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Snow Geese, William Fiennes


Snow Geese































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































  

Greyhound

The prospect of moving north across America as spring itself was moving north and millions of migrant birds were moving north with the warmth to their breeding grounds as the North Pole tilted gradually closer to the sun—this prospect was so exciting that when Eleanor knocked on the door before dawn, with the lines of the birdcage picked out by the street light, I almost jumped out of bed. Electric light jarred off the white-tiled kitchen floor and glinted off the piano magnets and the corners and hinges of the fridge, and when Eleanor opened the fridge to get some milk I saw all the bowls with their tight foil skins like a range of drums—a set of small, tuned timpani on the white racks. We made tea, jigging the strings, and then I fetched my bag from the wood-dark bedroom, breezing through the slatted swinging doors, hearing them thwup thwup thwup to a halt behind me. Eleanor was waiting in the living room, one hand on the table of tortoises, the other sprucing up her downy white hair. We drove through Austin to the Greyhound terminal, yawning in canon, and Eleanor parked the Mercedes at the entrance to the terminal building.

"Have a good time," she said.

"Thanks for everything."

"Don't mention it. Say hello to the geese for me."

I watched the old caramel Mercedes leave the parking lot, THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE NARNIA disappearing in the traffic stream.

Buses were berthed on the far side of the terminal: a fleet of silver-styled Americruisers basking under arc lights, decked out in sprinting blue greyhounds with thin, tapering snouts you could clasp in your hand like ice-cream cones. Automatic doors opened on a waiting area with bare beige floors and the featureless walls of transit zones, and luggage heaps, sleeping figures, illuminated vending machines, and ranks of screwed-down seating units, some of them fitted with small, coin-fired televisions in moulded black plastic casings. Passengers were standing around, waiting for gates to be called, checking their watches, wandering from one spot to another, carrying tubes of Pringles potato snacks, portable stereos, transparent Ziploc bags of cookies or muffins, black refuse sacks bulging with laundry, rolled-up sleeping bags, green army surplus kit bags, suit bags, duffel bags, knapsacks, pillows, cooler boxes, comfort blankets, and swaddled, sleeping babies.

The Greyhound left Austin at seven o'clock in the morning. The schedule that came with my ticket told me I would arrive in Fargo, North Dakota, at twenty to six the following afternoon, having changed coaches in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Fargo was about a thousand miles due north of Austin; snow geese would be flying due north from Texas to North Dakota, as if along the lines of longitude. North—the word had amplitude now, as if all possible destinations and endings were gathered up in it. North--the word trumped all other places. I wanted the front seat in the Greyhound for its wide-screen view of the north, but it was taken, so I sat two rows back on the right-hand side, across the aisle from a young woman and her son, a boy of five or six with brown hair cut in a severe fringe, like a monk's tonsure, and a book of join-the-dots pictures to which he applied himself with a monk's diligence, working with felt-tip pens in the dim light, conjuring motorcycles, tennis racquets, kitchen blenders, and giraffes from strews of black points while his mother, who had spiky blond hair and a thin bony face, laid her head against the window and slept despite its shuddering.

A storm broke as we left Austin. Thunder rolled; lightning lit the rooftops in quick, jagged brightnesses; water sluiced across the Greyhound's windscreen, batted left and right by the long, jointed wipers. I thought about Matthew in his tent at the edge of the cedars, hard rain thrumming on the off-white canvas as bolts struck the tall mast. Then the storm passed, the sun rose somewhere beyond Baton Rouge, and the Greyhound surged towards Dallas on Interstate 35. I gazed blankly through the tinted window, lulled by the hum of wheels on even asphalt panels, with flat country skirting past on the far edge of my attention—a Texas bric-a-brac of motels, outlet malls, dancehalls, subcourthouses, pet-grooming salons, ministorages, swags of electric and telephone cables, a nonstop barrage of exclamatory hoardings and signs like heraldic shields raised high on steel masts, flashing the names of gas stations and franchise restaurants as the coach coasted past Georgetown, Temple, Waco, and Italy, two hundred miles north to Dallas.

I boarded a new bus in Dallas, its driver a tall, lean, narrow man, like a cigarette dressed in the grey Greyhound uniform, with sleeves rolled neatly to the elbows and silver hair cut short at the back and sides, swept back on top and glossed with brilliantine. He wore a brown leather belt embossed with an eagle, laterally extended, and a dated-looking digital watch with a calculator keypad underneath its scratched display. He sucked on a toothpick, smoothed his hair back with both palms simultaneously, and addressed his passengers as "folks."

"Now please remember, folks," he said into his microphone, lips brushing the metal mesh as we proceeded through the Dallas suburbs, "that we do have ladies and children on board. So let me say, folks, that we do not want to say or do anything that would embarrass those good folks. No bad language. No lewdness of any kind. Now this may not pertain to you, but I'm saying it all the same. I'm deadly graveyard serious on this matter, folks."

The folks in my vicinity included, in the front seat, a frail, white-haired lady wearing a denim shirt adorned with homemade four-pointed appliqué stars and a smiling brown crescent moon. She tried repeatedly to engage the driver in conversation, but he didn't respond; he was deadly graveyard serious on all matters of road safety. Behind me, a younger, dark-featured woman, dressed in an orange tracksuit, had immersed herself in a paperback entitled Blues for Silk Garcia, and across the aisle sat a burly man with a ponytail falling across his chest, black hair fanning out on a T-shirt that read, SINCE I GAVE UP HOPE, I GOT MUCH BETTER. Behind him, through a gap between headrests, I glimpsed a woman in small, round, wire-framed spectacles, stroking the head of a sleeping baby.

The toothpick clamped in the driver's teeth pointed north up Interstate 35 like a compass needle. The coach hardly wavered from its cruising speed. Freightliner, Eagle, and Kenworth rigs with sleeping cabins and gleaming silver chimneys drew level with the Greyhound, then accelerated past, hauling Utility, Stoughton, and Great Dane freight containers. There were other Greyhound and Jefferson Lines coaches in the current of the highway; recreational vehicles with the names Jamboree, Chieftain, Prowler, and Nomad splashed on their creamy white foreheads and mountain bikes lashed to their backs; state trooper cars with four trunk aerials bending backwards like grasses in the apparent wind; entire prefabricated houses proceeding with due caution along the inside lane; and station wagons, trailers, vans, jeeps, pickups, hatchbacks, sedans—the hard c sounds of American traffic: Mack, Cadillac, Pontiac, Camry, Buick—with mottoes (GRACE HAPPENS!) on rear fenders and dogs leaning from open windows, nosing the windspeed. Stars and Stripes of immaculate parachute silk rippled at the gates of lots and salerooms. A great blue heron lifted from a marsh. A flock of ten or twelve ducks flew alongside us in compact formation, a tiny clutch of the millions of birds that were moving towards Canada with the spring, subject to circannual rhythms and Zugunruhe, far outnumbering the people in vehicles passing Denton, Gainesville, Marietta, and Ardmore on their way to Oklahoma City and all points north.

These birds possessed compasses as well as clocks. In 1949 the German ornithologist Gustav Kramer had observed young migrant starlings in an outdoor aviary. Kramer was interested in their ability to navigate. "Such a conspicuous phenomenon as the long-distance flights of birds," he wrote, "has profoundly penetrated into man's consciousness, and it is a very simple further step to ask how they find their way." At the end of the summer, Kramer's starlings, which came from the Baltic region, exhibited "a distinct tendency to migrate south-west."

The following year Kramer transferred these birds to circular pavilions in which vision was limited to six windows, distributed symmetrically round the compass, with landmarks carefully excluded from view. Mirrors were mounted at each of the windows, reflecting sunlight into the cages at ninety-degree angles. The drum-shaped pavilions rested on transparent Plexiglas bases. Observers lay underneath, looking up at the birds, recording their behaviour.

The starlings displayed Zugunruhe at the appropriate time, with a tendency to hop towards the northeast, the appropriate direction for spring migration. Then, by manipulating the mirrors, Kramer changed the apparent direction of the sunlight. The starlings changed direction accordingly: the birds were using a sun compass. Such a mechanism, Kramer noted, could not be effective without an internal clock. The sun's position relative to a point on the earth changes by fifteen degrees every hour. The starlings must have some way of compensating for this apparent movement. "The migratory activity on some days lasted for six hours," Kramer wrote, "from the early morning until noon, which corresponds to a movement of the sun through about 90 degrees; yet the bird's direction remained unaltered." He christened one of the starlings Heliotrope, like the flower, from the Greek for "tending towards the sun."

The discovery of the sun compass was a first step towards answering Kramer's question: how do birds find their way? But many birds, including starlings, are able to migrate on cloudy days, when the sun is hidden, and many birds migrate at night. The sun on its own was not enough. Birds must possess some other means of orientation.

In the terminal at Oklahoma City the Greyhound slogan—WHERE CAN WE TAKE YOU?—was printed on banners hanging above the screwed-down seats, the sprinting greyhound trademark a cartoon of speed, efficiency, and kinetic grace. Coaches pulled up outside, their front ends sinking on hydraulic mechanisms to the kerb, like camels kneeling. It was cold now; in just a few hours we had outstripped spring. The terminal was another limbo, an in-between place, a corral for itinerants, with nothing to mark it out as here, not there. Travellers attended luggage heaps or loitered by a snack bar where helical ribbons of yellow Victor Fly Catcher hung from the ceiling and an old fan on a white stand turned from side to side as if watching a very slow game of tennis, or they leaned over the lights and bubbling electronic music of Addams Family pinball, or gazed into video games, piloting Spitfire, Zero, and Shinden fighter planes through the puffs of digital flak and pixellated gunfire streams of Strikers 1945, and working the wheel and pedals of Cruisin' USA, accelerating through redwood forests, across piñon-dotted Nevada deserts, over the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Florida Keys, up scenic Rocky Mountain passes, and down broad Manhattan avenues, skipping from state to state, a primer of America flashing in the corner by the vending machines.

People milled about, waiting to board buses or greet other people. Two women in their sixties, sisters, wearing long pleated skirts and hand-knitted cardigans, with salt-and-pepper hair and spectacles hanging from their necks on colourful braided strings, celebrated their reunion in the temperature-controlled terminal by placing their hands on each other's shoulders and delivering prim, delicate kisses to both cheeks like champagne glasses clinked together in a toast. A boy gazed up at a wall of gunmetal luggage lockers in three sizes, corresponding to handbags, overnight bags, and suitcases, and then went right along the bottom row, trying the doors of the largest lockers. At last, one opened; a red-tagged key was still inserted above the coin slot. The boy looked around. He was planning something and didn't want to be observed. He climbed into the empty locker and pulled the door shut behind him. A minute or two later, a man approached the wall of lockers. He was in his late thirties, with a pale face and black hair so neatly parted the division resembled a chalked line. He wore a blue suit, a red-striped shirt open at the neck, a white T-shirt underneath; he carried a brown leather suitcase. He put the case down and scanned the rows of lockers. He noticed the key with the red tag. He opened the locker. The boy was waiting inside, on all fours, and as soon as the door opened he stretched his head out, a creature emerging from its den, beaming up at the man in the blue suit, who took a step back, bewildered but not alarmed, as though this apparition were merely a trick of his fatigue, the kind of thing you should expect in the fooling of these distances.

The bus for Kansas City was announced. The white-haired lady in the denim shirt decorated with the moon bagged the front seat. I sat behind her. The coach filled up: a man in torn jeans carrying a guitar, with the sections of a fishing rod taped to its neck, the reel resting on the strings above the sound hole; a girl hugging a leverarch college file against her chest; two Amish elders dressed in black and white, with long grey beards and the stern countenances of patriarchs; a man in a dark grey overcoat holding a new cardboard box marked STETSON on all sides—a promise of pure hat. Just before we were due to depart, a woman climbed the stairs and stood in the aisle scanning the seats for vacancies. She was Eleanor's age, with a thick, upswept crown of silver grey hair, a black canvas tote bag hanging from one shoulder. She was ablaze with primary colours, dressed in a yellow polo-neck, faded blue jeans, white socks, blue leather sandals, large plastic-rimmed spectacles, and a bright red sleeveless fleece vest pinned with a badge that said, WOMEN ARE NOT BORN REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRAT OR YESTERDAY. She took two steps forward, paused, looked the coach up and down, then plumped for the seat next to mine, setting the tote bag on the floor between her blue sandals.

"My name is Jean," she said, holding out her hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Our driver was short, with thin mousy hair, and heavily built, his grey shirt bulging like a laundry bag. He spoke into a microphone as the coach drew out of Oklahoma City, warning all passengers that the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and other intoxicants would not be tolerated.

"Anyone who wishes to make use of personal stereo machines," he continued, "I'd ask you to please first hold the headphones out at arm's length, or as high as you can above your head, and if you can hear a noise, then spare a thought that your neighbour will hear it also. And for anyone taking care of children on board, keep them in their seats now, because if I have to swerve or stop all of a sudden, that little boy or girl is sure going to fly."

Late afternoon. The Greyhound continued on Interstate 35, crossing from Oklahoma into Kansas. Trees, signs, and telegraph poles spun past; we pushed north on the humdrum basis of vibration and engine hum. I kept looking out for snow geese. I kept thinking of the birds from Eagle Lake, imagining that they were flying overhead, thinking that if only I could lean from the window and get a clear view upward I would see them. Jean's hands were resting on her thighs. She was tanned; the pink frames of her glasses had miniature rococo scrolls at their corners; now and again she looked anxiously behind her, down the length of the bus, as if expecting to see somebody she knew. She had a brightly painted watch with Adam and Eve represented on the strap's two sections, a large red love heart behind the hands, and smaller hearts at three, six, nine, and twelve o'clock.

"Have you come a long way?" she asked.

"From Austin."

The seats weren't spacious. Strangers talking to each other for the first time do not normally hold their heads so close together, and I wasn't sure if I should turn to my left in order to look at Jean, or look straight ahead, or continue gazing from the window as our conversation proceeded. We both spoke quietly, almost in whispers, as if to keep what we said confined to the immediate, enclosed space of the double seat. Although there was no screen between us, and no penance to be done when business was concluded, our conversation bore a trace of the hushed, boxed-in disclosures of confessionals.

"How far are you going?" I asked.

"Minneapolis. You?"

"Minneapolis, too. Then Fargo."

"Are you visiting relatives? My sister's in the hospital in Minneapolis."

"I'm going to look for birds."

"Which birds?"

"Snow geese."

"That's interesting. I don't know much about those. We live in the city."

She lived in Oklahoma City but had grown up in New Orleans. The sky was darkening, restoring powers of reflection to the window glass, the sun low on the far side of the Great Plains. The Greyhound was still heading due north, and sometimes, while Jean and I were talking, I savoured the clarity of this direction, as if Interstate 35 were a line to which migrating birds could cleave as they travelled from winter to breeding grounds.

A sun compass on its own was not enough; birds had to possess some other means of finding their way. The idea that organisms might use the earth's magnetic field for orientation was first proposed in the nineteenth century but not taken seriously by ornithologists until the 1960s. Magnetic field lines leave the earth at the south magnetic pole and enter it again at the north magnetic pole. In between, these lines form varying angles of inclination with the horizontal: ninety degrees at the poles, zero degrees at the equator, changing systematically as they span the globe. The magnetic field provides a gradient map that could, in theory, be a source of reference for migratory birds.

Wolfgang and Roswitha Wiltschko kept more than two hundred European robins in octagonal wood and plastic test cages from which all visual clues were excluded. Each cage contained eight perches, one for each side of the cage, and each perch was connected to a microswitch that produced a signal when the bird hopped on it. Robins are partial migrants: some migrate to Mediterranean and North African winter grounds, while others are European residents all year long.

The Wiltschkos screened off the earth's magnetic field with a steel vault and re-created it artificially by means of wire coils carrying electric currents, known as Helmholtz coils. In the spring, their robins began to display Zugunruhe: whirring their wings, hopping, flitting from floor to perch. The microswitches recorded the birds' directional tendencies: the robins were trying to fly north. When the direction of the experimental magnetic field was shifted, the robins changed direction accordingly. Even when magnetic north was shifted to geographic south, the robins followed suit, flying directly away from their appropriate destinations.

"The direction the birds take for 'north,'" the Wiltschkos concluded, "does not depend on the polarity of the magnetic field." Their robins seemed to be referring instead to the inclination angles of the field lines. In the spring, robins flew in whichever direction the inclinations became steeper, because this meant they were flying towards the pole. In the autumn, they flew in whichever direction the inclinations flattened out, because this meant they were flying towards the equator. The polarity of the earth's magnetic field has reversed thirty times over the past five million years: the Wiltschkos noted that a compass that depended on inclination angles rather than polarity would not be affected by such switches.

"We lived on Music Street," Jean confided, her voice languid with southern twang, "in Gentilly, in New Orleans, me and my brother and sister, in a cramped little house with a backyard right up next to a railroad. The boxcars went clang-clang, and we rushed to the wall, and conductors smoking cigarettes waved at us from their cabooses. There was a washing line in the yard, and my mother hung everything on it—whites, delicates, you name it—and everything got covered in soot from the trains, all grimed up with coal dirt. My father left the house at two or three every morning to deliver milk for Mueller's Dairy in Elysian Fields, up and down Franklin Avenue, and from one o'clock to nine o'clock at night he drove a public bus. The milk truck had a freezer box on the back, and once, when we played hide-and-seek, I locked myself in it."

"Did anyone find you?"

"No. When I felt the engine starting I banged on that door for all I was worth. I nearly got delivered to Elysian Fields! We played hide-and-seek a lot, and there was a craze for hula hoop. I loved hula hoop. Every kid in the neighbourhood loved hula hoop. We had our own hula hoop club. Hoops were fifty cents each at McCoy's dime store. We were quite boastful when we got a different colour—yellow, green, blue, you name it. Our dream was to acquire a hoop for every colour of the rainbow. We had small hoops to swirl on our arms at the same time as the big hoops. With a hula hoop, you don't circle the hips. It's a forward-and-back movement; it's getting a rhythm, and once you've got a rhythm, you hit it forward and back." Jean was moving in her seat beside me, raising her arms, turning her shoulders from one side to the other, gyrating and huffing, her own younger self roused inside her.

"Not bad!" I said.

"Oh, I was good! " Jean said, laughing. "And you know what I was good at, too?"

"What?"

"Tennis."

"Really?"

"Oh, yes. My passion was tennis. We had a public tennis court on St. Roch Avenue, in St. James's Park. There was a baseball field, six swings, a slide, and a public tennis court. The New Orleans Recreation Department sent a tennis pro around the neighbourhoods. They held raffles, tennis raffles. Tickets cost a quarter. The prize was you could win a racquet. I pleaded with my mother in the kitchen: 'Can I have a quarter for the tennis raffle? Can I have a quarter for the tennis raffle?' I went on and on, and in the end she said, 'All right. I'll give you twenty-five cents. I'll give you a quarter for the tennis raffle.' But there was a condition attached. Tickets were a letter of the alphabet and then a number from one to ten, and my mother said she'd only give me the quarter if I bought ticket J1, because that was my initial, J for Jean, and she thought that was going to be the lucky ticket. So I got it, I got J1, and they pulled J1 out of the hat, which is how I got my first ever tennis racquet."

"You were destined to play tennis."

"Exactly. I played tennis whenever I could. I loved it. But we were having a little trouble at home. After school my father locked me in my room. I heard him yelling at my mother, and then he started to hit my mother and yell at her more and more. So I went to live with my sister in a boarding house. We had this funny old landlady with I don't know how many cats. I lived there until I finished high school. We had very little money. My sister washed hair to keep our heads above water. At the grocery store cans of vegetables were seven for a dollar, so each week we saved a dollar and ate one can of vegetables every day of the week."

"What happened when you finished high school?"

"I'm going to tell you. I went to the convent. Not in New Orleans, but in St. Louis. I became a sister. Something in me was saying, 'The thing for you to do is be a sister.' Recently, a woman who was a baton twirler at the University of Texas asked me, 'Aren't you embarrassed that you were a nun?' and I said, 'Aren't you embarrassed that you spent all that time throwing a stick in the air?' I wasn't embarrassed. I knew it was something I had to do. I was clothed, fed, and educated; I had friends; I got to help people. We spent a significant part of each day in silence, and I believe that silence healed me. I learned discipline. We were taught to feel ourselves unworthy. We prostrated ourselves on the ground. If you broke something, there was a punishment. We had to lie flat on the ground with our arms extended like this and say Hail Marys for close to ever. We had to sleep with whatever we broke, just so we never forgot it. People were sleeping with fans, bowls, pots, plates, cups, you name it. Once I broke a statue of Saint Joseph. This statue was Mother Superior's favourite. It came from France. I had to sleep with the statue of Saint Joseph and a lot of people said I was lucky just to have a man in my bed."

We heard the indicator clicking; the driver manhandled the wide steering wheel; the Greyhound turned off the interstate. I'd got used to the bus making these stops, pausing at gas courts for short breaks between terminals. Passengers disembarked, lit cigarettes, sought restrooms, performed simple stretches, and made calls in hooded telephone booths, saying, "Did you feed the fish?" or "See you tomorrow, Mushroom," or "Don't ask me what I was doing, Marla! How should I know what I was doing?" Exhausted, far from home, we roamed the store aisles, fluorescent lights glaring on washed white-tile floors, the outdoor smells of exhaust fumes and gasoline mingling with the aromas of stale coffee, hot dogs, microwave burritos, and drooling yellow cheese sauce squeezed onto cardboard boats of Gehl's tortilla chips. On the Greyhound you had only to gaze from the window and daydream, but now you had to reckon with the siren song of brand names in brimming racks—Chex, Dots, Runts, Twizzlers, Munchos, Rain-Blos, Lorna Doones—and weigh the merits of Dakota Kid sunflower seeds, Chupa Chups lollipops, Jack Link's Kippered Beefsteak jerky, forty-four-ounce pails of Barq's "Since 1898" Root Beer, and powdered, chocolate-dipped, and honey-dipped doughnuts, French Twirl Donuts, Mickey Egg Fluff Donuts, Mrs. Freshly's Creme Filled Gold Fingers, and Flaas Raspberry Bismarks. There were refrigerated cabinets stocked with sodas, iced teas, spring waters, juices, and flavoured milks, and sometimes there were elaborate pipe displays featuring Irvin S. Cobb's Corn Cobb pipes and "pre-smoked" Dr. Grabow filter pipes—the Riviera, Duke, Royal Duke, Omega, and Savoy—made from imported briar, with standard bits and military bits; and Bryn Mawr Ream-N-Klean bristle pipe cleaners; and pouches of Black Cavendish, Gold Burley, and Borkum Riff "without a bite" tobaccos. We moved like sleepwalkers through this trove of nouns, drifting one by one back to the Americruiser. The door sighed shut when a complement was counted.

Jean and I settled down again in our seats towards the front of the coach on the right-hand side, the hands on her watch sweeping through the hearts. The Greyhound returned to the interstate, continuing north and northeast towards Kansas City. The driver spoke into his microphone.

"Your attention, please," he said. "Now, I know you're going to think I'm going bald, but I found a hairpiece that belongs to one of you. I understand that you may be embarrassed to come up here and claim it, so I'm going to leave it at the front here and you can just wander up and claim it when we make the next stop and you get off the bus to smoke a cigarette or what have you. That's the end of my announcement. Thank you for your attention."

We watched him lob the hairpiece at the windscreen; it slid down the glass and came to rest on the dashboard ledge—a curling, glamorous, brunet wig, tight-fitting, like a swimming cap. It was dark now.

"Did you wear a habit?" I asked Jean.

"Oh, yes. I wore a full white habit, starched and crisp. White because I was a novice. Black shoes, stockings, garter belt, gabardine petticoat, a white linen wimple covering my hair and both sides of my face, and a loose white scapular on my shoulders, hanging right down to my black shoes. What a business that was!"

"What about your tennis?"

"Oh, we had a court. There was a convent court. I played all the time. The tennis court was about the only place I felt at home. I remember one Sunday afternoon, four tennis pros came to play a doubles game on our court. Every Sunday afternoon we'd have some kind of entertainment—someone would visit the convent to give a talk, or there'd be an activity of some sort or another. When I heard that these four tennis pros were going to visit I asked Mother Superior if there was any way I could get to hit some balls with them. That was so exciting to me, just the idea of playing with actual professional tennis players. You didn't get a chance like that every day of the week, and all I wanted to do was knock up for a few minutes, maybe have a game or two, just for the experience of it. Anyway, Mother Superior looked at me for a while. She didn't say anything. I could see the wrath of God in her face, and I thought that she was about to explode. She didn't say a word, she just stared at me, and I knew she was doing it to make me feel small. I started apologize, but still she didn't say anything. I didn't know what to do. I looked at my shoes. And then here it comes, oh it was the wrath of God, this terrible long lecture on my lack of humility and modesty and my arrogance. I was mortified. I felt truly shamed."

"What happened?"

"Well, let me tell you. Sunday came around, and the four professionals showed up, four lady tennis players in little white skirts and brand new sneakers. All the sisters were sitting in the bleachers—there were three or four tiers next to the tennis court—all trussed up in stockings, garter belts, gabardine petticoats, wimples, scapulars, you name it. The pros started playing. They played a couple of sets. Mother Superior stood up by the net and made a speech, thanking the ladies for their exhibition. Then, I couldn't believe it, she said that Sister Jean-Marie was especially appreciative. Especially appreciative! One of the tennis pros said, 'Why doesn't she come and hit some tennis balls?' and another pro said, 'Sure, let her come and hit some tennis balls,' and of course this is in front of everybody, so Mother Superior doesn't really have a choice, she has to let me go and play with the professionals.

"I climb down off the bleachers and walk out onto the court, and remember I'm dressed in a habit and the pros are in these precious little tennis dresses, right up their butts, excuse me. One of them hands me her racquet and says she'll sit out so I can play. But I'm shaking. I'm on the forehand side. I'm receiving serve. I haven't even had a warm-up. I'm trying to stay low and concentrate on the server, who's bouncing the ball, preparing to serve. I could tell she wasn't going to go soft on me just because I was a nun, and sure enough the next thing I knew she sent down a firecracker, and I was so pent-up because I'd been so shamed that I hit it back with fury in it, I returned her serve as hard as I could, and the ball whizzed past the net person, straight down the line. It was a clear winner, no question. I'd watched the toss and seen just where she threw it. I came perfectly to my forehand, and I made perfect contact, just as though the racquet were an extension of my body, and all the sisters in the bleachers jumped up and down and cheered. They whooped and hollered, and grabbed their scapulars, and shook them, and waved them in the air, their holy scapulars!"

It was getting late; people were sleeping. Reflections of red and yellow lights were sliding across the glass to my left, beyond Jean, then appearing unmediated on the near side, and other reflections were sliding across the glass between me and the lights, as if the Greyhound were revolving, or moving at the centre of revolving carousels of lights: streetlights and headlights, the red lights on rear fenders and radio masts, the winking red wing lights of planes, hazes rising off the thick-sown lights of conurbations, the brightness of car lots (buffed hoods gleaming under klieg lights), the neon fantasias of funfairs and casinos. The driver switched off the light inside the bus, and stars were suddenly visible, constellations in the east: Hercules, Boötes, Virgo.

In the 1950s the German ornithologist Franz Sauer suggested that birds might refer to the stars in order to determine their migratory direction. In the late 1960s Stephen Emlen studied indigo buntings, a species that breeds throughout the eastern half of the United States and winters in the Bahamas, southern Mexico, and Central America south to Panama. Caged indigo buntings display intense nocturnal Zugunrnhe in April and May, and again in September and October, the two periods during which their counterparts are migrating in the wild. When this restlessness began, Emlen placed his buntings in special circular cages: funnels of blotting paper mounted on ink pads and covered with clear plastic sheets. The birds in these cages could see only the sky overhead; all ground objects were blocked from view.

"A bunting in migratory condition," Emlen wrote, "stands in one place or turns slowly in a circle, its bill tilted upward and its wings partly spread and quivering rapidly. At frequent intervals the bird hops onto the sloping paper funnel, only to slide back and continue its pointing and quivering. Each hop from the ink pad leaves a black print on the paper. The accumulation of inked footprints provides a simple record of the bird's activity: they can later be counted and analyzed statistically."

The buntings kept diaries: footprints lettered their seasonal restlessness.

Emlen put the cages outside on clear, moonless nights. In September and October, the buntings tended to hop south. In April and May, they tended to hop north. The cage walls screened the horizon from view; the birds could see only the sky. On cloudy, overcast nights, their orientation deteriorated significantly. Emlen hypothesized that buntings are able to determine their migratory directions from visual cues in the night sky.

Emlen then took his buntings into a planetarium. In September and October, using a Spitz Model B Projector, he shone the normal autumn stars onto the dome. The buntings, appropriately, left footprints in the southern sectors of their cages. In April and May, Emlen projected the stars of a normal spring sky. The buntings hopped north and northeast. But when Emlen switched off the projector and filled the dome with diffuse light, the buntings behaved just as they had done on cloudy nights outside: they were unable to determine their migratory direction. And when Emlen shifted Polaris to the east or west, the buntings changed their orientation to match the new "north" or "south," depending on the season.

To understand the significance of Polaris, the North Star, you first have to imagine that all the stars are fixed to a celestial sphere centred on the earth. You have to imagine the axis on which the earth is spinning. And then you have to follow the line of this axis from the North Pole up to the celestial sphere. The line intersects with the sphere at the north celestial pole, which happens to be very close to Polaris, a bright star located just off the tip of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Due to the rotation of the earth, the celestial sphere appears to rotate clockwise around Polaris.

The axis of celestial rotation is always aligned with geographical north. Buntings, Emlen found, were determining direction by reference to the rotation of star patterns. The constellations move across the sky with an angular velocity of fifteen degrees an hour, but their shapes remain constant, and each maintains a distinct relationship to the North Star. When Emlen made his fake firmament revolve around Betelgeuse, a bright star in the constellation Orion, the buntings flew as if Betelgeuse, not Polaris, were the North Star. By systematically removing and reinserting portions of his planetarium sky, Emlen found that his buntings relied especially on constellations close to Polaris, such as Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia.

"These are the Flint Hills," Jean said. "In daylight this is beautiful open country, very green."

She paused.

"The Flint Hills of Kansas," she said, as if quoting the title of a plangent popular song. Another pause. I gazed out of the window at all the passing lights. The curling brunet wig lay unclaimed on the dashboard.

"We had a laundry in the convent," Jean continued. "A professional laundry. It was one of the ways we made money. We used to laugh because we knew we were washing Mother Superior's pantyhose or the chaplain of the university's boxer shorts. We were like naughty schoolgirls. We loved to giggle. We washed underthings, delicates, petticoats, scapulars, wimples, veils, habits, bedclothes, you name it, pressing and starching, finding a partner to fold the sheets with. We used rollers to squeeze out the water, and big industrial presses. We were supposed to keep silence. You just heard the machines going. I started to love laundry—the smell of clean clothes and the way they feel."

"I know what you mean."

"Do you? I love laundry. I love to do my husband's laundry. I love to wash clothes for friends of mine. I think of myself as a radical feminist, but I love doing people's laundry. For me, the best way I can show affection, or the warmth I feel towards someone, is to launder their clothes. Delicates I like to wash by hand with soap flakes. I've got a wicker basket for things waiting to be ironed. Don't you love the smell of fresh laundry? Sometimes when I tell my so-called feminist friends that I love to wash my husband's clothes, I hear them tut-tut as if I've committed a crime, but I don't think it's a crime that I like doing laundry.

"I don't have a dryer. I hang things on a line in the garden. We visited Venice a few years ago. We walked down lots of these alleyways with beautiful old houses on either side and washing lines strung between the houses. There was all this fresh laundry hanging over our heads—shirts, sheets, dresses, brassieres, colours, and whites with the sun in them. All those bright colours. The shirt were waving like flags. When I walked under those clotheslines, felt like a bride walking under arches of fresh flowers.

"I had a friend who passed away last year. She'd been sick for four years. I went to see her pretty much every day and did all her laundry. I made sure she had clean clothes and clean bed linen. I though that if she had clean bed linen, that would make quite a difference to how she was feeling. There was one particular nightgown she liked to wear. It was very thin cotton with lace around the neck and on the shoulder straps. I washed that nightgown by hand over and over again, and she was wearing it when she died. I felt very close to her then, because we were such friends, and also because she was wearing the nightgown that I'd washed. I don't like to hear anyone say I'm wrong to love doing laundry."

Jean reached down for the tote bag that lay between her feet. She shifted it to her lap, rummaged briefly, and pulled out a postcard.

"I like to collect things that have to do with laundry. I brought this along to show my sister. Maybe you can guess what it is."

I looked at the postcard: a surreal, near-photographic painting of a washing machine—not a commonplace household washing machine, but something like a large earthenware bowl, painted grey, with a chunky lid on top, and a round window in which a jumble of clothes was visible: it seemed antique and futuristic at the same time.

"No," I said. "I don't think I can."

"It's Mickey Mouse's laundry room," Jean said.

"Really?"

"Yes! It's from the Disney Museum."

Yes, I could see one of Mickey's yellow mitts pressing against the window. Containers of laundry-related products were ranged along a shelf: a box of Freeze Detergent (For Really Cold Water), and bottles of Toonox Bleach, Toony Fabric Hardener, and Toonite Liquid (For Fine Washing). A small barrel of clothes pegs hung from a rail. Each smooth peg had been carved from wood and resembled an elegant chess piece.

"Up on my kitchen wall I like to stick photos of my friends' laundry rooms. I have a needlepoint picture of women doing laundry. It's from a painting by Clementine Hunter—she came from a slave family on the Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. There are three women doing laundry, wearing dresses—orange, lemon yellow, the hottest pink you can imagine—and a big black kettle with a fire underneath it. One woman is stirring the cauldron, and the other two are leaning over baskets, about to hang clothes on the line. I've got a collection of clothes pegs and laundry pins—old wooden pegs without springs, like these here"—she pointed to Mickey Mouse's clothes pegs—"and all sorts of sprung plastic pins, every colour you can think of, transparent, opaque, milky, glittery. I don't need to tell you I'm proud as a peach of my laundry collection!"

I lifted myself up in my seat and looked back down the bus at people sleeping, the Greyhound a gallery in which diverse attitudes of repose were on display: heads tilted back, mouths agape, necks limp, cheeks on shoulders, couples slumped together, all lit up when the Americruiser cruised through concentrations of streetlights at the intersections, and all eyes closed but for those of the two white-bearded Amish elders, who looked straight back at me with the inscrutable, wild gaze of prophets. Taillights moved in the traffic flow like red-hot coals in lava streams, and sometimes the line of Interstate 35 appeared ahead of us, a light-course bending yards, not perceptibly founded on solid ground, but airborne, the tube of bats that had curved away from Congress Avenue. I imagined this rope of lights as something useful to migrating birds, guideline, and thought of flocks flying above us, town and city s arranged beneath them in fixed constellations: zodiacs above below.

The mechanisms of avian orientation are not fully understood. Species that migrate in flocks, including ducks and geese, experienced birds may guide juveniles from breeding grounds to winter grounds and back again. Birds are known to inherit an endogenous programme for migratory activity; to navigate using solar, magnetic, stellar compasses; and to pilot by familiar landmarks. It has also suggested that they find their way by reference to winds, smells, infrasounds, and minute changes in gravity and barometric pressure. "Birds," Emlen wrote, "have access to many sources of directional information, and natural selection has favored the development of abilities to make use of them all."

We came to Kansas City and waited in the terminal for our connection. The Greyhound for Minneapolis got under way after midnight, helmed by a younger driver, a man in his mid-thirties, spick-and-span the way a house can be, with a neat, trim moustache, a smooth, shining bald pate like a cap of polished wax, his uniform exemplary in crease and aspect, his announcements crisp and honed—he appeared just-minted, like a new coin. Jean and I sat together, two rows back on the right-hand side. The terminals received travellers and discharged them in fresh combinations: we recognized some of those who had boarded the coach with us, and the absence of others, like the Amish elders, who had boarded coaches assigned to other reaches of the network, bound for other destinations. Across the aisle sat a gray-haired man, jowled like a bull seal in a green suit, his tie loosened and top button undone, and before the Greyhound reversed away from the terminal gate he addressed himself to Jean and me, saying, "I'm just waiting for the wheels to get turning. As long as the wheels are turning, I'm getting closer to home."

Soon he was asleep. Jean slept. She had removed her glasses; there was a moist pink groove on the bridge of her nose. She slept with her head straight, tilted back on the headrest, mouth open, hands resting on the black tote bag across her lap. I slept, woke, and slept again as we continued north up Interstate 35, continuing north with the snow geese across Missouri and Iowa into Minnesota, between the Great Plains and the Great Lakes. I slept when the coach hit cruising speed and the wheel drone settled to an even pitch, lights spinning past in regular cadence, and woke whenever such constancy was interrupted, opening my eyes to find Jean asleep next to me, dreaming of tennis and fresh, fragrant laundry.

Laundry. We had a laundry room, with a drying rig of dowels raised by ropes and pulleys, so that you hoisted the wet sheets and towels like sails, and if you needed to walk from one side of the room to the other you'd have to part the drying clothes with outstretched hands as if they were lianas and fronds, or else give in to the clamminess of damp shirts and trouser legs as they dragged across your scalp and cheeks. There was an old wringer with crank-turned rollers, and an oversized paint-stained sink beneath a shelf that was crowded with bottles of Brasso, bleach, turpentine, household ammonia, and limescale remover, and also with paintbrushes, scrubbing brushes, yellow Johnson's Wax Polish and beeswax polish, and a rusting pink Flit fly gun with a trademark white-trousered soldier marching on its canister. This white-trousered soldier could himself be seen toting a pink Flit fly gun, and once, when I was very young, I studied the soldier's fly gun to see if I could find on its tiny canister an even tinier soldier toting a fly gun, imagining an infinite, shrinking series of quantum soldiers toting fly guns. And opposite the washing machine, on its own square concrete plinth, rested the old blue oil-fired boiler, the house's heart, with a complex system of padded arterial white pipes leading from it to the ceiling. The small room in which I'd slept as a child (and in which I slept when illness returned me to the condition of a child, dependent on my parents, unable to cope with the challenges of the world outside my immediate home range) was directly above the boiler, and each morning, soon after the rooks began cawing, I'd hear it shudder to life as the timer decreed—the walls shaking, the table flap rattling on its secret latch, a sound in the floor spaces as if big, clumsy bubbles were galumphing up the white pipes, carrying heat to the house's extremities.

It was not hard, sitting on the Greyhound that night in March, following the snow geese, with Jean asleep beside me and the mesmerising, hallucinatory flare and slide of lights all around us, to return home, to go back to the laundry room or to the short white passage that led from it to the back door of the house, where the bars of three bolts slid with known weight and easiness into sockets on the jamb. The door opened onto the small paved terrace, the feeder with its red-husked peanuts, and if you looked to the left you'd see chestnuts, sycamores, and limes, you'd hear the bassoon caws of rooks in the tree crowns, the sound of the Sor Brook dropping off the waterfall, and if you looked to the right you'd see shrubs and climbing roses along a wall, a copper beech, farmland receding in a gentle upward grade to the west, the fixed pattern of fields named Lower Quarters, Danvers Meadow, Morby's Close, Allowance Ground.

Illness had taken me back—the first time since I was a schoolboy that I'd spent more than a few days, a week at most, at home. And it was home; the fact that I hadn't lived there for years didn't change that. Nowhere was my sense of belonging so unambiguous. I could still find my way around the ironstone house in the dark, or with my eyes closed, moving by reflex, habit, muscle memory; my hands knowing just where to reach for a handle, switch, or rail; my feet ready for a step up or down, a loose board, a shift from carpet to stone. I knew the names of things, their details and histories, every surface burnished with memory and association. When I fell ill—feeling threatened, under attack, with all sense of control or mastery gone—I longed for the house, imagining a place of safety, without dangers or conflict, where all my needs would be provided for, a still point from which life's unsteadiness could be viewed and measured. But the longing was a fantasy of escape. It was nostalgia.

I opened my eyes. A grey morning: dull, pewter-toned, twenty-four hours since I'd left Austin. The Greyhound was cruising steadily. Jean was awake, rubbing her eyes, replacing her glasses.

"Did you sleep?" she asked.

"Sort of."

"I was out for the count. Oh, my, I was bushwhacked."

And without warning she flung her right arm across me, pointing eastwards.

"Look!" she said. "Those are geese, right?"

Yes, those were geese. Flocks of snow geese were flying in skeins and straggling U's of thirty or forty birds each, moving northwards over flat country, above the horizon, parallel to the Greyhound. Slow waves rode through the strands as leading birds deviated slightly from their straight course and birds behind them followed suit, one after another, passing the discrepancy like a rumour along the line until it reached the last bird and flicked out into open air. Even in the grey light, I could distinguish blue-phase from white-phase birds—the morphs not jumbled randomly along each skein but grouped together in bands of three or four geese of the same colour. Each group of blue-phase or white-phase geese probably presented a family, two mates and their young: snow geese pair for life and forge strong family bonds, parents and offspring staying together on the first migration south, during the winter, and on the spring migration back to the breeding grounds, with the male usually leading his mate in flight—the opposite of ducks, where the female takes the lead. Jean leaned over me, getting her face close to the window, craning for a better look of the snow geese, and for a few minutes we kept level with the flocks, until the Greyhound pulled ahead, bent on Minneapolis. I was wide-awake now, heading north with snow geese, complicit with birds.

We arrived shortly after nine o'clock. Jean was anxious to see her sister. She got into the backseat of a taxi, looking surprisingly fresh, ablaze with red, yellow, and blue, the black tote bag hanging from one shoulder, the badge still adamant on her fleece vest. She wound down the window.

"I hope things are all right," I said.

"I know. We'll see. I hope those geese haven't skipped town when you get there."

"Bye, Jean."

"Bye!" She was calling it out; the taxi was already moving.

There was a bird in the terminal at Minneapolis—a passerine, perhaps one of the sparrows—skittish in the roof girders. Exhausted, disorientated, porous with distance, I sat watching a tall, swarthy man keep a leather purse of beans up in the air, the little sack jumping from knee to knee, the arch or instep of one foot to the arch or instep of the other—a hypnotic, stringless yo-yoing accompanied by rhythmic percussive beats as beans scrunched together in the impacts on leg or shoe. I boarded my last Greyhound at noon, limbs aching, the coach proceeding northwest on Interstate 94 towards: Fargo, crossing from Minnesota into North Dakota. Farm country ran flat in all directions, as if the land had conceded to the sky's magnitude, and given ground. Intricate centre-pivot irrigation systems stood motionless in the ploughed black fields. Farm buildings hunkered down in horseshoe windbreaks. I looked for geese, black wing tips flickering in smoky white sky. The coach passed St. Cloud, Sauk Centre, Alexandria, and Fergus Falls, and it was close to six o'clock when we arrived at Fargo. The temperature had fallen dramatically. Thirty-five hours had passed since the Americruiser had pulled out of Austin in the storm. Eleanor's shining birdcage stood empty thousand miles due south as the crow flies.

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Excerpted from The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes. Copyright © 2003 by William Fiennes. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.