The Ducks Opened the Hostilities
~ Mattia Ravasi
The ducks opened the hostilities by murdering my cat.
I’d seen them loitering around the edge of my back garden all week. The fence along the right side had sunk in the mud during Winter; there were several spots along the bottom where the pests could squeeze through. A handyman was supposed to come look at the fence in April, but then the dreadful business with the virus occurred, and no one showed up.
I was leaning over the breakfast counter, sipping my coffee and scrolling through emails on my laptop. I looked out between a message and the next, checking on Kipfel. His back was straight and low to the ground, and he was staring at the trees at the back of the garden. I thought he’d found a vole. He loved gutting the little things, but couldn’t manage it without getting scratched and bitten, and moaning for me to take him to the vet.
I didn’t register what was happening—I was reading an email from my manager, badgering me to start using the latest ghastly software the company had purchased to “speed up our march to modernization,” and make our jobs easier to outsource—until I heard Kipfel hiss. Perhaps that was how he roared. Perhaps he was already in pain.
When I looked up, he had a duck in his claws. Four other birds had their beaks on his tail and hind legs. His tail was shaven—he’d had eczema recently—and must have been very sensitive. He gave up easily.
They hammered away, pecking wherever they could reach, not leaving him enough air to hiss again. I could hear this wet piercing noise all the way through the double glazing. The attack put me in mind of a scene from one of those very serious, very violent American dramas my colleagues were always raving about, one that I’d started watching during lockdown. This tall fat Mexican is crossing a prison cafeteria, when suddenly four skinheads surround him, and start puncturing him with shivs made from sharpened toothbrushes.
Shiv shiv shiv, made the toothbrushes in the Mexican’s guts, going in and out like a sewing machine through a skirt.
Shiv shiv shiv made the beaks into Kipfel.
I stood, horrified, howling noiselessly, looking not quite at the massacre but just to the side of it. I said to myself that it was too late to intervene, although this was perhaps a lie, told in self-defense or out of cowardice.
They didn’t eat him. When I could force myself to walk outside, I saw that his fur was matted with blood, but he was otherwise intact. He was an old cat. Perhaps his heart stopped from fear alone.
The ducks had disappeared into the trees. There’s supposed to be a fence at the back of those, too, and that one isn’t sunken or torn, to my knowledge, but I didn’t have the guts to go and check.
I called the handyman to see if we could schedule a new date for repairing the fence. He didn’t pick up. I tried again over the next few days, to no avail.
I told Peter about it when I next emailed him. Discussing the event, however briefly, helped me process my grief and fear. I asked him if the ducks’ behavior was normal: he’s supposed to know a lot about poultry.
He replied somewhat prissily that what I had were probably mallards. If I were there, Deborah, I would fix that fence, he concluded. I would protect you.
I have had my share of gentlemen pining after me. I was once considered, if not a great beauty, at least “a fit bird,” as a hirsute Geordie once described me to his mates in the Trout pub. In my experience, the most romantic men are also the most predatorial. They will jump on any chance to make their feelings known, however cowardly and obliquely, and will reiterate their existence at every turn. You can’t tell them about your mauled cat without them proposing they move in with you.
I think what made me such a fit bird was a certain degree of exoticism. My family moved to England from a Bayern town called Deggendorf in 1963, when I was eight. Apparently, I took the move badly: I resented leaving the cozy microcosm of our tiny town, with toy stores, boutiques, and bakeries just downstairs from our apartment, in favor of the empty countryside outside Oxford. My parents used to relish their memories of my childish angst, but I remember nothing of Deggendorf at all.
How exotic could you be as a West German in England, you may ask. Quite a bit. There weren’t many non-English families around, not in 1970 Yarnton. Oxford itself had a faint claim to cosmopolitanism—nothing like what it is today—but the foreigners there all belonged to the university, which made them as untouchable as their English blokes. They weren’t Australian or Mexican: they belonged to the egalitarian nation of the posh.
My hair was a different blonde than the other girls’. I had wider cheekbones, and I was taller. The recent crimes of my nation fascinated people, who looked at me with great curiosity, pondering the ungaugable depths of human evil.
Melvin was the first boyfriend who didn’t study my face that way. Some days he watched me in adoration. Other times he barely glanced my way, especially when Tottenham was playing. All my life I have been plagued by the most uncomfortable thoughts, and one that used to bring me great misery was a suspicion that perhaps my love of Melvin was founded on this basic fact: that he took me for granted, and never thought of me as special.
The fear has gone now, as all my fears, no matter how rancid, eventually do. Looking back on them is always a sorry business. I contemplate the anxiety and sadness they caused me, and weep for all that lost serenity. So what if that’s why I loved him? As if we can even figure out the mechanics of such a maddening thing as love.
After we got married, Melvin and I bought a house in Binsey, where I still live. It’s a small village perched just beyond the marshy fields of Port Meadow, a half-hour walk from Oxford city center. Not that I go into town much these days, what with the plague and all.
Two days after Kipfel died I put my mixing bowl on the scale and measured out 750 grams of strong baking flour. I mixed in yeast, salt, a tablespoon of sugar, and a bottle of rat poison. I poured in half a liter of water, lukewarm from the kettle, and kneaded the mixture till it got plump and stretchy, slamming and slapping and folding it on the floured table. Baking is hard work, if you do it properly. I covered the dough with a cloth and left it to raise for an hour in the cupboard by the boiler.
This course of action caused me great distress. I wasn’t facing any moral dilemma (one way or another, the ducks must go), but the plan required me to sacrifice an awful lot of flour. These days, that stuff is worth its weight in gold. It disappeared altogether from supermarket shelves early during the national lockdown. The local mills, from which I shop, all had to close down, unable to cope with demand. (One of them, in Islip, published a confusing post on their archaic website, rambling about a “raid” they had been subjected to.) The luxury delis, which abound around Oxford, only stock extravagant varieties, like seitan or stone-milled quinoa, going for ten, twelve pounds a kilo.
Not that I had any first-hand experience of empty aisles and cut-throat delis. I only knew about it from my colleagues’ chitchat, and from their increasingly worried updates during the Team Tea Breaks we were forced to attend remotely every Wednesday afternoon, to Foster Corporate Camaraderie and Keep In Touch.
I scoured the table with cleaning products while my poison loaf was in the oven. I left it in longer than needed, to make it extra crusty. I let it cool until the evening, then smashed it into crumbs.
I turned the garden lights on and scattered the crumbs in piles all around. I was terrified. I’d been studying the garden through an upstairs window, peeping from behind the curtain to make sure the coast was clear, but my mind still latched onto every stretch of darkness, those draped between the trees and the vast endlessness beyond the fence, transforming them into the contours of dripping, probing, pustulent monstrosities, lashing out to torment me.
The final pile of crumbs I left just under the trees at the back of the garden. It was the furthest I’d been from the house since the beginning of lockdown. All my groceries had been delivered by exhausted Sainsbury’s drivers, the apples and bananas carefully picked for maximum bruises.
I work in academic publishing. I assist the editors of scholarly journals, make sure we publish the occasional issue to schedule, and that we don’t go too crazy with the page budget. I follow the directives of the manic-depressives in our editorial department, whose job, as I understand it, is to go on two-week work retreats to Scotland, and to strike publishing deals that we will never be able to honor over drinks and blow in SoHo clubs.
The academic editors I work with vary greatly in personality, from the exquisite to the oblivious to the violently abusive. Many of them work in academia because they lack the basic survival skills that would ensure their success in any normal field of employment. Had they been born in Barnsley, they would be pushing tinned tomatoes across the bottom shelves in Aldi—assuming Barnsley’s Aldis, unlike the local ones, are still well-stocked and operating—but because they aced the parent lottery, they became the deans of All Souls instead.
Peter sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He’s imperious and curt, intolerant of mistakes although frequently blundering himself, prone to panicking if his emails aren’t instantly acknowledged. Yet he is in love with me, which dulls his sharper edges, and gives him a certain drippy niceness.
I only met him once, at an editor meeting in 1989. He was annoyed about certain late issues, and I don’t think he looked me in the eye throughout the meeting. At the time, our correspondence was all handled via post and fax: article proofs would be mailed, corrections returned in incomprehensible scribbles I would then transliterate and forward to our typesetter. Maximum chances for error at every step. Then, sometime in the mid-00s, email became our medium of choice, we transferred all our data into cranky, byzantine tracking software, until finally, in 2016, the company cut back on office space, and introduced its semi-forced homeworking policy. They were years ahead of the curve, it turned out.
Peter’s feelings became clear around that time, first through veiled hints I could still choose to disregard, later via blatant declarations worded carefully enough not to hold up in court, in case I reported him for harassment. All these years I’ve never known what brought along the change in him. Perhaps my email personality is different from my handwritten one. My hands get cramped easily, and I never stretch a letter longer than I must, but I’m very wordy on a keyboard. Perhaps emailing editors from my kitchen and living room collapsed that professional distance that existed when I was still commuting into my depressing cubicle, where decorations were only allowed if they bore the company logo. I might have become friendlier in my greetings and farewells, and certain men—I don’t assume Peter has had much experience with the ladies in his six decades on Earth—latch onto any kindness that is shown to them as an excuse to fall in love, and give the misery of their life the sexy sheen of unrequited passion. Perhaps Peter has loved me since 1989, and that’s why he couldn’t meet my eye during that meeting: the heat of my gorgeousness would scorch his eyes, and wet his pants, if he witnessed it directly. He had been waiting ever since, and only made his first move a respectful few years after my husband passed away in 2014.
I’ve been dying to ask him, but it would be too cruel. Showing any interest would only stoke his hope.
I don’t love Peter back by the way, bless him. I don’t wish him any harm, but he’s a bit of a twat.
When I woke up the next morning I looked into the garden, and saw dead magpies close to two of the crumb mounds. No sign of the ducks.
I let out a very crass German expletive when I walked into the kitchen. I’d thought I could hear sounds in the night, but I’d imagined them to be rooted in my dreams, and there was no way anyway that I would leave my locked bedroom while it was dark.
I saw muddy prints all around the floor. The cupboard door under the counter had been pulled open. The food inside had been strewn all around, but most of it seemed uneaten: potatoes, carrots, a sad withered leek. Then I noticed that my biscuit tin had been opened. I bake shortbread every Sunday afternoon, to have with my crime novels on the couch before going to bed. There had been five days’ worth of biscuits in that tin. The intruders vacuumed them all up, leaving no crumb behind.
The prints all converged on the cat flap in the kitchen door.
I sealed the flap shut using an entire roll of duct tape. Duck tape? Ha. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m completely sane.
Then again, haven’t I always?
I baked a loaf of bread for my dinner that afternoon. I spent the entire night on the loo. I was certain that my putrefied body would be found on the bathroom floor seven months from now, calcified waste still crusting the toilet bowl, testifying to the agony of my final moments.
I suppose some traces of rat poison must have lingered in the oven, and that I ate them with my bread. Smashing. If my oven was out, I wasn’t sure how long I’d survive. I didn’t have much food around the house, except for those bags of strong flour, and I doubted I’d be able to get a food delivery. All that my colleagues seemed to talk about these days was how hard it had gotten to book a delivery slot.
At the apex of my agony, when it felt like the cramps were tearing a hole through my gut, I dialed 999. I waited an eternity with my phone pressed to my ear. These days my joints are so sore even holding the phone to my face is painful, but the distress was a welcome distraction from the harsher burning in my bowels. Nobody answered. This is preposterous, I thought. How bad can this virus be, that they can’t spare a nurse to answer 999 calls? I blamed the Conservative and proto-Conservative governments that had stripped the National Health Service of its resources. I blamed the 999 operator, which I imagined as a chavvy young woman posting pictures of herself on whatever ghastly app was popular this week, ignoring the LEDs flashing red on her terminal. I blamed the ducks.
The next morning I reported the whole accident to my colleagues in a long, somewhat rambling email. (I’m not usually one for reaching out to colleagues, be it for comfort, support, God forbid chitchat.) I left out the turbodiarrhea, but stressed my indignation at the lack of response from the emergency services.
I must have shocked them, I thought around noon, when I saw that nobody had replied yet. But nobody ever replied to that email.
That the world was still there I could testify by climbing the ladder to the attic—no small feat, let me tell you—and looking through the tiny round window up there, which overlooks the neighbor’s houses and the hedge-lined fields beyond, and gives me a view, very far in the distance, of the tiniest segment of the A34 speedway. I could see vehicles driving up and down. Trucks, mostly, with the occasional car.
Those thoughts I mentioned, which used to cause me such a great deal of pain, remained a terrifying mystery to me until the day I attended a 10 am editor meeting in a drab, dark pub just outside Paddington Station. I was meeting the chair of some psychology society, trying to persuade them to keep publishing their journal with my company.
It was clear from the start that I would make no progress, and that the bloke was only meeting me as a professional courtesy. I didn’t resent him. I always considered my company cheap and unprofessional, and my opinion of him instantly improved when I realized he was abandoning us.
I had traveled all the way to London, and going back too early would mean having to spend the afternoon in the office. Even though we had no deal to strike, I asked the bloke if he wanted to join me for lunch. On me: a farewell gift from his old publisher.
We ate fish and chips—back then it still tasted proper, none of this modern gastropub beastliness—and had a very nice chat. He was a reserved man, with a kinky beard and stupidly small glasses. Great listener. I’d had a drink or two, and he wasn’t saying much, so eventually I started talking about my problems. Maybe he’d be able to assist me, seeing how he belonged to the psychiatric profession. “Psychology,” he corrected me, while nodding somewhat tiredly. I was guarded and euphemistic at first, but the gates had been opened, and soon it was all gushing out. All my life, I said, I’d been plagued by the most horrendously disjointed spontaneous thoughts. There were days where every flab of cloth brought to mind breasts and genitalia. Times when I couldn’t clap eyes on another human without thinking of cannibalism. Not to mention the tangled grottiness of the putrid sexual images that sometimes plagued me.
What I found devastating weren’t the thoughts per se. Those were, after all, just thoughts. The horrid thing was the fear that accompanied them: a terrible dread that they might be a symptom of some hidden impulse. That they betrayed an evil nested within me, like a snake coiled around my organs.
The man kept nodding through my explanation. “Sounds like obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he said once I was finished. That struck me as preposterous. I thought that the term only applied to those blokes who need to put away their Monopoly with all the houses and hotels precisely right in the box. “The mind fixates on things,” he continued, “and associates images, often of a violent or repulsive nature, with certain stimuli. In cases of obsessive disorder, these correlations can become calcified in place, and cause great distress. If you find them bothersome, talk to your GP. They’ll recommend therapy or anxiolytics.”
And that was it. All those years I’d been carrying that worry inside me, and this silly sod came along and put a name to it, and explained it away. It staggers me that we all walk around with the solution to each other’s problems stored away within us, in our experiences and in the lessons we’ve learned, and yet we have not come up with any efficient system for sharing this knowledge. Except for books, I suppose. And who reads books these days?
I lived off tea for two days. When I felt that I could hold it down, I made a soup out of those carrots and potatoes in the cupboard. (The leek had sprouted a yellow beard, and I thought it best to avoid it.) It was thin and bland, but it tasted like life. I struggle to remember a meal I enjoyed more in recent years. Perhaps the last time Melvin and I ate out, at a sausage pub in Jericho called The Big Bang, his favorite place in the world. (They closed shortly after he died, his frequent patronage the only thing keeping them afloat.) We had some marvelous turnip mash, milky and velvety, with salt crystals peppered across its surface to pack a little burst of flavor with every forkful. We laughed, we joked, we ate to our bursting point. It was a good night.
It took all my self-control not to devour all the soup in one sitting. I poured two thirds of it in plastic containers, and stored them in the fridge for tomorrow’s meals. This felt so cruel that I ended up sulking at my own wisdom.
All through the day I’d been scouring the oven with my most aggressive cleaning products, breathing in their toxic vapors, determined to erase all traces of poison. When I woke up the next morning I sighed, took out the flour, and baked the tiniest loaf of my life. I had a quarter of it for lunch. My bowels did not liquefy.
I finished the loaf that night with the second portion of soup. I slept like a baby, and woke up feeling rejuvenated. My oven was back in business. Everything would be all right.
I walked out into the garden to deal with the dead magpies. I shouldn’t have left it so long, but I was hoping a fox would take them out of my hands. I guess foxes are too clever to eat poisoned birds. Or perhaps they all went wherever it is that 999 has gone.
I pulled on my thick plastic gloves and stuffed the slimy birds in a binbag. Not that my bins had been emptied at any time in the recent past. Kipfel was still in there, a disturbing and potentially dangerous fact I was doing a great job of ignoring. (A fun fact about the human mind: legitimate concerns are so much easier to dismiss than irrational fears.)
When I got up, with some difficulty, from leaning forward over the second bird, I saw a line of ducks, seven or eight of them, staring at me from beyond the fence.
My eyes darted to the door, and I saw that the outside of the cat flap, which I’d taped shut, was covered in scratches and dents. Beak marks.
I charged at the ducks, who scattered around the field, quacking indignantly as they took off. I took the dead magpies out of the binbag and threw them at the enemy. I missed. The magpies are still out there, by now little more than untroubled tufts of feathers and bones.
I asked Peter how dangerous ducks could be. He said that duck farmers contract salmonella a few times a year as a matter of course. When I pressed him for more information—how did they fare in conventional warfare?—he got unpleasant, and evasive.
Peter is the editor of the International Review of Poultry Studies. You’d think he should know about ducks. But his area of expertise is geese.
Academics, in my experience, tend to embrace the view that their superior knowledge of their field of study, the fact that they’re such valuable members of society, excuses them from adhering to most societal norms—of politeness, responsiveness, punctuality. But for all that they’re such geniuses they can’t even tell you how actually dangerous a sodding duck can be.
The day after our confrontation in the garden, the ducks came into my house again.
I heard a scuttling noise at dawn, too loud for me to pretend it was outside. I made my way down the stairs, and saw muddy prints along the hall. They headed, unsurprisingly, into the kitchen, but I followed them the other way, to their source. The ducks had pushed up one of the sash windows in Carl’s bedroom, and trailed mud across the bed and carpet.
I lost it. I ran into the kitchen, where three ducks were tearing at the half loaf I’d left under a cloth on the counter. I picked up the cloth from the floor and whipped them, forgetting the old wisdom about cornered animals.
They took flight, brushing past me on their way out. I covered my face. My arms got scratched. I’m not sure if they attacked me deliberately, or if their feet simply grazed me as they went by.
They flew down the hall and out the window, which I slammed closed, and locked. I collapsed on Carl’s muddy bed, and spent a long time studying my scratches.
Carl was our son. He always had a strong sense of justice, and he was passionate about music. He was in a band in high school that only played covers of this rock group called the Stiff Little Fingers, a name I always found enormously rude, even though it actually isn’t. Melvin used to give him a hard time about that band. “Your songs are terrible,” he would say, “and they’re not even yours.”
Carl had a few girlfriends, held a few jobs, but never anything serious. He had a car accident during a trip to Italy when he was thirty, and died.
I think about Carl the same way I think about my neuroses. It’s all part of life. I say to myself that thirty years on Earth are not nothing: that during that time, Carl was loved, and frequently happy. But it’s like telling myself that my anxieties are a condition, unfortunate but documented, endurable. It makes it bearable, most of the time; but the sorrow never goes away.
Melvin was never cruel to me, never actively nasty, but a couple of times, when I was trying to explain the nature of my anxieties to him—the obstinacy of my morbid thoughts—he replied in a way that wounded me deeply. “You Germans,” he said, too exasperated by his own impossible problems to know how to deal with mine. “Always obsessed with cruelty.”
I baked a fresh loaf. I locked all the windows except for one, in the living room.
Two days later, at the first light of dawn, I heard the ducks push that window up and drop onto the floor. They were stealthier this time, and made very little noise as they waddled down the hall.
I left my hiding spot on top of the stairs and sneaked toward the kitchen. I found them clustered around my bread, which they’d dragged to the floor.
I lunged forward and closed my hand around a duck’s neck. A female. She thrashed her wings and paddled with her feet in the air, trying perhaps to tear at my skin. Her resistance only increased my determination, making it easier to be forceful with her. I clutched her under my arm, immobilizing her, and took the kitchen knife out of my robe’s pocket.
Her companions had stopped eating and were quacking furiously at me. They seemed paralyzed between flight and violence. I looked down at them with great hate, and they looked up at me with whatever they had inside them—duck faces always seem to express blunt annoyance.
I have to do it, I thought. These pests need to go. They’ll give me salmonella. Steal all my bread. The first step of my extermination plan was a few millimeters away: the tip of my knife was resting on the duck’s breast, and she was struggling less frantically every second, perhaps because I was squeezing her too hard.
And yet my mind was at work with a lucidity I’d never known before. I was trying desperately to come up with a solution that did not involve bloodshed. How ironic, after a lifetime plagued by violent and repulsive thoughts, to find out I was incapable of inflicting harm—and by ironic I mean sodding preposterous.
These ducks are hungry, I thought. They must have gotten addicted to carbs from all the bread they were fed when people were still allowed outside their house. I had flour. I had bread. I could keep it all to myself, sure: but what for? To keep living indefinitely in my inescapable house, seeing the world around me shut down bit by bit, carrying on throughout it all with my irrelevant, menial job?
I dropped my prisoner. She was flying before she’d even touched the floor. I didn’t try to cover my face, but nobody scratched me on their way out.
Things got weird after that.
It wasn’t the following day, and to be honest I couldn’t say exactly how long after our confrontation this was—my mind was sluggish for a few days, probably as a comedown from that adrenaline burst in the kitchen—but eventually the ducks appeared again. They sat in a wonky semicircle outside my front door.
They must have seen that I was a softie. I baked a loaf, crumbled it up, and brought it out. How they knew this one wasn’t poisoned is beyond me.
There are two encampments around my house, one in the back garden, one on the front lawn. I tried to count the ducks in both, and reached a total of fifteen, but the figure is insignificant, as ducks come and go, and the camps seem to swell some days, and to be nearly abandoned on others.
I bake a loaf every two days, and hand it out in the morning. You’d think the ducks would have figured the schedule out, and perhaps they have, but either way they stay out there all the time, even on non-feeding days.
I’m well aware they might simply be keeping an eye on me. Making sure I do not leave.
How in the world, you may ask, do you still have enough flour to feed all these ducks. That’s the weirdest part. I was running low on strong flour, and would have soon been forced to use plain flour for my bread (civilization truly is collapsing) when one night, after sunset, the ducks on my front lawn started quacking very loud.
I got out and showed them my bare hands—no bread until tomorrow morning!—but they turned around and started walking down the street. Once they reached the corner, they turned and called again.
There are only a handful of houses and cottages in Binsey, plus a pub, The Perch, whose late-night crowds of posh revelers used to be the bane of my sleep. The ducks led me past my neighbors’ homes. We were violating quarantine—well, I was—but there was no one around to rat me out.
We got to a house painted peach and white, with a half-timbered first floor. Fancy. The ducks quacked for me to swing open the gate in the picket fence, and they guided me to the back garden.
The kitchen window had been opened, doubtlessly with the same burglary skills I’d already witnessed. It was close enough to the back door that I could reach my arm in, turn the key in the lock, and walk inside. Nobody was home, and there was no car in the driveway. I remembered two ghastly BMWs, and assumed that the owners must have fled to some even grander manor, deeper into the countryside.
The ducks tapped the cupboard under the sink with their beaks. Inside, I found a dozen 1.5 kg bags of stockpiled flour. Organic and local: the good stuff.
Most of the food in the fridge had spoiled, but I shopped freely from the cupboards. I left the backdoor open on my way out. Let the squirrels go crazy.
The cars still drive along the A34 whenever I go into my attic to check. (Have there been fewer of them recently? Hard to tell.) Peter still replies to my emails, although with less gusto and grease than before. Some of my colleagues have started showing up at the virtual tea breaks again. The ducks are hungry. I don’t feel lonely.
Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy, and lives and works in Oxford. He has written for The Millions, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Submarine. His stories have appeared in independent magazines, most recently in the Wilderness House Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Planet Scumm. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, The Bookchemist.