The Last Falcon
When our plane was diverted to Muharraq airport, I stepped onto the melting tarmac and breathed the scent of the Gulf for the first time in twenty years.
Fragments of memory jostled for my attention, but one kept coming back and back to me. It was the story that Faisal had once told me, when we were still friends. The story of the kid and the falcon.
I was working for the National Oil Company of Bahrain, as secretary to the General Manager, Faisal Al-Khalifah. That morning, as with all mornings in June, I had gone into his office hot and sticky from the two-minute exposure to the humid air, between air-conditioned car and air-conditioned office.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t had a chance to type up yesterday’s minutes, Faisal,” I said. “I’ll do them right away.”
He was standing at the window, his back to me, looking across the skeletal lacework of the refinery towards a black goatskin tent flapping on the high ridge of the escarpment.
“Sabah al khair, Susannah. There are Bedouin, look,” he said softly.
“I know, I know … the construction work on the highway has had to stop because his goats keep wandering out and getting stuck in the tarmac. I’ve asked Mustafa to move him on,” I said, sounding harassed, fingers clenched around my steno pad. “Did you want tea?”
Faisal turned around and looked at me thoughtfully. “Don’t worry, Susannah,” he said with a slight smile, rolling his “rrr’s” as he always did. “Seeing that tent over on the Jebel this morning, surrounded by livestock, reminded me of another morning. That other morning – that special morning, when I was just a boy and I was given a treasure.”
“A treasure?” I said.
“Yes, yes, a treasure. Not a Louis Vuitton suitcase, not a Rolex watch … but a treasure. A kid.”
“But you’re not married, you told me,” I said, blushing.
“No, no. Not a KID. Not a CHILD. A kid. A goat, Susannah. My first kid. My uncle Abdullah gave me my first kid to look after. For a small boy, it was a big moment.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling foolish.
Faisal moved to his enormous desk and sat down. He fingered his solid gold dhow, a paper weight, presented by the Prince. He looked thoughtful, his face soft with memory.
“Sit down, Susannah. Take a moment with me. You have to understand that this is an important moment in the life of a young boy. You only see me as Faisal, a man in charge of the oil refinery. But Faisal, the boy, was in charge of a kid … and it was an even greater responsibility.
For a Bedouin, when you care for your first kid, that is when you cease to be a child and become a man. For me, it happened that way but not as I had thought.
I have never told you of my uncle Abdullah, and how he took me in after the death of my father, treating me as the son he never had. How we trailed across the deep sands, herding the sheep, living with our camels from one tribal well to the next.
In winter, you see, it was different. Then we would settle for a few weeks, and the herd would go to pasture as best it could. If there had been any rainfall, the grass would spring up overnight and we would celebrate by killing a sheep.”
He nodded as the servant brought in a tea tray laid with silver cups, and I poured his tea, flavoured with cardamom.
He leaned forward and gestured. “Pour yourself a cup, Susannah,” he said.
“Sometimes it is important just to talk.”
He smiled and stirred his tea. “That winter, I remember, there was a heavy dew that turned into rain and overnight the desert came to life. New grass and flowers, everywhere. Strange plants, the like of which I had never seen, having grown up in the city.
Uncle Abdullah handed me the newborn kid and said, “Here, boy! Here is new life on a new morning. Guard it well,” and then he laughed because the kid leapt out of my trembling arms and ran away, bleating for its mother. And I took off after it, flushed with my new importance.
Later that day, we were walking together, my uncle and I, when we saw a falcon trapped on the ground beneath the ridge. She had become trapped by a thin string around her leg which was caught in the thorn bushes. Abdullah motioned me to be still, then he crept forward, unwrapping his thick winter cloak, and he threw its folds around the falcon.
She screamed with anger, and tried to tear at his fingers as he picked her up.
“Come, boy,” he said. “Let us take her back to the tent and see if she is injured. A falcon, a falcon … after all these years.”
“But you said there were no more falcons, uncle,” I panted breathlessly, trying to keep pace with his long-legged stride.
“And so I thought, Faisal,” he said gravely. “And so, doubly, we are honoured. Perhaps she is the last of the falcons, who can say?”
When we got back to the tent, he found a spare hood from his old hawking bag, which he slipped over the falcon’s head with no little difficulty, and we were finally able to examine her.
My uncle was reverent in his handling. “A peregrine falcon. And beautiful. So beautiful. Look well, Faisal, you may never see such another. See the length of her primaries … ah, and see! Here, here is the culprit.” He handled her with love. “A broken wing feather, see here? Then she came to ground and her tether caught.
She would never have survived the night.”
“Can you fix it, uncle?” I had all the blind faith of youth. “Can we keep her? Can we train her to quarry, just as you used to, just for the rest of the winter? Oh, please, say we can!”
My uncle looked wistfully across at the old hawking bag, and then he shrugged and he shook his head.
“Insh’Allah, by God’s grace I will mend the feather, my son,” he said slowly. “But tomorrow we must let her fly, if she can, before she becomes too weak. There is no fit quarry for her in these parts, see, and that is why there are no falcons.”
“I could catch her lizards. And mice,” I protested.
“That is no fare for the queen of falcons,” he said gently. “No! A plump houbara, or even a small hare – that is what this lady must have to survive. Yet she will not find such quarry here. Not any more.”
Then we sat late into the night by the fireside and my uncle and his friends imped the falcon’s wing in the winter starlight, and entertained one another with the old and familiar stories of their hunting parties in the past.
Then they spoke of the new ways had already started to come to the desert. My uncle saw great hunting parties travel out in caravans … not on camel, not even on horseback … but in Range Rovers. They slaughtered until the barrels of their new shotguns were red hot and little by little the desert became empty of leaping gazelle and fat game birds. And falcons. There is no honour in such deeds, to my mind.
The next morning, I woke early, trembling because I knew what I must do. When my uncle arrived back at the tent from checking the herd, I was already outside.
“The last falcon is waiting, uncle,” I said. She has fed well, and she is ready to leave us, now.”
“Fed?” he said mildly. “On what has she fed? On a lizard, perhaps, boy?”
“On my kid,” I said, blinking back my tears. “I gave her my kid.”
Abdullah looked at me. “Why?” he said.
“Because her need was great,” I blurted, “and because she was our guest, and because … well, because we have taken so much. I wanted to give a little back … just to give a little back, that is all. I am sorry. I have failed you.”
I waited, eyes down, for his anger.
“You did well, Faisal, to honour our guest,” he said after a moment. And then, together, we took the falcon and released her, bloody and triumphant, on the ridge where she had first been found. She took to the air with grace and speed, her long stiff primaries slicing the headwind. We watched her soaring flight, until she was merely a speck in the sky.
To this day, I have never seen such a falcon in the desert.”
Faisal looked at me strangely, as if hoping for something. I put the tea cup carefully back on the tray, touched by his confidences.
“That’s a lovely story,” I said impulsively. “Who would ever have imagined that now you run the oil company, and you have friends in Government, and you are known throughout Bahrain?”
Faisal looked wistful. “Who would have thought …” he said quietly. “Thank you, Susannah … you may go now.”
“So, do you want the old chap moved on today then?” I said, puzzled.
“No, I don’t want him “moved on”, my dear. I think I might go to see if he will take a glass of goat’s milk with me, and if I am to be truly honoured, perhaps he will talk to me of his travels. Who knows? Perhaps he has seen a falcon on his way.” He stood up, stretched his legs, and walked across to the door, holding it open for me, so that I could carry out the tea tray.
“Would you care to join us?” he said.
I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. “I’m not that keen on goat’s milk, actually,” I said brusquely to cover my confusion. “And besides, there’s those minutes. And someone will need to revise the highway schedule deadlines.” I didn’t mean to sound reproving but it seemed to come out wrong.
“Deadlines?” he repeated, and then he shrugged. I could tell he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. That’s why these people needed us, I thought.
It was only as I stood at the window watching him climb the ridge, alone and incongruous in his silk suit and Dior tie, that it occurred to me.
Perhaps I was the one who didn’t really understand? But after all, I was being paid to understand, simply to do my job.
Funny, the things that come back to you, carried on the smell of the hot wind and the scent of cardamom tea.
They called us back onto the plane a few minutes later, and we soared above the glittering skyscrapers of the new Manama, and then beyond the distant blue shadow of the Jebel Durkhan and onwards, to Singapore.