Paul Luikart

Duck Blind

Last fall I built my own duck blind on Chickamauga Lake and the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I hun­kered down in it just as the light of day seeped over the ridge. It was my favorite kind of morning—gray and cold and there was a thin fog lurk­ing in the rise and roll of the hills. Some of the oaks and sweet gum trees were still hold­ing onto their leaves even though they were browned over and long dead. I like to hear those dead leaves click in the wind. In the sum­mer, the TVA opens the dam and brings the water lev­el up for the boaters and Sea-Doo rid­ers but after Labor Day they drop it down so far that most of it, at least where I hunt, is a slop­py mud­flat. The lit­tle bit of water that still lays in the lakebed, on the shore oppo­site my blind, is only a cou­ple of feet deep at the deep­est, but that’s where the ducks fly down and sit. I fig­ured I’d aug­ment our lit­tle feast on Thanksgiving—the grand­kids were coming—and Nancy said she’d roast the fat­test one I could get right next to the turkey.

When they flew in and got locked up above me, I start­ed shoot­ing and, first shot, I winged nice big drake mal­lard. A clump of feath­ers popped from his side, lit­tle black splin­ters against the warm­ing sky. He flapped fran­ti­cal­ly before spi­ral­ing into the lakebed about sev­en­ty five yards off to the right of my blind. It’s hard to describe the feel­ing to a non-duck hunter, exact­ly how the com­bi­na­tion of sensations—the punch of the shot­gun deep in your shoul­der, the boom rolling off across the flat head­long into the hills, and espe­cial­ly the sil­hou­ette of a falling duck—makes for one, grand over­all feel­ing you could sleep on for the rest of your days. Perfection. I used to duck hunt with dogs, but I don’t do that any­more. For one, my dogs all got old and some of them are dead now and for two I like being in the blind alone—the same rea­son I don’t hunt with any­body else.

Ducks spook eas­i­ly. They’ll heel up and fly off quick if they see just a flut­ter of some­thing that doesn’t look right. Of course a good duck hunter knows this about ducks and knows how to keep him­self absolute­ly still. A real­ly good duck hunter will have fig­ured out how to look over the still water wher­ev­er he’s hunt­ing and notice the move­ments out there that the ducks notice. In oth­er words, he’s learned how to see like a duck. Well, I’d been sit­ting in my blind about a half hour, with no oth­er kills but the first one, when some­body appeared on the far shore of the lake. Just like that, no more ducks.

A man, a young man, a kid maybe. I grabbed my binoc­u­lars. He was wear­ing black sun­glass­es and sweat­pants and a white t-shirt with some­thing on the front of it, some­thing red, red let­ter­ing maybe. He’d dropped down into the lakebed off the low retain­ing wall and was strug­gling to stay on his feet. He wasn’t wear­ing boots and that was real­ly odd—the mud is knee deep in some places—but he kept stag­ger­ing for­ward. I real­ized he was com­ing right toward me. The mud sucked at his legs and he threw his arms out to his sides for bal­ance. Watching him through the binoc­u­lars, I saw he was hold­ing a knife. Not like a skin­ning knife or a fil­let knife, but a reg­u­lar chef’s knife. Any kitchen has one in the knife block on the counter. When he was about fifty yards off, I hollered at him but he didn’t say any­thing back. I saw him get his foot­ing on a sand­bar. That black mud went halfway up his sweats and the thing on his t-shirt I couldn’t make out at first was a bull’s eye. Looked like he’d drawn it on there him­self with a mag­ic mark­er. I stared.

Suddenly he was over­run­ning my posi­tion, tear­ing my blind apart, grab­bing at the sticks and pine boughs I’d tacked to the front and gen­er­al­ly hack­ing away at it with the knife. I jumped out of the blind, stepped back a cou­ple of arms’ reach­es and held my gun on him. Never, nev­er, nev­er did it cross my mind to plug him. I just want­ed to keep that knife away. I didn’t know what the hell to make of it, truth­ful­ly. I wasn’t exact­ly scared. There was just a strange, heavy, rot­ten feel­ing snaking its way up my back­bone.

What the hell’s wrong with you, son?” I hollered.

He said—said not shouted—and I’ll nev­er for­get it, “Come on, you fuck­ing red­neck.”

Redneck? Then he start­ed swing­ing the knife at me. Did he not see my gun? How’d he miss my gun? I was hold­ing it at my hip like an Old West bank rob­ber.

What an impres­sion I must have made on that lit­tle old woman who opened the door of that lit­tle old house. What in the world did she think of me—in the silence of the sec­ond or two it took me to find my voice—standing on her porch, blood up to my elbows, splat­tered on my neck and chin I’d come to see lat­er, mud slung up all over the front of my coat and waders. Her place must have been a half-mile up from the shore where my blind was. I ran the whole way.

There’s been an acci­dent,” I pant­ed, “Let me use your phone. Please.”

It didn’t take them long, not real­ly, to clear me of any wrong­do­ing. I have a friend, Len Walker, who used to inves­ti­gate crime scenes, first for the Chattanooga police and then for Hamilton County. He’s retired now, been retired for a num­ber of years, and hates to talk about his old job. But I called him up and basi­cal­ly begged him.

Rick, I don’t have that kind of pull with coun­ty any­more. Or the city. I don’t know any­body any­more. That’s on pur­pose. I aim to keep things as they are.”

I went on and described the kid any­way.

Who knows?” he said, “One of those SPCA kids? They call them eco-ter­ror­ists. You said he was wear­ing a t-shirt with a tar­get on it?”

Looked like to me,” I said.

Might be a sui­cide case.”

Suicide?”

Yeah, you know, maybe it was some kind of state­ment that meant he want­ed you to aim at him.”

I got qui­et.

But who knows. Maybe it was the t-shirt of some heavy met­al band or some­thing. Don’t lose too much sleep over it, Rick.”

I already have.”

I let the blind sit. Memorial Day, like usu­al, the TVA filled the lake back up. I some­times fished that spot too and one morn­ing in late June, I lugged my rod and tack­le through the woods to the shore. The water was like a smooth, black stone. I thought about how, when they opened the dam, the water crept in and washed my blind away. My sticks and pine boughs let­ting go of each oth­er, drift­ing off, wash­ing up in the mud, get­ting cracked in half by motor­boat hulls and water skis. Maybe the ospreys grabbed some for their nests.

A cou­ple of guys in a bass boat came trolling over the spot, wak­ing the still water with a straight slice across its back. We gave each oth­er weak lit­tle waves, just a lit­tle wag­gle of the fin­ger­tips. It’s the kind all ear­ly morn­ing men, the ones with buck or bass or duck fever give to their broth­ers. “They bit­ing?” we’d say. “How was your morn­ing?” “Not bad. Got my lim­it.” “Way to go. Have some cof­fee. Have a cold one.” Their boat whined away past, fol­low­ing the shore­line around a point to my left and they dis­ap­peared. The rip­ple that was their wake washed the toes of my boots. Little slaps, lit­tler slaps, until the water was still again.

~

Paul Luikart’s work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Hobart and Yalobusha Review among oth­ers. His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He lives with his fam­i­ly in Tennessee.