Third Place Winner, 2014 Bethesda Magazine Adult Short Story Contest
White ducks made odd pets in the land between the Rio Grande and the heights of the Gila range, but they followed Ruby, single file, wherever she walked. Sometimes she led them to the road when she felt lonelier than ordinary and longed to see a car pass by, but the roadside wasn’t a safe place for a child, so most often she kept to the mountain acreage which her mother had been reshaping in the three years the family had lived there.
A mineral spring ran through adjacent, state-owned land. Ruby’s mother had diverted from it a rill that now trickled into a rock-lined pond on their own property. Ruby had helped her mother construct the whole thing on their walks together after morning home-school. They’d started small, crouched by the state’s curative stream, rearranging pebbles and stones to direct a thin course of water downhill toward their pond-to-be. The project reminded Ruby of a television show she’d seen in which prisoners in a jailyard dropped gravel through their pocket holes onto the ground, the very earth they’d removed digging escape tunnels. She’d stand with her hands in her jeans pockets watching out for forest rangers while her mother heaved and hauled stones. When it came to moving big rocks, her mother wouldn’t let her help on account of scorpions, so she’d sit in the dog pen with Donner the shepherd-lab mutt, and read her home-school books. When the pond was finally complete, and once Ruby’s mother had also transplanted sage and squash vines around it hoping something would take root, she looked at her work and decided the pond needed ducks.
Ruby’s father thought the idea was ridiculous but did not protest. After all, he worked, he moved, he talked to people, while his wife and eight-year-old daughter stayed home, two miles from their closest neighbor. He who was just a hermit in a turquoise-painted trailer subsisting on what he could snare or scratch up from the dust. But Ruby’s father had not brought his family to the desert to isolate them. His wife was asthmatic; her doctor had recommended the climate. He’d worked security at the federal building back east; he looked for a job and found one. He’d done it for his wife. Sometimes he still dreamed of her soft and round, the way she’d pet her stomach when Ruby was kicking. After the pregnancy, her hair turned dark; then came the allergies, then the asthma. They were in the emergency room half a dozen times in a month. And now she was outdoors all day, every day, her body grown sinewy.
There were burrs in her hair and her hands were tough as paws.
The mother and child, alone together, had assumed from one another and possibly from the mountains a spooky sense of agelessness, the woman growing infantile with whimsy; the child, stoic. In his daily absence, they grew wilder; they seemed increasingly indifferent to him. If they wanted pet ducks, so be it. The very impracticality of the thing immediately connected him and his girls. They discussed where the ducks would be bought, how they’d be transported, and what it would take to raise and protect them.
He never brought the green and white Border Patrol trucks home overnight; to do so would be to make his family a target, so he had a buddy pick him up one morning, and left his own pickup at home. Ruby’s mother drove up and down the long driveway twice before heading out, getting re-accustomed to controlling the wheel. All the way down to Las Cruces to buy the ducklings.
She bought eight, because there were eight ducklings in Ruby’s favorite book that had been lost in the move. One duckling for each year of her life, Ruby thought. And she tried to name them after the storybook ducklings, but within hours she realized it was no use trying to distinguishing any one among the identical cheeping puffs.
The ducklings’ first home was a banana box on the kitchen floor. Ruby would lift them out singly and place them on the linoleum while she changed the newspaper layer in their box.
They would run around like self-scrambling eggs. But when she stood and walked toward another room, or out the front door which her mother kept wide open all day, the ducks would fall in line behind her, trailing like a string of popping kernels.
One chick died during its first week in the box. Ruby found it in the morning, alone in a corner. The other ducks were crowded in the opposite corner, as far as possible from the dead one, facing away from it. When she lifted it out, she held it carefully, even though it was stiff and cold. It weighed almost nothing.
Ruby’s father was finishing a shed for the ducks. He worked on it weekends, and in the lengthening evenings of late spring. He let Donner out of his pen while he was working and the dog ran into the trees. Ruby watched her father mark a plank laid across sawhorses. He looked up and winked. “Measure twice and cut once, sweetheart.” He tipped his plastic safety goggles down and aligned the saw, but before he could trigger the blade they both heard Donner’s bay and the dog tore home with a face full of porcupine quills.
So the shed was finished another day, and all along its planks, Ruby and her mother would tie, hook or nail the little treasures they’d find on their walks, the way fishermen hang their lures and buoys on shanty-sides in the coastal worlds. They found feathers, bones, and snakeskins, pottery shards, rifle shells, clay pipes, beer cans, beads. Special rocks, distinctive pieces of quartz or pyrite, were brought inside the house where they’d begun to cover the surfaces of tables and spill out of windowsills.
The ducks would follow mother and daughter on the paths that they’d made into scrub pine. They pecked at the ground, at the poor, rare grass, and they’d settle, all at once, into the mineral water in the rock pond making sounds as soft as twilight doves. Ruby fed them dry corn, cat chow and table scraps they’d eat from her hands. Fully grown, they were pure white with orange legs and orange beaks the size of her mother’s thumb. When they’d snap down on her fingers, she’d wince and take it without a word.
Sometimes a swift gloom seized her mother and she’d clutch Ruby, pull a blanket around them both and rock and whisper, “He could get killed out there. They’d just leave him. There’s no one else here, Ruby, my baby, my love. Such evil in this world. Can you feel it, baby? Can you feel it?” Sometimes she gripped the semi-automatic pistol in her trembling hand, arm wrapped around her daughter’s ribcage. The child was terrified but would not react, except to look out for Donner. Her mother would fall asleep, let her go.
Then, knowing her mother would be back to normal when she woke, Ruby would walk up the long curved driveway to the road, Donner scampering ahead, and the ducks following in white procession. Sometimes they’d walk a mile and never see a car pass before turning back home. And once, they were startled into the ditch by an ambulance. Then it passed them again going the opposite direction. That night, Ruby’s father told her and her mother that the old man in the turquoise trailer had died; that’s who the ambulance was for.
“How did they know to come?” her mother asked.
“They got people who go out and check on these fogies.”
“The county. The guy who went out there, he has a brother in the Patrol. Said he found him dead in the trailer doorway, half in and half out like he was trying to get home for it.” He chewed and swallowed the mouthful of chicken he had fried the family for dinner. “Buzzards got to his legs. Left his boots, bones and body. Most of it.”
Not long after, Ruby and the ducks were walking toward the road when the child heard a low, swelling roar. She stood at the end of her driveway, flanked by the ducks, and watched a house split in two pieces crawl by on flatbeds, its exposed and hollow rooms sealed off by cellophane. Ruby had not known that houses could be split and moved and pinned back together. Biggest load she’d ever seen, it snapped limbs off of roadside piñon. The hermit’s land had been auctioned to a new neighbor.
The family soon met the woman who’d bought the land and moved a pre-fab up a mountain. She was bent and wizened at fifty-three, just twenty years older than Ruby’s mother, so Ruby thought of her as The Crone. The Crone dragged one foot; she’d had a stroke, she explained. She used a tall walking stick whittled from a branch and topped with polished copper. One side of her face was expressionless, the other, wincing and animate in compensation, and the hairs around her eyelids and in the corners of her mouth were black as creosote. She was bedizened in jewelry made of polished stones and wore a loose rust-colored frock. Ruby watched her constantly over the top edge of a book about the planets while her father helped The Crone move in. The Crone gave him money for his trouble, but paid no particular attention to his child.
Ruby’s mother arrived at the move-in suddenly, having walked the two miles with a pitcher of greenthread tea and a bouquet of coreopsis and asters. In ensuing hours, Ruby’s mother and the new neighbor became friends, and the friendship developed over weeks and months. The Crone never left her puzzle-piece home to visit Ruby’s house with its wide open doors and windows; most often, Ruby’s mother left her at home and walked to and from The Crone’s house instead.
The old woman called herself a healer; she’d lend books about mind power and herbs to Ruby’s mother. Sometimes the books were about Egypt or Atlantis, and then Ruby was interested too, though she would only read them when her mother was gone visiting. Now when her mother found a clear chunk of rose quartz while digging up the yard, she would give it to The Crone instead of the child. Now, only Ruby remembered to fill the rock pond with buckets of tap water, because it was summer, the state’s mineral spring had dried up, and the earth had hardened like a pot in a kiln. Still, the pond was grimy with duck feces and it soiled their white feathers, and when Ruby walked them onto state land, they would rip at the sagebrush and heather with their beaks in vain, dropping the tough, aromatic plants back onto the sand. The child grew worried about their well-being, but couldn’t imagine what to do.