April pings

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, April 6, 2014

We are driving along Mountain Village Boulevard one blustery day, Celine is about 10, when she screams, “Mom! Stop the car!”I pull over.There’s virtually no one on the road. The sky is that ridiculous blue, and stretched-out clouds scud by like pages of a book, ripped and let loose. It’s one of those days I feel small in my car, in my little metal box with wheels, as I attempt to stay between the yellow lines of a black ribbon called a road. In the back seat is my flesh and blood, a small human strapped and clipped in, both my mirror image and someone completely different.

Now she is plastered to the window, face pressed up against it. “There’s a baby duck over there all by itself!” She opens the window and has her head out. “Right there!”

I look over, and, sure enough, not far from that first pond, is a single duckling racing across the grass. It has that unequivocal urgency, a wings-out-and-back and head-and-bill-forward aspect. A certain my-feathers-may-not-have-come-in-but-my-webbed-feet-have commitment. It is darting. Beelining. Celine is laughing hilariously. “Look at it!” she squeals. Something about unbridled laughter in children marks their unqualified individuality. I laugh along. Is this duck a peeled off-portion of its mother, or an individual, too?

It’s obvious the duckling has willfully escaped the fold, hustling its getaway as if nothing else on earth mattered. “Must be a mother and some other ducks around here somewhere,” I say. “Maybe we should get out and help it find its family?”

This is all Celine needs: she’s out.

My background with ducks is simple enough. One of my favorite childhood books (and one of the few we actually own at the time) is “The Story About Ping,” by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese. Ping, a duck who lives on a boat on the Yangtze River, is separated from its mother and father and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and 42 cousins and must find his way home through a dangerous world, one much too big in size.

And, in my family history, we have our own duck named Ping. While living in a house on the edge of Lake Washington in Seattle circa 1961, a lost duckling, an abandoned runt, imprints on us. Our little Ping, thinking itself human, follows us around. Won’t go swimming unless we go swimming. Won’t go to sleep at night without a blankie and the radio on. We’re heartbroken when Ping dies — of arsenic poisoning from eating some of the nasturtiums in the garden. Surely, this is something his mother would have guarded against had she been around.

None of this is lost on me today.

Celine is running after the duckling, which has captivated her. She’s tailing it, trying to anticipate its random and somewhat frenzied movements. Every time she speeds up, the duckling does; and every time she stops, the duckling slows, exhausted and scared. It has gone from fir tree to fir tree, shooting the gaps, tiny wings back, little bill forward, urgent, urgent, urgent.

It’s not so much fun misbehaving now, is it — you can practically read its mind. It’s not so liberating in the open-skied and open-jawed world with some giant chasing you. You want your mom back. And your brothers and sisters. You want the pond.

Celine, who has a streak of real tenacity in her, something I’ve only seen a handful of times in 21 years, is not going anywhere. She wants the fuzzy, feathery, darling thing in her hands. She wants to capture cuteness and hold it tight, own it. I can see how my little girl, reserved by nature, would want this helium balloon of a duck to lift her off the ground. It’s so very sweet.

Eventually, only a dynamic, power move will suffice for actual capture to occur. I see it about to happen, and then it does: Celine dives forward in the air, arms stretched out, and lands in a tackle on a soft mound of grass, duckling in raised hands, fingers a tender cage to the beating heart and flapping wings. Elated, buoyant and victorious, she stands up, grinning ear to ear.

We know to walk to the pond about a hundred yards away and to drop the duckling back in, across from where its mother and half dozen sibs are peacefully swimming. Mother ignores the runaway at first, then does exactly what she must: scolds it firmly and then gathers it back in.

Finally, just as it is in “The Story About Ping,” all is right with the world. The pond is plenty big enough, and we are glad it is.

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