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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Duckling

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i. It was so beautiful out in the country. It was summer.

Jordan's first memory was something her mom took a snapshot of, so she was never a hundred percent sure it wasn't imagined from years of seeing the Polaroid in the scrapbook titled "The Rileys - Our Loving Family." In the picture, she was sitting by her little sister's crib in the living room - Bethany was still too young to be sharing her room, which meant Jordan was about three or four - and clutching a storybook. Her mouth was open, startled, and the flash had turned her eyes demonic red, but her mom, leafing through the pages to embarrass Jordan in front of company, always used to smooth her hand alongside the photo and say fondly, "Never could stop our Duckling reading."

Jordan doesn't remember if she could actually read, at that point, or if she'd just memorized the book. What she does remember is that the night was hot, and their crappy noisy air conditioner was broken so that even a sheet was too stifling to lie under, and there was a mosquito in her room keeping her even more awake than the thought of how the monsters in the dark could see her lying exposed in her nightshirt without a single blanket to hide her. And at some point, she got so sick of sweating and flailing around in the darkness trying to swat phantom itches and just her general awakeness that she wanted to cry. But only babies fussed all night, and she had a new determination lately not to be called a baby.

So she grabbed one of her books, and the flashlight that was by her bed as some small protection against monsters, and ventured out into her night-silent house. Her heart was in her mouth, and the shag carpet under her feet felt warm as a living thing. When she came into the living room, the light in her hand bobbing, Bethy made a querulous half-cry that made Jordan feel a little better. "Shush," she said, superior in her years, "I'll read you a story."

She remembers the feel of the book in her hands, its cardboard covers and golden spine, and the pictures of the gangly, ugly baby bird surrounded by his prettier, smug siblings. She remembers trying to turn the pages with the flashlight still in her hands, and the small noises her sister kept making instead of listening to her insistent whispered storytelling. And she remembers hearing a low laugh, looking up from the glowing page, and then the flash of the camera blinding her. But there, again, that was interpretation, something she added later, looking at herself from her mom and dad's perspective in the photo. She hadn't known it was the flash going off: all she had seen was a light, sudden, that seemed to exist everywhere at once as though her own eyes were the source. And then a red, floating darkness - but it's always that moment of illumination Jordan thinks of, and sometimes dreams of: that moment when everything around her was bright, and sharp, and how she thought for just that moment it was some magic she'd done.

ii. "He doesn't look like everybody else!" replied the duck that had bitten him. "And that's reason enough."

She was seven years old, and reading as she sat by the river under a tree and dabbled her feet. The water was barely an inch high in front of her, but she'd been given warnings about how the mud was treacherous, how if you walked out on it it could suck you down in a moment to dirty death, so she was being good, and just splashing her toes a little and watching it sparkle.

It was a church picnic. Her parents were over on their lawn chairs, eating cake and talking to other grownups in the boring way grownups did, and most of the kids were throwing bread for the geese and ducks and things. But Jordan had a book with her, which was obviously more interesting.

The sea-king's daughter had agreed to lose her voice, and to suffer the pain of a thousand knives with every step she took just to be transformed, and Jordan was reflecting on what a lousy, stupid bargain that was, when she heard a voice say, "Hey."

She turned: there was a boy a few years older grinning at her, a few feet ahead of the the pack who stood watching. "You're ugly," he said. And then he called her another word.

It was the unexpectedness of it. She didn't have much of a context for what the word meant, but the malice of it was clear as a slap. Or maybe it was just that she was so easy to hurt back then. Anyway, she always remembers that, too.

iii. "Look around you." And the ducklings did; they looked at the green world around them...green was good for their eyes.

She was on her own a lot as a kid. Not all the time - having a little sister means not being solitary even when you put up signs and draw lines with masking tape to cut your bedroom in half. But they were in different classes, on different schedules during the schoolday. When she thinks of elementary school she thinks of wandering around alone during recess on the softball field, talking to rocks and trees and herself, making stuff up. The usual kind of thing - her real parents coming on flying-unicorn-back to rescue her, the kingdom they'd take her to where everyone would call her beautiful and good.

She'd come up with projects, too: she once spent almost a week diligently combing the fields for broken glass. She collected up the shards of beer bottles - dark amber, clear, and green - and stashed them by the school fence, with the idea that she'd be making a stained glass window. Once she had enough, the pieces would be laid out in a pattern on a cookie sheet, and then she'd bake them so that they ran together and fused. She was a little worried that the glass might stick to the pan, but she figured she could be sure to use enough butter on the pan that it wouldn't be a problem, and she could almost see how beautiful the colors of the window would be.

Or one time, when she was ten, she heard her class being called in when they'd barely been on recess five minutes. She was way out in the far corner of the dirt field, and it took her a second to figure out that it must be the wind making the teachers bring them back in. The long columns of palm trees were swaying on the horizon, car alarms were starting to go off in the distance, and the dirt of the playground was stirring around her ankles and making her sneeze. She was almost to the pepper tree, though, and she'd spent most of the last math lesson thinking about climbing it. Instead of running back she threw herself forward, and up into its waiting boughs.

She realized this had been a dumb move as soon as the wind really hit. It was scorching, warm in itself and stinging with gathered grit; the thin, spicy-sapped branches whipped around her in a confusion of green, as though the tree were tossing its long snaky hair, and Jordan had to hold her breath and squint her eyes as she kept climbing. It wasn't any good running back now, and maybe if she got high enough she'd be above the sand's reach.

She had to go further up than she'd ever been, and when at last she could breathe she looked at her legs and arms; the skin was khaki-colored with dust, and dotted with red where she was bleeding. But she shuffled her feet to stand securely on a bough, feeling it tremble slightly, and through patches among the churning branches all around she could see the wind below her, a tangible thing.

She watched it, soft-looking almost, a couple yards below her; she looked out and could see forever, the palm trees bending like bows in the distance, the street beyond the school fence busy with tumbling leaves and trash. The world opened up beneath her as it sometimes did when she sat in the balcony at church, and thought of flying out among the arches and chandeliers, into vaulted open space - but here there were no walls at all. She stood, charmed, and thought about how big the world was.

They had to wait for the wind to die down before the janitor could bring the ladder out to get her, and there was even some discussion among the teachers about calling the fire department, so she was there a while. Her knees got a little shaky eventually from keeping her balance, but she didn't really want to go back down.

"It's always the quiet ones," said her teacher to the school nurse, as Jordan was hustled off to the infirmary.

iv. "I wonder if he could be a turkey? Well, we shall see if he can swim. Into the water he will go, even if I have to kick him in."

She was eleven, wearing her best dress and her hair neat in braids, being introduced to some lady. A visiting minister's wife or something, someone important - Jordan never remembered what the deal was, just that her mom was all impressed and fluttery about it in advance, and it was a best-behavior situation.

"That's Bethany, over there in the white dress. And this is Du--Jordan. We just, we call her Duckling."

The lady, who was older-going-on-elderly, looked Jordan over. "I guess she's adopted." She smiled at Jordan's mom. "You must get a lot of comments."

Jordan put her hands behind her back as her mother laughed. "Well. You know. My folks said -- well, they weren't so sure it was a good idea. Not because of her, but because. You know. Things people say. They thought it would be hard on her. On us."

The lady had a bracelet on one wrist, gold and rubies. Jordan stared at it as her mother went on.

"That was just how they were raised. But we -- my husband and me --I -- we didn't think it made that much difference these days. And when we had her baptized, you know, I was worried she was going to cry, the way babies do. But she just smiled when the water touched her. That was when I knew for sure she was ours, it was meant to be. And then we were blessed with Bethany, the next year! But Jordan's a good girl. Smart..."

"I'm sure she is," said the lady.

v. The poor duckling was chased and mistreated by everyone, even his own sisters and brothers.

Adolescence hit Jordan like a truck; she peeled herself off the ground, staggered back to her feet, and found her body was a different shape. And everything hurt. Most of her thirteenth year she spent wanting to kill her mother, her father, her sister, herself, the world; and then sometimes she was absolutely swept with tenderness for one or another of them, and couldn't stand imagining what she must look like in their eyes. She spent a lot of close personal time with heating pads, ibuprofen, three-volume fantasy series, and/or her homework.

There was an evening where she was lying in bed, not-listening to her sister yammering on about her very significant sixth grade angst. Jordan was working on a poem; it wasn't that she really liked poetry, or had read a lot of it. When she was in fourth grade they had to write haikus once:

Bright scales flashing, sad
goodbye. Spiraling down water.
Dead goldfish is flushed.

Which she hadn't considered a very worthwhile endeavor. But her English teacher was requiring all her classes, including regular level kids to write and submit something for a school magazine, and Jordan was determined. Plus, she was figuring out that poems really weren't that hard: the trick was all in breaking off the lines, and ending with suitable profundity.

i want to be one of those girls over there
see the pretty faces, pretty hair, pretty thoughts
i want my hair to bounce when i walk
o i want to be perfect

i want to learn to smoke a cigarette
i want to pick apart the prettiness of girls in pastels
i want to wear black
o i want to be a nonconformist just like those girls over there

One of the earliest lessons in art
Is that the far ends of the spectrum
are the same color

"--right? Ducky? Duck!" Bethany threw a pillow at her, knocking her pen away.

"Excuse me!" Jordan winged the pillow back, with all the force of her irritation.

"Ow. Excuse you! I was talking to you!"

"God. Bethy. What."

"That was completely messed up, right?" Seeing Jordan's exaggeratedly blank look, Bethany huffed. "Eunice Cho. When she said what I said was racially prejudiced. I mean, for one thing, being smart's a good thing, and for another I'm not prejudiced. I mean, you're my sister. So she was wrong. Right?"

Jordan just glared for a moment. "Go to Hell."

"What?!"

"How the fuck should I know?" she said, and ostentatiously turned her back on her sister. There was a lump in her throat.

"Well. Fine! Fine, and I'm going to tell Mom what kind of language you're using!"

Jordan pulled the blanket over her head as Bethany slammed out.

vi. The ugly duckling bowed in all directions, for he was trying to be as polite as he knew how. "You are ugly," said the wild ducks, "But that's no concern of ours, since you are not one of our family."

"I don't even like the story. 'Oh, turns out the meek little duckling' -- who's a he by the way, even though people always apply the story to girls, and what is that about? -- 'turns out the duckling became the most beautiful. Thus, he deserved to have everyone love him. You know, once he was among his own kind.' I mean!" she told Brittany, who was sitting at her feet on the lawn by the drama room, writing Dorothy Parker quotes in white-out on Jordan's blue tennis shoes.

"So just make your family call you Jordan." Brit sounded bored.

Brittany Wilde carried a water bottle filled with vodka, and went and got high in the girl's bathroom by the bandroom most days at lunch. Jordan sort of suspected that Brit hung out with her for much the same reason. It wasn't exactly a friendship; Brit's rightful group were the other honors students, all of whom had been in classes together with her since elementary, long before anyone officially suspected Jordan of being Gifted And Talented. They were all really well-groomed, and extracurricularly involved, and liked to bitch about how the MEChA princess always won homecoming rather than one of their groups, all through sheer, unjust force of Chicano people voting for her.

Not that Jordan couldn't have gone and sat with those kids at lunch, too. If she'd really, really wanted. Which she had, at the start - she'd spent her first couple months in high school trying to prove herself in the honors classes she'd, miraculously, tested into, keeping her head down and smiling a lot. Going home was like going to a pot-pourri and sloppy joe-scented Purgatory; she took every available class period, and most nights skipped out to do her homework at the library, or - if she had any money at all - at the diner around the corner from her house, where she could stretch out the free refills of diet Coke till late enough that everyone at home was asleep, and she could sneak in without talking to them.

At some point, though, the lack of sleep combined with caffeine combined with her parents' loud suspicion that she was doing drugs combined with the sheer effort of being so goddamn polite just kind of made her snap. She put her hand up in class and kept it up till the teacher called on her. She scribbled out essays in longhand in between periods, because what the hell, it wasn't like she had a computer at home like everyone else, and if the teacher was going to grade down for something as stupid as that why should she bother reserving time at the computer labs, or even planning her essays in five-paragraph format? Weirdly, her grades were going up, despite the occasional detention for doing her Spanish homework in Geometry.

"You should switch to French anyway," Brittany told her. "You take French for college. Spanish you take if you think it's going to be useful. Fucked up but true. And don't you want to be stuck around the honors kids all the time? And, like, for life?"

You can't teach an old dogma new tricks, she wrote in white-out, around Jordan's heel. Jordan frowned and stole her water bottle. She really wasn't sure she liked Brit at all.

"You got caught drinking?" wailed Jordan's mom that night.

vii. Even his mother said, "I wish you were far away!"

"I can do that," said Jordan savagely, arms crossing her chest and hands gripping the straps of her bookbag. Her back ached with its weight. Her mother stood red-faced, shaking, before the front door, like she was protecting the house from Jordan. In the living room, there was a group prayer going on: she could tell by all the moaning and cries of "Jesus!"

"Just so you know, it sounds like you've got an orgy going on in there." (She was proud of this parting shot for years, mostly because she actually went ahead and said it. Though she sometimes had doubts about whether her mother knew what an orgy was.)

She went to coffeeshops that had poetry readings, and wrote. She went to family restaurants that had karaoke nights, and wrote. She thought it was pretty useful and possibly a sign of a true and destined writer, being able to disconnect from the petty world as represented by people singing "Tubthumping" in bad fake English accents to concentrate on her writing. She stole one and five dollar bills from her mother's purse for coffee and soda: if she was going to be suspected of doing drugs she might as well.

She walked alone through the streets at night, and every warning she'd ever been given about not walking alone at night drummed in her chest and the blood in her ears, and the cool air was a kiss on her cheeks. And when she got too scared, she'd go to the diner and stare moodily, punch-drunkenly, at the cheerful yellow plastic of the table.

When she couldn't think of anything to write, she'd copy out e. e. cummings poems, which were absorbing because you had to figure out how to make the spacing and punctuation look the way it did on the book page. When she didn't have a notebook with her, she'd buy a newspaper and write on that.

"listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go"

She wrote, and then noticed what she was writing on:

Two young women died in a shooting outside of a bar on Sixth Street early Thursday morning.

Police suspect the assailant was lying in wait for the victims...

Jordan felt kind of sick.

viii. They always referred to themselves as "we and the world," for they thought that they were half the world -- and the better half at that. The duckling thought that he should be allowed to have a different opinion, but the hen did not agree.

All her college applications looked similar, but there was a question that was the same on every. single. one.

Optional: What is your race? (Select one of the following categories.)

American Indian or Alaska Native
Asian
Black or African American
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
White
Other ethnicity: ____

And there was the essay, which varied from app to app, but always seemed to be some flavor of "Describe an experience that defined you as a person." And just -- no. They couldn't have the tree and the wind, or the river and the book. They couldn't have any of it.

ix. "You don't understand me!" wailed the duckling.

Brit found her lurking in the non-pot-selling bathroom one day and banged on the door until Jordan let her in. "I know those shoes!"

"I don't know why you ever put up with me back when we were friends. I'm hideous, hideously self-absorbed," Jordan said, scrubbing her face with the thin, useless toilet tissue squares. "And a coward. And. Do you ever have the feeling you would have been disappointed in yourself? Like, if yourself as a child could meet yourself now?"

Brittany frowned, leaning against the metal of the stall, artfully despite the weight of books on her back. "I'm pretty sure I planned on being famous by now. Or at least in training as a ninja ballerina."

"I just think it's sad. You, you always used to say your parents said you could be anything, but they couldn't imagine any life for you that wasn't like theirs. I hate to have to define myself. What's the single thing about me? And it's like that's all I'm ever going to get asked to do from now on, limit the potential I thought I had as a child, choices falling away like petals off a flower..."

"Jordan," said Brit, kneeling in front of her.

"Oh God, I'm so tedious. Kill me n..."

It was at that point that Brittany lunged forward and kissed her. It was an awkward kiss, judging even from limited experience; Jordan fell backwards and banged her elbow on the toilet pipe, and Brit kind of faceplanted in her solar plexus. It did, however, shove Jordan's mind out of its circling.

x. "Aren't you sitting in a warm room among intelligent people you could learn something from? While you, yourself, say nothing but a lot of nonsense and aren't the least bit amusing! Believe me, that's the truth, and I'm only telling it to you for your own good."

College was, if not the fulfilling-in-all-ways life-changing Heaven her teachers had been assuring her of since eighth grade, kind of a relief. Everyone still seemed to be working on who they'd be as a person, or, if they weren't, they really should have been working on it. She felt a little less half-baked.

She did wish other students, including annoyingly often those involved in student alliance groups, didn't feel the need to ask her what she was. Her roommates were Hawaiian, Filipina, and Persian: they all had stories about being misidentified.

"My father likes to tell people he was walking down the street and a haole leaned out of a car and told him to go back where he came from," said Noelani. "Had to be a tourist."

Jordan felt wholly unwilling to show people her work on a problem when she still hadn't come up with an answer for herself, but assumptions somehow always managed to be worse.

"Would you believe, I'm reading Invisible Man in two different classes this quarter, and who are the people talking in class discussion? It never fails," she complained to her sister over the phone. "There was this white boy today who tried to tell me about the suffering of the Irish in nineteenth century America. Aside from everything else, my last name is Riley. Jesus fuck."

"I know we were both totally oppressed the same way, growing up," agreed Bethany. "But! I am not impressed with your oppressed status when you can be all cussing and taking the Lord's name. Do you hear that, Duck?" There was a whiffling sound, as of a teenage girl waving a phone handset in the air. "The sound of looming prayer? I do. As soon as I hang up this phone, I will have to spill what you're doing and if you're drinking and going to parties and having lesbian experiments while drinking at parties. I told Mom you said you hung out at the computer lab a lot, so she's been cutting out articles about online predators. Who has to join hands with her and beseech God to guide you? That's right!"

"Tell me more about how my freedoms make you feel less special," said Jordan. "Please."

Noelani's cousin came down to visit from Berkeley; her name was Miranda and she spent most of the weekend she was there watching Star Trek reruns with Jordan and talking. "I'm Korean by birth, but my daddy is Chinese by way of Hawai'i and my momma's from South Carolina. And that is too much to have to tell people when they just walk up and ask. I like when they ask if I've looked into tracking down my birth mother? Because that is something I'm just dying to detail for strangers. Do they ask white people that? Hell, I don't know, maybe they do. But, you know, I don't have enough feelings about the family I've got."

Jordan asked her out for several drinks.

xi. "I think I'll go out into the wide world," replied the duckling.

She spent most of her time in undergrad telling herself she was only majoring in Literature and Writing because that's what she'd be spending all her time doing anyway, and it was a credible degree for various non-completely-hateful day jobs. She did not have an interest in grad school, which was (a) too expensive and (b) would require spending more time around people like the head of the Lit/Writing department.

He liked her, was the thing. Apparently. She identified a reference to "The Tempest" and he told the whole class how great it was that she was familiar with classic as well as contemporary works. She asked why they weren't allowed to use formal structure in their workshop poems: he told her she needed to find her authentic personal voice. For a recitation, she picked a Wallace Stevens poem about "The Ugly Duckling." When she finished, he told her how moving he found her examination of her own race-related issues.

"I know our MFA's new, but it's generating a lot of excitement," he told her plaintively, as he signed her final forms for graduation. "You'd be a real asset as a student in the program."

"I think I need to go...elsewhere," said Jordan. "You know. Meet strange new people, find personal revelations in the cultures of distant lands."

He shook his head sadly. "You'll get a job. And then you'll end up doing what you end up doing, and you'll lose who you could have been."

"I guess I'll just have to take that chance."

She did get letters of recommendation from a couple other faculty members, just in case.

xii: It would be too horrible to tell of all the hardship and suffering the duckling had that long winter. It is enough to know that he did survive.

She likes the city she lands in. She likes the different seasons, the way even the smog smells different. She gets a crappy under-the-table job, the only kind she can have that won't get her student visa revoked, but she pats the stone walls that she passes on her daily walk from campus to the pub, and she tells them she appreciates all their hundreds of years of history, even if the natives don't.

It's easier, if she's going to be exotic, to have it be all of her at once - her accent, the little gold cross she wears when she serves drinks, her loud American laugh. It's easier to laugh, loudly, when she's told, earnestly, that this country doesn't have racism, that it's not part of their national history. It maybe shouldn't be, and it pisses off some of the people she has to deal with on a daily basis in her program and on the job, but she can live with that.

She gets an email from Brit. Found you online at your university website. As you can probably tell from me using this address. So you're still writing? Awesomeness!

Miranda writes: So in other news, I rewatched Sixteen Candles again, for the first time since I was eleven. It was...worse than I was expecting. Do you ever feel as though you're putting certain things about you together in pieces? And then every now and again you look at a piece and you say, "Dammit, you don't go there after all!" (This particular piece needing to be transferred to the "dust I crush beneath my feet" pile, obvs.) But you know, I always wanted to devise colorful deaths for anyone who suggested I was incomplete.

You are, but only because you're alive, writes Jordan.

There's a call for submissions posted on the noticeboard of her department, for an new online magazine with a spiffy title; among the editors' names she recognizes that of a poet she admires. She wonders what she can send them, and it doesn't make her throat clench up with what if they don't like it, what if they don't understand it, what if it's too much of myself?

xiii. He spread out his wings to fly. How strong and powerful they were!

One day, she's twenty-six years old, and she goes to a park nearby with a book, the Sarashina Nikki, and a sandwich. There's a river there, with swans, and kids running around like idiots after the swans. She smiles, and breaks a few crusts off for the birds, before addressing herself to her reading.

She reads most of the afternoon, and when she stands up to leave, shaking her legs, shrugging her shoulders, stretching her out her slender neck, Jordan catches sight of her reflection in a puddle, a flash of light in the corner of her eye.

She thinks, That's someone I'd like to know.

---

Sonatina to Hans Christian

If any duck in any brook,
Fluttering the water
For your crumb
Seemed the helpless daughter

Of a mother
Regretful that she bore her;
Or of another,
Barren and longing for her;

What of the dove,
Or thrush, or any singing mysteries?
What of the trees
And intonations of the trees?

What of the night
That lights and dims the stars?
Do you know, Hans Christian,
Now that you see the night?

--Wallace Stevens