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  • October 8th, 2020


                            By Joel M. Vance


        Feathers of snow brushed the window with angel caress and the old man smiled at the peace of it.  The large flakes fell soundlessly in a still night, clean and airy messengers of a bright tomorrow.

         He sat in the sagging old leather chair that had been his since he was a bright young banker…what, a half-century ago?  First it went with the rich furnishings in his home; later it was demoted (his wife thought of it that way–he considered it a promotion) to the duck shack where he now sat.

        Not a shack, really, but a well-appointed cabin which reflected both foresight and the money to take advantage of it.  He had sensed the time would come when it would be difficult and expensive to duck hunt. So he bought the cabin and the shallow lake with its wild rice and marsh grass for what then was a pretty penny, now was a song, compared to what it would cost to replace it. They’d worked on it over the years, he and his cronies.  They roofed it and paneled the inside, installed plumbing, added two bedrooms and a full bath.  Now he was the only one left.  They all were gone, even his wife who had died a year before.  And he was old and tired and there was soft snow falling.  He’d always hated involved goodbyes, preferring a wink or a tap on the arm or a quick hug.      

        He touched a tarnished trap shooting trophy, let his fingers rest on a photograph of all of them in front of the original shack.  Maybe taken the first weekend they started transforming it into a home.

        He looked at the faded stain on the carpeting, right by the large Thermopane window that faced the lake.  He remembered how it got there.  Jack Stevens was cleaning his gun one afternoon after a fruitless morning hunt.  “Good Godalmighty, would you look there!” he shouted.  As he leaped out of his chair, the gun barrel knocked over a bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent which soaked unnoticed into the new carpeting.

        All of them had raced to the window to watch as a flock of at least a hundred mallards sank into the lake, just off the point where the water was shallow.  It was a migration flight, tired and ready to spend the night.  They knew there would be a royal shoot at dawn the next morning, with the promise of more ducks moving in ahead of the glowering Canadian front that edged the horizon in black.

        Jack Stevens was the first to go.  Killed instantly in South Dakota en route to a pheasant hunt.  Hit a big rooster pheasant head-on, lost control of the car and tumbled into a deep ditch.  The highway patrol found the rooster dead in his lap and him dead in the car.

      They’d started a tradition the night they got the news.  The old man brought a bottle of Remy-Martin cognac and they ceremoniously drank it, each remembering Jack and laughing about the irony of his death.  “Hell of a note when the goddam birds start fighting back,” John Howard grumbled.

        The old man considered the cognac in the snifter in his hand.  Now forbidden, of course.  Every God damn good thing in life is bad for you.  Life is hazardous to your health.  “Here’s to you, Jack,” he said.  “And John Howard, you can stick it in your ear.”  He savored a sip of the fiery liquor, felt it burn its way down.  The pain caused him to gasp and cough.

        He squinted through the glass, relishing the lovely, rich color. The firelight filled the snifter with golden jewels.  “Fire’s going down,” he said to himself.  He smiled to himself.  “Both in me and the fireplace.  Best put on another log or two.”  Groaning, he levered himself out of the chair and hobbled toward the wood bin at the side of the old brick fireplace.  He ran his hand over one of the bricks. They’d come from the last brick street in Birch Lake, pried up to make way for an impersonal asphalt with no more character than a television commercial.  Like everything else, faceless and without character.

        He steadied himself against the fireplace, pitched a couple of oak billets on the fire and prodded at it with an old, sharp-pointed poker.  The fire spat restlessly, sparking and grumbling, and settled into a brighter, hotter flame.

        The old man straightened, feeling the pinch of his years here and there.  A keen pain in one knee.  “Fell on the goddam ice right out in front of the cabin,” he said aloud.  “Remember?”  He waited for the unseen old friends to nod.  Oh, sure, they weren’t really there.  All dead.  All but him.  But they were there in the memories he had of them, and their photos tacked here and there, most turned sepia with the years.

        “Ice skating, for God’s sake,” he snorted.  “Bunch of old fools all full of scotch on a winter night cold enough to freeze the balls off a snooker table.”  They’d been playing hockey with a beer can for a puck and dead branches for sticks and he sprinted down the ice with muzzy bravado and tripped over a forgotten duck decoy, frozen in the ice.  Landed right on that knee and the sharp agony sickened him.  Figured he’d broken it, but a half-hour and another scotch and water later he scored an impressive goal with a shot right between Fred and Harry and John Robert.

        He remembered John Robert Hansen’s funeral.  The elegiac music, far more pompous than the rotund, jolly Hansen ever had been, filled the church.  John Robert looked like a refugee from Madame Tussaud’s museum.  Whatever had been the man was gone; what remained was a joke effigy. 

        The minister prattled on and the old man remembered the time John Robert had laced the scrambled eggs with a powerful laxative.  It was a harsh, windswept morning and every duck north of Birch Lake to Canada chose that day to migrate.  They poured into the marsh in waves and one by one the cramped hunters fled to the duck shack to relieve their roiling guts while John Robert wheezed and chortled and shot ducks right and left.

        When they passed by the coffin to pay homage to the undertaker’s skill at flummery, the old man slipped a 16-gauge shell under John Robert’s stiff, cold hand.  He winked at the icon in the fancy coffin, and moved on to a different part of his life.

        “We had us a hell of a hunt that day, remember?” he asked of the frayed hearth rug.  Jet used to lie there, his flat tail whacking the floor with the sound of a splitting maul attacking a dense wood chunk. Jet now lay on the knoll above the bluebill point, amid the pines where he could see the ducks incoming from the north.  See…hell, the dog was dead.  “Maudlin, old man,” he said to himself.  “Crying over dead dogs and dead friends.  Happens when you get old and crippled up.  Can’t remember whether you went to the bathroom or not, but you remember a useless duck hunt 40 years ago.  Old man.”

        He picked up a mallard call, carved by an old game warden down in Iowa.  It was art work, and it also had built-in magic that lured ducks when no other call would.  He pursed his lips, put the call to his mouth, took a deep breath, then muttered a feeding chuckle, quiet even in the cabin, reluctant to disturb the soft silence.

        A sudden anger grabbed him.  “What is this, a God damn church!”  He limped to the door, flung it open and stepped to the porch and the cold bit instantly at him.  He put the call to his mouth and trumpeted a challenging hail call, as loud and harsh as he could make it.  “Hey, ducks!  You hear that, you sons of bitches!”

        Shivering uncontrollably, he stumbled back inside and slammed the door.  He leaned against it, weak now, his defiance drained.  “Hell with you,” he muttered to no one.  He took another ragged, deep breath and moved across the room and replaced the call on the fireplace mantle. Another sip of cognac, another gasp. 

        He touched a scarred duck decoy on the mantel, feeling the heat from the fire through his pant leg.  “Bet you don’t remember the last time you were in the water,” he said.  “Well, I do.  You and about a half dozen of your littermates were in a tow sack up on Steen Lake and Fred Corbin set you out while I got the gear into the blind. 

        “We spent two days that summer building that damn blind and didn’t shoot a half-dozen ducks out of it.  Maybe you were the one the pike pulled under.  Remember–you started bobbing around and we couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Turned out there was a hammer-handle northern tangled up in your anchor line?”  The old man backed away from the heat, and the blank eye of the decoy.

        “You probably weren’t the one anyway,” the old man muttered.  He still didn’t like the curtains, but his wife had made them. They were woman’s curtains, airy and mincing, not what the cabin called for.  But she had made them.  Doris.  She understood.  Once he had forgotten their anniversary which inconveniently fell in the middle of duck season.

        He and the boys went to the cabin and had a hell of a poker game, and getting up was the toughest thing since the Army…but the ducks were flying and the shooting was fine.  Afterward, they popped a bottle of bourbon and he came home pretty well lit.

      “Hey!” he bellowed, though Doris was only a couple of feet away.  “What a hell of a day!”  For only an instant her face showed hurt and loneliness, and then she was happy for him, excited over the ducks he’d dropped in the kitchen.  But he knew, oh, yes, he knew.  He knew because she was wearing her best dress and he remembered he’d promised to take her to the Country Club for dinner.

        “I forgot,” he said, holding her.  “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

        “It’s all right,” she said.   “We’ll do it another time.”  But they both knew another time wouldn’t be this time.  It was a small wound, quickly scabbed and healed over.  He tried to share the cabin with Doris, but she spent little time there.  Once after a party they made love in front of the flickering fire, but it was tentative and unsatisfying.  The glass-eyed decoy on the mantle glowered and the photographs on the wall were silent critics.  It was his place.  And the curtains couldn’t change that.

        Fred wasted, eaten by cancer.  It took more than a year, all of them fooling themselves, but not each other.  Fred hunted a final time, a month before he died.  They watched him uncomfortably.  He was thin as Death, and as old in the face as driftwood.  No ducks flew and no one fired.  It was a bad hunt and they all wanted so much that it be a good one for him, because they knew he would not come again.

        “Life isn’t fair,” the old man said to the rug, half-expecting to hear the answering thump of the Lab’s tail.  “He should have gotten a good hunt that day.”  As usual, they gathered the night of Fred’s funeral and killed a fifth of Jack Black and remembered the time Fred had been relieving himself when ducks suddenly appeared.  They hissed at him to hunker down and while he was squatted awkwardly, someone dropped a greenhead.  The big Lab, Penny, blasted out of the blind and clipped Fred as neatly as an NFL linebacker, plunging him face first into his own mess.

        Drunk they were remembering it, sure, but there was an emotional cathartic that had nothing to do with the liquor.  They laughed and felt the friendship flow, one to the other, and it was almost as if Fred weren’t gone forever.

        The circle of survivors grew smaller.  The night only he and Harry Olson were left, he couldn’t remember laughing, though both of them got drunk.  What he did remember was throwing the empty fifth of Jack Daniels far out into the water where its splash caused a spasm across the smooth, silvery path the moon had painted on the lake.  The cold, thin ripples looked like fear personified and he cried out in terror and fled back to the fireplace.

        When Harry died, the old man killed half a fifth and found himself weeping for the time that was gone.  Then his wife was gone as swiftly as Indian summer.  A stroke that cleaved the other half of his life from him as neatly as the stroke of a keen ax.  It was as if both halves of his life had vanished, leaving only a thin membrane of himself in the middle.  A fragile membrane, desiccating in the sharp wind of time. 

        That was twelve months before.  He could cling to Birch Lake, hobbling to the coffee shop every morning to exchange meaningless chatter with people he scarcely knew, or he could move to the one place that held his finest memories.

        He moved into the shack the day after his wife’s funeral.  What fit from their home, he installed; what didn’t he sold.  The house in town went to a couple from The Cities.  And the old man lived on, comfortably, his savings more than adequate for his needs.  And he waited to die, for what was the point of living?

        The sharp ache of his wife’s absence was less distinct in the shack.  Sometimes he could be almost happy.  Once, when an early summer wind soughed through the green wild rice shoots and rattled the loose shutter at the west side of the building, he sat on the verandah and watched a hen mallard shepherd her ducklings across the shallow bay in front of the cabin. 

        It seemed there was a continuance of life that made sense.  “Where have they all gone?” he said aloud and the alarmed hen fussed her youngsters into the concealing vegetation.  “Old fool man,” he grumbled.  “Silly old bastard.”

        But he felt emptied, as if somehow he’d been tipped up and all the lives that he shared, all the active love and friendship, had been poured out of him, leaving only an insufficient film of memories clinging to the inside.  He felt the familiar, bleak fear.

        The cognac was hot in his gut and sour acid rose from its ferment.  His bones ached, with the cold that lived with him always, with the yellowed brittleness of their years.  He was tired, so tired, and alone.

        But he hobbled slowly around the old shack, touching this icon and that.  He had a premonition.  The wind had picked up and the snow tapped more imperatively at the window.  It was as if there were someone waiting for him in the night, growing more impatient the longer he delayed.

        He stopped before a photo of the whole group of them, taken back in the 1950s.  Beginning to go to middle age, they were–some balding, some with pot guts, but still unbent by the years, not yet leaning into the invisible wind of old age.  “Silly bastards,” he murmured affectionately.  Fred had his eyes closed.  Never was known to have had a photo taken with his eyes open, though you couldn’t get him to go to bed at night.  Maybe he only closed his eyes for photographs.

        Well, it was time.

        The old man poked at the fire and put the screen in front of it. Never do to burn the house down.  He had a nephew who would inherit, no sense leaving him a pile of ashes, including those of his uncle.

        He made sure the lock was secure on the gun safe.  Bunch of goddam vultures would be in and they’d home in on an unsecured gun like flies on offal.  He felt curiously at peace.  The old fear of death was gone and he sat on the edge of the bed, tired and even sleepy, his muscles loose with fatigue.  The cognac fire, like that in the fireplace, had dulled to a comfortable glow.

        He lay back in the bed and let his eyes drift shut.  There were a few thoughts of the old days, glittering shards of duck hunts and fireside friends, of old dogs, and whispering wings creaking past overhead in the thick dark before the dawn.

        Then there was nothing.

        The sunlight was brittle against his eyes when he opened them the next morning.  He smacked at a sour apple taste in his mouth and felt the mean ache of a minor hangover.  He hadn’t died after all.

      “Goddam old fool,” he groaned, prying himself out of the bed, stiff as a victim of the rack.  He sat numbed.  Fate’s pranks at work.  He’d been so sure. 

        One way or another, there had to be an end to mourning and to fear.  And death, the easy out, had been denied him.  Maybe he’d get a Lab pup and start working it in the spring.

        “Well,” he said to whatever invisible dog was in residence today. “We go on, I guess.”  And he got up to fix breakfast and figure out what to do with his day.





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