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In Autumn

Theodora Goss's publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014). Her work has been translated into ten languages, including French, Japanese, and Turkish. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her short story "Singing of Mount Abora" (2007) won the World Fantasy Award. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program.

She waited until autumn.
She wanted to wait until the children were home and back in school. Bobby had been at soccer camp--Robert, he wanted to be called now, which was confusing because his father was Robert too, so when she called either of them, they both answered. He started tenth grade and slipped right back into his usual routine of school, soccer, and hanging out with friends, like a fish sliding through a pond without making a ripple. It was Eleanor she was worried about. At the end of seventh grade she'd quarreled with her best friend, or her best friend had quarreled with her, and Eleanor had said they were never speaking again, then had run up to her room and cried with the sort of passionate intensity best left to itself. That summer she had gone to riding camp, and then visited her grandparents, Robert's parents, who lived in a large house surrounded by pastures and forest, where her grandmother had made all her favorite foods. Somehow, over Facebook or Snapchat or whatever teenagers were using at the moment, a reconciliation had been effected, and Eleanor and Emily were once again inseparable. But Eleanor was the sensitive one, the one who secretly wrote poetry, so it was Eleanor she was worried about.
She put it off as long as she could, methodically doing everything she thought was necessary. She had lunch with her best friends, women she'd met in art school: Elsa, who was a sculptress and older, and Amelia, who was a graphic designer and younger. They had started going out for coffee after the required Introduction to Aesthetic Theory class. That had been in the early days of her marriage, when she was still learning the language, how to walk and talk and dress the right way as the wife of Robert Foster, Esq. They had helped her navigate the complexities of registration and the school's computer system. At the time, she though she might become an artist, have a career of her own. But Bobby had been born, and then Eleanor. Over the living room sofa hung one of her first paintings: swirls of white and gray in an abstract pattern. Well, at least the friendships had lasted. She and Amelia had taken care of Elsa's cats in the weeks after her mastectomy. She and Elsa had been attendants at Amelia's wedding. Elsa or Amelia had babysat the children so she could have date nights with Robert. The three of them met at the new restaurant downtown that Amelia recommended. She and Elsa ordered wine, Elsa ordered the salad because she was dieting, Amelia ordered dessert because she was eating for two now. Afterward she held their hands. "You've been my best friends here," she said. Amelia cried a little, saying it was the hormones, and Elsa asked, "What's going on? You don't sound like yourself." But she didn't answer.
After lunch, she met with the bank manager and set up trusts for the children. Although she had never worked full time, she'd saved some money from her part-time job at the art studio. Once Eleanor had started school, she'd wanted to work, even though Robert had told her it wasn't necessary, that she should prioritize the children. She knew Robert would give them more than enough, but she wanted them to have a little something from her, to spend as they wished. For Eleanor, she also left a box and letter, to be delivered on her eighteenth birthday. In the following weeks, she had the rugs cleaned, the armchair that the cat had scratched reupholstered. She made sure the dog was up on his shots. There always seemed to be something more that needed doing, so she kept putting it off.
By the end of September, she could not wait any longer. It was still warm, but winter was coming--she had seen a flock of geese by the river, stopping for a few days on its way from Canada to Mexico. The last of the tomatoes were cracking on the vine. She thought of canning them, but really what did it matter? The garden had been planted to teach the children where food came from; what it produced could be bought cheaper at the supermarket. And anyway, this had to end somewhere. There was only so much she could do.
On the day, she made waffles for breakfast, with coffee for Robert and a kiss as he rushed out the door, on the way to a client meeting. She sent Bobby and Eleanor off to school, hugging them both tightly. Bobby sighed and said "Mooooom" in protest, but she was surprised when Eleanor hugged her back just as tight. Then she picked up the dry-cleaning, went to the grocery store and stocked up on toilet paper, paid the family cell phone bill. What else? The breakfast dishes were in the dishwasher. Really there was nothing more for her to do.
She was out of excuses.
She sat down at the desk in the kitchen, the one where she paid bills, and opened the drawer. It was just as she had left it, and for a moment she wished that someone, anyone, had opened that drawer--but no one else had a reason to use it. Scissors, stamps, checks, spare keys, and a bundle of gray feathers the roofer had found, when he had replaced the roof tiles damaged in last winter's ice storm. "Looks like some bird made a nest in your roof," he had said, showing her the feathers, tucked behind a rafter. She had laughed and pulled them down, saying she would throw them out. Now she put them on the desk: they were long and gray, iridescent in the light. She spread them out. They were attached to an integument that looked, more than anything, like a hood. She remembered vaguely that Robert had been up there, soon after she first arrived--patching a hole, he said. So that's where he had put it. No one had worked on the roof since. She stroked the feathers. It had been so long.
Should she take her raincoat? It looked like rain. And then she laughed at herself, aloud in the empty house.
The flock was still there, six gray geese by the river. They eyed her warily, the lead goose standing up and craning his neck. He hissed. At the last moment, she realized she had forgotten to tell Robert there was frozen lasagna for dinner--all he had to do was put it in the microwave. But for goodness' sake, he was a grown man and a lawyer. He could figure it out for himself.
She pulled the feathers out of the plastic bag she was carrying, all the feathers the roofer had found except one she had put in a box, with a note for Eleanor. It was a long note, but the most important part was short and at the end: When you call, I will come for you. Love, Mom. She held the bundle of feathers in front of her, like a talisman, then shook it out. The lead goose stopped hissing and bobbed his head once, twice. If he had been human, he would have been nodding. One by one, the flock of geese stood up in their absurd, elegant way. She could feel the air: moist, cold, with a wind blowing from the east--the ocean smell was in it. She drew the feathered hood over her head. It was time.
She stretched out her wings, and scooped the air, and then she was airborne.
Seven geese rose into the autumn sky, through swirls of white and gray, until they were only a V-formation high above, winging their way south.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 13th, 2015

Author Comments

I live in Boston, where the changing seasons are marked by the coming and going of Canada Geese. In spring they return, some stopping for a little while on their journey farther north, some laying their eggs near the river that flows through the city or the various ponds and lakes. In summer, I can see their goslings bobbing up and down in the water. In autumn they fly overhead in V-formations, heading back down south. Their calls have always been one of my favorite sounds. In the nineteenth century they were hunted almost to extinction. Now there are so many that some people consider them a nuisance. But for me, they have always symbolized freedom. I wrote this story after studying the swan-woman legends of Europe. I wondered what a distinctly American version would look like....

- Theodora Goss
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