A Variation Upon Edgar Lee Masters’ “The Unknown”

When I was a child, we’d lived on the edge of some woods,
Slightly hilly land, crossed with the odd stream or cowpath.
I’d walked there frequently, aimlessly,
Throwing the occasional stone here and there
(Skimming the smaller ones off the surface of the creek,
Displacing mosquitoes and dragonflies,
The larger rocks reserved for thickets of trees,
Rewarding me with a rich thwack if the missile found its target.)
Once I had tossed a great gray projectile
(All but shot-put sized, probably nicked and nibbled
By fossilized trilobites on its edges)
Into a stand of old horse chestnuts,
But the sound that emerged was not the woody report expected,
But an anguished and almost astounded cry,
Nearly human in its astonishment and pain.
I’d winged (more than that, in truth damn near killed)
A hawk sitting inexplicably low in the branches.
In my panic and puzzlement, I’d wrapped the bird in my jacket
(The hawk all but shredding its lining,
Adding to my mother’s already fervent agitation
Over having a wild bird in her kitchen not destined for the oven)
And taken it home, where we’d put it in a cage
(Not a bird cage per se, but the old crate for our dog
Who had wandered into these woods
A few months before when she’d sensed her time was at hand)
Where it sat silently for a couple of days,
Refusing food, water, or any other succor,
Simply staring at us with a searing look conveying a hatred
Which transcended species, language,
Any and all experience a child may have been privy to,
As, in those fresh-scrubbed, clean-linen days of youth,
I had nothing of the hawk’s knowledge of cages.


9 thoughts on “A Variation Upon Edgar Lee Masters’ “The Unknown”

  1. That look, I can imagine it, and the almost tangible force behind it. Watch out for rocks, they can come from any hand, and from any direction. Fly fast, that’s my advice.

    Always a kick to find your work on the linky.

  2. This kind of reminds me of when I was riding my bike down a fairly busy street during the summer of ’79, and I was in a real hurry. I had just graduated from high school. Before I knew it, I had run over a sparrow. I was horrified. The sparrow didn’t have a chance. This is not one of those “I took the sparrow home and nursed its broken wings” stories. I was in a rush to get somewhere, and this poor sparrow was dying.

    Years and years later, my girlfriend and I were riding in my car outside of Kingston, New York, at night. It was very rural and must have been very late, for there were no cars around other than ours. My headlights shone on a struggling thing. It was a cat, and it was a horrifying sight. The cat had been run over by a car or truck; it had red tire tread marks right in the middle of it; you could see the pavement of the road, the tire tread marks were so deep. The cat was in the most horrifying pain, flailing over and over, but you could see the cat’s eyes, and the cat had given up its will to live. I looked at Lisa, and she looked back at me, and I think she knew what I was going to do. I backed up the car, and I ran it over, putting the cat out of its unbelievable pain. Lisa and I just sat there in the car, in the dark, in the middle of the road in our car, holding each other and crying like crazy.

    That’s what I should have done with that poor sparrow, but I was too damn dumb to think of it back then. I hope the little bird didn’t suffer for too long.


  3. What a huge story this is, far beyond a recollection of childhood experience. The hawk’s glare is a haunting image.

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