Goose – Yuan Changming

You’ve never tried foie gras d’oie? Me neither! Before leaving China my father told me he’d only heard of bear’s paw, shark fin and abalone as the most expensive delicacies under the heavens, which, of course, he could never afford as an old village boy. Shortly after settling down in Portland, I learned that foie gras, caviar and truffles were the world’s true top three, but alas, my wallet has always been too small for my appetite.    

Now, though my American Dream is still a dream unattained, I can afford anything you might want to have in this fancy restaurant, except foie gras, for I refuse to eat any organ of a goose, which is such a special creature of nature. 

It’s been banned in many cities.

I’m all for it, though on different grounds.

Your reason is…?

Well, while waiting for the courses to be served, let me tell you a short story. It all happened on a snowy night in 1934, exactly 41 years after Mao Zedong was born. In a mud-bricked, tile-roofed, but small and dilapidated house at the foot of Mt Big Wok in Hangyang County, a baby was delivered to a young couple with two daughters, one aged about five, the other seven. The moment the bedridden father found it to be a boy, he kissed its gigi passionately, sat up straight on bed, and then began to kowtow incessantly like the pounding of garlic in a mortar. Needless to say, he was deeply grateful to the Blue Sky for making him a filial son by giving him a son of his own to carry on his family lineage.

Several weeks earlier, he had told his wife to get a bowl of poison from a local mountebank, which they planned to drink together with their two daughters if the baby turned out to be a girl again. For him, as for his loved ones, family suicide was the best solution; indeed, for a household without a male, it would be difficult, if not entirely impossible, to survive in their world. Physically, a weak and poor young woman with three small girls could definitely not make a living for themselves: though the family did own a small patch of stony farming field on the mountain slope, they would be incapable of producing enough grain, since there was literally no man power to do the farming. It was true that half of the villagers were somehow related to them and shared the same family name, but none of them would come to their assistance, partly because they were also just as poor, and partly because they were all born to look down upon any man, or any family, without a son. Traditionally, they would try instead to force a widow to sell her daughters and marry herself again to a far place. This way, the closest relatives would be entitled to whatever property she might have. Worse still, without a male family member, be it a sick grownup or a helpless infant, the woman would be taken advantage of in every conceivable way; for instance, local ruffians would readily come over to make trouble or blatantly harass her, while her young daughters were sure to starve to death down the road.

To the sick man’s, as well as his family’s, greatest comfort he had a male offspring now. That’s to say, they did not have to drink the poison as their last supper; they gained the right to live on. But unfortunately, five days later, after naming his baby son Debao, meaning ‘won the treasure,’ the father died of an unknown disease at age 29.  

As if to mourn his father in its own way, the baby boy kept crying day and night until he was too weak to suckle, while the mother was able to produce little milk due to malnutrition and emotional trauma. Seeing him almost dying of hunger, and having no money to see a real doctor, the mother turned to a travelling monk for advice, who told her succinctly, “This son of yours is hard to bring up, only a goose can help him.”

On that same afternoon, the mother gave away her heirloom, a jade bracelet from her grandmother, in exchange for an adult goose and half a dozen goose eggs, with a distant relative living on the opposite side of the village. Quite miraculously, the yolk which was ground to powder and mixed with flour soup, did help save the baby’s life. In the months that followed, all the three females in the house took as good care of the goose as the baby itself. Without enough milk, the mother used the eggs it laid as the main source of nutrition for her baby. Every night, she would work late with an old handloom for a local shop after all her three children went to sleep. Considering her son was the youngest and most vulnerable, she arranged for the goose to sleep right beside the bed where little Debao was sleeping. It was not long before she found this arrangement was the best one she could ever have thought of.

By the time Debao began to crawl around, he seemed to have developed a mystic bond with the goose. Whenever they were separated, both the boy and the animal looked quite listless. While they palpably enjoyed keeping each other’s company during their waking hours, the goose functioned as nothing less than his body guard, even at night. In the early hours of the morning, on a chilly day in early April, the mother was working attentively in the dim light of a cotton seed oil lamp in a different room when she heard a loud honk. Rushing to the scene in no time, she found her little boy lying on the cold floor made of hard mud. Seeing him unharmed at all, she thought that her son must have fallen on the back of the goose first, thus getting the minimum impact and waking the creature. It was then and there that she realised the true value of the goose for her as well as for the whole family. Since that moment, she decided to make sure that her baby stayed together with the goose as much and as close as possible every day.

This decision played a crucial role in Debao’s survival. On a burning hot afternoon a few months later, before going to work in her crop field, the mother left her two elder daughters at home, who had learned to help do some simple cooking. While weeding, she put her son together with the goose right beside the field. To water her young crops, the little woman had to do a man’s job by shoulder-carrying water with a pair of wooden pails from a small pond almost a li away in the valley. On her terribly deformed “lotus feet,” she was trudging uphill breathlessly when she heard the creature calling at the top of its voice. Putting her pails aside, she raced to her son and spotted a middle aged stranger trying to calm down her baby in his arms. No sooner had the man realised what was happening he put down the child and escaped at full speed. Later on, the mother came to know from her neighbour that there had been a conspiracy going on among her husband’s relatives to have the son stolen and sold behind her back; then they would kick her out of the village and take possession of her crop field as well as her house, which was a quite worthy legacy from her late husband’s grandfather. Without the loud warning given by the goose, she would surely have lost her son.

Not only did the goose prove to be Debao’s attentive baby-sitter, but it also served as its loyal bodyguard. On a cloudy autumn evening in the following year, when a snake approached to the boy, it was the goose again that managed to drive it away after a fierce fight….

Are you kidding me? It wasn’t a clumsy goose at all, but a powerful guardian angel!

Sure it was! That’s why the night before the mother decided to drown herself to death due to her illness, she told her 12-year-old son always to treat the Goose as his “sky-father.”

Who is Debao anyway?

My grandpa. When he died in 2012, my grandma made it a family rule to all their offspring: no one who carried his family name shall ill-treat the goose; rather, they must protect and remain grateful to it.

That’s why you would not have foie gras?

Yep! Would you? Shouldn’t we all live peacefully with Goose?

Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you, but I would like to try it today anyway…

Must you? Do you have a different old story to tell as well?

Yuan Changming holds a Canadian PhD in English and hails with Allen Yuan from poetrypacific.blogspot.ca. Credits include 12 Pushcart nominations & 13 chapbooks (most recently E.dening) besides appearances in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry (2008-17), BestNewPoemsOnline & Poetry Daily, among 1957 others, across 48 countries. Yuan served on the jury and was nominated for Canada’s National Magazine Awards (poetry category). 

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