Origin Story with Porcelain Duck
In my hand is a porcelain duck with turquoise eyes that look like they’d bat if only porcelain duck-eyes could move. It stands, the duck, if you put it on my dresser. But I’m the one standing, in a crib tall as me. I grip the figurine and banging it back and forth between two bars. Clang-clung, clang-clung. One sound flat, one sound full. Clang-clung, clang-clung. The carpet is fern green. The windows are two and tall and streaming with backyard light in a land I don’t know is called Pennsylvania. I am waiting post-nap for the woman called mommy, the woman I only recently learned is not an extension of me. Who is me? Right now, Me is percussion. Me is clang-clung. Me is rhythm with two bars and a duck.
And then clang-clack. A thump, and my eyes follow to the floor. The duck’s head is on the carpet. Its white chest and tail and gold webbed feet are still in my hand. Its blue eyes stare up at the ceiling, un-batting.
What was once one became two. Like Eve biting in the garden, seeing both the good that was and the evil that can be. I now know—something once whole can split into horrific.
I am crying. It brings the mommy. Will she scold? Will she condemn? I don’t know the word condemn. I know the green carpet, brighter than grass. I know sleep and sticky hair and bananas. I know fear and need. Will she help?
And does she know this is the moment I’ll carry forever? The me who’s now a mother marvels. The me who has snapped, failed, recoiled at her own kid’s chewing noises. How could anyone know what their child will remember?
Likely she was on the phone with a friend. Or folding laundry. Flipping to her favorite soap. Finding out Marlana’s ghost. She is not in love with the man she is married to, my mother. She doesn’t know that yet. There are so many things we don’t yet know. There are so many ways we can screw up in love. Not reach each other. Teach the wrong truth. Let the ache keep aching. Make it worse. Which makes what happens next a miracle.
She does not scold. By the grace of God, she smiles and says okay and lifts me from the crib. I am in the arms of love. She picks up the duck head, pays it no mind. My tears are what matter.
Days later, the duck is one piece again. A chipped line encircles its neck. It stays intact the rest of my youth—is intact even now as I write this, while my kids are in school, learning lessons I’m not there to affirm or correct.
This is my origin story. My first memory, made of luck and light and a duck. What does it mean? You are safe and unblamed is the easy moral. That’s not it. Your faults are forgiven? Not that either.
Instead, I learned: Love comes through the door, even when it makes no sense. Just as my children will pour through the door at three, their faces flushed, their breaths heaving, their backpacks heavy, their eyes batting wide with wonder, calling my name. Love comes through the door. Even when we know nothing else. Even when in our hands are nothing but broken pieces. Maybe especially then.
Heather Lanier is the author of the memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Longreads, The Sun, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook, Erasing the Book of Pregnancy, is forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press.