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Everything’s Just Ducky

October 4, 2010

The following story won second prize in the 2010 Creative Keyboards short-story contest, sponsored by Hamilton Arts Council.  © Margo Karolyi, All Rights Reserved

“Somebody’s in the chimney!” The words drifted through my mind like wisps of fog. That they made no sense didn’t matter. Lately my dreams have been murky and nonsensical – like indiscriminately-edited films playing in my mind while I sleep. 

Mommy, there is somebody walking around inside the chimney.”  The words were louder now, and more forceful. The fog started to lift.  Reluctantly, I began the agonizing process of waking up.  I pried one eye open and tried to focus.  Zoe’s cherubic face was inches from mine, her dark eyes wide and bright.  

“What?”  I mumbled, straining to open the other eye. I squinted at the numbers on the clock by the bed. The first was either a 6 or an 8. My guess was a 6, given that the room was still dark and there was no evidence of the sun outside the east-facing window.

I turned back towards my daughter.  This wasn’t the first morning in the past few months that I’d awoken to find her standing beside the bed watching me, her nose and eyes just visible above the mattress.  I pushed myself up on one elbow and patted the bed. “Come on up and tell me what’s going on.” 

Zoe grabbed a handful of blanket and started to pull herself up.  I reached over and gave her a boost.  She snuggled close. “You smell good,” she said, “Like morning.” 

I laughed lightly.  “I’m not sure what morning smells like, Zoe.” I admitted.  “But I’ll take your word for it.”

Unlike Zoe – and her father – I am not a morning person. For the past four years, I had worked late into the night and then slept in each morning, while Zoe and her father arose early, got dressed, and had breakfast together. I’d get up just before he left for work. It was a routine that had served us well at the time. Now, however, I had to adjust my entire schedule. And I hadn’t quite mastered mornings yet.

I stroked Zoe’s fine dark hair and wound my fingers through her curls.  “So, what’s this about the chimney?” 

She lowered her voice again to a whisper.  “Emily and I were playing in the family room and we heard someone walking around inside the chimney.”

 “What do you mean – someone’s walking around in the chimney?” I asked.  Emily is Zoe’s favourite doll, so I only had the say-so of an imaginative four-and-a-half year old that there was something suspicious going on.  “What did it sound like?”

Zoe gave me her ‘how dumb can you be?’ look and said, very slowly. “Like .. someone .. is .. walking .. around .. inside .. the .. chimney. Like on leaves or paper or something. Sort of scrunchy.”

My brain cleared a little. I rubbed a hand over my face. “Well,” I theorized, “Maybe a raccoon or a squirrel found its way down the chimney and is walking around on the cinders above the fireplace. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will find its way out.”

“Emily doesn’t think so.”

Zoe was still whispering, so I lowered my voice as well. “Why not?”

“Because it was there yesterday, too.”

I looked directly at her now.  “Why didn’t you say something?”

“We didn’t want to bother you,” Zoe answered.  She plucked at the blanket. “We’re not supposed to bother you when you’re working.”

My chest tightened.  I tried to work only in the evenings after Zoe was in bed, but rush deadlines occasionally meant I had to get things done during the day, while she played quietly in the family room next to my office. Yesterday had been one of those days.

“You should have told me.” I said. “I would have listened. Honest.”

Zoe snuggled closer and wrapped her arms around me.  Then, in her very quietest voice, she said, “Maybe we can call Daddy and he can come and figure out what it is.”

The words struck like a blow to my stomach.  I glanced at the large undisturbed space beside me in the bed. Zoe hadn’t mentioned ‘Daddy’ in almost two weeks. It had been something of a relief not to think about him, not to have to keep explaining to Zoe that he had left us, and that he wasn’t coming back.  I should have known her silence on the matter wouldn’t last forever. 

I eased back just a little and looked directly into Zoe’s dark brown eyes.  There were tears there but I couldn’t let that sway me.  I had promised myself that I would protect her, but I would not lie to her.

“Daddy isn’t going to fix this, Zoe.  He doesn’t live here anymore, remember?”

Zoe sniffed. A tear rolled down her face. “Can’t he just come back to see what’s in the chimney?”

I pulled her towards me and held her close.  “No, honey, he can’t. He won’t.  I know you don’t understand it, but Daddy’s gone a long way away and he’s not going to come and fix things for us anymore. We’re going to have to fix things on our own from now on.”

“Can we?” The wavering in Zoe’s voice suggested that she wasn’t sure I was up to the task.

“Of course we can. And figuring out what’s inside the chimney is a pretty good place to start, don’t you think?” 

“I suppose …” Her voice trailed off as she nodded hesitantly.

 I sighed.  Zoe’s father and I had been together for six years when I’d discovered I was pregnant.  He hadn’t been thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father, but I’d done my best to convince him that we could make it work.  We’d bought a quaint little house in the country, he’d continued to work the long hours necessary to build his business, and I’d taken on freelance editing work in order to stay home and raise our daughter.  

Zoe’s ‘Daddy’ had never been a particularly involved or demonstrative father, but he was the only one she’d ever known. And now he was gone. It was only natural, I told myself, that she would miss him.

I looked down at her exquisite little face and wondered if she would ever understand what a burden we had been to him. In spite of my efforts to make the concept of ‘family’ work for all of us, he had come home one day about six months ago and announced that he was leaving. He said he was going to move his business three thousand miles away, and start his life over with someone else – someone without children.  He’d moved out that night.

Less than a month later, he’d signed the house over to me, relinquished all parental rights to Zoe, and disappeared from our lives.  We hadn’t heard from him since, and I didn’t expect we ever would.  That was especially hard for Zoe to grasp.  I kept hoping that her memory of him would gradually fade, along with the pain that he’d caused by leaving so abruptly.  Some days were better than others – it was obvious that today wasn’t starting out as one of those.

I ruffled Zoe’s curls.  “Let’s go see what’s in the chimney, shall we?” 

 It didn’t take long for me to verify what Zoe had reported.  There were definitely small ‘crunchy’ noises like footsteps coming from above the fireplace. They were accompanied by what sounded like the fluttering of wings every now and then. 

“I think it’s a bird,” I told her. “Although how it flew down the chimney is beyond me.” 

“What are we going to do?” she asked, and then, more quietly, “What would Daddy do?”

Her father would have suggested we leave it alone and let the bird die, then hire someone to clean out the chimney and cap it so it wouldn’t happen again. But I wasn’t going to tell Zoe that. Instead, I drew in a deep breath and announced, “We’re going to rescue it.”

Zoe’s eyes grew large. “How?”

 “Well,” I told her, with as much confidence as I could muster, “I think – if we can get it to come down into the fireplace, we can open the sliding door and it will just fly right outside.”  It would, wouldn’t it?  I tried to shut out visions of a soot-covered bird flying wildly around my house; I had to hope that the bird would co-operate. 

I made a pot of coffee for myself and two toasted peanut butter and banana sandwiches – Zoe’s favourite – for our breakfast as we discussed our ‘master plan’.  Zoe was animated and excited; she didn’t mention her father again.

By the time the sun was up, we had covered the carpet in front of the fireplace and some of the nearby furniture with several old sheets, and unlocked the sliding door.  We decided to wait until the bird had dropped down into the fireplace before we’d open it – and the fireplace screen – to let it fly out.

“Ready?” I asked Zoe.

“Ready,” she replied.

I reached up inside the fireplace and pushed the damper handle upwards.  It resisted momentarily, then opened with a loud clunk. I withdrew and pulled the fireplace screen closed.  Then we sat back to wait. 

The first half hour of our ‘rescue watch’ was fun. We lay on the floor in front of the fireplace and I read several books aloud to Zoe.  We heard the bird walking, and flapping its wings, several times. Each time, we would stop, listen, and watch hopefully for the bird to descend from the darkness of the chimney into the brighter fireplace below. But nothing happened. 

 “I bet the birdie would come out if we put some food out for it,” Zoe suggested.  

So I found an old shoe box, sprinkled breadcrumbs in the bottom of it, and placed it in the bottom of the fireplace. We returned to our hopeful vigil.

A half hour later, Zoe began to lose interest, and asked if she could watch TV.  I turned on Sesame Street, and poured myself another cup of coffee. At each commercial break, we would poke our heads inside the fireplace and look up at the open damper above. All we saw was darkness.

I was beginning to think that Zoe’s lack of confidence in my ability to solve basic household problems was justified when she announced that she and Emily were going to take another look in the fireplace. I pushed back the screen for her.

“It’s a duck!” Zoe’s pronouncement was accompanied by a tiny squeal. She pulled her head out of the fireplace, an astonished look on her face. “Mommy, it’s a duck. Like the one that swims around in our pond.” 

I thrust my own head into the fireplace and looked up. Sure enough, there was a female mallard duck regarding me almost quizzically from above.  I pulled my head back, closed the screen, and sat back on the carpet, trying to think of what to do next.  But the duck beat to me to it – with a fluttering of wings and a shower of ash, she dropped down into the fireplace.

“Zoe, open the sliding door,” I called.  She raced over and pulled the door back.

I reached into the fireplace and wrapped my hands around the now disoriented and very dirty bird. She didn’t resist.  Pulling her out, I sprinted across the room and out into the backyard. As soon as I released my grip, the duck spread her wings and flew away, obviously none the worse for her misadventure. Zoe and I watched her fly over the trees and disappear from sight.

“Wow. We rescued a duck.” Zoe’s voice was full of wonder.  “All by ourselves.”

“We sure did,” I agreed.  “We absolutely did. What do you think of that?”

Zoe’s reached up and took my soot-covered hand, squeezing it tightly. “I think,” she said, “It was just ducky.”

 

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