Duck Finds Her Way

Duck was in a panic. It was opening day of hunting season on Merrymeeting Bay, and the place sounded like a war zone. Shotguns popping off everywhere. Duck’s whole tribe had been awoken before dawn by two hunters sculling their gunning float right through the bird’s sleeping quarters, and they’d been on the run ever since.

Visibility was lousy – blowing rain and fog – and Duck lost her position in the flock, then she’d fallen way behind out of exhaustion. Every time the flight leaders thought they’d found a safe haven full of resting ducks, and the flock followed them in, it was another set of decoys. Up jumped hunters in their camouflaged floats, and the air was full of screaming birdshot.

Duck had seen dozens of her kinfolk fall, and after the flight leaders were gunned down thing went from bad to worse. In the confusion at the last landing, somewhere along the Muddy River, Duck had lost sight of her partner. Then a blast of shot sent her reeling, with a sharp pain in her breast. She tried to keep up with the other escaping birds, but she fell farther and farther behind. Now she was gliding into a tiny pocket of water in the middle of the marsh grasses. She had barely enough strength left to beat her wings. If there were hunters or dogs here, she was a goner.

But Duck was in luck. This pothole was too small to attract many ducks, so it was unguarded. Duck made an awkward belly-flop landing, paddled frantically into a tiny side channel and floated there, shaken and confused. Then she put her head under her wing, and sobbed.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The tales she’d heard about the Bay painted a picture of a travelers’ paradise. It was called Merrymeeting Bay. What could be nicer then that? A place where thousands upon thousands of migrant waterfowl could put down together. Way back it had been called Quabacook, which everyone said meant “Duck Water Place.” Didn’t that sound inviting? Sure there were tales of hunters, but what autumn watering hold didn’t have some shadowy figure in cammy hiding in the bulrushes? This Bay was supposed to be so vast, and frequented by so many birds, that the odds of getting shot were no worse than any other perils of cross-continental flying.

The Bay and estuary sure seemed like duck heaven when her lot came winging in a couple weeks back. Spread out below the flock was acre after acre of wild rice, casting their ripe fruit on the waters. Serpentine watercourses, covered with a rich brew of floating invertebrates, wove through the marsh grasses. A host of rare plants were scattered here and there, offering special treats, or merely the joy of variety. Pickerel weed and water parsnip, estuary marigold and spongy arrowhead, Long’s bittercress and water pimpernel, Piper’s pipewort and pygmyweed. The flock Medicine Bird was ecstatic about the curative qualities of Quabacook cuisine. The Duck Witch raved about the healing aspects of tapegrass, which grew here in the deep channels. She said it could bind up and heal any wound. It all looked good to Duck.

The weary travelers headed south from their nesting grounds in Canada had been glad for the respite. A chance to bulk up for the next leg. Some ducks were headed to Florida and the Gulf Coast, while other flight leaders had their internal navigation calibrated on winter wetlands in Central America. But for now this oasis where the rivers meet the tide was a Merrymeeting Bay, for sure.

Duck and her Drake, along with their flock, had taken a special liking to the floating fields of manna at the mouth of the Cathance. They’d dabbled and ducked day after day, skimming the surface for floaters and nibbling at the submerged treats. Each pair of birds might forage away from the main group while the Sun was high, but all the birds would congregate in the evening. Then the whole flock, hundreds in number, might jump and wheel about in an aerial ballet, before setting down together in open water.

Duck was particularly popular in the flock. She’d always been class clown, even as a giddy young duckling. Now she had a well developed comic routine, and her mate this year was the perfect straight drake.

When the whole fleet of ducks were floating together on the Bay, Duck would begin bantering with Drake – about suggestive tail-feathers or the way some ducks wiggled. Duck was a gifted mimic, and her send-ups of the flock elders always got the other ducks giggling. First one of the adolescents would titter-quack, then another. Pretty soon the entire fleet would be guffawing in hilarity. On a still evening it sounded like the whole bay was a comedy club having hysterics. Quack quack quack. Quack quack quack.

If the tide was out, and the flock gathered near some exposed flats, Duck would do her goose dance routine, which invariably broke up the whole tribe. She’d slap her big feet on the wet flats, stick her neck in and out, and stagger around like a goose who’s been into the fermented rice, gabbling incoherently in goose-talk. Her flockmates would scream with laughter, and some of the younger ducks would have to be dunked to calm them.

Yes, it had been a splendid layover. Until today.

Now Duck was hiding in the rushes, in fear for her life. Drake was gone, maybe dead, and the rest of her flock had fled who knows where. And she had a burning wound in her chest. Duck dragged herself out onto a tussock of marsh grass, fluffed out her feathers for camouflage, buried her head under a wing, and fell into an exhausted sleep. It was still blowing rain and fog, but the water ran right off Duck’s back.

Duck drifted into dreamland. Duck’s dreams were disturbed by intermittent gunfire, and the intrusion of images from today’s waking nightmare, but she sank deeper and deeper into the inner realms.

In dreams Duck was diving into a great well whose walls were waving curtains of lush green vegetation. The plants glowed with soft phosphorescence in a welter of verdant shades. When Duck’s wings brushed them thecurtains would brighten, and send pinwheels of sparks into the water.

In this dream Duck knew she was seeking something, but she seem to have forgotten what. And she was nervous. Now, when Duck is anxious she quacks a little nonsense song. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Then what sounded like a whole chorus of ducks commenced to echo Duck’s song. Her ears rang with the tuneless gabbling. Duck turned red with embarrassment, and stopped quacking. So did the chorus. The silence made Duck more nervous, and she began to sing again. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Down and down Duck dove until she arrived at the bottom of the well. There the bottom was covered with a shimmering carpet of iridescent weed. It was tapegrass. Duck remembered what the Duck Witch had said, and knew this is what she was seeking. Duck feasted on the healing herb. She felt a tingling in her chest, and the pain eased. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Then the water started to whirl, spinning Duck round and round until she was dizzy and disoriented. She didn’t know right from left, or up from down, and the luminous vegetation streamed past her, dazzling her eyes. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Now the chorus was quacking her song again, but she seemed to hear snatches of sentences in the gabble. Duck knew it was only an echo of he own silly song, so it couldn’t make sense, but there was still some kind of coherence in the choral reflection. As though a thousand ducks were quacking nonsense and it sounded like Shakespeare. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

The spinning phosphorescence around Duck took on the look of a fluid kaleidoscope. All the shades of green fragmented and recombined into crystalline symmetries. The whole dizzy universe of Duck’s dream turned into a 3-dimensional mandala. Duck was at the center, but she was also somewhere off to the side, where she could see the whole fantastic fragmented flower. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

From her separate vantage Duck saw the spinning mandala was wheeling around a pulsing brightness in the middle of her chest. And now she understood what the chorus was singing, even though it was cloaked in nonsense. In her inner ear Duck heard the voice calling: “Dig it out. Spit it out.”

Duck bent her head down, dug at the birdshot lodged in her breast with the hooked tip of her bill. The kaleidoscope spun faster and faster. Duck had the shot in her mouth. She spat it out. And the colors changed. Now all the colors of the rainbow circled around Duck. Her world still wheeled, but a feeling of well-being radiated out from the mending wound in her breast. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Duck heard the voice in the chorus more clearly now.

“Do not fear,” it said. “You are the one who can travel far and always return. You are the one who can pass through water and air, and still find the way home.”

This sounded reassuring to Duck, but the world was still spinning wildly, and she still didn’t know up from down. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

As if hearing her thoughts, the voice spoke again.

“If you aim for the Sky, you will find your way,” it said.

As if compelled, Duck bent her head back, lifting her bill. Instantly she was rocketing forward? Upward? The curtains of light streamed past her, and the chorus sounded like a thousand ducks lifting off the Bay, wings beating like thunder. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

She exploded out of the fluid light and up, it was up, into the air – soaring like a missile. With a CLUNK the disembodied part of herself popped back into Duck, and her whole self stared down on the estuary spread below. It was still daytime down there, but the fog was breaking up. There were rents in the clouds, and a stiff northwest wind was ruffling the Bay. Duck’s gaze could zoom in on the least detail, and she saw tattered flocks of ducks still beating from one false shelter to another. She could see the hunters and their floats distinctly, despite the cammy clothes and the cedar boughs disguising the boats. The whole map of the Sagadahoc imprinted on her mind’s eye, with danger and safety clearly defined. And Duck saw the remnants of her own flock, huddle together along the Woolwich shore, just up the Kennebec from Chops. Duck quacked quietly to herself.

Then Duck was rocketing higher still. Way up into airless space. Now she looked down on the entire eastern seaboard. Duck could identify the whole route from her birthplace and nesting ground in Canada to her winter haunts on the Gulf. All the landmarks and navigational aids winked at her, aligned to the stars she now saw overhead. Then the Earth was just a huge blue and white ball, turning majestically below her. Duck quacked quietly to herself.
She heard her own voice speaking out of the silly song: “It’s time to return. Head down.”
Duck put her head down, and dove back into unconsciousness.

When she awoke in the marsh grass it was night time, and the sky was clear. The storm had passed. All the stars were out. And Duck felt fabulous. There was still a bit of tapegrass dangling from her bill, and she ate it with relish. Normally Duck woud have stayed hidden during the night, but something told her she must find her flock in the dark, before the hunters came back. Duck jumped and flew across the Bay. She wasn’t anxious any more, so she didn’t have to sing her silly song.

Following the internal map she now carried, Duck flew straight to the remnants of her flock. They were milling about on the Kennebec, still in a state of panic. Confused and leaderless. Duck landed in the middle of the tribe and began calling in a loud voice.

“Lost ducks to me! Lost ducks to me!”

The other birds responded to the voice of authority. All the leaders had been shot, and even those birds who thought Duck was nothing but a slapstick prankster were willing to listen to anyone who seemed to know their way. Even Drake, who was very glad to see her, realized something had changed in her. She was no longer just a loveable clown.

When the other birds had all come to order around Duck, she spoke reassuringly. She told them it was time to fly south. They were well fed, and although they had lost their old leaders, she knew the way, and would show others the marks. But they must lift off right now, even if there were relatives out there hiding in the night. The hunters would be back again before daylight. It was time to go.

There were some squabblers, a few quackings about “that clown,” especially from those hoping to find relatives tomorrow. Some birds refused to take off, out of loyalty to the missing, But most of the ducks were glad to have Duck lead them away. She nominated a score of the strongest fliers as deputy flight leaders. Together they marshaled the flock. With a single quack the whole fleet jumped into the air, and thundered into the darkness. Duck was in the lead, steering by the stars.

Which is why Duck sometimes quacks to herself. And why you must listen to the voices within, no matter how silly they sound.