By Troy Sweeney
Our historic Wabash River is out of its banks and flowing through a picked cornfield. The translucent blue of a single-digit dawn creeps westward into a deep sky of star-pierced obsidian. Five of us huddle in thigh-deep water next to tall timber, celebrating conditions not often seen in our corner of southern Indiana. With the main channel behind us we face six mallard decoys treading lifelike in the flooded field. Farther out, ice, the thickness of homemade peanut brittle, spans a quarter-mile to the levee.
Whirling columns of moisture are summoned from the river by the dry, vacuous cold. They tarry amongst the trees, brush and grasses, converting a world of dull winter gray to glittering frosted white. Above the lofty vapor, wingbeats and quacks intensify, quickening our heart-rates. We hit the calls and groups of ten and twenty respond eagerly, descending into range—locked down. We are blessed, immersed in the essence of winter, graciously rewarded for resisting the seduction of a warm bed.
At legal time we unleash and at this rate limits will be had almost too quickly. With two cleanly killed greenheads in my bag the next pass puts a gadwall hen in my zone. My swing folds her and she hits the water, head up. I shoot again. She dives and reappears further out, near the ice. One more quick, ineffective follow-up and she rides low in the water, reaching the ice. Reloading, I plow forward, my legs churning as the water shallows and the mud deepens. At forty yards I stop, shoot, and shoot again. She crawls up onto the ice and drags herself further from my futility.
“Close the damn distance,” I growl to myself. Pushing hard, I drive forward—plowing into the ice, struggling for balance. The hen matches my progress, dragging on. Take a breath, aim, shoot—she drags on. I reload and bust forward. My lungs are now on fire as the ice thickens. My knees become icebreakers—bringing down all my weight, cracking yard-wide sheets then shoving them out of my path. The hen sustains the range. No more shooting, I will not fire another round until I close this infernal distance.
With lungs and limbs burning I sling the useless shotgun across my shoulder and trudge on, craving a rifle. I am nearly spent and must stop to rest. The hen stops. I watch her and am flooded with pity, a lone cripple struggling on a vast sheet of barrenness. We are suspended, unable to go any farther, me struggling to regain strength, she struggling to keep life. With wings sprawled weakly, she watches me watching her, then slowly, gently lays her head down on the ice. The tension in her feathered form dissipates. The northern gusts burn my sweat-soaked face.
Two hundred yards behind me, in another world, I hear the guys working another group. I don’t bother to turn and look. I am too far removed, exiled. The guns open up. At this moment I want nothing to do with any of it. I have forty more yards of ice to break and a morass of conflicting feelings to sort. So I take my time—time to ponder the great paradox that all life feeds on death.
She is warm, the embodiment of grace. I will not breast her out. I will pluck and consume every bit of her in reverence. And I will do even more to conserve and protect the habitat that supports her kind. There is no greater commemoration.
I turn and face the spread. More ducks are working, careening and descending with that hypnotic finesse that never fails to awe. I will make peace with my hunting soul. I already have. I will kill again. But it will be tempered with even greater resolve to do it as cleanly and quickly as I can. That is my obligation as a human being. It is the sacred oath of this hunter, renewed and deepened through a struggle across the ice.