The old man and Jake were back in the truck before sunrise the next morning. The scent of gas station coffee filled the cab of the truck. The headlights retraced the gravel roads to the public lands they had visited the day before. Parking in the grassy lot, the old man slid from his truck to meet the frosty air. Jake bounded from the back seat, out into the darkness. The air was cold and heavy, each breath the man exhaled lingered visibly in front of his face like a cloud of smoke.
In the back of the truck sat a bag of plastic decoys inside of a sled. The old man took another sip of his bitter coffee. Begrudgingly, he dropped the tail gate of the truck and drug the decoys, sled and all, out into the grass. Then he rifled through the scattering of things in his back seat. Collecting himself and his equipment, he took a moment to look around. He sipped the last few ounces of the black water from his cup and decided it was time to go.
The 500 yard walk to the ponds edge reminded the old man of his age. He felt the weight of the sled with every step and stumble through the uneven landscape. He was just about ready to give up when he reached the cattails at the edge of the marsh. While gathering his thoughts and his breath, he noticed the stars. They seemed brighter than he remembered. Suddenly, he was reminded that it had been some time since he had been this far away from the glow of city street lamps. He took the night sky in, the deep purple hues fading to black, the twinkling of stars, the mere haze of the milky way seemed to rejuvenate him. He unloaded what he could from the sled and drug the decoys out into the water to be set. The lines were tangled, like they always were. The old man cursed the weights for having lost their hold on the keel and unraveling in the bag. One by one, he untangled the lines and tossed the decoys out into a friendly pattern on the water. Walking back to the bank, he found Jake sitting beside his gun and blind bag. Satisfied with his setting, there was nothing to do now but wait.
A north wind began to blow just as the sun began to warm the horizon. The old man and Jake watched as black silhouettes of ducks and geese traded back and forth over head against the shade of pink and orange twilight. Just as the last stars began to fade, the old man noted that his watch displayed the legal shooting time. He picked up his silver pigeon and loaded it with two Kent number 2 steel shot.
Jake let out a slight whine as a group of teal soared past the decoys and over the marsh grassed banks. The flock made a swing back towards the plastic ducks and locked their wings. It was as if time froze when they got within range. Each bird suspended in the air on a string, the whistling roar of their wings had stopped, the man stood and leveled his gun at the lead bird. The first shot rang out sending a green wing splashing to the water. The flocked lifted up in unison, their wings grasping for altitude with every beat. The old man’s gun found another target and the gun erupted with another loud bang. The second bird toppled down on the edge of the marsh. “Jake!”, the old man shouted, and the bird dog leapt into action. Jake made quick work of the first bird, belly up in the decoys. After he returned it to the old man’s side he sprinted around the edge of the marsh to pick up the second, which proved to be no more trouble than the first. “Two down”, the old man muttered, as the bird dog returned to his seat.
The old man held the birds in his hand admiring their plumage. Ever since he was a boy he had always been in awe of the beauty of the different duck species. The speckled chest of the teal with their cinnamon head, marked with a lustrous swipe of green. He marveled at them, thanking them for the experience and the gift they gave to him.
Half an hour passed as ducks worked in the distance trading from their resting sloughs to feeding fields. The old man and Jake sat patiently watching and waiting. Low hanging clouds began to roll in from the west, bringing with them a biting breeze. It wasn’t long before spits of snow began to fall from the heavens. It fell whimsically, melting just as it reached the ground beneath them. The old man drank in the moment.
It wasn’t long before another flock of ducks began to entertain his spread. It was mallards this time. The old man’s wooden call rang out a cadence of sweet quacks and he watched as the wings of birds settled on the bank of a turn. From a 100 yards out, down wind, the birds began to lose altitude. Each duck swaying in a side to side dance with the head on breeze. 70 yards out now and their wings began to stiffen even more, slowing their pace. 50 yards, they began to spread out wide, preparing to land. 30 yards, the old man can see their bright orange feet stretched out in front of them bracing for the impact of the water. 20 yards, The old man leaps up from his position and a shot rings out. The lead bird plops to the water. He bears down on another unsuspecting bird and sends the bottom tube. Another duck splashes down to the water beneath him. “Jake!” the old man shouts, and the old bird dog dives off the bank into the muddy water in front of them. Both birds are picked up without hesitation and the bird dog returns happily to his designated place.
The snow was beginning to stick to the muddy banks by now. The old man, content with the mornings achievements, drew a pipe from his chest pocket and packed it full of tobacco. He had trouble getting a lit match to the open end. Finally, he managed to catch a break in the wind long enough to get an ember. A puff on the stem and he was at peace with himself. The old man drew in a deep breath and his eyes followed the whirling smoke as he exhaled. It dissipated within feet and he let his inner thoughts take over.
Next month will be a year since his wife had been gone. The cancer, the chemo, the countless specialist’s appointments all seemed like a blur to him now. He still couldn’t understand how she left him so fast. It was as if one day they were working in the garden and the next she was gone. The house seemed so empty without her. The kids were all so busy with their own lives. It seemed almost pointless to cook dinner for just one person. The old man just assumed it was easier to eat out each evening. Jake didn’t mind the eating out because he usually got a share of the left overs. Each Sunday afternoon the old man would go visit her grave. He would sit a while and update her on the progress out at the farm, the local news, what hideous thing the neighbors did to their lawn and so on. Tomorrow would be Sunday, the first Sunday the old man had missed since her passing. It was 1,500 miles to her grave sight, he hoped she would look down and understand his absence.
Another group of ducks began to work..