The Homesickness of Kehonka

    THE April night, softly chill and full of the sense of thaw, was closing down over the wide salt marshes. Near at hand the waters of the Tantramar, resting at full tide, glimmered through the dusk and lapped faintly among the winter-ruined remnants of the sedge. Far off — infinitely far it seemed in that illusive atmosphere, which was clear, yet full of the ghosts of rain — the last of daylight lay in a thin streak, pale and sharp, along a vast arc of the horizon. Overhead it was quite dark; for there was no moon, and the tenuous spring clouds were sufficient to shut out the stars. They clung in mid-heaven, but kept to their shadowy ranks without descending to obscure the lower air. Space and mystery, mystery and space, lay abroad upon the vague levels of marsh and tide.
    Presently, from far along the dark heights of the sky, came voices, hollow, musical, confused. Swiftly they journeyed nearer; they grew louder. [Page 117] The sound — not vibrant, yet strangely far-carrying — was a clamorous monotony of honk-a-honk, honk-a-honk, honka, honka, honk, honk. It hinted of wide distance voyaged over on tireless wings, of a tropic winter passed in feeding amid remote, high-watered meadows of Mexico and Texas, of long flights yet to go, toward the rocky tarns of Labrador and the reed beds of Ungava. As the sound passed straight overhead the listener on the march below imagined, though he could not see, the strongly beating wings, the outstretched necks and heads, the round, unswerving eyes of the wild goose flock in its V-shaped array, winnowing steadily northward through the night. But this particular flock was not set, as it chanced, upon an all-night journey. The wise old gander winging at the head of the V knew of good feeding-grounds near by, which he was ready to revisit. He led the flock straight on, above the many windings of the Tantramar, till its full-flooded sheen far below him narrowed and narrowed to a mere brook. Here, in the neighbourhood of the uplands, were a number of shallow, weedy, fresh-water lakes, with shores so choked with thickets and fenced apart with bogs as to afford a security which his years and broad experiences had taught him to value. [Page 118] Into one of these lakes, a pale blur amid the thick shadows of the shores, the flock dropped with heavy splashings. A scream or two of full-throated content, a few flappings of wings and rufflings of plumage in the cool, and the voyagers settled into quiet.
    All night there was silence around the flock, save for the whispering seepage of the snow patches that still lingered among the thickets. With the first creeping pallor of dawn the geese began to feed, plunging their long black necks deep into the water and feeling with the sensitive inner edges of their bills for the swelling root-buds of weed and sedge. When the sun was about the edge of the horizon, and the first rays came sparkling, of a chilly pink most luminous and pure, through the lean traceries of the brushwood, the leader raised his head high and screamed a signal. With answering cries and a tempestuous splashing the flock flapped for a few yards along the surface of the water. Then they rose clear, formed quickly into rank, and in their spacious V went honking northward over the half-lighted, mysterious landscape. But, as it chanced, not all of the flock set out with that morning departure. There was one pair, last year’s birds, upon whom had fallen a weariness of travel. Perhaps in the coils of their brains [Page 119] lurked some inherited memory of these safe resting-places and secluded feeding-grounds of the Midgic lakes. However that may have been, they chose to stay where they were, feeling in their blood no call from the cold north solitudes. Dipping and bowing, black neck by neck, they gave no heed to the leader’s signal, nor to the noisy going of the flock. Pushing briskly with the black webs of their feet against the discoloured water, they swam to the shore and cast about for a place to build their nest.
    There was no urgent hurry, so they chose not on that day nor the next. When they chose, it was a little bushy islet off a point of land, well tangled with alder and osier and a light flotsam of driftwood. The nest, in the heart of the tangle, was an apparently haphazard collection of sticks and twigs, well raised above the damp, well lined with moss and feathers. Here, in course of days, there accumulated a shining cluster of six large white eggs. But by this time the spring freshet had gone down. The islet was an islet no longer, but a mere adjunct of the point, which any inquisitive foot might reach dry shod. Now just at this time it happened that a young farmer, who had a curious taste for all the wild kindred of wood, and flood, [Page 120] and air, came up from the Lower Tantramar with a wagon-load of grist for the Midgic mill. While his buckwheat and barley were a-grinding, he thought of a current opinion to the effect that the wild geese were given to nesting in the Midgic lakes. “If so,” said he to himself, “this is the time they would be about it.” Full of interest, a half-hour’s tramp through difficult woods brought him to the nearest of the waters. An instinct, an intuition born of his sympathy with the furtive folk, led him to the point, and out along the point to that once islet, with its secret in the heart of the tangle. Vain were the furious hissings, the opposing wings, the wide black bills that threatened and oppugned him. With the eager delight of a boy he pounced upon those six great eggs, and carried them all away. “They will soon turn out another clutch,” said he to himself, as he left the bereaved pair, and tramped elatedly back to the mill. As for the bereaved pair, being of a philosophic spirit, they set themselves to fulfil as soon as possible his prophecy.
    On the farm by the Lower Tantramar, in a hogshead half filled with straw and laid on its side in a dark corner of the tool-shed, those six eggs were diligently brooded for four weeks and two days by a comfortable gray and white goose of the common [Page 121] stock. When they hatched, the good gray and white mother may have been surprised to find her goslings of an olive green hue, instead of the bright golden yellow which her past experience and that of her fellows had taught her to expect. She may have marvelled too, at their unwonted slenderness and activity. These trivial details, however, in no way dampened the zeal with which she led them to the goose pond, or the fidelity with which she pastured and protected them. But rats, skunks, sundry obscure ailments, and the heavy wheels of the farm wagon, are among the perils which, the summer through, lie in wait for all the children of the feathered kin upon the farm; and so it came about that of the six young ones so successfully hatched from the wild goose eggs, only two lived till the coming of autumn brought them full plumage and the power of flight. Before the time of the southward migration came near, the young farmer took these two and clipped from each the strong primaries of their right wings. “They seem contented enough, and tame as any,” he said to himself, “but you never can tell what’ll happen when the instinct strikes ’em.”
    Both the young wild geese were fine males. Their heads and long, slim necks were black, as [Page 122] were also their tails, great wing feathers, bills, and feet. Under the tail their father were of snowiest white, and all the other portions of their bodies a rich grayish brown. Each bore on the side of its face a sharply defined triangular path of white, mottled with faint brown markings that would disappear after his first moult. In one the white cheek patches met under the throat. This was a large, strongly built bird, of a placid and domestic temper. He was satisfied with the undistinguished gray companions of the flock. He was content, like them, to gutter noisily with his discriminating bill along the shallow edges of the pond, to float and dive and flap in the deeper centre, to pasture at random over the wet meadow, biting off the short grasses with quick, sharp, yet gracefully curving dabs. Goose pond and wet meadow and cattle-trodden barnyard bounded his aspirations. When his adult voice came to him, all he would say was honk, honk, contemplatively, and sometimes honk-a-honk when he flapped his wings in the exhilarating coolness of the sunrise. The other captive was of a more restless temperament, slenderer in build, more eager and alert of eye, less companionable of mood. He was, somehow, never seen in the centre of the flock — he never seemed a part of it. He fed, swam, [Page 123] rested, preened himself, always a little apart. Often, when the others were happily occupied with their familiar needs and satisfactions, he would stand motionless, his compact, glossy head high in air, looking to the north as if in expectation, listening as if he awaited longed-for tidings. The triangular white patch on each side of his head was very narrow, and gave him an expression of wildness; yet in reality he was no more wild, or rather no more shy, than any others of the flock. None, indeed, had so confident a fearlessness as he. He would take oats out of the farmer’s hand, which none of the rest quite dared to do.
    Until late in the autumn, the lonely, uncomraded bird was always silent. But when the migrating flocks began to pass overhead, on the long southward trail, and their hollow clamour was heard over the farmstead night and morning, he grew more restless. He would take a short run with outspread wings, and then, feeling their crippled inefficiency, would stretch himself to his full height and call, a sonorous, far-reaching cry — ke-honk-a, ke-honk-a. From this call, so often repeated throughout October and November, the farmer named him Kehonka. The farmer’s wife favoured the more domesticated and manageable brother, who could be trusted [Page 124] never to stray. But the farmer, who mused deeply over his furrows, and half wistfully loved the wild kindred, loved Kehonka, and used to say he would not lose the bird for the price of a steer. “That there bird,” he would say, “has got dreams away down in is heart. Like as not, he remembers things his father and mother have seen, up amongst the ice cakes and the northern lights, or down amongst the bayous and the big southern lilies.” But all his sympathy failed to make him repent of having clipped Kehonka’s wing.
    During the long winter, when the winds swept fiercely the open marshes of the Tantramar, and the snow piled in high drifts around the barns and wood piles, and the sheds were darkened, and in the sun at noonday the strawy dungheaps steamed, the rest of the geese remained listlessly content. But not so Kehonka. Somewhere in the back of his brain he cherished pre-natal memories of warm pools in the South, where leafy screens grew rank, and the sweet-rooted water-plants pulled easily from the deep black mud, and his true kindred were screaming to each other at the oncoming of the tropic dark. While the flock was out in the barnyard, pulling lazily at the trampled litter, and snatching scraps of the cattle’s chopped turnips, Kehonka would stand [Page 127] aloof by the water-trough, his head erect, listening, longing. As the winter sun sank early over the fir woods back of the farm, his wings would open, and his desirous cry would go echoing three or four times across the still countryside — ke-honk-a — ke-honk-a — ke-honk-a! Whereat the farmer’s wife, turning her buckwheat pancakes over the hot kitchen stove, would mutter impatiently; but the farmer, slipping to the door of the cow-stable with the bucket of feed in his hand, would look with deep eyes of sympathy at the unsatisfied bird. “He wants something that we don’t grow round here,” he would say to himself; and little by little the bird’s restlessness came to seem to him the concrete embodiment of certain dim outreachings of his own. He, too, caught himself straining his gaze beyond the marsh horizons of Tantramar.
    When the winter broke, and the seeping drifts shrank together, and the brown of the ploughed fields came through the snow in patches, and the slopes leading down to the marshland were suddenly loud with running water, Kehonka’s restlessness grew so eager that he almost forgot to feed. It was time, he thought, for the northward flight to begin. He would stand for hours, turning first one dark eye, then the other, toward the soft sky overhead, [Page 128] expectant of the V-shaped journeying flock, and the far-off clamour of voices from the South crying to him in his own tongue. At last, when the snow was about gone from the open fields, one evening at the shutting-in of dark, the voices came. He was lingering at the edge of the goose pond, the rest having settled themselves for the night, when he heard the expected sounds. Honk-a-honk, honk-a-honk, honka, honka, honk, honk, they came up against the light April wind, nearer, nearer, nearer. Even his keen eye could not detect them against the blackness; but up went his wings, and again and again he screamed to them sonorously. In response to his call, their flight swung lower, and the confusion of their honking seemed as if it were going to descend about him. But the wary old gander, their leader, discerned the roofs, man’s handiwork, and suspected treachery. At his sharp signal the flock, rising again, streamed off swiftly toward safer feeding-grounds, and left Kehonka to call and call unanswered. Up to this moment all his restlessness had not led him to think of actually deserting the farmstead and the alien flock. Though not of them he had felt it necessary to be with them. His instinct for other scenes and another fellowship had been too little tangible to [Page 129] move him to the snapping of established ties. But now, all his desires at once took concrete form. It was his, it belonged to himself — that strong, free flight, that calling through the sky, that voyaging northward to secret nesting-places. In that wild flock which had for a moment swerved downward to his summons, or in some other flock, was his mate. It was mating season, and not until now had he known it.
    Nature does sometimes, under the pressure of great and concentrated desires, make unexpected effort to meet unforeseen demands. All winter long, though it was not the season for such growth, Kehonka’s clipped wing primaries had been striving to develop. They had now, contrary to all custom, attained to an inch or so of effective flying web. Kehonka’s heart was near bursting with his desire as the voices of the unseen flock died away. He spread his wings to their full extent, ran some ten paces along the ground, and then, with all his energies concentrated to the effort, he rose into the air, and flew with swift-beating wings out into the dark upon the northward trail. His trouble was not the lack of wing surface, but the lack of balance. One wing being so much less in spread than the other, he felt a fierce force striving to turn him [Page 130] over at every stroke. It was the struggle to counteract this tendency that wore him out. His first desperate effort carried him half a mile. Then he dropped to earth, in a bed of withered salt-grass all awash with the full tide of Tantramar. Resting amid the salt-grass, he tasted such an exultation of freedom that his heart forgot its soreness over the flock which had vanished. Presently, however, he heard again the sound that so thrilled his every vein. Weird, hollow, echoing with memories and tidings, it came throbbing up the wind. His own strong cry went out at once to meet it — ke-honk-a, ke-honk-a, ke-honk-a. The voyagers this time were flying very low. They came near, nearer, and at last, in a sudden silence of voices, but a great flapping of wings, they settled down in the salt-grass all about him.
    The place was well enough for a night’s halt — a shallow, marshy pool which caught the overflow of the highest spring tides, and so was not emptied by the ebb. After its first splashing descent into the water, which glimmered in pale patches among the grass stems, every member of the flock sat for some moments motionless as statues, watchful for unknown menace; and Kehonka, his very soul trembling with desire achieved, sat motionless among [Page 131] them. Then, there being no sign of peril at hand, there was a time of quiet paddling to and fro, a scuttling of practised bills among the grass-roots, and Kehonka found himself easily accepted as a member of the flock. Happiness kept him restless and on the move long after the others had their bills tucked under their wings. In the earliest gray of dawn, when the flock awoke to feed, Kehonka fed among them as if he had been with them all the way from their flight from the Mexican plains. But his feeding was always by the side of a young female who had not yet paired. It was interrupted by many little courtesies of touching bill and bowing head, which were received with plain favour; for Kehonka was a handsome and well marked bird. By the time the sky was red along the east and strewn with pale, blown feathers of amber pink toward the zenith, his swift wooing was next door to winning. He had forgotten his captivity and clipped wing. He was thinking of a nest in the wide emptiness of the North.
    When the signal-cry came, and the flock took flight, Kehonka rose with them. But his preliminary rush along the water was longer than that of the others, and when the flock formed into flying order he fell in at the end of the longer leg of the [Page 132] V, behind the weakest of the young geese. This would have been a humiliation to him, had he taken thought of it at all; but his attention was all absorbed in keeping his balance. When the flock found its pace, and the cold sunrise air began to whistle past the straight, bullet-like rush of their flight, a terror grew upon him. He flew much better than he had flown the night before; but he soon saw that this speed of theirs was beyond him. He would not yield, however. He would not lag behind. Every force of his body and his brain went into that flight, till his eyes blurred and his heart seemed on the point of bursting. Then, suddenly, with a faint, despairing note, he lurched aside, shot downward, and fell with a great splash into the channel of the Tantramar. With strong wings, and level, unpausing flight, the flock went on to its North without him.
    Dazed by the fall, and exhausted by the intensity of his effort, Kehonka floated, moveless, for many minutes. The flood-tide, however, racing inland, was carrying him still northward; and presently he began to swim in the same direction. In his sick heart glowed still the vision of the nest in the far-off solitudes, and he felt that he would find there, waiting for him, the strong-winged mate who had [Page 135] left him behind. Half an hour later another flock passed honking overhead, and he called to them; but they were high up, and feeding time was past. They gave no sign in answer. He made no attempt to fly after them. Hour after hour he swam on with the current, working ever north. When the tide turned he went ashore, still following the river, till its course changed toward the east; whereupon he ascended the channel of a small tributary which flowed in on the north bank. Here and there he snatched quick mouthfuls of sprouting grasses, but he was too driven by his desire to pause for food. Sometimes he tried his wings again, covering now some miles at each flight, till by and by, losing the stream because its direction failed him, he found himself in a broken upland country, where progress was slow and toilsome. Soon after sunset, troubled because there was no water near, he again took wing, and over dark woods which filled him with apprehension he made his longest flight. When about spent he caught a small gleaming of water far below him, and alighted in a little woodland glade wherein a brook had overflowed low banks.
    The noise of his abrupt descent loudly startled the wet and dreaming woods. It was a matter of interest to all the furry, furtive ears of the forest [Page 136] for a half-mile round. But it was in no way repeated. For perhaps fifteen minutes Kehonka floated, neck erect, head high and watchful, in the middle of the pool, with no movement except the slight, unseen oaring of his black-webbed feet, necessary to keep the current from bearing him into the gloom of the woods. This gloom, hedging him on every side, troubled him with a vague fear. But in the open of the mid-pool, with two or three stars peering faintly through the misted sky above him, he felt comparatively safe. At last, very far above, he heard again that wild calling of his fellows, — honk-a-honk, honk-a-honk, honka, honka, honk, honk, — high and dim and ghostly, for these rough woodlands had no appeal for the journeying flocks. Remote as the voices were, however, Kehonka answered at once. His keen, sonorous, passionate cry rang strangely on the night, three times. The flock paid no heed to it whatever, but sped on northward with unvarying flight and clamour; and as the wizard noise passed beyond, Kehonka, too weary to take wing, followed eagerly to the northwardly shore of the pool, ran up the wet bank, and stood straining after it.
    His wings were half spread as he stood there, quivering with his passion. In his heart was the [Page 139] hunger of the quest. In his eyes was the vision of nest and mate, where the serviceberry thicket grew by the wide sub-arctic waters. The night wind blew steadily away from him to the underbrush close by, or even in his absorption he would have noticed the approach of a menacing, musky smell. But every sense was now numb in the presence of his great desire. There was no warning for him.
    The underbrush rustled, ever so softly. Then a small, delicately moving, fine-furred shape, the discourager of quests, darted stealthily forth, and with a bound that was feathery in its blown lightness, seeming to be uplifted by the wide-plumed tail that balanced it, descended on Kehonka’s body. There was a thin honk, cut short by keen teeth meeting with a crunch and a twist in the glossy slim blackness of Kehonka’s neck. The struggle lasted scarcely more than two heart-beats. The wide wings pounded twice or thrice upon the ground in fierce convulsion. Then the red fox, with a sidewise jerk of his head, flung the heavy, trailing carcass into a position for its easy carrying, and trotted off with it into the darkness of the woods. [Page 140]