The Running of the Duckies
by Joanna Gardner
It had been three days without soup, and the painted sign on Eydie’s front door was still turned to the “Pot’s Empty” side. She had never gone this long without brewing up a cauldron. I didn’t think she could. I thought she physically needed to chop and saute and simmer and stir, to ladle her concoctions into bowls and hand them, free of charge, to anyone who came by the house.
Earlier I had added another day’s letters and magazines to the growing pile in her mailbox in my capacity as postal carrier. Eydie hadn’t emerged to get her mail since the soup stopped. It was time to check on her. Not only was she my soup source, we had been best friends since the age of three when our mothers determined we were old enough to babysit each other on the lawn between our two houses, a slope that led down to the creek and then up again into the forest beyond.
I rang the bell and heard thumping, as of someone running down the stairs. The curtain in the window by the door twitched.
“Go away, Joule,” she yelled from inside. “I’m busy.”
“Open up,” I yelled back.
I jiggled the knob, but it was locked. As were, no doubt, the half dozen deadbolts and chains that secured her house in this village where the only crime in the last three years was the theft of apples from the tree in Stick Levy’s front yard. Still unsolved, to the chagrin of Sheriff Whisker Fats, although he suspected marauding raccoons figured into the plot.
“You can’t stay in there. Tomorrow is the derby.”
The annual Rubber Ducky Derby, to be precise. When the summer solstice sunrise hit the base of Rocky Falls, the sheriff would open the gate and release hundreds of toy ducks to race down the creek behind our houses to the finish line at the fairground. The winning duck earned its sponsor the first-place cake in the Ladies’ Cake Society’s annual bake-off. Eydie wouldn’t attend, of course, but she usually made extra soup for the occasion. Me, I had been carrying my five derby tickets around for weeks to give my five duckies a good-luck boost.
“I’m sick. A fever. Hives. And pustules. It’s catching.”
She was such crap at lying. I raised my voice. “Don’t make me call Whisker. He would love to try out his battering ram.”
Silence, then the door of Eydie’s other neighbor opened.
“Joule Weller?” Miss Toomy’s gray head peered around the honeysuckle that screened the side of Eydie’s porch, a dapple of green and yellow in the evening sun. “What are you on about?”
“It’s Eydie,” I called back, more loudly than necessary, watching Eydie’s door from the corner of my eye. A series of clanks and scrapes sounded from the other side. “She’s…”
The door flew wide. A mittened hand shot out, grabbed a fistful of my shirt and yanked me in.
“…working on a new soup.”
Which was usually the case. We soupies argued about whether she had ever repeated the same recipe even as we reminisced over our personal favorites, such as that curried parsnip bisque, or the fresh tomatoes chopped up in their own juice with raw garlic. She had a thousand cookbooks, a collection bequeathed to her by great-aunts and grandmothers along with a small living allowance and the house full of big bay windows. But Eydie never opened a book. She merely paced back and forth in front of the shelves that lined one wall of her kitchen, hands clasped behind her back, waiting for the next soup idea to strike.
She slammed the door behind us. I barely recognized her, bundled up for a blizzard as she was. Snow pants, moon boots, a down coat in electric magenta. A rag-bag of scarves and hats hid her head, and her eyes blinked inside ski goggles.
“Eydie?” I ventured. “Are you all right?”
“Sure. In a nervous-breakdown kind of way.”
“Which nerves are breaking?”
“All of them,” she said, leaning against the wall of the entryway and letting her back slide down until her pillowed butt hit the floor. “It’s the ghosts.”
This was new. Her various fears…needles, scissors, snakes, taxes, scabs, foreign invasion…had always stayed within in the realm of the real. Or so I thought.
I spoke carefully. “What ghosts?”
She glanced up at me, her eyes a smear through the goggles. Her spine slumped and the mittens went limp in her lap. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Too late, sweet thing. But who am I to hold crazy against anyone? Look at my family.” We Wellers slept in the yard year round, rain or snow or open sky, in hammocks strung between tree trunks. My sister Opal had believed herself to be a mermaid since the age of thirteen and hopped around town with her ankles strapped together. And I couldn’t shake the belief that my daily rounds delivering mail somehow knitted up the ends of the village, from those who favored cake to those leaned toward soup, and somehow enabled us all to cohere into a whole. I had more than a passing acquaintance with crazy.
“It’s different. You aren’t afraid of anything.”
“Irrelevant.” I sat down beside her, cross-legged in my shorts, the wall pressing against my back through my sleeveless shirt. Eydie had to be sweltering. “Tell me about these ghosts.”
“Well, they’re upset for some reason. They’re going nuts.”
“Where?” I peered around the entry, up the varnished stairs, into the parlor opposite us. “Can you see them?”
“Of course not. What do you think I am, delusional?” I let that one go unanswered, and she filled her lungs. “I can feel them. On my skin. Drops of water, cold and wet, like I’m standing in the rain. But my skin is dry, see?”
She pulled her scarves aside to reveal a neck that seemed dampened by nothing more than real-world sweat.
“What makes you think they’re ghosts? Aren’t ghosts supposed to drag chains around and moan in the night?”
She shook her head. “They just are. The same way I can tell I’m me, I can tell they’re them. Usually there are only a few around, but not for the last three days. First the rain became a downpour, then a hurricane. Hasn’t been this bad since I quit going to church.”
“What does church have to do with it?”
“They’re the reason I stopped going. It drove them loopy every time I set foot inside the chapel, and when they go loopy, I go loopy. But it feels like they’re trying to tug me over there right now.”
“They can tug?”
“It’s not normal tugging. More like an undertow.”
“Does the winter get-up help?”
She shook her head. “No. But I was afraid I’d scratch my skin to ribbons. Do you believe me?”
I opened my mouth to lie, but something stopped me. What harm would a little belief do? It was something I could give, free of charge, the way she gave me soup. I decided I would.
“Yes. Let’s go to the church and see what they want.”
“You mean it? You’ll come with me?”
She peeled her hats, goggles and scarves off. Sweat slicked her black hair against her face and her cheeks were flushed the color of strawberry jam, but she was still beyond lovely, with her sculpted eyebrows and cheekbones and her turquoise eyes. It always felt like a gift being in the presence of such beauty.
“You’re welcome. You want a shower first? Maybe actual water would distract you from the invisible stuff.”
She nodded, but she wasn’t looking at me. Wasn’t looking at anything, in fact, just gazing into a place outside the space and time I occupied. She squinted, as though wind were blowing.
I hustled her upstairs and into the bathroom. While she showered, I rummaged through her closet and found a summer dress, the one in the same green as her spring pea soup had been a few months back. That, some sandals, and some underwear. As I put the clothes in the bathroom, the water turned off and her hand emerged to grab a towel.
“How are they doing?” I asked.
“Hurry up then.”
The walk took five minutes. Her hair was still wet and she was rubbing her bare arms when we arrived at the steps of the sandstone church. The sun was about to disappear into the shortest night of the year and Father Minky stood at the door in a shiny blue robe which gleamed in the twilight. He never wore the same vestments two days in a row. Sunny yellow, emerald, tangerine…he was a great believer in using color to keep his flock interested. He slid the building’s key into his pocket.
“Hello, Father,” I said. “Locking up?”
“What’s that?” Father Minky held a hand to his ear with a broad smile on his face. He’d ruptured his eardrums years before while lake diving in the tropics. He always said the accident had been the first rung on his ladder up to God.
“I said,” raising my voice, “are you just locking up?”
“Yes, yes.” An expression of dazzled pleasure spread over his face. “Eydie? Is that you? Here?”
“Eydie thought she might see what it’s like inside after all these years. You know, in case she might want to start showing up on an occasional Sunday.”
Eydie stared at me, aghast, but Father Minky spread his arms wide, the shepherd welcoming the lost sheep.
“Splendid, splendid. Here, take my spare key, and lock up when you’re finished. I’m off to the tavern. I’ve just blessed five hundred rubber duckies, and I could use a glass of wine.”
“Blessing the duckies?” Eydie said, voice squeaking.
“Yes. Sheriff Fats suggested it. He thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask for a kind eye from above on our festivities. I’m sure he’s right, but I ought to have just dumped a gallon of consecrated oil over the bunch of them, rather than blessing each duck individually. It took me three days, can you believe?” Minky shook his head, smiling.
“Sounds like you’ve earned that wine,” I said. Eydie was visibly quivering. “See you at the derby tomorrow.”
Father Minky waved as he walked away, singing to himself in what I’m sure he thought was an undertone: “Tum, tum, tumty tum, gently down the stream…”
“We’ve got to get to those duckies,” Eydie whispered.
I unlocked the door and opened it.
She stared at the shadowed entrance, her fists punching each other, knuckle to knuckle. “But I’m not sure I can go in.”
I had seen her fears often enough to know not to attempt to reason with them, so I just stood there and held the door.
“On the other hand, how can I not?” she went on, her voice low. “What’s the worst that could happen? We’re struck by lightning? Our skin melts off our bones?”
I focused on the door in my hand, on the dusky blue sky of twilight, on how night seemed to rise from the ground.
“I guess we could risk it,” she said at last. “Yeah?”
I shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
“Ok. Let’s go.”
She plunged through the doorway. I followed and closed the door on the waning daylight. The sudden darkness in the unlit church smelled like candlewax, cool stone, carpet cleaner, and the soaring space that reached up to the vaulted ceiling. The last time Eydie had entered this building had been the week before our high school graduation.
“Downstairs,” she whispered, breathing fast.
In the basement the scent of pumpkin pie and coffee had steeped into the walls, and sounds pressed in around us instead of taking wing as they did upstairs. We found five cardboard boxes on the worktable in the kitchen, each full of duckies in the colors of a bouquet: daffodil, periwinkle, carnation. The rubber toys had numbers written on their wings to match the derby tickets villagers had bought over the last few weeks. I couldn’t help scanning for 123 through 127, the numbers on the tickets in my pocket.
“Ok,” I said. “Now what?”
Eydie closed her eyes for the space of a breath. “Can you feel the ghosts? They’ve never been so upset.”
She touched the shiny smear on the head of an avocado-green ducky where Father Minky had applied the oil with his blessing.
“They slide off.” She stared at me. “The ghosts want to ride the duckies in the derby, but they slide off on the oil. Come on. It’s bathtime.” She stopped up both sinks, ran hot water from the faucet and squirted in dish detergent.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that belief was something I could give. “I guess I’ll dry?”
“Shh,” Eydie hissed, and slapped the faucet off.
The upstairs door closed and footsteps creaked overhead. She yanked the drains open. Undoing the blessings of the priest wasn’t something to be caught at. I had no idea what kind of trouble it might incur, but I didn’t want to find out.
“Behind there,” I said, pointing to the kitchen’s open door. We slithered into the shadow behind it and pressed up against the wall. The crack between the door and its frame was wide enough to give me a view of the kitchen with one eye. Eydie and I pressed up next to each other, shoulder to hip, as close as two duckies in the bottom of a box.
The steps came down the stairs. I held my breath as a shape passed through the door beside us and moved toward the refrigerator. It was Mrs. Minky, president of the Ladies’ Cake Society and wife of the minister, wearing her trademark gray pantsuit and sensible black shoes.
She carried a puffy white cake which she set down on the counter. Concentric circles of raspberries were arranged around the top, ringing a pile of violets in the center. She opened the door of the fridge, and light streamed from inside, revealing another dozen cakes frosted in chocolate, lemon yellow, and pink, and all decorated with elaborations ranging from silver ribbon to chocolate leaves. My mouth watered. I loved the Society’s cakes as much as Eydie’s soups.
Mrs. Minky sang quietly as she moved cakes around to make room for the new one, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,” continuing where her husband had left off, when I nearly squealed. Something was touching me, something cold and wet, all over and through my skin, a subcutaneous ice storm, a sweep of chilled pins rolling over my scalp, my neck, back, and legs. Eydie grabbed my arm. Mrs. Minky stopped singing and lifted her head from the fridge to frown at the room.
Where Eydie’s hand gripped my arm the feeling was stronger, a thousand syringes injecting me with hail. I pressed my lips together to keep quiet and tried to hold my limbs rigid.
Mrs. Minky turned back to the cakes, but she cast nervous glances around the kitchen as she worked. Soon she closed the fridge and hurried out, practically running.
As soon as I heard the upstairs door close, I let my breath out and tumbled away from the wall, from Eydie. ? “What is the matter with you?” she said, hands on her hips. “You nearly gave us away.”
I wiped at my head, my stomach, my legs, although the feeling was fading. “The ghosts.” I sounded as though I’d been running uphill. “They got me. I felt them.”
Eydie gave a half-smile. “Doesn’t seem so crazy now, eh?”
“It seems crazier!” I straightened, my skin beginning to relax. I reached out to touch her arm again. There it was, the invisible storm. I jerked my hand back and shuddered.
“Let’s wash those duckies and get out of here.”
The kitchen’s windows were at ground level, so we drew the curtains on the night outside. Eydie stopped the drains and started hot water running again. I dumped a box of duckies in, the cascade of rubber blobs disappearing into the rising suds as into the children’s baths they were made for. This close to Eydie, I could feel the ghosts again like a wet wind.
Once the soapy side had filled, she swung the faucet to the empty sink to run a rinse bath. Her hands disappeared beneath the bubbles and brought up a ducky. She rubbed its head with a cloth, dunked it in the filling sink and handed it to me. Baptism in reverse, that’s what we were doing.
“Bless you, little ducky,” I said as I dried. I meant it as a joke, but it sounded weirdly right, and I sensed a drop of phantom rain land on the ducky’s head and stay there.
Eydie picked up another ducky. Into the soapy water, a swipe on the head, into the rinse. Five hundred duckies seemed infinite. We would be washing at midnight, at dawn, next year. But soon the first box was done, then the second, third, fourth and fifth. I moved a hand through the air over the duckies and ghosts and felt a ripple, but when I touched Eydie’s arm there was just the warmth of life filling skin. No ghosts.
“They’re gone,” she said. “They’re all in those boxes. Feels like the sun came out. Let’s go. It’s time for soup.”
We headed up the stairs, but she paused at the front door.
“Hang on. I haven’t ever been in the chapel without the ghosts. Mind if I take a minute?”
I watched her walk in, her footsteps silent on the worn velvet carpeting, but when she sat down in a pew halfway down the aisle, the bench creaked like an oak struck by lightning. I jumped, certain everyone in the village had heard. She seemed entirely calm, though. Entirely unafraid.
Moonlight purpled the figures in the stained glass windows, and beams of it hung in the vaulted room like blue slabs of the night sky. My pupils had never dilated that wide. They stretched in their attempt to let more light in, and every nerve ending stood on high alert, reporting back on how the air moved and settled around me with my own breath.
And then, after five minutes or maybe fifty, Eydie stood and joined me back in the vestibule.
“I’m ready,” she said, peaceful as you please.
“Does this mean you’re coming to church on Sunday?”
“Goodness no. Too much soup to make.”
We walked back through the cool night. It was very late, and we had the streets to ourselves. Back home, she bustled around her kitchen making a vat of zucchini-cheddar chowder and some kind of herbed dumplings. We ate as the sun rose.
“I’m going to the derby.” I rubbed my eyes, which burned from the lack of sleep. “Wanna come?”
“Sure,” she said.
She hadn’t been to the derby in years, but here she was, flipping the sign on her door to the “Soup’s On” side, leaving her locks undone, and strolling to the into fairgrounds with me. She took my hand as we walked, like she used to when we rambled through the woods, and a faint sensation of mist rose up my arm from her palm, much like the shreds of fog lifting from the grass in the morning light.
“I thought the ghosts were gone,” I said.
She seemed unconcerned. “Picked up a few at home, I guess.”
On the far side of the creek a green wall of shrubs and trees rose up, but this side was lined with spectators. Father Minky wore a scarlet robe and sipped steaming coffee from a chipped orange mug. The high school band tuned, trumpets honking and tubas belching their scales. A single-file parade from the Ladies’ Cake Society came bearing the cakes I had seen in the church’s refrigerator. It would be a good day, with cake for dessert after a breakfast of soup. Wind ruffled the greenery, and the trees swayed to the band’s ragged music.
“So the ghosts,” I said. “What are they? Murder victims? Suicides? Battered wives and children?”
Eydie frowned at me. “I thought you said you felt them.”
“I did. But only for a minute. What are they?”
She shrugged, dropping my hand to pour us coffee from the church’s table. “Could be remnants of the dead, I guess. Or something else altogether. Whatever they are, it isn’t pain that keeps them around, that much is obvious.”
That was as much of an answer as I ever got. The band went silent to let the tuba bleat out a few notes, followed by trombones, trumpets, saxophones, clarinets and flutes, all now miraculously in time. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” braided over itself again and again as a mass of duckies rounded the bend in the creek in all those Easter egg colors, bobbing, tipping, bouncing and spinning, wild grins on their rubber bills, each suffused with its own glow like a tiny cloud lit from within.