Wild Ducks

Richard Gilbert

I look at our daughter across the restaurant table. Small, pale, thin, sensitive to where meat comes from because we raise sheep, Claire’s been a vegetarian for several years. She’s stuck a PETA button on our refrigerator back home; the slogan, beside a photo of a fluffy baby chick, says, “Your food had a face.” Now, hunched forward, picking at her salad, her long brown hair on her shoulders, her elbows tucked against her ribs, Claire seems gathered into herself, tensed for a leap. This is her next-to-last moment with us before we leave her at Northwestern University. She’s already said goodbye to her brother, who is staying with a friend back home in Ohio. Kathy and I had hoped to linger with her over this meal. But I can barely hear her above the clatter in the “Asian fusion” restaurant she picked. And the dish I ordered is awful—when will I learn I don’t really like tofu? I’m eating Kathy’s meal, dark bits of beef, tasty but too salty. “Well, do you feel ready?” Kathy asks Claire. “Yes. Mom. I’m ready.” “You can probably get your books tomorrow.” Claire nods once, sharply. I say, “Maybe you and your roommate can go get ice cream tonight.”
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“Yeah.” “She seems nice,” I add. “You love musicals, and she wants to act in them.” Kathy says, “There are lots of fun social activities this week.” “Dad? Mom? You two need to chill.” Claire widens her brown eyes for emphasis: we’re annoying. I hadn’t gone on any college visits with Claire, and wanted to share this trip. And to redeem myself for also missing her high-school graduation in June. Even though Claire hadn’t wanted to attend her own commencement, my absence had seemed indicative to her of my misplaced priorities. For once my day job, not our farm, was the reason I was too busy. When she received her diploma I was in downtown Chicago, not far from where we’re dining, at BookExpo America, the world’s largest exhibit for book publishers. Promoted to marketing manager of our university’s press, I was expected to sell $1.25 million in books a year. At BookExpo I’d had trouble eating, too. I spent every day in the booth with an ache in my lower abdomen. Finally I called my doctor in southern Ohio. “That sounds like diverticulosis,” he said. “An intestinal inflammation. You probably haven’t been drinking enough fluids.” Gallons of strong coffee had gotten me through my longer office days but had dehydrated me. Yet I’ll always trace the pain to guilt over missing Claire’s ceremony. In order for me to come on this trip, Kathy had found a farm sitter—our first in the six years since I’d started raising sheep. Those were the years, as Claire puts it, when I “checked out” as a father. The fact that Kathy sees it differently—“You’re good with the kids, Richard”—helps. Yet I agree with Claire. I was a better father in suburban Bloomington, Indiana, before we moved to Appalachian Ohio and I threw myself into farming. “Where’s that Barnes and Noble?” I ask as we leave the restaurant. “We could walk back to campus and go on our way. Do you want to, Claire?” I add that maybe she can find a new novel by “Toyota Camry”—my nickname for her favorite author, Mercedes Lackey. Claire’s never found my jibe amusing, but she hesitates. Then she says, “I have a meeting. Remember?”
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As Kathy drives us across town, I gape like a rube at prosperous suburban Evanston, drenched in late September light. Lofty maples and honey locusts shade serene Victorian mansions and dot Northwestern’s parklike campus; the gracious canopies of the dark trees seem to draw sustenance from the blue waters of Lake Michigan that lap the nearby shore. “What a great place to walk this would be,” I say. “Like Bloomington was. Winter wouldn’t be so great. Can you imagine? Two feet of snow, an icy wind off the lake.” “That reminds me, Claire,” Kathy says. “Did we pack your boots?” “Yes. Mom.” Outside Claire’s dormitory we perch on a bench in a patio’s nook. Coneflowers hover in the warm air around us like pink shuttlecocks; a fat bumblebee clings to the brown button eye of one wavering blossom. Kathy reviews the use of debit cards and fumbles a speech about making the most of one’s college years. Claire glances toward her stone dormitory. “Kathy,” I say, “if we don’t leave, she can’t miss us.” I hug Claire, then Kathy does, holding on longer. She pats Claire’s shoulder. “Call us,” she says, turning away as her face swells with emotion. She’s looking in her purse for a tissue. Claire stares at Kathy’s lowered head and throws out her arms in theatrical frustration. Parental emotion is too heavy to lug into her new life. v Five years ago, one evening in early June as I mowed around the pond on the land across the road from our house, a mallard hen flushed in front of the tractor. Her furious wingbeats and kazoo quacks in my face startled me. She had held until the front wheels rolled almost on top of her. I stopped the machine, climbed down, and found her nest on the bank. She’d lined a warm bowl in the earth with dry grass and tufts of gray down pulled from her breast. I counted seven pale green eggs. There was no telling whether she would return or leave the clutch to rot. I surmised that she was young, in her first nesting season, beWild Ducks 83 Richard Gilbert

cause she’d picked a poor spot, beside a tiny farm pond, instead of along the nearby shoreline of Lake Snowden, which formed the property’s eastern border. She’d have to lead her brood there, and would lose ducklings on the way. I knelt on the slope and thought. I was overwhelmed with my first lambing and with work on our house, a remodeling that had turned into reconstruction. But I’d always wanted to raise some real mallards, sleek and shining, not hatchery birds with faded colors and bodies thickened by domestication. I’d grown up in a Florida beach town, and fat white ducks and a few dumpy red laying hens had been the only creatures I’d been able to raise in our backyard. I pulled off my sweaty baseball cap and placed the eggs inside. I would carry them across Marshfield Road and warm them in a little incubator I had bought for hatching chickens. Perhaps they would bring this glade’s ferny magic to the hard ground of our hilltop. We loved the valley farm’s fertile pastures, its mature oaks and hemlocks, its glimpses of the sparkling lake. One morning in late June, two eggs were chipped in the incubator. We could hear murmuring peeps, see the tips of dark bills working to enlarge the holes where the eggs were pipped. Our feisty terrier, Jack, looked up at the box, his olive eyes rapt and glittering. “No! Jack!” I said. I called to the ducklings, which answered with shrill urgency from inside the shells. We would have wild ducks. They’d been conceived in living waters, brooded to life in the shaded coolness of an old farm, which I’d romantically named Mossy Dell, and carried to a heated Styrofoam box inside a construction site on a sun-blasted hill. Claire and her little brother, Tom, and I watched the ducklings hatch. Wriggling like wet seals from the rocks, they emerged from their brittle cocoons. These were some sweet ducklings—literally: they smelled like maple syrup. I’d misted the eggs daily with water during incubation, using a recycled syrup bottle as a makeshift sprayer, and the incubator’s warmth had reconstituted a residue. The sugary scent had passed through the eggshells and coated the ducklings. All seven hatched, and when the black-and-yellow brood huddled in our children’s laps, the room filled with the smell of Sunday morning flapjacks. Another odd thing about those waterfowl. They were sweet-natured, the tamest I’d ever known, and I’d raised a lot of ducks in my
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boyhood bedroom. Unlike baby chickens, ducklings are afraid of their caretaker. Their terror had distressed me as a boy. Gently tended, they would flee from my hands, no matter how slowly I moved as I provided feed and water. They’d throw themselves against the sides of the cardboard box I used as a brooder. Yet these wild ducklings talked to us, and nibbled our fingers with their cartoonishly oversized bills. Then I remembered that during incubation, uncertain of when the eggs would hatch, I’d talked to them in a high-pitched sing-song as I misted. “Baby ducks, baby ducks. Come on, baby ducks. When will you hatch?” Inside the eggs, the ducklings had listened. They had imprinted on my voice. I was too busy that summer to play with biddies, but Claire and Tom weren’t. They held and petted the lucky seven, took them swimming in our bathtub. Claire’s friend Allison liked to watch television with the fluffballs nestled on her bare belly. With their downy silliness, the ducklings softened the rough edges of our makeshift home. I took a photograph that scorching summer of them slumbering in a row on a snow-white field: Allison’s abdomen. v Kathy and I return to our hotel, about fifteen miles from Evanston in Oak Park, where we had slept last night in a double bed with Claire beside us in the other. In an oddly timed coincidence, a publishing conference based at the hotel had dovetailed with Claire’s campus move-in. I’d spent the day here in meetings while Kathy got Claire situated. As we enter our dim, cluttered room I see Kathy’s annoyed: I’d left a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, so our beds are unmade and damp towels litter the bathroom floor. She goes to brush her teeth, and I kick off my shoes and sprawl on our bed to read bound galleys of a book my press will publish in the fall. Kathy leaves the bathroom in her pajamas and climbs into Claire’s bed. “You aren’t going to sleep over here?” I ask. “With me?” “No, you’re reading. I’m tired.” After a while I feel sleepy myself and decide to put on my pajamas.
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I slide to the edge of the bed and place my feet on the floor, but when I try to rise my knees buckle. I sit straight down and grip the quilted bedspread with both hands to keep from toppling over. Wow, dizzy, I think. But I’m not dizzy—my head’s just fuzzy, like I’m having one of my allergy attacks from pollen. I launch myself toward the bathroom again but start to fall. My legs are jelly. I collapse backwards onto the bed. “Kathy?” No answer. I hear whimpering. She’s lying face down, clutching Claire’s pillow with both hands, and has her face buried in it. “Kathy?” I try again. “Something’s wrong.” “I know. We’ve lost our daughter.” Her voice is muffled, but she’s crying. “No. I mean . . . I can’t walk.” “You don’t need to walk!” She’s crying harder. “This is serious. I’m sick. I can’t even get to the bathroom.” “You don’t need to go to the bathroom!” she wails. I lie on my back and think. Kathy’s dinner—that beef I ate. It must have been soaked in monosodium glutamate, which has never bothered me but which my brother David is very allergic to. “I think it’s MSG poisoning,” I announce. “Do we have any Benadryl?” “Just go to sleep!” she howls. I hear thrashing over there. I wonder, as my eyes close, if I’ll wet the bed tonight like I used to as a boy. Suddenly Kathy’s jostling me awake. She’s dressed and grips a glass of water in one hand; she opens the fist that was jabbing me and two pink pills rest in its palm. “Take these,” she says, leaning over me. “We’ve got to get on the road.” “What time is it?” “Almost three.” v I took another photograph at Mossy Dell earlier that summer I found the mallard nest. Claire and Tom sit at the base of a hill, which rises behind them and meets a line of trees and brush along a bound86 RT 14.1 Fall 2012

ary fence. The trees, stiff-branched, haven’t yet leafed, but the shrubs bristle with new growth. The grass appears soft and full, as billowy as a blanket, beneath the children and across the ground. It was a warm and dry spring, and the summer would bring drought, punctuated by violent storms, but in the moment I captured at the end of April the pasture retains the emerald lushness that for a time every year makes Ohio’s southern hill country look like Ireland. Claire, days before her twelfth birthday, wears a long blue dress sprinkled with a pattern of white flowers. She holds a white lamb in her lap. She and the lamb are both looking at the camera, Claire with a big grin and the lamb intently, its dark eyes as eager as a puppy’s; it must have been a bottle baby or one we grabbed from the pasture for the photo, and it’s looking for a mother. Tom, nine, sits cross-legged and tries to smile, his mouth pressed into a downward line that bunches his pink cheeks. He wears a blue T-shirt with white bands, and he must have been in a growth spurt because his canvas pants ride far up his legs. Tom scratches at his neck with his left hand—he’s bothered by his long hair, which forms a dark blond helmet on his head and hangs down his neck and in his eyes. His little face peers out as if from under a haystack. Our Saturday barbershop ritual has dissolved here, a casualty of house construction and farm busyness and new school routines and the unpredictable weekend hours of Appalachian barbers. Two years after I took that picture, I got hurt a few paces from where the kids sit. I was trying to rescue a pregnant sheep. The ewe, unable to deliver, was collapsed and in agony, and I lifted her into my truck and drove her to the vet. She died anyway. My pain arrived the next day—straining to lift her, I’d ruptured a disk in my neck. After surgery, I spent six weeks in a brace, and in the fall a friend helped me consolidate all our sheep on the hilltop. And last year we’d sold the valley farm, my retreat to the hilltop complete. The sale was a bookend, clearly bracketing the choices I’d made. At least Mossy Dell had turned out to be a good investment: its sale replenished Claire and Tom’s college funds that we’d spent in the debacle of rebuilding our house. I still farmed—the pastures of our smaller acreage swarmed with sheep—but my headlong charge was
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halted. I’d healed, but was changed in ways I was still struggling to understand. And sometimes, for the first time, I felt old. When I waved the kids into place that day for their portrait with a lamb, I wanted to capture a culmination, and I suppose I did. But now I can’t look at the photograph in its cherry frame on my desk without seeing something else. I knew Tom needed a haircut, yet didn’t notice how much his hair was bothering him or sense how his unease epitomized our unsettled lives. I tried to memorialize something and instead documented what I couldn’t quite see and didn’t yet know. v We’re inching in the dark past flashing yellow lights. With the highway narrowed by construction, traffic is snarled even though it’s four in the morning. Kathy grips the steering wheel and ignores my complaint about how groggy I feel. My legs are working, but I could have used more sleep. The only reason we had to start this early is because she has to get back to campus to teach a class. A real sore point with me—administrators don’t have time to teach—and I feel neglected when she does. At daybreak we lower our visors as Kathy drives us silently toward a blinding sunrise. Maybe she’s upset with me—I’m sure angry with her. And the longer I sit the sadder I feel. Tom’s also going to leave us, in only two years. There’s my usual fluttery panic at such a thought. But also a new sensation, of falling. Down I go, alone. I’m afraid I’ll hit bottom, and fear that I won’t: this chasm is bottomless. When Claire was tiny, back in Indiana, after Kathy and I had eaten dinner and drunk our glasses of wine, we’d steer her in her little blue canvas stroller through our neighborhood. My Labrador, Tess, who had helped me court Kathy at Ohio State only four years before, ambled along, her black coat as glossy as a panther’s. Kathy’s brown hair was long then, and curly, and bounced. One evening in Claire’s first summer we went extra far, and up ahead we saw an elderly man slumped in a lawn chair inside his garage, looking out at the street. Our university friends made fun of this very Hoosier habit, lounging in garages, but
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we secretly liked being the young couple that such geezers smiled at. We waved at him and paused as Tess sniffed the curb. He studied us, his head cast to one side. “You’re happier than you know,” he croaked. Suddenly I hate him, that long-dead man whose words now ring in my ears. It had seemed true, what he’d said, but even then it felt somehow mean-spirited. Of course we’re happier than we know. He’d been us, once. But isn’t such wisdom just a curse if you’re not ready for it? Like telling a child, “Enjoy your life, kid. Because you’re going to die.” I look at Kathy as she squints into our first dawn without our daughter. My sorrow—my regret—feels toxic. “It’s like our purpose is over,” I say. “Like there’s no reason to go on.” “How can you say that? Tom’s still at home. Claire still needs us. The kids will need us for years. We have great jobs. The farm. We have so much to be grateful for.” She’s crying. Even a spouse shouldn’t have to endure all of her mate’s craziness, not all at once. And I’m just starting to see, so late, that having strong feelings doesn’t make me special. That they certainly don’t make me good. Three hours later, after a breakfast stop, I’m feeling better. I volunteer to drive, but Kathy knows I don’t mean it and gets behind the wheel. I decide to atone—by teasing her. “I shouldn’t have said our lives are over,” I begin. “No. You shouldn’t have.” “I know they’re not—just mine. When I met you, I was young and strong and skinny. I had hair like Elvis. I had a career on a great newspaper, and a dog. Now I’m old, fat, and bald. I have a bad back and an onerous job. Tess is dead. And I’m not feeling too good myself.” “I see,” she says. “All that’s my fault? Well, at least you have Jack to comfort you.” “We’ll always have Jack,” I say. I’d given the little terrier to Claire on her eleventh birthday. I add, “He’ll still be going strong when Claire graduates, but she’ll never take him.” “You love Jack.”
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“He’s going to live to be twenty-six—blind, deaf, crippled, and incontinent.” “Too bad I wasn’t consulted before you got him.” “You always say that. I’m sure we talked about it.” “No. Like when you got Doty. You took the kids to visit some woman’s farm and returned with a grown collie.” “Yeah, but she said Doty was a miracle dog. Doty saved her child from a wild hog and got between her and a charging bull. I think she said Doty did her taxes one year.” “Speaking of which, how are your sheep sales looking?” “Don’t worry. I’ll lose money again. You’ll get your tax write-off.” That didn’t go like I’d pictured it—my teasing never does. In years to come, I’ll tease Claire about this college trip by recalling my and Kathy’s separate collapses after we’d left her. It’s not my being unable to walk that she won’t want to picture. It’s the image of her mother crying into Claire’s pillow on a mussed hotel bed. Recently I e-mailed Claire—she’s in graduate school, studying higher-education administration—and asked what she recalled about our first journey to Chicago. “When we were driving up,” she said, “we were listening to our Camelot tape, and when the song ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ came on you took Mom’s hand. It was very sweet.” v We’d hatched the ducks in our living room; they’d emerged already imprinted on my voice; our children had held and petted them. Yet they were wild creatures, and when the marshes called to them they crossed to Lake Snowden. Over the years I’d raised other mallards, maybe their descendants, from eggs I uncovered in our barn’s haymow and from a nest I found in the field below our house. Nature wants reproduction above all else on this messy planet, for a mated pair to replace themselves before dying, and I’d done my share to help the mallards with their most important task. A pair of ducks sometimes returns to our hilltop and lingers near the barn, as if trying to remember something. The green-headed drake
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and the stippled brown hen eye me cautiously, finally flying across the road, winging back to the lake over the farm we no longer own. As the waterfowl arrow above the trees that overhang Mossy Dell, I imagine that below, beneath the vault of boughs, a couple (no longer young but unaware of that) follows two children who chase a white terrier puppy. The wild visitors summon memories of Claire and Tom cuddling seven sweet ducklings, of a secret nest, and a dry year. And they carry part of me back to Mossy Dell, to the farthest reaches of Lake Snowden, and beyond, into the wholeness they inhabit. Anyone who raises a flock of wild ducks learns, the first time they lift into the air, that they carry a piece of your heart with them into the sky. You can feel it go—a sudden fear, so unexpected—and then a thrill, a joyous unfolding. That should’ve prepared us, but didn’t, for seeing Claire drive away alone last summer for the first time. I’d spent hours practice-driving with her on the campground lanes around Lake Snowden. She’d gotten her adult license; she was ready to fly. We’d walked outside behind her that Saturday afternoon, to the driveway’s gravel apron where we park our vehicles. “Be careful,” Kathy said as Claire got in the car and inserted her key in the ignition. Claire reached out to pull her door closed, and then she tossed back her hair. She looked at Kathy. “I will, Mom. Don’t worry!” We watched the little red coupe we’d bought her, a used Toyota Camry, roll slowly away. Claire aimed herself toward Marshfield Road, gathering speed, leaving Kathy and me standing alone together on the hilltop. Claire’s cats rubbed against our legs. Kathy’s hand flew to her mouth and a strangled sob escaped her throat. “Wait,” I wanted to yell, “I’m not ready for this.” But Claire was gone, happy behind the wheel, disappearing down the driveway and into the world.

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