Monday, April 20, 2009

A Boy and His...Duck?

As a lover of animals, I’ve had some great pets throughout the years, but none quite as memorable—or unusual—as my pet duck. Ours was an unlikely bond formed through a series of what most would describe as far-fetched events. In the spring of 1974, my parents and I were at my grandparents’ home on our property in Pope, Mississippi, where we spent most of our weekends. We had fifty-six acres of land, which included three ponds, a dozen or so cattle, and the single-wide trailer where my grandparents lived. My parents built a small cabin on a hill overlooking the biggest of the three ponds. It wasn’t grand, but it was fun. It had a wood burning stove, a bed, and a bathroom. What else do you need, really? They’d also built a small doghouse for the handful of ducks that had taken up residence on the big pond. We had stuffed the inside with hay and made it comfortable for them. We had suspected for a while that the female was soon to lay eggs, so we checked the nest every weekend. One morning we approached the little house to find duck feathers outside the entrance. The ducks were nowhere to be seen. Inside were three little speckled eggs, two of which had been destroyed. It was probably coyotes, my parents said, that had gotten to them. My mother decided we were going to give the one remaining egg every chance, so we took it back to Grandma and Grandpa’s chicken coop and put it in the nest of a setting hen who was already on a couple of her own eggs.

We checked the egg on every visit to see if the hen had discarded it, but it was still secure in the nest. Finally about a month later we crept into the coop to see how our little one was doing. A sickening feeling washed over me when I saw a little wet clump of hairy duckling on the cool dirt floor of the coop. The egg had hatched, and the hen, seeing that this wasn’t one of hers, had scratched him out of the nest. We first assumed he was dead, but then a little shiver rocked his tiny frame. My mom, scooping him up and holding him against her chest, told me to get a box and put a blanket in it. We set up a makeshift incubator with a shop light clamped to the box to keep the little guy warm. We fed him with an eyedropper at first until he graduated to chick feed. It wasn’t very long before the egg that we didn’t have much hope for became a fuzzy little duckling, stumbling around his cardboard townhouse, peeping constantly. Since school was now out for the summer, I begged my parents to let me take him home with us when we returned to Memphis. They finally caved, and when we left that Sunday afternoon, I set the little cardboard box between my feet in the floorboard of our truck. As the trees and mile markers of Interstate 55 flew by, I began to think about what to name him.

Over the next several days, we played in my Mr. Turtle pool in the back yard—oddly enough, his least favorite thing to do. I would toss him in the six-inch-deep water and he would come racing out, wings flapping and feet paddling like mad. We tried other venues—the bathtub, the sink, a washtub—to acclimate him to water and swimming, but got the same result. I’d never seen a duck who didn’t like water. Mom said he was daffy, and it stuck. Daffy. What he lacked in aquatic proclivity, however, he made up for with personality. No matter where I was, that’s where he wanted to be. When I sat in my room and listened to music or talked on the phone, he was there to play with the telephone cord or slide around on the pile of cassettes on my bed. When I watched TV and snacked on the couch in the living room, he sat next to me, picking at whatever food I had on my plate. And when I walked next door to nap in our neighbors’ hammock, he was right behind me the whole way, his little webbed feet slapping the ground as fast as they could. As I settled into the hammock, I placed him gently on my chest, where he stayed, content to nap with me while the warm June breeze blew through the trees, the rustle of leaves gently singing us to sleep.

As he grew, it became more and more obvious that the best thing for him was to take him back to the pond on our property. My parents told me repeatedly that it was time to turn him loose and let him be a duck. The only problem was that I hadn’t taught him how to be a duck. He was more like a dog, and a spoiled one at that. During the trip back to Mississippi to release him, he sat on my lap in the truck and stared out the window until we both went to sleep. When we finally arrived, the abrupt silence of turning off the gravel road onto the soft grass of the pasture woke us both. We sat him on the ground and expected him to take to his new surroundings. But he didn’t. He continued to follow me wherever I went. Thinking he might follow me into the pond, I waded in up to my waist, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He paced along the edge of the pond, as if he were trying to figure out how to get to me without getting in the water. We tried several times to put him in the pond, but each time he’d come flapping and squawking out like he’d done in the pool. It’s not like he couldn’t swim—he was a duck, whether he knew it or not—he just didn’t like to. Eventually my father had to push him into the water with a broom and circle the pond to block his exit. After Dad made several trips around the pond, Daffy stayed in the water, but I could feel him giving me the stink eye. This is your fault, he seemed to be saying. If you’d taught me how to act like a duck, I’d be happy now in the water instead of miserable because my butt is wet. As we drove off to visit with my grandparents for a while and let Daffy continue to adjust to his new environment, I felt like I was abandoning him, and I was sure he felt the same way. We stayed at my grandparents’ for a while, and then it was time to head back home. I wanted to go back to the pond to check on Daffy, but my parents said he needed time alone to learn how to be a duck. My grandparents promised to check on him until we came back. Reluctantly, I climbed in the truck and we started the longest trip back home I could ever remember.

The following week, I came in from outside and Mom was on the phone with Grandma. Just before I entered the kitchen I overheard her say, “Probably the coyotes…” Then her eyes met mine and she quickly looked away. My eyes already wet, I stumbled down the hall to my room and flopped onto my bed, waiting for the inevitable. A few minutes later I heard Mom hang up the phone and walk down the hall to my room. She sat on the edge of my bed and explained to me what Grandma had told her—that Daffy was gone. Grandma and Grandpa had looked for him, but he was just gone. I didn’t let on that I had heard about the coyotes, but I suspect she knew. She rubbed my back gently, and then quietly slipped out of the room. As I lay on the bed, I blinked away tears that burned and stung. My mouth tightened and my chin quivered as I broke into wet heaving sobs that soaked my bedspread and left salty streaks down my face. In time I would come to understand that even if I had successfully taught Daffy to act like a duck, to be a duck, this was still likely to happen. It didn’t seem fair. Mom and Dad explained that it was part of life. The worst part, I added, and they agreed.