The Parakeet and the Hawk

A parable from the Jamaican countryside based on an excerpt from the novel The Harder they Come by Michael Thelwell, (pp. 40–42).

Young Ivan and his grandmother were walking up the mountainside, returning home after gathering food from the garden they had planted in the valley.

Overhead, high in the sky, a solitary hawk spun and wheeled, occasionally sending his shrill hunting call piercing into the valley.

"Hmm," his grandmother grunted, "mister hawk is hungry." She steadied her food basket and looked up. "See him there, … no more than a speck way up there."

"Why is he crying so, Granny, look like he's just warning all of the birds."

"Come," she said, "I'm going to show you something." She set down her basket. "Look around you. Do you notice anything?"

"No." said Ivan, looking around puzzled.

"That's right," she said "nothing!"

"What do you mean Granny? What am I suppose to be looking for?"

"For what you don't see," she explained. "Usually you will see plenty of little birds flying up and down. What happened to them?"

It was true. There was no activity in the trees or in the sky.

"They all heard the hawk and took to the bush, just hiding in the thickest tree they can find. And old mister hawk is hungry, and probably has little hawks in his nest to feed. So he's trying to frighten them out of the tree."

They watched as the hawk circled nearer, emitting the angry sounding shrill cries.

"Look," Granny said, "over on the hillside. See that guava grove? It's the ripe fruit over there that he's watching."

The hawk came gradually closer, until Ivan could see the red markings under his tail and his white neck as he rode the updrafts in crisp, patterned circles.

"No. Don't watch him. Look at the guava trees."

Ivan looked at the trees, but nothing moved.

"Watch," Granny said confidently.

The hawk wheeled and screamed. The valley was quiet, even the insect chorus seemed to be silent. Then suddenly there was a flash of green and yellow from the grove of trees and a parakeet broke cover and started across the valley with frantic, desperate wing strokes. It seemed to be heading for the tall trees on the hillside where they were standing. But halfway across, the bird gave a sharp squeak and changed direction, almost falling into a clump of low bushes as the hawk swept silently across his line of flight.

"He got away, Granny," Ivan cried.

"Maybe," she said, "watch now."

The hawk swept back in a wide unhurried circle, high above the little bush. It seemed in its flight quite unworried and confident. Ivan could see its wide tail flexing as it steered itself delicately on the wind. Kree. Kree: the sharp, bitten-off call seemed louder and was so highly pitched it set Ivan's teeth on edge. In the bush the parakeet began a lamentation of its own, not its usual raucous, contentious noise but a broken, uncontrolled sound like the whimper of a creature mad with terror.

"Poor little thing," Granny said, "I see his death now. I'm so afraid he's just a little ball."

Ivan pulled his slingshot as far as he could and fired at the hawk. For a second the stone seemed dead on course but then it rapidly fell away, passing below and a little behind the predator. The hawk turned its head slightly, almost disdainfully, as the whizzing stone arched away into the valley.

Then the parakeet flew out again, trying to get back to the guava grove where the rest of the flock huddled in uncharacteristic quite. The hawk, moving with arrogant grace, made three powerful, unhurried wing strokes, then locked his wings and went into a dive so fast and steep that it appeared that he would crash into the hillside. At the last second the parakeet cut sharply, looking slow and awkward. The hawk veered, extended talons hammering the smaller bird.

Then everything was blurred in whirling wings and a puff of green feathers. There was a loud shriek, abruptly ended by the flash of the great hawk's head striking down with a vicious jab. And then the predator spread its wings against the updraft and went into a long, swift glide just above the trees and down into the valley; then it pulled out of the glide and with powerful strokes started climbing toward its nest on the mountaintop.

The last anguished shriek of the parakeet had been very loud and piercing. Then as if there were some kind of signal a discordant chorus arose from the flock in the guava tree, a raucous, noisy, indignant, screeching cacophony of protest and outrage. Then the flock took to flight, at first a bright confusion of green and yellow noise. Then with out any lessening of the frightful din they came into formation—a V-shape line of flight that cursed and threatened as it went, as though they were swearing never to return to this valley of death.

After awhile, Granny said, "Never mind what you saw—it was not the hawk that killed that parrot."

Ivan felt a little weak. It had all been terrible, and beautiful in all of its terribleness. "Yes mam," but didn't we just see it?"

"We saw the old hawk catch him. But it was FEAR that killed him. If he had stayed in the guava trees with the rest of the birds, the hawk would never have caught him. But it was fear, and fear is what caused him to fly out. You see?"

Ivan saw. It must have been terrible to sit there watching the shadow of death circling over, hearing that grating scream until you couldn't stand it anymore, couldn't force yourself to sit still and longer, until nerve and control went and panic took over. Yes, fear can kill you. He felt very sorry for the dead parakeet.

"Well," said Granny, picking up her basket, "that means you learned something today."