Flight

THE GEESE LAND one day amid the asphalt and anger and radio static and sweat, their feathers bright against the dull shades of our lives. Celebrity comes quickly. Inmates press their foreheads against dayroom windows on every floor of every tower, but the geese don’t mind: they’re ready for the attention. They preen and nip at each other, frolic in puddles formed by the spring rain.

Soon there are newborn goslings peeking out from beneath shrubs all over the compound. Guys argue over what to name them, watch them for hours, and check anyone who thinks it’s funny to bother the flock.

We envy the geese. They’ve come by choice, as if in solidarity, and soon they’ll spread wings we don’t have and leave this place on a whim. They call out to each other over and over, reveling in the sound of their own honks as the prison towers stand silent. Their families are whole. They move as a unit, their loved ones high-stepping right beside them. None of them is ever alone.

The geese ignore prison rules and suffer no consequences. This is a controlled movement prison. We humans can only leave our floors during specific time windows designated for inmate movement. A trip to the library, medical — virtually anything that isn’t a work assignment or yard requires a callout or written permission. Otherwise, an inmate can only go into the dayroom on his floor, the bathroom, or his own room. Even pausing in someone else’s doorway isn’t allowed, although most guys do it anyway.

The geese couldn’t care less for these restrictions. For months they strut around the compound between movements, loiter outside the library without a callout. They stand tall and honk boldly up at the correctional officers, their webbed feet thin and fragile next to the heavy black boots the officers wear. They unfold and retract their wings slowly, like airplanes testing their flaps, casual in their power to rise above us all.

Eddie has an old handout from a class he took at a different prison. It lists facts about geese as a way to talk about teamwork. One day, as the adult geese escort their yellow-brown puffs of gosling across the grass outside, he digs through his locker and brings the goose handout into the dayroom.

If a goose gets injured or sick and falls out of flying formation, other geese will stay behind with their ailing friend until it either recovers or dies. Geese rotate who flies at the front of the V so that no one gets too tired, since those in back have the advantage of flying in a slipstream. While in flight, they honk incessantly at each other, for no other reason than to encourage those in front.

Eddie reads these facts aloud to those of us assembled in the dayroom. We laugh and nod and don’t look at each other, our macho self-reliance called into question by a flock of geese.

Eventually the room falls silent, save for the sounds of the television and the occasional honk rising up from below.

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Michael Fischer was released from prison in 2015. His work appears in the New York Times, Salon, The Sun, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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