The Salton Sea
It is an hour before sunrise on the western edge of the Salton Sea. The moon has set this early January morning and the stars are either falling in or away—depending on how long you look.
To the east the horizon seems two-dimensional, like black gauze draped over a thin line of light in pale yellow and salmon. In the foreground, silhouettes of long dead trees add the illusion of dimension and mark the drowning of a former shoreline. Where I stand, a foot of water covers two feet of soft, silty mud.
Silence, like a downdraft from the cosmic void above, creates an auditory setting that is equivalent to white noise. Then, from a mile away, a dog’s barking arrives with such clarity that I can tell which way he is facing. When silence resumes, my self-awareness comes into question as I am without sensory input—save the fantasy of vision.
Comically, relief comes in the form of a shore bird. It makes a sound much like a small mammal that is tight-assed and flatulent. I know it is near, but again dimension is difficult to apply. For all I know, the dog could be barking at the bird. For all I know, I could be god’s eyes and ears. Perhaps I am not the man my concept of awareness has created.
I am corporeally reassured when I shift my feet in the mud, stirring up the smell of sulfur, rotten fish, and brine. I readjust my shotgun in the crook of my left arm, unscrew the red, plastic cup from my thermos and pour a cup of lukewarm coffee. Years from now, this coffee flavor might be called “bile”. My black Labrador retriever trembles at my side, his tail slinging thin strings of water. These sensual stimuli bring me back to a sense of self.
My friend and I are standing on sunken pallets in a hiding place we call a duck blind. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still alive then, but JFK and Malcolm X were dead. My parents still make me mow the lawn, but a classmate, Lynn Shugart, has already been killed in Viet Nam. Girls have sex with me all the time. Some of them are real.
Randy lights a joint, inhales deeply, stifles a cough and passes it to me. I add the coffee cup to my left arm crook and look up to the horizon line where Randy holds the joint. We use the meager light for a safe handoff.
Meanwhile, our place on this planet rolls us around, closer to the solar exposure we call sunrise. From our point-of-view, it seems like someone is slowly turning up a rheostat.
I slug the last mouthful of coffee, screw the top back on the thermos and receive the next handoff with reverent solemnity—marijuana was still a sacrament then. I inhale the hot, harsh smoke with a martyr’s satisfaction. A kind and gentle mood presents itself to me and I dream in synapsed instances of hope and harmony and peace and love.
It is now thirty minutes before legal shooting time and I’m stoned. The silence is back, the trees stand stark and the odor falls away. I am, once again, a sylph in ether—my mood serene.
Some fast-moving Pintails pass over us like miniature jets. We look up hoping to catch a glimpse of them eclipsing a star.
The night subsides, dawn is adjacent, and waterfowl are on the move. Depending on their efficiency as flyers, their wings make sounds like: a drum roll on a pillow, bullets coming down a pipe, a toothless person panting, or someone slaloming tight turns in deep powder.
For the last time this morning, sound ebbs and silence flows. It is as quiet as a church and we are reverent. I continue looking up. The stars are falling away and I am falling with them.
This is the coldest part of the day. I begin to shiver. Wings whistle past in all directions. Distant mountains slowly reveal, outlining a pastel sunrise. Sighting down my gun, I track a pair of Teal. The mood is nearly broken. My adrenal gland puts a load in the chamber. I can see a small skiff of to my left. In the distance, someone calls his dog a son-of-a-bitch. Someone else shoots—ten minutes too soon. Then, two Spoonbills land among our decoys and my dog loses his composure. Before I can command him to stop, he is splashing out after them. As they fly, Randy shoots three times. No birds fall. We are terrible shots, but great hunters.
I too, call my dog a son-of-a-bitch. With my finger on the safety, I scan the sky with a heightened sense of awareness. I am a participant in a game with duckdom and it seems my self-esteem is the only thing at stake.
Randy and I are now vulgar, bloodthirsty humans exhibiting our nature against a backdrop of beauty. We hunt. We kill. We love the camaraderie. The stars disappear in an act of disassociation.
Scores of hunters trigger controlled explosions that continue without cease for several minutes. It is so loud that my ears ring. White noise cannot compare. My heartbeat is wild. I have the lust. I will never go to war, but I know what it sounds like.
Two ducks approach from the horizon. They are beautiful. I want to capture them in mid-flight and hold them in my hands.
As a boy, Richard C. Rutherford learned storytelling from coon hunters who whittled and spit, recalling moon phase, moisture, and wind (dry as a popcorn fart), black-and-tan cold-trailers, rattle-headed pups, and blue-tick tree dogs who could set down under an old oak and just go to preaching. He has daughters, so he’s a feminist. His stories can be found in Hypertext, Fiction Southeast, Red Fez, Catamaran, The Writing Disorder, Stone Coast Review, Inlandia, Visitant, and Cardinal Sins, Chiron Review, Oddville Press, and Oxford Magazine among others. He has a large collection of stories.
[image: Salty Ducks in the Desert | Tim E. Hovey]