Fiction · 04/27/2010

Three Views You Might Have Taken At Pond's Edge... Or, Quack

You found out one day that the man you loved was a duck. This bothered you at first; how did you not equate his words with quacking? How could you have inspired such a transition? Were you a quackologist, a webbed-foot animal whisperer? When he came to you, waking up beside you where your lover had been the night before, he seemed to imprint. He could not be without you a single second, quacked bloody murder when you worked, and was not recognizable when you first saw him in bed with you because you saw only a duck. You had no idea your lover had vanished or become this duck. Granted, now, you can see certain stunning characteristic similarities between him and a duck, but then you saw only man or duck, as mutually exclusive categories.

You thought Steven had left. This bummed you out. He had chiseled lips. He had green hair. You gave credit to Clairol, not Mallard. Even as a man, he could swim in the most masterful circles and arcs. He seemed nurturing. “You are the best swim partner I’ve ever had,” he said. “You work me out hard.” He even took care of you when a neighbor’s child gave you head lice. His hands were so soft, like feathers, like wings, smearing the mayonnaise on your head, tying up the plastic bag. “The lice will be dead,” he said. “And then I’ll comb out your hair.” He was unflappable. Dulcet. Gorgeous.

Before you met him, you used to go sit by the pond and watch the ducks, fed them stale bread, stared out at the water. You hadn’t done it recently. You were happy enough with Steven to avoid such lonely romantic activities as those embraced by the solitary, educated, wistful, or geriatric.

You were coupled and bright! Finding Steven was a dream come true! Happily! And then one day you woke up, remember, and there he was, as a duck? Then, all that duck would do was to follow you around, first silently, then quacking. He was into preening. He could not whisper things to you as you watched your shows, but he nestled on your lap. When you kicked him off, he began shitting on the carpet. He was a small wet bird, dousing himself whenever he could by turning on the kitchen sink. The house grew to smell of small wet bird, which seemed completely foreign. You told him, “Fly away.”

It was not like you wanted to live with a duck forever. He didn’t even let you go to the bathroom alone. He quacked more and more as days passed, but said no words. You lived on words and abhorred noise. “You are not my lover,” you said. “My lover left this duck here for me to care for, as what? A parting gift? A dinner? I should take you to the park.” There was something right for you about feeding ducks at the park and then eating them at the restaurant. A balance. I nurture and I’m nurtured. You had no stale bread so opened the package on the counter and let it go dry. This took two days before you could decide it was bad enough for pond-food. Waste of good bread, while it was good, went against your nature.

Your duck quacked, which was all he could do, but he didn’t leave. You weren’t his lover anymore; you were his mother. He only had eyes for you. Imprinted eyes. But he arrived fully grown. He was no duckling. You threatened him with the knife, chasing him around with it, but when he lay on the table, flinging his wings out like sacrifice, as if to say, “Carve me!” you took pity and got used to him. You could eat the slaughtered birds, but found you could not kill.

+

So, I found out one day that the man I loved was actually a duck. I was irked at first since I ate duck often, canard au basil, and had no use for a live specimen. I wondered if I had entered into some bizarre fairy tale where this was my hero’s quest: Figure out how to get back your man, who has suddenly and impossibly become a Mallard duck. My man’s name was Steven. The duck I called Quack. I sat on the floor with him and tried to talk to him. “Put one foot forward if you are Steven, Quack.”

He did.

“Now put the same foot forward again if this is permanent.”

He wavered.

“Can you write with a utensil, maybe hold it in your beak?”

He put his other foot forward. That could have been, “No,” or “I don’t know.”

I gave him a pen. He bit it with his beak but couldn’t lift it. I tried to kiss his beak, thinking: frogfrogPrince, frogfrogPrince!—but that did nothing. I opened the window and said, “Please fly away. I’m not really a pet owner. You see, I kind of hate pet-stench. I like birds au natural. In the wild. All animals, that is. Wild. Please fly away.”

He looked sorrowful. I couldn’t be sure if I was putting human feelings onto a duck who had none, but I felt for him. “All right, come here,” I said. We sat on the couch and watched a fat bald man diss starving starlets. I fed my duck sardines. He rubbed his green head on my belly. I stroked his feathers casually, in a downward motion, like petting a blanket.

I do think he was Steven and that he was sad. When I took another lover, he dive-bombed the other man’s head. “This fucking duck is crazy for you,” the other man said. “I’ve gotta bolt.” The other man deserves no name and so I do not give him one.

Later, I talked to Steven. “You’ve got to stop ruining my love life,” I told him. “What has gotten into you?”

“Quack,” he said. “Quack, quack, quack.”

“Yes. I know, quack,” I said. “That was very insensitive of me. But you aren’t my lover anymore and I need things, you understand?”

“Quack!” He stomped his webbed foot. “Quack?”

“When we tried using that thing before, it felt like a gynecological speculum, Steven. And your duck bits — they’re just too small; I am af — “

“Quack!”

“Right. We’ll not go there.”

I bought a small dog’s sweater and cut it so his wings could fit through the rents. It was cold, I reasoned. We went for walks. Because he only quacked, I could not imagine what he then said, except I realized I embraced my tendency to replace this new quacking with the things he used to say. “Isadora, you are so beautiful. I love your hair. I love the long curve of your neck and the exotic slant of your eyes. The trees are in bloom in the park. Observe! There’s an old man with his wife; isn’t that beautiful?”

“Maybe if you go do a girl duck here, you can turn back into a man,” I said. “Maybe that’s what it will take.”

He looked away. There were Mallards at the pond. “Quack,” he said.

“So go,” I said. “Try! It would be so great if you could come dripping wet and naked out of that pond, all manly as you used to be. And then I would loan you my sweater and you and me could run to the car like you were a flasher! Go! Go try!”

“Quack,” he said.

“Quack, quack,” I said, and he seemed perturbed, shaking out his feathers as if to aerate them. He waddled to the pond’s edge. He quacked loudly, angrily at the water. It was almost like he said, “Come over here, you fucker female ducks so that I can do one of you to please my girlfriend! She thinks this will fix me!” Of course, I had no idea what he said, and he had no takers. All the birds just flew away. And then resettled on the pond.

+

The girl stood by the side of the pond, the young woman in an elderberry sweater, standing beside her small Mallard duck with a pink, self-modified Yorkie sweater, and she was talking to the duck. It was imperceptible, what she was saying, but the conversation was quite earnest. The romantic intellectuals seated pondside could see this, even from far, far away. At first, the duck waddled off to the pond’s edge and quacked. The other ducks scattered. And then flew back.

Lilies bloomed in the pond water. Families fed the swimming ducks dry bread, but did not feed her wigged-out duck. When the other ducks had landed back on the water, after the obnoxious quacking stilled, things were pretty serene. Then her duck got in the pond. She watched him and gave him a thumbs up. He was strangely unsocialized, her duck, or remote, and the sweater he wore wasn’t helping. He could hardly swim.

He came back to her, quacking to request she remove it. She did. She knelt by the side of the pond and pulled it free of his wings and head. It was tender how she did this. “Quack,” he said.

“Quack,” she said. And then she lost her footing and fell into the pond, slipping on the muddy ledge.

There were many perspectives to this event. You could have sworn she fell into the water and disappeared, if you were watching close. Or, you could have thought that she became the new female duck in the water, briefly. You hadn’t seen that duck before. But you could have only accepted this idea for a few moments, if you thought about it at all, because by then the girl had reappeared.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I wondered what happened such that the beautiful skinny girl with the long black hair could sink completely below the shallow water. I observed how the golden haze of afternoon sun made me blind in spots through the dappled posy park. Perhaps she’d been blinded, too, I speculated, which had made her slip. Things were yellow and mottled. Things were bizarre and mundane, dead and regretfully alive.

But five minutes later, dripping with pond stench, the girl came out of the duck pond, strangely naked, shivering, muttering obscenities. “The duck king, duckling! Fuck with him and stay?” she asked no one. “Watching me before this, ate my bread, became human, couldn’t stay forever — but please live with me now? No, no, Steven! Why would I want that?”

She went silent, climbing back up the ledge, then, “No!” she shouted at pond’s edge. “I eat ducks! Don’t forget! I don’t swing that way! And another thing, what’s up with that Mallard rape flight impulse? Fucking perverts!” Wherever her clothes had gone, which many might note were floating at the center of the pond, she did not have them. She held her breasts with her arms crossed over her chest and shivered. She picked up her keys she had left on the bank. She seemed coated with lily leaves, too. Like they stuck to her. She was a bit muddy. Her neck really was quite something. Pale and white. Swannish near her long pretty hair.

Somebody gave her a blanket as she walked toward her car. One of the watchers. At the last minute before she drove away, a single duck, maybe hers, flew to her car and sat on her windshield. He quacked until she let him in. They could be seen kissing there for quite a while, her lush lips puckered on his hard bill.

She was saying something about sacrifices as she opened her car door to let him out. Something about fairy-tales being cautionary tales. Something about happily ever after as mythical, illusory, and categorically false—something about how a person can’t change into something they never wanted to be and still be happy. Ever. Or after. She then remarked upon how his initial deception did not create a follow-up need for her later transition. “I thought you were a man!” she said, finally. “You wanted me to change the whole time! You never were a man! You never even walked like a man, though you talked like one!”

Her duck looked at her like she was his mother. Her duck hung his head. “Quack,” he said nasally.

“Yes, I know, Quack,” she told him, leaving him there at the park. “But — quack.”

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Heather Fowler received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in 1997. She reads a lot, writes a lot, and sometimes teaches — most recently at UCSD. Her work was among short-listed stories on the 2009 Story South Million Writers Awards Notable Stories of 2008 list. Among other venues, her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming from: Portland Review, DOGZPLOT, Up the Staircase Review, Feminist Studies, Surreal South 2009, Etchings (AUS), JMWW, Night Train, Underground Voices, A cappella Zoo , PANK, Trespass (UK), Keyhole, SubLit, and WordRiot. She has published poems in numerous venues and is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine. Her book of magical realism stories entitled Suspended Heart is due out from Aqueous Books in late 2010/early 2011. Please visit her webpage for links and publication updates at www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.