Today was June 1st, although it is now 12:02 on June 2nd. A belated Happy Birthday.
There is a time, when you are young, when you don’t believe that you can end up like your parents.
When I was little we had a lake in our backyard, just on the edge of the playground. The ducks who lived there would leave splatters of green or brown droppings that blended in with the grass, so that you’d have to look carefully before you stepped. They weren’t scared of people, and if you were walking and one of the ducks was walking and the two of you should happen to meet, you would have to get out of its way. My brothers and I used to chase them, shrieking; and they would waddle slowly away from our reaching hands, as if they couldn’t be bothered with such silly things as fear. Every year at springtime we would search the hidden places around the lake’s border for nests. When we were lucky enough to find a mother resting wary-eyed atop her hidden eggs, we would come back to visit her every day from a distance. When the ducklings hatched we followed them as they followed their mothers.
When I was seven years old I began to think about death. My great-grandmother passed away, and as I watched her being lowered into the ground I wondered. Every year on my birthday, my relatives wished me a long and prosperous life; and my great-grandmother had lived a long and prosperous one hundred and three years, and now she was dead. One day, I would be dead too. This was the only ending.
But I had never seen a dead duck. I led my brothers in a search around the lake, but in all the masses of fat, waddling, breathing creatures, there was no hint of death.
“Mommy, do ducks die?” I asked after this failed expedition.
“Yes, of course,” she said, looking down at me from her adult height. She was dressing raw chicken in preparation for dinner.
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Seen a dead duck?” She pursed her lips thoughtfully, pulling some spices from a cabinet above her head. “No, I suppose I haven’t. Well isn’t that odd! With so many around here, they’re bound to die all the time.”
“But they haven’t,” I said solemnly.
She laughed, reaching to pat me on my curly brown head before remembering that her hands were dirty with chicken fat. “I’m sure they die, Caroline. Someone here must come and pick the bodies up before we can see them. Or maybe they migrate and die somewhere else. But they die just like every other creature does. Now stop worrying about their death and enjoy chasing them around while they’re still alive.”
She was always telling my brothers and me not to chase the ducks, so I knew that this last comment was said only to end the conversation, because she didn’t have an answer. From then on I stayed indoors or in the yard, safely away from the ducks at the lake. I was afraid of immortality.
I only returned to my old haunt of grass and sky and water when I was fourteen and desperately needed someplace to run away to. By then I’d forgotten the reason I had avoided it for so long, except as a sort of mysterious dark feeling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps as a consequence of my staying inside all the time, I had become more aware of family politics, and the older I got the less I liked them. My oldest brother, Nate, was sixteen years old and had just hit that nasty age where he detested everything about his parents. He and my father would get into shouting matches that began at the most inconvenient times – in the middle of dinner, right before we had to leave for school – that could last for hours. When this happened I would run to my room, put on my socks and shoes, take my sketchpad into my sweaty hands, and listen by my bedroom door, trembling, for their voices to move to the kitchen. When I could hear that the coast was clear, I would make a break for the patterned glass door that led to the backyard, open it quickly, slam it behind me so hard that the glass nearly shattered, and sprint through the yard to the lake. There in the warm humidity I rediscovered the secret places I had known in my childhood, and sat and drew the sunlight opening itself on dark green leaves. The ducks didn’t bother me. They understood that I needed to be left alone.
Soon I was coming to the lake every day, and my drawings somehow transformed themselves under my shaking hands from pretty leaves and sunlight to scowling, angry faces. Everything was twisted in my head. The lake didn’t seem real anymore. It was just a dream world to escape to. I imagined it was a drug, something fake and hard and pretty to abandon reality to. And in a way it was. I left behind my younger brother, Connor, who had stopped being shocked by the fighting and instead sat on the couch watching Nate and Dad watch with blank eyes, as though he was watching television. I left behind my mother, who tried to outshout them in her soft voice, to plead with them, to somehow separate them so that they’d just shut up and give her some peace. I left my father, whose angry screams escalated with pain at the near-fatal wound of being hated by his own child, at the terror having failed in a way beyond forgiveness. I left Nate, whose hatred twisted his mouth and brought tears from his eyes, who couldn’t believe he had been born to such a stupid excuse for a man, who couldn’t forgive his father for being detestable. I escaped. I abandoned them all to their terrible fates.
One day my sketchbook fell from my fingers with a plop into the water. I had been staring absently into the sky, which was a fake child-bright blue. I had been hating it. And the sketchbook had slipped, slowly, from my loose fingers…I watched it fall. I didn’t notice it falling, as I watched it.
It should have floated away, bright white with symbolic innocence; or it should have sunk; it should have done anything other than what it did. It sat there on the surface of the lake, water slowly washing brown debris over it. It grew dirtier and dirtier, a foot from where I sat on the grassy slope, swishing back and forth in the murky water. I stared at it. I got up and moved away, up towards the shady space between two pine trees that only I knew existed. I sat there for awhile. Then I got bored. I had nothing to do without my sketchbook. I lay down and stared at the stagnant branches plastered against the sky. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. I had nothing.
I got up and walked back down to the lake. My sketchbook was still there, looking like a drowned piece of trash. I stepped ankle-deep into the water, bent down, and picked it up. It bled muddy water between my fingertips. The top page, an image of a grinning face with demon eyes and spittle flying from its mouth, leered up at me. I stood there in the lake, feeling my toes start to wrinkle. I still had nothing.
That was when I saw the duck.
It was a pile of matted black feathers, heaped on the surface of the brown water like a crumpled shirt. Its white head, barely visible under the water-logged pile, was dirtied to a shade of gray. Most shockingly, its beak was gone, leaving behind only a blood-encrusted stump in the middle of its ugly face. I had a sudden, vivid image of Nate grabbing the duck by its neck and forcing its beak to the ground, hate sneering across his mouth, and grinding, grinding, grinding…
I twisted to the left and threw up. The vomit made a liquid sound as it hit the water.
Then I ran, padding up the grass with still-wet feet, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. I ran back to the hidden place between the two pine trees, grabbed hold of a trunk, and began to climb. My legs kicked desperately away from the ground. The lake was no escape anymore. I needed to fly away, like ducks do, like the ducks were supposed to do when they died, so that we couldn’t see them. We weren’t meant to see them like that.
Pine needles whipped my face, and I dropped my sketchbook for the second time that day. There was a muffled thunk as it hit the ground.