by Dorothea Barth
Sabine glanced with sudden interest at the birds crossing Mare Island Strait. Their precise V-formation belied the fact that the island shipyard from whose direction they were arriving had been without military missions for over a decade. Landing on the waterfront green, the birds became an instant third party to the seagulls and pigeons, grabbing the attention of early morning walkers. Though fewer in number than the gulls and pigeons, the geese constituted a notable presence by their larger size and stately ringed demeanor.
“What are those,” yelled a jogger, earphones beneath his windbreaker’s hood, repeating his question in the hope of obtaining from one of the passersby an answer sufficiently loud to offset his iPod’s blare.
“Canada geese,” explained a woman to her partner.
They were not the only avian visitors to the waterfront park. Some sandpipers had also arrived for their stop along the Pacific Flyway. An occasional vulture sailed in solitary vigilance above the blue and white boats in the yacht harbor. Crows and starlings preferred to hover in trees and shrubs, the starlings, Sabine assumed, better to shout warnings or dive bomb her as she exited her Civic for her daily walk.
Sabine was dressed in mauve, teal, and eggplant—colors which she remembered suddenly and for no particular reason one U.S. political party, years ago, had chosen to ridicule in their opponent’s convention décor. Colors which were, they had assured the voting population, wimpy and without vision. In her customary downward glance, Sabine observed these colors and approved of their muted variegation, which she believed suited her more than primary reds, whites, and blues.
The presence of the geese caused Sabine to straighten. Energized, she counted their numbers from a polite distance. Twenty-two. The next day, there would be twenty-seven, the age Sabine was when she was first married. The following day, new V-teams would arrive to increase their number to forty-four--the age, Sabine noted with surprise, she was when she married her present husband.
During her second honeymoon (there had been no first honeymoon, an omen of deprivations to come), Sabine had met the Nene, a relative of the Canada goose. She’d posed saucily with the bird, lying on her stomach to face it. She fancied an affinity with birds, at least in regard to communication, and she’d also wanted to capture some honeymoon photos. The nature of the trip prevented her from being in most of the pictures with her new husband unless she asked some stranger to snap the photo, a request not in Sabine’s subdued repertory.
Numerous sirens roared along Mare Island Way, hastening to the island whose promised renaissance would one day turn it from polluted, abandoned shipyard to a place of fine homes, businesses, and tourist promenades. Today was the anniversary of 9-11, and Sabine was disturbed by the sirens. The geese, however, continued to graze placidly.
Sabine knew that Canada geese were not welcome everywhere. Due to climate changes, some flocks had become non-migratory, choosing to remain at inhospitable locations where they were considered a sanitation and health risk. Their slaughter had even been allowed in some states. Sabine remembered the latest water quality report for her town had shown no red flags. She had been coughing more lately, especially as she walked the waterfront, but Sabine wasn’t about to blame a flock of birds for that.
The cough could have had any number of origins. Such as when she’d arrived with her family in Southern California four decades ago, thrilled to be in a place of water and mountains, and had marveled at the daily sleight of hand when the majestic San Gabriels disappeared in the smog by noontime.
It may have been caused by her job at a Navy base different than the one across the strait. Four of her co-workers had been smokers, in the days when anyone complaining of respiratory distress risked being labeled a troublemaker. Needing the work, Sabine had remained in the smokers’ den for two years, sprinting, with manuscripts in hand and limited success, to less toxic cubicles as they became available.
A move to Central California’s fruit bowl surely was culprit to Sabine’s cough. Alarmed by its intensity, her husband had decided they should move further north. Who’s to say that pollens from the glorious nearby vineyards or a ghostly wind from the old military base across the water weren’t contributing to it now?
No, it was not the Canada geese, those avian ambassadors representing, possibly, quite another omen. This was because just a week before the arrival of the geese, Sabine’s husband had once again brought up the possibility of moving to Vancouver, BC, which he assured her would be the final stop in their northward migration. He’d already presented this desire to Sabine shortly after they met. Sabine had dismissed the proposition, though not the marriage proposal that came soon after. She wasn’t going to be an immigrant twice, she’d said, and there was little discussion. Sabine tended to be gullible about her own one-liners, even though certain embellishing arguments, such as the presence of her mother and siblings in the U.S., didn’t hold much weight. Her brothers and sisters had scattered across the country in their own pilgrim’s search for the good life.
Sabine’s husband determined he might approach the Canadian dream in a more seductive fashion by taking her for a vacation to Vancouver. She could see for herself the gleaming city, the glorious wilderness of Stanley Park, and the Canadian people, more civilized, he believed, than their neighbors across the border, his own countrymen.
It didn’t help that shortly before a bicycle trip in Stanley Park, Sabine found herself at a deli--having just ladled out a hearty vegetable soup--without a wallet. It took several days to arrive at a theory about what happened, for the thief had been swift. But it put somewhat of a dent in the ‘more civilized’ hypothesis, since such an unfortunate event hadn’t yet happened to Sabine at home. Many years ago, a wallet may have been stolen at her office, but it held only three dollars, not the three hundred earmarked for the remainder of her Canadian holiday.
The wallet would emerge a year and a half later, sent without comment by the Bank of Montreal, with everything except cash intact. Attempting to regain ground, Sabine’s husband suggested that this was indeed a civilized gesture worthy of some credit.
Years had passed without talk of immigration, but lately, with retirement becoming a question mark that loomed more than beckoned, her husband had once again become interested in Canada, a land that, in the civilized fashion of most developed countries, provides universal healthcare to its citizens.
Sabine had thought little about healthcare while she was young, working full-time, or even after she married. Now her husband, exhausted with the demands and commute of his job, expressed his hope to retire early. And with it, his terror of being, for the first time in his life, uninsured-- that with a spouse six years further removed from Medicare at his side. Might Canada still allow them entry under the point system? Might they find jobs less draining, more civilized, and thereafter bask in Vancouver’s cool and cozy climate under the protective parasol of health care for all?
He’d lost immigration points--points for the younger spouse that had been Sabine ten years ago, points for her relatives then living in Calgary--this according to what the immigration attorney had told him. On the bright side, he was not entirely lacking in points. Learning French might allow him to reach the required minimum, though he doubted his ability to learn a new language. Sabine, lacking a Master’s Degree, was one point short of him but born in Europe, she had an aptitude and at one time an appetite for foreign languages. Perhaps she could learn French well enough to earn three points, thus becoming the primary point person for their final odyssey. A career in Canada would deliver immediate points, but there was the dilemma of how to obtain this without eligibility to enter the country.
He was willing to be flexible, to give up aspirations of settling in mellow Kitsilano, with its healthful vegetarian restaurants and Bohemian coffee shops, or in bustling downtown Vancouver. He might even consider remote environs such as Prince Rupert or Prince George. These towns were rendered somewhat less remote by the fact that he and Sabine played several Old English songs on recorders and violin bearing the towns’ names--odes to past generations of English royalty, some of whom had adopted Canada geese as exotic additions to their waterfowl collections.
The geese seemed with their courteous demeanor and curious timing to bear diplomatic greetings from Sabine’s future home. She relished their presence at the waterfront park and would be disappointed when two weeks later, in the manner of visiting ambassadors, they abruptly departed.
Today, they remained for all to admire and for Sabine to impart with significance. She finished her walk and drove her car the length of the parking lot, then took a left turn unto Mare Island Drive.
Instantly, she noticed the street’s appearance had changed. Gone were the colorful state flags adorned with bear, bison, eagle, stag, twin steeds, and sunflower, heralding a brighter future for the depressed city and the island across the strait. Instead, in stunning symmetry, waved identical flags of bold and primary red, white, and blue, rendered mute at half-mast.
At once Sabine forgot about the migration of Canada geese and her own immigration patterns, past and future.
Dorothea Barth was born in Amsterdam and now lives in Northern California. Her writing has been published on four continents. Her websites reside on www.flutesoffancy.com for music and www.dorotheabarth.com for writing.