Wherein we learn practically nothing about Philistines and quite a bit about duck hunters, with a little help from Judges and Cecil B. DeMille.
by T. C. Jennings
From the November/December 2008 issue.
The afternoon before the duck opener found me 500 miles from home sitting in Delilah’s Style Shop observing a ritual I had practiced for many years. Knowing a month of hunting was soon to start, I always sneaked in a haircut the day before I disappeared into the marsh.
Superstitious like those athletes who don’t change their jocks or socks or whatever, I didn’t care where I got sheared, just so long as I did.
Besides, Delilah was a delight. Aside from a few duck’s feet wandering around the corners of her eyes, she was the spitting image of Jackie Kennedy from a distance, with that Breck-girl haircut and slim, trim physique. Ignore the red nail polish, lipstick, and blush; stick her in a navy suit, pop a Jackie hat on her head, and stand back a bit, and you could almost smell the Rose Garden. Until she spoke. There weren’t many grammatical errors Delilah couldn’t get into bed with. Still, she knew how to dollop a little ice cream and cake into a conversation, something we duffers in the fourth quarter appreciated more than grammar.
“Make it marine corps,” I demanded, grinning big in the mirror as Delilah sheared my hair to such a bristle that I looked like a recruit two days into boot camp. I watched her flick the silver scissors around my ears and down the back of my neck, her red polished fingernails whirring like a hummingbird.
“You look like a hunter,” she observed, leaning against me to fold an ear back and blow off a loose hair while evening up my sideburns.
“How’d you know that?”
“Well, besides that camo shirt you’re wearing, I seen that duck band dangling from your key ring,” she responded, massaging some kind of sweet-smelling salve across my scalp and down my neck. “This’ll stop the sting where I might of nicked you.”
“How come you know about duck bands?” I suspect she heard the pique in my voice. In my experience, few women gave two hoots in hell about hunting, much less knew the difference between a duck band and a watchband.
“I know it’s your trophy,” she replied, tilting my head back to trim an eyebrow. “You have nice arches. Some of the guys come here looking like they got caterpillars crawling over each eye.” She laughed at her own joke and rested her hand on my shoulder. “To answer your question, I know about bird bands because my Daddy was a hunter, a good one from what everybody says, but he never got no band. He always wanted one, though, and especially one with the Bible on it.”
“You mean a Jack Miner band?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The woman was a gem in a coalmine. “Any band’s a miracle, but a Miner’s the Holy Grail,” I said. “He’s the bird-band man. He started the whole banding program about a hundred years ago when he tagged birds with biblical quotations. He called his ducks ‘missionaries of the air.’”
She shrugged. “Whatever you say. Daddy said he’d be shaking hands with the devil or Jesus before he’d get a band. Guess he was right. Hey, you mind if I look at it?” When I handed her my key ring, she held the band close to her eye, squinting like a jeweler rolling a diamond in her hand for the bride-to-be. “‘AVISE Bird Band, Write Washington DC, USA, one-oh-seven-seven, six seven one five four,’” she read. “What’s that mean?” She returned the keys, brushing my fingers with hers before pulling the cape away and shaking the rest of my hair at our feet.
“I don’t know. I shot that mallard about fifty years ago and never bothered to call.” I handed her $20 and thanked her for the cut. “I know it’s not Scripture, but it’s holy to me. I’d trade it for a Miner, though.”
A wry smile touched her lips. “You hunting the marsh alone tomorrow?”
“Would you take me?”
“Teach me to hunt?”
“Do you have a gun?” I asked, annoyed at myself for considering the possibility of hunting with this woman.
“Daddy’s. I know how to shoot it.”
Tempted, I stared at her across more than two decades, taking in her red nails and cropped pants and bad grammar. I thought about the small blind I had meticulously built for my favorite day of the year, weaving cattails in the chicken wire like a stylist would a wig. Glancing at my shorn gray hair in Delilah’s mirror and ignoring the old man staring back at me, I recalled her breath on my ear and the touch of her skin on my fingers. Soon I pictured the two of us huddled against one another on a Michigan marsh in October, sharing coffee and stories about the other, less intelligent and intriguing duck hunters whose hair she must have cut. Why not? I thought. She asked me, didn’t she? Besides, how often does a guy get to hunt the opener with a First Lady at his elbow?
“Why not?” I blurted out. She shrieked and hugged me and spun around clapping her hands until everyone looked at us. When she agreed to meet me at the launch at 5 a.m., I left the shop jingling my keys and whistling “Amazing Grace,” feeling found. Sometimes a man’s vanity capsizes his reason quicker than a dinghy in a gale.
A dawn moon leaned low in the sky against a cloudbank as I drove toward the bay. Glowing golden orange, the color reminded me of spring bouquets and summer wedding flowers highlighted with daylilies. Above the buttery light, hundreds of stars glittered like expensive crystal arrayed on a black tablecloth, and already the wind leaned the trees backwards like lovers on a dance floor. I knew this opener was going to be a hunt to remember.
Okay if I bring my dog?” she shouted from her pickup’s half-open window, trying to be heard over her sagging muffler. When I killed my engine, a large head peered over her shoulder and growled.
“Dog?” I stammered.
“Yeah. He’s a good one. Daddy trained him.” As I approached the window, the huge dog launched over her lap and smashed against the glass, snarling, teeth bared. “Hold on!” she yelled. “He’s a bit protective.” When she reached across the seat and flipped the handle to the passenger door, I thought she had released a Great White Dane, and I sprang into the bed of my truck. When he reared like a horse and hung his head over the side rail, I clambered on top of the cab.
“Does he bite?”
“Naw. He’s a Chessie and good at guarding my truck. He’s a baby once he gets to know you. Guess what his name is.”
“Samson.” She winked at me.
Within minutes Samson sat on a sack of decoys as though he were King of the Philistines while the two of us paddled a 14-foot canoe through shallow channels ribboning the marsh. Already the sun warmed the sky, and ducks chattered around us as we neared the blind in no time, thanks to the strong wind at our backs. I noted that Delilah handled the paddle well and praised her skill. “The wind done most of it,” she replied cheerily.
Dropping Delilah, Samson, and two sacks of decoys on the edge of a large pothole where I had built the blind on a muskrat house, I covered the canoe with burlap and hid it in the cattails. By the time I returned, she stood under the stars splashing decoys far and wide—a couple of pintails at the outer edge, a string of coots close to the weeds, and a group of puddle ducks hooking right and left and connected to a row of divers stretched single file in front of us. Astounded, I waited for her at the blind with Samson as she trudged through chest-deep water and muck.
“What do you think?” she asked innocently, panting from exertion while glimpsing the dumbfounded expression on my face. “Double hook okay with you? You shoot one side, me the other?” She climbed into the blind, uncased a beautiful Winchester Model 12 16-gauge, slid a cobalt-blue acrylic duck call from her pocket, and hung it around her neck. A rotten smell started to waft across the marsh, and I was a long way from Denmark.
“Where did you learn to do that?”
“Oh, I just listen close. The hunters gets gabbing back and forth between chairs at the shop while me and the girls is working on their hair. I learn lots that way. Some of them guys sure think they know it all, I’ll tell you. If a truckload of humble pie ran them over, they’d get up and brag about it.”
I sat beside her and squinted into the sun as it rose like a giant red sucker over the horizon. “What else do you know?” I inquired, missing the prophecy.
“Well, I know ducks land into the wind, you shoot under them when they’re landing and over them when they’re jumping, and I know that diver decoys ain’t much good this time of year.”
I felt the flush rise red as the sun in my face. “And the duck call?”
“I can play it a little.”
I remembered the cheap wooden one bulging in my pants pocket. “Did someone give it to you?”
“You might say that,” she answered evasively.
By now, shooting time had sneaked up on us and a pair of mallards scraped the clouds overhead. Still as stone, Samson followed them with his eyes. Delilah touched the call to her lips and played it like a magic flute, loud then soft, coaxing and cajoling, begging and beseeching until they wheeled and dropped, wings cupped, entranced by the sweet sound of Delilah’s song. I felt like a character in a fairy tale.
“Who are you, the Pied Piper?”
“Take the one on the left,” she whispered.
I dropped the drake on the second shot. When she didn’t fire I swung on the other bird but she held my arm. “Hen.” Then she snapped her fingers and Samson committed a flawless retrieve, bird to her hand. “Good boy,” she murmured in his ear while squeezing his neck.
Frankly, most of the hunt was a fairy tale. I played oaf to the princess, her skill and grace as a hunter and shooter far surpassing my own. Few ducks could resist her call, providing shot after shot that I often bungled and she recovered, sometimes doubling, once tripling, pump slick as silk and three teal down. The crowning moment happened in a heartbeat. A single edged the pintails, black and white, head hooded. “It’s got a band! she cried. “Take it!” I rose and fired three times, shredding the water behind as the duck flared high and away, impossibly far. Then Delilah stood and splashed the bird at 50 yards.
“Hold my gun. I’ll get your bird for you. Samson, stay!” she commanded.
“My bird? You shot it.”
“I think you hit him first,” she hollered over her shoulder. “He was going down when I shot.”
“Really?” In my heart, band lust burned like a bonfire. Two in one lifetime! Caution, sanity, reason: I threw it all to the wind like confetti at a wedding.
With whitecaps slapping against the top of her waders and spilling into her boots, Delilah stretched across the gray water, retrieved the duck, and held it high. “It’s a hooded merganser!” she yelled, and something unmistakably silver and familiar like a scissor flashed in her hand. “It’s a Miner band!” she screamed, rushing forward, then stopping to read. “‘Let Birds Fly Above The Earth. Genesis one-twenty.’ Do you know how rare this is!” By the time she reached me my heart was cartwheeling and Samson was barking with excitement. “Here, it’s yours.” She handed me the duck with one hand, and with the other a severed webbed foot with a bright silver band attached. “We were lucky. You must’ve hit its leg because the foot was hanging by a hair.”
“‘Missionaries of the air,’” I whispered reverently, turning the precious band over and over between my fingers. “Less than a thousand of all the hooded mergansers banded have been recovered.” Reluctantly, I handed it back to her. “You take it. It was your shot that brought him down.”
“I know what,” she cooed. “You still want to trade?”
“You mean it?” I couldn’t believe my good fortune in meeting this woman.
“This is for you, Daddy.” I thought she meant me.
We traded bands, picked up the decoys, and paddled home. At the launch we hugged, said our good-byes, and climbed into our trucks. Samson even licked my hand. On the drive home the band gleamed on my key ring in the dash lights. I remembered what she said just before she drove off: “Don’t let nobody take your band from you. You’ll never get another.”
I never saw Delilah again. Back in town for the late season, I heard that her shop had gone out of business. I asked a fellow duck hunter if he had ever heard of her.
“Heard of her? Hell yes, I hunted with her.”
“That’s funny, so did I.”
“That’s when I got my band.”
“Why, uh, me too,” I said.
He looked at me suspiciously, and plucked from under his shirt a chain with a band dangling from it. “Mine’s
Comparing the two, our hearts sank. The bands were identical, and we knew we had been betrayed. By now the bartender stood near us, amused. “You guys wouldn’t be talking about Delilah, would you?” he asked, smiling broadly while wiping down the bar. “That girl was a crack shot, wasn’t she? Her Daddy wasn’t much older than you two when he died, but up until he did he took her hunting about every day. When she was younger the school principal had to get after him in the fall because she was missing so much school.” He looked at the bands in our hands. “You know those are fakes, don’t you? Some magazine was offering them as a promotion if you bought a subscription. If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only two carrying them around.” He picked up our empty glasses and put them in the sink. “Pour you another?”
Nursing our beers and licking our wounds, we told each other about our times with Delilah. They differed in detail but not in outcome.
“What’d you give her for it?”
“My duck call. I’d hate to tell you how much I paid for it.”
“Was it blue?”
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Just a hunch.”
These days I smile at the memory of Delilah and still carry her band on my key ring. Remembering her magic on a duck call, her superb shooting, especially the sweet shot of that hellbent-for-heaven merganser, and her magnificent deception, I doubt if I would trade the experience for a real Miner band. Truth be told, it was the haircut of a lifetime, and I suspect I’m a better man for it.
And eventually, my hair grew back.
Ted is an avid duck hunter who spends the hot months painting battered wooden decoys and wishing summer only came twice a decade. This is his second appearance in Gray's.