Authors: Alissa York
Tags: #General Fiction
“You giving me a shower, boy?” Kate crouches down to his level, setting his hind end wagging. “You think I need a shower?”
Lily stands at a little distance, blinking to clear away the image that’s slipped into her head. It’s not X-rated or anything, just the ponytail untied, the dark hair loose beneath the spray. She focuses on the scene before her: Kate rumpling Billy’s ears.
“He likes you.”
“I like him.” Kate stands up, begins bouncing on the spot. Keeping her blood moving. Soon she’ll be gone.
“My friend has a hawk.” Lily had no idea she was going to say anything, let alone that. Some sly, fast-acting part of herself pushing into the driver’s seat, grabbing the wheel.
“A hawk?” It’s a funny look, a blend of curiosity and concern.
“It’s not a pet or anything.” She hears herself talking quickly, as though her ration of air is running out. “He’s just looking after it until it can fly.”
“Oh.” Kate smiles again.
“You want to see it sometime? I could take you.”
It’s the response Lily’s hoping for, yet it looses a wave of rich discomfort in her gut. For a second she thinks she might actually hurl. The wild, driving part of her doesn’t care. “Any day’s good. Around suppertime—that’s when I’m usually there.” She fumbles in her breast pocket and produces Guy’s scribbled map. No reason to keep it when she knows the way by heart.
Stephen lies on his bedroom floor, hiked up on one elbow so he can watch the kits sleep.
It’s hard to credit how much they’ve grown since the day he carried them home. Their eyes were open then, but only just—that eerie, unfocused stare. Now they track his every move, gaze up at him like lovers after every feed. Their guard hairs are coming in, making them more alike, but he still thinks of them by the variation in their undercoats: the grey twins, the tan big brother, the chocolate brown runt.
He should leave them be, push the carrier back into the peaceful shadow beneath the bed—and he will. Any minute now he will.
They’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.
It’s okay, he saved them, didn’t he? They’re safe. Unlike their mother. Their mother he let die.
He was on his way home from returning a half-blind bulldog to its cage when he spotted the raccoon descending a tree. Unconcerned with gravity, the animal clambered headfirst down the rutted trunk to re-establish itself on the ground. Stephen froze to let it pass—and therein lies his guilt. If he’d kept on like a normal human being, claiming the right of way, the raccoon would have crouched among the tree roots, waiting. And while it did so, the minivan would have passed.
As it was, it chittered softly, crossed the dark patch of lawn to the pale strip of sidewalk and trundled out into the street. The minivan backed out fast. Stephen’s voice fell back down his throat, useless; the raccoon was already rolling, already resting against the curb. He squinted to get the plate number. What for?
Officer, I want to report a hit and run
Ten steps took him to the body. There was no blood—at least none he could see—yet there was little doubt. He touched
its back gently with the tip of his boot, then crouched and touched its belly with his hand. His index finger found the nipple, dark and swollen, damp.
God, oh God
. He hadn’t run like that since Pashmul; no IEDs or skinny gunmen to worry about now, just his own weak and whining heart.
Guy was standing at the stove when he got there, pork chops hissing in the heavy pan. He flipped one after another, waiting for Stephen to catch his breath. “Did you see which tree it was?” he asked, once the story was out.
“I’ll get the ladder.” He turned off the heat and covered the pan. “You grab us some coveralls.”
“Nobody hassles a man in coveralls. Uncle Ernie’s words to the wise.”
It turned out to be true. A young woman slowed her stroller when they lifted the body into the bin, but she asked no questions, saying only, “Poor thing.” The old guy sitting on the porch opposite watched mildly as they leaned the ladder up against the tree. Stephen had assumed he’d be the one to hold the legs steady, but Guy surprised him by stepping aside.
“You know what you’re looking for?”
“Not really.” Stephen stared up into the branches. “A hole?”
“You got it. Look for a hole.”
He was almost out of rungs when he found it—a shadowy depression in the cleft of a sizable limb. He unzipped the coveralls to just below his breastbone, braced himself and reached in. He’d never felt anything so private. The kits were
like warm, lightly furred organs in the torso of the tree. They scratched the hand he closed around them; it came out smudged with his blood.
Backing down, he curved an arm up under the shape they made inside his coveralls and held them trembling in its crook.
It was daunting, taking on those four small lives. Guy offered advice and more: the heating pad tucked under one end of their carrier-den; the bed of paper towels instead of the flannel pyjama top Stephen had in mind.
The lint can plug up their noses when they’re little like that
. Rooting around in a kitchen cupboard, Guy produced two doll-sized baby bottles and a jar marked
. It turned out to be powdered kitten milk replacer left over from various four-footed orphans he and his aunt had tended over the years. Many of which hadn’t made it, he told Stephen gently. More than half. Stephen nodded, but inside he said firmly,
. Not half, not even a quarter. Not one of them would die in his care.
He got them fed, got them settled in their new home. Then went round back to where Guy was digging their mother’s grave. It wasn’t the first burial Stephen had witnessed in the long-lost garden. He knew the words and spoke them quietly with his friend.
He should really introduce the kits to the backyard too—start getting them used to the great outdoors. It pains him, though, the idea of setting their carrier down in the grass and opening the door. What if he can’t keep track of them all? The big tan has already shown himself to be an avid climber, and he’s perfecting a stumbly run. What’s worse, the hummocky back garden will only be the beginning. In another month or
so Stephen will have to carry them out into the wide, wide world—or at least the scruffy strip of it that borders the Don. They may well find their way up to the fish ponds and garbage of the city, but he wants to make sure they get a grounding in the basics. He’s the only mother they’ve got; he owes them a proper start.
He’s been reading up on the subject on sites like wildbabies.ca and littleorphananimal.com. It turns out instinct is only part of the picture. Mammals learn by aping their elders. Like a baby with his first blunt spoon, the kits will need to be shown.
It’ll be hot by then, the valley brimming with green. One early morning, Stephen will strap the carrier to the old bike’s basket and cover it with a towel. He’ll ride as slowly, as gently as he can, carry the bike down the stairs on his shoulder to spare them the frightening tilt. He has a spot in mind, well screened from the path, the water wide and reedy, a gradual bank. To begin with, he’ll let them watch him through the bars. Crouch down and lower his net into the sluggish flow. If the river brings him a fish, he’ll flip it onto the bank, whack it on a rock until it shows a glassy eye. If he can manage to scoop up a crayfish, he’ll hold it by the tail while beating it senseless, making a show of keeping clear of the claws. Once he has the kits’ attention, he’ll let them out to line up alongside him on the bank. He’ll wet his hands; they’ll wet their paws. Together, they’ll feel for life among the pebbles, clutching at whatever moves.
Sooner or later—on the third trip out, maybe the fourth—the kits will begin to move off on their own. One after another, they’ll paddle out into the shallows, causing his
heart to shrink. The big tan will be the first to scramble carelessly up a tree, but the others will watch and follow suit. Then one day, when they’re sufficiently fat and feisty, Stephen will leave the carrier lying open under some brush, pick up the bicycle and ride away. One or more of them may watch him go, but he mustn’t hope for that. Ideally, they won’t give him a second look.
He’ll return with supplemental rations for a couple of weeks—less food every day, placed in the carrier at first, then farther and farther afield. He might catch sight of one of them, though the chances of that happening are slim. If he’s lucky, he’ll spot a track in the muddy bank—hind paw like the foot of a long-toed infant, forepaw like the infant’s clutching hand. Tapered release, it’s called, at least according to littleorphananimal.com—the tried-and-true method of the wildlife rehabilitation set.
. Which means something that gets thinner and thinner until it’s gone.
The air inside the flight cage is special—Guy felt it the first time he set foot in there, a faint, crackling charge. If anything, it’s growing stronger over time, as though the red-tail has been electrifying the space with its repeated passage.
Stepping all the way inside, he pulls the cage door closed behind him. No plate of poached bodies this morning, only a grey plastic box—the first live mousetrap to get lucky. “Hey, Red,” he says softly, “guess what I brought.”
The hawk watches him from its branch.
Guy moves closer, some five or six steps. Crouching down,
he sets the box on the ground. His fingers find the catch. “Sorry,” he whispers, lifting its little door.
It happens in the blink of an eye—the mouse shooting from the trap like a tiny greyhound to run a mad scribble beneath the red-tail’s falling form. In a flash of rodent genius, it cuts left, scrambling for the border of the cage. Guy stumbles back, meeting the mesh door with his shoulders as the hawk angles its caped wings to brake. Feet outstretched, it strikes hard, meeting the mouseless ground.
The hawk’s scream could be a child’s; it cuts Guy to the heart as though he were the father. He takes a step toward the humped and staggering bird, then stops himself with a jerk. Not the father. The red-tail’s eye reminds him. This creature is wild. Wild and, very possibly, hurt.
“Okay.” He eases back toward the door. “I’m going.”
The hawk works its wings, rising in a convulsive rush. Guy knows a wash of blind panic, his animal body taking control, shielding eyes with arms, soft organs with the bones of the back. He drops to the ground, contracting. It’s like being beaten with heavy silk. The talons tear through his Mack and T-shirt, just grazing the flesh beneath. The pain is nothing; it’s fear that makes him yell out in that echoing, feathered cave.
Suddenly the bird no longer beats against him. It’s a thing of sound now, the discreet, rhythmic squeaking of flight. Guy cracks an eyelid, peeking out from beneath his elbow as the hawk makes contact with the oak. It’s an awkward landing, reminiscent of the first few times he exercised the clumsy, undernourished bird. The red-tail takes a moment to compose itself on its branch. Guy doesn’t notice until the bird comes to
stillness—it’s standing on one leg, holding a foot against its belly, the way a child might cradle an injured hand.