Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Death of a Duck

(In case the title wasn't already enough of a spoiler for you, here's the story.)

I grew up in a house that has a backyard adjacent to a canal. During the spring, it was a common occurrence for me to see entire broods of Muscovy duckling waddling to and fro and paddling their way across the canal, their little webbed feet working furiously under the water in an attempt to keep up with their mother. Over the course of a few days, it was not uncommon to see a well-populated brood dwindle to only a handful of ducklings awkwardly tumbling behind the mother duck.

Being exposed to not other wild animals besides the Muscovy ducks, I went through a period in my childhood in which I suddenly declared that ducks were my absolute favorite animals in the entire world, in particular the Pekin variety. And as it often is with children's desires, I wanted a pet duck.

Naturally, my parents refused, stating that I could pretend that all of the Muscovy ducks belonged to me. In my child's mind, Muscovy ducks, with warty, red growths encroaching across their bills, were no where near the same caliber of finesse as the Pekin duck, but I was still content to provide them with bits of bread to eat.

To further add insult to injury, my mother ordered me to never, EVER  go near my "pet" ducklings.

"Well, why not?" I huffed.

"Because the mother duck with very over-protective, and if she sees you trying to go for her babies, she will attack you."

I shuddered. Why would she attack the person feeding her bits of bread?

"Ducks don't understand loyalty, Barbara," Mom explained.

My curiosity had been provoked. "Then how would she attack if she's not loyal to her duckies?"

"Oh, no, she's loyal to them. Not to us. She'd bite."

"Do duck bites hurt, Mommy?"

"Yes, I tell you this from experience. Don't get close to them." The severity in her tone suggested that I should heed her warning. I always made sure that whenever I gave the ducks bread, I would stay several feet away. It was difficult to see a number of fluffy, peeping ducklings and not be able to caress one of them. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to touch a duckling someday.

That chance would come. Several years ago, Miami faced a period in which it rained for three days straight that led to floods. This continuous rain, oddly enough, was not related to a hurricane pattern. Still, this meteorological fluke ensured impromptu school closures and prohibited people from safely driving to work. It was great to be able to stay home with Mom and Dad and feel like I had somehow struck gold from not going to school.

The novelty waned by the second day. During the rainstorm, I lamented being cooped in my room and dreamed about going outside to walk around the canal's edge, its presence taunting me from the window. All of a sudden, amid a strong gust parting the water, I spotted a flash of yellow.

With the rain's relentless pounding in thick curtains of water, it was difficult at first to decipher what the yellow bundle could possibly be when I saw it move!

There was no mistaking the clumsy waddle. It was a lost duckling! I yelled for my parents to come look.

"Mom! Dad! There's a duckling outside! It's all alone. What should we do?"

Without hesitation, Dad slipped on his American school bus yellow raincoat and marched deftly into the pelting rain to save the duckling.

I was so happy! My family would finally have a real pet duckling to take care of! For the time-being, Mom contrived a little home for the duckling using a plastic crate, a towel and some old newspapers. I thought the accommodations were too spartan for him and asked my mother if I could place a duck plushie to make him feel even more at home.

"Absolutely not," Mom replied.

As the duckling cheeped and explored his relatively cozy confines, I hovered above the crate and watched his every move.

My mind raced with what I would name the duckling, deeming "Quackers" as being a suitable option. Yes, I had only known the duckling for a few hours, but by naming it, I demonstrated a deep sense of attachment. In fact, the way I glowered at it prompted my mother to tell me to go off and leave the duckling alone.

I didn't want to, of course.

"For how long should I leave him?"

"Oh...a few minutes. He needs his peace and quiet, too."

I went to my room and stared at the clock, waiting for "a few minutes" to pass. Twenty minutes to be sufficient time to have left Quackers on his own. Thinking that he was probably hungry, I ran to the kitchen and scrounged for a slice of bread, betting that Quackers would love to eat what he found in his natural habitat. The spongy slice in hand, I made a beeline for his crate. I stood on my tiptoes and looked down at him.

Quackers laid on his side, no longer peeping.

I bent my knees and gently nudged his little plump body with an index finger, seeing if he would react to my presence. Nothing.

His limp body rolled back and forth based on how poked him. Still nothing. He remained inert and silent.

I couldn't understand it. He was fine only a few minutes ago, and now he's not moving, I thought.

"Mommy? What's wrong with Quackers?"

Mom peered over the crate and gave a sharp intake of breath. What she said next was uttered in a soothing tone, the one mothers reserve for when they are faced with the difficult task of needing to comfort while presenting bad news.

"Oh...Barbara. I think he's died."

Until that fateful moment, death had been a foreign concept to me. Yes, I was aware that it happened to other people and animals, and that it was met with sadness. In fact, when I was even younger, I wasn't able to understand that Charlie the German Shepherd from All Dogs Go to Heaven was supposed to be dead and escaping death throughout the whole film. (Huh. Another title with a spoiler.)

This poignant moment marked the first true encounter that I had with the senseless loss of life. Not only had my hopes of finally having a pet duckling been dashed, Quackers wouldn't even have the chance for me to show him how much my family and I would love him in the comfort of a warm home.

My child self was distraught and reacted by the only means possible: crying.

But I didn't just simply cry. Oh, no. In that despair, it was if someone had opened the floodgates to my soul.

I sobbed until my eyes ached and were reduced to swollen, red globules. My anguish made me inconsolable to the extent that my parents' voice of reason and attempts to quell my tears were deflected. Life became a blur.

An hour later, my father coaxed me towards him to join him in watching a bout of television. Cuddling me closer to his side, he decided to embark on educating me about how life was not fair.

"I'b gobing to miss the bucky, Dabby," I snorted thickly, my voice muffled with a heavy coating of snot. "Why dib he hab to die?"

"Look, honey, I know it's not just to see something so small and innocent pass away, but death is another part of this life. And, yes, it is unfortunate, but you can't let it stop you from living. All you can do now is remember the good times you had with the ducky."

His words probably would have had a bigger impact had my allotted time with Quackers surpassed more than a mere three hours.

"But he dibbint deserb to die so soon," I bawled.

"Think about this: at least he died surrounded by people instead of being all alone in the wild, right?"


"We made sure he was comfortable in his final moments on this Earth. So, don't worry. He is going to be okay, as are you. Now, let's watch the T.V."

I don't recall which program we had sat down to watch. I gave a bleary glare at the dancing images bouncing off the screen. My raspy breathing slowed, the inhales steady, the exhales calm. The tears stopped.

"Yes, that's it. You see?"

A sniffle was my answer.

"Here, let's just keep watching the T.V., all right? It'll distract you."

"Okay, Daddy."

My poor father. Not even he could have predicted that the very first commercial to appear during the commercial break would be for a toilet cleaning product which has for a mascot... a small, quacking duck.

The following is a rough interpretation of how the commercial, with its unfortunate timing, sounded in my head.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you will find me not only using "Canard," the French version of said toilet cleaner, but also occasionally feasting on Magret de Canard without batting an eye.

As it was, Quackers wouldn't be the only pet duck in my life, and that one led a more successful and happier time with us.

But that's a story for another day.

Barb the French Bean