By Katheryn Krotzer Laborde
Prose Prize winner
It is March, it is Wednesday: beautiful sky, beautiful day. The afternoon is mine to squander, and so I slip my bare feet into sturdy shoes and step outside. Instead of making the usual swath through the patch of midcentury suburbia I call home, I opt to walk in another direction, one that will lead me over a nearby drainage canal to the next neighborhood. It’s a canal I drive over at least once a day and, every time, the view of wide-open sky and a forevering waterway seem to call my name.
The Elmwood Canal is its name, and it flows, at least part of the way, between the backyards of two streets. This canal is sided by concrete slopes topped by concrete banks. The facing banks are edged by facing chain wall foundations, above which are the fences that border the backyards. The canal’s ultimate destination is a pumping station that blocks the view of majestic Lake Pontchartrain and the area once known as Indian Beach.
On each side of the canal is an entering (or exiting) point that leads to (or from) the little bridge. Those who follow the two or three stair steps off the bridge can only walk a half-mile or so before reaching a tall, locked, chain link gate that forces them to turn around, even though the canal itself clearly continues its lake-bound path. Having walked this far, there is no recourse but to turn around and head back toward the bridge. It’s a half-mile in and a half-mile back because the only way in is the only way out. As a result, the place is often as lonely as an abandoned alley, though far more enticing.
When walking, I usually cross the bridge, continue on to First Street and turn left; that day, however, I stop mid-bridge. On that beautiful day, I wanted to walk along the canal. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but think of the conversation I had had, that very morning, with my boyfriend about personal safety, about being aware of one’s surroundings, about not taking unnecessary chances, and the like. But one grows weary of such concerns, especially on a perfect afternoon in a safe neighborhood where an empty path beckons and canal waters ripple and ducks, here and there, glide by.
I squint my eyes, crane my neck. I look in one direction, then the other. There is no one around.
And so, I walk. Fenced-in dogs bark with gusto. Ducks and geese glide through the canal; some take off in flight. Here and there a heron, egret, or ibis zooms by on its way to that lake that is not really a lake but an estuary (not to mention one of the largest wetlands on the planet). My step is brisk, and I am contemplating what to fix for dinner when I come across a group of ducks scattered along the concrete bank.
I stop before I get too close. The ducks look out upon the water, perhaps considering their own dinners. They don’t seem to make note of me, but they don't seem willing to move, either; to get past them would mean to tackle a sort of waterfowl obstacle course. Reluctantly, I turn and head back.
I am walking, walking, when the sound of muscular flapping startles me. I realize, with a start, that a duck is rushing up, coming from behind. He is easily as large as my fifteen-pound cat, and just as fearless. His head and chest are white, and the dark feathers down his back are mixed with green and purple shimmers. His face, from eye to bill, is masked with a bulbous and downright ugly smattering of red. Thinking he will simply land and sit, I keep moving, only to realize that he is replacing flight with a fast strut that seems meant to match my pace.
Perhaps I should have been charmed by the notion of a duck longing to accompany me. Had I seen such a thing in a film, I would have been moved. But there is nothing sweet about this duck. His face frightens me. He seems aggressive in a way that feels, for lack of a better word, primal. He likely thinks, I tell myself, that I have food, but I have nothing to give him, and this may be unacceptable to him. In an effort to lose him, I spin on my heel and change direction, heading north once again and hoping that the gang of ducks has moved. This surprise-of-the-unexpected-action is a technique that works, I have found, on nefarious humans. But the duck is no human and he turns, too, and comes in closer still.
Running out of options, I shout, "No, duck! No! No!"
Which, of course, has no effect. One cannot tell a duck “no.” (He wouldn’t listen, anyway.)
I turn back, heading south once more.
The little bridge is still a long way off. There is nothing around but fences and concrete, water and sky. No one but stupid me and a determined duck.
I keep an eye on his wings, on his neck, watching for signs of impending attack and knowing that I have no one but myself to blame. I picture him nipping my bare ankles in a fit of anger, flapping his wings in order to frighten me, and there would be nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do except to scream and try to defend myself. But how does one fight off a being with whom one cannot reason? I am picturing myself passed out from pure fright with no one around to notice but ducks when I spot a lone, broken branch resting on the bank. Grabbing it, I thrust the stick into the narrowing space between us.
I back away, my eyes locked on his.
He turns. He faces the water.
After several steps more, I turn my back to him and, looking over my shoulder from time to time, make my way out of there.
That morning, I had been across town and eating scrambled eggs when Michael mentioned his wanting to move to another part of the city, one that was more urban in feel. He was longing to leave his neighborhood, which he described as too staunch for his taste, in order to live closer to the artists and the action. He longed to live in a narrow shotgun house with old, wooden floors and tall, shaded windows and neighbors one sees at the corner bar.
But as charming as this sounded, it was also the kind of neighborhood that knew its fair share of crime, which didn’t bother him as much as it bothered me as I pictured myself walking to his door on a Friday evening. I told him this, which led to his saying he would meet me at my car, which opened the door to my telling him about the times I had been held up or almost so, a discussion that moved us from eggs to a second cup of coffee. He nodded sympathetically and he showed genuine concern, but Michael is an oak tree of a man and, though a bullet can pierce the toughest of bark, a person would think twice before attacking someone like him. Few are going to mess with a life-sized G.I. Joe.
But I am no Joe, and I am not convinced that it necessarily helps to be escorted by one. The first time I was held up, I was with a man who was well over six feet tall and had a third-degree black belt in Karate. As he watched, the muggers called me bitch and demanded that I hand over my purse. The confrontation was brief, and I got my purse (sans money) back the next day, but the event sent my companion spiraling. Years later, a second mugging occurred after a book club meeting in a coffeehouse. Since I had tossed my own purse to the floor upon opening my car door, I was not robbed, though my friends were not so lucky. One by one, we were called bitch and asked for our purses; the sight of streetlight bouncing off the fishing knife blade is still with me.
The third time, I was alone. I had just arrived at a friend’s house. I was picking him and another friend up to go to a party. Two young men who had walked past my car as I parked it were two houses away when they suddenly turned. They ran toward me. One of them pulled a ski mask over his face; the other, more confident, didn’t bother. The gun was in plain sight. They told me to follow them to the dark carport. Perhaps because I was wearing a heavy cape that concealed my arms, they did not grab me. They just assumed I would follow.
But I didn’t. I stood there in the street, full of self-blame, the lumpy street feeling like moonscape under my leather-soled shoes. I wanted to run, but was afraid that they would shoot me. I wanted to yell, but was afraid my friend would emerge and be shot. My cell phone was in my hand, but I didn’t dare use it. Whom would I call? What would I say?
Noticing that I had stayed behind, they came barreling toward me.
The maskless one grabbed my purse. All he found inside were coupons from a coffee shop and one crinkled dollar bill. “What’s this?” he demanded.
“I don’t have any money,” I blurted. “I don’t have any money because I’m going through a divorce. I don’t have any money because I have two little boys. One is only two years old.” I went on to tell them I was a teacher. I went on and on and on and was still yammering when they handed me the purse, shook their heads in disgust, and walked away
The situation could have ended so very differently.
Each time could have ended so very differently. I know this.
Just as I know that every time I step out of my car, or walk out of a public building, the emotional residue left behind by these events is as real as the purse I carry. I can never not look over my shoulder. I can never not wonder what is on the other side of a corner. No matter who is with me. No matter where I am. Though I refuse to let this keep me at home, a veneer of dormant anxiety glazes my heart. I accept this as a part of me now, as much a part of me as my ridiculous lack of a sense of direction, or my odd tendency to laugh at the most surreal of moments, or the fact that I rarely have more than a dollar in my purse.
In telling my friends about my run-in with the duck, I come to find out that it is called a Muscovy, a breed that hails from Central and South America.
I learn that Muscovies are aggressive – no surprise, that. What is a bit of a shock is that Muscovy genitalia is the subject of federally funded research into what is called an “evolutionary battle of the sexes” because both male and female parts are corkscrew-shaped. The coiled penis, which goes away and grows back each spring, is about seven inches long when unfurled. Ducks tend to be monogamous, but mateless drakes of any breed have been known to gang rape a lone female, pecking her mercilessly until she either gives in or dies. A friend told me once of the time she was sitting in the park when suddenly a duck flew to her lap. Two fast-quacking ducks were close behind.
It seems geese and swans have twisty and twisted members, as well, and so the story of Leda and Zeus comes to mind.
Upon first hearing it, the myth seems preposterous, even for a myth: Zeus assumes the form of a swan and has sex with Leda, wife of the Spartan king; as a result she gives birth to babies that burst forth from eggs. In some versions, it is said that she is seduced; others are firm that this is rape. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology politely states that the father of gods and men “visited her.”
Post-antiquity paintings inspired by the tale, and there are many, tend to side with the seduction motif, if only for the fact that artists like to paint naked women. Creamy-skinned maidens encircle disturbingly large swans with their arms; others welcome flapping birds with open legs. Glowing, they kiss beaks extending from long, phallic necks.
God or no god, myth or no myth, Zeus was a rapist. If Leda was “visited,” it was against her will. One cannot tell a god “no.”
He wouldn’t listen, anyway.
In truth, the same can be said for many a mortal, though society often infers that it’s not an issue of listening or not listening, but whether the victim made the no clear. A defense attorney will be sure to suggest that a no is expressed well before the moment of contact; a yes, however, starts before the victim leaves home, beginning with the fact that she left the house to begin with and ending with where she had put herself. This sort of thinking was more prevalent decades earlier, and even more so in the decades before that. I cannot help but remember a young woman I knew in college who had cried as she recounted how her date had not accepted her no. This was years before the term “date rape” existed and decades before “me, too” declarations; back then, we only knew that “girls” sometimes put themselves in bad situations.
I would realize I had put myself in such a situation a year or so after college when my date suddenly grabbed my arms after I told him it was time he should leave. I had to rise early the next morning for work, I said but, really, a gut feeling had told me to end the evening immediately. My gut also told me that my being there at that moment was my fault. He had been acting odd in the restaurant, after all, complaining to the wait staff about the lack of onions on the nachos, and then complaining how the onions had been sliced rather than diced. On top of that, he was forever running to the bathroom.
But I had figured he was nervous. It was our first date. He had been interesting and funny in the phone conversations that had led up to the date. After the meal, I invited him over for coffee.
He kept asking to see my bedroom. I kept telling him there was nothing to see. Yes, I had let him kiss me, and, yes, the kissing had been nice but, no, there was nothing more to it than that, if for no other reason than I did not want him or anyone else to see my wreck of a bedroom. But he didn’t care that I had to get up early. He didn’t care that I was a slob. He suddenly grabbed my arms. Said he really wanted to see my bedroom. Pulled me toward the back of the apartment where the room’s dark entrance gaped wide.
It was some kind of instinct that made me squat in an effort to resist, and luck that had made the soles of my leather flats so smooth that they slid across the worn carpet easily, so easily that I found myself gliding across the room.
I laughed at the absurdity of it all. He began to laugh as well and, when he did, he let me go. And when he did I snapped my arms back and I spun on those soles and I sprang toward the door and I swung that door open and I stepped out of the apartment and onto the stoop, my date behind me and, before me, a parking lot brimming with rain-spotted cars that glistened in the streetlight. Keeping a smile in my eyes, I thanked him for dinner and told him good night. He shook his head, then started to walk, but came to a stop right in front of me.
“Let me stay,” he said. “I just want to sleep.”
“If you stay,” I said, lightly, “I won’t be able to.”
I closed the door calmly but quickly. I locked and bolted it, and leaned against it for good measure, my ear pressed against glossy wood. I held my breath and thought about how I was so stupid, about how I was so lucky, as the footsteps grew distant and a car motor started and tires ground pebbles to dust.