It Can Even Be A Bird

by Michael Mathieu

Under cover of a starless sky, we navigated toward a pond we had never hunted in before, the fringe of the horizon ripening to receive the first pale rays of Christmas Eve sun. Our destination was a duck lease in Orange Grove, a stretch of marshland behind a bygone sugar plantation on Bayou Black. There is no orange grove back there I know of, and if there ever was one, it probably died of neglect or eroded from storms.
A map drawn in pencil on notebook paper lead us down the last canal. It instructed us to run the fourteen foot McKee Craft with the outboard turning up until you reach a reflector-taped stake flashing in the spotlight where a pirogue was stashed. There was only one, the other missing, stolen perhaps or drifted off in rainwater. Down one pirogue was no matter to us. The concave, flat bottom of pirogues renders them fit for carrying heavy loads. They say pirogues draw so little water, a good one will float you across morning dew.
When I had the cane cuttings, dead palmetto branches, burlap sacks of decoys, my friend, and the shooting gear loaded and balanced in the pirogue, I stepped into the stern and poled us off the bank of cypress knees. We passed through a hollow place in the trees then down a winding ditch of low, limpid water. Freezing specks of drizzle like meteorites showered the telescoping cone of light thrown by the bulls-eye lamp strapped to my head. The ditch took us out of the marsh and onto the water of a large pond, enclosed by brown and yellow marsh clumped and bent by winter frost into shapes of shadow-like forms bowed before a taskmaster.
We crossed as a sailboat runs before the wind under bare poles, the north wind pushing on our backs, the undulating water of the pond bobbing and rising like dark brows. The grain of the wooden push pole was smooth to my bare hands. I could steer at times by dragging the V-shaped foot of the pole in the back as a rudder, leaving a trackless ribbon of wake, the cut water of the pond making pick pock bubbling sounds like trickles in a stone fountain. I needed only to poke and prod the soft mud a little here and there and let the wind do its work. Now and then I shot a glance back at the hole in the line of trees to be sure I would able to find where we tied the McKee in the canal.
The penciled map proved accurate all the way across the pond to a little marshy island in the back with the duck blind. This blind was a rectangular skeleton of two-by-fours wrapped with chicken wire to attach the roseau cane and palmetto cuttings to. We set the decoys in a natural but unnatural semicircle, tossing them out like beads at Mardi Gras, then dressed the blind with the brownish cane and dwarf palmetto cuttings. At last we pulled the green pirogue in, closing the open end of the blind with the rest of the dead vegetation. It looked as natural as we could get it, trying to blend our small spot into their world. The ducks we get have been shot at all the way down the corridor of the Mississippi Flyway from the Michigan and Wisconsin area, roughly over the states of the Mississippi River Valley, and into the marshes and swamps.
Inside the cover of the blind, we stayed low, sitting on shell buckets and slipping shells into shotguns. You can start shooting thirty minutes before official sunrise. We turned open ears to the blowing north wind conducting its cacophony for the morning twilights: nutria calls and bird languages; coot wings beating air and splashing water; cackling mallards and peeping pintail, at ease in their oilskins.
“Pintail,” I murmured and blew into the whistling call hung around my neck. You can tell pintail by the long point at its end and the way they curl the ends of their wings. The flock broke from their circling pattern in the ashen light. Silhouetted against the hoary sky, the pintails dropped into the killing zone, wings cupped, slamming the brakes, beating white breasts against the wind.
“Take ‘em.”
It was Patrick’s first pintail.
Energized by the cold front, the ducks flew in bursts. We swung and pulled on pintails, gray ducks, blacks, mallards, widgeons, teal—males and females. No exotics, but a good bag of birds. We traded shotguns, each testing and approving the others’, my Ithaca 20 gauge to Patrick’s Remington 12. Most of our kill was blowing off, vanished in the pond chop or pushed by growing gusts of wind back into the marsh. I thought I saw their dark crumpled forms freezing and sinking. Twice we separately left the blind to pole the marsh, trying to collect dead ducks, a pintail for Patrick to mount. The bottom of the pirogue sheeted with ice, and we got out and shot standing in ice mud. We had to breakdown our shotguns and dump solvent and gun oil on the mechanisms to thwart the ice from jamming and misfiring the guns, making them smoke black. Decoys iced askew flaring off the circling flocks. Drizzle flurried. Droplets froze on ends of roseau cane as little moments stilled in time. Beads streamed down the fans of dead dwarf palmettos lining the blind, transmuting into trails of frozen tears. The gray vaulted sky turned empty but for scuds.
The ducks grounded themselves early, it seemed. I scanned the pond, observing a few scattered islands of marsh, floatons, and mentally mapped a tacking course across. I planned to use them all I could to break some of the headwind and cross in a zig zag pattern as sailboats do to run against the wind. We busted the sheets of ice from the bottom of the pirogue and shoved off from the blind between outbursts of wind.
Patrick spotted a dead male pintail tangled in pond weed. The males we collected earlier were shot full of big holes or muddied and stepped on. He wanted a pristine bird to bring to the taxidermist, and I wanted him to have it. Ultimately, it was what we came for. I poled over to it, a bit off course, and drove the push pole into the mud. He reached out and grabbed the bird and held him up. A forty-knot burst of freezing wind slammed into us like a freight train. I dug the pole further into the mud, leaning hard. The wind blew harder, the wooden push pole bowing and bowing until it snapped, and into the water we went.
I shot to my feet like a released spring. Patrick was trudging after the shotguns floating off in their cases. I emptied the pirogue and called after him, ending up nearer the blind in shallower water. We got back in the little open boat, and I tried poling from the stern with half of the splintered pole and Patrick paddling. But the force of the wind spun the pirogue, pitching us back into the pond. The shell buckets bobbed off in the chop, drifting away fast. They were far off, it seemed, and I let them go.
I stood there in pudding pond bottom in the white winter light with the water lapping belly high, affected like a man who minutes ago had been convinced of his own innocence and was now hearing the verdict. Nothing more than ants in a puddle. Something in my head automatically wound up a mute, acute hypothermic clock. The dark-pitch water of the pond, white-capped by the wind, stretched far out in front of us. Every moment the pond was stealing the insulating properties from my clothing.
We started trekking through the soft mud and vegetation, groping the pirogue for balance, stepping crab-wise and in sync, facing each other. A twenty, thirty, and at times forty-plus knot wind cut at our life threads and sooner or later we knew, as the heavy sword of Damocles hangs by a hair, we would drop. There were holes and depressions and logs on the bottom of the pond. I was uneasy about possible entanglements. We sensed our way along the bottom, trying to use our numb, booted feet as the antennae of crustaceans. If one of us got snagged or jammed, the other would have to dive down and free him, soaking and freezing his hair which would accelerate his hypothermia. Eyeballing the hollow in the trees across the dark pond and yellow marsh seemed like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I told myself not to look at it, to remember when you get to the canal, the way home is to the left with your back to the lease.
Patrick kept sinking and sticking in mud. He wanted me to go for help and leave him on a bare little island to build a fire with the waterproof matches that were probably not that waterproof. If I left him there he would freeze as solid as stone, I told him. Already, feathery hoarfrost covered our jackets. Organs betrayed extremities in lust for blood. The shivering irritated me for a while, became not so bad, and then it stopped. Keep moving and home is to the left were thoughts I kept spinning inside my head: stay together, heads dry, eyes down, and balance yourself with the pirogue.
Every now and then, the wind carried buzzing sounds of outboards bee-lining for home to hot gumbos, cold beer, and the Sun Bowl. Through the hollow in the trees, we saw hunters on the other side of the canal scurrying, ants loading into a caramel-colored boxy boat. Patrick started firing shots and flailing, muted to little more than a scream in space.
Leaving the water of the pond, we had to cross a stretch of foul mud. The north wind had pushed the water out of the front of the pond, draining it as a falling tide, and leaving in its wake a limbo of black mud neither land nor water. Any relief from leaving the pond was overshadowed by even colder wind and air. Right off, we both got stuck, sunk in primeval muck up to our waists. By linking forearms and rocking and wiggling, we broke the powerful suction hold, in the end pulling each other out after much difficulty. A process of becoming stuck with one pulling the other out repeated for a time, retarding progress, losing time until it dawned I was light enough to crawl through the reptilian slime if I removed my hip boots. They were cumbersome death traps full of mud and water and worsening the grip of the suction force. To bar temptation to retrieve them, I pitched the boots as far off as I could without looking where they landed. My double-socked feet had lost all sensation, as numb as though shot up with massive doses of lidocaine.
Patrick was a big strong fellow, over six feet tall, but too heavy to cross. Sometimes we could walk on the pirogue to cross bad spots, but not always. At no more than 160 pounds, I could get through marsh that he could not and pull him in the pirogue as he could pull me out if I got stuck.
At first I wrapped the yellow rope around my bare hand and pulled and lunged forward any way I could; I felt no pressure or pain. I had lost my gloves along with a lighter in the shell bucket that drifted away in the pond. My hands and body were so numb that when the rope loosed and dropped from my chafed hand, I continued forward in numbed oblivion, pulling nothing, fighting the mud for every step, and Patrick calling out thinking I was going off on my own.
After that, I half-hitched the yellow rope around my waist, crawling and clawing through the bad places. To keep going at times, I thought of myself as an Alaskan sled dog, as in The Call of the Wild, my friend lashing me with his tongue when I paused for breath. Whenever he grew quiet, I looked back to see if he had drifted unconscious. I told him to keep talking, to tell jokes so I would know. Then after a while, his jokes and even my jokes became too funny, and I knew it was the cold. I wondered once, twice, is today to be the day of the Lord for me? Is this happening to anybody else? The monolithic sky hung like a blank and argent stone. No more buzzing came from the canal, just the occasional mocking sound of zooming teal and late-flying mallards beating air like winged Furies.
After a while, we came to a boggy mire of dead vegetation, a place riddled with sinkholes covered with matter that looked like thick algae. The sinkholes were as dense and as bottomless as the quicksand you see in old movies. South Louisiana hunters know them on sight and avoid them all they can. My mind was awash with thoughts of nature’s awful and awesome ability to throw a man one curveball after another. Always with a different spin. We were caught up in the webbed vulturism of the earth; nature’s trodden worm was turning to us. The decomposing detritus, fed upon by omnipresent billions of microorganisms, reeked of smells like methane and rotten eggs, or sulfur. Hemingway said it in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—for me it was turning true—death’s breath is a stinking bastard and can be anything. It can even come as a bird.
At last I found the winding impression of black shiny mud in the drained ditch. Still dragging my human cargo, I followed it like the trail of some preternatural snail. Closer to the trees, the marsh solidified. I slipped the rope, and Patrick walked. We passed through the hollow in the trees to the promised land of the boat we had arrived in before dawn, which now seemed like a lifeboat. When I stepped on the fiberglass deck, I collapsed in a heap like a sheet of glacial ice.
In vain, I strained to make my hands work and turn the key. They were frozen into claws. I beat my hands on the dash, but it was no good, the feeling had left and was not coming back. I told Patrick he would have to start it, that my hands wouldn’t work. The cold came crashing in on me now that I was stopped. I was thinking we could walk the bank if the marsh let us, and that I thought I remembered seeing a houseboat on the way in that morning. I did not want to stay there, slow-freezing and stuck like a pair of bugs in amber, leaving my fate to chance. As long as I kept moving, I believed, as did Jack London’s man in “To Build a Fire,” that blood would circulate to my core, and I could not die.
He got the engine started, somehow, but the McKee was bogged in mud, Patrick revving the Evinrude in forward and reverse and tilting the outboard upward, trying to get her loose. The hot engine alarm began klaxon-blaring. The water in the canal was low and running out hard in brown current.
“You have to go overboard and push,” Patrick said.
I went over mechanically, sinking in mud that seemed warm, pushing and pushing hard as he throttled the outboard, mud geysering. The boat broke free, and he pulled me back in as we began spinning down the canal like a wind-driven Tibetan wheel. I pointed a curled hand in the direction leading back to the launch, described the way back, then reached across him and pushed the throttle all the way. The wake was mud, and I sat in the bow to try to keep the prop out of the bottom.
With the boat running hard on the wind, driving color from my world, pushing the wind chill farther, my lights dimmed, as though the moon fronted the sun. I hollered not to slow down, and he wanted to know if we were going the right direction. The deep cold wrapped my core like a pallid squid boring its beak in to deliver a drip of black anesthetic.
“There should be a houseboat ahead,” I said. “We should stop there.” Time was crawling, and he asked if I was sure, and I said yes, then maybe not, and I think so.
The first evanescent waves of sleep shimmered as a flame flickers in wind; the Alice blue deck became as inviting as a quilt. If you lay down in it, it will be as squeezing a trigger, I told myself. It was all as painless as an anesthetic. Shadowy dots vibrated in the air, and the world turned monochrome. You imagined it, I began to chastise myself; you made it up to be how you wished it to be, there’s no houseboat.
And then, like a remembrance of something long forgotten, a houseboat appeared from around a bend, and a boy and an old man opened the door and let us in.