Browsing Tag

falcon

Guest Posts, Nature

Animal Solitude

May 15, 2024
bird

I’m standing in a meadow, an old woman swinging meat on a string.

Whop! A big bird slams down from a tree, whacks me with his wing.

Instantly he’s back in his tree.

“So what was that?” He didn’t taloned me, though he could’ve. “Yes, I left you out all night. In the dark. Alone. HUNGRY! Didn’t you ask to be free?”

We look at each other. As we always do. Eye to eye.

***

My first close sight of a hawk was 68 years ago, a bird tethered in my science teacher’s backyard. Unmoving, huge, regal. Infolded power, I think now. But then I just felt it – power waiting in those great wings and killing feet. My teacher, a falconer, reached down, removed her hood, and amber eyes locked onto mine. We sat, bird and girl, studying, ignoring the sillies who gawked and giggled. When we left, she watched me go. My teacher gave me a book called Hawks.

So I learned about them, how to look for them, how to tell one from another. I’d whisper to myself, “Red hawks, buteos” beauties – reach up into the wind. Fly! Be the hawk. “But remember,” the book chided, “humans and wild animals are far too different to connect. You can only study them from a distance.” Or from dead things, cut-off parts that made me feel hollow.

But I only half-believed the book, so I became a falconer. I used the falconer’s tricks, withholding food until the birds got hungry and did what I asked. The birds and I each did as we were taught.

But it was never the real thing, wild, free beings in charge of ourselves.

What did the bird think, what did it feel? Were we just playing with death?

***

This young rascal, though! A pistol from the start. He came to me from the local avian specialist. “Zorro, we call him,” he said. “Four months old, brought in with a virus.” Could I monitor him, watch to see if his disease recurred? Make sure he could support himself?

“Well, actually,” I said, “I’m retiring. I’m 80, got no business chasing after a fat hawk.” My joints hurt all the time, and so on.

“Oh, he doesn’t need raw strength,” the vet said. “That’s why I’m asking you – he needs subtlety. This time, you can’t use hunger, you’ll have to invent.”

Subtlety? Oh my!

***

I started by sitting on the floor in my spare room, near his perch but not too. Studying him while he studied me. Thinking of that first magical bird, eons ago.

“Zorro?” That wasn’t a name. “Bird – that’ll have to do till you name yourself,” I said. “Meanwhile we need a language.” Chunks of quail lay on the floor between us. “You know meat. I know meat. Let’s talk flesh and blood.”

So there we sat, looking at each other, looking at the meat. After a time, I left one piece of quail in his reach. In the morning it was gone.

I moved him outside to a room of his own, a mews. Twice a day, I gave a soft whistle, and stepped in, offering him a piece of meat on my glove. “A-B-C-D,” I said, to say something. “ABCD goldfish. No, make it mouse. ABCD mouse. Now you say, LMNO mouse.” With the white walls and one window, there was enough light to see a little. He looked away. Sneered.

The second day, I didn’t leave the meat. The third day I did. The fifth, a meat day again, he was a little hungry. Just a little. I wasn’t hurting him by all this, but I knew what it was to feel a little weak and afraid.

In full light, he edged along his perch toward me. He leaned forward, eyeing me, Come closer, come closer! When I didn’t, he eased one foot onto my hand – paused. Eye to eye. Then the weight of the body, the other foot. He bent his head to eat. “Ah, gorgeous creature!”

Dark head – young, golden eyes. Brown and cream breast, wings with that dark under-patch at the bend that says “Red-tail” when they’re soaring. His tail, not yet orange, was striped brown, white, and salmon. Salmon? Definitely a fancy-pants!

Two days later, he jumped to my glove.

“Now we’ve been properly introduced,” I said, “let’s go out on a date.”

“This is called a creance.” I clipped a long leash to the jesses on his feet. I am much alone, these days, and my own voice is a comfort to me. To Bird, too?

“This is the lure. From old German, luder, bait. You’ll itch to chase it, like a hungry fish.” I bobbled the lure on a string through the tall grass. He leapt, caught, ate. In an hour, he was addicted – flying 100 feet, all the force of his passion in those razor-tipped feet. “Aren’t you the genius!”

***

Every morning he called me from his mews: “Let’s gooo! Go-gooo!”

Out in the air, I tempted him with live mice I’d trapped in the barn. He caught them, every one. Too bad, too bad for the little pounding hearts, flashing feet. “Death and life,” I said to him. “I didn’t invent it. But you. Suave, elegant murderer! You should be in the movies.”

We were ready for the second big test. “I take off the leash, you follow me.” He stared at my hovering hand. “I’ll be a good birddog, kicking up hot, wiggly things. Well, let’s hope. I’ve gotten pretty slow.”

I really was too slow for this work. My falconer pals were scornful. “He’s not hungry,” they said. “Look at him, he’s fat! You’ll lose him. You can’t run after him for miles and sleep under a tree to lure him down in the morning!”

Can’t? What stick-in-the-muds! I hope, I was thinking, not very specifically. Hope, hope, hope.

In the meadow, I unclipped the leash. Bird – that would do till something better came to us – flew into a tree. He was a bit slow, too. “Fine pair we make!”

I swung the lure. He looked away. I swung again. And again. Just when I was about to give up, he dropped down, gulped a treat – then back to his tree. I kicked over a stump, a lizard zipped out. He attacked, missed. Back to his tree. His bright eye met mine. Laughing! “Ah,” he cried, “a game!”

“Just like your ma would have done with you,” I said.

Finally, I whistled for him to come in. And glory be! He came and we went home.

Next, Bird in his box, I drove to an abandoned farm. There, in this new place, he changed. When I took him out on my fist, he trembled, hesitated. Looked all around, stared long up into the sky. Then – a rabbit! He was off, swooping low, twisting, dodging. Oops, clear through the falling-down barn – smack into an old tire. He scrabbled with his feet, yelping, dragged the poor rabbit out at last – it was twice his weight.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

He squeezed, squeezed, squeezed. Turned his back to me and gave a killing crunch. And ate.

We made our way to the car, leftovers in one powerful foot. Meat was indeed the subject.

***

From December to March, we hunted almost every day, and at night, both slept, exhausted, me from age and strain, Bird from excitement and a hundred flights. He was getting strong, fast, sure. I was getting slow, achy, tired tired tired.

I began eating my dinner in his mews, while he ate his. Sometimes I’d roll up in my sleeping bag, while on his perch above, he rested his head on his scapulars. A down pillow, I thought, envying. In the morning, I said, “Yo, Bird,” and he landed like a breath on the glove.

Once I got careless, moved my ungloved hand too close. In a blink, my fingers were locked in his talons. How easily they could plunge through the flesh! He looked at me, that way he has. Gave me a quick squeeze and let go. “Thank you, Bird!”

By now my falconer friends were urging me to release him. “Fatten him up. Wish him godspeed. He’ll have about a 40% chance – good as it gets.”

The veterinarian said, “No, no. Keep him through his first molt, two more months.”

“Can you manage another two months?” I asked Bird. “Can I?”

***

I got up every morning at dawn, took him hunting, came home at dusk, aching aching. Slept until dawn. “I’m fading on you,” I said. “I’m your old granny, living on aspirin. But you, young Bird-invar, what do you care?”

Driven by some internal force, he cared about something. He began flumping about in his mews, calling, calling. Reminding me of our third – private – covenant, just between us. To listen. We were clearly beyond meat. Beyond that fundamental, that home note. “What do you want?” I asked.

Let me go, he said, shivering his whole body, clattering his feathers. Let me go.

So I did. Removed everything that held him to me physically. And he flew.

That night, alone, I read my notes aloud for the feel of words in the air. Then slept. Long past sun-up, I strolled through our meadow, past the lovely knoll where a breeze always blows, past the rabbit paths, past the gopher holes, down to the pond with its throb of frogs. “Where are you?” The trees were silent. “No, I won’t worry.”

Liar! Did he know enough to hug the bole of the tree at night so Great Horned Owl, laser eye and ear, wouldn’t find him? I’d taught caution about cars – but owls?

This was very moment when he hurtled down and whacked me.

***

For a month, we played. I whistled. He grabbed tidbits in midair. He perched where he could see my eyes, and we held there, for our long, sweet minute. With a message oh so clear: “I can live without you!”

Oh, yes. We’re way beyond meat. And the leash is now on me!

***

Today, eight years later, Bird has a mate, and years of younglings. Convention says never ever look a wild predator in the eye. But Bird looks long into my eyes. Our eyes are doors.

Sometimes, he plummets out of the sky, a battalion of crows on his tail. If I’m not waiting, he may call. Or fly past my window. I’ve stopped whistling, that only attracts his tormentors, but I’ll point to a certain tree and he lights on the top, like a Christmas-tree angel. Or I step outside and in a fiery swoop, he passes low, wind ruffling my hair. He’ll never touch me again. Dear Bird!

From me I believe he’s learned something about community. From him, I have learned a different solitude.

One day, he won’t come. The next day the next the next – no Dear Bird. How long before I stop waiting?

Perhaps, since I’m the old one, I’ll be the first to go.

Will he feel it, that hole in the world where we were?

Every day is a rehearsal, a dance in the dark.

When his eyes slip into mine, we cross a border, our minds touch.

For a breath!

One breath . . .

Sallie Reynolds is a writer of fiction and essays, living in Northern California. Her stories have appeared here and there, recently in Writers of Mendocino County anthologies, and Dorothy Parkers’ Ashes, in press.

***

The ManifestStation is looking for readers, click for more information.

***

Your voice matters, now more than ever.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.