Writers have favourite muses. These change as one passes through various stages of life. My farm companions have become my muses at this juncture in time. Brenda, the little duck who thinks she is a chicken has captured my imagination. Here she is with her “mother” Casperella. Brenda is much bigger than her mother, but still she tries to crawl under Casperella, as a baby would do. She topples her mother over and in the end they just snuggle. It is adorable.
I felt certain her story would make a good children’s book. I started it, but searched for an ending. And then, ah, she had seven little babies and I was mesmerized by how Brenda would manage being a chicken hatching baby ducks.
It was a fascinating, sometimes heart breaking living event to observe.
Through the documentation of her actions and the actions of her babies, the book came to life.
In this version, Brenda is not telling the story. Her baby is. I hope you enjoy it; I hope, too, you come to recognize the complexity of a duck’s emotional life.
MY MOTHER THINKS SHE IS A CHICKEN
My name is Guinevere. Lady named me after the famous queen from King Arthur’s Court. I like my name, but I don’t feel like a queen. And I don’t want to be famous.
I am quite shy. I don’t like a lot of attention.
I have good reason to hide.
When I was born, my mother almost killed me.
As an egg, I had been lying under her body for a very long time.
My mother had kept me warm and finally, I was ready to come into the world.
I pecked my way out of my shell.
I wriggled and worked until I was free.
I looked up into my mother’s eyes and smiled.
She looked at my tiny webbed feet, my flat little bill.
I tried to make my way to nestle under her feathers.
She picked me up and threw me away.
What was wrong?
I tried to crawl back to my mother to the safety of her soft warm body.
She picked me up by my tiny neck and threw me again.
I didn’t know what to do. I stayed very still. I wanted to hide.
I began to cry.
A big hand came into the cage and lifted me away.
The hand belonged to Lady.
I was still wet. I was cold. I wanted my mother.
Lady brought me into her big house.
She wrapped me in a towel she had warmed in a big machine.
She fed me bits of boiled egg yolk. And slices of watermelon.
I wasn’t really hungry. I was so so tired.
I crawled up into the space between her shoulder and her cheek.
I fell asleep. Lady fell asleep too.
We slept like that all night.
When the sound of a rooster crowing woke us up, Lady put me in a cage.
It was a big parrot bird cage located in her spare room. There was no parrot in the cage. It had been empty until she put me into it.
She walked away.
I cried and cried.
Lady opened the door of the parrot cage.
I ran out.
I followed Lady everywhere.
For four days, we lived together, me following Lady everywhere and sleeping in her big bed.
While I was living with Lady, three more babies were born.
My mother seemed to be okay with them. She didn’t throw them away.
I guess she was getting used to what her babies looked like.
Lady went out to the crate where the new babies and my mom were living.
She picked up my little brother, whom she later named Lancelot, and brought him into the house.
She put us together in my parrot cage.
I told my brother that Lady would take us out and would let us sleep in her big bed.
I don’t think he believed me. But it didn’t matter. I was so happy to have my brother with me.
It was love at first sight. We cuddled together under the heat lamp Lady had put on our cage.
Two days later, Lady picked us up.
“I told you,” I told my brother.
He just smiled.
I was shocked. Lady did not take us to her big bed.
No. She brought both of us back to Mother.
Yikes! What if Mother tried to kill me again.
Lancelot told me not to be scared.
Lady stood near Mother’s nest and watched carefully.
Lo and behold, Mother accepted us both as her children.
We crawled under Mother’s belly and fell fast asleep.
As a rule, baby ducks are very brave Lancelot told me I was an exception. When ducks are very young, they like to leave the duck house and follow their mother out into the big scary world.
But our mother was not taking us out. She was not letting us go out at all.
When Lady left the cage door open and we began to make our way out into the duck house, Mother would scold us and push us back with her bill. Not hard, to throw us, the way she threw me that day. Soft, gentle, but very insistent.
She did not want us to leave her side. She made us stay inside.
She was acting a lot like Godiva, the brown hen who had her own chicks in the chicken coup attached to the duck house. Godiva kept her babies all tucked under her body. They didn’t seem to mind. They never tried to leave the chicken coup.
But ducks are different from baby chicks. Ducks are big and strong. Even five day old ducks. Chicks are small, little balls of fluff. It takes them much longer to go out into the world.
Our world is a beautiful garden. Behind the garden is a huge field where Lady’s horses and llamas guard us from strangers, and especially from coyotes.
It is a perfect place for us to live.
There are lots of places to hide. Lots of places to play.
My brothers and sisters wanted to go out and explore the garden.
I thought I might like it, too, if Mother would come with us.
One day Mother left the duck house to drink some water. It was our chance.
We rushed out after her, following in single file. We looked like a marching band.
I felt so good, I pretended to bang on a tin drum.
Mother went up to the edge of a little plastic pond and took big gulps of water and threw them up over her head. She splashed the water all over herself.
She gulped and threw the water over and over again and again.
I asked my brother, Lancelot what she was doing? Was she trying to drown herself?
Lancelot assured me it was okay, mother was giving herself a bath.
Lancelot seemed to know a lot of things. I have no idea how he knows the things he knows. I guess he is a smart duck.
I don’t think I am. I am pretty ordinary.
My sister, Sweet Pea, dipped her face into the big pond to have a drink and splash some water on herself the way Mother was doing.
Oops. She fell right in.
Lancelot followed. He didn’t fall in; he jumped right in.
He wasn’t just smart; he was brave.
Oh dear. I was neither brave nor smart.
I just stood and watched.
Mother stopped bathing herself. She raced around and around the pond, yelling at Lancelot and Sweet Pea. She made them get out. She made the rest of us march back into the duck house.
“Bad, bad children,” she scolded. “Don’t you know you will drown?”
Lancelot was a bit sassy. He whispered to Sweet Pea. “Drown?” Is Mother kidding? We are good swimmers. Ducks are born knowing how to swim.
Lancelot tried to tell her that but Mother would not listen.
She was very very, very upset.
Each time Mother went out to eat and bathe, we followed her.
Each time, we slipped into the pond, one by one.
First, of course, was Lancelot.
He was followed by our sisters, Sweet Pea, Lily and Daisy.
They looked a lot like Donna, our grandmother. Their feathers were pure white too, just like hers.
Donna was the main duck of the garden. She was the “mother” of us all. She walked as if she owned the garden. I guess she did. I stayed out of her way. She had a reputation of being grumpy.
The gray ducks, Grey Goose and Vodka followed. Lady had named them after a drink she enjoyed on a hot day. That made us all laugh.
Finally, I got enough courage to dive in. I was grey and white with markings on my face. Lady said I was beautiful.
Lancelot, my brother, looked a lot like I did. Only bigger.
I was the smallest duck of all.
We could tell Mother still didn’t want us swimming as she performed her slashing bath. But she seemed to sense it was almost impossible to stop us.
I felt sad that we were making mother so anxious.
I showed her my feet, my webbed feet. “These are good for swimming,” I told her.
Lancelot nodded in agreement.
We looked at her webbed feet. “You can swim, too.” Lancelot announced.
But Mother just shook her head. She looked a bit puzzled. She made more worried sounds.
“Why won’t you swim, Mother? I asked very quietly.
I looked to Lancelot for support, but he was diving for bugs. Only his tail feathers stuck out of the water.
Mother did not answer. She dropped her head. “I’m sorry,” was all she said.
I decided I would ask Grandmother why Mother wouldn’t swim with us.
Grandmother was sunbathing in the garden she considered her own. Her eyes were closed.
I crept up to her cautiously.
“Grandmother, are you sleeping?” I whispered.
She opened one eye. That eye looked right at me.
I stammered , wanting to get the question out but.
Before I could ask her, she snapped, rather rudely, as if the question made her angry. “ I heard you ask your mother; you don’t have to say it again.”
Grandmother closed her eye.
I still waited. I could see Grandmother peeking, to see if I were still waiting.
Finally, Grandmother spoke.
“Because she think she will drown,” answered Grandmother, shaking her head, almost the way mother had. It seemed to be a puzzle to her, too. “Maybe you should ask Casperella,” she added.
She glanced at Casperella, a very small Silkie hen who seemed to be a favorite of everyone’s.
“Don’t you like Casperella?” I wanted to know.
Grandmother stood up. She looked angry. “Not really.”
I was surprised by Grandmother’s answer. Why wouldn’t she like Casperella? I followed after her, needing more information.
“But why? What did she do?”
“She stole my egg! “ snapped Grandmother as she waddled away and threw herself into the new big pond Lady had a man dig for us in the field right behind the duck house and chicken coup. “And I won’t say any more, so don’t ask.”
I went to see Hiawatha, Donna’s husband and our grandfather. “Grandfather, did Casperella really steal Grandmother’s egg?”
“She told you that?” Grandfather was curled up in the sun, relaxing under a weeping Katsura tree. I could barely understand what Grandfather was saying. He kept his head tucked into his wing. It was pretty obvious he didn’t want to speak to me about it any more than Grandmother had.
“Well, she shouldn’t have.” He popped his head up and said in a quiet voice as if this were a secret topic. “What’s done is done and it’s better just to accept things as they are. Now, Guinevere, go and play with your brothers and sisters and let me sleep.”
Now I was really curious. I decided to go to the source. I went up to Casperella. She was busy eating some of the grapes that had fallen from the vines that grew next to the duck house and chicken coup. She was so small that even though I was only a month old, I was much bigger than she was.
“Casperella, did you steal my grandmother’s egg?”
Casperella quit eating grapes. She eyed me suspiciously. “Who told you that?”
I tried to be strong and brave. “It doesn't matter. Did you steal her egg?”
“Maybe I wanted a baby.”
“Why didn’t you lay your own eggs? Have your own baby?”
“My eggs never become babies. I don’t have a husband the way your grandmother does.”
“But…. But my grandmother is a duck. “
“It’s not as simple as that, young lady.”
Casperella may have been small, but she was very spunky. I didn’t feel as sure of myself as I had a few minutes ago.
“Maybe you should just leave things alone. Maybe they are just fine the way they are.”
“My mother won’t swim with us,” I wailed, starting to cry.
“Your mother can’t swim.” Casperella said. “She is a chicken. Chickens can’t swim.”
“But my mother is a duck.”
“Are you sure?” Casperella asked.
“Of course, I am. Look at her.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Casperella said and then went back to eating her green grapes.
I decided I might have better luck with my mother. She was where she usually was, alone in the chicken coup. I approached her carefully.
“Mother,” I called. She looked up. She rushed over to me, happy to see me in the chicken coup. She ran so quickly that she tripped on a small dish of yogurt Lady had put out for the chickens. Mother ignored the yogurt all over her foot and continued to rush my way.
“Oh Guinevere, how nice of you to come and visit me. Is anything wrong?”
I realized at that moment that my mother was very lonesome. My eyes filled with tears. “Mother, are you lonely?”
“Sometimes, I am,” she sighed.
“Mother, may I ask you a question that nobody seems to want to answer?”
Mother nodded her head. “If I can, I will.”
“Mother,” I asked, “are you a chicken?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” laughed mother. “Of course I am.”
“But you look like a duck,” I told her.
“Mother. we are your babies, and we look like ducks.”
“I noticed that,” mother confided. “At first it really bothered me, but then I got used to it.” She looked serious. She bobbed her head to one side. “I am so sorry I threw you away. I thought you were not my baby. I was expecting a baby chick.”
I started to cry. I was so happy my mother was telling me this.
“But now I love you very much.”
“I love you, too, mother. But I wish you’d stay with us and not the chickens.”
I hesitated, then I added, “I feel safe around you Mother.”
Mother started to cry, too. “But I am a chicken. You ducks are in the water all the time. I can’t join you in the water.”
“Are you sure, Mother?”
“What makes you think you are a chicken?” I wanted to know.
“My mother is a chicken. I hatched under Casperella. She is my mother.”
“Do you think you were, uh, perhaps, adopted?”
“Oh no,” said mother. I remember being born. I remember Casperella and how soft she was and how warm her body was. She took very very good care of me. And she definitely taught me that I couldn’t swim. I wanted to swim but she knew I would drown.”
“Okay, mother,” I said and went back to swim with my duck brothers and sisters,. I left my mother alone. When I turned back I could see her still watching me, with a longing look. Her look made begin to cry some more.
It was a Thursday night in October. A terrible storm was brewing, was threatening to come to our little farm. Lady fastened doors, closed windows, putting everything that might blow into our duck house and chicken coup out of the way.
Even the horses were excited. We could hear them racing in the field around the pond that we enjoyed so much. The pond was getting bigger and bigger.
Nobody really slept that night as the wind howled and the rain pelted down as if the sky had opened up and a giant hose was spilling millions of gallons of water right over our house.
The chickens were restless, moving about, chirping, worrying. Our mother was most nervous of all. She kept circling around us, her head at that weird angle she uses when she is anxious as if she were on attack.
What was she going to attack? The wind? The rain?
We could see our pond out in the field getting bigger and bigger. I think part of our excitement was thinking about going into that bigger pond. I think we all secretly planned to do that as soon as Lady opened the door for us to go outside in the morning.
A big branch of the old Maple tree that stood beside the grape vine came crashing to the ground inches from the roof of our house. It scared one of the hens and she ran from her nest screaming and tried to hide in the duck house. No one stopped her.
And then I saw something amazing. When the hen fled from her nest, Casperella came running toward the nest and rolled one of the eggs out. She rolled it with her beak. She rolled it all the way to her own nest. She pushed it up into her nest and then sat on the egg. She looked pleased as punch.
“My goodness, she just stole an egg,” I said to my brother.
“I heard a rumor that she does that a lot. I heard she wants to be a mother, but there is no daddy.”
The next morning, the wind was still blowing and the rain was still pouring down.
But it didn’t bother us much. Actually, it didn’t bother us at all.
As soon as our door was opened, we marched down to the big pool, now twice as big as it had been the day before.
We plunged in and swam around and around.
We dove for bugs, our little bums sticking up in the air.
We glided across the pond like skaters, flapping our wings and making swooshing noises.
That’s when we heard her screaming. Mother!
Terrified of the wind, the rain, the big big pond, she ran from the duck house..
“Get out. Get out right now,” she scolded. “You will be killed.”
“We are having fun, mother. We love this,” we promised.
But mother could not be convinced. She kept circling the pond, coaxing, trying to get close enough to force us out of the water.
She went in a few inches. She went in enough to get her feet wet. We could tell she didn’t like it, but she was worrying about us, so much, she was ignoring her terrible fear of water.
“I think we should get out,” my brother Lancelot said to all of us. “I think Mother will drown herself. She can’t swim.”
“No wait.” Everyone looked at me. “Had I said that?” I continued, “I think she can swim. I think she will swim. Let’s swim farther away.”
“But what if she can’t?” my sisters spoke, all at once, making one big voice.
“I’ll save her,” I said. “I will carry her back. Please, let’s try.”
Suddenly a big steak of lightening lit up the sky. A loud crack of thunder followed. It shook the water in the pond.
And with that awful light, that awful sound, she was there. In the water. In the deep pond.
“Mother,” I cried. “You are swimming.”
Mother looked at herself. She looked at us. She looked at the safety of land, yards and yards away.
She moved her feet. She flapped her wings.
I think I heard her laugh. It was a joyful sound.
We all swam to her. We circled her. We all swam around and around, following one another, chasing one another.
“I can swim,” Mother repeated.
Then there were eight voices announcing the fact that we were all swimming. Mother, the duck who thought she was a chicken and her seven babies were all swimming together.
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