I cannot forget.
The words came from Coda, a Harris’s hawk, as I mucked her mew at the raptor rescue center, a wire and wood building on a private ranch where I volunteered. Or so I imagined, to help alleviate the intensity of her eyes burning me while I scrubbed guano off the wall behind her. And in this imagined telepathic exchange, I replied What can’t you forget?
What’s it like, to be that free?
I remember golden flames of poppy far below. Sunrays like quiet hymns. Warm breath from a dune lifting me. Many seasons in this cell, but I remember the manna of raindust when skimming the belly of a cloud.
Perched on a T-bar made of PVC wrapped in Astro Turf, Coda always kept her back to the only window, small and grated, as if she didn’t want reminder of vast creation beyond. A gunshot to her wing, ruined evermore. Most raptors here would be released back into the wild but Coda was a lifer. In solitary confinement, which goes against her culture. Harris’s, unlike other hawks, are social raptors who live in familial groups. They hunt together with coordinated sophistication—why they’re also known as “wolf hawks”—able to bring down a large jackrabbit. One hawk gives chase while others block its escape into cover. Known as a relay attack, this goes on until the prey is exhausted, unable to kick so hard. A jackrabbit’s kick has done in more than a hawk or two. When a rabbit is dispatched, the group shares the meat at the kill site, then “helper” hawks bring extra meat back to the nest. A helper has also been known to bring food to an injured comrade. For Coda, I was that hawk.
I was a lazy excuse for a volunteer. We were supposed to arrive at the ranch by 8 a.m. every Saturday morning. But for me, Saturdays have always been sacred sleep-in days. Plus it was over 25 miles to get to the place, in Trabuco Canyon, a raw outlay at the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. You’ve got cougars, rattlesnakes, bobcats, mule deer, ringtail cats, and the jackrabbits Coda once hunted. I would arrive at maybe 10:00 a.m. and one of the women—there were three who ran the show—would put me to work. They never said you’re late, or don’t bother coming back. The only thing even close to a chide was when Michelle, the volunteer coordinator, suggested I carpool with her, which I of course gracefully declined.
The oldest known Harris’s hawk in captivity lived 33 years. Coda had a long wait for the release of death. Like my father waited, his room at the nursing home not much bigger than Coda’s mew. Trixie, the mobile Hospice nurse who oversaw his care told me “he keeps asking if I can give him a purple pill.” I don’t know that my father would’ve actually swallowed a suicide pill had Trixie given him one. More likely he’d keep it in a little cup within reach, a contingency plan. Like the whistle I’d brought from home and put around his neck. He wanted it in case his call button didn’t get a response. Like the loaded .38 Diamondback handgun I found at his house in the nightstand drawer next to the bed, or the Saturday Night Special, in the top right desk drawer in his den. He was ready for home invasion from all sides.
In lieu of the purple pill he couldn’t have, every night, my father asked God to take him. One day an old friend of his visited. “Have you made your peace with Jesus, our Lord and Savior?” she said. My father, his eyes dead on hers, said “Fuck no.” Prayer for him wasn’t theistic so much as a contingency plan.
Earlier that same year I began volunteering, we rented a condo atop a bluff in Costa Mesa. Right away we had company. Red-tailed hawks floating off our balcony, tacking the bluff line, some close enough you could touch a wingtip. Upstairs in our bedroom it became my habit to sit on the sill, wide as a boat’s gunwale, leaned out the open window like a scuba diver about to backward roll into a yawning blue. My legs stayed inside, stretched toward the bed. Toes, curled rigid under the mattress frame, all that kept me from a death drop, 100 feet, to the valley floor. On clear days the ocean to the southwest was a sheen of diamonds. Onshore winds transform this winding ridge into two miles of updraft the hawks can’t resist. Whenever I saw one gliding by, just under my window, wingback like stained glass catching sunrays, whenever I saw that, I could hardly stand the shock of it. How they own their freedom.
Our condo sat so close to the edge of the bluff its stability seemed hinged on a prayer. What in god’s name would hold it fast when the winter rains came, I wondered as we settled in, no way of knowing another California drought was just unfolding. The west wall, two stories of tinted glass, overlooked an open valley, 180 acres of ecological preserve within the otherwise densely developed seaboard of Orange County. The Santa Ana River borders the western edge of the valley and runs north to south from the San Bernadino Mountains all the way to the Pacific expanse.
Thousands of years ago, a tribe of Tongva people inhabited this coastal area. Hunter-gatherers, they lived in hut-like homes made from willow tree branches and tule rushes. Besides eating fish, clams, shallow-water sharks and rays, the Tongva were fond of herbaceous plants they prepared through a milling process that added lots of sandy grit. The grit wore their teeth down to stubs and caused lots of cavities. Many of them didn’t live past the age of 30, succumbing to terrible infections from abscessed teeth. But while they lived, they lived free as the coyotes and hawks that still roam the valley.
A pair of redtails was raising their progeny close by. Juveniles perched on our balcony railing, bold as party crashers, tails not yet rusted. Already large as their parents. Incautious. Full of the foolishness of youth said our neighbor Omar, two doors south, whose balcony was also being bombed. Today’s juvie stared into our condo as if sizing us up for prey, made the cat hiss, preened itself, fanning each wing to nip out parasites. One foot scratched the belly as would a dog—except on the end of each toe a razor-tipped skewer. Every young hawk must learn not to butcher itself with its own weaponry. The tail bar lifted, guano shooting out over the precipice then the bird swooned backward off the railing with suicidal abandon, rolled one-eighty, and two sails unfolded to the updraft. Like a stone in my heart when the redtail floated over the valley. Because I could not follow. I was bound to this bluff where condo complexes like bone spurs afflict its crooked horizontal spine. Yet against this density I could lean out my window and touch hawk sky.
Our neighbors’ lives bled into ours from shared walls. To the north: middle-aged surfer dude of Huntington Beach bro culture. Talked on his cellphone as if trying to drown out a tsunami siren. Never not jawing. Like having a dialup pontificator next door. Bartender by night, then, after shift, recruiter of drunk congregates he led home. Whisky sermons corrupted my sleep. His two tiny dogs barked at my louder thoughts, that tightly wound. To the south: twenty-something makeup artist. Commuted into Hollywood. A binge drinker. One night heard her tatted BF whisper-shouting get up! get up! Peephole-framed, crumpled on her welcome mat, she whined like a child, spoiled and chastised. After he dragged her inside we could follow their progress upstairs by thumps climbing the wall. Next morning her forgotten purse, square and gray, marked her grassy mat like a headstone that had never seen flowers.
We hadn’t been in the condo a year yet when one evening Mom called from Ohio. “The news isn’t good,” she said of my father’s diagnosis. The disease, macabre in its attack, would leave his mind perfectly untouched to a slow paralysis of the body, a state called “locked in,” and weaken his diaphragm till his lungs couldn’t expand. Same disease that brought down the Iron Horse of Yankee lore. Through the window wall I watched the belly of the yolky sun touch the horizon. Dying of the light. Two redtails assembled out of the firmament, a mated pair, wing-on-wing. They traced circles over the dunes. Against the news I’d just received it seemed inconceivable hawks went on soaring as usual, how the San Gabriel Mountains beyond shone peaks of snow, pure, untouched by the dirtiness, the vulnerability, of human existence.
There were 11 mews at the raptor rescue center. The building sat on the upper tier of the ranch property. On the lower grounds, spread around the ranch house complex, there were bungalows hidden within mature oaks and sycamores, botanical gardens, and a private zoo that had a white tiger, two Bengal tigers, lynxes, and servals, felines so wondrous they seemed pulled from fairytales.
Releasable raptors were kept in the larger flight cages, separated by species, the barn owls, redtails, peregrines all in their own mews. But this wasn’t always possible. We had a burrowing owl in with eight female kestrels, the owl too big for the little falcons to prey on. In another mew a visually-impaired turkey vulture roomed with a white-tailed kite. The kite stayed way clear of the vulture, named Mr. Magoo, after the nearsighted cartoon character. He stood on the floor and spun slowly on his feet, eyes like smoky ghosts trapped behind glass. Head the color of meat going bad, full of little bumps, featherless, like the neck.
His body teetered as it spun.
“They’re ugly birds,” said Liz, one of the head volunteer ladies, when she first introduced me to him. “But we take care of him and give him as much love as the others.” My father often reminded me of the day he first held me in his arms: When you were born you were so ugly I was proud of you. Like most babies I outgrew my birth ugly. But in the mirror lately I see it coming for me again, as if ugliness helps us enter the world, then once more when we leave it. Liz didn’t know how the vulture lost his sight, only that he was another lifer here. Tip of his beak bone white with a sharp hook for tearing through hides. His toes were long with small blunted talons, feet made more for an undertaker than a killer. Enigmatic in his spin cycle, Mr. Magoo monstered out a lowly hiss at times (turkey vultures have no real vocal cords), so hideous and alone in his darkness that, if I could, I would hold him in my arms.
At the end of Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist,” the protagonist, once admired for his fasting prowess while sitting inside a cage in a public square, has been rendered tame by newer entertainment of more immediate gratification. He is a mere sideshow act now in a circus, his cage placed outside the arena among the penned animals. The people who bother to stop and behold him are goaded to keep moving by those waiting behind on a narrow gangway, impatient for the livelier attractions. Meanwhile, although the hunger artist has fasted longer than anyone else in history, his miraculous feat goes unnoticed, unverified. His hope for artistic satisfaction never comes. When the circus overseer asks him why he still bothers to fast, the hunger artist’s last words before he withers away: “. . . because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
This life has never tasted quite right to me. And if we survive, aren’t we all eventually forced to fast, slowly starved of our loved ones, our dear friends, my father, whom I would watch get eaten by the disease. The disease would stuff itself on him.
Late afternoon wind kicked up in hot gushes blowing through the bluff. Palm fronds bombed the condo roofs. A wood shingle tumbled past like a warning. Far below songbirds dashed into shrubs for cover. Sycamores shook out dandruff of crows. Above, the clouds drifted southerly in elapsed time. Nothing loose withstands these dry hot windstorms. Nothing but this redtail out my window. He carved the torrent up with blade of wing, gear lowered for drag. Redtails prefer kiting in these higher winds, often northwesterlies off the sea that create more vertical force when they strike the bluff head-on. The bluff slopes at about 45 degrees until merging with the condos, a collective face at its very edge that sharpens declivity to 90 degrees. This creates more area of current to buoy the hawks.
Steady as the sun behind, the redtail held his piece of sky. I wanted to drift up to his waypoint, bathe in his wingwash. Feathers trembled off his back like gentle flames. Watching the ease with which he made a playmate of this wind, I felt helpless, broken-winged. Now he bit into the huff, let it snap him south like a ragged arrow.
After the phone call from Mom, the continent shifted, tilted me back east to help look after my father. It was one hell of a thing seeing him strapped to a gurney then wheeled across the lawn in broad daylight toward the splayed doors of an ambulette. When moments before we were watching The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, our voices trading theories about the murder, the bloody fingerprints on the pipe organ keys, how the gardener did it, or no, the Simmons heir. Pretending we didn’t see the EMTs unload a stretcher outside the living room window. We ignored the doorbell ring. Mom had to let them in. Dad and me jabbering now to drown out the gurney banging over the threshold. The murderer must have come in through the secret panel to the organ loft, we said, as if the EMTs were not in the room. It was only when their collapsible contraption blocked the TV that we broke down, because it meant this last crumb of normalcy we shared, our tiny delusion things hadn’t come to this, was being taken away, sure as I was left with his empty chair. His empty house. And it was one hell of a sound, those ambulette doors slamming my old man inside. Mom was back there with him for the ride. I would follow them to the nursing home soon enough, after I sat in Dad’s chair, melded with his body warmth. On screen, our inept hero Don Knotts snuck through the library up behind the murderer and karate chopped his neck, which, like wishing you’d been a better son, did no good at all.
Kafka’s hunger artist, in fasting long after it had become passe entertainment, was resisting change, the transformation of the world around him. And with that resistance, was it this tiny morsel of choice that sustained him, even as his bones became brittle as the straw bedding in his cage? Until he simply became straw dust, and the circus overseer, presuming the cage was empty, filled it with a new tenant, a panther, so noble he seemed to carry freedom in his own body. Whereas the panther ate whatever he liked, the hunger artist took no nourishment but that of his convictions, his repast beyond the physical plane where he sought self-liberation. My father, stretched out on his bed in the nursing home, no future left, by then choking on his food with alarming regularity as the muscles he used to swallow weakened, his voice no longer booming, holding up the funny pages with the remaining strength of his right arm, laughing, actually laughing at the strips. That for me was his cry of freedom, an act of extreme defiance at the threshold of the guillotine.
I heard first light’s wide laughter seep through the blinds. Night pulled on her dark robe, left the same way she came. 6:05 a.m. In the bathroom mirror of my father’s house: puffy eyes, deep set.
I wondered if he was awake yet.
Winter lingered like his illness.
The nursing home was out in the sticks. He had a private room. To visit him I drove 22 miles on two-lane roads, my stalled life around me like the heath, the pickup winding through farmlands snow-patched and fallow against bright sky of midmorning. A lonely route till I spied the redtail perched on a stretch of telephone wire. I slowed, hoping for his wings to open and lift him to better pastures, but the hawk remained static as the frozen ground below, shamed to a wire like my father to his sickbed.
The sun did not follow me inside nor down the long hall to his room where the light glared, artificial as the idea he was better off here.
My father never wanted me to wheel him outside for a walk, and he never once cast his eyes out his room window. Just like Coda. Both of them resolute in their predicaments. I thought about her sometimes.
On my last morning with her before I had headed east, I was picking up indigestible chick parts from the floor of her mew: beaks, bones, feathers, compressed into pellets she’d cast from her stomach. Coda perched on one leg. She could stand perfectly balanced this way. In colder weather, hawks and other birds do this to conserve heat otherwise lost from featherless limbs. Coda did it to give one foot a rest, let her toes relax from clutching the perch every hour of every day. A hawk can normally relax both feet during flight. Coda did not have this luxury. Her ankles were bound with leather straps for when she had to be jessed to a falconer’s glove and put on a scalepan (we had to be sure she was eating enough), or to be paraded about at a school or nature center for fundraising purposes. She had raw marks on each ankle from the constant friction of the straps. About then I heard her mind draw into a strange lament. It reminded me of a steady wind sounding through bottles strung from a tree. Was this some aural memory from a stratospheric stoop that comforted her? Or was it the wail of her grief, an asking for the release of death, better than living caged? Her natural fate would’ve been to die of starvation, or predation. At least her last days would’ve been free. I pondered sneaking back onto the ranch that night to jimmy open her window and place her perch beside it. Would she leave by it? Or would it comfort her, knowing she could escape if she wanted but didn’t have to? I wanted to give her a contingency plan.
Later that same morning, feeding time rolled around. Liz met me in the hall. I don’t know if she did what she did next because it was my last day, or maybe she knew I had a soft spot for Coda. She handed me a feed mouse, newly defrosted from our freezer. Normally, we tossed mice and dead chicks (all roosters, donated by a local farmer who only wanted egg-layers) on the floor of each mew. “Now hold it behind you,” Liz instructed as we entered Coda’s enclosure. “Don’t let her see it.” Coda perched on her T-bar about six feet away, watching us.
Liz said, “Now toss it to her.”
I looked at her with suspicion.
“Just give it a light toss, right at her.”
I did a couple underhanded practice tosses then let the mouse go.
It rose in an arc toward Coda, began its decent. The mouse dropped quickly and I worried it was going to knock Coda right off her perch. Could she even fly enough to break her fall? When the mouse was ten inches from her chest Coda’s left foot, the one she’d been resting, snatched the rodent from the air. She pinned the mouse to the T-bar with her foot. The ease with which she caught the mouse, her speed, the restrained violence, made me laugh with astoundment. Liz smiled and patted my back. Watching Coda catch a mouse from the air opened me to the possibility that maybe she wasn’t suffering the way I projected. Who can read a wild thing’s eyes beyond our anthropomorphic imaginings? I wanted Coda to live, and the raptor center would do. She was cherished here. It didn’t matter whether she knew that or not. If I tempted her back into the wild, she would be left to the curs.
The Tongva believed in a creator named Chingichnish. Tribal artists made sand portraits of the universe to please him. Besides the men, women too were shaman. They were believed to have the power to shapeshift from human to various animal forms. I like to think the hawks and coyotes inhabiting the valley below the bluff are ancestors of the shapeshifters, the ones who escaped before the Spanish missionaries could enslave and convert them. Until which time the land becomes theirs again, these condos relics of another failed empire.
Out my window a redtail traced slow circles on a wind-cleaned sky, wings muscular, well-rounded, primary feathers splayed fingers reaching, like weeks before, in a Hospice suite, I reached into the edge of night for my father’s hand. Held it, through gray murmurs of dawn, when his hand no longer squeezed back and his breaths came farther, and farther, apart.
The hawk soared higher till it broke from the thermal, on a westerly glide, wings slightly bowed now, growing smaller, like I grew smaller, just a boy again the moment my father’s last breath left an earsplitting silence and he went to such a distant height, my head on his chest could not weigh him down. There lingered only a hint of what he once was, fragile, as a hawk swallowed by the sun.
Chris J. Bahnsen‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian’s Air & Space, Hobart, Juked, River Teeth, Hippocampus Magazine, The Maine Review, and elsewhere. His short story “Octagon Girl” is featured in Palm Springs Noir, an anthology from Akashic Books. An assistant editor with Narrative magazine, he divides his time between Northwest Ohio and Southern California.