The jangle of breaking glass shatters the Sunday Houston calm, a commotion reminiscent of errant teenage baseballs wreaking neighborhood havoc. We emerge tentatively from our apartment to discover the culprit—a red-tailed hawk has crashed headlong through the neighbor’s window.
Where I’m from, in Minnesota, it is the deer who frequently crash in through sliding-glass deck doors, thrash around for a bit, spook the neighbors, and hopefully find a way back out with minimal bloodshed. We are told, when it is mating season, when the deer in question sports a many-pointed rack of antlers, that the buck was in fact battling himself, charging his reflection. Meant no harm, just a case of mistaken-identity aggression.
Dogs bark at themselves in the mirror. Cats do not respond at all. Whether this is because they can’t actually process the image in the mirror, or that they simply recognize themselves, I feel that this is reason #2 for why cats are smarter than dogs. Reason #1 being the self-awareness evident in their lack of groveling for our affections. Unlike the canine, with its upturned face and perpetual need to prove its worth, the feline has realized, centuries back in the evolutionary arc of their domestication, that they don’t need to do anything at all, that the purring lap-warmer routine, the occasional killing of an unwanted house-rodent—both of which they partake out of pure selfish enjoyment—are more than enough to endear them to their owners. The felines have figured out that even the most feral, unfriendly scratchy cat, the one who lurks behind the couch, a rumored ghost-pet, will still be fed, will still have their shit diligently scooped for them.
This red-tailed hawk was not attacking himself. The window is reflective, mirror-like, and looking into the three panels that remain unbroken, you see the apparition of the buildings behind us, which make it appear that you could fly through this glass portal, onto those other rooftops, into those other trees.
An Alaskan bull moose charges my father’s Winnebago, which outweighs the ungulate by a couple tons, because my father’s ten-pound pug-mutt is yapping hysterically at him through the windshield. And thus the moose, looking for trouble as he stalks the woods during mating season, assumes that the motorized behemoth is challenging him—that the Winnebago is in fact some kind of cubist, aluminum-armored animal with a ridiculously undersized voice, a metallic Mike Tyson whose disrespect must be met with headlong charge on the highway.
There is a gaping hole in the neighbor’s window, and the hawk that crashed through it is now hunched, spread-winged, on the interior windowsill, his talons clenched on nothing, leaning back against the thick plastic blinds. He stares up at me, mouth open, tongue arched in silent hiss, eyes wide with simultaneous rage and terror, and I immediately think of a character from The Matrix, because this hawk has that stunned, uncomprehending glaze over his eyes, as if confronting the fact that his entire reality has been a false construct, the realization that there are invisible, physical barriers that one might suddenly encounter and crash through when flying back home with a half-eaten meal.
In a tragicomic moment, the hawk tilts backwards, wings still spread wide like avian Jesus, eyes still raging up at me in disbelief, talons still clutching at an imaginary branch, and slowly, without any effort to right himself, he falls backwards off the ledge, disappearing behind the screen of the closed blinds.
I see a bloody clump, speared with shards of broken glass, lying on the windowsill. But the bird itself showed no signs of obvious physical injury. Leaning in closely I notice that the bloody clump has no feathers, but rather gray fur, a tail, two hind legs and a sprout of white backbone protruding into a murderous emptiness where a short while ago existed the front legs and head of this half-eaten Houston rat. But where was the hawk flying with this meal? What did he see when he crashed through that window? I assume, as he had not finished his furry lunch, that he was returning to a nest to share his bounty. Was he unfamiliar with the neighborhood? Was he in fact headed for one of those mirage trees, one of those mirage rooftops so clearly rendered in the reflection?
A few years ago I stood in the back patio of a Tucson bar, drink in hand, Saturday night raucousness buzzing the air, blissfully unaware of the speeding, drunk-piloted car that was about to hop the curb and plow into our midst. I stared mutely, unable to comprehend for several seconds what had transpired. I didn’t see a car suddenly parked on the patio—I saw a blue protrusion punched through the metal fence, like a whale breaching through ice. I saw overturned tables and chairs, the unconscious bodies of three people, one of whom was still frozen in the pose she’d been holding moments before, sipping her drink, now sideways on the ground as if she were a marble Roman statue toppled by marauding Visigoths. I remember thinking afterwards that this must be what it is like for people who live through a terrorist bombing—the instantaneous perforation of the carnage, the tape delay of those moments, the impossibility of processing what has ripped through the fabric of time and normalcy—before the brain in the jarred cranium finally re-synchs with reality.
Just as I consider that perhaps the hawk is in trouble, that I should try to reach through the broken window to help him out, he bursts back into frenzied action behind the screen, talons clutching the Venetian blinds, feathers and beak poking through the slats. I don’t know my neighbor, but it seems like something should be done. One of the fellow residents has called Animal Control, so my contribution is distilled down to a simple Post-It note on the door, in case the neighbor I’ve never met returns home before the situation is satisfactorily resolved: Dear Neighbor—be warned—there may be a hawk in your apartment.
I have seen other birds fly into windows, collected the dead ones on the ground below, but never a bird large enough to penetrate the barrier, crash through, beak-breaking reality. Perhaps this was a newly urbanized hawk, a young dude from the surrounding countryside who moved to the city in search of new territory to start his own brood—lured by the rumors of fat, guileless urban rodents, and plentiful road-kill alongside the tar and concrete labyrinth that perforates the world below the tree canopy.
What good can come of this shattered glass? What lesson learned, what evolutionary design-flaw might be corrected by the experience? This was not a last-second swerve-off, an adjustment born of helpful realization—oh, wait, that’s not open sky. This is reality shredded, this is science fiction, Alice in Wonderland, the creeping panic of the drug-novice losing their LSD virginity, this hawk staring up at me incredulously, blaming me, as if I were the one who suggested he take the red pill. Will this hawk ever recover psychologically? Will he spend the rest of his life in a state of avian madness, haunted by the idea that reality is not always so, that at any moment he might again crash through the walls of the theater, that he might accidentally come face to face with the man behind the blinds?
Dear Hawk—please be warned—there may be a window in your sky.
Kirk Wisland likes to write about animals. And people. His prose has appeared in various literary outlets, and his essay collection The Melancholy of Falling Men was selected by Roxane Gay for the 2015 Iron Horse Single Author Chapbook Prize.
Header photo of red-tailed hawk by skeeze, courtesy Pixabay.