catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 6 :: 2006.03.24 — 2006.04.07


The miracle and tragedy of the yellow duckling

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over?there it is in the water!
No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

“The Ball Poem” by John Berryman

I was born in Bloemfontein (Afrikaans for “flower fountain”), South Africa in 1991. I was named Tala, the root word for “green” and “growth” in Sesotho, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. My sister Hannah was born a year later. We lived a mostly blissful childhood in South Africa until I was six years old.

For my fourth birthday my parents gave me three white ducks with bright orange bills. My father uncharacteristically dug a hole for a pond in our large garden and put up a haphazard fence and shack. They were allowed out of their domain during the day and often went swimming in our pool, to my mother’s dismay. I remember our housecleaner Rosie checking the eggs every morning, telling me that they didn’t have a tiny life inside of them so we could take them to eat. Then one day, she was inspecting an egg and decided to leave it there to rest in the nest. A short while later, a sunny little ball of fuzz hatched. I remember the bright contrast of this perfect, flawless duckling to her large, capable mother and father. I watched our bubble of joy run about the yard, slipping through the holes in the fence and under the net into the pool, so free and playful, escaping our most faithful attempts to catch her. Then one night, tragedy struck. A storm came, and the little duckling, separated from her mother and unable to find shelter, perished in the rain. I remember being unable to comprehend what had just happened, finding her mangled and dead on the ground, the hopeful beginning broken. It had never occurred to me that sometimes the most beautiful things in life are most easily destroyed. I cried and cried.

A couple years went by and I kept playing my imaginary games, bossing my sister around, stuffing my ducks into hamster cages and giving away one of my female ducks. We looked after a farm dog that ran away during storms, leaving bloody paw prints on our wooden floors and brick patios, sometimes returning to our house and sometimes found by someone else. One day we gave him away. We had budgies at one point, but when my mom was cleaning the bottom part of the cage, my sister lifted the rock holding down the cage, lifted the cage, and watched the budgies fly into the sunset to live the good life in trees. Going swimming in the heat; eating frozen juice in plastic cups; visiting my grandparents, uncles, and aunts for braais (barbeques); greeting new nephews: life was carefree.

But in 1997 my parents decided to go to Canada, where my dad would study at Regent College. I didn’t understand, of course, what that really meant. It was all very exciting. We lived at my grandparents’ house for the last month in South Africa and all I recall doing was watching cartoons?this was a novelty since we had had no TV at home. But home wasn’t going to be a place anymore. We drove to the airport in Johannesburg where my aunt gave me a red and white jewel heart the size of my thumbnail. We departed with a sum total of six bags on New Year’s Eve. A stop in Singapore for one night was the bridge to my next life. The first thing I did upon arriving in Canada was throw up in the airport bathroom. I saw real snow for the first time while it was dark and the rest of my family slumbered.

From then on, my life became a flurry of fresh starts and quick endings, interspersed by exciting new experiences and emotional overdose. I started public school half a year late, learned to read, spell, divide, follow and disobey my elders, betray and befriend my peers. A year and a half later, we moved to Ontario where my dad got a job and my sister and I went to a Christian school. We started home-schooling in grade seven. I have moved another five times since the first move to Ontario. I still don’t know how much this affects who I am today and who I will be tomorrow, but one effect is that I don’t understand what a house as “home” means. Eventually, the rush slowed down, but loss and new life are part of every day. I think God is trying to teach me that “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” (Jim Elliot). My story is a story of losing hope, losing home, and losing identity, and becoming a person whose losses define her, but most importantly, my story is the story of God giving me the infinite in the finite.

The culture I live in today prizes individuality. We don’t believe in commitment, because that means trusting, and trusting means risking. We don’t believe in stable lifestyles, because that means working for something that we can lose, that the world can threaten. We especially don’t believe in dependency, because that would inevitably mean being rejected. We can’t handle loss. We hop from person to place, new mask to new dress, imaginary relationship to messy divorce, so that we never have to admit that this life doesn’t last for very long and that we would like something to hold onto.

I don’t know if I have a solution, because I don’t know how to tell adults to grow up when I haven’t. I can only have faith that my hopes are not too frail or weak to survive, without pretending that I don’t hope for anything. My yellow duckling may have died, but not every little duckling dies before she becomes white and big like a cloud. Laying pure, round promises that God will hatch is all I can do. I am learning to stand up.

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