Sachs had a new idea: To shoo the geese off the lawn, he bought a cardboard cutout of a fox that stood two feet tall on hind legs. The fox had reddish-orange fur, white whiskers, a bushy tail with a white tip, and slanting eyes that gave it a menacing, cunning air. He affixed the cutout to a pole, and, when the ground had softened from its winter freeze, used a rubber mallet to pound the pole into the ground. The fox shivered in the late April breeze, becoming more lifelike and thus more effective. Dozens of birds glided above the lawn that rolled down to Comity Pond. As they flew lower, they spread both wings and extended their legs to alight gently on the water. They avoided the lawn.
Sachs relaxed in a folding chair on his small dock and enjoyed the success of his new guardian. There would be no more running after the birds with an umbrella, thrusting it open and pulling it closed, or banging a big metal pot with a wooden spoon. He’d no longer have to sidestep bird droppings. With the fox, the lawn and pond were once again a peaceful, pastoral place for an aging man to sit in the sun and read the books he always wanted to read or to do nothing but drift from daydream to daydream.
Every spring for years the geese’s droppings had destabilized the lawn’s chemistry. Summer vacationers still used the lawn even though it had been disfigured with a thousand blemishes, spots of brown amid the green. When Sachs retired a year ago from his job as a Middle School Principal, he set about finding a humane solution. He called the Shore Conservatory for advice, left a message but got no call back. Next, a search on his computer led him to a site that sold ‘faux predators.’ He chose the fox. By summer the lawn would be a brilliant emerald carpet, cut each week so precisely that no blade of grass would ever rise above its peers.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like the birds. To the contrary, he did. Their easy grace and joyful choreography on the water charmed Sachs. The geese and other waterfowl floated freely on the pond and replenished themselves before resuming their journey up the Mid-Atlantic Coast to Canada. Their freedom was akin to the spontaneity he enjoyed in retirement. From his chair, Sachs operated a wireless remote device. When the birds gathered in a chevron formation like a proud feathery armada, he pushed a joystick on his remote and sent a model cabin cruiser toward them. The boat’s motor made a buzzing sound, but at low speed, the buzzing didn’t frighten the birds. It allowed him to get close, almost to join the flock. He pressed a button to activate a camera built into the bow of the boat and snapped a photograph. He followed one bird around and took close-ups of its beige and gray tail feathers. He captured the profile of another bird, the white patches on its face and its bill filling his screen. Within an hour, he recorded a dozen still photos for an album and several videos bursts.
Sachs lived in a summer cottage he bought decades ago when his family was young. The cottage was one of a dozen set in an arc that closed in the two-acre lawn that rolled to the pond’s edge. When his wife was alive, the two of them tended an herb garden and their children played on the lawn. Now he lived in the cottage year-round. Young families rented the cottages during warm weather. His son and his grandchildren were planning a visit, and he visualized the kids racing across the lawn to greet playmates from the previous summer. They’d play badminton and Wiffle ball. Maybe this would be the year his grandson accomplished what Sachs’ son had done so long ago – toss a Frisbee across the pond safely to a friend. If it landed in the water again, his son would fetch it in the family kayak as he had before.
The warmth of the sun passing through Sachs’ khaki pants and windbreaker made him drowsy. He navigated the model boat back to the dock, shut the motor, and rested the remote in his lap. He closed his eyes and drifted into thought. Migrating is so universal, driven by natural and man-made forces; it can be easy for wildlife but not so for people. It was a blessing that he would grow old in one place. He rested his chin on his chest and fell asleep.
Sachs was startled awake by what sounded like an industrial-sized leaf blower. Yet he didn’t see one – what was that buzzing? He looked around, stopping for a moment to admire the tender green of the maple and oak trees that were beginning to bud. Then he spotted his neighbor across the pond, holding a remote device much like his own and using it to control a model biplane. When he flew it higher, straight up, two hundred feet high, the sound from the engine rose to an irritatingly high-pitched buzzing. The biplane was outmoded by today’s designs yet could maneuver like a modern warplane. The neighbor sent it into a nosedive toward the birds, and a dozen of them cried and scattered. Then he brought the plane level so that it skimmed above the pond’s surface, heading straight toward another group. They flapped their wings and flew off.
“Why are you chasing the birds away?” Sachs called out. The neighbor had moved in last June, and other than giving him a welcoming wave across the pond, Sachs had not befriended him.
“They’re in my garden. They’re soiling my patio. I’m getting rid of them.”
“But the water is their natural refuge. If they’re not safe there, then where?”
“Too many of them.”
“They’ll be on their way soon enough.”
“Tomorrow there’ll be a new flock. It’s as if the same birds are here for weeks. They’re a nuisance.”
Ironic that this guy should call the birds a nuisance. Every weekend last summer, loud rock music and laughter from youthful parties on his patio had reached Sachs’ cottage well past midnight, forcing him to close his bedroom windows and shut out the mating calls of bullfrogs, the pleasing scent of salt air, and the rhythmic pounding of the nearby ocean – all of which contributed to his usual restful slumber.
“I wish you wouldn’t chase them away.”
“They’re dull and dirty, not a bright color on them.”
Sachs saw the regal beige and shimmering white feathers in his pictures. “If you saw the close-ups I’ve taken, you’d see them differently.”
“They might be beautiful individually. But as a group they’re ugly.”
“I’ll send you some photos,” Sachs said. To see them up close was to appreciate them. He watched the neighbor return his attention to his handheld remote. The model plane’s motor buzzed louder as he powered it straight up and then flew it in wide concentric circles as if hunting for prey. Suddenly the plane dove straight for a few birds sheltered among reeds rising from a mudflat. The birds squawked and flew away, except for one little bird that was too young to fly. Sachs saw this and worried a real red fox would get it. He went to help but as he approached, the bird flapped its wings madly and skittered deeper into the reeds.
Sachs returned to his cottage, obtained his neighbor’s email address from a community association register, and sent the pictures. Then he called the Shore Conservatory for advice but was again directed to voicemail.
The next morning Sachs found the little bird’s mangled carcass on the mudflat, its feathers scattered. He fumed. The guy couldn’t understand migration patterns, the Conservatory didn’t return a concerned citizen’s phone call, and he hadn’t saved the poor bird, concerned, as he had been, about getting his loafers muddy. Sachs marched around the pond, through private back yards, squeezing around carefully trimmed hedges, determined to tell his neighbor how people in seaside communities should behave. As a school principal, he’d always been able to contain his ire and had been a judicious arbiter when disputes between students or among faculty were brought to him. But now, chest puffing with indignation, he was prepared for a fight.
When his neighbor came to the door, Sachs let loose without a greeting: “Loud rock music from your house last summer violated the noise ordinance. I didn’t call the police. Your buzzing plane violates it now. I’ll put up with it. But your ill-treatment of this wildlife must stop.”
His neighbor, arms akimbo, said: “You have your fox. I have my plane.”
Sachs was momentarily stunned. The jerk had just called him a hypocrite. Sachs’ fox was a benign trick, whereas his neighbor had made a nasty sport out of chasing the birds away. He was a predator, and not a faux one. There could be no reasoning with him.
Sachs turned and walked away without another word, shaking his head at the absurdity of the situation. Still feeling unsettled when he reached his cottage, he again called the Shore Conservatory for advice. He was encouraged when, finally, he reached an agent, who promised to come by.
The next morning, Sachs explained the situation to the agent. The man, who said he’d been with the Conservatory his entire career, replied, “There’s no law forcing a citizen to accept the birds.”
“Damn it. But there are rules about noise. I’ll accept his annoying buzzing,” Sachs said. “Can’t he fly his plane without terrorizing the birds?”
The agent shrugged. “You’ll have to settle this dispute with him.” As he turned to leave, he added, “Wish you guys weren’t making such a big issue of this.”
Sachs couldn’t expect anything from anybody. He alone had a decision to make. He could take the fox down and allow the birds to roam on his lawn. But no, he couldn’t do that; they’d undo his efforts and ruin the lawn for his grandchildren. He was stuck.
In the end, Sachs decided to keep the fox and just be patient. He had seen over the years that most problems between people, with a little goodwill, could be resolved. He’d meanwhile send new photos of individual birds to his neighbor to nourish a change of heart. It was sunny and calm, and he went to the dock, sat in his chair and turned on the remote. Now the battery had run down. But he just wasn’t going to let a loss of power ruin his day. He settled deeper in his chair, looked around and enjoyed the moment.
About the Author
Philip Barbara’s short fiction has been published by The Delmarva Review, Fiction on the Web (a July 2017 pick of the month) and The Corvus Review. His story “The Church” was adapted into a radio play by NPR affiliate Delmarva Public Radio. He and his wife live in Alexandria, VA.