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Two days later, Gus was in the barn admiring the brooder he had built with his grandfather. They had constructed it of boards salvaged from a pile of lumber long abandoned in the barn loft. The brooder looked like the sandbox he had played in as a toddler in the park, but with higher sides. To keep the ducklings warm once they hatched, Gus and his grandfather planned to take the light bulb from the incubator and suspend it about a foot above the brooder. Otherwise, everything was ready. Gus’s grandfather had sent him all over the barn hunting for an old chicken waterer. Finally, Gus had been lucky to find it, buried in hay and covered with dirt, but with its glass jar unbroken. As long as the war was going on, even ordinary things like glass were scarce. Gus scrubbed the waterer until it shone, and he filled the jar with fresh water and screwed on the top, which was really an upside-down tray. Then he inverted the whole thing, and air bubbled up into the jar and water filled the tray. A twenty-pound bag of poultry meal was propped against the near wall. He’d buy two bags of meal, his grandfather said; after that, the ducks would have to learn to scavenge for insects and grass.
At first, Gus didn’t pay any attention to the sound coming from the incubator. He was sitting beside it on his upturned milk pail, a book balanced on his knees, writing a letter to his mother. He had very little news to share about himself. The garden was growing as crazily as Jack’s beanstalk, and the eggs—well, they were still just eggs. He imagined his mother lying as placidly as an egg in her chaise hour after hour, and it made him want to write something that would make her laugh.
Dear Mom, Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Dodo what to say.
Ha, ha! Dad wrote and said that all rookie pilots are called dodos, because they’re big and heavy and can’t fly. I guess that makes you and me dodos, too. He also says he has room inspection every morning. So do I. Where did Grandma learn how to be a drill sergeant?” Gus turned the piece of paper sideways and started to write across what he’d already written, something his grandmother had taught him so he could squeeze as much news as possible onto a single sheet. Grandpa and I built a brooder for the ducklings for when they hatch, which I hope will be soon. Then I’ll have news. I hope you are feeling better. I miss you.
Love, Your son, Gus
Gus was rereading his note when he finally paid attention to the sound. It was so faint and small that he assumed it was coming from the nest of one of the phoebes that favored the intersecting rafters high overhead. From waiting patiently below and observing them, Gus could tell that most of the phoebe eggs had hatched. Now the phoebes passed their days busily flying in and out of the barn, their mouths no doubt filled with squished mosquitos and beetles for their demanding broods. But the chirping didn’t stop, as it often did when even insatiable baby birds finally settled down to sleep. Gus perked up to listen better. Hardly daring to trust his hearing, he leaned over the incubator. The sound was coming from the eggs, faint chirps that struck his ears with a desperate urgency. His heart racing, he leaned farther over and looked closely at the eggs, and now he could see cracks that hadn’t been there yesterday. In two eggs, he could see tiny holes, not much bigger than pinheads, and beaks pushing in and out, working away like tiny hammers to chip away at the fragile shells.
“They’re hatching!” Gus shouted. He raced to the doorway and shouted again. “They’re hatching!” His grandmother arrived first, panting and fanning herself with her apron.
His grandfather was second, limping into the barn as fast as his tired knees would allow.
All three of them leaned over the incubator and stared.
“Heaven’s mercy,” his grandmother said. “Who would have thought!
Hope does have feathers.” His grandfather just chuckled. “You’re in for it now, Gus.” They stood around for perhaps fifteen minutes, waiting for the first miracle, but the ducklings were taking their time. Eventually, Gus’s grandmother said she had to get back to the kitchen. She was stewing rhubarb, and it needed attention or it would burn the bottom of the pot. Gus’s grandfather started to leave, too. “I can’t stand like I used to, Gus. You’ll just have to be patient. This could take all afternoon, maybe longer. That shell is so thin you could crush it with your fingers just by snappiing them, but to those ducklings that shell is as solid as a wall. Just don’t help them,” he warned sternly. “If a duckling’s not strong enough to break out of the egg on its own, it won’t survive anyway.” As his grandfather approached the door, Gus had an inspiration. “Can I go get Louise?” he asked.
“How will you get there and back in time?” his grandfather asked. “If you walk the whole four miles, you might just miss the great spectacle yourself.” “I’ll take that bike.” Gus pointed to a shadowy corner of the barn where he’d found an old bike while rummaging around for the chicken waterer. The long- forgotten bike was leaning against one of the stalls. There was little grace in the design, but it had everything it needed. Enormous fenders, most of the red paint long since chipped away, bloomed over the spoked wheels, and the handlebars stuck out like praying mantis elbows. The bike was dusty and covered with rust, but it still had its tires, though they needed some air.
“Well, I’ll be,” his grandfather said. He took off his hat and scratched his head. “That was your father’s bicycle. I had no idea it was still around. And if I had, I’d probably have turned it in during the last scrap drive.” “Can I take it?” Gus asked.
“Does it have brakes? Can you ride it?” his grandfather asked.
“Yep,” Gus assured him. He had scooted around the barn on it the day before. “But the tires are flat. Can you put air in them?” “I think I can handle that,” his grandfather said. He limped over to his workshelves and rummaged around under them until he found the tire pump. “Bring it over here.” Gus wheeled the bike over, and his grandfather unscrewed the nozzle caps on both tires. While Gus held the bike, his grandfather pushed down on the pump handle. They both watched the tires grow firm and taut.
“I don’t know whether they’ll hold, but that’s the best I can do,” his grandfather declared. “Do you know how to get to the Lavictoires’?” “Not really,” Gus said, aware that precious time was passing.
His grandfather pointed down the hill. “Go straight for about one mile. You’ll see the turn for Cherry Hill. Go left, up that hill for about another mile. When you come to the sorriest farm in all of Miller’s Run, you’re there,” he said.
Gus took off pedaling furiously. The first part was easy, all downhill from his grandparents’ farm. When he saw the turn for Cherry Hill, he started uphill. After ten minutes, he wondered if there was any top to this spine-rattling road of rocks. His face burned, and he could feel his shirt clinging to his sweaty back.
Then he saw it—the sorriest farm in all of Miller’s Run, maybe in all of creation. Looking around, he tried to imagine the accumulation of stuff inside his grandfather’s barn, multiplied tenfold and turned inside out. The yard, such as it was, was strewn with wreckage: broken mowers, washing machines, and unidentifiable pieces of farm machinery; splintered wooden tubs that had once served who-knows-what purposes; a tipped over sewing machine treadle; barbed wire; a truck sunk to its axles in dried mud with grass grown up around it as if it had taken root. The house itself was much like his grandparents’ house—an old farmhouse one-story high, with slanted windows in the gables—but the roof on this one sagged, and it could not have been wearing more than one gallon of paint spread across its cracked and warped clapboards. Fields surrounded the house on three sides, separated from the house and vegetable garden by rail wood fences that were falling down. In one place, a bony cow had stepped over the fallen fence and found some shade under an old apple tree. It was contentedly munching grass next to an old wagon that listed on broken axles like a ship gone aground. Laundry flapped on a line out back, but the clothes and sheets looked gray and dingy. Everywhere, the place looked unkempt and uncared for. Even the vegetable garden looked untidy, overrun with weeds and vines strangling the young plants. In the middle of it stood a scarecrow wearing a faded blue- flowered dress, but the crosstie was broken and the arms hung down, as if the scarecrow itself had given up.
Gus could hear the shrieks of young children coming from inside the house. Mustering his courage, he leaned his bicycle against the truck marooned in the front yard and knocked on the door. No one answered. He knocked again, louder. This time someone yanked the door open so hard that Gus stumbled backward. The sound of shrieking increased, but it was not frightened shrieking; it was more the sound Gus could remember making himself when he was little and in high spirits.
“Eh?” asked a dirty little child of about seven or eight, boy or girl he could not tell. Like Louise the day she visited the barn, this child wore patched coveralls and a torn plaid shirt. “I want to talk to Louise,” Gus explained.
The door slammed in his face, and he stood there feeling stupid, unsure if the child had even understood him. He shifted from one foot to another, trying to decide whether to go or stay. The ducks might be hatching at this very moment. Suddenly, the door opened again. Louise stood in the doorway. She grinned when she saw him.
“Hi,” she said, as if she’d been expecting him.
“The—the eggs are hatching,” he stammered. “You said you wanted to come and see. I brought a bike. Maybe we could both ride it back.” He turned and pointed toward the bike, afraid she would not be able to find it amid the other items littering the yard.
“I have to finish my work. I’m washing faces,” she said and opened the door wider. “It will take a couple more minutes.” Gus assumed the opened door was an invitation and followed Louise into the house. What he saw stunned him. The front parlor looked as if a tornado had gone through it. Stuffing overflowed from the couch. A cracked mirror hung on the wall beside a rusty potbellied stove. The carpet was threadbare, its design long worn away by passing feet. The kitchen, where a large tub of water sat in the middle of the floor, was in shambles. Drawers hung open, dripping their contents of tablecloths and towels. Unwashed pots lay abandoned on the long plank table, and one child, perhaps the one who had answered Gus’s knock, had buried his arm in one of the pots and was greedily eating whatever he could scrape up. The windows were cloudy with grime, and every curtain hung limply from nails in the frames, as if they were exhausted by the responsibility of spreading cheer in such surroundings. Above all this, a single light bulb dangled from a black cord. It looked out of place, as if electricity had come to Miller’s Run not five years ago but only yesterday and the Lavictoires didn’t know what to do with it. In the middle of this disarray, Louise spoke sharply. “Fermez la!” she said. “Quiet!” To Gus’s surprise, the children immediately quieted down. Now that the mayhem had subsided and he could think, he counted the children. They all looked small for their age, as Louise did, but their faces were a truer measure. Two boys were probably around ten. Two more, the ones playing in the water by dipping their hands in it and flicking it at each other, were probably a bit too young for school. The smallest one, who was running around without a stitch of clothing, was just a toddler. All of them were scrawny; Gus thought they looked like his grandmother’s chickens when they got wet. But as near as he could tell, none of them looked like an idiot, as his grandmother had said. “Faut y’aller astheure,” Louise said. “Coup d’a coup! Les bébés sont nés.” Their faces lit up, and they looked at Gus hopefully. Clearly, she had told them about the duck eggs and her trip to Gus’s barn.
“Wheezie, on peut venir aussi?” one of them pleaded. The two medium-sized Lavictoires grabbed their older sister’s arm and tried to pull her toward the door, looking themselves like baby birds eager for lunch. Without understanding a single word of what Louise had said, Gus could see that everyone wanted to come see the ducks hatch. His heart sank a little.
“Non. Il faut aller maintenant,” Louise said, stamping her foot on the floor to show that she meant right now.
She shook her hand loose and started drying off as many faces as she could reach. Noses and eyes emerged from the grime bright and shiny, as if Louise had been polishing pots, not cheeks. The clothes the little one put on were clean but dingy, shabbier than those Gus took off at the end of the day. When everyone was dressed, they headed toward the back door, although two of them turned to look at Louise with the kind of eyes that will usually get a dog an extra treat.
“Henri, André!” Louise called after them. The two older boys stopped. She pointed toward the tub. They came back and grabbed its handles. Staggering out, they pretended to be musclemen, each with one twig-thin arm on a tub handle and one arched over his head. Gus had to laugh.
“Let me tell Mama,” Louise said as she also headed out the back door. He could see her with her mother and a big laundry tub, and he could almost eavesdrop on them, but they were chattering in words he didn’t understand. Now that quiet had descended on the house, he could hear a radio going somewhere. Louise returned in a minute, she raced toward the front door, pausing briefly to turn off the radio in the parlor. Gus followed and didn’t say anything, but he was puzzled.
“It’s my English lesson,” Louise explained breezily. “Every day I listen so I can get better and better. I start with Farmer’s Special with Uncle Jim in the morning and end with Jack Benny, but my favorite show is Ma Perkins, and I try not to miss The World Today, so I can tell Papa what the news is, but sometimes we’re eating supper then, and sometimes he’s already asleep.” “I wondered why you spoke English so good and no one else in your family can,” Gus admitted.
“Papa says he’s too old, Mama says she’s too tired,” Louise said. “You tell me if I say something stupid. I want to get it right.” “Well, right now, we’d better get going or we’ll miss the whole thing,” Gus said. For the first time, it occurred to him that the bike had only one small seat. Louise looked at it for a few seconds and told Gus to hold the bike steady while she climbed up and sat in across the handlebars. Then they set off down the dirt road. Gus could hardly see over Louise’s shoulder, and Louise was less than vigilant about pointing out potholes and rocks in the road. Once they spilled, and Louise flew off the handlebars and landed on her backside in the road with an Oomph! Gus fell with the bike tangled up in his legs, but neither was hurt. Laughing, they climbed back on and rode as far as they could. Gus’s legs finally gave out as they were climbing the last stretch toward his grandparents’ farm. Louise slid off as the bike ground to a halt in the dust, and they ran the last several hundred yards, Gus pushing the bicycle and fearful that the ducklings had hatched and the show was over.
But it wasn’t. Two more eggs had holes in them. Most of the cracks were wider, and the noises coming from the eggs were louder and more urgent. Louise and Gus sat watching through all the rest of the long, hot afternoon. Gus’s grandmother brought them sassafrass water at one point. When she entered the barn, Louise immediately stood up.
“Grandma, this is Louise,” Gus said, tearing his eyes away from the eggs long enough to introduce them.
“Pleased to meet you,” Louise said, and she stuck out her hand.
Gus’s grandmother considered her blackened fingernails and dirty arm, and then pointed with her nose to the glasses she was holding to indicate that she had no free hand to offer in return. Louise blushed and snatched her hand back.
“Nice to meet you, too, Louise,” Gus’s grandmother said as she offered them both cold glasses glistening with condensation.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Louise said, and Gus saw his grandmother’s face soften. She took up a position next to the brooder and looked at the eggs expectantly.
“Gettin’ born can take a while,” Louise observed.
“I’ll bet your mother has learned that through long experience,” Gus’s grandmother said, but her tone was kind.
Gus’s grandfather came out after his nap, his hair still tousled from sleep and standing upright in spikes. He was there when the first duckling emerged. It was wet and dark, just like the one that had died on the barn floor, but this one staggered around a few steps, as if it were drunk. Its eyes were tiny black beads as glossy as beetles. Eventually, it settled down on its little orange feet, closed its eyes, and sat very still, apparently exhausted by the day’s events.
Gus and Louise could not take their eyes off it. “Keep it under the light for now, to dry it off and keep it warm,” Gus’s grandfather said. “But when they’ve all hatched, move the light over to the brooder, the way I showed you, and move the ducklings over there.” By suppertime, all but two of the eggs had hatched. The first duckling to hatch had dried out and fluffed up. Too young for feathers, it was covered in a soft yellow down that darkened to brown at the top of its head and along its pathetic little wings. The other two ducklings, resting as they dried themselves under the incubator light, were starting to look like ducks, not small drowned birds. All three ducklings were chirping and peeping, and obviously interested in something to eat.
Gus’s grandmother came out again around six o’clock.
“Aren’t they adorable?” she said, unable to resist nudging one with her finger. It peeped nervously and scrambled toward the comfort of the light. “Louise, I think Mr. Amsler had better take you home in the truck. It’s suppertime, and your mother must be getting worried about you.” Louise looked at Gus. “It’s okay. You’ve seen most of it,” Gus said. “There are only two left. I’ll tell you about them. You can come back tomorrow.” Before she left, Louise helped Gus move the light to the brooder. Then they went back to the incubator and moved the three soft, squirming ducklings one at a time. They cupped the baby ducks in their hands close to their chests and were amazed at their lightness. Gus’s duckling felt as if it were made of nothing but air as warm and soft as breath. But he could feel the gentle pulsing of the duck’s breast as its tiny heart beat a steady staccato against his hands. Gus and Louise looked at each other. Gus smiled shyly and blushed. Without knowing why, he felt embarrassed, as if he had been caught by his friends telling his mother he loved her. Once in the brooder, the ducklings sought out the water and plunged their bills eagerly into the tin cup. As they drank, big bubbles gurgled up inside the water jar. Then they found the meal and picked at it, not eating any, as near as Gus could tell, but just pushing it around, trying it out. Finally, they settled down under the light and closed their eyes, content with their day’s work.
Louise left in the truck, which rattled down the dirt road, leaving a billowing cloud of dust in its wake. Gus moved the last two eggs to the brooder and put them in the light bulb’s glow, where they would be warm and safe.
After supper, on his way back from feeding the pig, he looked in on the ducklings. One was stirring. It struggled to its feet and tottered to the water and then to the meal, before collapsing and closing its eyes in the same second. The two others slept on. The two unhatched eggs lay quietly in the hay. One had a few cracks, but Gus couldn’t see any holes.
Just before bedtime, he and his grandfather took a flashlight and went out to the barn for one last check. The three ducklings were piled together so closely that Gus couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. They were sleeping soundly in the warm glow of the light. Gus moved the two eggs closer to the light’s warmth. “Enjoy them tonight,” his grandfather told him. “Things will be pretty busy from here on out.” “It’s a miracle they hatched,” Gus said. He hadn’t known until that afternoon how great his fear had been that the eggs would never hatch. “New life is always a miracle,” Gus’s grandfather said. “In all the years I farmed, I never went out in the morning and found a new calf without thinking it was one of God’s blessings. And that may be true,” he added, turning to look at Gus, “but it’s you and not God who has to take care of these ducklings. You brought them into this world, and you’re the one responsible for them.”
Copyright © 2005 by Nancy Price Graff. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.