Thursday, July 17, 2014 |
In Patti-Kay Hamilton's 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize-winning story, a hunter observes and reflects upon an unlikely companion on the edge of outstaying her welcome.
The hunter slipped a loaded clip into his rifle, raised the butt high on his shoulder and wrapped his arm around the gun so the muscle held it snug. His left elbow secure on a moss-covered rocky shelf, hand cradling the barrel, he centred his right eye in the middle of the scope and lined up the front crosshairs on his target, the pad of his left finger resting lightly on the trigger. He took a deep breath and let himself settle, eyes focused on the swan. “Not yet. One more night,” he said out loud to himself.
It was late fall and ice was already forming along the shore. If she didn’t take flight soon, she would be frozen in place. Needle-sharp teeth of jackfish and otters would tear at her belly and thighs, eating her alive. Above the ice, at first she would be able to fight off predators with aggressive thrusts of her powerful wings and her alarming hiss but soon, as she bled from the underwater attack, she would lose strength and the ravens would peck at her eyes and foxes would scramble for quick bites and when the ice was thick, wolves would finish her off, leaving nothing but white feathers, stained red, blowing across the ice.
The swan floated alone in the small, grassy bay behind his hunting camp. He’d spotted her on the morning after returning with a canoe full of moose meat. He was proud of the bull he’d spent days scouting and calling. As was the custom of his ancestors, he had cut off the long ears and placed them high in a willow at the kill site, a gesture of respect to the spirit of the animal. He’d brought back the huge set of horns balanced in the canoe on top of the load of meat and set it on the rocky shore, an emblem to the successful hunt. At dawn he had taken his mug of coffee and climbed the high hill beside the tent frame to glass the bays with a spotting scope. He was searching for another moose to call in close so he could shoot it with his video camera. That’s when he noticed the huge white bird.
Whenever a flock flew over honking, he watched to see if the swan might join them. Cranes, mallards, all flying high, but the swan didn’t appear to notice.
She was some distance away, deep in the high reeds of the cove, so he could only see her with the binoculars at first. Over the next few days he continued to keep an eye on her and she occasionally floated into the still water alongside the camp, dipping her head for roots. At dusk she would stretch her neck up and call out a mournful bugling sound. He wondered why she was alone since swans mate for life and if one is injured the partner won’t leave the other’s side. He had seen it once before with loons. A female snarled in his fish net had drowned. Her mate swam, circling her floating body and calling out for days, even after the carcass had been removed.
Overhead thousands of birds were migrating south. Most of the swans had already left the North, bound for grain fields in Alberta. Had her flock abandoned her? Did she carry lead in her breast from being shot? She was too large to be a juvenile, so he thought perhaps she was just weak and was building strength and resting. He knew eagles, ravens, bears, even the large fish would prey on her. So he loaded the bones and scraps of meat from butchering the moose into the canoe. He paddled across the river and piled it on a rocky island: bait to lure and keep the predators busy and full until the swan could recover and fly off.
Whenever a flock flew over honking, he watched to see if the swan might join them. Cranes, mallards, all flying high, but the swan didn’t appear to notice. Sometimes at dusk flocks of Canada and snow geese would land nearby. The swan didn’t tag along when they departed. It was the end of September and cold at night. There was snow on the tent roof and he could see his breath when he awoke in the morning. A thin skin of ice covered the water in the shallows and there was a tinkling as ice crystals shifted in the breeze and waves. He wondered if he should shoot her rather than leaving her to freeze or to be ripped apart by bears.
Swan meat was delicious. It was against the law but in remote areas there were no game wardens to enforce the rules. He had last eaten swan as a teenager one spring when their family had been living off muskrat and fish. The meat was so rich and he had eaten too much. His mother warned him that his stomach wasn’t used to the fat but he stuffed himself, grease dripping down his chin. After a winter of fish he couldn’t get enough of the swan meat. That night he paid the price running to the outhouse repeatedly. He knew elders often made a soup from swan for the old people who were dying. They would come to the side of their bed and use a swan feather to brush the broth on the inside of their gums, tongue and cheeks to give them energy. He remembered his granny feeding his grandfather in this way.
She dipped her beak into the still water, then lifted her head up, stretching her neck so her beak was pointing toward the moon, her image mirrored in the still water.
He read that in England royalty had protected swans since the Middle Ages. Only a king or queen could eat their meat and killing one would be treason. Yet in New Zealand people were permitted one swan a day during hunting season. In the North people shot and ate swans in secret. The elders were especially cautious. They had seen the rules change so many times, they were sometimes confused. Many had memories of strident wildlife officers who had stormed their camps searching the fire ashes for duck and goose bones during the years when it was illegal to hunt migratory birds in the spring. They had seen their fathers arrested for the offence of feeding their families.
It was his last night in camp and he sat on the high rock with his rifle and watched the swan as the sun went down. She was feeding along the shore of golden cattails. She dipped her beak into the still water, then lifted her head up, stretching her neck so her beak was pointing toward the moon, her image mirrored in the still water. It was almost too dark to see but he strained his eyes to watch as she sailed deep into the marsh with some black ducks. Just as he rose to head back to the tent for the night, he heard the clucking of ducks and noticed the swan float back out to the cove. For the first time since he’d spotted her, she stretched out her wings as if she were waking up. She slowly drifted with the current into the middle of the river. Bobbing in the eddies, she stretched her long wings again and began to flap, making a clattering noise as she slapped at the water surface. In a few beats she was aloft and riding the wind toward the horizon. He watched her until she became a white speck and disappeared.
In the morning, as he took down the canvas tent and packed his gear to the shore, he heard what sounded like a tundra swan’s bugling call, so he guessed she had only travelled to a nearby feeding area. Later that day, when he flew out in the float plane, he had the pilot fly low along the shore searching for a flutter of white. She would be visible from the air against the golden brown reeds and dark water but he couldn't spot her. He hoped that was a good sign.