The Migration of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirdshttps://i1.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/bn52-e1629496486646.jpg?fit=1080%2C793&ssl=11080793Molly Andrea-RyanMolly Andrea-Ryanhttps://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/063fba82851dd62ea6d635a502ee5937?s=96&d=mm&r=g
Sophie scraped her knee this morning when her little green bike tipped over. I thought with such thick wheels, it would stay upright, but it went over like a dead tree and Sophie’s feet were still firm on the pedals when it happened. I poured a capful of hydrogen peroxide on the scrape and she screamed until I asked her if it hurt or just bubbled. She said it just bubbled and I said, “That’s right,” and stuck a big bandage over the whole thing.
I see the young couple next door smoking cigarettes on their balcony in the evenings and I think, “I’ll invite them to dinner,” but by the time I remember to ask, they’ve gone back inside and shut the sliding glass door.
I lost some time today between Sophie’s bike accident and now, but I know it’s still the same day because the only meal we’ve had since then was lunch. Now it’s time to cook dinner and I almost forgot because it took so long for the computer to turn on and even longer for me to remember the name of the website that tells me where the hummingbirds are. Just last week, someone spotted a Ruby-Throated hummingbird in Louisiana. They’re coming early. They say that we’re getting a whole wave of hummingbirds, more than we’ve gotten in over ten years. I want to start making sugar water now but it’s too early. I will wait.
I used to love crows, too. Sophie and I had our own murder; that’s what they call a group of crows. Every morning, Sophie would say, “Time to find the murder,” with so much enthusiasm. We would go out and find the murder and put out nuts and seeds and they even liked to eat the cat’s food. Once, they left behind a shining, twisted piece of aluminum like a present and we put it on the mantle above the fireplace. Then one day, Jerry brought home a taxidermy crow and he thought it was funny and Sophie screamed and screamed, and Jerry thought that was funny, too. I sort of liked the taxidermy crow, all still and alert with such neat feathers, but Sophie thought it was scary. I put it in my closet with all of my shoes, and I took down the twisted piece of aluminum foil and tucked that away, too. After that, Sophie stopped wanting to find the murder and we stopped putting out food for them.
Sophie still asks about Jerry every day. “Where’s Jerry?” she asks and then I forget everything I was supposed to do like make lunch or ask the couple upstairs if they’d like to join us for dinner and then when I come back, hours have passed.
Tonight, I think I’ll make macaroni and cheese with little chunks of fake hot dogs in it. Sophie and I both agree that the fake hot dogs aren’t as good but at the same time, they’re better because they’re not made from real meat. We decided three and a half months ago to be vegetarians. I know that because it was two weeks before Jerry left for work in his ugly little car and didn’t come back.
I don’t know how to tell Sophie that Jerry isn’t coming back or that I’m happy about it. I’m tired of him talking all the time about Texas or the people we came from or whether or not they’re still looking. I don’t know how to tell her, so I don’t tell her anything.
After dinner, when it was time for Sophie’s bath, she told me a joke. She took the bar of soap from my hands and hid it behind her back. “Someone stole the soap,” she said. “I think it was a robber duck.” Then she stood up in the tub, shook little heaps of suds off her arms, and left the bathroom without a towel or anything.
“You have to dry off,” I said. She didn’t listen. I heard her turn on the TV in her bedroom and push a tape into the VCR. I heard the opening lines of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas, almost inaudible under years and years of static. “It’s not Christmastime,” I said, but she didn’t listen.
At night, I think I can make better sense of things. After Sophie falls asleep, I can turn off the lights and open the curtains and look outside at the trees and the empty strawberry pots and the pavement covered in primitive chalk drawings left there by all the children from the complex.
I can see all the times the crows landed and where they left the aluminum. I can see each hummingbird that has hovered near my gourd-shaped feeders to replenish their tiny, pulsating bodies. I can see Sophie’s fourth birthday party with the helium balloons nodding agreeably with the summer breeze and the big blue cake I baked myself that took too long and didn’t come out right. I can see Jerry teaching Sophie how to ride her little green bike and the betrayal of trust in Sophie’s eyes when he let go of the seat and let her totter off the sidewalk and into the garden.
When I start to get lost at night, it’s easier to come back. I only lose a few minutes and then I’m back and the window is like a perfect frame and I am still like a painting or like my taxidermy crow in the closet. I can’t see myself because with the lights out, the windows don’t show me my own reflection. In those moments, I am sure I look beautiful.
When the weather turned warm, Sophie got sick. She hacked up snot from her throat and spit it onto the floor until I gave her a cup and then she spit it into that. I bought cough syrup at the drug store, but it didn’t make a difference. I went to the doctor and coughed and hacked and sniffed while sitting on a paper-covered bed. I told the doctor that I’d been sick since the weather turned warm and that cough syrup from the drug store wasn’t making a difference. He asked if I wanted to take a test for strep throat and I said, “No, thank you, I would just like some medicine.” He said he couldn’t give me anything unless he knew what I had, so I left.
On the fourth night of Sophie’s sickness, she got a fever. I wrapped her in afghans and put a hat on her head. She told me she was too hot. “You have to sweat it out,” I said. “Can’t I go to a doctor?” she asked. I said, “No because you don’t have any records.” She said, “So?” and I said, “So, I don’t have any way of explaining who you are or where you came from.” She said, “I came from Texas,” and I said, “That’s not what I mean.”
The next morning, the fever broke. The day after that, the coughing and hacking finally stopped. I washed the cup of snot in very hot water and put it back in the cupboard where it belongs.
By now, people have reported sightings of Ruby-Throated hummingbirds as far north as West Virginia. They will be here soon. Perhaps as early as next week. We spend our mornings in the garden and in the afternoons, when the other children from the complex come home from school, Sophie plays with them in the trees. Sometimes she asks me why she isn’t going to school, and I say, “It’s too soon,” and she says, “Joey is in kindergarten and he’s five and his birthday is after mine,” and I say, “You are not Joey.” Then I print out pictures of apples and baseball bats and cats and ducks and we practice the alphabet and I say, “This is what you would do at school, you see?” and Sophie growls at me and tears the pictures up into thin, curling shreds.
It’s easier to answer Sophie’s questions when they’re about doctors or schools. When she asks about Texas or about where Jerry went or why we’re way up here in Maryland, I start to get lost. She once asked me if we could go back to Texas and I lost four entire hours. The next thing I remember was sitting in the bathtub picking at the scummy grout between the tiles with my fingernail. Sophie came into the bathroom and said, “It’s bad to lie,” and I said, “I don’t lie to you,” and I got out of the tub and made a pot of canned soup on the gas stove.
The couple upstairs seems to stay up late and sleep well into the afternoon. They don’t come out for their first cigarette until it’s almost time for dinner. I would ask them to come for dinner but by the time I see them, it’s too late for me to go to the grocery store downtown to buy extra potatoes and green beans and a head of lettuce like I would like to if we had company. I once went and bought those things in advance just in case I ever asked them to come but then I never asked, and the lettuce wilted and the potatoes grew eyes and the green beans produced a slick sweat.
Yesterday, Joey’s mother came to our back door. She asked me if I was Sophie’s mother. I said no and she said, “Is Sophie’s mother home?” and I said no. She stared at me for a few moments and then asked, “Could I talk to you about Sophie’s behavior, then?” and I said yes.
“Sophie told Joey that he is going to hell,” she said. I smirked. “Do you think that’s funny?” she asked. “No,” I said, and she said, “Good,” and then stared past my shoulder and into the apartment. “It was very inappropriate,” she said. “Joey was very upset.” I told her that I was sorry and that I would scold Sophie and when she kept standing there I said, “Are you excited for the hummingbirds this year?” and she said nothing. Finally, she left.
“Joey’s mother told me what you said to Joey,” I said to Sophie. She did not look up from the picture she was coloring. I said, “That is very inappropriate and Joey was very upset.” Still, she said nothing, so I asked her why she said it. “Because he has never repented,” she said. “He told me so. I told him he had to, and he told me that he didn’t know how, and I told him that first, he had to become a sheep.” I didn’t know what that meant so Sophie said, “You know, in a flock.” I smiled even though I felt nervous.
“What do you remember about Texas?” I asked. Sophie considered this for a long time before saying, “I remember that we were part of a flock. I remember repenting and the river where they dunked me. I remember the hummingbirds, but those are all the things I remember,” and when she stopped talking, I got lost and I didn’t come back until this morning.
I finally managed to invite the couple upstairs to dinner and they agreed to come. The woman told me that she is a vegetarian and I said that was just fine because Sophie and I decided to be vegetarians five months ago. They asked if they could bring anything and I said no and they said, “Wine?” so I said yes. I decided to make a spinach salad with strawberries to start, followed by a lasagna with white sauce and zucchini and carrots and more spinach. I forgot about dessert and so I went back to the store and bought a pint of ice cream and a tray of chocolate brownies.
By the time they arrived, I was pulling the lasagna out of the oven. Sophie helped me set the table so all of the utensils were in the wrong places and I hoped the couple would not mind. “Sophie helped set the table,” I said when they sat down, and they smiled approvingly at Sophie. The woman said, “You did a very nice job setting the table,” and so I also smiled approvingly at Sophie.
I asked the man if he was also a vegetarian and he said no. I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t prepare any meat,” and he said, “That’s okay, we don’t cook much meat at home, anyway.” Then I asked the woman how long she had been a vegetarian and she thought about it for a moment before saying, “I guess about twelve years now.” I nodded. She smiled and tapped her napkin on her lips so that she didn’t wipe away her beige lipstick. We finished our salads and I brought out the lasagna and the woman said it looked fantastic. “I like to cook,” I said. “We like to cook, too,” the woman said, “although he’s the true chef in our house. I just help.”
While we ate our lasagna, I talked about the hummingbirds. “There was one sighting in Maryland so far this year,” I said. “I watch the migration pattern on a website online.” The woman said, “That’s nice,” and it sounded like she meant it, so I kept going. “I love hummingbirds,” I said. “Where we used to live, there were more hummingbirds than you could possibly imagine. It was so warm, they stayed almost all year round. Of course, they do like to migrate, so some of them leave in the spring and don’t come back until winter, but lots of them stay. I’ve loved them all my life.”
“Where are you from?” the man asked. I looked at him and then I looked at my plate and I tried not to get lost. “Are you okay?” the woman asked, and I said, “I am wonderful.” Then, I reached for my wine glass and knocked it over. Sophie started to clap. The woman jumped from her chair to dab at the spilled wine with the napkin she used to tap her lips and I just sat there like a dead log floating through a river. Then, I didn’t move or talk at all and the woman kept asking, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I heard the man ask Sophie if they should call a doctor and Sophie said, “No because doctors need records.” Finally, the couple excused themselves from the table. The woman said to Sophie, “If you need us, come knock on our door, okay?” and Sophie said, “Don’t worry. She’ll come back,” and the woman said, “Okay,” although she sounded uncertain. Then they left.
Later that night, I stepped out onto the porch when I heard the couple’s voices coming from their balcony. They stopped talking when my door opened and after a minute, the woman whispered something I couldn’t hear. Their door slid open and shut again and they were gone.
“Do they think we’re weird?” Sophie asked. “No, I don’t think so,” I lied. All night, I sat with the lights off and the windows open and stared outside into the dark at the strawberry pots filled with fresh dirt and seeds and the trees with their buds like little black crescents against the dark sky and I wondered if the couple upstairs thought we were weird.
I received a postcard from Jerry today. When I saw it was from him, I almost screamed and tore it to shreds and packed up our things to move. Then I realized that the return address was somewhere in Maine and that he wasn’t in Texas, after all. “Colder up here but pretty,” the postcard said in Jerry’s childlike handwriting. “Sorry I haven’t come back.” On the front was a picture of a moose walking through a lake. I put the postcard in my closet beneath the taxidermy crow.
They’re finally here. I saw two hummingbirds this morning and another one in the afternoon. I filled all of the feeders with sugar water right away so that they’d know to come back again and again.
Nothing matters more than this, nothing. Not Sophie, not Jerry, not the couple upstairs, or Joey or Joey’s mother, not the times when I’m lost, not the taxidermy crow or the VCR or the vegetables in the fridge or the pictures I print out to teach Sophie the alphabet. Today, I will not speak to anyone. I will sit still on the porch and wait for the hummingbirds to come back, moving so swiftly that you can barely tell that they’re moving at all. If anyone tries to interrupt me, I will point at the hummingbirds so that they know to be quiet and still like me.
Each time one flies up to one of my feeders, I hold my breath. I try to count how many heartbeats they’ve had in the time they spend in my yard even though I know that I can’t count that fast. I wonder how they fly so far, over 1,300 miles from Linden to Wicomico, when it seemed to take an eternity to get here in Jerry’s ugly old car. I feel even closer to them now than before because I know we both followed the same migration pattern. They chose to leave Linden, too. But then, I know that they will go back to Linden and I never will. Until then, though, they are here with me and I feel as though they can see the path we took and they’ve followed it just so that we can be together again. I know that while I’m with them, sitting so that I can see each reddish-pink feather lining their fragile throats, I will not get lost.
Molly Andrea-Ryan is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work is forthcoming in Sledgehammer Lit, Blue River Review, and Moist Poetry Journal. You can find her on Twitter at @mollyandrearyan.