Monday, February 10, 2020

The Care and Training of Wild and Captive Hawks

“When a falconer catches a wild hawk, there is no need to train the bird to kill.”

His name was Saunders and he looked almost like a hawk himself, in brown houndstooth jacket and hunting cap, rumpled beige shirt, and yellow riding boots. There were two chairs nailed to the floor of the mews, and two men tied to them, with their hands bound.

The one that Saunders stood next to was named Lesko. He had a sack over his head.

“Instead, you must train him not to eat.” Saunders flicked his riding crop in the area where Lesko’s mouth must have been under the sack, prodding with the hard leather end. “Not to stuff his greedy beak as soon as he strikes the prey. To trust that a better meal is coming from the hand of his master.”

Saunders paced around Lesko’s chair, eyeing him critically from the side. “At times, punishments may be necessary.” At that, the riding crop rapped Lesko’s left hand, where a healed-over stump told of a single finger that had been removed. “But if the bird repeats his disobedience, then the time may come when he must be…” Here, Saunders leaned down and placed his mouth almost against the side of Lesko’s head. “…Set free.”

A row of hooded hawks dozed above, swaying gently in their jesses, keeping quiet in the close, hot, dark place. Now and then, one fluffed its feathers and jostled its neighbor, then settled back down to sleep.

Saunders straightened his body and buttoned his jacket, walking slowly back the other way toward the other man. This one was younger. Unlike Lesko, his face was uncovered. Unlike Lesko, he was trembling: two wide eyes following Saunders’s progress around the room.

“With hawks reared in captivity, sometimes there is the opposite problem. A bird so accustomed to getting his meat from his master’s hand may grow lazy and not even bother to strike at rabbits and ducks anymore…” The riding crop rapped smartly against the young man’s head. “And so becomes just as useless as the thief.”

The young man swallowed and goggled his eyes. “But Dad–“

Saunders didn’t wait, but struck the boy hard across the mouth.

“The solution,” continued Saunders indifferently, “is that one must be brought up, and one must be brought down. The question is: how to do it?”

The next sound was the snap of a switchblade. Saunders walked slowly around the mews, circling both men several times as he seemed to consider, the birds above now muttering in agitation at the nearby movement.

At last, Saunders paused by Lesko and made a quick jerk with the hand that held the knife. The ropes that bound Lesko to the chair suddenly dropped away, leaving his hands bound and his head hooded. Lesko growled and shifted in his chair.

“Stand,” said Saunders. Lesko obeyed.

Then Saunders strode over to his son, and cut the ropes that bound him as well.

“Stand,” said Saunders. Instead, the boy curled up in fear.

Saunders hauled the boy up to a half-standing posture and pointed at Lesko with the switchblade.

“I want you to saw his head off, son. To prove to me that you have the killer instinct that I need. Can you do that for me?”

The boy only whimpered, then crumpled as Saunders released his hold.

“And as for you, Lesko, my old friend–” Saunders walked quickly to the other side of the mews and partly lifted the sack on his head. The older man gasped wide and breathed deep, his eyes glowing red in rage. “I want you to wait two minutes before you take this sack off. Then you’re free to do whatever you want.”

Saunders let the sack fall over Lesko’s face again, and then threw the switchblade into the center of the mews. He took a pocketwatch out of his jacket and set it running.

“The clock is starting now, gentlemen. Either way, the hawks will eat handsomely tonight.”

As the second hand swept around the watch face, the hawks screeched and worried, fully awake now, as though they could smell the blood in the air already.

~FIN~