Daily Prompt By Heart You’re asked to recite a poem (or song lyrics) from memory — what’s the first one that comes to mind? Does it have a special meaning, or is there another reason it has stayed, intact, in your mind?
For 17 years I lived in City Heights, a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego. During the last 80’s and early ’90’s I spent a lot of my free time with a group of local boys who lived to ride BMX bikes. The jumps were in the same urban wilderness park where I hiked, so often they piled their bikes in the back of my Ford Ranger and off we went. I still know Jimmy and Mikey, twenty some years later. I wrote a blog about our adventures and if you want to read more, let me know.
When I get to the jumps after a long hike with Molly and Kelly, the boys are all standing around the sumac bush, the bit of shade where they fix their bikes. Five of them. Jimmy, Jason, Mikey, Craig and Marc. Mikey hands me a large cardboard box with a T-shirt over it. “Here, Martha,” he says. “These are for you.”
I lift the shirt. Inside the box are two baby red tail hawks. One a dark morph and one light. The sudden daylight scares them and they begin screeching and opening and closing their mouths. In their experience, this can only mean food. I am enraged, “Where did they come from?” If the boys broke into a nest, they are dead. They’ve killed snakes for me. I can imagine this.
Mikey points at a pickup parked near the gate. “Some guy put them under his truck.”
“Under his truck? It’s a hundred degrees! How did you find them?”
“We were going down to the river to swim and we heard them,” says Jason. They did the right thing. I am proud and moved. But this is complicated; five boys, two dogs, all the bikes and parts, and now the hawks.
“We gave them some Cheetos,” says Mikey.
“They look like worms.”
I love hawks. I want to fly like a hawk. I want that freedom and that vision. I call all hawks, “My Love.” The boys know this. They point to every soaring hawk and say, “Martha! There’s your love!”
I recite Hopkins’ “Windhover” when I hike, remembering the first time I heard it, recited in a grad school class by John Bailey, Oxford Don, Hopkins expert, spouse of Iris Murdoch. He stutters when he talks, but recites Hopkins perfectly. “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin…” His right hand dived and swooped like a hawk as he spoke, marking the swinging rhythm of the poem. Having since watched hundreds of hawks in flight, I realize that Hopkins had, too. He has caught their flight exactly. The boys have heard this very esoteric English major stuff. They know what it is. Mikey — age 12 — has even pointed at the sky and said, “Martha! Morning’s minion!”
“What do we do?” asks Mikey.
“We take them to the emergency vet and tell them to call Project Wildlife,” I say, “but I don’t know how we’ll do this.” The birds are thirsty, probably hungry even with the Cheetos. They are definitely terrified. They have nothing to grab onto in that flat-bottomed box. They are too young to fly; too young to be comfortable uncovered; too young even to be under an open sky.
If the hawks’ parents found them, they couldn’t get them back into the nest, and they wouldn’t want to. The babies have been too long from home by now and smell too strange. I am desperately in love with them. I ache for them. I am afraid for them. Their chances aren’t good no matter what we do. On the ground, they are food for someone, snake, coyote, raven. If I were alone, I might just kill them quickly and try to resist the temptation to put their battered little corpses under the wipers of that guy’s truck after smearing hawk blood across his windshield.
I am affecting a cowboy hat these days. It’s nothing but a straw basket turned upside down. I realize how to transport the hawks. “Mikey, sit beside me and shift. I’ll let the hawks perch on my arm and cover them with my hat. That way they can breathe, but won’t be scared.” Jason takes the dogs and the other boys take the bikes. Jimmy brings the hawks to the truck, his shirt still covering the box. I get in behind the wheel. Jimmy puts the box on my lap and I slowly, deliberately reach inside with my right hand. The babies climb up as if my arm were a branch. I quickly put my hat over them and swing my arm inside the truck. The birds stop screeching and relax, clinging to me. Wow.
Mikey gets in, careful not to hit my arm. Jimmy gently slides in beside him. There’s no horseplay, no jokes about farts or tickle-fighting, no sound, not even from the back. I look in the rear-view mirror and see three faces looking through the window. We are all desperately pulling for these two small lives. I put in the clutch and turn the key. We start to move. I’m glad we don’t have to turn around. It’s only three stoplights to the vet. “OK, Mikey. Second!”
In wonderment I drive through town with a 12 year old shifting my truck and two baby red tail hawks on my arm. They are quiet the whole way. We reach the emergency vet who calls Project Wildlife, after saying, “What were you thinking? These should be in the nest! They will probably die.” I don’t even answer him. I know how he feels and I know I didn’t do it. I think he’s an asshole to say this. He doesn’t know how carefully these boys (all of whom are with me in this vet’s waiting room) protected these two babies. He’s looked at us — and we are a rough looking gang, I admit it — and reached his own conclusion. His assistant takes the hawks to a cage in the back. Thanks to some asshole, if the chicks survive, a cage will be their world. I don’t know their story, but I know that no one who hoped to rescue them would leave them in an open box under a truck on a 90 degree day.
Drawing from My Journal that Day, April 24, 1993