Fuzzy yellow chicks swarm their mothers like bees. At water’s edge, where a wedding drags on, the groom is transfixed. How bitterly each brood chases after its mom. When he glances back at the bride, he reads the white bump in her gown as a bulging eggshell. Their unborn son, a twisting knot of chicks. The groom’s brain must be cooked from all the hours in the sun. He tries to focus on the ceremony, but a lone green head draws his eye back to the water. The drake, as his dad would’ve called it, abandons his mate once the eggs are laid—feeling vindicated, the groom wishes he could remember more of his dad’s duck facts. He could always count on them to break the silence of those cold mornings in the duck blind, where they sat with guns at the ready, eyes on the muddy brook. It was the opposite of this place, where everything glistens, blinding. The lake feeds a web of ponds that teem with lilies. Paradise, no doubt, for a bachelor duck.

Duck Fact: You’ll see the drakes display in the fall, when the hens start looking for new mates. A hen’s pick will spend the winter at her side. Come spring, she’ll take him back to the same spot as the last one. She’ll make her nest, he’ll fly away, and they’ll each find new mates again in the fall. Rinse and repeat.

At the reception, the maid of honor pulls the groom aside, holds a phone out in front of him. “Look at your face,” she says. “It’s like you’re at an execution. Every single picture.” Before he can drum up a defense, she swipes to a video of him standing idle at the end of the receiving line. As the bride chats up their guests, the groom checks his phone, gazes down at his shoes. “Her whole family thinks something’s wrong. I just found her crying on the toilet.” The groom turns towards the bathroom, but the maid of honor grabs him by the wrist, warns him not to go in there. His head pounds. “So what am I supposed to do?” If there’s any chance of redemption, he’s told, he has only one ritual left: “When the DJ calls you to the floor, you dance like you want this. Don’t you dare just sway like some fucking zombie.”

Duck Fact: Like any dancer, the drake has three things to work with: space, time, and force. He’ll claim the space around him with a swing of his tail. See? Now wait for it. Once he’s coaxed the hen away from her friends, he’ll time his head-bobs to sync up with hers. See how they do it? And after he bows, look at how he snaps upright. Look at those ripples he makes on the water.

The wedding party all share the same side of the table—like the Last Supper, the groom thinks. They’re near their final bites of steak and crab cake as a plague of kids rush the empty dance floor. Watching them bust out in their tiny suits and gowns, he curses himself for refusing the ballroom lessons suggested by the bride. When she finally emerges to reclaim her seat, he searches her face for signs of crying. All the blush and mascara disorient him, like he’s gotten too close to a painting. “What took you so long?” he asks. “Poop,” she says, straight-faced. He’s struck by her shiny lashes, how they catch the last minutes of daylight. Then his attention is drawn back to the floor, where the maid of honor joins the kids. The way she sashays in her precarious heels, green dress flashing with mallard iridescence—he’s sure he’s being taunted. Her date, the first man coaxed onto the floor, appears competent enough. The groom tries to study his moves. When he dips the maid of honor, she seems to flash a menacing, upside-down glare at the groom, which maybe is just in his head, but it makes his gut twist with overcooked steak. “TEST, TEST,” he hears. The DJ taps the mic with his palm.

Duck Fact: You’ll bag three drakes, on average, for every hen. You just can’t miss that flashy head. Look at all the light it reflects. And when he flaps his wings—see those reflective patches? He’s got to show those off too. Nuptial plumage. Nothing like those drab camos the hen wears.

“I’ll be right back,” the groom says, rising from his chair. He jogs up to the DJ, pleads for an extension on the first dance. “I can give you five minutes,” the DJ says with a groan. The groom nods, turns to his groomsmen, and calls for shots. This is what he needs. He likes the way they rally to his side, feels safe among the brown tuxedos that match his own. They down their Jameson in the adjacent lounge, slouch in leather furniture. “I wish we were out shooting,” the groom says. Amidst back-pats of support, they recall the marksmanship he flexed at the bachelor party, a day of paintball. “The stuff of legend,” one says. As they debate each other’s prowess, the groom’s eyes drift up to a painting above the fireplace, a portrait of a duke or someone. How the man basks in his flashy garb. The flowy silver thing thrown over one shoulder, the glittery hat with feathers in his hand. And on his feet: blazing red heels. Thoughts loosened by whiskey, the groom imagines him dominating the floor with wide turns and swagger, unencumbered by his ornaments. Whatever this is—impracticality, precarity—surely it’s nature’s biggest flex. The women painted in his shadow are limp and drab, not unlike the groom and his friends. Ashamed, he rises from his chair, resolving to dance. It’s time to reclaim his honor, he decides. Yes. He can do this. He will do this. He’s done running from it.

Duck Fact: He’s a monster, of course. Once he’s abandoned his mate, he’ll try and impregnate every hen he can catch. Makes you wonder why he bothers with the proper mate at all. If he’s just going to disappear when she needs him the most, why should he work so hard to win her over? Why should he spend all winter at her side? Take a guess. C’mon, it’s okay to be wrong every now and then. You’re so quiet. Sometimes I worry about you.

As the groom flees down a stairwell, the voice of the DJ booms after him: “EARTH TO THE GROOM, WE CAN’T START OUR PARTY WITHOUT A FIRST DANCE.” On the bottom step, he almost vomits. “WHOEVER FINDS OUR GROOM GETS THE FIRST GLOWSTICK.” He’s enlisting the kids, the groom realizes. Stumbling through an emergency exit, he finds himself on the back lawn, surrounded by the last remnants of the ceremony. Only behind the gazebo, where he slides down in the dirt, does the DJ’s voice fade into a distant buzz. But even here, the groom can’t seem to gather his thoughts. It all feels like the night he proposed, when he couldn’t summon the nerve, despite knowing he had to. He recalls the Youtube video he watched in the bathroom that night, Why You Should Get Married. He fishes his phone out of his pocket and pulls it up. The lecturer, some famous guy, appeals to natural law. All his jokes land. The groom recalls how the man soothed him that night—but this time, as the video drags on, his attention drifts down to the comments: In the U.S., marriage makes men beta and distortionatley benefits women. He submits to a woman and the governing body, which one does not see in nature. Thousands agree. No one ever expected the duke to share parenting duties, or pay child support, the groom thinks—is that what freed him to court so boldly, as nature intended? Before he can mull it over, someone smacks him atop the head. He springs to his feet, ready to give chase—it’s one of those grade-school reflexes, like duck-duck-goose. Behind him, he finds the maid of honor perched in the gazebo. She narrows her painted eyes at him. “Are you crying?”

The groom wipes his face. “I don’t believe in this shit.”

“Just come back. You can have a meltdown tomorrow, okay?”

“I can’t face her now,” he says. “I’m a runaway groom.”

“You’ve been gone for ten minutes.”

He was so close to gathering his thoughts before she interrupted. He feels his truth slipping away. If he returns to the reception now, completes the ritual—he may never claw it back. “I just need more time,” he says, rising from the dirt.

“No you don’t.”

“Make something up, if you want.” He strides away from the gazebo, into the shadows. “Don’t you dare!” she shouts after him. “You piece of shit, come back here! I’m telling them where to find you!”

Duck Fact: You know, the duck is the outlier with all this stuff. Any other bird on the water, the genders look the same. Coots, loons, geese—male and female dress the same, dance the same. They pair for life, parent together. Fiercely protective, the both of them. You so much as glance at their chicks, they’re liable to lose their goddamned minds.  

The groom stops to catch his breath somewhere among the web of ponds. The calls of the search party soften behind him—he would seem to have shook them. Leaning against a willow, his eyes rest on the gleaming lilies. It really is paradise, he thinks, with a gulp of cool air. Who could expect the drake to shoulder a mob of crying chicks when he can have all this to himself? It’s more than enough for the groom—if he only had his gun, he could dig in for the night, wait for his next day’s breakfast to paddle into view. He abandoned the path aways back, took a series of random turns through the trees—with the sun down, his little corner of the estate could be mistaken for deep wilderness. So why now does he spot, just a few feet away, a rectangular sign atop a white post? It’s too dark to read, even after he walks up to it. He dare not use the light of his phone. But from here he can see what it must be about: just beyond the reeds, a conspicuous peninsula juts out over the water, beckoning the groom. At its furthest tip, he spots something in the shape of a cake. To get any closer would drag him out in the open, but his mind revs with curiosity now. What is this intrusion on his new territory? He lies down in the prone position, tux be damned. He crawls out on his stomach. When he’s finally close enough to decipher the thing, his eyes widen: it’s a tightly-packed heap of sticks, topped with a pile of smooth, pristine eggs. Fucking eggs. He rises from the ground, winds up his foot—but the nest is taller than he realized. Before he can reposition himself, he spots a shadow rising up from the water behind it. It grows taller and taller, too tall to be a hen—he imagines a drake rising on its corkscrew penis. But the bird that launches itself at the groom bellows like no duck. It sends him crashing backwards into the pond. Shocked by its depth, the groom struggles to tread water. He’s yet to regain his bearings when a second trumpet blares behind him, and he’s bludgeoned by something like a crowbar wrapped in feathers.

Goose Fact: People think courtship, they think selection, but most of these birds display for the same mate all year round. All their lives. If you ever end up with a pair of geese on your property, you’ll know what I’m talking about. All that honking and flexing, every damn morning. It’s not like they’re afraid the other will fly off—they never break up, these birds. What people don’t realize is that for animals like them, with bonds like theirs, the world is doubly threatening. That’s why they keep psyching each other up—to take it on. You remember the goose that chased you across the park that time? I guarantee you, it had a pep rally with its mate that morning. A war dance. Lucky for you, a goose never did anyone in. Can’t say that for every bird.

While one drills its beak into the groom’s skull, the other pummels him with its wings. A single blow sets off such a ringing in his ears, he thinks a fire alarm’s been tripped—like when those red bells mounted to every wall of his grade school would screech at once, drowning out any thought that isn’t Escape. But as he tries to swim towards the reeds, he discovers how easily the birds, like armed buoys, hold him back. A swing of one’s elbow knocks the air out of his lungs. The other jabs at the groom’s face until he’s forced underwater. The pond itself seems to coordinate with the birds, holding him down with arms of sludge. He swallows water that tastes of shit, and burns his eyes, but every breath he steals from the surface is met with a fresh beating. As the descents drag on, he catches glimpses of the birds reveling above him. How they swing their necks, bump their chests. He’s never seen anything like it. His own limbs begin to fail him, merely swaying when he wills them to thrash, and he prays he won’t be remembered as the first man killed by geese—a title yet to be claimed, he seems to recall. Only now he spots the S-shaped curves of their necks. And how their wings, when spread, seem bigger than any he’s ever seen, big enough to lift a man—swans. Even as they entwine their necks, they keep circling the groom, ready for more.

© Mike Nees
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Mike’s interview]