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The Long Paddle

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One evening, in an island in a lake in a park, a mute swan (Cygnus olor) with a starred band around his neck and a Gadwall duck (Anas strepera) with one wing were roughly awakened by a pair of grabbing hands. The hands belonged to a male human (Homo sapiens) juvenile and he was not a stranger to the swan.

The swan woke the duck with his thrashing but was, regardless, bound into a sack and carried away.

The duck followed the kidnapper across the water and up the bank but there, the kidnapper's longer legs outpaced him. The duck could not fly with his single wing. He ran as fast as he could, wing outstretched to cut through the air, but lost the trail while he was still inside the park.

*

In the morning, in the lake in the park, the one-winged duck was swimming in broad circles. "Nheck," he called, far louder and more persistent than usual. "Nheck, nheck, nheck!"

Lestrade, human, happily employed as a zookeeper, stopped on the bridge to watch him. "Morning, Johnny. Where's your mate, then?"

The duck hopped up onto the island and nosed around their old nest, nearly disintegrated from age. "Nheck! Nheck!"

Lestrade called his colleague, Sally, as he continued on his way to work. "The Swan Detective's off somewhere," he said.

"Of course. Menacing passers-by again?"

"No, I can't see him, but his duck is tearing the lake up looking for him."

"We don't have time for him. Some arsehole broke in and stole some gear from the bird shed. I can't even tell what, it's so jumbled. I've called the police but I don't know what to report yet."

The kidnapper had, in fact, stolen a swan bag from the shed along with some useful-looking knives, and had carried the swan away on his bicycle restrained in a large knapsack.

The kidnapper had no particular plan for the swan. Confused thoughts of blood on feathers swam through his mind. He could not stand the thought of a bird being given credit for jailing him; it was offensive to his sense of humanity.

The kidnapper had taken the swan east along Marylebone Street and then south toward the Thames until he reached his goal, the Tower of London. One day he intended to wear the Crown Jewels. Until then, he would content himself with a royal swan.

He parked his bicycle and sidled up to mingle with his school class as they exited a bus on Lower Thames Street. The teacher saw him. "Moriarty! Where were you?"

The kidnapper shrugged. "Here, Miss. Sitting beside Horne." He put his arm around a younger boy and grinned. The boy, justifiably terrified of the kidnapper, nodded.

The teacher frowned. She most certainly did not overlook him; she always had her eye on him. With the other boy backing his claim, though, she had no cause to punish him, and she waved them into the building.

"I'm with you until I say otherwise," the kidnapper hissed into the younger boy's ear. The younger boy nodded again. He would obey. He had seen what happened when Moriarty was displeased.

The kidnapper hung back, and glancing at the CCTV cameras, slipped down the road and into the Three Quays building site. He found a nice comfortable spot between two massive stacks of concrete blocks and opened the knapsack.

The swan was hot, hungry, and crosser than he'd ever been in his life; that is, he was very cross indeed. The kidnapper was ready with his knife, but the swan was ready with his beak. He lashed out and struck the kidnapper in the throat, making him choke. The kidnapper coughed and gagged as the swan scrabbled out of the knapsack. The velcro straps of the swan bag ripped free and fell away.

The swan spread his wings and hissed. The kidnapper crawled backwards, still gagging. The swan charged and the kidnapper scrambled to his feet.

Both swan and human fell over the concrete blocks and down into the deep foundation of the building site.

*

The duck swam out into the lake to eat, but once he had eaten enough to survive, he sat in the water and looked at the sky. A pair of greylag geese (Anser anser) tried to crowd him out of the best grazing spot, but he snatched the weed from one's beak and bit the other. He wasn't giving up yet.

The two magpies (Pica pica) who lived nearby watched him closely. It was their habit to follow the movements of this duck and this swan. They pecked through the old, decaying nest but found nothing but a few down feathers and a shiny snail shell, all of which they transported to their own nest and cataloged, but which yielded no interesting information. They cawed at each other and took flight.

And another animal watched the duck, unobserved by any other living creature. This was a tomcat (Felis catus) with mottled orange coloring, thick cheeks, and short, scarred ears and nose. He was enormous for a cat, roughly seven kilograms, and around his neck was a ragged nylon collar that bore a tag reading "Sebastian." He crouched at the edge of the water. His claws flexed in the soft earth as his quick green eyes followed the duck around the lake.

*

The swan ran through the building site and into the vast waterway beside it. He felt much better as the water cooled his feet. He raised up and flapped his wings, straightening his feathers, then bent and drank some water.

The water was bitter and oily. He grunted, annoyed. He didn't know where he was. He squeaked as a boat splashed him as it motored past.

Humans called the waterway the Thames. It was very busy, not good at all for swans. The current pushed the swan gently eastward, further from home, though he didn't realize it. He floated and preened his feathers, righting the mess the human had created and chasing the foul oil taste from his tongue.

A covey of boats zoomed past, carrying him spinning in its wake. He chased them to show them a lesson, but they outpaced him casually. The swan puffed himself up and hissed a challenge to all these speedy things around him.

Whipping his head around, he saw something familiar: Another swan. He charged it at full speed.

The other swan was, in fact, a boat with a swan-shaped prow which was carrying tourists up the river. The tourists laughed and started filming as the swan bounced off the boat.

The swan shook his head and charged again. He was not afraid of any other swans, no matter how weirdly big and misshapen. He beat it furiously with his wings, only becoming angrier when it didn't move.

"Hey! That's enough of that! Shoo!" The pilot of the boat pressed on a loud horn.

It was the loudest noise the swan had ever heard. His head rang for a moment as he backed up from the terrible sound. Even the peacock he had raised was not so loud.

"Our local celebrity, the Swan Detective! He's far from home," the pilot said. "He lives in Regent's Park. I'll just put in a call to his police pals so they can take him home."

The swan wanted his home, where it was quiet, it was sweet, and most importantly, where he had his mate. He started running across the surface of the water, flapping furiously, until he gained enough lift to carry him into the air.

"There he goes!" the pilot says. "Well, that was an adventure! A round of applause for the Swan Detective!"

The sharp noise of human hands chased the swan high above the city.

*

Mrs Hudson visited the duck at lunchtime. He was sitting in the weeds by the lake, ignoring everything around him. "Oh, my poor dear boy," she sighed. She sat and watched him a while.

The duck didn't notice her concern. His wingless side ached and nothing much interested him. Some distance away, the cat lay under a bench, the tip of his tail twitching.

*

Mina Lestrade texted her father with a video titled "Swan Detective tries to arrest our boat!"

"How did DI Swan get all the way to the Thames?" she wrote her father.

"I wouldn't put anything past that mad bastard," Greg Lestrade responded. Later, though, he recalled the break-in at the zoo and wondered if there had been foul play. He contacted friends in the Met's Marine Policing Unit and asked them to keep an eye out for the swan.

The swan, though, was well away from the river. The swan knew that there was land in the lake, surrounded by water, and the water of the lake in its turn was surrounded by land, and the land was surrounded by road. Land was green and road was grey and water was shiny.

That logic in place, he looked around. The road went on for miles! Road and buildings in great gray-brown swathes. He wondered if this was the zoo that went on for so long. There were small buildings in the park but the zoo was the only structure he couldn't examine from all angles.

But he saw cool green, then, a vast inviting field with shiny in the middle, surely this was home? And he swooped down and landed in Coram's Fields.

In the middle of a youth football game.

"SWAN!" a child yelled. The other children screamed and ran in all directions. The football bounced off the swan, who tried to bite it.

*

The female magpie strutted up and down before the cat. He eyed her and she eyed his silver heart-shaped tag.

The cat had tangled with a raven (Corvus corax) in his youth and was wary of corvids ever since. He'd been stalking her chicks and the raven had torn his ear nearly off, carved deep furrows in his side, and broken his tail in two places. The magpie, though black and white rather than all black, looked enough like the raven that he had no intention to attack.

The cat growled anyway, warning her. The magpie puffed up and yelled back. The male magpie, meanwhile, darted down and tried to release the buckle of the collar. (The magpies had worked out buckles a long time ago. They had a small collection of shiny buckles and carabiners stolen from unwary humans.) The cat whirled on his haunches and swiped at the magpie, who bobbed into the air above him, chattering at him. The female magpie dove at the cat and tried the buckle as well, unsuccessfully. The cat ran off along the path with his ragged ears laid back.

The duck sat in the old nest with his beak against his chest. He sighed.

*

A small child (human, three years old, male, named Dave) offered the swan a biscuit. The swan took it and ate it. It was the most pleasant thing that had happened to him since he was seized by the kidnapper.

"There he is!" Two police officers ran toward the swan with a net. The child screeched with delight (he loved police and would in fact become a police officer twenty-two years later). The swan took off running with his neck outstretched.

There were children in every direction. (The space was a massive playground where adults were not allowed without a child. It was not a good place for wild birds, though it was a very pleasant place for the domestic animals in the miniature farm. A goat [Capra aegagrus hircus] was watching the swan with great amusement.) The swan flapped his wings to run faster, accidentally knocking a toddler into the grass, but there was a fence ahead.

The swan knew he did not want to be captured again. His feathers were still bent and painfully disarrayed from the bag. Finally, he turned in another direction and started flapping and running across the football pitch. One police officer held back the other, saying "Leave him! He's trying to fly. It takes ages for those buggers to get themselves in the air."

The swan took off, heading north. The police officer was forced to apologize for his language by the angry parents around him.

*

In the park by the lake, the cat caught and ate a mouse (Mus musculus) and then crept back toward the duck's home. (The mouse was shocked to find himself captured and eaten, but not surprised; he had been expecting such an event ever since he had left his former home under the bin.)

In the air, the swan was looking for water, not land, which was more difficult but not impossible. He simply had to distinguish glass windows from standing water.

He did find water, and he touched down in Regent's Canal.

He wasn't terribly far from home. He knew when he was at home, the sun shone at a certain angle, the water tasted a certain way, and the traffic made a certain kind of noise. This water was similar, the sun looked right, but the traffic made the wrong noise, and there was no grass beside the water. The water was confined in stone walls with small boats anchored along the sides.

The swan eyed the boats, wary that they would start speeding around like the other boats did, but they stayed put. He began to swim west, which as it happened was the right direction.

The swan spent the night in the canal, longing for home.

*

When morning dawned, the duck heard the call of the peacock (Pavo cristatus) named Norbury, a not infrequent sound. "Mee-awe! Mee-awe!"

The duck muttered lowly as he tramped around his lonely nest. He was cold without the heat of the swan. He was a small bird, only one kilo, and his missing wing left him more vulnerable to chill than others of his kind. The duck slipped into the water and drifted toward the choice grazing grounds.

The two geese were in his territory again. His heart wasn't in it to try to chase them off. When they hissed at him, he swam off in another direction.

On the canal, the swan was hungry. The canal was shallow and didn't have many good things to eat in it. On it, though...

The swan leaned up in the water and snatched a piece bread and butter off the plate of a man (68 years old, grey-coloured, a painter by trade) breakfasting on the deck of his houseboat. "Oi!" the man yelled. The swan tossed his head, throwing the bread down his neck. He cleaned up the soggy bread floating in the water around him then looked at the man again. "Nothing but tea left, ta very much, sir!" the man said. He picked up his dishes and retreated inside.

In the zoo, Norbury called again. "Mee-awe! MEE-AWE!" He was trying to impress a young peahen. The peahen was not impressed, but in the canal, the swan perked up his head. He knew that call. And hearing the direction it was coming from, he knew the way home. He began to swim west.

It was a long swim but the swan was determined. He had had enough of the world outside the park. He wanted his lake. He wanted his mate. So he swam as fast as he could, ignoring the humans around him.

The humans did not ignore him. They snapped pictures of him and his distinctive neckband and tweeted them out, where Mina Lestrade found them and sent them to her dad. "He's on vacation," she said.

"If he's taken up with a lady swan I'm going to thump him for breaking that duck's heart," Greg Lestrade replied.

The swan's path took him past the British Transport Police building, where one cop nudged another. "Isn't that an Inspector's badge?" she said.

"I know that swan! He foiled a robbery so they gave him a promotion," the other cop said.

"So he was a constable already?"

"All swans are constables. Special appointment from the Queen."

"You lying arse," she said, punching him in the shoulder.

"They are!"

The swan kept going.

And going, past the wall beside London Zoo at the edge of the park.

And going, so that by nightfall, he came to a fence along the canal. On the other side of the fence, though he did not know it, was home. He kept swimming, expecting the canal to meet with the lake, water to join with water.

The canal did not meet with the lake. The swan swam until he was exhausted.

*

In the third day of the swan's disappearance, the duck waddled slowly to the lake to eat. His legs and wing were stiff and aching.

The cat lounged among the plants on the shore, his thumping tail stirring the greenery over his head. His slitted eyes homed in on the one-winged duck among all the birds on the lake.

"Quok," the male magpie said to the female.

"Kek-kek," the female magpie said. They both looked at the cat's shiny, alluring tag.

In the zoo, the peahen was still ignoring Norbury. He puffed up his tail and shouted at the top of his voice. "MEEEE-AWE!!!!!"

The duck raised his head and looked toward the zoo. So did the swan, still down in the canal.

East. The peacock was east, so the swan had passed home. He grunted and started running along the water, flapping as hard as he could, and he flapped up into the air and over some train tracks as a train rushed by underneath him, knocking him sideways. He fell down between cars, grunting.

The train was slowing as it came to a station. The swan flapped awkwardly and got himself up on top of it. He didn't see the roof of the station rapidly approaching. He flapped, running along the roof of the train away from the station, toes scratching the painted metal, determined to reach his mate, and when the train entered the station he was winging his way through the air.

Greg Lestrade knelt beside the bridge. The boggy ground soaked his knees but he didn't mind. "Here, how are you doing?" he asked the duck. He tossed some chopped spinach to coax the duck closer.

The duck paddled closer to scoop up the greenery

"I wish I knew where the Detective has got to," Lestrade said to the duck. "I can't believe he'd just leave you!" He tossed the rest of the spinach into the water and stood. He wasn't really sure what to do to locate the swan. His daughter could tell him where he'd been, but not where he was going to be, and he couldn't really call out the police on a wild swan not hurting anyone. He started on his way to work mulling the question over.

The duck swallowed the floating spinach. One of the geese paddled into his space and grabbed some spinach from under him, nudging him away, and the duck grunted and moved aside. The goose was twice his size and he didn’t care to fight.

The cat pushed to his feet, eyes locked on the duck. The cat's muscles tensed as he stared at the duck.

The other goose joined the first, crowding the duck. The geese were mated, expecting an egg in the fulness of time, and were too focused on their biology to be kind to an aging duck. The duck snorted to clear his beak of water and waddled up onto the shore to sit in the warm sunlight.

The cat slipped through the tall shrubs by the water's edge. His ears and whiskers perked forward. His eyes never left the duck.

The duck settled in a sunbeam and closed his eyes.

The cat pounced. His teeth aimed for the back of the duck's neck, his claws tried to find purchase in the duck's feathers. He tried to pin the duck to the ground with his vast weight difference.

The duck honked in surprise and alarm. He twisted his head around and bit the nose of the cat. The cat's claws grazed his skin but couldn't find purchase in the thick feathers. The cat rallied, though, and bit the duck's beak in turn. The duck squirmed out of the claws and tried to reach the water, where he had the advantage. The geese flapped about the lake in their panic.

The magpies saw their chance and darted in to seize the cat's name tag. The female flapped at the cat's head while the male grabbed the tag with his claws. The nylon collar resisted, but the male tugged hard. The cat growled and snapped at the female.

The female magpie pecked the cat on the forehead but the cat ignored her with the thrill of the hunt. He sank his teeth through the feathers of the duck's neck until he tasted blood. The duck thrashed and beat the cat with his beak fruitlessly.

The duck had fought bigger enemies--had defeated the human Moriarty, in fact--but the cat had his throat and he couldn't find a way out. The cat kicked the duck with his back feet, closing his teeth inexorably against the duck's airway. They slipped into the mud at the edge of the water and threads of blood

And then, with a vast pounding of wings, the absent swan returned home.

The first blow of the swan's feet was enough to put the cat off entirely. He tucked his head and shoulders and tried to run out of the lake, but his feet scrabbled on the mud bank. The magpies harassed him over the promise of his shiny silver tag.

Lestrade dove in and grabbed the cat by the back of his neck. "Hah! You're nicked, my old beauty!" He dragged the cat up the bank, his hand firmly grasping the loose scruff of the cat's neck. "Thought you could chase the ducks in my turf, did you? I think not!" The cat growled. A passer-by (human, nineteen years old, who wanted a new bag anyway) volunteered his backpack to contain the cat.

The duck righted himself and shook out his feathers. He coughed a few times. He was bleeding, but nothing that wouldn't heal. He rubbed his head on the swan's breast.

The swan squeaked softly and tucked his head beside the duck's. He was home.

*

That night, the duck and the swan roosted together, saying nothing, their necks entwined.

*

"I'm just worried," Lestrade told Mrs. Hudson, the head zookeeper. "He nearly got his arse kicked by a cat. They're getting old and it's time they settled down somewhere."

"They're wild. This is as settled as they should be."

"I just want to know they're all right," Lestrade said.

Mrs. Hudson sighed. She was fond of the duck and swan as well. They'd had so many adventures under her care...

"Don't make me bring my daughter round to cry," Lestrade said. "She'll do it."

"You silly boy. I suppose I do have that pond in my garden," Mrs. Hudson said.

*

The duck was startled when he was caught up in a bag a day later. The swan was offended. He hissed at Lestrade.

“Go!” Lestrade told Sally. She pedaled and the bicycle shot off, Lestrade holding tight to Sally, the duck slung across his back. The swan, seeing the duck, chased them.

It wasn’t far to Mrs. Hudson’s flat. The swan ran, flapping and hissing, the entire way, until Lestrade tumbled the duck out of the bag in her back garden and dashed through her kitchen door. The duck, dazed by his abduction, rolled into a small pond.

The swan flapped over the garden gate, stopping cold when he saw the duck. He squeaked through his nose, head erect, wings proud.

The duck grunted. He paddled his feet and shook his feathers out as he floated.

When the duck and the swan investigated the pond, they found it clean and clear. It was lined with plastic, which was very strange, but the swan stepped in and floated around acceptably.

Bees lived in a hive mounted on the garden wall beside the pond. The garden was planted with shrubs and flowers with cool grasses underfoot. A pair of wild rabbits peeked out of their warren dug in the corner of the fence beside the pavement. There was even a frog to look at. Best of all, there was a nesting spot on the far side of the pond just fit to be lined with feathers for an egg.

"Nheck, nheck," the duck said. He nestled under the swan's wing, warming himself under the long feathers. The swan bent his neck and nibbled the duck's beak.

"Now, I won't tell the Queen if you won't," Mrs. Hudson said to Lestrade.

Lestrade just beamed.

*

Epilogue:

The cat was returned to his owner, who was not very excited to see him again. She accepted him because her son James liked the cat and needed some company while his legs were in casts after his fall. As well, the cat was far more docile after he was neutered.

When Mina Lestrade grew up, she became part of the first colony on Mars, and introduced a small selection of waterfowl to the colony "because it just wasn't home without some demented swans," she said. "Feeding spinach to the ducks" soon after was a euphemism for courting in the colony.

The duck and the swan spent the rest of their lives in the pond by the bees. If they were happy or unhappy, they didn't have a method of expression, but they never did try to leave, and one day, one incredible day, the swan watched Mrs. Hudson mix, bake, and slice a loaf of bread, and he found the answer to his life's question.

the end.