My thumb is pouring with blood. I’m pressing it against the steering wheel of the car in an attempt to staunch the flow, but rivulets course down the rim and drip onto the footwell. Mabel is perched on the passenger seat, and I’m driving like an ambulance on an emergency to my goshawk guru’s house, swearing continuously. Right now, right now, I should be sitting in an oak-panelled College room, watching the late-winter sun that floods the road in front of me illuminating the faces of four new students. They are probably sitting in that room right now. Getting angry that I’m not there. No, young students; your new teacher is bleeding, in her car, swearing under her breath, and driving in the opposite direction. Ah, Christ, this has been a nightmare.
M opens her door, takes one look at my face, and mirrors it with a horrified expression of her own. “What’s happened, Helen?”
“Mabel!” I say, weakly.
“Did you lose her?”
“No, no” shaking my head. “She’s in the car”. And the three requests: “M … can you help? I cut my thumb. Can I use your phone? I need a cigarette.”
Bless this woman. Her and S are just wonderful. I collapse into a kitchen chair with the feeling of sudden access to safety. My knees hurt. Brambles? My thumb is still bleeding. M hands me iodine wash, fixes the tear with steri-strips and bandages, makes me a coffee, pushes Golden Virginia and cigarette papers across the table. I call the College and stammer out apologies to everyone from the Porters to the Queen. Then I tell my sorry story.
I’d like to blame the weather. Over the last week or so I’ve seen signs. The season is turning. I’ve been trying to ignore them, I think. Falconers’ denial; a bluebottle in the garden; torpid purple crocus on my lawn. Dots of cherry blossom falling outside St Johns. And one evening last week, a host of cock blackbirds carrolling into the deepening sky from perches all over the gable ends and the gothic spires of this bad old town. Spring is coming. And usually I’d rejoice at that curious bluish tint to the air and the lengthening days. But not this year. Spring means no more goshawk. Spring means putting her away from me for months and months, to grow wild and grow new feathers in an aviary far from here. My heart hurts just thinking of it.
So I’m not thinking it. And that was part of the problem. Something was stirring in Mabel’s accipitrine heart, and perhaps it was Spring. I had an hour to fly her today. I was cutting it fine. So I decided to go back to the Donkey Field, where the rabbits are. Her weight seemed right, so there was nothing less complicated, I thought, than showing her a rabbit, watching her chase and possibly catch a rabbit, and then returning to the house to ready the sheaf of poetry I’m teaching and run down the road to teach it.
Life has a way of teaching me things, however. And what this particular day teaches me is that the best laid plans of girls and goshawks gang aft agley. She didn’t seem to be that interested in the rabbits I showed her. She chased, but didn’t crash into cover after them. Instead, she lit upon a hedgeline and looked about. And then took her time coming back to the fist. The warning signs, already, and I chose to ignore them. One more flight I told myself.
“One more flight” has a kind of parity with the DIY-ers “Oh, that’ll do”. The kind of statement you hear yourself saying, and know as you say it that it’s absolute nonsense.
What Mabel seems to be doing is reveling in the weight of the sun on her back, and in the little intimations that warm air is rising into this steady, grey-blue sky. She courses another rabbit, and sails onward, away from me, pitching high up in bare trees, and at last I realize she’s fast losing interest in me. I kick myself. After the last debacle here, I swore I’d be more careful, coming to the Donkey Field. There’s something about the tall, bare chestnuts, the unsettling proximity of moving cars and trucks and tractors: she simply doesn’t like it here any more. She crosses the road into a belt of trees and graveled drives. I follow her. Rabbits break all around me and the “PRIVATE: KEEP OUT” signs. She ignores them. And me. She’s taken stand in a tree a good twenty-five feet above me, and looks out at the prospect all around. I’m waving my glove and whistling, but it’s a lost cause. She fluffs her tummy and shakes her tail: goshawk’s signs of happiness and contentment. But on an inaccessible branch, with the seconds ticking past, these lovely signs of relaxation and calm bring a sinking feeling. And I realise I failed to bring my telephone. Or my cigarettes. And the radiotracking receiver is in the car.
After a minute or so, she slips away, out the back of the wood and away into land I know nothing about. It turns out there’s a lovely, soft field of burnt-butter coloured grasses here, with a thick grey wood about three hundred yards distant. And no goshawk anywhere. Back to the car, then, to pick up my radio receiver.
And I spend ages tracking her down. The signal is all over the place. Beep. Beep. Beep. That direction, 5. Here, 7.5. But then — 2? Triangulate! Triangulate! I angle the Yagi and spin in circles. Is she moving? She must be. And over the distant wood I see … my goshawk, on the soar. She’s letting the rising air carry her, spilling over the wood in rich circles of sun-warmed flight. Another hawk comes up, and the two slip and rival each other for a second. I run, of course. By the time I reach the wood, there’s no sign of either of them. Though I hear a buzzard mewing some way off.
Then, suddenly, bells. Somewhere in there. I dive into the wood. The signs aren’t good. It’s not a thick wood. It’s not a wild wood. It’s a habited wood. It’s a pheasant release wood, to be sure. Just what I needed, eh? Oh lord, this goshawk is making me a criminal.
I spot her. She’s poised on a low branch of an ivied oak, staring fascinated into a tangle of old feed sacks and bins in an inch of water walk up. She’s making those snaky-necked prospecting parallax movements of her head that mean she’s locked onto something. She’s going to ignore me until she’s established to her satisfaction that it’s gone. Perhaps it has. I edge my way through to where she’s looking, and before I know what is happening, a wet cock pheasant breaks from my feet, showering me with water. In slow motion, I see the sun through its primaries, splintering into bars and abrupt shadows, and watch Mabel do a smart wingover and her left foot flash out, with its two and a half-inch back talons and crayon-yellow hand just miss him. He rises over — oh horror, I hadn’t seen it — a ten-foot chickenwire fence — and buries himself in a huge stand of laurel and yew on the other side. She dives in after him. I can’t get to them. They’re in a bloody pheasant release pen! Shit! This is like taking a ferret into a fancy rabbit show. Not good. Not good. I can hear wings beating, bells ringing, the sounds of a struggle. I run like a rat around the perimeter of the pen, trying to find a way in. This is not what I had wanted to happen. Oh god. Oh god.
There’s a door. It’s open. I dump the receiver on a blue feeder bin and run in. She’s no longer in the laurel. She’s on top of it, looking a little unsteady. She turns to face away from me, and before I can take another breath, she is off again through the sun-filtered branches, fast and determined. Shit! Shit! I start running, over branches, past little corrugated shelters, over earth compacted by hundreds of pheasanty toes. Any minute now, I think, I am going to hear the “OI!” of an incredibly angry keeper.
Perhaps he will have a shotgun, I think, as I watch Mabel pile into a hen pheasant at the far corner of the pen, in a little leafy explosion of buff and cappuccino feathers, and beating wings. I run right up to her. She is sitting in a leafy, black puddle of acid woodland water, mantling over the body of a hen pheasant. And as I walk up, suddenly another hen pheasant emerges from under her wing, and she grabs that too. She has a pheasant in each foot. Oh my god. Carnage. Her tail is spread into the puddle, her feet are buried in feathers, and her whole being seems to be vibrating at some unlikely, scary frequency.
The pheasants are dead. One is in my waistcoat pocket, and the other is being plumed by my errant goshawk in lifting puffs of soft contour feathers that float and catch in the wire behind her. She keeps rousing her feathers and shaking her head. I can’t work out why. Is it the water? I carefully encourage her to eat a little — she rouses, again, and wobbles — and then injure myself horribly. Nothing to do with the goshawk. It was simply inept knifework. While cutting through dead pehasant leg sinews, I took a wide, shallow strip of skin from my thumb.
Putting it in words doesn’t quite work. For one thing, it doesn’t manage to get across how instantaneously everything is covered in blood. My new knife from the trading post in Kittery, NH, was exceedingly sharp. And as I lift Mabel from her illicit prize, I’m actually worried about the amount of blood I’m losing. I start pressing the injury into the cordura of my hawking jacket. No matter how pathogen-rich the jacket is, must stop bleeding. Must stop bleeding. And it bleeds all the long way back to the car, and all the way to S’s house, and Mabel. Poor Mabel.
I wasn’t the only wounded. Mabel, it turned out, had a nasty spur-wound. It is a ragged gash running for an inch from her cere to right above her eye, and her nictitating membrane is bloody and bruised. She has another wound the other side of her beak. That cock pheasant in the laurel beat the living daylights out of her: no wonder she was a little wobbly.
(Administrations of lots of delicious food, F10 barrier cream (carefully, with a piece of twisted-up kitchen towel) and a spot of F10 disinfectant in her bathwater — the wound has healed fine)
As for my illicit booty? I put one cold, heavy pheasant into a plastic carrier bag and carried it around the corner to my academic colleagues’ house. No-one was in, so I hung it from the doorknob. Is this going to be considered a menacing act? Check this is the right house. Yes. My colleague M cooked it, it later turned out, with chanterelles, to much familial approval.
I poached (ha ha — double poached pheasant) the breasts of the other bird and added them to a gloriously extravagant Pad Thai. But most of this pheasant ended up in Mabel. Thank you, she says. I approve of game-rearing.
I can never go back there, now. Ever.