“To Leave the Seventeen,” Friend, Mar. 1989, 2
“How did I get stuck with such a duck!” San Fai muttered in frustration.
As usual, the duck was upside down in the rice pond. Wiggling above the water’s surface was the duck’s red-feathered rump. Underneath the water, his long neck and beak searched eagerly for a better minnow to swallow than the last one.
San Fai’s seventeen plain brown ducks had swum obediently to the edge of the rice paddies the moment he’d held up his pole topped with a few bits of colored cloth. Each afternoon hundreds of brown ducks had waddled out of the rice fields as farmers waved homemade flagpoles. Every duck knew its own flag.
Now the sun was sinking low over the green rice fields, and there was only one duck left in the middle of the paddies—the duck with the red rump was still bottom up in the muddy water! San Fai lowered his head in embarrassment as farmers carrying their poles filed down the dirt lane. Their ducks marched like little armies behind them. The boy looked at his own seventeen quacking ducks. San Fai’s family was poor; his “army” was small, indeed.
“It looks like Red Wiggle is still out there, as usual,” guffawed one farmer as he passed by. “I’ve never seen such a duck. You’d think he’d drown, with his head underwater all the time.”
“I guess I’d better go round him up,” mumbled San Fai.
“If I were you, I’d just leave him there,” the farmer twitted the boy. “He isn’t worth the bother. That bird doesn’t have a bit of sense.”
“I wouldn’t leave Red Wiggle even if I had as many ducks as he does,” San Fai murmured to himself as the farmer strode on, followed by nearly a hundred ducks.
San Fai shrunk down as another farmer, Chan Sou, marched toward him with a legion of ducks. Chan Sou was the richest of all the rice farmers. He was also a bully, and all the other farmers avoided him. As he came near, Chan Sou poked San Fai and chortled, “Why don’t you give up rice farming. All you do is chase that funny duck of yours. He doesn’t know which way is up and which way is down.” Chan Sou cackled with laughter, and he and his ducks strutted on down the lane.
San Fai sloshed down the muddy row of rice toward Red Wiggle. Sometimes he was tempted to let the duck stay in the rice field. Yet whenever he left his other, obedient, brown ducks in the lane to go after his unruly duck, San Fai felt like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable that his mother read to him from the book of Luke.* If that shepherd could leave ninety-nine sheep to search for one sheep, San Fai could not abandon one duck in the rice paddy.
The next day was the hottest in many weeks. Sweat poured down San Fai’s face as he leaned on a stick and weeded expertly between the rice stocks with his limber toes. Even the mud and water crawling up his legs didn’t alleviate the heat. And the ducks, which usually paddled tirelessly through the rice paddies, seemed listless today. Some farmers had umbrellas to shield themselves from the hot sun, but San Fai always let his mother use their family’s only umbrella.
San Fai was relieved when the sun began setting over the vast fields of rice. He waded to the edge of the rice paddy and pulled his homemade flag out of the ground to signal his ducks. Soon he was surrounded by quacking ducks. He counted them routinely under his breath. “… seventeen, eighteen—they’re all here!” Then he looked again. There was no red duck among all the brown ones. There were eighteen ducks, but Red Wiggle was not one of them. He wondered where the extra duck had come from.
As the boy squinted across the rice paddies into the orange sun, trying to spot his duck, he heard a gruff voice behind him. It was Chan Sou. “There’s no use looking for your red bird. You’re not going to find him. While I was plowing in the far field today, your duck was tail up, as usual, and my water buffalo kicked him. Now you’re rid of him for good.”
San Fai’s eyes bulged with anger. He gritted his teeth and wanted to hit Chan Sou. He tried to tell himself that it was just an accident, but he knew that Chan Sou could have done something to avoid it. He knew, too, that Chan Sou didn’t care if Red Wiggle was dead.
All the way home, with his flock of ducks parading behind him, San Fai wished that he could still see Red Wiggle upside down in the rice paddies. He would never complain again if only he could wade out to get the unruly duck each evening. …
When San Fai reached his family’s dusty yard, the mud-washed pig grunted in disgust as the noisy ducks waddled past him. One duck paused in confusion. San Fai looked down at it. He winced as he recognized whom this stray duck belonged to. Now he remembered counting eighteen all-brown ducks.
San Fai fiddled with the bowl of rice his mother set before him at dinner. She said, “I know that you’re sad about Red Wiggle, but you need your rice to keep healthy.”
San Fai gulped down a few mouthfuls of rice, then stood up. “I have to go to Chan Sou’s tonight. One of his ducks strayed home with ours, and I must take it back.” He hoped that his mother would say that he shouldn’t bother, that Chan Sou would never miss one duck. But his mother didn’t say a word.
When San Fai knocked on Chan Sou’s door, he nervously removed the wiggling duck from a bag. Chan Sou opened the door a few inches and peered out. “What do you want?” He growled.
San Fai stammered, “One—one of your ducks strayed home with mine. I brought it back.”
“Umpf,” grunted Chan Sou. “I thought that I didn’t have all my ducks when I came home tonight. Are you sure that you didn’t lure this duck home with you to replace that worthless duck of yours?”
“No, sir!” San Fai replied indignantly.
“Well, set him down. He’ll wander back in with the rest of my ducks. Just don’t let it happen again!” Chan Sou slammed the door.
San Fai walked dejectedly home in the moonlight. His mother was waiting at the door for him. San Fai cast his eyes down and neither said anything for a few minutes. They listened to the pig grunting and the chickens clucking in their sleep.
San Fai shuffled uneasily. “You know, Mother, as I was walking over there, I was secretly hoping that he would say that I might keep the duck, that he had more ducks than he knew what to do with. I thought that since I was doing the right thing, Heavenly Father would bless me for it that way.”
His mother smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad that you did the right thing and took the duck back. Eventually we are always blessed for everything that we do right. But we should never look for a reward. Think about Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. Sometimes they don’t come back. But at least we know that we’ve done our best and that we’ve done what is right.”
She took his arm and pushed him toward the little pond by the shed. “Now, I want to show you something. You know that duck, Lily, that we’ve been wishing would lay eggs for so long. Well, she’s finally done it. Maybe some of them will hatch. And who knows,” she said with a wink,” maybe one of the ducklings will have red tail feathers.”