The Duckling Says…

duckling

by Patrick Redding

There were three of us that morning, investigating the Other Side: Hart, Tabby, and myself. We’d met at 5:30 a.m., because that’s one of the times of day (at this time of year, in our hemisphere of the globe) when things are crossing over from being one thing to being the other. In this case, night becoming day. And if you catch it just right, you can jump the track and walk right into the Other Side.

At least that’s what Hart’s theory was. It made sense, I thought, although I’m aware that a great many people think the Other Side doesn’t exist. I was still kind of on the fence about that, but I’d seen enough weirdness in my life to figure it had to come from somewhere.

Of the people who think it does exist, nearly all of them will tell you that you can’t just willfully travel back and forth. The shell around reality is quite thick, they say. Here is here, and there is there, and the only time you get to see what’s there is if you’re near death, and even then it’s possible it might be neurologically-induced hallucinations.

There’s the occasional accidental trip, when you sleep – though I don’t think this happens for everyone, and it’s fairly difficult to control. I mean, you’ve had dreams where things seem perfectly real, right? Except more – vivid? Not the usual nonsense dreams – no showing up naked for an exam or anything. These feel like you’re awake here, except if it goes on long enough, you start to become aware of little differences. Like you bump into your dead father at a convenience store. Or you’re driving a car you haven’t had since it was hauled to the scrapyard ten years ago – but everything else is pretty much your normal, everyday life. That little discrepancy, that’s how you know you’re on the Other Side.

But Hart was convinced that you could travel freely between here and there, physically, only it had to happen in certain places at certain times. Certain places had what you might call a thinner shell between here and there – if not a hole, or possibly even a doorway – where it would be easier to slip through. Certain times of day, times of year, etc., were more conducive to slipping through because there’s a brief period when it’s not quite one thing anymore but not quite another yet. The solstices. The equinoxes. Dawn. Dusk. You get the idea. And so we wanted to test his theory.

This is why we were out in the woods in the pitch dark. I know it sounds strange. Believe me, I know strange when I hear it. I spent longer than I care to remember locked up in a hospital for having strange thoughts. Actually, they weren’t so much strange as interesting. And I wasn’t locked up for having them so much as telling everyone about them.

But just bear with me. It doesn’t get any less strange, but it’s a good story.

Anyway, I should tell you about our third person, the one who – in my opinion – thoroughly fouled things up. Tabby was Hart’s friend – not a “girlfriend,” he repeatedly insisted, though she seemed to have aspirations to that status. She claimed to be an herbalist who was studying to be an LPN at the community college. Actually, I think she’d dropped out of the nursing program and had gotten some sort of online certificate in herbalism. Apparently they let you have weed “for medicinal purposes” if you have the right paperwork, and she did.

I’m not sure what she really thought, belief-wise; she’d made the rounds of just about all of the pagan and new-agey groups in our area. She had some friends who were into Asatru, and I think she hung out with some Wiccans for awhile, and then dabbled in Santeria briefly, but she never seemed to settle on anything in particular, just sort of buzzing from one thing to another like a spiritual honeybee. The important thing, as far as we were concerned, was that she had an open mind about Hart’s theory. And she knew how to mix up teas, oils, salves – stuff like that. She seemed to know what she was doing; I mean, she made me some sort of tea last year that helped when I had a fever. So I tried not to judge, even though I found her pretty annoying sometimes.

So we three inquiring minds were up in the woods past the Widow’s House on Route 16. The house has been abandoned for years, but if you park at the gate, you can walk all the way up the drive, if you don’t mind the briars and nettles. No one takes care of the place anymore, and it’s overgrown with brush. The back of the house faces into the woods at the edge of a stream that used to feed into Berne Lake. The stream’s pretty much dried up now, unless there’s a really hard rain. So you walk up the old stream bed and it takes you into a ravine in the Berne Nature Preserve, and that’s where we were.

Why that spot? There were certainly places that were easier to get to, so why there? Well, that’s a little complicated.

Back in the 1900s, there was the Crown Bank Robbery. You’ve probably never heard of it. The Crown Bank and Trust was a local venture, mainly used by the handful of well-to-do families in this small company town. There was a strike at the local factory over the horrible working conditions, and during the week of the strike, the bank was robbed. It wasn’t clear whether this was planned or whether someone simply took advantage of the fact that all the police officers on the tiny police force were occupied with keeping order at the strike. Anyway, no one was ever caught and the money was never found.

When I was a kid, my father had an idea that someone involved had buried the cash near this spot, in the woods behind the Widow’s House. Again – why that particular spot? Honestly, I wasn’t paying enough attention to be able to tell you his reasoning. I think it had something to do with the fact that the land around there had been set aside as a nature preserve shortly after the robbery. And the widow who lived in that house had also passed away not long after that, following a period of apparently going senile and telling everyone she knew that there were men in the woods who were going to come down and kill her. Dad thought it was possible that she wasn’t senile, that she’d actually seen the bank robbers burying their money in the woods there, and maybe they’d threatened her and bought someone off to have it marked as a nature preserve to keep people away from the area.

Which is an interesting theory, but it doesn’t explain why we picked that spot for our experiment. I’m getting to that.

Dad used to take his metal detector and wander around in the woods there, looking for coins – and he did find a few old ones with dates that supported his theory. I’d go with him, usually, father-and-son bonding stuff, you know. And there was just something weird about the spot. Trees died. The stream dried up.

OK, it’s possible that the stream dried up because we’ve been in a drought for as long as I can remember. When you’ve got drought, trees don’t do very well. But there’s only one particular small area where the trees died – they’re healthy everywhere else along that dry stream bed. It just felt weird.

And things disappeared – plants, birds, stuff like that. More than once I remember watching a squirrel or a bird, and it would be there one second and gone the next. Even a whole bush, once – though I didn’t actually see that one go away, it was just there one time when we went, and the next time it wasn’t – no stump or digging around the area or anything. Just gone, as though it never existed.

Later, of course, after I came to know Hart, I had this thought: if that place was a spot where you could go through to the Other Side, then maybe the bank robbers had buried their money there, and it had disappeared – gone to the Other Side – and that’s why no one ever found it.

Anyway, I figured, if there were ever a prime spot to gain passage to the Other Side, that was it. So we gathered there just before dawn.

We didn’t really have a clear plan. We just figured that if you showed up in the right place at the right time and wandered around for a bit, you might stumble into a thin spot in the shell. A hole in the membrane. A hole-y spot – maybe that’s how so many religions and cults choose their holy ground, right? Pretty much any religion has some sort of supernatural belief about the Other Side.

We’d agreed that if anything happened and we got separated, we’d call one another at exactly 6:30 a.m.

Hart’s intention was to actually go through to the Other Side, and return, but we didn’t really know what the chances were that it could really happen. I was there mainly as an observer, someone to take notes. But since Hart figured that it could work both ways – that people or things on the Other Side could also come here – I also kind of hoped I might get to speak with my dad, who’d passed away a few years back. (Without ever finding any bank money, I might add.)

Tabby was along for her medical expertise, such as it was. In case there was more to it than just showing up, Hart had asked her if she knew any way to facilitate his passage with some herbal concoction. She’d mixed up something for him; I didn’t know what it was, figured it was probably harmless. In retrospect, I guess he may have invited her along because he wanted another witness, in case something interesting happened and I wasn’t considered credible. Due to my history of mental issues and all that.

I hoped it’d be handy to have Tabby around if one of us needed medical attention at some point. She might’ve been a little flaky, but I assumed she could at least perform basic first aid. Even if you aren’t trying to travel between worlds, you can sprain an ankle crashing around in the woods in the dark. And I assumed that we couldn’t depend on the batteries in our flashlights to hold up, in a place like that. I’d seen my dad’s metal detector go haywire there.

Anyway, when we got there, Hart gulped down whatever weird drink Tabby gave him. He walked a few paces away from us.

And he disappeared.

He actually went through.

Even though I’d picked out the spot because of its weirdness, I was really kind of shocked when he passed through to the Other Side. It happened right when I had my flashlight on him, too. He was just there one second and gone the next.

You’d have thought he might’ve faded out, or fizzled and disintegrated like in a Star Trek transporter, but no, it was like he just walked through an invisible door. No special effects at all.

So after we shook each other senseless and whooped and hollered and got all excited, Tabby and I parked ourselves and watched for him to come back.

We waited. And waited some more.

6:30 came and went with no contact from him.

At 6:33, I looked at my phone and figured out that there was no cell service here. Not even roaming. We were in a gully in the mountains in a rural area that had, at best, sketchy cell service if you stood out in the middle of a cleared field. I was kicking myself for not having thought of this beforehand.

I also wondered what we’d been thinking, agreeing on a 6:30 phone call. Had we really thought you could just make a phone call from the Other Side to this one?

Or maybe you could, but the time was different there. Maybe there was no time there, in the way we thought of it.

I don’t like to admit it, but I was getting sick-to-my-stomach scared.

At 6:35, Tabby and I were disagreeing intensely over what we should do. She had raised the possibility that he’d never had any intention of coming back through if he made it over. I told her that was nonsense. Why wouldn’t he come back? It was his idea to see if you could come and go freely, physical body and all, and if he didn’t come back, how could he tell us what happened?

I was more than a little irked that instead of getting to talk with Dad, we’d lost Hart. I left Tabby standing, and I went and crashed around in the woods, looking for any sign that he might have come back out in a different place. We had no way of knowing, really, how large the area was. For all I knew, Hart might have gone to the Other Side here and come back out miles away. If my father had been there, he would’ve had some good advice, I’m sure, but it didn’t seem that he was going to make an appearance.

At 6:38 I returned to find Tabby scavenging through my backpack. She seemed to be preparing to leave. We argued, rather heatedly. She was ready to get out of the woods, saying that Hart was gone, hadn’t contacted us, and we needed to go into town and report him missing or get help or something. I told her it was only 8 minutes past our agreed time, and anyway there was no cell service here. We should wait, I insisted, but after some further argument, she left. I could hear her crunching through the leaves as she made her way back out of the woods.

While I waited alone for Hart to show up, I noticed how dead-silent the woods were. I thought I heard some small rustling sounds very close by, but when I switched on my flashlight, I didn’t see anything. I figured it was probably a chipmunk or something, and tried not to think too hard about it. I filed it away in my mental notes to discuss with Hart if he showed up again. When he showed up, I corrected myself.

Then I heard a louder shuffling of leaves, and got my hopes up, but it was only Tabby coming back. She was carrying an old birdcage, which she said she’d gotten from the pile of junk on the back porch of the Widow’s House. I wondered what she was doing with it, and she said she’d decided to come back because even if she couldn’t save Hart, at least she could save the baby duck.

The… baby duck? What baby duck? I played my flashlight over the ground, and was surprised to see a single wild duckling waddling around near my feet. It was so tiny, I must have missed it when I’d been scouting around, looking for Hart.

Tabby said she saw it just after Hart disappeared, while I was wandering around looking for him in the woods. It must have come through from the Other Side, she figured; it didn’t seem to belong here.

I told her that it certainly didn’t belong with her, and I scooped it up.

We argued for awhile over that. She pointed out that there was no water for it, that it didn’t belong here, and that it probably couldn’t survive unless we took it someplace else – the lake, maybe, or a river, someplace with water.

I made the point that even if we did relocate it, the poor thing was probably too small to survive by itself. Besides, if it came from the Other Side, then whenever Hart got back here, it should go back there. Its whole family was probably waiting around for it over there, wondering where it was.

Maybe there’s some sort of balance requirement, I suggested, like if something comes in to the Other Side, something has to go out. Hart showing up over there probably displaced it.

She gave up trying to argue with me, grabbed up her things and started off down the hill.

I felt an idea suddenly flitting around the edges of my brain, and called out to ask her what she’d given Hart – what was that stuff she’d had him drink before he crossed over?

The duckling pecked at my hand several times, opening its mouth and then closing it again.

She sighed and rattled off the names of a few herbs and roots, explaining that the “elixir” was used to “bind body and soul.” A mixture sometimes used to help people stop sleepwalking, she said. In this case, she’d adjusted the formula slightly so it would let him physically go through to the Other Side, body and all.

I asked if I’d need to give some to the duck, to help it go back.

The duckling opened its mouth again and looked up at me. I could swear it had an expression on its fuzzy little face, something along the order of Are you crazy?

She thought about it for a minute, then decided probably not, since it got here without it. I asked her to at least write down the ingredients she’d used, in case Hart needed medical attention or something when he got back. She muttered and fussed about it, but picked a pencil and pad out of her backpack, scribbled a list and handed it to me, assuring me that there wasn’t really anything in the mixture that should cause a problem.

The duckling bounced up and down in my hand, and seemed on the verge of finding its voice. I stroked its head and tried to settle it while I looked over her notes by the yellowish beam of my flashlight. Most of the ingredients were ordinary herbs and such – as she said, probably not a big deal. There was one that I wasn’t entirely sure about, so I asked what it was.

She peered at the paper, and told me it was apitoxin, something she said was used in remedies to help with arthritis and joint pain. Bee venom, she explained. What you get when a bee stings you.

I stood there with my mouth gaping open while the duckling flapped its tiny wings. “QUACK!” it squawked. “QUACK QUACK QUACK!”

Hart, you see, is severely allergic to bee stings.

Tabby sort of stopped breathing for a minute when I told her that.

“QUACK!” said the duckling.

She wailed about having asked him about allergies, and said he’d told her he was allergic to ragweed, but he’d said nothing about being allergic to bee stings. Probably, I thought, because it wouldn’t have occurred to him that someone would bottle up the stuff from bees and put it in a drink. I mean, why would he think of that? I wouldn’t. An herbalist fiddles around with herbs. Weeds. Flowers. Not bees.

“QUAAAAACK!” said the duckling.

Tabby was stammering about having bound his body and soul together. I gathered that she was trying to tell me he’d gone to the Other Side, went into anaphylactic shock and died from the bee toxin once he got there, and was now unable to return. To put it bluntly, she’d killed him, and he wasn’t coming back.

“Quack,” said the duckling.

Or… he’d come back as a duck.

Really, now that I thought about it, that was the only thing that made sense, in a situation where nothing made much sense at all. Hart was here, and now he wasn’t. The duck wasn’t here, and now it was. And it was spouting its opinion of Tabby’s skills as loudly as it could.

“Quack. Quack. Quack.”

I carried the duckling as we hiked out of the woods. Tabby was so upset that she bawled all the way back to the car. I tried to console her (somewhat) by pointing out that she wasn’t a bad person, just an incompetent herbalist. The duckling added its two cents’ worth on every other step. “Quack. Quack. Quack.”

When we got back to civilization, I took the duckling to a wildlife rescue service. The rehab lady said it was in remarkably good health for being found by itself in a dry area. As I went back to visit over subsequent weeks, she did say that the duckling seemed oddly afraid of insects and had to be fed chopped fish and other delicacies. Eventually, though, it adopted itself into a mallard family living in a nearby park, and is doing just fine now.

Mutual friends told me recently that Tabby moved away, got a new phone and had her number changed. Apparently there was some problem with her getting prank calls at 6:30 every morning. No one ever said anything – just left her voice mail full of messages that sounded like a flock of ducks.

Quack.

 

© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.


Photo via Pixabay.

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