In the middle years of my childhood, my family lived in a big old white three-story house with a porch along the front, in a small town in southern New York. The front door opened into a hall, with living room and dining room each through its own door to the right and left, gracious rooms, each with a fireplace.
Though he worked in the city, my father was a sportsman—a fisherman and a hunter, and it was always the season for something, no matter how bad the weather. One Sunday night in late October, when I was about nine, my parents had had several couples over for dinner. Since duck-hunting season was starting, the men were planning a hunt on Long Island Sound the following weekend. My father had gotten his decoys from the basement and had laid them out on the dining room table. The decoys were old-fashioned, carved from blocks of cork to look like ducks sitting on the water, most of them painted in the brown color of mallard hens or darker ducks, a few of them with the bright blue-green heads and wing panels of male mallards. The men handled them and untangled their lines and wrapped the lines neatly around each decoy’s lead anchor. The decoys were roughly the size of real ducks, and the dozen or so made a compact raft on the table.
The weather had been cold and windy. Dinner and talk of the hunt in front of a fire in the living room, with bourbon or scotch to add to the fire’s warmth, made the evening so pleasant that it went on later than it might have normally, on a work night. The guests left about 11:00. The family went to bed.
During the night the storm intensified, with high winds and heavy rain. By morning it was just raining. Feeling a little thick-headed, my father put on his coat and hat, picked up his briefcase, and walked to the front door, passing the dining room on his right. Something in the periphery of his vision in the room seemed to move. It was disturbing. A little concerned about his mind, he stopped to take a better look.
On the table among the decoys a real mallard hen had gotten to her feet and was looking back at him uncertainly.
Soot on the duck and the table and in front of the fireplace showed that she had fallen down the chimney; she must have tried to land on it in the storm. She was unhurt and able to fly, and we caught her, in an upper corner of the room, after a wild and comical chase, in a long-handled crabbing net. We extricated her from the net, held her wings against her body, inspected her, and stroked her soothingly. At the edge of the porch, my father released her, and she flew away.
Ever since, all who were there or heard the story have enjoyed imagining the incident from the duck’s point of view—the powerful storm, landing on a tall thing and falling, flapping helplessly, down a terrible dark hole to land on burnt logs and sooty ashes and emerge into a strange place, where, as daylight came up, she found other ducks, sitting placidly on a high platform, waiting… for what? She joined them, comforted but wondering, before, after another terrifying ordeal of flight and capture, she was handled by monsters and then made her escape. What a story she had, yet what duck would ever believe it?