A Fine Day for Ducks copyright: 1999, L. Jody Kuchar
It is an autumn day on the shore of the lake. It is unusually warm, the sky is cloudless and the remainder of wasps, the ones not frozen in the cold nights, are buzzing around in the sun by the back door.
Bob has lived alone for years. He used to have a dog, but Bob outlived him, so now he’s alone. Bob is not bothered by solitude, he is reclusive, preferring the nonexistence of a partner rather than be forced to consult another human being regarding the every day things of life.
Bob’s home lies on seven acres of land which has several “out buildings” on it and is bordered by the big bay. The land is on limestone cliffs that are a few feet above the water line. There is a fine view of the water.
The bay produces it’s own weather systems; Bob is out taking advantage of the fine day. He is trenching holes in his yard with his “dig it” truck. There is no apparent reason for tearing up his once flowering garden, but Bob thinks he is keeping himself busy with various tasks that need to be done on his property.
Instead of a neat, cozy home, Bob has been collecting things for the entire time he has occupied his old school house. He had been doing some renovation inside, and in the dead of winter he still busies himself with laying hardwood floors or sanding down wooden cabinetry.
The schoolhouse has a basement, a main floor and an attic. Each nook and cranny of the basement and the attic is filled to the brim with stuff which Bob has salvaged. There are shadowy shapes of carved wood, wooden animals, ship mascots, birdcages, school desks, paneling, planking, unconnected metal air ducts, tools, electronics, glass. There is scientific equipment, an old furnace, wooden workman's horses, a large dog kennel. There are dead and dried up plants, stained glass windows, pieces of conveyer belts, jars of nuts and bolts and hardware. There are clothes piled up in various corners, perhaps they have been there for years. Perhaps they were once bedding for the now deceased dog. It is obvious that they are no longer used as clothing by Bob.
At noon, Bob turns off the dig - it and heads for one of his odd assortment of vehicles parked around the property. He gets into an old pick up truck and heads for the local bar where they serve greasy burgers, frozen pizzas and cold beer. Bob is hungry and really thirsty.
The bar is old and smells like stale beer, sweat, cigarettes and rotting wood. The tourists do not frequent this bar, only the locals come in here. The bar tender is an extremely overweight woman named Sue. Sue has been a widow now for two years. It is rumored on the peninsula that she was the death of her husband. The couple had been known locally as Jack Spratt and his wife. Sue, is slow moving, it takes a lot of energy to move her bulk from one end of the bar to the other.
Eventually Bob gets his burger and cold beer and sits to watch reruns of Mayberry RFD with the other bar patrons.
Sue pours a cold draft and asks Bob, “See any birds Bob?”
“Ducks are sure thick on the bay today”, says an old guy at the other end of the bar.
“Yep, and I’m getting impatient for morning”, injects another stool warming patron.
“Doing some hunting this year Ed?” asks Bob.
“Hoping for a few for the holiday, the wife says she's ordering a turkey though in case the hunting’s like it was last year”, says Ed who looks like he could use a few turkeys to pad out his meager frame.
“Wanna go out with us tomorrow?” Ed asks Bob.
“Oh, I don’t think so Ed, gotta keep on with the dig it, need those trenches ready for spring” Bob replies as he sips his beer, then wipes his mouth before biting into the burger.
“What's the trenches for Bob?”, Ed’s companions eyes come alive at the suggestion of some information other than what's being offered on Mayberry RFD.
“Hoping to lay in some pipe to keep the back 2 acres from flooding next year.” Bob mumbles through the bite of ketsup-y burger he is chewing.
“Oughtn’t have settled on the wetlands, I’d say. Maybe you should bring in some fill to help with that. That Injun on Highway M might have some stuff you could use for fill. He’s been peeling logs for a month now. Seems to be a little late in the season for starting a new cabin.”
After mayberry and a second beer, Bob heads back to his house in the truck, barely avoiding a twelve point buck coming out of the tamarack swamp on the water side of the road. Bob has thoughts of trophy deer and venison sausage, but knows he doesn’t want another dent in the pick up truck. He swerves, misses and wishes he’d stayed for another beer.
At home the wind has picked up, the wasps have quit the sun by the door and Bob closes up some of the windows in the house before heading out for a load of wood for the furnace. Clouds are beginning to form to the west and there is a cold smell in the air. Bob drives the dig it over to the pole garage he put up last year. He puts the truck in park, opens the garage door and edges the dig it into an open spot. He turns off the dig it and pockets the key, shutting the door behind him.
The gray clouds scud over the bay, the ducks are thick and visually form a black smudge on the surface of the water. Bob takes binoculars from a shelf by the door and heads for the water’s edge. He sits on a log bench and raises the glasses to the duck smudge. There are mallards, ruffle heads, ruddy ducks and coots. There is a flock of tundra swans in the rice grass on the other side. The birds are surprising quiet for such large numbers. There is no sound but the wind on the water and the dried leaves of the birch trees on the cliff edge.
Bob doesn’t let anyone know he merely watches the birds. Bird watching is a dumb sport, usually the territory of the tourists and tree huggers that come to the peninsula. But there is a calming effect that comes over Bob as he watches the ducks and his life doesn’t seem so hard while he is sitting on the bench, in the sun, on the bay.
A couple of hours pass and it is getting darker now, Bob heads back to the house and stokes the furnace for the evening.
The next day dawns bright and cold, the bay is sparkling a many hued blue and the ducks have gathered in greater numbers. Bob does not need the binoculars to see the duck blind out on the water. “Damn floating piece of shit” he mumbles as he takes his coffee out to the log seat by the cliff.
The duck blind looks like a floating ice fishing shanty, as it very well could be. From afar, all that can be made out is some wood walls that appear to be floating across the bay.
“Dumbest thing ya ever saw” comments Bob to no one as he watches the blind motor towards the ducks. The hunter had to be up and out on the water before first light, there are decoys scattered in the general area of the blind.
Ducks are smarter than they look. These ducks seem to know all the rules of engaged hunting: as long as they remain on the water, the hunters can’t shoot at them. The blond motors closer to the dark smudge of ducks on the water, the smudge of ducks float away from the blind. It is a merry chase that seems to go on and on, Bob is delighted at the hunter’s lack of success. But sometime in the late afternoon, while Bob is busy elsewhere, the sound of gunshot echoes over the clear bay. The ducks are on the wing.
Bob stops what he is doing and grabs the binocs from the shelf and goes to the east windows. The ducks wheel and undulate in the sky, the swans have joined the flight display, the hunters are thwarted again. The swans are protected and can not be hunted. The sport is over for the day; the hunters drop the sides of the blind.
It is obvious now what the blind is constructed of. Collapsible wood siding panels are held in place by telescoping composite rods and are attached to the side of the fishing boat. There are cattails and swamp grass hanks applied to the facade of the blind. There are 2 hunters in the boat with a black dog, they are both occupied with collecting the decoys which have floated to various spots on the bay and must be retrieved before dusk. Bob laughs at the ‘floating pile of shit” and continues on with his daily chores.
Nights on the bay in late fall can be spectacular for watching the stars. If one is lucky, there is an occasional display of aurora borealis. This is one place where regardless of education, or lack of it, everyone knows what the aurora is.
Bob settles in front of his large east window in a broken chair with a beer to watch the constellation Leo move from south to north. Far to the north, there are northern lights: the earth’s curve makes them appear to be on the horizon instead of high in the sky. There are frequent flashes of light and movement of the light, but it is not going to be a great local display. Bob is, never the less, happy with the wheeling stars. After a few more beers, the fire dies down in the furnace and Bob heads for the loft in which he has built a sleeping platform in the old schoolhouse.
Bob dreams of ducks. Of ruddy ducks, mergansers, of coots and mallards. He dreams of by gone days when the bay was so thick with ducks that you could barely see the water. When you could paddle out to the wild rice grass and collect enough grain for the winter, as well as snare a duck. He wishes he had lived then, he wishes for the simplicity that he naively believes existed in those days.
When morning comes, Bob takes his coffee out to the bench and sees the same hunters on the water again. Bob wonders what compels a man to sit in a boat for ten hours on cold water in a stiff wind to hunt. Bob does not condemn hunting, but Bob feels you should hunt only when hungry. Bob has never been that hungry, so instead he just watches the ducks.
The hunters are anxious, no, desperate today. This makes sense as they went home empty handed yesterday. They are trying to spook the ducks into flight so as to have an open shot. The ducks form tighter and tighter groups which look like black bands on the water. They are agitated. The first band of ducks rise into the sky, a second band does the same but wheeling higher and heading in a tight group to the north. The second band wheels back and flies south, over the first band. There is a whirlwind of ducks. There are shots; one, two, three, four, five. “Shotgun”, thinks Bob as he watches the bird’s frenzied, whirling flight. Bob does not see any ducks fall to the water, a slow smile starts on his unshaven face.
Bob reads a lot. In the silvered light of the harvest moon, Bon stokes the furnace and curls up with Bullfinches ‘Mythology’. Secretly Bob loves Greek mythology and history. Not long ago, Bob read a book called “The Firebrand”. It was a work of fiction taking place in the city of Troy. The main character is Cassandra, cursed by Apollo to an outcast life. Bob fancies himself in love with Cassandra. His six pack finished, Bob’s head begins to nod, his chin rests on his chest, he falls asleep and dreams fiery constellation dreams.
It is still dark at 6 a.m., the clocks have not yet been turned back. The loud sound of gunfire echoes across the bay again. Bob is startled awake and almost falls out of the broken chair he has spent the night in. He gets up and winces, stretching. he is sore, a chair is not the ideal resting place. “Especially not that chair”, thinks Bob as he stumbles to the bathroom and starts the hot water running in the shower. He can still hear gunshots over the running water as he undresses and hopes for relief under the strong, hot water spray.
Shower done, Bob towels off and tosses the limp terry cloth into a corner with discarded clothing. He wanders to the loft and his closet and pulls out a wool sweater and dingy white T-shirt. he layers the T shirt and sweater, then wanders back to the hall by the bathroom for his lost jeans. He feels better now, a little steamy, but much less sore. He stokes the furnace and closes the steel door in time to hear more gun fire.
“Starting to sound like the OK corral”, Bob talks to no one but his empty house. “Maybe it’s time to see what’s going on ..”. Bob heads to the stove and puts on a pot of coffee. When the coffee is done, Bob pours a generous cup and heads outside.
There is frost on the logs in the woodpile, but the bay has held off the hardest of the frost, no doubt, on the ridge of the peninsula, there was hoar frost on the fields and leaves. The air is clear and the water blue as Bob scans the horizon for signs of the duck blinds and hunters he has been hearing all morning. As his eyes adjust to the rising sun, Bob begins to spot the blinds. Counting six, he knows this will be a noisy day.
Bob doesn’t have anything against the hunters, but he cherishes the peace of his little corner of the county. He resent s the hunters who, no doubt, carry binoculars like he does and probably can see him as well as he can see them.
Bob is an anarchist. he loves stirring the pot to see what cooks up. He wonders if there is any way to liven things up and maybe even quiet things down a bit. Bob heads for his basement.
Among the basement flotsam, Bob has a treasure. He has been saving it for the perfect thing and now he thinks he sees the beginnings of a beautiful plan. The ‘thing’ is a carousel animal. It is designed as a large white swan. It is a lovely piece and Bob brought it with him from Massachusetts when he settled on the peninsula. He had strapped it down in the bed of his pick up as he drove across the country. He had gotten plenty of odd looks from other motorists on the turnpike. But the odd looks and trouble it took to move the swan were worth it.
Bob hauls the swan from the dark corner and into the light. He circles it a couple of times, forming a mental picture of his idea. He leaves the swan and heads for another corner in the far side of the basement where he keep small engines, motors and the occasional radio control kit. It is dark in this corner too and it seems a resident spider has attempted to weave all his possessions into one large web which is essentially bare. No sign of the offending spider. Bob rummages in the dark, the sound of various metal things hitting the floor and others being dragged out and Bob’s heavy breathing are the only noises. Not even the mouses are scurrying now. Bob emerges from the corner with a box. he drops the box next to the swan. Bob checks through the box to be sure that all the parts that are needed are in it. When satisfied, Bob leaves the pile of things where they are and heads up the stairs and outside, to the garage.
The air is crisp, the gunfire is still noisy. There is no sound of ducks, it seems their energy is spent today out running the gunfire and hunters. Bob walks to the back of the garage and looks for some parts he had saved from the cherry processing plant that was torn down five years ago. He is searching for a piece of conveyer equipment. The piece Bob find is ten feet long, it is too long for his uses. Bob drags the conveyer to the table saw. He changes the blade in the saw and measures the belt, deciding to cut it off at 36 inches.
The table saw whines and sparks, Bob is deft and sure with his cutting. There is the smell of hot metal in the garage. He switches off the saw. he walks to another corner of the garage and pulls out an old trolling motor. He inspects the motor and finds that the propeller is not froze. He carries the motor and conveyer back outside and piles them by the back door to the basement.
Bob’s old wooden boat, which he has been working to restore for seven years, does not need the battery that is no longer connected to anything; Bob lifts the battery out of the well and carries it to the growing pile by the basement door.
Bob carries the diminished conveyer piece and the trolling motor and the battery, piece by heavy piece, to the basement where it joins the other things Bob has been assembling. When Bob watches television, he usually watches PBS. A few years back, he watched a program about engineering students at MIT who competed in a machine building contest. The students were given boxes of parts and were told to build a machine that would perform a particular function. The function of the machines that Bob saw built, was to pick up ping pong balls as fast as possible. Bob has always been a creative innovator. At 16, Bob was caught by the local constabulary for siphoning fuel from a rental truck with a kitchen siphon and some aquarium tubing. From then on, it was onward and upward. Bob could turn any worthless piece of junk into some kind of tool.
When Bob is certain that he has what he needs for the mechanics, he starts to mentally work on structure. He ponders his options: quick set to durability. Bob settles for quick set, if this takes too long, it could lose all semblance of fun. Bob treks to the cleaner part of the basement; the place where he has stored chemicals and fixatives and paints and primers and acrylics. he turns on an overhead light and searches for a specific can. It is marked ‘Bondo’. Bob grabs some mixing dishes, a spackle knife and some sand paper. He brings it out of the chemical room and into the middle of the basement. He returns to the main floor and picks up a floor fan. he returns to the basement.
It is 2 p.m. when Bob emerges from the basement. he has a strange smile on his face. If you didn’t know Bob, you’d wonder if he wasn’t involved in something illegal. It was just that kind of smile.
Bob leisurely strolls through he kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee. He grabs the keys to the pick up and heads outside. He starts the truck and pulls it up to the outside door of the basement. He turns off the truck, gets out, walks to the back and drops the tailgate. Bob opens the basement door and goes down the stairs with his cup of coffee.
It is quiet except for the gunfire which is still thundering across the bay. Bob wonders how much lead lies at the bottom of the clear water and the rocks from the ‘bird shot’ pellets.
There is a sound of heavy breathing, not the kind heard after a sexual tryst, but the kind that accompanies hard work. There are bumping sounds and the sound of Bob cursing. Suddenly, out of the door of the basement, aimed towards the back of the pick up, is the head of a large, white swan. It is followed by the body of a swan, which is followed by Bob, who is pushing and grunting for all he is worth.
The swan bumps up the last of the stairs and exits, in full view, into Bob’s yard. Bob stands and wipes his forehead, the swan sits and watches the bay. Bob gets his breath and surveys the swan. he hops up to the bed of the pick up and with a huge heave, he hauls the swan into the bed where it settles majestically. He takes his empty coffee cup back into the house and grabs his jacket, binoculars and a small remote control unit.
Bob gets in the truck and turns the key, the truck sputters to life. Bob backs up carefully until the pick up tailgate is inches from the cliff’s edge. He sets the emergency brake and turns off the truck. It is suddenly silent. The gunfire has for the moment stopped and the ducks are caught between the shore and the guns.
Bob drops the tailgate of the truck, steps into the bed, and hauls the swan down to the cliff edge. It is a 3 foot drop to the water. Bob secures a rope to the swans neck, grabs the free end, then pushes the swan into the bay. The swan bobs on the water, seeks it’s level and settles into a gentle sway with the waves.
Bob ties the end of the rope to a cedar tree and goes back to the cab of the truck for his binoculars and remote control unit. He sits on the lowered tailgate of the truck, satisfied that he has some cover under the trees. He reaches over the side of the truck and unties the rope from the cedar tree, and deftly shakes it lose from the neck of the swan. The swan
Bob flicks a switch on the remote unit, a small motor sound comes from the swan and for a moment the swan actually looks confused. Then it turn to the east, heading straight into the wind and motors across the bay, towards the ducks.
Bob has created the perfect duck blind. The ducks pay no attention to Bob’s swan, they have seen swans on this bay for months and it is just, after all, another swan, although larger than most. The ducks part, dark smudges swimming in opposite directions, and let the swan through. The swan sits smartly on the water and motors out to the duck blinds.
There are no sounds of gunfire. It is quiet as the swan approaches the small boats which have been disguised in various way to ‘fool’ the ducks. The swan approaches a small group of what appears to be ducks, but these ducks do not move. Bob watches through the binoculars and knows that the time is now.
He flips another switch on the remote control unit and holds his breath. Small servo motors buried in the swan’s interior opens a door in the swans breasts. The conveyer belt slides out the distance of 18 inches. The swan motors up to the unmoving ducks. The unmoving ducks touch the conveyer and begin to funnel up the conveyer where they
disappear into the swan. The black labrador dog in the blinds bark madly.
There is the sound of laughter from under the trees on the shore. There is the sound of dismay from the duck blinds.
“MY DECOYS! What the hell ...!” Bob can hear the angry hunters from his vantage on the shore. Bob is laughing so hard that he falls back into the bed of the pick up. The swan continues it’s hungry search for decoys, the hunters sit astonished in their blinds and Bob thinks to himself “This is really too easy”, as he watches the swan gobble decoys through it’s open breast.
Bob thinks of his creation as The Trojan Swan and realizes that he has created a new mythology on the big bay, on Lake Michigan.
Bob feels one step closer to Cassandra.