The shelduck was afraid. She looked out across the level waters of the lake, where her mate was unconcernedly swimming. His short, powerful neck swooped after a passing insect skimming over the surface of the water.
The shelduck was never easy in her mind in late summer, when the breeding season was over and she and her mate could not fly. Until the moult was finished and their new flight feathers had grown, it was their custom to feed, early in the morning, on the lush grass and herbs at the edge of the lake, ready to swim way out into the deep at the first sign of danger. Far away from the water’s edge, where the bitterns and pied stilts were feeding, she could watch for signs of disturbance, ready to flee even further. Or, when the weather was stormy, they could take shelter in the reeds at the edge of the small island in the very middle of the lake.
Summer was turning into autumn, and the shelduck could feel the strength flowing back into her powerful body, day by day. She stretched her wings, and flapped them experimentally. Yes; soon it would be time for them to take to the air again and fly south, turning inland up the river beds to wing their way, over open hill country, to the rolling green farmlands where good grasses were still to be found. She and her mate would call to one another with a plaintive sound that echoed over the valleys and hills, so that children would run outside and look for them in the sky, stretching up their arms, their small faces wistful as the great ducks flew overhead.
‘Quank, quank! Quank, quank,’ would call the female shelduck, in her high-pitched voice. ‘Stay close! stay close!’
‘Quonk, quonk! Quonk, quonk. I know. Don’t go!’ would reply the male, flying nearby. And the parents, picking the children up to give them a better view of the birds crossing the sky in the fading light of the late afternoon would say:
‘Ah, it is not yet the wild geese. But it is their cousins, the biggest of all the ducks, which are coming inland, to spend their winters with us. These are the shelduck flying by.’ The children would watch, their eyes deep with wonder and longing, perhaps wishing that they, too, could leap up into the sky after the birds, and follow the dark line of the hills, dwindling into the dying light of the sun.
But it was not yet time to go south, and the shelduck was alert, her strong feet stroking against the current of the lake, while her short neck turned this way and that, trying to find what had disturbed her. She could see no visible sign of any enemy. But it was time, she thought, that she and her mate paddled back out into deeper waters. She lowered her beak to run it rapidly through the warm chestnut feathers of her deep chest, quickly preening herself. She plunged her head into the water, and emerged with drops flying from the same rich brown feathers on her head.
Then she turned her head to call her mate, noting again as she so often did how strikingly handsome he looked, with his dark plumage barred by white lines so fine that they could not be seen from a distance, his proud head and beak black, his abdomen reddish brown. He was her best friend, her only real friend, for the shelduck are solitary birds which mate for life, and live together. Only in late summer, during the moult, did different pairs sometimes fly in somewhere safe, such as this large lake, where they could not be reached from the shore while they could no longer fly. Then large flocks could be seen together, news exchanged and relatives greeted. But the birds which had formed their pairs were happiest together, and flew off on their own, glad to be at last in peaceful waters, each wanting only the other for company.
‘Quank, Quank! Let’s go back!’ called the shelduck in her penetrating voice, noting that over by the edge of the lake, a pukeko puddling around in the long grasses had suddenly taken off in a run across the swampy shore, his white tail patch flicking up and down, his long legs clumsily high-stepping. A white-faced heron, standing further along in the shallows, at the same time gave a call of alarm, gathered its feet under, and rose quickly into the sky.
‘Come, come!’ agreed the male sheldrake, disturbed. The two birds turned in the water and began to swim rapidly towards the small island further out in the lake.
They had nearly reached its shore, when the female shelduck heard two things. From back across the water came an unpleasantly loud sound, an echoing bang as if something terrible had happened, as if something was being destroyed, a sound so loud and cruel that it gave her the horrible feeling that the world would never be the same again. At what seemed almost the same time, she heard a honk of pain from her mate.
She turned her head in alarm. The sheldrake was still swimming, but more feebly. His head was drooping lower over the water. She knew, without even hearing the sound of pain which had come from him, that he was hurt.
The female shelduck was instantly seized in the cold grip of terror. ‘Quank quank!’ she cried to him in anguish, hardly knowing what she was saying. ‘Hurry, O foolish one. Why are you loitering so?’ And she swam on frantically, as if by her hurrying she could compel him to swim faster, out of danger.
The cry of her sheldrake came feebly, from further behind her. ‘Quonk, quo… You go… go.. go…’ was what she heard, as she turned and swam back towards her mate. His head was almost lying on the water which was turning red around him. Blood was ebbing from a small hole near where his neck joined to his shoulder.
The shelduck looked round frantically. There was no-one to help. The island was now very close. She swam up to the male, and caressed his neck and head with her beak. His head lifted a little, and his eye, already clouded, looked into hers, as if he was trying tell her something, yet no longer had the strength to do so. But the one long look he gave her, before his head again drooped, seemed to say to her that word she dreaded to hear.
He could no longer speak. It was inside her head that she seemed to hear it, the word goodbye. But this was no ordinary goodbye. It was a goodbye that came with all the love and understanding, all the infinite regret felt when two creatures who have known and loved each other better than anyone else in the whole world, come at last to part. For a minute the shelduck laid her head against her mate’s, so that he could feel her warmth close by. But the tears ran down her beak, and dripped into the water, where they mingled with his blood.
She lifted her head in anguish. The light was fading, and it was growing dusk. She lowered her head.
‘Quank, quank,’ she said softly. ‘Stay, oh, stay with me, for what shall I do without you?’ and paddling with her strong feet, she began to propel her mate through the water. The little waves running onto the island seemed to help her, and in a short time she had reached the reeds at the water’s edge. She edged her mate gently on to the shore, and with a heave of her powerful shoulders, she lifted him, so that he lay just above the wavelets. Then she lay down as close beside him as she could, covered his chill body with her wings, and wept.
How long she lay like that she did not know. The sheldrake was still alive, but only just. His body was cold, but had grown no colder. The wound on his neck had clotted, so no more blood was escaping. But he had lost so much that she feared the coming of those chilliest hours of all, when the night has turned, and dawn is not far off. She feared he did not have the strength to live until morning.
The shelduck was calmer now. Nothing mattered to her, nothing else was of any importance except her mate. The dark had descended, and there was nobody around. All the other birds would have fled at the sound of the shot. And the fall of night would have them all roosting safely, at their nesting sites, or resting at shelter. She would not give up hope, she resolved, until she had to.
She looked around, trying to think. Who would help a solitary, unimportant duck? She wondered where could she turn. Was there no-one who might come to her aid? Surely, if she could only tell someone, make them understand, they, too, would care? Was there not someone who watched over ducks and the wild world of creation? Was there nobody to whom the anguish of one, small, female creature would matter?
She looked out over the waters of the lake. The outline of the far shore had vanished. Water and horizon were one. Above them had faded the dark red of the last of the sunset. The moon, huge and full, had risen and was riding triumphantly up over the black of the night sky, trailing a cloud or two, with the stars peeping behind.
To the lonely duck it seemed that the moon was looking down directly at her. Her light was kindly. As she climbed steadily, her gaze still seemed to linger on the lone duck, and her dying mate.
As the night wore on, the duck watched the moon. And still it seemed to her that the moon watched back. The moon appeared to look down with understanding, while she left her mate for little intervals of time to tear up small plants and young reeds. She would collect a pile of grasses, and bring them back to her sheldrake, pushing them in close around his body till she had made a nest around him. She worked off and on for two hours, never leaving him for too long, coming back to warm him with her wings and the closeness of her body, but stealing away again to get more vegetation to keep him sheltered.
Inside her head an idea was growing. As soon as it came to her, she shook out her wings and again examined her flight feathers. The moult was almost over. Her new feathers were almost fully grown. Though they were not yet as strong as they would be in two or three weeks, her feathers, as they usually did, had grown a little faster than her mate's.
‘The moon is sailing across the heavens,’ the little duck thought to herself, her mind a confusion of thoughts and fears. ‘They say that this is the way to heaven, that heaven is away above the earth. They say that heaven is Paradise, that there is no pain in Paradise. At any rate, there is no parting in Paradise. You do not have to say goodbye.’
‘And that is the most important thing of all,’ the shelduck thought to herself, ‘That you do not have to say goodbye in Paradise. I should like to ask them how they manage that,’ she thought, near to despair. ‘I would like to know how to save my mate. If I could only ask them in Paradise, they might be able to show me how. They are all good people there, I have heard. They would not wish my mate to die, if only they knew about him, how kind he is, how thoughtful, how much he helps me with our children, finding food for us all when our fledglings are little. Yes. If they knew, they would help me in Paradise. Of that I am sure!’ And the shelduck nodded her chestnut brown head firmly to herself.
She stretched her wings to their fullest, and flapped them. Yes: she felt that even now, if she tried hard enough, she could fly again. She nodded to herself, as she collected more soft pampas grasses and twigs, and took them back to where her mate was lying so still. And every now and again as she worked, she would look up to the moon, as if finding encouragement in her open, shining face.
At last she had built a tall nest around her mate. It was tucked in close and high, curving in over the top of his back, so that it almost roofed him in. It would shelter him from the wind, and keep him as warm as anything could, if anything could, until she came back to him. She laid her head close to his in farewell. He was unconscious, she knew, but she whispered to him all the same.
‘Quank, quank,’ she murmured softly. ‘Stay for me,’ she whispered. ‘I will come back. Wait for me! Wait!’ Then she caressed him for one last time, and walked swiftly to the edge of the water. She ran along the shallows and flung herself up, up into the air, heaving herself into the dark sky above the black waters.
It was harder than she had thought. It was her first flight of the season, and although her wings held her, they hurt. The flight feathers were not quite fully grown, and were without the strengthening that usually came with the first, short flights of the autumn, when the wing muscles gathered strength for the long flights of winter. But the duck flew on, higher and higher, as steeply as she dared.
On and on she flew. She was making straight for the moon, following the path of moonlight as it beams down to earth, lighting the land below. When her flight took her out of the beam of light, as it was too direct a path for her to fly straight upwards, she would circle and rest a little, before she flew back into its rays. And all the time her neck stretched eagerly forward and up, while she looked for the moon, willing herself towards it, flying as steeply as she dared, and ignoring the growing protest from her tired muscles.
‘You are the Lady of the Sky,’ she thought to herself, as she flew steadily on. Was it her fancy, or was the moon looking at her more directly? ‘Every night you sail over the world, to see what is happening. I have seen you walking out over the marshes.’ She was talking softly, half to herself, slowly panting out the words as she looked up. ‘I have watched you peer this way and that, over the tops of the hills, to see what is happening. You shine out over the heavens and the earth, so that although the dark is all around us, we know that the light is close at hand, when you watch over the land below.’
The shelduck flew determinedly up and on. She did not know how far the moon was. But she must reach it. She knew that there was no hope for her mate, if she did not get help. And in her poor confused and aching head, there seemed to be only one place she could turn.
Her wing joints had begun to protest. Still she flew on, till every beat of her wings now pained her. Yet she flew still, as steeply as she dared, still circling to gain height, turning again and again into the path of the moonlight. The only rest she gained was a precious second or two when she spiralled in on the turns, to fly directly back into the moonbeams. Then for just a minute, she would coast along, easing the pain a little, before resuming the steady wing-beat that gained her height.
Minutes had passed one by one into hours. On she flew. But now the shelduck was becoming anxious. Surely she had not far to go? The face of the moon seemed so close, so kind. Certainly it was larger than it had been when she started off? It must be, for she knew she could not keep going much further. With all the will in the world, she could not force her wings to serve her purpose for more than a little longer. Every beat was now one fierce ache, stretching into the next.
‘I must get there,’ she thought. Down below her mate was lying, dying. Perhaps it was already too late. ‘No! It must not be!’ she said desperately to herself. For then her journey would have been wasted, she thought. And she did not believe that anything was ever wasted. How she knew that, she could not have told, but she knew it instinctively.
And so she flew on, her thoughts a jumbled whirl, distracting herself from the agony of her movement by letting her mind race where it wanted.
‘The moon is another land,’ she decided. ‘We know heaven is in the sky right above us. Indeed, the moon must be heaven! No wonder it looks so bright, and calls to us! I shall reach the moon, and I shall ask the ruler of this land, for this must truly be Paradise, to save my mate. She does not permit goodbyes, the moon, so she will understand.’
The shelduck nodded to herself. ‘I have heard wise birds say that if you were to go to the moon, you would see nothing but craters and dust. I believe they are listening to what someone else has told them. Have these birds ever been there themselves? I do not think so.’ She shook her head, clenching her beak against the almost overwhelming pain. ‘It might look like dust and craters,’ thought the little duck determinedly, ‘if you do not know where to look. You must find the key to unlock the door of Paradise,’ she told herself, ‘and then you will see what is really there.’
But the shelduck was almost exhausted. As she turned in a final spiral, trying to force her defeated body to fling itself higher, one last confused thought came to her. ‘What if,’ she worried, her frantically beating wings barely maintaining her in the same place, while she looked desperately up at the face of the moon above… ‘what if I, too, should see but dust and craters? What if the entrance to the hidden world of heaven up there is through the dark door of death, and you must turn that key yourself?’
She faltered, her wings flailing in the freezing air, high, high above the black waters of the lake below. In one flash of clear-sightedness, she thought: ‘Perhaps few go willingly, only because they cannot see what lies beyond.’
And as her worn-out wings folded close around her body, she began to turn over in the air, plummeting downwards. Yet she took, in that split second, one last glance backwards towards the kindly face of the moon.
‘Lady,’ she thought, as she began to spin, then drop like a stone, ‘You have shown me the way. If he must go, then I shall go with him. How right you were to show me this path.
There will be no goodbyes after all.’ The little shelduck smiled sweetly to herself, and fell from the black sky, thinking only of her mate below.
It was then, when she opened her beak to call out her goodbye to him, that the strange thing happened. She could not have been far from the ground. She could now just make out the edge of the lake below, and she thought of her sheldrake with such longing.
‘Quank, quank!’ she called. ‘Dear one! I come! For everything, such thanks! And wait for me! I shall go with you, as I always do! Wait, Wait!’ Her cries rang out over the still, deep waters of the lake.
But as she called, a wonderful thing happened. For her wings lifted from her side of their own accord. Then it was as if the full moon, sweeping directly overhead, for a fraction of a second, lingered. At any rate, the very moonlight seemed to pause. It fell, in that split second, directly onto her wings stretched out in yearning, and bathed her head.
Immediately she felt a warmth flood through her, as if she had been blessed, and renewed. Her tired wings lost every trace of fatigue. They began to beat powerfully, without her willing it, as she descended slowly, close to where her mate lay. But her head was no longer a chestnut brown. There where the moonlight had lingered on her, her head and part of her wings had changed in colour to the same glorious white of the face of the moon.
At the same instant that she felt this happen, and as she descended the last few feet, she heard a faint but answering cry from below her. It was the still weak, but unmistakable call of the sheldrake.
‘Quonk, quonk! Oh no! Don’t go!’ he called softly, trying to lift up his own wings to her. For he had stirred, feeling life flood back into him. Just as he held them out, the middle of his own wings, too, caught the last rays of the moon passing on high. By the time the female shelduck had landed, her wing feathers and head transformed, moon-bright, her mate had stretched out his own whitened wings, and was waiting to greet her.
The moon disappeared behind a cloud and left them as they greeted one another lovingly. The female shelduck looked up to watch her go, and whispered: ‘I shall not say goodbye to you. That much you have taught me.’ And the next day she and her mate flew north, to safety, and the long winter inland.
As they passed, people noted the snowy white head of the female, where the moon had lingered and blessed her in passing. They saw, too, where her wing feathers had been stretched out to her mate, as the moonlight passed overhead, and where he had been touched in passing, as he reached towards her in turn.
And those that learned of the story held up their little children as the ducks flew overhead, always together, never separated, the male calling fondly:
‘Quonk, quonk! Quonk, quonk! Don’t go! Stay close!’ and the female answering:
‘Quank, quank! Quank quank! Never fear! I’m here!’
This happened a long time ago now, when the world was younger.
Still the shelduck fly inland to the valleys in winter. But now there is always a note of longing in their voices, as if they know something that the other ducks do not know, as if they know of some other place where there is no sadness, nor parting, as we know it. It is hard to resist their call, as it rings out high across the valleys. The children especially, perhaps remembering things we do not, run outside to search the sky.
‘What are these ducks called?’ the little ones love to ask. So then people tell the children that these ducks are the shelduck… but that they are known now, too, as Paradise Ducks.
For this is how the Paradise Duck got its name… because of the duck who went to heaven…
© Amy Brooke
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