The Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

I’ve never seen the world like this before. Dawn was moments away and only a sliver of light crept up behind my Pa and I. The lake reflected the soft wisps of cloud above as the creatures wake and go about their business, but in a manner I have not witnessed before.

Of course, I’ve seen wild animals and critters in the wood across from the paddock. I grew up on a farm so I lacked the wonder and fascination of nature that most children have. But that morning in the muddy ditch with Pa, I felt the magic that had been dulled in me. Frogs hopped out of the long grass croaking a greeting to a waking swan who lifted her head, with the grace of a white heliotropic flower, and turned to face the sun. The scene swelled before me and I felt a burst of warmth, like a long burning log that finally collapses and sends a swarm of faeric embers up into a dance.

This natural scene was extraordinary because it was free from any of that excited tension that homo sapiens bring to every plain, mountain, and lake. We don’t notice it because this tension is always around us: the quiver of the hare, the fear in every shaking blade of grass that we tread upon, the horror of the earth that screams as we pry open and rape her for metals to build and fuel our machines of industry and war. I would have felt at peace away from all that, if not for our terrible mission – to hunt.

Our prize lay hidden within that labyrinth of reeds and I secretly hoped that it would sleep in this morning. I could no longer focus on the beauty of the marshes, it was warped by fear that now caused my hands flutter. But as soon as my father placed the rifle in my hands they turned to stone. My granite hands gripped the wooden stock and I felt as if I was a golem for my hands moved automatically as if enchanted. Muscle memory commanded my arms. I knew the movements well, load it, cock it, aim and wait for the duck call. My father held the horn to his lips. Stay asleep you dumb bird, keep your bleary eyes closed and rest your head back down, have mercy on yourself.

I looked up and begged silently, “Father, show me a path away from this.”
A horrible sound blasted in my ear which in my excitement I thought was Gabriel’s horn and not my fathers. The day of judgement belonged not to me but to the mallard. A flurry of wings took off from the reeds, I spotted my quarry, slower than the rest, its wings clawed at the wind and with my sights lined up, I pulled the trigger. The recoil, the release, and blessed relief.

If just for an instance, a perfect moment, the shot seemed to wound the sky itself, sprouting a burst of bleeding poppies out of the pale blue yonder. The mallard flapped its wings a few times in defiance of Death but succumbed in a tragic fall as the bird paid its final debt to gravity. What right had I to snatch its life? Pa placed his hand on my shoulder and his eyes seemed to say that he understood. I expected to feel terrible but all I had felt was the recoil. My heart was beating vigorously long after I took the shot. And as we rose and went to find the bird the void was slowly filled with that warmth I described previously. Instead of a single log collapsing into the flame I felt like I was within a forest fire, I was an inferno and was unstoppable. Perhaps it was just the adrenaline, but it disturbed me nonetheless. In honesty, I enjoyed the experience, even loved it to a certain extent – though I loved it despite myself.

Looking back on that spectre of a childhood memory it appears that the random twists and turns of my life has taken were really preordained in some way.
I must rest, piecing together mangled memories has been tiring. As the captain says, a good rest should be an RAF pilot’s top priority, especially on the eve of his first combat flight. Reaching into young adulthood my mission is still to hunt, but my new quarry is far more cunning than the mallard, and what is more – it loves to kill just as I much as I do.

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