I was returning from my morning fishing ritual when I came across a badly wounded duck huddled at the edge of the lake. I like an early-morning fish, whenever I get up early enough, which is not often. It’s my favorite time of day, the lake is my favorite place, fishing my favorite pastime. It is church for me. I usually come home with a basket full of pan fish which I fry up for breakfast. My wife can’t stand fish, so I enjoy this whole ritual, from pulling on my boots to drying the last dish, in silence and solitude.
The duck, just a female mallard, was a real mess, all blood and dirt and mangled feathers. There were raccoon tracks all around. I was surprised a duck could survive a fight with a ‘coon. I squatted down and edged a little closer for a look. The duck leaned away from me, gazing with one eye, breathing fast, a badly torn left wing limp in the mud.
I remembered when friends of mine in Chicago, years ago, brought home a wounded duck they found in the woods while vacationing in Missouri. They kept it in the bath tub and nursed it to health. I think there was a seven-year-old girl involved. I wondered if there was any chance for this one, and I slowly extended my hand.
It spat and struck me. I yanked back my hand, startled by the pain. The poor thing, it mistook my intentions, thought me hostile. I squatted lower, nearly sitting on the bank, spoke softly, held my hand out very still. The duck watched me closely, but did not shy away. I reached out and touched the damaged wing.
The duck hissed, spat and struck me again. I was so surprised, I sat right back in the wet mud. I felt the cool water making its way to my skin. Something slid down through my chest and stomach, and settled near the small of my back. It was my heart. The poor thing was suffering.
I supposed I came on too strong. I reached back for my tackle box, opened it softly and rummaged. Surely I had just the right thing. I found one last night crawler and held it in my outstretched hand. The duck examined it carefully, one eye, the other. I tossed it into the mud just before her. She snatched it up—and weakly kicked mud in my direction.
To my own astonishment, I felt dismayed. Didn’t she understand her situation, and how I could help? If this bird didn’t let me help her, she’d be dead in a few hours. But why did I suddenly care? I looked around the lake and wondered how many other animals lay injured, dying, within a stone’s throw. How many had died violently overnight, or even as I had stood fishing? I had some victims of violence in my own basket, for that matter. Why did this one injured animal, among all others, suddenly affect me so? Had I been looking the other way as I passed, I would never have seen her; but I had seen, and now suddenly my heart was breaking. Why? She rested her head along her back and gazed at me with one slow-blinking eye. On an impulse, I reached out both hands and attempted to scoop her up in my arms. She actually screamed, hissed, flailed her one sound wing, struck and struck again, struggled away and fell into the shallow water, panting.
Inexplicably, unexpectedly, I began to weep. She was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it—worse, I believed I could help but she would not let me. I had safety to offer—protection, warmth, food. I could fix this, I knew I could, but—it’s just a duck! Why should I care? And why do tears feel so very hot in the cool of the morning?
When my friends had healed their Missouri duck in their Chicago bath tub, they had returned it to the wild, which is to say, they released it into a large water trap in the city golf course down the block. The local city ducks tore it to pieces.