I take off my necklace before yoga practice, lean forward to lay it on the glass tabletop in my courtyard. I’m not paying attention. I wake up partway through the act. There is something alive on the table. I make a little noise, wave my hands, knee-jerk startle, before I come to all the way and see who it is. It’s a small, scruffy male house finch, touched with orange-yellow. He is sitting in the shade of the umbrella facing away from me, his feathers unkempt. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “You scared me.” I laugh because it is funny being scared by a bird. I bring seed in a sturdy metal dish, water in a red glass bowl. I move with care, but I push them close. He is missing one eye, partly blind in the other, I think. I murmur gentle sounds, gentle wishes. He turns toward my voice, moves his head as though maybe he can get a kind of read of my basic shape. He is not alarmed. I let him be, and he steps onto the edge of the metal bowl to eat. He is slow and steady. He eats for a long time while I do sun salutes beside him, careful not to swoop my arms up too swiftly each time I rise. I wonder if this is the most food he’s been able to have for a long time. I wonder if he’s nearing his end. After, I sit on my yoga mat and look up at him. He’s drinking the water, scooping up mouthful after mouthful. It is so dear to watch it brings tears to my eyes. He’s so beautiful, all delicate grace. I glance away, and then he’s gone. I bow forward, ask the bird gods for mercy. When I go to L.A., I leave the bowls on the table for him just in case.
I miss the bus, too weighed down by frozen broccoli and figs from Trader Joe’s to run when I see it pass. (I try, but I can only waddle.) I’m disappointed, but I don’t get stuck there. Instead, I dig out my mini iPad, go back to reading my homework. An Amtrak bus pulls up, the one I catch downtown when I go to L.A., and my favorite driver steps off. We’re both surprised and glad to find each other in this odd, unexpected place. He shakes my hand, and we stand there grinning at each other. When my city bus comes, it’s my favorite Sunline bus driver. “I haven’t seen you in ages,” I say. I’m delighted to see him. It’d been so long, I wondered if he found another job. When we get to my transfer stop, the bus is waiting, so I can’t linger, but he jostles my shoulder, all glad to see me, too. We can’t stop grinning. I’m moved by the two connections, these warm, kind, generous men who I’ve grown so fond of over the years. I’m struck by these unlooked for gifts. And there is a third boon, too, in between. I’d been watching the sky all day, hoping it would rain on me. While I’m waiting for my bus, the rain starts to fall. I straddle my two bags on the sidewalk to keep them from getting wet and read my homework under my umbrella. I stand there in the wet dark, breathing it all in, listening to the raindrops falling on my little canopy. I’m happy as a clam, only drier.
I stand at the kitchen sink washing and cutting vegetables for soup. It is late dusk. I work in a small circle of light from the stove. I smell garlic, dandelion greens, leeks, green onions, olive oil. “You can close your eyes,” James Taylor sings. “It’s all right.” A white crowned sparrow’s melodic call comes through the open window, pure, piercing. A fullness wells up in me, that blend of sweetness and sadness, this fleeting life. I slice mushrooms with slow, even strokes of the knife, tears in my eyes.
I am away from home for a week over Christmas. I send good wishes from afar. May the birds have plenty of seeds. May their water bowls be refilled each day. May all the crickets and daddy long legs and lizards and birds and the trees and plants be safe in my absence. I come back to Palm Springs on Amtrak, take the city bus, walk three blocks with the big rolling suitcase I took with me when I left to carry my presents to my mother’s. I see my bougainvillea, my wooden fence. Doves scatter as I approach. I glimpse a hawk gliding after them across the courtyard. I stop in the middle of the road. The hawk comes, settles on the gate before me. I don’t breathe. Maybe I can’t. The timing is too precise not to feel greeted, welcomed, awed, grateful. I stand still long moments while he watches me. When he flies off, I open the gate. I breathe again. I’m home.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
I ask a woman at the hostel about a short walk to squeeze in after I unpack. She gives me directions for the paved road, a vast view, but a dirt trail on the way distracts me. I send a silent query. The path or the road? I hear loud bird calls off in the distance, the direction of the trail. The immediacy of my answer surprises me. I turn toward the path just as a coyote comes around the bend. I think he’s a coyote, a young one, but his thick fur, his bulk confuses me. I realize I’ve grown used to our desert coyotes, ribs bared. For a moment he seems confused, too, not sure if he should just keep coming, but then he turns around and disappears. I climb along the hillside path that cuts through wild berries and tangled brush. There is thistle, honeysuckle, nettles. There is a red flower like columbine but not, I think, and big patches of tall, white strawflowers. There is poison oak everywhere. Near the top of the hill I talk myself out of going farther. It is already evening, and I don’t want to be stupid. I sit on an old cement wall, drink my kombucha. I can see the ocean, the sun low in the sky. I hear a raven, then see him in the tip of a tall cypress down below. On the way back, I hear a woodpecker in a grove of eucalyptus. The place feels enchanted, ancient, sacred. I feel like I’m staying in a cathedral.
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.