The Eagle and the Roots
The bright gentle days I found in Slovenia when I arrived there continued through the rest of January and throughout February. The infrequent rain squall, snow flurry, or dry blow only accented the unusual weather.
Out walking in the wooded Upland - ten or twelve kilometers from Yugoslavia’s uneasy Carinthian boundary with Austria - it was sheer delight to come upon splashes of white, yellow, and purple wildflowers in the sheltered corners of clearings on sunward slopes. It was a keener, more complex sensation than delight to round a trail’s bend and have my sight filled with a pair of deer not ten yards away.
A light breeze was blowing toward me and my steps must have been soundless on the path’s mossy shoulder from which winds earlier in the winter had swept the dry leaves. I stopped dead, holding my breath. The doe nuzzled at a patch of newly sprung-up shoots of a forest plant. The buck was on the alert but his nose and ears were momentarily into the breeze, away from me, and my nearness didn’t register for perhaps five seconds.
It flashed on them both simultaneously. The male emitted an ultraurgent sound, and, with a bound so swift and lithe I barely perceived it, they vanished in the close-by undergrowth.
In the New York office of the United States Department of State, where I applied for a passport without the rubber-stamped injunction barring me from Yugoslavia, I had been warned that my native country wasn’t safe for American citizens.
Now in Slovenia I carried no identification papers, and my pockets bulged with enough notebooks, scratch-pads, and pencils to give me every appearance of a hard-working Cominform agent disguised as an imperialist spy, or the other way about. I wanted a taste of the "Tito terror." But no one stopped me to inquire about my identity or anything else. I moved about as I chose, going wherever I wished; at the end of January and the beginning of February by myself, later sometimes with others. Now and then I came to a remote mountain hamlet whose name I didn’t know or bother to find out. With tiny bare fields and great woods about them, these settlements spelled Peace itself..
One afternoon, wandering on and off a trail in a thinned-out forest, I heard a trashing ahead. It came sporadically. Going toward it during a quiet interval, I thought for a moment I might have veered away from it, when the commotion exploded once more directly in front of me. A large, brownish-black object near the base of a tall beech was heaving upward, flapping in the air, and hitting the ground with a thudding might.
It was an eagle with a five- or six-foot wingspread. His beak was clamped around a protruding root - I couldn’t see how, but evidently in such a way that he couldn’t free himself.
The great wings spread, shuddered, rose; and cracked down over and over again. The neck writhed and yanked, and I thought the body might tear itself from the head. At the same time the talons ripped and scratched under the root; dirt and bits of molding leaves hurtled in all directions. To no avail. Then, as if done in at that instant, exhausted beyond fear or rage, the eagle collapsed; the crown of his head matted with blood where crows had pecked at him. The eyes - redbrown with an almost black center - were glazed, fixed as if an unseeing stare, and utterly distressing. The head, though distorted by strain, possessed a fierce kind of dignity.
A sharp wind swirled about the mountainside. It cut low amid the bare trees and lifted away some of the loose eagle feathers. I shook with cold. The crows cawed high in the branches of a near-by tree.
They set the eagle off into another frenzy. His wings and tail lashed the ground and air. The talons scratched under the unyielding root. They groped for it and missed. They clawed the earth while the wings trashed and dirt and leaves and sand and feathers flew. Then the eagle’s long neck twisted itself as one might twist an empty waterhose, the wings folded down on themselves, the fanned-out tail drew together, and the whole body flopped over, bottom side up - again without result. The mandibles remained wedged. Presently the neck unwound itself tortuously, the body turned top side up, and the eagle sank into another spell of near-exhaustion.
The westering sun vanished behind a bank of clouds. The wind whistled steadily. There was a brief snow flurry, and I watched the flakes melting on my cold, tensely clasped hands. A crow cawed again.
Another shudder shook the eagle. He was still alive - not yet dead, anyhow. I touched his head, meaning to brush off the dirt and investigate how bad the wounds under it were.
Suddenly the great bird heaved himself in another tremendous convulsion so sudden and swift that the fear it evoked in me flung me backward. In a blur I saw his head jerk itself loose, and he shot past in me.
He half-dropped, half-alighted about twenty yards away. His partly spread-out tail and wings trailed the ground. Tilted in a lopsided stance, he tried with partial success to right himself. He seemed to find it especially hard to hold up his head: but what worried me most was his beak. It remained open. I wondered again how badly his tongue was hurt. Were the jaws dislocated? Cracked? If they were, he might just as well still be trapped in the root, for he would have died sooner and easier than by starving to death.
But after a while I began to think he would pull through. His efforts to right himself became smoother. His wings spread out, fluttered, folded. His head straightened on his curved neck and stayed straight. He managed to go through a series of hopping, awkward movements.
The cold wind drove the snowflakes at me and past me. The wind closed my eyes. When I opened them, the eagle was well on the way to being an eagle again. He paced, stopped,hopped a bit; then spread his wings and fanned the air. Unexpectedly, he sailed to a stump twenty or thirty yards down the ridge.
I wanted to cheer. But my lips were nearly numb, and I could hardly keep my teeth from chattering.
The disheveled eagle huddled on the stump awhile, his back to me - a heap of uncertainty. Then, rather abruptly, he straightened up, half unfolded and flapped his wings, crouched again, and took off. For a moment he sailed precariously down the ridge, barely clearing the stumps and undergrowth. The wind almost grounded him again, but his wings adjusted themselves to its drive, and he rose with it.
Unable to cry out, I waved to the eagle, then watched the patch of bleak sky over the adjacent mountain until he vanished from view. I was conscious of a trembling inside me.
I knelt by the snake-like root and put on my glasses to examine it closely, especially the bloodied spot where the beak had cut in. I couldn’t determine how deep the jaws had been in the twisted wood, so I seized the root with both hands and yanked as hard as I could. It broke more easily than I had expected - at the place where the eagle’s beak had been.
Returning to the lodge, cold and drained emotionally, I recalled Melville’s curious footnote about the albatross. "Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets…"
The next day was bright and sunny again. The false spring continued for another three weeks.
For months after, as I delved into the Yugoslav story, the incident of the eagle recurred to me again and again. I told others about it, and learned that is is not unusual in Yugoslav forests to find skeletons of eagles, their beaks still fast around protruding roots or ground-crawling vines.
Back in the United States, my attention was drawn to a passage in W. H. Hudson’s The Book of a Naturalist dealing with oddities the author had encountered in Nature. One story told of a heron whose fate differed from my eagle’s, but whose predicament was similar. He had "impaled" his beak in a bony fish. Hudson follows the tale with this comment: "Death by accident is common enough in wild life, and a good proportion of such deaths are due to an error of judgement, often so slight as not to seem an error at all."
Gradually, "my eagle" established himself in my mind as the symbol of Tito, of the Yugoslav Revolution, while the roots began to represent the Soviet and the "Western" systems of life.