After the husband retired from the investment firm in the city and the wife from the suburban medical practice where she was the claims manager, the couple established a new habit of walking for an hour every morning. Life would be healthier for them now, they agreed. He no longer rushed to board the train that trundled commuters through grimy yards, past storage sheds, along weed-grown rights of way. She no longer hurried, tense behind the wheel, to claim a convenient parking place near the sprawling, red brick buildings of the medical center. Leisure was theirs now and time to enjoy the world of nature; they had earned it. Almost every day, after a quiet breakfast, they walked to the conservation area just down the road from their suburban house. They crossed the small parking area and followed a trail that looped through the woods, around a pond, up over a low rise between meadows, and back again to the road and the beginning. They congratulated themselves that now, after years of work, of fitting home repairs and trimming the forsythia and mowing the lawn around the demands of their jobs, their choice of a semi-rural location was paying off. They would enjoy the changing seasons, the wayside flowers, the wild life, at last.
Over the years they had contributed money to the town’s conservation effort. Walking, listening to the birds, chatting, bidding the occasional passerby good morning, they reaped the reward for their generosity. The well-maintained paths, the dredged pond that reflected the sky, the mowed meadow were all theirs to enjoy now. Beside the pond the town had placed a granite bench. During the first three years of their retirement, the couple walked briskly past the bench, savoring the odors of wet grass and mud from the margin of the pond in March or noting the thickening ice in December. The water sparkled blue in the sunshine, the reeds grew green and ripened into brown cattails, a red-winged blackbird flashed its colors to them.
In the fourth spring of their retirement, they still walked; they were determined to keep life normal, but now they stepped aside to let more vigorous walkers pass them and paused at the bench by the pond so the wife could rest. Although she tired quickly, she was making a good comeback, they assured each other. The scars from the surgery were healing. By the end of April she had gained a little weight. They did not remind each other as they sat side by side on the granite slab of the bench, their jackets shielding their thin haunches from the chilly stone, that in two weeks, when she was a little stronger, she would return to the city hospital for chemotherapy treatments.
All May and into June they walked, no matter what the weather. The treatments were not as debilitating as they had feared. Exercise would help her recovery; there were studies to prove it. She was determined to go out. Certainly, they believed, years of life in the suburbs, almost the country really, and their comfortable circumstances equipped them well to face nature. Their mudroom was well stocked with boots and coats and hats for all seasons. On a June morning, husband and wife, clad in light rain gear, sat on the bench as a fine drizzle puckered the surface of the pond. Young vegetation gleamed chartreuse and darker green, sunlight slanted pale gold through mist among the trees on the other side of the water. The couple sat silent. A bird somewhere to the right spilled an abrupt cadence of notes and then stopped as suddenly as it began. The reeds growing from the muck along the edge of the pond rustled.
“Oh look,” the wife breathed.
A female mallard trailed by six ducklings paddled along the shallow edge of the pond. Puffs of yellow, they drifted on the water like pollen. They rode their mother’s wake, gobbling at the fragments of green scum her passage scattered.
“How adorable,” she said, and when the couple rose from the bench and walked on, she seemed to have more energy. She followed his pointing finger to see where the finches swooped up-and-down, up-and-down over the meadow, and noticed where the yellow flags were blooming again this year in the ditch beside the parking area.
The next morning was clear and bright. They walked at what seemed to the husband an almost normal pace. When she slowed, they sat on the bench by the pond. He took her hand in his. Her skin was thinner, more fragile, almost translucent across the back of her hand except for the blue-black bruise where the needle for the last treatment had been inserted. He did not mention that but held her hand lightly and talked of their children, grown now. Their daughter had called on her way to work this morning as she often did. She loved her job. Their son had met someone. He wanted to bring her to visit over the weekend.
“I am so glad,” she said. “I plan to live to see my grandchildren.”
The ducks came swimming from the other side of the pond.
“We should have brought some bread,” she said and then, “but there are only five.” She counted again. “Five.”
“It could have been a fox,” he said. He had heard that they were coming back to the area. He had heard reports of coyote, too. It could even have been a cat. They both knew that in a pond like this one there might be snapping turtles. Even a large fish could pull down a duckling, he supposed. Life is hard for small things.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
She withdrew her hand from his and they walked on. The rise of the meadow smelled of blueberry.
“The bushes must be in bloom,” he said. “We will have to remember to look for berries in a month or so.”
They were due at the clinic early the next morning and did not take their walk. When they returned to their routine three days later, there were several mature ducks on the pond, eager to bob and quarrel over the crumbs of bread the couple strewed; but just three ducklings skittered across the pond behind the serene profile of the mother mallard. They scattered more bread and waited to see if laggard babies would emerge from the reeds. None came and the wife began to weep. She was just tired, she said. He blamed himself that he had pushed her to come out too soon. They rested a moment and then turned back to take the shortest route home.
The next day he insisted that they drive around to the other side of the conservation land. They could walk in the evergreen plantation there, where it smelled of peat and mushrooms on cool days or pungently of pine resin on hot ones. It was wiser because they were never far from the parking area there, he said. She could have the benefit of her walk without overtaxing herself. They did not mention the ducks.
Once or twice during the next month the husband walked the path to the pond by himself while his wife rested in the dimness of their blue-green and white bedroom, where the shades were drawn against the summer heat. While he sat on the granite bench and smoked the daily secret cigarette that he allowed himself, she dreamed of water running over rocks in a mountain stream. Just once, he saw the ducks again. The three survivors shepherded still by their dappled brown mother. They were larger now, their yellow fluff giving way to the brown of pinfeathers. They still gobbled eagerly at whatever floated on the water’s surface or skittered off at a tangent and then came hurrying back to ride their mother’s wake. One of them stretched its puny wings, flapping, trying to lift itself from the water.
In September, in a hospital in the heart of the city, the husband tiptoed into his wife’s room and sat down beside her bed. He touched her hand lightly. Awakening from drugged sleep, she smiled at him.
“Are there six ducklings on the pond today?” she asked from the remote place where she lived now.
He was amazed that she remembered them.
“Yes,” he lied, because what did it matter now. “They grow stronger every day. They practice flying. I imagine they will fly south very soon.”
She lowered her veined eyelids over the round balls of her eyes and dreamed of birds resting on the still surface of a pond, feathered breast to mirrored breast. The pond she dreams is a bowl of silt and dark water. Curled brown oak leaves and yellow pollen float on the surface awhile and then sink. The pond’s predators lie quiescent in the bottom mud, jaws clothed, teeth sheathed. She dreams of the great snapping turtle on whose back the world rests. She sees its wrinkled eyelids smooth themselves into hoods over the round balls of its ancient eyes. On the calm surface of the pond in the slanting rays of twilight, the brown and green and gold birds settle their plumage, tuck, first one and then another, their heads under their wings, and sleep.