We waited for morning in a sad little motel filled with hunters. I lay listening to vague presences in the next room—strangers up all night playing rounds of five-card draw—until it seemed all right to dispense with the pretense of the clock and, gently, wake up my father and my son, Sean.
Pop couldn't turn himself over or sit upright right away; everything hurt and it was no use pretending otherwise. But Sean, yawning, made a clean break from his dreams, spun out of the bed and wheeled toward the bathroom. When he returned he sprawled on his bed and stuffed shotgun shells into the pockets of his field jacket. "Come on, Pop," he said. "Up and at 'em."
Pop grunted, blinked and fished for his glass of teeth, words leaking from the corner of his mouth. "You thlow down, Thawn. Take afther your damn dad. Too damn frithky firth thing like that."
I shook my head: They were both immoderate. "That was me a long time ago," I reminded Pop.
Pop fixed his teeth in place. "Not so long," he said, trying them out, his jaw working them over, the long crevices in his cheeks churning. "Where are we going to get breakfast?"
We drove through a silent and frosted darkness with the sage desert just beyond. "There's no 7-Eleven in this sage desert." All the local businesses had opened up at 4 a.m.; now they were small pools of comforting light at the verge of the lake. In the west toward the dark mountains and home, a loose band of clouds wandered along the horizon. "We'll get flurries at noon," Pop predicted. "It just might help."
At breakfast we were surrounded by hunters, all interested in eating swiftly, most of them younger than myself, though not as young as 20-year-old Sean. Pop tried to give away his pancakes three or four times before Sean took them off his hands. "You need them," Pop explained. "Eat them up. Go on, son."
"Sure I'm sure."
"Don't want half."
"You'll be hungry later."
"Take them." Pop pushed the plate away with his knife blade. "Now eat them up. Go on." He watched with pleasure as Sean, clenching the tines of his fork between his big teeth, drowned everything in warmed maple syrup.
Pop, with his pipe lit, asked the waitress to fill his thermos with sugared coffee for the day ahead. On the way out we found the foyer crammed with hunters, and in the parking lot more of them were adjusting their caps and talking to their dogs beneath the lights. "Smell that sage," I said to Sean. "It's the strongest smell you've got out here. It's everywhere."
"Some sage will live for a 150 years," Pop reflected. "Same sage Chief Joseph smelled, you're smelling now."
"Smells good," Sean said. "Let's get out into it."
I drove out on Dodson Road. To the left, desert; to the right, irrigated wheat fields; all still under a heaven of cold stars. Canoes were putting in where the road crossed the irrigation wasteway. The side lots were filled with hunters and their campers, vans, trailers, pickup trucks. A few hunters had already set off into the desert holding flashlights at their sides, the beams of light wavering on the ground as they walked. The autumn wheat had been cut, but the stubble stood high enough for birds to lie in; they would run in front of you in fields like this, refusing to put up unless they were forced to.
"A lot of grain out there," Pop noted. "Sunny weather's been good, to these wheat men." We passed a lone teal set down on a gutter pond. "They've got about an hour and a half left to do that," Sean said, swiveling to watch as we drove by.
We pulled off the road at a gate and began to parcel out the decoys. Pop couldn't seem to get his load set just right. Sean held the light for him while he made it up slowly, a burlap sack and two pack straps of manila cord, the same rigging he had employed for more than 50 hunting seasons. We picked up our weapons. I dragged low the top strand of barbed wire beside the gate, and the three of us stepped over the range fence and onto the sage desert, then followed the twin ruts of an old cattle road.
"Trail gets worse every year," Pop said. "No cattle in it anymore."
Sean said, "You don't need a trail out here, though. Just make a beeline for the wasteway."
"Trouble with that is a bee don't have to walk. He doesn't get sand in his boots."
A quarter of a mile in, Pop's load went. It sprang away from his back without warning and flopped onto the bunchgrass. We waited while he redid his knots just so, Sean impatiently gouging the sand with his bootheel and weighing the shells in his pockets with his hand. I was overdressed and heating up quickly, so I unbuttoned my jacket and took off my cap before we got going again. The three of us hiked through chickweed and Johnsongrass. The sky had already gone from black to purple when Pop pointed out the morning's first birds—a flight of mallards wheeling toward the northwest, 11 or 12 in silhouette. "They're coming in from the Potholes," he told us, following their steep dip and swerve. "Those birds are definitely looking for a place to set."
"Let's get up there," Sean said. "Come on."
He moved on ahead. Pop and I sat against the base of a sand bluff for a while.
"How's the knee? Bothering you?"
Pop rubbed the outside tendon once or twice. "Not too bad. Not yet."
We followed a ridge, conjuring everywhere the bustle of pheasants in the sage. We climbed over a black dune, worked down to a section marker, then crossed a land bridge over a cattail marsh. For years we had gotten creditable jump shooting at this spot just by splitting up and combing the shallow margins. Pop had put in plenty of good days here; I had watched him get a triple more than once. Every time I stood in this spot I recalled one especially, from 20 years ago. A flight of mallards got up in the south pond, scattering, and Pop took a left and then a right and, incredibly, a going-away. I wondered if he remembered it. Or if all the ducks, and even the upland hunting he had done, were now faded and melded together in his brain.
It was light enough to move without flashlights. Strands of honkers, flying in broken V's, moved past, a thousand feet overhead. It didn't matter how many times you witnessed them in flight—their speed, their unity of purpose, the faint but audible sound from dozens of throats, all combined to leave you with a pounding in the ribcage. Pop watched them, too, from under his packload. I could hear his heavy breathing. We traversed the last black dune side by side, slowly, and stood gazing out across the wasteway.
"There it is," Pop said. "Damn."
Marsh reeds, golden cattails, pockets of gray water as far as you could see, north and south. The sage desert, impossibly large, rolled away to the east. While we watched, a string of teal vectored in, just where we'd had our set, or decoys, for so many seasons. We heard shooting, the first shots of the day, and a teal plummeted like a ball of coal. Soon the sounds of shooting came from every quarter.
"We're a little late," I said. "It's open season."
"What happened to Sean?"
"Getting into his waders."
"Channel moves farther out every year. Deeper, too."
"We can lay our set this side of the channel, Pop. No reason to try and cross."
We scrambled out on a point of sedge and worked our waders on. Sean had laid out his things beneath a thorn willow. "Let's go," he said to us. "Come on."
I let him lead. Bunched tightly, we followed the bracken margins, hip high in water for a quarter mile or so, guns aloft, going laterally with the pull of the wasteway. You could feel it sucking hard against the backs of your waders. I watched while a pair of trout shot away, moving in tandem toward the reeds.
Pop found a dependable set—high marsh just upwind, good drift, thick bracken. We anchored the decoys at the low end, down current but well out in the open. It was belly-high work, so I did the deep wading. Pop had his pipe lit and stood in the reeds, tossing the decoys out to me; then each of us took a 20-yard stretch of of the bank and faded into the camouflage.
The first ducks came in before an hour went by. They were mallards, a group of four, wheeling across from the wheat fields, where they had fed under the stars, and skittish because all their familiar places, this day, echoed with gunshots. I beckoned them first with a feeding call—a series of low, gradual chuckles—and then with the harsh cry of hen to drake. They circled twice, wide arcs in order to cover the high reeds to the north. On the third pass all four set their wings and rode in, the wind bucking them up a bit. I saw them fluff up their breast feathers; there was some splashing confusion about the decoys.
Sean stood and took the lead bird with a close wing shot, and I took a hen going away to the left. She zagged once, then plummeted head over heels with her wings folded up, propelled away from me for a half-second, no more, by the violent thrust of the shot. The two remaining birds veered off, climbing powerfully. Sean wasted a second shell on the rear one.
"Yours is swimming," Pop called to Sean from his blind. "Go on, son. Finish what you started."
Sean took quick aim and finished the wounded drake. Sean was looking sheepish, I thought. We let the two birds drift out past the decoys until in the end they were awash against the cattails.
"Can I go and pick them up?" Sean called. "I want to see how big mine is."
"They aren't going anywhere," Pop answered. "Leave them be, why don't you?"
The battle went forth all around through midmorning. Hunters were gunning away at the high fliers, and Pop cursed them once or twice. No bird would come down in this rain of steel shot; the ducks were going to stay skittish. I tried calling in a stray set of teal, but they weren't falling for it and arced away over the bluffs.
Then at noon we got the winds Pop had promised, and suddenly, funneling low and hugging the terrain, no fewer than 30 teal passed through our set with their wings drumming the air above the water. Sean emptied his gun at them to no avail. They peeled off to the east with synchronous grace, climbing in a long bank of silhouettes, until distance erased them from sight.
"What happened?" Sean asked. "Caught me sleeping," I responded. "They were moving too fast. I never got shouldered."
"Working on my pipe," Pop called out. "Damn!"
When the air calmed down a bit, we stood out for lunch—sliced beef sandwiches, a wedge of pie each. Pop stoked up his pipe again and held his knee in his hand. The sun had come up strong over the desert—bad for hunters, pleasant for picnickers. We opened our jackets and passed the water around; it was cold and tainted with the canteen taste. Sean lit into his pie and Pop poured from the thermos. "I wonder if we shouldn't try some jump shooting," Sean said. "Maybe that'll be the ticket."
"Better not wander," Pop said, sipping the sweet coffee. "Some of these sky shooters might mistake you for a stray and try to pot you in the brush."
"There's ponds over yonder," said Sean, pointing toward the southeast. "Nobody's shooting down that way. Singles have been going in all day over there. I'll bet we get some shooting down there. I'll bet we do, Pop."
"How much?" asked Pop. "You might and you might not. But you go ahead and find out, why don't you?"
"With three of us we just might get one up."
"You can do it just as easy with two."
Sean and I tracked down a nice string of ponds to walk, and I took another mallard hen going off on the diagonal. She had trouble gaining altitude and gave me plenty of time to establish my lead and squeeze off without relying on instinct. I did it all in my head, which was satisfactory enough. She tumbled, a blur of feathers, and splashed behind the reeds. I let Sean go in to pick her up.
We walked a mile and a half of sage; there were no birds anywhere, and it seemed just as well. I could see that Sean had his eye out for ringnecks, though he knew they were impossible to flush without a bird dog.
Finally we sprawled on the highest of the black dunes. Here you could see the whole length of the wasteway glistening down toward the Saddle Mountains.
"We're not getting the shots," Sean said, lying back with his hands behind his head. "I hate a slow day. I really do."
"It's good just being out," I reminded him.
"You know something? Pop hasn't fired a shot all day."
"He's shot his share over the years, Sean."
Sean pumped a shell loose and blew sand from it. "Still...."
"He'll get a shot before the day's out," I predicted. "We all will. At twilight."
We worked the margins of the wasteway together, cutting through the bracken quietly. I remembered what Pop once said about the shallows on a busy day: Strays would hole up and refuse to bounce out unless you nearly stepped on their tailfeathers, because they had learned the hazards of flight. I figured if they flushed, it would be with the wind under them, so we split up and beat the edges with the breeze in our faces. Sure enough, a pair of pintails towered, and Sean took them both, a head-on and a going-over. It was good shooting, and he gave a shout when the birds fell, holding his 12-gauge aloft.
We brought the three birds in and retrieved our two drifters from where the current had pinned them to the reeds. Sean thrust his pintails up for Pop to see, and Pop answered by raising his pipe above his head.
Gusts came up again in the late afternoon. I stood with Pop to keep him ready, knowing he would sit on the bracken when he tired. "Where was it we got our Christmas goose?" he asked. "I believe it was down toward the reservoir from here. Just this side of those big bluffs."
"It was back that way. The twin ponds. Up underneath where the butte bulges."
The first of the blackbirds began to work now. Solitary pairings gliding after insects, then clouds of them, wave after wave, synchronized, like schools of fish. They dropped steeply, then banked, spun in a whirlwind, exploded toward the twilit heavens. Mallards began to move in flurries. A pair circled, once, twice—their arcs elongated coils—then came in from behind, so that we had to take them late, a drake and a hen dropping in from over the shoulder, two difficult going-away shots. I left the lead bird for Sean and told Pop to take the other, but he hesitated and Sean missed altogether. The spared mallards banked and whirled on an updraft, and we had no birds to show for it.
"Mark!" Sean called out. "They're starting to come out of the woodwork now."
A lone mallard hen, skimming low, nearly set down among our decoys before Sean fired at her—neatly and with the proper composure. It was a rare display of patience on his part, I thought. At any rate, he missed. The bird veered over the cattails, skimming still, before he dropped her cleanly with a long second shot.
Sean was still reloading when a group of eight began to circle the upwind reeds, turned away as if to give it up, then coiled back again, suspicious, circling twice more and then angling in uncertainly, pulling up 30 yards away and stroking hard over our blinds. I fell back in the bracken and squeezed off at a going-over hen without giving her the proper lead time, and the eight of them soon cleared gun range.
"Call them in!" Sean screamed. "Mark!"
I gave the feeding call. With the coming darkness inevitable, it seemed to me that these would be the last birds of the day. They were green-winged teal, two dozen or more, listing to the right and approaching on a low slant; a tight flock, swift in flight but apparent from far off, so that I had time to remind Pop to get shouldered and to fire when I did. Sean put two birds down, firing too quickly in succession and missing on the second shot. I took a triple with the slow deliberation I have found myself capable of in recent years.
"Nice shooting," Pop said, with his hand on my arm. "You did it just like I would have. Pretty as a picture."
In the final light I hauled out our decoys and wrapped their anchors, and my son collected the six birds still on the water. I didn't ask my father why he hadn't shot, but Sean did, with the blind ease of a boy of 20. "I don't lead so well," Pop told him. "It's just opening day. I'm a tad ragged, I guess. I can't get onto them yet."
But we had plenty of birds, 11 for the day. I let Sean carry them strung and draped over his shoulders. Pop sloshed along behind us with his burlap bag across his back and his pipe clutched between his front teeth. "Beginning to get cold," he said.
The day reversed itself; it was dark again and, freed from our waders, guns emptied of shells, we hiked back across the sage and black dunes. Sean explained to Pop how he had come by his pintails; how with the head-on, the barrel of his gun had temporarily obscured the bird from sight; how with the going-over he had swiveled and planted to take him nearly on the going-away. We could hear the chains of geese as they reeled high overhead. The blackbirds had settled in for the night. The first stars came out, and a coyote began to cry. I stopped to listen, smelling the sage. Sean left me in his boot tracks, going off with the birds over his shoulders and his flashlight broadcasting across the sagelands.
Pop limped up behind, and we sat down. "Knee," he said. I gave him my canteen. We rested in silence. "Down in there," I said, pointing below us, "are the ponds where you got that good triple jump shooting. It was the south pond in 1967, I believe."
Pop only nodded and returned the canteen. But I could see that he remembered.
"It's kid stuff to live for that sort of thing," I told him.
I had to pull him to his feet. I stayed behind him now. I watched his back, the burlap sack, the way he picked his knee up gingerly and kept the weight off his left leg as much as he could. We sat every so often. "Damn sage," Pop said. "It just sort of fills you up."
I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing. If anyone should have had words for him then, it should have been me. But I couldn't think of any.
Near the end we were hardly moving. "We're at the coot ponds," I pointed out. "It's not more than 200 yards to the fence." But we sat for a long time in the sand, saying nothing. I could see that my own son had put the headlights on. "Just a few more steps," I said to Pop. "Come on."
"You go on ahead," he answered. "I'll get there sooner or later."
"I want to just sit here for a while."
I went ahead and waited with Sean. On the truck's hood, one by one, we laid out the ducks and looked them over. The teal had buffy undertail coverts; one of the mallards had the tightest curl of tail feathers either of us had ever seen. "Not a bad opening day," Sean said. "Eleven birds. Count them."
He kept running his flashlight over them. "Meat for the table," he said. I wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but I didn't because I knew that quite soon enough he would find it out for himself.
At last Pop was at the barbed wire. "All right," he said firmly. "Let's get out of here."
He slept as we drove back across the mountains, like a baby, with his chin against his chest. Sean slept too, and I crossed Snoqualmie Pass alone, with no conversation but my thoughts. There was icy snow at about 4,000 feet, but the semis had blown it from one lane, and I followed their track over the summit with the wipers going and the defroster fan roaring in my ears. At North Bend, Pop perked up and, pipe lit again, sat with his head against the side window.
"What is it?" I said.
We crossed the floating bridge into Seattle. Sean woke up, wiped his eyes with his knuckles and looked around at the rainy streets. "We're back," he said. "Damn, Dad."
"You can't hunt every day," I said to him.
Then when I pulled up in front of Pop's apartment building I began to understand his silence. I opened up the back of the camper and hauled out the burlap sack with his waders, thermos and field jacket inside. It smelled powerfully of sage, and when I looked inside the bag I found sprigs of it he had collected for his living room.
My father didn't want to take any of the birds—didn't want to draw and pluck them, he said. I walked him inside; Pop limped away and started up the bathwater.
As I settled in the car beside my son again and turned the key in the ignition, it came to me what Pop had forgotten, or left behind, or whatever you wanted to call it. The engine hadn't caught before Sean noticed it, too. "Pop's gun," he said. "He forgot it."
I put my hand on his forearm. I almost said, "Go on and take it in to him," but I didn't. I caught myself, and the two of us drove away. My son didn't say another word.
David Guterson, duck hunter and high school teacher, lives on Bain bridge Island, Wash.