I became a duckling the day being a swan became too strenuous.
Calling out to whichever deity would listen, I begged to have my wings cut or shortened. I wanted the white that had inspired artists to paint me and great beauties to envy me cast off my plumage or given away to someone who could better care for its grace.
The others I swam alongside were perplexed at my request.
Why wish to return?
Why loathe my current form?
Why beg to rewind the fable of the swan?
Because some of us miss our youth that much, I suppose. Some cannot look at any sign of aging without knowing what will come next. The average life of a swan is twelve years in the wild. It can double in captivity, but who would want a long life in an enclosed space? I don’t want to be captured. I would like to be taken back.
When I was younger, I was the ugliest of ducklings. Others would swim by me and regale me with mockery. My mere existence brought about untold cruelty from otherwise kind fowl. My own brother would dip beneath the water only to swim up under me, knocking me into the reeds. I spent most of my childhood drenched and sopping with nothing to look forward to, but the imagined promise of isolation later in life.
It was a foggy Sunday when a vision appeared to me, and I felt majesty come upon me. At the time, it felt like magic, but now I know it to be maturity. My beak straightened, my colors softened, and suddenly when I took flight, it was not ungainly or cloddish. I was able to soar. All those who had taunted me hid themselves among the same reeds that I had been cast into time and again. They were humbled by my ascent. The vision had promised as much to me. It had the shape of a woman, but spoke with the voice of a sparrow. She told me that I was a creature of divinity. She spoke songs to me with music I have never heard since that dreary afternoon when I became like a rainstorm.
Those years of adjustment were the greatest of my life. While others might balk at transitional living, I took to it like a second mother. I found the sudden education of it enthralling. Waking up to learn what new things my transformed body could accomplish. Floating by admirers only to turn around in the water, curious at who they were admiring, only to realize it was me they were casting kind glances at pairing them with slices of fresh bread.
The novelty of being adored is no different than any other novelty; it erodes. Soon, the looks and cooing bothered me as much as the teasing and tormenting had, and I kept my distance from shore. I knew my colleagues found me ungrateful, and I didn’t care. You can’t get bored of anything if you give yourself enough time; happiness included.
One night, as the summer moon waned into an advancing autumn, I prayed to hear the music of the sparrow woman again so that I could make another wish on her luminescence. I wanted to be a duckling again. My life was dwindling just as the moon was, and I knew that my last moments would be met with loneliness and nostalgia. I wanted nothing of the kind. I preferred to be young and then to be nothing at all. If that meant my vanity would have to succumb, then so be it. Parts of me were beginning to ache, while other parts faltered. I could not fly with the fleet ferocity that I once knew so well. Even grazing in the water required more strength than I had in me most days.
Let me be young again, I prayed, now that the enjoyment of a younger form would give me immunity against the braying of bullies.
This time there was no vision, but rather, an absence. Where the moon had been, there was now a loss. A pending grief that had not yet attached itself to a mourner. What I heard was not music, but weeping. The crying was a question--Did I really want what I was asking for? Could I truly be willing to give up all I had been given?
Perhaps I should have felt ashamed of my answer, but it was my answer nonetheless.
I wanted to be a duckling.
The moon made it so.
. . . . .
A hideous little thing moves through the water, and soon, it will not be so. The insults are bandied about by the other ducks in the pond, but none antagonize the youngling directly. Something about it has the air of superstition. The older ducks in the flock tell of old souls that reside in tender bodies. They’re known to die young, and some believe that is what makes it bad luck to confront them, but others know better.
It is not their lack of eternity that shapes their shadows in unnatural ways. Instead, it is the wisdom they imbue of what forever could be if given to something or someone that will spend endless time being coveted. Paintings that never quite embody what it means to fear the hand that holds out nourishment to you. Songs with notes too low for your lowest days. Water too warm to fall asleep in, and with reflections that show you someone you’ve never met.
The duckling is small, but its shadow carries out over the pond. The other ducks swim away from it; terrified that it may be an omen. Will they be given a wish one day just as the former swan was? Will the vision appear to them and sing her sparrow music? Will she be hesitant now that her gift has been returned? Or will she try once more to give away aesthetic perfection to another winged wanderer?
And if they take it, what then?
Will they utilize it smartly in the moment, only to regret it in their later years? What could be worse than the resentment one faces when bestowed with abundance only to find there’s nowhere to put it?