The Mallards Hold
by Mark Seth Lender
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At the bend in the river
a flock of mallards 
is dozing in tall grass 
that is winter-bleached
and battered by snow, 
by wind,
by high water. 
Worn thin,
there is little cover in it
but it is all the mallards have
and must make do.
In these river narrows,
in the tie-downs
of the straights and shallows,
their only true refuge 
is day sleep.
The pulse drops,
the body stops
except for the low breath
and the least heat it needs
to keep on living.
Even the sun is cold.
And the mallards hold.

They are an average 
flock, these mallards.
Still as the ice 
grounded to the bank.
Closest are four drakes, 
laid up with their bills 
tucked to the crook 
at the back of their necks.
Positioned this way
their heads are a virtual black
so dark it is not 
a color but a gap.
Sensing my presence 
the drakes, in consort, 
look up.
And a curious thing.
That gap fills 
with an iridescence,
so brilliant, reminiscent
more of a scarab's shell
than the soft hue 
of feathers.

It's the angle 
between the shafts.
Heads bent, 
the feathers spread.
Light falls straight in 
and vanishes.
Only when the drakes 
unfurl themselves
do the feathers relax 
and close
and the full green flash 
of plumage,
bright as a lighthouse,
beacons forth.
The object of all this
stands between them,
a single hen,
invisible as an afterthought.
Movement reveals her
and (now that she is standing)
so do her very orange feet.
The color is a sign
that breeding is imminent,
though the choosing
is not yet complete.
It is for her the drakes 
risk themselves this way
and hide as best they can
when they sleep.
For the need runs deep
and the mallards stay.

I want to lie down beside them
there on the spongy bank,
nestle my face
into the warm hollows 
of their wings
and feel the pulse
and listen to them breathe.
But I must leave.
Not out of fear
nor because I am riven 
by the frigid air
and not because I want to.
I am comforted here.
As if I belong here.
As I am sure we used to
before we knew
what we know
and wish we did not.

Source    More poems by Mark Seth Lender