It looked like the fossil of a dinosaur, there on the CAT scan film. The veterinarian, Dr. Marjorie McMillan, pointed her index finger, the nail clipped, unpolished, toward the skull. “There and there,” she said. “And there and there.” I saw areas of darkness in what Dr. McMillan said were lobes of “D’s” brain. “She’d had a stroke. Four of them,” Dr. McMillan said. “No tumor, no abscess, but four strokes.” I’d seen stroke in my family — my uncle Malvin, an emergency case, spastic, unconscious. The doctor had said, “His brain is exploding.” My uncle had lasted about six hours. “D,” short for “Dyno,” short for “Dynamite Duck,” had lasted, now, for 17 years.
The biography of “Dynamic Duck” begins on a cold Thanksgiving night. The year, 1977, Jimmy Carter is president. Elvis has just died. I’m grinding out a dissertation on Hemingway at Brown. My wife and I are on our way home from a difficult dinner with my cousin Steve, Malvin’s son. “It’s not so much the food,” I’m telling my wife, Penelope, — Steve, fancying himself a gourmet cook, had made even the mashed potatoes “exotic” — “it’s the company.” An up-for-tenure high school biology teacher in a job market that demanded toadying, Steve had invited to dinner his department chairman. With an appetite for toadying, Mr. Garret Rose had accepted.
I recall one conversation from that dinner. Steve had brought up the then controversial theory that dinosaurs had disappeared because an asteroid, perhaps six miles across, had plunged into Mexico. The shock waves, equivalent to an unimaginable number of kilotons of TNT, ten times greater, scientists said, than all the nuclear bombs put together, had created a worldwide dust cloud. For several hundred years, there was only the dimmest sun. The huge dinosaurs, those who moved slowly and required large amounts of food, starved to death. Only the small, highly mobile creatures, particularly these that flew, managed to survive.
“Birds?” I’d said.
“Birds,” Steve had replied.
That night, going home, I should not have been driving. Through Coke bottle glasses, I see poorly even in the day. But it was only eight miles of lightly traveled, old fashioned highway, the kind built in the 30’s — two concrete lanes each side of a grassy strip. Besides, Penelope had been dozing at Steve’s.
Just as we passed a wooden, red-painted, gold-trimmed Chinese restaurant, the Oriental Pearl, Penny said, “ What’s that?” I’d noticed nothing, except the white strips in the road.
“Where?” I asked. Penny was looking back, I saw headlights in the mirror.
“Oh, God,” she said.
I braked. “Oh God, what?”
“There’s a duck in the road,” Penny said
“Maybe that car got her.”
“Let’s turn around,” Penny said. I turned at the next island.
“There she is,” Penny said. I slowed down, then stopped. The duck was lying on the white line. I pulled into the Oriental Pearl, then got the flashlight out of the glove compartment. I looked; no cars were coming. Holding hands, like children, Penny and I crossed to the bird.
“It seems okay,” I said. Through the flashlight’s beam, the duck looked at me.
“Don’t be silly,” my wife said. “What’s she doing in the middle of the road?”
The night was quiet and clear, the moon bright enough to cast our shadows. “Pick her up,” Penny said. I knew that I should carry the duck off the highway. But I was afraid. I don’t know why I was afraid. What could a mallard hen, and a hurt one at that, do to a grown man? Instead, I kicked at her. Very gently with my toe, I could feel her softness, even through the shoe. The duck Iurched to her feet, made two beats of her wings, and collapsed.
“Okay,” I said. I picked the duck up, held her at arm's length, waited for my wife to spring the latch on the back of the front seat.
There was an animal hospital a mile away that Penny and I had passed many times. It was called Anchor, and that name and the color of the wood building, medium blue with white trim, made it seem like a place people who cared for animals would work. Penny said, “Let’s leave her at Anchor, on the steps. They’ll get her in the morning.”
I drove into Anchor’s parking lot and stopped, close to the entrance. The bell button was illuminated. “Ring the bell,” I told Penny. “And if no one comes right away, we’ll leave her there.” I meant against the tin box, marked “Lab,” near the door.
Penny rang and rang. But nobody came. It was awfully cold. I turned the heater fan on. Penny dashed back to the car. “God, it’s cold, she said, her breath still showing in the air she’d let in. “She’ll freeze tonight.”
Of course, we brought the duck home with us. It seemed natural to put her in the bathroom, in the tub. “Go get some water,” I told Penny.
“What kind of water?” Penny asked. She was upset.
“For God’s sake,” I said, “some warm water in a pan.”
When I poured the water over the duck’s back, first one, then the other of her wings gave way. Her whole back came expensed. I saw feathers gone, a crust of scab like a shell, a hole down near the left leg going almost all the way through. I don’t know the reason for this, but I swear she smelled like day old roast chicken.
“I’m going to call the emergency room.” I said,
“What?” Penny said.
I talked to the emergency room charge nurse. She was amused. But she told me to be careful. Wounded ducks could take off a man’s finger. I promised I would be careful and asked her what I could do. The hole in the duck’s back was suppurating. White pus came out every time she breathed. “Try some Neosporin,” the charge nurse said. She was still amused, but she did, really, want to help. I knew we didn’t have any Neosporin. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you very much.” I washed out the duck’s wound with a solution of ground up penicillin tablets in boiled water. Penny hit on the idea to give her some honey in water. We put the duck in a cardboard sneaker box, in the middle of the living room of our little apartment. There was a lot of tension when Penny and I went to bed.
I woke first the next morning, the sun just clearing the trees out our bedroom window. I awakened my wife by holding onto her foot, as I always did when I needed her. "How do you think the udck is?" I asked.
Penny usually comes to slowly. "The duck?" she said.
I shook her again. "The duck we brought home last night," I said. "Go out and see if she's okay."
Of course, I should have gone out there myself. I should have had the courage to do it. To see what had happened during the night.
Penny sat at the edge of the bed for a minute, to collect herself. Then she went out into the living room.
"She's standing," Penny said. SHe's got her head up, and she's standing. I think she drank some of the honey."
Yes, the duck was all right. She took seven months to heal, for that hole to all fill in. We tried letting her go a few times. Out on the porch. But every time we did, D would crouch down and scuttle back into the house.
You hear it said that wild creatures can never be domesticated. Well, our experience with Dyno suggests that's not true. D loved it in the kitchen, especially while Penny cooked supper. Sitting at my desk — the Shaker dining table — working on my Apple Macintosh, I'd watch D out of the corner of my eye. By Penny she'd stand, neck outstretched, bill pointed towards Penny's hand. (Like a duck in then she seemed to me.) And she'd catch slices of celery, of mushrooms, bits of fruit — orange in particular — sometimes roasted chips of eye-of-the-round.
D's favorite, what she'd actually leave the ground for, hop on those silly orange legs for, was Mueller's elbows. When we had pasta — and soon we'd have D's favorite often, just to watch her enjoy herself — Penny would hand-drop one noodle after another. And D, with relish, would catch them in the air.
Every couple of months or so, D came into heat. That meant she'd be having eggs. Unfertilized, of course. Except that she would demand that I, and not Penny, stroke her back with my foot. She would lie down on the carpet, just in front of me as I worked on the Macintosh. She would spread her wings, not out to the side as in flying, but back and up like you see characters do with their arms in ancient Egyptian art. In this way D created a platform for the drake she expected. Naturally, I had nothing to offer but the sole of my foot. But I stroked her gently, with just the pressure I thought a male duck would supply D seemed satisfied. That pressure on her back seemed to do the trick. And she would start in again, "egging it."
Picture this. A full-grown mallard hen — two feet long, a ten-inch neck, a body the size of a football — circumnavigating the drapes my wife had sewn to cover the French doors of our porch. Round and round D would go, quacking then mumbling. Then bursting out in quacking again. D would drive through that curtain, making a wave, "Here she comes," we'd say. Then suddenly all would be quiet. "She's nesting," we knew.
D's eggs were delicious. About the size of jumbo hen's eggs, but pale green. She'd have 50 or 60 in a row, one a day, but a dietician's nightmare. Duck eggs are all yoke, the size of a silver dollar. And that yoke, dark orange, so thick with fat it drips off your fork like syrup.
Penny and I fried some of the eggs. With bacon and hash brown potatoes, they made the best Sunday breakfasts we'd ever had. (Dragging a slice of toast through that yoke. Sopping it up, my God.) But it was in sauces that those eggs really shone. Penny knew that Julia Child body and soul. I mean, she'd read her work over and over again. Of Miss Child's recipe for "sauce bernaise," Penny wondered, "How much better if we use D's eggs?"
Penny handles all the hard things selecting the best wine vinegar, the best dry white wine, mincing the fresh scallions. My job was to stir. I remember the hot, acrid vinegar, softened by the poured wine, then the tarragon and pepper. next came the eggs. Three of D's yolks, in a saucepan over low heat. (Me always setting it up too high, wanting to hurry.) I loved handling our "whispy thing," the wire whisk for mixing, and beating those yolks into cream, on occasion having to plunge the Revere Ware into the sink to run cold water against the overheated pan. When the pan bottom finally came exposed after a stroke, Penny signaled "cut." The eggs were done. Off heat, I'd beat again while Penny spooned in the melted butter, on dribble at a time.
But without the benefit of fertilization — which would have stopped the egg production after eight or ten — D developed a calcium deficiency. From her feather cells, from her bones, from her blood. D's body retrieved all the calcium it could, to make those 50 shells. Unknown to us, the process was killing her. Maybe this isn't a scientific fact, but after having lived with D for 17 years, I believe small animals get into medical trouble without much warning. I remember D going from cheerfully "working" the kitchen — snapping up mushrooms, orange chips, noodles — to quivering, twitching, unable to stand. All in half an hour. The first time this happened, I called the vets at Anchor and got an answering machine. "Office hours: eight to five. Leave name and number and nature of emergency." Goddammnit. I thought. It was quarter to 6:00. After shutting my way through a "near as I can tell" description of D's state, I ended sounding desperate, and sad. "We don't want to lose her," I said. And knew for the first time in the crisis that we could.
It's strange how your mind works under pressure — as if it has a mind of its own. From somewhere into my head came the word "milk." I said it aloud, to Penny — "Milk" — as if she should know it too.
"Huh?" Penny said. She held D, stoking down her bill, down and over her egg beak, the remnant protuberance with which the chick D had opened her own shell.
"Milk," I repeated, and poured a half-cup full and immersed D's bill. Naturally, D blew bubbles, as she usually did in water, to clean out her breathing holes. but then she tasted something, something in the milk, and began to drink. Dipping her head, her neck serpentine to get the lower bill to spoon from the cup, she swallowed dip after dip. When the local hospital, as an anesthesioloist. I told him about what had happened to D. "Calcium," Larry said. "Sounds like calcium deficiency to me."
"I'm giving her mil," I said.
"Give her oyster shells," he said.
For the next two weeks, D ate, each day, a half-cup of cracked oyster shells (reduced to the size of cracked corn). Penny and I marveled at D's droppings. After devouring those shells (how incredible it was to watch her eat what felt to us like shards of glass) D would evacuate a bolus, grayish white, a mosaic of fragments held together by a clear, unscented intestinal glue.
At Chase's Grain Store, Penny and I learned that wild birds, ducks in particular, must be fed, every day, Game Bird Maintenance, which contained all the calcium she could require, no matter how many eggs she had.
Over the coming years, during the '80s while Reagan ran the country and Penny and I played Montaigne, but without the estate, D was a source of pride, of comfort and reassurance. Despite my Brown doctorate in American literature, my book for Oxford on Hemingway, I was, nevertheless, unable to find a permanent job. Sure, I taught part-time. But part-time teaching is slave labor, schools paying one-half to one-third what they'd pay a regular hire for the same work.
One bright spot for us came with the publication in a local paper of a story I wrote of our life with D. Soon letters came in requesting photographs of D and details of her life. I answered the letters with a lot of information. But it was the pictures that counted. Readers wanted to see proof that a mallard hem could live with people, with ordinary people like Penny and me.
I'm no photographer, and neither is my wife. But we bought a camera, a Kodak Ektralite 10, for almost $40, and we took photos of D roaming around the apartment. The best were taken in her "room," the tub, with her huge bowls (plastic half-gallons from ice cream, now containing water and Game Bird Maintenance)> We had a shot of D, standing in the tub with her head resting on the rim, made into a Christmas card. yes, that's tacky. But we figured there were animals at the Nativity, so it was all right.
Penny and I spoke of D often. She made us feel special. She was interesting to us and seemed so even to sophisticates at Skidmore and MIT (where I also taught courses part-time, to keep us afloat). A brilliant and best-selling novelist at Skidmore suggested. "Why not write the story of you and your bird?"
The letters I sent to folks inquiring about D mentioned small things Ducks actually hate the rain (or at least D hated a shower in a tub). Duck's feathers are not at all oily but repel water because the barbules are so close together they don't break surface tension. Ducks repel enemies with an excretion that smells as bad as a skunk's. A close friend of ours, Arthur Lothrop, wrote a poem that captures D's personality during these years.
- I met your duck last night
- as she waddled from the bathroom
- quacking sporadically.
- Her colors went well
- with the green rug
- and the mottled green kitchen floor;
- plain dull brown, flecked with white.
- She snatched at the corn you dropped,
- shaking all over, battling the floor.
- Old Gatling gun,
- Old Machine GunBeak
- with tail in the air.
- You lifted her
- and, tummy up,
- she quacked at me.
- Old Apple Seed Eye.
- You put her down
- and, standing at attention,
- she looked around.
- One General One Foot Tall.
- She waddled home
- to the bathroom tub.
- She liked the curtain closed;
- she wouldn't stand for noise.
- And you had named her right;
- you called her "D" for Dynamite.
Eventually D reached duck menopause — for mallard hens an almost always fatal experience. It seems that a duck's ovaries decay at this time and are subject to a particularly virulent bacteria. This bacterium grows in the ovaries but eventually bursts forth and attacks the eyes.
As I've said, I have terrible vision So I loved to watch D sit by the French doors of our apartment, looking out over the scraggly New England oak wood, taking not of movement — a squirrel chased by a cat; a sparrow hawk eating its kill — that neither I nor Penny, even with her perfect vision, could see. But one afternoon, D did not go near the porch. Instead she walked in circles, her left eye up toward the ceiling. I found a white marble in that pupil and a bulging cornea. "For Christ's sake," I said. "What's going on?"
Some weeks before, during the late-night advertising time, Penny and I had seen on TV some mention made of a veterinary facility especially for birds. "Windhover" was the name, called that after a particularly graceful hawk. penny had saved the number. I called Dr. Marjorie McMillan the next afternoon. "Bring her right up," the doctor said.
Penny and I smiled first to ourselves, then knowingly to each other. The veterinary was abrupt with us, rude. She wanted just the facts. But with D, she had the sweetest bedside manner holding D's squirming close to her ample breast, stroking D's head and cheeks, whispering to her avian medicine, suggested we try the veterinary school at Cornell University, up in Ithaca, New York. There were doing cataract surgery, mainly on dogs.
"Will they operate on a duck?" I asked.
"Probably," Dr. McMillan said. I knew she meant as an experiment.
The first and only person I needed to contact at Cornell was Ronald C. Riis, an old-family Dutchman, an animal ophthalmologist. It was spring. Late May, as I remember. Maybe early June. I remember the trouble Penny went through to make that drive — from our home in Fall River, Massachusetts, about 500 miles away. Not only would we travel with D, but we'd picked up a baby robin a week before, one we knew had probably been tossed out of the nest because of a defect and had no chance to live. Still, the robin had prospered and Penny had found a way — a cardboard box and water dish, all covered with a dishtowel — to take her with us.
The worst thing about our time in Ithaca was the absence of D. After a preliminary examination. Dr. Riis pronounced D a good candidate for surgery. She'd be kept overnight, he said. Kept comfortable, he assured me. And I trusted him because he seemed so hygienic — and his blue eyes made logic irresistible. He looked careful, in the Dutch way.
While we waited, Penny and I went fishing. We'd done a lot of that to keep ourselves fed one recent summer — catching sunfish on a wonderful Rapala lure; catching 10 to 15 every day at a nearby adjunct reservoir open to fishing and cooking them up, one chestnut-sized fillet at a time.
But in Ithaca, the river ran full of bass. The water, murky from heavy spring rains, eroded the banks, and we stood in some unknown-to-us park casting on grass that clung to the soil, right at the edge.
I'm slow to catch on to anything. And so I casted away, with my Sunfish lure — a guppy lookalike from which I'd removed the front treble just to be fair. The bass were feeding. They made it look raining, all over the stream. But I got a strike only here and there.
"What the hell?" I asked Penny.
"Look at this," she said.
Between her thumb and first finger, she held a inty crab. Back in eastern Massachusetts, on the New England coast, the smallest crab we ever see is a fiddler, which scuttles out form under rocks, sideways, then saws its appendages back and forth. But this crab, the one Penny held, was the size of the nail on her baby finger. "For God's sake," she said. "They're all over." She meant under the bank, and popping with tiny crab leaps into the stream. If only I'd had a crab lure, my Rapala crab lure, I'd have caught a hundred bass. Penny and I would have gone home with a packed-in-ice-load big enough to eat through Christmas.
But I did not have that lure. And, as I cast into the late afternoon, ever more resigned, casting only to watch that lovely arc, that translucent filament of line, I thought of D and what she had at stake.
This is a letter we recieved from Dr. Riis nearly a month after D had surgery:
Dar Mr. and Mrs. Griffin:
I have thought about Dyno several times and called once wondering how she was coming along. Your description of her behavior is not discouraging, but I am sure the attitude of all of us is for her to begin acting like she can see sometime. The first sign of positive results may be her sensitivity to light.
With longstanding blindness, the photoreceptors do show disorganization and maladjustment. These receptors have to realign themselves and begin visual function. I was unsure when this function might begin to give a visual behavior, especially in the hemorrhagic eye where the eye fluids had to exchange the blood for clear fluid. The first good sign is that the eyes look normal and she acts as if they don't bother her.
Do keep in mind that there is no magic date. i am hoping she will being to use her vision soon. My biggest worry is that she may have lost her ability centrally. In other words, the central nervous system may have been damaged in the visual pathway.
Ronald C. Riis
The day after we came home, Penny had taken a photo of D, sitting blind by our living room chair. Penny intended this to be the "before" of a "before and after." Bu there was no "after" for D. Apparently, central damage had occurred. And, as Dr. Riis feared, D recovered only the capacity to respond to light.
Still, this was affirmative to us, to Penny and me. before the operation, I'd work at my desk as I always had. And Penny would cook in the kitchen. But D would be out of range, fixed there in the bedroom, on our bed where we'd placed her, to wait. Eventually, long after we'd all given up hope that D would get vision again, Penny and I understood, for the first time, Robert Frost's line, "What to make of a diminished thing." True, D could not see. But, after the operation, long after, perhaps six months, she could discern light. and she came alive. She wanted to be "out there" with us again. Out in the kitchen with Penny. But out there with me, too, where I'd "scoop" her up and "scrunch" her and smooth out the feather on the top of her head.
On one occasion, i noticed a stitch in D's left eye. I felt enraged. I'd been old all such sutures would dissolve. I called Dr. Riis. He said that every now and then such a stitch would have to be removed. I asked why? He had no answer.
Penny held D in a towel. Because I can't see a thing far off, I'm blessed with microscopic vision up close. I pulled that black-hair stitch through her cornea. The tweezers held the filament. The size of an eyelash. With the same whip curve.
I believe D felt less uncomfortable after that removal. I know she did not favor that eye anymore when she bathed. I'd watch her, whipping around, using her toenails — half-inch long, sharp as a pin, blood vessel up almost to the tip so you couldn't trim them — doing feathers all around her head. Then she'd quiet down and, after her supper, fade off into sleep.
In those days, Penny and I slept on the floor, on a mattress in the bedroom positioned right against the wall. Up top, just above our heads, we'd installed a runway for D — plastic under towels to catch her drippings. Blind, but feeling us breathing. D would settle against first one, then the other of us while we slept. I kidded Penny about sleeping with our heads in a chicken coop. And I called him D "Buffalo Bird," for the smell she made. But it was nice to wake up sick with fear about money or a job and find D's bill just off my nose, or forehead, she breathing slow and regular, I'd reach up and stroke her back. no reaction like during egg-laying years. But she seemed to like the feel and would tuck her bill under her wing, always on the left side.
Then one August morning, early, sleepless after hearing of a writer friend's death, I saw D trudging backward. but that was the least of it. her neck twisted in a knot, she'd placed her head pointing forward under the left side of her breast. I'd seen ducks like this before. Not in a nightmare, but in Flemish art, paintings, by one of the Brueghels. I had thought these images a device — a precursor of Salvador Dali's distortion of conventional shape. But Brueghel must have been painting from life. With my stomach turning cold, I shook Penny awake.
Dr. McMillan suspected that D, because she was blind, had been injuring her eyes with the nails that hooked at the end of her three web-connected toes. "It's probably those after-bath grooming sessions," Dr. McMillan said. And she administered yellow eye under ultraviolet light. Sure enough, D had corneal ulcers, two in her left eye, one in her right. "They're terribly painful," Dr. McMillan said, and called in a colleague. Dr. Leah Postman.
Dr. Postman felt sure those corneal ulcers made D twist up. "It's the pain," she said. "She's turning toward the pain." Dr. Postman prescribed A K Spore ophthalmic ointment and renewed the Timoptic for intraocular pressure.
Three times a day, Penny would hold D, and I'd put in the ointment and the drops. Penny would irritate me because, with her small hands, she could not contain D's thrashing. "Can't you hold her goddam legs?" I'd bellow, as D's long middle toenail flicked out the daub I'd placed so carefully in her eye. "Hold her like this," I'd say, and then demonstrate a particularly viscous grip. Penny would look at me, her huge green eyes sorrowful, and enraged.
I never hurt D, angry or not. She was, after all, so delicate. Her eyes, about the size of an apple seed my friend was right — were all pupil, with a cocoa-brown iris. D had two lids, the first closed the eye to the world and was feathered a light tan to contrast the dark brown head feathers, to make her seem awake while she slept. The second, a gray, translucent membrane, moved not bottom to top like the external lid, but rather from back to front. For protection during flight or diving, I guess.
Putting in the drops was easy. Boom, boom. Two in each eye. But for the ointment I had to keep D's eye open, keep those lids from sweeping the medication out. I devised a system. A procedure. I would massage D's neck, to relax her if I could. I would whisper in her ear, down somewhere in her head feathers. "Ab-do, Ab-do." I had no idea what those sounds meant. They had no meaning to me. But I felt, somehow, they meant something to D. I'd open her eye with my thumb, and, of course, that second lid would snap across the top of her head, she'd stop that reflex membrane, I'd apply, every so gently, holding the tube with the squib of ointment suspended from tip to cornea, and wait for the corneal eat to do its work.
When D did not improve, when she remained spastic, her neck twisted beneath her breast, when she began to denude her lower neck with the continual twisting, we knew without saying that D was leaving us. Her life with us had begun in out rub. Then she'd moved, when blind, to our bed. With stroke, she had retired to a plastic kennel. After her fourth stroke, the one that prompted the CAT scan at Brigham and Women's Hospital, we tried everything. First antiparastic drugs (parasites can cause brain damage that could have created D's symptoms); then antibiotics, in case D's had a brain abscess; then vitamin B12) in case the nerves could be regenerated. Nothing worked. D stayed the same. Shuffling about in her box, she survived on elbow noodles — her old favorite — which Penny injected through an eyedropper with hyper nutrition ("Acute Care") for birds.
In January 1995, a Friday-the-13th occurred. As an instructor at a community college, I labored through a dreary afternoon, correcting final exams. "Do you have time?" my wife asked. She meant, was I willing to stop work at the Macintosh and take care of D? thank goodness for me now and forever I said, "Yes."
As Penny held her in a towel — she'd just bathed Dyno in the tub — I massaged D's eyes and administered the ointment. Then I stroked her bill with my thumb.
That day we had received from Florida a packet of citrus fruit sent by a woman who had cared for D the last time we'd gone away. There were oranges in the packet, the most beautiful oranges we had ever seen. Out in the kitchen, collecting my third martini; I noticed the feeding cup Penny had prepared — D's usual noodles, but with small chunks of peeled orange, too.
"You're giving D some orange."
"Remember how she used to like it?" Penny said.
D died in her box that night. The next morning, Penny called to me only, "Something's wrong."
We dressed for D's funeral. I, in my sport coat and black tie; Penny, in the same outfit we'd worn to my father's winter funeral, 22 years before. Out in our Subaru Justy, I suggested Penny place D — in her Rubbermaid coffin — on the back seat, where she used to ride to Windhover. But Penny said no. She would keep D Up from on her lap this time.
We buried Dyno at a pet cemetery, a plot in the St. Francis section. No marker, but we have a chart to direct us when we visit, to make certain we can find her.