I recounted a version of this story at my mother’s memorial service, just under a year ago.
There came a day when the population on our property was expanded by two new inhabitants: a pair of ducks. It was just a single pair — at least initially. It didn’t take too long for my mother to decide they looked a little bit lonely, roaming on a decent piece of property a bunch of kilometers from Stellenbosch, so very soon they were joined by another two pairs. Six ducks roaming around the property was a good-looking number.
The six ducks weren’t three couples, actually — I think it turned out that there was only one female among them. But one is enough: pretty soon, she had laid some eggs. Tasty little eggs, some predators discovered: the eggs became fewer very quickly. Whether any of the first batch of eggs hatched, I can no longer recall, but there were more.
Once hatched, the cute little ducklings would follow the mother duck around, learning to swim and forage. But day by day, they would also reduce in number, surprisingly quickly. There wasn’t much that a mother duck could do to protect the ducklings from predators that came through our fences. My mother felt sad for the poor duck for losing all her ducklings, so she made a plan. In fact, she made a couple of plans, the exact sequence being another thing I can’t quite recall.
We weren’t originally sure which predator was decimating the young, we even speculated about bullfrogs eating eggs or even swallowing ducklings. It turned out the culprits were a pair of mammals of a species that I can’t name in English, we called them muishonde in Afrikaans. (I can’t verify or translate this right now: I’m offline, writing in a park ).
Having obtained a cage with a trap-door, we managed to rig it such that we could catch one of the two. Which also caused my mother to feel bad for the predator, as they were now separated. Consequently, she ensured the caught one was moved to a larger cage, and fed good meals (I remember there was some chicken!), while we set the trap to catch the second. Then we had both the predators… now what do we do with them?
Being another pair of animals just wanting to live their lives, we didn’t want to hurt them. Just having them in the cage was already painful and cruel enough, so we had to make a decision quickly. One option we thus considered was relocating them to the other side of the mountain, releasing them into the nature reserve. My mother also wanted to first make sure it was just the pair of them, that they didn’t have a family they need to take care of. Not that that was easy to verify… so in the end, we simply released them, no relocation.
That wasn’t the only approach towards securing the mother’s success, the ducklings’ future. On our property, there was a free-standing trampoline. By hanging some shade netting all around the trampoline, she created a safe enclosure, and somehow arranged that the mother duck and her ducklings could hatch and live inside this enclosure for a few days, until they were a little bit bigger.
Whatever the exact sequence of events, the efforts paid off, the next batch of ducklings’ lives were spared! They made it to adulthood. But this isn’t a fairy tale, life isn’t neatly packaged. So now we had over a dozen ducks running around on the property, swimming in the swimming pool in the mornings, when we weren’t awake to chase them back to the little dam. And there were more eggs, more ducklings, which also had to be protected by the tramplone.
And then there were about thirty ducks…
It is the privilege of a storyteller to be able to end the telling where he wants. So at the memorial service, that was roughly where I ended the story. I don’t really know what the ducks’ final fate was, we sold the property and moved.
The narrative was primarily about my mother’s care for all living things she came across. Some more examples: she had some arachnophobia, but we would attempt catch and release when possible. And attempt to save little mice from the cat, though that ruined some of the cat’s happiness. In these years, at least our dogs simply ate dog food… our previous pair of dogs, when I was seven years old, sometimes had the luxury of cooked meals.
The reason I chose this particular story, however, goes beyond providing a sketch of my mom’s compassion. While I managed to obtain, according to my blurry recollection of the day, some laughs from the audience for the scenarios I sketched, the story is simultaneously a serious commentary on the nature of life.
The mother duck and her ducklings had it rough. However, so did the muishonde (mongooses I see, as it is now a few hours later — I’m online while I wrap this up). While we could protect the ducklings and help them become adults, the mongooses raise families of their own, and the carnivorous little critters also need to eat.
And while we could do plenty to successfully protect the ducks, the result is that their numbers explode in an unsustainable fashion, leaving us with an overpopulation problem. We could interfere in an attempt to reduce suffering, but in the end, one way or another, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. The fact of life, for these ducks, is that it’s a struggle, it’s a war, no matter what anyone’s giving.
This aspect of the story wasn’t something that I felt the need to explicitly point out. In fact, I think the humour in the narrative drew precisely from this reality of life, we laughed somewhat uncomfortably at the futility.
Recognising this backdrop, this tapestry on which we paint our lives, can make our acts and deeds seem bitter-sweet. On the other hand, I feel it emphasizes the importance of of our acts and deeds, of the way we relate. If the tapestry seems bleak, all the more reason to paint beautiful lives all across it.