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Emily Laughland, The eagle had to go - Jeff Nicoll on Stephen Bodio, Querencia

An Eagle in the Attic

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The epigraph to Querencia, by my friend Stephen Bodio, explains that the title is a term taken from the bullring, denoting the imagined, and illusory, sanctuary sought by a bull entering the ring, where he feels secure, temporarily sheltered in a magical space. A nearly untranslatable word is a good title for an almost unclassifiable book: an autobiographical fragment, evoking a place and a time, and two similarly unclassifiable people, Steve and Betsy.

Steve and Betsy met at a party in Massachusetts in 1979. (As I well knew from experience, having Steve at a party was always a little complicated, but his host had a perch for Steve’s falcon.) This is how Steve describes that first meeting:

When I turned from getting a real drink, a short, athletic woman was standing in front of me. She had a helmet of straight grey-blonde hair, cut in bands at eyebrow level but coming down nearly to her shoulders on the sides and wore a blue-and-white, horizontally striped sailor’s jersey. Despite her trim figure, I could see that she was the oldest person in the room. ‘You’re the “falconer and writer”’ (I could see the quotes). ‘I’m the “woman with the cats who writes”. Give me a Camel.’ If I ever stop drinking it will be because of lost memories. But we lose them anyway; how can we know, at the times that precede conscious decision, that we are at some point in which every word and gesture must change our lives irrevocably?

They ‘smoked all the Camels, drank ourselves cold sober, talked about breeding wildcats, bobcat habits, hunting and falconry and literature both high and low, of the Beatles, and I swear, Cole Porter’. When dawn came they were discussing Goodbye to All That and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and were tossed out with the buttends and the empties, the last of the guests. I don’t think their conversation ever stopped.

I had met Steve earlier in the Seventies, during that

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The epigraph to Querencia, by my friend Stephen Bodio, explains that the title is a term taken from the bullring, denoting the imagined, and illusory, sanctuary sought by a bull entering the ring, where he feels secure, temporarily sheltered in a magical space. A nearly untranslatable word is a good title for an almost unclassifiable book: an autobiographical fragment, evoking a place and a time, and two similarly unclassifiable people, Steve and Betsy.

Steve and Betsy met at a party in Massachusetts in 1979. (As I well knew from experience, having Steve at a party was always a little complicated, but his host had a perch for Steve’s falcon.) This is how Steve describes that first meeting:
When I turned from getting a real drink, a short, athletic woman was standing in front of me. She had a helmet of straight grey-blonde hair, cut in bands at eyebrow level but coming down nearly to her shoulders on the sides and wore a blue-and-white, horizontally striped sailor’s jersey. Despite her trim figure, I could see that she was the oldest person in the room. ‘You’re the “falconer and writer”’ (I could see the quotes). ‘I’m the “woman with the cats who writes”. Give me a Camel.’ If I ever stop drinking it will be because of lost memories. But we lose them anyway; how can we know, at the times that precede conscious decision, that we are at some point in which every word and gesture must change our lives irrevocably?
They ‘smoked all the Camels, drank ourselves cold sober, talked about breeding wildcats, bobcat habits, hunting and falconry and literature both high and low, of the Beatles, and I swear, Cole Porter’. When dawn came they were discussing Goodbye to All That and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and were tossed out with the buttends and the empties, the last of the guests. I don’t think their conversation ever stopped. I had met Steve earlier in the Seventies, during that appendix to the Sixties which continued all of its best and worst features, at a party thrown by one of my students. Steve had just moved from one apartment to another and his new roommate had declared that ‘the falcon could stay but the eagle had to go’. It may have been the second-hand smoke or some sympathy with the moment: whatever it was, I said, ‘I have an attic; would that be any good?’ Within a week we had built a perch and put down newspapers. Steve arrived with a large, struggling burlap bag and dumped the eagle out on the attic floor. The sports teams at Boston College were called the Eagles, and this one had been the school mascot. But there had been no one at BC capable of proper care of a ten-pound raptor with a six-foot wing-span and he had become unmanageable. He was moved to the Franklin Park Zoo, where his repeated desperate attempts to escape risked fatal injury to himself, so Steve took him in in a last attempt to save him. The eagle needed to adjust to human company again, and to do so in peaceful isolation. However, the human touch was also necessary, so Steve’s girlfriend moved into the attic as well. The eagle fed on road-kill, lab rats from the university, and ‘chicksicles’, frozen day-old baby male chickens. Providing the bird with a varied diet was always a challenge; Steve drove a beat-up VW Beetle convertible in which he kept bags for scooping up whatever might be found. Once he jumped out of the car to bag a chipmunk in good condition, severely astonishing two old ladies at a bus stop. He smiled broadly and said, ‘They’re delicious fried,’ before roaring off. Inevitably there was a rift; the girlfriend moved out of my attic and the eagle moved to the mountains of western Massachusetts (where he was still living decades later). With the eagle gone, Steve dropped by less often. I lost track of him altogether before he met Betsy, but the stories of the eagle in the attic kept his memory green. In the early Nineties, I was looking for a replacement copy of T. H. White’s The Goshawk, when I saw the name ‘Bodio’ on the spine of a book called Aloft. I knew there could not be two people named Bodio who might write about (as it turned out) pigeons. I contacted the publisher to track Steve down and received a few months later a copy of Querencia with a note: ‘This will explain a few things.’ And it did; although I went on to read and enjoy all Steve’s books, Querencia is his masterpiece. I never met Betsy but Querencia lets you see her plain. Steve was from a working-class area of Boston and of Irish-Italian roots, while Betsy was the late-life daughter of Bishop D. T. Huntington, forty years a missionary in China: ‘When I was born we converted the village; if I had been male, we would have converted the province.’ Betsy’s was a well-established New England family, with Mitfordian older sisters (who had founded a Trotskyite commune on Beacon Hill) and a useful family inheritance. Betsy took her money and ‘bought a Mercedes and drove at furious speeds through the Pyrenees, took at least one driving lesson from Juan Fangio, helped a boyfriend buy a Caribbean island, and met a parade of dazzling and dubious characters’. Although this approach would have been unlikely to be blessed by the Bishop, she settled down, put herself through university and made a living of sorts as a journalist. After all, if you have seen Noël Coward, naked, playing a piano in Jamaica, you are ready for anything. There could not have been two more discordant Boston backgrounds than those of Steve and Betsy. Steve’s grandfather had worked in the granite quarries; his father, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, retained his prejudice against people like Betsy’s family, regarding them as ‘inbred overbites’. Betsy’s family was formidable; her sister Jane said of their mother, ‘it’s easier to get along with her if I think of her as an interesting character’. When Steve had to meet the mother, she was 94, surrounded by ‘old China hands and ancient Unitarians’. Somehow, Steve and Betsy managed to inspire mutual toleration. Still, they knew they were an odd couple and after Betsy’s refusal to marry Steve (‘ask me again in six months’, a request often repeated and always refused) they decided to make a new start, ending up in the tiny New Mexico town of Magdalena, 90 miles south-west of Albuquerque. Their first contact there was a writer Steve knew by reputation; even getting to his place challenged their Eastern preconceptions. The phones were out but they had a map of sorts, helpfully marked with such comments as ‘It’s not as tough as it looks.’ The flat open vistas, arid landscape, the mountain walls, the simple clarity of the air were all new to them – an ancient land, suddenly interrupted by a long array of radio telescopes, ‘golf tees of the gods’. They arrived at their destination, a trailer house called the High Lonesome, only to find no one home except a large pack of enthusiastic dogs. They drove 110 miles back to their hotel, to be met by a phone call summoning them again. Travelling long distances on desert and mountain roads would soon be commonplace in a country where it is easy to see mountains 90 miles away; an enormous contrast to their New England homes, where the same distance would encompass at least nine separate towns. They tentatively rented a place in Magdalena (which had, at the time, three bars and five gas stations – I think it still does), planning initially to stay just two months, to see how it would go. Querencia shows them working their way into that world. Steve is primarily a naturalist, outdoorsman and travel writer; his description, in Eagle Dreams, of being wrapped in raw horseflesh and plastic rubbish bags in Mongolia to cure a fever, hoping he won’t have to wear it to a party planned in his honour (‘I didn’t want to go as meat!’), is a gem. So it is natural that Querencia is cast as a travel book: Steve describes life with Betsy through their daily round and their struggle to make a living as writers, interwoven with tales of dogs, falcons, deer-hunts, rifles, chicken-fights, bar-fights and cowboys: ‘Above the thwack of fists against bodies rose a cry I will never forget: “That horse never fucked nobody”.’ As the story of the land unfolds and you learn the best and worst ways to track coyotes from a flat-bed pickup, you are also brought imperceptibly into that sanctuary, that intimacy between them – that querencia. Each step they take into this world is at first glance only an episode about dogs or rocks or the weather, but each adjustment to the West, every new experience, reveals the depth and breadth of the comfort Steve and Betsy find in each other. As they slip into the roles they’ve chosen, we see them confirming their adaptation to each other. It is a love story that never needs the word but is the love that every one of us longs to have, to give and receive without reserve, with a closeness that seems as natural and open as the land. In the opening pages, Steve describes the start of each day, managing a collection of animals to rival Gerald Durrell’s while absorbing the essence of life with Betsy:
When we lived there I would rise before dawn and leave the bed as quietly as possible so as not to set off an animal chorus of conflicting demands. I’d run water into the pot and dump a few tablespoons of coarse-ground coffee into the filter, inhaling its sharp smell. I wouldn’t run the grinder, which was sure to bring the house shuddering to life, with groans and whines and yammers and yaps, and, if we had a hawk in residence, screeches . . . Still striving for silence, hissing curses if I bumped the pot, I’d sneak my still-numbed body through any number of random doors into the dawn, to sit on the steps, or lean on the fence watching the steam boil off the coffee’s black, oily surface . . . Through the bathroom and out onto the porch, now enclosed by adobe walls and glass, to feed the pigeons in their big aviary. Then over to the hawk, who would already be making a racket. Hawk to outside perch. Check the live traps along the inside wall for mice; the rattlers in their terraria in the hawk room are hungry. Check the rattlers; make sure they’re safe. At last, a cup of coffee for Betsy, always a hard sleeper, still determinedly in bed, then back to the dining room table . . . to stare out at the jagged mountain silhouette to the south.
The restrained prose, redolent of deep emotion, reads like a conversation held over a rough-hewn table, lit by candles and with ample beer and single malt whisky to hand. And when you have finished reading, when you are reminded that the sanctuary offered by querencia is only temporary and its protection is withdrawn, it is not simply the beauty of the language but the people that you will remember. My work occasionally takes me Steve’s way, and we have dinner and a bottle of wine and the best conversation on the planet. It is hard to find a book he hasn’t read on almost any topic. Completing the circle, my current copy of The Goshawk has an introduction contributed by Steve.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Jeff Nicoll 2008


About the contributor

Jeff Nicoll is a physicist and lives in Washington, DC.

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