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Short Stories
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Franklin Duck Our valley is bounded on one side by the northern reach of the Green Mountains breached by a narrow road twitching through a ridge line gap. Two more gaps through a parallel range to the east, and one road running north and south along a modest river, are the asphalt strings tying us to the rest of the world. We sit above the valley in a shallow pocket, much like a grass lined dent in our small mountain at about sixteen hundred feet. It's officially Tucker Hill, but to its nine families it's simply 'Tucker'. Behind our ridge a piece of the Green Mountains has been shaved into ski trail zigzags looking like disheveled suspenders. Its top runs to about three thousand feet, so our place at sixteen hundred is no big deal. But up is up, and our up affords us a very large dollop of serenity and a thirty mile view. In the close-in foreground of that view, at the bottom of a grassy swale, we have a fair sized pond. It seems to be a land mark on bird migration maps, a navigation point on the aerial highway south in fall, and north in spring. These travelers pepper the air above us, north and south, in harmony with the seasons. But for years now very few of the over-fliers have ever stopped at our pond. We have wondered about that. I remember as a kid our summer family trips into New England, whizzing past clutches of weary looking motel cabins, gray with weather, some of them sadly lonesome looking. They used to be all over the back roads of upstate America, mementos of wayfaring rather than destinations. Maybe that's how the birds see our pond. My wife thinks the migrating birds are generally following the big highways because they look like rivers from five hundred feet up. It's probably true; she reads about that sort of thing. But if that's the case, the flocks are finding the interstate Hiltons with their glitzy pools and fountains, not our little splotch of water. Why bother with an uncivilized looking backwater pond that so far as any bird knows from that height could be filled with snakes and surrounded by wolves on the lookout for opportunity. # And then one day there's a change, ushered in by a brief parade of ducks; a parent-looking duck in front, another in back, and what look like three duck kids in between. But they aren't flying in, they're waddling in. Here I am, sitting on our deck out front, overlooking the pond, the thirty mile view and all that serenity on a golden early September Sunday. The air is clear and dry, a champagne day bubbling with expectation. This is a North Country September, which means temperature in the sixties to seventies and moderate breezes shifting directions. I'm out here in a light weight fall jacket, the Sunday paper in my lap, a cooling mug of coffee on the small terracotta table next to me. The driveway from our dooryard is a pebbled two-track that shambles for about five or six hundred feet to a dirt road running down Tucker a mile or so to merge with a blacktop flow into our little village. My coffee is cooling and the paper is sitting idle because something has snagged my attention. It's just below our dooryard neck where it narrows to the driveway that I catch a flutter of movement out of the corner of an eye. It's a swift movement, a duck trot in the waddling way that ducks trot when they're in a hurry, out of the forest verge on one side, across the narrow track, down the swale and right into the pond. It looks like they'd checked in, dropped off the luggage and dad had said, 'Who's up for a swim?' This pond of ours is approximately round, about fifty feet or so across and surrounded by a grassy verge that reminds me of a rolled collar you might find on a green shirt. Seeing the ducks I decide, somewhat arbitrarily, that papa duck is in front and mama duck in back. They apparently had landed in the woods but knew about the pond, and that's where they were headed. I was surprised they hadn't simply dropped down on the pond itself. They were, after all, ducks. That aside, they were clearly up for a swim, and at the pond's edge they neatly plopped themselves, one at a time, into the water and began a moderately organized review of the premises. It brought to mind a family investigating an off-season rental. # So now we have guests. Every morning there they would all be. A small flotilla of ducks paddling around the edges of the pond, sometimes looking like a patch of lily pads in the glittering morning sun, moving silently from point to point around the perimeter. They would be gone for lunch, and back again for a late afternoon dunk. It would go on for four days. We're on the deck with morning coffee, soaking in the start of a gorgeous day. Caroline, that's my wife, is watching them through binoculars. "They're Blue Teals," she says. "I looked them up. Here, you can see a little of the blue green in the feathers". She hands me the binoculars. Her settings are exactly right for me, so I had nothing to adjust. "Yeah, I can see it, the blue green. But what I don't understand is why they didn't just plop down in the pond that first day, instead of plopping down somewhere in the woods." Caroline turned toward me, her eyes slightly squinted, her speculative look. "You know," she said, raising a prompting finger, "I bet they landed in that pagoda space we had cleared out last summer. It holds a good sized puddle of water for a while." The pagoda space I didn't do anything about despite all my declared intentions. Certain habits die very hard, if at all. The moment is heavy with one of my many strings of worry trailing a pervading silence, and then it strikes me. "Hey, what's happened to the frogs?" Our pond is loaded with frogs. Not that we see any of them all that often, but we hear them. Sometimes it verges on the thunderous. Big, deep croaking surrounding meek chirps. A chorus that could sing for hours. A racket the first time you hear it, but then it slips just perfectly into the silken folds of the summer air. And when it's gone, there's a hole in the air that takes some moments to identify. "Hiding, I bet," Caroline says. "From the ducks." "Ducks eat frogs?" "I don't know." Caroline is already half out of her chair, a smooth movement, almost stealthy. It registers that way in my subconscious whenever she moves, more of a flow than a displacement. It suggests a competence hinting at independence and I sometimes find it faintly discomfiting. "I'll check it out." By the time I look up, she's on her way. # There are several garden snakes that live in the low flag stone wall that keeps our dooryard from lapping against the small garden bordering the windows of the dining room. Caroline's bird houses and feeders guarantee day long action just beyond any of the windows, and there are always deer showing up to speculate on her hostas and rhododendrons. We see wild turkey families on occasion, often enough a moose appears in our driveway, a raucous mob of coyotes sings and barks on big moon summer nights, there is always neighborhood talk of black bear sightings, and Barry the Barred Owl visits sporadically. Barry will suddenly appear out of nowhere on the top of one of the feeders. Once I got a lucky shot of him with the camera one morning. I was sitting in the dining room aiming at a pair of Grosbeaks dressed formally for the meal in their yellow and striking black, when suddenly they were gone and there was Barry looking right at me through the window. Because he is a visitor who turns up every now and then and we feel a certain community with him, we have named him. His plaintive, drawn out sing-song off in the night distance has the rhythm, 'Whooo, whooo, who cooks for you?' Then silence, no answer. In the frame of my lens this owl's brazen black eyes in their great feathery circles seem to be waiting for an answer. Sometimes, in a disconsolate fugue, I hear his voice off in the distance of my subconscious; 'Who cooks for you, hmm? Have you thought about it, what happened back then?' I've never had an answer either. Anyway, the frogs, the birds, the voles and chipmunks all vanish when Barry is in the neighborhood. Some of them into Barry, no doubt. He's a very large owl. # Living with this abundance of fauna has created a rather significant library about them over the years. Actually, Caroline has done the creating. She always follows up her curiosities with data. And now she's back with a large volume spread across her lap, paging carefully through what seems like, to my inexperienced and slightly intimidated eye, a rather detailed dissertation on ducks. "Nothing in here about ducks eating frogs," she says. "A lot about what they do eat." "But no frogs," I inject. She turns a page slowly. "Some seeds, some insects." "The usual stuff." "Hmnn. I wonder what they're finding down there?" her voice speculative, looking up, closing the book. Our bug population has always seemed to be nil, certainly compared to neighbors and friends and the bug complaints we hear every summer. Maybe it's the birds that all the feeders around the house attract. Maybe it's Caroline-magic. "Well, they're finding something," I say. "I think the duckettes are getting bigger." "They need to. Mom and dad have to get them south by November." Just as she says it two or three of them flutter their wings, rising slightly in the water. Then all of them repeat that in what looks like a round; 'Mom, Dad, we're ready. Let's split this pop stand.' "The kids look like they're itchy to get going," I say. "Maybe mom doesn't think they're ready yet." Mom, not dad; Caroline can be unwittingly subtle. And I can unwittingly weight things she says. She slides smoothly forward on her chair to rest crossed forearms on the railing and her chin on them. "My guess is that between dips in the pond they have them off practicing somewhere." "Right. Maybe there's an MOA nearby." In an earlier history I was a pilot, an air force pilot, and we would practice maneuvers and do our air work in restricted airspaces called Military Operations Areas. That was a different time, however, far away and in a very different place. "I can see them up there in Canada planning the Florida trip," I say. "Summer's coming to an end and dad duck pulls out his Jeppesens and points to a spot on the chart. 'See, dear. Here's an MOA with a very nice looking pond right nearby.' " "Ah, yes. So that's how they picked us out." She turns her head, lays her cheek on her forearms and smiles at me. "You are so smart." That smile of hers could sometimes be like a head fake, showing one thing but hiding a dissatisfaction underneath. I have no reason to think that at the moment, but I did and flashed on the owl's wistful question. I already know that my insecurities don't need a reason. Especially after Gwen and my two little ducks were gone. But all that was before Caroline, way before Caroline, and half way around the world in a very different place. # One afternoon I hear Caroline calling me from the deck; "Here they come." She has just finished topping off feeders while I'm topping off tall glasses of iced tea and look up, knowing immediately what she's referring to. Caroline is frequently chintzy with nouns. Early on I found that frustrating. But slowly I have begun to think of it as a game, and my score is improving. This time I'm "spot on," as our next door neighbor, Mr. Spiggers would say. He had been in Britain many years ago, on his way to and from Normandy and the first step on the way to ridding the world of dark forces. It seemed to me that 'spot on' was the only thing he brought back with him. Our kitchen looks over a tiled cooking island, through the living room and out an expanse of glass to the deck and beyond. I glance up just in time to see the brief duck line sliding down, left to right, to the pond. I hurry out to the deck just as the lead duck puts down with a delicate splash, followed in a less than orderly line by the little guys, flaring, feet out, plonking and ungainly. Then the last of them, smooth as silk. The kids immediately set about flapping wings and pecking at feathers, all very cool. A voice in my head, the former pilot showing up for a moment, says; 'any landing you swim away from is a good landing.' Walter Spiggers is downhill from us through thick woods. If you were a crow you would only fly about two hundred yards to get from our house to his rather modest home. By car it's maybe half a mile, maybe more; down our drive, downhill on the road to the next driveway and then some distance up that to his place. To paraphrase a saying, 'thick woods make for good neighbors.' Mr. Spiggers is a good neighbor, indeed. He is an older gentleman who spent years in the forest cutting and delivering firewood, up to the point where some serious mistakes on the part of the local hospital did his wife in. That apparently resulted in a settlement of sufficient size to retire him from the wood business. A true New Englander, however, that didn't mean carefree carousing through the seasons. He still cuts wood for himself and some of the neighbors, including us. And in the spring he taps the maples on his considerable property, cooks their sap into a light golden syrup, jars and labels it and spends a good part of the rest of the year at fairs and farmers markets selling. Significant time outdoors in New England winters author ruddiness, and Mr. Spiggers is a perfect example. In some New Englanders I've known, it also authored a rough view of life and a soured outlook. However, he is quiet but not reclusive, and very open to conversation. He misses his partner, his wife, that's clear, but never bitches about it or the circumstances that took her from him. They'd had an old dog, he told me, that had died about a month after Mrs. Spiggers - he always refers to her as 'Mrs. Spiggers' and I never did learn her name - had 'passed'. He immediately found another pooch, a rather large, almost-lab with a big stick of a tail capable of sweeping large unfortunately positioned items to the floor. You rarely see Mr. Spiggers without the dog right beside him. The dog's name is Davy, and just then, right after the landing skills demonstration by the duck family, Mr. Spiggers parks his roughened pickup, with Davy in the passenger seat, in our dooryard. Sliding out of the truck, it looks like he says a word or two over his shoulder to the dog who hops out to stand next to him while he reaches back into the cab for something. Caroline has waived and is already on her way down the deck steps to meet him. As she draws near he puts his hand out in formal greeting and she gives him hers. He's holding a large jar of his syrup and offers it to her. She takes it and they exchange a few words, then turn toward the deck, Caroline putting a familiar arm through his, bringing him up. "Mr. Spiggers," I say, offering my hand. "It's good to see you." He takes it in a strong, calloused grip. He can't be more than five and a half feet tall, and at five ten I've always feel like I tower over him. Caroline is standing next to him and raises the jar, glinting golden purity in the afternoon sunlight. "That's the good stuff," Mr. Spiggers says. "You want to save it for January, February. Put a little sunshine on your breakfast table." "That's when we need it around here," I answer. The sunshine is already on Caroline's face. It's sparkling. "Your missus told me about the ducks. I don't think I ever seen 'em land hereabouts. Got to be a first," he says, stepping over to the railing, Davy following, pushing his big snout in between two railing posts. A moment later the dog pulls back, runs off the deck and in five or six big leaping strides is halfway down the swale. I'm alarmed, it looks like there's a duck massacre in the offing, but Mr. Spiggers settles his elbows on the railing, watching the dog. "Wants to get a closer look, I 'spect. Don't think Davy's ever seen ducks that wasn't flyin' over, if he ever noticed." The dog has stopped about twenty feet from the rim of the pond, dropped down, rear legs under him, big chest on his forelegs. He seems to be studying the duck family. And the ducks, absolutely indifferent to the dog's presence, keep on doing their duck things. "Probably say the same for myself. It's why I come up. And the syrup, of course" Caroline is standing next to him now. He turns to her and says, "Wanted you to know, them flowers made a heck of a difference for me. It's about this time of year, fall and all, I get sort of gloomy. House gets gloomy too, and your flowers, well, they kind of ungloomy everything. Me included." September. That's when his wife died. A while ago now, before we came to Tucker. We both knew, but Caroline remembered. She remembers every year, and every year she finds a way, a reason, to get the flowers to Mr. Spiggers. My wife is a year and a half younger than me, but clearly a civilization wiser. # Duck watching apparently has its limits so far as Davy is concerned, or perhaps it suddenly dawned that Mr. Spiggers was not there standing beside him. So in a few minutes he's back on the deck and Mr. Spiggers takes it as a signal. "Got to be under way," he says to the two of us. "Havin' the ducks is nice," he adds, looking once more to the pond. "Thanks for letting me know." The next day the ducks are almost entirely gone, only one of them remaining. Caroline determines it's a male and so we figure him for the dad. At first I'm a little disappointed; they had been a languid entertainment. But of course I knew they would have to go sometime. What I didn't expect was that one of them would stay behind. "Maybe he's hanging around to hold the pond," I say, "In case some other bunch tries to muscle in". We have a small flag topped table at a front corner of the deck with a pair of chairs, and Caroline often sets it for lunch. I was carrying out iced teas and she was putting down a sandwich plate for each of us. A soft breeze puffed at my napkin and I moved my plate onto its edge. "If that's the case," she says, pulling her chair out, "he has no idea how boringly unpopular our pond is". Did I hear something there? I already knew, like a child lying in bed and listening to the house for unfamiliar sounds to be frightened of, that I was keyed into any of Caroline's observations I thought might be directed, however obliquely, at us. So I did an instant inventory of our general activities, our friends, the two events upcoming this weekend. Our social pond was hardly 'boringly unpopular'. But still, her remark was a small possible cloud in an otherwise clear marriage sky. "Or maybe he just needed a break," I say. "'Hey Alice, take the kids out and get them their Florida outfits. I'll hang around the house and watch a game on the tube. Quack.'" I ended with a little laugh, sounding a bit self-conscious, at least to me, because I knew this response of mine for what it was; a knee jerk reaction to the intruding stranger, the boss duck who comes to dinner and doesn't have the good grace to leave until Gwen and my two ducks go with him. It was drawing a thin curtain of foreboding across my brain. "I don't think so. The reception down there is terrible." She takes a small bite out of her sandwich. "Actually, it may be a good thing. It saves us cleaning up." I need a few seconds to fill in the blank. "You're right. It starts with ducks and then you get geese, and the next thing you know, yucko everywhere." "Yucko indeed." # But by the next afternoon we're concerned. This lone duck is paddling in slow circles, and periodically clubs the still air with a single syllable quack. Every now and then he climbs out of the water and shuffles along its edge, first one way and then back, pausing at each turn to call out, then waits a moment before starting back, as if listening for sounds of return. It's very clear to me he's lonely. I've had serious personal experience and know loneliness when I see it. "Jesus, could they have forgotten him? You know, they're all in the car, mom's at the wheel, he goes in to get his hat, and she drives off thinking he's in back with the kids." "I don't think ducks do that," Caroline answers after a moment, real concern in her voice. "Forget a member of the family, I mean." A long pause; "Frankly, it looks like he's been abandoned." Abandoned! A sliver of ice on my spine. 'Abandoned' is a word I do not like, an experience I do not want to remember. Abandonment was a medication for Gwen and our kids - now her kids - that had certainly worked back then for her, but with a very, very bad after taste for me. I immediately tried to wash it away with a swig of humor. "Oh terrific," I say. "Now we have a duck on our hands for the winter. Clothing, food. We'll have to find a place in the house for him for January, at least." "Yes. And we'll have to name him." "Name him?" "Sure," she says. "You want to yell through the house, 'Hey, Duck, come on down for breakfast'?" We're grinning at each other, chasing dark shadows off. "Okay, Donald's taken", I say. "So what kind of name do you give a duck? Fredrick? After a while we could call him Fred." "No, no, too informal. We hardly know him." She's watching the duck, now back in the water and motionless. "He looks sad to me, sort of forlorn." A quiet moment, working a thought; "Let's name him Franklin. There was a Franklin in middle school, kind of an Eeyore kid, morose like our duck." Wow! Just like that he had become 'our duck', and he was going to have a name. It wasn't just any duck, one duck among many, anymore. It was Franklin, our duck. No longer an object of momentary and ultimately passing interest, a duck at arm's length available for observation and commentary. No sir, now we had a duck. No dog, no cat, but a duck. Our duck. And not Franklin the duck, but Franklin Duck. A much more personal duck, a duck imbued with a specialness, a particularity. It turned his situation into something well beyond dismissive. This was, after all, the duck that had been abandoned, perhaps a first in duck history. # The next day's weather was a damp looking overcast, with sporadic light drizzle, a quintessentially gray day, a good day for indoor projects, some reading and a foray to the village grocery to fill in refrigerator gaps. Caroline went off to do the grocerying and I was finishing the little cleanup work in the kitchen that lunch required when I heard a muffled 'quack'. I had completely forgotten the ducks and that single breach of the otherwise silent air reminded me. My first thought was Mama and the kids were on their way back in. I was drying off a small cutting board we had used to shave slices from a block of sharp cheddar, and took it and the dishtowel with me to the front windows. From the inside, the extent of the deck and its railing cuts off much of the pond from view. So I went out onto the deck for a quick look. The drizzle had reduced to a motionless dampness hanging like faint gauze over everything. Over the pond it was the lightest of mists. And there he was, hunkered on the round cap of the chimney-like pipe that screens the pond's runoff so it doesn't clog up. Franklin was folded up and tucked in, and still by himself. It was quite damp and although hardly cold, something about the loneliness of the scene chilled me. It was a memory, uncomfortable; more than uncomfortable because I felt a restriction beginning in my throat, an anxiety. As I turned to go in the duck quacked again. I looked back. He hadn't moved and I had the strange feeling the sound had come out of him sort of spontaneously, not out of the throat and through his bill, but out of all of him, more like an emanation. His family wasn't coming back, and he knew it. Suddenly, Caroline's words of a few days before came to mind; 'Boringly unpopular'. They had been sitting there, just on the edge of memory. Damn. Was she telling me something? 'Boring' was a Gwen word, along with 'abandoned', as in, 'this Air Force; If I'm not on the base, I can't understand a word anybody says. I feel bored and abandoned.' And then one day I'm just back from an in-country mission. I had been away about ten days and Gwen and our two little ducklings are gone. Just then Franklin let out a brief arpeggio of muted plaints falling to a hardly discernible whimpering, almost a sob. It was a giving up sound. So sad. My heart went out to him. To me. All the pacing, cursing an empty sky and a disinterested universe, useless tears, it all rushed over me like a receded tide returning. Mother and my two little ducks gone for good, leaving confusion, bemusement and then anger in her wake. And me. I race down the deck steps, over an edge of garden and down the swale to the rim of the pond, waving the dish towel. "Do something, dummy," I shout. "Do something. They're not coming back. Don't sit there and just accept it. That's a big mistake. A really big mistake!" Still huddled on the runoff pipe, he looks up at me, but does not move. I could feel his black depression spreading toward me like soot. "Franklin," I yell, "She's left you. You've been ... abandoned." I choke on the word. I look away, panicking; a remembered sense of things torn apart, everything unhinged, all connection gone. I look around at my feet for a stone or a stick to rouse him, and realize I still have the cutting board in my hand. It wasn't much of a throw, not far enough and hardly accurate. It had no effect on Franklin other than a lift of the head to watch the board's brief arc, a dismissive glance at me, then sinking into himself once again, bill on breast, immobile. "You idiot! They're gone, she's gone, Caroline's gone!" Caroline? Groceries? Oh my God! A rising tide of panic washed over me. Behind me, somewhere in the sea of trees and sunk in the mist, Barry the owl called, voice clear as guilt; "Whooo, whooo, who cooks for you?"
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