Just here, said the five-and-a-half-year-old, standing barefoot under the apple tree. He was matter-of-fact, same as when he told me what cereal he’d like for breakfast or the book he wanted to read at bedtime. Only now he was talking about where to bury our dead golden retriever, whose body was growing stiff and unwieldy in my arms.
I laid it on the lawn, glad of having directions to follow—a plan to enact. The child nodded his approval and said, where is the spade? His knowledge of how to deal with dead things would have been surprising were it not for what happened to the ducklings.
His school had a pond behind it where, every year, in March or April, a duck arrived to rear her young. The headteacher told us this proudly at the open day six months before the children were due to start. Like having some ducks there for a few weeks every year would matter to the parents as much as the outstanding Ofsted reports, or the middle school’s newly built science labs.
When the duck showed up with her babies, the primary school classes began taking turns to go out to see them in the mornings. Throw seed for them. Notice their downy feathers growing sleek and dark. Watch them paddling further from their mother, out from amongst the rushes and into the glinting black water.
On Miss Woolf’s class’s third visit to the pond, they couldn’t see the ducklings. They were not on the pond or huddled at its edge, a quivering mass of feathered bodies.
One of the children made a sound and pointed across the water. A scattering of black and brown feathers lay on the pond’s far side. The class approached and saw what had been obscured in the long grass. Mangled duckling bodies. Just pieces of bodies, really. A shattered beak, a torn wing. Sinew draped across foliage. Blood soaked into earth.
A bird of prey, perhaps, was responsible. Or a fox. But why would an animal leave its prey like that—to fester? The parents and teachers could only speculate. The mother duck wasn’t there anymore, alive or dead. They supposed she flew off, having no reason to stay now that her babies were all gone.
The children stood and watched as the caretaker, a bald-headed man, adored for his impersonations of various teachers, appeared with a shovel and dug a hole in the lawn. He gathered up what he could of the ducklings and buried them under two feet of earth.
Some parents complained afterwards—why hadn’t the kids been taken back inside? Why were they made witness to this grisly spectacle?
At assembly the next day, the headteacher wore all black and played a recording of “Abide With Me” on the stereo. Some parents complained about that too. Because what had Christianity to do with anything?
This had all happened months ago. Still, the child instructed me at every step.
- Dig a deep hole.
- Lay the lifeless thing inside.
- Cover it with earth.
- Scatter over daisies picked from between cracks in the patio paving stones.
- Stand silent over the grave: a minute (at least).
- Throw away the remaining dog food, no longer needed.
- Clean up the remains (blonde hairs scattered on the kitchen floor.)
When bedtime came, he skipped happily up the stairs and asked me to sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” to him, which I did. When I stopped and pulled his constellation-covered duvet up to his chin, he asked me to start again.
It’s late, go to sleep, I said and kissed his peach-soft cheek. Before I closed the bedroom door I turned and said, hearing my voice crack: we will miss Rufus, won’t we?
The five-and-a-half-year-old’s eyes were already closed. Without opening them he replied: we will see him again in the spring.
Emma Raymond is a writer, editor and curator from London, now living in Scotland. She completed a Master’s degree in the history of books and enjoys vegan baking, playing the piano and running.