By the Wayside
by Kody Ford
Aunt Bernice found Papaw’s stooped, frail body dangling from a rafter in the shed. When we got the call, Daddy was about to go check on a heifer that had given birth overnight. He hung up and ran out of the house, moving faster than I’d ever seen. In the ensuing chaos, our paths didn’t cross again until Thursday, since Mama sent me to stay with her sister in town. When Papaw killed himself, nobody saw it coming. Not even Daddy and he took him dinner every night. Papaw stayed brash and ornery until the end. His idea of bonding was recycling a joke about my freckles: “Looks like you swallowed a dollar and broke out in pennies.” Honestly, I’d thought he was an asshole up until Mee-maw died, when he became somewhat congenial after the stress of her final days lifted.
Two days after we buried Papaw, I found myself treading carefully through a flooded timber bottom in the predawn darkness. Daddy walked ahead, a bag of decoys flung over his shoulder, shining his flashlight across tree stumps and broken limbs rising from the black water. I navigated the unseen bramble with my feet, praying I wouldn’t trip and end up with wet socks.
Daddy waded through the water around the clearing of the trees in the last gasps of moonlight, arranging the spread of decoys, mostly mallards with a few wood ducks. I leaned up against a rotting oak, cold burning through the rubber of my waders, blowing smoke with the heat of my breath.
A few minutes before legal shooting hours, shots rang out in the distance.
“Those damn Goocher boys jumping the gun again,” Daddy muttered. Their lease ran adjacent to ours and by the time the sun came up, they’d fired what sounded like a couple boxes of shells, scaring away the waterfowl.
At the funeral, I overheard Aunt Marilyn cry about the eternal destination of Papaw’s soul. Daddy told her to “hush up with that kinda talk.” A creeping suspicion took hold. Maybe Papaw wasn’t in Heaven or Hell. Maybe he was just gone. But in my family, you’d be crazy to speak such heresy aloud. Despite everybody’s commentary about Papaw’s “selfish actions,” I gained respect for him then. As far back as I could remember, I felt a darkness creep in, a worthlessness. It plagued Mama too and sent her into long bouts of melancholy. One day a doctor would give me a name for it and a prescription. Unlike Papaw, I could never tie a lariat around my neck and be done with it all. In my mind, he had gone from an unsympathetic patriarch to the gutsiest motherfucker I’d ever known. When Papaw did it, he left a note, but no one showed me. Story goes: Papaw spent 10 years at Mee-maw’s side watching Parkinson’s Disease render her helpless. He didn’t want to burden his children when it was his time. So, he got a rope, tied it up and stepped off the wheel-well of a trailer.
As the sun peered over the treetops, two wood ducks coasted into our hole. The sound of flickering wings broke the silence of the flooded bottom. Daddy fired first. I followed. One duck fell; the other took to the skies. The wounded flailed in the water for a few moments, then went still.
“Think that one’s yours,” Daddy said. I knew it wasn’t. Hunting was never a pastime I enjoyed, but because I lacked athletic ability it was the only option I had for spending time with Daddy.
While we watched the sky for another group, the water rippled. The mallard wasn’t as dead as we thought. The bird kicked its legs back, splashing up water, all it’s grace fallen by the wayside. It moved slow and drunkenly, not ready to die today. I called to Daddy who waded after it. The greenhead moved faster than he’d anticipated. Once he caught it, he picked it up by the neck and its wings flapped violently. Daddy swung it around by the neck and slapped the body against the tree. Everything went still after that.
Around noon, we tossed three mallards, two wood ducks, and a teal in the bed of Daddy’s truck. Not a great haul, but decent considering the Goocher boys were out. Two of the ducks probably were my kills, but in those brief flurries of dying, it was hard to be sure.
On the way out of the duck lease, we crossed onto our family’s property. The grooved logging road snaked its way near Papaw’s house. The back of the tin shed where they’d found his body was 15 yards to our left. Daddy looked straight ahead, stone-faced, but I couldn’t look away. In those final moments, did Papaw stay brave until the end or did he fight like that greenhead while swinging from the rafters, unable to find his footing?
That night, I lay in my room reading To Kill a Mockingbird when Daddy knocked on my door, then entered holding a lever-action rifle.
“I got this from your Papaw’s house. It’s a Winchester 88. He taught me to shoot with it.” I put the book down and took the weapon with both hands. Without bullets and with my finger so far from the trigger, its destructive potential felt benign. “It’s yours now,” Daddy said. “He wanted you to have it.”
My eyes traced the gun, stock to barrel. “Thanks.” Daddy patted my knee. I saw the glint of a tear in his eye. I kept silent, and after he left I hid the gun in my closet.
The rifle’s still with me years later, though I don’t have kids and don’t hunt. But sometimes, the image of the duck returns to me, flailing in the water before stillness takes over.
About the Author
Kody Ford is the founder of The Idle Class Magazine, a publication focused on the creative life. His work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Down in the Dirt, and Flash Fiction Magazine.
From the Editor
Want more of Kody? Follow him @kodyford.