Cardboard Ducks and Counterfeit Grace

It’s a cloud-laced January afternoon, and I’m sitting in an armchair watching ducks through the window of our local library.

This post was not supposed to be about ducks.

But there they are and here I am, watching most of the mallards sit huddled in neckless feathered bundles on the pavement and the frozen ice, as sleek and fat and cozy as ducks should be. The Canada geese strut between them, supervising and queening it over their smaller pondfellows by turns. Four of the birds look remarkably like black and white chickens, and they stand on the edge of the scattered crowd. They seem to be deciding how to introduce themselves.

They are all drastically unlike the flat ducks that lie twenty feet from my grasp, the ones in the board books with bright yellow feathers and equally bright orange beaks — not to mention beady eyes with eyelashes — that dutifully say “quack.” Turn the page and they encounter some other friendly animal: “Quack. Woof! Quack!”

It wasn’t until Little Jo saw the real ducks, about two weeks ago, that she began to say animal sounds.

She observed them at first from the safe crook of my arm, a good distance from the other children tossing feed from plastic cups. She watched the dry corn skitter and bounce like fire sparks on the asphalt as the ducks ran to gobble it up. When I let her down, she toddled joyfully towards them as they — less joyfully, but just as speedily– waddled away. “See? Ducks quack,” I told her, and she repeated the consonant sounds back to me, in the way she’s begun to say words.

I suppose she had to see them before the quacking made sense. French and Japanese ducks have different things to say, but now Jo knows that when she says “quack,” we are both thinking of that flat-billed nasal note, and probably also the muttering the ducks make as they wait for small humans to dispense more corn. The living feathered creatures give meaning to the ones on the page.

I know what it’s like to put something on paper, hoping it will breathe on its own and find a human connection, only to grimace at its flat and lifeless form.

Grace from God — something that has moved and altered me more deeply than anything else in this life, and for which I would sell a kingdom — is sung and depicted and spoken of everywhere, so much so that it’s easy to manufacture sounds weakly echoing but unable to embody its majesty. In the times I drift from my ongoing encounter with it, my subconscious usually launches its ideas from what someone else thinks grace is supposed to look like, or what another has likened to its sound… and cardboard ducks are the result, all a bit too bright and glossy, and endowed with detached captions to stand in for real sound. Sadder still, until I get my wits about me, I start to believe that’s actually what it’s like.

So thanks be to God for moments pushed away from the desk, and pauses when I reread a line from the children’s Bible out loud, and for freezing late night trips to the gas station. Thanks be for all these unlikely corners where I’ve returned to the central story of my rescue, soul sensitive again to the wonder, and sought a personal audience with my Savior and found it. I come, and I see the undeserved mercy running like live gold in liquid veins through this life, streaming thick and branching into a thousand different stories.

Then I understand the little wriggling dance Jo does when we ask her what a duck says, as if she can’t altogether contain the vivid remembrance of her encounter within her small self. “Kack-kack!”