When Dad calls me from the back door I’m sitting in the living room with my new stuffed hoot owl, the one mom got me in town the other day to grow my bedroom’s flock. When Dad calls me I think I’m in trouble, that he’s found something out about me that I didn’t want him to find out, that he’s calling me over so I can get close enough to be punished. I get up and go soft to him at the back door, its open, light slanting through the dark room, making heavenly the muddy shoes in its path. Dad’s silhouette in the door says “Put on your boots, Johnny kid, I’ve got something to show you.”
While I put on my boots, yellow with black stripes, I ask “What is it?” but he doesn’t reply. He doesn’t hear me. When I look up he’s half-turned in the doorway, listening to the bleat of a far off calf, listening for the mother’s replying coo. Drips of sweat gloss out along his tanned hairline. His eyebrows scrunch wrinkles above his glasses. His shirt is the blue of deep water, only with a pocket against his chest. Blonde hair breaches the top at the neck. I watch him listen for a moment then push my way out. The coo he is waiting for comes. He palms at my scalp and we go.
The wet heat of the June sun cuts my long, red shirt to sweat. My brothers aren’t hot. They’re in our cool crawlspace, probably still huddling around the wide plank, down which they like to race our toy cars. I tried to join them earlier with my Red Corvette but got bucked out because it wasn’t the right car for the race. I never have the right cars. That’s why I sit in my room with my cotton stuffed birds, only bringing them out to the living room, to fly high above our faded rug, when no one else is around.
I follow Dad and his long legs, trying to catch his shadow to forgive me of the heat, but the sun’s too high and his shadow pools beneath him. I get close and he smells of soil and hay and salt. If I get any nearer, I’ll trip him, and he’ll be angry. I visor my eyes with my hand while we walk down the driveway and turn toward the huge shed with the coop where I collect the eggs from our six hens. We pass the small forest of pine trees where I sometimes chuck the dirtiest of the eggs because I don’t want to bother cleaning them. When questioned on why there are only four or five, I blame the hens. The shed with the coop has tall sides of board and a tin sheet roof that slaps in the wind. I’m glad when we reach the cool dark inside.
Dad brings me to a little wood box with a chicken mesh top, where we used to keep our rabbits, the white mother and her black babies, which all died when I forgot to lock the top down after feeding them and our cattle dog, Annie, pried it open with her muzzle and killed them all with her face. Dad gestures to the box and my eyes finally figure through the dark and I can see inside, beyond the grid of the lid. Inside is a bird, a raptor bird, his body brown-speckled with grey-blue wings spread out like he’s hiding something, like maybe he’s brooding eggs, but he isn’t. His neck cranes up at us to stare.
“What is it?” I ask, as Annie comes up from nowhere, tongue flapping. When she reaches us she turns her head at the box and perks up. I can hear the hens crooning in the coop, can smell them in my head. The box with the bird is locked.
“Some kind of hawk.” Dad says. “I found it stunned by the coop. It must have tried to fly through the window to get at the hens, and hit it hard.” He points. “Not sure what kind of hawk it is, though.”
I stand there, looking down at it looking up at me. The bird is panting like Annie does when she’s too hot. Even though it’s hot out, Annie is not panting now, she’s sniffing. Sniffing at the box, the same box she killed those bunnies in. And it’s a fact that a dog cannot pant and sniff at once.
I run back to the shed with the bird book from my room and we look through it, Dad and me. Dad is chewing off the end of a timothy sprig. I flip through albatrosses and pink flamingos and eventually get to the raptors. Dad watches over my shoulder as I look at painted picture after painted picture. The bird in the box is not a red-tailed hawk or a marsh hawk. It is not an osprey. An osprey is so big it would not fit in the box. The bird in the box is not a kestrel, but is almost a kestrel, only kestrels aren’t this big and have more blue. It could not be a peregrine falcon because there are no peregrine falcons here, because if there were I would know about it. I would see yellow on the map by the picture and every time I check, the yellow is still not there.
I flip the page and then the bird in the box is a merlin. At the page I look up at Dad and he’s nodding. “Merlin,” he says, both a question and an answer. I’ve never heard of a merlin being a bird, only a magician, only a thing in movies and stories. This is a merlin. A merlin is a kind of bird. A kind of falcon. Falco columbarius. This merlin my merlin.
Annie snuffs at the side of the box and I grab her about the neck, because I love her and I do not trust her. Dad starts talking about the bird, about how it’s probably wounded but maybe it’ll get better. I listen with half my ears as the merlin is flying in circles, guided by my whistles, tuned to my call. The merlin flies at a bird on a branch and sinks deep with its tiny talons. The merlin makes magic of its small victims, makes toy cars of field voles, bicycles of pigeon feathers, and a stuffed toucan from two fistfuls of English sparrow.
Dad bends over the box and points, points at the panting beak, at the tongue flicking like a fake finger. “Perhaps he’s thirsty.”
I put Annie in the house with Dad and I bring out a small saucer of water and another saucer of air. In the saucer of air I’m going to break an egg from the coop, because if the merlin was after the hens then maybe it will settle for an egg. Also, if I break an egg from the coop I have one less egg to wash.
I get to the coop and I put down the saucers and go in, holding my nose from the inside, which I learned to do because chickens have a stink you’ll never tolerate. I walk slow towards the enclosed nest and there’s a hen in it. I knock on the side of the nest and she doesn’t come out, she just stares at me. The other hens watch me, perched in a line on the rail. I poke her and she stares at me. She twists her head. I prod her hard and she goes, un-henning five fresh eggs. One is still holding back its egg. If Dad found out I threw eggs in the trees he would count my eggs every day to make sure I didn’t and he would always find this one egg missing. Dad must not find out about the eggs. I grab the dirtiest and hold its warmth in my fingers, grasping at its clean white patches.
I go out and stand over the merlin with the saucers. I break the egg into the empty one and wonder if, when I open the box, he is going to fly away forever and I will no longer have a merlin. The merlin just stares at me. I droop down and unlock the box and slowly open the lid. I wonder if he will peck me. And what if he sinks his talons into me. What if he carries me away and what if he sinks his talons into me and he doesn’t carry me away, but leaves me here, merlin-less. I put down the lid and take off my red shirt and wrap it around my arm like a glove, to lower in the saucer with the egg. I set the saucer near his face. He does not peck me and he does not talon me. I put in the saucer of water and he just stares, shuffling away from my red shirted arm. There’s nowhere to run to in the box.
I close and lock it. I find a small brick in the shed and put it on the lid, just in case. I watch the merlin in the box through the grid. He doesn’t move, he just watches me. After awhile I realize, as the sun sinks under the roof and taps at me, that time is going. My stomach growls. I put on my shirt and go into the coop with my nose closed and make a pouch of its red for the eggs. I pile them in. They’re mostly clean. On the walk back to the house I do not break them. I watch the merlin circle me, see faces of envy spiral and gawk. I’m the quiet centre of the circle, proud. Merlin’d.
That night I pile my toy birds on my bed and sleep amongst them, dreaming of the merlin. I am finally a falconer, famous, with the finest leather glove in the land, leather so thick that it’s weightless with magic. My merlin is swooping, slaughtering small beasts, mini-dragons, hunting my brothers, perching on my shoulder with a screech. I am of a kingdom, am king of it, and my merlin brings me messages that I can’t read in the dream. My merlin understands me, performs small miracles without having to be asked. I tell it to bring me its hood and it does. But as I try to hoodwink the merlin I end up hoodwinking myself. Then I can’t breathe and wake up gasping.
I run out into the morning cool, which is already rising away with the sun. Annie is with me, bounding, looking for something to kill. She gets vicious when you run with her because she always thinks you’re running at something, something you want dead, which I never am. I’m usually just running.
When I get to the merlin he hasn’t eaten his egg, hasn’t touched his water. He’s staring at me and his eyes are a bit more dull. The merlin in my head slows a little, swoops a little less low, spirals out a little too oblongly. I run home and tell my mom that the merlin isn’t eating his egg, and can we give him something he might like better. She goes to the fridge and brings out several bits: an uncooked bacon strip, a small pinch of ground beef, and an old slice of cooked chicken that has gone a little bad.
I take it and go out to the box. Annie sniffs at my hand, desperate for the food. I forgot to leave her in the house, so when I get to the box in the shed I do not open the lid, I just press the meat through the small wire squares. The meat pelts the merlin and he does not stop staring at me, he just shuffles around in the box as if he’s afraid of the falling meat, which he can’t be, because he’s too brave. I run back home and on the way I bump into my brothers on their bikes. They laugh at how I run and ask if I want to play border patrol with them. I say yes, imagining them running past my border without telling me why, and my merlin dive bombing them. Only it’s beginning to miss its marks.
When my little brother runs past my border I chase after him on foot. I tell Annie to sick’em. I cannot work the hood in my head.
I go out when its dark with the light. I forgot to grab the eggs today and so I grab them now, five of them today. I go to the merlin and look at him and he’s shuffling around in the box. Annie is with me because I’m afraid of the dark. The merlin does not seem to have eaten any of the meat. I tell him that he should eat the meat, that he should drink the water. I whistle at him. The bird in my head meets the bird in the box. I turn home.
“How’s the merlin?” Dad asks when I walk past him in the living room after washing the eggs. Dad has been haying all day.
“He’s not eating,” I say, turning and looking him in the knees. “Perhaps he’s not hungry.”
In the morning Dad goes out with me to the box. The merlin is still there, only duller.
“It was a good try, kid.” Dad says, putting his hand on my head. I can feel him pressing me into the dirt. Annie’s collar is in my hand and I’m looking down at the dull eyed falcon, the bird that left my head to live in the box.
Dad tells me I shouldn’t watch, that I should go back to the house and get my brothers. He wants to take us out to the hay fields. I start off, dragging Annie, and look back and see his silhouette opening the lid of the box, reaching in. I walk a bit and turn, the bird is completing its shape from its neck in his hand, moving. I walk a bit more and turn again and the bird is not moving anymore. I stop and watch Dad walk out the other side of the shed toward the ravine. The ravine where we keep the things that are no longer.
A few weeks later and I’m down in the ravine, hiding from my brothers. I stumble upon my merlin, decayed, eaten out from the heat and the maggots, laying on its back with its talons grasping at the blue. I lean down and hold my nose and break off two of its taloned toes, putting them in my pocket. The merlin in my head is its shadow and its talons are light. Toward home I hear Annie barking. Perhaps a stranger has come up the way. In the sky long clouds like claw marks shred the day.
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