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Poker is for the Birds – Excerpt
Why did I ever climb this mountain? I’m sweating, I ache all over, and I can hardly breathe. That’s what I get for spending more time with beer and TV than with bicycling and tennis. Finally I came to a flat place where I could sit and rest. The view almost made the pain worthwhile. Here from the slopes of Mt. L-Vis, I could see the whole continent. To the northeast were the continent’s other two major peaks, Mt. Hendriks and Mt. Lenon-McKartne. To the east lay the City of Utopia, with its majestic shopping malls, spacious soccer fields, and its rows and rows of brightly painted houses. Further south were the gently rolling Harmony Hills, above which were peeking the tips of the skyscrapers of the City of Brotherly Love. To the southwest lay the factories, warehouses, and apartment buildings of my home town. South Atlantis City. I could even see the steeple of the church I went to as a boy, where we sang such colorful hymns as "Blue Suede Shoes", "Purple Haze" and "Yellow Submarine".
But I didn’t come for the view. I came looking for the red-winged hawk. Squinting against the sun, I gaze across the deep canyon that lay before me, hoping to spot one of those majestic creatures. There – I see a speck above the trees. Adjusting my binoculars, I watch the bird swoop down into the ravine, then catch an updraft and soar gracefully back above the ridge.
Would I be able to communicate with the hawk? I had learned the language of two other types of birds. Pigeons are easy to strike up a conversation with but hard to get much useful information from. They tell you how wise and powerful you are as long as you feed them, but lose interest when you run out of popcorn. Sparrows are not as outgoing, but they’re good companions when you get to know them. They listen patiently, and occasionally offer encouragement and advice.
Those two species spoke the same basic language, but their accents and idioms were different. But would this hawk be able to understand either of those dialects?
I cried out to the hawk "Squawk," which to the sparrows meant, "Good afternoon, fine sir, I bid you greeting," and in the dialect of the pigeons could be loosely translated as "hey, you!"
The hawk ignored this greeting as he did the next two variations. It occurred to me that I should offer food to the bird. I regretted not having brought a live rabbit, or even a couple of mice, but this can of Spam would have to do. I pried off the lid, then held the can upside down, letting its delectable contents slide gracefully onto a rock. Then I stood back, watching its gelatinous form quiver gently in the breeze.
I cried out "Squak", which to sparrows meant, "Pay heed, kind sir, I offer you the gift of food," and to Pigeons meant "Hey you! Food!"
The hawk, upon seeing this rare treat, immediately swooped down, seized the spicy slab in its talons, then flew to a nearby tree to enjoy the feast. I waited patiently as the great bird savored the meaty mixture, then licked its talons to get every last drop of good-tasting grease.
The hawk now looked me in the eye, and I spoke to it again. "Squawk", which to sparrows meant, "Please, kind sir, will you engage in dialogue with me," and to the pigeons meant, "Hey You! Talk!"
"What do you want to talk about?" asked the hawk. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t expected to establish a dialog so quickly, so I hadn’t prepared a topic of conversation. But I decided to wing it.
"I envy you," I said.
"Why?" asked the hawk.
"You soar gracefully above the trees, the entire world below you, then you swoop into the canyon with terrifying speed and catch your pray. Those are thrills I shall never know."
The hawk seemed to smile a bit before responding. "Well, I envy you."
"You sit at a table, and feel the cool smooth plastic of the cards as you slowly pick them up. Then you feel the exhilaration of a full house, with Jacks and Aces. Those are thrills I shall never know."
"What makes you think I play cards?" I asked.
The hawk made a snorting sound that served as a laugh in his tongue. "A little birdie told me."
"Which little birdie?"
"I heard it from a crow, who heard it from a robin, who heard it from a blue jay, who heard it from a hummingbird."
I had the sudden sinking realization that birds are even more prone to gossip than are old American women, and that everything I had said to my sparrow friends was now common knowledge to every winged creature on the continent.
"Then you know who I am?"
"Of course," said the hawk. "Among pigeons you are called Won’t Feed Us Unless We Talk. Sparrows refer to you as Spends Too Much Time at the Poker Table. Among my tribe you are known as Says Too Much to Sparrows. To your own tribe, you’re known as Harmony. Not a very descriptive or accurate name, I might add."
"You know more about me than I know about you," I confessed. "What are you called?"
"To mice, I’m known as He Who Swoops From High Places. Among my own tribe I’m called Wastes His Time Trying to Hobnob With Humans. You can call me Hank."
"Pleased to meet you, Hank," I said, wondering why such a magnificent creature had chosen such a mundane moniker.
"I understand your luck hasn’t been too good of late."
"Why do you say that?"
"You lost $700 in a poker game on Tuesday night."
"Only $665," I said, making a mental note that birds were as prone to exaggeration as they were to gossip.
"Well, maybe I can help change your luck."
"I have the eyes of a hawk. Literally. I can count the number of hairs in a King’s mustache from a quarter mile. If you play in a room with a lot of windows, I’ll know what hand your opponents are holding.
"But how can you get the message to me from such a distance?"
"We’ll use a couple of sparrows as relay points."
"Why not just have the sparrows watch the cards?"
"Sparrows are no good at gambling. They can’t tell one card from another. But they can repeat what I tell them to. At least if they know what’s good for them.”
Hank continued as I digested this data. "Set up a poker game for 2:00 tomorrow afternoon, at your place, in your dining room. You sit facing the windows, and pay attention to what the little birdies tell you."
Hank flew away, in the abrupt style of terminating conversations that hawks are known for. I started back down the mountain, it dawned on me that a bird watching my opponent’s hand might be worth a whole flock in the bush.