Earlier in the lockdown,Arachne author David Mathews told us about his friend Jorge, and his dislike of spiders, and how he, David, was apologising for bringing the matter up by writing a story about the creature of Jorge’s choice. Here it is!
Black Duck and her Eggs
Easter is a dodgy time for fowl. Let me show you.
Come to a country garden, scruffy and large, full of hidden corners, on the bright, spring evening of an Easter Saturday. A family, three generations, has arrived at their customary gîte, an old farmhouse, and unpacked. Adults and children are making themselves at home in their various ways. Bottles are opened, and children are told to play nicely.
In her nest, well back from footpaths and the rowdy children, in a hollow in the roots of a willow, Duck sits on her eggs, fourteen of them. She laid the last ones four days ago. Next month, she will take her ducklings to swim on the millpond, calm these days, and a short waddle away. For the time being Duck simply needs to guard her eggs and keep them warm, easy enough when she is not disturbed. Duck’s eggs are white. Duck is black, mostly. Her drake is black all over. He comes and goes, but it was he who saw off a weasel at dawn two days ago, having got lucky with a beak in weasel’s eye.
The children, seven of them, in and around the house, not counting the baby, are used to feeding ducks and counting how many ducklings have been born each time, knowing that mother ducks can count them too, and never lose any, not through their own fault.
The older children, like the grown-ups, enjoy a duck egg for breakfast, on special occasions.
Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, will come the Easter egg hunt. Where will Grandpa hide the chocolate eggs this year, on his own, without Granny for the first time? Where will the children search; how daring will they be? The children huddle to rehearse their plans in whispers, and trade chocolate futures.
‘If I find three, you can have one.’
Odd one out in a generation of daughters, the boy plots alone, almost.
‘I know how the game is played,’ the boy says. ‘They hide the eggs in the night, and then we look for them in the morning. And you keep the ones you find. And you eat them.’ The baby girl, to whom this intelligence is addressed, gurgles.
‘But if you go out in the dark, you get first dibs. And I’ve got a torch.’ Baby hiccups in response to his whisper, then burps.
The boy has brought his catapult, though he was told not to, not after last year and the squirrel and the woodpecker.
The sun drops behind the low distant hill. Long shadows vanish, and Duck stirs herself, needing to drink, eat and poo before dark. She arranges grass and down over her eggs; instinct tells her that will keep them warm enough for a while. Duck heads for the water, pecking at beetles and grass as she goes.
She drinks, steps into the water and bathes in her element, ducking and tumbling to wash dust from her feathers. On land she stretches her wings, and water droplets fall. Now she feeds in earnest, fast and catholic, among grass and weeds, but never out of sight of the tree beneath which her clutch lies warm. When she returns to the nest, she has been away 30 minutes, not that she knows this. She simply knows to settle over her eggs once more, her need to do so greater than her taste for more insects and seeds.
As the light fades, the children are called in for supper. The garden quietens to the evening song of birds’ nesting and asserting their territory. Near Duck, mice and voles rustle, but nothing larger, except for the drake who comes by. He quacks at Duck, feeds, swims, then flies beyond the millpond – to another duck.
Under a crescent moon, and among the willow’s roots, Duck and her eggs vanish into the dark. With her head tucked in, Duck’s few white feathers are hidden, and her eggs completely enveloped.
From the house comes a tall figure, bearing a basket.
‘No, I’ll be fine. I won’t be long,’ he says to someone indoors.
He moves around the garden, pausing, bending, reaching; he makes more noise than all the night creatures combined. As he comes closer, Duck draws her head in tighter. Her defences are stillness and her black plumage. At the base of the tree the man stops and tucks a silver egg into the tree roots, inches from invisible Duck, and another into a low fork in the branches.
He bends to float a toy boat on the millpond, attaches a mooring string to a reed, and sends a cargo of three eggs shining across the twinkling, moonlit water to the shadow of low bushes. When he stands, he clutches his back, and winces. For long minutes he gazes across the pond. He lets out a deep, deep sigh, wipes his eyes, and returns to the house.
The windows go dark, downstairs first, then upstairs.
A distant bell chimes twelve.
A beam of light sweeps back and forth at the side of the house, and advances towards dense shrubs. When a torch is placed on the ground, the searcher is revealed as a boy, the only boy. He tuts, having found nothing, picks up the torch, and sweeps the beam again, now higher in the air. The light reaches the willow tree.
‘Yes,’ says the boy, and he swishes through long grass towards where he has seen the glint of silver among the fresh green leaves.
Duck wakes, alert to coming danger, but she does not move.
The boy stands on tiptoe to reach the wedged egg in its silver foil, which he does, just, with his fingertips. The egg slips. He grabs at it a second time, but drops the torch, which lights the egg that Grandpa placed among the roots. Eager, he reaches for the second egg, and Duck, mistaking his quick movement for attack, pecks his reaching hand.
‘Ow,’ says the boy, and sucks the back of his hand.
He sees Duck’s eggs, remembers a breakfast last year, kicks out at Duck and stretches towards the nest.
Duck has no notion of escalation, not in the way of a military commander, but nevertheless attacks the boy’s hand and bare legs as if her previous peck were a mere warning, and this now is all-out war. She lets loose quacks of panic and rage that bring her drake flying across the millpond, equally vocal. Between the two, they raise the household, and, black fiends in a dark night, chase the boy into the arms of his mother.
Surely his fright will elicit sympathy?
‘You little sod,’ his mother says. ‘That’s why you went to bed with no fuss. Give me that egg. And frightening that poor duck. You should be ashamed of yourself. What will Grandpa say?’
The lad’s booty is confiscated, and the family members retreat into the house.
Duck and her drake still quack, though more grumbling than urgent now, and find their way back to the nest and the fourteen eggs, still safely warm. Duck settles. Drake flies back to his other duck, whose fresh-laid eggs will, late on Sunday, be plundered by Grandpa for his traditional Easter Monday scrambled duck eggs and smoked trout with fresh squeezed orange juice and Blanquette de Limoux, Brut.
David has two stories in our forthcoming eighth anniversary anthology No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book
Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August 2020