Route 14, the road to the country part of town, was lined with oak trees still green in late October. Eleanor watched out the window where breaks in the trees showed fields full of bright yellow light and cows. There were only four kids left on the bus, all from the junior high. Eleanor, Jay the new girl, and the Vickery twins, who were poking at their eyes with mascara brushes as the bus bumped along. Cheap, Eleanor thought. Her mother would say the Vickery twins were cheap, with their make-up and tight skirts. She wondered if Jay's mother had taught her that, too. Or if it was something Jay would never have to learn, having only a father.
The bus stopped at a mailbox on a post and Jay whacked Eleanor's shoulder.
"My house," she said, and jumped up without waiting to see if Eleanor would follow. She pulled the mail out of the box and they walked down a gravel road crowded with goldenrod and fall asters.
"Do you have cows?" Eleanor asked.
"No. We used to. Everyone did. But I hardly remember them. It was a long time ago, before I was even in school."
Jay's house was hidden from the road. The yard was quiet, just the sound of grasshoppers singing in the weeds. Two junk cars leaned on broken axles. A dark blue pickup truck still had its tires, but the paint had gone milky on the fenders. The house had a splintery porch, and a tangle of wisteria had dragged the gutter down. Eleanor hoped it would be dark by the time her mother came to pick her up. Her mother had strong opinions about shabby houses and the people who lived in them.
A huge collie rose and stiff-legged his way down the porch steps. He rolled his narrow face against Jay's thigh.
"This is Charley. He's twelve and can't see a thing anymore." Jay scratched the thin dry fur down the middle of his back and he wriggled his shoulders. They walked up the worn granite steps. Charley struggled back up to the porch and eased himself down onto a pile of braided rugs.
The front door was unlocked. They were way out in the country, but Eleanor was still surprised. She remembered her mother driving an hour back to their house once, after Eleanor confessed she'd forgotten to lock the door. Since the divorce, her mother walked through the house every night checking the doors and windows before she went to bed.
Jay's house was quiet, its rooms clean and spare with wide floorboards painted white. It was peaceful, like a church, and made Eleanor feel like they should whisper. Her mother had had to get a job since the divorce, so her own house was quiet when Eleanor got home from school. But it was a different quiet, an emptiness that made her bang doors and talk to herself out loud. Sometimes she made toast just to fill the kitchen with its warm, brown smell.
The front room had an old-fashioned wood stove with a galvanized pail full of kindling. A shelf above the stove held only two things. One was a rough-carved wooden duck with golden glass eyes. The duck seemed to be swimming toward a photograph in a metal frame. It was a black and white snapshot of a woman with heavy lipstick and light hair curled carefully around her face. Despite the heavy lipstick, Eleanor decided the woman did not look cheap. She wore a plaid jacket and was holding a large fish. She did not have Jay's dark hair or sturdy build, but the set of her shoulders and the way her eyes stared straight at the camera made her look like Jay.
"Is that your mother?" Eleanor hadn't meant to ask. But it slipped out, the one thing she had not meant to say. She hoped Jay wouldn't cry. It was the saddest thing—wasn't it?—to have your mother die.
"Yeah," Jay said. "They were ice-fishing up at my uncle's place when they took that picture. That fish weighed twelve pounds." The fish. She did not say anything about the thin, light-haired woman holding it.
Jay led her into the kitchen. It had a big gas range with brass fittings, sunny windows, a well-scrubbed sink and orderly shelves. A long wooden table flanked by low benches held down the other end of the room. On it was one breach of discipline-a knife and a scattering of crumbs.
Jay poured two cups of cider from a jug without a stopper. Eleanor drank. The cider was thick and tart, not like the sugary apple juice her mother bought. Eleanor pictured herself coming home every day to this house, drinking delicious cider in the sunny kitchen. She thought of her mother, driving home from work tonight, tired and looking for Jay's house in the dark, and tried to take back her wish for this motherless house.
"Finish up," Jay said. "I want to show you something." Eleanor tilted her head back to get the last pulpy dregs. They waded across the yard through gone-to-seed dandelions to a gray, shingled shed. Against one wall was a hutch with gleaming chicken wire stapled to a wooden frame. As they approached, something inside the hutch shifted and gave a high mewling call. Jay ran ahead.
"Look. A hawk. My brother Wes brought her home day before yesterday. Flew right into his windshield. Must have been going after something and got confused."
"Is she hurt?"
"No. She was just knocked out for a minute. At least, that's what Wes says. He's going to train her to hunt. Like those old-time falconers."
"How do you know she's a she?"
"That's what Wes says."
Wes had nailed a dead branch inside the cage as a perch, but the hawk was not sitting on it. She was huddled on the wire mesh floor in a corner. She was beautiful. Cocoa-brown feathers riffled thick and soft down her back to the ginger-red wedge of her tail. From her throat to her feathery legs, she was the color of cream. She watched the two girls steadily, blinking once, quickly. Then her eyes were on them again. Her hooked beak gaped open, like she was dumbfounded or trying hard to breathe.
A van pulled into the yard and two older boys got out. Dale and Wes. Dale looked like Jay, neatly built, with dark hair hanging over his eyes in a thick wedge. Wes was taller, sharp-angled and pale, with straw-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail. Both wore paint-splattered jeans and work shirts, the sleeves rolled tight over their forearms. Wes jogged down to the cage. Dale trailed behind and stopped a few paces away.
"She finally calm down?"
"Yeah. She's just kind of mopey now. I was showing her to Eleanor."
Wes peered into the cage. "She's not using my perch."
"Maybe she's hungry." Dale said it quietly but he sounded so fierce that Jay and Eleanor turned to look at him. He was standing on the slope of the hill, kicking his toe at the ground, his hands jammed into his pockets. Wes didn't turn.
"The hungrier she gets, Dale, the faster she'll learn." He pulled a pair of stiff work gloves out of his back pocket and pulled them on. He lifted the latch on the cage. Dale turned and walked back up to the house. Wes opened the door slowly. The hawk, instead of bolting for the opening, shrank against the back of the cage and beat her wings. They stretched wider than the cage and struck the sides. The coppery flight feathers caught and bent in the chicken wire. There was the soft whump of her wings and the clatter of talons on metal. Wes put one hand into the cage and moved it steadily toward the bird. She looked down at it and Eleanor waited for her to use her fierce beak. Wes quickly closed his hand around her feet. She fought. She stabbed at the glove and his bare arm, drawing blood once along the blue veins of his inner arm. He swung the door wide open and drew her out. She was flapping and straining, as though she would pull him into the sky. Eleanor watched his hand, willed the glove to loosen its hold. Wes thrust the hawk back into the cage, slammed the door, and latched it.
"She's still not ready for lessons. Not by a long shot." He licked at his bleeding arm. The hawk was standing on the bottom of the cage, her wings half-open and drooping, her head down. Eleanor looked away. Jay's mouth was clamped shut. Wes pulled off the gloves and held a hand out to Eleanor.
"We never got introduced. I'm Wes." She put her hand in his, then pulled it away. His arm was still bleeding. He grinned.
"Have Jay show you the rabbits. You'll like them. They're cute." He walked back to the van. Jay shrugged and wordlessly led her behind the shed. There was another wood and chicken wire cage. There was straw at the bottom of this one, and curled in it were six tawny rabbits. Babies. Their tiny ears, like moth wings, laid back close against their heads.
"They probably aren't more than a week or two old. Dale found them up in the hay field before they mowed. They were just curled up pink things then. He carried them home in his jacket pocket. Looked like a fox got the mother. There were bits of fur all over the place."
One nosed its way over to the side of the hutch and pushed its face through the wire. It had short fine whiskers already. Eleanor reached out to stroke the silky brown fur along its nose and it twisted its head up to give her finger a sharp nip.
"What are you going to do with them when they grow up?"
Jay looked back toward the hawk cage. "I don't know. They can't be pets, you know. They're born wild."
"What about the hawk? She was born wild."
Jay's mouth twisted, then settled into a stubborn line. "Wes isn't making a pet out of that hawk. And if you don't think he can train her, you don't know my brother. He's got the gift. He used to have a weasel that would take meat from his hand. I'm going to learn to tame things, too. Wes is going to teach me."
They walked back up to the house. Wes was pulling ladders out of the back of the van. He picked one up, balanced it on his shoulder and strolled over to the open door of a weed-choked barn. He walked straight and graceful. Dale was nowhere in sight.
"I need to start fixing supper before my dad gets home."
Eleanor followed Jay into the kitchen and sat on one of the benches. Jay took potatoes out of a bin under the counter and started scrubbing them in the sink. She was hunched over and kept looking back, self-consciously, at Eleanor.
"Do you like to cook?" Eleanor asked.
"Me neither, but I can help you peel those."
"I'm used to doing it myself." Jay banged a drawer shut and started chopping at the potatoes, peels and all. Eleanor had never eaten potatoes with peels. Her mother said you could never get the dirt out of them, but she decided not to tell that to Jay.
"Maybe I'll go outside until dinner's ready."
Jay looked relieved. Eleanor went out the back door and walked through the yard whacking the heads off dandelions and sending their seed-kites into the air. Her eyes were half-closed and she turned herself away from the shed and the caged hawk. She slashed at the dandelions until the air was full of seed-kites. The sun was throwing spears of light through the oaks. A whippoorwill started its frantic wheep-a-wee. She opened her eyes. She was in front of the cage. The hawk was still huddled in the middle of it. She had pulled in her wings, but one was hitched higher than the other. It didn't seem to fit against her body. Across the light feathers on her chest there was a streak of blood. Eleanor hoped it belonged to Wes.
The latch was jury-rigged, a bent nail dropped down through a piece of a door hinge. Eleanor reached carefully toward the latch, looking from the hawk to the yard where Wes was wrestling with a tire. The hawk lunged and she stifled a scream into a low grunt. The hawk threw herself at the door again. As she opened her wings, Eleanor saw blood clotted in the soft feathers at the front edge of one wing, where the skin stretched tightly over the bone. A shape stepped out from the side of the shed. She jumped.
"There you are." Her mother stepped forward. "It's a good thing I decided to look for this place before dark. It's in the back of goddamn nowhere. Where's your friend? That guy up there in the van gives me the creeps. Are you ready to go?"
"But Mom, I'm supposed to stay for dinner." Her mother pulled out a cigarette and looked back at the house. She had started smoking since the divorce.
"I'm not driving back here in the dark. And they've left you all by yourself. This whole place gives me the creeps." Eleanor had known she would hate Jay's house, because Jay's family was poor in some way that even money couldn't change.
"What's that doing in there?" Her mother was hunched over her match, staring at the hawk.
"Jay's brother caught her."
"It looks like it's bleeding."
"She's okay. Wes—" Eleanor wanted to explain how Wes would tame her. He had the gift. But she remembered the hawk sitting in the bottom of the cage like the sky was crashing down. Her voice choked in her throat. Her mother moved her cigarette to the side of her mouth and looked at Eleanor through the smoke.
"Eleanor, what is going on here?"
"He won't let her go."
"Who won't? Speak up now."
"Wes. The guy in the van."
Her mother looked at her, squinting through the smoke. Eleanor looked back, then away. It was as though her mother was really seeing her and it was scary. She was so used to walking around her edges.
Her mother took a quick puff on her cigarette then stamped it out in the grass, as though she didn't care that this was someone's yard. Then she reached past Eleanor, pulled the nail out of the hinge and threw the door wide open. The hawk blinked, thrashed her way out of the cage, and flew. Eleanor's mouth went into a big O of protest and awe.
The hawk beat her way across the yard, banked up over a vegetable patch, then over the trees. A few cream-colored feathers blew across the yard and caught on the dandelions. Her mother tossed the nail into the cage.
"Mom. That wasn't your hawk."
"That was nobody's hawk." She sounded like she was ready to cry. "Now get in the car."
Eleanor followed her up to the yard where Wes was rummaging in the back of the van. Her mother swung out of the yard, tires scraping gravel. Eleanor leaned out the window and looked back. Jay was standing on the porch. She was waving her arm but it was too dark now to see her face. Eleanor waved back, feeling like someone high up on the deck of a ship heading out to sea.
"I don't want you going back there, Eleanor."
"Why not?" Her voice came out rougher and wilder than she wanted, much too loud in the small car.
Her mother narrowed her eyes but did not look at her. She lit another cigarette, took a deep drag and slowly blew out all the smoke. She would make Eleanor wait. Eleanor listened to the goldenrod swishing against the sides of the car. They came out onto Route 14.
"That house. Ready to fly apart the next time the wind blows. You don't want to get mixed up with people like that. They live a different kind of life. It's not a life you want. You know what I'm talking about, Eleanor."
Eleanor imagined lighting a cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. "No, I don't know," she said. But she did know, exactly.