Stranger than a Swan by Mary E. Lowd
Eggshell cracked, and the dome of the world broke away, showing a whole other world, infinitely larger and more complicated, beyond the confines of the duckling’s natal home. It was time to lift her head—breaking the eggshell further, widening the crack in it—and then spread her wings, shaking out the scraggly, wet feathers plastered to her dimpled skin, letting them begin to dry into soft yellow down.
The duckling sat in the bottom half of her shattered egg, rump cupped by the curve of shell. She stared out at the chaos of colors and confusion of shapes, all so much more than she’d ever expected while curled into a fetal pretzel of limbs inside a perfect oblong spheroid. Her own heartbeat had been everything. Now it was merely a pinpoint, and the world was so huge it could swallow her up and never notice her at all.
Blue stretched across the horizon, blotted with sways and spikes of green around the edges, mirroring even more blue up above. More green and dark brown stretched and reached toward the higher blue. Other colors—stars of yellow and swirls of pink—dotted the various greens. It would have been peaceful, perhaps, if it were familiar. For the duckling, it was entirely new, and entirely overwhelming.
Then her bright, dark, confused, and troubled eyes landed on a shape that instantly triggered a sensation of warmth and comfort deep in her tiny, flickering breast. Her heart stuttered; her breathing slowed. And she knew this was her mother:
Purple tentacles writhed around her mother’s face, ringing her glowing, red eyes. Darker purple—almost black—feathers and spines prickled from her hunched back, and her limbs were even more tentacles, pale lavender and puckered with perfectly round sucker disks. She was beautiful. She was glorious. And she made her duckling daughter feel safe.
The duckling flapped her wings and opened her flat beak to cheep her love. Her voice came out high and strong, and the tentacled mother creature looked down, noticing the duckling for the first time.
The two beings stared at each other, bright brown eyes and glowing red eyes, sizing each other up. The duckling had nothing to compare this mother to. The tentacled creature had become, in an instant, the measure by which she would judge the rest of the world, for the rest of her life.
The tentacled creature, though, had visited many worlds in her flying saucer. She had lived for relativistic centuries, trading any semblance of a permanent life on a planet, surrounded by loved ones, for the temporary skipping of a stone across the lake of the sky. She dipped down to visit planets, see their wonders, and then move on.
Today, she had come to Earth.
Today, she looked at a brand-new, just hatched duckling, and her tentacular mouthparts twisted and curled into her species’ semblance of a smile. The duckling was adorable. A funny little thing with wet black feathers already drying into downy yellow and brown fluff. Its round head wobbled at the end of a long neck, and its eyes stared at her so steadily.
She felt, perhaps, like a human feels when a butterfly deigns to land on your hand—delicate, breakable, and yet, even if for just a moment, trusting.
The elder creature reached one of her lavender limbs down and stroked the duckling’s soft yellow neck with her puckering sucker discs. The duckling closed her eyes, shutting out the visual chaos of the world, so she could focus better on this tender expression of her mother’s love.
But the moment was a moment. Only a moment.
And then the tentacled creature moved on. Her lavender limbs pulled her across the grassy ground, back over the hill beside the lake, to where she’d parked her gleaming, silver, flying saucer. Pictures of it flying through the sky would flood social media and show up on human news shows later that day, snapped with camera apps on personal cell phones. Everyone would say they were a hoax.
And of everyone in the world, only one duckling, wordless and confused, would know who had been inside.
Two grown ducks—one brown and speckled; the other with a handsome, gleaming, green head—waddled down to the bank, followed by a gaggle of fluffy yellow and brown ducklings, just like the one still sitting in her half egg.
The ducks flapped their wings joyously at the sight of their lost egg, now a hatchling. The other ducklings mimicked their parents, flapping their stubby little wings too.
But the duckling in her half eggshell stared at the family of ducks, confused. Her mother was gone. The moment of imprinting had passed. She didn’t know who these ducks were, or why they weren’t a glorious range of purples, from sunrise lavender tentacles to royal dusk spines. They looked like her, and they would care for her. But they were not like the image of herself that she would carry in her head for the rest of her days.
An image mirroring the mother who had never been her mother.
An image that no one else would ever understand.
Mary E. Lowd is a prolific science-fiction and furry writer in Oregon. She’s had nearly 200 short stories and a dozen novels published, always with more on the way. Most of them involve spaceships, talking animals, or both. Her work has won numerous awards, and she’s been nominated for the Ursa Major Awards more than any other individual. She is also the founder and editor of Zooscape. Learn more at her website or read more stories at Deep Sky Anchor.