Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The story of Two (conclusion)

(This is the fourth and final installment of the story of the story of Two.)

Just before first light the next morning, Two woke from her restless sleep. Her body felt painfully cramped from huddling under the bush all night with her little ones. It took her just a moment to realize where she was - and then the horrible reality of yesterday all came rushing back over her.

The pain in her heart was suffocating, yet there was no way to escape it. She would soon have to rouse Little One and Little Two so that they could head - where? She longed to be back home but she also feared it more than she had ever feared anything. How could she tell One? Her parents?

And she did not even know if she could find home now. From the ground, she could not see any familiar landmarks. She remembered the way home from the Great Lake but now she didn't even know where the Great Lake was.

"O Holy One," she prayed fervently, gasping in near despair. "I'm not sure I can do this anymore. I know I can't do it alone. Please, please help me!"

The ducklings at her side began to stir now and Two hoped they had not overheard her prayer to the Holy One. She did not want them to know just how very afraid and desolate she felt. Little One poked her bill up and cocked her head.

"Did I just hear you call upon the Holy One, Quaka?" Little One asked in puzzlement, using the familiar childhood name for her mother. "Is something wrong?" But then she fell silent, for she knew, of course, that something was very much wrong. The day was breaking and there was no Little Three among them.

"Yes, my Little One," Two responded. "We must ask the Holy One to guide and protect us. Always we must ask, but today in particular..."

However, her words were interrupted by a honking sound from above. Two looked up sharply and saw them - geese! Although she had never been very close to any of the geese that occasioned the ponds, she recognized them as Anatidae and therefore part of her family. She breathed a little easier and felt just a little less alone.

Then, through the grief-filled fog in her mind, the obvious occurred to her. The geese are probably heading to open water - perhaps even to the Great Lake itself! Though she had no interest in the Great Lake trip anymore (for quite obvious reasons), if they could find the Great Lake, they could dive for food, get their bearings and head home again.

Despite her deep fear of going home, there was nowhere else that Two could imagine being now. She needed One terribly and hoped he would not cast her out for what she had done. She longed to see her parents and to know that they still loved her.

She nudged Little Two sharply with her bill to wake him. Sleepily, he pulled his bill out from under his wing to see what was the matter - when he too remembered. Everything was the matter.

"Quatii! Quatii!" ("Fly! Fly"), Two cried out sharply in the ancient tongue, leading them in a rapid ascent. Higher and higher they rose, first above the bushes, then above the trees, into the cool morning air that was just beginning to fill with light.

Two circled around, hoping she would see the direction taken by the geese. However, even with her sharp eyes, she could not spot them. Her heart began to sink again when, once more, she heard a honking from behind and higher up. More geese!

With Little One and Little Two falling into formation behind her, Two quickly adjusted her direction to follow the geese. Surely they would lead her to open waters. They were Anatidae and they too would be hungry and wanting to dive for fish this fine morning.

None of them, not Two, not Little One or Little Two, felt very strong in flight, having had little to eat and carrying heavy hearts within them. However, mustering what strength they had, they flew and flew, trying to keep up with the geese who, by virtue of their larger wings, were getting farther and farther ahead.

Before long, Two saw the brilliant sparkling light along the horizon and she knew it had to be the Great Lake itself. This was hardly the introduction she had wanted to give her ducklings to this wondrous body of water. She knew there could be no fun, no joy there - not without Little Three to share it with them.

Yet seeing the morning light shimmering so brightly off the Lake's surface gave Two, at least for a moment, a renewed sense of hope. Perhaps the Holy One had heard her crying out last night and this morning. Perhaps He was going to guide them back home after all...

As they approached the Lake, Two gave the signal to her offspring to begin the descent. She felt just a bit less worried now. Both of her ducklings were proficient at water landings and she had prepared them before they began the journey to expect the coldness. At least now they would have the safety of the open waters and the chance to fill their bellies before trying to fly home.

One by one they splashed down into the brisk waters of the vast and beautiful Lake. With the sun creeping up the sky from the East, for a moment they could lose themselves in the beauty and forget the horrors of the previous day. It felt so good to paddle their feet once again and to gaze upon the peach-colored streaks fading into the blue of the freshly brightened sky.

Little One and Little Two naturally began to splash and play and Two was about to join in when...suddenly they were all still again, remembering. Two wondered if there would ever be a time when this heaviness would not fall upon their hearts, whether they would ever feel joy again. Once again, she wondered what she would tell One...

Just then, Two spotted some small fish approaching the water's surface in search of insects. Instinctively, she dove and soon had one in her mouth. Little Two was the next to catch one and soon they were all diving and eating their fill. Two was just coming up for the final time when she heard a splash in the water a short distance behind her.

"Two! Quakataata te dak! Ka tada, ta Kwoli Qone! Quakataata te dak!" ("Two! It is you! Thanks be to the Holy One! It is you!") a familiar drake voice cried out.

Stunned, Two turned her head. "One?" Her first instinct was to rush toward her mate with profound relief to seek his comfort. But then she held back, fear seizing her heart. He did not yet know about Little Three.

But One ignored his mate's hesitation and swam toward her with all his might.

"Oh Two! I was so afraid something terrible had happened to you!" One exclaimed in their informal tongue. "I had to come right away! I have been flying through night and first light to find you!"

Two, however, hung her head and could not look at him. "It is Little Three. We had to land suddenly and we found ourselves on a hard path. Something huge and horrible crushed him before our eyes."

Two finally looked up at her mate, "He is now with the Holy One."

Although the guilt and shame Two felt at that moment were almost unbearable, she realized that she now could say that Little Three was with the Holy One and feel certain that it was true.

A hoarse, keening sound came forth from One's deep throat and became louder and louder. Soon, Little Two joined in, while Two and Little One began quacking their lament. They pulled close together in the huge Lake, oblivious to anyone or anything outside of their small family group.

Although they were not aware of it, other ducks whom they had never met before, having heard the death cry, began swimming toward them and forming a circle around them. They did not know what had happened but they knew that cry only too well. It could only have been made for a lost duckling.

Soon too the geese swam near, not knowing at first what to make of the unusual gathering of ducks all in one spot. Their plumage made it clear that these ducks were not all from the same family. Yet they were drawn together in a close circle as though a group of old friends.

But then, as the hoarse keening and sorrowful quacking spread throughout the whole circle of ducks, the geese knew. They did not know the language but they were Anatidae and they knew.

It was only when the sorrowful honking was added to the chorus of keening and quacking that Two and One brought their heads up and looked around them. Two had never before seen such a gathering of Anatidae except at the Great Councils. That they had gathered for her little family overwhelmed her with emotion. It was clear that One was also deeply moved and the ducklings were crying.

For a time, there was much swimming and quacking as the different members of the Anatidae approached the grieving family to gently nudge them with their bills to show their support. None of them asked what had happened - they didn't need to.

As the sun started moving toward the West, the visiting ducks gradually drifted away to continue their feeding and afternoon rest in their own family groups.

At last, when all of the others had left, Two sent Little One and Little Two off to swim and explore the Lake so that she could be alone with One.

"How did you know to come?" she asked One. "We had not been gone long enough for you to know that anything was wrong..."

"It was so strange," One replied. "I heard the Holy One whispering in my heart. It began just as we were wrapping up our day's work on the nesting areas. At first, I thought I must be imagining it - though I have never imagined His voice before - because I knew that it was not nearly time to head South. The weather was warm and fair and the days were still long."

He paused for a moment and then continued. "As the sun fell behind the trees and it grew dark, there was no mistake. The Holy One was no longer whispering. He was calling into my heart - calling me to fly. And I knew there was nowhere else He could be calling me than to find you."

Two listened intently, her eyes wide, and waited for her mate to continue.

"I was so afraid I would be too late," One continued. "But I knew I had to tell our parents and a few others where I was going. If I simply disappeared, rumors would start and the others might fear that a fox had taken me in the night.

"Of course, your parents were anxious. My parents were afraid to let me go. They were worried that whatever had happened to you might happen to me as well. I told them that I had to come - because whatever happens to you does happen to me. It can be no other way since the Holy One gave us to each other as mates."

"Oh, One," Two exclaimed. "Can you forgive me? It is because of me that one of our ducklings is gone." Then she moaned, "If only I had listened to you...Little Three would still be here.

"I understand if you want to cast me out," she continued. "I deserve to be cast out. I have failed you and I have failed the Holy One."

"Two," One said gently. "Did you fail me or did I fail you?" He paused.

"I could have gone with you. Or I could have told you not to go, using the authority given to me by the Holy One as drake-mate." Again, he paused. "I did neither of these things."

For a time, One and Two floated together in silence, bobbing sorrowfully with the Lake's gentle waves.

Finally, One spoke again, "In this life, we can never know if Little Three would still be here - even if you had not insisted on the journey or if I had chosen to go with you. The Holy One does not tell us why one duck lives to see many generations while a tiny new-hatch may have only a single breath. He only asks that we remain faithful to Him and to the Way."

Two pondered these words, still lost in her sorrow and shame. "But that is just it, One," she lamented. "I am so confused. I don't even know what the Way is anymore. I don't know if I turned from it - if that is why Little Three was taken...I do not deserve to be your mate."

Again she hung her head in despair. One gently nudged her with his bill so that she would look at him.

"Two, I could no more cast you out that I could cast the heart out of my own body," he murmured softly. "The Holy One made us mates for all time."

He waited a moment and continued, "I am just a simple drake as you are but a simple hen. I cannot explain the Way to you. I do not understand it in words anymore than you. It is simply the Way - the true path given by the Holy One to all of the living."

Two pondered these words. Something occurred to her just then, as she looked steadily into One's eyes for the first time. "When was it that you said you knew that the Holy One was sending you to look for me?" she asked, her voice tremulous.

"It was last night, as the sun was leaving the sky," One responded, puzzled.

"And when did you leave?" Two asked anxiously.

"When the moon was high in the sky," he replied looking at her intently.

"That was when I first asked Him," Two whispered. "That was when, for the first time since the moment Little Three was taken, that I was able to turn to the Holy One and ask Him to guide me." She paused. "But He had begun calling you even before I asked..."

As she said these words, Two felt what she had not been able to feel for the entire last cycle of the sun, for the one day in her life that had felt many seasons long. At last, she could feel the Holy One surrounding her again.

She felt Him in the familiar and feathery form of the loving drake at her side. She now understood that His voice had been in the geese's honking in morning's first light. She recognized Him in the hearts of the Anatidae who had encircled their grieving family that afternoon. He was with them now, in the afternoon sun, glistening on the vast Lake...

And she embraced Him in Little One and Little Two who, at that very moment, swam up to them while playfully splashing their parents and each other.

Two and One gazed at each, renewed love emerging from the deep well of their sorrow.

"Let us begin the journey home," said Two. "We can go now - the Holy One has shown us the Way."

With a quick motion of her head to the children, she cried, "Quatii! Quatii!" ("Fly! Fly") and soon the little family was soaring together again over the Lake, above the treetops and into the sky toward home.

Author's note: This concludes The Story of Two. Thirty-plus years ago, I was driving on a highway along Lake Erie when I accidentally ran over and killed "Little Three". In all these years, I have never been able to erase from my memory the image I saw in my rear view mirror a second later: a mother duck looking behind her and seeing only two ducklings standing where just a moment before there had been three. May God forgive me. Surely by now, Two and her mate, One, are sharing the kingdom of the Holy One with their beloved third-hatched. 

Yet many mothers - and fathers - still live to grieve the tragic loss of their young. And so, this story is dedicated to all parents who have lost a child in any manner, at any age. May the Holy One bless you and heal you and ever guide you in the Way of love.