Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Odd Duckling

When I was young I remember hearing a story about an ugly duckling who grew up to be a beautiful swan. At the time I couldn't help wondering how a swan's egg would get mixed up with the duck eggs without the mother duck noticing.
I had some trouble with the title for this story. At first I was going to call it "The Exceptionally Ugly Duckling", but that seemed cruel. Then I was thinking of "The Sixth Duckling" in deference to my favorite Orson Welles film, but that seemed dark. In the end I decided on "The Odd Duckling". 

Once there was a duck, and her name was Quack. Now this a very good name for a duck, because when you say to the duck, “What’s your name?”, they can reply “Quack” and be right.

Quack lived by a pond. She had a large and well-built nest in a clump of tall reeds, in which she looked after her five, pale green eggs. Every morning she would spend conscientiously sitting on her eggs to keep them warm. At 11am she would get up, count her eggs, and then waddle down to the pond for her daily exercise and her lunch. She would return an hour later, count the eggs again, and then return to sitting on them for the remainder of the afternoon.

Now ducks are not very good at counting. You and I can easily count to ten, on account of having ten fingers and thumbs. In an emergency we can take off our shoes and socks, and then we can count to twenty. But a duck has just two wings and two feet, and consequently they have trouble counting to any number higher than four. Quack was no exception. Sometimes she counted four eggs, sometimes she counted five, and sometimes she counted six. Occasionally she even counted seven or eight. This didn’t worry her unduly: she assumed that this was just the way things were with eggs.

One fine spring morning, at 11am, Quack got up from her nest and counted her eggs. This time it so happened that she got it exactly right: five. She spent a pleasant hour paddling in the pond and munching on duckweed before she returned to her nest to count her eggs again. Once again she managed to count the eggs exactly right: six.

Of course Quack was used to the number of eggs changing when she got back from the lake, and so this did not worry her. She might have noticed that one of the eggs was larger than the others, and that it looked like it was carved from a solid piece of onyx, flecked with red and gold veins that sparkled in the sun. But Quack was very short-sighted and not the most observant of ducks.

She did notice that one of the eggs seemed warmer than the others. Indeed, after sitting on them a little while, her bottom got quite uncomfortably hot, and she had to go back to the pond to cool off. Still, she assumed that the egg must have been laying in the sun, and did not worry about it. Ducks are not very smart animals, and Quack, as I’m sure you’re beginning to realize, was not the smartest of ducks.

And so, one morning, a few weeks later, as spring started to turn into summer, and the wildflowers blossomed in the fields, the eggs started to twitch. Quack stood back and watched with pride as cracks began to appear and, one by one, the ducklings emerged.

The first five ducklings were yellow and fluffy, and tumbled over one another like little yellow powder puffs. The sixth duckling was different. In place of downy feathers she had shining blue-green scales. Her eyes were like shining red jewels, smoke drifted from her nostrils, and her wings were golden but shaped like the wings of a bat. Even Quack, looking at her sixth duckling, could not fail to notice she was a little odd.

Say what you like about Quack, but she was a good mother. On seeing her seeing her six new hatchlings, Quack said to herself “These are all my ducklings, and I will love them all equally”. She called the six ducklings to attention and solemnly lead them in procession down to the pond. The sixth duckling did her best to waddle behind the other five. She landed with a splash in the pond, and a small cloud of steam rose about her as she paddled behind the other five.

Now, whilst this was happening, many miles away, in an eyrie high in the wall of a sheer cliff face, overlooking the ocean, a dragon was crying. The dragon sobbed huge, jewel-like tears the size of duck eggs. As each tear fell from her ruby eyes and hit the rocks below it shattered into a thousand sparkling fragments, to be followed a second later by the next tear.

The dragon was sad because she had lost the thing that she cared for most in the whole world: her beautiful, precious egg.

The way it happened was this: the dragon was returning to her nest from hunting for cabbages one afternoon (dragons love cabbages), when she saw an eagle perched in her eyrie and pecking at her egg. She roared, and swooped down on startled eagle, spraying flames as she went. The eagle grabbed the egg in its talons and flew off as fast as it could, with the dragon giving chase. The two creatures raced for miles, swooping over the tops of trees, circling and then soaring above the clouds, until, exhausted and with its tail-feathers smouldering, the eagle dropped the egg.

The poor dragon watched helplessly as the egg tumbled through the clouds and disappeared from view. For days and weeks afterwards she searched high and low for any trace of the fallen egg, until, convinced that it must have broken into a thousand pieces, she returned to her eyrie to weep.

But the egg didn’t break. It’s fall was slowed by a bunch of tall reeds and, miraculously, it landed unharmed in a waiting duck’s nest.

Back at Quack’s nest, things were not going so well for the sixth duckling. At first the five feathered ducklings had been very happy to have such an unusual and different sister. When a fox had come sniffing around their nest, looking for easy pickings, it had quickly run away with its tail between its legs. And when another family of ducklings had tried to make fun of Quack and her brood down at the pond, the sixth duckling had chased after them with sparks flying from her nostrils, so that they fled in terror, floundering and flopping, with stubby wings splashing wildly in the water.

But every day the sixth duckling grew bigger, till there was no room for both her and her siblings in the nest. She didn’t like to eat duckweed or the small fish that swam in the pond, but was always hungry for larger, stranger kinds of food. Worse yet, she caught a cold from spending so much time in the pond, and every time she sneezed she set the nest on fire. Poor Quack had to beat out the flames with her wings which were soon singed and black with soot.

Quack reluctantly came to a decision: for the sake of the other five ducklings, she must let the sixth, odd duckling go. Sorrowfully she told her ducklings the news. She gave her sixth duckling one of her tail feathers to remember her by. The other ducklings gathered round offering goodbye hugs and pecks.  One single tear fell from the sixth duckling’s eye, and lay, shining like a perfectly cut diamond, on the ground.

And so the strange little duckling with blue-green scales, ruby-red eyes and golden wings set out on her way. First she crossed the pond, and then followed the small burbling stream that headed out towards the neighboring forest. As she followed it the stream it got wider and more sedate, and was joined by more bubbling streams until it seemed more of a river than a stream. Some of the time she paddled along in the water, as her mother had taught her, but then she would try following her instinct and flying, and with a few beats of her golden wings, she was sailing above the silvery snaking river, watching it winding between the steep banks below.

The first evening she slept in a haystack on a farm that backed on to the river. She was awakened in the early hours of the morning by shouts from the farm house, and was surprised to find the haystack ablaze. She waddled back to the river as quickly as she could. After that she slept amongst rocks, or on bare earth with nothing flammable nearby.

After many days of travel the river opened out into a wide, boggy wetlands through which she could no longer swim. She took to the wing once more, and found herself soaring above the marshland, then the beaches, and suddenly the glorious, wide open ocean.

For many hours the odd duckling flew over the ocean, entranced by the majestic waves and the far horizons, until, tired and hungry, she landed on a small islet. There she found some wild cabbages which she ate, ravenously, and she fell asleep on the sand beneath a swaying palm tree.

In the weeks that followed she flew far and wide over the ocean, every day going a little further and feeling a little more brave. She had many adventures: she had tea with mermaids (though the tea tasted of seaweed); she played checkers with an octopus (though the octopus always won); and she flew above the clouds with an albatross (though the albatross kept complaining that ancient, grey bearded mariners were taking pot shots at him). And every day she grew a little bigger and a little stronger.

Some weeks later, flying further than she ever had before, the odd duckling came to a range of high cliffs and landed on the rocky beach at the cliff’s base. From high above she could hear the sound of sobbing, and a tinkling that sounded like crystals or jewels breaking on the rocks above.

The duckling was curious and flew up searching for the source of the sounds. She found a ledge, high up on the cliff face, and on the ledge was a creature bigger than any the duckling had seen before. In spite of its size, the creature looking familiar, much like the reflections the odd duckling and seen in the pond long before. It had huge red eyes of flame, was covered with shining blue-green scales bigger than dinner plates, and its great golden wings unfolded to caste a shadow  bigger than the biggest thunder cloud.

“Hello,” said the odd duckling. “Why are you crying?”

The creature stopped, and stared at the duckling in surprise and wonder. “Who are you?” it asked after a long pause.

“I’m a duckling,” said the odd duckling. “At least I think I am,” said the odd duckling. “Though sometimes I’m not sure”, she added doubtfully, and she proceeded to tell her long and strange story.

As she talked the creature’s eyes grew bigger and wider, until finally the odd duckling stopped and looked up at the huge creature which starred at her in wonder.

“You’re not a duckling, you are a dragon,” said the creature, “and you are my baby!” With that the mother dragon wrapped her huge, golden wings around the baby dragon, and as she hugged her tightly, her heart filled with joy.

From that day on the baby dragon lived with her mother, and she grew ancient and huge and wise, the way that all dragons do.