Everyone’s heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the ugly duckling, in which a young waterbird believes himself to be a duck, but looks nothing like the other ducks… And finally runs away, and eventually finds that he’s actually a swan. But have you heard the tale of the duckling who didn’t believe he was a duckling? …No? Well, let me tell you.
He grew up beside a small pond, (where most ducklings of the storybook sort grow up) with his mother duck and eleven brothers and sisters. They all led a fairly peaceful existence, for to that part of the country predators and hunters seldom came. This one duckling, apart from being a little quieter than most of his kin, was very like the rest. Others took no notice of him, just another little duckling who would grow into a bigger duckling as time passed, and would finally become a grown duck. Was there anything the matter with him? I dare say! When he walked, he wobbled on his skinny legs and sometimes fell clean over, when he quacked, the sound was slight and feeble like a cricket, and he flew like an awkward stone. But none of these things was unusual for a young duckling, and all of his eleven brothers and sisters had the same problems. The only thing that was really wrong with this particular duckling, was his inability to perceive that. In his eyes, everyone else was doing alright, while he crashed and burned. But because he never asked for help, everyone else thought he was fine!
After a month or two, the little duckling was in a really sad state of affairs. He said to himself one day, “I cannot possibly be a duckling – I’m the opposite of what it means to be a duckling. Look at all my brothers and sisters! They’re so wonderful at doing these things: flying, swimming, walking, quacking… It’s second nature to them! How could I ever be a real duck?” So, deciding he was not, in fact, worthy of being a duck, he went off in search of his true identity. He spent a while with the crickets and grasshoppers, and tried to learn how to chirrup, but they all said after a few lessons, “I don’t think you were made for this… Ducks should quack, and leave chirrupping to us!” That only made the duckling sadder, since he knew he was no duck, and he didn’t know what he was. Then he tried being a fish, but that turned out no better, since he had to keep going up for air. So the fish told him, “Ducks were made to swim on top of the water, not under it! Try that instead!”
Really depressed now, the duckling went off and wandered through the woods a ways, until he came to a farmhouse. “Oh!” he thought, “maybe there is something here I can do well!” He entered the barn through a little door, and came up face to face with a creature he’d never seen before! After the two of them got over their surprise, the strange animal licked its paw and groomed its long elegant whiskers, saying, “My, my, what brings a little morsel like you to a place like this?” The barn was vast and noisy, and didn’t appeal to the little duckling at all, but he answered bravely, “I want to learn what kind of animal I am, sir, and I know I’m no good at being a duck, or a cricket, or a fish. So I’ve come to see what I am good at being!” The animal stopped grooming and looked slily at him out of the corner of its eye. “Weeelll,” it purred thoughtfully, “perhaps you’re a cat. Did you ever think of that?” The duckling had to admit he hadn’t, for he had no idea what a cat was. The real cat gave a couple of slow blinks on the outside, though he was laughing on the inside, then said, “Alright, look. All you need to do to find out if you’re a cat is to guard that mouse hole over there. See it? You just watch that hole, and if any mouse tries to go in or out, you give a great big holler.” Though the barn was a frightening place, the duckling was very excited to discover what he was, so he thanked the cat profusely and hurried over to the mouse hole.
One mouse, sitting inside the hole, observed all this. She knew the cat could be up to no good, and she could see he only meant to eat the duckling in the end. So after looking him up and down, the mouse ventured out to talk to her new guard. Just as he was about to start making noise, the mouse said, “Ssshhh!! I’m not a mouse, I’m a duckling! If you can’t tell a duckling from a mouse, then you can’t possibly be a cat.” The duckling was embarrassed, and he apologized, and asked humbly, “What can I do for you, little duckling?” He did think it was odd that this duckling looked nothing like his brothers and sisters, but he shrugged off that thought. Yet thinking of his family made him homesick, and his heart grew heavy with the weariness of wandering. Then the mouse answered, “I’m lost, a long way from home, and I don’t know how to get back there. Do you think you might be able to help? I come from a pond not too far off, where other ducklings live.” The duckling brightened at that, and answered, “Surely, I can bring you there! I know the place well, since I used to live there myself.” “Then let me up on your back, and let’s go, as fast as you can!” the mouse squeaked, for she could see that the cat had become suspicious and was approaching rapidly.
The duckling could see no particular reason to hurry, but he let the mouse onto his back and they headed swiftly for the door. And not a moment too soon! For the cat was right behind, and caught a mouthful of tail feathers as they jumped through the door. “Fly, fly!” shouted the duckling’s rider, very much afraid that such a young duckling might not be able to outrun a barn cat. And the duckling… flew. He flew haltingly at first, but eventually he became more sure, and flew higher and more gracefully than he knew he could. The mouse shrieked and whooped with delight, high above the trees and the farmhouse, and the spitting, seething cat. Looking over his shoulder at the joyful little mouse, the duckling began to laugh and honk and quack, and he thought he had never been so happy in all his short life.
Finally they landed, right in the middle of the little pond, and there were all of the duckling’s family, swimming by the water’s edge. He almost went over to them, but first he told the mouse, “I don’t think you are really a duckling… But you have helped me to see that I am one myself. I don’t know how to thank you.” She replied, “You are right, I’m no duckling, I’m a mouse, but I need no thanks, for I ought to thank you, for saving me from the cat, and giving me a ride I’ll always remember. Now, I gather you know those ducks across the pond,” she said with a smile. “Drop me on the shore, and go back to them. You belong there.” The duckling did as she asked, mingling a few joyful, thankful tears with the clear pond-water, but before she walked away into the tall grass, he called out, “I do belong with my own kind, but believe me when I say this: I’ll never forget you, or what you’ve done for me, mouse, and I dearly hope we shall see each other again.” The mouse turned and flung her arms around the duckling one more time, dropping a few tears of her own, like precious jewels, upon his downy feathers. Then they parted silently, and the duckling returned to his family. I don’t know if he ever saw the mouse again, but he understood from that day on that living, whether as a duck, a cricket, a fish, a cat or a mouse, means being imperfect, and to reject the life given you because of your imperfection is folly.
That is all I know of this tale. If you want more, you ought to ask the duckling, or his friend, the little mouse, and they will surely be glad to tell more.
© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.