Archive for the ‘fairy tale’ Category

The Best Friend You Can Find

June 18, 2018

 

Some years ago, in central Maine, a selectman and his wife lived at a little homestead called Duck Pond Farm, right along the eastern edge of Kanokolus Bog. The couple had one child, a pretty little eight-year-old daughter named Cindy. Pretty Cindy, with her mother’s guidance, kept two small flocks of tame ducks on the family’s farm.

Then, when Cindy turned nine, the selectman bought her an attractive pair of Saxony ducks and built her a new enclosure for them next to her mallards and Pekins. In the late spring Cindy and her mother let the new Saxony hen go broody to begin their new flock. Early every morning, Cindy came down to the enclosures to collect the mallard and Pekin eggs to sell. She would always check on the Saxony hen and count the eggs in the mother duck’s nest. Each day revealed another egg, but Cindy felt the laying was taking forever. Finally Cindy brought her mother down with her.

“Make that stupid duck sit on her eggs! I want the Saxony ducklings to hatch out NOW!”

“Cindy,” her mother said, “you must be patient! Mother duck will not start to brood until she lays a couple more eggs, and then she will have to incubate them for almost a month.”

“No! I want Saxony ducklings to show my friends now! Why can’t we put her eggs in an incubator like we did the Pekins’?”

“I’m sorry, Cindy. This duck was always a good mother before she came to us. She deserves to keep her ducklings. You will just have to wait.”

Cindy was not about to wait. She went out the gate and marched along the edge of the bog. There she found a nest with one large blue-green egg. “This will do very well,” she said with glee and she ran off with it in her pocket. “I’ll get another one like this.”

Sadly, she could not find any more nests with eggs. Then she spied a nest in the weeds just above the water. Grumbling she waded out and found one small pale brown egg. “Is this all I get!?” She grabbed the little egg in disgust and knocked the nest down into the water with a stick.

Pretty Cindy brought the two eggs back to the tame duck’s nest and tucked them in with the others. She scowled at how they looked among the uniform white eggs. “Wrong colors! Wrong sizes! But the stupid duck won’t notice.”

Mother duck did a lot of quacking, but after she laid her next egg, she sat down to brood. When the ducklings hatched, two of them were different. One was big with gray down. It later developed mottled gray-brown and white feathers. The other was small and drab to begin with. It later grew weird long legs and brown and buff feathers.

This second duckling caused the entire duck family great frustration. While the big one was ugly, it did waddle out with the other ducklings to swim in the pond. The little one was helpless and had to be fed slugs, snails, and insects for weeks in the nest. Then when it left the nest, it had little interest in grubbing through the grass. It could swim, but it did not swim gracefully, no matter how much preen oil mother duck applied. And it retreated to the cattails after a couple minutes. It was small like a mallard but it would not upend like a mallard to grab food below the surface. It preferred to wade around in the cattails and stand still in the shallows waiting for its food to swim by. Lazy, stupid, ugly duckling!

Cindy screamed with exasperation the moment she saw the ugly ducklings in the nest. “I can’t show YOU to my friends!” She shooed them away from the food she put out for the other ducks and threatened to feed them to the barn cat that eyed the ducklings from outside the pond fence. Before Cindy’s friends came to visit, she shut the ugly ducklings in an old outhouse. The normal ducklings soon learned to watch the ugly ducklings coldly, and they would not nest with them, but at least the ugly ducklings had each other. And mother duck foraged up enough food to keep them alive until they could feed themselves.

The little ugly duckling blamed himself for being so backward and making life harder for his big nest mate. It is very sad, he thought, but I can endure Cindy’s cruelty and the other ducklings’ contempt, and I will learn from it because I have a friend. I have already learned the comfort of love.

Then the day came when three of Cindy’s girlfriends arrived unexpectedly and went down to see the Saxony ducklings. They laughed uncontrollably at the ugly ducklings and called Cindy “Ugly Ducks’ Mama.” Cindy turned red with rage, and after her friends left she opened the back gate and threw stones at the ugly ducklings to drive them away from the pond. “If you come back, I’ll mix you into the slop for the pigs!”

The ugly ducklings had never been outside Duck Pond Farm. They felt fear but also excitement as they set off to explore the pools in the bog. Big Duckling swam and Little Duckling waded along beside her. They missed mother duck but they still had each other.

“We will learn together how to survive in this big world,” said little duckling. “Maybe someday we will be as wise as the owl.”

The third pool they visited was home to a flock of wild mallards. The ugly ducklings rushed over to greet them.

“Can we join your flock?”

The mallards tightened their circle and snapped at them when they tried to come inside. But if they stayed along the edges of the flock, they were simply ignored.

“They don’t want us!” said Big Duckling.

“No,” said Little Duckling, “but we can learn how to survive in the wild by watching them, and staying next to them will give us some protection. And we still have each other’s love.”

And so they spent the summer and early autumn with the mallard flock as neighbors, and they learned many shrewd lessons about living in the bog. But one morning when the nights had turned cold, the mallard flock flew off into the sky and that evening they did not return.

Once ice covered the water, the ugly ducklings could not survive at the pool. They did not dare go back to Duck Pond Farm. They had no one to teach them to migrate. So they set off flying awkwardly in circles around the bog searching for some place they could winter.

That was how they came to fly in over the fence and land in Lester Ludington’s turkey yard. The ugly ducklings walked into a turkey house and tried to blend in. There was plenty to eat. And they would hide in a dark corner when Mr. Ludington came around. The inmates mostly just walked around befuddled and hardly seemed to notice.

After a few days, one of the turkeys started to watch them. Then he led over a small group of turkeys to examine them.

“What are you two?” asked Tom Turkey.

“We’re abandoned ducklings from Duck Pond Farm.”

“Oh, so you’re ducks,” nodded Tom. “You don’t look like ducks.”

“If they quack like a duck,” noted one of the hens, “they must be ducks.”

“But they don’t quack,” said Tom.

“Well, the big one eats grain like a duck,” said another hen. “And it has webbed feet.”

“But the other don’t,” said Tom. “And it eats roaches and beetles and worms, but it leaves the grain.”

“Yesterday,” said a third hen, “I saw it swallow a mouse.”

“Let’s chuck ‘em both out in the snow!” said Tom.

“No,” said the second hen, “let ‘em be. We have plenty of room since Thanksgiving. And I want to see how they turn out. The big one could be a genetically modified goose.”

“And the little one?” asked Tom.

“A genetically modified chicken.”

“Could be,” said the first hen.

“Boy,” said Tom, “that experiment sure went sour!”

And the turkeys all went back to walking around befuddled.

“Well,” said Little Duckling, “we have the shelter of a house and plenty to eat. We can survive. This is an important lesson on making do.”

“Can’t say much for the company,” said Big Duckling.

“But at least we have each other’s love,” said Little Duckling.

And so the ugly ducklings survived the winter hiding among the turkeys and growing bigger and more knowledgeable about the world. With spring the ice melted on the bog and the two ugly ducklings flew out of the turkey farm and returned to the bog. Spring is a happy time when insects and little fishes and crayfish and frogs come back out into the world, and the tender sprouts come up, and there is plenty to eat. And with the spring the wild mallards returned to the pool.

But things were not as they had been last fall for Big Duckling. This year when Big Duckling approached the flock, they did not try to bite but instead fled from her presence, watching her with fear. When they found she was not attacking, they formed a retinue around her. Big Duckling looked down at her image in the water and cried out, “Oh! I am big and beautiful! I am not a duckling at all. I am a white swan!”

A white swan! thought Little Duckling. My nest mate changed so slowly in front of me that I never saw it. This is a wonderful lesson for us!

Little Duckling was filled with joy at Big Duckling’s good fortune. “You have learned who you are!” he cried. But when he waded towards her, the mallards snapped at him with their bills. Little Duckling retreated, hiding among the cattails along the bank, but Swan never noticed.

That night, for the first night since he had hatched, Little Duckling slept alone. In truth, Little Duckling slept very little that night. The next morning, when Swan and the mallards left the shore, Little Duckling waded over and called out to Swan. What came out was not his usual ugly duckling call but a loud booming cry he had never made before. In desperation he called again, repeating the deep pumping booms. All the mallards stopped, looking at him. “He’s a bittern!” shouted all the mallards.

“A bittern?” asked Little Duckling.

“A squat, drab, dumpy loud-mouthed little wading bird. A bittern!”

“A Thunder Pumper!” laughed one mallard.

“A Stake Driver!” mocked another.

“A Water Belcher!” shouted a third.

“I’m your nest mate,” cried Little Duckling to Swan. Speechless, Swan turned away and swam into the deepest part of the pool. The ducks followed her, but Bittern was afraid to swim into deep and open water.

After another night alone, Bittern walked over to Swan before she and her retinue had entered the water.

“Remember me? We hatched together. We lived with the turkeys together.”

The mallards looked at Swan with surprise.

“I don’t live with turkeys,” she hissed. “I am a swan. And swans don’t nest with bitterns.” Then she grabbed a bill full of Bittern’s feathers and the mallards joined in the attack. Only Bittern’s long legs saved him from being plucked bare.

Bruised and alone, Bittern hid in the weeds and built a nest in the cattails where he could watch Swan and her mallards swim by. “This is harder than being driven out of Duck Pond Farm,” Bittern reflected. “Cindy always hated me, but I thought Swan loved me. It is a bitter lesson on trusting love.” During the dark nights, a coldness entered Bittern’s soul, a coldness he could only partly expel with his pumping calls in the morning.

Desperately alone, Bittern walked away from the pond one morning on his stick-like legs. Deep in the woods above the bog he met a black bear. Bear had pushed down a bee tree and gorged himself on honey.

“Come have some honey,” Bear offered. “There is still plenty left.”

“Thank you, friend,” said Bittern, approaching warily. “Are you sure you are quite full?”

“Can’t eat another bite,” said Bear.

Bittern delighted in the feast of honey and bees. “Good night, feast mate,” Bittern said as they parted company.

The next day Bittern again met Bear in the woods. Bear had just grubbed up a rotten stump and filled himself with sowbugs and worms.

“Come, Bittern,” said Bear. “Come join me in these excellent grubs.”

“Are you sure you have had enough?”

“Quite full,” said Bear.

They both relaxed, full and lazy from their feast.

“Look, Bittern, my feast mate, why don’t you come join me for dinner tomorrow? I can bring hundreds of fish home to my den.”

“How can you catch so many fish?”

“Easy,” said Bear, “dead grass over a collapsing fence has formed a natural weir across Bacon Brook. The water level in the brook is falling from the lack of rain. So the fish are trapped behind the weir.”

“Of course I will come,” said Bittern, but looking about at the sky he became quiet and thoughtful. As he left, Bittern asked, “May I bring a friend?”

“Sure!” said Bear.

At the pool, Bittern met the beautiful Swan coming to shore for the night. He told her of the wonderful feasts Bear had shared. “Come with me tomorrow and share in our feast of fish.”

“Fresh fish! I will come,” said Swan, “but don’t come get me. I’ll slip away and join you in the woods. If this feast is as good as you say, Bittern, you may wade along behind me, at a distance, and join the mallards in enjoying my beauty.”

That night it rained.

When Bittern and Swan arrived at Bear’s den, Bear was in an ugly mood. The rain had raised the water level in the creek and freed most of the fish from the weir. He was hungry but had only found six minnows for their dinner. Looking up Bear saw the beautiful Swan standing next to the drab Bittern. “Delicious!” Bear cried, and he grabbed Swan and devoured her, feathers and all. Fully fed his mood softened.

“Ummmph,” said Bear, blowing out some feathers. “Now I am full. Come Bittern, why don’t you eat these minnows?”

“Are you sure you can’t eat more?”

“No more today. Ummmph.”

“Thank you, Bear,” said Bittern. And as Bittern finished the minnows, he reflected, “This dinner is small but it has been the most satisfying I have ever had. I have learned now the comfort of revenge.”

As they parted company for the day, Bear again invited Bittern to dinner. “I know a clearing in the woods full of tame raspberry bushes that escaped from Duck Pond Farm. They must be big and juicy after the rain and fit for a princess.”

“I have never eaten tame raspberries,” said Bittern cautiously, “but I will try them.” Maybe, he thought, they will be filled with tasty little bugs. Then Bittern became quiet and thought some more.

“May I bring a friend?”

“Sure!” said Bear.

On the way back to his solitary nest, Bittern went round by Duck Pond Farm. In the farmyard he saw pretty Cindy dropping kittens one by one into a water trough. “One of you must swim long enough to impress my friends!”

“Excuse me, Miss Cindy,” said Bittern. “I want to apologize for being such a disappointment to you last summer.”

“I should think so.”

“I would be honored if you would join me at a feast of raspberries a friend of mine is giving tomorrow in the woods.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Cindy. “Our tame raspberries aren’t ripe yet and I can’t wait.”

As Bittern settled down for the night, he thought judiciously about his new feast mate and the newest lesson life had taught him: “Bittern,” he told himself, “Bear is the best friend you can find in life. When he invites you to dinner, he intends to be a generous host. Even so, you are always wise to bring along a more delectable companion.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Leaves on a Pond. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Leaves on a Pond. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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