This story was born out of an extreme exaggeration of my own experiences duck hunting with my father near Violet Canal. Looking back on them, I tried to put myself in the mind-set of my father, a recent divorcée with two sons already distant and the youngest starting to emotionally distance himself as well. That was really the whole basis for “Hunting Fowl.”
Through the character of Luke, I also attempted to pour some of my own internal struggle between my desire to spend time with my father and my desire to stop hunting, what at the time I considered our only real connecting point. With all of these pieces put together, I felt I had enough tension and conflict to make an interesting story. As a by-product, I also managed to write something personally cathartic in a way I had never really captured before.
Editor’s Note: This story contains language some readers might find offensive.
I’mma kill that boy, I swear. Luke’s sitting on the front bench of the pirogue with his chin pressed down against his chest. I can’t see it, but I know he’s playing with that damn phone.
“You got medicine to take?” I whisper to him. No need to scare off any of the ducks that might already be nearby. He shakes his head at me. “Then put that shit up.” He makes a weird grunt, the kind only kids his age can make, and puts the phone back in his pocket.
I strain as I shove the push pole into the swamp bottom and force the pirogue over a hull-checker. The kid’s too heavy for me to be doing this shit anymore. Thirteen years old and he still can’t bring himself down the canal. It’s a damn shame. He might even know how, too, if his mother let me have him more often.
I let the small boat drift to a stop and pull out a new cigarette and my lighter. I need to rest for a second and put the push pole in my armpit. I can feel my bones creaking like an old wood floor. I cup my hand to protect the flame and take a quick puff to get the smoke going. I bring my hands down to pocket the lighter, and I feel the boat jerk to one side. I grab the pole to balance myself and dig it into the mud. Luke is turned and looking at me.
“Damn it boy. Can’t you move any easier than that? You almost gave me a case of the wet ass!” I try to be stern and quiet at the same time, but the cigarette in my mouth just makes me sound like Yosemite Sam. He snaps back to how he was sitting before, but I’m ready this time. I take a long drag then push.
We hit a straight stretch of canal, and I start to relax. It’s that perfect time of day. The sun hasn’t quite come up, but there’s just enough light to see where we’re going. The ducks and teal are just starting to wake up, and I can hear them flying and quacking and splashing as they take off. Them and the frogs and the fish. They’re all I hear. Even the splosh-splash of the push pole gets lost in those sounds. For a minute I’m sixteen again. My body doesn’t hurt. My knuckles aren’t busted and cut. My hands don’t have calluses growing on the calluses. Hell, I get a good whiff of the swamp for the first time in years. I don’t have any kids, and I for damn sure haven’t been married. All is right.
“Dad?” I feel my grip tighten, and it hurts. I can’t feel the push pole, and all I can smell is smoke. I pull the cigarette butt out of my mouth and flick it into the water. “Dad?”
“What?” Luke moves his lips around all funny, but he doesn’t say anything. “Well? Come on. Spit it out,” I grumble louder than I want to. I can hear ducks flying out from behind the cattails.
Luke turns back around, rocking the pirogue some more, and I hear him mutter, “Nothing.” I shake my head and go back to the splosh-splashing of the push pole. I wish the boy would just speak up. I can’t stand all this timid shit. A grey-blue light pops into the bottom of my vision. I start to grumble, but the phone’s back in his pocket before I can even say anything. We come to the last straight away before we reach the blinds, and I try to recapture that moment one more time before we get there. It’s too late, though. That perfect moment’s passed. The sun’s up, and the birds are out of bed.
The blinds are just a few square boxes made out of 2x4s spread out across the marsh, and they aren’t much wider than you need to plop a squat down on your shell bucket. Much bigger and the ducks would notice it sticking out like a sore thumb. Ours is a bit bigger, though. I still remember when I built it. Luke mustn’t of been but about a year old. Keith was already old enough to be in his own blind, and Davy was just about there himself. I thought me and him might use it for maybe the next season, but then it would be just me and Luke once he was old enough.
I circle the blind once to place decoys, and I bring the back of the pirogue up against the island of reeds so I can step out and pull it up on shore. I tell Luke to hold on. Damn that boy’s heavy. The boat’s mostly out of the water, and Luke jumps out and heads toward the blind.
“Forgettin’ something?” I barely keep my annoyance in. Luke stares at me like a deer in headlights. “The guns, boy!” I bark. He flinches then runs back to the pirogue and takes the two shotguns off the floor. Once he’s back in the blind, I take the ice chest and shell bucket out. I put them to the side and pull the boat a last little bit out of the water then try to bend some of the reeds on the island to cover it up. I take out a new cigarette and light it. It’s one of the things I like about duck hunting: you don’t have to worry about them smelling the smoke.
The ice chest is a tiny thing, just enough room for a six pack. The shell bucket is just an old five-gallon mortar bucket I took off the job and spray painted black, brown, and green. I carry them over to the blind and lift them up for Luke to pull in. He’s playing with his phone again.
“Put that damn thing up and help me with this.” I snort like a bull with allergies, and he takes the containers from me one at a time. I climb into the blind, and I hear my bones again. No, it’s the floor. I open up the shell bucket and take out a box of shells for each of us. I tell Luke to load the guns, and while he’s doing that I dig a lanyard with an old wooden duck call out of it. The varnish is worn off from years of use, and there’s a small chip in the bottom. The damn thing’s old. My father gave it to me before the first hunt of the season the year I turned eighteen. It still works good, though.
I had wanted to do the same thing and pass it down to Keith when he reached that age, but he went and ran off as soon as he got the chance. Now he lives in Vermont with some girl he met while he was at Parris Island. His mom said the ceremony was real nice-looking. I was going to give it to Davy next, but then he decided he didn’t like spending time with his old man anymore. He got too busy prancing around on stage. It’s just as well. He would have liked using it too much. Now it falls to Luke. Of course, I’ll be surprised if his mother even lets him come five years from now. It was like pulling teeth to convince her to give him to me this weekend, even more than usual. I gave up next month’s visitation just to get a damn hunting trip in this season.
I snap the lid to the shell bucket back closed and sit down on it. Luke is finished loading the guns. “Grab me a beer before you sit down, son.” He does so, and I pull a ragged, camouflage coozie out of my back pocket. He hands me the beer and I hear my bones as he sits. I pop the top of the can and take a sip. It cools me down, and I settle in with the duck call pressing against my lips. The wood is dry, so I lick the rim once and let out a few test calls.
The first two hours pass without so much as a teal flying by the blind. Only the stray pelican lazily glides by. I look back at Luke. His eyes are glued to the floorboards of the blind. I start to get angry, but I can’t blame him. There ain’t a damn thing in the air. I wonder if I should let him try out the duck call. It’d give him something to do, and it might even scare up a few birds. Why not? It’s not like there’s a rule or something that says I have to wait until he’s eighteen. If so, I’m the one who made it so I can break it if I want. Besides, he’ll like it.
I take the lanyard off my neck and hold the duck call out toward Luke. “Why don’t you give it a few blows? I’m not getting anything to come out this way.” He looks up at me like I just spoke to him in French.
“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t want to scare off anything nearby.”
“What’re you talking about? It’s easy. Just blow.” I push my arm out further and shake the call a couple times in front of him.
“Really, Dad, it’s alright.”
“What are you scared of? It’s not going to bite you. Just try it.” I push the call into his hand and wait for him to start.
“No, I don’t want to.” He takes the call by the lanyard and tosses it back in my lap.
I grab it tight and put the string back on my neck. “Fine.”
Two beers later Luke’s chin is resting on his hand, and he thinks I can’t tell he’s texting behind his leg. He hasn’t done anything but sit just like that since the duck call, the little shit. Just then, I see a mallard start its descent a few yards away from the blind. It’s beautiful; it’s coming down on Luke’s side.
“Luke, look!” I try to be quiet, but I can’t hide my excitement. “He’s right there in front of you! Get him! Get him!” Luke looks up from his phone, confused. I lift my cheeks from the shell bucket but stay crouched so the duck doesn’t see me. “He’s gonna fly away!” Luke looks over his shoulder at the bird in the water. The duck notices me and flaps its wings to escape. Luke reaches for his gun, but it’s too late. The bird is out of range before he has a hand on it.
I stand up and look down at Luke. “God damn it, son! Is it that hard to pay the least bit of fucking attention to what’s going on around you?” I yell. I scream.
Fuck if the birds hear me. Luke just looks down at my bones and twists his foot. “Can’t you go ten fucking minutes without pasting your eyes to that piece of shit?” I snatch the phone from Luke’s hand and toss it out into the swamp. My shoulder hurts from the effort, but I don’t show it.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he cries, following his phone as far as the blind wall. He looks back at me with utter disgust, and I match his stare. “Take me home.” His voice is simmering. “Mom was right. I’m done with this.”
“Done with what? You had enough of your old man, too?” I bellow. “Gonna run back to your mom and Davy? Gonna join him at his boy bars?” I can’t see straight. I rip my hat from my head and toss it to the floor. My bones creak. We lock eyes in a staring contest, and the scowls on our faces grow deeper for each second that passes. I blink first and turn my gaze to my abandoned hat. “Go pick up the decoys. I can’t even look at you.”
Luke crawls out of the blind and stomps toward the pirogue. I hear him rustle by the reeds, and I hear the boat slide into the water. I take out my pack of cigarettes and see I only have two left. Shit. I light one up and it’s gone before I know what happened to it. I light the last one. Fuck it. I enjoy this one. It’s all I have left.
Luke starts on the second half of the decoys, coming around the left side of the blind. He might move faster if he wasn’t searching for his phone in the water as he went. Even if he found it, what use would it be? I unload his gun and put the shells back in their box. He push poles himself over to the next decoy. I notice a wood duck floating in the water just ahead of the blind. When did it get there? How hadn’t I noticed? I push the questions from my head and slowly reach for my gun. It’s staying still. I take the last drag from my cigarette and line the sight up with bird. It’s perfect; a literal sitting duck. I gently place my finger on the trigger and aim. Luke drops another decoy into the damn pirogue–he couldn’t be any fuckin’ louder if he tried. The duck goes speeding off to the left, but it stays low to the ground. I swing the barrel ‘round quick to put a lead on it. It’s heading right toward Luke. He doesn’t notice it. He can’t with his eyes stuck to his feet. I steady the barrel. It’s just ahead of him. The shot’s perfect. I squeeze the trigger.
Though originally from the Hammond area, Matt Roth spent much of his youth traveling around Louisiana before finally settling in St. Amant. A recent graduate of LSU’s creative writing program, he is excited to showcase what he’s learned outside of the classroom.