Throwback Thursday: The Last Star by Juliana Amir
Editor's Note: Today's Throwback Thursday is a sweet variation on "The Ugly Duckling" story with the thought that everyone should find where they belong. Enjoy!
“However will you get ahead in this life?” the mother chided her ugliest duckling.
She tilted her iridescent neck to the side. Of all her bright yellow children, this one, unworthy of even a name, had stringy gray feathers and hopeless eyes. The duckling glanced with shame at his tar-black feet. His brothers and sisters had feet the color of evening skies. With sudden ferocity, the mother swept in, beak stretched. The duckling scattered back onto the riverbank, but in a snap, she plucked soft feathers from his tender wing. The mother paddled off spitting his gray feathers into the east blowing wind. Her duckling was left by serpentine roots under an enormous weeping tree, alone. He stayed, flat feet firmly planted, shivering with worry. As the summer sun set turning the river from green to vibrant crimson, long boats from beyond emerged. They sailed towards the gray stone castle towering on the hill. The boats, some of dull unvarnished wood, and others boldly painted, held mostly young men. A few had the luxury to recline as their personal rower swiftly traversed down the sunset river. Other boats were packed full of those sharing a ride, rotating the oars themselves, toward the black iron gates. The duckling, forgotten on the riverbank, followed the boats all the way through the gates, which were open wide in welcome. The ugliest duckling’s feet were tired, but he kept paddling until he reached the place where boats were moored. He hopped into the tall grass, still warm from the bright day, and nestled deep where he would not be easily spotted. Never had he been so far from home. The sun had vanished and sounds he had never heard lit the night. Crowds of people laughed—a merry noise delighting the duckling. As they clinked glasses of rosy liquid, melodies composed of strings and reverberations wafted on unseen winds. The darkness became less haunting and more splendid. The crescent moon cast a glowing smile from its starry perch. Small fires burst to life along the castle grounds sending up charcoal streams of smoke. Men were dressed identically in black, but the women swirled along stone pathways in more colors than the summer garden knew. Emeralds, reds, and buttercream yellows, illuminant in the torchlights, they adorned the grounds. Unlike his mother, who had left him with a bleeding wing, these women seemed both beautiful and kind. The duckling had a dull ache, but he didn’t mind it now. Especially when a woman pointed right to him. He burned warmly in that moment. The woman passed her glass to her partner and, with tea sandwich in hand, approached. Removing the top piece of white bread, she crumbled it for the duckling, and popped the rest between her rose lips. The duckling pecked at the soft pieces on the earth. They were fresh and soothed him in this unknown place. As the couple smiled at him, he tried smiling back. The people behind them began meandering away from the river. Flamethrowers, somersaulting blazing torches into the air, grabbed everyone’s attention—including the kind couple’s. Once again, he was forgotten. Dusk was melting, stars were on the verge of fading, and the duckling had fallen into deep dreams of being human. A human that could pluck tea sandwiches from trays, run fast so as not to miss everything he wished to see, and one who could dance as he saw couples that night: entwined, happy, and gliding, as if children on skates upon a frozen river, despite having only firm earth beneath them. The ugliest duckling half-woke to a crunch, and leaned out of his dream to listen, and with another crunch, he was wide awake. The boats had disappeared. He waddled on short legs to the river and leapt in amongst the lily pads. No sooner did he leap than a girl with midnight curls and a lace dress appeared at the riverside. Her strappy shoes dangled from her fingertips. She sat down and plunged in her bare feet with her gown gathered around her knees. She sighed. The duckling tugged on a water lily to bestow upon the sad girl, who like him was unpaired, but the firmly rooted lily refused to come loose no matter how hard the duckling tried. The sound of wild laughter split all silence. It startled him so much that he paddled back, but then, it delighted him once more. He swam closer. “Look at your poor wing.” She extended her scratched hand. “This is why they don’t let me pick my own berries.” She let it rest in the water. The duckling hesitated, but crept closer. She raised one finger and stroked his good wing. “Here I was about to pray upon the last star of the night for my freedom. There are so many boring men, who don’t read poetry, you see. But, I’ll give my wish of the night to you…may you find where you belong.” The stars understood belonging for they were born into clusters, and just then, dawn washed away the last one. With one hand she scooped up the duckling. He flapped his good wing, but as she brought him close, he settled down and she gently kissed his head. She placed him in the grass beside her and stayed a moment longer before returning to the castle. Soon after she disappeared, a light from the turret overlooking the river darkened. Gardeners came to water flowers. People moved with urgency. In the afternoon, an older woman with a glistering crown meandered with a few finely dressed companions to drink tea from tiny cups. She complained of her spoiled daughter who dreamt of love. Anyone who overheard her wondered if she had anything else to say, or if she was spellbound to repeat herself for eternity. Nobody bothered the duckling. In the late afternoon, the crowned woman’s daughter returned with her wild laugh and inspiring eyes. She had a book in hand to read to him. He didn’t know what she was saying, but he loved the way she said it. Sometimes when her voice quickened and she smiled as she read, he shook his tail to let her know he was happy too. This is where he belonged. Days collected into a year. The duckling stressed as his neck grew like a crooked tree. Eventually, it was no longer just his feet that were tar-black but his entire body. A flock of green iridescent ducks bobbed through, but as soon as the ugliest duckling came close, they flapped back to where they originated. His wings were vaster and his feathers had grown in longer. He was monstrously large compared to his mother, with her short neck and pleasant chubby face, and to all the ducks he had just frightened away. But the girl never treated him like a monster, and sometimes she packed a picnic for them. Always there was a new book. They’d sit upon a soft blanket and her reed basket would hide tea sandwiches. Under green foliage turned gold by summer, she’d munch on the cucumbers and raspberries from in-between and feed him the bread from her hand. Sometimes the bread was brown, other times white, and she even learned not to bring him the bread with seeds. His distress settled. Other days, she had picnics with different company. Sometimes, when her companion wasn’t paying attention being overly invested in his own words, she would look at him and roll her eyes. Like any other day, a table had been set up by the riverside. The girl appeared with her nagging mother. The mother kept her hands folded in front, but her tone was as sharp as the vengeful beak that had left the duckling bloody. “Do not ruin this with your silly notions that have no place in reality. I warn you.” She smiled for the sake of those watching, then turned her gaze to the duckling who felt small again in her towering presence that loomed like the castle she came from. “Scat, you filthy disease. Scat.” The duckling flapped back into the shadows and stayed there. When the crowned woman was gone, her daughter peered into the gloom cast by the arching trees. “Sorry,” she whispered. A man came with a tall sunflower, which he gave with a smile and a bow, before taking the seat across from her. Before he even reached for a slice of cinnamon cake, the duckling sensed something. Instantly, he disliked him. That day remained golden by the riverside. They took morning strolls and often had afternoon tea. On a different day full of songbirds’ music, the duckling saw his instincts realized. When he heard their tones crescendo, he paddled from the shadows. Never had he heard her speak so harshly. The man seized her wrist and had it nailed to the table. She tried jerking free but then, she lifted the emerald kettle and poured. Steamy brown liquid splashed onto his skin. He let go and raised his hand. The duckling stretched his vast wings, lifted his long neck, and flew. With power unknown to him, he chased the man far from the table and kept after him, squawking and snapping. The man sprinted all the way across the yard, nearly tripping over his feet, and was still running after the duckling stopped. That was the last time she was unaccompanied during a date. Once she seemed so happy that it filled the duckling’s own heart to see her cheerful. A few nights later, she was crying with her feet soaking in the river. The ugliest duckling now had the strength to snip the water lily from its pad and rest it in her lap. He leaned his head there too. With gentle fingers, she stroked his neck until tears stopped falling on his head like salty raindrops. While the nights still embraced him warmly and before the moon had time to grow fat again, a black swan, his river reflection, came closer gliding like those couples on the night lit by stars and fire. He offered the dark swan a yellow lily from the water before she could disappear. With her there, so close, she was the most beautiful surprise ever to occur in his life. With her came the realization that he was not meant to have a short neck and chubby face. He was not mangled, nor monstrous. He was just like this potential friend. And all those worries that he kept about his lonely future, buried deep inside, he released. Just like those iridescent green ducks, they offered him nothing. Together they swam until the stars faded, and when only the last one was still glowing, he made his wish, remembering the sounds that had brought him so much pleasure. He looked to the window overlooking the river where the light flickered on and off at all odd hours, and thought: may she find where she belongs. It was then that the last star of the night faded out.
Juliana Amir is a graduate of the NEOMFA. She enjoys the stars. Imagining all the stories unfurling beneath them, this story was dreamt.