Harold, African Goose


Sunrise cast a soft yellow glow on the placid waters of the pond. Leaflets of grass still saturated with dew bent towards the morning light. Summer flowers, shut-ins during the chilly night, gave way warmly to the opening of their petals. Nameless birds in treetops ruptured the pre-dawn silence with their chirpings, while orchestras of crickets, drawing to a close their melodious nocturnes, tucked away their violins in favor of rest.

This particular morning Harold, who awoke with the sun, stretched his wings and raised his stiff neck upright, yawning. His round black eyes fought the persistent persuasions of sleep. He forced himself to stand erect and cracked his rheumatic joints, one by one. With his beak he ruffled his speckled plumage, plucking out the bits of bugs and dirt that had accumulated between his feathers overnight. Then he gave his fleshy beard a good waggle and leapt into the pond.

Concentric rings of ripples emanated from the splash, disheveling the cattails that circumscribed the shoreline. Harold doused his broad body with the cool water. Tiny droplets channeled down his back, over his wings, between his feathers, glistening wetly in the sunshine. The early birds, with their mouths full of worms, were among his onlookers, as well as several squirrels, who, rummaging for a breakfast of acorns, could not help admiring Harold's massive wingspan.

Indeed, there was a stately air about the way Harold bathed himself. His unusual facial profile - a swan's upright forehead, a turkey's beard, a goose's beak - accented by a sturdy frame and splayed duck feet, silhouetted him in hybrid mystery. None of the other animals, even Harold himself, could count him among any recognizable local species.

As it were, this biological unclassifiability had lately assumed philosophical importance for Harold; it was something he'd been brooding over during his baths. This particular morning, his most proximate onlookers might have noticed an uncharacteristic limpness in his beard, which, aside from betraying Harold's meditative state, lent him all the sensual appeal of a homely buzzard. Once having finished his bath, he swam in contemplative circles round the pond, lapping it several times. On his third go around he inadvertently glimpsed his likeness on the water's surface and forced himself to look away. His aspect, though troubling to him, was not that of an ugly duckling. Quite the opposite, in fact, for his features, although distinctive, were considered handsome (or at least passable) by the white ducks with whom he had sired offspring. No, his unclassifiability was not purely cosmetic but rather something else entirely, something more profound, something ineffable.

The sun's ascension thus became the backdrop of an especially reflective morning for Harold. The assorted creatures that had watched his bath gradually returned to their foraging, while he, robbed of his appetite by introspection, remained a solipsistic figure on the pond, drifting directionlessly with the breeze. A chorus of deep-throated frogs punctuated his cogitations with gloomy droning sounds, and as the shadow of a cloud loomed overhead, Harold's thoughts finally settled on his late grandfather, to whose memory he often turned in moments of personal turmoil.

Harold's grandfather was a renowned scholar, known among his contemporaries as the Great Goose-like Scribe. He, too, was of unclassifiable origins, yet he waddled along with a confidence that undermined the biologico-metaphysical pretensions of his neighbors. “Positivity,” he once confided to his grandson, “positivity, Harold.” Although Harold had expected him to elaborate upon this declaration, such an elaboration was never given. Nor was it ever necessary: the Great Goose-like Scribe spoke in a coded calligraphy. His essence was his script, a script so shimmering, some said, that it was distinguishable among that of a thousand masters.

And whenever Harold remembered his grandfather, as he did this particular morning, he remembered too the genealogy that had rendered his grandfather timeless. No creature outside of the family was permitted to lay eyes upon it, and yet in spite of this - or perhaps because of this - the genealogy was widely known. The research for the project alone consumed half of the Scribe's adult life, and the putting to paper of the information itself - in a galloping calligraphy, no less - consumed at least the other half, if not more. Canonizing the family in text was the old bird's single obsession, and he toiled in secret to bring his text to fruition. It was common knowledge that he would spare no extravagance, artistic or economic, for the sake of his genealogy.

So it was, this particular morning, as he rested upon the tranquil surface of the pond and revisited the memory of his late grandfather, that it became evident to Harold that the history of his forebearers was too complicated to treat with a factual flourish. While the Scribe's recordkeeping was nothing short of meticulous, it did not, in Harold's estimation, address the particularity of the family flesh - least of all Harold's hybrid flesh, an ambiguity that had lately brought such dark thoughts to his mind. For his many talents the Scribe possessed a certain poetic blindness when it came to matters literary, such that the old bird's impeccable touch with the written script could only place him, even in a generous reading of his masterpieces, among the more thorough copyists of his generation. This regrettable reality only affirmed Harold's revisionist convictions. The records, if they were to be recognized for their qualitative value, needed the intervention of a careful narrator. And it occurred to Harold that only he could be that narrator, being as he was the eldest and most scholarly among those who still lived at the pond.

For all the quietness surrounding the pond that morning, this was indeed a deafening epiphany. Harold was to take it upon himself to revise - to embellish - his grandfather's genealogy. Naturally the decision demanded deeper meditation: how was it that a fellow such as he, in the course of a groggy morning at the pond, could one moment have been floating directionlessly with the current and the next have been contemplating narratological solutions to historico-familial problems? Was his, Harold's, an existential dilemma? He gave this question considerable thought, deciding after a few moments that poeticizing his grandfather's genealogy would not so much gesture towards a personal existentialism as it would reveal the failure of factual discourse to explain the infinite complexity of the present, that undecidable present in which he - Harold alone and not his deceased grandfather - was to continue living for an indeterminable amount of time. This, he felt satisfied in believing, was his fundamental motive for revision, a real place for beginnings.

A loud belch from a nearby frog brought Harold back to the realm of senses. He stretched his neck and blinked several times, observing that during his reverie he had floated towards a thicket of cattails and had drawn the attention of several red-winged blackbirds who were now threatening him with guttural clicking sounds. Preferring not to cause trouble with unfriendly neighbors, he dunked his head underwater one last time and made his way towards the shade of a pondside tree.

Refreshed and clear-headed, Harold now felt confident that the first thing to do was to gain entry into his grandfather's private archives and survey the situation. The archives were kept in a low, damp cave at the pond's south embankment, just a stone's throw away from the tree under which Harold perched. A lone guard, usually a young mallard duck with blooming plumage, abided by the cave's mouth during daylight hours to facilitate the comings and goings of the archives' (very few) patrons. Harold waddled over to the cave and, signaling his presence to the duck on duty, stopped to admire the sign mounted on the upper lip of the entrance - an indulgent wooden placard carved with characters from the Scribe's luminous script. The duck on duty, following convention, then bid Harold cross the threshold by stomping his feet and spinning round four times. Harold gave the guard an approving nod and, upon entering, halted again, this time to appraise the textured fresco that circulated the inner recesses of the cave. The work depicted all the traceable forbears of Harold's family - updated for each generation - and for this reason was a work always in progress. His eyes fell on the newest feature of the fresco, a handsome yet impressionistic representation of himself brushed into being by the bristly tail of the Squirrel Artist. Imagining his own hatchlings' represented on the fresco, Harold wondered how on earth he was supposed to narrate the family out of its present identity crisis, a crisis that, despite his feeling uniquely apt to handle, isolated him even further from his intimates. Inside the cave, his grandfather's imprecise words - “Positivity, Harold, positivity” - resounded in his ears confusingly as ever. He did not feel positive about anything. Everything was so uncertain.

Once inside the vaulted archives, Harold felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of artifacts. Old letters, calligraphies, notebooks and scratch papers, plumes, empty ink jars, and even a few wilted feathers his grandfather had shed in his old age, were scattered about the vault, the browning traces of a past grandeur. Every nook and crevice was filled with some carelessly placed object (now carefully undisplaced: the family consensus had been to preserve the vault as it was the moment the old bird croaked his last quack, feebly and alone, among his life's works). The low, contracting walls added to the egg-shaped vault's sense of enclosure. Harold's grandfather once told him that he preferred to work in tight spaces so that his imagination did not wander too far from his chosen task. More than once Harold wondered how anyone of his grandfather's intellectual stature could imagine anything at all in such confined quarters.

With each breath Harold felt he was inhaling the musty senility of the Scribe's final days. While he sensed, obscurely, the magnitude of the old bird's accomplishments, he also choked on the cramped madness, smelt the dense rot of obsession decomposing among the archives. It was as if the webbed feet of history were applying slow but steady pressure to Harold's vital young breast, pressing down ever more violently until he too was crushed by the metaphysical thrust of these infinite records. He needed to excuse himself from the room but he knew that was not possible. If he fled now he would never return.

Harold allowed himself one last sigh and plucked a dusty volume from the highest shelf.


“Not everything breaks easily as bread crumbs,” Harold began scribbling on a fresh piece of parchment. He repeated the line aloud to himself: “Not everything breaks easily as bread crumbs.” He paused. “But hearts…”

Another opening line that failed to resonate with the story. Numberless hours before, when he had begun reading the genealogy, Harold arbitrarily decided to record the story of his great-great grandparents' courtship, it being one he recalled vaguely from the Scribe's efficient family history lectures. Although the details of the affair returned readily to Harold's memory, a poetic retelling of the genealogy was proving something of a struggle. The Scribe had etched the lovers' names in beautiful, looping letters across the heading of one page, in so artful and careful a manner, in fact, that the names seemed to possess a self-generative spirit. Yet the Scribe's only attempt at narrating the brief and passionate courtship between Harold's great-great grandparents was a neat, inky line connecting the names. Further below the connecting line, which apparently signified much reproductive collaboration, were numerous parallel and perpendicular lines that represented the hatchings of their offspring. Names and dates were given for each hatchling, among whom were Harold's great grandfather and great-great aunt, but there were few other details to explain the uncanny romantic history that preceded this coupling.

According to the Scribe's records, Harold's great-great grandfather was a swan goose, whereas his great-great grandmother was - Harold was quoting from the genealogy - “some variation of or related to the common white duckery.” Surely the Scribe's meticulous eye would not have overlooked such a mishap of mate selection? Yet every subsequent detail suggested it was so. When Harold turned to the sections commemorating his great grandparents and their hatchlings, he found a gaggle of swan geese and an outlying “uncle” turkey buzzard whose reproductive activity was dubiously, if not altogether curiously, disconnected from the mainstream bloodline. For hundreds of pages afterwards there was no mention of the original miscegenation that had occasioned the beginning of the most impressive reproductive sequence in the pond's history.

Disenchanted and confused, Harold blinked his round black eyes several times and joggled his beard. Before undertaking this project he had never expected to find a swan goose and a common white duck at the beginning of all things worth remembering. He also would have never expected such blatant oversight on the part of the Scribe. What sort of investigating was the old bird doing if he could dismiss information as vital as the species classification of their forbearers? After a few hours of close reading, the intrinsic magnificence of the genealogy was beginning to erode in Harold's imagination. As best he could, he took a turn about the room and tried to gather his thoughts. His modest girth caused the toppling of a few stacks of parchment but he allowed himself the clumsiness, given the circumstances.

Dark musings began to enter his mind uninvited. He thought of the spectators who had watched his bath this morning. What voyeurs, Harold thought bitterly, what voyeurs that they could look upon his unusual profile with the conviction that they themselves were not so singular, not so alone! They were communitarian folk: they recognized their forms in other like forms, but what could be clearer than the demarcations at the margins of their groups? What could be clearer than the fidgety demeanor of the squirrels when Harold took refuge under the shade of a nearby tree? What call resounded more unwelcomingly than the throaty croak of a red-winged blackbird, threatening Harold as he drifted harmlessly towards the cattails? There was an order to the play of this isolating chaos; a tight logic held it all together. Yet surely it was not an impenetrable logic? Surely there was also a place for Harold at the center of the order of things?

Harold was gradually losing confidence in the reflection he had seen in the water only hours before. The lively vigor with which he had approached the genealogy now seemed utterly contrived. “Positivity, Harold, positivity.” The unsavory echo of the Scribe's declaration rattled Harold's senses. What blank words, what shallow tautologies! How could Harold dare to feel positive about anything? Everything would always be so uncertain!


The Great Goose-like Scribe's autobiographical entry for the genealogy necessitated two thick volumes of parchment. The first section, a preface that spoke for the whole genealogical text, went on for nearly a third of a volume, an undulating rumination on logic, existence, and the rational praxis of historiography. The Scribe's prose was dry and economical throughout, with few recognizable literary flourishes, yet Harold also detected an anxious, argumentative tone that concealed itself among the retentive sentences. Noteworthy, as always, was the lusciousness of the calligraphy, a feature that held Harold's attention in spite of his tired eyes, which were beginning to protest against such intense reading. Mustering what remained of his strength, he shifted his weight from foot to foot and gave his beard another good joggling. The next section would be the last he would read for the day. That, at least, was certain.

Harold turned to the second section of the old bird's autobiography. The title page presented the most fantastic example of the Scribe's calligraphy that Harold had yet seen in the genealogy. Beginning in the upper left corner, the words “The Great Goose-like Scribe” moved across the page with the effortless grace of a deer running through a meadow. The gigantic capital G was upright and majestic, presiding over the other letters with phallic importance; the curlicues and swoops of the cursive L billowed like silk curtains in the breeze, while the curve of the capital S slithered serpentine towards the right margin of the page, terminating in an exquisite swirl of script that looked at once to be the ending and beginning of all writings. What a swelling, surging, magical outpouring of characters!

Although it was difficult to distract himself from the splendor of the title page, Harold continued reading deeper into the records. Apart from being quite lengthy in comparison to the other biographical sketches in the genealogy, there was another distinguishing feature of this auto-entry: the Scribe appeared to be, at least according to the way he had traced the bloodlines, the father and mother of all his hatchlings. He also appeared to have materialized of himself, as there were no records his hatch-parents nor any references to others who might have played some part in his spawning. Was the Scribe really claiming to be the condition of his own consciousness, the maker of his own flesh? Harold could not help but reason it so. It appeared that in the writing of his own name the Scribe had come into being for himself - had performed a self-sublimation of sorts. This could not be oversight on the part of the old bird. This, Harold thought, was certainty; this was self-assuredness; this was the meaning of “Positivity, Harold, positivity.”

The shock of this discovery was enough to shake Harold wingtip to wingtip. Yet was this not the very sort of thing he desired? A flawed point of origin from which to begin retelling the story of his family? No, his grandfather's positivity did not deserve to speak for everyone. Not long ago, Harold believed that an absence in the genealogy could be filled with text, with stories that did narrative justice to the family flesh. But he could see now that the genealogy was a dishonest endeavor. Not the writing itself but the respect it garnered for his grandfather in public. For those who actually read it (and Harold wondered whether he might be the only one), it was clear that the genealogy was written for the Scribe's sake and for none other's. Harold was now convinced that the Scribe feared a more sincere writing and so reduced it to a calculable craft and made himself master of it. Closely scrutinized, the calligraphy was all shape and no substance; the script danced and sang through volumes of records with unfounded pretensions of self-evidence. This was no factual record, not really. How could such loquacious reductionism be given the honorable title of genealogy? If he were in a more vengeful mood, Harold might have drawn a tangled mess of lines across the front page of each volume and called that the title.

Whether Harold felt anxiety or ambivalence at his discovery, he could not say. For the first time in this whole process he thought of his poor parents, killed long ago in an encounter with a mad fox. Their names were etched on the same page, just above his own, linked together forever by a paltry line, passionlessly drawn. It was a line that the author had substituted for a fair narration, a line that explained everything he ever cared to know about those who came before or after him, which, as it were, was very little. So much was still missing, so much remained unexplained. Harold suddenly envied the creatures with clearly demarcated communities; he wondered whether he was searching for something like the solidarity of the squirrels gathering acorns, or perhaps the abrasive confidence of the red-winged blackbird protecting its nest. After all, what would his hapless life become if he continued along the lonely way he was going, with nothing at all to gather, no one near enough to protect? Would it be a monotonous sequence of morning baths, intruded upon by the local voyeurs who mocked his solitude? Would it be the confusion of seeing his own hatchlings mothered by white ducks who, despite their humble beauty, were not of Harold's kind, whatever that “kind” may be?

Harold felt as a raindrop must feel before it falls into a river. The fall is solitary, effortless, exhilarating. Poetically the raindrop submits to the force of gravity, lets itself be pulled towards sublimation, towards contact. Then, in an immeasurably compressed instant, it strikes the surface of the water and gives its totality to the river. The myth of its wholeness is forgotten in the fluid continuity of the current. It is no longer a raindrop, never was, never will be again. This is the wet paradox of wholeness. The paradox itself is all that is essential. Wholeness and emptiness are vacuous energies that displace each other unto infinity. Was he - Harold - a goose-like embodiment of the raindrop paradox?


Harold turned the page to the last entry the Scribe completed before his death.

Harold, African Goose

Hatched the third day of the third week of the twelve-hundredth year

Grand-hatchling of the Great Goose-like Scribe, whose name Harold shall carry with him unto death in light of his father's premature demise between the merciless jaws of a mad fox.

Thusly Harold, African goose, left the archives and the cave with a name he was determined to go on forever renouncing. As he waddled back to the pond, he was surprised to find the sun had risen again; indeed it was a fresh morning. A whole day had passed in the archives - maybe even two - without food, without rest, without a bath. He stretched his broad wings to their full span and cracked his rheumatic joints, one by one. Then he gave his fleshy beard a good waggle and leapt into the pond.

He felt the eyes of the others watching him. They unsettled him but he would not abandon his bath. If it was his strange form they marveled at, then let them marvel and estrange him. His concerns were elsewhere, and his ambitions for this particular day were modest: he would wash himself, have a bit of bread, then pay a visit to his hatchlings to check on their progress. He might even say hello to their mothers before he went on thinking about this new facet of his predicament. Given what happened in the cave, it appeared he would have to begin reevaluating the peculiar nature of his problem.