a pair of hawks

Oliver Heley

The park was a relic of green in the middle of town. Tom sat in the shade of one of its benches, scattered sun lighting the empty seat beside him. He loosened his dress shirt collar to relieve the midday heat, then struck a match, starting a cigarette. The young clerk had tried to quit, cut down to two a day, but felt his situation called for a third. Smoke drifted over the wide pond in front of him, where a frog floated among wrapper foil and duckweed; willows were mirrored on its surface, branches hanging above where birds criss-crossed, singing. Tom stared past them, recalling the conversation he had just had.

 

A short walk from the office where they worked, the two clerks came to the bench each lunch break. Alice sat next to Tom, smoothing her floral dress and unpacking her lunch. That day she had left him her final, fixed image: face turned slightly from him, her long, dark hair lit to brown. 

“I was thinking we could go abroad. I’ve saved a bit. Maybe in Autumn when we can both get a week off?” Tom said. 

“Thomas.” Alice replied, trying to cut him off. 

Tom looked at her. She stared down at her sandwich, neatly prizing crust from loaf. 

“I thought Paris.” He continued. 

“There’s something I have to say.” 

It was unclear why she had ended it. Tom’s cigarette died out, its red glow turning to ash. He looked at the bright half of bench where she had sat, trying to imagine someone else filling the space. He thought of his uncertain future, his image cut out of plans that seemed definite minutes ago. Unfazed, the birdsong continued above him, as it did every day the couple had spent there. A wren left the foliage and ran out in front of Tom, pecking at the ground and offering a few notes. 

Alarm calls rang out from treetops. Small feathers clouded the air, then drifted on to grass. A bird of prey stood where they lay, the wren tiny underfoot. Tom met its fierce yellow glare, studied its grey-brown bulk, its chest and half-spread wings silvered like birch bark. The hunter lifted off, corpse in claws, towards a tree above, and the noise in the canopy slowed to an indignant murmur. A damselfly, electric blue, bounced over the pond to the pile of discarded feathers, then darted away. Tom, looking up at the willow the hawk flew to, saw an arrow of white droppings; a whistle repeated from the nook of branches it pointed to.

  

The two chicks were calling. They had only ever known their nest, its twiggy seclusion, the warm stink of rot and guano. Last night their brother fell from the tree to the roots below, where a fox took him, but their appetite had not paused. Mother arrived, ducking into the slim crevice of branches, dropping a gift in front of them. The young hawks pecked at the wren, flicking off its brown garment piece by piece, digging hooked faces into the red underneath, unravelling a packed tangle of guts. Their wings and feet shifted about as they ate, uncovering bones and making carrion beetles scurry. They were growing, converting down to flight feathers, dilating pupils under fixed frowns; sometimes they flapped, readying themselves for the sky past their curtain of leaves. Father glided in and landed by mother, the blue bird in his claws clashing with his tawny feathers. Alert, the parents watched their children like chief surgeons supervising a dissection. 

Tom left the pond and walked through the park, passing pram-pushing mothers and poorly hidden drug deals. He reached the gate, entering the high street that led to a seaborn estuary. The town’s foundations were ancient, recorded in the Domesday Book: a village of 20, all shipwrights and oyster-fishers. Just over a century ago, its people were shipped across the ocean in whaling fleets. They brought their spoils back from Nantucket and Tahiti, gilded their wife’s dresses and buildings with ivory. Tom remembered a gallery of local history, a photo, monochrome, of a harpooned blue on shore. Men stood around proudly in overalls and caps, faces whiskered and salt-wrinkled behind a screen of pipe smoke. He saw their features echoed in the people he passed; beggars soliciting on street corners, bankers rushing back to work after their lunch break. The scene was a sprawl of concrete, a patchwork of tower blocks and retail shops, but here and there a wood-beamed pub or a cobbled alley persisted.

  

The clerk arrived in an upper flat, stood in a room overlooking the street he had come from. It was indistinct and tidy; a bookshelf, a bed by a window, a potted pothos on a hardwood desk. Tom sat at it, opened a drawer, and pulled out pen and paper. He thought of his office cubicle, the close, white walls, the hum of his monitor, of Alice passing him in the corridor each day, and started writing a resignation letter. He finished it, read back its curt, simple detail, then rolled into bed. Tom laid there for hours, imagining the vacuum of future filled, trying on potential faces and titles, finding none of them fit. Evening came, and from the opened window he heard the usual sounds; drunken screeches, clacking of high heels on pavement and the restless drums of music from passing cars. Eventually it faded, revealing distant, disguised sounds; the tempo of the tide, the slow pulse of the estuary down the road. Exhaust fumes unclouded and salt air drifted in. Tom fell asleep, dreaming of a menacing flower rising in place of the sun, putting everything underneath in its right place.

 

The hawks woke with the dawn chorus. The adults sunned their wings on a willow branch, then went about their work. By afternoon three dead pigeons laid on a path by the pond, their wings spread, roasting and fly-covered. They were intact but for their necks, whittled to the bone. The bodies were a half-forgotten image, sifted out of history from a time when heads were stuck on spikes. Passers-by grimaced and tiptoed around them, or stopped to stare for a moment, interpreting the omen. The more curious children prodded with sticks, others cried or asked questions their parents had no answer to.

  

Tom was at the pond, shirt untucked and face stubbled. Three magi had arrived from the east. They stood by the nest tree in cargo shorts and bucket hats, binoculars pointed upwards. In polite, hushed tones, they bayed like a coliseum audience for lanced doves and butchered flycatchers. One of them, a grey-haired woman, saw Tom staring and smiled. She walked over and asked him if he had seen the hawks. They began to talk. He was told that the species had not been in the area for decades, that their numbers were growing after a long decline, expanding from forests in the north. They mated for life, she said, repairing each Summer, and in the middle ages priests and princes hunted with them, painted them on their crests. The birdwatchers said their goodbyes and left, but Tom stayed, watching the raptors weave between branches, calling to each other, playing in the open air. He followed them as they hunted, lost them occasionally when they dropped mid-flight, found them again when they rose with a fistful of songbird. They moved out of the park to plunder the gardens of a nearby estate, flying around red-bricked houses as if they were still woodland. The old order thrived under their eyes, and they heard its music, moved to its rhythm. The sky darkened, and the pair, tercel and hen, returned to their nest. Tom watched them until the chick’s calls grew quiet, the intermittent glow of his cigarette lighting the cool, blue night.

 

A week passed under the summer sun, and the chicks fledged to join their parents in the air. The trees that had been loud with thrush and finch were quieter, hedges once fat with sparrows emptied. The hawks wheeled above the park, prey stoking their stomachs, lighting the short fuse of their eyes. The family descended, landing on a lichened branch next to Tom. They had gotten used to him, slowly revealing themselves over the past days, catching the game he flushed out as he walked. The former clerk watched them perch, preening every point of themselves, each one exact for a purpose. He sang them a hawk-song, a fluty whistle, and the birds stared back unmoved. Soon the chicks would be driven out as strangers, on to distant woods and copses, where they would found new lineages. Tom looked around the pond and saw the willow-shaded bench. Its hope and familiarity had been transformed the day the hawks flew in; its songbirds repurposed, fashioned into sharp talons and beaks. On his back was a rucksack packed with bare necessities; he was on his way to the dock below town, where a ship would pick him up. Earlier that week, Tom had taken a post on a global fishing fleet.

 

A strong wind blew. Tethers of moored ships clinked in the breeze and gulls argued overhead. Tom stood, waiting to be collected, on a wooden jetty that pointed from dock to sea. Barnacled planks creaked underfoot, the rush of incoming tide loud beneath them. Freighters and vessels drifted on its surface, a mist of birds hovering over them. Tom looked out, imagining the ocean further off, its shores leading to places unmapped in his mind. A once dormant artery flowed; a blood, generations old, coursed through him, like a branched estuary feeding saltmarsh.   

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