It was one of those nights where the very air seems thick. An unhealthy orange pall diffused from the streetlamp and settled thickly on the courtyard, reducing the contrast of green varnished doors and white walls to a vague stripe. The light quality is the thing I remember most clearly, its levelling effect broken only by the metal dustbins which stood in the centre of the space. These glowed dully, refracted images carried to my feet by the thin layer of water which always remained, no matter how long the rain stayed away. I hated the courtyard. Spiders lived behind those doors, brushes and mops and spiders. I avoided it when possible.
But today was bin day. I had the bedroom bin, and I was cross. It was cold and damp here and I'd had to put my shoes on, which meant a battle with the laces and with my mother about the laces. The resulting knot was loopy and trailing in the wet, and I knew that I was going to have to touch it when we went back indoors. I was cross. Waiting, barely higher than the bins, absently crushing the red berries of the overhanging yew with my toe, the first thing I heard was the thud.
I spun, fighting a brief but perilous battle for balance with the now undone shoelace, and saw nothing. Nothing? But something had happened, I was sure of it. From her five foot five vantage point, mother was my scout, and following her gaze, I saw it.
Crumpled on the top of a wheelie bin lay an enormous bird. Fallen from the sky, one wing so abstract in its brokenness that a childish instinct to fix had me moving forward, hand outstretched. This was not the birds of my window box, or of my grandparents' orchard, darting for crumbs one moment and the next a 'V' in the sky. This was a museum bird, striped and mottled, cruel eyes, hooked beak, fixed in position and unable to move. It didn't matter how many times my father told me that these were birds who ate other birds, even the babies, I admired these savages, wondered at their way of living, jealous of their wings, and pitying them in their immobility. But those birds were dead. My bird was alive.
Moments from contact, I paused. Perhaps it was my mother's shout, or the bird's eyes. Wide and yellow, they regarded me with no fear, me the giant, great clumsy fingers reaching towards its broken wing. Seconds passed, and it never blinked, just watched defiant, confused, banished from the sky. The chest rose and fell, so quickly, I tried to match its breathing, panting, and failed. My mother took my hand and I flinched, so isolated had I been in my vigil as she pulled me towards the door. But I wouldn't go, what did I care if it was damp and cold, or that my shoe was undone or that I was in pyjamas. I needed to fix my bird. She sighed and called for my father.
A sparrowhawk, he said. My sparrow hawk, mightier than the urban sparrows, hunting them as they scrounge crumbs on the pavement. Lost, he said. Oughtn't to be in the city, or even in the night, they are country birds, day birds, sky birds. Why was my bird here? Why did it fall?
Another move towards the indoors, this time the sparrowhawk came too. Covered in a towel, lifted oh so gently in to a box, in to the light. It looked so small now, edged in pink towelling, trapped by cardboard and walls and a ceiling. I wondered if my bird had ever seen a ceiling, what it must be like to travel upwards, without boundaries, without gravity and stupid short legs which could only jump so high before tumbling down again. Whatever my bird thought, it did not blink, only lay still, chest fluttering, its yellow stare challenging, but cloudier than it had seemed in the darkness.
There was a plate of chicken in the fridge, raw, waiting for dinner time. I had eaten fish fingers already. The chicken was a special meal for my parents, a treat, leaner times called for emptier tables, but my mother took it, and cut it up for my sparrowhawk. I knew then that more was broken than his wing.
Next came one of those silences where even as a child, you know that something is being communicated that you are not supposed to understand. Through the partition wall I could hear my father on the phone, in the dining room, nothing but breathing. I watched the hawk lying still and grave, a strip of meat inches from its beak. Another swayed from my mother's fingers, pink on pink, a metronome as uneven as the bird's breath marking the seconds until something happened. Something must be going to happen. This was our world, our house, where the things my mother and father wanted came to be. My faith in their ability to heal was absolute.
Then suddenly as the bird had fallen, everything started to move. Winter coats and gloves. Car keys. The bird borne to the back seat. Hurried exchanges of foreign sounding words. Toxicity, decline, RSPB, quickly, quickly. We drove outwards, away from the house and from the city, pools of lamplight giving way to the subtler tones of the moon. On the seat next to me lay my sparrowhawk, a shadow in the box with a single shining eye. As we pressed deeper in to the landscape the night grew wilder, calling the hawk home, winds tugging hopefully at the car.
But wilderness was not our destination. The prim Georgian property which awaited us seemed even less suited to the savage we were carrying than our city flat. Striding towards the car, a man who seemed an extension of the house, tall, angular and impressive, this was the bird doctor. Glancing in to the box with a brief noise of concern, he gathered us in to the house before drawing my father and my bird in to a separate room. Minutes passed, me gazing at my shoes, mother picking at her fingernails, both straining against the silence to hear an explanation of the bird's condition which would justify our presence in the home of a stranger at midnight. A lifetime later my father and the bird doctor returned. Words told me to return in the morning, how lucky it was that I had found the bird, that the doctor was the best, but their faces told me that this would not be a happy ending.
Back at home my mother asked if I wanted to sleep in her bed. I told her no, I wanted to be by myself, to think and to dream, but sleep never arrived. Morning broke in a washed out fashion, the sky dowdy and the air wet. Returning to the country we were flanked by other vehicles, by people, it was not the same place I had been before. Arriving at the bird doctor's house we were greeted by a tiny shake of the head. I understood, but pressed forwards anyway, desperate to see for myself. For the first time I saw my sparrowhawk in the light of day. Tawny wings rearranged in a semblance of nature, the chestnut breast fringed with white, it was utterly still. This was a different bird now, a dead bird. I asked if I could bury it, but the doctor said that it wasn't safe, that someone had poisoned my hawk, and that he needed to keep it. It didn't matter. My bird wasn't there anymore.
Gone away. Alone in the box my bird lay dead. Deader than the birds of the museum, the stillness of its chest made my own heart beat harder, willing the hawk's to flutter back in sympathy. I looked at my parents looking at my sparrowhawk, they seemed smaller than they had before, standing with joined hands braced against a lost battle. And then they looked at me, a measuring look which would lead to sugared half-truths that would soften the blow of the new understanding which the night had delivered. In the box the yellow eyes had closed. I closed my eyes and breathed in.
And opened them again. This was not a bird to be pitied. In death, as in life my hawk lay proud and beautiful, resolute in his refusal to regress from hunter to prey. Poisoned or not, here was the end of the food chain. In spite of myself I felt a tear forming and defiant, I crouched down and began to retie my shoe. A crisp knot, loop, tight twist, and pull through. I checked, it was all connected, all entwined. Far from the paisley carpet the wings of my knotted bow stood secure, ready for the journey home. Reaching out one hand, I gently stroked my bird's head, from the beak to the back of the firmly feathered neck. Breathing out, I smiled, turned away and walked onwards.