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The Great Escape : Remembering the duck that got away, a meat-eater gives thanks for dinner.

June 04, 1997|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Huneven's first novel, "Round Rock," will be published by Knopf this summer

Two years ago on Dec. 24, I stood in line with two friends outside Superior Poultry in Chinatown for two hours to buy two freshly butchered ducks for Christmas Eve dinner and--for good measure--one live duck to set free.

We had agreed on this: two ducks to cook, one to set loose at the river. It seemed an appropriate thing to do. We had a friend who was dangerously ill and, according to Buddhist theology, whatever merit might be gained in liberating a duck from death could be dedicated to our sick friend. And knowing that we'd be freeing a duck made it somewhat easier to stand there on Broadway.

At Superior, live poultry, housed in cages on the lot, went in the side door. Shortly, the same poultry emerged through the front door butchered, dressed and bagged, making us a lot more conscious of the butchering process than usual.

The tiers of caged birds, the occasional floating feather, the bags sagging from wrists as customers squeezed back through the line with their purchases brought home to us all the contradictory emotions of eating meat.

Such pondering did not, however, dissuade us from a duck dinner--or from a riverside duck release. We waited and waited until we'd moved inside beside wire cages full of chirping game birds--tiny quail, pigeons, partridge--all facing the dinner plate. We bought our ducks: The two butchered ones wrapped and handed to us in white bags; the live one shoved into a greasy box (which once had held duck breasts).

I carried the box to the car, the cargo unevenly weighted and given to sudden shifts. We put the box in the trunk and drove to a street in Atwater that ended at the river.

"What is the name of this duck?" one friend asked.

"Frederick," said the other.

*

I have spent a lot of time walking along the Los Angeles River as it runs past Griffith Park and the village of Atwater. Here the river has a natural bottom, and now that the Army Corps of Engineers has let the water run year-round, nature has moved back in with admirable virulence.

Rocks have lodged midstream and islands have formed. Bamboo thickets, cattails, cottonwoods and oaks have taken root, and hundreds of water fowl have made the fetid waterway their home. I've seen egrets and herons, the occasional gull and cormorant and even a grouchy kingfisher perched on rocks in the shallow stream, but mostly I've seen ducks--mallards, cinnamon teals, hooded mergansers, mud hens, once a buffle-headed drake and, yes, even a colony of snow white ducks down by the train yards.

It was our plan, then, to set this duck free in the water with the hope that he would find ducks of his ilk to hang out with.

I should say that I'd gotten the idea for this little ritual from Buddhist friends in San Francisco, who had recently bought two mallards at a similar poultry store in Chinatown there and then released them in Golden Gate Park. After a few moments of stunned uncertainty, my friends told me, the mallards had awakened to their new, unimaginable freedom and swum merrily off in a lake.

Well . . . we carried our boxed friend down the canted concrete riverbanks. I opened the flaps. Frederick was yellowed, dirty, lanky and no doubt scared to death. We tipped the box until he scrambled onto the bank. We waited for him to stand. He wobbled to his feet. He slapped one pancake-sized foot on the other. His legs, which had an uncanny resemblance to cooked bucatini, could not hold his weight; he was, proportionately, a big-breasted guy. He had not been engineered for walking. In fact, it became immediately apparent that this duck had never walked before in his life.

But then he stuck his pale bill in the water and something happened. His whole body stiffened and craned toward it and, with absolutely no aplomb, he scrambled in, immersing himself with an unmistakably ecstatic wriggle. Home! Tears popped from our eyes. He knew where he was, we thought. He'll know what to do.

Next, he tried to climb on a rock. He had some problems with those noodly legs, though, and with the fact that he kept stepping on his own feet and toppling back into the drink. But he was persistent, and with our urging and clapping, he finally got himself up on a rock.

The problem then was that he was wet. Very wet. Most ducks have a thick layer of down that makes water do the proverbial roll off the duck's back. Frederick lacked this natural waterproofing. His feathers were wet and all clumped up, and all you could see was cold pink flesh. Goose flesh, as it were. He was wet, and he was cold. And he couldn't walk. And his wings were worse than pathetic.

So we did what we had to do. We grabbed him off that rock, stuck him back in his disgusting box and took him back to my house, where we dried him off with a hair dryer--a process he seemed to enjoy.

Time was a-wasting by then. We had a five- or six- or seven-course dinner to cook, and all we'd done so far was buy ducks.

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