Many years ago, driving along the 280 freeway south of San Francisco, commuting to a job I had long stopped caring about and trying to let dark thoughts settle into the kind of numb that helps with accepting the things you cannot change, I saw a dog running scared along the concrete barrier at the heart of the freeway. Four lanes of traffic separated her from the scrappy, litter-strewn bank and the tenement houses below. There was no way I could stop; traffic was heavy on all four southbound lanes and it was moving fast. As I passed, I realised it was no dog. It was a coyote, desperately thin with heavy teats. She was running the barrier, pressed hard up against it with only inches between her visible ribs and the vehicles thundering past. 

Her whole story burst into my imagination. Somewhere there were pups. On that bare undeveloped hill, perhaps, or in a dry culvert. She was hungry and so were they. She was taking the fastest route to the dumpster behind the burger joint or the taqueria. How she would dart across the traffic and drop unseen into the neighbourhood was a thought I couldn’t stand to think, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking it. It played like a loop in my mind for weeks.

Months later, I quit the job. The vision of the coyote wouldn’t leave me. It hung around and relentlessly gnawed at the edges of my conscience. I tried to write about it and couldn’t. At work, one of the creatives, a director, had asked to see my writing, which I had probably talked about a bit too much. He was trying to be kind, but I felt like he’d ripped back the curtain and everyone could see the sham: I had nothing much to show him. Fragments. A few poems. 

23 years later, to the month, on a blustery and unseasonably cold day in Aotearoa, I am commuting from the suburban home I share with my husband to the little farm where I spend most of my days. As I come around a long curve on the new expressway, I see a mother duck with three tiny newborn ducklings in tow. They are waddling up the middle of the highway, hard up against a concrete barrier that rises between the north and southbound lanes. The barrier runs for nearly half a kilometre as the new road spans a huge interchange, flying over a major local road and a river. Déjà vu. 

I still have nothing much to show. One manuscript, another in a drawer. Several false starts. A few essays and one or two rants. A few more poems. Once again, I can’t stop for the mother duck, knowing full well that if I do, I’ll cause panic in the ranks and they will run into the oncoming traffic. They are wild and I am not of their world. I am a predator. I feel desperately sad and it hangs like a yoke around my shoulders for the rest of the day. 

The manuscript, which has taken me fifteen years to set free, is with the book designer. I’ve had input into the cover, discussed the look and feel of the pages. My publisher is organising the ISBN and, later, the Library of Congress submission. I am terrified and thrilled in equal measure. 

Here at the farm, we are having the most prolific season of ducks. Perhaps the dogs have run off the pukekos and stoats which predate on ducklings, or perhaps we have an exception on our hands. One mother duck started early, parading a string of eleven ducklings while the wild spring rains pelted the paddocks. One duckling vanished in the early weeks, but here we are on the doorstep of summer and this mother is still parading her ten offspring. Only now it’s difficult to tell which one is Mother. The ten ducklings have grown into fully fledged ducks.

It’s a truly exceptional feat in a plague year, and I secretly wonder if that halcyon moment that lockdown provided—the quieted world, the absence of machine noise, all the jostle and thrust of human endeavour truanting—has given our mother duck the edge.

I’m with her. I’m with the mothers.

2 thoughts on “Portents

  1. What a beautiful piece to wake up to, Abby. When I was pregnant with my son the best piece of advice I got was to enjoy the pregnancy. It wasn’t always easy to do, as I grew huge and the days grew over-heated, but I took the advice to heart, knowing my little space alien wouldn’t be in there forever. Brava to you! I happily anticipate the birth of your book. Here’s to the mamas!


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