“Project Mallard” by Odette Lester Brady

Project Mallard

“The area of iridescent blue feathers on a duck’s wing is called the speculum,” Kali reads on Wikipedia.

Weird, she thinks. Etymology? She thinks. No. Don’t look. She doesn’t want a medical speculum ruining the moment when/if she gets lucky and sees the feathers again.  She has glimpsed them once or twice, on the mottled brown female in flight.

Their next-door neighbor is frustrated at the building site opposite. He waits on his front doorstep and tuts whenever there is someone near enough to listen to tutting. When Kali gets home from work on a Tuesday evening and tells Jerome she’s been subjected to more tutting, Jerome says,

“Two words: Housing and Shortage. I don’t know which bit of that he doesn’t understand.”

Kali nods and gathers her hair into a top knot. Their house is a bit of a doer-upper.  She’s going to listen to a psychology podcast and put another coat of paint on the banisters while Jerome makes dinner. She hasn’t put into words how much she’ll miss the green when it’s gone. Rationally at least, she agrees with Jerome. But she will miss the duck pond. It’s where she’s been doing all her thinking about life since they moved into their end terrace. The flats are going up fast.


On the way home from the office the clouds reveal a bluish tinge which she takes as a sign that spring is urging forwards, pushing life cycles along. As she steps into their road an urgent flapping of wings breaks her daydream. And honking – a real kerfuffle inside the boards that enclose the building site. She spends a moment watching through a gap. The last of the females is waddling around like she owns the place. Kali puts her nose through. The pond’s been gone a while, but there’s still a grassy edge, clinging on alongside the breeze blocks and rebar. Seeing the duck gives her a lump in her throat. This would be a tragedy if it hadn’t happened millions of times before. The ground under every house was once a wilderness. Her own garden is proof of that. Brambles claw at the dining room windows like they’re trying to get in. She and Jerome have agreed on leaving the garden until last. She watches the noisy duck circling its nest.


Wikipedia says that the duck will lay an egg every other day until there are between eight and thirteen eggs. Thirteen seems a weird number. They’re incubated for twenty-eight days.

“Is that twenty-eight days from the start of laying? As in, per egg? Or twenty-eight days from the last egg?”

“That would mean one egg gets two weeks less incubation,” Jerome says.

“Which is why I’m asking the question. Weird timing for all but one egg.” She treads carefully. Any sentence that includes the words egg and timing make Jerome go tense. Actually, it makes them both tense.  “I last saw the duck two weeks ago. Do we think two weeks from now?” She considers graphing it out on a piece of paper to get a better handle on the information.

“I suppose we’ll know in two weeks.” Jerome has been known to describe himself as a calm pragmatist.

He’s right, she thinks. Either they will or they won’t. It’s just a case of waiting.

The nest looks like a piece of installed art on its dining chair under a lamp in the otherwise furniture-less dining room. There are five milky-colored eggs. Beautifully engineered, the whole show. Kali wonders about keeping the nest as a souvenir when the eggs have hatched, and the chicks have fledged. She wonders why she never thought about working with animals. It had never crossed her mind before, but this is fun. What a different life that might have been.


When the nurse produces a speculum from a plastic bag the look on her face says she’s thinking about lunch. (Kali is on her own lunch break). Kali wants to tell her that the area of iridescent blue feathers on a duck’s wing is also called a speculum, but as she’s peering over her own knees she decides not to. Instead, she looks to the side, to the posters of anatomy, and thinks about the eggs, and about temperature, and warm, dark places. As the consultant comes in and gets to work, Kali’s thoughts align and she realizes what she should have done from the start.

Jerome is pretty excited when she shows up with loot from the DIY center and he runs to get a lightbulb from the cupboard under the stairs. Kali drills a ventilation hole and they find a way to attach the bulb so it pokes through one corner and heats up the inside. They line the box with an old towel and mark the eggs so they can keep track. It’s much more involved than she first thought – the temperature regulation and turning, but the science is reassuring. She pushes up her sleeves. The silver bangle Jerome bought her for her thirtieth birthday slides down her arm as she works. They’ve shone a torch into each egg (called candling) and four are showing signs of being alive. The fifth, not so much, but they are not ready to remove it just yet.  Neither feels informed enough to make that call. Once it’s rigged up Jerome makes a start on dinner.

“Tabbouleh?” He calls from the kitchen.

“Lovely,” she says, not knowing what he said. She can’t stop looking at the homemade incubator, its novelty. After dinner, she calls her parents and then her sister and describes it. Then she emails a photo to some friends. Project Mallard is the subject line.


At work, a colleague has told Kali in no uncertain terms that what she has done is appalling. With other colleagues in earshot, too. He said she should be ashamed, that stealing a nest is not just illegal but morally bankrupt. Now Kali is crying in the toilets, which is embarrassing when you’re a senior manager. She isn’t that type, the type that cries.

“I tried to explain,” she tells her sister on the phone, “that the mother hadn’t been back for days but he wouldn’t listen.” Snot has gathered on her top lip. “The builders moved it! She wasn’t coming back for it!”

She is sobbing into the phone because a) the colleague has made her doubt herself, b) it was a shock to be talked to like that at work, in front of people she manages no less and c) she really wants the eggs to hatch and she’s worried they won’t. Not just the dodgy one, but all of them. And, of course, there was the hesitation before she’d made the incubator, which implies a level of culpability. Well, all this has made it much worse. Jerome comforts her as they turn the eggs together that evening. It’s been two weeks and she’s not sure if she should get the torch out and try the candling thing again.

The consultant at the hospital tells Kali the following day that she’s optimistic for them.

“Things look promising,” is what she says, and it takes the edge off Kali’s worry about the eggs. She had expected another speculum today but it’s just conversation. Apparently, all they have to do now is wait (more waiting), but the doctor’s optimism makes the waiting more bearable.


Weeks later, when she finally acknowledges the tapping on the window, Kali realizes that this is the third or fourth time she has heard it. She can hear it so clearly now that she decides to get up and investigate. She hasn’t slept well since the eggs died. She doesn’t necessarily link it to anything, but she knows that those days, the incubator days, were calmer than these. In fact, her not sleeping could be any number of things. When she’s out of bed it’s easier to follow the sound, and it leads her downstairs, toward the dining room. The dining room is finished and the furniture is in. She walks past and goes to the kitchen instead without knowing why. It’s just an instinct.


It’s still weeks before the tapping. When the consultant puts a condom on the ultrasound probe the tension in the room runs so high that Kali feels like she might choke on her own heart. It doesn’t help that she has positioned herself at a weird angle on the couch, and is having to keep a leg propped up on a hand that is starting to go numb.

“The blue feathers on a duck’s wing are called the speculum,” she says. Her mouth is dry. Jerome squeezes her hand. The consultant is looking at the screen with a crease in her forehead, twisting the probe against Kali’s insides. It occurs to Kali that there is no speculum, just the probe, so what she’s said bears no relevance. No one is listening, anyway. There is too much else going on.

Three or four minutes later when it’s all confirmed the staff members give them a moment in the exam room. Kali pulls her hair up into a top knot and then puts her hands on her hips, “I think I deserve a drink.”

After a short and awkward exchange with the staff, they’re sent away to do some waiting (more waiting). Jerome is distraught, and they stand outside the hospital clinging to each other.

“It would be worse if we had told people,” she says, looking for anything she can point out as a positive. This seems like the only thing. “At least we don’t have to tell anyone it’s off.”

They are waiting for a lot of blood and who-knows-what-else to come out of her body. If it isn’t flushed out by nature she has to come back to the hospital so they can ‘book her in’. She almost wishes it would gush out right there in the street, because then at least the situation would look the way that it feels. Jerome wipes his eyes while people walk around them, stealing surreptitious glances, but more tears come. They stand in the same spot for fifteen minutes before he is composed enough to go into the nearest pub and order two brandies. Her tears come later and don’t stop for a long time.


The tapping always comes from the dining room. When she gets downstairs it’s nearly dawn. Kali doesn’t need to go into the room to know it’s the mallard on the window ledge outside. She thinks about her all the time, glazing over at her desk while work whirs on around her. One day, she thinks, she’ll go into the dining room and look. They’ll stare for a moment and Kali won’t move, not a millimeter, so as not to scare her away. It plays out in her head, black bead of an eye blinking at her side on. The pain in Kali’s abdomen has nearly gone and she’s sad that it’s over. Even the blood, which was brutal.

“Hello, duck.” She’ll whisper. “I tried my best.” She’ll say.

They buried the eggs in the garden. Cleared a section especially and Kali read a poem. Jerome would say she was imagining it, if she told him about the tapping. One day I’ll go and look, she thinks, and prove it to myself.

Odette Lester Brady is a writer and arts organizer. She was born in London and now lives in Spain. Her work has appeared in The Popshot Quarterly, MIR Online and The Forge among others. She has a website odettebrady.com and tweets at @odettebrady9.