Right on the rise," said Heilner quickly, generating a genteel lie designed
to blot out my blunder. I wanted with all my soul to believe the brant had
indeed been flying, but I could not help noticing that as the lie drifted away
with the faint smoke of my gun the blind fell markedly silent, while the guide,
eschewing the congratulations usual to the felling of the first birds, sculled
out to retrieve the floating corpses.
To my mild
surprise, the rest of the flight flared off only a short way, and in a few
minutes the same birds wheeled again toward our set, this time coming low and
straight from the front. They coasted over the decoys, right toward us.
We stood, and the
birds bunched as if they had flown into a funnel. For a long moment the whole
flight hung directly over us, gabbling, croaking and, to my wild eye, in every
way darkening the sun.
Due to their
peculiar habit of balling up they sometimes present a target that is difficult
to miss. I have known eight to ten to be killed....
And I have known
none. Cool and gracious even now, Heilner said evenly, "Take your
shot." I took all three, my gun being a borrowed automatic. Somehow every
single one of those hundreds of lead pellets went rushing through the solid,
overhanging cloud of birds without disturbing a feather. This was an
extraordinary piece of shooting that may not soon be equaled. Surely it will
never be equaled by another alumnus of the weathered cottage in Beach
At almost the
same instant I was aware of two shots to my immediate right. And when I pulled
myself together there were two birds on the water. No, three. Two dead ones and
one wounded, which Heilner finished off right away. "Nice shooting," he
said, without the slightest trace of irony. "One for each and one for the
pot. I missed my second; matter of fact, I think that down one swimming off was
One more flight
came in just before dusk, and this time I really did hit a flying bird. Between
that joyful feat and another intervening hour of hypnotic talk by Heilner, with
the lowering sun turning the marsh to a luminous russet shade, I gradually lost
my mortification and became invaded with a happy, giddy kind of fatigue. When
it was not yet too dark to see the channel, the guide came over to pick us up
in the motorboat, and we went back to the clubhouse for a dinner which, to my
relief, featured stuffed veal.
Heilner suggested we take a walk along one of the tiny thoroughfares that
meandered through the marsh behind the clubhouse. It was a lovely clear night,
with the wind blowing gently from the northwest. Above us the stars gleamed in
the clean autumn air. It was too far to the inlet to hear the bell buoy, but as
we stood on a point of land, the high tide washing fresh salt over the flats,
we could hear the wind sighing through the marsh grass. And for one quick
moment I thought I heard the whisper of wings passing overhead. It had been a
perfect September in the marshes, a real September. And tomorrow it would be
October, for me and for the last of my heroes.