–In the presence of goodness, good people rejoice.–
My boots crunch loudly on the loose and frozen gravel, rousing common sparrows from their cold roosts in the willow and wild rose bushes. Despite being leafless in December, the bushes seem an impenetrable tangle of twigs and dead leaves. I hear, rather than see, the birds fluttering and tweeting within. I have bundled myself against the bitter cold, and wonder how these almost weightless creatures survive Winter. I imagine them huddled in their houses, mostly protected from the wind, their feathers puffed out to gather insulating air, with temperatures sinking to just above zero. I marvel that these birds constantly peep and sing, fluttering about with the energy of jubilation. I envy them their unconditional happiness. I have come to appreciate their enthusiasm, to rely upon their unassailable cheerfulness.
A short distance down Rabbit Lane, in the gray of pre-dawn, a sizable lump slightly darker than the dark road began to show itself 100 yards ahead. I slowed my pace for fear of encountering a skunk, but the lump stayed uncharacteristically still. Charcoal lifted subtly to steel gray even as I approached the object lying in the middle of the lane. It remained unmoving. Now within ten yards, I could see that the lump was a bird, a large bird. Stepping nearer, I nudged the dead form with my toe, then bent to examine it more closely. The bird was a mature Red-tailed Hawk, its body still warm and supple. Its head lolled loosely on what appeared to be a broken neck. I struggled to deduce what had caused its death. No trees or power poles lined Rabbit Lane in this location. Cars were rare at this time of day, and usually drove slowly for the pot holes. Had the hawk collided with another raptor, perhaps an owl, in aerial combat? Or had it expired suddenly on the wing and landed fortuitously in my path?
Lifting the bird, I found it surprisingly light for its bulk, and cradled it in the crook of my arm like a child that needed comforting, stroking its feathers as I turned toward home without finishing my walk. I laid the hawk on my work bench to examine it more closely: ferrous tail feathers; long primaries; incisor beak. What struck me most were the ebony-black talons, two inches long each, four on each yellow foot. I spread the talons to tuck in a tennis ball, and the talons held it firmly, three talons in front, one in back. I thought for a moment of harvesting the talons and some feathers. I hungered for a token of my encounter with the great bird, to keep it with me in some tangible way. The taloned feet would make impressive trophies. But I knew that harvesting from the hawk was not only illegal, it would also make a hollow trophy, an empty souvenir, like an artifact stolen from a museum to gather dust in some necessary but forgotten hiding place. Keeping any physical part of the hawk would dishonor the bird as well as plague me with guilt and the fear of being caught. The hawk deserved better, and so did I.
Consulting with a game warden friend, I prepared to bury the hawk. My children accompanied me, admiring the hawk as I had. At the edge of my garden plot, I placed the hawk on a new three-foot-long bale of hay. Stretching out the bird’s wings, the feather tips hung over the edges of the bale by at least three inches on each side. Having dug a deep hole, I refolded the wings and carefully placed the regal bird into its garden grave.
I marveled that the Red-tailed Hawk had come to me, or I to it. What would have happened to the hawk had I not encountered it at that moment? It might have been obliterated by heavy truck tires, mangled by raccoons or dogs, kicked aside to become mere carrion, or desecrated. How preferable its burial beneath rows of corn and tomatoes and pumpkin vines.
My funereal reverie disturbed by a commotion to the west, I turned to see Erin (10), Laura (7), and John (5) standing on the chicken coop roof, silhouetted against the sunset, flapping their arms and letting out descending screams like the piercings of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Roger Evans Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. The non-fiction book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. Rose Gluck Reviews recently reviewed Rabbit Lane in Words and Pictures.