There they were walking their wobbly walk and swaying their tails as they walked in a pair…one following the other. In the front was obviously a male bigger, darker brown and obviously dominant. The smaller female followed him. She was a delicate beige and had pretty gray brown eyes and was the shy demurer one.
We must have them!
Both Vinod and I knew we wanted them both the moment we set our eyes on them and we paid for them and carried them home in a plastic bag!
Behind the house we set up their home by putting grass in an old dog cage. They were both very quiet for the first week or so and stuck to each other rarely coming out of the cage. The dogs first saw them as food but soon learnt that they were a part of the family and were to be protected. We knew nothing about keeping ducks. We were exploring their food options- soaked rice wheat corn, rice rotis, scraps of veggies and fish- dried and fresh.
Getting their Feed Right
Finally we figured they love their salads -- tomatoes and cucumber, coriander leaves, bird feed and soaked wheat. We also realised that they were quite dumb and far less trusting than dogs or cats…animals we were used to. But they were adorable and would follow me around every time I stepped out of the house. They soon learnt their boundaries for exploration and the timings. Sweetly after dark they would go inside and sit there waiting for me to serve them dinner and close the cage.
They would wake me up with loud quack quacks in the morning and run out of the cages for a dive in the small pool we created for them. We loved watching their ritual long baths and waking up with fluttering of wings. Hated watching them destroy our baby bananas and other plants. We had to but thorny bush around all the plants in their territory to protect them. I would sometimes pluck grass and they would enjoy the lush green tips-never touching the hard parts of the grass.
The Male-Female Thing.
The male was obviously a big hog and would attack the female to keep her away from the bowl till he ate. But if the dogs got too close for comfort – he would attack the dogs and protect the shyer female.
Two months passed in joy as the ducks were fattening up and bonding well with dogs and us. We never tried catching them or petting them. We were both happy just maintaining the distance but improving the bond and trust. I was happy watching them together – eat fight for food and make love. How they enjoyed walking in the rain…
We were told that the female laid eggs…but there was no sign of any eggs. We were told that they lay eggs ‘anywhere’. So I would scour the grass they walked on daily to check…but always was disappointed to find none. Till one morning as I opened the cage to set them free and give them their breakfast I saw a the egg sitting in the cage… overjoyed we picked it up carefully and kept it safely in a box lines with soft cotton. We knew that the ducks don’t sit on the eggs and lay eggs everyday once they start. For the next week – every morning we got a lovely gift. On the eighth morning the egg shell was soft. We started adding crushed egg shells to their diet which they devoured. But the egg laying stopped.
The Injury… And Love’s Protection.
We never caught them – there was no need – till a time when the female could not keep her right foot down. We saw her limping. She was obviously in pain and we decided to check her foot out.
We asked our farm help to catch her as he was experienced guy. But the drake attacked him – protecting the injured female. Then Vinod and I tried talking to them both and it seems somehow they trusted us. We caught the female without much protest from the drake. There was a cut under her webbed foot- caked in mud. We cleaned the wound. Sprayed it with antiseptic and decided to feed her in the cage and give her foot rest. It was as though she understood our plan and intentions. She did not move much and created a raucous of quacks when she was hungry and didn’t stop till she was fed in the cage. We saw the drake not attacking her food. But he would patiently wait for her to finish eating and then go for the leftovers. We found his devotion pretty touching.
We had to catch her every day for a week to tend to her wound which was improving. We saw how the drake protested it and his joy after the reunion.
Slowly her limping reduced and then she was back in the pool for her noisy joyful ablutions in the morning and loafing the day.
Return to Paradise.
The monsoon was now over and the afternoon sun was getting hot. They would sit under the small banana on the straw and literally pant. Vinod and I made a small shelter outside the cage, next to their favorite pond with shade net where they could be cooler. They started using it immediately! I also put a wooden plank under it that served as a buffet table for them.
We had seen mongoose around but with dogs around they would keep their distance. There were snakes but none so big as to eat the ducks. The foxes we had spotted in the area never ventured anywhere close to our house. There were a lot of wild pigs… mainly vegetarian and destroyed our coconuts…but no predators as such. We felt safe keeping the ducks out during the day and putting them in their cage after sundown.
Shadows in Heaven… And Red Eyes…
Then on Diwali evening we came home a bit late from the market…around seven. It was already dark. I quickly chopped a couple of tomatoes finely and handed over to Vinod along with a bowl full of wheat soaked in water garnished with crushed egg shells.
‘Please put it in the cage – they must be hungry.’ I said.
Vinod picked up the bowls along with a flashlight to lock the ducks in the cage.
I got busy feeding the two hungry kittens.
“They are not here” Vinod said.
“Look inside the cage – they would have gone in and sat in a corner”.
I ran out with another flashlight- it was no moon night and pitch dark.
We looked everywhere around the house but didn’t find them.
Vinod and I both kept calling quack-quack….a call they had learnt to respond with their own quacks…no avail. We found some feathers on a steep slope.
May be they slipped down the edge and can’t climb up…so frantically we searched through the overgrown grass …From afar Vinod saw red eyes and a shape of a body. “Nishi see a wild pig is down there” – he pointed with the sharp beam of his flashlight… before I could spot it, the shape was gone. “It was nothing, it was nothing… just the jumping eyes of wild hare, or the red eyes of wild pigs… no we see them regularly nothing to get alarmed about…” we told ourselves. “Besides the dogs were quiet and did not get into frenzied barking as they normally do when they sense some animal around. Everything had to be fine.
If one duck got stuck in the grass or vine the other will stay to keep him/her company –we were sure. They will never abandon their partner. A good couple of hours of searching later, and we decided that we will wait out till morning…because it was impossible to search any more. No there was no problem.
The only other thought was some village guy came and picked up the ducks in our absence… since the dogs were inside the house and the ducks probably in the cage….
I sat there praying! Please pls pls send my duckies back home…
Prayers are Answered…
I sat with my eyes closed and prayed hard… suddenly I opened my eyes in astonishment as I heard a soft ‘quack quack’ I thanked my god for answering my prayers as I watched the female climbing up the slope.
‘Vinod’, I shouted in joy ‘the duck is here.’
He came out running.
The duck looked tired and headed straight to the cage and sat down ignoring the food kept for her.
I told the duck how happy I was to see her back and asked her where her mate was… no reply. She just sat in the far corner of the cage.
We renewed our search down the slope, moving more grass and calling out. For another hour. Then we decided that the quiet will help the drake come back faster as it did the female. He must be right behind her anyway! We decided to keep the cage open for him to rejoin his mate.
It was about 10 pm. I said good night to the female and went off to sleep. Vinod checked the cage at about 1am – before he slept to see the female still alone in the cage. There wasn’t much to do but to wait out till morning.
The Eerie Silence of The Morning…
The next morning I awoke to eerie silence…had the drake returned and both too tired to create a raucous? I eagerly went out to check and was shocked to see it empty.
I woke up Vinod and at 6ish in the morning…when it was still kind of dark we resumed our search. The female must have gone to be with her mate…he probably could not climb up…we kept searching in the same spot down the slope where we had seen the feathers.
The first rays of the sun showed us some more feathers further down the slope…we searched in the grass around with more zeal and hope.
Vinod spotted a couple more small feathers on the other side and followed that trail. “Nish hurry up…here”, I heard the panic in his voice and shuddered to think what it was he had seen. It took me a while to cross the mounds of soil and the trenches made for planting. “How did the ducks manage these on their tiny feet?” I thought.
Then we saw it…piles of brown feathers of the duck some blood and a piece of gizzard…
The drake was killed? Who could kill it? Mongoose don’t hunt by night and snake would have swallowed him whole…
Our farm help arrived…he had gone quite attached to the ducks and was shaken to hear the news. He saw the scene and said… “Must be a Bhatay…”
“What’s that?” we asked.
It’s a local small big cat. Light brown in color. Comes up to the knee. They are very quiet and quite gutsy. They pick up chicken and pet dogs from the verandas of houses in the middle of crowded wadis. (group of houses)
Then we linked the red eyes and the shadowy form we saw the previous evening….
That must be what it was…means it happened just before we reached.
The dogs were focussed on our coming home and didn’t see it coming.
Learning from True Love…
We have all read and seen many true love stories. Romeo and Juliet. Laila and Majnu. Titanic. We have lived through one more. Oh God, we have lived through one more. The ducks were probably attacked near the cage. They panicked and ran off the slope to escape. The drake must have tried to protect the female and succeeded too – at the cost of his own life. He had put up a bloody fight for sure… there were three piles of feathers. He had sacrificed himself. And kept his woman safe. And then I realised what I had done… leaving the cage door open… “I had… oh God… what a fool… I had… I am still trying to forgive myself.”
Now at one level there is no happy ending to this love story. Both Romeo and Juliet are there bloody in a Bhatay’s stomach. But at another I comfort myself, there was no way the demure duck could smile after seeing the cocky drake ripped apart before her eyes.
People today talk about true love, because someone gave them a diamond ring. Or sent them a comforting SMS. People talk about this entire gender shit as if we know shit about gender or sex, or love. We humans have to return to nature.
Vinod and I live in that place outside corporate safety. Where Life is still Life. Where rural life teaches us, the hard lessons, the blood lessons, the real lessons.
Many women and men today when asked about what kind of partner they would like say ‘they’d love someone who makes them laugh’. That’s a laugh. If ever I face The Bhatay and we will all face The Bhatay in some form or other – take your pick – death, cancer, pain, children in trouble, money tangles, goons, mafia dons, greedy politicians, a dying world… then I’d rather have a drake that puts up a bloody fight. You’d rather have a partner who is a partner… not someone who knows the right lipstick colour, or a good girl who can serve a great palak paneer. Nope you don’t want a dandy or a man with right moves up there. You want someone who will face up to The Bhatay.
I have seen true love first hand, in all its glory. And I know in that special place on his lap that God has for fools and ducks and true love, they are there, quacking happily away. I know that.