“He is already dead,” the waiter said as I twisted my key in the mailbox. I had stepped out our hotel’s side door where the staff take their smoke breaks.
“Him.” The waiter pointed at a still mound of yellow and umber down. A duckling lay on his back on the asphalt, his torso twisted, his head flung back so his thumbnail-sized bill pointed upwards, exposing a yellow plume at his throat. A handful of ducklings scattered over the walkway, their cheeps punctuating the street sounds. The waiter explained he heard a loud bang and then saw the dead duckling roll off a van parked by the hotel. We were on the Suze River canal walkway where service vehicles sometimes park. The canal had 15-foot deep walls. The ducklings could not have come from the Suze. With the recent rainstorms, the canal water rushed too fiercely for any duck to get lift from it, much less featherless ducklings.
The waiter reached a latex-gloved hand over the van and drew back with a live duckling. We looked up. Would a duck have nested at the top of a five-story building? It didn’t seem possible.
But then, why not? They have wings. About 20 feet away a stout woman pointed us toward the mother duck calling for her young.
“He is already dead. It is nature,” he said with a shrug, but then he and the other waiter in their starched white and black uniforms circled the van to shepherd the ducklings toward their mother.
When all her babies were gathered around her, the mother duck stood quacking for a moment more, as though she knew one was still missing. Do mother ducks know how to count out their babies?
She turned and hopped the low stone pedestal that rims the canal; her babies clambered at the ledge to join her, but for them it was too great a height. She slipped through the wrought-iron railing and readied to leap the 15 feet down into the churning green water, but then realized her babies were not at her belly. She threaded back between the bars, but she did not come down from the ledge to join her young.
Instead, she waddled east toward the lake, while her babies followed, fretting against the stone, keening pitiably to join her. The lake was still a mile and many busy crossroads away. Her path would take her fledglings through the thick of the city.
A small audience formed in the apartment balconies above the canal.
Under their watch, I followed the family and I wondered, why do we care so much about ducklings? The restaurant where the waiters work serves duck.
The mother duck was nearing the street when she seemed to reach a point of decision. Here, the stone pedestal sloped downward, so a few of her ducklings were able to make the leap and cluster around her belly. She slipped under the fence onto the edge and dropped down into the hurrying water.
Some of her babies trusting their mother, tumbled over the wall with her.
The remaining ducklings threw themselves against the stone and quickened their cries. The current forced the mother duck and her babies downriver, but they fought their way back up to where the crying babies scrambled at the ledge.
The balcony audience shouted and made sweeping motions with their hands, indicating I should send the babies over the edge. As I bent down, one duckling cleared the stone and with little featherless wings outspread, fell down into the water.
I gently cupped the last duckling in my hands, lifted him onto the pedestal, but he would not jump. I nudged him closer to the edge, but he only bleated louder and struggled back into my hands. I pushed him over then, feeling sick as I did it. Below, the ducklings swirled around their mother. They were all together.
I turned around and said, “C’est bien, tout c’est bien.” Everyone raised their hands and shouted in joy. For them it was over, but when I turned back I saw one duckling carried away by the current, her mother hurrying to catch her, but forced to circle back to gather her brood who could not keep up. The separated one bleated, her little dark wings outspread, facing her mother, as the water pulled her backwards tail-first and farther away.
It seemed for a moment as though the mother and her brood would close the gap, but then two merganzers appeared and pecked at her babies, teasing them away from her in the swirling water. She could by herself catch the duckling being carried away, but she would have to abandon the rest to the hungry merganzers. She gave up the one and circled back to fight the merganzers, with her babies frantically working against the current to stay inside her protective reach.
The merganzers gave up, the mother was too fierce, but by that time the little duckling had been carried out of sight, although we could still hear her bleating, but soon, even that was drowned out by the city noise.