|The Ugly Duckling
as told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD
pp 71--76, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
|It was near the time of harvest. The old women were making green dolls from corn sheaves. The old men were
mending the blankets. The girls were embroidering their white dresses with blood-red flowers. The boys were
singing as they pitched golden hay. The women were knitting scratchy shirts for the coming winter. The men
were helping to pick and pull and cut and hoe the fruits the fields had brought forth. The wind was just beginning
to loosen the leaves a little more, and then a little more, each day. And down by the river, there was a mother
duck brooding on her next of eggs.
Everything was going as it should for this mother duck, and finally, one by one her eggs began to tremble and
shake until the shells cracked, and out staggered all her new ducklings. But there was one egg left, a very big
egg. It just sat there like a stone.
And old duck came bay and the duck mother showed off her new children. "Aren't they good-looking?" she
bragged. But the unhatched egg caught the old duck's attention and she tried to dissuade the duck mother from
sitting on that egg any longer.
"It's a turkey egg," exclaimed the old duck, "not a proper kind of egg at all. Can't get a turkey into the water, you
know." She knew, for she had tried.
But the duck mother felt that she had been sitting for such a long time, a little longer would not hurt. "I'm not
worried about that," she said, "but do you know that scoundrel father of these ducklings hasn't come to visit me
But eventually the big egg began to shudder and roll. It finally broke open, and out tumbled a big, ungainly
creature. His skin was etched with curly red and blue veins. His feet were pale purple. His eyes, transparent
The duck mother cocked her head and stretched her neck and peered at him. She couldn't help herself; she
pronounced him ugly. "Maybe it is a turkey after all," she worried. But when the ugly duckling took to the water
with the other offspring, the duck mother saw that he swam straight and true. "Yes, he's one of my own, even
though he's very peculiar in appearance. But actually, in the right light . . . he is almost handsome."
So she presented him to the other creatures in the farmyard, but before she knew it, another duck shot across
the courtyard and bit the ugly duckling right in the neck. The duck mother cried, "Stop!" But the bully sputtered,
"Well, he looks so strange and ugly. He needs to be pushed around."
And the queen duck with the red rag on her leg said, "Oh, another brood!" As though we don't have enough
mouths to feed. And that one over there, that big ugly one, well, surely, he was a mistake."
"He's not a mistake," said the duck mother. "He's going to be very strong. He just laid in the egg too
long and is yet a little misshapen. He'll straighten out though. You'll see." She groomed the ugly
duckling's feathers and licked his cowlicks.
But the others did all they could to harass the ugly duckling. They flew at him, pecked him, hissed
and screeched at him. And their torment of him grew worse as time went on. He hid, he dodged, he
zigzagged left and right, but he could not escape. The duckling was as miserable as any creature
At first his mother defended him, but then even she grew tired of it all, and exclaimed in
exasperation, "I wish you would just go away." And so the ugly duckling ran away. With most of his
feathers pulled out and looking extremely bedraggled, he ran and ran until he reached a marsh.
There he lay down at the water's edge with his neck stretched out and sipped as he could from the
water now and then.
From the rushes two ganders watched him. They were young and full of themselves. "Say there,
you ugly thing," they sniggered. "Want to come with us over to the next country? There's a gaggle of
young unmarried geese over there, just right for the choosing."
Suddenly shots rang out and the ganders fell with a thud and the marsh water ran red with their
blood. The ugly duckling dived for cover and all around were shots and smoke and dogs barking.
At last the marsh became quiet and the duckling ran and flew as far away as he could. Toward
nightfall he came to a poor hovel; the door was hanging by a thread, there were more cracks than
walls. Here lived an old raggedy woman with her uncombed cat and her cross-eyed hen. The cat
earned her keep with the old woman by catching mice. The hen earned her keep by laying eggs.
The old woman felt lucky to have found a duck. Maybe it will lay eggs, she thought, and if not,
we can kill it and eat it. So the duck stayed, but he was tormented by the cat and hen, who
asked him, "What good are you if you cannot lay and you cannot catch?"
"What I love best," sighed the duckling, "is to be 'under,' whether it is under the wide blue sky or
under the clear blue water." The cat could make no sense of being underwater and criticized the
duckling for his stupid dreams. The hen could make no sense of getting her feathers all wet, and
she made fun of the duckling too. In the end, it was clear there would be no peace for the
duckling there, so he left to see if things would be better down the road.
He came upon a pond and as he swam there it became colder and colder. A flock of creatures
flew overhead, the most beautiful he had ever seen. They cried down to him, and hearing their
sound made his heart leap and break at the same time. He cried back in a sound he had never
before made. He had never seen creatures more beautiful than they, and he never felt more
He turned and turned in the water to watch them till they flew out of sight, then he dove to the
bottom of the lake and huddled there, trembling. He was beside himself, for he felt a desperate love
for those great white birds, a love he could not understand.
A colder wind began and blew harder and harder through the days, and snow came upon frost. The
old men broke the ice in the milk pails, and the old women spun long into the night. The mothers
fed three mouths at once by candlelight and the men searched for the sheep under the white skies
at midnight. The young men went waist-deep in the snow to go to milking and the girls imagined
they saw the faces of handsome young men in the flames of the fire while they cooked. And down
at the pond nearby, the duckling had to swim faster and faster in circles to keep a place for himself
in the ice.
One morning, the duckling found himself frozen in the ice and it was then that he felt he would die. Two mallards flew down and skidded onto the ice.
They surveyed the duck. "You are ugly," they barked. "Too bad, so sad. Nothing can be done for such as you." And off they flew.
Luckily a farmer came by and freed the duckling by breaking the ice with his staff. He lifted the duckling up and tucked him under his coat and marched
home. In the farmer's house the children reached for the duckling, but he was afraid. He flew up to the rafters, making all the dust fall down into the
butter. From there he dove right into the milk pitcher, and as he struggled out all wet and woozy, he fell over into the flour barrel. The farmer's wife
chased him with her broom, and the children screamed with laughter.
The duckling flapped through the cat's door and, outside at last, lay in the snow half dead. From there he struggled on till he came to another pond,
then another house, another pond, another house, and the entire winter was spent this way, alternating between life and death.
And even so, the gentle breath of spring came again, and the old women shook out the feather beds, and the old men put away their long underwear.
New babies came in the night, while fathers paced the yard under starry skies. During daylight, the young girls put daffodils in their hair and young
men studied girls' ankles. And on a pond nearby, the water became warmer and the ugly duckling who floated there stretched his wings.
How strong and big his wings were. They lifted him high over the land. From the air he saw the orchards in their white gowns, the farmers plowing, the
young of all nature hatching, tumbling, buzzing, and swimming. Also paddling on the pond were three swans, the same beautiful creatures he had seen
the autumn before; those that caused his heart to ache. He felt pulled to join them.
What if they act like they like me, and then just as I join them, they fly away laughing? thought the duckling. But he glided down and landed on the
pond, his heart beating hard.
As soon as they saw him, the swans began to swim toward him. No doubt I am about to meet my end, thought the duckling, but if I am to be killed, then
rather by these beautiful creatures than by hunters, farm wives, or long winters. And he bowed his head to await the blows.
But, la! In the reflection in the water he saw a swan in full dress: snowy plumage, sloe eyes, and all. The ugly duckling did not at first recognize
himself, for he looked just like the beautiful strangers, just like those he had admired from afar.
And it turned out that he was one of them after all. His egg had accidentally rolled into a family of ducks. He was a swan, a glorious swan. And for the
first time, his own kind came near him and touched him gently and lovingly with their wing tips. They groomed him with their beaks and swam round
and round him in greeting.
And the children who came to feed the swans bits of bread cried out, "There's a new one." And as children of everywhere do, they ran to tell everyone.
And the old women came down to the water, unbraiding their long silver hair. And the young men cupped the deep green water in their hands and
flicked it at the young girls, who blushed like petals. The men took time away from mending just to laugh with their mates. And the old men told stories
about how war is too long and life too short.
And one by one, because of life and passion and time passing, they all danced away; the young men, the young women, all danced away. And the old
ones, the husbands, the wives, they all danced away. The children and the swans all danced away . . . leaving just us . . . and the springtime . . . and
down by the river, another mother duck begins to brood on her nest of eggs.