The Good Hawks’, Danielle Jorgenson-Murray

Illustrations © 2020 Gwen C. Katz

 [ Fangs, © 2020 Gwen C. Katz ] I moved around a lot when I was young, so I’ve had to be a lot of things in my life.

My favourite was the adder, mostly because of the way the scales looked on me. I was young and didn’t have the disposable income for good goth fashion, so the black zigzag scales down my spine were a godsend. I cut the backs of all my tops into plunging Vs and basked in the attention the same way I’d started basking in the sun until we moved again, further out into the country this time, where there were enough adders to fill their ecological niche and they didn’t need any help from me.

All my scales flaked off within a week and I was left with nothing but a wardrobe full of cut-up clothes that were useless against the moortop winds. I saved a handful of cast-off scales, but they must be long gone now, lost in house moves.

I will say that the scales were the only good part. The rest of it was catching mice and frogs when I could get them and thinking about catching them when I couldn’t, and it was as bad as it sounds.

I found myself yearning for the moors again when the new wave of changes got too much for me, longing for that place where I shed my snakeskin, where I was never called on to be anything more than a human teenager. It was worth living off tins and rice for the foreseeable future for the literal body-quiet of living in Kirksett.

I had to sell my car to afford the mortgage payments and I was glad to do it. Walking would be good for me. I filled my little garden with pots of lavender because it was the only plant I could think of that would attract bees, and as I brushed crumbs of soil from my hands I tried not to think about the women in the city centre, some hiding their compound eyes with sunglasses and others wearing long, loose business-smart harem trousers to hide the black fur and pollen sacs on their thighs, picking through park flowerbeds and wading through roadside verges to dab sticky fingers on each flower in turn.

The same cold dread frothed in my stomach at the memory of them. The birdsong suddenly seemed too quiet, the weather too warm, the garden too empty. I couldn’t focus on work, my mind racing down other tracks as I scrolled through listings of secondhand clothes and read the same descriptions over and over. I tried to sit at the sewing machine to distract myself with my hands, but when the needle started jackhammering through the fabric, all I could hear was the sound of electricity obtained by mysterious, probably dirty, means, vibrating accusingly up through my foot.

I left the house and ran into Mrs Chipchase who’d worked in the Post Office before it was shut the other year. We hardly even got through the hellos before she started reminiscing, contrasting my teenage strops with the competent adult I’ve become. Mortifyingly, she even remembered my adder fashion, the “funny cut-up clothes” I’d brought with me and then been forced to wear because after the move we couldn’t afford a whole new set of clothes after I’d mutilated all my perfectly good ones for no reason.

I’d hated this village the first time we moved here, and people remembered that about me when I came back.

“We always thought you were a bit of a wrong ’un, chick,” she said cheerfully, assuming wrongly that it was so long ago it didn’t embarrass me anymore. “But look at you now! We might have the next Vivienne Westwood living in our midst!”

I knew she meant well, and to be honest I was impressed that she knew who Vivienne Westwood was at all, so I smiled and patted her creaky old sheltie and went on my way.

I walked up onto the moors until I couldn’t hear cars anymore. I walked down bridle paths and public footpaths and left all my mobile signal bars far behind. Nameless becks cut through the hard ground and nameless rocks showed their bare faces to the sun. Clumps of plants I couldn’t identify attracted honeybees and red-tailed bumblebees, tortoiseshells and painted ladies, and I wished I knew what the plants were called so I could grow some of my own.

At first, because we were young and vain and didn’t get it, there was something enviable about a change, something cool and funny and noble about it. You felt like you were doing your bit to keep the world from falling apart. You were jealous of the wolf people, the polar bear people, the tiger people. Imagine having had such exotic wildlife. Imagine having to take its place when it was gone.

And then we grew up a bit, and it stopped snowing in winter, and we stopped laughing up our sleeves at the grey-feathered women with confused orange eyes dropping painted stones in every bird’s nest they could find because we couldn’t remember the last time we’d heard a real cuckoo calling.

I walked until I reached a fence that I was sure hadn’t been there when I’d lived here before. I remember thinking that very clearly, and even being annoyed about it. The height of hypocrisy, considering I’d never made a habit of walking the moors. After losing my adder scales in Kirksett I felt rejected by nature, and out of spite and embarrassment decided that if this world was complete without me, then I wouldn’t pollute it with my presence.

The fence was wire, with shiny silver squares and triangles of mesh replacing stretches that had rusted or been cut away by vandals. A heavy concrete slab blocked a human-sized scrape underneath, the land scooped smooth into a bare dry dip that was beginning to grow back timid seedlings from disuse. Behind the fence was a sign saying trespassers would be prosecuted.

In front of the fence was the dull green public footpath sign, indicating that it was 16 miles to Pennerow and 3 miles back to Kirksett. It pointed plaintively over the fence, where the grass was high and unbroken. It was impossible to see where the path had once continued.

Instead, pairs of resigned feet had turned away and worn a faint track running parallel to the fence. I didn’t follow it.

The summer was hot and I was throwing water on my lavender and the strange little weeds that had sprung up in my front garden when someone paused by the garden wall.

“You fix clothes, do you?” he asked.

“Yep.” I made pocket money doing basic tailoring and alterations for people in the village, those who were no good at sewing or were too lazy or who just wanted an excuse for human interaction. I enjoyed it for the most part; the work was easy enough and I liked having company. I liked sitting with a cup of tea in the kitchen and listening to them talk about their kids, their jobs, their holidays.

“Do I need an appointment?”

I was waiting for a couple of shipments that I was hoping to do some ambitious customisation on before selling on, so I was at a bit of a loose end, between projects. “Nope,” I said. “Bring your stuff round whenever. I’ll be in all day.”

He looked surprised. “Now?”

I nodded nonchalantly, not sure whether I was pleased to have something to do or annoyed at the disruption to my day at such short notice.

“It’s just my jacket,” he said, and spun around to show off a long tear in the back of it. It was a nice jacket. It would feel good to fix.

“Bring it in,” I said. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

He wasn’t a familiar face, and for the first time I felt like I was the one who belonged here, facing off against an intruder. He looked around my messy house suspiciously as he entered, and wiped his feet on the mat. He was looking at me the way I was looking at him, a quick, polite scan for fur or feathers, anything inhuman.

He was fine, human eyes and human hands, though his ears were lost in the nest of his hair. He couldn’t have hidden a tail in the jeans he was wearing.

I held out a hand for his jacket and he shrugged it off and handed it over. It was warm and heavy like something alive. The tear went right the way through, lining and all.

“Can you fix it?” he asked.

I nodded. “It won’t be as good as new,” I warned. “You’ll be able to tell.” But he was already waving the words away. He didn’t care.

“Shall I put the kettle on?” he asked.

I twitched my head over to it. “Lid’s a bit fiddly.”

The water ran, soft stuff from one of the local reservoirs, while I felt my way around the tear in his jacket, let my mind spin unsupervised to find out how best to fix it.

“You don’t have a car?”

I looked up to see him staring out of the window at the blank space of road in front of the house. “Nope.”

“How do you get about?”

“Walk. I don’t need to go far.”

The kettle boiled as I went through my threads. I wasn’t sure I had anything strong enough, let alone in the right shade of rich brown.

“I tore it on a fence,” he said.

I made a sound to show I was listening. I had good cordlike thread in white and for some reason lurid green, bought specially for some long-ago project and hardly used, but no brown.

“Up the moors,” he said.

I let slip just a glance, but he noticed.

“Aye, up where you were the other day.”

Back to the thread box. “Do you have any preference for the colour?” I asked.

“What colour?”

“I haven’t got any matching thread.”

“What have you got?”

He poured the tea while I laid out the threads I did have. As he picked up each bobbin in turn I wondered if he hadn’t found the mugs a bit too easily, without my directions, if he didn’t know my kitchen a bit too well.

“I could get the right colour in, if you don’t mind waiting a few days,” I said, but he was already shaking his head again and frowning, making that swatting motion with his hands as if even the fact that I’d offer such a thing annoyed him.

“I like this purple,” he said, pointing to a thread I’d got for some heavy-duty tailoring on a pregnant bridesmaid’s dress. “Like the summer heather.”

“Nice, isn’t it?” Usually I’d chat a bit about what the thread was made of, where I’d got it, why I had it, how I’d liked working with it, but I didn’t think he deserved it.

He reached into my thread box and pulled out a spidery knot of gold wire thread. “What about this?”

“You can’t mend with that,” I said. “It’s not strong enough.”

“What about summat decorative mebbe then? Fix it with the purple and go over it with the gold. I heard about this Japanese tradition where they fix cracks with gold. Could you do summat like that?”

I could. It would look ridiculous, but it was what he wanted so I settled in to start.

It could have been easy to like him. The tea in the mug he put beside me—on a coaster—was well made, and the little detail about fixing broken things with gold would have endeared anyone else to me, not to mention how easygoing he was being about the repairs, but he’d enjoyed that little detail about seeing me up on the moors. He’d wanted a reaction out of that.

“What were you doing on the fence?” I asked at last.

“Getting over it,” he replied.

“What is that place up there?”

“The Northcott estate.”

“Are they allowed to cut off the footpath like that?” I’d checked maps afterwards to make sure the signs weren’t just out of date. They weren’t. The path was listed as a public walkway.

“No,” he said. “But who’s going to stop them?”

Him and his torn jacket, presumably.

We grew up hearing about the last big wave of changes in the mid-century, the great success story of the clean-up of the local river. The upstream mines and chemical plant had choked and poisoned the river so well that even when the industry shut down you’d still see unemployed miners and factory workers standing up and down the length of it in heron-vigil. They followed salmon paths up the splashing rapids in waders and shimmering fishscale, or plucked dragonflies out of the air with their bare hands, bare-footed too with their falcon talons out. They showed us video at school, grainy colour footage of these strange half-people who were our grandfathers and great-uncles and third cousins.

At Auntie Florence’s 80th, Uncle Ossie, deep in a pint of stout, remarked that it was probably a good thing they were all on the dole back then, because being the river’s ecosystem was a full-time job and a half.

When they cleaned it up and the wildlife started coming back, it was a sigh of relief for the area. No more prising mussels off rocks or seal-splotched mothers sneaking swims while the bairns built sandcastles. We were a note of triumph for the country for once, something to be smug about.

Look, they said, we can rebalance nature.

There was no river to rally round this time. There was nobody to point at or boycott, and no markers of progress or degradation to judge our actions against. It came from everywhere this time, stealthy and unstoppable until every time you saw a bee or heard a bird you’d start trying to convince yourself that maybe it wasn’t that bad. Aware all the time that there’s a tipping point somewhere and we won’t know where it is until long after it’s too late.

The dead bee on the pavement in autumn might have been our last chance as a species. The empty nests in the trees might mean that soon we’ll all be itching with pinfeathers on our necks and arms.

He sized me up easily. No car, no pets, no kids, all my vegan food substitutes lined up in their brown packets on my kitchen shelves, lavender and bags of nuts and saucers of sugar water in the garden. He guessed exactly who I was and why I’d come to Kirksett, and he saw some kind of ally in me. As much as he raised my hackles, I saw in him a kind of ally too, a way to get something I wanted.

People did what people do when it came to the state of the world. They broke it up into projects so they could stand to look at it. Ours was the Northcott estate.

It was a grouse estate, its purpose to cultivate huge flocks of plump game birds ready to be shot in droves every hunting season. All their land was bent to this one desire: that as many grouse be alive on it as possible. They burnt the heather to keep up a steady supply of succulent young shoots for the grouse to eat and put down poison for the stoats and foxes, who didn’t pay for their access to the game. Birds of prey got similar treatment—hen harrier nests sniffed out and the eggs smashed, chicks killed, adult birds shot and poisoned.

I began to take nighttime walks and watches on the moors. I saw my first hen harrier nest and got to know it intimately. Unassuming to look at, just a heap of sticks and leaves, from which plaintive chick calls would emanate from time to time. I’d never have seen it if it hadn’t been pointed out to me—I’d never have seen it anyway out beyond the fence.

I was told that before the fence they’d probably have used me to just walk around in the vicinity of the nest, keep the groundskeepers on their best behaviour and let them know they were being watched. After the fence was put up, they couldn’t get away with soft tactics like that.

I never saw anyone else on my watches. Mostly I was just cold and trying not to fall asleep when I wasn’t jumping at every noise, convinced I’d be caught. I couldn’t take a torch or use my phone for fear of attracting attention, so it was always too dark to see whatever nocturnal animals were rustling through the dry bracken.

I barely saw the birds, well-hidden and roosting in their mossy nest. Even the ghost-pale male belonged so utterly here that he became invisible. I just had to hope that they were all there, two adults and five chicks. It took a kind of faith to stay there all night, slowly approaching something divine.

I was filling my bird feeders when he came around, jumpier than before, swinging an old tote bag with the straps twisted around his knuckles like a boxer’s wraps or an improvised weapon.

The words sprang to my lips and waited for permission: I’m busy tonight. I was allowed a life. I was allowed to choose ‘no’. But the words baulked.

“Satellite tags,” he said. “Gonna tag the chicks so we don’t have to watch them constantly.” He shook the bag and something clunked mutedly inside.

Of all my questions, “Where did you get them?” came out first.

“Internet. We have to go during the day, while the parents are out. While we still have the light.”

He never asked me if I wanted to go, we just went. I’d never touched a bird before—even when I was briefly a weasel, and my sharp pink hands twitched whenever I saw a sparrow, I’d never actually caught one. He never asked that either: do you have experience? Do you know what you’re doing? Do you have anything other than this vague unease to drive you?

The harrier nest was a messy pile of sticks and leaves in broad daylight. I tried to imagine the trust required to leave my helpless children on the bare moor among foxes and eagles and egg-loving adders and couldn’t. To leave my children to be found by gamekeepers. What heartless parent would choose to live here?

He threw me a pair of gardening gloves and showed me brusquely how to handle the four angry chicks, still fluffy and screeching, showing yellow stick legs and yellow beaks, the black tips already hooked and snagging on my gloves.

I felt like a betrayer reaching into the nest and hauling out each fat speckled chick in turn. I felt all that dark motive behind me, the power to kill and destroy, to steal what was not mine and I did not make. Nature venting its unbodied predator urges through me, or my own human ones? Impossible to tell from inside.

There was one tag left but no untagged chicks in the nest.

“Were there not five?” I said.

“There are five,” he replied, though we could both count and see with our own eyes what was in front of us.

“I never saw anyone come out here,” I said to fend him off. All those nocturnal sounds. A fox could have crept in and taken a chick under my nose and I think we both knew it. “What’s the survival rate for them?” I asked.

“Not important. We know what happened.”

“We should go. And we don’t.” No human would take a single chick when they could have the whole nest, but he didn’t seem able to imagine anything but humanity.

He was prowling around the nest mound like a fox himself, kicking through the grass and tiny vivid flowers, scuffing through leaves and stems.

I looked up at the sky for the parent birds. I scanned the horizon and rolling dips in the ground for gamekeepers. No grouse that I could see, for all that it was a grouse moor, for all that every living thing here was policed in accordance with the grouse. “We’ve done what we came for.”

“Not all of it.”

I suppose he was looking for a body, a sign of what had happened, but my internal panic switch had tripped and my body was flooded with every prey instinct I’d ever been forced to host. Human paranoia gave my fear reason and legitimacy.

My muscles jerked even though there was nothing to be seen, hardly a wind to stir the gorse. “Let’s go.” My jaw was so tense I could barely get the words out.

He gave up looking and we ran.

Stumbling into rabbit holes and tripping over hare scrapes, life fled from us, seeds and grasshoppers springing up from our feet. I was lagging behind, jolted by every uneven step, when in front of me he curved sharply away, leaping deerlike through the tangled grass.

He told me later what had happened, though he didn’t need to. I knew when he changed direction that someone had blocked up our way in, and now we had to hope for another way out.

I was hardly running anymore. My throat burned, my muscles stiffened, my body streamed with sweat that did nothing to put out those internal fires. I thought I saw something. I thought I heard something. My tired legs found some new reserve of energy and I staggered on, my feet as dead and numb as pistons.

I missed my hare legs. My weasel agility. The badger claws I could have used to dig myself a place to catch my breath.

I didn’t see the fence until he dropped to the ground and slid under it—I thought at first he’d fallen, been shot, but my mind pieced it together as I went so that when I finally got there I could follow him smoothly enough. The hole wasn’t comfortably wide, and I might have thought it was a well-used animal hole if he hadn’t known exactly where it was.

The fence sparked as I tugged myself free of the soil-crusted links, thinking about the tear in his jacket and seeing the gold thread catch the sun. A clap like a monstrous pigeon’s wings rang out.

The sound—the shot—spurred him to come skidding back to grab me, first by empty sleeve and then harder, uncomfortable, by the arm. His fingertips were as hard as blunt claws.

We wouldn’t be able to use that gap under the fence again, all that stealthy work spent in one moment of desperation. But we wouldn’t need to.

It was a relief not to have to go out on the moors anymore. For a few weeks I didn’t go any further than the post office in the next village over, picking up boxes of old clothes and fabric offcuts and sending parcels of my own to every corner of the country.

I was ready to spend the rest of the summer working on my garden and keeping to myself. I’d asked the Scrimshaws at the greengrocers-cum-butchers, with the little mobile phone repair counter at the back run by their grandson, all about the moor plants that the insects liked the best. They’d furnished me with an impossibly long list of strange and evocative names, too many to physically fit in the little bit of space allotted to me. Not actually mine, at least not the garden itself. The house, fine, but the land it was built on belonged to someone else. Maybe whoever lived on the Northcott estate, like a feudal lord and his tenant farmers. How much of my garden was actually mine, in the end?

I didn’t see him again for a while. He came around once to show me that the tags were working. He showed me on a map where the nest was, homing in on the signal in the empty space. He had to zoom out again quite a way to see the house the grouse moor belonged to.

“How can they ever know where a single nest is in all of that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Hopefully they don’t, and the chicks will hatch and fledge and find better territory.”

“How do they find the nests though?” I pressed. “How do they manage to kill every last bird every time?”

“Not every time,” he said. “But they always claim it wasn’t them whenever you try to bring charges. They say it was just a rogue gamekeeper, and they didn’t know what was going on under their noses and can you blame them with estates that big?”

I tried not to be surprised to hear him talking about things within the confines of the law. Bringing charges and doing all the paperwork. You’re not supposed to say so but he never looked that type. “I thought ignorance wasn’t meant to be an excuse when it comes to breaking the law,” I said.

He fiddled with the map settings a bit more and shrugged again.

“If you can’t keep your own land under your control then it sounds like you shouldn’t be in charge of it,” I said. “Sounds like you’re not a very competent manager if your employees are all committing crimes.”

He’d heard it all before and thought it all before, but it still grated on me when he didn’t respond, not even a flicker of facial expression. He just moved around the map, all empty space except for a few lines of footpath, a couple of local landmarks named. A rock formation here, a stream cutting off a corner of the screen. I’d never heard the names before, and they fell in that narrow crack between quaint and unsettling, their names full of syllables we code as amusing but which stand in for old, dark things weathered by time and never meant to be forced into written language.

“What does it even mean, to pretend to own land that you can’t even control?” I demanded. “What’s the point?”

He only looked at me, weary and a little sardonic, because everyone already knew the answer to that.

Mr Scrimshaw was even friendlier than usual the next time I went in for my rhubarb after taking his list of moorland plants. “Hiya, Fangs,” he said when he saw me, because everyone seemed condemned to remember my teenage snake-self forever. “How are the flowers? You’ll let me know if you need help.”

I smiled and said I would.

Mrs Scrimshaw apologised with a long-suffering look and a “You know how he is.” I knew how he was, how they all were. How whenever they looked at me they saw a scowling half-grown adder-girl even now.

I just kept on smiling. It didn’t bother me, and I enjoyed not letting it bother me.

“Here, I’ve got summat for you,” said Mr Scrimshaw as he took the rhubarb off the scales. He brought two seedling pots out from under the counter, one with a damp shoot unfurling from the soil and the other a mystery. “I got you some cuttings.”

“Mr S!”

“I won’t hear it.” He pushed them into my hands. “This one’s crowberry and this one’ll be dwarf cornel. Put it in your wettest corner. You ever have any questions about ’em, you give us a shout.”

“I will. Thank you!” Just like that, everything was good. “What do I owe you?” I asked.

“Sew us on a button one day,” he said. “Or whatever it is that you do. Here’s your rhubarb.”

“Thanks again, see you!”

“See you, Fangs.”

“Tom!” hissed Mrs Scrimshaw.

When the hot summer broke into sudden floods of rain that pelted the cracked ground and beat the brown grass flat, I just took my daydreams inside and sat with them at the sewing machine. For once I was looking forwards. I wasn’t missing things before they were gone, and it was hard not to feel, later, that my lapse in concentration wasn’t in some way to blame for what happened. As though everything existed only as long as I cared.

I brought my lavender pots in to keep them from drowning in the torrential rain, and luckily Mr Scrimshaw’s gifts were still on my windowsill while they put down new roots to start their independent lives. Everything else had to fend for itself.

Hardly anyone visited when the weather was like this. People picked up things they’d left with me, but those casual jobs, where people passing by thought they may as well get those trousers hemmed while they were out anyway, all dried up. I accepted it like I accepted the rain itself. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. This too shall pass.

When he came hammering at my door then, a frantic banging over the wall of rainfall, it’s fair to say it took me by surprise.

All my peace of mind, every tiny step I’d taken towards contentment, was undone, like a jumper unravelled by a yank on a thread. My guard was up before he even came in, wiping his feet ineffectively on the mat and dripping all over the tiles.

I hadn’t expected to see him until the chicks fledged and we could follow their first flights with the satellite tags, but he didn’t look excited. He slipped out of his jacket and let it fall to the floor.

“They’ve vanished,” he said. “There’s no signal.”

“Are the tags broken?”

He sat down at my table. “I have to check.”

“Where did you get those tags from?” I asked him, but I got the computer anyway.

“I told you.”

“You said ‘off the internet’. Have you ever even done this before? What if you got scammed? How much were they?”

“What would you know about it?”

“Nothing,” I said, “as we both know. What do you know about it?”

“They don’t just break,” he muttered.

Running together from gamekeepers with guns wasn’t enough for me to earn his trust, or to earn access to whoever he was protecting. The idea that he didn’t trust me was so absurd that I left him with the computer to nurse my anger. He was working with someone else and I wasn’t important enough to know about it.

He swore to himself in my kitchen, and thumped my table with his fist, which had me back in there like a shot, indignant.

“They’ve found the nest,” he said. “They’ve killed the chicks. All those tags don’t stop working at once unless someone breaks them.”

I knew better than to ask how to prove it.

“We have to get in there,” he said.

“How?” I asked him. “The fence—”

“Fuck all that. No more digging. We’re past that. In, find them, out. Before they know what’s coming.”

“Find what? Even if they left the tags lying around—”

“Not the tags. Them. Who did it.”

He was in my kitchen and I couldn’t get him out. He’d been in here too long. Put down roots. It would take work to get him out now.

I was still thinking about him and the door and how to get one to meet the other, coming up with excuses, considering places I could crash until he lost interest and stopped coming around, when he spoke again. “You won’t need to actually shoot the gun,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”

Breaking things is easy. You only need to do it once.

Losing things forever is the work of a second. It takes no skill. Maintaining things, guarding them, protecting them, that takes forever, and luck, and effort. You need to protect something over and over and over again, and never slip once. I can understand why he wanted to turn the tables. The gamekeepers had their own guard duties, after all, and if we were the ones doing the breaking, then maybe it was the only way we’d ever win.

I’d never used wire cutters before, and to be honest it was easy when we were flashing our torches around in the heavy rain and not caring about the noise and light we made. He said we wanted to attract their attention and show them we weren’t afraid of them. I went along with it and hoped he was right.

I didn’t miss the low-level fear of my nighttime watches after fitting the chicks with tags. Some people might have. Some people might have got used to the thrill and come to enjoy it. Not me. Being out here again, actively trying to lure that threat, was almost unbearable. The gun he’d given me didn’t help. It wasn’t a safety measure; it was just a guaranteed escalation of whatever would come.

And it came.

We were through the fence, a big hole cut in it and the mesh rolled back to flap stiffly in the wind, right in front of the public footpath sign like an invitation to the villagers to come and enjoy what was legally their right. The nest was empty, not even the parents there that night. The sticks and moss were scattered. The sodden mound had lost its shape. Someone else might not have noticed the difference, but I knew the nest best at night, and I could tell. The rain tapped on the leaves as if to say, Look, look, look.

“Someone’s been here,” he said.

They were still there.

A burst of static and metallic rasp voice over the rain.

I dropped my torch and striped everything with grass shadows. I didn’t think about the gun. The gun had flown straight out of my mind. There was no cover to run for. I had no idea where they came from but there was more than one this time, their faces covered by shadow or fabric, I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t looking at their faces. Big men, the kind you’d employ to be your watchdogs when you couldn’t trust actual dogs, the kind you’d ask to wring birds’ necks just because they might get in your way.

No time to make a peep. I went down easily, a pigeon hit by a peregrine stoop.

One of them had me by the arms, and when I knocked against him my hip hit the gun under my clothes and I backed away, remembering what it was in a rush of panic and terrified that the slightest touch would set it off. His grip tightened and he pulled me back into him, off balance, which he then took as aggression and gave me a good shaking for, cold water in my face, down my back, up my legs, in my shoes, finding the hot fragile parts of me at my wrists and behind my knees.

Shaking me only made me stumble harder into him when I tried to go limp, play dead, submit, so he shook me more, so I reacted, so he grew angrier.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was trying to let him get it out of his system, whatever was in it, and I was bruised and shaken, panting and sobbing and trying to be quiet because men like that never liked to hear you.

I thought they would eat us. I thought they would kill us. They only phoned the police, and by the way they enjoyed it I knew we had no chance.

Trespassing. Criminal damage. Something about being armed and dangerous and illegal possession of weapons, which was where I had to start thinking of it as a story I was being told about somebody else. Something about threatening with a weapon as well. At least he hadn’t fired it.

The men said to the police that they’d have to report all of this to their employers and see if they wanted to press charges.

We were allowed to go home but only driven back in a police car. They weren’t going to let us go roaming back over the flooded moor. They took the guns. I was glad to give mine up, though it didn’t make me look good to pull it seemingly out of thin air, when no one knew I had one. Better to give it up voluntarily than have it be found on me later. He glared at me out of his black eye when he saw me obediently reaching for my belt as they took his from him, as if we could have done anything with it.

They dropped me off first, so I didn’t even get to see where he lived.

 [ Beaks, © 2020 Gwen C. Katz ] The news spread fast around the village. Even when the rain stopped and the sodden ground was left in peace to absorb what it could of the flat brown puddles glinting over it, no one came past my house. People were busy as soon as they caught sight of me. They remembered errands and places they had to be, recognised faces in the distance. Mr Scrimshaw called me by my name. Mrs Chipchase never mentioned Vivienne Westwood again and I didn’t dare touch her dog when it nosed around my ankles.

It was all shut off to me now, that community, everything turned its back the way I thought it had the first time I’d come here, the way I’d turned my back on it. My teenage sulks were justified at last.

I didn’t need to hear what they were saying about me to know what it was. They’d thought I was a wrong ’un and look—their gut feelings were right. It just went to show what happened when people were given second chances. Troublemakers from outside, people from Not The Village who just weren’t brought up with the right values.

And up on the estate they quietly continued their work, bird by bird.

There’s a number of hen harriers that the moor needs. No one knows what it is, but that number exists.

There’s a tipping point, and you never know you’ve hit it until it’s too late.

It always takes a while to realise what’s happening. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s happened to you or how recently; it’s just never the first place your mind goes. There are always more immediate things going on in your life, things that appear bigger because they’re closer.

I’m convinced that the stress of waiting for a court date is messing with my health. I know stress can trigger skin conditions, so I assume that’s what it is when I begin to itch all down my neck and on the backs of my arms. Even when the bumps appear all I think is that I should go to the doctor if the rash doesn’t clear up on its own, but at the same time I decide to put it off as long as possible. Doctors and their waiting rooms are prime gossip hunting grounds.

If I hadn’t shut myself away I’d know by now, but as things are it takes me until the tips of the first hard feather sheaths erupt from my skin before I understand.

I know what the feathers will look like before I even start picking the keratin covers off them. Brown, with a fan of stiff feathers at the base of my spine with thick dark bars across them, above and below. That’s why they call the females ringtails.

Wearing shoes becomes impossible, but my scaly feet no longer feel the cold, and the yellow skin on them is so hard that I could walk across glass unscathed.

The beak is the worst. I’ve never been a bird before so I’m not ready. I fill my biggest bowls with water and lap at it with a tongue that feels wrong, that I’m glad I can’t see over my beak. I can’t eat anything in the cupboards, but at least I can stay hydrated, the curtains closed so no one can see me so monstrous. I can’t stop touching this savage hook jutting from my face, but I only dare brush it lightly, afraid that I’ll snap at my own fingers. I don’t make a sound for days.

I understand why stories of the first changes, when the first people on this island began to clear the forests, have remained so stubbornly and powerfully in our mythology. The elk skin people and bear skin people and wolf skin people. And now us, all-skins, roving all over the islands and sliding into new niches everywhere we go in a paltry attempt to keep nature going.

It begins in the morning. Such things seem like they’d be better suited to the dark, but hen harriers are daytime hunters and so are we.

Hunger drives me outside at last. The feel of the wind on my feathers makes me shift my posture to avoid being ruffled. The village doesn’t interest me, the roads and pavements and little gardens empty of what I’m looking for. It’s on the moors where I’ll find what I want.

There are others out here, wandering, as searching and inchoate as me. Mrs Chipchase—no dog today—and the Scrimshaws up on the moorside, him in ghost pale feathers with long black primaries like fingers. Their grandson too, smart and sleek and grotesque, a fine young bird-man. He fixes me with his amber eyes and I turn fiercely away. The village cats are all silent today, and where is Mrs Chipchase’s dog?

We clamber over drystone walls and wade through rills and boggy ponds. The groan of frogs sharpens my hunger but I hold back. A splash, a muddy splat, an angry shriek. Frogs are nothing. I know where the good stuff is.

They haven’t managed to replace the stretch of fence that we cut away, hoping that our punishment will keep people away until they can. My talons slice easily through the warning tape they’ve used to cover up the gap.

Every movement in the moor is seen and judged—moving leaves, a mouse, a pipit fluttering from bush to bush. Every sound is classified, food or not-food, but I’m holding out for what I know is there, with my human mind, using my harrier ears and eyes to find it. I stay away from the nest. It feels like bad luck now. My human mind knows to stay away from the raw meat left out; too easy. Gamekeepers.

And then the sound I was waiting for, the red grouse’s chut-chut-chut. Having never heard this sound consciously before now, I run furiously in the direction it’s coming from, and my beak is opening, and I’m making an excited high-pitched stuttering sound. Piercing, echoing, redoubled as the others take it up. The whir of wings becomes a roar as the flock lifts from beyond the crest of the ground. I give chase and the harrier-people of the village follow. I see someone throw themselves flat into the grouse and others kick out with taloned feet, beaks snapping. I do the same, slashing through empty air. I feel their wind, I almost feel their heat.

We don’t hunt like harriers do, but like human beings, giving endless chase and tiring them, panicking them until we can snatch the stragglers before they take wing, picking up the birds which simply drop out of the sky. They’re so small somehow. One of these will not make a meal.

The bird in my hands is panting, beak open. It flaps and scratches. This must be harder for bird-sized hen harriers, without the luxury of my size and dextrous hands, but I barely need to do any work. Stick my head into the thrashing feathers, find purchase, pull, twist, grip.

Mr Scrimshaw is throwing bits of grouse to Mrs Scrimshaw over the heather, neat underarm lobs of viscera that she catches and rips into. I am tearing off clouds of downy feathers with my hands, several dead grouse under my taloned feet already, held fast from thieves. There’s a trick to hooking out the meat and throwing your head back to swallow it. The light bones splinter between the molars which remain at the back of my mouth and litter the ground with gleaming wet shards. The flock is long gone but we will eat our fill.

When the gamekeepers come, hobbling in their ill-fitting boots, their human expressions unreadable to my raptor eyes, they’re carrying guns. They’re half bald, feathers plucked. What few remain are chewed and snapped, bent at alarming angles. They stop when they see us, a safe distance away from the carnage of russet feathers and bones. A shotgun falls to the ground. I drop a clump of skin and bone and lift up another still-warm bird in my taloned foot, feathered arms spread wide to hide the pride of my kills from these people who do not deserve them.

We call at them, the rapid-fire hen harrier alarm call, a cacophony of mocking laughter.

© 2020 Danielle Jorgenson-Murray

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News