It's an evening, a cold and quiet autumn evening. In small-town England, in the canal village of Lower Frilfingley, in the Red Poacher pub, in the darkest far back corner room, there are a few rickety tables and some walls which have not been painted in twenty years (yes, not since the 2000s) and a bare, cold stone fireplace. There are two pint glasses on the table, containing (between them) around one and one-third pints of bitter. There are two men.
There's not a lot to describe about them. They are middle-aged, country village-dwelling men, who enjoy darts and dog-walking and rain. One, the older and balder, is a gardener by trade. He looks like he should be wearing a flat cap, but he's not. Rough face, somehow always two days of beard growth, calloused hands. The other man is a shade younger, maybe forty-five instead of fifty, with slick, thin, black hair and a creased face and a relatively crisp dress shirt and a neat, mildly colourful necktie which was a gift from his wife. He owns the local store/Post Office, runs it with his wife. They're both wearing Wellington boots. It's dark outside the pub window and getting colder.
The store owner finishes his drink and stands. "Another?"
"I'm stopping here," says the gardener. "I want to be sharp. You know what they say about this guy."
The store owner stops in the doorway leading to the rest of the pub — a classic pub doorway all the way, with a step to trip on and a beam to smash your head on, and torn, faded, useless yellow and black warning tape. The man casts an eye at the bar, considering his options, and is about to say something, when the pub door — the inner of the two doors, which work somewhat like an airlock — opens, and their contact walks in.
The store owner returns to his seat, in a mild hurry. "He's here."
"Did he see you?"
The store owner, whose name is Brian, looks like he hopes he didn't. He looks nervy.
The gardener, William, leans out from his seat and catches their contact's eye, just as they're approaching the bar. The contact turns and waddles in their direction. It is a swan.
It doesn't take a seat. It stands beside their table, eyeing each of the men in turn. William takes a packet of salted nuts off the table and opens it up completely, creating a kind of flimsy, improvised nut platter. He lays the nuts on the carpet in front of the swan, which snaffles up about half of them in short order.
The down payment.
The swan makes a mess. Salt and nut scrapings all over the floor by the time it's finished, and the wrapper ends up chased into some corner. The men will have to clean up. The swan returns to its first position, eyeing the two men again.
William catches Brian's eye and Brian catches William's. Neither of them wants to speak first.
William says, "We are having a problem with a goose."
The swan waggles its neck in acknowledgement. Though, swan emotions are difficult to read.
"It started at the start of this year. It was small stuff at first. It got into my garden, stole a carrot. My carrots are excellent. Lots of work goes into a good vegetable. It worked out how to get in past the fence. Uncoil hoses. I had some spare panes of glass for the greenhouse? Stacked up against a wall? This goose. It put a rock in front of them and then tipped them over. I saw it happen.
"It escalated from there. It honks at kids and old ladies in the street, broad daylight. It steals post. It stole my keys. Right out of my hand! I almost fell over. It's smart. There's a noggin on that thing. Then it ran away. Where's my keys now? I've got no clue. My car key was on that ring. I'm having to use the spare. You know how much they are to replace?
"Let me tell you what it did to my prize rose..."
William slows down, realising that the swan is looking directly at him with a distinctly expressionless, cygnine stare. Except that, he's reading it wrongly. The swan's beak is pointed directly at him, but it is a bird — its eyes are on the side of its head. It is, in fact, eyeing his associate, Brian.
Brian shifts uncomfortably.
William says, "You go."
Brian says, "My wife runs the grocery store. This goose? Chased her out. Out of her own store. And then made a mess of the produce. Just a terrible mess. I don't wish to explain in more detail, if it's all the same to you. My wife was... distressed."
The swan waggles its neck once again.
"It's a disruptive influence," William says. "It harrasses children. It makes an awful noise, it always wants to be the centre of attention. This is a quiet village. We have a fireworks festival tomorrow night. We'll have guests from all over. I dread to think."
Brian says, "No one has the stomach. That's why we came to you."
There is a long pause.
The swan waggles its head.
"We can procure a fair amount of additional... nibbles," William says.
"My wife doesn't deserve to live in fear of wildfowl," Brian says. "This town isn't big enough. I want this goose... settled. Are we in agreement?"
It is far from obvious whether the swan is in agreement. Its expression is absolutely enigmatic. It ruffles its feathers and flaps its immense wings, once, then turns and waddles out of the pub. Someone holds the door for it.
"Dangerous creature," Brian frets. He already looks like he regrets his involvement. "I heard it broke a man's arm, once."
"They say that about all swans."
"No, I heard that's it. That's the swan. That's how the rumour got around. It's the one who actually broke a man's arm. ...I need another pint."
The swan stops momentarily on the pub step, taking the chill air, sniffing. Not a lot of movement in the village tonight, just like any night.
It lumbers off in the direction of the canal. There will be a cosy, concealed hedge it can nest in until the work starts, tomorrow.
The goose rises at sun-up, which is relatively late at this time of the year. It makes its home among reeds, south of the village, downstream, but increasingly is comfortable with the hard paths and roads of the human world.
It ambles up the canal path, wondering what mischief to cause today. Several opportunities show themselves as it waddles, and more as it leaves the path and swims a little further. It's rained heavily and there are huge puddles everywhere. It finds a large puddle on the canal path, large enough that its muddy edge almost reaches the reeded edge of the canal itself, with a thick bush on the other side. The goose stuffs itself into the bush and waits.
Before too long, someone comes along. A large lady of about sixty, with curly grey hair and a mauve raincoat, leading an immaculately groomed Afghan hound.
As they reach the huge puddle, the lady slows down and considers her options. She's wearing pink and grey trainers, not proper rain boots, so going straight through the water isn't an option. There's a sliver of slippery mud around to the left of the puddle (the canal side) and the right (the bush side).
She follows her dog left, dancing daintily along, barely muddying her shoes, coming close to losing her balance.
"Oh my goodness!"
There she goes. It's perfect. She puts a foot down on what should be solid ground. It's the canal. She face-plants into it. The splash is delightful. The canal is barely a half-metre deep — she stands up quickly, utterly soaked.
But then the best part.
"No, no! Jeremy, STAY!"
The dog follows her in. The canal isn't polluted, but it is horrifyingly muddy. It's going to cost a mint to clean the dog again.
The goose steps out of the bush and sits down in the puddle. The dog glances at it, uncomprehending. The woman glares at it.
"You're not serious," she says. "You little—!"
The goose honks and flaps its wings triumphantly. It scuttles off. The dog chases it for a bit, but the goose flaps a little more for speed, then jumps into the canal and swims away, easily outpacing it.
It is in a children's playground, some hours later, than the swan catches up with its quarry.
The playground is easy and simple. The goose owns the playground. Nobody else is allowed. If kids try to ride the little merry-go-round, the goose honks at them until they leave, and then sits in the middle, spinning still. If they use the big cylindrical slide, the goose waits for them at the bottom and honks at them, a jump scare. They flail and try to climb back up, or at least brace themselves inside the tube, but then their big brother or sister follows them down and they all get hissed at, or have their mittens stolen right off their little hands.
When the swan arrives, the goose is chasing a tall, bearded man and his double buggy, which has two small children seated and a third hanging on to the edge. The man makes it to the trees, losing only his phone. The goose picks his phone up and carries it over to the sandpit.
That's when the swan shows up. As the goose is done rolling the phone over in the sand — but not burying it, the man has to find it again — it looks up. The main part of the play area is encircled by a brightly-painted metal fence, with two gates on opposite sides.
The swan has just hopped over the far gate.
The goose blinks.
It feels like the playground falls quiet. Parents call to their children and gather them up, as the goose begins a slow amble along the interior of the fence, keeping the swan fixed in its gaze.
The swan circles the playground in the same direction.
There is a lengthy, wintry silence. A flurry of fallen leaves crosses the play area between the two birds. The last of the humans leaves and the gate closes with a loud clang.
As the swan circles, it's about to pass behind a play structure. The goose has to waddle a little faster to avoid losing sight of its opponent. It hurries forward to try to keep the swan in sight, but the swan flaps its wings for speed and dashes away... and when the goose rounds the corner, the swan is gone.
The goose wonders how many nibbles could be on the line here. How much bread was promised? It feels like it could guess who sold it out. It's already forming a plan to find out for sure. This is its town. It knows every human, it knows every behaviour pattern, just how far to push the people to get what it wants. This is just the start. Or it will be, if...
The goose backs up. The swan has to be in the play structure somewhere. The wind ruffles its feathers — it doesn't feel any cold. The goose swims in cold canal water all day and night.
There is a crisp, clear, swan HONK.
The goose honks back, nervously. It waggles its head around. It still sees nothing. There is a tall play structure and the tubular slide coming down in a spiral, the end pointing right in this direction.
In the corner of its vision, a rocker starts rocking. It's a tiny, child-sized seat made to resemble a truck, perched on a sturdy metal spring. The goose glances at it for a second, distracted. Then back. The swan has emerged from the slide's circular mouth. It's taking the shot.
The goose feels a punch in its gut, a mean jabbing sensation, it feels like iron and blood. It honks weakly, and flops on the ground, which is a safe, spongy rubber, suitable for letting kids fall on it from a metre or two up.
The swan strides up to it, revolver still smoking. The goose's eyes die.
It's a beautiful day in the village.