I type, my legs stretched out before me, computer on my lap, afternoon sun beside me on the couch. I am revising a piece I wrote in our Monday group, an hour left before the contest deadline, midnight in the UK. I read my work out loud, like I teach my students. I find tiny things to change. I am deep in the writing when I hear a hummingbird, look up to see her in the living room, the female guardian of the feeder outside the open louvers. In the corner of my eye I think there is another flash, but surely not, not two of them inside at one time. My familiar female hovers near me, then visits the red glass star hanging in the window. When she flies out I hear her friend, still in the room with me, not my imagination. She peers out the kitchen window to the courtyard, then rests on one of the open louvers before leaving me alone, the flutter of hummingbird wings reverberating in the room.
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 put my big weird orange tube scarf over my head and fluff it up around my neck, tie Joe’s old sweater around my waist. It is not yet dusk when I walk out my wooden gate, the big clouds in the sky lit up by the last of the setting sun that went behind our mountains almost two hours ago. It’s my first walk for sheer pleasure in a long time. I go along the golf course path. I watch a hawk glide-land in the dead branches of the tree beside the tennis courts. When I reach the tree I stop to talk to him. “Are you a Cooper’s hawk?” I ask. And then, “Are you my Cooper’s hawk?” He doesn’t answer in a way I know how to recognize, but he doesn’t leave, either. Beyond the tree I see bunnies nibbling on the grass. It’s dusk now, and I can feel the magic of it descend on us. A Costa’s hummingbird lands three feet away, his violet mantle glistening in the remaining light. The cottontails don’t scatter today when I walk by. I am careful not to stop and not to stare. I grab quick greedy glimpses of them while I walk, drinking in their exquisite furry forms, the depth in their dark eyes, the busy concentration of their chewing. When I walk back again the rabbits are still eating, but the hawk is gone. I scan the golf course for coyotes in the late dusk. I can hear the traffic about a block away, loud on a Friday evening. I think of people going home from work, buying groceries, heading out to dinner. I soak up the respite of this path, this quiet other world settling into night, the presence of the San Jacintos. I remember why I want to return to this–balm for my spirit.
I dream I am in a small walled patio. Large swaths of sheer fabric in green and black billow from a concrete slab overhang. There’s a young woman in her thirties with me. She has dark hair and lots of bangles on her wrist. I watch as a hummingbird flies to her and cuddles on her shoulder in the crook of her neck. I am in awe. Then another one comes to me and settles in. I hold very still. I can tell the little bird is poking around the way they do, comfortable, preening, setting things to right. After, in the dream, I’m trying to describe it to people, and I keep starting over. As I try to tell the story, I keep rubbing the indentation between my collarbone and shoulder where he nestled. Half awake later, I check in the mirror to see if the indentation is there, but it doesn’t look or feel as large as the hollow in my dream. But, oh! To have a hummingbird nestle in like that. Such sweetness. Standing in front of the mirror, I can still feel his soft weight against my skin.
I want to kiss a hummingbird. Yesterday morning after I put birdseed in the tray feeders I had my hand stretched out to reach for the hummingbird feeder (I like to shake the sugar water up each day) when a little one arrived to drink. My face was a foot away from her, no more. Or maybe her, maybe him. I think she was an adolescent. She drank again and again, tilting her head from time to time as though she was studying me, this large, looming presence. Or maybe I was only splashes of color to her. She wasn’t afraid. She stayed for a long time, resting on the rung of the feeder, sipping more pretend nectar now and again. I wanted to kiss her dear, soft little head. I wanted to stroke the edge of my index finger across her smooth back. Instead, I stood still, all admiration and awe. I kissed her in my mind.
I dream of cats and hummingbirds. I am in a small walled outdoor space where a cement slab overhang juts out from the building. There is an airy gap between the overhang and the top of the wall, open sky visible to the southwest. I meet a skinny Calico girl cat who makes me want to love her. Reluctant, I put her down. I don’t want to collect more animals because one day I need to be free to walk the Camino de Santiago. There are many of us in the walled space, mostly birds and mammals, I believe, though besides meeting the cat I don’t focus in. I sense this place is a shelter for all life though maybe not of this world. I am with a younger woman who I don’t know. She lives here, I think, or works here, and is showing me around. She has a pale, narrow face and dyed black hair that falls straight and glossy below her shoulders. There is an iridescent purple near her left cheek, a big metal earring catching the light, or maybe a streak of color in her black hair. I watch as a hummingbird alights near her right shoulder, makes itself comfortable against her neck. The woman is unsurprised. “Oh my,” I say. I gape at them. “Never before,” I breathe. And then I feel a fluttering near my own shoulder, my left. I know without being able to see it is a hummingbird. She nestles into the dip above my collar bone. I know by the quick movements of her beak she is preening, supported by my body. The feel of her reminds me of the same trusting way Boo will lean against me in bed, his gentle weight rocking as he licks his black fur clean. My heart goes soft with memory and with the tiny bird cradled against me now, the honor I feel, this gift of surrender. After, I stand awake before the bathroom mirror curious to see how much room she really had. I rub my fingers back and forth along the curved space behind my collar bone. I can still feel her soft fluttering against my skin.
“The pine tree is coming down in two weeks,” my landlord yelled at me. He was angry with me at the time. I’m hoping he didn’t really mean it, doesn’t follow through with his threat. Our pine tree has been through so much. She should never have been planted in this desert to begin with. Fierce wind took more than half of her away before I came. She was haggard, drying, teetering, it seemed, brushing close to death. But she rallied, and now the shade she casts is doubled, maybe tripled. And the spots for birds to perch or shelter have multiplied, as well. I pray she’ll be protected, pray she’ll thrive. I would hate to see her taken, a mean recompense for having grabbed onto life with such grit, such gusto. I’d be afraid, too, losing her would mean losing even more of the birds who like to linger in our little corner of the world.
Already there are fewer birds here than before. The bulk of the house sparrows have disappeared again, and the doves don’t fill the tray feeder in the mornings like they used to, all packed together, a picture I never did capture properly, all those pretty bird butts ringing the wooden frame. When I first began to notice their absence, in my usual fashion, I wondered if it was because of me. Had I been found wanting? Later, I considered other possibilities, but my first thought was I had not been enough in some way. Could it be the desert rats, cute little guys with big dark chocolate eyes, who eat the remaining seeds in the night? Do they eat bird eggs? Attack birds? I don’t know. I worry, too, it is because I switched to the cheaper bird seed. My new attempts at being frugal and the fact I can bring the twenty-pound bag home from True Value on the back of my bike has me using the dull, dusty feed with cracked corn and milo.
In Hopland I bought a hundred pounds or more at a time and blended them myself. It was cheaper that way, but it was a big procedure, up to my armpits in the plastic bags to mix them. But I loved the way the seeds moved through my fingers, rich with oils and colors. In Ajijic, I could walk to the next block over and buy my bird seed from my favorite tiendita there. They would scoop up the alpiste and weigh it in a plastic bolsa. I could get just half a kilo at a time, stroll home with it, so easy. I miss that. I always suspected folks were cooking with it, too, but I never asked. I know it can be used to make atole, a common hot drink, a comfort. But I trust many of my neighbors were feeding it to their birds, as well. On my block and the next, I would hear the exotic birds calling from the entryways of homes as I walked by. I didn’t know alpiste was canary seed until I moved back to the United States and went hunting it down for my bird seed blend.
I had sparrows in Ajijic, too, though never more than three or four at a time, and one dear hummingbird with a feather out of place. (He was the hardest to say goodbye to, after Ana and Rodolfo. I cried when I took his feeder down and left him with a paper cup of sugar water. He sat on the wire and watched me for a long time.) There were no trees on my block there, no real shelter, but still the sparrows would materialize at the tray feeder, eat the alpiste, chat among themselves. I’d sit on my veranda looking at the lake and listening to their quiet exchange.
Now in my courtyard I think again about buying a more expensive seed blend. Maybe I’ll offer it as a special treat from time to time. Or maybe I’ll begin winning more writing contests, left and right and left again, and I won’t even blink at the idea of returning to the rich, pretty birdseed my birds here became accustomed to. I hear the house sparrows behind me now, soft, muted, rounded sounds, satisfied from a midday snack, enjoying the shade of the pyracanthas and the cooling mist the dry, hot wind wafts their way in small puffs.
The sun reaches my feet, burns my right arm and hip as I write, but I keep going, leaning, crooked, toward my remaining shade. I remember the quiet chatter from my sparrows in Ajijic. I relish them in memory even as I savor the soft murmurs behind me now in the hedge. And even though the heat is still climbing, and even though I have much to do still as the day unfolds, I stop, linger, feeling oh so lucky, loving our little desert courtyard, this small oasis on a hot, busy day.