Fables / Noodling

Duck, Berries, and the Swim

Once, a duck lived beside a small island in a stream. The island was one of many grassy mounds that rose from the clear water to support the life of a single berry bush. The duck floated in its shade and ate its berries.

One day, the duck stretched out her bill for a berry and could not find one. The bush had been plucked bare. The duck muttered and complained, stuck her head under her wing and went to sleep. Hunger woke her later and yet there were still no berries on her bush. She grew angry, and then afraid. For days she huddled against the cruel island bank, or swam its barren perimeter, hungry and afraid, powerless to affect the berry bush, hopeless without food.

As the sun rose one morning the duck raised weary eyes to the horizon. She knew that her situation was becoming dire. All her life she’d looked to this bush for sustenance and for over a week now she’d continued to do so despite finding none. The bush was dead and she knew that she must change or die. She looked wildly around, and her eye caught something berry-colored near the stream’s opposite shore. She had never notice the other islands before. Now she fixed her eyes upon it longingly. The island was far from her own, but clearly supported a full and fecund crop of fruit.

She had never swum so far, but hunger drove her and she plunged into the current as it swept past the only home she had ever known. Swimming across the stream was a very different kind of swimming, harder, more demanding, than her gentle island circling, but she never took her eyes off the berries of the distant island and struggled bravely on. Her legs, forced to paddle for longer than they ever had, ached as they pushed against the current. Keenly aware of her feathers and foot webbing for the first time, but surprised at her own strength, she felt, for a moment, buoyed by the water she beat back. Triumphant, finally, she reached the bank and rested in the shade of the luscious new berry bush. She dined upon its ripest fruit. Never had she sampled berries so sweet. Allowed to ripen so long, uneaten except by birds, the bounty overwhelmed her and she gave herself to the enveloping sleep of the physically exhausted.

For several days, the duck gloried not only in the wonderful fruit of her new island, but also in the power of her crossing. She had set her eyes upon these berries and bravely swum to reach them. She was proud and strong- a good, brave duck with powerful feet and streamline feathers. She could cross the stream. And so, when several days later the ripest and largest of the berries consumed, the duck became dissatisfied. The remaining berries were small and hard, and while she had eaten only such berries for most of her life, she was now a duck who could cross streams, and did not see why she should suffer green berries again. She scanned the river once more and saw another, unknown island ahead. It would have berries that could satisfy such a duck! And so again, with less sorrow and fear, the duck launched into the stream.

As she swam she once more knew fatigue, but this time she also knew she could conquer it. She had doubts, but knew herself to be brave. She once again felt the swell and flow of the river, knew herself a good swimmer and longed for fresh berries. Once again she crossed the river. Once again she dined on dark, full fruit although its sweetness was not surprising any more.

From bank to bank the duck swam, resting shorter and shorter times at every island. She became accustomed only to the freshest fruit, rejecting closer, smaller islands in favor of more dangerous crossings to larger bushes. She began to know that no bush would ever surprise her the way the first bush had. She began to fear that endless swimming in search of better berries would yield nothing but weary legs and torn foot webbings. As long as she swam from bush to bush she had berries to eat, but she no longer fully believed that reaching the next bush would satisfy her hunger. She began to long for the days of contented bobbing under one bush, resting in its shade, eating its berries. But even if she could content herself with unripe berries, the bush would eventually die and besides, she was a very good swimmer.

As she sat one day, wondering whether it was worthwhile to plunge again into the stream towards a distant berry bush, a bird landed for a few fresh berries from the upper branches of the bush and startled the duck.

“What perfect berries!” exclaimed the bird
“Yes, they’re nice, aren’t they?” the duck replied. “I swam here, all the way from that island back there to taste them. It was really a difficult swim,” she added after a moment because the bird did not seem impressed “I had doubts that I would make it”
“You must be a very good swimmer,” the bird said. “I can’t swim at all.”
“Well,” said the duck modestly “I’ve had to be. It’s not easy, but when I was young, my berry bush died. I had to learn to swim. Just to survive.”
“Wow” said the bird.
“I started,” and the duck gestured with her wing “all the way back there. Beyond that bend, you can’t even see my berry bush from here.”
“You must be very proud of how far you’ve swum.” said the bird. “Have you had a lot of wonderful berries?”

The duck, who’d really be enjoying the conversation so far, now felt that now the bird was missing the point. The berries had been what initiated the first swim, certainly. Fresher, better berries were the purpose for each successive swim of course, but they really weren’t the point. Because but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful she agreed “Oh yes, some wonderful berries, but let me tell you about one crossing I made. I’d seen some berries that looked particularly large and dark but they were almost directly across the river from me. I would have to swim the entire width against the current” and the duck began a lengthy description of the harrowing crossing which wound up with a particularly clever line about the irony of the berries, when she finally reached them, having fermented. She was sick for two days, badly delaying her next river crossing.

The bird listened raptly to the Most Perilous Crossing but missed the irony, which disappointed the duck. She did however comment on the strength and skill required by such a swim, and then, wishing the duck only the ripest berries and sweetest fruit flew away. The duck basked in bird’s admiration and looked forward to meeting other birds.

Chasing the perfect berry from one island to the next across the river had lost its appeal. She knew the chase for the pretense it was. There was no perfect berry, no berry bush in whose generous shade she could float content forever. Now only the admiration of birds determined her next destination. She spoke to one bird who was impressed with deep water crossings and swam the next day to an island in the center of the deepest channel, but the bird who perched there was interested in swift water navigation. The duck struck off over rapids accordingly. She was badly bruised, thinking, even as her body bounced off rocks, what a terrific story it would be.

She paddled wearily towards a bird-frequented island refining and practicing her tale, but by the time she reached the sheltering berry bush, the birds had taken to the air, and she nibbled berries, disconsolate.

She watched the birds swooping and reeling overhead with mingled admiration and resentment. She needed them. Needed them like she needed berries to eat, but now they would not alight and she could not fly up to them to tell her story on the wing. “I can no more make those birds land than I could make my berry bush bloom,” she thought. And she began to cry.

She almost smiled at the irony when a bird, drawn by the peculiar sound of a sobbing duck, landed to ask what was wrong. It occurred to her to blame her tears on her near-fatal whitewater trip thereby capturing the duck’s attention and segueing nicely into her anticipated story, but found all she could muster was the simple truth “I wish I could fly.”

Purchasing the right to tell her own stories with the time she spent pretending to listen to theirs, the duck had only half-heard bird stories but even so, their universal and complete love of flying came through. She had long marveled at the speed with which they followed the river’s path towards open water as she toiled from island to island, envied the effortlessness with which they covered miles of winding river whose mouth she knew she would never see.
“I could try and teach you,” offered the bird.
“No” said the duck “I’m not a flying animal. I have wings, but ducks are simply not meant to fly. I’ve tried a little, and I can do it over short distances, but it’s exhausting and I hate it.”
“I can’t imagine hating to fly,” said the bird. “It’s the most magical feeling, to soar, to catch a current of air and glide free with no effort. To dive, your wings tucked in hard against your body, every ounce of you concentrated, alert, hurtling towards earth to die or break, with tremendous force, against the gathered weight of your falling, and, at the last moment, pull level and coast again, riding the exhaustion. It’s so hard, so demanding, so beautifully exacting. You loose yourself in it completely. You’re pure and streamline and nothing is extraneous or wasted. It’s why you are a bird- to fly like that.”
“Well it’s not like that for me.” Said the duck morosely. “Swimming can be, a little, at times. It’s that same sort of effort, that hard work that requires everything you are.”
“Isn’t it glorious?” smiled the bird dreamily.
“It’s very hard work.”
“Ummm” replied the bird who was clearly, to the duck’s supreme annoyance clearly no longer paying attention but off dreaming about flying again.
“I’m a very good swimmer” began the duck, about to explain not only how far she’d swum, but also how difficult and dangerous it had been, but the bird had opened one eye and was looking critically at the duck.
“But it’s fun, right? I mean you love to swim, don’t you?” he asked.
“I love to reach new islands,” said the duck, realizing as she did so that it was not entirely true “and swimming is how I get there.”
“But sometimes you swim just for fun, right?”
“No. I don’t swim for fun.” Huffed the duck. Imagine such a waste of energy and time, paddling about without getting anywhere. Swim for fun indeed!
“You should really learn to fly.” The bird looked mournfully at the duck.
“I don’t want to learn to fly! I am a swimming bird. That’s what I do. I swim. I swim from island to island on a quest for the freshest, largest, ripest berries. I swim because I’m a very good swimmer.”
“You like swimming?”
“Yes. I like swimming.”
“And when you swim, do you think about the swimming or the berries?”
“Mostly the berries, unless the swim is very difficult and requires all my concentration. Then I think about the water currents and the wind and sometimes I almost forget about the island. I almost loose myself in the swimming.”
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Yes”
“So what would happen if you headed off for that island over there,” the bird pointed a graceful wing several islands ahead and across the stream “and mostly thought about the river instead of the island?”

The duck confessed that she didn’t know what would happen and so she and the bird decided to find out. The duck glanced at the island and launched herself into the stream. She had some trouble at first. Her mind kept refocusing on the island, wondering about its berries. She found she couldn’t properly set course without reference to the island, but gradually, she was able to feel her strong feet pushing through the water, feel the stroke of the stream as it brushed her feathers. She felt the current itself under and around her, felt, for a moment, buoyed, held glorious, weightless, in perfect harmony with water and wind. She was swimming.

As she neared the destination island she realized she’d come off course. It was coming parallel with her and she turned hard across the current and paddled desperately towards it, the stream had carried- was carrying her right past her goal and she would not reach it. It would be lost to her forever. She would never know its fruit. Madly she swam, legs burning, thinking, feeling only the terror and ferocity of the swim against the stream.
“Let it go” called the bird from over head. But she barely heard.
“Look ahead!” he screeched to the flailing duck and vanished. The duck remembered a bend in the river whose dangers she’d neglected to remain on guard against in her frantic backswim. A fatal error, and she closed her eyes a moment before looking, knowing this was the stupid end for a foolish duck- swept over avoidable rapids because she had failed to look ahead. She gave up trying to reach the island, aligned herself to confront whatever the bend concealed, and crested the corner prepared.

The bird sat atop an overflowing berry bush on the greenest island the duck had ever seen. Trembling, she paddled up.
“I didn’t reach my island,” said the duck.
“This one is nicer,” said the bird. “Have a berry.”

The duck never forgot the big island behind the bend, but she never forgot to stay alert again either. She learned to choose her goal islands with care, but to trust the river too. She still loved to talk with birds, to tell her stories of swimming and hear theirs of flying, each of them following the river in their own way. Sometimes she set out for an island only to achieve it and find its fruit spoiled. Sometimes the river swept her right past a lovely bush whose fruit she’d truly longed to sample. Sometime the current died away to almost nothing and a simple crossing exhausted her. But always she knew that there would be enough berries to feed her, enough water to support her and even if she never reached the ocean, she knew that the swimming was good.

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