The Old Man and The Hawk
for Carrie A.
If he hadn’t been thirsty, the boy might have missed it. He saw it when he raised his canteen. It didn’t seem like much at first, he thought, just a black speck curling through the blue Utah sky. But he kept looking, curious. He squinted at the distant mystery, his thirst temporarily forgotten.
“Mr. Seth, is that a bird?”
The old man leaned against a stout but gnarled juniper, thumbs hooked in the shoulder straps of his worn canvas pack. He knew how and when to steal a few seconds’ rest as the minutes and the hours and the days and the life flowed by. He curled his arm around the juniper, letting his palm see and know the tree’s rough bark. He didn’t look up. He didn’t need to.
“It’s a hawk, son.”
“How do you know?”
The old man eased one strap from his shoulders, then the other. In a smooth, practiced motion, he twisted his upper body to the side just so, and the pack fell to his rump, then slid down his right leg to the ground. He sat, crossed his legs, and patted both real and imagined dust from his pants. He pushed a forefinger against the wide brim of his faded brown hat and tilted it up a bit. Curls of mottled gray-and-white hair stuck to his forehead where the hatband had trapped the sweat of the morning-long hike.
“I just know, Billy.”
The boy looked back at the sky. The black dot slowly grew to a dark brown cross as the hawk circled over Vanishing Mesa to the east, away from the midday sun. The boy kept watching as his thirst returned and he drank from the canteen. Water trickled down his hands and forearms onto his shirt. He set the canteen down and wiped his hands on his dungarees.
“What’s he doing, Mr. Seth?”
The old man looked up.
The boy shook his head. There were times when he didn’t understand the old man. But the thought drifted away as he looked back at the sky. He watched as the hawk explored the mesa, soaring slowly around the sandstone buttress. Billy could see the white in the trailing feathers of the hawk’s wings, the dusky red in its tail. Now and then he thought he could see a glint of gold, the sun shining on the hawk’s light brown back.
“I wish I had a hawk,” Billy said.
The old man, opening his pack, stopped. He looked at the boy for a moment, then turned back to his pack.
“What would you do with him, Billy?”
The boy thought for a moment, and then his eyes brightened.
“I’d keep him in my room so I could show him to all my friends whenever I wanted to.”
The old man glanced at the boy and rubbed the back of his hand against his chin. He shifted his weight onto his arms and eased himself off the ground until he could kneel on his right knee next to the pack. He pulled a leather patch from the pack and carefully lay it across his left thigh. Several rawhide thongs dangled from the patch. He idly combed them straight with his fingers.
“What do you mean, Mr. Seth?”
“Why would you want to keep the hawk from his sky?”
Billy looked down at the ground and scuffed the dusty earth with his boot. “Because he’s so beautiful.”
“So you’d keep him in your room.”
“Yes, sir. So I could see him whenever I wanted to.”
The old man awkwardly moved from kneeling to sitting again. He grunted as he did so. He kept his back to the boy. “Think the hawk would like that, Billy?”
“I’d bring him food and water every day, I promise. I’d take real good care of him.”
“Don’t you think he can find his own food and water?”
“But he wouldn’t have to.”
The old man looked over his shoulder at Billy.
“That’s what he lives for, Billy. Take that away, and you’ll break him. He doesn’t need your help. He does just fine on his own.”
The boy, still a few years shy of shaving, turned away. He shaded his eyes with his hands and watched the hawk. Seth shook his head. He rolled up his left sleeve and wrapped the leather patch around his forearm. He tied it securely in place, pulling the knots tight with his teeth and right hand. The dry, dusty thongs left grains of sand on his tongue, and he spat the grittiness into the desert air. He poked at the cracked leather gently. With a fingernail he worried one of the dozens of small cuts and scars in the patch. Still serviceable, he judged. He closed his eyes and squeezed the patch with this fingers. He, too, was remembering.
Overhead, the hawk’s spiral tightened as it descended. Billy could see the bird clearly now, the wire-like yellow hook on its beak, the black trim of its tail, the rusty brown of its underside. The hawk craned its head to one side, an unblinking eye trained on the old man.
Seth pulled off his hat and tossed it aside. He stood and walked away from the juniper. Billy started to follow but Seth motioned him away. The hawk neared the ground, flapping its wings and crying kree-kree-kree as it circled Seth. He stood quietly, his arm held out, and waited.
The hawk screeched. And Seth smiled. The hawk darted over Billy’s head, startling him. It headed for Seth, beating its wings harshly and slowing almost to a hover. Seth did not move. The hawk landed, its powerful talons penetrating the leather patch. It held its wings aloft pensively, fluttering them for a moment, then carefully folded them.
Still Seth did not move. The hawk’s head swiveled several times as it scanned the barren clearing around the old man. Its pale yellow eyes settled on Seth. He waited a few more minutes, then slowly walked over to the boy.
Billy backed away.
“He won’t hurt you, son.”
Billy hesitated, then cautiously moved nearer the hawk. Seth smoothed the hawk’s breast feathers with the back of his free hand.
“You can touch him, Billy. Just move slowly.”
The boy gingerly touched the hawk’s breast and quickly drew his hand away. “He’s so soft,” Billy said.
Encouraged, he tried to touch the hawk again. But he moved too fast and the hawk nipped him, scratching his hand.
Seth grinned. “You were careless, Billy. He won’t let you touch him again unless you show him respect. You’ve got to approach him honestly.”
Billy’s eyes suddenly widened. “Do you think he could hear me up there, talking about catching him and keeping him in my room?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“But he can’t talk!”
“He can if you know the right language.”
Seth waited quietly. He continued to stroke the hawk’s breast. Its eyes, though, never left Billy.
After several minutes, the boy walked very slowly towards the hawk and stopped a respectful distance from that sharp, hooked beak. He held his hands out and turned them palms up.
“I’m sorry I was so eager,” Billy said. “And if you heard me talking about keeping you in my room, I didn’t mean it. Really. But I hope you’ll come and visit me. I’ll put a perch and some water in the yard where you can come and rest when you’re tired of hunting. And if you want to talk, I’ll listen. If you don’t, well, that’s okay, too. It’d be real nice just having you there whenever you want to come.”
Billy, his eyes squinting from a flinch-to-be, gently put his hands on the hawk’s breast and touched the soft, downy feathers of its underside. He let his hands rest there for a minute, then he slowly stepped back.
“Do you think he likes me?”
“I don’t know, son. Guess that’s between you and him.”
Seth walked away from the boy and faced the sun. He held his laden arm in front of him. The hawk looked back at Billy, then at the old man. Seth nodded to the hawk. Then he lowered his arm slightly and raised it forcefully. The hawk leapt into the air crying kree-kree-kree, its wings beating strongly as it hugged the ground to gain airspeed.
Soon the hawk had transformed itself into a black speck against the blue Utah sky again, a speck growing smaller still as it soared high above Vanishing Mesa.
Seth looked away, removed the leather patch and stowed it in his pack. When Billy could no longer see the hawk, he turned to the old man and asked:
“Why did he come here?”
“He and I go back aways, Billy.”
“What do you mean?”
“A long time ago, I wanted to keep him, too. I set a snare and waited. And watched him. After I’d watched him enough, I didn’t want to trap him anymore. So I threw away the snare. He saw that. And that’s when he came to me.”
“Does he keep coming back like this?”
“Because he knows he’ll always be free to leave.”
photo credit: Rich Reid, National Geographic.com