Looking at the tranquil scene, it’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. Ducks and geese float lazily by as neighbors mow their lawns or sit in their backyards, sipping beer or iced tea.
I’m inside washing the dishes when my husband calls to me from the back porch: “Rachel, come see this! There’s a dog chasing the ducks.” The novelty of a dog chasing ducks is a pretty good indicator of how exciting things get around here. I step outside and, sure enough, there’s a spaniel paddling out in the middle of the pond, making a beeline for a large team of ducks. I’m not overly concerned. The ducks don’t seem to be. They let the dog get close, then easily sail out of his reach. I lean over the fence and watch. Moments later, two small boys whiz by. They’ve run from a house at the other end of the pond, and their faces are red and sweaty and their eyes terrified. “Chet! Chet!” They scream. “Come back!”
I stop one of them. “Are you all right? Do you need help?”
“Our dog has gotten out and he’s trying to catch a duck, ma’am.” (Even when kids are in panic mode here, they’re polite).
“I’ll get a leash and help you,” I promise.
“Thank you, ma’am.” The boy gives me a charming smile and resumes running and screaming.
I go back inside for a leash, a toy and a bag of dog treats, though I doubt they’ll be enough to lure a dog away from a real, live, duck. It takes me a few minutes to find the items. I walk back to the edge of the fence and start to open the gate. The little boys are running back toward their house, shoulders shaking with barely contained sobs and tears streaming down their cheeks. What happened in the space of a few minutes to upset them so? “What’s wrong?” I ask as they streak by. They stop and look at me with haunted eyes.
“Chet killed a duck!” whimpers the younger of the two. His chin is trembling. “He killed a duck and he has it in a man’s yard, and he’s eating it!” His older brother wipes his nose on the back of his hand and chokes out: “We couldn’t get him to stop. He wouldn’t let go, and now it’s dead.” He looks guilty and shell-shocked. The scene is no longer amusing. I can imagine what happened: the duck’s anguished struggle to survive, the dog tearing into it gleefully as the boys try to pull him off.
“That must have been horrible to watch,” I say. “It’s not your fault. You did everything you could.” Their shoulders straighten infinitesimally, before they glance behind them and see something that sends them running again. It’s my elderly neighbor from the end of the street, and he looks furious. He stops in front of the gate, demanding to know if the dog is mine.
“No, sir,” I reply. “I’m just trying to help.” I recognize the man, though we haven’t been introduced. I’ve only seen him once before, when he looked askance at my car with its Massachusetts license plates. He muttered something then, and I’m pretty sure it was “Damn Yankees”. I paste a friendly, respectful smile on my face. I see the children returning, their mother in tow. The man starts to shout something, the little boys cringe behind their mother and she gives him a death stare. He deflates and becomes visibly meeker. We walk together along the shore, dreading what we’ll find. In the man’s yard is a dog so puffed up with pride, he’s about to burst out of his skin. In his jaws is a very floppy, very dead duck. Blood-tinged feathers are everywhere.
“Bad, bad dog,” says the children’s mother. She seizes him by the collar and he looks slightly less self-assured. She introduces herself as Dana and apologizes to both of us.
“No problem,” I say with a smile. “It wasn’t my duck.” Dana smiles back.
“Well, this is my yard,” the old man says, scowling at the carnage. He’s making it very clear that he’s not picking up the mess. Dana doesn’t look the slightest bit intimidated, but I am.
“I’ll get a bag,” I say, running back home. I return with two enormous garbage bags. I hand one to Dana and hold the other open for her. I’m helpful, but not so helpful as to actually handle the duck. My stomach rebels just thinking about it. She covers her hands with the plastic bag and picks it up, hastily shoving it into the bag I’m holding. It’s heavy and limp. I feel dizzy and squeeze my eyes tightly until the world stops spinning. She takes it from me and ties it shut. I hear a faint “quack” and nearly jump out of my skin. No one else seems to hear it. I tell myself it’s coming from a duck across the pond. The spaniel lunges at the bag, but Dana gives him a scorching glare and he wilts like a lettuce leaf. Impressive. This mom is a badass. I file the look away to use on my own children when they’re mouthy.
Now that the duck is bagged, the old man thaws a bit. “I only yelled at the boys because I was afraid the gator was going to eat their dog,” he explains. “And it looked like they were going to go in the water after him.” The gator? I’m terrified of alligators. I used to have nightmares about them coming out of toilets and chasing me up trees. He produces his phone and shows us footage of a six-foot-long gator hissing at him, right where we’re standing now. “I took this a few days ago,” he says, relishing my response. I scan the water nervously. At that moment, I realize my kids have let themselves out of the gate and are walking along the shore toward us. I feel hysteria rising in my throat and choke it down. They’re up high enough that the alligator can’t lurch out of the water and drag them to a watery death. I think.
Dana takes this in calmly. “I’ll call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline and tell them we have an aggressive one on our hands,” she says. I think we’re both wondering why he bothered to film the creature but not notify the authorities. She apologizes to our neighbor and thanks me for my help. I walk with them until we get to my yard, taking great care to keep between my children and the water’s edge. Buster, my Shi-tsu, hurls himself flat on the ground as Chet passes by. His tiny body quivers with respect and envy. He knows that if he went after a duck, he’d get pecked to death. The spaniel tosses his head and grins, his tongue lolling out. He is having the best day of his life. Dana looks at him sadly. “I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep him if he keeps busting out,” she says with a sigh. “It’s very nice to meet you, despite the circumstances. Our kids are the same age. We should get together some time.” I agree. I would like to study her and learn the art of intimidation. She and her children walk home. I watch them a moment, wondering what she’s going to do with the contents of the bag.
That evening, I take Buster for a walk past her house. The most delicious aroma of grilled meat hangs heavily in the air. I can’t place it. Is it beef? Chicken? Is it…duck?