Houses may be bought, built, or borrowed.
But homes can only be made, and that with bits of ourselves.
Or so the ducks told me.
They told me without a sound, just simply as they preened and nestled, a painting, oil on canvas. The children press in close too, for a better look at Alexander Max Koester’s painting Ducks, and I read aloud the caption below the brushes of color.
“Mother ducks pick feathers from their chests to line their nests.”
I pause and the children gaze thoughtfully at a clutch of plump white, blizzard of feathers fallen down. But it’s those words that mesmerize me: “pick feathers from their chests, to line their nests.”
Eyes fixed on a duck breast puffed, mother plunging beak in deep, I question wondering self: “How else did you think nests were lined?”
With leftovers. With feathers discarded, the molted, the not-so-necessary feathers. I thought mother ducks picked feathers up from what was laying about, scraps, lining nests with what simply could be mustered after the fact.
But no. (Is that only the way of human mothers?) No, a mother duck plucks each feather out from the heart of her bosom, warm and soft.
She lines the nest with bits of herself. The best of her, from the deep spots.
She cups her young in her sacrifice.
Children pull at the corner of the page, anxious to see the next painting, and, reluctantly, I move on. But for weeks, part of me lives among Koester’s ducks. (Koester, captivated, painted dozens of duck paintings throughout the course of his life. I’ve come to understand.)
Days later, I am scrubbing out the arches of muffin tins after breakfast, the clock ticking insufferably loud in my ears, time running down. Children need books and learning, and I’m tuned for the expected chime of the doorbell, a service personnel’s scheduled visit. And the words rise near to the surface, “I don’t have time for this! No muffins tomorrow morning!”
The words sharply sink. And I, learning, line this nest with a feather. Not a leftover. But one decidedly plucked. The service man meets me with muffin tins still in the sink, and a circle of happy young. Whose tummies next morning fill with another batch of muffins. I will make time.
As the sun’s perfect globe of glow sets nears the horizon, these boys, glint in eyes, recalibrate vacuum cleaner to fire socks. Weary, I have food to find, laundry awaiting escort, math sheets to mark.
They fire sock cannons.
And I Pluck.
Bellies jiggle, peals of giggles, as old mother chases after future men, wrestling them down, tying them up in tickles. We warm here in laughter. It feels good, wild and alive. So again they fire, and again I pluck with feathers of my time, bits of me, and we pile high, one atop the other, nesting down into sacrifice, soft and small.
Some feathers for this nest, the parts of me and time I have sacrificed, have hurt, pain of the plucking lingering long. But why speak of the details? And was it really sacrifice, or just this too-tender skin? It’s done, it was necessary, it was for something better. Some nights, when all sleep, I feel along the hidden bald patches.
There are times, too many, when they call, “Read me a story?” “Wanna play a game with me?” “Can you come help me?”
And this mother refuses to pluck. Something, some task, someone (me?), rates as more pressing, more important. I deem our nest acceptable just as it is. I don’t want to sacrifice more of me.
Then comes the pecking, the scratching, the squawking. With feather lining wearing thin, the nest chafes hard. We hurt and cry. Nests need feathers deep.
Someone must pluck.
When will I learn that down sacrificed settles and soothes?
For scraps won’t suffice. Snippets of time, leftover me, a trinket, a diversion, tossed.
Mother ducks don’t line nests with feathers, dirty and trampled, the molted and unnecessary. Why would I? Nests need feathers fresh, warm with mother’s life.
Night descends and calls children to dreams. I lead them to their bed-gate, arms and legs under quilts worn from the ride. I read stories, stroke hair, say prayers. Prayers to Him who plucked hard from His own heart.
A sacrifice, staggering and true, for love of His very own. We learn love from His laid down.
Tired heads nestle into pillows, pillows of down.
On feathers plucked, we rest.
Lord, help me today to pluck, to lay down my life for others. Like You did.
Related: May the Children Eat First
The original Koester painting, “Moulting Ducks,” is part of the collection at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle www.fryemuseum.org
a repost from the archives of the CWO column