from a secret alchemy

The road lifts to a bridge over the Foss itself where Whitecarr Beck joins it, and as we clatter across a heron turns its head to gauge this new threat, then shakes its wings out and with a few, quick steps rises into the air.

The body has its own memory. My left hand shortens the reins before my mind knows it, and my right arm aches with remembering the shift and grip of my goshawk’s weight. She was big, even for a goshawk, and her name was Juno. When she bated on her block in the mews her wings were the best part of four feet from primary to primary, and my care for her, that summer, was such that any day I could have told her weight down to the nearest ounce and grain. ‘Goshawks are delicate,’ Wat the austringer would say. ‘They’ll not take much lightening, but if you over-feed her by so much as a fieldmouse, Master Antony, she’ll rake away and never come back.’ My belly would quake at the thought of losing her. Even now I remember the steely blue-grey gloss of her back as if I could touch it, the soft, white, speckled chest-feathers that she would let me rub when her mood was good, her long, strong legs that took possession of my fist like a conqueror.

‘She sees every feather of that heron,’ Wat said. ‘Even your young eyes, master, they’re nothing to hers. Now, gently off with her hood. Let her see it first. You’ll feel when she wants to fly.’ I unhooded her and unknotted her leash and she shifted her talons, loosing her wings at the shoulder as if she readied her sword in its scabbard. She turned her black-capped head, her gaze fixing on each part of her new surroundings in turn, like a bowman on guard duty.

My father sat still on his horse in the water meadow’s morning light and Wat nodded to me as the heron’s flight steadied, high above and before us. I did my best to throw Juno into the air. My arm was puny against the weight and power of her surge and my hand clenched tighter before I realised and opened it and let the jesses go.

Up she rose, not in pursuit but surveying the ground; the sun was behind us as we watched. Then after what seemed little more than a breath, she fixed on the heron and went after it.

I was a boy then, twelve years old and home for the harvest. Home, perhaps, for good. Only the night before my father had declared it more fitting that I be brought up in my own inheritance than in that of another.

But of him I dare not think.

The eye of my mind can still see how the birds flew, raptor and prey, Juno streaming after the heron, the heron’s steady wing-beats suddenly quickening at some sign or sound of danger that we humans could not read, thrusting through the air. But Juno had more speed and soon was close enough to rise up high above her prey, and pause for a moment of suspended time, before stooping like some sleek and talonned cannon ball. Down and down she stooped, and the heron tried to twist and double back, its head weaving, its great wings clumsy in such unaccustomed need. Then Juno reached forward, and with a surge of power seized the heron’s neck and bore it, struggling, to the ground among the reeds. All we could see was a puff of feathers floating downwards against the sky.

By the time we cantered up, Juno had killed the heron and was beginning to plume it. Wat walked forward and took her off, at which she bated angrily before she would jump to my fist and be hooded. Wat gave the heron to one of the men, who with a flick of his fingers tied its feet and slung it on his belt.

‘She must think she deserves it,’ I said.

‘She does, son,’ said my father. ‘But if she eats it, where’s our dinner? And she’ll not be hungry for more, and will not hunt for us. Or she will eat her feed as well, and sicken.’

‘Sire, do you think I would feed her back at the mews, if I knew she’d had so much in the field? Wat has taught me better than that.’

‘No, I know you would not. But she’s wild, don’t forget. She’s not a dog, or a man. You cannot teach her loyalty. She has none, and she’s no use for yours. You are not her liege lord, nor she your servant to command. She will not help you now in the hope or certainty of favours or protection later. All she knows is that today she was hungry, and we helped her to her food. Tomorrow? Who knows?’

He was silent, looking over his land – so carefully manured and tilled and coppiced and drained as it was, by his order and with his overseeing – as if it, too, might be lost to him on the morrow.

Then he shortened his reins. ‘Come, son. Perhaps we can put up a hare and give the dogs some sport.’