Duck!

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, February 4, 2007

A few years ago, I entered a duck stage, enthusiastically determining that there was no reason most suburban yards couldn't accommodate a pair. (I had also just given in to my kids' request for ducklings, which I could find available only by the dozen, so I was desperate to unload a few.) Grass, bugs, a puddle or two -- any back yard could make for an easy, no-fuss duck habitat. I presented the gift of ducklings to four of my friends, all of whom had young, applauding children, and we sat on porches cradling the tiny creatures and adoring them, and dreaming of sunny afternoons tossing breadcrumbs.

Within a week, six of the ducklings were returned by no-longer-adoring owners. The birds were either too stinky or too tempting for the cat or just plain unwanted. By turns, my friends began outlining a provision of our friendship: no more surprise animals for their kids. It was one thing if I chose to live on a farm with creatures running around; that they chose not to was, they said, to be duly noted.

Whatever. You can't convert everybody. Success in this case was limited to Wanda and David, owners of ducklings numbers 7 and 8, Daffy and Donald, who grew into two fat ducks splashing in a little creek that ran on the edge of the family's fenced-in yard. David built a little duck house, read everything he could find on ducks. The children fed the ducks and taught them how to bowl with tennis balls and gave them the opportunity to watch TV ("SpongeBob," of course) through the patio door. The ducks became legendary around the neighborhood and made it, finally, onto the family Christmas card. So imagine how it was for Wanda when she got the call, just recently, from the neighbor who saw the owl that swooped down and grabbed the duck and flew off, but not before losing its grip, depositing the duck two back yards away. " Owls?" Wanda said. "We have owls?" Neighbors flocked to the scene, where Donald lay mangled and quite dead. A violent death. A horror by anyone's reckoning. Wanda and David were so distraught they called off work. They buried Donald down by the creek, and when the kids came home from school, they tried to explain.

Wanda called me a lot during those days, and she cried openly, feeling stupid. I told her I understood, because I did. Then, just yesterday, she called to say, "We have to do something." She said Daffy, the remaining duck, was visibly distraught. That duck would stand for hours in front of the basement window, staring at its reflection. "I think she thinks it's Donald," Wanda said. She said Daffy had stopped eating and quacking. Knowing as much as the next person does about the mental health of ducks, I said, "Daffy needs another duck."

And so this brings us, finally, to the present, and to the reason I am out here in my yard with a pink butterfly net, chasing ducks. I probably should have waited for my husband and kids to get home from basketball practice, when we might together corner a duck, but I feel a keen duty not to involve another single person in my misguided attempt to convert the world to the wonders of ducks. I'll just catch one of ours, take it over to Wanda's, and the world will more or less be back in order.

It's raining. Ducks famously love rain, and ducks love mud, and I am beginning to think that the nine ducks I'm chasing are laughing at me. "Wak, wak, wak, wak!" they shout, darting this way and that, while I slide my way around the barnyard. This is impossible. I need to outsmart them. I get out a bag of feed. I make a trail of corn leading from the yard to the empty chicken coop. Ha! Three of them gobble the feed and walk right into my trap. I follow and thwack! shut the door, and in that confined space, I am able to tackle one of the ducks and hold on tight. The duck surrenders, hangs its head as if to say, "Damn."

"You're going to a better place," I say. "You're going to the suburbs."

When I stand, duck in arms, I realize: Wait a second, the chicken coop does not open from the inside. No, that door is locked, and I am on the wrong side of freedom. At times like this, you dream of a cellphone. Or at least a watch to determine how long it will be before your family returns from basketball practice. I guess an hour. I am trapped in this stinky hut with three ducks for an hour. I sit on the bench and pet the trapped duck, which was too hard to catch to let go now. I speak to him of empathy. I wonder about friendship, and companionship and loneliness -- and the human need to rescue.

When they get home, my family laughs like a roaming band of ducks. Everything I see is now duck-related. I need a shower. I take the duck to Wanda's. It joins Daffy squatting by the basement window. The two ducks just sit there, spend the entire afternoon staring at the now doubled duck reflection. Wanda wonders whether we should help, somehow. "I don't think they realize that they have each other now," she says.

"Enough," I tell her. "We have done enough."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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