Saturday, January 25, 2014

The story of Two (part 1)

(The following is the first installment of a story that will be presented in four daily posts. Be forewarned that some of the content is very sad, so please use your own judgment as to whether now is a good time for you to read it.) 

Once upon a time, not far from the Great Lake, there lived a large brace of ducks and, in particular, a hen duck named Two. Actually, like most in the Anatidae family, Two had a formal name in the old Duck language. However, it was a hard name to remember - and even harder to pronounce - so everyone just called her Two, for she had been the second in her childhood nest to hatch.

Two enjoyed life in her flock. She and the other young hens and drakes had several ponds that were favorite places to dive for tiny fish and search out insects along the shore. Once happy and fed, they would paddle and play, splashing through ripples in the clear, fresh water.

However, the most exciting times were when they went to the Great Lake to swim and dive and fish. Two vividly remembered her very first trip there as a young duckling. She had heard stories about the vast sea to their north but had been totally unprepared for what she had seen that day when her mother had told her and her nest-mates that it was time they saw it for themselves.

It had been a warm sunny day and the sky a brilliant, almost sapphire blue. The journey itself had been exciting, with Two discovering the strength in her wings as they soared above the hills and trees. When she had seen the sun sparkling off of the vast expanse of greenish blue waves beneath her, her heart had thrilled. Although the lake water was sharply colder than the ponds she had known, Two had found the chilly plunge exhilarating.

That day had been one of the happiest of her life. For it was at the Great Lake that she had met One, the handsome young drake who later became her mate. And, now that she had her own little brood of ducklings, she anxiously awaited the time when they would be old enough to have their own first experience with the wondrous Lake.

However, when Two casually shared this dream with some of the other young mother hens at the pond, she was surprised to learn that they did not share her enthusiasm. They all spoke of the dangers, of all of the strange new happenings in their world. Some ducks, they claimed, had left for the Great Lake and never returned. No one knew what had happened to them.

Two felt a shiver of fear run through her. However, she shook it off quickly, telling herself that hens like to gossip and often exaggerate their stories. Most likely those ducks had found mates and settled in one of the ponds further to the east. Ducks did not just disappear into thin air, she told herself.

Many generations of ducks before her time had commented on the Changes and Two was well aware of them. Their reality could not be denied. However, no one knew for sure what they meant or whether there was any harm in them.

With the Changes had come strange new structures in their world, some of them taller than the biggest of trees. Yet they were not like the trees who made their seeds and dropped them into the earth. No, these structures did not grow like that. Once there, they never changed and they never moved, even when the winds were very strong. There was something cold and hard about them that made Two uncomfortable.

Two sensed that these structures were not part of the Way and so she avoided them. After all, the Way was for the living and she could see no signs of life in these edifices. Yet they did not seem dangerous to her because they did not do anything. They did not steal their food or eat their young. They were simply there.

There was the one time that Two went a bit too close to one, however, accidentally straying from her soft muddy path on to one of those strange hard ones. It had been hot and black and sticky, burning her usually sturdy webbed feet. She had quickly pulled back and did not follow that path again. She would remain with the Way she knew.

Aside from that one experience, Two had always felt safe. She had grown up around ponds and marshes with tall grasses and willowy trees nearby. From the very beginning, her parents had instructed her in the Way, assuring her that the Holy One loved her and would always take care of her. They had loved her deeply themselves and from this she knew their words were true.

Living in the Way left Two feeling peaceful and happy inside. Although she had heard that there were creatures who had turned from the Way (she hadn't known any personally), she could not imagine living in any other fashion. She accepted what the Holy One gave her, whether warm sun or cold rains, for she knew that she needed both. If He gave her many fish one day and only seeds the next, she trusted that this was for her good.

And it had been good. When the weather cooled, Two always had a nice layer of fat beneath her feathers to keep her warm. Soon she would hear His voice deep within her heart, calling her to fly further South where warmer waters awaited her. In time, His voice beckoned her back North and never once did it enter her mind not to obey. He was Love and could never want anything but joy for her.

So it was with joy that Two began to plan the journey that would introduce her three young ducklings to the Great Lake. Her mate, One, had questioned whether they might still be a bit too young and inexperienced to make a flight beyond the next pond. However, Two had assured him that they were ready. She had taken them out flying and they were strong and able with their wings.

At last the day came. Two had prepared her brood, telling them stories of both the delights and the dangers of the vast Lake. She had purposely chosen a fine sunny day with only a light breeze so that the flight would not be too strenuous for them. The ducklings, for their part, were quivering with excitement and chattering among themselves.

In her brood, Two had Little One, who was a hen, and Little Two and Little Three who were drakes. (While it might seem confusing to you and I to have all members of the flock called by their hatching order, we must remember that this seemed quite natural to the Anatidae, whose ancient Duck names were very difficult to remember and even more difficult to pronounce.)

As they all lifted into the air together, Two felt proud of her youngsters. They fell into formation behind her and soon they were all high above the trees. They had followed her instructions without hesitation and knew their emergency instructions backwards and forwards. Little did Two know how those very emergency instructions would impact the rest of their lives.

For they were still several hills away from the Great Lake, when Little One began making the distress call in gasping tones. Alarmed, Two fell back to better view her daughter and saw that one of her wings was not working as well as the other. Two quickly signaled to her ducklings that they needed to make an immediate descent and they were to follow her lead.

Two scanned the unfamiliar terrain for a level area where they could quickly land. At first all she could see were the tops of trees - certainly they could not land on those! Then, to her relief, she spotted a broad winding path that cut through the woodlands. She gave her signal and down they went until all had their feet safely on the ground once again.

Little One was apologetic and embarrassed, but Two knew her first-hatched too well to believe that she had given the distress call needlessly. She poked around her duckling's fluffy body with her bill, searching for the source of the problem. The left wing seemed tighter than normal but nothing appeared to be broken. It was most likely a bad cramp and would correct itself with a short rest.

Two quacked out the good news for all of them to hear, wanting to reassure them that the journey would continue before long. However, what she didn't share was a very different and disturbing worry that she had felt as soon as her webbed feet made contact with the unfamiliar path. The path was hot and hard, not at all like the cool muddy paths of home. She was relieved that it was not black and sticky but she did not trust it - for it did not seem to be of the Way.

Thus, she started walking as quickly as she could, knowing that her ducklings would fall in line behind her as they always did. She glanced back, concerned now about how wide this path was and how long it might take them to cross it. She noticed that Little Two and Little Three had switched places, so that Little Three was in the two position. She had to smile to herself. The young drakes often did this, thinking that she would not know the difference. She chose not to say anything. What difference could it make?

The mother and her little ones waddled as quickly as they could but their short legs could only take them so fast. Two continued to feel uneasy, though the weather was still fine and no predators were in sight. The first sign that something was really wrong, however, came when she felt a sort of rumbling vibration in the path beneath their feet. Frightened, she tried to quicken her pace.

It all happened so quickly. There was a sudden, deafening roar and a swirl of burning wind - and then nothing. Everything was very quiet again but Two knew that something was horribly, horribly wrong. She turned her head instinctively to check her brood. Little One was right behind her...and there was Little Two in the third position...but where was Little Three?

In that instant, everything slowed down and seemed oddly surreal. For what she saw in the number two position was simply too horrific for Two to grasp. Where Little Three had been, there was but a flattened mess of feathers, bones and blood. All time seemed to stop and Two simply stared at that spot for what seemed like a lifetime.

What brought her to her senses was the only thing that could possibly have reached her - and that was the frightened cries of her other two offspring. They too had seen what had happened and stood paralyzed with fear. Two shook herself violently, trying shake off the stupor that seemed to be descending upon her, for she knew that she had to get Little One and Little Two safely off of this hard and unnatural path.

Mustering all of her strength, Two put one webbed foot in front of the other, knowing that this action would stir the instinct in her little ones to line up behind her and begin walking. She could not think about Little Three. She could not bear the thought that she had to leave him lying there alone in the open where any hawk or eagle might swoop down to feast on his remains. She could not think. And so she walked.

(to be continued...)