H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 9–10 Summary

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Chapter 9: The Rite of Passage

Macdonald marvels at the beauty of the hawk, thinking about the bird’s reptilian qualities. She ponders the miracle of the goshawk’s evolution: the hawk is perfectly “tuned and turned to hunt and kill.” When the hawk hears shrieking sounds from outside, she responds to them; Macdonald is alarmed when one of the sounds the hawk responds to is a baby crying. Mostly, though, the hawk seems calm—almost too calm—and Macdonald worries that she might be sick, that there is something wrong with her. After fretting over the health of her hawk, Macdonald realizes that nothing is wrong with her; it’s simply that the hawk is a baby herself. Babies tire and need rest, and Macdonald needs rest, too.

Macdonald feels herself taking on the qualities of the hawk, who is everything Macdonald wants to be: solitary, self-possessed, and free from grief. The hawk’s subtle responses to stimuli fascinate Macdonald, and she watches the hawk closely, finding herself responding to the tiniest of the hawk’s cues. One no longer sees the hawk’s body language, but instead begins to feel it, Macdonald says; and in the process, one experiences a liberating loss of self.

After several days, Christina comes over to keep Macdonald company. Secretly Macdonald resents Christina’s presence, her intrusion on her privacy with the hawk. But she has decided it is time to introduce the hawk to something new: Christina. The hawk responds well to the presence of another person, and the women watch television together, Macdonald with the hawk on her fist. While they sit there, the hawk eats from Macdonald’s fist for the first time. Macdonald is thrilled that the hawk has eaten but disappointed that this significant event occurred under such mundane circumstances instead of in darkness and solitude. After eating, the hawk rouses for the first time, a ruffling of her feathers that is a sign of contentment. She has become tame enough to sit without her hood on to limit stimuli.

Later, Macdonald slowly inches closer to the hawk on her perch, offering her a piece of meat. The hawk considers her for a moment, then bates. Macdonald secures her again on her fist, and they try again. Eventually, the hawk begins accepting pieces of meat from Macdonald. Macdonald is delighted. She decides to name the hawk Mabel, from amabilis, meaning “loveable, or dear.” In falconers’ lore, the gentler the name, the more ferocious the hawk. Macdonald recalls that White gave Gos all kinds of grandiose names, like “Medici,” “Macbeth,” “Nero,” and “Death.” She used to think the list was funny, but now it strikes her as sad; she wants her hawk to have a name as distant as possible from reminders of death.

Chapter 10: Darkness

White continued to struggle with his hawk. He was overfeeding Gos and didn’t know it, and he didn’t understand what was going wrong. Macdonald thinks about Gos’s suffering, unknown at the time to White, and pities them both. As he struggled to train Gos, White also “discovered the joys of domesticity”: he painted the cottage’s woodwork, arranged feathers in jars, and cooked his own meals. Macdonald imagines him boiling his laundry on the kitchen stove or reading while his dog, Brownie, slept at his feet.

She also imagines him drinking: White’s alcoholism is a presence of its own in his narrative. Macdonald wonders if the reason she has a difficult time picturing White is because he is obscured by a haze of alcohol, made blurrier by his own desire to obliterate himself.

Mabel happily cleans herself, and Macdonald watches with joy....

(This entire section contains 925 words.)

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Soon Mabel starts refusing her hood, which means she is no longer afraid of Macdonald. Macdonald remembers talking with a colleague about a falcon hood she carried in her bag, and she thinks about the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into creating the hoods. She also thinks about the other associations hoods call to mind—religious head coverings, photographs from Abu Ghraib, the fear of having one’s sight removed. Macdonald tries to tell Mabel, in a soothing voice, that the hood is necessary for when they leave the house. Neither of them are convinced, and Mabel bates, refusing the hood. Finally she forces Mabel into it, but Macdonald feels miserable afterward and cries herself to sleep.

Stuart and Mandy come over to meet Mabel, and they bring their dog. Mabel, to Macdonald’s relief, is at ease around the dog and the new people. Stuart tells Macdonald that it’s time for her to take Mabel out of the house—the hawk is a fast learner and already surprisingly tame. Macdonald thinks about how many strange things there are outside of the house that could frighten Mabel, all of the modern inventions that fourteenth-century falconers didn’t have to consider. But then, Macdonald realizes, there were just as many strange sights and sounds hundreds of years ago. The difference is that a hawk is a stranger sight today.

Macdonald realizes that some of her hesitation to take Mabel outside comes from her own anxiety about seeing other people. She doesn’t want to leave the world she and Mabel have created together. For now, Macdonald brings Mabel out into the garden. As Mabel surveys her surroundings, Macdonald considers how much more hawks can see than humans can and wonders what Mabel is thinking and feeling. For her part, Macdonald finds herself overwhelmed by being outside and only wants to return to the house.


Chapters 7–8 Summary


Chapters 11–12 Summary