Gus, a delicate yellow gosling, celebrated only a few waddling days on the Mississippi red-dirt farm where my mother grew up. Of the few sights the creature saw during its abbreviated life, the final was the inside of a German shepherd’s toothy mouth. As with King Charles I, heads rolled. Gus’s premature death caused great anguish among the Fortenberry children whose loyal affection was reciprocal to his own.
Wilton and Lucille, father and mother to two girls and a boy, quietly and loyally resided over their 80-acre domain with much resolve and relentless labor. Wilton, a denim overall-wearing, quiet, and gentle man, was the rare soul willing to shake anyone’s hand. Lucille, an equally reserved woman, spent many waking hours in the kitchen making chicken-and-dumplings from scratch, and simmering garden-grown vegetables in leftover bacon grease the way only a southerner knows how. Homemade pound cake, temptingly stored beneath a clear glass dome, was nearly always available in her modest, yet insufferably hot kitchen. The day Wilton departed the earth, nine years after Lucille, his head of Absalom-like hair was just as dark and full as the day he was born, and the story of Gus, by then legendary, continued to weave its way throughout the broadening family tree as it was passed down from one generation to the next.
The Fortenberry residence, a drab brown, unassuming dwelling rested atop concrete cinder blocks and clung to Rural Route 2, east of Tylertown, the county seat to Walthall County. With a rural Baptist church at one end of the road’s length, five homes — all belonging to Wilton and his four brothers — along its unpainted two lanes, a fire watchtower keeping sentinel above the canopy, a parcel of small ponds, and enough hollows and mixed pine and hardwood stands to adequately separate neighbors, the Fortenberrys eked out a nearly impoverished life amid agricultural fields, longleaf pines, dairy cows, white-tailed deer, thieving raccoons, burrowing possums, the usual assortment of farm cats, a lineage of mutts, each named Rusty, and Gus himself, the singular pet gander.
A lifelong farmer, Wilton regularly harbored geese on the property to aid in weed abatement. Released into blossoming cotton fields, these geese, Gus’s cackling poultry relatives, furiously consumed juvenile weeds and grass between the furrowed rows, avoiding the money crop altogether. Once the cotton was harvested, the geese, by then fully grown and fattened, found themselves on the losing end of an altogether different consumption. Such is a bird’s life: for the sake of others, disappear. Gus, born to one of these weed-eating dinner-birds, found a different purpose in and among the farm’s workings — that of pet and companion. His presence, though physically tiny, was no small part of my mother’s story. She joyfully recalls Gus’s daily accompaniment to and from the school bus stop, down the pine-strewn lane to visit neighbors, Gus’s loyal presence at her moments of parental discipline, and the everlasting psychological and visual glee of witnessing an innocent cloud of golden down lumbering through tall, green grass, waddling within the protective reach of her heel.
Each morning, with unswerving steadfastness, Gus attended the children’s footsteps along the three-pronged gravel driveway from the house to the bus stop at the property’s outer edge where familiar red-dirt met foreign pavement. Each afternoon, expectantly awaiting the Doppler-effect sound of the approaching school bus, Gus withdrew from the shaded protection of his dusty roost in the crawlspace beneath the Fortenberry home, and clumsily and bravely stumbled his way across obstacles of raised tree roots, various ascents and depressions, and lumps of aggregate debris en route, all for the sake of greeting the ones he recognized and cherished most. Every day, morning and afternoon, Gus repeated this miraculous custom.
Wholeheartedly adopted early in life by the Fortenberry brood, Gus had only a short time to make a lasting impression on my mother, who to this day can recount his gruesome death and subsequent burial site. On the day of his funeral, Gus’s mangled head and body were reunited, laid side-by-side, inside a makeshift Diamond matchbox coffin. Little Paul, Sally and Janie were so stricken with Gus’s violent end that they would, with alarming regularity thereafter, exhume his remains, cry again over the murdered creature, and rebury the decaying carcass, which was slowly attempting its natural return to dust only to be periodically coerced out of life’s circle in this innocent, yet morose endeavor. Little wonder that children should recognize and give praise and homage to a small, forgotten miracle; the animal did, after all, meet them at the bus stop each day. Such loyalty is hard to come by; it ought to receive praise.
Convenience rarely holds loyalty’s hand; one bears suffering amid struggle, the other flees at first sight of adversity. Intimately wiser, may we, like Gus, leave the world a fuller place than when we entered it. May loyalty and perseverance adorn our necks as peculiar plumage, ruffling at apathy, cackling at the monstrosity of fear’s sharp teeth. May faithful authenticity sustain us the way old-growth pines stand together, entwining roots to collectively bear the brunt of wind, drought, fire, storm and one another’s burdens. May we acclaim and recognize those whom God places in our lives just as innocently, filially, and eagerly as the approaching sound of that strangely familiar and welcome vehicle of grace to our path. May we expectantly await the good and faithful Return, attending grace’s heel to and from daily and momentary deliverance along the triple-pronged path pointing the way within us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.