By Jeanne Charters
Once upon a time, I had a beautiful friend who blessed my life with humor, gracefulness, and grit.
Our neighborhood nicknamed her Aflac. You may have seen her as you passed our little lake and, if you did, you probably smiled. Because Aflac always made people smile.
She was found nearly 10 years ago toddling around Biltmore Village. The finder brought her home and placed her in the lake on Hendersonville Road behind Deerwood condominiums. She took to the lake like a duck to water. Duh! She shared the lake with two beautiful white swans, a few mallards and one Muscovy. Upon the death of the swans within months of each other, Aflac was crowned the official queen of the lake.
And boy, did she know it!
For the most part, she ruled benignly. She would come if you called or whistled. She had many gentlemen friends. Some neighbors even called her promiscuous. I prefer to think of her as a female reveling in her femininity. God knows she was pretty. And so did she!
Her steady mates, though—the relationships that lasted, were with females.
I don’t think Aflac was gay. I do think that, like many women, she found a better understanding within her own gender.
Her best friend during my time of knowing her was Millie or Ugli (for the ugly duckling). Millie was a Muscovy with a coat of feathers that looked like a poorly designed patchwork quilt. Aflac and Millie were inseparable, even building their nests in the spring within two feet of each other.
But the nests held two-dozen infertile eggs, which began to stink from the summer heat. Aflac and Millie refused to leave those nests—certain that babies would hatch if they sat on them long enough—until someone removed the eggs. Funny, isn’t it how hope springs eternal? And sad, too. When the eggs were gone, Aflac and Millie returned to their lake to feed and float—together, always together.
Aflac disappeared for two months in 2008, finally emerging with two baby ducklings. One was gone in a day to some predator, but the other, “Speedy,” survived for several months and then disappeared, apparently the victim of a watchful hawk. Did she grieve, I wonder? Did she miss her only baby? My guess is that she did.
Millie consoled Aflac after that loss and both became tame enough to eat corn from the hands of trusted adults and children. I loved hearing a squealing toddler as Aflac ran her big yellow beak across their tiny fingers.
When Aflac broke her toe last year, Millie stayed constantly by her side near the corn barrel. Watching those two girls defined for me what having a best friend is all about. Through thick and thin, you stick with your bud. You just don’t leave her.
Aflac’s foot healed, but when Millie died in a dog attack, I think Aflac’s heart broke for the final time. I watched her become a warrior.
Because, you see, a flock of Canada geese invaded our lake. I always loved the look of geese flying and honking overhead and then floating down into the water. Until I realized that said geese are essentially excrement factories and can get mighty mean if someone comes near them. The only benefit of the geese seems to be to our neighborhood dogs, mine included, who perceive their poop as pâté. Gross, I know, but oh well….
During the frozen winter months, a group of us take turns feeding corn to the waterfowl. That’s when I watched sweet Aflac become a one-woman offense and defense mechanism in a war to keep the ducks fed.
As soon as the corn hit the water, the geese would charge toward the shore, ready to gobble up every morsel. But Aflac, though she was roughly one-third the size of any goose, charged faster, harder, and more aggressively than they did.
She quacked and squawked at them as she patrolled the circle around the corn so that the ducks could get their fill. The geese backed off, clearly frightened of this little white vexation determined to thwart their gluttony. She circled the perimeter of the ducks, never letting a goose near the food, until the ducks had their fill.
Aflac’s military strategy would rival that of MacArthur, Eisenhower, or Petraeus for effectiveness. Hey, I know Petraeus screwed up, but he was a great military mind—just not as great as Aflac.
Now comes the hard part. Earlier this week, Aflac was crossing Deerwood Drive, waddling toward her lake. White ducks can’t fly, you know. A neighbor hit her. The heartsick neighbor owned up to the accident and feels terrible about it—especially because the victim is someone so beloved.
Our neighborhood is grieving. That silly white duck can never be replaced. I hope it’s true that when we enter into our next realm, all our favorite animals will be standing there to greet us. If so, Aflac will be leading the pack.
Jeanne Charters, a transplant from New York, is a writer living in Asheville with her husband, Matt Restivo. Her collection of columns, “Funny, isn’t it?” is available at Malaprops, Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade, or at jeannecharters.com.
She has written three novels and has acquired an agent for her young adult novel, “Shanty Gold.” Jeanne is working on edits, per that agent, and hopes to have a publisher this year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.