For the better part of a week, I’ve been driving around with the carcass of a Canada goose in the bed of my pickup. It lies there with the spare tire, the snow, the blue plastic box of emergency clothes, and an assortment of crushed pop and beer cans from last summer.
Because of the recent cold weather, I haven’t been worried about the goose’s inevitable decay, only about my own motives in keeping it. For reasons that remain unclear, I’ve left the carcass where it is, which is why every time I climb in or out of the cab I see it, wings spread out three feet wide, the 18 vertebrae inside its sinuous neck curled back, twisting it like a shank of thick rope.
It was just after first light and I was leaving the house. From the border of my landlord’s hayfield, two dark shapes bounded across the road. In the pale light they looked like phantoms, hounds from the underworld escaping on the dregs of the winter night. From the lead dog’s mouth wheeled a fantastic shape, nearly as big as the dog itself. With ill-concealed excitement, the dog shook the thing in a ghostly dance and then dropped it in front of my tires.
I got out and turned it over: It was a nearly intact Canada goose, its belly gnawed open to reveal a frozen tableau of twisted viscera. For a moment I thought about leaving it for the dogs, but then I changed my mind. I didn’t ask myself why; I just put the dead bird into my pickup and then drove away.
Far from being repelled by the idea of carrying this dead thing around with me, I remember thinking that it seemed like some kind of gift. After all, it’s not often we get to handle the wild creatures we share this planet with. As I write this, I periodically go outside and look at the carcass, and except for the unnatural twist of its neck, it looks almost like a whole bird viewed from above in flight. And that’s a unique perspective.
Because I live on the edge of a wildlife reserve outside of Stevensville, Mont., not a day goes by that I don’t both see and hear geese. A flock of Canada geese honking high overhead stirs a part of me much older than my 43 years. Whenever I see migrating geese in their loose V-shaped formations, I imagine them spelling out something eternal, perhaps even vital, against the open fields of the sky. Given the beauty of these birds in motion and the strong pull they have on the psyche, I can’t help wondering why I’ve chosen to carry a dead one around with me for days. It’s a question that intrigues me.
As I look at the bird, I remember a similarly cold winter day, when I sat, examining the carcass of a deer that had been hit by a car and catapulted over the road bank. Then as now, I felt oddly indifferent. The curious, scientific side of my brain took over, and the slaughtered animal was no longer a deer, but a thing -- no different than finding a pretty stone on a beach. There’s an unnerving Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to this part of my character. It shows up at other times, too, when I happily eat the venison, bear meat or elk my friends bring over. But I don’t hunt and never have, and so I feel as if, in one way or another, I live with hypocrisy every day of my life.
As I touch the bird’s long primaries and think about the navigational map in its head, I decide to drive to the refuge and lay the carcass out in the weeds. Let the ravens and the other scavengers find it. Winter is a lean time of year; one kill more or less can make all the difference. I have no idea if the dogs killed the goose or if they simply stumbled upon it. To me it matters little. I’ll give the bird back to those that need it most.
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Stevensville, Montana.