Anna Autilio is a writer, traveler, graduate student, and avian scavenger enthusiast from Cranford, New Jersey. Now living in Idaho, her studies have taken her from India to the Falkland Islands. When not staring at birds, she writes poetry and short fiction, and has had work published in Rainy Day, The Fine Line, The Animal Anthology Project, as well as a coloring book, Caracaras of the World. Follow her on Twitter at @swivelandjess.
by Anna Autilio
for T. H. White
I think I am called Gos.
It has taken many mornings to figure this. It is a low sound, like a huff or a bark, but in the end smooth, like a stout wind. I become attentive when it is said. This is different from other things that call my attention. It is short, singular, and like the quick flutter of wings between leaves that calls my attention to the hunt. The man has nothing to hunt with, like all men. No feathers on his wings, like a baby, and fleshy, grasping fingers on the end of this featherless limb. He will cover it with a bit of tough skin when I am perched on it. I don’t understand fully. He is very ugly.
All men are ugly, but I have gotten a close and long look at this one. I have learned from my observations that men have fur not unlike the deer or the rabbit, but they do not appear to be capable of feathers. This being said, the fur does not cover his entire body. It is concentrated on the crown of his head, just above each eye, and underneath his bill, which is not truly his bill, I have learned. He puts his food in a hole beneath this protruding structure, not within it. It is revolting. I hope he is some sort of disfigured man, and that they are not all this repugnant.
His language, if it can be called that, infuriates me. He throws sound about like a gobbling turkey. At times when we are both angry, he even does a heavily accented impression of my protests. If not for his bestowing upon me this name, I would say it was all nonsense. I know of no way to gauge a man’s intelligence, but I would have guessed they do not have the concept of symbolic language. I can admit I was wrong. I am not so proud.
“Give me that,” I will say, when he holds a piece of quail at the end of his arm. His response is unintelligible. “Give me that,” I repeat, “or I shall take it.” This, even in the company of my royally spread wings, open jaw, and raised hackles produces no effect on the apparently deaf and quite obviously blind man, and he will give me the quail sometime later, it seems, almost accidently.
I regret to add that I have also discovered men experience emotion. It has made this whole trial so much more difficult. He calls me Gos, and so some part of me is with him, and I cannot get it undone.
When I said he had nothing to hunt with, this was perhaps not entirely accurate. He has one of those small branches which he holds in his grasping fingers and which can make a bird drop out of the sky some 10 or 15 wing flaps distant. I am not certain how this is achieved, but I have heard of such an astonishing tool before. So far as I can tell, it makes a very loud noise and frightens the bird to death. My father, being a great hawk, once scared a hen so thoroughly himself. It was delicious: a little fatty.
The man has the company of a dog. The man calls the dog Killie, and it is quite responsive to this name, as if this is truly what it calls itself. I admit I have some respect, and a bit of pity for this animal. It is the color of a fox, but much larger, with long fur. It is a decent hunter, a conventional thinker, and I have taught it not to stray into my presence. In turn, I have learned to tolerate it.
You must wonder how I, Gos, came to be this way. Night came early one day when I was young. I was placed into a darkness so encompassing that I was unable to escape from it. I broke my new and perfect feathers against the edges of this darkness, and grew very hungry. However, it was not so awful as you might think. Because it was merely darkness, I knew it would come to an end, and that if I waited quietly, and did not move or attract attention, eventually the sun would rise on a new day.
Of course I was correct, but not in a way that was entirely pleasing. Instead of the sun peeking through the darkness, there was a large man’s eye, which swirled about and rolled in its socket like a loose pebble. What food was left in my stomach appeared again at my feet, and I felt slightly less nauseated. I resettled my feathers.
The man is a male, though this was not obvious at first. He is very tall for a man, very wide of shoulder and his noises are deep in tone. All of this indicated a female to me, as the women of my kind are the larger and stronger sex. How ridiculous it seems, this reversal! I wonder if the male men bear the eggs? That would explain much.
You also shall be wondering why I did not leave this man immediately, and return to where I was before the darkness seized me. It is a valid notion, and in fact it was my perpetual endeavor. When the egg that was me was laid by my mother in a nest of black oak branches in the tallest tree in the largest forest in my fair hilled country many days from the sea, my people ruled those regions like red deer rule the bare plains. I, Gos, was heir to a great expanse of dense brush and oak, of quail and chickens and grouse. My brothers and I had been dreaming of that glorious future on our first excursions through the branches of our nest-tree, when the close darkness took the lot of us, and then there was the man. The man and the dog walk through a territory that is largely treeless, which was unsettling at first—culture shock, if you will. But I neither saw nor heard another of my people for many days, and decided that this foreign land would submit to my rule presently.
There were many factors to be considered in leaving the man, however, and these had not crossed my mind as a child. Things like the frequency with which the food birds appear, and whether or not they can be taken when they do. Things like the short, sharp pinching of an empty crop. Things like wind and cold, and their effect upon one’s toes. Things like the man, and his name.
Indeed, the man has a name, too. Other men call him White, like the second note in the call of the quail. I could not have reproduced this sound even if I condescended to. Instead I continue to refer to him by what can be roughly translated as “gives-food baby man”. It does sound better in my tongue.
And he calls me Gos. I have become compelled to a kind of trust with him, and if it is not that, then it is dependence. This, I think, is to my shame. This, like the name, binds me to him in unpredictable ways.
Early there was a quite literal binding. The man affixed a thin strip of skin to each of my legs, so that if I wished to leave his grasp, I could not. This infuriated me upon discovery. If I had had the use of my talons, I could have sheared through that skin like lightning through a pine. He held the strips in his fat fingers and sometimes fixed them to a branch I was to sit on, when I was not to sit on him. Sitting on the branch was of course preferable, so I need not smell his stink so keenly, but sitting on his hand often led to food. (Perhaps he did not understand he could present the food wherever I was. As mentioned, he did not understand many things.)
In the beginning, he kept me with him for great long spells, and I was made to sit upon the skin which covered his hand for the longest day I can ever remember. It started out acceptably. The man took me from my perch in the corner of this sort of closed-in place where he lived, like a badger, and placed me on his hand, and gave me a piece of quail. Then he walked, back and forth, around in a tight circle, up and down and back again. He sometimes made his gobbling noises, and at other times was silent save for the rushing of his breath and rumblings from below of what I assumed was his gizzard. He began to slow in his walking, and through the holes to the surface of this underground place, I saw the sun settling down, and evening come toward us. Still he did not release me. Instead, the man touched one of the thin, treelike objects near us, and a bright light sprang forth from it, and filled the burrow as if it was day again.
It was day for another long time. The man eventually folded his legs in an entirely revolting fashion and nestled himself into a hummock of grass. He stared at me for quite a bit, and made some more man noises. Then he reached over and grasped a hard, white object in his large hand, and stared at that for an even longer time. Every few minutes, he would touch the object and move a part of it, revealing a new face. I could not discern what caused him to stare for so long at something dull and unmoving, but once, I thought I saw a flattened bird on one of these faces. But it may have been my delirium. I, Gos, was growing tired.
At the end of this strange day, a new one began. Night would seem so close, and then it would not come when one expected it. The man gave me another quail. This I ate ravenously, and momentarily forgot the ordeal, thinking it completed. But when the man did not perch me back on the branch I always went to after eating, I was again suspicious. And very, very tired.
We lived that day and the subsequent night-day as I described above. The tiredness grew and grew, but I did not want to fall asleep near this man. Why? It was unnatural. Who knows what he might do to me, when I was so vulnerable, and no less, when it was not even dark with night or hot at the height of day. It took all of my power to continue to be awake. The man did not seem to need to rest. He continued, as I did, until at the end of this long day, swaying, I fell asleep at last.
I awoke the next morning, alive and well. Nothing had happened while I slept. I was hungry. I thought of the man. I thought he would bring me a quail. I did not think that I would take the quail from him—I knew he would bring it to me. When he came, and I saw his ugly face and his stub-fingers, I thought of nothing but food. The first trial had ended.
The second trial began the next day, and we went swiftly together after that. He let me fly. I do not know why I phrased it thus. I, Gos, could fly whenever I wanted to. But the strips of skin were ever affixed to my legs, and when I chose to fly, I would be caught by them and hang with my head toward the Earth until I could gather the strength to right myself. Though I wanted to fly, I was bound.
Then the man took me out from his underground place and we were under the sky. He perched me on a long branch parallel to the ground, and walked away from me.
This was very new. At first I did not understand, and took a moment to consider this change. The branch was much like my perch in the burrow, but I noticed with my keen eye that the man had not taken the time or care to work with his grubby fingers a thick catch in the bit of skin around my legs. I pondered this as well. The man was walking up and down in the field across from me, making high little bird-whistles. If the catch had not been made, and I attempted to fly, perhaps I would not fall. Falling was unpleasant, but an inconvenience. The pull of the wind was so strong out here. I thought of my fair hilled country many days from the sea. The man had stopped walking, and was now moving towards me. I attempted to fly.
And lo! I was off! The air caught in my feathers and I flew. I pumped to stay aloft and then rushed over the ground, skimming the grass tips with my round secondaries. Like a true prince on a chase I glided, making for the largest tree in the field and flexing my thumbs to climb its height, I, Gos—whump!
My feet jerked out from beneath me and I fell belly first into the grass just below that great tree, my bill buried in the mud and my wings outstretched like a dead pheasant. So I had been caught up after all. How dim I was not to have foreseen it. The man was approaching me. I felt a welling of something black and bubbling in my breast. He reached his skin-covered hand down toward me and I struck out at him with a ferocity that I, Gos, had been born with.
Cruelty! Torture! The treachery of man! Oh, that I had trusted him! Oh, that I let him touch me and give me food like a child! I struck and struck again, with each blow crushing his hand in my talons, screaming at the edges of my voice and stabbing him now here, now there, waiting for the warm red flow to coat his hand and leave it motionless on the ground, killed. I had never known an anger so great. I wished him to be gone, and I wished to be free and full and fed and flying. But in my haste to grip him I was on his hand, and he was walking back to the long straight branch.
I perched there and flew off again, with the same result as before. A third time we did this, until the last time, when he perched me, he left his covered hand just a short hop from my feet. He did not back away. I did not fly away. It was then that I noticed he was holding a piece of meat.
I took it. What else could I do? I lashed out with my talons and grabbed the meat, and found myself on his hand at the same time. I ate. He returned us to his burrow, and left me until the next day, when all of this happened again.
Many days we did this, the man and I, until half a season had passed. I regained a part of my trust in him. Perhaps the first mistake had been a fluke. Perhaps he truly meant to let me fly, and some force beyond both of our control had taken over, like wind. One might conduct oneself within its constraints, but ultimately, the wind listens to no hawk (or man, I assume).
I, Gos, began to feel contentedness. I flew from the long straight branch many times each day, and each time the man had a small piece of food waiting for me, that I could have. This pleased me, and I wished to do this again and again. A sort of challenge was introduced. I was not to fly to his hand until I heard him produce that short whistle call, like the finch. This proved difficult, as the promise of meat was there at all times, why must I force myself to wait? I did this once, almost not meaning to, and the man provided me with a very large piece of quail that evening. I was very, very pleased with him. The second trial was coming to a close.
Then there came the last. The third trial was the most difficult. I have failed it.
It began the day after I had been provided with enough quail to fill my crop for a day or more. I was still feeling thusly satisfied and generally adventuresome when the man and I went to do our flying exercises beneath the great tree. I was made to sit on the long straight branch as always. Little was different, except when I flew this time, I noticed that my legs felt lighter, and the ground did not drag behind me as I glided. As such, I took more lift under my wings than I was expecting to, and climbed much higher than I would have calculated. I tested this with a beat, and then another, and flew over the man’s shoulder, landing with some grace on a branch in the great tree.
The man at once became very animated, like a vole one has caught and released by mistake, scared out of its wits and so disoriented it could not find its hole again. He flapped his featherless wings about. His voice could be very loud when he wanted it to. I watched him for some time from my new perch. He held the meat out, brandishing it, waving it about as if I could not see it. I did not fly to his hand to take it. I was not particularly hungry. Even if I had been, I, Gos, was in this tree, and that was vastly more absorbing.
I took in my surroundings—this, my kingdom. It certainly looked fair and pleasant from this great height. Toward the sunset, there was a large expanse of trees. It would only deserve the name of forest upon further inspection. The wind was gentle and made the leaf buds on the great tree shiver and dance. I saw a fox on the edge of the trees. I heard a flock of geese somewhere distant. The man’s noises grew softer.
I gave the forest further inspection. The man resumed his leaping and twisting about, and calling in a voice that must have damaged his air sacs, disappeared as a small speck behind me. This was fine, I deemed. I would know how to find him and his food. I, Gos, stayed in this new tree on the edge of the forest for a while, contemplating, watching, and becoming familiar with the sights, sounds, and wind of my kingdom. Evening came on.
The man, tiny and soft, went back into his burrow. The dog came out, sniffed around the grasses, and too retreated home. It was the time that the man should bring me food. It seemed unlikely he would be able to reach me in the height of my tree.
I sighted and flew to a very short tree, really a large bush, on the very edge of the forest, within sight of the man’s burrow. I could see movement within the burrow, but its exposedness in the middle of the field, which I had not appreciated before, prevented me from flying to it. The man did not appear. I did not eat that night.
In the morning I had become rather frustrated with the man. I flew deeper into the forest when the sun was high enough. I saw several small birds, and heard many mice. The effort required to capture them was not worth the meal they would provide. I ignored them. To borrow a falcon’s phrase, I need not stoop so low. The man would bring me food, if I waited.
When I did not see the man again that day, I flew even deeper into the forest to roost for the night. I did not want to be so vulnerable, so near the field, and I also wished to explore the limits of my kingdom. I wanted to eat. I kept thinking of the man, when my crop would pinch unpleasantly. Why had he not given me food yet?
The next morning I saw a snake. The snake did not see me. It was made of bones, the disgusting thing, and I was still hungry when it was gone.
I tried and failed to catch a chaffinch, over and over again. I wished for a thick-breasted quail. It did not appear. I kept looking for the man, around every corner of my short exploring flights. I saw another man once. He too had a short branch, the kind that makes the deafening noise. I know it, because it made the noise right at me. I flew far, far away from this discourteous man.
Some time has passed like this, I know not how long. The pinching in my crop is ever-present, and the food-animals are growing more and more difficult to get one’s talons around, as the wind grows stronger and chiller. I think of the man frequently. I, Gos—imagine!
Copyright 2015 by Anna Autilio