The duck followed me home.
Not a dog. Not a cat. A duck.
I heard him before I saw him, a cheerful “pwuk wuk wuk wuk?” behind me on the country road. I’d begun to take a walk every evening after work. Otherwise, I’d sit and brood about my job and eat too many cookies.
“Where did you come from?” I asked the duck, who waddled up to me, tilted its head, and considered me out of a bright little eye. There’s a farm up the road from me, but I’d never seen ducks there, just fat black cows and a bunch of idiotic fluffy chickens. The only other house on my street is an old place that no one lives in. The duck had appeared as I passed that house.
“Do you live over there?” I asked, waving at the rundown building.
The duck didn’t answer my question. Instead, it followed me all the way to my tiny red house, right up to the door.
“Goodbye, duck,” I told it, and went inside to make dinner. After my divorce, I found this house, three miles from my job at the university; just a living room-kitchen space and a bedroom, with a fairly dry cellar to hold the boxes of stuff that wouldn’t fit upstairs. Boxes of useless wedding gifts, old textbooks, clothes that I hated, clothes that didn’t fit. I always planned to get rid of that stuff. But I never did.
Dashing out the door the next morning, late for work as usual, I almost stepped on the duck. “Hey!” I yelled, and the duck said “Pwack!” I couldn’t deal with livestock at 7:30 a.m., so I just ran for my Honda and gunned off.
When I got home, the duck was still sitting on my front step. He’s an unusual color for a duck, sort of a blue-gray, with some wing feathers as bright as a bluejay’s. I’d only ever seen brown mallards, or fat white ducks with orange bills. And I always thought that ducks quacked. This duck did not say Quack. It pwuk-wucked at me. I went inside and called the farm down the road.
They didn’t have any ducks. They didn’t know anyone around who had ducks. When I mentioned that this duck had followed me home, there was one of those brief phone silences that say “Oh, great, a crazy lady.”
I got on my laptop and researched ducks. This one was a male, I learned, because females have louder voices. They are the ones who quack. I got excited when I found the Blue Swedish Duck, but it was gray, not blue. Most of the websites assumed that you wanted to breed ducks, but I did learn where to buy duck kibble, and that they like any kind of green stuff. I dug some wilted lettuce out of the refrigerator and opened the door to give it to the duck.
He shot right between my legs into the house. I had no idea ducks could move so fast. Then he stood there, pwuk-wucking triumphantly. He ate some lettuce out of my hand, but when I tried to use it to lure him back outside, he ignored me. Instead, he paddled all around the room, remarking on what he found, before sitting down on my blue rug, looking like he was floating on a pond.
With visions of duck poop sliming up my rug, I snuck over to him, worried about that long dark beak. He stood up, smiled at me, and nibbled my shoelaces.
Yes, he smiled at me. Yes, I’m a crazy lady. I scratched his head, and he leaned into my hand. I let him stay.
I did put down a bunch of old newspapers on the rug. I fed him the rest of the wilted lettuce, and some cut up bits of apple. He gobbled them up, then went to sleep between my feet. When I got up to go to bed, he woke up, waddled to the door, and said “PWACK.” Just like my friend Ruthie’s dog, when she wants to go out. Except that she barks. I let him out, brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and opened the door. In he came, gave me an affectionate nibble, and went back to sleep on the part of the rug without newspapers.
But the next morning, I didn’t find any duck poop, on the rug or the newspapers. He came outside with me as I left for work, got his head scratched, and began to forage around in my raggedy grass. All day, I worried about him. Would he run away? Would a dog or coyote get him? After work, I went to the local Agway farm store and bought some duck kibble and a dog crate. I thought he should have his own bed.
As I drove into my short driveway, the duck was nowhere to be seen. Depressed, I left the cage and kibble in the car and went to open my door.
“PWACK!” The duck came rushing around the corner of the house, wings flapping to give him more speed. I sat down on my crumbling concrete doorstep and hugged him while he nibbled my hair. His feathers smelled dusty sweet.
I dug out some old blankets from one of the boxes in the cellar and set up his crate. He checked it out, making appreciative comments. Then we went for a walk. We ate together; I had hot dogs, he had kibble. Before bed, he pwacked to go out, came back in, and settled down in his crate.
That became our pattern. Just like having a dog. Some days Mr. Duck and I would walk south toward the farm; some days we’d walk north past the old abandoned house. Then we’d have dinner and watch television together.
Ruthie, who now lives on the West Coast, thought it was weird but wonderful. “You needed a pet,” she told me, when I called her to try and explain the duck. “You spend too much time by yourself.” I miss Ruthie a lot. We went to college together. I got married and stayed in the college town; she went off to make her fortune in Silicon Valley.
A month or so later, on our evening walk, Mr. Duck and I got soaked in a sudden thunderstorm. He didn’t seem to mind, but I had to peel off my sodden clothes and put on a warm sweater; I was frozen.
“I wish I’d bought some cocoa,” I told him, as he preened all his wet feathers back into place. “Even though it’s barely October.” I put on water for tea, deciding on scrambled eggs for supper. When I opened the cupboard to get thyme for the eggs, there was a round container of cocoa mix next to the teabags.
“Wow,” I told Mr. Duck. “Losing my memory already, and I’m not quite thirty.” He came over and pwacked for his kibble. After we ate, I made a grocery list. Clearly my memory needed some help.
Probably job stress, I thought, as I headed for work the next morning. My job, as an administrative assistant, can be boring, which is okay, but it also requires endless tact, which I’m terrible at. If I see a problem, I point it out. My boss thinks that’s negative behavior. So I have to solve the same stupid muddles over and over again. My boss says I need to have a better attitude toward my work. At least she can’t fire me; it’s almost impossible for staff to be fired at the university. Which means I have to work with a lot of idiots.
“Don’t complain about it; get a better job!” Ruthie tells me. “Come out here; we need good people.”
“I can’t afford it,” I say. Silicon Valley rents are impossible. Moving is more impossible. Besides, now I had Mr. Duck. How could I drive across the country with a duck?
“I hate that Ruthie moved away,” I told Mr. Duck, after another phone conversation in which Ruthie once again asked me to move out to California. “I wish I had another friend like her who was here.”
University employees get a long break for Christmas. I would have to visit my parents in Cincinnati, like I always do. They even pay for the plane ticket. But I worried about leaving Mr. Duck. Road salt was hard on his feet; I’d made him a little sling so I could carry him on our walks. The grass was dead; the worms were sleeping. He’d starve.
“I wish I knew someone who would feed you while I’m away,” I told him, one November evening. Most of my friends are also friends of my ex-husband, and I haven’t kept in touch with them. Even Karla and Joe, who still invite me to stuff, would never understand about a pet duck. They don’t even have a goldfish.
About a week later, my boss called me into her office. “This is Sharon Martinez, our new administrative assistant,” she told me. “She’ll be working with Jim and Marcy. I want you to show her around the office.” Jim had just been promoted, giving me extra work and putting me way behind, so I was pleased to have the help. For once, my boss had come through.
Sharon caught on fast. We started having lunch together, so I could answer her questions. Usually we ate in the break room, but one day she said “Let’s go out; I hear the Asia Noodle House is cheap and good.”
“So,” she said, as we slurped noodles, “what is with this place? I asked Marcy why we can’t improve the database, and she looked at me like I’d farted in the chapel!”
After I’d finished choking on my noodles, I explained about how identifying problems was considered negative behavior. “I figured it was something like that,” Sharon said. “We gotta end-run these people. For their own good!”
We re-did the database together, and no one even noticed. “They know they screwed up,” Sharon said cheerfully. “They just don’t wanna admit it!”
Confronted with any of our signature bureaucratic stupidities, she didn’t get mad; she just laughed and figured out one of her end runs. After a couple of weeks, I found myself telling her all about Mr. Duck. “I love it!” she said. “Can I meet him?”
That Saturday, Sharon drove out to my little red house for lunch. I spent the evening before and the whole morning planning sandwiches, cleaning, and worrying. No one had ever visited me here.
The day was unusually warm for early December, so Mr. Duck was outside hunting for some green grass. When Sharon’s car pulled in, he came flapping up to see her, pwack-wacking a greeting. She sat right down on the ground to meet him. “Hello, Mr. Duck,” she said. “Aren’t you one gorgeous guy! I never saw a blue duck before!” Mr. Duck nibbled her fingers and shoelaces, then followed us into the house, where he sat on Sharon’s feet during lunch.
Sharon’s family lived near the town. She was delighted to take care of Mr. Duck while I was in Cincinnati. And she was the first friend I’d made on my own since the divorce. Since Ruthie. Okay, since college.
We’d have lunch together several times a week. We shopped for clothes together, and she persuaded me to buy some shirts that weren’t white or blue. She had a lot of friends, and she invited me to parties, or to go on hikes with four or five cheerful people. But she always liked to spend time just with me. And with Mr. Duck.
March and April vacillated between snowstorms and sunshine, rainstorms and beautiful days. Once the rain had washed the salt off our road, Mr. Duck resumed walking with me, nibbling his way along the ditches where bugs were hatching. A bunch of construction trucks had appeared at the rundown house. Over the months, Mr. Duck and I watched as they progressed from banging away inside the house, to re-doing all the windows, to re-shingling the roof.
“We should have explored it while we could,” Sharon said one day, when she’d come over for lunch and to join us on our walk. “I bet it has ghosts and hidden staircases!”
In June, a silver Lexus began to appear in the driveway of the old house. Once I saw the owner: a tall, beautiful woman, with tailored jeans, perfect silver hair that matched the Lexus, and leather boots that must have cost four hundred dollars. She was supervising a group of workers who were planting bushes along the front of the house. I couldn’t imagine why a woman like that wanted to live way out here. I turned to ask Mr. Duck that question—-yes, I talked to him all the time—but he’d disappeared, probably in search of crickets.
At the end of the month, the silver-haired lady knocked on my door.
“Hi,” she said. “I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m your new neighbor, Ingrid Kalmar.”
That Saturday I was particularly scruffy, in baggy jeans and my oldest T-shirt, because I’d decided to finally clean out the cellar. But Sharon had taught me how to be brave. I invited Ms. Kalmar in and offered her coffee. She sat at my cheap kitchen table and told me about her house.
“It belonged to an aunt,” she told me. “She’s been in a nursing home for years. When she died last year, I came to look at her house. It has great bones, and this close to the university, it’s perfect for a professor. I decided to have it renovated. I’ll be living here for most of the summer, supervising the work.” She explained that she ran a real estate business in New York City, but thought of expanding the business to this area.
Mr. Duck had been outside eating bugs. He now had his own duck door, a little flap which, with Sharon’s help, I’d put into my kitchen door.
“My goodness,” said Ingrid Kalmar, as Mr. Duck slid through into the kitchen. While I explained that he was a pet, Mr. Duck stood very tall, eyeing Ms. Kalmar with unusual suspicion.
“He’s such an uncommon color,” Ms. Kalmar said. “He must be worth some money. Have you ever looked into showing him? Perhaps at your state fair?”
Mr. Duck marched right past her and went into his crate. I said that he was a pet duck and that I didn’t really want to get into showing ducks. Ms. Kalmar finished her coffee and went back to her house with the great bones.
The next weekend, however, she visited us again. This time, she wanted to purchase Mr. Duck.
“I’ve done some research,” she said. “No one has ever heard of a duck with this blue coloring. I’ve found a reputable duck breeder who’d like to see what would happen if he crossed your duck with a New Zealand Blue Duck. They’re more gray than blue, but if he could get this bright blue color, we could make good money from the offspring.”
Right before Ms. Kalmar arrived, Mr. Duck had come in and settled into his crate. From the way he eyed us, I didn’t think he liked the idea of being sold to some duck breeder. But I only said that I’d have to think about her offer. I tried to be cheerful and funny, like Sharon would be, but I was afraid Ms. Kalmar knew that I was gritting my teeth.
She was back on Wednesday evening, asking if I’d thought about her offer. She had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. Stalling, hoping she’d give up, I said that I’d like to know more about the breeder, to know that Mr. Duck would have a good home. She laughed gently. “You know I can’t tell you that,” she said. “I’ll arrange the sale, and get the finders’ fee. You understand, I’m sure.” She made me feel like a naïve child. Okay, compared to her, I am a naïve child.
Still, I couldn’t give up Mr. Duck, and had to tell her so. She argued a bit, then shook her head at me. “You’re missing out on a lot of money,” she said, looking pointedly around at my disorganized room. “Why don’t you consult someone you trust; maybe your father, or a faculty member at the university. Let me know when you’re ready to talk again.”
I said I would do all that. Sharon has taught me that lying can sometimes be necessary.
A week later she was back. This time, she brought a check for $1,000. “We haven’t talked price,” she said, while I gaped at the check. “My breeder is very excited about your duck. I hope you’ll consider this offer.” A thousand dollars would pay for much-needed repairs to my Honda. Or a new refrigerator; mine was making noises like it was on its last ice cube.
Mr. Duck had once again come inside as soon as Ms. Kalmar knocked on the door. Now he stretched to his full height––he could quick-change from fat and fluffy to skinny and scary––and glared at us.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve talked it over with several people, and we’ve agreed that I should keep Mr. Duck.” I’d only talked to Sharon, but she’d said “What is with this woman? No one would pay that much money for a duck, and even if they did, Mr. Duck would run away, you know he would.”
Ms. Kalmar smiled in a way that made me take a step back. “I hope you’ll change your mind.” And she left.
Mr. Duck wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the evening. He knew that I’d been tempted by that money.
A few days later, coming home from work, I saw Mr. Duck, flying wildly across my lawn and into the scrubby trees behind the house. I’d never seen him fly. Flap his wings in excitement, or when running to meet me, yes, but I had no idea that he could fly.
All my worries about coyotes and dogs came rushing back. Mr. Duck had seemed so fearless, so able to take care of himself, that I’d stopped thinking about it. Now I leaped out of the car and dashed around the house, holding my purse ready to swing at whatever was chasing Mr. Duck.
Nothing was there. No dogs, no coyotes. No Mr. Duck. Heedless of ticks and mosquitoes, I waded into the long weeds and brush, terrified that I’d find him chewed up and lifeless. I must have hunted for ten minutes, although it seemed like hours. Suddenly, he flapped down from a cedar tree, landing awkwardly at my feet. Snatching him up, I held him like a baby, looking for broken wings or blood, and crying with relief.
He was fine, but his little heart banged against my hands, and he was happy to be cuddled and carried home. Once we were safely inside, I checked him all over again, then gave him a big bowl of water to splash in and his special hot mash. He splashed, ate a little, then headed for his crate where he immediately went to sleep with his beak in his back.
I belatedly checked myself for ticks. I found only one, which hadn’t managed to attach itself yet. Then I got a box full of old textbooks from the basement and used it to block the duck flap. I didn’t want so much as a chipmunk to get inside.
All those winter days and nights, when coyotes would be hungry and prowling, nothing had frightened Mr. Duck. On a bright June evening, when the sun wouldn’t set for three hours, something had chased him. It didn’t make sense.
I got a crowbar from the basement, locked everything up tight, sprayed myself with Deet, and went outside to find and kill whatever had chased my duck. Inch by inch, I hunted the little scrubby woods, glared into the cornfield behind them, then went back to the road. The farm people had dogs, but none of them had ever bothered Mr. Duck. The dogs kept critters away from the chickens, and Mr. Duck was just another chicken to them. Still, I walked down to the farm. The dogs acted as usual, barking to show that they were on the job, wagging their tails to show that they knew me.
Then I wondered if Ms. Kalmar might have purchased some purebred dog that ate ducks, so I headed back past my house toward hers. Walking up the carefully raked gravel driveway, I belatedly realized that I probably looked like a lunatic, with my socks pulled up over my pants to keep ticks away, and my hair sticking up in all directions from crawling under bushes. Ms. Kalmar probably had a butler, who would announce that her ladyship was not receiving visitors.
But her ladyship was out in her yard, talking to a couple of big guys in Carhart work pants. Each one of them carried a butterfly net. It was so incongruous, these tough guys carrying such silly things, and I had been so frightened, that I snorted out a laugh. Ms. Kalmar turned around in surprise.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, frowning at my crowbar.
“Something chased Mr. Duck,” I said. “I wondered if you’d got a new dog that isn’t very well trained.”
“Certainly not,” she said, miffed. “That farmer down the street has dogs.”
“They protect chickens. They think Mr. Duck is a chicken. What are those guys doing with butterfly nets?” All the humor and tact I’d learned from Sharon had blown away in my fear for Mr. Duck.
“I found bats in my attic,” said Ms. Kalmar. “They’re exterminators. If you’ll excuse me, I need to talk with them.” And she walked away.
She was lying. I had bats in my attic once—no, real bats—and you do not catch them with butterfly nets. You might, however, try to catch a rare blue duck with a butterfly net.
Back home, I checked on Mr. Duck, who came pwack wacking out of his crate, his usual cheerful self. I took a shower with him––he loves that. Then I got on my laptop, looking for duck breeders. And I learned that the blue New Zealand duck is endangered, and only lives in New Zealand. Like I said before, there’s a blue Swedish duck, the one that’s mostly gray, but Ms. Kalmar had said New Zealand. Did she plan to ship Mr. Duck there?
At lunch on Tuesday, I told Sharon all about what happened, and about my suspicions. “I thought I’d Google around and call some breeders,” I said. “See if we could find the one Ms. Kalmar knows.”
Sharon offered to help. On Saturday, she came over for supper and we spent the day calling. None of the breeders had ever heard of an Ingrid Kalmar, or anyone who had offered an unusual duck for breeding. Some of them asked difficult questions, but Sharon thought up a useful lie; that we were thinking of breeding our duck, and that someone had offered to help with it, but that we didn’t trust that person.
Mr. Duck helped by sitting on us, in our laps or on our feet. He didn’t go near the box that was blocking his duck door, or ask to be let out. He just pooped in his crate.
“I wish I knew what the hell that woman wanted,” I said, when we’d both developed sore ears and throats from all the calls we’d made. “I know those men were chasing Mr. Duck.”
“You stay inside,” Sharon told the Mr. Duck. “You stay safe okay?” He nibbled her shoelaces.
Just as Sharon was gathering her stuff to leave, someone banged on the door. It wasn’t a knock, it was a bang. We stared at each other. Then she picked up the crowbar, which I’d left by the sofa, and handed it to me. Mr. Duck had become a foot taller and was glowering at the door.
“Come on, Mr. Duck,” Sharon said. “Let’s go into the bedroom.” He followed her like he knew just what she’d said.
Crowbar in hand, I opened the door. The two Carhart guys stood there.
“Give us the duck,” said one of them.
“Why?” I said. “Why do you want him?”
“I wish you’d give us the duck,” said the other one loudly. He wished I’d give him Mr. Duck? That was too weird.
Suddenly, Mr. Duck dashed out of the bedroom, across the living room, and flew straight at the men. One of them tried to grab him, but I whacked his arm with my crowbar. Meanwhile, Mr. Duck had got his webbed feet into the other man’s beard and was biting his nose while hitting the man’s face with his wings. I whacked that man in the butt with my crowbar. Sharon appeared and helped me shove both of men out the door. I shot the bolt. Panting, we listened as the men groaned and cursed. They tried banging on the door again. “I’m calling the police,” I yelled, grabbed my phone, and started punching in numbers. The phone cheeped along. The banging stopped.
Sharon peeked through the curtains. “They’re leaving,” she said. “Both of them are limping.” She grinned. “One of them has duck poop in his beard.”
Mr. Duck flapped his wings, refolded them carefully, wiggled his tail, and looked pleased with himself. Sharon and I regarded him in amazement.
“I knew you were one tough duck,” I told him, “but that was a very brave thing to do.”
“You whacked those jerks with your crowbar,” Sharon pointed out. “The Kalmar lady must have sent them. Why is she so excited about a duck? Even a blue duck? And what if those jerks come back? What if she sues us for unauthorized use of a crowbar?”
I thought it over. Mr. Duck tilted his head to peer at me with one knowing eye.
“I wish,” I said carefully, “that Ingrid Kalmar would leave this town forever, and leave us alone forever.”
Sharon stared at me like I was nuts. “You’re kidding,” she said. “You think the duck grants wishes? How would the Kalmar lady know that?”
“I think Mr. Duck lived at her house,” I said. “Maybe with her old aunt.”
“Then why didn’t the old aunt wish for money to fix up the place?”
“Wishes are complicated,” I said. “You saw what happened to those men when they wished that I’d give them Mr. Duck.”
“What if I wished for a million dollars?”
Mr. Duck marched over and bit one of Sharon’s toes where it stuck out of her sandal.
“Ow!” she said.
Mr. Duck smiled at us. “Pwack,” he said.
© Judith Pratt