Plate Tectonics, Love, and the Duck Princess

by Elizabeth Scott Tervo

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a beautiful enchantress. That was me. My hair was as black as a raven’s wing, my eyes were as deep as two wells, and my wits were as quick as a cloud of hummingbirds. I lived in a hut perched on two duck feet, which was convenient, because I could settle down anywhere I wanted, but at the same time it was unfortunate because my home was the laughingstock of the kingdom. 

I was getting tired of not being taken seriously, and also of living in a landlocked kingdom, because my best spells were liquid spells, and no medium was ever so acceptable to me as seawater. So when the king grabbed my shoulder and spiked his scepter almost right into my thyroid, I knew it was time for one last spell before making a break for it. Luckily what he wanted was right up my alley.

As well as all the usual enchantments, I had a sideline in creating myths, which I personally guaranteed to last a thousand years. One or two have even been known to pass into timeless legend. You can read them in any book of fairytales. Try and see if you can recognize my distinctive style. 

Anyway, the king was getting along in years and was thinking about his legacy. He wanted a myth about his benevolent reign to live on after him for a thousand years if possible. And, if I could also put a stop to that incessant humming and buzzing sound that bothered all his subjects– its annoying high pitch and unpredictable starting and stopping sounded like a far-off leaf-blower– that would be a bonus. 

But even I couldn’t make a myth out of nothing and, truly, this was not a naturally benevolent king. Every night I poked around the castle, looking for any possible item I could use as a foundation for his myth. It took a long time. One night I was under the castle, exploring the ancestral tunnels deeper, I believe, than anyone else ever has, when by the light of my cat-eye lantern, I found it: a huge crack in the earth’s foundation, right under the castle. I looked down into the abyss and saw only blackness, but I heard running water and smelled the tang of salt. Perfect! Now to find out what caused the rift. 

I hurried home and consulted my geography book. Sure enough, two continental plates came together right below the castle. One belonged to this kingdom. The other belonged to the next kingdom over. The two kings were sworn enemies, which of course had instigated the rift. I plotted to make up a potion to seal the rift, heal the breach, and there you go! Peace, the world fixed, a thousand-year myth for the king (who would take all the credit), and a nice commission for me to retire on.

First, I would need to let down a little bucket and retrieve some of that deep seawater. To do so, I needed to get started on a long, long enchanted rope, composed of something precious from the other kingdom. I commandeered a bucket and inveigled a charming young princess from the other kingdom to come stay with me for a while to “study magic.” I made her father pay a high price for this opportunity so he would not suspect me of anything but avarice. I bound her royal family to secrecy and it worked so well that they forgot all about her.

I sneaked her into my duck-footed hut and hid her there under the form of a female mallard. You can not learn much magic in the form of poultry, but she could still read and use her bill to turn pages, so I set her to studying my books. 

Every night while the princess slept, I snipped a few hairs from her braid and commenced linking and spinning them together into a long rope. I spun slowly and carefully and prepared my best cauldron. Every morning the duck princess laid a cobalt blue egg speckled with stars, but since there was no duckling inside, she soon lost interest and I abstracted the eggshells for compost. 

She spent hours neglecting the books and gazing out the window into the castle yard. Many dark-eyed, olive-skinned, young knights were always loitering about, tending their white ponies. They could easily tell that the duck in the window was an enchanted princess, so they showed off, husbanding their steeds tenderly and practicing for tournaments right under her window.

I tried to amuse the princess by teaching her how to make the eggs come out different colors, but since she would not be able to use that skill later in life as a human princess, she got tired of that too. What she really wanted was to become invisible, but I considered that definitely too risky. Once invisible, she would become human again, and an invisible princess running around the castle would wreak havoc, I thought. It turned out I was right about that.

Perhaps I should have realized how sickeningly bored she was. Poor girl! What do you think she did? Well, what would you have done if you were her? Every day she stared out the window over the luxuriant flowers in my window box, watching the crowd of princes. She chose the best one, the heir of the kingdom (of course), and fell in love. Love is as good a cure for boredom as any, not to mention plenty magical in its own way.

She learned how to make herself invisible in spite of me. One night I must have woken her up when I snipped off another bit of her braid and she pretended to be asleep until I went back to bed. Then she got up, snagged my best spellbook from under the sink, and quacked out the spell to become invisible. Fortunately it would only last for an hour, because she was a weak enchantress.

Now that she was invisible, she was delighted to find herself human again. She immediately sneaked over to the castle, found her beloved, and woke him up. Of course he could not see her, but she spoke to him fondly and bravely told him that she loved him. He was sleepy and not really paying attention, and after an hour she reverted to her duck form. She pecked at him with her bill but he still didn’t wake up all the way, so she sat there and waited patiently for morning. She was used to watching him, since that’s what she did all day. How handsome and lovable he was! At dawn she laid her egg and hid it in the armoire, where it may still be for all I know.

Later when the prince woke up, there was the duck! He immediately recognized her from the window of my hut. He wondered what kind of person she might be when not a duck, because he remembered her dulcet human voice from his dreams though she could only quack now. He told her that he loved her too and she quacked softly in reply. When the servants entered with the morning tea and the Sunday comics, she flapped her wings and flew out the window.

I was much displeased when she came waddling home so late, or rather early, but the invisibility spell left no residue on her feathers, and ducks can not blush when they are hiding a new-found love, so I had no idea what she’d been up to. I never guessed she had any aptitude for that dangerous branch of magic, love.

After this, the princess sat on the windowsill all day and watched the prince as he practiced fencing, riding, lancing, and whatever other admirable skills young knights do practice. He looked at her all day too. Often she had to motion to him with her wing to watch where he was fighting, lest he injure some other young fellow. Every night she said the spell of invisibility and became human again for an hour and then she and the prince had their moments in the castle garden. Over the weeks the princess’s braid steadily grew shorter as I spun more hairs into the rope, but she didn’t notice, because she was a duck most of the time, and when she was human, she was too busy with the prince to bother about her hairdo, especially since he couldn’t see it anyway as she was invisible.

Once the rope was long enough, I lowered the bucket and retrieved an aliquot of abyssal seawater. That’s when I noticed that the continental plates were diverging further and I understood that the annoying humming on the edge of everybody’s hearing was the plates groaning. I sewed them back together with a needle made of whalebone and thread made of the tentacles of a giant Kraken. It was easy, just like lacing sneakers. I hoped the whole thing would hold until the potion was ready.

As I worked, standing over my best cauldron and stirring, the love affair progressed and one day the prince told his father that he wanted to marry a girl who was imprisoned in the form of a duck. The king thought the prince was making fun of him and threatened to behead both prince and duck. That night the prince and the princess despaired together, and she revealed the whole affair to me and I realized what had been going on right under my own window box.

I double checked, and love was not on the list of ingredients for my potion to heal the plates and create a thousand-year myth for the king. This illicit love affair would definitely spoil the spell. You might ask, why not let true love bring the peace instead? A marriage between the rival kingdoms? Indeed I asked myself this question. It seemed like a nice idea, and I had become fond of the girl, and her big opalescent tears bothered me. 

But when I looked into her eyes, I saw that she was destined for a different prince who was currently disguised as a gardener back home at her own family’s castle. And in the dark-eyed prince’s eyes here, I read that he preferred blondes and would not be pleased to discover that the princess in her natural form had brown foliage—actually a very similar shade to the feathers of a mallard. Perhaps that’s why I unconsciously settled on the form of a duck in the first place. She would absolutely lose him when the first Swedish girl walked by. Nope. No peace between the kingdoms that way. In fact, catastrophe. Just the previous night, I had had to use all my strength to brace my feet against the edge of the plate in order to pull the thread tight. I could not risk both kingdoms falling through the rift.

Luckily, in addition to my above-mentioned skills, I was a wise woman and my mind was sharper than fencing swords, rapiers, and lances. (It might not be quite as sharp nowadays.) So I spun the young lovers an enchantment. I took my second-best cauldron and mixed in heart’s-ease, seawater, the powder of ten pulverized steel needles, mashed tulip bulbs (the tulips were spent anyway), numerous other ingredients too disgusting to name, and a handful of fresh mint for flavor. 

My mind was sharp, as I said, but… did I tell you I also specialized in military hardware and munitions? This was another one of my sidelines, and I could set you up with as nice a camouflaged army tank as you might wish not to see! For a good price too. I still have some of the stuff lying around.

Now you have to remember that in my younger days nobody over here knew anything about feng shui, May Kondo, or even Flylady, and my little hut on its two duck feet was as messy as a bordello. While I was stirring the swirling threads of the anti-love enchantment, my little hut must have stretched its legs, and a grenade fell off a high shelf into the mix. It was one of the kind that’s primed to go off later. It melted and was lost in the spell by the time I turned around again. Sometimes I wonder what else might have fallen in there.

I stewed up the potion using a bottle of solar energy and I made the young people each drink half. Once they were under its spell, they quite believed me when I said that they must part because of the danger from the prince’s father, but most of all in the interest of world peace and plate tectonics. It was for their own good, too, but there was no use saying that.

I gave them a few minutes to say goodbye. The prince kissed that yellow bill, and the duck just brushed his face with her soft wing feathers. Tears came into my eyes. I didn’t expect that. These kids were like tragic lovers in a fairytale… like Romeo and Juliet, except they didn’t have to die. (I don’t like the kind of spell where somebody dies. That’s not my kind of thing at all.) 

Afterwards, I lowered the healing potion under the castle and spilled it out below. The plates knit themselves together like a baby’s skull bones and the annoying grating noise stopped. To great fanfare, peace was declared between the rival kingdoms, the king was nominated the ruler of the century for his peacefulness, and his myth lives on, hopefully for the requested thousand years, though if it doesn’t last quite that long, it’s difficult to see what he’ll be able to do about it. 

I turned the duck back into a human princess and quickly taught her some simple spells so that her father would think her time with me worth the money. Such as, how to fill a moat with water that glistens like opals, how to mix up an ointment to make arrows inerrant, and how to speak to silkworms so they don’t die unexpectedly— sensible spells, which every princess ought to know but seldom do anymore. I also sent her home with a significantly shorter braid. Even I can’t make hair grow quicker than it wants to, though I can change the color or replace it with feathers if you like. 

The young people should have been grateful to me, because tragedy is so much more interesting than happy-ever-after. They got the glamour of being a tragic hero and heroine, a glamour which clung to their souls and gave them comfort and the ability to be brave in many a dark hour, though outwardly they forgot about each other, life went on, and me and my hut waddled away to an early retirement in the South Pacific.

The prince and princess did find their happy-ever-after, just not with each other. When the prince grew up and became king, he kept his hatred for all tyranny because of the tragedy of his youth and, joined by his new Swedish queen, became a member of the U.N. and fought no more, except in cases of nation-building or whenever it was really, really justified. 

The princess too found a second love, which she had thought impossible, with the prince-in-the-disguise-of-a-gardener whom I had foreseen, and they lived together happily, until one day, when life was rather quiet in her husband’s empire, the grenade that had fallen into the spell went off. A vision of the olive-skinned young prince exploded in the air, startling her mightily, especially since the image would not go away and she had courtiers to entertain and children to wrangle, along with getting the former gardener’s dinner. So she filled her moat with water that glistened like opals and instructed it to flow away with a message in a bottle for me.

And, as the official records show, at the same hour of the same day a heavenly image of a beautiful duck flew quacking through the U.N. General Assembly chamber and landed on the podium where the now-king was just about to give a speech entitled “Nation-States and How to Rule One.” He immediately forgot his well-crafted opening sentence and remembered the girl he had never seen. He wondered where she was now and if he could find her.

As for me, I thought I’d be resting care-free among palm trees and bright sands for the rest of my natural life, so when the message arrived and I read it, I sighed. 

My little hut was sitting on a deck chair with its webbed feet up, so I climbed in the window and grubbed around in the pantry through all kinds of debris, plus the interesting seashells I’ve begun to collect lately, until I found it—a little crushed tube with the label Elixir of Truth still sticking to one corner. I rarely use it–I never cared much for it as an ingredient–but I squeezed the last little bit into a glass of piña colada. Then I sat down side by side with my hut and poured the liquid out onto the sand, drop by drop, until it was all gone. 

Then I took up my beach novel again.

Far away in her husband’s castle, the princess saw that old forgotten love as it truly was: a mixture of boredom, dark eyes, and fencing practice. Nothing more. The image melted away. Her seventh baby began to cry and she ran to nurse it, forgetting everything else. And at the U.N., the spectral bird’s feathers and body fell into nothingness as the king started in on his oration.

However, the Elixir must have brined from all the years resting on the beach. Opalescent water, opalescent tears… the roar of the waves… the indifferent sand… I felt a little uncomfortable. 

Two auras, like the white lines of an invisible person in the Sunday comics or the reflection of sunlight in a pearl of water on a duck’s wing, rose out of the ocean, joined hands, and soared away together, searching through kingdom after kingdom for a place that would receive them. After many years they found it in the true West: the kingdom where Fiction and the Imagination rule and never die.

As for me, I still dabble in myths and magic, right up to the ripe old age you see me at, though in appearance I will always remain young and beautiful, my hair will always be as black as a raven’s wing, and my powerful love for the sound and scent of the seawaves will never leave me.

Elizabeth Scott Tervo is a native of Boston and her publications include Eve in the Time Machine, a poetry collection (Basilian Media, 2023), and “The Sun Does Not Shine Without You”, a memoir, published in the republic of Georgia (Azri 2021). Her poetry and stories have appeared in Ruminate and the New Haven Review, among others, and won a prize at Inscape. She is the coordinator of the Doxacon Writers Group for speculative literature and Christianity.

Elizabeth’s poem “No Distance” was featured in Summer Solstice: Life Expectancy and short story “Aphrodite in the Forest, My Lady Aphrodite” was featured in Winter Issue: No Man’s Land.

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