Maya Khosla: Red-Tailed Hawk

Maya Khosla was raised in India, England, Algeria, Burma, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Those cultures as well as her background in biology strongly shaped her writing. As an independent wildlife biologist, Maya is comfortable wandering through oak woodlands or waist-deep in silty waters (wearing chest waders). Her books include “Keel Bone,” (poetry from Bear Star Press; 2003 Dorothy Brunsman Award), “Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek,” (nonfiction from Golden Gate National Park Conservancy Press, 1997) and “Heart of the Tearing,” (poetry from Red Dust Press 1995). Performing, teaching and writing have earned her awards from the Headlands Center for the Arts, Poets and Writers Inc., and the Ludvig Vogelstein Foundation.


Red-Tailed Hawk

The flowers you give
are my maps. If I am ever lost
their petals’ scent will pull me
toward your musk again.
January 1, 2008
It’s a cloud-lidded morning. Thoroughly soaked, the fenceposts lining my little backyard are stained so dark the lichen growing on them looks fluorescent green by comparison. Rain is a mark of auspicious beginnings, though Michael just walked out of my condo with his spare motorcycle helmet and running clothes.
“I’m moving to the Philippines, Tash,” he declared before leaving. “It’s home.”
He has often mused about emigrating. But the emphasis on home gave his announcement a ring of conviction I haven’t heard before. We were standing in my condo hallway next to the stairs going up to my bedroom, where we shared New Years resolutions last night. I searched the olive-green flecks mixed into the browns of his pupils that drew me in from the moment of our first date, years ago, when he lifted me into the air in spite of a sore left shoulder.
But this morning his eyes were too dark to see the greens. He sank to the edge of my second stair to tie his shoelaces.
Michael was raised in the Philippines. His Dominican mother, siblings and the online game company he works for are all based there. I’ve visited Manila, Kanlubang, and Makiling with him. I too have most of my family overseas, in India. So I sympathize with his sense of home in a distant country of seven thousand-plus islands. It’s the warmth, the ability to buy a single cigarette, to figure out ways to return home from office for an afternoon nap. It’s the tropical air that can get so heated and heavy with moisture that when it breaks into drizzle, it’s hard to notice the difference.
He stood again, filling my condo hallway.
“Give me a hug? I won’t be seeing you again.” He leaned forward, arms reaching, the fingers of his square hands spread. His lips were in a pout, his eyes focused, intent.
I shook my head. As if yielding meant he would leave my place, California, the country. As if leaving without that hug meant he would have to reconsider.
When he turned to fumble with the front door locks and pick up the helmet, his right hand came within inches of me. I felt an urge to grab and shake it vigorously. He slipped out and I held the door open, breathing in the scent of post-drizzle moisture.
Sun behind veils, salts of loss on the tongue. An Anna’s hummingbird dashed past in a streak of shiny vermilion, wings beating about eighty times a minute, like a pulse racing over words held down. Its speed emphasized its ground level opposite, a two-legged trapped as if in torpor, unable to rush out and beckon her partner back.
It’s quiet here; guilt deadbolts me in. I made him leave. My hallway looks whole shades dingier. The dining table and its contents, two freshly drained tea mugs, a persimmon and a sliver of leftover fruit loaf, shrink-wrapped in plastic, hold the weight of a recent conclusion.  Upstairs, my unmade bed is too tousled to allow for a quick smoothing over. It needs to be stripped and redone.
The blooms he brought me yesterday are louder in his absence—red so saturated it looks wet. They are a reminder. We had planned a morning hike. The remainder of today was supposed to form neatly around the crystal of its there-and-back symmetry, the sweet scents and rush of blood and breath.
Last week’s storms have filled the North Bay’s soils and streams and enriched its forests and meadows with every color except this drained gray of sky. I have spent twelve winters here working out in the wild, so I know. Coho salmon are torpedoing up towards their deaths against the flow of swollen creeks. Frogs are emitting creaky calls from under umbrellas of dripping ferns. Bulb-bright highlights of new growth are re-greening every limb-tip of every bishop pine, redwood and fir. When a hawk alights, the branch gripped in its circlets of claws will shake and sway and splash. Winter wrens and varied thrushes in the vicinity will fall silent.
I haven’t the energy to emerge.
Michael is driving south to his home in Novato. Inside his car, he will switch the air vent back to ‘cold’ since I’m not with him. He will brush his hair impatiently with his left hand, the dark curls springing back after each stroke as if in protest. His eyes will be locked ahead as he waits for a chance to enter the right lane, glide past the slower car and swing back across highway dots and dashes.
The New Years resolutions we bantered about seem utterly irrelevant. Mine included accomplishing symbolic nuggets of what I hope to achieve within the next three hundred and sixty four days. “First thing’s first: begin it feeling new,” my mother used to launch forth. “Wear pressed clothes without a trace of past perfumes. Take six deep breaths at an open window. Make modest wishes…”
I do. Today they were good food and exercise, fresh air and water, a respectable chunk of work and a search for bobcats, raptors and frogs. These were the seeds I wanted to set, the emblems of my intentions for 2109.
Moving to the window, I twist the angle of the faux bamboo blinds and put my face close. A cold smell is all. A few weeks ago Michael gripped my battery-powered drill in both hands and worked on each fitting with single-minded diligence, asking me to hand him a nail here, a bracket or a blind there, stepping back to view it before moving on to the next one. Hours later he had installed them in all my windows. We whispered our verdict in unison.
He drew down the new blind, placed my drill inside its blue box on the coffee table and closed the distance between us. When we kissed, a slight leak in his right nostril wet my upper lip. I moved to wipe myself and he drew back to clean his nose with a quick apology. He was just as quick to advance again. The thudding in my ears blended with the salts and frictions of touch and the nose-drip was forgotten — until we parted to climb the stairs and the same wet spot chilled with evaporation.
When I get the angle correct, cloud-light glances off the blinds’ buttery hue and lights up the red and yellow cushions scattered across two futons that frame one corner of my living room. On the shelf in my downstairs closet is the new brocade sweatshirt I planned to throw on before leaving. Next to it a blank space where Michael’s white motorcycle helmet was stored. The sight propels me upstairs. On the top shelf of my bedroom closet, his running tea shirt and shorts were kept folded next to my field shirts that have clung to their mud-and algae-stains through wash cycles. He’s neater than I am. He’s meticulous. Even the absence of clothes looks rectangular.
I can’t bring myself to move my shirts and woolen shawls over to fill the empty space. Leaving it empty falls in the same category as refusing him the goodbye-hug. It’s a safeguard that could protect against an absence so complete it’s irreversible. Against losing my grip on those arms that looked weighty with rest just hours ago in this room.
The dishes, counters, and tabletop are clean, the bed made. I pressed the persimmon from its ends so the flesh gave, easily, two halves of a whole. The orange flesh had the consistency of an overripe mango but was sweeter, chalkier, full of rich sugars and salts. It was comfort food.
I threw away the fruit loaf that began our quarrel. I had taken it out of the freezer and warmed it in lieu of my homemade date-oatmeal bars, which I had run out of.
Michael eyed the density of fruit and nut between bites.
“Who’s been here? You had a whole loaf a couple of days ago.”
“This? It’s been sitting in the freezer,” I argued.
Still chewing, he scanned my living room and shook his head.
“I don’t think so. Look at those two cushions lying by the fireplace. You’ve had company. Recently.”
I tried to remember when my friends Susan, Mella, and Sally had been over, whether they’d eaten much of the loaf. We had met sometime before Christmas, probably two weeks ago. Then I realized it didn’t matter what I said.
Michael was chuckling, shaking his head. “Tash, it’s obvious someone’s been here. Cozy evening with him?”
“You know what, Michael? Enough.”
He stared at his empty tea mug as though making a calculation. Then he sprang up. “You know what? It’s obvious you’re involved with someone. I’ll do the same.”
“I think you need to leave,” I heard myself say. He responded with the wide-eyed gaze of a frightened child. Then he went around the corner and I listened to the thump-thump of his feet up the stairs.
It’s 1:44 p.m. When I get online, Michael is there too.
“I am completely devasted and cant even breath,” he begins his chat.
He’s back. Except the misspellings reveal a carelessness rare for him.
He types, “I just can’t imagine being without the love of my life and yet I bring us so much pain and turmoil.”
It’s a shot of lucid light searing the gloom. Perhaps we’ll get through this. He writes that even his divorce was easier than losing me.
“You are not losing me!” I reply.
“It’s this seroquel,” he writes. “It’s making me crazy.” Seroquel is his latest antidepressant.
Two hundred and ten emoticons of a face in tears arrive on my screen. I have never understood how he does that so fast. I want to reach through the electronic windows separating us and cover the hands that type unfiltered fears and push the return button with the urgency of one who is trying to check his fall in a dream.
He does not mention the fruit loaf or cushions.
It’s a little over a mile to the cement-lined ponds and greens of Sonoma State University. I’ve worn my new sweatshirt for ritual’s sake, and a rain jacket over it. There are footprints ahead, but no one else is walking the Copeland Creek Trail now. No one is playing in the football field south of my path. The creek is invisible behind a riparian world that has risen like fire; swaths of green and nubs of new leaves-to-be are pointing skyward like a multitude of hopes. Their savings account, groundwater, is rich and gurgles underground like a secret.
There is a slap and suck to each step through muddy softness. Crossing a puddle the brown of soil-flour, I think of the hike we missed this morning. The same eight miles through Point Reyes National Seashore along Bear Valley Creek became a habit for us long before Michael’s counselor began giving him prescriptions for antidepressants. We stuck with the eight: Bear Valley Trail to Meadow, Meadow to Sky, Sky to Mt. Whittenberg and back down to Bear Valley. Is there some significance to our missing out on the first of the year? Was it best, asking him to leave when I did?
A white-crowned sparrow clings to a spindle-thin twig among a perfusion of bare branches. Its gold beak is an ember opening to release a series of plaintive trills. I watch with binoculars. It catches sight of me and dips into the creek-side tangle.
A red-tailed hawk circles on the air thermals above. Its tail swivels and I catch a glimpse the red dorsal feathers. My binoculars magnify the down-turned head, shifting slightly from side to side as it scans the football field. Hunting is a swift dream, mired in instinct but crisp with the single-minded focus of pursuit. 
In a breath, it bunches up its wings, extends its claws and plunges fieldward. A predator’s drive looks so sure, yet it is in the dark about itself. The wings unfurl as claws touch grass. Now it’s hopping, now still.  Apparently it has missed its target.
A few seasons ago I encountered a fallen red-tail. That too was a cloud-wrapped day. I was surveying for burrowing owls in rolling grasslands close to Altamont Pass, where wind turbines cover the ridge-tops for miles. The raptor must have collided with the turbine roaring above us.
“If you throw a large cloth over it,” a woman at the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center explained when I called, “it will calm down. If you don’t have one, back off or you’ll risk having your wrists lacerated.”
I shed my fleece jacket and spread it wide, measuring. It was no large cloth. I made a split-second decision and advanced in terror. The bird stood regal, head rising, hooked beak bared, crest feathers standing. They looked damp—rain or sweat? Every inch of its foot and a half tall body was designed to intimidate.
Still, I advanced closer. It took one hop away. The left wing was dragging in a pathetic antithesis of the poise that was using up so much of its body’s meager energy savings. It raised the talons of one leg at me with a predator’s regal fury. The beak was still bared. I couldn’t afford to hesitate. Let instant darkness calm it.
I had been given good rules over the phone; I had sat through training classes in Golden Gate Raptor Observatory before that. But when the moment closed in, adrenalin-fired fear eclipsed all thought. 
I dropped my fleece on the bird and all was very quiet. I bent double and gathered up the raptor in my jacket. It had calmed down— immediately. It sat still, trapped, light as held breath.
Walking uphill with arms outstretched, I was panting soon. My car was parked under the wind turbine and its wails grew and grew as I neared the ridgeline. Inside my jacket, all was so still that there were moments when I was convinced the red-tail had slipped out. I turned back once, but the capture spot was already out of view.
Was it comfortable inside? Would it heal, hover in the updrafts again to decipher—the way no human eye can—the day-glow ultraviolet ribbons of mouse urine, the twitching, racing maneuvers that must look utterly futile from a bird’s eye view?
And most important, had I folded the broken wing correctly, given it enough breathing room?
I didn’t dare check. Awareness of a human face would have caused more stress to the bird. The questions were torture, though. They haven’t left me, though I now know one of the answers.