In the light of a single candle the goshawk and I regard each other. Sleep presses against our eyes, but we are both obstinate. The hawk has run out of foul names to spit at me. He does not blink, and so I try not to blink. The sallow light is golden in his livid golden eye.
One of us will break, and the other triumph. Though in the muffled dark of my room I wonder if I might instead go mad.
“Or perhaps you’re mad already,” the goshawk suggests.
This is how you break a hawk: wait him out. It’s simple but not easy. Eventually he must sleep; if the falconer is alert to see the moment his hawk concedes, slips away to sleep despite his fear, then the bird begins to be his. It is a game of minds; not of dexterity but strength. If the falconer sleeps, he simply begins the excruciating wait again the next day. If the hawk sleeps, however, then the bird has lost forever.
And this is how you break a boy: tell him he is king. Simple, but not easy. You must watch him, hawk-like, to see how he slips beneath your lies. You must seem to believe it enough that the boy believes, too. You must crown him and put him at the front of an army. If you fail, there is always another handsome hazel-eyed boy somewhere in the world. Anyone might do.
If the boy believes that he is king, though—and this is true whatever circumstances befall him, however low he is brought—he can never completely un-believe.
I have toiled a lifetime at the hard labors of the low-born, so much longer than the time I spent as claimant to the throne of England, designated by God and legitimate succession to take the crown back from Henry Tudor. For only one short year was I misled; one year which I, a small and frightened boy, spent under the spell of my own belief. One year in a lifetime of years, yet which of these returns to me again and again?
I hold my hawks to my right. The glove must be made to fit; most of the king’s falconers hawk to their left. I prefer the right. My forearm there is hardened, scarred from years at the turnspit and smelted tough. It is an animal job, like an ass at a mill. I have heard that in some great Flemish houses they turn the spit with dogs. I imagine the work is worse for a dog, with the riches of slow-baked meat forever just beyond reach. Worse if they’ve once tasted it and know they’ll now have none.
The sky lightens, slow and patient as it bleeds into my room. The paling dawn swims flecks of silver in my tired vision.
The goshawk and I have watched each other all the night. He looks to me and his head tilts, taking my measure. He turns away; he’s found me lacking.
“Snub me,” I say. “I don’t care. You aren’t the first.”
His breast feathers puff in offense.
Few other falconers speak to their hawks. Certainly none have heard the hawk speak in response. Or perhaps they are wiser than I and simply pretend they cannot hear.
The shaping of a free mind into a tamed one is a fascinatingly predictable process. You begin by stripping away: good comes only from the master’s hand. They receive nothing if it is not from you. Dress your beast so finely that it is impractically, conspicuously plumed, in clothing unfit for an innkeeper’s boy. If at home it eats pottage and barley bread, then feed it roast mallard and stewed fruits from your own rich table. Give promises like titbits; dreams like sugared almonds.
Next you must test the quality of what you’ve captured. Is the beast suited? Hold it up to a trusted few for evaluation. Once fattened and finely dressed, if it is of any caliber it will pass well enough.
Then you hone it. Feed it by hand, gentle it, teach it good French and a little Latin. Show it courtly manners and how to believe it deserves more than it has.
Once the beast is trained, examine its skills at work. Make the trials easy, so that failure is not catastrophe. Sit it beside you at dinner and bid it speak. The dinners will grow grander, the guests wealthier, its performances more complex. It should be dutiful but not slavish. Proud, as befits the high-born, but also demonstrating biddability and tact.
Only after much practice are the long training creances shed; your creation unhooded and loosed upon the greater stage. Even then, it will always wear thongs at its wrists.
If escaped, or even freed, is something tamed and trained in this way ever its own sovereign? The master makes his mark not only on the body but the mind. He is always there, silently governing; even if his touch is unseen.
On the third day the goshawk closes his eyes on his perch. I let him sleep until supper, too aching with exhaustion and relief to sleep myself. Then I wake him to celebrate by carrying him out to the sunny grass beyond the mews. I bring him a haunch of rabbit. He examines the meat with one eye and turns his head away.
“You’ll have to trust me eventually,” I say.
“Oh, aye,” says the goshawk, voice rough and listless. “And you’ll trust me, too, I wager?” He lifts one leg, tugging the jesses in my fist.
A man’s words from the mouth of a bird—I am mad with the lack of sleep. The sunlight is so warm and tender. If I close my eyes here I may sleep standing up.
All boys think they are important. All you have to do to win one’s heart is to agree.
Father Simon told me I had been mislaid, a royal cuckoo in a sparrow’s nest. This made my mother a whore and my father a cuckold, but I did not consider the implications of the claim beyond its first, greatest, consequence. The king does what he likes, after all, and who’s to stop him; who’s to judge?
I would do what I liked when I was king, if I obeyed well enough.
Simon told other people other things about where I was come from and what my name was. They were free to choose amongst their preferred truths. I was not. When I was called Duke of York I believed I was the Duke of York. When it became advantageous to be Earl of Warwick instead, I was Warwick, whole heart, and spoke warmly of my uncle Edward, who had only days before been my father.
In Ireland, when I was King Edward VI, I believed that best of all. I was only ten years old.
When I was captured and my false names stripped like layers of gilding, taken from me along with the fine clothing, I was taught again what to perform. After all these rehearsals, it was hard to take a role which did not come with finery, a horse to ride, the blessings of nobility. I played it, though. I put my heart behind contrition, bewilderment, innocence. It didn’t matter if the role was true; I only needed to convince the court.
Treasonous nobles are beheaded. For treasonous commoners? Oh, the death is so much worse.
The hawking master comes to try the goshawk after I have had him a month at my side. He makes his kill; he flies to fist. The master offers a sliver of cold mutton in exchange for the sparrow my hawk has taken. The hawk raises his broad barred wings in threat.
He hands the bird to me. “Bloody-minded,” he says. “You’ve still work to do, Simnel.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, wrapping the jesses around my fist.
“If he won’t man fully, there’s no use keeping him.”
“Yes, sir,” I repeat, obediently.
“Bloody-minded,” the goshawk mutters, aggrieved, once the hawking master is gone. He has slept; I have slept; there is no reason I should still hear him speaking. Yet all this month, he has spoken. His words show him to be, indeed, bloody-minded. I hide my smile.
I fly the goshawk alone, far from the mews. He is a blade through the sky, an arrow when he falls into his stoop.
Neither this hawk nor I were born into the service of the king. For me, that past life was squalid and ignorant. The goshawk’s, though, was some other beast entirely.
He brings me a gory jet-eyed starling. Its black feathers flecked with brilliance remind me of Simon’s priestly robes. I let him keep it.
After my royal army’s defeat at Stoke Field I was imprisoned. Not in the Tower but some nameless dark hole where I might be ignored. No, not ignored; there were rotten-mouthed men there who paid me attention I did not like.
I was not a prisoner of the Tower, like a nobleman, but in squalor, with common wretches. The death prescribed treasonous commoners is something small boys talk about, wide-eyed, squeezing out every drop of sweet dread. But only if they can’t imagine playing any part in it. It’s less pleasant to dream of if the dream might be your life.
Henry called me to him, and like any tamed thing I went willingly, though stupid with fear. Even walking to my doom I felt terror and pleasure both, for I was not forgotten. Every boy likes to think they are important.
The king forgave me and sent me to turn the spit. I thanked God, though it was animal work.
The rest I was allowed to do on my own, though I never suppose that I’m free.
The goshawk will eat from hand. He will return to fist and he does not bate. But he will not give up his kills.
“Mine,” he hisses at the hawking master. “Wicked man. Useless man.”
The hawking master does not hear him. No other man seems to hear the hawk’s voice, or at least none will admit to it. I have not had the courage to ask. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps the hawk is mad too; he certainly comports himself like a madman.
The hawking master offers the hawk a whole dead pigeon for a scrawny fledgling crow. The hawk strikes for the master’s fingers with his wrathful golden beak.
“Eat that yourself,” he says. “This one’s mine.”
He does not belong in the mews. His body, fierce but soft; his eyes, golden and terrible. This closed-in place offends him. Offends God’s hand which made him. He glares at me when I collect him the next morning and mutes in a great silver spurt of shit.
“Goshawks are always the most trying,” the hawking master says as we undo the goshawk’s jesses. “I put two back to the forest before I kept one on my fist.” I will have another hawk in another springtime. I am at liberty to try again.
We are all tamed by our circumstances. None of us is free. Or perhaps we are all exactly as free as we wish to be.
The hawk lifts from my fist, from the glove that covers my turnspit scars. It is a good glove, well fit to me, and simple.
The hawk makes one turn over our heads and drifts away into the sky. I suppose he is his own goshawk now.