by David Greg Taylor
Slocum Healy sat atop a perch in a sweetgum tree in the backyard of his parents rented home on Pine Grove Avenue in Biloxi, Mississippi. A low-lying cloud had drifted off the Gulf of Mexico and enveloped this ten-year old boy in a moist blanket of mist. Just six feet below him was the bottom of the soggy bank, like a cotton blanket suspended over his neighborhood, but if you looked up, you wouldn’t have seen what was sitting up there. Where the boy had planted was all humid fuzziness, a kind like he’d not experienced since the womb, and he didn’t recall that. Coming from Missouri to the new job his pa had been offered down here, they drove through a heavy fog embankment near Memphis that made traveling precarious, until they hit a clear spot where Graceland was across the valley. Slocum’s mother Violet wondered out loud if Elvis was at home right then, and it seemed a happy coincidence that Presley’s latest song, U.S. Male, was on the radio as they came through the haze.
“I bet he’s got a dozen Corvette’s,” Arnold said. Slocum’s brother was aiming to get a Stingray for his first car, one of many illusions he had, though he was not to be chided. He was only twelve years old.
Little sister Lillian wanted to know if Priscilla was at Graceland, and you’d suppose she was, probably doing her homework, but that wasn’t anywhere near Slocum’s mind today, in the middle of this new fluffy Gulf Coast mantle. It was the first time he’d ever been smothered in a cloud, and he was taking it in. He couldn’t see his hand if he stretched it full out, so he sat there studying the way the murk moved past him, in clumps of a sort, not steady like pouring water out of a bucket, but in waves that gently pummeled his face and made his hair and clothes and everything else soak up the wetness.
Arnold came out the back door right then, looking for his brother to show him his latest car drawing, not anything but a Chevy or some such. Arnold was getting real good at this, and had even gotten Slocum into it, but the little brother drew pictures of Roy Rogers he copied from comic books, along with Bullet, Roy’s German Shepherd. Trigger was very difficult to do.
Big brother was yelling at the top of his lungs. Roosted up in the gum tree, hidden in plain sight, there wasn’t any way in Dixieland he was going to be found. Arnold couldn’t see him, and he couldn’t see Arnold, but he’d have given a lot to get a gander at his face turning purple as beet juice. The problem was suppressing the giggles. His mother swore every child in her family was fitted with a giggle-box that, when turned over, was uncontrollable. That was Slocum’s problem now. His giggle-box was tipping, teetering, and about to topple. He was nigh to letting go with a laugh when a rustling sound to his left attracted his attention. There he saw a large red-tailed hawk, its wings spread out, talons coming straight at him, landing on the limb next to his head. It let out a screech that nearly split the boy’s ears, and knocked him out of the tree.
Arnold heard the shriek of the bird and turned his sight upwards just as Slocum punctured the bottom of the cloud, looking to all the world like Icarus lost his wings. He dropped fifty-feet, flat on his back, and lay there. His eyes were staring at the place he’d just come from, at the hawk that dropped down a branch to see what happened. Arnold jumped straight up, let out a yelp and bounded into the house to get his pa.
While Arnold and Parker Bull Healy were coming outside, Slocum Healy was locked on the bird that nearly killed him. Their eyes met and fixed on each other. It didn’t last but thirty seconds before his father came to see what was up, but to Slocum it seemed like an awful long time. The hawk jumped up into the cloud as Mr. Healy emerged from the house to see how bad his son was injured. He stood over him a second, then bent down to examine him more closely. He saw his son’s eyes were open, looking upwards, and he asked him if he was hurt and what he felt. The boy said, “No, Pa, I’m not hurt. I feel just fine.” He moved the boy’s legs up and down, testing to see if they were broke and Slocum didn’t know on account he was in shock. He was amazed and grateful when he saw the boy was whole, and was about to give him what for. Then Parker stopped and spied what he saw was in Slocum’s left hand.
“Where’d you get that hawk feather, son?” he asked him.
Slocum looked at his hand. It was the first time he realized he was holding onto something.
“I guess I must’ve snatched it off the bird that was up there,” and he pointed up.
Before his pa could answer, Mrs. Healy came out of the house, hobbled as she was, recovering from the auto wreck on Beach Boulevard. A few months ago, she’d given a visiting Jayne Mansfield a run for her money at male attention on the beach just three blocks away, but now she was getting around with a cane, as the chiropractor she’d found was grinding her vertebra every week, using some gizmo to check on whether electricity was flowing from her spine out to her joints. The whole family was centered on Violet’s misery. She was slipping down the slope, but putting up a good fight.
“What has happened to my baby?” she screamed loud enough to wake any neighbor napping. Despite her pain, she threw herself on the still-prone form of her second-born. Parker stood up, now holding the orange and white feather in his hand, gazing up at the cloud where the hawk was still concealed, watching the scene below with keener eyes than a person could imagine.
“He appears to be all right, Violet,” he said.
“How do you know?” she wailed. “How would you know?” she continued, with a trace of the car accident in her voice, and Parker’s responsibility for all the agony that followed.
“Ma, I’m okay,” Slocum said. Then he passed out.
He woke up as he was being loaded into an ambulance. His head was strapped to a board with some kind of tape, and a huge attendant was on either side of the gurney on which he lay.
“Something in you busted,” the smaller of the two said. “Aint no way you not really messed up.”
“They are going to operate on you, no doubt,” the other said.
“My head hurts,” Slocum complained.
“It should. You fell out the top of a tree, boy,” the first one said.
“No, I mean this thing you strapped me down with,” he explained. “It’s mashing the back of my head against this board.”
“Regulations, son,” was the answer. “We got to keep you stable in case you broke something important. And you did. I seen this stuff before.”
“You going to be on TV at six,” the other said. “Child falling out of a tree is a big deal around here. They sent out a reporter and a TV truck.”
Slocum got woozy again and went blank, but not before hearing his mother give instructions to the driver to avoid getting into any traffic mishaps on the way to the hospital. When he came to again, a nurse was stripping him of his clothes in the emergency room and handing them over to his pa. He was glad he washed his feet the night before and wore clean socks and underwear. His heart was thumping over the thing being done by a good-looking girl who couldn’t have been over twenty years old. Mississippi women sure were beautiful. You had to give them that. This was the first time anyone but his parents or maybe Arnold had seen him in the natural state, and it wasn’t what he might have wished for. She turned from his feet to his head when she heard him let out a long sigh.
“Are you in any discomfort?” she asked.
“Not at all,” he answered. “You’re as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen.” Parker smiled and was proud his son had noticed the girl. A child can get away with statements like that, considering the context, because they have no clue what the next step would be in flirting with a woman. It’s doubtful this was the first time a little boy had told her this, and she took it in stride.
“You try not to move until the doctor can evaluate you,” she said, and patted him on the head.
“Okay,” Slocum said. He’d run out of slick lines already.
They got him up to a private room right after the doctor looked him over. The MD brought the parents out into the hall and expressed concern that their son’s kidneys might be damaged. He said he’d give him until five that afternoon, but if he didn’t eliminate his bladder before then, he was going to operate.
Parker and Violet were pretty shook. They went back into the boy’s room and up and told him what the doctor said. “If you don’t piss in the next few hours, they’re going to go in and see what’s the matter,” his pa said. He handed him a plastic urinal and said they’d give him a few minutes to mull it over.
The door closed behind his parents. Slocum looked at the container in his hand. He tried and tried to get something out, but didn’t have any luck. Maybe it was being propped up in this bed. It was strange, because he’d never had any problem going to the john. But he never had to do this laying down, either, and they wouldn’t let him get up. The dread of surgery was hanging over him, and he was getting tired from the straining. He decided after fifteen minutes of the ordeal to take a breather. Positioned there, uncomfortable as could be, feeling lost on the third floor of Biloxi Hospital, he looked out the window and was jolted to see a red-tailed hawk flying from the mist outside the window, and landing on the wide window ledge, not more than nine or ten feet from where he was. He looked him straight in the eye, and despite red-tailed hawks being the most plentiful breed of their kind in this hemisphere, he was sure this was the one from his back yard. Their eyes latched like at the house, and the red-tail’s eyes were like a laser beam boring a hole through him. It must’ve had an effect.
All of a sudden, he had to pee.
He grabbed the urinal and produced a pint of bright yellow liquid, and was then careful to put the lid on tight. He didn’t want to wet the bed at his age, with these nurses hanging about. Slocum grinned real wide, held up the jug, and looked out the window to share his triumph, but the hawk was gone, with only the results as testimony.
His pa came back into the room. “I see some privacy did you a world of good,” he said. Slocum kept the incident of the hawk quiet. He’d put his parents through enough today. Time enough to tell secrets after he got out of this fool hospital. Even with curvaceous women taking his pulse and waiting on him hand and foot and all, he wasn’t keen on an extended visit.
But that’s what he got.
They kept him for a week, to make sure nothing came loose inside and started to drift around. They said he could have a clot somewhere waiting to break loose and kill him. This news nearly felled Mrs. Healy, and she hovered over him constantly and slept next to his bed every night.
By the next Monday he was sick of the food they were serving. It dampened the pleasure of being surrounded by females. They wheeled him outside and sent him on back to his family. The next few days his mother kept him home, and then she figured it wouldn’t hurt to keep him there for a couple days more and then it was Saturday. She wanted to be nearby if he collapsed from a stray clump of blood traveling to his lungs or brain.
Slocum spent the time watching Captain Kangaroo after Arnold and Lillian were sent off to school, and watched reruns of I Love Lucy with his mother. President Kennedy interrupted Art Linkletter’s show with a news conference on Thursday. He spent the afternoons reading Green Lantern comic books or Louis L’amour westerns while his ma either rested herself or watched soap operas. She could finally bear to let him out of her sight at the onset of the next week, and drove him to school herself, along with the rest of the brood, and delivered him to Mrs. Mackleroy’s classroom personally.
It was Slocum’s bad luck to be five minutes tardy.
“Welcome back to class, Mr. Healy,” Mrs. Mackleroy said as she closed the door in Violet’s face. “You appear to be none-the-worse for your famous fall from grace.”
“I guess I’m alright,” Slocum replied.
“I would think so,” the teacher said, wiping her wire rim spectacles with a tissue. “In fact, I would like to know, and I’m sure the class would too, why, when driving by your parents’ home last Friday after school, I saw you running around your front yard, chasing your brother and sister like a veritable bobcat?” She put her glasses on again and trained her vision on her least-favorite pupil.
Slocum cursed his luck. He was sure this snooty-nosed old woman was checking up on him, poking into his affairs.
“Well, my ma was worried sick about me and kept me around the house one or two days extra to make sure I didn’t up and die,” he said.
“Oh really” You certainly didn’t look like you were near death’s door last Friday afternoon,” she said, tapping her foot, with both hands planted on her hips.
“I was in pretty bad shape there for a time at the hospital. They were about to cut me open and see what was up with my kidneys,” he said, trying to blunt the sarcasm coming from the teacher”s desk.
“So, you’re saying you had internal injuries?” she said. “If they operated on you, how were you able to jump like an antelope just three days ago?”
Slocum was starting to get mad and his ears were burning.
“I was healed.”
“Really?” She advanced toward the boy a foot or two. “Are we in the presence of a medical marvel, the recipient of a new cure for falling out of trees? How exactly did this healing happen, Master Healy?”
He didn’t have any plans regarding how the world would catch on that he’d been visited by the miraculous. He had no aim to ever share the incident with the hawk with anyone but his pa and ma. But old lady Mackleroy was going over the line, making it seem he’d been slacking off while he was laid up in the hospital. Pride goes before a fall, and knowing something about falls, he should’ve kept his mouth shut.
“I was healed by a red-tailed hawk. I snatched its feather when I fell and it owed me a favor.” It sounded crazy, but that’s as near he could figure happened, and his father confirmed it. There was a connection now between Slocum and the hawk. Couldn’t be denied.
Mrs. Mackleroy stood there for must have been half a minute, hands still posed on her pelvis, staring at this boy, her eyes getting wider by the second until they couldn’t stretch any more.
“What kind of pagan fool are you, Slocum Healy, and who put that outlandish idea in your head?”
“I don’t know what a pagan is, but when you take a feather from a hawk, you get some of its power, and it helps you if it can,” he said.
Slocum took his sight off of the teacher for an instant and looked at the class. Several had their jaws dropped, like they were looking at some space alien just landed from the neighboring galaxy. The rest of the children guffawing and slapping their desks with their hands joined the sound of the teacher laughing. He didn’t know whether they thought he was telling a joke, or was a loon.
“Sit down, Slocum,” Mrs. Mackleroy said. “We’ve had our foolishness for this morning.” She then turned her attention to her students and informed them they had a pop quiz in geography for their first task. Slocum went to his seat, through a gauntlet of stares and whispered insults, “hawk-butt” and “red-tail” being chief among them. He took Mackleroy’s test and made 100%, even though he hadn’t studied any of it. The teacher graded it, but by now knew to avoid pointing out the precocious nature of this strange creature from northern parts. She looked him over, seated in the first row nearest the window, and wondered what he was staring at.
Slocum was peering at a red-tailed hawk, which had soared down as he finished the test. It was at rest on a telephone line outside the schoolroom, and he could have sworn it was his friend, come to comfort him.
When recess came, some of the kids saw the hawk sitting up on the phone pole too, and began throwing rocks at it, taunting Slocum, asking him if this was his bird and could it heal them of blisters and plantar warts. But it was too smart for them. The bird of prey took off and circled the playground, far above the reach of their missiles. He could clearly and distinctly see every one of the ground dwellers below. Only one of them had any interest for him, the small black-haired boy who glowed with a light he recognized with an old, deep instinct creatures of his species knew.
He had found one.
To Be Continued