The Redeemer of Worms
31 December 2020

On Christmas evening they came down from the ship into a fresh fall of snow and walked on the narrow path between the high walls of the grain elevator and the ships side, treading carefully in the footprints of those who’d gone before to keep the snow from entering their shoes.  He tilted his head back and looked up at the bulwarks of the vessel.  He could hear the pulse-like thrum of the generator, deep inside the vessel, coming through the thick steel plates of the hull.  His gaze lowered and he looked across the expanse of ice that the ship was now enclosed in.  Thick enough to walk on he thought.  It was clear and cold and the moon was full and cast the ship and the ice in a strange blue light.

Something moved on the ice beneath the vessel’s transom.  They all saw and stopped and waited as their eyes adjusted to the dimness.

‘It’s a goose,’ said O. the French first mate.  ‘She’s hurt.’  

‘God dammit,’ he said, and he could see the animal then, dragging its broken wing on the ice, trying to hide in the shadow the ship threw.  His ship mates knew of his sensitivities.  He’d yelled at all of them before for throwing rocks at seagulls or nesting geese.  They’re just being protective he’d tell them.  They’re only doing what you would do in their place.

‘You want me to kill her for you?’ asked O. as they stood staring at the lame goose.

‘No I’m good,’ he said.  The first mate’s offer had been made in jest but he was quite capable of delivering on it.  O. was from Quebec, a diehard outdoorsman and hunter, and.the scourge of winged beasts and ungulates from Valley Field to Port Cartier.  They continued on along the path.  

Where the elevator ended the ground rose up to a grassy knoll, now covered in snow.  Without the shelter of the building the wind was fierce and bitingly cold.  The snow was piled higher here and they had to use the light from their phones to see the way.  The ground was uneven making each step precarious.  They could see the neighboring ship’s stack now, its lights beyond the train track and the small cluster of trees. As they got closer the way became clearer and their pace quickened. Each of them mounted the ladder up to the stern, one by one.  He had to remove his naked hands from his pockets.  The aluminum rungs were so cold they felt hot to his skin.  He climbed quickly and followed the others inside to the warmth of the aft lounge where they wished and were wished a merry Christmas and they sat and chatted and caught up with their old shipmates.

It was his Christmas wish that the goose be gone when they returned.  I’ll give half my wages to make it so, he thought.  It wasn’t.  Instead it had wandered further out onto the ice, ambivalent to its exposure. O. repeated his offer and once more he declined.  

‘Ha fucking ha,’ he said and in case there was anything lost in translation he added, ‘Seriously.  Don’t.’ But he knew, the creature was doomed.  It was -20˚C outside.  It was, to use a poor expression, a sitting duck.  Killing it would have been the humane thing to do.

Most of his shipmates were hunters but he did not begrudge them this. They ate what they killed and to his mind could have a much clearer conscience than those who bought and ate factory farmed animals.  O. had even brought him a Ziploc bag full of snow goose jerky he had made on his last trip home.

Hunting just wasn’t for him and it never would be. He was after all the guy whose progress was often slow on summer sidewalks after a rain, busied as he would be repatriating cement-stranded worms back to the soil beds and lawns they came from.  

Later, as he lay in bed, his last thoughts were of the goose out there alone on the ice.

‘Fucking goose,’ he muttered to himself.  ‘Goddam fucking goose.’

He spent his watch the next morning watching canola fill the cargo holds.  As it accumulated inside the ship the small black and yellow grains of the growing pile looked to have the texture and patterning of a marble rye.  Periodically he would walk aft to check on the bird.  It had not, as he hoped, miraculously healed overnight and flown away.  It was sitting about a hundred feet away from the ship.  It gave the appearance of patiently waiting.  It would look around every once in a while, as a lonely pensioner might look for a bus.  

The end was not long in coming.  And it came from above.

In the early afternoon, a juvenile bald eagle swooped out of the sky and struck the goose with its full weight. The two slid a length across the ice with the sheer force of impact.  When they came to a stop the young raptor stood atop the flailing bird proudly as its parents descended.  The mother, the larger, stepped on top the wounded animal and tore into the soft flesh of the birds feathered rump as its legs flailed futilely and its neck writhed.  She tossed her head back to swallow the morsels ripped from the still-living goose and she cast her cold gaze around the clear tract of ice around her like a malign despot. When she had had her fill she stepped away, and her mate took over.  Finally the juvenile was allowed to enjoy the fruit of his catch.  The ice was strewn with feathers and blood.  The goose continued to twitch, even as the young eagle took its turn.

Up on the ship’s bridge an audience had gathered.  

‘In 40 years I’ve never seen anything like that,’ the captain said.  ‘Likely never will again.’

That night, the cargo was all loaded and the hatches closed and dogged and they made ready to leave the dock.  After the wires had been cast off the redeemer of worms stood on the stern, and he stared out at the moon and the Pangea of unbroken ice that covered the entire slip where they had been moored and extended far out beyond the break wall and into the open lake.  The natural world is not for the faint-hearted he thought and as he did so a coyote darted from between the high stacked palettes of wood at the lumber mill opposite and it ran along the water’s edge until it was out of sight.  Perhaps he should memorialize it in a poem, he thought, he could call it  ‘Anthem for Doomed Goose’. 

The captain reversed the ship and then drove it forward. He repeated this until the ice weakened and soon, long, jagged rends appeared on the unblemished surface like lightning across a night sky.  Below his feet he could feel the tectonic crunch of the shifting ice and all around him the indefatigable roar of the main engine and its powerful reverberations ran electric through his body.  The sound was all-encompassing and he did not want to move for it was constant and it was inside him, like the combined and steady heartbeat of every living thing.