Authors: Jack Lasenby
The cornice was a protruding rock that capped several boulders. Under its shadow something grey tottered and toppled. This was the third time I had spied upon the eyrie.
When the mother left the nest it was usually at a signal from the father who passed food to her in flight. Only once did she miss it. If he had something as big as a rabbit he flew it right into the nest and took off again while the female mounted the corpse, ripping and feeding bits to each chick in turn.
Hagar’s bag around my neck, I waited half the morning before the mother flew away. I tied on the hat with its mask. Where the cornice jutted I had to swing myself around. A moment’s terror, feet scrabbling over space, fingers clutching, and I was there.
The nest was a scrape among stones. Two chicks with huge, grey claws, grey down, skull-like heads, and enormous dark eyes. I put the biggest in my bag where it bumped like my heart and cried loud and angry.
I was outstretched, sidling the jutting rock, when the hawks punched my back. They screamed and struck my head, but the hat and mask saved me. I was scared of squashing the chick between chest and rock. Both feet kicked air. I swung from my hands. My right one slipped. One big toe found a niche. I pushed off that and grabbed blind. Two fingers found a knob of rock, and I swung around the stone protrusion and sidled the face to the safety of a ledge. There I bent and vomited, spitting and spitting the sour taste from my mouth, then scuttled, hunched over the clamouring bag.
They got me on the back of my legs and the soles of both
feet as I crawled along the tunnel under the scrub. I kept going, triumphant, crying. I left the shelter and skipped along the back of the cliffs, swinging my leg, screaming and waving a branch. Both hawks dived beneath its sweeps and struck my hands. One disappeared, the mother. I kept going.
It didn’t matter that the father followed me along the cliffs, down the zigzag, through the trees. I yelled to dull the pain. When I sat to catch my breath the chick squalled again.
Hagar slipped cords around its feet. Their other ends were tied to the perch. “Leave it to calm down.”
There were chunks off both hands, strips off the back of my legs and feet. They stung but I was still excited.
“Just as well your eyes were hidden, Ish. They’d have blinded you.” Hagar washed the bites and scratches with yellow sulphur powder in hot water. She wiped them with jelly from the base of a flax leaf. “That’ll keep them clean so they heal. It’s not just a younker. Much bigger and you would have been too late. What colour was the mother?”
“She had yellow round her beak and eyes. The tip of her beak was dark and curved. And I saw nostrils, holes. Dark-reddish feathers, and all flecked down the front. They screamed and dived into me.”
“Should I give it something to eat?”
“Let it settle. It’ll get hungry, and you can feed it then.”
The chick fell off the perch. It rocked and hunched skull-like with its grey beak, down, and feet, its huge dark eyes. It was uglier than anything I had seen, and I loved it!
Feathers sprouted through the down. At my stare it scrambled and cried wildly, and I remembered not to look at it directly. In the late afternoon it gulped a bit of rabbit’s liver, blinked unsteady on its big feet, gulped a bit more.
“Don’t stuff it,” said Hagar. “The trick is to give it enough but keep it peckish, and it will look to you.”
“What about water?”
“They eat so much meat, they don’t drink a lot. Chop open the rabbit’s head and give it the brains. It’ll like that.”
I was afraid it would starve. It took a while to learn to feed it a little, every now and again, as Hagar had said. Then I remembered how the mother fed the chicks.
Sometimes it snatched at a morsel, but it often drew close its plumage and shrugged low. Its head reminded me of the lizards that live among rocks. When Hagar asked what I was going to call my hawk, I thought of the giant winged lizards that destroyed Orklun. “Dragon!” I told her.
His feathers grew. The down disappeared. His head was all eye and scrolled beak. He accepted me, took food from my hand. I kept an eye on the animals and worked on a big loom beside Hagar’s, trying to make a rug as good as the ones she wove so fast. As Dragon got used to me I moved my loom closer to his perch. I drove a few sheep and goats past, getting him used to them. It was Hagar who suggested gentling him that way.
I stitched a heavy glove and walked with Dragon on my fist. Once or twice he gripped bare skin, and I yelped. He dived off my hand, flapping, complaining, and I drew him back by the cords. His rages were appalling. I told him I never lost my temper like that.
I talked and stroked him, not with my hand because Hagar said that would take the oil off his feathers. What he liked was a hawk’s feather. I stroked him down his legs and over his talons, and he closed the glare of his eye.
We walked around the animals, Dragon watching everything that moved. He was still uneasy with Nip who looked straight into his eyes and barked. Occasionally Dragon stared upwards, his claws closing on the glove as he watched a skylark hovering, dropping, dropping, dropping, spilling song down the sky. I knew hawks took larks and pipits.
Dark feathers covered his back and wings. Above his eyes
was a line of light-coloured feathers; below his beak, a thicker band. Under his body were softer feathers, russet, almost the reddish-brown we dyed our wool. His legs were light-grey, talons black.
Hagar said to whistle always before giving him food. He soon learned what it meant, shuffling and hopping to the glove. I increased the distance with longer cords, whistling further off. He took a flap or two to reach me. I kept accustoming him to my whistle, its three notes. And he was learning.
He flew further and further to my glove. He would take his reward and straddle it, tense with appetite, beak clotted with meat. I hoped he might come just to the whistle, but he always looked for food. The glutton would stuff himself with a whole rabbit’s leg if I let him. Twice I let him feed on, and he nearly choked and was bad-tempered afterwards.
“In a way you’re keeping him immature,” Hagar said. I was helping her on the big loom. “That’s what we do with animals we tame. They lose something when they rely on us. In the wild he’d know how much to eat.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’ve lived longer than you, that’s all.”
“You know more than anyone except my father.”
“Hawk knew a lot,” said Hagar. “And he was a just man.”
“Before your father we had an unjust leader. His animals got the best grass. He took the young women for his wives, threw them out when he tired of them. He was cruel, unfair.”
“One morning he did not wake.”
“People said it was a punishment from the Gods of the Cave. They said the Stag Man and the Dog Man punished dishonest leaders.”
“And did they?”
“Who killed him then?”
“His old wife was jealous of the younger women he kept bringing into their tent. Perhaps she put something in his food.”
“What he did was wrong. The leader of the Travellers has to be just, like your father.”
“You should have been the leader, Hagar.”
She shook her head. A long rug was wound around the beam at the other end of the loom. She was showing me how to finish with a row of tassels.
“Here.” Her hands went over mine and slipped the threads so they tied off evenly. Despite the wool and its oil her skin felt dry. Her hands looked like Dragon’s claws, but I pushed that idea into the back of my mind. I didn’t want to hurt Hagar.
“A woman couldn’t be leader. I was busy having children, raising them, telling my husband what to do when he forgot.”
“Do you mean…?”
“He didn’t always remember things. But people wanted it to come from him always, not from a woman.”
“That’s silly,” I said. “We’re the Travellers, now, and you’re our leader.”
“You mean your husband was the leader somebody poisoned?”
She bent over the tassels.
“You killed him?”
“They were going to hamstring him, leave him behind. That was the punishment for an unjust leader.”
“Would you have stayed with him?”
“I was still young, strong, with a baby to look after. I knew
a lot about weaving, dyeing, plants for medicines. I was too valuable. They would have made me travel on. He had hurt me, too, but I didn’t want him to suffer his way to death alone, listening, watching our dust vanish. Then the bite of the cold, the wild dogs…” She tied another knot. “So I poisoned him.”
“When someone was hamstrung and left behind, were they given anything to defend themselves?”
“Not a stick. Not a stone. No fire.”
I stroked Dragon’s breast with the feather. He wore a red cap that cut off the light so he sat quiet. “Wouldn’t it have been kinder to put a hood over their heads so they couldn’t see?”
“Part of the punishment,” said Hagar, “was seeing the Travellers walk away.”
“Weren’t you allowed to look back?”
“You might be hamstrung, too.”
“Did it keep the leaders honest?”
“Most of the time.”
“Was Karly like his father? Was that why he was cruel?” Hagar turned both hands, palms uppermost. “Is that why he hated my father? Because he was the next leader?”
“Is that why he drove me out, why he came back to kill me?”
“We’ll roll this rug,” she said, “and set up the loom for another. You know how to do that. Take Dragon for a walk. Bar and Mak like to see you come around and speak to them. They get lonely just like us.” Hagar nodded her head which grew more like a skull, I thought, like Dragon’s head when he was a chick, all eyes and beak.
There was plenty for all at the Hawk Cliffs. I tickled, speared, and shot trout with arrows. I set lines for them. Hagar showed me how to make a net, the simple knot, and the clever needle with its middle prong. It caught more trout than we could eat. We hung them from the roof of a small cave and kept a smoky fire going.
“They’d last well into winter,” said Hagar, “only we won’t be here then.”
I looked at their rows of smoky gold and red and wanted to stay at the Hawk Cliffs for ever.
One afternoon Dragon teetered on the glove as I knelt and looked into the lake’s deep, reflective eye. Across a blue sky small white clouds swam lazily. Their reflections drifted across the lake. I wondered how to draw them. Did the sky reflect the water? A trout jumped, and the clouds rippled. Circles followed each other out from the splash, losing their edge, becoming bulges rather than ripples. The surface smoothed again to small white clouds, travellers across a blue plain that stretched to the foot of the mountains.
I tied Dragon to a branch and waded, leaning forward till the water swung my feet up behind. The lightness it gave me! My lame leg floated as easily as the good one. I stared at the little clouds, and kicked until my head beached between smooth stones.
Nip whined beside Dragon whose head cocked under a bright cap. When I swam out to deep water Nip stood and barked. She was usually happy to lie near Dragon, and I would see them looking at each other, Nip lifting her head, gazing at the hawk which tilted its head and stared back. It
was when I carried Dragon that Nip got jealous, especially when I stroked his neck or breast, his terrible talons. She whined and pushed against my leg, and I talked to her in a different voice, one for her alone. I was careful, too, to keep Dragon’s whistle different from the dogs’. Now I whistled Nip, and she swam to me, grinning because Dragon could not follow.
We paddled into our creek’s milder current. A sudden westerly blew. My tunic was warm from its boulder. The reflected mountains and clouds vanished, serried in white-capped waves, steely light.
Yellow-beaked, cold-eyed, two huge black and white birds hung above and rattled an evil call until Dragon plunged off and fought his leash. Crooning, humming, I settled him and followed the animals home.
“Black-backs nest around the lake,” said Hagar. “They’ll land on the water, tempt a dog to swim after them, and try to drown it. They’ll peck the eyes out of a lamb or anything helpless. A hawk kills clean.”
That evening Dragon stood over a rabbit’s liver, mantling and guarding as if somebody might take it away. I told him, “You can help guard the animals from the black-backs.” Beak flecked, he ignored me and stripped meat.
Now when I took off the cords and whistled, he leapt to my glove, a hop and a single wing-beat, unaware he was free. I fed him a tidbit. Twice more I whistled, rewarded him with liver and brains, and returned him to his perch. He sulked immediately, appetite dulled. “I used to have a bad temper,” I told him, “just like you.”
He came greater distances till I could whistle from a hundred paces and he would arrow through the air, glaring, as if to fly through the centre of my eye. Then he would be cuffing air against my face, talons gripping the glove, mewing for his bloody reward.
Once as I carried him a big rabbit ran. Fingers trembling
I unlaced Dragon’s hood. The rabbit bounced into the scrub. Dragon might have mistaken it for a dog. When another got up he ignored it. It disappeared, his talons tightened cruelly, and I almost shrieked.
Together next day we saw a rabbit start. My hand was shoved back, and Dragon was striking through the air, round-tipped wings chopping, hitting a tussock, hopping, glaring. I got him on the glove. His heart beat enraged. I had meat hidden but did not feed him. We walked on. He squirted shit hard against my tunic.
He had several flights at rabbits. Twice he took off after small birds. Each time he missed but got closer. His parents would not have rewarded him. Nor did I. He returned at my whistle. Just once he landed in a small tree and sat ignoring me. When I waved a strip of meat he came down like a spear, snatching, gulping.
One morning as Dragon was watching the wind lifting the grass like a wave through water, a young rabbit ran and stopped. I turned myself around and prayed he would see it, but he turned his head back to watch the grass lift and drop again. The rabbit scratched with a hind leg, and Dragon floated softer than a shadow crossing my hand.
He flew into a tussock, bounced, almost smashed into the scrub, but pinned the little rabbit, talons and beak. When I ran to him, he struck at me, would not withdraw his grip. I got him on the glove, fed him the liver, and he gulped and splashed blood in my face. I revelled in his wild satisfaction.
Home I carried him, crooning his song, whistling quietly, and split the head so he might gorge himself on the brains. He blinked at me over the top of a distended crop. I avoided his gloating eye.
Hagar listened to my description as she had listened to every step of my first deer hunt. “You have learned much,” she said.
“About yourself.” She turned back to her weaving as I wondered what she meant.
Hagar said she smelled snow. We moved the looms inside the cave and kept a fire going. The animals fed greedily. At night they were pleased to have the leaning cliff’s shelter. One morning the mountains at the head of the lake were sculpted white.
“Time we were off,” said Hagar. “We’ve left it late, but I wanted to get this stuff woven.”
I had begun some drawings on the wall of our cave and wanted to show the mountains under snow. “I wish we could stay here,” I said.
The looms dismantled and stored, firewood stacked for next year, we took up the Journey. The lake jigged and sparkled. The animals had eaten little of the grass; the uplands above were hardly touched. Hagar’s nimble air was more exciting than ever. It was a good morning to be on the move, but something in me wanted to stay.
“Travellers don’t look back,” Hagar muttered.
“I was just looking at the weather!” I said angrily.
The sacks of wool were now pack-loads of clothes, blankets, rugs. Dragon rode a perch on a donkey. I had woven a red cover for him over a willow framework. “Dragon’s tent,” Hagar called it, an odd-looking dome on top of the load. It meant he didn’t have to wear his hood when we were travelling. Sometimes he preferred his cage to rain and wind.
I got behind Hagar, looked back at the Hawk Cliffs silhouetted against the sky. Along their top, wind-buffed scrub was like a column of burdened animals on the move. I was still looking back, hoping it was a sign we would return, when I heard Hagar’s cackle. She had caught me again.
We passed walls at the foot of the lake. The Whykatto River began, and we camped above a waterfall where the river bent, green and white. Its roar grumbled away as Bar led east next morning.
“The Metal People live by hot springs,” Hagar said.
“If they can live there in winter, why can’t we stay at the Hawk Cliffs?” I did not look at Hagar but spoke to Dragon on my fist.
“We are Travellers. We must go north for the Whykatto rains, then it will be time to start off once more.”
I thought of my father and Rose, wondered what it would be like to see our winter encampment again. Dragon clenched his talons. I heard what he had already seen and cast him off. He lifted, tilted, and fell, a shooting spark, down the sunlit morning air. A puff of feathers; the high trill stopped; and Dragon carried to the ground a skylark for the Journey.