Two Ducks (Daniel Young)
We sat at a picnic table, enjoying the morning sunlight, holding hands tentatively, ready to draw them apart if somebody passed by. A clear mountain stream flowed past us over a smooth bed of pebbled rocks, bisecting the park. Two ducks had followed us across the road, waddling serenely before gathering at our feet, preening their feathers and walking around aimlessly, always sticking close-by.
‘They just want food,’ said Joseph, waving his hand as if to shoo them away.
The ducks remained near us, clearly unperturbed. It seemed to me that they just wanted company.
‘Have you heard the phrase yuān yāng xì shuǐ?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
‘Doesn’t matter. The ducks are cute—but I’m sure they’d be delicious,’ he said with a grin.
‘You’re so Chinese,’ I said without thinking.
His hand withdrew from mine and I looked at his face, waiting for a response. The surface of the stream glistened in golden sunlight and the ducks walked away, one chasing the other like a pest. Maybe it was mating season.
Joseph remained quiet and we both watched as they flew down to the stream. They frolicked in the water, again with one pursuing the other. Again and again. They began to fly, shaking their feathers wildly to dry them out. They flew around us in a wide sweeping circle, still one chasing the other, now making a deranged call, halfway between a quack and a scream.
‘Well you’re just a stupid Aussie,’ said Joseph, leaving the picnic table and walking back to the car without another word.
He was right, of course. The ducks were now back in the water, and I noticed a chain of six ducklings floating in the stream’s current, unable to swim upstream. The two ducks gathered around them, pushing them back towards the bank where the water was still.
I thought about the day we met. We ended up back at my place, that tiny little apartment where so many of my failed relationships had played out. I watched as he directed every last grain of rice to his mouth with skilful use of chopsticks and the small round bowl. I tried to do the same, feeling shamed by the amount that I had intended to waste.
‘My parents never allowed me to leave behind a single grain,’ he said, smiling widely when he noticed me copying his actions.
We’d had just one meat dish: pork ribs cooked with black bean. Then some green veggies and something I’d never tried before: stir-fried potato and carrot with a few thin slices of sweet lap cheong sausage. The potato and carrot were cut into long matchsticks and flavoured with sichuan peppercorns and garlic. These few simple ingredients went a long way, resulting in too much food for just the two of us.
One of the ducks returned to my picnic table, its damp feathers reflecting the morning light with an iridescent splendour. I should follow Joseph back to the car and apologise. The bird just sat there, looking at me with its small curious eyes and a brown, rounded beak.
‘What do you want?’ I asked, feeling stupid as soon as the words left my mouth.
I thought about Joseph and I thought about us. I took out my phone and tried to remember his words, thinking about how to spell them out in pinyin. I can never make out the tones, but was it… yuan yang xi shui? I googled it. A Chinese proverb for loving couples. Two mandarin ducks playing in water. I looked at the inquisitive duck and tried to blink away the tears.
We hadn’t been together long, but I knew what I wanted to say. I walked back to the car, voicing the three words in Mandarin, concentrating on how I would pronounce the tones. The ducks stayed behind.