Down by the canal basin, where the reeds grow thick and green beside
murky water, and the monstrous pike rises sleepily from the depths to draw circular patterns on his ceiling, there lived a bevy of beautiful, proud white swans and a raft of bustling brown ducks. These two families had lived side by side on the canal for many years, and rarely spoke, except to exchange dignified squabbles now and then for the garden peas that laughing local children threw into the water from the towpath from time to time.
Nobody could quite remember why the two families of waterfowl had decided not to be friends; Grandma Swan had been heard to mumble darkly of upstart ducks getting above their station, and Granny Duck, who didn’t much hold with the superiority of swans, grumbled quietly when the long-necked grey cygnets snatched morsels out of the water in front of her face. But despite these minor disagreements, the canal was by and large a pleasant place to live, and the ducks and the swans spent more time enjoying the dark waters and the gentle breezes of their watery home than they did in worrying too much about each other.
Then one sunny spring day, a newcomer came paddling down the canal; a sleek snow-white domestic duck whose sense of adventure had outgrown the ornamental pond where she had been reared. She had scratched away at a hole in the ground at the bottom of the stone dyke that surrounded her garden, until eventually it was large enough for a duck of average stature and extraordinary determination to squeeze through; thus the white duck had won her freedom, and leaving behind the disapproving quacks of her family she waddled across the lawn on the far side of the dyke, past a giant monkey puzzle tree and plopped herself into the canal.
For three days and three nights she swam westward along the canal, eating pond skaters and other beasties when she was hungry, and sleeping in the reeds with her head under her wing when she was tired. Not a bit did she miss the safety of the ornamental pond or the regular feedings of grain she was used to, for the spoils of adventure felt sweeter by far, although as the days wore on she could not deny a treacherous gnawing in her stomach which was used to far richer food.
On and on she swam until finally she arrived at the canal basin where Granny Duck was busy teaching her brood of spotted brown ducklings how to dive for frogspawn. “How now, Mistress Duck” she greeted Granny, and she ducked her white head below the surface for a moment in a graceful bow. “I am an adventurer come from afar. Have you any shelter to offer? For I am weary and a little hungry.”
Granny duck looked in surprise at the white duck, whose rounded vowels and soft voice were quite unlike her own clipped quacking. She took in the spotless white feathers and the bright yellow beak, very different from the mottled brown feathers of her family, and being preoccupied with the task in hand (little Jim had just caught a newly-hatched tadpole and was expecting a celebration), she replied pleasantly enough, “How now Adventurer. We ducks are busy learning to dive and feed ourselves; perhaps you could ask the swans who will surely give food and shelter to one of their own?” And she turned away to congratulate Jim and commiserate with wee Pete who kept bobbing back up like a cork before he had the chance to catch anything.
The white duck, a little disappointed by her swift dismissal, and now hungrier than ever, swam on after a moment towards two swans who were circling each other gracefully on the other side of the canal. As she watched, they bobbed their heads up and down and faced each other with quivering wings, in a mesmerising dance of shimmering beauty.
“How now, Mistress Swan” she called to the bird closest to her, and she ducked her white head below the surface for a moment in a graceful bow. “I am an adventurer come from afar. Have you any shelter to offer? For I am weary and a little hungry.”
Grandma Swan (for it was she that the white duck had greeted), paused for a moment in her dance and looked in surprise at the incomer who talked to her with the voice of a swan from the beak of a common duck. She observed the short neck and the yellow legs that were so different from her own, and replied pleasantly enough “How now Adventurer. We swans are busy preparing our nests and waiting for our eggs; perhaps you could ask the ducks who will surely give food and shelter to one of their own?” And she turned back to her mate who mirrored her long neck with his in a curve that made the white duck think of love hearts.
Forlornly, the white duck turned and swam away from the swans. Presently she happened upon a few more pond skaters and one daddy long-legs spider which barely dented her appetite but nevertheless cheered her up a little, and so she made herself a bed in the rushes next to the bank of the canal. She told herself it would make a snug nest to rest in for a while, put her head under her snowy white wing and fell asleep, exhausted.
All that spring, the white duck lived in the rushes, surviving on insects and the odd submerged garden pea that she could catch from the village children before the rowdier ducks and larger swans stole it from her. Neither swans nor ducks claimed her for their own, so she remained alone on their fringes, scavenging and scrimping, sleeping in the rushes with no warm bodies to shelter her from the harsh winds that often swept the canal basin. She began to lose her sleek plumpness, and for the first time since she had scrambled beneath the dyke to escape her home she felt a longing for the safety and plenty of the ornamental pond she had left behind.
Each night, as she crept into the rushes to sleep, belly empty and heart sore, she reminded herself that she was an adventurer and pioneer, and though times were hard indeed, she would come about in the end. And so although she was cold and hungry and lonely, nevertheless she persisted.
One morning, as the sun rose and cast its rosy rays over the water of the canal, the white duck awoke to hear furtive mutterings and shushings behind her scanty nest. Cracking one eye open she saw the duckling Jim and a large, grey cygnet who had apparently been quarrelling over a piece of bread before becoming curious about her. Their differences set aside for the moment, the two whispered back and forth, trying to decide whether she was duck or swan.
“For sure, she must be a duck,” said Jim, “look at her yellow feet and beak – just like mine”.
“But she has white feathers like mama and round black eyes like me,” replied the cygnet, whose name was Mabel, “She must be a swan.”
The white duck opened her other eye and replied, “Whether I be duck or swan, I am certainly hungry; would either of you object to sharing your piece of bread with me?”
And because Jim and Mabel were quite sure she must be one or the other at least, they decided to give her the whole piece of bread, for she looked rather thin to them and they were kind-hearted youngsters. And for the rest of the day, the three spent their time swimming round the canal together; Jim taught the white duck to dive for froglets (for the frogspawn had long since hatched into tadpoles and grown legs) and how to snatch pondweed from the rocks on the canal bed. Mabel showed her how to scramble up out of the water when the village children came, to nibble greedily at food from their hands, for she was not afraid of humans, being a bold swan, and she was quite sure her new friend would be safe as well.
As spring turned to summer, the white duck grew quite fat and happy and was very content with her new life in the canal basin. Jim and Mabel decided in the end that they must be cousins, since the white duck was so very much like them both, so they gave up squabbling altogether and became firm friends. And by and bye the ducks and swans took it in turns to host their adventurous new family member, whom they found to be quite charming in her own unique way.