Christopher G. Moore
EEL SWAMP DUCKS REDUX
While fellow blogger Colin Cotterill has his hounds lined up on the beach conducting a seminar on the finer points of the Trotsky movement inside the dog world, I am reporting from Eel Swamp. I am light years behind Cotterill’s mind-meld that merges him into oneness with his dogs. The truth be told, I don’t have all of my ducks in a row. I can see the evidence of the skid marks as evolution has braked hard as it passed me in the fast lane, leaving me on the shoulder of the road of life with a pair of binoculars and two ducks.
A brief recap on the Eel Swamp ducks. Over a month ago we moved our mosquito repellent and sleeping bags and five dogs to a hovel in Eel Swamp. One small brown duck occupied the pond. Rumour was the construction site workers left the brown duck behind. After finding a place for the two cartons of mosquito repellent, netting, tent poles, and sleeping bags, the wife, her mother and the maid—with time weighing heavily on their hands—focused on the brown duck, which was named Khemchart (translation: ‘Good Life’). They all agreed that he must be terribly lonely swimming endless circles in the pond.
Khemchart looked happy enough to me. I thought that this drake indeed enjoyed the good life. But what do I know? Don’t answer that.
The women answered it for you and me: nothing. No surprise so far. Moore’s knowledge of ducks hovers just above zero when it comes to understanding the deep psychological state of an abandoned duck. The solution (the maid’s idea) was to buy Khemchart a female companion from a Klong Toey market vendor. This being Thailand, it seemed important that the duck should have white feathers. No matter that Khemchart is clearly a dark shade of brown. The maid found the white duck, the prospective wife at the market. Baht 195 for a wife is at the low end of price. With ducks you buy your bride by her weight. I suspect that is the price for a ‘kitchen’ duck rather than a domestic ‘pond’ duck. I have no doubt that in buying the duck at Klong Toey market as a companion as opposed to soup was something of a first. The vendors bought lottery tickets using the maid’s birthday for the winning numbers.
Like many new brides ripped out of her snug, secure Bangkok environment and plunged into the alien terrain of the countryside, the white duck—named Mali or Jasmine in English (my wife’s idea)—was released into the pond. Several days later, Mali flew over the fence to the pooyai baan’s estate and landed in the middle of a golf green. The estate has an even bigger pond. Her vaulting over the fence appeared to be the duck version of film Runaway Bride. Mali seemed unwilling to live contently on the pond with Khemchart and had hatched a sinister scheme to fly back to Bangkok. The local workers combined with the women of Eel Swamp ended Mali’s escape plans and she was returned to the pond and told to know her place. After another abortive attempt to fly over the fence—foiled by the pooyai barn’s watchful staff, Mali appears to have lost her travel lust.
Back in the pond, Mali’s been carefully watched by the women. Daily they waited for Mali to bolt again. The result is a little like the Eel Swamp version of a State of Emergency. Mali’s not exactly under house arrest, but her movements don’t go unnoticed on both sides of the fence.
In fairness, it should be noted, Mali has made no further escape attempts. The mother-in-law felt that Mali’s angst was caused by the absence of a house of her own. With the assistance of the maid’s husband, they built a pond side thatched roof A-frame, a tiny replica of the kind building that rich people use when they go to ski at Whistler Mountain, in British Columbia. The pond duck house featured a small entry way and some side windows. It looked like a primitive spirit house. The mother-in-law, wife, maid, and maid’s husband, along with the staff across the fence on the pooyai baan’s side, all waited and watched. Neither Khemchart nor Mali have ever ventured inside the A-frame house. They squatted beside it. Walked around it. Did that shiver of the feather thing coming out of the water in front of the A-frame, before flopping down, back turned to the door.
About the same time, doubts circulated as to Mali’s gender. She had a couple of strikes against her. Her pedigree to start with: she was an ordinary Klong Toey duck intended for the pot. Second, Bangkok women of all species are demanding, picky, flighty and liable to take flight at the first opportunity to explore a bigger pond (or putting green). Third, serious doubts about Mali’s gender circulated like wildfire after she suddenly mounted Khemchart doggy style in the middle of the pond. Mali refusal to live inside the house built for her cast doubt on whether she was a woman. All the women at Eel Swamp agreed that female DNA draws them to settle down in the best possible nest. Not Mali. She wasn’t having anything to do with house and Khemchart seemed more of a buddy than a wife. How could that be? Unless Mali wasn’t a female but a man, the women agreed that men pretty much slept anywhere, were fence jumpers, and had a thing about golf courses. I can’t say their logic was faulty.
My mother-in-law, using advanced sound wave listening techniques, concluded that Mali was a female. It was in the fine detail of the quack. Thai is a tonal language and that apparently gives them an edge in decoding duck quacking, which apparently has eight tones for females—Charlie Parker on the Sax and three tones for males—Kenny G. holding that one note long enough to pass out for lack of oxygen. The lack of tonal males is what makes female ducks quite fatalistic about being taken to Klong Toey market to await their date with a cooking pot. Of course, I may be reading too much between the lines. But that is what writers do. Read between the lines as they write lines for others to read between.
If the tonal test is inconclusive, my mother-in-law has another test up her sleeve. She says a male duck, a drake in formal duck talk, has a big crest on the top of its head, while the female has a small crest on her head. Big and small are relative terms, and getting close enough to the top of a duck’s head begs a question: if you are that close, why not check the bit of the duck that proves conclusively the point at issue.
A couple of weeks have passed since Mali came to live in the pond on Eel Swamp. All of that initial excitement and anticipation has faded. A little like one of the police or government crackdowns that crank up emotions for two weeks before moving onto the latest outrage or novelty to blast through the daily noise of life. Entire days pass without any of the women mentioning Mali or Khemchart. They stroll passed the pond without even glancing at them. The ducks have merged into the daily landscape of life. They swim across the pond day after day, and as I watch them it becomes increasingly clear how little difference it really makes as to whether Mali is a female, male or katoey. She’s our duck. She’s content to stay on the pond. She even seems to have grown fond of Khemchart. But I am betting that she’d rather be pate than sleep in that ramshackle A-Frame built for her and Khemchart at the end of the pond.
Resolving Mali’s gender appeared to me as a muddle created by ambiguity, doubt and indecision. There is another explanation. Just maybe I’ve had a lesson in the Thai version of Schrödinger’s Cat, that old quantum physic problem in which the cat is neither dead nor alive until someone in a white lab coat opens the lid and looks inside the box. The pond is a kind of box with a lid on it. Mali, then is neither a male nor female, as no one has looked. I like the idea that Mali’s gender is somehow suspended in this state of all gender configurations.
Next time you are in a restaurant and seek duck on the menu, think of Khemchart and Mali idling away their days at Eel Swamp. And in some distant universe, the likes of Khemchart and Mali are looking at a menu with people like us on it. Maybe one of us made it out of the market and into a private pond and garden, tried to escape, and figured out there is no real escape, that it was better coming to terms with the pond you know rather than searching for the perfect pond over the horizon.