lundi 2 août 2010

The nature of Nature and Meaning


Meet the duck


I wish I were a philosopher, but in truth, all I would better know is how to construct the questions that puzzle me and that have taken unassisted sleep away from me.

The sound of the garbage truck reached my Somnifère clouded consciousness and roused me from the sleep it has offered since the night Baccarat would never come home again. Shit! Monday. It's Monday, and we didn't put out the garbage can, sent me flying from bed, grabbing my old terry robe from the bath on the way and down the stairs, past Rapide stretched out at the foot of the stairs and Shadow on her way to her food bowl. The space beyond the table and last chairs to the door to the entry courette is tight, like everything else around here, but I hate missing the garbage truck more than I hate risking a bruised thigh. Especially in the summer, even if the hot weather seems past us now and the garbage really could wait until Thursday.

It's sort of a principle.

The sounds were coming from my left. They hadn't gotten here yet. They were just up the street. I pulled the bin out from behind the telephone booth (quaint, I know), and went back in to make coffee. Awake is awake, no matter how many grams of active ingredient might yet be in the system; I even made scrambled eggs, noticing that my three coriander plants' production is not keeping up with my demand. And there were little bugs on them. Or something. I ate them, too, took my coffee mug and wandered down to the pool to see if the pH Plus and turning the skimmers back on had done the trick.

They had.

But, there was a sound. Movement somewhere in the pool. I looked past the two cypresses in sad need of pruning and treatment for arachnids for some seasons now, and there was a largish bird swimming about. One of those big country pigeons that live in couples, and whose name I can never remember? No. It only took another instant to see that it was a duck. A duck, swimming in my pool. I sat down my coffee mug and ran back up the stairs for my camera and a telephone. It was still there when I returned and sat down with my feet in the water at the steps that take you gradually down into the water at the shallow end, if you are a chicken, and not a duck, and began to take pictures. Shadow appeared, with Rapide, who was quite worked up about this event, close on her heels.

I decided to film it with the only thing I have, my old digital camera.



It was just after my minute of filming ran out and I had just pronounced the unlucky words "we can be happy it's too big to get sucked into the skimmers", or something very close to that, that I happened to look away, and when I looked back, there was no duck, not anywhere to be seen.

I stood up and peered under the pool crown nearest me. No duck.

I thought. There had been no noise. No movement of feathers and flight. Or, could I have missed that? And, how could I if I could hear it swimming? Which left one option. I walked over to the nearest skimmer and lifted the top. Leaves.

I walked over to the other skimmer and lifted the top. Duck. It was full of the duck, sitting there over the basket. Concerned, I took a picture, and then I lifted it gently out, taking care to support its head and fend Rapide's intense interest off at the same time.

"Rapide, it's only supposed to interest you dead, and it's not dead, so go away. Now!" I commanded her. She listens when her interest is not piqued better than when I have a duck in my arms.

The neck appeared limp. I sat in a nearby chair and lectured myself for my irresponsibility. I had sat and filmed it, talking about the skimmers and assuming they would pose no danger, and here the poor thing probably had a broken neck on account of my entertainment and amusement.

It lifted its head.

"So! It's not broken!" I said, rising to see what would happen if I put it back in the pool. Not much at first, and then it began to move away, swimming like before. So much for a sort of broken neck. I had suspected that it couldn't be completely broken if it could sit on my lap and blink, look at me, at Rapide, at the disinterested Shadow and the hydrangeas nearby that I had revived with a lengthy watering Saturday. They really looked much better. Thinking about all this, I watched it glide down the pool and into the skimmer.

Easy as that. Like the boat in the shape of a swan disappearing into the mouth of the Tunnel of Love. I rushed down to recover it again, thinking the pool might not be such a great place for a duck, but why was it here? Why was it not in the Seine, which is right over there, past the garden wall and the field? I picked it up again, and this time we sat for a long time in the chair and tried to teach Rapide to sit, this seeming like as good a time as any to catch her up on her learning, and I wondered. Why? Why was this bird here, and what it going on with animals in general and birds in particular and I?

I stroked its head and tried to determine if anything in the cast of its eyes and the set of its head reminded me of Baccarat. I saw only that it was accepting, gentle and has an exquisite line from the long neck across the top of the head to the curved-under tip of the long beak. Why, I wondered as I told Rapide to "sit" for the 20th time, do we s'ecstasie for the swan, when the duck is so lovely, too? I looked at the colors shimmering on the band across its wings, shades of Kingfisher blue, deep purple and teal green, and decided I really was right to give that eye make-up away as soon as I had misspent a fortune on it at Bloomingdale's on Lexington Avenue back when I thought make-up was less expensive and more effective than clothing.

"Such colors really are better suited to you and tropical fish," I told it.

Rapide sat down.

I wondered what I had to do with these animals, and why they were showing up in my garden, or along my runs, this year in such greater number. Baccarat needing me, returning the sick koi I had been told was good for a plastic bag and the freezer to the fish basin, triumphantly, which I have not even mentioned here in these pages, managing to release one bird from the chimney flue and save the last one I found on a run, or the baby toads brought by the neighbor's small daughter and her somewhat bigger cousin from their sandbox to our garden to live. We could go back to Eugénie G, who I do not believe I have seen again, but at least she didn't fare as poorly as the frog I had to deposit in the weeds along the field, fighting despair for the cruelty of our pool.

Which brings me back to the duck. I stroked its feathers and remembered making the trip by myself by bus to the church and monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi. It was a long time ago, when I was much more romantic and impressionable and still wrote letters home full of descriptive language of sunsets and solitary moments. That was just one such, sitting on the top of the hill, looking over a plain scattered with roads and villages below to the farther hills beyond which the sun sat and turned the prospect gold. A moment later, I would rush to get my bus back to Peruggia, an evening walk in search of sausages and bread for my dinner, and my bunk in the pensione where the showers were cold, but most of the other residents honest, it being October and the off-season, and at the bottom of the village, I realized I had left my gloves in another, and ran against all earnest advice back up the streets I had climbed at a tourist's pace earlier in the day, past the post office where I had sent a postcard home, to the piazza at the top, where the bus was still sitting. My gloves were there, and I was able to catch the last one back.

Did that afternoon in Assisi and Saint Francis have more meaning for me, outside of being one of my most recurrent and fondest memories of a moment when I felt free and confident, than I had ever realized? Does anything hold any meaning we are supposed to divine?

Birds. Les oiseaux.

We had seen a house on Saturday evening that my husband had spied in his occasional perusal of the real estate magazines for our area. There was one that had caught his eye, and he brought it up enough that I called and made an appointment to visit it. The agent wanted to know our budget -- "à peu près ça," said my husband, the price of this house we wished to see -- and showed us others for a little more.

"Non," I told her. None of them please us. We are only interested in moving if we have a coup de coeur for another.

It was lovely. Old. Charming. Picturesque. Stone with an old tile roof, a tiny area of garden in front of it, a leaded window in the living area and in the kitchen, visible beams and roof trusses, or charpente, and rethought with intelligence and taste by the owners. Smaller in height, but not necessarily in footprint, than our own, it was part of a series of four contiguous houses facing another building containing two made of the old farm of the Château de Verneuil, now Notre-Dame des Oiseaux. Or, the school Sam determined to refuse last summer, when they offered him a place in the literature baccalaureate program for his last year. They had sternly cautioned him against continuing in Economic and Social Sciences. His math was far too weak, they said. He knew better. He had a strategy and believed in it, and he was right. "Les Oiseaux", as it is referred to, was just around the corner.

Was this a sign that we are supposed to give greater consideration to that house? Or that I am supposed to remain here, where the real birds come? My own sort of Notre-Dame des Oiseaux.

Last evening, after a light supper alone and an afternoon in which my husband roused himself, and I with him, to taking the petit balcon project back up, he proposed that we finish this house minimally and quickly, find out how many weeks of the year we can likely rent it -- aux anglais, is his idea -- and for how much, and if it is interesting, empty our bank accounts and all our savings to buy it. I had to get up from the table abruptly, overwhelmed by the scope of what he was proposing on the very evening we had signed a lease for a chambre de bonne for Sam.

"Si tu ne veux pas faire ça, il faut oublier l'autre," he intoned. I knew that. I didn't know what to think about all that, but I knew that.

I had been thinking of my fish outside the front door that I couldn't have "aux Oiseaux", but I could return between renters to say hello and make sure the company we hire to see to the garden had done as I had asked. I thought of the weeks when both houses would be ours, and how absurd that is.

"On pourrait chercher plus loin de Paris pour quelque chose avec le même charme, mais plus grande," I had leaned forward to speak into my husband's ear as we crossed les Mureaux, heading back to the A13 and Moosesucks on Saturday evening.

"Comment?" he asked, sounding perfectly astounded. "Plus loin de Paris?" He might as well have asked, "Further from Paris? What has come over you?" The point of the exercise, as he understood it, was to move closer to Paris, not further away.

"Bon. C'était une idée."

I looked back at the gentle curve of its head, its quietly blinking calm, dark eyes, slid my hand back under it and felt the softness and vulnerability of its breast, and myself spoke up.

Can you eat maigret de canard again? Can you, in fact, eat any meat again? I sighed. Myself has a knack for showing up with awkward questions.

"I don't do well with carbs, you know that, and, well, it's not the same. They are raised for consumption by people who manage to keep perspective."

That's what I thought, said myself. I didn't, once again, quite like her tone.

Now, it is raining, and I have a duck falling asleep in a box next to me on the sofa. Wisp came to see, decided ducks are out of her league and went to nap on her favorite chair back. Rapide's attention itself intense but short in span. I cannot return it to the pool, unless I stop the skimmers, which isn't a good idea for the pool, or find a way to place netting across them. I cannot either return it to the Seine because it does not appear able to fly after its encounters with the skimmers. Or the chlorine. I have been wondering if it is the chlorine, and if it will just suddenly get better enough to attempt flight without falling off the sofa like it did earlier.

Anyway, my garden recovery plans for the day are wrecked, but I could take the house project back up, and we'll see about the duck.


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