What kind of madness is it that would prompt a person to make up a duck? This was a question I asked myself after consulting a list of fictional ducks and discovering, with something akin to terror, that it contained over one hundred and fifty non-existent ducks.
Let us allow those words to penetrate. Over one hundred and fifty non-existent ducks. That is no small number. Line them all up in a row and it would take a while to walk from one end to the other. And imagine the din if they all quacked at the same time! You would have to stuff your ears with cotton wool. But of course, they cannot be lined up and they cannot quack, because they do not exist and never have existed. They are wholly imaginary semi-aquatic beings, born in the minds of flawed humanity.
It is not that the world lacks real, flesh-and-feather-and-blood ducks. Go to any duckpond or lake and the chances are you will see more than a few ducks. You might even toss them scraps of stale bread from a brown paper bag if you are that way inclined. You might peer at distant ducks through a pair of binoculars. But it is a far cry from such innocent pursuits to unleash from within the throbbing jelly of your brain a made up duck. Yet clearly that is what has happened in the past, with a number of people, though fewer than a hundred and fifty. Tragically, some among these poor duck-haunted souls have invented more than one fictional duck..
You would think that, having made up a non-existent duck, the duck-maker would mop their brow and retire from the fray, perhaps clear their head by going on a long hiking holiday in an area of few ponds and fewer lakes. The last thing you would expect is that they would immediately set about inventing another duck. But some have done just that. Now you see why I used the word “madness”.
Our difficulty lies in trying to grasp the lineaments of a mentality that can spark the thought: “There are millions of ducks in the world, but (and? so?) I am going to make up another one!” And not only to have the thought but to act upon it. Perhaps that is the crucial distinction between mere eccentricity and full-blown madness. Casting back upon my own mental history, I wonder if it has ever occurred to me to make up a duck. I wonder, too, if that is a rather common thought, one shared by thousands if not millions of persons past and present. Yet how few of us have taken the fateful next step . . . the actual creation of a non-existent duck!
There is something of the Frankenstein about it, is there not? Derangement, delusion, and mania all focussed, horribly, on an idée fixe. But the duck-makers have no need of lightning-blasted laboratories high in castles, nor of hunchbacked assistants named Mungo, nor of the various paraphernalia ascribed to Victor Frankenstein in this or that recounting of his blasphemous doings. To make up a duck, one may need merely a pencil, or a typewriter, or some cloth accompanied by basic skills in needlework. That being so, we must not lose sight of the fact that the same mad impulse is at work, in both the crazed scientist and the creator of fictional ducks. It is an impulse to tame or control nature, to play God.
This is nowhere more evident than in the unnerving fact that the majority of fictional ducks are blessed (damned?) with the gift of human speech. And just as I am quite clear in my use of the word “madness”, so too with “unnerving”. I suspect if you were ever to come upon a real duck that, instead of quacking, spoke to you in a familiar tongue, you would be unnerved. I dreamed of such a duck once, and I woke up screaming. It was a hideous nightmare rather than a dream, but the important thing to state here is that the talking duck was the sole source of my terror. Nothing else that occurred in the night-phantasm was frightening, or gruesome, or unholy.
The scene was unremarkable, even humdrum. I was in my childhood home, the house I grew up in. My parents were there, peripherally, in that there was a sense of their presence. I entered the living room, and sat in an armchair, and looked across, and there, perched on the seat of the matching armchair, was a duck. It engaged me in conversation. At first, I felt no sense of alarm. Dream-logic was at work, and all seemed well. But as the duck continued to speak, its voice grew more grating and menacing, and it spoke of things I shudder to recall. Slowly it dawned on me that it was an evil duck, a Lucifer or Beelzebub duck, fathomless and awful in its pure unalloyed malevolence. That is when I woke up screaming. It is a nightmare I have never been able to forget.
That duck remains for me the epitome of all fictional ducks, and it is why I cannot shake the feeling that every other non-existent duck aspires to its state of sheer evil. Would that the makers of made up ducks take heed!
I have not mentioned, in the foregoing, a second category of fictional ducks, ones far more numerous than the one hundred and fifty or so given in the list. These are decoy ducks, usually carved from wood. Pinocchio-ducks, if you will. They are even more terrifying than the non-existent ducks we have already considered, but my nerves are shattered now, and I cannot bring myself to write about them until I have eased my overheated brain. But give me time, and I shall summon up the mental and moral resources to address the subject, and to explain why, whenever you encounter a decoy duck, you should be very, very afraid.