A gale, bearing a hint of winter’s chill, flowed through the park, making the pool quiver and the trees shiver. Leaves danced across the path around the lake like a shifting carpet of reds and golds. From his seat on the bench, the old man watched dislodged leaves drifting to the surface of the pool. Behind him, a car horn pierced the serene scene. Another horn, this one a deep baritone, answered the first one in kind. If the old man had turned his head, he knew he would have seen a city landscape with imposing buildings that scraped against the gray ceiling of the sky. He knew he would have seen humanity bottled into bright taxi cabs. He knew he would have seen men and women in sharp suits streaking past one another. The old man did not turn around. He had once been a part of that world, yet tragedy serves as the great equalizer.
With stiff but determined fingers, the old man opened a bag by his side. Reaching inside, he cupped a handful of the seeds then tossed it to the ground before his feet. From the edges of his vision, a small troop of ducks waddled from the shoreline towards scattered seed. Without the slightest pause in their march, the ducks devoured the seed in a methodical wave. Once they picked the ground bare, they all looked at the old man with their colorless eyes. With a smile that merely tugged at the old man’s lips, the old man dipped his hand into the bag and scattered more seeds for the ducks. The old man liked the ducks, liked their peaceful motions, liked their simple needs and the simpler answer to those needs. He liked their dependence, if to a small extent, on him. Around him, the ducks dipped their heads up and down, erupting into a quiet storm of quacks whenever two ducks fought over the same foot of earth.
Drawing his brown, stained coat around him, the old man looked up with eyes the deep blue of a rolling ocean. Around him, humans blurred past, all caught up in their world. Some wore bright sweaters and tight pants. Some dragged along dogs, and some strolled into solitude. Dipping his hand into the bag, the old man threw another clump of seeds onto the ground. The flock huddle around him. With a deep breath, he extended one partially gloved hand towards the nearest duck. It hissed and danced out of reach. The man’s hand lingered for a moment, held up by hope, then it fell.
“Aren’t they cute like that, just trotting around without a care. To them, the world is made of giants, but they don’t seem to mind,” the young girl said, shifting her gaze to her feet, which swung back and forth. The old man guessed she must be ten or thereabouts. Under a jean jacket, she wore a pink t-shirt with a butterfly etched in glitter, a warm, yellow skirt, and mismatched socks. A river of ink-black hair spilled down her thin face. When she looked up, she fixed two blue eyes on him.
“I’m Abigail by the way, but you can call me princess Abigail on account that I’m a princess and everything. What’s your name?” Abigail asked, sticking out her hand. The old man grunted and shifted away.
“Hum, a very peculiar name. Is it pronounced ger or ugh?” Abigail asked, grunting in the back of her throat. The old man remained silent. “Ugh it is! Nice to make your acquaintance, Ugh, and on such a fine afternoon like this,” Abigail finished, spreading her arms wide. At that moment, it began drizzling.
“Now, Ugh, I’ve been having the most wonderful day what with chasing geese, climbing the big oak tree, and throwing nuts at anyone who walked under me. How have you been enjoying this fine day?” Abigail said, returning her attention to her swinging legs. The old man remained silent but shuffled further from the girl. The girl slid closer.
“But you don’t really have to answer my question, because it’s obvious. You’ve been feeding the ducks. No, no, no the real question is not what have you been doing, but why have you been doing it? The why is always more important than the who, how, whatsit, and which all put together. Because if one were to ask, ‘what are you doing up in the tree princess Abigail?’” she said this fictitious line in high, commanding voice.
“I would, of course, say, ‘because I wanted to get higher,’ which is the perfect truth. But if one were to ask, why are you in the tree princess Abigail? Then, I would have to divulge my inner secrets,” Abigail glanced at the old man with a shy, sideways look. Around the two figures, a cloud of mist veiled most of the world in a sober haze.
“So, the most important question I could ask is, why do you feed the ducks?” Abigail asked, and she twisted around in her seat to stare at the old man. The old man reached in the bag and scattered more seeds across the gravel. The mist falling around them dampened the little park, darkening the trunks and deepening the leaves. Abigail’s attention never wavered from the old man, her blue eyes huge in her thin face. Finally, as the pause stretched to the breaking, he turned his head the slightest degree and asked,
“Why were you in the tree?”
For a moment, it was as though the sun had burst out from behind the clouds as Abigail’s face flared with life.
“Oh, thank you. I’ve never been asked that in my whole entire life. People always seem to ask the what and the how or what, never the why. Now, I climbed the tree for the simple reason, because I wanted to be somewhere where I could see people, but they couldn’t see me. I wanted to be alone while around people.” Abigail wiggled into a more comfortable position as she continued. “You see, mother sent me away saying, ‘Be gone from here,’” Abigail’s voice rose to high imperious tone before lowering to slightly sober voice. “She wanted me gone because she was having one of her special boyfriends over. Anyway, when I was sent away, I went to my favorite place in this whole, wide, world, that oak tree over there.” She pointed vaguely in one direction.
“It’s the best place in the whole world when you’re forced to be alone because you have so many possibilities. If you want to hear people talking to each other, you can lay down in the branches and hear them. People talk about the funniest of stuff sometimes and, if you feel like it, you can even chuck acorns at them. If you want to rest, there’s a knot in the trunk that is perfect for naps, and if you climb to the tippy top, you can see the entire world spread out below you. That’s where I saw you, feeding your ducks. You looked so alone from all the way up there, so I decided to give you a little company,” she finished as she swung her legs back and forth. Her hair clung to her in the mist-laden air, beads of water forming in the sleek blackness of her unruly hair.
“So, why are you feeding the ducks?” she asked, her features alive with warmth. The old man stirred with unease. With a rumpled coat thrown over a rumpled shirt, he looked down at the bag of seed then glanced at the ducks. The small girl continued to stare with a patient expression. He shrugged his shoulders. Turning away, he drew into himself.
“Well, if you don’t know why you’re feeding the ducks, then I’ll just make up a reason for you,” Abigail began. “Maybe, you’re the spy for some country, and you’re training the ducks to carry your messages. Maybe, you’re a ringmaster, and you’re teaching them to do backflips. Or maybe you’re a father, and all the ducks are your daughters who have been cursed by a wicked witch,” Abigail said. To her side, the old man’s posture stiffened, shoulder’s taut, face wooden. Abigail’s next remark died on her lips. Silence reigned. Then, she continued, but her voice fell to a mutter.
“I’ve seen you from the tree almost every day, always feeding the same ducks. Never with anyone or doing anything else, but today, today I thought I would say hi, and we could be friends,” she said. Around them, the mist fell from the sky in a gentle haze. The old man kept his back to the girl. His eyes remained fixed on his ragged shoes that were too large for his feet. The ducks before him shifted with impatience, wondering when the next handful would be scattered, but, the old man stayed his hand. For a moment, Abigail sat still, hair damp and stringing. Then, she sprung to her feet and dashed to face the old man. She wore a smile, yet her eyes held none of the fire as before.
“Here, maybe I can help feed the ducks. Maybe that’s what I need to do,” she said with the absolute conviction that only the young can believe. Without the slightest signal towards the old man, she reached down and grabbed the bag of seed. The old man clung to the bag with an iron will.
“Come on, I just want to help,” Abigail grunted as she pulled with all her might. He clutched the bag with the same energy that the gnarled fingers of fear strangled his lungs. For a moment, the two stood, each throwing all their weight into the struggle. Then with a sound of stitches coming undone, the bag split open. Its entire contents spilled onto the sodden ground. Abigail stepped back, hands covering her mouth. The old man fell to the ground, trying to scoop up as much of the seed as possible in his wrinkled hands.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Abigail began, her eyes wide with shock. “Maybe I can pick them all up for…” but the old man banished the thought with a wave of one curled claw. Head bowed, the old man gathered the crumbs to him while the ducks feasted on the leftovers. With eyes that glistened, Abigail stared at the back of the old man’s head. She turned and began trudging away from him; shoulders slumped, passion extinguished. The old man glanced up. Something in the walk caught the old man’s attention. He had seen that shuffling gait, those slumped shoulders. He had caught a glimpse of those dragging feet in shop windows and rounded mirrors. It was defeated. It was shame. It was his walk.
The words had ripped themselves out of his throat without him even realizing it. The girl turned around, puzzlement and hope written across her face. The old man paused then gestured her over. In an instant, a blazing flame flared to life inside her, and she half-skipped, half-ran to the old man’s side. Wordlessly, the two managed to collect most of the seeds and placed them on the torn bag. Lifting the corners, the two put the torn bag on the seat between them. As the mist fell away, the two sat beside each other: a girl in a cheerful, pink shirt and a warm, yellow skirt and an old man in a stained and dirt covered jacket. Together, they threw seeds to the waiting ducks.