April Tale

April Tale by Neil Gaiman
From A Calendar of Tales

You know you’ve been pushing the ducks too hard when they stop
trusting you, and my father had been taking the ducks for everything
he could since the previous summer.
He’d walk down to the pond. “Hey ducks,” he’d say to the ducks.
By January they’d just swim away. One particularly irate drake – we called him
Donald, but only behind his back, ducks are sensitive to that kind of thing –
would hang around and berate my father. “We ain’t interested,” he’d say. “We
don’t want to buy nothing you’re selling: not life insurance, not encyclopedias,
not aluminum siding, not safety matches, and especially not damp-proofing.”
“Double or nothing!” quacked a particularly indignant mallard. “Sure, you’ll
toss us for it. With a double-sided quarter…!”
The ducks, who had got to examine the quarter in question when my father had
dropped it into the pond, all honked in agreement, and drifted elegantly and
grumpily to the other side of the pond.
My father took it personally. “Those ducks,” he said. “They were always there.
Like a cow you could milk. They were suckers – the best kind. The kind you
could go back to again and again. And I queered the pitch.”
“You need to make them trust you again,” I told him. “Or better still, you could
just start being honest. Turn over a new leaf. You have a real job now.”
He worked at the village inn, opposite the duckpond.
My father did not turn over a new leaf. He barely even turned over the old leaf.
He stole fresh bread from the Inn kitchens, he took unfinished bottles of red
wine, and he went down to the duckpond to win their trust.
All of March he entertained them, he fed them, he told them jokes, he did
whatever he could to soften them up. It was not until April, when the world was
all puddles, and the trees were new and green and the world had shaken off
winter, that he brought out a pack of cards.
“How about a friendly game?” asked my father. “Not for money?”
The ducks eyed each other nervously. “I don’t know…” some of them muttered,
warily.
Then one elderly mallard I did not recognise extended a wing graciously. “After
so much fresh bread, after so much good wine, we would be churlish to refuse
your offer. Perhaps, gin rummy? Or happy families?”
“How about poker?” said my father, with his poker face on, and the ducks said yes.
My father was so happy. He didn’t even have to suggest that they start playing
for money, just to make the game more interesting – the elderly mallard did that.
I’d learned a little over the years about dealing off the bottom: I’d watch my
father sitting in our room at night, practising, over and over, but that old mallard
could have taught my father a thing or two. He dealt from the bottom. He dealt
from the middle. He knew where every card in that deck was, and it just took a
flick of the wing to put them just where he wanted them.
The ducks took my father for everything: his wallet, his watch, his shoes, his
snuffbox, and the clothes he stood up in. If the ducks had accepted a boy as a
bet, he would have lost me as well, and perhaps, in a lot of ways, he did.
He walked back to the inn in just his underwear and socks. Ducks don’t like
socks, they said. It’s a duck thing.
“At least you kept your socks,” I told him.
That was the April that my father learned not to trust ducks.

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