The road that slices through the Sabine refuge on the way to Holly Beach has no name. Neither does the breed of wild marsh cattle that lives in the marshland and dies, sooner or later, in the sludge and muck of Cameron Parish or when the men from the dog food companies come out and round them up for the slaughter.
There is a ramshackle hotel in Holly Beach if you need hot running water, fresh towels and a television set, but it's open only during hunting season and on Independence Day, and a room with a view of the Gulf of Mexico might cost $10 a night, too much for a man of my savage property.
I am the son of a hunter, bred on rabbit sauce piquant, sweet potato pie and the clear rotgut sold in 10-ounce jelly jars by men who swear they, like the beasts and backpaths of their homeland, are nameless. A true soldier of the marsh finds more comfort in a secluded duck blind than in the best four-poster bed this shanty town's seaside hotel has to offer.
Seven of us will exchange dirty jokes tonight, howl at the Louisiana moon and pray for more ducks in the sky come morning than we care to shoot. During these two days away from civilization, we are animals of the marsh and we have our roles to play.
The three boys, not yet teen-agers, will pluck and dress our kill, wash dishes and retrieve cold beer for the four men who are too lazy to rise from their lawn chairs and walk through the den and kitchen to the ice chest. The four men, of which I am one, will drink grape wine from a gallon jug until the heart burns, or until we hit rock bottom, whichever comes first. We will roll our cigarettes and substitute curse words for simple adjectives, knowing that, because we are away from home, and because there are no women here, it is our duty to be men. If a boy asks permission to play cards, there will be no battleship, crazy eights or solitaire. Only boo-ray and poker allowed.
Although I have been away a long time, I know if you climbed halfway up the water tower on the edge of town, you could finger-count the number of camps in Holly Beach. They are made of plyboard, tin and asbestos sheets, covered with tar or sandpaper, never brick. There are many windows and doors for when the hurricanes come, allowing the sea to sweep right through, washing the cheap furniture deep into the marsh, but sparing the foundations. The finest structure in town is the Holly Beach Cafe, which serves fresh seafood and city-bought beef, and you can wear bloodstained hunting clothes at the dinner table as long as you take off your hat.
Harold Fontenot, who owns the house trailer in which we will stay the night, is not with us. A country and western singer by avocation, he will strum his quit-fiddle tonight in an old folks home north of here, serenading the elderly with songs he knows by heart and Hank Williams tunes he picked up off the juke in the hamburger shop back home.
Jim Fusilier says, "I'm glad they called Wally and not me. 'Hill Street Blues' is on tonight. And it ain't a rerun's what I understand."
On the skyline ahead, I see no television aerials, only the slaty-black silhouettes of geese rushing down to feed in the refuge. "Alfred Hitchcock never saw so many birds," my old man says.
The three boys wave at a marsh hawk poised on a telephone line. In the gullie on either side of this tar strip, alligators peep up from the mire to stare and hope the speeding red sedan hits a marsh rodent and gives him reason to pull up his keep and crawl into the fast lane for supper.
"Are gators mean?" my little brother asks. "Do they bite hard?"
"Does a fat baby snore in an air conditioned room?" Jim says.
Give me a gun and a blind, gentleman. It's time to make this thing real.
After a supper of roast venison, corn-starch gravy and french bread, I dress in camouflage overalls and hip boots and head for the beach. I spent many winters as a boy walking this dirty beach at dusk, watching the drilling rigs sputter like small camp fires across the great expanse of water. This night, the sky rocks with thunder and heat lightning. It is 80 degrees and overcast, unlike the cool winter nights I recall on Holly Beach as a boy.
Back then, Harold's sons, Jody and Todd, would carry bee-bee guns and shoot at sand crabs or at each other in mock duels, sending their pellets high or low, always missing. Sometimes, they aimed at the rigs and said, "Bang, bang, you're dead spaceship. Bang, bang, you're dead." I would tote along a sawed-off broomstick, fashioned into a gig, and poke at the flounders nestled in the shallow water at my feet.
Tonight, before the hunt, I walk the beach alone. The tide, swelling under the weather-rotten shanties raised high on pilings and steel girders, pushes debris dumped from the rigs ashore. Plastic milk cartons, tobacco tins, trash bags filled with crawfish hulls and potato peelings. So many spent suppers.
At 4:30 in the morning, Jim Fusilier blows smoke into his duck call. It is music to the ears. "You sound more like a duck," my father says, "than a duck."
On the radio, a talk show from Houston and, mixed in with the prattle, used cars for sale in Beaumont and Hollywood, veterans' coverage for the uninsured, and a boys' choir singing terribly off key.
I think of the rich and their luck, quartered at a "duck hotel" in a gulfside village east of here, Pecan Island. Yankee oil tycoons visit periodically and spend modest hunks of their wealth securing duck-blind privileges on property fringing game reserves. These blue-blooded hunters waken to Chopin and espresso, hot breakfasts of hash browns and fried link sausage. Servants shine their boots, draw their baths, clean their guns.
After the hunt, the Chinese gourmet cleans and bakes their birds in an old-fashioned orange sauce. Forced to eat the game they've killed, the hunters jet home and tell their wives about "roughing it."
I eat sugar cookies shaped like reindeer for breakfast, stash bourbon bottles in my pockets knowing this plebian taste must last past noon. There is a hunger in my belly for things I may never have.
"You know, last year there were more cats than people in Holly Beach," Jim says. "But somebody went nuts and poisoned half the population. There were dead cats everywhere. Then there were dead cows. The mosquitoes were big as raspberries."
On the road to the lease, refineries every half mile wash the night sky with a rainbow of lights. Emerald cities that run for miles, they look like space labs in a sci-fi movie. A girl I dated in college told me she visited Holly Beach one lowdown winter afternoon and decided to drive this sinuous road siding the Gulf of Mexico "just to see where it takes you." The road came suddenly to an end, she claimed, and there, propped between a couple of granite-like boulders, was a sign painted in a lazy, chicken scrawl. It read: Welcome to the end of the world.
Up ahead, letters flash under the high beam. A familiar placard, "Yard Eggs," and a cattle guard glow in the dark. A flagless flagpole leans against the strong Gulf wind. We turn right. Allison, you drove the wrong way. You were headed to Texas. We're in Louisiana and Harry Irbelling lives here.
"He charges us $600 a blind a year," Jim says. "There are eight blinds and eight of us that lease this property. That's pretty cheap but I wouldn't tell him that. Down the road, a blind goes for $1,000, $1,500. You go through the oil companies for those. But Old Harry, he finds ways to charge you. He passes the hat when he hears change jingle in your pocket. I shoulda left my wallet in the camp."
Old Harry would rather ride his big red horse than in his wife's new Ford. He bought a truck once with a riding board and four good tires, but machines, Harry says, break on you when you need them. He parked the pickup in a hay pasture and left it there with the doors open. Nutrea and field mice fight for possession of the cab seat. What sleeps under the hood he couldn't say. You don't see trucks like that on the road anymore, nor men like Harry.
"I don't know how old I am," Harry says. "I been saying I'm 76 for last 10 years. The 10 years before that I was 75."
When the morning is too slow in coming, Old Harry sometimes walks outside in longjohns and shoots raccoons from the ancient live oaks and fruit trees surrounding his home. "Those coons," he says, "they chatter too much. Like a couple of old women. Who wants 'em around? Coons, I mean. Not old women."
Our flashlights cut through the darkness as we walk across the orchard, over the oak roots running in all directions like fat spiders of garden hose and through the hollows ankle-deep in sludge, and make our way to the boats pulled ashore at the edge of the marsh. As a boy, before there were boats to transport the hunting parties from the high ground to the blinds, I would trudge through the heavy mire with my father, my 4.10 raised high above my head, and try to disregard the frozen rain that stung my face and hands, the pockets underfoot that gave and sucked me down to what seemed like the very core of the earth. Mud up to my waist or higher, I could only make headway by pulling on, and pushing against my father. I never cried with the pain of the cold or the brute stubborness of the marsh. "A man, a man," I would chant inwardly, "you're a man."
Bamboo poles, high above the water, mark the path through the covering of marsh reeds and needlebrush to the open lake and pond and, beyond, to the flats, the primordial land reeking of an odor like an open street sewer, where we will hunt. There are birds on the water, pulldoos, that kick across the glassy surface before taking wing and lifting above the danger.
I share a blind with Jim. "Those worthless pulldoos," he says. "The Yankees call them coots. I won't eat one of their coots or shoot one of those birds. If you fillet the breast and dunk it in a gumbo or jambalaya, it's pretty good. Up north, by the Chesapeake, a pulldoo is a delicacy. Me, I don't waste my time or shells on them. They want to die. They'll cover these flats at the crack of dawn begging you to turn your aim on them."
Soon, there will be sun and already I know this will not be a good hunt. By the light of a distant refinery flare, I note the clean sky, washed orange by the tongue of flame. The floor of the blind is four inches underwater. Without a cloud overhead, the ducks will fly high, way out of shooting range. The warmth will keep them from moving, searching spots to huddle from the cold in heavy reeds that sway, in the distance, like plains of Kansas wheat. "One thing about all this flooding we've been getting," Jim says. "It keeps the ducks from feeding in the marsh. Only the divers, which ain't so good eating, can go four feet under to feed. The rest need shallow water. If we get anything, it'll be stragglers. But I might be wrong."
It's been seven years since I last hunted this marsh, and I know my party will check their guts for excuses. They will try to ease my disappointment. Oh, the rangers feed them on the high ground now. Why fight the water, if you're a duck, when it's all thrown out to you like salt licks to domestic herds of Black Angus? Besides, a warm Midwestern winter kept them from migrating south. And we're late in the season, anyway. In the rice fields, where they don't have to work so hard to fill their bellies, count on them being there in swarms.
But the disappointment will still be there. I will recall childhood hunts in which I bagged my limit before I had time to settle in the blind, the sun yet to crack the knoll of scrub oaks and pecans on the eastern ridge. I will recall Old Harry Irbelling, who bragged of shooting 50 Canadian geese and more in a single afternoon--great trumpeter and whistling swans, big grays and canvasbacks, greenhens and even buffleheads, all of them bound together and draped over the rump of his horse. "But the world was different then," I hear him saying. "There weren't so many guns. There weren't so many men and so many mouths to feed. We're getting old, boy. Old."
I still recall Jody and Todd, the adventures of another time, roasting fleshy chunks of flounder over an open flame, boiling whole crabs and counting the stars until the numbers ran out, or the energy, and we slept on beds of sand.
Slicing through the marsh on way to the high ground, the boys will pout and ask if they can shoot at something, that poor, gawky heron bobbing for shiners in plain sight. "You kill it, you eat it," my old man will say, tossing an empty can into the pond, 20 yards out. Mine will be one of the seven rifles opening up on the poor can, sending it to a watery perdition. I will claim the tin kill.
"But you never can tell," Jim says. "You never can tell what'll happen in Holly Beach."
I bow my head and chastise myself for not bringing a pint of Jim Beam along, or a radio. Music would do me good now, off key or on.
But Jim, oh, Jim, can it be? Yes, clouds of teal dipping to earth. Way, way away, but coming. Yes, coming. And, to the west, spoonbills and pintails, the funny way they break before landing. Ringnecks, ringnecks everywhere. But you said--
The world is not so old after all. Here they come, Jim. Here they come.