This is a guest post from writer Cynthia Graham who responded to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is South Jersey.
I remember the acrid smell of singed duck feathers and my father’s loud voice. He had returned from an early January adventure on Barnegat Bay with my uncle Ken who was the caretaker of Sandy Island Gunning Club. Later in the day, over a roast duck dinner, Dad would begin the story by describing how the Bay was frozen over.
I could picture it. The flat expanse, meadows no longer softly striped in bands of green and pale Autumn gold, but dried, colorless, then the Bay, itself, sparkling in crusted shades of white and gray, going on for miles until it bumped against Long Beach Island, where Dad was born.
Dad explained that in the darkness of this winter morning he and Ken had checked the wooden runners on the bottom of the sneakbox, pressing the strips of brass smooth so the boat would move silently across the ice. They loaded supplies for the small shack on the island in the Bay, stashed a thermos of hot clam chowder made by Dad’s sister Peg, and headed north from the Bonnet Club where Peg catered to the city slicker duck hunters who visited this area of South Jersey.
Ken was at the bow of the small army green boat and Dad at the stern. Behind them they could hear an occasional rumble as cars rolled over the wooden causeway bridge connecting the Mainland to the Island. But that was off to the south and they were headed northeast, across the salt ice.
Dad whistled as they pushed, the tune of “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine”, background music for flocks of starling, whirling and swishing like the folds of a dancer’s satin gown, coming to rest on meadow grasses then wheeling again into the cloudless sky.
Ken was quiet, puffs of breath from his chapped lips like a steam train. They went on this way until they approached the channel. Here the ice was a different color, a dark blue shading to black in spots.
Through squinted eyes Ken looked west to bare trees silhouetted against the lightening sky, oak forests, orange and yellow only a few months before. Dad looked east into the sun, still low on the horizon. He could just make out a small bump, their destination. His fingers flexed inside his gloves. “Better get a move on, “ Ken said.
Encased in their heavy coats the men bent their backs and leaned into the push. The boat slid easily until the channel ice fell away under it with a crack. The two men scrambled, arms and legs like windmill blades. Ken’s legs went into water and were left dangling when he threw his torso onto the boat. Dad told us, “The good Lord must a kicked me in the ass, cause I never even got my feet wet. I just climbed that boat like a ladder.”
Dad brought up the ice hook from the bottom of the boat and poled from the bow, pushing off thicker ice. Ken whose legs were already wet hung his feet off the stern, kicking like a makeshift motor. At the eastern edge of the channel where the ice was thicker the men got out of the boat and began the slide toward the Gunning Club.
Once inside they started up the kerosene heater and Ken got out of his wet clothes. After downing the warm clam chowder, the men restocked the shelves, made coffee and probably opened a bottle of blackberry brandy hidden high on a shelf and kept for emergencies, and for the city folk who came to shoot their limit of whatever duck was in season.
Dad never told us about the trip back across the Bay or how he had shot the blackduck. But for dinner that night Mom roasted that duck, made gravy and potatoes, and opened the crabapple jelly she had put up the summer before. Dad fell asleep early, his face and legs twitching with icy memories.
Cynthia Inman Graham grew up between Barnegat Bay and the Pine Barrens. She graduated from Trenton State College, married her husband, Don, and left the US, backpacking the world, seven months on an Israeli kibbutz, substituting in Nairobi, Kenya, teaching in Vientiane, Laos, eleven years in the Australian Outback, and finally two years in Alaska, before returning to Manahawkin, NJ. She recently retired from teaching English as a Second Language. Her writing has been published in The Sandpaper, FATE, and the Stockton Stockpot, and americanturban.com. Graham received Stockton’s MiMi Swartz Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 2012.