Saturday, July 3, 2010

[interlude: the dead duckling]

This afternoon we were talking about Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn, bottles of lukewarm water sloshing in our hands as we walked along the Schuylkill Banks. Our conversation relates to the title of this post in a way that surprised even me as I sat down to write this.

General George Armstrong Custer was a decorated veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars until he was killed in 1876 -- at age 36 -- during the Battle of Little Bighorn while trying to take Montana's Black Hills from Native Americans who refused to relocate to reservations. The details and aftermath of the battle are tragic and profoundly sad for both sides, and our exchange was thoughtful and poignant, as the talks between us -- two history buffs -- often are. But it was Custer's hair that made me weep over what I saw in the Schuylkill River as the sun was lowering over Boathouse Row today.

Custer's hair was yellow. Not blond, but yellow, from the stories of his contemporaries. And he wore it long, curled in ringlets and scented with cinnamon oil, with bushy yellow mustache and beard to boot. Whatever people said about the guy, he certainly wasn't boring -- and we were discussing just that when we caught sight of the otherwise-unnoticed drama playing out on the water before us.

The color of the duckling's soft belly -- "Custer yellow," you could say -- was startling against the brown back feathers of its mallard siblings and their mother, all right-side up, on the thick green of the river. At first, I thought the tiny duck had capsized, turtle-like, during its first swimming lessons and that mamma was trying to flip the clumsy baby over, hurriedly and annoyed, so that the group could continue. But something about the way she grabbed it by the neck and wildly thrashed it made my heart sink.

Still on its back, the hatchling's miniature feet air-paddled as its yellow chest fluttered and heaved, but then, after several violent shakes, it finally stopped moving. I watched, stricken, as the five other ducklings quickly imitated their mother's mercy killing: swimming to the scene, they surrounded their dead brother and alternately took quick nips to his still head and neck. My heart was breaking but I couldn't stop looking.

Mamma was near. She paddled slowly around the group and then started to swim away. The ducklings knew their cue and immediately broke behind her, diverging paddling lines streaming in the water behind them like ribbons. And then the mother stopped, invisible webbed feet turning her body halfway round, looking at the soggy patch of tiny feathers. Was she sad? Remorseful? Making sure it was dead? As she turned around again and continued with her brood out of my vision, I swear I could hear her thinking -- "he is gone the living must tend to the living" -- and the little yellow body slowly floated away downstream and sank out of view.