When I go to our place in the country, one of the first things I do is hang up our bird feeders. Minutes later the birds zoom in, like customers who’ve memorized the hours of their favorite ice cream store.
I arrive. The birds come. What could go wrong?
The hummingbirds are among the most faithful, and I love watching them. Sometimes I sit for a half-hour holding heavy binoculars to my eyes, in order to see them as closely as possible and to marvel at those tiny wings.
Last weekend, however, one of the unfortunate events associated with bird feeders happened. I was sitting indoors in my favorite chair when the sun shone for a brief moment on our front window. Next thing I knew, I heard a sharp “thud” like the sound of a door snapping shut in the wind.
I knew what that meant. The sun had temporarily turned glass into a mirror, and a bird had struck our window, thinking it was flying into open space. Nervously, I stood up, walked to the window, and looked down at our porch.
On the concrete lay a hummingbird, struggling with what had just happened. It was a male Anna’s hummingbird, with an iridescent red head and shimmering green wings, although his color seemed duller as he lay on his side with his feet tucked somewhere into his feathers.
His whole body was shaking fast and hard like a mechanical toothbrush. The only part of him that lay still was one wing that jutted rigidly out to the side like an oar, broken perhaps at the attachment point.
At first, the hummingbird fought to regain his normal posture. When that failed, he simply lay back and shook. After a minute, even the shaking subsided, and he lay perfectly still, his left wing still sticking out like a hand stretching for a life ring.
All the conflicts I feel over hanging feeders flooded into my brain. The birds appreciate the food, but window deaths happen every year. Not many, but always some. It’s rare that I witness the death, but I have found corpses, cold little memories of beauty that I move into the shrubbery.
After another minute, I couldn’t look anymore. I decided to confirm the death later. In any event, I didn’t want to touch the bird while it was still warm.
No longer eager to stand by the window, I moved to the kitchen and washed my breakfast plate. Then I puttered around making the bed. Afterwards, I looked out at the porch and confirmed that the bird was still there, one wing akimbo, completely still. I returned to my chair and my book.
On some level, I was aware of suffering that was occurring or had perhaps just ended close to me, like a rumble of dark background music, but I let my conscious mind move on.
I read for 20 minutes. Then I got up to refill my coffee, but before going to the kitchen I walked to the window. The sun had moved and I’m sure my body created a grim reaper shadow that could be seen from the outside.
Almost before I looked at the ground, I perceived movement in my peripheral vision, a tiny flash, a streak, a bullet in motion. When my eyes shifted, I caught the last seconds of the hummingbird’s flight as he drove past the feeder tree to the one beyond. I’m not sure if he perched there or kept on going.
I stared down at the ground where he had been lying. Nothing there. A warm feeling came to my chest and then to my cheeks. Lighter music played in my brain.
He recovered. What a surprise.
In recent weeks, I’ve been worried about a health issue. Nothing life-threatening, but enough to send me into a tailspin of thought and confusion. A symptom had been found. Should I have surgery? Is it wiser to leave things be? I have been traveling from doctor to doctor, four in all, trying to find an answer.
As my body moves from place to place, my mind burns with activity, weighing my alternatives. In the background, dark music plays. I don’t sleep as well as usual. One moment I feel like a journalist investigating a medical phenomenon that just happens to apply to me. The next I am an aging woman wondering if this is the symptom of the future disease that will someday do me in.
I write emails to friends, call receptionists on the phone, and travel from office to office, a whirlwind of thought and movement, a wild, dark, unhappy cloud, like a twister.
At the same time, I feel as small and vulnerable as a bird.
The Anna’s hummingbird at my window must also have felt confusion, whatever that might be like in his little bird brain. But after the first frantic moments, he stopped fighting.
He lay still and waited while his body reassembled its inner forces. From that peace came his miracle.
Brain, body, be quiet, I say to myself. Learn from the hummingbird. Be still.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org