Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.
I am filling the tube feeder with nyger seed at my mother’s house in the early morning. I’m in the side yard off the kitchen. I’ve just made 22 little zipper snack bags of shaved beef to freeze for her cat. My pot of tea is steeping, and brown rice for my breakfast is simmering on the stove. I close the lid on the feeder and return it to its big green hook. When I look up, I see the two of them on the other side of the pool in the back yard. I hold still, watching them. They walk about on the cement, and then they step off the edge and slip into the pool. It feels surreal. It’s so completely out of the realm of the expected or the ordinary. There are two mallards swimming about in my mother’s pool as if it isn’t anything unusual, as if they do this kind of thing all the time. I get it in my head I’d like to be able to offer them a bite to eat along with their dip in the pool. I know bread is not good for them, so I go inside to Google what they eat. I find out they’re omnivores. Fruit is on the list. I head back out, thinking of peeling an orange for them, breaking it into sections, but they are gone. I feel like I blew it, like I should have stayed to watch them. I would have loved to see them fly away, or watch them swim some more, their silent skimming across the water so full of grace, touched with magic. But I hear a voice telling me I didn’t blow it. I wanted to do a kind thing. Wanting to feed them was an impulse for good. Later, I wonder what their visit might mean, certain it is an omen of some sort. I try to look it up, but there are no mallards in my book, no ducks at all. Days later, my mind keeps returning to them, the way they kept each other company, their quiet circles across the still surface of the pool.
I wake to a world washed clean in the night, dark patches of wet in the road, fleeting evidence. I sweep while water heats for my tea and for the hummingbird’s sugar water to replace the rain-diluted batch hanging in the courtyard. I squeeze grapefruits my friend Bob brings me from his tree, four halves with the yellow plastic hand juicer I bought when I lived in Ajijic. I phone Mami, and we talk about the rain. I tell her how my friend Richard wanted it to rain at night. (I am a fan of daytime rain though I think drifting in and out of sleep to the sounds of falling rain is one of the best things in the world.) “He got what he wanted,” I say. My words echo another’s earlier this month and make me wince. I shy away from that memory, but for one flicker I wonder if my comment holds that same resentment. I hope not. But now I am alert to the phrase, curious to know if it always evokes the other one who did not get what she wanted, if it is always stained in that way by a little bit of ugly.
Two months after I moved in they broke ground on a small development where the open lot used to be, across the little road from my home. They bulldozed everything. They took the trees, the scrub brush, all the roosting places for the sparrows and the finches, all the homes and pathways of the rabbits and the coyotes. The roadrunners ran panicked back and forth for days. It broke my heart. Inside myself, I fought against it for the 18 months they were building. Later, I would stand at my window staring at the wall, the rooftops, the missing mountains, still all churned up inside. Today I don’t get angry when I look at it, but I still see what it used to be, like the spirit of that undeveloped land, that bit of wildness in the middle of town, still lies just beneath the surface like a dream.
[Editor’s note: This was written in response to a prompt from The Daily Poet, by Agodon and Silano, Two Sylvias Press.]
I move the curtain from the open window by the bed just enough to greet Venus in the eastern sky. I’m glad to see her there, glad to catch the scattering of sunrise-colored clouds, but I don’t want to be awake yet. I let the curtain fall and snuggle back beneath the blankets. Blankets, I think. I grin, so pleased it’s autumn now, and I return to blankets. I have a nine a.m. videoconference call this morning. And I want to remember to mention the aloe vera gel to my mom for these last stages of the wound that’s finally healing on her leg. I’m going to focus on building next week’s online classes today. I want to write a blog post, too, I think. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Is this the longest gap in over seven years of my commitment to posting? I must be a zillion weeks behind by now. I don’t even want to know. I can feel the tension mounting in me with each thought. For a little while I even replay all the well-worn reasons I believe I was wronged by someone years ago. I take a deep breath, smoosh the pillow beneath my head, settle down on my left side, close my eyes. I hear bird calls in the distance. I think of my two cats, dead now these two years. I whisper to them, send their spirits love. And then I let myself imagine them going back to sleep with me in this cool early morning air. They used to flank me, Sofia wrapping herself in the curve of my legs and Sable curling up against my belly. I know it’s unlikely I’ll fall asleep again, but I let myself drift, using my imagination now, reaching for memory. I remember waking in the middle of the night, their soft little bodies pressed against me, the comforting weight of them. It always made me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. Drifting, I wonder what that makes me today. But even in that dreamy place shaded by a longing for them, I know the answer. It makes me the luckiest woman in the world because I had that, their dear companionship, night after night for years. And because I get to love them forever.
The morning after the last of my fever, I feel like something sat on me all night pushing my bones into the earth of our campsite. I head toward the meadow to do my qi gong, but I stop inside the pines. I don’t want the sun, don’t know why. I study the pine needle ground and choose my spot. I face west. Maybe because I am already slow, creaky and sore, I move through all the movements without a hint of rushing, without becoming lost in the habit of it. Halfway through I hear a tinkling passing back and forth among the trees nearest me, like hummingbirds but not, like bells, like the shimmer of light on water if it were a sound. I think of Tinkerbell, sprinklings of fairy dust. I don’t even feel goofy for it; it feels like my soundest reference, in fact. Unseen bird or invisible beings in this grove? Whoever they are, it feels like a visitation. They don’t stay long. After, I press my palms together before my chest, quiet awe and gratitude seeping out of my skin, chasing away the last taste of fever. Thank you, all.