An enchanting work of fiction featuring a unique connection with the wild, a misunderstood ability which appears late in life, that promotes unexpected kinships…
by: Windy Lynn Harris
At first, Helen reasoned that the ticking against her sliding glass door was from one of the yard men. Perhaps a lawnmower had kicked up pebbles. The patches of grass were small and connected at Wandering Glen and the landscapers were often sloppy. Last week they’d mowed right over Mrs. Hatfield’s orange milkweeds. Mrs. Hatfield had submitted a long complaint on behalf of the endangered butterflies who counted on the tall flowers for food and shelter, forcing Wandering Glen to replace the whole lot of blooms. This act of neighborhood naturalism had given Helen hopes of a possible ally among the quiet Wandering Glen residents. Most days she felt very alone. She wanted to talk to Mrs. Hatfield, tell her the butterflies were indeed thankful for her kindness, but how would she explain herself?
Helen studied her sliding back door from her spot in the kitchen, looking for damage. Her next thought fell into place: the landscapers weren’t due for two days. She set her tea on the counter and walked toward the glass for a better view. There were no rocks on the ground, no pits in the glass. She looked over to Mrs. Hatfield’s yard. All looked calm.
As options ticked off in her mind, a little hummingbird zig-zagged in front of her, blocking her view of the yard beyond. He bumped the glass with his chest like a brute, then levitated, cocking his little head from side to side.
Helen lowered her eyes and debated. She hated to be rude, but she wasn’t supposed to speak to the animals anymore. Living alone was a tentative agreement and her daughter Lilly would be checking up on her. Lilly called each day from her office at the university. If Helen didn’t pass the daily phone test it was over.
The hummingbird thumped the window again explained to her what he wanted, his tiny beak forming around vowels and verbs as easily as lips would. Helen smirked. Pushy little thing had a mouth on him, she thought. It reminded her of her second husband, Sam. He’d divorced her for a woman who built sculptures out of matchbooks. Married the artist that very same summer.
It had hurt for a while, but soon Helen heard about Sam and the matchbook lady’s acrimonious divorce from a gossipy black crow. Lilly, Helen’s daughter, was shocked by what Helen had revealed, pretending to be more concerned about the talking crow than Sam’s cheating. Lilly had called Dr. Freedman who had listened to Helen only long enough to worry for her safety too. Helen was admitted to a hospital that very same day.
It had been a shock to lose her freedom, but not completely unexpected. Helen’s mother had been taken away too. They’d lived in the suburbs when it happened, a place riddled with raccoons at night. Helen’s mother, a woman who never did take to domestic life, had shared a deck of cards with the creatures one evening and a raucous friendship began. Soon there was gambling, fights over territories, and endless garbage can sonatas. And always, in the center of the fun, leading the song, was Helen’s mother. One day the neighbors had had enough and sent the police to arrest the “wild woman.” The neighborhood grew quiet then, and it felt like the world had lost its color. The raccoons never returned to Helen’s neighborhood after that night, and neither did Helen’s mother.
The little hummingbird smacked his beak into the glass, creating the exact same sound Helen had heard earlier, pulling her out of her thoughts. He darted up and to the side, pecking his tiny beak into the glass again and again until Helen finally slid the door open.
“I’m hungry you wench!” he said. The bird had a clipped Scottish accent. She wondered if he’d met the gecko family who dined near her porch light each night. They were from Scotland, too, if she remembered correctly, or maybe it was Ireland. Helen narrowed her eyes at him but refused to engage. She peeked past the bird to the feeder that hung empty and bare. The little hummingbird flew to it and swirled in large ovals. “For the love of God woman,” he said, “Fill the fucking tank already!”
Helen was tempted to tell the little bugger where to go, but what would she say to her daughter if one of the neighbors heard her scolding a hummingbird? They’d tell on her for sure. Lilly had them watching. She’d be sent away again and this time she might never be allowed to come home.
The kitchen phone began to ring.
The hummingbird shook his head and told her not to answer it, but Helen held up a finger. She motioned to the feeder and then to her home. That didn’t count as speaking to him, she reasoned.
She hurried into the kitchen, picking up the receiver along the way. She searched the pantry for a spare bottle of sweet red hummingbird juice as she said hello into the receiver.
“Just checking in to say hi,” Lilly said. “You’re eating well?”
Helen straightened, bird juice in hand. “Yes, dear. I was just getting a snack, actually.”
“The dried prunes I brought?”
Helen glanced at the red liquid and nodded. “Yes. They’re my favorite.” A plunk against glass told her the hummingbird was getting impatient again. She made her way back to the door as the thumping increased.
“What’s that noise?” Lilly asked.
“The landscapers,” Helen said. “They’re so rough with the lawns, you know. Today, they’re kicking up stones.” Helen slid her door open to the loud complaints of the Scottish buzzer. She held up the drink in hopes of shushing him, but it didn’t matter. Lilly wasn’t able to hear him yet. Her mother had said that the women in their family didn’t acquire acute hearing until they reached their fifties, sometimes later. It was a detail that Dr. Freedman found especially concerning and Helen often wondered if there’d been a consultation with Lilly after that, so she could prepare.
“I’ll talk to them about the rocks,” Lilly said. “Any damage to report? They’ve got to be more careful.”
Helen managed to get the bird feeder down while balancing the phone on her shoulder. “No, no. I’ve stepped outside so they know they’re being watched. I think they’ll behave now.”
“I don’t hear a lawnmower,” Lilly said.
“Hurry!” The hummingbird shouted.
Helen shushed the little bird.
“What was that?” Lilly asked.
Helen froze. “I sneezed,” she said. She eyed the hummingbird and warned him silently. “Oh, look,” she said. “The landscapers are taking a break. It’ll be perfectly quiet here now. It’s been so quiet here all day.” She filled the hummingbird’s feeder while the little guy hovered so close she nearly dropped the phone. She had to swat him out of the way to hang the tank back properly.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay, Mother?”
Helen took a deep breath and watched the cranky hummingbird feast. She wanted to tell Lilly about the tree-squirrel named Marvin who’d predicted rain that morning and the robin who’d asked for directions to the mall. Soon, Lilly would need to know how to engage with the wildlife without causing the kind of trouble her grandmother had. Just keep it simple. Don’t let yourself think you belong in their world. They cannot become your only friends.
The squirrel Marvin appeared and scampered up the tree toward the hummingbird feeder, causing a riot of swearing from the hungry bird. “Settle down,” Helen said. Then froze.
“Who is there with you?” Lilly asked.
Helen felt her mouth go dry. She turned from the tree and tried not to panic. “I’ve got a friend waiting for me,” she lied. “She can be so impatient.”
“Mother, you must tell me if you’re feeling strange again.”
“Is it so unlikely that I’d have a friend?” Helen countered. She glanced back to the tree to find the squirrel and hummingbird eavesdropping, both watching her intently. She bit her lip. Marvin zoomed off in a squirrel-sprint.
“I’m coming over,” Lilly said.
“No need, dear.”
Helen looked around for ideas and saw Mrs. Hatfield crossing into her lawn with a pleasant smile across her lips. “Are you still talking on the phone?” Mrs. Hatfield asked. Her voice was loud enough to be heard for a block. “Our program is about to begin!”
Helen blinked, confused.
“Who is that?” Lilly asked.
“That’s Mrs. Hatfield,” Helen said.
Lilly relented, “Well, I suppose you should go.”
Mrs. Hatfield stopped in front of Helen and waited.
“Yes, I should go,” Helen told Lilly. “She’s been waiting for me and now she’s out of patience.” Mrs. Hatfield smiled at that and Helen smiled too. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Helen said into the phone.
Mrs. Hatfield watched as Helen hung up. They’d yet to share a conversation beyond the quick wave, but Helen saw kinship in those crinkly blue eyes.
“Marvin says it will rain soon,” Mrs. Hatfield said. “Shall we go inside?”
Windy Lynn Harris’ fiction has been published in The Literary Review, 34th Parallel, and The Sunlight Press, among other journals. She has received fellowships from the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and The Maribar Writer’s Colony and has been supported in part by a Professional Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, which receives support from the State of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts.