ON THE DELIVERANCE OF WOOD DUCKS • by Christopher R. Muscato

The Mississippi had flooded its banks. This was, of course, an entirely natural thing for the Mississippi to do. Flooding was the river’s great yawn, a stretching of its arms and twisting of kinks from its spine with a slow, wet sigh. This was the river stirring from the slumber of winter and dreamily pondering the bright activity of summer. It was in no hurry to awaken, and would yawn for as long as it needed.

For as little hurry as the river seemed to possess, Noé Baptiste demonstrated even less. His raft drifted with the pull of muddy waters and he leaned against the walls of his hut, surrounded by a lush garden, puffs of smoke wafting from his corn cob pipe. Eyes closed, he was content to listen to the river, and only lifted his head when he felt his fishing line go taut. He gave it a firm tug.

The fish got away. Noé shrugged. He stretched out his arms and yawned. He checked his navigation pad and typed in a set of commands. The water behind the raft churned as the biophilic propellors dipped into the water, hydrophobic leaves spinning in response to the submersion. Noé tapped a button on a trunk and his small house began to collapse, the nanites disassembling and retreating back into their casing. Noé shut the lid on the containment unit and sat in the bright morning sun, puffing on his pipe.

It was at that moment that Noé’s quietude was interrupted by a loud splash, and a slight rocking of the raft. Noé straightened as two yellow-brown bundles of fluff scrambled out of the water and into his garden. He sat, quiet, and watched. Wood ducks, by the look of it. Still too young to fly. A silvery ripple in the water and a flash of a fin told Noé all he needed to know.

“Now, now,” he cooed to the panting ducklings huddling under the leaves of his squash plants. “It’s alright. You’re safe. Where’s your momma, little ones?”

He surveyed the river. This bank stretched across broad, flooded flats. The gentle wake of boats lapped against timbers of stilted houses. Not good wood duck habitat. The opposite side of the river, however, was spotted with trees rising from the water, secure behind a thick wall of reeds.

Noé looked upriver. Already, the rafts were linking up. There’d be a spot for him, to link his garden with the others that floated this river so that locals could wander the assembled fields and buy or trade for fresh vegetables. That’s where he was supposed to be headed.

The ducklings quacked as they pecked at the dirt, chasing bugs through thick tangles of leaves and vines. Noé’s garden was full, bioregulation maintaining a pleasant microclimate, roots extending through the raft and drinking straight from the river. He tossed a handful of seed on the ground. The ducklings chirped their thanks.

Noé turned the rudder and the raft drifted deeper into the river. He moved the raft slowly. As good as it was to have so much life returned to the Mississippi, it could get crowded. Showboats with their open-deck theaters and boisterous performances, cargo transports unfurling solar sails that glistened in the morning sun, pontoon-supported earthen mounds covered in corn and beans and squash, houseboats migrating between seasonal moorings in the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Garden rafts, like his. Lots of them. Many a nomad called this river home ever since the levee setback program restored the Mississippi’s natural floodplains. As a young man, Noé farmed these banks, laboring to pull life from his patch of ground and fighting against the floods. Now he drifted free over former fields he once plowed, at peace with the muddy river.

Noé quacked at the ducklings, and chuckled when they quacked back. It would take a little time to navigate the watery highway, but he’d have them home soon enough. Then to the market. If he felt like it. Maybe he’d start a water taxi for little creatures, ferrying animals across the busy river, two by two.

A mourning dove cooed from the far bank, and, for just a moment, the early rays of sun hit the water perfectly. The silty brown Mississippi sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow.

Having successfully delivered the baby wood ducks, Noé Baptiste puffed his pipe and drifted on.

Christopher R. Muscato is a writer from Colorado, USA, the former writer-in-residence of the High Plains Library District, and a winner of the inaugural XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase.

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