Season of the Hawk
Five years old I was when my granny told me Bluebottles were ‘dirty things’. So I squished them between the net-curtain and the front window. The white mush expelled by the tiny carcases gave off a nasty pungency that tickled the inside of my nostrils. This stink I could avoid by alternatively removing the bluebottles’ wings and sticking pins into the bug bodies.
Then there were the elements. I drowned insects by placing them with a twig standing upright in a bottle, poured water slowly into its nozzle, forcing them to climb higher until there was no dry surface for refuge. Another method was to pinion them to the old wooden garden table with rose thorns, hold a magnifying glass between them and the sun and smell them sizzle. Smothering them was fun, too. Butterflies in a sealed jar went the quickest. Their frantic wing-beats thrashed against the glass, speedily transforming their painted perfection to a pathetic, transparent butterfly skeleton.
By the time I was eight I’d graduated to bigger game like mice and small birds. The other kids in the neighboured, including Decko, my brother, who was two years older than me, were still on their placing frogs on the road and riding over them with the wheels of their bikes-stage.
“You’re only a bunch of chickens,” I said one day when I arrived with a surprise for them in a shoebox.
Aller O’Callaghan, the bully of our country town, made a show of being real mad and slammed his bike to the ground with a clatter. He ran over to me, his clenched fist held up behind his head, with spittle-spume bubbling from his twisted mouth.
“What did you call me, you pygmy-midget?” he said, ignoring Decko who was playing along and trying to placate him. Decko held Aller by the other arm.
“He’s just a kid, Aller,” Decko said. “I’ll give you a fight if you want.”
Aller O’Callaghan was called ‘Aller’ after Lar Greene’s Alsatian. Aller didn’t share a resemblance with the dog, but dribbled and spluttered if he was excited, just the way the dog did
when you ran by Lar Greene’s fence and stopped to growl and bark in a kid’s voice at the frenzied hound. Aller was pink-faced with purple cheeks, and looked more like a pig with a drink problem, which drank too much cheap wine.
“Watch this,” I said. I opened the shoebox, grabbed the live brown mouse by its tail and held it up to Aller’s face. It would be funny to be able to report that he squealed like a pig, but what that barbecued piece of pork did was scream like a little girl in ankle socks.
Depositing the wriggling mouse on the ground, I whipped the hurley-stick from the back of my parked bike and tore after the terrified rodent. It, I told them as soon as I squashed it into the tarmac, at least had a sporting chance, unlike the frogs.
From that day I was Raz. Well, maybe it took a couple of weeks before the name stuck. They began by calling me Ratser, either because they thought I’d killed a baby rat, or it sounded better than Mouser. Ratser reluctantly became Razzer, before they shortened it to the name that’s knocked me out of a daydream for the last twenty-seven years, Raz.
I wouldn’t say that Aller was afraid of me from then on, but I can boast that he was cautious around me, which the other kids, I’m sure, misread as a kind of respect. I enjoyed this status for a long time, and tried to ensure it lasted by constantly keeping Aller on the lookout. I’d do things like pass him on the street and start fumbling in my pocket, as though there was something nestling in it, something furry with sharp teeth.
Aller grew accustomed to my trick after I overused it and he forced my hand.
“Right, Raz, you little runt. You’ve nothing in your pocket, do you?”
If, on that occasion, it had been any of the other times I played the scam, Aller could have justifiably carried out his role as town-bully.
“What do you think?” I said.
“I think it’s time you said ‘Hello’ to my fist,” he said. His purple face was now puce.
“Ah, no, Aller, don’t hit me. You wouldn’t hit a guy with a knife, would you?”
I watched his ruddy countenance take on a confused look, as his dim-witted brain attempted to decipher the answer that was outside his realm of expectation.
“What?” he said.
“Say ‘Hello’ to this,” I said, and produced a flick-knife I’d borrowed from Decko, who’d stolen it from a school-friend, who’d borrowed it from his old man’s knife collection.
I don’t think I really intended using it, but he rushed me, the knife flicked open and somehow slashed the back of Aller’s hand. My feet moved so fast under me that evening, I’m sure I broke the speed limit for spontaneously running in the street, if there is one.
Realising I was still clutching the knife when almost home, I let it fly from my hand into somebody’s garden as if I was carrying Aller’s severed head.
Decko was more understanding than I expected him to be.
“Let’s go and find the knife,” he said, which sounded reasonable. “And forget about Aller. He’s not going to tell anyone.”
“But, but,” I said, without knowing what I wanted to say.
Decko knew. He knew everything. He calmed me right down by simply telling me to cool it.
“Aller’s got his reputation to think about,” he said. “Stay cool.”
Decko was right. He was always right. He was right in the same way the pictures he drew in pencil and charcoal were right. He could’ve been the best artist ever. I miss him.
Decko thought things out. That’s why whenever my friend Ger and me hatched one of our endless plans to make some money, we always brought the idea to Decko first; like the time when we decided to murder Susu O’Gorman. Susu’s eyes were big and round and bulged out of his head. His legs were stubby and he had trouble breathing. Susu was one of Mrs O’Gorman’s Pekinese dogs.
The plan was to let her know that Susu was dead, and then send a threatening note demanding a crisp new tenner or we’d poison one of the other two dogs.
Mrs O’Gorman’s brain didn’t work too well. Older boys called her ‘Mad Mary’. But we thought it was funny calling her Mary, her being old enough to be somebody’s granny’s granny.
“How are you going to poison it?” Decko asked us while we were having our secret meeting at the top of Ladders’ Tree in the woods behind the church.
“With poison,” Ger said, and gave a laugh that was broken into precise syllables.
If Ger had been my brother instead of Decko, Decko would have been my best friend. Ger was uncomplicated. If he told you something, it was usually true; or at least he believed what he said. He had a thoughtful, laconic logic. Most people who didn’t know him thought he was slow when they first met him. They confused his slowness with not being quick on the uptake. Even the way Ger moved and spoke and, I suppose, his look, too, had an air of relaxation that was easy to confound with sluggishness. His eyelashes were longer than anybody’s; they always reminded me of that big black bird that was housed all alone in Dublin Zoo: the hornbill. When Ger blinked, his eyelids stayed closed long enough for you to tip him on the shoulder and be looking the other way when he opened them again. It used to take him what seemed like an hour to eat an ice-pop. He took each lick as though he was thinking of nothing, just savouring the tangy orange or sweet vanilla flavour sliding down his throat and dancing on his taste buds.
“Where’ll you get the poison?” Decko wanted to know.
“We’ll make it,” I said, “or rob it.”
Decko’s eyes creased for a second, and the muscles in his cheeks bunched up. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “How can you make sure to poison one dog and not both of them?”
Ger and me looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Decko went on.
“Even if you succeeded in poisoning one of them, how are you supposed to collect the money? And why do you need ‘a crisp new tenner’ anyway? Money is money.”
We sat in dutiful silence waiting for Decko to come up with our new idea. It would be our idea, Ger’s and mine, we felt. Decko was only adding something to it.
You could actually see his thirteen-year old mind working. He took out his penknife and began to bore its point into the branch he was sitting on.
Ger and me were trying hard not to look at each other, as the silence had already gone on too long and we knew the other was on the verge of exploding into nervous laughter.
“Got it,” he said, and held the knife up as though he were a teacher about to make a point with a cane. “We dognap it.”
A cold shudder of delight rippled through my insides, and skeleton fingers crawled around the back of my neck.
“We bring it here and stash it in the old cowshed,” he continued. “Then we go back to Mrs O’Gorman and tell her that a skinhead has her dog and wants ten pounds to give it back.”
“The police,” Ger said, and slowly blinked.
“Easy,” Decko said. “We’ll say the skinhead told us to warn her ‘No cops,’ or the dog snuffs it.” Decko was crazy about all those detective stories on TV.
We took our intended dognapping very seriously and, with Decko’s guidance, planned it in detail over the coming week.
It was July 1974. Older girls were jiggling around in hot pants. That, together with the smell of boiling tar on the roads melting under a hot sun, and Terry Jacks on the radio singing about dying and being no longer a boy all made me feel so alive, so part of the world that was created just for me, an eleven-year-old boy whose pockets would soon be full of money.
“Bags I be the one to kill Susu if Mrs O’Gorman brings in the cops,” I said later that evening.
The thing is I didn’t really want to kill the dog. I just said it to sound like a tough guy. But when Ger and Decko protested that, no, they’d be the one to ‘destroy the evidence’, we convinced each other that we must get the money or the dog was history.
This depressed me and, for a while, I didn’t feel as overjoyed as I should’ve felt about not being Terry Jacks. You see - Mrs O’Gorman often visited our house. I wasn’t sure why she was there, but kind of knew she wasn’t one of Mam’s friends. When Decko or me, or sometimes Dad, saw her shuffling her way up the front path, or recognised her silhouette through the frosted glass of the
front door, we automatically ran into the kitchen to let Mam know, in excited tones, that she was here. There followed a frenzy of whispering panic.
“Jesus,” Mam invariably said, “she’ll be here all day. Quick, my coat.”
“Answer the door, Mam,” Decko or me would say. “C’mon.”
“I’ll tell her I’m on my way out,” was Mam’s predictable solution.
But she never did carry out her threat to pretend she was just getting ready to leave the house. Mrs O’Gorman usually ended up exactly as Mam predicted. She sat for hours in the small living room, the room that was soon to become, for Mam, a kind of living tomb.
Even though she had a lot more stripes on her face than my granny, as I used to call wrinkles, I liked Mrs O’Gorman. She always reminded me of a nervous little animal, perfectly alert to everything going on around it. Yet there was something weird about her too. She never stopped laughing. And she didn’t just laugh for a few seconds like everyone else. She laughed about a million times.
“You look smashing in your brother Declan’s T-shirt,” she said on one of those visits which seemed weekly, but probably wasn’t more than once or twice a month.
“Only a wee drop of milk for me, Alice,” she laughed, obviously watching Mam’s tea preparations closely through the kitchen door at the same time.
“So tell me, how old are you now, Richard?” she continued, still laughing, while scanning the room to probably make a mental inventory of the ornaments and maybe checking the condition of the furniture.
“Eleven years old,” I said.
“Eleven, is it?” And such a big boy! How old do you think I am?”
“About a hundred,” I said.
“One hundred,” she shrieked in a tiny voice that sounded as if it were coming from behind a room with a closed door. She threw her head back, shut her eyes for a moment, lifted her miniature legs off the floor, slammed her hands down in her lap and laughed her high-pitched, strained laugh. She smelled sour.
That scene was jerking around in my head while I galloped through the churchyard with Susu O’Gorman yelping and breathing heavily under my jacket. I could hear Mrs O’Gorman’s mad, tinkling laugh. The three of us, Decko, Ger and me, were also laughing by the time we reached the hideout. I thought it funnier still that Susu didn’t understand what was so funny.
Susu was the male. Mrs O’Gorman’s other two dogs were bitches and we never knew their names. Susu was the friendliest. It was possible to stick your hand between the bars of the gate into Mrs O’Gorman’s garden, stroke his back and touch his pink tongue. The other two would back off
and hide in the porch. So when Susu snapped and connected his teeth with Ger’s fingers, the three of us realised instantly that Susu wasn’t Susu.
“It’s the wrong dog,” I said. In my stomach I felt a foreign, wobbly feeling. I ripped off the balaclava I’d made from my old woolly red hat.
Ger walked rapidly around in small circles, alternately shaking his hand and putting it under his armpit. Despite his obvious pain, he abruptly used his good hand to tear off the green bomber jacket tied to his waist and swung it at the Pekinese. The dog snarled the way a dwarf lawnmower might when fired into life. We backed off with fright, which seemed to frighten the dog. It scampered a few yards away, lay down and whimpered.
A low grunt behind our backs caused us to spin round. The explanation for the dog’s sudden cowardice stood before us, his piercing eyes assessing the situation.
“It’s not our dog,” Ger said. “We’re just bringing him for a walk.”
Decko gave Ger a Leave it, say nothing nudge with his elbow. “Take off your balaclava.”
Ger pulled off his balaclava, one of his mother’s stockings.
Geronimo Hawk looked about seven feet in height close up as he bent down and twisted his way through the trees, saplings and hanging brambles. He stared intensely at each of us. His eyes fascinated me. They were more like the eyes of a majestic bird of prey fixing on you a gaze of hatred from behind reinforced mesh wire. Just looking into his eyes and you could tell that he knew far more about you than you knew about him.
This was the first time we’d seen Geronimo that summer. He arrived every year round about the time when we were set free for three months from that stupid, green-walled kip I wish I could stop thinking about during the holidays.
Anyway, there we were, closer than we’d ever been to the Hawk outside of town, and we hadn’t even known he was back for the summer. He held his head tilted back and his nose was crinkled.
In our eagerness to please him, we almost stumbled over each other to let him through the unintentional wall we’d created between him and the dog by huddling close together. He scooped the dog up in one large hand. The dog panted and a shiver ran from its head to tail like a small wave beneath its fur. The Hawk brought it close to his nostrils and inhaled deeply enough to make a noise. In the shade of the trees the dog’s fur matched the colour of the Hawk’s beard. It looked as if a dog grew out of his face.
Seemingly satisfied, the Hawk then placed the dog back on the ground and turned to go. I could feel an instant thaw take place in my frozen body. Decko and Ger looked equally relieved.
For my benefit, Ger made a silent phew expression.
A giddy feeling was building up inside me that needed release. The same type of feeling I sometimes got in school when some dopey teacher was talking and we were supposed to be all interested and stuff. I held my breath. I remembered Granny telling me that laughter was a type of breathing. The more oxygen you had in your lungs, the louder and more uncontrollable the laugh.
That’s when something unexpected happened.
Geronimo Hawk stopped with his back to us. Unconsciously, I’d been concentrating on the mucky and torn ends of the outfit he wore. People said he’d been a monk, and that’s why he always wore a brown dress-yolk, like what Monk’s wear. But people said lots of things.
Had he seen me staring at him? Maybe he sensed the picture in my head? Or had he smelt my laughter? A brief picture of him grasping me by the throat and raising me to his nose popped like a burst balloon at the sound of his voice.
“No more prayers,” he said.
His voice was big but sounded different to other men’s voices. More like the way an animal would speak if it could talk; an animal that growls.
We waited. He waited, too, for an answer maybe.
“I never pray,” I said.
Decko tapped me on the thigh and indicated that I shut the fuck up.
“For thirty years,” he went on, while taking a month to turn his body round again, “I called out to Him.” He raised his arm palm up over his head and followed it with his eyes. “I asked Him what the grass was for.” He swept a long arm over the earth. “Who owns the wind?”
“You do,” I said.
Decko clicked at me with his tongue, snapped his fingers and gave me one of those your dead looks.
“Where does the daylight sleep,” he continued. “Is there a reason why a man shouldn’t whisper?”
The Hawk paused, his attention shifting about him as though something might yet answer him.
“Too many questions,” he said, “and no answers.”
A few days later, when we recalled what he said, we’d laugh ourselves to dizziness and hiccups. At that moment, though, the Hawk’s words had the weight of King Kong roaring from the top of the Empire State Building behind them. What he said didn’t mean a thing to Ger or me. And Decko too, I’m sure. Yet, so strong was the impression he made on us that whenever we tried to act like tough guys and joke and sneer about Geronimo Hawk, we stayed away from the fields that day, just to be safe.
Ger was the first to speak while the Hawk moved swiftly off with the assuredness of a self-contained creature that knows why it’s alive.
“What if he comes back?” Ger said as we listened to the rustle and snap of the Hawk’s retreat dissolve into a stuttering after-image.
“Geronimo,” he called out through the trees.
We echoed his yell. “Geronimo,” we shouted.
I felt like breaking into a Red Indian dance or something.
“Raz, you’re an idiot,” Decko said, and flung his opened knife with force into the base of a tree.
Decko still called me ‘Richard’ back then. That would soon change. So being called ‘Raz’ by him didn’t make me feel too good. The other kids could use my nickname all they wanted to, and I was indifferent, maybe even glad. Made me feel like I hadn’t touched a bar of soap for a month when I heard what they sometimes did to my real name.
Richard Richardson. Often wondered why they did that to me anyway. Parents are funny.
“I didn’t say nothing,” I said. “Geronimo. He’s the one. He asked us questions, you heard him. About the wind and stuff.”
“Not that,” Decko said and grimaced while spreading his curled fingers in front of my face, the way he sometimes did. “The dog,” he said. “The dog.”
The dog that wasn’t Susu stood upright on its feet again now that Geronimo Hawk had left. Its legs were hidden beneath its light brown body wig. Panting laboriously, a pink, unfurled tongue lolled from its grinning mouth. It’s flat, human baby face and huge eyes were filled to bursting with such accusation, I figured that we must have appeared to it like a bunch of Geronimo Hawks. In a couple of minutes, I could only glance at him sideways.
“Okay, plan B,” Decko said.
“We kill it?” Ger asked.
“Nobody said nothing definite about a plan B,” I said.
“Stay cool, you guys,” Decko said. “This is my definite plan B now. We bring the ransom down to a fiver.”
Susu was Mrs O’Gorman’s favourite, so we guessed it quite reasonable that she wouldn’t be as keen to pay out big money for the safe return of one of the bitches. After all, Mam had told us Mrs. O’Gorman was someone who ‘buried two husbands’. She was obviously tough, and if she didn’t care about somebody too much, she’d just dig a hole and toss him in the ground. I pictured her standing over a perfectly rectangular black crater in her back garden working with a pick and shovel and laughing her faraway laugh beneath a full moon. Beside her lie the bodies of two old men next
to a large mound of mucky earth.
“Aw, deadly, Decko, she likes you,” Ger said about Susu’s stand-in.
“Good girl,” Decko said, as the dog rolled over onto its back and smiled back at him. “There’s a good fiver. That’s the girl. C’mon Fiver.”
And Fiver, delighted with her new name, gave Decko her instant allegiance, as though she would have followed him forever. And so would I, if I could have. I still would. I’d flush my whole fucking life down the toilet were it possible to cancel that cunting day when Decko ended.