David and the Hummingbird
For Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Joyce tells a story of the day
the bird flew into the shed
and would not leave;
it beat its wings until it fell
exhausted to the floor.
But it didn’t end like that,
nor was this the beginning—
The morning of the Kill,
the hummingbird flew through the open door
and circled round and round the blood
“It was not interested to feed,” she said,
but just to see and understand.
It went up into the rafters
and then down again
towards the cement floor.
Its blues and greens dancing in
the light and dark;
the corners hiding it and then
like magic, letting it be seen.
David tried to make it leave;
first, sugar feeders lured it outside;
then, when it was noon, the
darkest noon they’d ever seen,
the thunder began.
He set the sugar water inside the garage door
“It must not starve,” he said.
The day was hurried, like the
wings—it beat and beat.
The world grew still behind the
murmur of the bird
as if to move, to breathe, would be too much.
The rain was sheets of ice;
it pierced the ground, it tore into the hillside’s heart
forcing the mountains to slide and the roads to close.
At dusk the rain stopped, bringing on a night that had not known a day.
The sky cleared and that was when she said she knew
the bird’s heart had begun to burst,
“You could hear it banging in your ears.”
The small buzzing body lifted up to the
ceiling one last time and dropped.
From where it lay the stag’s head was a foot away;
the eyes of the beast, strained and dead;
the bullet hole straight through its neck
revealed the moon in the night sky which shone
like a polished coin.
He picked it up to rest it for the night
in a shoebox with soft muslin cloth.
She said, “Its eyes brimmed with tears.”
Was it fear? It did not tremble.
Was it relief? Did it not know it was only David?
And he said, “It is bereft. It must be saved.”
Then began the longest night.
He left the bird to sleep beneath
the stars. It did not know
the inside of their house.
It could get disoriented in that space.
He lay beside her in
their bed, his ever faithful
heart racing beneath her hand.
Kindness cannot be measured by a single good deed—
a few here, a few there, some withheld.
Love measured out in spoons
as if it were a finite bucket of gold dust.
He would not sleep—
he tore the covers off
and shot down the stairs—
It would be cold, the raccoons might overturn the box.
The bird twitched and murmured in its sleep,
he put it on the garden table and
covered its feet.
Back in bed he tossed and turned—the coyotes would not spare its life
One a.m. and out he went again.
Carrying the box in, he saw its
eyes open and look at him.
What a strange look it gave, as if
there was no meaning there—
a still hard look, but liquid eyes,
as if it was not a bird to
speak of anything—
its mystery not a mystery at all
for it hid nothing
and revealed nothing both at once.
He sat beside it in the hall
he wrung his hands
he stood up
and paced and breathed
he towered over it, afraid of it
and yet he had to watch it once again.
It had been resting while he paced
now it turned its head
a movement so small an immeasurable dot in space
and looked up at him.
They stared into each other’s eyes
this grown man and this miniature creature of the flower world
Decades he had lived so well
this small bird seemed to know it too.
“What is the meaning of it all?” he asked aloud
The hummingbird closed its eyes and went to sleep.
He sat down again and prayed a while
As the bird’s breast rose and fell;
the morning light would bring it back;
he dreamed of it in his garden years from now.
As the sun came fiercely into the room
it was not clear any more who slept and who kept vigil—
the bird watched him as he slept
but closed its eyes again when he began to stir.
The hummingbird stayed with David until
the stag was gone, a day late, in the butcher’s van.
Their friends who’d shot the beast would send them some to taste.
David’s heart leapt with joy,
the sun was hot and the
little one was gathering its body and
shaking the sleep away.
He tried to catch its eye again but it did not look at him,
and then, as if the night was no time to go,
as if it had tried for David’s sake alone,
it died under a blazing morning sun at eleven o’clock.
There are many sorts of men—
some of them are cruel to humans
and rescue animals; they are kind to dogs.
“Some men are good for all to see,
Some men are always good,” Joyce said to me.