When I met her, she was just a young mother. She had that undeniable girlish, wide-eyed look to her. Her slender neck was perfectly white against her sleek black and green feathered body. Her small face was practically free of blemishes, with hardly a trace of those ugly red caruncles that grow around the eyes as they mature into adulthood. Her smooth beak was the most delicate shade of pink with the softest kiss of a black tip.
She and her twelve ducklings wandered into our yard from the lake out back. The ducklings scurried behind her in a frantic huddled mass of fluff everywhere she went. They tripped over one another to keep up with her, bumping into her showy yellow legs and webbed feet when she’d stop waddling. If one of the ducklings fell behind, she’d wait patiently until it caught up to the rest.
We had a solemn rule of not feeding the neighborhood ducks, who were generally considered nothing more than pests. One of our neighbors was so overrun with Muscovy ducks, they would perch on the top of his screened patio, directly over his pool and poop all over the place all night long. I imagined he’d have to wake up a half hour early every morning just to hose it all down. Our pool is open and uncovered. Our yard isn’t even fenced. We never wanted to attract their attention. But hey, what kind of stone hearted cankers would we be if we didn’t jump on the opportunity to frolic with these fluffy, palm sized bits of heaven?
The kids ravaged our refrigerator for something to lure the ducklings closer with. Annie pulled out the last half of a bread loaf and held it up in front of me, teaming with nervous expectation. It would mean a trip to the grocery store later to replenish my stock for tomorrow’s lunch packs but what the heck? We all spilled out into the yard, quickly realizing we would need to calm down if we were going to get anywhere near as close to them as we wanted. We sat down on the grass, scarcely breathing, at the end of a nibble sized trail of bread. My eleven year old son laid on his stomach trying to appear small and unthreatening. Eventually Mama Duck graciously allowed him to get practically nose to beak with one of her babies in exchange for some aging Nature’s Own Whole Wheat.
Over the next couple of weeks, it became a regular occurrence in our backyard. I found myself picking up an extra loaf of bread here and there, especially for her and her little brood. When they showed up, we would stop whatever we were doing. Homework? To heck with it. In the middle of cooking dinner? To heck with that too. We’d sit in the grass tossing out pieces of bread, laughing and naming the ducklings. The kids came up with names like Ninja for the one that was a deep black all over, even in the beak, legs and tiny feet. Mohawk, for the one that had a downy thin stripe across the top of its little head. Sunshine, for the littlest one that was pure yellow.
One afternoon, we spotted a huge white heron stalking one of the ducklings while they meandered on the other side of the lake. It stood almost four feet tall, statuesque but inching stealthily closer and closer until we screamed our heads off, jumping up and down on our side of the bank, trying to scare it away. Once properly warned, Mama Duck gathered her crew and took off into the black water at breakneck speed.
As the days went on, we started to notice fewer ducklings with her. The kids and I would try to figure out which one was missing and guess what could have happened to it. With all the predators the Muscovy ducks have to contend with, it’s really a wonder how any of them survive into adolescence, let alone adulthood. There are always hawks circling overhead, owls on the night hunt, rude and vulgar possums, and sneaky raccoons abound. She was a good mama and she tried hard even though the odds were stacked against her.
The kids got into the habit of yelling out the day’s duckling count when they showed up for their bread snack. One afternoon, Annie burst into the house, winded and frantic, “The ducklings are back! There’s only four left.”
“Sunshine is still there though,” added Sarah who trailed in after her. Sunshine was her favorite.
Another day, my son stood at the window, shoulders slumped, “The mom lost another one. Ninja is gone. ”
Eventually she was down to only two babies; Then just one.
One day she showed up alone. Not only had she lost her one remaining baby, she’d lost that girlish spark. She stood in the grass, blinking absently. Even her tail wag was gone. She seemed lost. We fed her a few slices and sat together quietly.
Sarah finally broke the silence. “Mommy, we never named the mama.”
Mama Duck sat rigidly, staring out over the lake. She looked like a lawn ornament, plastic and hard. Not even the late spring breezes coming off the water ruffled her stiff feathers. She sunk her head into her back and settled deeper into the grass, as if wrapping herself in an old sweater.
Without a second thought, I said, “Her name is Sola because now she is all alone.”