By Will Sheets
Thick patches of straw-colored grass flank both sides of the trail. They stretch out like the hands of beggars, pleading with the sun to rise and dispel the cold of the dark winter morning. I might have joined them had I not been trying to keep up with my father.
I lean forward to put more effort into my steps, the suspenders of my rubber waders digging into my shoulders. My feet sink into the dew-softened prairie with each step, and we’re only half way through the hike toward the hunting blind – at least I hope half way. The air slices across my nose and cheeks like a whip, and each breath I take burns my throat, leaving it raw. Hunching over to catch my wind, I wiggle my toes inside the rubber. I can feel my sweat soaking the thin inner layer of wool socks I’m wearing, causing them to stick to my feet.
“How much further?” I whine to my father’s back. Waddling alongside our hunting guide, he pauses and turns awkwardly in his own waders to look back at me. He tries to hoist the carrying straps of our cloth gun cases to his shoulder, but they just slide down the sleeve of his puffy nylon ski jacket, landing awkwardly in the crook of his elbow. “Do you need to take a break?” he asks, masking his agitation. His face is shrouded, but I can picture his eyebrows rising, his forehead wrinkling around them the way it always does when he asks me a question I’m not supposed to answer. “We’re almost there,” he says. “Come on.”
I sigh, roll my eyes and lean forward. He waits for me to resume walking, but I wait for him to start. Waddling as he turns, my father tries again to hoist the guns over his shoulder before he continues. Again they slide down his arm, exasperating him as much as my whining.
The sun is just peaking over the horizon as we reach our hunting blind, its rays illuminating the river we have been following. I take a moment to absorb my surroundings, letting the quiet rustle of the grass along the riverbank wash away the annoyance and anxiety I have built up along the trail.
The stillness sweeps over me, a feeling that has drawn me back to the Great Outdoors since we first became acquainted in my childhood. My family often went camping before my mother had enough of the raccoons, mosquitoes, spiders, rain and cold, and our camping adventures collapsed like one of our old tents in a storm. But my love of morning sunlight shining through a canopy of trees, the soft crackling of an evening campfire, the cool breeze caressing my face as I fished murky brown lakes still held me in thrall.
During visits to my grandmother in Oklahoma, my brother and I would explore the acres of pasture and forest surrounding her home. We would climb the hay-bales stacked in small pyramids and shout “I’M KING OF THE WORLD!”
On cub scout camp-outs my den mates and I ran through the woods like the castaway children in Lord of the Flies. We scaled towering pines, set up secret bases and plotted raids against other dens in our cub scout pack. We fought duels with sticks whittled naked by key-chain pocket knives. Neither our teachers nor parents knew of our clandestine kingdom in the woods.
At the end of our campouts we made sure to leave no trace of our presence in our secret hideaway. Moaning and groaning, my peers and I spent hours picking up every plastic water bottle and every scrap of toilet paper, often leaving our campsite cleaner than when we arrived. It was my way of paying a debt I owed to the wilderness. It had sheltered me, let me run free and enjoy what it hid from the rest of the world. Picking up after myself was the least I could do.
These memories of the wild are what have drawn me out this winter morning a week before Thanksgiving to go hunting with my father.
I look down at what our guide had been referring to all morning as a hunting blind, a mere muddy trench with wooden boards laid inside. The grass has been trimmed and arranged to camouflage the blind from the river. My father steps down into the trench and sits on the edge and begins taking our guns out of the carrying cases. Eager to finally hold the shotgun he has borrowed from my uncle, I follow his example, sliding an overturned plastic bucket out of the way with my foot and plopping down between my father and the guide.
My father explains how to load and unload the single chamber. “Make sure you don’t point it at us,” he says and he hands it over to me, unloaded, along with a handful of red plastic shells. The gun is heavier than I imagined. I practice aiming at the sky, where the ducks will supposedly fly past, my arms straining to support the gun barrel.
“Here,” my father says, his voice muffled by the thick wad of chewing tobacco he has stuffed into his cheek. Leaning over, he grabs my left arm and right shoulder. “Tuck the stock into your shoulder like this, not into your bicep.”
We wait. I sit on the edge of our trench, looking through the spaces in the grass toward the river, and let the stillness envelop me again.
Suddenly the black lab, which has been lying nearby, stands up wagging his tail. The guide also stands and pulls a small wooden duck call from inside his jacket. Cupping his hands over it, he blows three short squawks that sound oddly like a squeaky hinge. Waiting, listening, he takes another breath and blows another burst of the annoying sound. He repeats two or three times and then sits down.
Soon his efforts are rewarded. A chorus of squeaking bounces across the horizon. As the noise draws closer we load our guns.
The racket goes on for what seems like hours before the flock comes into sight, at first just black specks on the horizon, then ever more detailed until I can make out the deep green of their heads.
They pass in front of us, and my father and the guide raise their guns. I quickly jam a pair of earplugs into my ears, tuck the stock of my shotgun into my shoulder, click off the safety and aim. They beat their wings rapidly, swimming through the air with a grace betrayed only by their furious squeaking. For a moment I sit there just looking at them, my finger resting on the trigger. That old stillness begins to envelop me once again.
A muffled BANG erupts from my left, where my father is sitting. The ducks fall silent, and a lifeless body plummets into the river. As the duck begins to fall, the lab springs into action, bounding through the grass and into the cold river.
Any sense of stillness is gone. Eager to score my own prize, I don’t think. I just shoot.
One of the birds stops flapping, its wing bent at an awkward angle. It begins spiraling through the air like a top and falls into the river.
“Nice shot,” my father coos approvingly.
I wait for the lab to bring back my duck. After a few minutes the dog emerges from the water, the bird’s long, slender neck clamped in his mouth. He drops the bird into the grass, retreats to his resting spot and lies down. I turn to get a closer look at what I have killed.
I had expected a sense of triumph or accomplishment to well up in my chest, but nothing comes. The eyes are without pupils, deep and black like tiny beads. I can’t get rid of the feeling they are staring at me, accusing me of betraying my principle of never leaving a trace of my presence in nature.
Then the bird begins to move, rotating its good wing in an attempt to fly. I open my mouth but no words come out. It was supposed to be dead.
As I sit there staring at the mallard, which is now struggling to survive, a memory comes to me, of something that had happened five years before.
Eager to try out the BB gun I had gotten for Christmas, my father and I rode our bikes to a grassy ditch that separated our suburban neighborhood from another. The plan had been to shoot just at grass and air. But I had spotted a small bird perched on the wooden fence separating the overgrown ditch from the trim backyards on the other side. Eager to test my aim and fully expecting to miss, I lined up the sights and fired. Looking at where the bird had been, I realized I had closed my eyes and lost sight of the tiny thing. I assumed it had flown off. Then my father placed his hand on my shoulder and pointed to the base of the fence.
“It’s still alive,” he spoke into my ear.
I stood there, staring as the small bird attempted to stand after being hit in the wing. I wondered, had I made a mistake? I hadn’t meant to hit it, or at least hadn’t been trying. Guilt washed over me as. I had harmed another living thing. Would my father punish me?
“It’s in pain,” he said. “You need to put it out of its misery.”
I hesitated, and he took the BB gun out of my hand, pumped the lever once, and walked to the fence. The rifle was stick-like in his thick, hairy arms, and he held it in one hand like an oversized pistol. Placing the barrel against the bird’s head he fired.
Now, I return to reality and to the mallard flopping in the straw-colored grass in front of me. “It’s alive,” I finally say.
The guide, surprised at first, turns and picks up the duck. Gripping its body between his hands like a football, he lifts it over the plastic bucket resting in the muddy trench. Goosebumps shoot up my back like an electric current, I stare into the duck’s eyes and it stares back.
THUNK...THUNK, THUNK...THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
The guide is pounding the duck’s head against the bucket like some kind of demented drummer. Staring silently, something inside tells me what I’m seeing is wrong. I look at my father, trying to make eye contact, expecting him to step in. Instead he spits his tobacco into a cup. The guide pauses, resting the duck’s head against the plastic bucket. I stare into its eyes again, and again it stares back. Again it attempts to move, and the guide resumes his onslaught.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK, THUNK –
- CRACK! Like chalk breaking in half. Blood seeps out of the shattered head. The guide sets the lifeless body on the bucket. Its eyes continue to stare. Nature’s stillness returns.
But instead of peace and quiet, the stillness brings only guilt, accompanied by a sensation I have never felt before. Like a weight hung from my heart.
I know now what to call this feeling; it is responsibility. Before, all I have known of responsibility is from my parents: a sore ass for swearing or being grounded for bad grades. What I took from those lessons was that responsibility was something to avoid, to push onto others, or to just ignore.
Now I know responsibility cannot be avoided, pushed away, ignored. The limp figure in front of me has suffered as a result of what I have done. If I hadn’t pulled the trigger the duck would still be flying south for the winter. But I did, and it wasn’t, and I would have to live with that.