Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
Harris brought the fish to the shore and bled them by cutting the gills. Then he taught her how to scale them, giving Ella her first lesson in the law of the creek: You catch ’em, you clean ’em.
When they finished, they put the mullet on ice in the cooler, rinsed their hands in the creek and then, reeking of fish and pluff mud, began their trek back to the house. Before leaving, Ella took a final backward glance at the creek.
Waiting for the truth to surface was a lot like waiting for the mullet, she thought. You have to chum the waters a bit, bait the hook, then sit back and wait for what comes up from the muddy bottom. And when it comes, it comes fast and unexpected, splashing to the surface.
Falcons: The Ultimate Flying Machines.
Falcons have long, pointed wings and long tails for great maneuverability and are distinguished by a “mustache” under the eye. Falcons are the world’s fastest animals. Every detail of their anatomy is built for speed. Large falcons dive at intense speed to deliver lethal midair blows to prey. Falcons include peregrine falcons, merlins and American kestrels.
THE SUN DID ITS WORK AND DRIED THE FIELDS, and the cooperative spring winds sent the clouds out to sea. It was a brilliantly lush afternoon when Lijah came up to Brady as he was trimming the hedge along the mews and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Come along, son,” he said.
Brady set down the clippers eagerly because he’d learned that whenever Lijah had something he wanted him to see, it was worth taking notice. He followed Lijah to the large open field adjacent to the birds of prey center. Maggie and Harris were standing in the center beside some A-frame perches. Immediately, Brady spotted the sleek gray falcon, PEFA 14, that sat rooted to Harris’s glove. Harris coiled a thin leather leash around his fingers and hand.
Lijah led Brady to the shade of a greening oak to watch. He looked at Brady and nodded his head, as if to say, Now you’re going to see something! Brady took a breath to tamp down his excitement and leaned against the tree. He was curious, sure, but at the same time resentful of anything Harris Henderson did. Harris had been riding him hard lately, giving him more and more different stuff to do, then checking up on him right after. It seemed every time he turned around, that guy was breathing down his neck.
He snorted with teenage insolence when he saw Harris walk across the field with the falcon. It was obvious to anyone watching that Harris cut a strong figure. Tall and erect, he held the bird with competence and confidence. Despite himself, Brady felt a stirring of admiration for that kind of mastery. It seemed to him that the falcon was an extension of the man’s arm.
Harris walked toward the tall A-framed perch in the center of the field, oblivious to his audience. He attached the line to PEFA 14, then extended his arm to the perch. The falcon promptly stepped up onto the perch. Immediately, it turned to face Harris and the wind. Man and bird studied each other for a moment, as though reaching some kind of an understanding. Then Harris turned and walked several yards away to where a canvas bag lay on the ground. He stood with his back to the bird.
In the meantime, Maggie moved forward to face PEFA 14, effectively blocking the bird’s view of Harris. She checked the slack between the spool of line and the jesses. The falcon shifted its weight, then stretched its pointy wings, eager to be off.
Harris would not be rushed. He took his time removing the dummy rubber lure out of the bag and affixing chunks of meat securely to it. Next he held out his arms to measure the length of line he needed, then tested it to make certain it ran through his hand as if on a pulley. When all was ready, he stretched out his arm and took a few practice swings of the lure, twirling it around, getting the feel of it.
All this time, Maggie stood in front of the young, eager falcon, obscuring its view. After a few swings, Harris pulled the lure line back in, then called out to Maggie that it was okay to step back.
“Here we go,” Lijah said under his breath.
Brady tightened his arms around himself, surprised at how eager he was to see what would happen next.
For a moment Harris stood facing the falcon, lure in hand. The bird was poised and alert. Brady could feel the excitement in the air from fifty feet away. A slight wind gusted, ruffling the feathers around the head of the falcon.
Harris straightened and called out a hearty “Ho!” in two notes.
Simultaneously, he shot out the lure and began swinging it in wide, smooth circles in the air.
Instantly, the falcon took to the air with Maggie running right beneath it. Brady dropped his arms and straightened in anticipation as he watched the falcon fly with amazing speed straight for the lure. He’s going to get it, he thought, holding his breath.
He did. Both of the falcon’s feet came forward and the talons snatched the lure smack over Harris’s head with a savage swiftness. Once caught, the falcon brought the lure to the ground where it wasted no time devouring the bites of meat. Harris allowed the bird to finish the reward, then stepped forward to place his hand over the lure. Immediately, the falcon stepped up onto the fist.
Brady watched the training with growing awe. It was sort of like hunting, only different. He didn’t move as Harris repeated the process, each time allowing the falcon to catch the lure in the air and bring it down. After several successful catches, the bird was allowed to sit relaxed on Harris’s fist with a full crop.
“What you think?” Lijah asked him.
Brady’s eyes betrayed his excitement before he automatically shuttered his enthusiasm and hunched like a halfback. “It was okay,” he said with a noncommittal shrug. “Don’t seem so hard.”
“Huh,” Lijah grunted. “I thought maybe you’d like it.”
“I do. But, shoot, I bet I could do that.”
Lijah eyed him speculatively. “Think so, eh?”
“Sure. You swing around a toy with food in it. The bird goes for the food. That’s just Pavlov’s dog. Harris keeps doing it over and over. How hard can it be?”
“You think it’s like a game, do you?” He drew his shoulders back. “Well, if that’s how you think, then you ain’t know the first thing about birds of prey.” Lijah harrumphed and turned away.
Brady bristled and rammed his hands into his pockets. He’d been working with Lijah for months now, learning a lot about the birds from the old man. Things like the names of raptors, their habits, diet, personalities, stuff like that. But he was also learning how to approach them with respect and not make them jumpy. He and Clarice had teamed up, which was a big deal since Harris hadn’t wanted him near the birds. It was Lijah who went to Ella and Harris about that, putting himself on the line. That meant a lot to Brady. There weren’t many who’d do that for him. So to have Lijah dismiss him like that really hurt deep under his skin.
After Harris returned the falcon to the mews, Maggie brought out a larger falcon. This bird wasn’t wearing a hood and looked around the surrounding area as if it owned the place. Brady sensed the moment the falcon spotted him and Lijah standing across the field.
“That ol’ bird don’t miss a thing,” he said to Lijah, his voice conciliatory.
“They never do.”
“How come he’s not putting the creance line on this bird?”
“That’s Risk. She’s been here a long time and knows what to do. That other falcon is just learning what’s what. If he didn’t have that line, he might fly off.” He chortled softly. “They all might fly off, that’s for true.”
“Oh, yeah? What keeps them from doing it? I mean, freedom is right there to take. Shoot, I would if I were them.”
When Brady looked back, puzzled, Lijah shook his head. “That’s what I mean exactly. Birds of prey ain’t the same as the rest of the birds. You can’t just train raptors. They ain’t like dogs neither. Those animals want to please. Not raptors. They be proud and independent. That being their nature, you can’t go demanding obedience from them. Can’t do that with a child, neither. All you can do is ask.”
Brady listened, feeling the words take root in his heart. At sixteen years old, he’d had enough of people making him jump when they said jump.
“That’s why,” Lijah concluded, “to work with raptors, you first have to be humble.”
“Humble?” he asked, confused.
“That’s the truth,” Lijah confirmed with a solemn nod. “And that be a hard, hard lesson for a man to learn. With a raptor, you’re never the master. You’re the student. You have to learn the ways of the hawk. To learn the spirit of the hawk.” He raised his hand to indicate Harris and the falcon out on the field. “This time, son, open your eyes and watch what’s really going on out yonder. Harris ain’t just training that falcon. He working with her. Watching her, so she don’t get tired. Watching the sky, so he don’t put her in danger. Al ways watching, ’cause he cares. Now watch out there. They learning to be
Lijah looked at Brady for a long moment, as though to make sure the message got through.
“Yeah, okay. I get it,” Brady said, meaning it.
Lijah’s eyes glowed with satisfaction. He turned his snowy white head again to watch Harris and the falcon. Brady had questions bursting at his lips that he wanted to ask, but he’d been around Lijah long enough to know when it was time to be quiet. So he bided his time and joined Lijah in watching the next exercise, hoping that this time he’d get a better understanding of what it was that stirred his blood so.
In the field, Harris set the gorgeous, sleek feathered falcon on the perch. Risk shook her tail feathers, ringing the affixed bell, then quickly settled into place. Maggie stood close by.
Harris moved into position farther away. This time, however, he didn’t begin swirling the lure. Instead, he whistled, high and clear. The falcon spread her wide wings and with a burst of speed, climbed effortlessly to a good pitch in the sky.
Brady raised his face and watched with amazement as the falcon circled two times, a beautiful silhouette against a cerulean sky. Once again, Brady felt his blood race and his heart quicken. It seemed the falcon was waiting on a cue.
Then it came.
“Ho!” called Harris, and simultaneously he shot out the lure.
The falcon circled back and, in a dramatic plunge, shot from the air straight for the lure. The feet came forward, ready for the grab.
But with split-second timing, Harris pulled back the lure just before the falcon could grab it. He swung it around again, keeping it close to the ground. Risk passed, then caught a lift of air and shot back up into the sky. Harris turned smoothly around, eyes on the falcon, and shot the lure out again. He moved seamlessly, slowly extending the distance of the line, each time allowing Risk to get within inches of the lure before pulling it back again, sometimes bringing the lure close to the ground, sometimes circling it backward over his head. Each time the falcon circled, then stooped, streaking across the sky for the lure. The two shared a dance of incredible skill, daring and speed.
Brady watched, transfixed.
After a few more passes, Harris slowed the swing and Risk caught the lure in her feet, bringing it to the ground.
“Good girl,” Harris murmured approvingly as the falcon stepped up to the fist. Harris’s exhilaration was evident on his face.
With the session over, Lijah walked directly over to them. Brady lagged behind, watching the two men talk for a while. Lijah must have said something about him because Harris turned his head to search him out, then turned back to Lijah, nodding.
Brady sauntered over to join the men with his heart in his throat. Harris always made him nervous. Probably because he was the boss. But in his heart, he knew it was more than that. There was something unspoken between them, a challenge, that they both felt. Brady didn’t know why, but it was there, and they were both trying to deal with it.
Harris looked up as he approached, and Brady caught something different in his gaze this time. Less antagonism. He drew near with apprehension.
“Lijah tells me you were pretty taken with what you saw,” Harris said to him.
“Yeah, I liked it okay.”
“Interested in learning more about it?”
Brady’s face lost its customary passiveness as his eyes brightened. “Sure.”
“As you know, we’re short on volunteers. Maggie could use some help with the resident birds. They need feeding and their pens need cleaning. But they also need exercise.” He paused, considering. “You’d have a lot to learn.”
Brady couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Are you asking me if I’d like to work with these birds?”
Harris seemed hesitant. “First off, you’d have to do it on your own time. As a regular volunteer. You’d still be working with Lijah for your community service. Cleaning and maintaining the grounds. That would have to remain the same.”
“Sure. Okay, I don’t mind.”
“You’d have to come in another day. That’d be three times a week.”
“Yeah, fine,” he said, his enthusiasm ringing in his voice. “I don’t care. I would’ve volunteered already but I didn’t think you’d let me.”
Harris held back his smile until he swung his head around to look at Lijah. Then he let it blossom across his face. “Well, I guess you were right about this guy.”
“Yessir. I’m always right.”
Harris laughed and looked again at Brady. “Lijah here seems to think you’ve got the making of a first-class falconer. Now,
is a real compliment. I’ve been around raptors all my life and I’m of the mind that it’s not something that just anyone can learn. Either you’re born with the gift, plain and simple—like Lijah here—or you come by it through hours of work and dedication.” He looked at Lijah. “And understanding. But in either case, a falconer has to care about other people and animals more than himself.”
Brady cast Lijah a questioning glance.
“Second, you’ve been brought up in the country. You understand the lay of the land. That’s important, too.”
“I just know that I like being with the birds. I feel comfortable with them. Like I belong.”
Harris nodded. “That’s a good start.”
Brady released a quick grin of relief. “So, can I do it?”
Harris studied him and Brady felt as if his eyes were burning straight through him.
“Yes, I believe you can.”
“What’s that you’re always doing with your hands?” asked Clarice.
Brady looked up from the piece of rope attached to the D ring of his book bag. Even without looking, the fingers of his right hand were still rapidly moving on the rope, tying an elaborate knot. He knew he was showing off, but if it impressed Clarice, that was fine with him.