The knock comes at 5:30. I'm already awake, as I've been tossing and turning since midnight. The coyotes woke me around 2, but the rest of the sleepless night I chalk up to nerves. In less than an hour, I will be standing knee deep in a frozen Arkansas swamp with a shotgun, the goal to shoot a moving, living target out of the sky. I have never fired a gun in my life. In truth, I am terrified of guns. While I think that is the natural, proper response, I also think it's time I gain a little perspective. I come from a long line of hunters on both sides of my family. I think hunting in order to eat is an honorable tradition. I also think duck is delicious. When my duck hunting cousins heard me announce over drinks that I had never hunted in my life, they looked as if I had announced that despite all the oxygen in the room, I'd never gotten around to breathing. It was simply inconceivable. We accepted their invitation to join them at their Arkansas camp in a month's time. Our only instruction was to purchase a hunting license for the weekend; they would take care of the rest. After a brief phone chat with a pleasant woman at the Arkansas Game and Wildlife Dept, and the inevitable hunting "accident" joke at my husband's expense, I had a license to kill. I just hoped the target would be a duck, and not, say, my host for the weekend. See: never fired a gun
Caleb and I dress in the dark: wool socks, long underwear, then jeans, then some borrowed camo fleece pants that make me look like I should be an extra in an MC Hammer video. My head hurts, likely from the copious wine and Sweet Lucy that flowed during the profane game of Card Against Humanity the night before. Tommy and Lauren hand out Advil along with thermoses of coffee for each couple. Breakfast will come much later we're told. Hunt first, buttered biscuits and sweet rolls as our reward after. We step into our waders, suits that weigh as much as fifteen pounds with heavy, rubber soled boots attached. With our neck warmers and hats and long johns and jackets, we look like sumo wrestlers in layers of camo. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to shoot a duck if I can't move my arms to lift a gun. The women place their hands into heated muffs that attach by velro to our suits - a joke that clearly will not get old as the weekend unfolds. I will be thanking god for my heated muff as within minutes we are racing toward the woods in open air jeeps, 30 degree winds whipping past us. We unload the ATVs, Tommy's sleek black lab Scout anxiously whimpering and ready to get to work. Finally, the guns. Mine is a 20 gauge Beretta, black with a gold trigger. I practiced shouldering it the night before, touching the safety like a Catholic rubbing the worry beads. Red equals dead, I'm told. The safety on this Beretta has a little hint of red peaking out, even when pushed all the way in. It's effectively terrifying. I can't stop checking it, even when I know the safety is pushed all the way in. I sling it over my shoulder, feeling simultaneously badass and ridiculous, like a child soldier posing with his rifle.
In the dark, we slog. I suddenly know why the word was invented. We drag our heavy boots through water so cold it has a frozen crust. Tommy repeats for good measure that we always lift one foot up and place it down before picking up the next. There are holes in the swamp floor. The best way to end up in one is by shuffling your feet and inadvertently disappearing inside. This nightmare happened to an acquaintance of mine, a man well over six feet who took a wrong step and found himself underwater - and his loaded gun sucked from his hands. It's all I can think about as we march in silence, the trees rustling in the wind, the light of the moon reflecting off the frozen water. And finally we are there, in a setting that matches my preconceived notion of our hunt so specifically that it gives me goosebumps. The six of us fan out among flooded timber, oak trees jutting out of the water to form a sanctuary that is apparently irresistible to hungry ducks. Tommy's decoys dot the surface of the water, and he turns on the Mojo, a battery operated, creepy-anyway-you-slice it headless torso of a duck that permanently flaps its "wings." This is supposed to entice the ducks flying in overhead to join the party in progress. Ducks are delicious, and apparently not at all bright.
It is 6:20. It is 9 minutes before sunrise, official time to begin the hunt. We stand with our rifles at the ready, Tommy calling to the ducks with wooden calls slung around his neck. Scout intently studies the sky. Tommy kicks at the water to to create the ripple pattern from ducks landing, his calls alternating between the bright, classic quack and a huskier, trilled pattern that, roughly translated, means Come on in, the water's fine! Tommy's working hard, but the ducks aren't buying it. After a couple of hours of shooting the sunrise with a camera and not much else, we move to an adjacent flooded rice field where we're afforded a better view of incoming ducks. It's not long before Tommy calls out "Get ready!" Three Gadwalls flutter into range. Safetys are clicked off. The rifles are shouldered. My heart thuds through my ten pound suit.
SHOOT IT SHOOT IT SHOOT IT
The recoil goes right into my bicep, not my shoulder where the gun was supposed to be nestled. Because, see, your FACE is supposed to be pressed cheek to cheek with the rifle when it goes off. And while my brain can understand this concept, there is no way I am getting my face anywhere near that steel. By the end of the weekend I will have an Arkansas-shaped bruise stamped across my arm, because I am nothing if not stubborn and terrified of blowing my face off in some odds-defying accident. We take down three ducks, an extremely modest haul as thousands of ducks had been spotted in the same location the weekend before. But the ducks are rather beside the point. The scenery is gorgeous, the company hilarious, and there's still the promise of that big breakfast.
Our biscuits and sweet rolls demolished, we take a trip to the venerable Macs Prairie Wings, a store that I was told provided hunting licenses along with what I imagined as hot wings smothered in sauce from a kitchen somewhere in the back. Macs is massive, more like a high end Lowe's - no hot wings, but row after row of camo pants and nightgowns and lingerie sets and boots and seriously adorable trench coats and blouses and clothes that I would happily buy if not for the shockingly high price tag. I have mad respect for the buyers after spotting gorgeous knee high cowboy boots and super cute clutches and jewelry. Who knew there were that many rich people in this poor county willing to shell out $80 for a sweatshirt that reads You are my Deer? A virtual sea of men in camo and black greasepaint swirl around rifles for sale, testing out duck calls and buying waders. We leave empty-handed, with the exception of Tommy who happily supplies us with more hot muffs for our waders.
The blessed nap, then an afternoon hunting the flooded rice field. The sun is high and warm. The jokes fly fast. But the word must have been spread among the ducks as very few venture into our hiding spot. Always looking to be of service, Caleb does a solo march through the swamp, arriving at the field just over the levy where he startles nearly 200 resting ducks into the air. But not into our pocket. Finally, some stragglers. I fire the gun once more, my bicep burning under the recoil, the duck a safe dot in the sky. Neil brings down another. The count is six - just enough for each of us to have our own for dinner.
We join Lauren's sister at their family's private hunting club just up the road. Rebecca is in town with three of her friends from Denver, making this their fourth annual girls' hunting trip, the coolest annual gathering I'd ever heard of and naturally, the subject of my next screenplay, The Whole Shebang. We stay long enough for a tour and some cocktails and then happily retreat back to Lauren and Tommy's place, eager to tuck into our jalapeño duck and homemade pecan pie. We rally for a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity, but sleep takes us soon. More ducks to shoot come zero dark thirty.
The moon is low but bright as the ATV speeds toward the flooded rice field. We weren't going back to the same wooded hideout as before; this time, we are headed for the pit, a 3x10 hole dug into the field that serves as a kind of jack in the box surprise for any duck foolish enough to fly into range. A lattice with fake foliage flanks either side of the pit to help camouflage us. Tommy explains that ducks land like airplanes - into the wind. The box was positioned to take advantage of that phenomenon, so we crouch down with our guns and our pop tarts, waiting for the ducks to come in for breakfast. Packed in shoulder to shoulder, water pooling around our ankles, the effect could be, should be claustrophobic. But with my heart pounding at the call of "Get ready!," Scout constantly looking camera ready as she scans the sky, and Tommy cracking our shit up with jokes about his guide skills, I'm having too much fun to worry. Caleb and Neil each take a duck. I bruise my bicep once again, doing my part to ensure the safety of the ducks in the sky. I'm a terrible shot. I'm still terrified of guns. But I hear myself mentioning the "next time" we do this, and I mean it whole heartedly. I'm gonna need a bigger lens, some bigger balls, and most definitely round two of Cards Against Humanity.