by Pete Kauffman
That year it was duck hunting, so I too went out to the post office and laid down twenty-five dollars for a federal duck stamp. It had a blue-winged teal on it, pitched forward and down and coming into a marsh. The picture had been painted by some famous painter, and I thought it was nice. I stuck it to my hunting license just above the self-description blanks where the hunter was required to tell all.
It was black dark and cold when I woke and brewed coffee. The Riley boys, those darling philosophers of the Hunt whom everyone listened to and secretly admired, said that a high-calorie breakfast built a fire in your belly, but I had no time for cracking eggs and frying bacon. Instead, I pilfered some cookies, filled the thermos, took out from the coatroom the old twenty-bore that fell apart sometimes when you shot it, and woke Pops. We drove through the black night, and he deposited me and my canoe, gun, and cookies on the vertical bank of the backwater. Good old Pops. He was not a hunter; he was so busy with the afflicted he had no time for sporting with his sons.
“When do you want me to pick you up?” he asked.
“Maybe ten,” I said.
“You’ll be all right here by yourself?”
I watched the taillights follow the field lane back up and turn east on the old road. “Damn it,” I said. (I was still toying with the hope that a good man could swear.)
Pops had given me a one-man canoe – he did not mean it as a joke – and it was as stable as adolescent emotions. The seat was fixed too far back, and the bow rode high in the water. Paddling it was a blend of athletics and abandon. This was long before I had read any Bill Mason, and I did not know there were other positions in which to paddle a canoe. I thought all decent boatmen paddled their canoes sitting down, feet flat, double stroking, so this is what I did. This canoe was all I had, but I called it my duck boat as though I had options.
In the weak light of my headlamp, I saw only December greenbrier, bare and prickly, and grape tangles. There was no accessible landing for the canoe, what with the hedge of fence and briars that paralleled the creek. I should have scouted this. Upstream a bit, I found a gap in the fence and jammed the canoe into it; then I crawled through the fence myself to pull from beneath. The winter stubble screeched on the bottom of the aluminum canoe.
Down where the water rose every spring and excoriated the vegetation, the riverbank had been cut away by ages of abrasion and rose steeply from the water, covered with a deposit of the black silt mud of the river. At the bottom, the water appeared to be only inches deep, and a veneer of fallen leaves covered this black mud – pure grease. When I placed a toe on the top of the incline, my feet came up higher than my head and my derriere came down until it was my only contact point with the earth. Otherwise, I was flying, albeit downhill, and coming in for a landing.
Behold: Consummate Nimrod.
My coat opened at the small of my back, like a scoop, and a portion of river bank packed itself around my waistline. When I stood up waving the gun which had come along down, water spilled over the tops of my boots.
The canoe was still stuck in the fence gap, so I broke open the shotgun and draped it over a root, found some toe and hand holds in the bank, and scrambled up. I gave the boat a yank. The barbed wire scraped up and over the gunnels, up the curve of the stern, then snapped free. I repeated my descent, this time glissading down backwards with the canoe acting as a moving handrail.
I washed my hands in the cold December water and cursed again. If it weren’t for them Riley boys.
They had been debating, in a public place, about whether to buy tungsten shot or just the cheaper steel. Should they buy matching choke tubes or try different ones to test performance? Ray thought it should be tungsten, since it was heavier, and they should buy a case so they would have enough for next year. Ralph thought maybe just a box or two of steel and then switch to tungsten, depending. They threw technical terms and brand names around like confetti, terms only people with money can afford to think about.
Eventually, they’d laid off the mock-up debates strutting their technical knowledge. The Riley boys’ obliging Croesus of a father had taken them to the Ohio river flats on a guided hunt to see how it was done, and they had not shot a single duck. It had been a warm year and windy; the guide said – Ralph reported – that the ducks were still loafing up in Wisconsin somewhere. After that defeat, they had come home and spread out all their decoys just so in the pond, set a blind, and tried their calls on ducks flying overhead. Still they had brought in not a duck. Aright, I had thought. I can duck hunt too. We live in America where not only aristocrats hunt.
So here I stood with wet socks, and the score was still zero. I set one foot in the center of the canoe and slid into the seat, but when I lifted the foot acting as outrigger, the canoe pivoted on its axis until the gunnel approached waterline. It appeared as though the canoe was not built to handle a complete person, but only one with a foot on solid earth.
I tried again. The canoe listed to port.
In the gloom I spied a tree limb growing horizontally over the water. With one foot on the bank, the other foot already in the canoe, and sitting on the too-far-aft seat, I one-legged the canoe down under the limb. I reached up and pulled a chin-up while I arranged the canoe under myself with my feet. Lining up for the seat, I dropped. The canoe rocked, but I was all in now and more or less in control.
I set the gun down forward on the floor between my knees and paddled furiously. It was turning light, and the day was already hinting in the east. It was a half-mile to where this backwater met the river, and there would be ducks or something of interest. Legal shooting light was not until a half-hour before sunrise, but “shooting light” to me was only something Ralph and Ray talked about. Shooting light was when I could see the bead on the end of the barrel.
A beaver was up out of the water chewing on a box elder limb, and when I came abreast of him, his eyes shone pale blue in the light of my headlamp. He put his nose down on the beaver slide and slid down the bank with ceremony. When he came into the backwater, cutting a V into the surface, he slapped his square-foot tail on the water, and it popped like a .22 rifle. The canoe rocked but not from waves.
Where the backwater met the big river, I found a stump in the seam and tied the stern to it, so I could sit in the canoe and face downriver, hovering in the calm water between the two merging waterways. Daylight. Skeletons of trees arced away to the right, scarifying a bruised sky. A lone crow jerked upriver, silent, and three minutes later a mob of crows came, gossiping and swirling and fussing. A heron croaked and lumbered off downriver.
A whistle of wings. Ducks! Three of them, and gone already. I poured a cup of coffee and drank it quickly, to warm the belly and minimize movement. The wet toes, I thought wryly, were cold.
I just heard them splash down, a pair of wood ducks, both drakes, and they must have nearly shaved my head when they came in. But there they were, swimming, not twenty feet away.
It had been at the cider pressing in October, when everyone had been standing around having a cup of their labors, that Ralph was apostrophizing the manners of a “sportsman”. Ralph was a reader and proud of it. He quoted conservationists, wilderness advocates, and whomever else he could drag into the subject at hand. This time, he had been holding forth to his hapless audience on ideas of “sportsmen, gentlemen, limits, laws, game reserves.” Among them was the Sitting Duck.
“You’ve got to give them a fighting chance. You don’t want to kill all the ducks, but just a few. You know, like Voltaire said, ‘sometimes you have to put an admiral to death to inspire the rest to fight.’ Something like that with ducks too; you have to kill one now and then to inspire the rest to stay wild. Look at these resident geese that overpopulate the city parks and poop all over and make a problem for pedestrians . . . They need some predatorial pressure, and goose health would go up, and the power-walker would be avenged.
“If a duck is good enough to land in your spread without you seeing it,” Ralph had said, sloshing his apple cider in a circle so the cider nearly broke over the rim of the cup, “he deserves to be let go. The least you can do is spook him up and shoot him when he flies off.”
And we all thought, yes, Ralph, we see you are speaking from experience.
Well. I didn’t have a decoy spread, but I did have a sitting duck. Since I didn’t have a decoy spread and was not from the type of family that could talk about “gentlemen” or “sportsmen” with a straight face, then this dictum of the Sitting Duck need not apply. At our supper table, if we had wild duck on the table, then a duck was a duck was a duck – did it taste good?
But for those boys, it was not only wild duck, but wood duck, Aix sponsa, smoked, roasted, paté, or worse. In short, it was a duck infused with all the hoity-toity philosophy of the sportsman hunter. Maybe they would quote George Bird Grinnell, or Sigurd Olson, or Aldo Leopold, to the effect that the hunt was much more than mere meat. The duck was secondary to the rest of the hunt, because the code of the hunt was more important than the kill. Any forthcoming meat would never have been shot as a sitting duck; that would have made it no more duck than pork.
So close, swimming left to right, snapping their stunning crested heads back and forth, and only withheld by an ethical distinction. I would be fair.
“Hey!” I yelled. The ducks did not fly, but only swam a little faster. I waved my gun in the air and hollered again, but they only made for the bank.
Confound it, why didn’t they fly! They were directly over the bow now and still in range. I twisted in my seat and looked down the barrel at the hindmost duck. I pulled the hammer. Could I? Sure, it was just me and the duck, and I had two or three hours to fabricate a story about how the ducks came in from downriver with legs a-dangle, and I got the back one about ten feet off the water and would have got the other one if I had a pump or a double or an autoloader, Pops!
The foremost duck was already behind a huge sycamore standing in the water. The hindmost duck was right of the bow now, and two feet from the sycamore and loss. I was right-handed, which meant I would need my left shoulder forward, and this brought into the equation the complicated reality of pivot, shoot, stay afloat, all in the next second or so.
So I pivoted, smoothly as always, and the bead hovered about the head of the duck. Then the bead rose over the target, so I lowered the muzzle. The duck was six inches from the tree now. The bead was rising again, so I lowered it again. Here was social redemption swimming, redemption only inches from damnation. I fought the bead down again.
The tendency for the gun to rise was directly proportionate to the amount my pelvis was tilting to the left, not sustainable activity in a one-man canoe. I mashed the trigger at the duck, and the shot strung out over the surface of the water, a solid foot over its head – but that is all I can tell you of that scene. What cut into my vision was the starboard gunnel of the canoe, its roll precipitated by the recoil of the shot. It was approaching vertical when I looked down my left shoulder and saw the cold, green water already breaking over the port side.
I hugged the high side of the canoe and braced my left hand out, palm down onto the surface. I loosed the gun, and it pinged on the bottom of the canoe and slid reluctantly into the water. As the water came up over my vitals, I yelped. The canoe, emptied of its contents, including the thermos of coffee, rolled upside-down, floating its underbelly like a bloated cow.
The ducks finally took to wing. I saw the pattern of water droplets on the face of the water as they departed, their wings beating a barely audible tattoo into the heavy air. I was trying to grope my booted toes under my shotgun and bring it to the surface when the ducks swung around to strafe me one more time. As they approached, they banked away, and their bellies flashed white in the gray December sky. I watched them go.
Then all was still, still as death, and I knew the rest of the story in one terrible moment. I could have predicted it then as well as I remember it now.
I clambered back into the canoe with the unorthodox but effective chin-up method, paddled back, and scrabbled up that original slippery slope where I sat on my duck boat, practicing nonchalance until Pops came. One appraising look, and he comprehended all the factors and forces that had conspired to bring this particular fifteen-year-old to this particular spot, anger catching in his throat and humiliation dripping from his face. It was not ducks that I had been hunting, and then we both knew it. He asked no questions, made no jokes. It was unbearable.
Pops turned the heater wide open in the truck, and, back home, helped me lean the canoe against the barn. I tottered to the basement, where he set me up to warm by the wood stove while I peeled off my wet clothes. He took the gun, that decrepit musket Ray or Ralph would have discarded long ago, and cleaned it for Pops felt it his duty to keep it in working condition.
When he was done, he turned, gave me a thumbs-up, and said, “You good? Coffee?”
And I did not look up, but stared into the fire, and said, “Yeah. No coffee.”
Pete Kauffman is living out his days on a woodland Kentucky farm. He likes words, especially in sentence form.