My father had been ripped from my life when I was young, killed leading a cow from our barn on West 89th Street in Manhattan to our pasture along Riverside Drive. Although I was too young to remember it, that terrible day we had lost a father, a husband, and our urban-agricultural zoning permit.
After my real dad died, Mother and I moved to a farm in the country[P1] . Since it was just me and Mother, I grew up as the man of the house. Occasionally an uncle or older cousin would visit us to make sure the farm was running smoothly and that Mother wasn't making me help her in the kitchen or wear a dress, but mainly I did everything: the plowing, the haying, the bookkeeping, and the leading of cows to pasture.
I was nine years old when Mother found a wounded hawk near the creekbank. Someone had shot him in the left wing with a rifle, leaving him to die a slow death. Mother brought him home and kept him in the barn; every day she brought him fresh mice and frogs which she hunted herself. Eventually the hawk grew stronger. He could soon fly again, but his nose-dives often ended in near-crashes. Somehow, he always pulled up just before impact. He would be tired afterward and have to rest.
He was a beautiful hawk, having one large rounded wing and a majestic tail. (Mother and I learned to look the other way when his mangled wing was revealed.) He wasn't colorful, but he was to color my life more than anyone else ever would.
I didn't think much about the hawk becoming a part of our lives at first. I figured he would be gone as soon as he got well, so I really never considered that he and Mother would start getting close. To tell the truth, I really didn't notice that Mother was spending more and more time in the barn--sometimes all day--until it was too late.
Then the hawk began spending time in our house. I didn't particularly like the way he would look at me with his beady suspicious eyes and screech, "Haven't I seen you some place before? Do you own a gun?" But I knew he was probably suspicious of everyone because of his accident. At other times he was perfectly pleasant. He would eat dinner with us and tell me stories of his days as a fearsome hunter. Sometimes a look of unutterable sadness would film over his eyes, as if he were acknowledging that those days were gone for good.
It felt almost okay to have another guy around the house, or at least a male of some species. Mother soon confided that she was falling in love with the hawk, and that she was very afraid. Love was a word seldom used in our home--Mother was frightened of love since Father died and she often told me as much. She said that if she never loved again she would never be hurt again. In fact, when she used to tuck me in at night she'd say, "Good night, Billy. I like you. I like you very much."
But the hawk, she now explained, was changing her mind about all that. I thought Mother sounded like a school girl with a first crush, although I wasn't sure because I had never met a girl. As Mother and the hawk became more serious romantically, I began to feel a twinge of apprehension. Did Mother really love the hawk and only like me? Was the hawk taking my place as head of the family? Would we have to keep eating those vile meals forever? The first few nights the hawk ate dinner with us, Mother made human food like hamburger or steak, knowing that the hawk was a carnivore. But he ignored her efforts and so she gradually developed a flourish for old-fashioned country predator cooking, Rodent Kidney Pie and Vermin Bake, and the hawk’s favorite, Pigs in a Blanket, which was really field mice in a mound of mud. The worst part was that I was sent to catch the food, a task I came to resent.
"You look like you're losing some weight there, son," the hawk said to me one day.
"What do you mean son?" I challenged.
Mother interceded. "Billy, dear. You know how much I like you. Well, I wanted you to be the first to know." She looked at the hawk perched on her arm, then giggled. "I guess I mean the third to know. The hawk and I are getting married!"
I don't mean to be melodramatic, but finding out that your mother is getting married again after you've been the head of the household for so long is as shocking as discovering there's no Easter Bunny. At least she wasn't marrying a rabbit.
I tried to hate Mother and the hawk from that day on, but I really couldn't. It was as if the three of us had become a family in a strange way. And I was unwillingly drawn to the notion of being taken care of, of having two parents, of being just a kid. I tried to fight it, but it felt okay.
That is, until their wedding day, when it became clear that I was no longer an equal in the family. I'll never forget the night of the wedding. After the guests had gone back to their homes and dens and lairs, Mother and the hawk said goodnight to me, then went into Mother's room together. This confused me. I felt completely left out. I knocked on the bedroom door, then opened it and stuck my head in sheepishly.
"May I come in with you tonight, Mother? The three of us can stay up and tell stories about hunting."
The hawk let out a guffaw and Mother giggled.
"Not tonight, Billy," the hawk said, still chuckling. Then he continued, patronizingly, "After two people get married, they want to be alone that first night. Just the two of them. I'll explain it to you sometime, but not now."
I was crushed. I closed the door but sat there on the hall floor weeping softly. I thought my heart would just about break in two pieces. It seemed I had been there whimpering an hour when suddenly the door whizzed open and the hawk flew out, enraged. With his beak he grabbed me by the neck of my pajamas and transported me through the air to my room. He flew at such a steep angle that I was sure we would both plunge down the stairs, but once again he managed to keep from crashing. He dropped me on my bed, swatted my rear with his good wing, and screeched, "All that time I thought it was your mother moaning, and it was you! Now get in your bed and don't get up again!" He flew out, slamming the door behind him.
At first I was so shocked I couldn't breathe. The shock slowly gave way to anger. So that was how it was going to be! Thrown out of my own mother's bedroom in my own house. And by a stranger! And he was going to explain it all to me later, was he? We'd just see about that. The nerve of that hawk, giving me orders as if I were just a little kid.
As it turned out, that particular incident foreshadowed the really big fight two weeks later that was to change my life. The hawk, now in the habit of telling me what to do around the house and on the farm, woke me up earlier and earlier each morning to catch small creatures for his breakfast.
One morning while Mother was still asleep and starvation was gnawing at my temperament, I was plain fed up. I went to the swamp as usual, but after a half‑hearted and resentful attempt returned with only a tadpole that I had found already dead. The hawk eyed it contemptuously and said, "You can do better than that, my boy. Go see if you can't catch me something more substantial. Hurry now."
I threw the tadpole on the floor and yelled, "I'm not your boy! And you can't tell me what to do!"
The hawk flew at me with breakneck speed.
"Screech! Screech!" He jabbed me with his powerful hooked bill and seized me by the seat of the pants with his talons. He flew insanely around the kitchen with me captive, then dropped me face first on the kitchen table.
"You can't do that!" I howled as I climbed down. "You're not the man of the house, I am!"
"I'll rip your head off and spit in your neck," he screamed in his horrible voice and flew at me for another attack. I ran for my life for the kitchen door and didn't look back, just yanked the door open enough to get out, then slammed it as hard as I could.
I ran away from the house, sobbing, toward the creekbank where Mother had first found the hawk.
"I wish she had never found him!" I cried as if the creek could hear me. "I wish he was dead! I wish Mother was dead! I wish we were all dead!" I crumbled on the bank and cried myself into a dead sleep.
I don't know how long I slept before I felt Mother gently shaking my shoulder. I sat up abruptly, trying to brace myself for the bad news I sensed she had.
"Billy," she said evenly, "it's the hawk. He's dead."
My eyes must have been as wide as the hawk's good wing. I couldn't believe it. As angry as I was at him, I had never wanted him dead.
“Was it his wound?” I asked. “I thought he was getting better.”
"Somehow his head got caught in the kitchen door."
I could barely make the walk home. A squeezing sensation in my chest made me feel like my body was collapsing from the inside. I'm glad Mother interpreted this as grief rather than guilt. I couldn't confess to her. I couldn't admit that I was the one who had ended her long-sought happiness.
When we got home, two veterinary EMTs were taking the hawk out on a stretcher. There was a bloody sheet over him. I asked them to wait a second before putting him in the ambulance. I lowered the sheet and gasped. His head was gone. Sticking out of his neck was a banana, which one of the EMTs must have inserted as a joke. I pulled the banana out and threw it on the ground. Both of the men looked away, ashamed. I turned back to the body and stared at it for a long, hard time, then covered it with the sheet again. Silently, respectfully now, they took him away.
The rest of that agonizing night I had only one thought to console me: At least I hadn’t spit in his neck.
We buried the hawk on the creekbank where everything seemed to have happened. The friends who had so recently helped Mother and the hawk celebrate their wedding now stood in stricken silence, watching us lower him into the ground.
Mother and I held each other tight as we went back home, making walking quite clumsy.
"He couldn't take not being able to live the way he was meant to live," she said. "Our home was just a final stop for him, a temporary shelter during the final days of his journey. The wilderness, that was where he belonged."
"Maybe he's happy now?" I asked hesitantly.
She didn’t answer.
"Maybe he's free,” I tried again, “in Heaven, flying above the clouds?”
Still nothing from her.
“Do you think so, Mother?"
“He realized that he couldn't last much longer,” she finally said.
“He knew he was going to die, Mother?”
“Probably. But your slamming the door on his head didn't help any.”
I began to cry. All the bad things I had once felt about the hawk suddenly meant nothing. All that mattered was that I had hurt the hawk in many ways and now he was gone. And I had robbed Mother of her happiness.
"No, Billy, don't cry," Mother soothed. "He wouldn't want you to feel sad and guilty. Even though you soundly rejected him as a father, he realized it was just your way of trying to be free. He had put you in prison by taking your place as head of the family, just as we imprisoned him by trying to make him live like one of us." Her voice broke and she paused to compose herself. "You let him out of prison in your own way. You have every reason for living, Billy, while he had very little. . ." At that point, she lost her voice and gave in to her tears.
After a soft crying jag, she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and said, "I love you, Billy."
I hugged her even harder. "I love you too, Mother."
We held that clumsy embrace for a long time, walking like conjoined twins toward the house. Then she gave a tiny laugh and said, "Listen to us." She wiped the last of her tears. "Let's go on home. We've got quite a mess to clean up."
“I’ll help,” I said.
"Gosh," she laughed, "wasn't that banana thing a hoot!"
A few months later, Mother was driving to town when she ran over a Saint Bernard that darted out in front of the car. She assessed his injury, decided he would live, and brought him home. He slowly recovered at our farm under her care, although it was obvious he would never again be the slobbering, boisterous canine Nature had intended him to be.
One evening Mother giggled as she brushed his coat and rubbed his belly as he lay on his back, paws limp in the air. Something that smelled like God's death was baking in the oven. Suddenly the Saint Bernard cocked his head toward me.
"Billy, if I ever have the opportunity to father another litter of pups, I'd want my sons to be just like you. Now go outside and find me a nice bone. I don't care how many garbage cans you have to rifle through. And no chicken bones for me to choke on, goddam it." He winked at Mother and she tittered.
A thought skipped jaggedly through my head that once again I was being displaced in my own home. But another feeling welled up stronger. Commitment to family, I realized, was in itself a sort of freedom.
Later that night after Mother and Bernie had gone to bed, I sneaked out of my room and went alone to the hawk's grave. There was a beautiful crescent moon smiling sideways at me, and I felt spirits in the air.
"I promise I'll never use this again," I whispered as I lay my rifle down next to his neckstone. "And I'll be careful with Mother's new boyfriend, especially around doors. And most of all, I'll practice respect toward all living things, human and otherwise." I turned and started back to the house where my family was sleeping peacefully.
I hope I let you out of your cage, Stepfather, I thought, as the night carried me toward home. I'll never cage another animal as long as I live.
Then, right under that gorgeous sliver of moon, I realized that the Saint Bernard would never again run free, that he was trapped in our house forever. All he had left was remorse—and me to take it out on. I thought of Mother's irritating giggle when she was with him.
I went back to the hawk's grave, picked up my rifle, and headed for home.