Madeline tugged at her hoodie, hoping to stifle the late October chill that always teased the Manhattan winter ahead. As it did most afternoons, Central Park buzzed with ringtones and lens clicks and half-intelligible conversations, but she’d monopolized the bench for several hours with nary a questioning glance. She gifted each of the birders with a smile. Everyone ignored her.
And being temporarily invisible was a perfectly welcome state at the moment–it meant more eyes on Plumage. Capturing hearts was his forte, as evidenced by the burgeoning crowd lined up along his route. Shelf space for those hearts, Madeline believed, would only prove more limited as time passed.
“…all the local zoos, and he’s definitely not a resident here,” a bystander growled excitedly. “Could belong to a private collector, maybe?”
“He’s not a fugitive, Barry!” Mid-forties, Madeline guessed, raised somewhere in the South. Oklahoma, maybe. “It doesn’t seem possible, something like this, you know? Dan and Jess have never seen a live one, and they’re in Santa Rosa!” A cheery lilt crept into her tone. “Look at that coloring. You’re beautiful, little guy!”
A thin but gentle whisper to her left: “…on the other side of the world, sweetheart. They don’t normally visit New York, so this one is very special.” Young mother, unquestionably Brooklynese. Vaguely distracted. “He might be hungry. Do you want to feed him some br–“
“No bread!”, at least four birders shouted, their warning systems instantly triggered.
“OK! Um. All right. Sorry.” The mother’s mumble sounded somewhat bashful. “Who can keep track of things like that these days?”
Plumage swam with a model’s confidence into his runway, oblivious to the cameras. Whether or not he registered the facial expressions being hurled towards him, Madeline couldn’t say–but she suspected he might. They bore a striking similarity to the one she’d worn in Shanghai, on the night she’d won the festively-hued Mandarin duck. His deep purple vest, haphazard blue-green-red pastiche, 80-aerobics-instructor bill…where he waddled, humans stared. Madeline was not a birder; she could barely differentiate between a robin and a dove. But from the moment her Plumage window opened, she leapt without hesitation. Plumage belonged with her.
“I skipped work for this duck! And I’d do it again!”
“Hey, did you see that the press dubbed him New York’s Most Eligible Bachelor?”
“You’ve dated worse, Elaine.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“What about the leg-tag? A bird like that, he’ll definitely be registered.”
Madeline chuckled and shot Plumage a wink, aiming it through small gaps in the crowd. She’d originally dismissed the leg-tag idea, which approached her during a dream. Why complicate a simple plan? But after Plumage “mysteriously appeared” and Bird Twitter lit up, she was grateful that she’d bothered. In reality, the tag contained pure gibberish, but that fact would remain undiscovered. Approaching the bird carried the risk that he’d panic or even attempt to scamper away, and rankling a horde of birders wasn’t a volunteer position anyone wanted.
“He could play Bond, don’t you think?” An older gentleman, nibbling on something. “I bet those feathers have range.”
Their delight was gradually replenishing her own near-barren stores. Like so many others she knew, Madeline Roth had been operating on scraps for months. She exhausted most of her waking hours wandering through a fog, desperate to witness her country’s return to kindness and compassion. Her depression had plastered YOU HAVE NO AGENCY over every tweet, article, and broadcast she devoured, and regardless of how fiercely she fought, her efforts never seemed sufficient.
And then one night, as the pundits on television screamed over each other, Plumage nuzzled against her foot. Her gaze shifted downward, soaking in his gorgeous shades, and the proposal bubbled from her lips. Plumage flapped his left wing twice, and she decided he’d voted In Favor.
By next week, all traces of Plumage would vanish, as swiftly as they’d appeared–but the people Madeline watched from her bench would regale their loved ones with their story of The Impossible Duck, accompanied by a sense of renewed wonder or a contented sigh. Plumage’s unexpected, inexplicable sighting would be retold for years, or possibly even decades, outliving him and his handler.
“Why d’ya suppose he’s here?”, a woman in a burnt umber cardigan asked her companion.
“Because I’ve studied the logistics, and I can’t punch every Nazi,” Madeline murmured.
No one noticed. She greeted two newcomers with a grin they failed to detect, and that pleased her. Plumage cocked his head and offered a subtle quack. Madeline watched their suddenly-childlike faces open, nourished.
They needed this.