On the first Sunday of Advent, the children in my church traditionally begin reconstructing a Nativity scene. During the worship service each December Sunday, miniature replicas of Christmas story participants are tenderly placed at the stable. On this first Sunday, forest inhabitants are to be situated among the trees outside the stable. Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, etc., will arrive in due time.
Since there were few children in attendance (presumably off with their families for the Thanksgiving weekend), adults were encouraged to take their place.
“There are no ducks,” I murmured as I looked through the inventory of forest creatures. I explained I’m worried about a particular duck who has been swimming in the river by my house. Later, one of the men set a teeny duck on the piano as I was playing.
It was a mallard. I’m not worried about mallards. My concern is over an oddball duck who showed up last summer. Though I’m not an authority on water fowl, I believe this duck is an American Pekin. It’s a domestic duck, bred to be eaten. It apparently escaped from someone’s farm last summer and joined up with the local flock of mallards. The Pekin, much larger and mostly white, looks nothing like the mallards, yet they don’t seem to mind its company. The Pekin never leaves this stretch of river, which is why I’m worried.
“He can fly away.” A visitor who claimed to know something about ducks tried to reassure me when I asked what would happen when the river freezes. Her claim was countered by our popular oracle, Google. Because the Pekins are bred to be fat, they don’t have the wing strength to get their tubby bodies off the ground.
My worries had heightened the morning of Dec. 1, as temperatures dipped and large sheets of ice floated down the river. The mallards were gone. The Pekin remained, dodging the ice floes. I interrupted my morning routine every few minutes to watch. Suddenly, I spotted a single mallard swimming close to the Pekin. Was the mallard trying to encourage the Pekin to follow the current downriver, to join the others in the open Columbia? I wondered what E.B. White—who wrote magical stories of pigs, and spiders, and trumpeter swans—might imagine these two ducks to be saying. Was I witnessing the inevitable, icy end to a friendship that could not endure the unforgiving elements?
The mallard floated away. I watched the Pekin walk, all alone, across the ice to a quiet backwater by the river bank. I’d never before seen this duck out of the water. By afternoon, the temperature had risen, a light snow was falling on an open river, and the mallards returned along with my favorite winter waterfowl, the goldeneye. The Pekin swam among them as if nothing special had happened.
Surely I can find better things to fret about this winter than a wayward duck. Offhand, though, I can’t think of anything.