Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Buddy nods, says that’s what he was thinking. Way out past the end of the last tank, two forms lift off from an electrical tower. They soar high and circle overhead. Joe points, “Try to keep your eye on the duck hawks, Buddy. Fastest creature on the planet.”

“Grandpa, how many times have I told you? They’re peregrines, not hawks. Their real name is Falco peregrinus. Mac told me that.”

“Did he now? Well, Mac knew more about birds than any hunter around.”

“He said that a long time ago, there were only two pairs of them in all of California. Pesticides made their eggs so fragile the mama birds smashed them dead.” Buddy tries to follow the falcons with his stare. “Are there babies up on the tower?”

“We’ve got another month or so before she lays her eggs,” Joe says. Fish and Game folks put a nest box up there two summers ago. Even hooked up a video camera to the Internet. “I bet Brandon’s got a computer or two. I’ll let you know if there are eggs in the nest this year. You can watch online.”

“He won’t know stuff like you and Mac.”

True, but Mac’s not going to be much help where he’s at. Joe feels his throat close before he says the sharp words. His eyes water, and he knows it’s not the wind’s fault. They had some good times in the summer, him and Mac and Buddy eating sandwiches out in the rice fields, watching the mama falcon teaching her little guys to hunt. All that time, the cancer in Mac’s gut spreading, taking him out before the little peregrines ventured off to find hunts of their own.

Joe needs to get back to going to meetings. He needs to warm up to his new sponsor, or find a replacement. It’s what Mac would want.

The falcons dart and circle. “What’s the rule about sunrise and the peregrines, Buddy?”

“We let the duck hawk do her hunting first.”

“That’s right, son. First moments of sunrise belong to creation. Bad luck to pick up the gun while the sun’s putting on a show.”

The raptors swoop towards each other, loop around, searching for a meal. Some men think this is the perfect time to aim for the canvasbacks fleeing the falcons. Not Joe. He doesn’t go for the karma mumbo-jumbo, but stealing from a hunting falcon never brought anyone good luck.

The smart birds stay in the water, something in their puny heads telling them that the closer they keep to the planet’s surface, the safer they’ll be. Dumb ones make a run for it. The peregrine on the right tucks its wings close to its body and dives. Like a missile making contact, it hits one of the ducks in the vulnerable spot between head and body. The flock scatters—funny how they all take off at the moment they’re most safe.

Buddy scrambles over to the far edge of tank. Not much a boy can see at this level. He walks toe-to-heel, measuring the length of the tank, turns back and stops at the far stool. He reaches one finger out and slides the zipper on the soft-sided bag.

“Goddamn it, Bud,” Joe says. “What have I told you about touching guns?”

Buddy jerks his hand away from the gun case.

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.