Peckish: a creature story (flash fiction)
“I don’t try to get out of things. I do my best not to get into things.”
The weasel had dropped by, as he put it, coming on at first by a peristaltic rippling over a basswood’s roots. The roots canopied mirrored water pooling naturally between a fallen trunk and a low line of moss-grown rock. Despite the little runlet that hugged this and never broke, here along the bank the water was still and clear.
She was pleased, the duck, that her babies could jump in what she would have called safety, at this spot—so convenient—for a first swim. As it turned out, and as her mother would have warned her, the underside of the roots was riddled with weasel holes.
“Oh, I am not especially peckish at the moment.” The weasel seemed to wave her doubts aside. “It’s a fine day, isn’t it? Eh…but I won’t say I haven’t got a taste for snails on a late spring morning. Right over there, on that little shoal, the digging is excellent. You like them yourself.”
“Snails are all right…” she ventured. He drew his paw back, groomed an ear with it, ate something he’d pulled out—a flea, she thought—and gave her a smile, meant to be charming.
He was very quick. He’d been flicking his tail in a complicated way, and now and then he swiveled his head, glancing at the opposite bank, peering into branches above, where they all knew to look, for hawks. And then behind him.
“A small rabbit,” he murmured, “always goes over dandy. Not your taste, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Your friend didn’t stay long.”
“Oh, I don’t know him,” she said. “I wouldn’t call him a friend. The rabbit was only telling me. He said there were snakes…and weasels.”
“Yes, yes.” Like lightning, a second weasel materialized, in the way of its mate, from the camouflage of tree bark. This one sighed. “We put up with a lot of insult, being we are only making our living, like anyone. Now, your friend the rabbit wouldn’t like facing one of us down, to pass such a remark. You will admit in fairness, he did as much as say it…a weasel is no different from a snake.”
“Oh, well, I don’t know him,” she repeated. With two weasels to keep an eye on, she was having a time of it counting the ducklings. There had been six. She felt there were still six, but the second weasel, with the same head-darting, tail-flicking habit of her companion, was making it hard to keep track.
The duck’s mother had said, “Once you get them in the water, you’ve done all you can. You’ll just have to hope they have the sense to follow along.”
“I ought to be going,” she told the weasels.
She had a vague memory of her young days. They had slipped by in a summer. Even then, when she’d had brothers and sisters, and they’d all tried to gather in a row, she hadn’t counted well. It seemed to her she could recall a process of…winnowing, her clutch-mates and herself reduced to three.
“Now, I’m going to do you a favor for nothing.”
This offer came from a tall, rigid shadow. She realized, as the head tilted, the lower eye piercing the water, noticing and sharp, that the shadow was a blue heron. He winked his upper eye. “Come closer, now.”
She didn’t like it, turning her back on weasels. She could hear in her wake a sotto voce chittering. But after all, the she-weasel had only just finished her complaint, and it seemed to the duck a fair one. It was a lot, calling anyone a snake. The rabbit hadn’t stuck around, either.
“Yes, that’s right,” the heron said. “Paddle right over. We are both birds, you and I. I would never mind about the weasels, myself…I have never been troubled by them.”
He seemed to wait for her to speak, and she looked up at his formidable height and javelin-like bill.
“But I would look out for that cat. Wanders over from the farm, when the weather suits it. Has a most pernicious habit of getting itself…you see the creature there, nestled among the grasses…”
“…hid. You know cats. Then falls asleep. We birds, of course, must flit about our business. Can’t wait hours for the enemy to wake up and engage with us. Ha, ha!” Having raised from the duck only an anxious frown, the heron cleared its throat. “You see…the matter is delicate…”
He swung his bill. On the opposite bank she noted again the fat feline with his bushy tail and sable mask. The face rested in gentle repose, the closed eyes seemed to elongate into a deeper harmony with the sunrays baking the thick fur. Under the front paws and playing about the lips were tiny, downy feathers.
“Oh, dear…” she said.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)