Service hours in high school drove me to near sainthood-levels of volunteering. I met a girl one of the many service hours who had, mid-sentence with me, dove underneath a park bench. I blinked.

Her hand poked out, palm up, silencing me.

She’d seen a chipmunk.

I watched as the girl stretched her hands out under the bench, watched as the chipmunk flinched, then jumped right into her hand. The girl stroked its little head.

I had met a living, breathing Snow White.

I just stood there, mouth open.

Then the chipmunk bit the soft spot between her thumb and forefinger, and ran back under the bench.

While she was toted off to get checked for rabies, the rest of the service hour I was useless, replaying the idyllic scene. I wanted that relationship with wildlife—dreamed up from years of watching Disney and Steve Irwin reruns—minus the rabies. I wanted to reach my hand out and have an animal put its little nose to my fingers and close its eyes, our forever bond formed.

But after years of reaching out, then being bitten by what seemed in turns the entire animal kingdom—rabbits, dogs, snakes, spiders, turtles, goats, and an assortment of birds (curse you, parakeets)—I had more or less decided that I was not Snow White nor Steve Irwin, and I had better learn to practice what I preached: if you respect them, let them go about their business in peace.

Then my new duck neighbor appeared.

I notice him first when I walk by in the spring, leaves just barely showing in bright neon buds on the trees. He’s standing in his pen, tickling the grass with his beak, then looking up at me. Back at the grass, back at me.

I stop walking to stare back, my Agatha Christie audiobook continuing on without my attention.

And I think… I think, Maybe this is my last Snow White chance.

I miss who murdered Mrs. McGinty.

But I don’t miss my neighbor duck watching me all the way up the rest of the hill and back to my house.

I start trying to walk by my neighbor duck every day after that. Get him used to my presence, establish our neighborly relationship with casual waves and “Good mornings.” I hadn’t really experienced friendly neighbors before, living on a street without sidewalks and predominate in recluses. My neighbor duck is cordial, his presence steady through the buggy spring and into the beginning of summer. His pen moves around the yard, leaving a little polka dot of mud behind him.

I never get too close to him, a little afraid of his owners and what they would think if I marched over to pat his little head.

And also a little bit afraid of rejection.

Better to take it slow.

So the summer goes by and still I’m walking by the house, wondering now if the people living there think I’m their neighborhood’s equivalent to a low-quality stalker. The pen moves around the yard; I watch the duck eat the last of the season’s bugs and shiver the rain drops off his back.

There’s a day I walk by, and the pen is gone. He’s just marching around on his own, this clever explorer, feet smacking the pavement like he’s got somewhere to be. I recognize my moment. Touch the duck.

I brace myself, then I try to relax. What had that rabies girl done? I can’t remember anymore. My audiobook is too loud, and a car blows past me close enough to make me flinch as I stand in the road. And you can’t even get rabies from a duck, so why was I thinking of her anyway?

I say hello, very properly. I comment on the weather—a good day to be a duck, I think. I ask if he remembers me from the 139 other times I’ve walked by.

He waddles closer to me. I smile like an idiot.

Closer. Gosh, now I can see the little black freckles across his yellow beak.

I stretch my hand out. It’s so natural, that movement, an instinct in me that maybe went back to my neanderthal ancestors or maybe just the first time I watched How to Train Your Dragon.

My neighbor duck starts back, then hustles away, back feathers bristling.

I broke some sort of duck etiquette or insulted our neighborly boundaries.

I don’t see him at the first snowfall, the world magic and white with the first fat snowflakes sticking to my winter hat while I walk. Christmas lights go up and a rope swing went in, the neighbor kids preparing for their holiday break—but no duck. His pen is empty.

I send a photo of the empty yard to my friend Alyssa, who hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about when I caption it: “I think my duck neighbor’s gone.”

I get those waiting bubbles back, and I know I caught my friend in between doctor visits for her chronic condition.

The view is so similar to the one I’ve walked by for months, through all four seasons, but now instead of one white spot in the yard it’s all white, like the world’s become one big goose in feathery down.

But that makes me feel the same yawning loneliness—that the world, this neighborhood, Alyssa, that jerk of a duck—can all be right here, right in front of me, and I’ll never know the half of it, you know?

I’ll never hold it all in my hands and hold it tight until it bites—holding onto it all hard enough to the point of rabies.

I text that to Alyssa too.

She texts back: “Too true.”

1 Comment

  1. Laura Sheppard Song

    I love the thoughtful detail in this, and your artwork is charming and lovely as usual. I hope in the future, you might be able to touch a duck.


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