Ugly

Once upon a time when he was born, he was a duck. He didn’t know anything about himself, not even that he was once an egg. He opened his little duck eyes and saw that his mother was a big downy arse and that his brothers and sisters were a collection of beaks flapping open and closed. Later he would learn that he looked fairly similar and be deeply embarrassed.

Mother Arse led Duck and his brothers and sisters, down to the edge of the world, quacking at them to keep up. They didn’t keep up but it didn’t stop her quacking. She waggled her white tail feathers and kept her eyes on the road and in spite of her bad temper, Duck thought her very beautiful. She was the one who delivered the food and this was a surprisingly attractive quality.

The world was enormous and wet. Duck looked out over the huge expanse of it and asked his mother if there was another side. She said that she supposed there was but that other sides were an unnecessary distraction and that he would do better to concentrate on washing his dirty face. Obediently Duck splashed water on his face, scrubbed as far as his stubby arms would allow and peered at his reflection. After several full head submersions, his face was still the colour of scorched earth.

Thereafter, Duck banished thoughts of other sides and averted his gaze from the water. He learned to swim with his head up and trained his eyes to accept that the important things in life were always straight ahead and on this side of the horizon. He worked hard at living without looking. His best party trick was catching fish with his eyes closed. Duck didn’t go to many parties. The long necks, who thought they were cute, never invited him and even other ducks seemed to find him offensive. Sometimes they seemed offended by him even when he wasn’t at their parties – when he was minding his own business out on the pond or talking to himself down in the reeds. He took to wearing sunglasses and averting his gaze but even these strategies weren’t fool proof. Grubby faced ducks had been known to come to untidy ends. Grievous bodily peckings were not as uncommon as one would have hoped.

 

For entertainment, Duck turned to the sky and its rolling broadcast of soap opera, sport and news. He watched a lot of sky and became quite knowledgeable about certain things, despite what appeared to be a slight right wing bias. He knew when a storm was due to blow in and when the cute long necks would be leaving town and the precise mechanics of swallows mating on the wing. Mother Arse said if he didn’t stop watching he would go blind but the temptation was too much and he just couldn’t resist. Watching the sky made him think about stuff and the more he watched the more stuff he thought about. He fondness for thinking made his brother and sister ducks nervous. They didn’t understand his fascination with the sky. They got that a duck’s life wasn’t all that, and that the life of a grubby faced duck might have a few extra challenges to it but they couldn’t see why he didn’t just do drugs like everyone else. Duck just said no, but he didn’t judge because in the end every duck needs a way to take the edge off. The birds though, fascinated him. He sat in awe of the way they circled the sky and posed in the trees and refused to give autographs. It was as if the adoration of the viewing public had no meaning for them at all. Watching the birds gave him his first big idea. What the hell? If the birds didn’t care what others thought about them, why should he? If they could flit away whenever it suited them, why not him?

Sadly, running away was harder than he imagined. His legs were short and didn’t cover a lot of ground. After a whole day of furious waddling he looked behind him and could still see Mother Arse’s lakeside nest – the nest that she liked to remind them that she had built with the sweat of her beak and the fat of her liver. Looking at it made him shiver. Running away might be hard but he wasn’t yet ready to give up the dream. He decided to try a different approach, which involved climbing a tree. Ducks can’t climb trees, but he was determined and improvised with hopping and scrabbling, which he was fairly skilled at, until he reached the lowest branch. Then he scrabbled some more up to the next branch, and the next, and so on, for quite a long time. The view from the top took his breath away which wasn’t helpful because perching in the uppermost branches of a tree was nowhere near as comfortable as the birds made it look. He wobbled and fell.

While he was travelling between the top of the tree and the ground, some amazing possibilities occurred to him – broken bones and head injuries and death. In his terror he scrabbled and twisted some more, and squawked and fought as well, battling the air around him to until the very last. In a puff of feathers, he hit to the ground. This is the story that the other ducks, who were watching from the pond side, were planning to tell, anyway. Some had even caught it on film, thinking that the press might show an interest and more importantly, be willing to pay for some on the spot footage. Ugly Duck Gets Bird Delusions, Plummets to Death from Tall Tree – it might have sold papers, but ‘Duck Flies Away’? Who cares? He flies anyway, over the other waddling ducks, the long necks and the grievous bodily peckers who shake their beaks in rage “What do you think you are?” they shout, “fucking special?”

 

He shits on their heads, not on purpose but because he’s terrified. He’s never flown before. Looking down from the sky, the big wet world looks incredibly big and incredibly beautiful but what draws his attention are the other ducks, who look small and incredibly angry. He makes his landing approach instinctively looking away, suddenly shamed by his rash behaviour and in fear of the consequences. He is a foolish, sky watching, stubby armed, grubby, ugly duck. Except that he isn’t. As he comes down over the water the reflection looking back at him is elegance; broad wings, long neck, flame orange legs stretched out behind him. The face that he thought Grubby is now shining. Mother Arse, standing in the middle of the crowd, screams up at him

“I might let you off this time” she says, “but you’d better promise to stop being silly and come down right now.”

In his sky watching days, Duck has thought about stuff like this – about truth and reconciliation and the nature of forgiveness. He cruises towards them, slowing as he gets nearer and then, without warning, accelerates. The thrill he feels as they scatter and trip over their feet is morally questionable. Rising high again, he fixes his sights on the other side. He doesn’t look down as he passes over the crowd but quacks a faint goodbye that may or may not be lost in the wind. Then he shits on their heads, this time, on purpose.

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