The Golden Goose – whose feathers were not so golden anymore, making it truthfully more of a tawny goose – looked out of its good eye at the Child.
“Can you lay eggs?” the Child asked. It jammed a sticklike finger between its big, white teeth.
“I don’t know,” the Golden Goose replied. The Child was still shimmying its finger in its tooth, until – the Golden Goose’s eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, but it swore it saw a sliver of something come loose. The child’s snaky tongue quickly snapped it up, and pulled it back inside those teeth, which slammed shut.
When the Child was done smacking its lips, it asked, “Are you a girl, or are you a boy?”
The Golden Goose was taken aback. “What?”
“Are you a girl, or are you a boy? If we knew, we could figure out if you can lay eggs or not.”
The Golden Goose pondered this. Surely the question must mean something to a human child, but to a goose, it meant little. And changed little. “To be honest,” the goose eventually replied, “I don’t think it matters much, one way or another. I don’t know anybody who has laid eggs in ages.” It paused. Then, perhaps hoping to make sense of the question, “Are you a boy? Or a girl?”
The Child stared. “I don’t think that matters much, either.”
A cold wind swept the land. The Golden Goose trembled on its nest of red dirt, shuffling its feathers and pulling its limbs closer to itself for warmth. The Child sat across from it, skinny arms wrapped around its knees, not shivering even as another swath of freezing air whistled past them. The Golden Goose’s stomach roared, so empty, it was sure that if it was capable of laying eggs at any point, its ravenous body would have simply absorbed them by now.
“Why did you come to me?” the Golden Goose asked the Child.
“I heard you were the Golden Goose,” replied the Child. “I thought you could lay a golden egg, and I could sell it, or, if no one was left to buy it, I could cook it.”
“Oh, dear,” said the goose through its chattering beak, “you seem to have mistaken me for someone else entirely. You’re looking for The Goose Who Laid the Golden Egg.”
“Oh,” said the Child. “Well, where can I find it?”
“In a butcher shop,” replied the Golden Goose.
“Four years ago.”
“Yes. Evidently, its talent wasn’t enough to keep its master’s farm from going under.”
“Oh,” the Child replied. “That’s very sad.”
“Then why are you grinning?” asked the Golden Goose.
The wind eventually let up long enough for the child to draw pictures in the dirt without them being instantly erased. The Golden Goose lamented its fading eyesight, for it could not tell what the Child was drawing. Butterflies? Sunshine? The meadows, perhaps, for irony’s sake?
“What are you drawing?” the goose asked, finally.
“Nothing, really,” the Child replied. It swept its arm out in a long, graceful movement, then brought its index finger swirling in a tight coil. “Just shapes.”
“Oh,” replied the Golden Goose, disappointed. “I thought I was missing something nice.”
“They are nice,” the Child insisted. “I just haven’t drawn anything specific. I’m not good at drawing specific things.”
The goose wasn’t either, but it figured if one had the dextrous little fingers the Child did, one might as well try. Surely, just by having hands, the Child was closer to an artist than the goose ever could be.
The Golden Goose turned away from the Child’s drawings and looked, instead, unhappily into the blur of brown-red landscape. Not a single landmark or building seemed to disturb the smooth horizon line. But surely, the goose was missing something.
Frigid winds battered the pair, seeming to rock the Golden Goose back and forth, plucking feathers with nasty invisible fingers and sending them, scattered, into the gale. The Golden Goose dug itself deeper into the dirt until it had itself a trench. Or maybe a grave. In between the powerful gusts that drove its eyes closed, it saw that, save for the dirt and feathers being whipped into its face, the Child was mostly unaffected by the storm. It continued to sit with its knees to its chest, white fingers interlocked, black eyes unblinking, refusing to tear up.
How unfair! The Golden Goose once had the thickest and finest feathers in the land, but the constant winds had torn them away and reduced their luxurious shimmer to a greasy glisten. The Child had only a flimsy potato sack for a dress, and yet it withstood the gale just fine! When finally the storm settled, the goose would give that brat a piece of its mind!
“You!” the Golden Goose squawked. It had to stand on its tip-toes to see out of the trench, stretching, its long neck to the limit so it could meet the gaze of the hunched child. “How are you able to stand this cold?”
“What cold?” asked the Child.
The goose sputtered. “The cold! And the wind! Of course your stupid bald head hasn’t been mussed at all, but your skin remains smooth and white, unbroken by cuts – how?!”
“Aah, the wind,” the Child echoed. “I could tell by the way the dirt spiraled across the valley that there was a wind.”
“And the hunger!” wailed the Golden Goose. “How do you stand this awful hunger!”
“As you do?” asked the Child.
“We haven’t had food in days!”
“You’re right. I can’t remember when I last ate.”
“When I met you! When I met you, there was food stuck in your teeth!”
“You smacked your lips!”
“You – what?”
“I didn’t smack my lips,” the Child corrected. “That would be impossible, because I don’t have any.”
“You-” The goose halted. “What?”
It was time for the Golden Goose to take a closer look at its companion than it ever had before. The dour brown dress the Child was wearing did not reach its toes. And squinting, concentrating very hard, the goose could see that the naked toes it had told itself were rather pale and bony were actually… bones.
Suddenly, the Golden Goose felt very, very tired. “It’s too late for me, isn’t it?”
Though the Child grinned, its voice was joyless. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
But then, some time afterwards: “I don’t really think it’s ever too late.”
The Golden Goose had been lying at the bottom of the hole, its cheek pressed against the dirt, its eyes shut. It opened its good eye to search for the source of the sound, and sure enough, peering down into the goose’s grave was the Child, empty eye-sockets facing the goose as if, even empty, they could see. The realization made the envy it had felt earlier surge through the Golden Goose again, refilling its sluggish veins with hot blood.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late,” the Child repeated. “If I did, I wouldn’t have come and found you. I would’ve just let myself be put in the ground.”
The Child held out its hand. After a petty moment, wherein it rolled onto its back and tried to ignore the Child, the mere presence of the little hand began to eat away at the goose’s nerves. When it turned back around, it saw that the Child was, indeed, still reaching out to it. The goose gave the Child its wing, and allowed itself to be pulled out of the trench.
“We could go somewhere,” the Golden Goose supposed. “But where?”
“I don’t know,” the Child admitted. “But we can look, at least. While we’re still able.”
It was sure to be a long journey, and the Golden Goose found itself wondering when the gnawing hunger in its stomach, the violent cold, the yawning hopelessness would fade for the goose, too, as it had for the Child. Or was the Child was a special case? Perhaps things would always be more difficult for the goose. Perhaps there was no force, external or internal, that would let it survive even after hunger peeled the meat from it own bones.
But what was the old adage? You never know until you try?
“Alright,” agreed the Golden Goose. “Okay.”
“It’s a shame we don’t have proper names,” the Golden Goose sighed sometime later, when they had covered a considerable distance. “It would make our business together much easier.”
“I have a name,” laughed the Child. “You just never bothered to ask for it.”
“Oh, no,” said the goose, “I meant ‘we’ as in ‘we geese.’ I figured you had a proper name. You’re human, after all.”
Perhaps it was the moonlight on its stark, white bones, but the Child seemed to glow at the comment. The Golden Goose swore it heard the Child repeat the word quietly, reverently: human.
After knowing one another for so long, the Golden Goose finally asked for the Child’s name. And the Child replied, “Margot.”
It was like hearing a bluebird’s first song, after enduring the seemingly endless silence of night. Then Margot asked, “Well – do you want me to name you?”
Humans could be so pompous. “I am not your pet,” said the Golden Goose.
Margot shrugged. “I meant to name you as a friend, but if you’ve got such a problem with it, then why don’t you name yourself?”
Name itself. Did the Golden Goose know any proper names? Its tongue flicked and rolled inside its beak, feeling, tasting.
“Tolye,” said the goose. “I would like to be Tolye.”
“Tolye’s not like any name I’ve heard before,” Margot confessed. “But if you like it, then I do.”
And so Margot and Tolye, armed with names and one another, headed out into the wasteland at last.
Kate Shakespeare takes her last name as a personal challenge. Her hobbies include cooking, late night research on cryptids, and working in the software industry, the latter which she uses to supplement her writing income.