No mention of the chickens

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In this neighborhood, my household is often referred to as ''the new lady near the end of the street,'' since I've lived here only 25 years. It was not until 10 years had passed that I began to have an understanding of the layered and intricate relationships among the families of this very large block; of the early times when their children were young; of the idiosyncrasies of all those remaining.

I also came to realize that many neighborhood controversies, over the years, involved the lady on the corner, shrill of voice and free with advice. I was glad that several houses separated us.

This spring, as we all visited over the burning barrels in the alley, I learned that the lady on the corner was angry with nearly everyone on the block for having refused to sign her petition.

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Somehow she had missed me in this effort against the Bulb Man; my part-time job is often a blessing. He possessed, she vowed, a hen and a rooster in defiance of the health authorities and we must all bring pressure to bear. She couldn't prove this, but she said the rooster awakened her once with his crowing , and this was proof enough.

No one wished to sign the petition since they considered the hen and the cock to be pets of the Bulb Man - producing pets at that, as the recipients of gifts of eggs could testify.

Matters might have grown more tense if it hadn't been for the wood duck. And that little duck still surprises me. My house is far from the river in this town; why did she choose my boulevard oak in which to hatch her eggs?

She must have been there for a month, flying in and out on the side next to the street, but I was unaware of it until I chanced to look out my upstairs window and saw people standing in knots across the street. I hurried out, and just in time. The mother duck had landed on the rim of the hole, her tail held down against the trunk, her webbed feet gripping the edge. She wasn't climbing in, just peering in. Then she whistled and flew down to the base of the tree, looking up at the hole. And that hole was 40 feet high! She continued to issue small, low whistles. We all stood frozen; I doubt anyone breathed.

I don't know how the first little duck managed to answer his mother's call unless he scrambled up to the opening by climbing on top of his brothers. When his round, downy, striped head appeared in the doorway, the mother duck whistled again and he simply launched out into space, his tiny fuzzy wings spread and his tiny webbed feet held wide. He bounced in the grass and then began gabbling to his mother.

Immediately another duckling landed and another and another. Two came to the opening at once. They certainly showed no fear about hitting that hard earth. No doubt their bones are soft, but some bounced twice before they pattered to find their mother.

The last one, the 17th, had the hardest time in reaching that high opening, for he had no one to climb on. The mother whistled again as she and the other ducklings waited. Finally, after falling back into the dark, he made it and flung himself away and down, bouncing.

The little gray wood duck whistled again and the procession started off obediently, single file, down the boulevard. That last little duck had a difficult time climbing the driveway curbs; I shook my head, sure that I must be in Boston with Robert McCloskey's beloved ''Make Way for Ducklings.''

We all followed discreetly, and a good thing, for, instead of a straight course to the river, the mother duck turned right at the corner, crossing the storm-water catch basin. Every little duckling followed and slipped through the iron grating! The mother duck turned back when she heard the chorus of chirps and anxiously paced about the basin, listening.

The men tried lifting the grating but weren't able to budge it. One man hurried home for a crowbar. Meanwhile, the lady on the corner joined us with a butterfly net, and the Bulb Man, too, arrived, just as the men succeeded in prying up the grating.

Down our lady went, on her hands and knees, groping with the butterfly net, with no success. The Bulb Man said, ''Here, Elsie, give me that.'' He took some wire from his pocket and fashioned it into a slip noose, somehow attaching it to the pole. Then he patiently fished each duckling from the smelly water as the mother duck squatted nearby.

We tried chasing her, we tried coaxing her, we tried every way to keep her from leading her flock across busy Oak Street, but with no success. Elsie finally dashed into the middle of the street, brandishing the butterfly net at the approaching trucks at one corner and the Bulb Man at the next, looking, if he had been in uniform, much like the policeman in Mr. McCloskey's book.

Some of us found sticks to ward off the neighborhood cats, trailing the little ducks. Amid screeching tires the men finally shunted the mother duck into a garage, with her brood following.

Old Mrs. Henry, from her upstairs room, decided the garage was being burgled and called the police. A good thing, too. Three squad cars arrived in time to escort the ducks, divided among them, to the creek bisecting the cemetery.

Loath to go on with our day, we all stood about, discussing the ways of ducks , the Bulb Man's clever fashioning of a wire noose, and acknowledging, as he said, ''Elsie's bringing that handy butterfly net.''

Elsie talked too, of course, to everyone. But hens and crowing cocks were never mentioned. Only ducks.

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