The Duck by Ben Loory

Listen to this story read by its author on This American Life by clicking here.

DuckA duck fell in love with a rock. It was a large rock, about the size of a duck actually, that was situated off the bank of the river, a little past the old elm.

Every day after lunch, the duck would saunter off to admire the rock for a while.

“Where are you going?” said the other ducks.

“Nowhere,” said the duck. “Just around.”

But the other ducks knew exactly where he was going. And they all laughed at him behind his back.

“Stupid duck is in love with a rock,” they snickered. “Wonder what kind of ducklings they will have.”

But there was one duck, a girl duck, who did not laugh. She had known the strange duck for a long time and had always found him to be a good and decent bird. She felt sorry for him. It was hard luck to fall in love with a rock. She wanted to help, but what could she do?

She trailed after the duck and watched him woo the rock from behind a tree.

“I love you,” the duck was saying. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you more than the stars in the sky. I love you more than the fish in the river. I love you more than, more than–” And there he stopped for he could think of nothing else that existed.

“Life itself?” said the girl duck from behind the tree. She hadn’t meant to pipe up. The words just sort of leapt out of her.

The duck spun around to look at her. He was terrified.

“It’s OK,” said the girl duck, waddling out from behind the tree. “I know you’re in love with the rock. In fact, everyone knows.”

“They do?” said the duck.

“Yes,” said the girl duck. “Yes, they do.”

The duck sighed and sat down on the ground. If he had had hands, he would have buried his head in them.

“What am I going to do?” he said. “What am I going to do?”

“Do?” the girl duck said.

“How can it go on like this?” Said the duck. “I love a thing that can not speak, can not move, can not– I don’t even know how it feels about me.”

The girl duck looked at the rock. She didn’t know what to say.

“I know,” said the duck, “you think I’m crazy. You think it’s just a rock. But it isn’t just a rock. It’s different. It’s very different.” He looked at the rock.

“But something has to happen,” he said, “and soon. Because my heart will break if this goes on much longer.”

That night, the girl duck had a hard time sleeping. She kept paddling around in circles, thinking about the rock, and the duck, and his heart that might break.

She thought long and hard. And before morning, she had an idea. She went and woke up the strange duck.

“Things happen when they must,” she said, as if it were an extremely meaningful statement.

“So?” said the duck.

“So I have a plan,” said the girl duck, “and I think that it will work.”

“Well, what is it?” said the duck, nearly bursting with excitement.

“We will need help,” said the girl duck. “And it will take some time. And also, we will need a cliff.”

Two days later they set out. It took four ducks to carry the rock. They worked in teams and traded off every 15 minutes.

Everyone joined in, even though they laughed, for ducks are all brothers when it comes right down to it.

“The cliff is over that hill and then quite a ways to the south,” said the most elderly duck. “I remember flying over it when I was fledgling. It looked like the edge of the world.”

The ducks trudged on under their rocky weight for hours. For hours, and then for days.

At night, they camped under hedges and strange trees, and ate beetles and frogs.

“Do you think it will be much farther?” said one of the ducks.

“Maybe,” said the old duck. “My memory is not so good anymore.”

On the sixth day, the ducks began to tire.

“I don’t believe there is a cliff,” said one of them.

“Me neither,” said another. “I think the old duck is crazy.”

“My back hurts,” said a third duck. “I want to go home.”

“Me too,” said a fourth. “In fact, I’m going to.”

And then, all the ducks began to turn for home. The rock fell to the forest floor and lay there. The strange duck looked imploringly at the girl duck.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t leave you.”

They watched all the other ducks flee homeward. And then they hoisted the rock onto their backs and trudged on.

“What do you think will happen when we throw it off the cliff?” said the duck.

“I don’t know,” said the girl duck. “I just know it will be something.”

Finally, they came to the edge of the cliff. The drop-off was so great they couldn’t see the ground. Just great white clouds spread out before them, like an endless, rolling cotton blanket.

“It looks so soft,” said the duck.

“Yes, it does,” said the girl duck. “Are you ready?”

The duck looked at the rock.

“This is it, my love,” he said, “the moment of truth. And whatever happens, please remember, always remember, I love you.”

And the two ducks hurled the rock off the cliff together.

At first the rock simply fell “like a rock,” one might say. “Like a stone.” But then something began to happen.

It began to slow. It began to grow. It began to change. It narrowed. It elongated. And it also spread sideways.

“It’s becoming a bird,” the girl duck said.

And it was. It was becoming a beautiful gray bird, really not that unlike a duck. Its wings began to move slowly up and down, up and down. And it dove down, and then coasted up. It looked back over its shoulder at the two ducks on the cliff, and it called out just once, “Good bye.”

And then it was going, going, getting smaller and smaller, flying off over the blanket across the sky.

When they reached the pond, the other ducks gathered around and clamored to hear what had happened. The duck and the girl duck glanced at each other.

“Nothing,” said the girl duck. “It fell.”

In the days that followed, the duck stayed to himself. The girl duck went and swan around in circles. She thought about that rocky bird flying off into the sky. She saw it over and over in her mind.

And then one day, not too many days later, she looked and saw the duck come swimming up. He was carrying a small salamander in his bill.

“For me?” the girl duck said.

And the duck smiled.

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