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ANIMALS

In the Swim

August 24, 1986|KATHERINE HOLDEN | Katherine Holden is a free - lance writer living in Santa Barbara.

Of course, she did look just like a duck: white with black, beady eyes, and tail feathers that stuck up like a hand in a feathered glove.

It would be hard to pick her out of a flock of identical ducks. I didn't have to. I had only her, and a few chickens to keep her company.

She did know her name. One day I tested it. I called, "Susie?" No answer.

"Elaine?" No answer.

"Jemimah?"

"Quack, quack, quack."

Ducks usually live 8 to 14 years. I had Jemimah 11 years. That's longer than my marriage.

Jemimah and the assorted hens became known as the girls. In the ad for our house, the pen had been billed as a corral; that was stretching the word a bit. But it was perfect for the girls. We enclosed it with chicken wire, burying the wire in the ground to keep out predators.

When I let the girls out to enjoy the grass and insects, the hens would scoot over to wallow in the soft dirt while Jemimah would scout for snails and make little sounds of delight as she explored the yard. As she moved across the lawn, the hens would follow, fanning out behind her.

Being an older duck, Jemimah had trouble forming her eggs properly. It seems that all birds need calcium for egg formation; without it, the eggs often become impacted. One time, that meant a trip to the veterinarian; a duck with an impacted egg is a very sore duck.

Jemimah soon learned that every morning, along with the leftovers that I'd give her, she also got a piece of sprouted wheat bread, never noticing the calcium drops I'd added. If she was in her pond, she'd glide to the edge and move her feet like a guinea pig inside a wheel to get out quickly for her morning treat.

Jemimah was the pearl of the garden and became a part of the fabric of my life: the daily ritual of taking her the bread, talking to her and turning on the hose in her favorite spot so she could grunt and root in the flowing water, the way ducks love to; collecting her feathers each year when she molted, and arranging them in jars, decorating the kitchen; picking ripe cherry tomatoes from the vine and sharing the sun-warmed rubies with her.

When it was time to gather the girls together back in the pen, all I had to do was bring a little sack of food, shake it and call out her name, and she'd come waddling as fast as she could, with the others close behind. Because I had Jemimah first and added her companions later, they had imprinted on her. That was natural.

What wasn't usual was her extra-protective stance. One day, when the girls were on the lawn and a chicken hawk flew overhead, Jemimah immediately herded the hens into the bushes. Another time, a dog came into the yard and killed some of the hens. Back in the pen, Jemimah crowded the survivors into the corner and stood guard.

Protector that she was, she couldn't protect herself against the coyote. One dug under the buried wire--I found his deep claw marks--and took Jemimah during the night.

It's been a year, and I think of her often--how when I'd clean her pond each week, she'd swim all around in the clean water, diving and zooming back up with tremendous energy, flapping her wings. Then, all of a sudden, she'd calm down and glide serenely over the water, opening and closing her bill without a sound coming out.

I gathered that was duck ecstasy.

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