1. The Bunch
One day, we came home from a walk in the woods and found something waiting for us. It wasn’t a this, or a that, or a they; it was a bunch. The bunch was kind of hard and kind of soft. If you reached out to pet it, it changed colors where you touched it—little spots or streaks of turquoise morphing into tangerine, chartreuse to celadon, lilac to lime. Or, if you put your ear up close to it, it purred out a subtle hum. Otherwise, it just sat there, waiting for us. Its overall color was so nondescript it might well have blended in like a garden stone or tortoise and we’d have never even noticed if it weren’t sitting right smack dab in the middle of our welcome mat. The bunch wasn’t that big, but it was plenty big enough for us to have to step around it just to go through our front door.
—Oh brother, you said, a bunch. Now what?
—Don’t worry, I said. Let me think.
The last time we had some bunches around, they took up their residence here and there—all the way back at the end of the bread drawer, under the piles of yarn in your basket, between my rolled colorful socks. They weren’t so much trouble, really, but they were messy. Whatever went into the bunches came out. That’s just in the nature of things.
The next thing you said was something about how much bigger this bunch was than those in the first batch of bunches we had. This new, slightly oversized bunch wouldn’t be able to nest itself neatly among my balls of socks or nudge itself between our yeasty loaves of bread. Instead, it sat stolidly there on our porch, right at the end of the path to our home. While you, noticing this, were not about to let it go.
—Bunches don’t come in just ones, you said. No one ends up with only one bunch.
We stood on our front porch, regarding the bunch and remembering how nice it had been on our walk in the woods. There were actual rocks there and green growing trees, and the wind, like a breath in the branches above, just blew all our troubles away. Now we were home, I knew and you knew—we both knew—you were right. One bunch wasn’t so bad. Even a big bunch like this one, you could work around it—step to one side or shove it away with the tip of your boot or the heel of your shoe—but a whole bunch of bunches—watch out. That little purr coming out from it now would swell to a cacophonous roar. Remembering my fondness for sleep, I regarded it with rue.
But what to do? You weren’t supposed to harbor bunches anymore. Before, okay, a bunch or two, no problem. You could keep them in your home, like pets or pedestals. The kids liked to touch them to make their colors turn, and despite their messiness, they could be useful. If you rolled them around on a shelf or the floor, they cleaned up your messes along with their own. They could hum you to sleep with a gentle whooshing from underneath your bed. But after what happened with the last wave of them—everyone drowning in bunches, our homes and our streets overrun—no more. You find a bunch, you call it in. That was the rule.
We stood there for a while, looking at the bunch.
—I’m going to call it in, you said.
And then we let your words hang haplessly between us for another furtive while, until I answered back.
—No, don’t do that.
As soon as I said that, it was clear to us both that we’d come to a crux. We did not want to know what happened to the bunches after people called them in. Whatever it was, it was sure to be unpleasant. We knew this from before when, if you stepped on a bunch by accident—and really, who could help it?—it squealed, not squeaked. Remembering this got us thinking, for there’s a big difference between a squeal and a squeak, even if it’s only one letter. Thinking our thoughts, a quietness fell over us, with even the bunch shutting off its subtle hum. Back when our little house was full up with them, after a while, a connection grew among us, for certainly—it’s hard to know quite how to say this—they had a kind of companionability to them, not unlike the one between you and me. In addition to their purring, the soft parts of them were so very, very soft—every bit as soft as the softest parts of you.
What I’m trying to say is, standing there on our front porch just back from the woods and faced with this new, slightly oversized bunch, we found it hard to choose between its pros or cons. It was not supposed to be there, but it was. The sun was going down, and in the air, a chill was rising. Despite the rules, we both wanted to go in, for our troubles blown away by the wind in the woods were beginning to gather behind us again, and I could not help but wonder what would happen if I stooped down to pick up the bunch and took it inside.
What, for that matter, if you did?
2. You and Your Duck/Dog
I had a white duck and you had a brown one, but you always called yours a dog. There wasn’t so much of a difference, you said, between a duck and a dog—a u and a c as opposed to an o, otherwise, pretty much the same. That was back when ducks and dogs were all the rage, when spelling was a skill, when the first thing you did when you woke up in the morning was eat your breakfast, and the last, before you went to sleep, was brush and floss your teeth with something minty.
My duck’s name was Ramsay; yours was Clyde. Some of the creatures people paraded like pets back then had stripes and spots, but ours were solid-colored—one white, one brown.
Looking back, I’m not sure pet is the right word.
Looking back, I’m not sure mint is either.
Once, mints came in bright little tins and multiple flavors. Later, we mashed snippings from our own back yards, but if it was mint or not, who can say?
The ducks were supposed to lay eggs, since that was once the chicken’s job before what happened to the chickens. Do you remember that? Some of the people were gloomy and sad then, but others said it had always been coming and now it was here.
Ducks are prettier anyway, but what did I know? My head was small and my knees were close to the ground, where I kept my eyes peeled as if to find something of value and not to look too far ahead.
Duck eggs were greener and crunchier, and they tasted like lettuce, but you could still eat them for breakfast first thing in the morning.
Your duck/dog was an eggless mute, but mine could rouse the dead. Every morning when the sun rose, it waddled over to my bed and honked—or brayed—right in front of my face to let me know it was time to wake up. Between roused and wake up, all but one of the letters are different, but even so, pretty much the same.
I always wondered how you knew when to swing your feet out of your bed and place them, like so, on the cold floor when your duck/dog just sat there all quiet, without any useful purpose at all. Anyone would have to wonder if there was something wrong with it sitting on the floor and never even opening its bill to bray or bite or make a peep. Well, you could blame yourself, I used to think, for you’re the one who picked it, just as I’d picked my own fluffy white one with its quackable quack, although, in truth, we hadn’t had much real choice, in all the rush. But I thought what I thought, as if you were somehow to blame for your eggless mute duck/dog that couldn’t even wake you up, whereas I got what I got.
Looking back, it’s clear as day there must have been a little bit of cruelty to me even then. A secret kind of cruelty, I mean, the kind you keep close to your chest. Since there’s no point anymore to being anything but honest, I guess I’d say that even if I had found something in the dirt—a diamond or a piece of meat—I wouldn’t have shared it with you. I’d have kept it for myself and polished it or eaten it, all just for me.
Ramsay and Clyde were sister and brother. Only the sisters laid eggs. We didn’t really know that when we picked them. For one thing, between a chicken and a rooster, you could tell right off, but between a duck and drake, not so fast. You were supposed to look for a little curled feather near the tail, but you had to pick quick, or you’d end up with nothing. Being small, we darted out between the legs of others and grabbed what we could.
Is that why you called yours a dog? No bray and no eggs.
With the sad marbly black of his eyes, it was always as if Clyde knew what was coming, even if we did not. Later, everyone would say it was as clear as day, after what had happened to the chickens. Once they were gone, some of us hoarded a few of their eggs, like a relic or a treasure. The people who kept them proclaimed they meant to keep them for at least a hundred years. Every time they said a hundred years, something caught in my chest, like a tear or a cry. Even though my knees were getting higher, I couldn’t forget what happened to Ramsay and Clyde after what happened next.
A long time passed.
And then another.
Robins lay beautiful eggs, which are blue. But they are very, very, very small.
Once the bill of a duck starts to go flaccid, there’s really nothing you can do. First it gets a little squishy, and then—I don’t know—it droops.
Back then, at the start of it all, we would huddle together, you and me, and sometimes we’d whisper about what we remembered from when you had a duck/dog and I had a duck. Everyone did what they had to do, but I knew how you felt about Clyde, and you knew how I felt about Ramsay, and notwithstanding any secret strand of cruelty in me, that should have been enough. Between the knees and the head lies the heart. My heart was not big, like yours. My heart was as small and as hard as a century egg. Just what did you think was going to happen, when push came to shove, oh you? You were the one with the eggless mute duck/dog and the duck/dog’s sad marbly eyes. Didn’t you know I would have plucked them out and served them to you on a platter if that would have changed what was coming?
Clyde knew. I knew. Why didn’t you?
Then and now share only one letter, but they’re nothing at all the same. Sometimes I go to look at the spot on your porch where you and Clyde used to sit side-by-side, an eggless mute duck/dog and a boy whose heart was as big and wide as the world. You should have known. I should have known.
Even so, I kept one egg, just in case and just for you.
The only thing left to say is this: my knees are a lot higher now and my head is as big as a melon, but I still keep my eyes peeled close to the ground as if there were something to find.