To the Open Water

JESSE HILL FORDis a Southern writer whose first story appeared in the pages of the ATLANTIC five years ago. He received his B. A. from Vanderbilt University, and his CBS television play, THE CONVERSION OF BUSTER DRUMWEIGHT,has just been published by Vanderbilt University Press.


WHEN the teal leaped from the grass it flew up so swiftly that it was already out of range by the time he fired. At the sound of the shotgun a few blackjacks put up. They rose reluctantly in the cold air and circled a moment before flying straight up channel toward the neck of the bottoms.

He quickly climbed the embankment to the road and ran to the bridge to watch the ducks. Slicing through the sky like arrows, they flew almost out of sight before they veered left, folded suddenly into a soft spiral, and went down beyond the trees.

The open water would be there, where they went down. He knew the place, a logjam island. It would be, perhaps, the only open water to be found on such a day when even the coves along the Tennessee River were frozen solid. Ice was skimming the main channel itself in places.

Even where the pale afternoon sun had shone on the windless side of the levee the air was pinching cold. Since early morning he had scouted the banks about the bottoms without venturing on the ice. Until he saw the teal he had seen only two snipe. He had killed one of them and missed the other.

He left the bridge and walked about seventy yards up the levee, then down the embankment through dead briers and dormant honeysuckle vines. The johnboat lay where he had left it, bottom upward on the bank. He stepped out on the ice.

He stamped his foot. The ice held, solid as concrete, hard as glass it seemed, too thick to break a way through it for the boat. Besides, the boat was small and of light-gauge aluminum, not meant to take the punishment of jagged, broken ice. It was made to be sculled through the bottoms on warmer days, to be ghosted along like a feather by the merest dip and twitch of the paddle, to go more quietly than man could walk or duck could fly.

He looked up. By hauling the little boat up the levee to the road he could carry it on his shoulders to the channel and put in at the bridge. He was a stout man of two hundred pounds, well used to work. Had it been morning he wouldn’t have hesitated. Time, however, was against him now. Walk fast though he might, carrying the boat, and once in the channel with it, paddle swiftly though he would, there was small chance he could reach the logjam island before sundown. By that time it would be too late to shoot, and he would have labored for nothing.

His only chance was to slide the little johnboat over the ice straight out toward the logjam island, to sled along swiftly directly to his destination, pushing the little craft ahead of him and, for safety, leaning forward over the stern as he went. In that way, should he run upon rotten ice, he would fall in the boat as it cracked through.

He had gone over the ice this way many times before, but never this late in the afternoon, never with the bottoms so silent. The freeze kept other hunters close at home or sitting beside stoves in crossroads country stores. None but the most determined, not even professional guides, would try to find open water in weather such as this, even though once it was found and reached, the shooting was beyond compare. With no other place to land, the ducks would leave when jumped, only to return again and again.

The desire to be where they were this very instant made his throat ache. Once before as he slid over the ice he had cracked through in a bad place several hundred yards out and had been forced to stay where he was until after midnight, when the bottoms froze sufficiently solid for him to walk out and drag the little boat after him. Every other time, though, he had made it to the open water. There was a line of trees marking the grave of an old road buried by the winter flood. By leaping into the boat just there, it was possible to coast off the edge of the ice into the water. He had done it with never an accident, a dozen times perhaps, all before he married. Since his marriage six years ago, he had never attempted the trick.

From the time he was ten until the day of his marriage, he had hunted every day of every duck season, every day after school, even Sundays after church, though Sunday hunting was frowned upon, He had hunted them because he loved them then with the same passionate ache in his throat that he felt now for those creatures settled there on the open water by the thousands, their wild hearts calling his own, it seemed.

Marriage had pinched him down. His wife had ambitions for the farm. It wasn’t enough to spend spring, summer, and fall riding a tractor, driving a cotton picker, loading and unloading his truck, working at times until long after nightfall, waiting five hours to get his cotton trailer under the suck at the gin. A wife had to have chickens and geese and cattle. Coonhounds and mules weren’t creatures enough to care for, not in a wife’s estimation. There must be winter duties too — even, finally, a dairy barn. God help him if he once failed to be home in time to milk.

He hadn’t gone over the ice in six long years because there had been too many creatures dependent on him, nearly all of them female. First a wife, then infant daughters, and finally the wife’s gentle-eyed Jerseys with their slender hips and heavy udders.

A MALLARD susie quacked in the distance. He turned the johnboat right side up and laid his heavy parka in it next to his gun. Besides two extra boxes of shells in the pockets of the parka, he carried twenty-three magnum loads in a shooting vest which he wore buttoned snugly about his chest for warmth. He opened his half-pint and took a drink of white moonshine whiskey. Over the bottoms the air was still.

With a practiced heave he pushed the boat out ahead of him on the ice, keeping his weight forward, ready to leap in the boat if the ice failed. As he gathered speed, his legs moving in a regular rhythm, running easily, the boat set up a screeching, thundering racket, scraping past trees and cracking through thickets. Mallards rose from the red oak thickets and flew toward the channel. Now in an open space he paused and watched them a moment. Then he pushed on, going even faster now as the open spaces between thickets got wider and wider. He began sweating a little and slowed down.

Farther out, he stopped to rest. He sat on the stern of the little boat, boots on the ice, elbows on knees, looking down at the hard, slick, olive-drab surface. He looked up at the levee, about six hundred yards away now, a long, straight elevated outline. The road was desolate in both directions. Only hunters, trappers, fishermen, or an occasional logger used it. Far down to the left, he saw the black outline of his pickup truck. He had parked it that morning before starting along the north edge of the bottoms where he had killed the snipe.

He leaned back and got the bird from the game pocket of his parka. The little body was frozen. Strangest of all were the eyes; black with life’s memory, they seemed, in the instant after death, before the cold seeped into them and did its work.

He stood up and tossed the snipe into the front of the boat, turning at the same time and leaningforward. The ice cracked. The crack ran under him and on ahead of the boat through the darkgreen ice. Though a crack it most surely was, it didn’t seem to be a very serious one. He held the sides of the boat, leaning forward to distribute his weight, braced like an athlete preparing to do push-ups. He waited. The ice held.

Fifty yards to the right stood a duck blind. The decoys in front of it were frozen solid into the ice and glazed with white frost. Red oak saplings shaded the ice in that direction. There the ice looked pale, almost white. It would be thicker. He could turn back now in that direction and reach the levee.

Far away to his left over the long open stretches he saw the line of trees marking the lost road. Beyond the flat glare he saw the logjam island, and around it the still blue gulf of the open water, reflecting the sky. In ten minutes he could reach the trees for the final, sliding rush.

He skidded the boat left and made straight for the trees, getting up speed first and then making only so much effort with his legs as would keep the boat sliding. Now and again the ice cracked, but the boat outran the cracks, one after the other as he pushed on, keeping his weight carefully distributed forward, over the boat.

Suddenly, with no warning the ice gave under him, and he fell into the boat just in time, just before it cracked through, and not an instant too soon, for the icy water had bitten him almost to mid-thigh, wetting him well above his insulated rubber knee boots. It had happened this way before. It was like being burned, like the sting of flames licking about his legs. He lay face down and still, waiting for his trousers to freeze. It needed only a little patience. When he sat up at last, remembering to wiggle his toes and flex his calf muscles to keep the circulation going, even the splashes had frozen. They looked like drops of candle wax.

Flared by the commotion of his fall, the ducks had flown up. Now they flocked and circled low around the edge of the open water. He slipped a magnum shell into the magazine of the automatic to replace the one fired at the teal. Then he put the parka over his head and shoulders and sat very still. He quacked with his mouth. A susie answered. He quacked again. He patted his lips, making the intimate, stuttering feed call. He tried the raucous call of the wise old susie. It all proved a false hope. The entire drove splashed in beside the island with a brisk rush of sound that set his heart beating faster.

When he put the gun down and took off the parka, his toes were numb. He moved them and rubbed his legs and finally admitted it to himself. He had cracked through; maybe the ice was rotten. Very well, but he had broken through only one time in several hundred yards of running, after all. He had managed to fall very neatly into the johnboat, hadn’t he?

Though it was a ticklish sort of job, there was still a chance that he could get the boat back up on the ice. He moved back cautiously and sat on the stern, balancing his weight until the bow rose high out of the water and less than four inches of freeboard remained beneath him. Then he dipped the paddle and drove the boat hard against the edge, and moving at once, fast, before it could slide off again, he went quickly forward on all fours. The ice cracked, the long, brittle sound of a marble rolling over a glass tabletop. Crouched in the bow, he waited, holding his breath, a dull pain beating in his throat just under the Adam’s apple. The ice held. Cautiously, slowly, he leaned far out over the prow and caught a willow limb in his gloved hand and pulled. The boat eased forward with him. He caught another limb and then another, getting farther and farther up on firm ice, hauling the boat painfully hand over hand until at last his arms gave out and he turned carefully and lay on his back breathing the cold, clean air through his mouth, cupping his hands and breathing into them. Lying thus, looking straight up, the depth of the clear sky was blue and magnificent. When he held his breath there was not a stir of sound anywhere to be heard. He might have been the last creature left alive on earth. A feeling of independence entered him like the slow onset of sleep.

WHEN it was time to move again he found he was tired. He moved awkwardly, stiff in his joints, his shoulders aching in the sockets, his toes numb because he had neglected to keep moving them He took the flat, half-pint bottle from his parka and drank it empty in three long swigs and flung the bottle away. It smashed. The clear little shards of glass slid on for several yards before they finally stopped, gleaming at rest in the waning sunlight like white jewels.

The levee had never before seemed so far away. The slanting sun perhaps added to the illusion. When he stood up he could not see the truck. Willow thickets blocked the way. In the other direction, just ahead, the island loomed from the open water, a tangled mass of roots and black tree trunks. Low in the water all around it the ducks rested, very still, as though waiting for him.

Although they were out of range, he was tempted to fire at them anyway, to put them up for the joy of seeing them fly, for the satisfaction, knowing that though they might circle the whole bottoms, they would come back. The cold air would drive them down again, here, in the last of the open water, perhaps the last open water to be found anywhere about, except in the mid-river channel.

The liquor’s warmth caught hold. He hadn’t eaten since before daylight. It didn’t matter. He had taught himself not to want food. He had taught himself not to want anything but the beautiful joy of killing. He had always hunted this way.

Now he took the bow line, and without hesitating, stepped out on the ice and put it over his shoulder and towed the boat after him. Once started, it seemed to follow him willingly, coming after him across the patch of firm, white ice like a docile beast. When the ice shaded into olive green again, he stopped and fended his way around to the stern to rest a moment before making the final dash for trees at the edge of the open water.

Once the boat slid free he would be in range. The ducks would come up and circle, dipping their dark wings to his call, and he would lovingly kill them. He would scull coaxingly after the cripples one by one, coming so slowly on them that they would hardly know the boat was moving at all. While they flirted in that final, zigzag hesitation, he would suddenly raise the gun and shoot their heads off clean. Their blood would boil below them like a cloud into the dark, clear water.

A whistling flight of teal drove in, wings already set, and pitched in beyond the island. A susie quacked. He drew a deep breath and shoved. The boat groaned against the willows and slid forward. Faster and faster, he pushed on. Exhilaration shook him like a sudden wind among dead leaves. With less than fifty yards to go, speed was in his favor. Instinctively, at the right instant, he would leap lightly forward.

As though struck suddenly blind, however, he was groping, wet to the armpits, his breath coming so fast that his chest seemed about to burst. He saw the johnboat beside him. It had cracked through. He caught its side. Water spilled in, so he pushed back, trying to swim, his hands already so numb he could hardly feel them.

“Still, be still!” he commanded aloud, using words he spoke to the restless cows at milking. The cold drove in from every direction like nails, driving and driving in, searching his vitals.

He must think! Of course, only keep a clear head! Make every move carefully! Sound judgment, no wasted time or motion. “Easy, careful,” he said, speaking to the fiery grip of the cold, which now became more powerful than anything he had ever before imagined, for it was taking him over.

In the place of the strong, obedient body he had so long been accustomed to command, he felt a strange and foolish despair at this heaving, disquieted thing that would no longer obey.

In spite of every caution to the contrary, his body suddenly fought like a cat snared on a string. Thrashing and fighting like a dying fish, he fended himself clumsily around to the prow and threw himself hard upon it. Short of seeing it, he could never have believed such an utterly foolish panic to be possible. Already, almost in the wink of an eye, he had destroyed his best hope. The incredible, the impossible thing happened. The boat filled almost as quickly as he had moved, and rolled down from under him.

Water covered his face. When he had fought to the surface and taken breath, he felt his hair and his eyebrows freezing.

Bottom up now and barely afloat, the boat was another creature entirely, as though it too, the docile beast of a moment before, had now lost all notion of what it was logically supposed to be, and do.

When he touched it, it rolled. When he caught at it, the weird creature shook him off; it threw him a second time, and he gentled cautiously against it, the cold biting clean through his shoulders now, like teeth. His body’s least twitch made the boat heave and swing. Holding the boat, huddling on it and fighting its strange movements, he realized for the first time that the shooting vest with its cargo of magnum shells was his enemy now, the perfect weight to sink a man and kill him. Propping a hand and both knees against the boat, he tried the vest’s buttons. Briefly his fingers stung back to life, but they were useless against buttons.

He tried to balance himself on the boat and rip the vest apart with both hands, no trick for a strong man in his early prime, yet each time he tried it the other creature, the rebellious animal self, seized him. His arms failed. They disobeyed. His hands groped warily forward like burned stumps, to rest against the boat and balance him.

He remained thus awhile, motionless, not even shivering, such was the marvel of it, his head just above the surface of the freezing water. The thin winter sunlight and the desolate, utter silence of the bottoms, great spanning miles of it, dinned and drummed at him.

He knew he must shout soon. It would be no use, of course. No earthly man would hear. Yet soon he would begin screaming. The body would have that too; the body would have it, though he knew shouting must only exhaust him the sooner and hasten the end. Screams began gathering in his throat like a queer nausea.

If he had only thought to take off the vest before his fingers numbed, to get out of his boots, even kick off his trousers. Then he might have gotten back in the boat. He would have wrung out his clothes and put them back on and huddled under the parka until night froze the bottoms in, and then he would have walked out to the road and gotten in the truck. He would have driven it home and tottered into the house and asked his wife to draw him a hot bath. Once he was warm and rested he would have gotten a friend or two and come back after his boat and the gun.

If they ever found it, anytime within a week or two, the gun would be all right. He kept it oiled, and with the water so cold the oil would stick. The gun wouldn’t rust quickly. Perhaps they would find it. He hoped they would.

Finding the gun shouldn’t be hard with the boat frozen in the ice right over it. A sudden ruthless pain in his back, above the beltline, jerked his head forward. For the first time he began shuddering. He heard himself shouting, screaming for help, the cries already hoarse though hardly even well begun. The ducks came up and began wheeling and circling above him. Their curved wings were more beautiful than any he had seen before, cupping as gently as a kiss, skimming like a long caress, each pair shaped like the touch of a woman’s hands in love.

He stopped yelling and slid peacefully down into the white darkness under the surface.