How to Raise a Duck
I worked at farm camp for several summers. We led kids around two hundred sixty acres of woods, meadow, creek, and pond. If you weren’t interested in getting dirty, stay home. One year at the start of the camp season, Jenna, who worked at the farm year round, brought me a duckling. A former camper had found it in the woods behind their house. A fox had gotten the mother, probably.
I had the youngest kids, kindergarten age, and a high schooler assistant, Emily. We were given the duckling as our pet for the summer. It was yellow and brown and fluffy, and fit in the palm of my hand. We named it Ping, after the picture book.
We kept Ping in an old glass aquarium tank with a heat lamp. As he got bigger, we moved him to a wider cage and allowed the kids to carefully take him out and hold him. We started taking Ping along when we went to play in the woods or the creek, carrying him in a basket with a cloth over his head like a 19th century baroness in a sedan chair keeping the sun off. Eventually Ping outgrew the basket and started walking with us. We tramped all over camp, a row of ten kids and a duck following at the end of the line. It was so adorable, you could have thrown up.
Ping wasn’t the only animal at farm camp. The barnyard had pet goats, chickens, sheep, and the cow, T-Bone. T-Bone was a world-weary veteran who had been occupying his field for years like a rent control tenant. To be honest, at his age it was a daily relief to see that he had made it to the morning. You never knew. One night a goat named Roslyn escaped her pen, got into the feed bag in the barn and ate herself to death.
Visiting the goat pen required strategy. Emily would serve as bouncer and restrain our kids until I gave the signal. My job was to hold the gate open just wide enough for the kids to get in without the goats getting out. I’d squeeze inside, holding the gate with one hand while yelling “Go! Go! Go!” as the kids scrambled into the pen with panicked faces like evacuees through a fence hole during a soccer riot. The goats would gallop over to escape, and I’d body check them to fend them off. Caesar, the three-hundred-pound leader, liked doing a fake and drive. He’d barrell out of the pen, dragging me from behind with my arms wrapped around his rump in a hopeless embrace. At this point, the campers went wild. “Caesar’s out! Caesar’s out!” Caesar, running free in aimless circles like a streaker at a World Series game, had to be run down and lured back to the pen with a bucket of feed. The kids cheered.
There were ducks, too, heartless fellows that roomed in the goat pen and ganged up on the one female duck to let nature take its course. Fun fact: male ducks aggressively peck the back of the female’s head while mating. It got to the point the female duck had to seek asylum in an undisclosed location on the other side of camp.
We assumed Ping was a male duck and would join the others in the goat pen when he got big enough by the end of summer. For weeks, everyone referred to Ping as “he”. Midway through the summer, new feathers came in and he transformed into a mottled brown and white. He didn’t have the signifying brightly colored feather that male mallards have. Jenna inspected and confirmed it. He was a she.
We had a reveal party at the campfire and unfurled a banner reading “It’s a Girl”. Everyone adjusted their pronouns. It also brought up the question of where Ping was going to go at the end of the summer. We couldn’t put her with the randy male ducks, so we planned to settle her near the chicken coop on the other side of the barn when it was time.
Until then, she was the star of camp. The he-to-she adventure lent her even more glamour. Other groups asked special permission to borrow her for sessions at the creek. Our kids were the littlest on camp, but Ping was theirs. They marched around camp with pride.
Harper often walked at the end of the line and took special watch over Ping. Harper wasn’t about any bullshit. She wore a Star Wars bathing suit and a backwards hat, and she didn’t smile if you hadn’t earned it. Harper would collect clay from the creek bank and if you wanted to work with her, cool, but she didn’t need you. She was a beautiful child, but you could tell she wasn’t going to let it get in her way.
Gracie joined Harper in feeding Queen Anne’s lace to Ping in the meadow. Gracie said her r’s like w’s and had a twin sister who was given to moods. Gracie showed the same devotion to Ping as to her sister when she was coaching her through a tantrum. She took her caregiving seriously.
The boys loved Ping too, but had other things on their minds, primarily warfare and lunch.
“I have chocolate pudding today,” James told me when he arrived one morning. He updated me throughout the day’s activities: “I can’t wait for my chocolate pudding.” At lunch, he opened his bag and presented his cup: “My chocolate pudding.” After he ate, he came and reported to me, “I had my chocolate pudding.” The weight of the narrative was similar to a friend telling me, “I’m pregnant”; “the C-section is scheduled”; “I had the baby”.
In the woods, they engaged in serious combat. It was all in their minds, but to them, it was Lord of the Flies. Carrying sticks was allowed as long as you were safe with it and your stick didn’t touch another kid, so they patrolled the area like it was Kent State and engaged in battle with invisible villains. They ran in and out of shelters the older kids had built with fallen branches and deciphered enemy code from tree bark.
When it came to conflict, Caleb could dish it out but couldn’t take it. He had a high-pitched wail that turned on like a faucet if someone cut him in line for the fort, but he wouldn’t hold back from grabbing someone else’s stick right out of their hand. Ty, meanwhile, ran with an older crowd. At free time he would join his nine-year-old brother and friends in “headquarters”, a bush behind the picnic tables. There, an outfit of boys tied bandanas around their faces and plotted. He came back streaked with mud and full of secrets.
Our five-year-olds had a rivalry going with one of the other groups, whose counselor was a recent college grad named Anthony. All the kids thought Anthony was cool, mostly because he was tall and wore wayfarer sunglasses. He trolled the campers, telling wild stories of uncertain reliability, and our kids liked to hang on his tall frame and deliver mild threats. One day, as our group lay on beach towels in the grass for rest time, Anthony’s kids bum-rushed us. He probably intended them to simply yell, scare us and run off, but when they bore down, our kids went feral. Gracie screamed. Caleb unleashed his wail and started kicking and clawing anyone within three feet. The girls tackled Anthony and brought him down. Emily and I broke it up, untangling arms and legs.
The next day I went to Anthony with an idea for a less physical way to channel the excitement of a feud. “What if you kidnap Ping?” I said. “Your kids would be into the kidnapping, and my kids can put you on trial at the campfire and find you guilty.”
Anthony was into it. We set out a game plan. While our campers were catching grasshoppers in the meadow, one of the high school helpers, Maddie, put Ping into a blue recycling bucket and brought her into the office to hide out the rest of the day. When we came back, the kids saw Anthony’s anonymous note in Ping’s empty cage. “Where’s Ping? Where’s Ping? What does the note say?” they asked.
We brought it out to the campwide roundup and I read it aloud. “Ping’s been duck-napped!”
The other campers started shouting with excitement. My kids were stricken. A row of traumatized five-year-olds turned their faces to me for answers. Harper’s eyes were round. Gracie burst into tears.
Why had I thought they’d adapt to me playing with life and death? To them, this was as real as the Lindbergh baby. Their very purpose was ripped out from under them. They had failed their duty as Ping’s guard. Now their duck was being waterboarded somewhere and it was all their fault.
Emily and I exchanged looks over Gracie sobbing into her t-shirt. We moved into damage control and talked up the investigation. Harper, suspicious, started questioning us about what we knew. Ty and Caleb jumped up and down, sensing a battle. Gracie was soothed and for the rest of the day the kids prepared to put Anthony on trial at the campfire.
One hundred campers gathered around the campfire for the weekly skits and songs. My group shook their fists at Anthony, out for blood. I arranged with Maddie to hide in the woods with the recycle bucket and bring Ping out at the right moment.
Ty and Caleb did an ace job calling Anthony to the stand. James and Harper presented the direct evidence against him, and Gracie demanded that Anthony release the duck. Instead of confessing as planned, he went off script.
“We have counterevidence,” he shouted. “We found Ping hostage in the office, and the kidnapper’s shoes were next to her!” One of his campers held up a pair of my sneakers, stolen from the cabin. Anthony turned and pointed. “Martha stole her own duck!”
My kids gasped. Gracie looked straight at me, horrified. There’d be no coming back from that loss of innocence. GODDAMMIT, ANTHONY, YOU DOUBLE-CROSSER! At that moment Maddie emerged from the trees with Ping, her bill bobbing above the rim of the blue recycle bucket, confused and pooping up a storm. The stress was too much for our campers. They swarmed the bucket. Gracie clung to the blue plastic and wept with relief.
Scarred but triumphant, our kids carried Ping back to where she belonged. There were a lot of unanswered questions. Emily and I emphasized the mysterious nature of life.
After the kidnapping, Ping outgrew her cage. On the last day of camp, I brought her to the barn to start her new life living among other animals. It was so strange to see her there, settled in the hay, looking at me. I had raised her from a baby. Now she was on her own in the big world.
The next spring, I got a text from Jenna. I immediately got into my car, drove to the farm and walked over to the chicken coop. There were four fluffy black-and-yellow ducklings, and Ping, fully grown now with a wide belly and ridged red face mask, standing behind them.
Jenna told me that like the chickens, Ping liked to step out and go free range on long walks around the farm. She’d been spending a lot of time with another duck over behind the barn in a Son-of-a-Preacher-Man-style courtship. “We had no idea she laid eggs,” Jenna said. “She had a nest hidden in the hayloft and they hatched this morning!” After all we’d done to try to protect her innocence from the male ducks, she had liberated herself. That was just like Ping, to have a secret affair and surprise everyone. She was her own woman from start to finish.
I tried to catch Ping’s eye, to see if she knew me. She played it cool.