Local lore tells that a woman holding a duck in her hands will gain the favor of any man she chooses. Annabelle, a girl of only nine years, decided one day to test that lore. She left home one day and told herself that she would never come back until she had caught a duck. Because the season was late fall and Annabelle lived in the North, she would have trouble finding a duck. But as the willful girl assured herself: the more impossible the find, the more impossible the wish that would come true. For, you see, Annabelle was not interested in just any handsome farmer’s hand. She wanted to marry a prince who would sweep her off her feet and away from her dreary life.
The child wandered for many hours through the woods, only to find that she was had no idea where she was. She had never spent this long or gone so far from home, and she had almost chewed completely through the morsel of bread she had pocketed on her way out the door. At this rate, if she could not find the path back to the village, she would starve. Still, she had promised herself not to return until she had found her duck. Instead of turning back, she challenged herself by climbing a steep hill. Maybe she could find her duck if she climbed higher into the sky.
The higher Annabelle ascended the hill, the more her thirst grew. The sweat on her brow seemed to suck the spittle from her tongue. The cold winds whipped her horribly. She was ready to just lie down and sleep forever, but as she closed her eyes, she could hear a tiny trickle in the distance.
“Water!” she cried, leaping toward the source. It was a stream that fed into a great lake. The drink was chilled by the weather, but Annabelle kneeled by it and slurped greedily from cupped hands, staining the front of her dress with mud. It was the best water she had ever tasted. She sat for a while, thinking that she should go back home. Her search ended in failure and she would most likely grow up to be an old maid, or else marry that strange Jackson boy who seems to live purely off of boogies and worms. She sighed and stirred the water with her finger, causing ripples in the water. She thought about home and how angry her parents would be. A funny thing then happened to her ripples. They broke apart, ripples hitting other ripples. Annabelle looked up to see a duckling splashing the water with his beak.
“So you’re the one ruining my ripples,” she giggled. “Where’s your family?” Annabelle looked over the whole lake but could not find any other ducks. “Did you run away too?” She was a little disappointed. She had wanted a huge, uncatchable duck. But this one was so puny, she didn’t think her wish for a prince would be granted. Still, she felt compassion for the little duckling. After all, he was the same as she was. “Have some bread,” she said, crumbling the last bit of bread for him. He flapped his wings happily and ate. She laughed at the sight of him, dipping his small head into the water. To the young girl’s surprise, the duckling then leapt into her folded arms.
“Thank you,” he chirped and she almost dropped him. Instead, she stood and held him at arms length.
“You can talk!” she gasped.
“Why, yes. Every duck of noble birth is taught a little of the human tongue.” Annabelle did notice a bit of an accent, but he sounded proper enough.
“How can a duck be noble?”
“How can a person be noble? My name is Doun, heir to the throne of this kingdom you see before you.” He waved a wing that encompassed all the forests below the hill.
“Really? I mean, my name’s Annabelle,” she curtsied and blushed at her soiled garments. “I didn’t know ducks owned this land.” She looked out over the pines in wonderment. “Then that makes you—?”
She giggled. “My village has a legend that whatever girl holds a duck in her hand will marry the boy of her choosing.”
“Oh? And who did you choose?”
She blushed. “I wanted to marry a prince. I didn’t expect the duck I found to be one, though! How odd is that?”
Prince Doun cocked his head, looking as thoughtful as Annabelle supposed a duck could look. “My kingdom has another legend. These waters are sacred to my people and have a story tied to them. Will you accompany me up the stream for a ways, Annabelle? I’d like to show you something.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
And so she carried Prince Doun to what she could only describe as the beginning of the stream. Here, a fountain poured all the water that ran into the lake. It was as if this statue created the lake here. She moved closer and could see, carved out of white stone, a duck embracing a woman with his wings. Her lips connected with the tip of the duck’s beak. The source of the fountain itself was hidden behind the wings, making it seem as if the water came from the very passion of the embracing figures. It was a strange statue, but in spite of that, Annabelle could see the passion in the way the woman and the duck leaned into each other. They seemed to twist around so that the wings seemed a part of the woman and her arms were a part of the duck as well.
“Our people have a story about a woman and a duck who fell in love and turned into stone. The immortality of their love created a stream of water which made the sacred lake below. I love this place and I go to visit it whenever I feel the need to retreat from my princely duties.”
“It’s beautiful,” Annabelle said, smiling at the little bird in her hands.
“I’m glad you think so, because I think the same about you. I’d like you to marry me, Annabelle.”
“I just… what?” Annabelle nearly dropped the prince again.
“You offered the last of your bread to me, even though you are so far from your village. You are truly a kind person and would make a perfect queen.”
“Yes, but… this is all really sudden.”
“You don’t have to answer now. I can only choose a queen when I am king and not a moment before. When that time comes, I’d like you to be the one. When I come of age, I will come back for you. You can give me your answer then.” Doun hopped from Annabelle’s hands. “I will take you to the edge of my kingdom, but then we must part. If my geography lessons have taught me anything, your village is not much more than a three hour walk to the east of this hill.”
Annabelle and Doun parted with a kiss and she found herself home just as the sun was meeting the hills to the west. She sighed and walked into her home. Her mother, harsh woman that she was, beat Annabelle so hard with the girl’s own brush that the handle broke off. She was sent to bed with no supper and was told that she would have to work to pay for a new brush. Though she had never suffered such a harsh punishment, Annabelle endured it without crying for the first time in her life. As she was beaten, she thought of her charming prince and how someday he would come back for her and make her his queen.