Before we’re due to leave for Positano, however, I have a date with Lola Wigan, a friend from London who is living in Rome at the moment, to go hawking.
We open the door of the hawk room. As it fills with light, the hawks crowd back as far as they can along the perch, straining at the leather thongs that secure them by the feet. Alert, peering out with beady black and yellow eyes, they sit in a long row. There are eight or ten of them, spaced far enough apart for them not to be able to molest each other. They clutch on to the perch with black shiny claws.
Their bodies if you feel them are hard as iron, like stuffed birds. They sit silent, self-contained in their quiet fury, if it is fury. Strange, these birds who have thrust themselves into such fury and such mystery. The sides of the perches are lined with green canvas, and the droppings from the birds have fallen down this, whitey grey on green.
In the garden of the hunting lodge there hop about other hawks. There are a series of round-topped perches, about a foot from the ground, for them to sit on. Sometimes, sitting on top of one of the round-topped perches, one of the hawks shakes vigorously and then rapidly turns its head backwards and forwards with such rapidity and covering such a wide angle that you would think the head was going to go spinning off into the air.
The atmosphere in this area just outside Rome, known as
Grotta Rosa, is extraorinary. On this grey autumn afternoon
in the undulating countryside outside the hunting lodge’s wooden fence, a shepherd is keeping a flock of sheep together by throwing tins over their heads in various directions.
Lola says, ‘Two of the hawks are mine, they are of a type
known as Eleora, they come from just one island and till they
were captured they had never seen humans. They’re not afraid of people. If they are eating a pigeon or something like that you can go right up to them. And they’re very gentle. They’re not really savage hawks.
The hunting lodge has a couple of elk’s horns on its gates. It is enclosed in barbed wire. A dog is tied up at the back, perpetually pacing along a bit of wire to which it is tied, lonely. When strangers come it bounds up to them wagging its tail. At the front, pigeons in little boxes are arrayed under the eaves. These, Lola explains, are to be used as bait for the hawks if it proves hard to get them to come back from hawking.
We meet one of the four gamekeepers, a man dressed in two shades of brown corduroy, stumping about with a gun tied to his back. Lola explains that the birds that fly over the land in Italy do not belong to the owners of the land. Instead hunters pay a tax to the government for the privilege of shooting them. The Italian countryside is filled with cacciatori, amateur sportsmen. The result of this seems to be that there are very few birds left.
Inside the hunting lodge is an old wooden table, German style, with brown varnished legs and there are decoy pigeons stuck up on the walls. And in the next room, its floor caked with bright green mould, a black tin bed with a dirty white and black striped mattress.
A dog called Fido is with us, a spaniel, straining at his lead. And there is also a doctor, a man with a grey slightly falling mustache, sad grey eyes, and a harrassed face. Recently, Lola says, he had an operation to his bladder, so he has to be careful where he walks.
‘On a certain day each year,’ says Lola, ‘quail shooting becomes legal. The quail are arriving, just having flown three thousand miles, what they want to do is just flop down exhausted, but waiting for them behind every bush and tree are the cacciatore, they have been waiting there for hours for the quail to arrive.
We are wading through water now, that has welled up over the flat Italian fields, Fido gulping at it frantically, as if trying to drink it all up.
Now Lola has loosed a hawk by the name of Francesca and it is zooming around far above us in wide circles. Lola says, ‘I’ve seen as many as eight hawks fly off in one afternoon, never to be seen again. The hawks are meant to fly above the dog, the dog flushes the bird and the hawk is meant to swoop down and catch it. Once Francesca flew off and disappeared and someone rang up next afternoon to say they’d found her. She was 200 miles away.’
There are bells round the hawk’s legs. As they fly, there is the sound of jangling. Now there is a violent hallooing from the doctor as Francesca swoops downward. She’s missed! The doctor explains, ‘Fido was too far in front. Otherwise she would have got him.’
‘This is a dangerous moment,’ says Lola. ‘Once a hawk has failed to get a bird, it never goes back twice. And it may be so ashamed of itself that it goes off on its own and doesn’t come back.’
Francesca is streaking off towards the horizon. Far away she perches on an electricity pylon and sits, preening herself.
Evening is coming now. There is a sunset, red near the horizon, then lemon yellow. The doctor is making wild signs at the bird, waving his hat at her, trying to get her to come back. Lola says, ‘That mountain over there is hollow, the Germans used it in the war to store things in.’
At length in the gloom the doctor produces a large slab of meat, a piece of chicken that he wrenches with a bloody knife. Francesca flies back from the pylon to get it.
The real tragedy, says the doctor, is that while Francesca was away somewhere she was fed too much. For ten days. And although that ten days is ten days away now, Francesca is still too fat, he says, plucking feathers angrily from the bird’s breast, shaking his fist at her. The bird takes a peck at his hand.
There is another way to catch a hawk if it continues to lurk up in the sky and refuses to come down, Lola explains. You hang a very finely meshed nylon net between two posts. Tether a pigeon on the ground beneath it and the hawk will swoop down and get caught in the net.
They try Francesca once again, but by this time it is getting dark and it ends with the bird once again perching inaccessibly far away and preening herself.
In the back of the car on the way home, Lola says, ‘I’m feeling very feeble. Are you? Everyone is in danger of getting very feeble these days. I think it’s something in the food.’
She tells me how she went to apply for a job advertising hair laqueur. ‘But they told me I’d have to cut it off to my shoulders and then die it blonde. I said I’d do the first thing but not the second.’
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