The duck did not miss the girl wearing the yellow T-shirt with the giraffe on the pocket. He missed the bits of bread and lettuce she tossed. But the girl? He didn’t think so.
She yelped and he startled, dropping the lettuce she tossed his way, fluttering back into the glistening pond. One of the older drakes had bitten her hand. He knew what she felt, having received nips on his tail speeding out of their way. Whichever way their bills were pointed was “their way.” They allowed him to paddle in all other directions…unless one of those directions led to bread crusts and lettuce.
He watched the little girl and her father walk away from the pond. He watched her fingers knit into his fingers. He paddled around the bend to the pile of stones where the stream emptied into the pond. He hopped onto the stones and waddled up the stream, eyes ahead. Maybe he missed her a little.
Upstream he saw the little girl walking on the river stones, still holding her father’s hand. Her father swung her onto the grass and they disappeared over the crest of a green knoll.
The duck fluttered onto shore and then over the trees, circling…watching them walk across the great green field toward their home.
They melted through the wall of their house and he flew to it, landing under a window sill. The sill was almost at ground level; he stood a little ways off, gazing into the kitchen. He watched the girl and her parents eat dinner. He heard their quacking through the window…especially her quacking. And, especially when she was happy.
That night, while he cruised the black pond with his flock – streaks of rippling silver crossing his path, flashing quiet fire in his wake – he thought that maybe it wasn’t the food piled on their dinner table that had made him hungry. Maybe he wanted to live with the little girl.
The next morning he sought the Swan. He and his wife owned the pond. Their eggs had hatched and six gray gangly cygnets trailed after the handsome pair, skimming the water as graceful as any strand of moonlight. The cygnets stayed with their mother while their father chased a trio of geese onto the grass and up the slope until they took flight.
The older drakes grumbled about the Swan’s arrogance. The little duck, however, wished that when he was finished with the geese the Swan would chase the drakes out of the pond.
“Swan, I have a question for you,” he said, joining his patrol along the shallows. “I want to be a human. How does one achieve that?”
“I would think that might be setting one’s goals a tad high.”
“Not a big human. A small one. Like the ones you see bumbling over the grass in summer.”
“Not enough useless noise in the world? We need one more human?”
The little duck described his longing to live with the girl and how idyllic her life appeared to be.
“A human? No chance. But I still might be able to help you. Can you bark?”
“Hmmm. Let’s try this: say, meow.”
“Hmmm. I’ll get this; give me a sec. Maybe you can be a hamster. Concentrate, now. Be cuddly, furry and cute. And don’t make a sound.”
They cruised along a wall of white embankment stones – the little duck’s eyes clenched, concentrating; the Swan scanning his dominion for geese and other reapers of mischief.
“All right. You can stop, now. Let’s hear that bark, again.”
The Swan chuckled.
“I mean it, Swan. I want to live with the little girl. I have to live with her.”
“Tell me about her, again. Every detail.”
After listening for awhile he said, “I got it. You can live with her if we can turn you into a stuffed animal. A duck, obviously. That’s the only way.”
He went on to describe the life of a stuffed duck. He could expect to be alone all day, sitting at the little girl’s headboard, waiting for her return. And then, after two minutes of being held, he would be jostled to the ground when she fell asleep. Remaining on the dusty carpet – sometimes under the bed, sometimes scrunched between the wall and the box frame – until her mother would find him…who knows how many days later.
And then there was the stuffing. He would no longer be a real duck with sinew, blood and bones. Instead, he would consist of cotton and Fiberfil batting, stuffed (hence, the name) into a sewed polyester skin covered with dyed poly-blend fur. No more sleek, iridescent feathers.
And he would never fly again.
“Is that what you wish?”
“Yes! I need to live with the little girl. If becoming a stuffed duck is the only way, then that is what I shall do.”
The Swan nodded his head as if appreciating the duck’s argument, but, really, he was masking his astonishment, gaining time to think this through.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. Only moonlight can help you. The next full moon, when its silver tail lies across the widest part of the pond, you must swim, underwater, from shore to shore.”
“I can do that.”
“And you can’t pick up your head for air.”
“And you must stay just enough under the water so moonlight can still touch you. If you dive too deep, you will break the spell. And if the crown of your head or even one tail-feather should break the surface…it will break the spell. And you must stay in the silvered path of the moon. If you veer just a bit left or right…”
“I’ll do it.”
The Swan sighed and shook his handsome head.
“You really want this, don’t you?”
“More than anything.”
“There’s one more task. When you reach the shore you must rise out of the water and fly to the girl’s home and hunker down outside her front door before your feathers dry. If they dry while you are in flight you will tumble out of sky as a stuffed duck and the park’s grounds crew will throw you into the trash.”
“I will not fail. Thank you, Swan.”
Swan wished him luck and watched him swim away – his orange flippers churning.
“Maybe I’ve judged my own sons too harshly when it comes to common sense,” he said.
On the appointed night the duck bobbed along the white-stone embankment, staring at the rising moon. As its bottom arc cleared the tallest trees and its silver tail shimmered across the length of the pond, the duck filled his lungs with air and dove under the water. He swam under the black glaze…yet, just under. He veered neither left nor right. He swam with strong, even pulls of his wings and pushes of his paddles. He had been practicing.
With his oxygen depleted and his ability to keep his buoyant body under the surface waning, he reached the farther shore. He shot out of the pond, his feathers shedding water as he gained altitude. He had no time to consider how exhausted he was as he flew to the girl’s home.
He landed outside her front door and hunkered down, waiting for the silver moonlight to transform his feathers into dyed cotton fiber, his bones and muscle into polyfil, his eyes into glossy plastic orbs.
But he noticed something.
Buried in the chamomile bordering the girl’s house was a duck’s nest. Sitting on it (on a clutch of eggs, he presumed) was a hen. The nest was concealed enough to fool a human, maybe, but not another duck. And not a…
A smelly, noisy raccoon snuffled through the chamomile, digging his claws into the earth every couple of strides, looking for grubs and snails…and duck eggs.
He wanted to help the poor hen but he was about to be transformed into a stuffed duck. The metamorphosis might already be underway. Within minutes he would be unable to fly. The raccoon would probably find him and tear him into shreds, just because he could, and then he would never live with the little girl. Her father would clean up the mess and throw it away.
But then he thought, if I am going to be torn apart by a raccoon, anyway…
The raccoon’s eyes flew open and he crouched in self-defense. Somehow, the chamomile had given birth to mayhem. To extreme danger. The racket was teeth-jarring, as if one of those cretinous humans were clashing garbage can lids to scare him.
Was it a badger? Could those awful creatures fly? Was it a leaping coyote? Whatever it was, it was flying at his head, cranking in his ear, swirling about him. Were there two of them?
He darted out of the chamomile to maneuver on solid ground. The first flying chaos followed him, pecking at him, hovering by his ear. He turned and slashed a claw at it, causing it to rise. The second one fluttered above eye-level…quacking.
They were ducks! He had been frightened off by ducks!
Crazy ducks, yes. But, still…only ducks. And ducks lay eggs. And eggs taste really, really good.
As he anticipated his coming meal, a human came thumping out of the front door, leading a smaller caterwauling human. Then, a third appeared. The largest of them carried a wooden truncheon. He banged it on the concrete, causing the ducks to flutter high.
The raccoon decided that the pond provided easier nests to raid and he skulked into the shadows and away.
The brave little duck watched the girl tiptoe along the chamomile and discover the duck eggs. She and her parents were pleased with them. He could tell that she was pleading with the hen to return to her nest. The hen had settled on the peak of the little girl’s house. The brave duck settled next to her.
“She wants you to return to your nest.”
“I’ll go back…when they return to their nest.”
“Don’t you think the pond would be safer?”
“And have all the ducks and geese decreed: no more raccoons at the pond? I must’ve missed that vote.”
Emmie and her family returned to their home. The mother-duck returned to her nest and the brave duck flew to his pond.
He was gliding across the glazed black water a long time before the silver trail of moonlight reminded him of Emmie…which reminded him of the one thing he could not live without.
by Brian Wapole