I took a tentative step to my right. The biggest of the bunch, an angry looking effer whose beady, black eyes suggested he thought me personally responsible for every goose-y injustice, stretched out his long neck, an ungodly honking sound escaping his ungodly long bill, and he bit me. Bit me! Who knew geese were biters? I yelped, or at least I tried to, but I was suddenly unable to take a breath as my vision collapsed in on itself, a pinprick of color full of this angry, vengeful goose in a sea of gray.
It’d started out so innocently. My dad, bigger than life and just as tired, had taken the day off work to drive me out to this scenic park to take pictures for a special school project sponsored by Kodak. Armed with my cute disposable camera, I snapped pictures of the local flora and wildlife. Southeastern Michigan wasn’t known for much, but in my nine-year-old dreamer head, I fancied myself quite the budding photographer, standing there in the midst of these urban woods. I imagined myself working for National Geographic as I crouched to get a picture of few squirrels. I filled my roll up with robins and blue-jays and flowers and trees I didn’t know the names of but were pretty.
We spent a few hours there, me taking my time to perfectly line up every shot. My dad was a trooper through it all, but he was tired and I would have stayed all day given the chance. Finally, he cleared his throat and declared it time to go. We took a trail that led around the small man-made lake the park was butted up against, my dad wandering on ahead as I scanned for anything I could use the last few pictures on. As I drew closer to the lake, I heard splashing. My dad turned back to look at me and put a finger to his lips, motioning for me to get closer to the waterline.
Southeastern Michigan wasn’t known for much, but we did get our share of Canadian Geese that made a pit stop during their migration.
I grinned. No one else in my school was gonna have shots of geese. The other kids in my class all had plans of taking pictures of such mundane things. Their bedrooms. Their siblings. Their favorite toys. When the representative from Kodak came to collect our pictures, they were gonna be floored when they came to mine. I imagined all the praise they would rain down on me and felt my grin growing wider.
I inched closer, slowly, quietly, and raised the camera to my eye.
The geese stopped their splashing with the first flash, turning to look at me all at once. As if drawn to the tiny rectangle in my hand, they moved as one, exiting the lake to come closer.
I had four pictures left in my roll. I was gonna make them count.
I waited until they got almost close enough to touch before taking another. I pulled the camera away, slid my thumb across the little gear to do whatever it was it did to get another picture ready.
I didn’t notice they were circling me until it was too late.
My dad whispered urgently to run. “I’ll bring the truck to the entrance” then he was gone, moving much too fast for a man who usually moved so slow. It was as if he had always been saving all his energy for this moment. The moment his oldest daughter was caught in a circle of pissed off geese who weren’t keen on having their likeness captured on film.
That’s when I took the step. When the biggest goose took offense to that. And that’s when I had my very first panic attack.
I thought I was dying. Surely I had to be. That was the only explanation for my chest to feel like it was simultaneously gonna burst open and cave in. I couldn’t draw a breath. I couldn’t see. My skin felt too tight. My lungs were on fire. I was gonna die here. A Kodak camera in my hand, only nine years of life under my belt, surrounded by a gaggle of geese.
Then moving turned to running with line of geese on my trail giving chase, snapping and honking at my ankles, the backs of my knees. Sometimes they connected. It might have hurt. It was hard to tell when my breath was coming out in wheezes and my heart was racing and skipping so hard it was surely going to fly out of my chest. Maybe migrate back to Canada, along with these awful creatures who wanted to end me.
I remember throwing myself into my dad’s truck when I finally reached it. I remember panting out, “you leftme!” when I finally caught my breath just enough to force it out. I remember thinking that while, yes, that encounter was scary, what had happened back there wasn’t normal. I wasn’t normal. I prayed whatever it was my heart and lungs and chest had did, it never happened again.
It did. Many times. Eventually, it happened every day. Sometimes there’s reasons for it. Sometimes there isn’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard the words “anxiety disorder” followed by, “probably in addition to bipolar disorder.”
I’m nearly thirty-years-old now, and I’m terrified of geese. I freeze up when I spot one. My chest gets tight and my heart starts racing and, for a second, I feel like that nine-year-old who was abandoned in a circle of them, convinced she was dying.
But when I think about it, when I truly stop and think about it, I don’t know if it’s the geese that I’m so afraid of, or of my brain that betrays me. That convinces me and my body that we’re dying. That makes me feel abnormal.
Because geese are mean and angry and, man.