or even without warfare, might tend to be regarded as tedious.
‘Humans,’ he said, ‘will make for themselves great stores of ornaments, riches, luxuries, pleasures and so forth. This gives them an objective in their lives. It is also said to lead to war. But I fear that if they were reduced to the minimum of possessions, with which you geese are contented, they might be unhappy.’
‘The certainly would be. Their brains are differently shaped from ours. If you tried to make the humans live exactly like the geese, they would be as wretched as the geese would be, if you tried to make them live exactly like the humans. That does not mean that one of them cannot learn a little from the other.’
‘I am beginning to think that the geese cannot learn very much from us.’
‘We have been on the earth for millions of years longer than you have, poor creatures, so you can hardly be blamed.’
‘But tell me,’ he said, ‘about your pleasures, your ambitions or objectives or whatever you may call them. Surely they are rather limited?’
She laughed at this.
‘Our main object in life,’ she said with amusement, ‘is to be alive. I think your humans have forgotten this one. Our pleasure, however, if they are to be compared with ornaments and riches, are not so dull as they seem. We have a song about them, called The Boon of Life.
‘I will, in a minute. But I must say, before I begin, that it has always seemed a pity to me that one great boon has been left out. The people in the song are supposed to be arguing about the joys of the geese, and nobody mentions travel. I think this is silly. We travel a hundred times further than the humans, and see such interesting things, and I have such delightful change and novelty all the time, that I cannot understand how the poet can have forgotten it. Why, my grand-mother went to Micklegarth: I had an uncle who had been to Burma: and great-grand-dad used to say he had visited Cuba.’
As the king knew that Micklegarth was the Scandinavian name for Constantinople, while he had only heard of Burma from T. natrix, and Cuba had not been invented at all, he was suitably impressed.
‘It must be heavenly,’ he said, ‘to travel.’
He thought of the lovely winds, and of the songs of flight and of the world pouring, always new and new, beneath their pinions.
‘This is the song,’ she said without further preamble, and she began to sing it gracefully to a wild-goose air:
THE BOON OF LIFE
Ky-yow replied: The boon of life is health
Paddle-foot, Feather-straight, Supple-neck, Button-eye:
these have the world’s wealth.
Aged Ank answered: Honour is our all.
Path-finder, People-feeder, Plan-provider,
These hear the high call.
Lyó-lyok the lightsome said: Love I had liefer.
Douce-down, Tender-tread, Warm-nest and Walk-in-line:
These live forever.
Aahng-ung was for Appetite. Ah, he said, Eating!
Gander-gobble, Tear-grass, Stubble-stalk, Stuff-crop:
These take some beating.
Wink-wink praised Comrades, the fair free fraternity,
Line-astern, Echelon, Arrow-head, Over-cloud:
These learn Eternity.
But I, Lyow, choose Lay-making, of loud lilts which linger.
Horn-music, Laughter-song, Epic-heart, Ape-the-world:
These Lyow, the singer.
It was a beautiful song in a way, he thought, given with her tender gravity. He began counting the boons which she had mentioned on his toes: but, as he only had three in front and a sort of knob behind, he had to go round twice.
Travel, health, honour, love, appetite, comradeship, music, poetry and, as she had stated, being alive itself.
It did not seem a bad list in its simplicity, particularly as she might have added something like Wisdom.
| ||Submitted for publication 1941 as part of|
‘The Book of Merlyn’ by T H White
First Published (1958) in:
The Once and Future King T H White
(Included in ‘The Sword and the Stone’
the first book in the tetralogy.)
Published posthumously in 1977 as part of
The Book of Merlyn T H White
University of Texas Press