Drowning the messenger.

Hawks have no sense of humor, I’m certain of that. Once you’ve held a hawk’s black-eyed gaze up close, you just know. Life is life and death. It is not funny. It is not sad. It is soaring, hunting, mating, resting, over. I wouldn’t mind that so much.

Each day hawks circle high above, sometimes sparring with eagles and other birds of prey, and their piercing calls remind me that I am in their territory. It is easily 100 degrees today. The heat reflects off the golden shoulders of the foothills surrounding the house and pasture, and the sky overhead is cloudless and so blue you almost have to look away. Summer in California’s Central Valley, my first.

The horses stamp and swish tails at the southeast end of the property, their dark backs shiny with sweat as they stand in the late afternoon sun. Their heads hang low, chewing, their eyes obscured by the mesh flymasks that they must wear almost constantly this time of year.

Elevation here in Hidden Valley is about 700 feet, and you can drive about 45 minutes up into the Sierra and find yourself among Giant Sequoias and cooler temperatures. But this place, the foothills, is home to tall grasses that, in the spring, will cover the now-yellow hillsides with a thick blanket of green. Poisonous gypsum flowers line the road, thistle, coyote, a variety of oak trees, Pacific tree frogs, snakes, and scorpions all live and die in this valley. There is even a family of barn owls roosting in one of the oak trees not far from the house, and we hear them screeching and clicking at night as the adults teach the nestlings to hunt.

The bird life here is remarkable. I am not a birder, but I know you can see at least a dozen species of birds on just about any given day without leaving the property. Coming from the coast where you mainly see gulls, mockingbirds and finches, all these birds seem exotic. Woodpeckers. Mountain bluebirds. Chickadees. Quail. Cranes. Cattle egrets. Hawks. Golden eagles. Doves. Barn owls. Condors. A variety of hummingbirds. Falcons.

Hidden Valley is now also home to my mother and her two horses, her dog and cats, me, and my own dog and cat. My mother travels to Europe about once a month for work, so we switch off animal care. When she’s home I get to travel, and when she’s gone I stay home. We each spend a lot of time alone when we’re here.

One morning shortly after we moved here, one of the cats managed to knock a low-flying American Kestrel to the ground. When I chased the cat off the kestrel sat and studied me with cavernous eyes, daring me to make a move yet bold enough to hold its ground, even with an injured wing. Its markings were almost startling, vertical black bars on his face, alternating patches of bright blue and rusty red. I watched the tiny hunter all day. Under the evergreen. In the shade of my car. Out to the lawn to snack on an insect, then back against the wall of the garage. By the next day it had disappeared.

I work from home and with the heat am often cooped up in the house where the AC cranks all day. Once the sun drops behind the hill just west of the house, I gladly push away from the desk where I’ve sat for hours and head out to the barn. I breathe the unfiltered air; feel the warmth press against my artificially cool skin. I shove a few flakes of prickly oat hay under the fence and watch as the horses begin to make their way up out of the pasture below. I crank on the hose, scattering ants as I fill the deep black water trough, the fresh water pushing the dust and leaves and mosquito larvae off the surface.

I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here, or how long I will stay. The idea of staying anywhere is unthinkable. Now that I am untethered, I am not sure what the point is of getting attached to a place, or even how to go about it. Some days I am not sure what binds me to this earth.

I see a hawk nearly every day. The indigenous tribes of North America say the hawk is the messenger, that his presence may be a warning, or a reminder that you may need to examine your life from a higher perspective. Hawk asks you to seek the truth. I am not sure I want the truth. I am afraid if I rise any higher I won’t find my way back down.

The water tank is full and watching the water is making me thirsty. In the late afternoon or evening, when the temperature is slowly dropping from 100 or 97 down to 92 or, if you’re lucky, 89, the only thing you can do is sit on the patio, under the ceiling fan, and enjoy a cold beer and the view. Sometimes it’s just too hot, and you’ll last maybe 20 minutes before heading back inside, your cheeks flushed, beer lukewarm.

When I get back to the house I decide to call a friend. This is the hardest time of day to be alone, the time when for years I’ve gone home to someone, that somewhat celebratory the-day-is-over time when you appreciate just doing nothing for a few moments and you catch up on the day’s minutia. I’ve always loved the setting sun and doing nothing, but I’m starting to hate this part of the day. I’ve also started drinking my way through it, and it’s not truth-serum in my frosty mug.

They say red-tailed hawks, which are actually buzzards, are monogamous. They only take a new mate upon the death of their current mate. Death in the animal world is so different from death in the human world, or so it seems. There is no resistance, just acceptance. You were here. Now you are not. Everything is changing at every moment and creatures with talons and feathers and bones are no different.

But do they feel loss? For even a breath, do they feel a slight tugging in their wild hearts when their mate moves on?

I dial my friend’s number and the phone rings but there’s no answer. For a moment I’m torn: get a beer, pour it in a frozen mug, plant myself on the patio and settle into solitude, or walk down to fill the other water tank. I can see the tank is about half empty, so I call the dog and head down the driveway.

The horses are funny about their water holes. They seem to rotate from one to another, favoring this one or that one for however many days or weeks for no reason this biped can identify, but you can’t count on them preferring one over the other from one day to the next, so you have to top them all off each day. With horses having such sensitive guts it seems likely that there’s some instinct, related to their own internal flora, that drives them to one water tank or another. This week they’re favoring the one I’m headed to now, the one that’s hardest to clean because it’s fixed to the ground and can’t be tipped.

I unlatch the rusty gate at the bottom of the driveway and walk the last 30 feet or so to the tank. It is half-empty. It’s also half-occupied by a nearly drowned red-tailed hawk who stares at me intently, his wings spread wide in the murky water, his mouth open. He does not blink.

Oh shit, I think. What do I do? He’s not struggling but it’s clear he has been and won’t last much longer. Even if I didn’t know about the razor-sharp talons under water, the point of his beak is so fine it’s almost needle-like. There’s no way I can just scoop him out of the tank with my hands.

The dog is curious. I shoo her away from the tank and she begins to trot in wide circles around me and the hawk.

There’s a cheap pool-skimming net leaning against the wall of the pumphouse behind me, so I grab that, knowing the hawk is too heavy for me to lift with the skimmer’s flimsy aluminum handle. I stick the net in the water anyway to see if I can get it under him. He tips backward, sinking further into the water and when I hear him make a gurgling sound I can see how this will go: I will drown the hawk while trying to save it. Clearly I’m no Steve Irwin, but I will risk whatever avian diseases I might catch from the hawk’s talons and beak before I will watch him drown.

Leaving the net half-submerged in the tank, I go around to the door of the pumphouse to see what else I can find. An old cardboard box, brittle and partially collapsed. Some nails, old sheetrock. Trash. Nothing useful. I grab the cardboard, thinking at least it’s thick enough to protect my hands and arms if I can get it under the bird’s body. Never mind my face.

As I walk back to the tank, I see the hawk trying to pull himself out by locking his talons around the aluminum handle of the skimmer, but it’s too slick and the whole thing shifts each time he tries to push himself up. He stops moving and refocuses his gaze on me, mouth still open, sliver of pink tongue the only movement.

Before I can think too hard about it, I shove the aged flaps of cardboard under his body and lift, only to find the cardboard instantly takes on the consistency of wet newspaper and his feet are still wrapped around the skimmer. The dog watches with interest as the hawk, skimmer and I do an awkward dance to get up and over the tank’s edge and toward the ground without falling. The hawk slides off the cardboard at the last second and rolls in the dirt.

Perfect. Did I just drop a nearly dead hawk on its head? I rescue it from drowning only to kill it by breaking its neck?

The hawk barely moves, but his neck is fine. His feathers stick out in wet clumps, not at all the perfect armor of a magnificent predator. He continues to watch me with black eyes. I know there’s not much more I can do, but there’s no way I’m going to leave him in the middle of the pasture like this. I get ahold of the cardboard once more, and moving quickly and low to the ground, I carry him over to the fence line where he’s sheltered by a tree and dead grass.

He slides off the cardboard again and this time lands sitting up, tailfeathers tucked under his rear, hawk legs and razor talons pointed out in front of him like a child in a chair that’s too big, his wings up and out in an aggressive pose, yet drooping with exhaustion. He still doesn’t blink. He seems to pant, his tiny tongue a flicker.

What would the elders say about this, I wonder. A hawk nearly drowns in this water tank, and then I almost kill him trying to get him out. Would they say I must be going to great lengths to avoid the truth? They might be right.

But I would remind them that red-tailed hawks mate for life, as do the barn owls, cranes, coyotes and termites with which I share this land. Does this hawk have a mate somewhere nearby? Has she been perched in a tree, silently watching this near-death go down?

What if the truth is that I, like them, will be tied to my mate until death, even if he is no longer tied to me?

I shrug at the hawk and turn my hands toward the sky. There is nothing more I can do. I call the dog and we head back up the hill of the driveway, latching the gate shut as we go. I turn back to check on the hawk once more. He’s on his feet now, pulled his wings a little closer to his body, but he stands dead still. Breathing. Watching. Recovering. I vow to check on him in the morning, knowing he’ll be gone.

Knowing I will wish I could have gone with him.


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