|Jul/Aug 2006 Nonfiction|
Are hummingbirds ever still? This one perches on the edge of the wooden picnic table, needle thin beak pointed to the mountains, eyes... shut. My neighbor who keeps chickens says that baby chicks, when they are dying, will close their eyes. This baby hummingbird, she says, is dying. I move closer to it, eager, even at this sacred time, to be near one. To see one close up. I hold my breath, thinking that I might frighten it away. But it gives no sign that it is even aware of my presence. Perhaps it is already in the next world, struggling to get out of this one. Except that it isn't a struggle. There is a stillness in this perfect little bird.
Hummingbirds are the smallest bird species in the world. I can see that this one is a female Rufous hummingbird, a visitor to Alaska in the summer. We Alaskans hang red feeders outside our windows for the delight of watching them perform their impossible aerobatics—they can hover, fly backwards, and at times, upside down. The sight of one is always accompanied by the whirring sound of its wings, beating up to 78 times a second.
This one is silent. About once a minute, she takes a breath, a small one. I stare at her chest. It isn't moving, not one bit. I can hear my neighbor talking as I look at the tiny wings. They aren't moving either. The brown feathers curve ever so slightly against her sides. Not even the breeze coming off the river moves her wings. Without flying, a hummingbird cannot eat. And hummingbirds must eat often or they will die within four hours. They feed on the nectar from flowers and on insects for protein. My neighbor says that she's given the baby sugar water—which is why the white paper plate is in front of her—"she took some of it, then stopped. She's ready to die." Ready to die. How does this young creature know?
I kneel down behind the little bird. On her back are tiny, iridescent green feathers, each one separate, each one a marvel. I wonder what she is looking at with her eyes closed. I tilt my head at the same angle. And look. Past the elderberry bush with the red berries, past the river with the spawning salmon, up into the mountains covered with spruce and hemlock and devil's club, against a sky so blue that it could make your heart soar... if you were looking at it. Open your eyes, I say silently. Look at how beautiful this world is, don't leave it yet. You'll be fine, I urge, don't go yet. I can hear my neighbor's voice. "I think she might have been separated from her mother." The baby takes another breath. Breathe, I say. The air is so clean, so fresh, so good. The world is so good. Don't leave yet. A bald eagle flies by, scanning the river for fish. A sockeye salmon jumps. The eagle circles back and dives. Don't you want to fly again, like that eagle? Her eyes remain closed. Closed to the world of form. She has gone inside to the eternal world to join with all that is—in the place where we are all one, the hummingbird, my neighbor, the elderberry bush, the mountain, the eagle, the fish, and me. I slip away, walking backwards slowly, leaving her shimmering presence as she too slips away.