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Erica Kletkin

The Duck

Erica KletkinThe Duck
Autumn Landscape with Egrets and Ducks by Lü Ji

I didn’t plan to go to the lake, but somehow I always find myself here. I like how slowly everything moves across the water. The big green lily-pads. The fallen leaves. I like how soft the algae looks below the surface and the way the turtles swim beside it. Leisurely in their small, hard shells and raisin eyes. This is a solid ecosystem. Everything has its purpose. Everything knows its place.

I breathe deeply, or rather, I try to. From the belly. That was the advice often given to me when I was younger. It doesn’t really work anymore, but I do it out of comfort and familiarity. The wind blows past me and throws my hair across my face. I tuck loose strands behind my ears and look over to the left of the water, opposite the oncoming sunset, and catch ducks buoying on the waves. I narrow in on them as they dip their heads underwater and come back up again.

There is a metal railing around the permitter of the lake, but I wish there wasn’t. I want to be washed clean of this feeling. I want to feel the coolness of the water bounce against my skin. My cheeks are hot and flushing pink. The ducks are oblivious. As they should be. They are huddled together in a mass of white, brown, and grey feathers. I spot a trail of younglings swimming in a line beside their mother. Everything is instinctual with these creatures. It’s all preordained.

I want to enjoy this. I know everything looks beautiful right now, the same way I know that I have ten fingers and blue and yellow make green, but I don’t feel anything. I hate that I don’t feel anything, especially since I came here begging for it. I can remember the feeling that accompanies seeing something beautiful. I can locate exactly in my body where it should be.

I buried my grandfather earlier in the spring. Ninety-one years gone after one last night in a hospital bed. So many considered him lucky to have made it that long. Sasha was born in Soviet Ukraine not too far from the sunny beaches of the Black Sea. He fought in a world war, survived, and then he fell in love. He had two sons, who gave him four grandchildren, and of those grandchildren came two great-grandchildren. A terrific feat. He was a joyful, warm-hearted man. He had large brown eyes that were passed down from my father to me like a family heirloom. Now he is gone. Poof. A dragged out magic trick. All that is left of him are fragments and memories, but those will all expire with us. Even the likes of someone like Napoleon or Alexander the Great will one day be forgotten once the planet reaches its expiration date.

I wish I had an altar to rest my head at. I want to believe in something. Reincarnation. God. Anything. I have no sense of devotion in me. I never have. I used to be proud of it, as if not being religious made me smarter than other people, but its absence has only left me uneasy. I would like to think that my grandfather is somewhere nice and warm, that his soul (whatever that even means) is being taken care of by white-winged angels, but the thought feels too fantastical to believe in. I hate the idea of heaven. It all just sounds like wishful thinking. It’s an obvious fairytale. Sasha is gone.

The ducks swim toward the reeds on the opposite end of the creek. All except for one. I see him paddling by the shore, far away from the others. I watch him dip his green head in and out of the water. What is he looking for? What good is a fish? You’ll eat it, and you’ll shit it out, and then you’ll do it again and again until you become someone else’s meal, until you yourself turn to shit. Or maybe you won’t get eaten. Maybe you’ll freeze to death. Maybe you’ll just fade away until your heart gives out, somewhere in the shade, unbeknownst to your kin. When you finally enter the black pit of your last sleep, your flippers will go still and your chest will cease heaving, and you will decompose into the waters that offered you nothing but the distraction of fish. To live — to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to stand before water when you yourself are sinking — to do all these things just to eventually fade into the aether. You breathe your last breath and then the little microcosm you spent years building for yourself pulls a Pompeii. Every ambition, thought, and dream becomes the black ash left at the foot of a pyre.

The duck has his back turned towards the others. He is paddling along in the shadows, perusing the shallow end of the water for pieces of leftover bread. The other ducks are leaving. I’m watching it. I’m watching them leave you behind. It’s pathetic, and its sad, and while it still doesn’t feel like a good reason for me to start crying, I do. There is no saving you, is there? You are too stupid to understand. You are dying, now, even as you kick your orange feet with such blissful ignorance. You are dying. They have left you behind to die, but I see you. Do you see me? Can you try?

When you finally realize you’re alone, and that there is no point to the fish or the water or the sparkling yellow gleam of the sun, try to remember that someone saw you. You existed. You will be preserved somehow. Do you want to be preserved? I do.

About the writer:
Erica Kletkin is a writer currently residing in Austin, Texas. She enjoys writing contemporary literature and personal essays, and has been published in Alma and Encounters Magazine. Her other interests include movies, music, art, and cooking.

Image: Autumn Landscape with Egrets and Ducks by Lü Ji (1477-1505). Hanging scroll– ink and color on silk. 58 1/8 x 21 1/2 inches. Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Public domain.

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