You Shouldn't Kill a Duck: A Story



TO BE honest (though nowadays it is quite difficult to be honest) I must admit that I have, from time to time, broken the law and even done so with pleasure. The law says that poaching is an offense and the judge says so too — he gives you a couple of months if you are caught. It has never gone that far with me. You see, they have brains, the policemen and gamekeepers, but so have I. I have more, as a matter of fact.

But what was I talking about? I don’t want to tell about myself but about a man, a certain Udo, whom I met for the first time on a peat bog in the north.

Our country is a fine country. It has its sea whose briny smell hovers over the coast and along the dunes with their strong-rooted plants. It has heaths and woods, and there it smells sweet and resinous. And in the north there are peat bogs among the meadows.

I had asked for work at a peat digger’s, a man who leased pieces of land to cut peat. I had heard he could use a hand. The helper he had before had left after a dispute over the amount of peat for his own use. And when I saw the peat digger I could understand it. He was a small slow man with crooked legs, who gave me a long look with his little piercing eyes, before giving an answer when I asked for an advance. But it was fixed up. We rode out to the field together on a farm cart. He showed me the plot I was to work and disappeared.

There lay the peat bogs, criss-crossed with ditches. The damp black blocks of peat were sucked fast into the ground. On top of them were stacked the lighter-colored ones, already shrinking; and between the rows was a rich growth — thick reeds, purple cattails, yellow loosestrife. Far away lay lonely farms, and from bands of fading green the towers of farm villages shot upwards. There was no other sound than of ducks, of the wind that blew through the reeds, and of fish leaping in the water.

And now about this Udo. He said that was what he was called, but whether it was his Christian name or his family name I don’t know. And anyhow it doesn’t matter.

He must have been sitting somewhere hidden behind a row of peat, because I had just taken off my coat when I heard him behind me. I turned around quickly. He came towards me with a friendly smile and a sureness of gait possessed only by those who have a right to walk somewhere.

“So you’re going to begin now,” he said. “The last one was not all there. I tell ‘im I’ll give ‘im a hand, and what does he say?”

“Did he say ‘No’?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s what he said. Why shouldn’t I give him a hand? I like to be here, and after all God created the earth. And then what did the man do? He walked off!”

“What do you mean by saying ‘God created the earth '?" I asked, because I don’t understand things when they get complicated.

“I mean that I have a right to walk here! The earth is for us all.”

“ Oh,” I said, “ well as far as I’m concerned you can help. But I’ll keep my money for myself.”

“And I asking for money? I’m not asking anything.”

“All right,” I said, and put out my hand.

His hand was one that hadn’t done much hard work. The callus was new, and there were scratches that hadn’t yet healed. You could see that he wasn’t used to heavy work. His skin was sensitive. And because I noticed the hand, I also took a good look at his face. He had thick hair, darkblond and short, just like a dog’s coat. His forehead was low and narrow, but free. I mean open, without lies, without deceit. His eyebrows were wiry, and under them, set a little deep in the sockets, lay his eyes, light-blue eyes, as clear as aquamarine. Kind eyes, His nose was straight and narrow. His mouth was never still and his chin stuck out a little and was broad.

I say all that now, but at the moment when I looked him over I didn’t size him up like that. No, I saw that he was a nice fellow, a little uncouth, someone who didn’t know about letters and paragraphs and such.

I had already seen that there were ducks here galore, and I decided that after dark I could catch one for my supper. This man was no snooper; he’d leave me alone with my poaching.

“Say, how are you called?" he asked, while he pulled off his coat and laid it next to mine in the shade of a peat row.

“Smith,” I said.

“Udo’s my name,” said he.

Then we worked. The sun burned our heads and arms, blazed through the shirts onto our backs and shoulders. The breath of the earth swept past us with bitter and sweet smells. The wet peat was clamped fast to the bottom of the fermenting bog. It was veined with the roots of plants that had sprung up and covered the bog with their colorful flowers, but we turned row after row.

We got pains in our backs because we worked stooping down the whole time, turning the peat to let it dry. Our hands stung from the dirt that filled every pore. He knew what he was doing. We worked from the middle of a row outwards, towards the sides, each going towards one side, I mean. He did it just as fast as I did and I’m an old hand at this. I was working for my money, and he for nothing, just for the pleasure of it. All rigid with me; I wouldn’t give him anything — I wasn’t the boss. Every time we met one another in the middle of a row, he smiled at me with a look of understanding. No, he was a nice fellow. I looked around at my coal. His lay next to it. But I had my money in my trouser pocket. I had learned never to keep money in my coat.

And we worked. If he hadn’t been there I might have rested, but he went on. All right, we’d work on then. I had come in the afternoon and it was getting on towards evening. I was hungry, so when we came to the middle again, I stretched myself and said, “That’ll be enough for today.”

“All right,” he said and stretched himself too. He wasn’t very big, but he had broad shoulders.

“We’ll go and eat,” I said. We pulled our coats on. In mine were my sandwiches and a bottle of tea. On both sides of the peat rows there was water. It had been land before the peat bog had been dug out. Now it was straight ditches between narrow strips of ground where the blocks of peat were piled up a meter high. We went and sat by the water. The valerian plants, the tender flowers of the arrowhead, the thin leaves of the plantain were still above the smooth water.

And there we sat. I took out my sandwiches. He looked at the water. I might have known it. He had nothing to eat. He looked calmly before him, his hands folded around his knees. An uncivilized person. I felt to see if my money was still in my pocket. It was. That did it. That’s why I gave him half my sandwiches.

“Help yourself,” I said, and he took them with a look of understanding.

“A person has to eat, after all,”ho said, and he closed his strong teeth on a thick sandwich.


LATER in the evening I said: “That village there has plenty of ducks, village ducks. The people put out nest-baskets and the eggs that are laid in them, they keep. There must be hundreds of ducks. I feel like having one.”

He did not answer. He lay back asleep. All right with me. It was pretty dark, and I walked off towards the village. There were pollard willows along the road and I cut down a thick branch. When I had pared off the lancet-shaped leaves, I had a good stick, thicker at one end. The village lay in darkness. The houses stood spread apart. In the still water of the canals floated motionless ducks. I went and sat by the side of the road and looked around me. A lamp was burning in a small farmyard. After a few moments I saw a girl pick up the lamp and walk towards the shed. She disappeared in it and I saw a lighted window. I had seen that she had blond hair hanging to the shoulders. Perhaps she was pretty. I looked at the ducks floating there quietly. I waited. The girl did not come back. The light went out later. So she slept in the shed then. It is the maid, I thought.

I looked again at the ducks but they were too far away. I threw lumps of earth in the water as though I wanted to feed them, and one came swimming slowly towards me. I balanced the stick for a moment on my hand and then struck down. I hit his head, but it didn’t kill him. He let out a wild squawk before I finished him off and then the others, out of reach, began to flutter away in every direction. All the ducks in the village began to squawk. I grabbed the duck I had killed and hid him under my coat. I looked around and saw a light again in the farmyard, near the shed. The girl was standing there looking in my direction. Whistling, I walked back.

It was a warm night. I looked for Udo, who was awake. I showed him the duck. The head was bloody and there were rusty spots on the blue and green feathers. The neck was limp.

“You can’t live on bread alone,” I said.

He looked at the duck and said dreamily, “No, you shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t kill ducks.”

And he looked at the limp head.

Well I’ll eat it up by myself, I thought, and began to pluck it.

The next day he said it again: “You shouldn’t do that!” I had bought bread from a passing baker, I roasted the duck over a peat fire, while Udo worked. He wouldn’t eat any of it. Well if he wanted to eat dry bread, I had nothing against it. The meat tasted good and it was not flat, for the smoke had given it a tangy flavor. After I had eaten I didn’t want to work any more. And why should I? The sun was high and it was fine here. All the rich smells and that stillness over the water. Udo worked on dry bread. He did it quietly and without a grudge.

Then I caught a rabbit. I like rabbit, wild rabbit, but this was a tame one. That couldn’t be helped though. It was walking across the road and I had it just like that. The set-up was like this: I had gone to the farm with the shed, where the girl slept. I wanted to see how she looked in daylight. She wasn’t bad. I got a bowl of milk and she swayed her hips as she went inside, for the farmer called her. Then I saw that behind the farmhouse was a path that ran along to some rabbit hutches. I opened one of the hutches and that’s the way it happened. One hit behind the ear and his head hung limp.

When I rejoined Udo he looked at me and remarked, “You shouldn’t do that, tun shouldn’t kill rabbits.”

Then I got angry. “Listen,” I said, “pretty soon you’ll say I shouldn’t catch a fish!”

But he went on working and ate dry bread. I thought, that can’t go on, so I bought butter and cheese. He ate it with a look of understanding. The work went well, because with the two of us the rows were soon turned, The backaches went away and our fingers were limber again. We enjoyed the work. I dug up some roots of the tormentil1 which make a good remedy against all ailments. You never can tell, isn’t that so? We slept in the open and sometimes there would be a mist in the morning. We would awaken before the sun was up, cold and covered with fine drops, Udo always slept quietly. He was a silent man.

I had bought my hooks and line to fish. A willow branch was the rod. Udo worked on. He turned the peal silently while I watched the float. Work is healthy, he would say sometimes; but that remains to be seen. Anyway I’d decided to give him part of my pay—money isn’t everything. And be could get a shave; he was getting to be a sorry sight.

I caught some perch—greedy things, they gobble up everything off your hook but bread. As I cleaned them, Udo watched me and I knew what he would say. He said it too, and more: “How can you cut their heads off!” He shook his. I don’t think he could stand it. He became more and more silent.


ONE evening he started to talk about it. It was a fine clear evening when sounds carry far. At such times you feel like singing, and so I sang as we sat with our backs against the peat. I’m not much of a singer but I like singing. Udo put his hand on myarm and suid: “Don’t you believe that animals have a soul?”

“No,” I said and sang an aria, not too well I guess, but with expression. He waited till it was OVER and tapped me again. His light-blue eyes had a tense look and his mouth was slightly open. Something important is on its way when people look like that; they want something badly and are afraid of being refused. The rims of the eyes get red. I know that sign; in such cases you might as well give in.

“Are you allowed to kill a human being?” he asked. What a question! I couldn’t answer it. I wanted to say: no, you’re dead right, you’re not! But his eyes were tense and the rims red. He probably expected me to say yes. But I didn’t have to give an answer because there was a noise in the distance, and when I sat up and looked I saw three men who had sprung from the road over the ditch onto our ground. You could see very well that they were policemen.

I jumped up and shouted, “Beat it!” I ran away at once, for I understood: Udo had told about my poaching and they had come for me. Three months, the judge would say — that is, if they caught me. That Udo. The broad fellow, with his honest face. Those light-blue aquamarine eyes. The sly hypocrite, who couldn’t look at blood. I reached the edge of our field, jumped over the ditch and stopped to look behind me. They were running in my direction. I ducked behind a pile of peat and crawled towards the wide water that lay along the length of the fields. I slid in softly and swam quietlv along the reeds back towards the road.

Then I thought better of it. It couldn’t have been. Udo who betrayed me. It must have been the girl who slept in the shed. What a girl. Blonde, with hair to her shoulders, and small white teeth. Oh, a nice one. She would cost me three months. Three months for one bowl of milk and a swaying of hips.

I heard the men calling. They couldn’t see me, but some reed sparrows flew up and brown marsh harriers screeched kee-kee-kee-kee-kee-kee! They would give me away. But I don’t think the policemen noticed them. Their sounds were farther away: brainless fellows, chasing right behind their prey. The water was cold. I left behind a trail of tangled brown peat deposit. The slimy plants brushed against me as I paddled carefully among them with my hands.

Well, they weren’t so brainless after all, for when I floated around a corner very slowly, there stood a policeman, in water up to his hips, bent down among the reeds. His revolver was in his hand.

“Come here,” he said, eyeing me sharply.

All right, I thought, and I stood up.

“Hands up!”

I did that too. We waded to land. I thought about my coat. I said so. But they were already coming with it, the other two. Udo wasn’t with them. One of them, heavy and with the face of a saloon-keeper, said in a tone as though he were speaking to a child (and the others laughed cheerfully), “Now we’ll all go back to the asylum together, how about it my boy!”

“Oh,” I said, “I get it.”

It took a while before I could explain that they didn’t want me, that I was only the hired hand, and had absolutely not escaped from an asylum. They haven’t any brains. They wanted Udo. They said that he was crazy and had done someone in. They found him finally, sitting calmly against a row of peat. I shook hands with him when they left. He had a real worker’s hand, I could see that.

One of the policemen was not quite convinced. “Why did you run away so fast?” he asked.

“Got the habit during the war,” I said, “when our country was occupied.”

Now I’m working alone again. But what was it I wanted to say? Oh yes, I went to see that girl again. She is pretty, all right. I held her hand for a moment. Maybe it will turn into something. And I’d certainly like to ask her: “Is it really so terrible to kill a duck or a rabbit, as Udo says?”

Translated by Estelle Debrot

  1. Tormentil: A yellow-flowered Eurasian herb, the root of which is powerfully astringent.