The Old Man walked up behind me and said, “Bang! You got him!” I yelled and jumped several feet as he knew I would, and he doubled over laughing.
“That’s not funny,” I said, which only inspired him to laugh more.
“Well, as much as you’d called, I thought it was surely time you’d gotten a shot,” he said.
Over Christmas break I had set out to learn how to use a duck call, a chore that first got me sent out of the house, then out of the yard, then as far out of earshot as I might go which, in this case, meant to the side of the barn opposite the house, a dwelling filled to the rafters with duck calling critics, it seemed. I had been out there for most of an hour, serenading two catfish ponds and an empty pasture.
The Old Man asked me where I’d heard the calls I was trying to mimic, and I told him I’d found an old 45 rpm record from Herter’s, a performance I’d had to listen to quickly because of an uprising by many of the same critics who’d sent me where I was now. The record had advised first learning how to do a simple quack, then the feeding call, but both of these were pretty hard. I’d had the most luck picking up the highball, a long series of tremendously loud, drawn-out notes, nearly useless for anyone hunting ducks as far south as Mississippi, but I thought I sounded good doing it so it was what I fell back on most.
“I’ve never heard a wild animal make that much noise in my life,” he said and, even at a young age, I had to admit he had a point. That was a whole lot of racket, no matter where your instincts as a critic tended to lie.
“Tell you what,” he said, “give the call a break and spend the rest of the afternoon just listening. It’ll be dark in another hour. Listen to the sounds the world makes when the sun is going down.”
I walked to the base of an oak tree at the pasture’s far edge, raked sticks aside with my foot and sat down in the natural armchair a gap in its old roots made. I listened to a woodpecker tapping away far back in the woods, listened as a pair of squirrels chased and barked at each other, heard a solitary owl in a high treetop far away.
The cold winter woods are a quiet place, especially at night, but its voice is still there to be heard.
Sometime after sundown I shuffled back toward the house, and the Old Man met me halfway along the path in the dark, as I knew he would. He didn’t even try to startle me this time.
“What did you hear?” he asked.
“A whole lot of quiet,” I said, and listed the few breaks in the silence that had come my way.
“When you head to the duck blind in the morning, remember, it’s fine to call,” he said, “but the silence in between is what makes it sound real. Just like anything else, the best way to learn how to talk is first to learn how to listen.”