The International Writers Magazine: Life and Times
I watch my little ducklings from a distance. They are, after all, my little ducklings. I’ve shown them how to float; how to snatch a lungful of air; how to flutter down on fin-like wings to the bottom of the lake to find weed -- all of which they’ll need to survive. They aren’t, after all, swans -- and can’t “depend upon the kindness of strangers.” Not now, not ever.
This, however, is summer. And summer, as all ducks know, belongs to the swans; but also quite possibly to my little ducklings so long as they remember they’re not -- come the sunset at the end of their day -- swans.
Hundreds have come to the park. Hundreds have come with their own little “ducklings,” each of which is standing on two rather wobbly legs on the bank of this Swan Lake. Their ducklings, also not knowing anything about winter or cold or a lake without weed, grow excited at seeing my little ducklings. Their little ducklings throw morsels of something into the water, and my team swims right up to nibble. The more my ducklings nibble, the more their ducklings throw. It’s a regular orgy of throwing and nibbling -- ducklings to ducklings.
I now look at the grown-ups standing on the bank of the lake. They smile at each other in the manner of stupid geese. My ducklings, I’m sure, would know by now the smile of stupid geese and would scatter. But these other grown-up animals have no feathers and do not honk. They only smile -- stupidly-- and chatter amongst themselves.
Moments come into the life of all mother ducks when enough is enough. For me, this is one of those moments. Winter is coming. Winter, which plays havoc with ducks and geese -- and yes, even with swans. Winter’s enough to make any of us wince, though wincing’s not natural for birds of any feather.
I raise a wing to signal to my ducklings that ‘Enough is enough, goddamn it!’
I want only my ducklings, I think. That, and weed enough to see this team through the winter. And yes, maybe I’d also like that goose of a drake I call my mate to get with me again once this brood is safely grown and out of the nest.
I wonder, too -- for a brief instant -- whether those others standing on the bank might want something of the same. But then a chill wind catches me from behind and flutters my tail-feathers, and my wondering’s done for the day.
Once ashore, I find our nest and pull my little ducklings in close. The wind’s blowing harder; the sky’s growing darker; the waves are rippling ever closer to our nest -- and my drake is nowhere to be seen. Not in situ, as these swans of Swan Lake would no doubt have it.
I spot a hawk hovering overhead and immediately throw a wing over my brace of ducklings. If there’s anything I hate more than errant drakes, it’s falcons and hawks overhead. If I had a stay-at-home mate -- goddamn it -- I’d now fly up and show that hawk a thing or two about ‘duck and cover.’ As matters stand, however, I have no choice but to stay put with my brood.
As I look out over the waves, I spot a single young duck paddling hard against the wind. It’s hard to tell the sex of this one: he or she isn’t yet old enough to have the telltale markings of gender. But then, it suddenly occurs to me I’ve seen this youngster many times before. Up until this moment, it’s always been as one of a pair -- the two of them inseparable, always paddling in tandem as though they hadn’t a worry in the world. And so, I wonder where the other one now is.
“El escarabajo llama a sus hijos ‘granos de oro‘” * (Spanish proverb)
* The black beetle calls its young ones ‘grains of gold’
I know my ducklings are not exceptional. But they’re my ducklings, goddamn it! And before I’ll allow any old goose to tell me how ordinary my ducklings are, I’m going to point my beak in the direction of that drake over there -- or at least where I imagine that drake to have last been. That drake -- their father, my mate -- still hasn’t returned to the nest. I’m beginning to think his gallivanting has gone about far enough.
Meanwhile, the hawk continues to hover. I bare a bill full of brittle tiny teeth -- then quack, half under my breath, a vulgarism I wouldn’t want my ducklings to hear. He squawks back in a patois I couldn’t even begin to understand, nose-dives towards our nest as I scooch my team tighter under me, then drops a feather and swoops right back off.
I look at the feather as it spirals mockingly down towards our nest. The warm color and downy texture of it look familiar. I hesitate to think of how familiar -- or of how it might’ve come into this hawk’s possession, or about why he’s chosen to drop it directly above us.
Now begins our long winter’s night. “Winter.“ How easy it is to think the word. And yet, how long and -- yes, at times -- seemingly unendurable is the season. I’m a mother; a hen. If I didn’t have the memory of a mother and a hen of several paddlings and several winters, I don’t know how I’d be able to endure the thought of another winter, never mind another paddling. But I have this memory -- this endurance born of the patience of many paddlings -- and a certain will to live at least as long as this particular paddling might need me.
|| Winter comes; winter goes. The dread of a season lasts no longer than the season itself, however long that dreadful season might be. Most of my ducklings are still with me, though not all. The survivors -- no longer ducklings to be sure -- are like eager little beavers come spring. But I remind myself: they’re not beavers, still less squirrels, and anything but swans. And yet, thank God, they‘re also not geese. They’re just ducks.
I’d rather not think about the absent ones. Nature abhors a vacuum; and so, rather than think about that vacuum, my instinct is to fill it.
My drake has still not returned to the nest -- but then, a drake, after all is said and done, is good for only a season -- a single season.
Spring has indeed come. At one point -- well past Christmas, as I recall -- there’d been a momentary thaw. The ice on the lake had grown to a thin skin, at least thin enough for me to see below the surface. My own hunger had long ceased to grate on me; but that of my ducklings -- to a mother’s ever-hungry ear -- occasionally cried out, however weak-willed, however subdued, however too poignantly and pitifully muffled.
I spotted a fish -- a single fish which no doubt simply wanted to rise to the surface to see a bit of sunshine, a bit of light, some indication that there was more to life than the dark, oxygen-starved benthos it had known for months. It rose to the surface to gasp -- or at least to see the light. I saw it and leapt from my nest. At the same time, another shadow swept down, smashed through the ice and grabbed the fish with a pair of mother-hungry talons. That shadow was not something I imagined -- at least I don‘t think so. But it’d been a long time since I’d eaten anything, and my ducklings had long been signaling to me a hunger that now had me waddling somewhere between illusion and reality.
That younger duck I’d seen in late autumn wandering aimlessly and without a companion? As the wind grew stronger, the days shorter, the water colder, the light less bountiful, that younger duck had begun to swim in closer and closer circles towards our nest. With just the tip of a tired wing, I’d at last indicated that our nest might yet accommodate one homeless fowl -- at which point, that young duck had scooched in under it and had become a part of my brood.
I now see that same young duck again out on the lake, but he’s no longer alone. Instead, he’s one of a party of three no-longer-young ducks. I wonder if it’s some additional companionship he’s seeking, or if this is a new duck-world. The sex of the third duck is, with my failing vision and diminishing envy, every bit as questionable as the sex of the two I’ve already seen. I’ll just have to wait and see.
I allow myself to think instead about the future of my own young ducklings, even if that ’future’ is at best a very vague concept. I decide that any rumination about their ‘future’ is a bit of a canard and I can wait to grapple with until grappling becomes absolutely necessary. For now, food is the only issue worth thinking about.
There is, as yet, no sign of weed. I know from years past that weed will eventually appear, but I have to wonder whether this year will be different.
Meanwhile, my ducklings look at me as if I should know. I don’t. There’s nothing in my belly and nothing in theirs. We’re all now just ducks out of luck.
Spring is normally a happy harbinger -- and a tease. But a spring without weed, when springs past have always provided weed, is a tease of no humor. The days are becoming warmer; the nights, shorter. But our bellies -- now every bit as empty as they were throughout winter -- do not lie.
An empty belly is the only absolute truth. I may have smart ducklings; I may have attractive ducklings. Without a belly full of food, however, my smart, attractive ducklings are at the end of the day -- and at the end of their day -- just a brace of dead ducklings.
Something hovers once again directly overhead. I can feel its shadow, even if I don’t have the strength to lift my head and explore its purpose. Instead, I peek out over the edge of our nest at a family of swans as they glide complacently by: an imperious cob; an obedient pen; a sprite foursome of cygnets. But I now lack even the will to feel envy. Nature, I know, abhors a vacuum -- and nature has filled it.
Like an arrow shot down from the heavens, the shadow shrieks down to our nest, and I ...
© Russell Bittner 6 1 11
More life moments