Rules for Old Men Waiting


Chapter 6: Trophies


Sometimes after school the boy could persuade his mother to let him take her for a row on the lake; at nine or ten, he found the boat still a little wide for him, but he would pull mightily, taking pride in the blisters, as he looped the oars in a big arc out of the lake and around and back into it, high enough to allow water to trickle down from the blades and off the handle and form a little puddle around his stout shoes. "Rest a little," his mother would say, when they had reached the middle of the narrow lake. He would rest on his oars, and take in the steep russet hills rising around them, the house looking gravely across at them from the afternoon shadow.

The quiet of these scenes, with the smallest lapping of water against the hull, sank deep into him, and he returned to them often. His mother in color and mood was always integral to them; he could see her in skirt and sweater, leaning back on the cushions with her legs tucked under her, a slender figure with wisps of auburn hair around her face, trailing her hand abstractedly in the water, rocking slightly forward each time the blade caught, always cool and serene, but usually, he later realized, somewhere else. Sometimes they would pause for a quarter hour or more, watching birds flying off the water and in the sky overhead, MacIver always sweeping the sky intently, always hoping to show her the great golden eagle whose nest he knew on a crag high above the house. Occasionally his mother would become part of it, pointing out tricks of light on the water, cat's-paws chasing into the shallows with the first breath of evening wind. Then they would head back, and it would be a point of pride with him that he could, by plotting his position against the opposite shore, navigate himself straight into the dark of the boathouse without having to turn around. But he let his mother help him. "A little more left hand," she would say quietly at the critical juncture, and he would steal a glimpse of the corner of the dock as he made the adjustment. Then he would ship his oars and they would glide the rest in the little boat's berth; he would tie the painter to the ring, gallantly hand his mother ashore, and carry his oars across his skinny shoulders up to the lonely house. Home is the sailor, home from the sea.

MacIver realized he seemed to be making some kind of tally of his memories, as though completing the inventory might tell him what his life amounted to. But why not? It was implausible that the account should be held open for future contributions. So let it rip! The lake and the eagle led him ineluctably on to the most astonishing and terrifying encounter of all--the story of the eagle's egg. It had been a large temptation ever since the boys had observed that the big gold-ruffed bird had a mate keeping him company on the nest.

So in the middle of April when he was ten, Robert MacIver, urged on by his friends and schoolmates Hamish Morrison and another Robert, Bobby Nairn, decided to take an egg, in the temporary absence of its parents, from the nest at the top of the cliff above the loch. The nest was in a small stunted pine that jutted out over the cliff from the fissure in the granite. He reached in from below and took the nearer of two eggs. It was at least three and a half inches long, and quite wide too, and the texture of the shell to his first unseeing touch was distinctly rough. It weighed in his hand and felt warm as he cupped it carefully, scrabbling down the stunted pine tree using one arm and his legs for grip, and skinning the inside of this thighs in the descent; they had all come straight from school and were wearing their uniform grey flannel shorts.

Once down on the rocky ledge under the pine, he examined his trophy carefully; it was strongly marked with buff and ruddy brown dashes and streaks, and rounder--less pointed--than the woodcock's and curlew's eggs in his collection, though not as round as the pheasant's. He was breathless from his nervous climb, and also in terror of the lurking fierce eye, hooked talons and beak, and giant wingspan from which he'd stolen it; he understood the same qualities were somewhere there, confined inside the shell in his soft hands. The other boys had gathered close, a knot of three tousled heads staring at the prize. He let them both hold it briefly, and they were reverent to it too. "The biggest and best we've ever touched," declared Hamish. But he and Bobby both understood that the egg was Robert's.

But in the night things changed. He would have to take it back. His need to do so grew with the hours. He could not sleep, his bed not snug now against the wind off the lake, storming the pines to east and west of the house, the rain squalls drumming into the windowpanes. Lying there, he stared at the window, trying to see past the leaded mullions on the outside, but the dark was giving no quarter tonight, advancing right to the frame, black on deeper black. The trouble was the egg itself, which he had nested in a bowl shaped from his best sweaters in the second drawer. He had left the drawer open about four inches, so there could be some circulation of air around it. But in the night he had started having serious doubts whether this was enough. Maybe the power of the bird, curled inside its oatmealy shell-all that steely wildness driving to grow and be unleashed, maybe it needed to feel the great dome of sky overhead to endure its rounded confinement till it was ready. It was the egg that was haunting him. Maybe he was stifling it there in the drawer; he could feel it raging at him from among the sweaters, and despising him: what did he know about nursing anything this big and wild?

He would take it back first thing in the morning. It was a Saturday, not a school day, so his mother would sleep late. He knew from her minimal signs of disapproval (a shake of the head, a thinner line to the mouth, once a "Couldn't you leave it for them?") at his previous trophies that he should not show her this one. This one was different, bigger, crueler, and taunting him with a taboo: he shuddered to think what would happen to him if he bored his holes at each end and blew it clean for his egg collection.

Up before six, and out the back door, and up the track through the woods behind the house, the wind, tamer by dawn, was still gusting through the pines, spraying the stored rain on his head and sweater--the air as fresh and cold between his fingers as water from the burn. Up the sodden path, his gym shoes soaked (he had thought they would give him better purchase than the boots when he climbed the tree this time), carrying the egg in his right hand wrapped in a clean handkerchief; he didn't want it smelling of him when it was back in the nest. Higher now above the lake, and brighter now as the trees thinned, grey clouds scudding fast and furious across the palest blue, quite a bit of silver behind him at the end of the lake, where the sun was massing for a breakthrough.

He came out onto the flat bare terrace of rock above the cliff. Some of the stones held puddles of water from the night's storm. Over the lip of the cliff, the pine tree jutted, some of the rugged nest of twigs visible. But he couldn't see if the birds were there. He put the egg down gently, still wrapped in its handkerchief, in a little hollow and crossed the clearing to where there was a tall rock that would give him a better view. The nest seemed to be empty; clearly eagles started their sky patrol early. There was no point in his hanging around. He retrieved the egg, went straight to the tree, and began his climb again out over the overhang. It seemed harder today without his friends to encourage him and impress, and the red, flaky bark was now pulpy wet and slippery after the rain. Yesterday's grazes were still tender under his overalls.

It took longer, but he finally climbed as high as yesterday's mark, from which he could reach into the nest and leave the egg. He turned it in his hands so he could put it down in the nest and take the handkerchief away without jolting or dropping it. He reach in exactly as he had yesterday, and at that moment an eagle, with a terrifying scream, soared up at him from below the cliff edge, vast wingspan, wider than his father was tall, raised high and back, and talons extended.

Robert froze, his hand still extended into the nest, his head involuntarily tucked down hard against his arm. The bird sailed across the nest and Robert felt a searing-hot pain across the back of his hand and scalp, as the stretched talons scored a groove and passed over. Blood started coming down into his eyes, but he wasn't yet aware of it. The shock of that looming fury from below the lip of the gorge galvanized him. He slid down the tree like a chute and scrambled tripping across the clearing, his only preoccupation being to get under the cover of the woods before the bird returned for its second run. If he was still in the open, he knew it would kill him; the only thing that had saved him so far was his clinging to the protection of the tree, which was hard for such a large bird to negotiate. He just made it back to the woods. He heard another fierce scream, and the flutter of the powerful wings overhead, as he rolled tight as a hedgehog between the rock and the base of the pine.

He had scant memory of his stumbling descent through the woods. Apparently, he had pulled his sweater up over his head to stop the blood flowing into his eyes. His mother must have needed all her cool temperament to handle the sight of the gory little ghoul who had staggered through the kitchen door. He managed to say with some insistence that he was putting the egg back, as though the bird was being unreasonable. But his mother straightened that out: "Putting the egg back was the right thing; what he was punishing you for was your taking it yesterday. I never intervene in your woodland adventures, but right now I'm putting a two-month ban on all bird nesting. And don't think your father will lift it when he comes back." She had managed to repair the gash in the back of his hand. "But I don't think I should do your head wound. I can't really see how bad it is through all the hair. I'm afraid we'll have to go to Dr. Macleod's surgery." Which was no fun. The doctor shaved his head along the line of the talon's gouge, and poured liberal amounts of iodine into the wound for cleansing, before closing the deepest part of it with four stitches. He did not yell, but the tears rolled down his face. "Cheer up, young Robert," said the doctor, going about his work. "It's not everyone who's been scored by an eagle." And indeed, he found that his wound, and the way he had got it, earned him considerable cachet in the playground. At recess his classmates would line up for the ritual bowing of his head.

Excerpted from Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey Copyright © 2005 by Peter Pouncey. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.