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.”
“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.