Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Little Amazon

In his movie Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen says the purpose of an artist is to create meaning for meaningless existence. My purpose now is somewhat different: I am creating meaning for a meaningless death.

She was my little Amazon, the Muscovy duckling that wasn’t even supposed to be alive. I put her chances for survival at 50/50 and we’d already had one duckling not only survive but thrive after I took him out of his shell against Bro. Christian’s better judgment.
Christian always said I should not help any bird get out of its shell because only by forcing its way out would it become strong enough to survive. The corollary being any bird that died in its shell was too weak to survive. But I could not face having her die cold and wet in such dark surroundings, waded up in a ball. No, even if she were to die, I wanted her to be warm and dry, all fluffed out and in a safe place. But safety, it turned out, was relative.
As I said, I’d already had success keeping one baby duckling alive after its mother abandoned the nest with her firstborn, leaving several eggs behind. Only one showed any sign of life, as we saw and heard chipping away from the inside as it tried to break through the shell. When it seemed to give up, I took matters into my own hands, as I am wont to do, and carefully broke open the shell to reveal the folded up, wet duckling inside. I brought it into the summer house where I already had a metal tub and a heat lamp, its new mother, set up. Carefully drying it off, I laid it under the lamp and within an hour it was fully dry, a little yellow fuzz ball with delicate pads for feet and a small head with two tiny black dots for eyes, already making duck sounds.
One of the great joys in having baby birds is giving them their first drink of water and their first taste of food. After that, they catch on quickly. Soon the little guy was running around the tub. The duckling seemed to be male in the same way my little Amazon seemed to be female, though it was impossible at that age for us to tell for certain. Amazingly, he lived and after a week we moved him over to the duck house where we already had his mother and brothers and sisters. In his case, intruding into nature’s scheme paid off but, as I said, I put the chances at 50/50 and the odds came up against us with the second duckling.
We found another nest with several eggs left unhatched when the mother took those that had already hatched down to the pond where I proceeded to take a swim and catch them so they wouldn’t be eaten by wild animals as they inevitably were if we left them alone. As with the first batch, we found one egg with signs of life, a small hole appearing in the shell that slowly grew larger, perhaps no more than half an inch across, then the duckling stopped pecking at the shell, possibly already worn out from exertion. I waited for several hours to see what would happen but there was no more pecking and, again, I grew worried and did not want the duckling to die wet and cold in the darkness of its shell. So once again I tempted fate by carefully picking open the shell and carefully unwrapping the duckling, amazed at how such a living creature could actually fit inside such a small shell.
As with the first duckling, I carefully wiped this one off but she was terribly weak. Again, this baby seemed female to me. Her head hung down the same way it had in the shell. I could tell she was a preemie but did not realize she had a fatal flaw that would end in her death: the part of her body where the egg sack was attached was open. Maybe it is in all baby birds, I don’t know, but she had a small hole in her belly that I just assumed would close up with time. I assumed it would close up, remember that word because it came back to haunt me.
She was terribly weak but under the heat lamp she dried out and fluffed out into a beautiful yellow baby chick. Again I had the thrill of giving her her first water but she barely took any of it and trying to get her to eat was useless, she was just too weak.
Instead of being able to stand on her own two padded feet and begin walking, she lay under the lamp, unable to lift her head. I knew she needed stimulation, touch, to activate her body and prevent her from dying. I began stroking her back and she responded to that, moving her body and eventually, slowly, getting up on her short little feet, wobbly, head still bowed over, learning to stand and taking hesitant first steps. Everything was delayed with her, development was slow. I would lift her up and hold a cup of water to her beak. By now she knew what it was and began to actively drink, which encouraged me. Slowly, very slowly, over several days, she began to stand on her own. I kept stroking her and, maybe because she didn’t like being stroked, she started to move away, slowly at first but as I continued stroking her, she began to move faster to the point where she would run around the tub and finally, to my great relief and encouragement, began trying to jump out of the tub to get away.
Eating was still difficult. It seemed that even the crumbled food was too hard for her to chew and swallow. I pinched the already small crumbles between my fingers to make them even finer and added small amounts of water to soften them even more. Now, as I put her beak close to the food, she began taking in at least small amounts. After several days her head raised up at last and she seemed to recover from her early birth. I began leaving a small cup of water and a small plate of dampened food for her to eat while I was not there. In retrospect this may not have been a good idea as it may have kept her belly damp, but then there was still that open wound in her belly that I forgot about because her yellow fuzz covered everything and I just assumed, again that terrible word, that things were fine.
To get her to exercise, I took her out of the tub and let her run around the room. She was up in the attic and had the floor to herself. I would stroke her back and she would run and run around the room. She was so full of life and was daily getting stronger. I started calling her my little Amazon, remarking on her growing strength. I said she would have muscles on muscles which would scare off half the boys and attract the other half. “My little Amazon,” I kept calling her and, terrible presumption, started planning for when I would finally be able to introduce her back into her home flock of mother, brothers and sisters in the duck house where all the babies are kept until they get their full white feathers and are large enough to survive on their own.
As I said, I was already planning for her future, not realizing she didn’t have one. I had already tempted fate by saving one duckling. In terms of percentages alone, this next one was doomed. But for now that did not seem to be the case as I joyfully played morning and evening with her. She was the delight of my life. I could not believe how happy such a small creature could make me. Needless to say, I loved her.
The evenings were best, that was our special time together when, after a long day, I could finally relax with her. One evening I noticed she kept trying to scratch her belly, which I thought was a good sign that she was mature enough to be concerned about mites and other irritations. But the cause was more than mites, and much more serious than an irritation.
It was the next morning when I went to see her and she was on her back, struggling to get up. I noticed her bottom was damp and matted. It had been matted since birth, actually, and I had tried to tease apart the tangled yellow fuzz to clean it out but stopped when I realized I was hurting her.
Now I closely inspected to find out just what was going on when I saw them, a tangled, teaming mass of maggots. Somehow, a single fly had gotten to her and laid her eggs in the still open wound of my preemie. I screamed and took her downstairs to the sink where I washed them off and, to my dismay, found how easy it was to clean the impacted, matted mass with running water when I had given up trying to clean it with my fingers alone. Why, I asked myself, hadn’t I thought about doing this when she was just hatched? Things would have been so much easier if she had been cleaned up from the beginning. But my thoughts then had been to keep her dry, not to wash her down and get her wet all over again; that was the opposite of what I had wanted for her. But now I blamed myself for the maggots that were on her. I also blamed myself for the fly that had been able to land on her and infest her with her eggs. There had not been a problem with flies in the summer kitchen. Never had I thought one might lay eggs on her.
I carefully washed her clean and had a chance to more closely inspect her wound now that the feathers were matted. What I saw horrified me. The maggots weren’t all gone. In fact, they were living inside her. They came crawling out of her belly wound, living just under her skin and eating her muscles, eating her alive. Their wriggling, white tubes with black teeth at the front were crawling out from inside her body, trying to reach the air as they needed air to breathe. This was more than I could bear; they were inside my angel’s body cavity; they were killing her.
I screamed for Brother Christian and kept screaming. He came over from his house in a panic as I showed him the horror of what was happening. He loved our little angel as well but kept his head and realized we had to get the maggots out of her. He started picking at them with his finger nails but his fingers were too large for the tiny maggots and he couldn’t see them well either. With my near-sightedness, I could see them closely and I used the blunt end of a needle to pry them out from inside her. When I seemed to have killed most of them, he checked her out all over.
“Oh no,” he said, “They’re all over her.” Not just in her belly wound; they had started eating around her anus as well. “There’s a huge colony of them,” he said, as again he tried to pick them out with his fingers but I ended up again using a needle to scrape them off as they came out from inside her body. Finally, finally, it seemed that we had all of them out. We dried her off. The stress had been very difficult for her. Her head went down as it had when she first came out of the shell. I could tell she was regressing and losing all of her progress. Still, we dried her off as best we could and kept her under the heat lamp, hoping she would recover.
Later in the day she seemed her old self, getting up and walking around as she had formerly. But that evening I inspected her again and, again, I found new masses of tiny maggots both in her belly wound and around her bottom. Once again I screamed for Christian and once again he came over. Once again I used the needle to get them out. I dunked her in warm water trying to shut off the maggots’ air supply and force them out of her body. They kept coming out of her. It was one of the most horrible scenes I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some pretty horrible things during our years of working with animals; everyone has who works with animals.
“I have to kill her,” I told Christian; “She’ll never survive this.”
But he convinced me to let her alone, to let her recover overnight as, once again, it seemed we had gotten out all of the maggots. My little Amazon was terribly weak but, once again, we dried her off and let her recover from the stress. Once again she fluffed out and became the beautiful little duckling we loved so much, and so I went off to bed.
The next morning she was once again wet on her bottom. Once again I held her close to my nearsighted eye and, to my horror, realized her wound was much larger now; that maggots had been eating her through the night and now I could actually see her internal organs. Not thinking she had any chance for survival, once again Christian and I tried to clean out all of the remaining maggots. There were very few by now and I thought that somehow my strong girl just might pull through, despite the massive size of her gaping wound. I thought just somehow she might pull it off even though we almost lost her as she went limp as we were pulling out the maggots and we had to revive her. Once again we left her under the heat lamp to recover from the stress of her ongoing ordeal.
Several hours later I went to the summer house to check on her and saw Brother Christian coming out with a wrapped-up newspaper page in his hand. There were tears in his eyes and I knew our little Amazon was dead. “She just couldn’t stand the stress,” he said. I carefully unwrapped the paper and there she was, my little Amazon, with her dead eyes still open, with that quizzical look I’ve seen so many times on so many faces, that quizzical look at the face of death of itself, the look that asks the unanswerable question, “What’s happening to me?” I imagine wartime medics in Iraq and Afghanistan see that look all the time in the eyes of dying soldiers. It’s not just a human look, a human act in the fact of the unknown, but an act of all sentient creatures faced with the unknowable, the unbelievable. I saw it on my mother’s face as she lay dying. And I see it again on the face of my little Amazon.
“They’re not going to have her,” said Christian. “I won’t let the maggots have her in death. We’re going to cremate her.”
I fetched a beautiful piece of Indian silk with a rainbow of color and texture. I carefully wrapped her slight body in it. Christian had a piece of white lace for the final, outer wrapping, white for the innocent she was.
We took her body and laid it on the funeral pyre. Christian started the fire and quite quickly the lace and silk were engulfed in flame. I thought I could hear the swelling and popping of the maggots as the heat reached them inside her, killing them as they had killed my baby. Grim satisfaction it was knowing they were boiling and dying as she turned into smoke and ash, purified of pain and her mortal coil that had proved deficient at keeping her alive in the face of such monstrosity. Now she was free as her spirit soared into the sky.
“Nothing is ever lost,” I heard. “No, nothing is ever lost.”
The smoke rose; our baby was free at last. She had given us so much love, so much joy in such a brief period of time. Had I been wrong in trying to keep her alive? Should I have let her die in her shell, in the cold, dark, dampness of her shell? I didn’t believe that; I couldn’t believe that. I saw her running around the attic floor, happy in her existence which was far, far too brief. But for a brief time she enjoyed being alive and, for a brief time, her existence gave joy to ours.

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