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Volume 18, Issue 3: Flotsam

Birthday Hum

Nathan Wilson

I stand with the sun on my back frozen in a long moment. This creature, tiny, posing on the air is looking me in the eye. Its back and belly are metallic green. Claws are black and wings are invisible, only filtering, softening reality behind them.

Eighteen inches from my face the bird grabs at the air faster than the world's mass can pull. Faster than my eyes can process light.
It is my birthday, and I stand only a foot or two from where I met a vole late one winter night and scratched its head when it wouldn't run away. But I am no small-animal Francis from Assisi. This same place witnessed the unrolling of a fifty-foot tarp that surprised a mouse into a frantic race down the length of the blue plastic. The wind caught that tarp and sent a curl, an enormous North Shore breaker after the rodent. The two reached the end all at once—brown ball of fur and whip-snapping wave. The mouse flew, higher than we could see, higher perhaps, than any mouse outside of a raptor's claws has ever flown. But that was not on my birthday.
I tromped down my mother's sidewalk leaving behind steaks, well-rubbed and waiting for flame. At the corner of the porch, between the sagging roses and dominant butterfly bush, I startled this creature mid-sip. I stopped and it stopped, but it did not scare. It rose and curled, level with my neck, and now it stares. I stare.
Time holds its breath and I examine the bird's bill, its head, its pin-point eyes and carefully tucked claws. For a moment I think I can touch it. Like a child reaching into water after a fish, I believe myself fast enough, gentle enough, slow enough, Adamic enough to stretch out a hand and touch another world.
By a sandbar in Hayden Lake I once hopped out of my uncle's boat wading through water just below my waist. I was young enough to try and catch the fish I saw, old enough to cynically realize the impossibility. It was a black fish, thick-bodied and whiskered. I came at it from behind, moving clumsily. And I gripped it with both hands and raised it out of the water, shocked. It closed its gills on the flesh between my thumb and forefinger, I yelled and dropped it. The fish was gone.
The hummingbird can have no real interest in my face. Does it know that I am a fellow creature? Does it believe there is nectar in my nose? It waits for me to touch it, to show the faith that any of my children would, but my arms hang limp, and it grows bored.
The bird returns to the butterfly bush, and I lean against the porch post to watch it fly around my knees. It slides between the railing to sample flowers on the other side, and I hear its wings buzz against the wood. It grabs onto blossoms and lands, but its wings are not still. They twitch on its back, unable to rest, spasming in readiness, eager to again perform their miracle.
C. S. Lewis imagined an Edenic language that would sound like what it meant, where words would ripple the air in patterns that resembled their purpose. This is that language. Hummingbird is a mild metaphor, a place-holder for a name we lost long ago. The magic is here. The magic words are gone.
My ears strain as I watch this feather-scaled bird. God is speaking in my presence. He always is, but this is one of those moments when my tunneled perception notices. I feel like I am in the presence of some beautiful foreigner, rolling Rs, laughing at me and winking at a friend.
But I know what He is saying because He is saying it to me, in front of my eyes, down around my knee caps, up by my neck and around my mother's porch. And He is saying it on my birthday.
If I were an ancient Persian, I would have to consult an oracle for an interpretation. They would burn something, huff some prehistoric glue and tell me that a treasure awaited me that was small but priceless. Maybe that prosperity is as fragile as it is beautiful. Or perhaps that friends are a gift and a business opportunity will be presenting itself shortly.
My ears hurt and my mind is unmuscled for this. But the Foreigner winks and I wink back. I know His meaning. I point and grunt.
He has said: very small bird, fragile, unafraid, sipping nectar like an insect, scaled shiny like a serpent, hiding softness, needle-nosed, ignorant of falling, ultimate exertion. And His words were made flesh. And they looked at me.
It's my birthday.

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