Contest Winner: Outcast's Tale, By John P. Pazdziora


Editor's Note: John's tale is complex, and if I am guessing right, mixes a touch of Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," with the "duck" from "Hansel and Gretel." I liked the community setting of the ducks in the farm -- all the posturing and quibbling. Congrats John!

John Patrick Pazdziora is a freelance writer and editor. His stories have appeared in New Fairy Tales (May 2010) and Cabinet des Fées (January 2011). He is also a doctoral candidate at the School of English, University of St Andrews, researching George MacDonald and Scottish Romanticism. He lives online at mrpond47.wordpress.com. In the real world, he lives in Scotland with his wife and daughter.


The air is cold this morning. I’m afraid. I don’t know why. Something in me trembles at the smallest sound, poised to flee, to escape. I shake my wings, finish preening, biting back the urge to fly. Perhaps I’m being afraid of the cold. It would be the sort of thing I would do.

I wander into the yard. The other ducks are there already, gobbling corn. They are beautiful—fat and sleek and white, the pride of the barnyard. I disgust them.

A young drake notices me and pretends he doesn’t. A few of the girls draw away, feigning unease for a maidenly virtue they’ve never demonstrated before. I stay on the corner, nibbling at grains and grass. If all I must endure this morning is sneers, I’ll be lucky.

I’m not.

“Outcast?” A shrill voice booms across the yard. “Outcast!”

The eldest drake has seen me. I look up from the grass. He looms above me, fluffy chest thrust out, his brooders simpering behind him. I keep my gangly frame crouched and let him loom.

“What are you doing here, Outcast?” he demands.

I tell him I’m eating grass. I know what he will say, whatever I say.

“Eating?” he says disdainfully. “Grass? Eating grass?” He turns to the other ducks. “Do you see, sons and daughters? Do you hear? This duck would eat grass like a—a criminal! Like a goose! Like a—an animal!”

The other ducks laugh.

The eldest drake swells to his theme, turning back to me. “I do not fault you, Outcast. I am, on the whole, a magnanimous bird, and take as best I can the broadest view. We know—we all know that you have no poetry in your soul. No po-etry. In your soul. Tell me what I said, Outcast. Tell me what you haven’t got.”

“I’ve not got poetry in my soul, sir.”

“Speak up! Don’t mumble, quack louder. What’s that you said?”

“I’ve got no poetry in my soul, sir!”

He turns to the other ducks in outrage. “He has the gall to admit it! To bellow it out with pride! The shame of such arrogance!”

The other ducks shake their heads, muttering their disdain.

“I tell you, Outcast,” says the eldest drake, “I take an indulgent view. One must be indulgent to have you about at all—I mean, those gray feathers, the unsuccessful moult. I pity you, Outcast. Gray feathers will do you no good when winter comes. Only white feathers are truly warm. Do you know what winter is, Outcast? Outcast? Ask me what winter is.”

“What is winter, sir?”

“Speak up, don’t mumble! And quack—none of this hissing and muttering!”

“What is winter, sir?”

The eldest drake shakes his head. “Such a sad thing, not to know. Winter, my dear freak, is a time of warmth and plenty. Of sleep and fat. Soon, Outcast, we will go into the barn to nest in the hay, to be fed on the finest of the harvest, to grow whiter and sleeker and fatter. Winter is a good and bountiful time. Winter, ahem, is a time when we have nothing to fear.” He glares round at the other ducks. “Am I not right?”

The ducks seem uneasy. They nod assent, but glance about at each other.

The eldest drake scowls. “Stop this muttering, all of you! Tell me what winter is. Winter is what? Speak up!”

“A time when we have nothing to fear!” chorus the other ducks.

“Tell me,” says the eldest drake, “winter is a time when what?”

“When we have nothing to fear!”

“You see, I thought not.” He turns back to me. “But as for this other—I really can’t say. You see, they kill freaks here, Outcast. You’ve seen it with pigs. Helpless, deformed things get their brains beat out. And you—so gangly and clumsy—you, so gray. Well. Let us be glad, for your sake, that winter is nothing to fear. Come!” He glances round at his brooders. “Let us return to the barn, and prepare, ahem, for the brooding of the spring.”

The other ducks waddle off. I stare at the clump of grass before me. I don’t want to eat it anymore.

One of the ducks lingers behind, watching me. She’s from the same clutch as me, and was the smallest. But she’s grown so beautiful. She’s one of the plumpest ducks, now. The others call her Radiant. She almost smiles at me. She almost smiles at me almost every day.

“I don’t even know what po-hetry is,” she says. “You just need to fatten up, that’s all.”

“I eat grass.”

“Well,” she leans forward, whispers, “I’ve got a stash of corn behind the barn. You can have it, if you like. You need it.”

I stare at her, astonished. She simpers.

“You don’t need to look at me like that,” she says. “Not yet, anyway. Go on—fatten up.” She hesitates, really does smile. “I think long necks are beautiful.” She flusters, scrambles off to the barn.

Dazed, I wander off, scratching round the foundation thoughtfully until I find the hidden corn. It’s cold and stale, but I eat it. I even eat some of the grass that was hiding it. Now I want to be fat and sleek for spring.

I’m hearing a strange noise as I eat. The farmer is about—I can smell him. He’s back in the shed, not far from where I’m sitting. I hear the noise again—methodical, rhythmic, something scraping. It’s a cheerful sound, drifting my mind back to the warm days of autumn, yellow leaves and golden corn, ripe and fresh.

The farmer must be whetting his scythe. Perhaps winter is a good and bountiful time after all.

Now that I’ve eaten, I’m tired. I huddle in the grass beside the barn, beside the memory of Radiant’s gift. I preen myself more carefully than usual. And I sleep again.

I awake in mid-afternoon with dull terror. Ancient senses in my chest are screaming in fear, telling me to fly, to escape. The world has become a single peril. There is a predator nearby.

This is foolish. The eldest duck always tells me how safe the farm is, except when he tries to frighten me. I must fight back my silliness and get my exercise, same as usual.

I run a few shambling paces, beat my wings, and fly. The senses in my chest nearly drive me straight into the sunset, to hide in fire and fear, but I force myself to fly at a brisk pace round the barn. Exercise is good for me, the eldest duck says. He’s right. As I fly my fears recede and I become sensible again.

Until I circle round the barn. The terror rushes at me, knocks me off course. Flee, flee, or it will find you, it will take you. Fly, fly, or you will be torn, you will bleed, you will be dead.

I force myself to land, shaking, gasping for breath. I must not be foolish and think such things. I must go back to the other side of the barn. The other ducks are feeding; I can hear the farmer whistling for them. But I linger, fascinated and appalled. For now I realize that this fear wafts off the shed.

The terror becomes a single smell, sharp against my mind. The smell becomes a single sight. Blood has pooled in the dirt beside the shed, dark and rank. Blood drips from under the door, running along the wood to join the darker stain. Blood fills the air and my mind and the earth and the ground is screaming and the blood is flecked with white feathers and I am flying—flying in panic around the barn.

I land among the other ducks, panting and trembling. The eldest duck pecks me sharply. “None of that! Keep away from respectable birds!”

I look around; the fear will not leave me. “Where’s Radiant?”

The ducks fall silent, staring at the ground, the sky—anywhere but me, anywhere but the direction of the shed.

“Where’s Radiant?” I shout.

The eldest duck ruffles his wings. “Tell me!” he shouts. “Winter is a time when what?”

“When we have nothing to fear!” shout the other ducks.

He glares at me. “There, you see? There are to be no questions. Nothing remarkable has happened or will happen. Winter is a time when what?”

“When we have nothing to fear!” shout the other ducks.

“So push off and stop staring.”

The eldest duck pecks me until I slink away. I lay my head against the side of the barn. I am the freak and she was beautiful, but it is not my blood beneath the door. If I knew how, I would weep.

A sudden rush of wings overhead startles me. I look up. Perhaps I was wrong—perhaps Radiant was just out flying. But the bird overhead is not Radiant. It’s a stranger.

The stranger lands in the yard with a rush of wings and a wink for the girls. They flutter away, quacking and affronted, glancing to see if he’ll follow. He ignores them and tucks into the corn like a starving hare.

He is not like the other ducks, not sleek and fat and white. His feathers are gray, black, brown, all speckled together. His head flashes purple and green when he moves. There is an air about him of strangeness, like one who has travelled far and seen farther. I watch, fascinated. I’ve never seen a bird like him before.

I creep up beside him, pecking at the corn. He grins at me, eats faster. I know how unlovely I must look to him. It’s some time before I speak.

“What are you?” I ask.

“What are you, hideous?” he says, but not unkindly.

I try to smile. He can’t have known how much those words hurt. “I’m called Outcast. I’m a duck.”

“You a duck?” he says. “Fluffy and domestic? You’re just chickens that quack, you lot. Me, I’m a duck.”

“You’re not a proper duck. Ducks are fat and sleek and white and you’re—”

“A proper duck. That’s Mallard with a capital M.” He looks at me curiously. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

“I get out to the yard every day. I eat lots of corn because I’m so skinny, and fly around the barn for exercise.”

“You don’t get out much,” he says. “Can see why, too. First rate scoff you chickens get here, eh? Fattening you up for winter.”

“Winter is bad.” I can’t help saying it. I know it’s true. “There’s blood under the door.”

“The old choppy-chop, eh? That’s the trouble with going domestic. But winter’s not bad. Not if you know where you’re going. Me, I hang around till the river freezes. You get to see snow that way, and ice. You never lived till you seen the river in winter, mac. The reeds are full of frost so they catch the sunrise, and when you’re under them they gleam and shine till you’re in a bed of light. The fish are sluggish, the air is clear, and the water is cold—cold, cold.” He ruffles his feathers. “And then you fly south with the wind of winter over your wings.”

“What’s south?”

The stranger stops eating, stares blankly. “You gotta get out more, kid. South is downriver. South is green fields and warm water all seasons long—air so wet you can swim in it. Try flying south for the winter, mac. Better than hanging about waiting for the old choppy-chop.”


The other ducks are waddling back, pretending to eat but batting their eyes. The stranger ignores them, stands up and beats his wings. “Me, I’m off. See you down south, Outcast.”

I watch him fly away, his wings whistling in the cold air.

It’s nearly dark now. The other ducks ignore me, waddling back to the barn together, tittering about the stranger. I stay by the fence. The river is a long shadow across the pasture. Beyond lies the wild wood—further still, if the stranger spoke true, lies the wide world.

South.

I back up from the fence, run forward, stumbling over my own webbings. I stretch my wings, let them catch the cold air, feel the lift of the wind about me, and I’m over the fence, over the pasture, flying low along the river. I hear the panicked quacking of the other ducks, but I don’t care. Not anymore. I fly downriver toward the south, away from the blood and the barn, into the shadow of the wild wood.

It’s dark among the trees. Around me are only shadows, strange ghost shapes. I hear rustlings and whisperings, the crack of ice on branches and the slow shiver of frost on leaves. I turn with the river, the winter wind behind me.

A light appears on the water below me, dark shadows sweeping across it, shifting, changing. I see myself upon it as a shadow, a dark winged thing blotting it, batting it out. I look up, away—and I see. The moon has broken through the clouds, half-full, its face scored and shattered with the twisted, changing branches of the wild wood. I catch sight of my wings. By its light, they are sleek and white, and I am beautiful.

The river widens. I’ve come to a lake in the middle of the wood, an island of pale trees at its centre. I arc my wings and run along the water. It is cold, crackling as I touch it. I clamber ashore, panting, push my way through the reeds. I settle among them, fluffing my feathers against the frost.

“South.” I say the word drowsily, tucking my head under my wing. “I’m going to the south like a real duck. I’m flying south with the wind of winter. We could have gone together, Radiant.”

I don’t know when I fall asleep. But I wake into a shimmering splendour of light.

Everywhere, the shadows of the woods are covered in light. The moon has vanished. The watery winter sun shines instead—from every leaf and every branch, dazzling in a thousand fragments.

I push off to the water, scrabble on a hard surface, and stare, bewildered. The glittering whiteness is wet and cold about my legs. I try to run but the hard surface is sleek. I slip and stumble, and fall heavily. The surface cracks, and cold water rushes over my feathers.

Not gone, then. I gain my balance in the water, beat my wings, and hit the broken edge heavily with my chest. The woods boom with the sound. Water washes around me. I fling back my head and laugh despite my grief—laugh for the joy of the morning and the absurdity of winter, laugh for water under stone and the light of winter on my wings. I heave, strike the ice again.

“It’s frozen. We can’t get across!”

“Yes, we can.”

“No—don’t!”

The woods echo with breaking ice. Two voices scream. I rear, looking about. On the far bank, a human girl is hauling a human boy away from the water’s edge. Her face is deathly pale, and she is screaming at the other child.

“You stupid idiot, you never listen! You could have drowned!”

“I thought it was thicker.” His voice is nearly as high as hers. “I couldn’t see it because of the snow!” He grabs his ankle, shaking the water off his boot.

The girl crouches beside him. Their voices sound weirdly close to me in the cold air. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’ll—we’ll—neither do I. Can’t we just sleep?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“We could try.”

“I can’t sleep! Every time I close my eyes I see—”

“Don’t. Just don’t. All right, don’t sleep.”

“Besides, you die if you sleep in snow.”

“I don’t care. I want to die.”

“Don’t say that! Don’t you say that! That’s sin.”

“I want to die. I want to die, Gretel! Where do we go from here? How do we get across the river? How do we know she—it—hasn’t followed us?”

“She couldn’t. You—you heard her.”

“I saw you. I watched you.”

“I—I know. What else could I do?”

“Was it sin, Gretel? Was it sin?”

“I don’t know.”

The boy sits on the snow, hiding his face on his knees. “I want to die.”

They are not like other children I’ve seen. They are pale and gaunt, dressed in rags that can give no warmth, tattered coats, dirty faces, untidy hair. There is something awful in their faces—a fixed horror, a dread that has nothing to do with sunlight or morning. Even when they shout at each other, they cling to each other, as if too frightened to draw away.

They are alone in the wild wood. They are different. They are afraid. They are outcasts.

I rear, break the ice again.

The girl looks up at me, blue eyes wide and terrified. “Look, Hansel, look. There’s a duck.”

“I don’t care. Leave me alone.”

“It’s breaking the ice. It’s trying to swim.”

I don’t care!”

“Do you think it can take us across?” She’s shaking now, crying. “Do you think it can help us?”

“I don’t know.”

The girl stands at the water’s edge, watching me as I beat a path through the ice. She speaks strangely, her voice swaying in a singsong. “Little duck, little duck, can you see? Brother and sister are crying for thee. We have no home, no help in sight; carry us, please, on your back so white.”

They are like me, these children. The gawky ones, the strange ones, ignored and forgotten. What horror have they left behind? What unspeakable thing beneath the door? The whetting of an axe, the drip of blood. These children, they are outcasts.

I break the ice again. I’m nearly at the girl’s feet now, a track of open water behind me, cold and clear and shining with morning sun.

“Look.” She’s crying, shaking. “Look, Hansel, it heard me. It’s come to help us.”

The boy stands up. “It can’t.”

The girl kneels in the snow. “Look—Hansel! It’s not a duck. It’s a little swan. Can we ride on you, little swan?”

I begin to shudder, but not from cold. What does she mean, this girl with the fearful eyes and pleading face? I am the hideous one, the outcast—I am no swan! I look down in the water, see myself looking back—gray and mottled, haggard with worry and fear, a horror in my eyes that is not from the morning. I look down and I see my hideousness and my grief, my fear and my exhaustion—the face of Outcast.

And I am not a duck.

I spread my wings, offer her my back. I feel her climb on, her hands cold in my feathers, gripping me tightly with her knees. The boy climbs on behind her, holding her about the waist. They are so light—as light as cygnets, as if no bigger. Or perhaps I’ve been given strength. I beat my wings, feel the wind of winter rushing round. The grove of trees shimmers pale before me.

The girl’s voice is close in my ear. “Will you carry us, little swan?”

I will carry you, children. I will help you. Come with me away from this place, away from the shadows behind us—the fire that crackles in the hearth, the blood that runs beneath the door. Before us lies the south, the land beyond winter’s realm. Winter’s wind will carry us there, freezing the wings of fear behind us and giving us safe to the warmth of the sun. Nestle in the warmth of my down, children, hide beneath my wings. The river leads us south. The wild wood is behind us now, the wide world is ours. Fly with me, my children. As the world turns round us, we will find home together.
For I am like you. I am Outcast.

And then they went homeward with one star awake,

As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

1 comments:

rwayford said...

At 3377 words, this is longer than I expected to find. It IS interesting and makes two good fairy tales into one. I know how hard it is to quit when you've got a head of steam up!

The magical twist at the end was appropriate, as well! R.Way

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