Ekphrastic Literary Contest 2024 WINNER

2nd Place – Adult Short Story

HAWK by Amita Dayal

Inspired by Leonard by Bethany Aiken

She can feel his eyes on her, two small halos of heat glancing her left temple, her cheek, her jaw. Flickering his attention from the road in front to her face, then back. The tension in her jaw causes an almost perceptible muscle twitch. He doesn’t notice as he focuses on the road, hugging the turns, guided by the roadside reflectors.

She sits attentively, head and shoulders facing forward, as if concentrating on the road as intently as the driver. It is dark already, just weeks after the winter solstice, yet the sky is clear and the roads dry. When her gaze veers from the windshield it is to glance out the window, at the passing darkness to her right.

‘If you’re hungry we can stop for dinner’, he says.

She looks to the left but avoids eye contact.

‘There won’t’ be anything until Huntsville now’, he adds.

‘I can wait’.

*** ***

He fiddles with the radio for something to do. Something beyond watching the white dotted line disappear underneath, the hydro poles flying by in his peripheral vision. This evening, how it contrasts from their summertime drives – no vegetable stands or chip trucks to distract or tempt them. No upbeat music to sing along to. No cows for her to moo at as they passed sunlight pastures. He would mock her silliness – a university student mooing out the window – but deep down, it touched him. That she didn’t care about being grown up and cool like everyone else their age. Driving north for guys’ weekends, he’d find himself moo-ing under his breath, following up with a scoff at the ridiculousness of it. Scoffing at the effect she had on him, even when they weren’t together. Love, if it was anything, was ridiculous.

He turns the heat up a notch – the sun has, by now, completely deserted them. The interior of the car is shaded in darkness. All he can see is her back, her black coat blending into the brown braid down her back. He knows she is not asleep. The rise and fall of her chest give her away. He can tell when she is truly asleep by the preceding soft sighs and the way her exhalations gradually lengthen. By the way it makes him feel to watch her.

Something in his chest constricts and instinctively he reaches across the centre console towards her. He pulls his arm away at the last moment as a shiver runs through him.

*** ***

The sign floats by, illuminated by the headlights just briefly enough to see that it is 12 km to Huntsville. The ache in her throat is so intense it feels as if it may crack open. She swallows hard and tries to squeeze back tears. She has yet to learn, it will take a couple of decades more to know, that swallowing past the ache isn’t a solution. For now, she only knows that her body feels the pain and that is now moving chest, constricting and cruel.

She counts the hydro poles as they go by, a habit from childhood. Counting as a distraction, distraction to fend off anxiety. As the outside world rushes by she sees the shadows of a bird on a hydro line. A familiar silhouette, head poised with the rare mix of patience and attentiveness. Her head lifts, instinctively, to say hawk. The word gets stuck, and she reaches to her neck, feeling stupid. He shifts. She pretends to adjust her scarf as memories flood through her. I will not cry in front of him, she tells herself, not again.

Birds of prey have always fascinated her. She had to write an essay in high school about which animal you would wish to be. The American bald eagle was her natural choice. She admires the combination of beauty, power and grace, the way they soar above observing the insignificant creatures below. There is the irony in the fact that she is deathly afraid of heights, however. Around here, a bald eagle sighting is very rare, yet she delights in spotting the red-tailed hawks flying over the farm fields or perched, intently watching the fields for prey. They have that in common as well, their interest in birds of prey. He is an expert on the turkey vulture which she doesn’t mind seeing flying but finds quite ugly up close, picking at roadkill. Last summer she had researched the red-tail as he drove them along these same roads, sharing facts with him. ‘They mate for life’, she had said, and they shared a goofy grin.

*** ***

He insists on eating inside the restaurant, claiming the need for a bathroom break anyway. As she sits across from him the fluorescent lights illuminate their meals, spread upon wax paper wrappers, littered with ketchup packages. The highway is quiet beyond the parking lot, the usual Sunday southbound traffic minimal on a gray night in January.

She notices the hint of pink across his fair cheeks. He must have gone skiing over the break. How strange it feels to not know where his physical body is always. For so long there has been a magnetic pull between them, an invisible line that seemed to tether them together. It feels as though she has lost one of her own limbs. Her best friend calls her dramatic, and maybe she’s right. But just sitting across from him is agony. She watches his hands reach for his fries – the blond hairs on his knuckles catching her attention; as if they were straining to get closer to her, electrically charged.

‘We should be there around 8:30’, he says, trying to catch her eye, to connect. Hoping to start up a conversation, because he would do anything to take it all back, to apologize. Do anything to go back to how it was before. To when he could be himself, to talk about things that mattered, and stupid stuff that didn’t. He missed the way she would smile as she looked into his eyes, nose to nose, chest to chest, feet intertwined in the sheets. The beauty of her face across from him makes him catch his breath but the emotion in the dark eyes that meet his is unrecognizable.

‘Okay. I’ll let Faye know – she is going to come down to meet me, help me carry things up’.

‘Come on, obviously I’ll come up with you, help you with your things. Say Happy New Year to the girls’, he smiles.

Her face contorts into her version of a snarl. ‘Thanks, but no thanks”.

She starts clearing their table, angrily stuffing napkins into paper bags, marching their trays to the garbage. When she returns and sits down it is with resignation. In the short distance back to the table she has dissolved into tears. He reaches for her hands, desperate to comfort her. Briefly she lets him hold them before jerking them back, tucking them under her thighs, not able to trust herself with the offer of his touch.

The anger returns to her voice, as she wipes away tears. Her must strain to hear her as she almost hisses under breath. ‘The last thing I want to do is to have you come upstairs with me like everything is normal.’ A small sob catches in her throat. ‘Then have to announce to everyone that we’re over, explain what happened, answer questions…’., she trails off. Then, emphatically, she stands, ‘No way.’

Outside, he hesitates before unlocking the car, forcing her to pause a second, hoping to diffuse some tension. When he had picked her up, after her dad had loaded her bags and told him to drive safely, she had hesitated. ‘We just have to get through this drive’, she had said. Now, she looks at him expectantly as she turns to buckle in – he hasn’t started the ignition. He holds her gaze. ‘I’m so sorry’. He stays looking at her, even after she quickly turns away.

As they head further north, then west, the snow starts to fall, softly, with snowflakes that glitter in the moonlight. She thinks about last winter, during spring break, when they caught snowflakes on their tongues, and she brushed snow from his shaggy hair while kissing his cool lips. She closes her eyes, willing herself to sleep the rest of the way. Knowing that if she doesn’t, she’ll be tempted to point out the perfectly formed and unique flakes that stick briefly to her window.

As the wipers glide back and forth, he thinks about the upcoming week. He anticipates the awkwardness of their Tuesday lecture – they would normally sit together, sharing coffee from her Thermos. They had planned to celebrate a mutual friends’ birthday Thursday at the pub as well. How would a few drinks affect their already intense emotions? As they pull up to the familiar campus driveway, amongst the anxiety and sadness, he lets himself feel a bit of hope.

Despite the strain of being so agonizingly enclosed with him, she hesitates just a moment before messaging Faye to come downstairs. It feels so final.

‘Bye’, she says over her shoulder, again avoiding his eyes. She pauses and turns, this time looking into his eyes. ‘I saw a Cooper’s hawk. On the hydro line. Near Huntsville.’

As the door slams, he breathes out, under his breath, ‘I love you’.


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