My father had determined early on, though he never explicitly stated it, that children were not interesting enough to warrant being allowed at the dinner table until they were of an age to have intelligent conversation. What age this was must never have been revealed to me as I don’t recall ever actually joining them for dinner. Or perhaps I wasn’t interesting enough. Or they just forgot about me in the course of their busy lives.
For whatever reason, if I wanted food, it was to the kitchen that I headed. Only at mealtimes, mind you, as those were considered acceptable times to show my face at the kitchen door. I’m not sure snacks were something I had the courage for, as I distinctly remember showing up at the door one day, feeling hungry, and being sent away with a few choice Vietnamese words and brandishment of the aforementioned cleaver.
On rare occasions, I was invited to the servants’ quarters for food and television viewing. They had a TV, the family did not. The program of choice was Batman, which was great fun. The POWS and BOOMS were all still in English, but Batman and Robin and all their friends and foes spoke Vietnamese. It wasn’t until years later that I learned it wasn’t even a Vietnamese program. Or that men did not generally consider tights a fashion do.
So it was into this dynamic that I was called into the kitchen one day to see the new duckling that had been brought to our home. The cook told me that I was welcome to play with it. I was delighted at what I took to be a sign that the cook had somehow accepted me into her good graces, and delighted as well at the idea of having a pet of my own. This was no small thing. My brother Stephen had Tiger the cat. My mother had Den the black poodle, who would occasionally terrorize me by sneaking into my room at night and waking me to the sight of glowing red eyes and black shadows. The poor dog was the incarnation of the fiery pits of hell about which I had recently learned from a brief and unfortunate three weeks of being taught by French nuns. But I digress.
So there was this duckling. I loved her from the very start. Her feathers were a pale yellow, highlighted with a little bit of brown and a little bit of white, incredibly soft to the touch and tufted here and there with a duck version of cowlicks. She had black button eyes that looked around her with intelligence and curiosity. Her name was Genevieve, and I was unaccountably allowed to take her with me everywhere but school. Damn nuns. Genevieve was allowed to sleep with me at night, tucking her fluffy body in against my neck. In the afternoons, I would lie on the grass with her and watch how the sun would make a nimbus of her feathers. I often had tea parties on the lawn with my stuffed animals, serving water delicately garnished with bits of plants. Genevieve quite liked this and would dip her face into one of the Madeline cups in my set.
Each day, when our driver had returned me home from school, Genevieve would be waiting in the back courtyard for me, surrounded by chickens and other ducks. She gradually grew and her baby fluff turned to smooth white feathers. When she saw me, she waddled over and would follow me into the house. I loved that duck like a little sister, and her black button eyes looked upon me with favour, I think. She split her time between the courtyard, where she ate and did her toilette, and with me in my perambulations through the gardens.
On one particular day, she wasn’t there when I came home. I searched and called for her, and panicking, began to ask members of the household if they’d seen her. Eventually I was told by the cook that Genevieve had died. She said that she had fallen and her neck was broken.
“Fallen?” I asked her in Vietnamese. “From where?”
“You must have left her on top of something.” No more details beyond that, and I knew I had done no such thing. But was it somehow my fault? Children are very prone to take responsibility for loss on their own shoulders. Years later, I was to question why anyone would tell a six year old child that she was responsible for the death of her pet. At the time, I was filled with grief. And yet, I second guessed myself many times. Had I not left her in the courtyard? I’m not sure why it took so long for me to realize that Genevieve was never really mine, and that her days were numbered. The truth was that I had been merely allowed to play with her until she was big enough for dinner. I never forgave the cook for her lie. I never forgave myself for even any possibility that I had been careless with a life.
Six is such a formative age to be told that you were essentially a murderer. Perhaps that was the catalyst for spending the next fifty years of my life trying to save animals. The massive guilt and grief had to be channeled somewhere. Soon after, I began to sneak assorted creatures into my room. Injured birds, a stray kitten, a small garden snake whose tail must have been run over by a bicycle or perhaps pinched in a gate.
Feathered, furred, scaled, they were all up for my fledgling Florence Nightingale skills. Without Internet or suitable instruction books, I had to figure it all out by trial and error. Some of my patients made it and were able to be released, and some of them didn’t. Those that didn’t were placed gently under bushes to be found later by the gardener. Regardless of the outcome, I was not allowed to keep any of them. This created in me, I think, a yearning for something to love. Anything. Something to be mine, that I could keep and watch over. Something I could protect. From the cook’s cleaver or from neglect or from the thoughtless cruelties of life, which, despite my age, I was beginning to see.
One of the tragedies of being so little was that I had so little control over my world. I could not write any wrongs. I could not release the black bear that I saw on a city balcony from his chains. I could not feed the stray dogs whose ribs were so defined I could count them. I could not save the monk that I saw immolate himself on the steps of a building. But I didn’t distance myself. Every single one was somehow a failure in me to be effective.