Early in the morning, before sunrise, the men separated themselves into three small dinghies and puttered out onto the cold stillness of the lake. Tom and his father were in one; Tom sat up against the bow, while his father sat at the back, his hand on the tiller of the outboard motor. He steered them silently through the fog, trying to see the peaks of the hills through the mist.
The lake used to be a valley filled with trees, until they built the dam. They cut the trees down, but left the sharp stumps sticking up from the mud. When they flooded the valley they left these stakes behind. On a clear day, Tom could look over the side of the dinghy and see them waiting just below the waterline.
It was too cold to talk. Tom stuffed his hands into his lifejacket, and listened to the lapping of the water against the bow, and the splutter of the motor. Soon, they came across the other side of the lake, and Tom’s father turned the motor right down. There were stakes all across this side, and banks of weed, too.
“How many decoys can you see?” Tom’s father asked.
Tom twisted around and leaned on the bow. He peered through the mist and carefully counted the dark smudges outside their maimai.
“Fifteen,” he said.
“Yeah,” his father agreed, “fifteen.”
Tom’s father manoeuvred the dinghy into the shore, beneath the cover of a large tree. Tom climbed out and tied the boat to the trunk while his father pulled a camouflage tarp over the motor. Then Tom climbed up into the maimai and waited for his father to pass up their bags and guns.
The fog faded after an hour, and the sun began to appear over the hills behind them. Tom sat near the back of the maimai while his father stood at the front, scanning from left to right and back again. They both had semi-automatic shotguns, painted in camouflage, with a seven shell capacity. They were loaded and waiting at either end of the maimai.
The morning crept up on them slowly. Dark birds flew past, but they were mostly shags. Sometimes, Tom would see one coming, and grab his gun and follow it with the sights. He imagined it was a duck that his father had not seen.
“It’s a shag, Tom,” his father said.
“Oh, yeah,” Tom said, lowering his gun. He returned it to its corner and sat back down.
There were ducks that day, of course, but they mostly hung around the opposite side of the lake, which had the sun in the morning. Tom’s father spent long stretches of time crouched down in the maimai, craning his neck and blowing on his duck call. Tom had one around his neck, too, but did not use it. Out in front of the maimai the decoys bobbed on the water, while the real ducks ignored them and tried to land among the decoys on the other side. Late in the morning, Tom saw a pair try to land outside his uncles’ maimai. Just as they closed their wings, a volley of shots was fired, echoing like thunder between the hills. Their light brown bodies fell in an arc through the sunlight. Tom peered over the side of the maimai and saw the little splashes in the distance.
“That’ll be your uncles,” Tom’s father said, pulling out his binoculars. Tom kept watching the opposite side of the lake, and soon he saw a steel dinghy drifting out from the other maimai. The boat circled around the spot where the ducks had hit the water. He saw his uncle reach into the water, before returning to the shore.
“What were they, Steve?” Tom’s father said over the walkie-talkie.
Uncle Steve’s voice came back over the radio. “Couple of mallards; almost didn’t see them!” He laughed.
“Oh, yeah,” Tom’s father replied. “Not having much luck over here.”
The radio crackled. “Ha.”
They hung around in the maimai for another few hours, until the sun appeared across from them. But the ducks did not come. The other side of the lake was a much better spot, it was true, but Tom’s father thought they should have both covered. It would have been frustrating to be all on one side and watch ducks landing on the opposite bank unmolested.
Uncle Steve had been shooting with his brother, who had gone back to the hut that afternoon in the dinghy. When the men decided to call it a day, Tom’s father called Uncle Steve over the walkie-talkie and told him he and Tom would pick him up.
They packed their bags and guns back into the dinghy and Tom’s father rowed them out onto the lake. Once they were far enough out he started up the motor and continued on towards Uncle Steve’s maimai. He was standing in the little doorway waiting for them, his lifejacket already on.
“Pass us your gun, mate,” Tom’s father said. Uncle Steve tossed him the gun bag and he placed it with the others up against the side of the dinghy.
“Here’s the precious cargo,” Uncle Steve said, bringing out the ducks. He handed one to Tom’s father first, who put it at the back. He waited for the other one, but Uncle Steve just stood there, holding it by the neck.
“Uh, this one’s not quite dead, I think.”
Tom looked at it, and sure enough, he could see its feet moving. If he looked hard enough he could even see the tiny tremors in its chest.
“Fuck, mate,” Tom’s father said. He stretched out his arm. “Give it here.”
Uncle Steve was all too happy to hand it over. Tom watched his father take it, and wondered what he was going to do. Once, his father had shot a duck. Tom had watched him from the maimai as he rowed out to get it. When he picked it up, it had flapped its wings, so he’d thrust it back under the water. He had stayed like that for a while, sitting in the dinghy, his arm submerged in the lake, staring up at the hills, while Tom stared at him.
Tom’s father held the duck by the neck, but did not try to drown it. Instead, he twisted it around and around, like a boy with a wet towel in a changing room. Tom and Uncle Steve watched silently as the duck’s body spun around and around. After a while his father stopped and tossed the duck to the back of the boat, where it sat nestled beside its friend.
Tom’s father rowed them out onto the lake again, before starting the motor back up. Uncle Steve sat up in the bow, leaving Tom wedged in the middle. He was facing the back, although he wished he had chosen to sit facing the other way. He could see the ducks huddled together at the back. One of them was dead, but the other was not. It was still breathing gently, and he could see its webbed foot curling and uncurling slightly. Its small, black eye was still wide open, too. It was looking up, not at Tom, or Tom’s father, or even Uncle Steve. But it was looking at something. Tom glanced up and saw the thick clouds tinted red by the setting sun. He stared at them for much longer than he normally would. When he looked back down at the duck, he saw its foot uncurl and stop. He looked at its eye, and watched it narrow to a dark slit. After that, it did not move.
That night the men talked and joked and drank around the fire. Tom did not talk much, or even listen. He ate, helped clean up, and said good night. He went to bed and lay on one of the hut’s top bunks. Wrapped in his sleeping bag he stared at the ceiling, which was lined with a kind of silvery material like tin foil, maybe to keep the cold out. He thought about the duck, and his father, and decided that he did not want to be a duck shooter. He still wanted to come up, though. He liked the lake. He liked the hut. He liked cooking food over the fire and living rough for a few days. But he did not want to be a duck shooter. He imagined coming up and having his own maimai, where he could sit and read while his gun sat beside him, unloaded, never firing. He would be a kind of outdoorsman rebel. He would still know how to start a fire, fix a motor, even take a gun apart, but he would never kill anything. That was a good compromise, he thought.
The next morning the men got up early again. As they bustled around in the next room getting ready, Tom stayed in bed. Eventually his father came back into the bunkroom and shook him lightly.
“Are you coming?”
“No,” Tom said, “I’m ok.”
There was silence. “Alright, well, we might be back for breakfast or something, we don’t know,” Tom’s father said. “You can come back with us then, if you like.”
“Ok,” Tom replied, although he knew he would not be going out.
Tom spent the morning reading a book one of his uncle’s had brought. Every now and then he would put another piece of wood on the fire.
Around nine his father reappeared at the hut. He was not there for breakfast, though.
“The others want to stay out,” he said. “I thought I’d come and get you; see if you wanted to shoot with Uncle Steve.”
Tom did not know what made him go. He supposed he didn’t want to waste his father’s time. Still, he was not going to shoot anything.
Tom’s father puttered back up the lake and dropped Tom and his gun off at Uncle Steve’s maimai. They watched as the dinghy continued across the lake, before turning their attention back on the sky. It was much quieter than yesterday, which Tom had thought impossible. He talked with Uncle Steve briefly, about school and other things. It was enough to distract them, as they failed to notice two ducks approaching. The ducks had failed to notice the white faces of the hunters, too, for they landed only a few feet from the maimai.
“Don’t move,” Uncle Steve said. “Two ducks just landed… turn around slowly…”
Tom did what he was told, slowly turning around. He saw the two mallards paddling in and out of the decoys. He reached carefully for his gun, which Uncle Steve had insisted on loading. The thoughts of the previous night disappeared as he aimed down the sights at the pair. Usually, shooting ducks on the water was not allowed, but it was unusual to see ducks on the lake at all. He fired.
A radius of pellets spread across the lake, throwing up a shimmer of water. Tom thought he had hit both, but then saw one of them fly off. He followed it with his sights, firing furiously, as did his uncle, but the bird got away.
“Shit,” Uncle Steve said, watching the lone duck fly off into the distance. “We must have shot about ten rounds at that bastard!”
He kept talking, but Tom wasn’t listening. He could see the duck floating in the water, face down, with only its tail and feet showing. It reminded him of the duck his father had once shot. He opened the chamber of his gun and slipped a shell from his pocket inside. He heard Uncle Steve say something about going out and getting it, but Tom ignored him. He aimed down the sights and shot it again.