Peep in the vast and golden marshes north of this old Eastern Shore fishing village, 12-year-old John Bundick hunches against the cold and waits.

He has already waited an hour. He has watched the dusk edge toward him and now it is stealing over the low islands beyond the frozen salt creeks and ponds. The cold has numbed his face and hands, though he has not bothered to put on gloves. In the silence, John is listening--listening to what his Shore-bred blood whispers to him:

The geese, the wild and magical Canada geese, are coming.

One more time he scans the horizon with his dark eyes and then--there! He stiffens. It is the thinnest of threads, wavering against the gunmetal sky. Even at this distance he can see the wingbeats, deep with easy power. On come the birds until the hushed marsh can no longer swallow their calls. R-r-ronk! R-r-ronk!

There are 20 of them. A gander at the point. How many winters has he led the wedge south from Canada to the marsh? Ceaselessly, they call each other until, a hundred yards from John's upturned and enraptured face, they spot him and wheel off in panic and disarray.

Six miles away, across a patchwork of frozen fields and woods, past dark farm houses and roads rutted deep, is a world of rushing cars and big semitrailers. They are bound for somewhere--New York, maybe, or Atlanta. But not here. Up and down U.S. Rte. 13 they roam, from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line some 70 miles north. On into the enfolding night.

Just beyond the glare of the headlights, time gathers in drifts. It piles softly against the sides of the simple white houses and in fields farmed for 350 years. Here the slow seasons turn as much within the soul as without. Here men like John's father pry open oysters and wonder at their pink and glossy beauty, and others like gruff Brooks Johnson marvel at how fast Shore pines grow. Here Johnny Crumb, state game warden, will shake his head whenever he talks about "outsiders" who chop down old stands of timber.

And here, John Bundick can lean into the cold and wait for the geese.

"When I was a kid, they could tell the date by the returning of the ospreys," says Jack Johnson, 56, who works in the state forestry shop in Accomac. "Twentieth of March. They called 'em fish hawks.

"Everybody in the neck where I was born was duck hunters. When the grain was in, they'd start thinkin' about puttin' up the duck blinds. We lived on what we grew and shot. Ducks and turkeys.

"Wardens! Heck, they regarded them as another race. They'd just as soon shoot them as a duck. It was a way of life they were taking away. Out on the water you'd bring back a couple of barrels of ducks along with your boatload of oysters. It was so many of them. When I was a kid, it looked like big black clouds when the ducks came."

No more.

The guides, the hunters and those Shore farmers who feed the wild birds out of wonder, talk about the dwindling number of waterfowl with resignation. Nothing is as it was nor as it should be. The state is saying there are more black ducks and mallards and widgeon and pintail on the Shore this year than last, but few here are prepared to believe that. Not when they see in the mind's eye the black clouds of their youth.

Who or what is to blame? Overhunting? Poaching? Farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore who throw grain on their fields, holding up migrating flocks so hunters there have better luck? The legendary 1933 storm that some say washed away the seemingly boundless beds of sweet eel grass that fed wintering ducks and geese?

Endlessly, the guides and farmers and fishermen debate it. Over the years they have come up with dozens of good explanations. But the answers, the debates, all seem mechanical now. The passion is gone. It's as if the birds were slipping away into the dusk, along with the sweet bay scallop, along with the Shore children who grow up and leave home to find work.

Outside the Wachapreague Marina, the morning is filled only with cold. There are no ducks. Maybe some are in the marsh, but Jimmy Wallace can't be certain. His boat is iced in solid, so he can't get out to sea. Thousands of 8-inch mullet--"fatbacks" he calls them--have frozen to death near the top of the ice around the fishing boats. In the hard morning light, the gulls are feasting on the mullet.

Wallace, 52, is leaning against the counter, his thick calloused hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. He just told a party of six North Carolina duck hunters he was going to guide that he can't get his boat out. That's $200 gone.

No, there aren't many Canada geese, either, he is saying. "But you could kill a boatload of brant." He peers into his coffee. "They're a stupid bird. Shame to have to say it."

Not too long ago, people thought brant, small dark geese, were finished, there were so few. Then the government put a freeze on hunting them. Now the state reports it has counted just over 16,000 brant on the Shore, up about 4,000 from last year.

Wallace and others can remember when brants used to be good eating birds. But neither he nor any other Shore hunter will shoot them now because brant, a stocky sort of Canada goose, stink. Since the eel grass disappeared, they've taken to eating sea lettuce, and it taints the flavor of the meat.

The Canada geese, on the other hand, forage in the fields for grain and seeds, and their meat is tasty. But now people on the Shore are concerned about them. There are far fewer than usual. Only 11,100 have turned up so far, well below the 27,000 that wintered here last year.

Jimmy Wallace stands and stretches, bundled against the cold.

"Think I'll go home and tell my wife I'm so tired from all the haulin' and pullin' I was doing," he says.

The boys at the Formica table chortle over their coffee. "You do that, Jimmy," calls one.

Almost everyone on the Shore has hunted ducks and geese at one time. Even so, the Shore does not echo with gunfire. It seems that as time passes the beauty and the majesty of the wild waterfowl work a strange magic on some long-time hunters, though they may not care to admit it. It's not that they don't like to hunt, these older ones assure you, it's just that they're too old or too busy or can't stand the cold or there aren't enough birds. And so on.

Louie Hickman, 66, farms 138 acres just outside of Wachapreague. Last year, some Canada geese wintered near his pond. He would watch them from his house, watch them as they flew away during the day to feed in other fields and in the marshes and then watch them return in the evening. Two hundred of them. This year he planted rye just before the ground froze so the birds would have something to eat.

"My dad's not living, but if he were there'd be World War III," says his 62-year-old wife, Katherine. She teases him gently. "Louie doesn't let anyone hunt 'em."

"I had one friend who asked if he could hunt and I said no," Hickman says, smiling. "He said, 'You mean you ain't gonna let me go out there and kill just one?'" They both laugh. "And when I walk in down at the marina, they say, 'Let's go out and get some geese. Louie's here.' "

Hickman and his wife are sitting around a kerosene stove. The smell of kerosene is everywhere. It is the coldest day yet. Outside, there are about 100 geese in the field. "When it's really bleaky, you know, they put their heads under the wings," Hickman says. "That's what I love. I can't help it. And in the mornings, you hear 'em hollerin' "

"That's the first thing he'll ask me: 'Have you seen the geese?' " says his wife.

"I'm telling you, I love that music," says Hickman as if he, too, is puzzled by the power the geese have over him.

Seventy-one-year-old Brooks Johnson feeds the geese and ducks, too, spending about $20 a day in grain and seed during the six months they winter here. He is a wealthy farmer and roams his sweet potato farms in a pickup with the window down. Taciturn, he is. Not the sort to pamper anyone or anything.

But Brooks Johnson loves the birds. He loves to creep down to a pond near his house just north of Accomac and slide ever so slowly into a junked car near the water. He has covered its windows with cardboard so the birds can't see him and he has torn out little holes. There he will sit for hours and watch the birds.

"I seen this pond so black with ducks you couldn't stick your finger between 'em," says Johnson. Today there are only two or three dozen. Johnson blames that on "outsiders."

"They empty four to five automatics in the air and try to scare the ducks. Then they shoot 'em when they fly over their property." His voice lowers in anger. "I catch 'em and I'll drop 'em with my .270. I'm tired of it."

Just then a flight of ducks circles the pond.

"They're baldpates," he says, craning his neck out the cab window. "Now, I can tell--you see the white on the drake's wing?"

All the men in the Bundick family have hunted. Twelve-year-old John shot his first duck when he was six. Bobby, 22, hunts just about every day. Their father, Bob Sr., 50, used to time his leave from the Army--he is a retired sergeant--so that he would be on the Shore during duck hunting season.

Now Bob Bundick no longer hunts. But in the shed behind the family home in Dougherty, where he runs a wholesale oyster business, he cannot hide his pleasure when he talks of the birds.

"Remember that white pelican out there on the marsh? Boy, the geese loved him," he tells his uncle, Alger Scott, 71.

"They'd stool right in to him?" Scott asks.

"Stool right in to him," Bundick repeats. "We used to see that black ibis, too. Anyone seen him? He's got that hooked bill, flies in a crooked like"--he hunches over--"like this." They shake their heads in wonderment.

Out on the marsh, John Bundick watches the geese swing away beyond the trees along the shore. The sun has sunk behind the trees, too, and the marsh is an earthen brown. He shuffles through the long grass, the cold air rich with the scent of pine and myrtle.

In the distant fields beyond the trees, the geese are calling out to other returning wedges, their voices tinkling faintly like some ancient, long-lost instrument. John pulls his coat up around his neck and listens for a moment. Then the wind shifts and the marsh is dark.