“Hummingbirds migrate alone. Four thousand miles alone.”
Allen Bailey whispered the factoid to himself as he leaned into the column of steam produced by the boiling water. He felt the moisture gather along his retreating hairline and watched the muted colors of the kitchen cloud over as the steam reached his glasses. He removed the glasses and wiped them on his shirt, the frames square-shaped and a touch too large for his round face–the same style his father had worn. Placing them back on his face, he leaned away from the steam to peer into the pot. The sugar he had added, two cups in total, had dissolved completely.
“A single bird can drink up to eight times its body weight in a single day.”
He continued to recite. Reaching his hand into the pot, he held his fingertips as close as he could, touching the tip of his middle finger to the tumbling surface of the boiling sugar water.
Retracting his hand with a hiss through his teeth, Allen looked down at the red that formed over his skin. This was a new part of his routine. One he had never done before, but it seemed fitting for that particular evening.
He lifted his new, navy blue tie and held the silk to his fingertip, purchased from Neiman Marcus by his wife, Andrea, who had insisted that he look his best for his big night.
“Four thousand miles…” Alan whispered the words as he lowered the tie and watched the burn darken. Giving in to the pain, he turned on the faucet and held his hand beneath the cold water until it numbed.
The bathroom door down the hallway slammed and he snapped from the hypnotic state brought on by the muttering water. After removing his glasses and tucking them into his jacket pocket, he moved the pot to the back burner to cool. Then he walked across the open kitchen and into the sitting room to pull on his shoes, black and shiny as obsidian to accentuate his slate-gray suit.
He tied with a focus on aesthetics, considering the symmetry of the knot. A memory of teaching his son to tie a bow knot atop a little white sneaker made him pause–bunny ears, bunny ears, playing by a tree… He closed his eyes to the memory, trying to ward it off, then stood and looked around the room. Wood floors stretched throughout the house, a white, shag carpet beneath the leather couch where he stood. The house was all open and connected, an architecture meant for comfort and luxury. The west wall was lined with large picture windows that looked out onto an expanse of deciduous forest. Fall colors were flaring across the canopy, a final, exuberant sprint to reach winter’s finish line.
“Are you ready to go, Allen?” His wife’s voice rolled down the hallway that connected the kitchen to the bedrooms.
“I’m ready,” he said, walking back to the kitchen.
After glancing at the column of steam still rising from the pot, he approached the island at the kitchen’s center. Sitting on the granite countertop was the letter. The envelope sat with it, torn at the corners. The paper was heavy, hinting at the significance of its contents. As he had done each day since receiving it, Allen pulled the letter from the envelope and slowly unfolded it, a slight tremor in his fingers that he assumed came with age (and likely a few too many Glenlivets).
Dear Mr. Bailey,
It is the honor of the University Committee to inform you that your body of literary work, including your latest publication, Burning for Utopia, is being awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Literary Excellence Award. It is our opinion that your work…
Still, the words seemed strange to him. Lifetime Achievement. What did this mean, exactly? He replaced the letter on the counter and walked to the window to look out over the redwood deck, past the railing at the grass below where the sharp green square of the yard butted up to the unkempt forest floor. A hummingbird, green and glistening in the fading sunlight, darted over the railing of the deck and hovered at the eaves where the feeder usually hung. Allen smiled, watching the tiny animal zip back and forth, searching for its usual supply of sugar water. Although he knew that it wasn’t true, he liked to think that they relied on him. That without him and his generous offerings they would be lost, much like a child without a parent.
Soon another joined it, their wings a blur at either side of their elegant bodies, each shaped like a miniature treble-clef. Allen even wondered sometimes if they were in fact the conductors of nature’s song, shooting here and there and correcting the pitch of any off-key songbirds.
“I’m coming, guys. I’m coming,” he said. “I’m still here…”
He walked back into the kitchen, pulling the plastic funnel from the kitchen drawer with a rattle of utensils and placing it into the top of the feeder. The feeder was shaped like an hourglass, a red plastic cap on top and a round base at the bottom complete with tiny perches and faux, yellow flower petals from which the hummingbirds could drink. He picked up the pot of sugar-water and carefully poured it into the feeder. Allen watched the glass fog up with the lingering heat of the water and placed it under the faucet to cool.
When it was ready, he took the feeder in his hands, gingerly wiping it down with a dish towel, then he carried it toward the deck. Sliding back the door, he heard the buzz of the departing hummingbirds. He stretched out his body and hung the feeder on the hook which he had screwed into the facia.
The hourglass feeder winked in the sunlight. He could see the difference in the light–the deepening of autumn. He had written most of his latest book right here, listening to the gentle buzzing of little wings–a sound, he thought, of perfection: imperceptible wings tracing an infinity symbol in the air. After his son’s untimely death, he had come to wonder if this might be the only infinity to be found in the world.
“Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards,” he whispered.
It was just weeks after the funeral that he had first noticed them. Having sold their old home and all the cruel memories that it harbored, they had bought a place in the country, and it was here, on his first evening drinking alone on the deck, that he had said his first prayer since childhood. He had begged for…something. He could not remember exactly what, but the answer to his unformed question came to him on invisible wings. Something about them had inspired him to write again. Like sherpas carrying the weight when he needed it most, pushing him to the top of his tallest mountain.
The door slid back, startling him, and he turned to see his wife. Her head was tilted to the side as she put on the pearl earrings he had bought her. Her dark hair was pulled back into an intricate twist which hung down over her slender neck, and her red dress flowed along her body like a single, elegant line of cigarette smoke.
“You and those damned birds,” she said. This had become her favorite, if not her only, endearment in the past years.
“You look pretty, Andi,” he said. He hated that his voice sounded so flat.
“Thank you, hon. We need to go.”
They said nothing in the car. Andrea even silenced the radio and stared out the passenger window in that intentional way that made Allen wonder whether he hated or loved her. The lights of the city softened the encroaching night, and he felt his nerves starting to boil. During his sabbatical he had spent very little time at the University, and returning to the hustle of academia now brought him only anxiety.
“I don’t deserve this,” Allen said, just above a whisper. “What are we doing?”
Andrea took a deep, whistling breath through her nose, then decided to turn on the radio.
After parking they made their way into the building that housed the auditorium. His instructions were to go to the back room in order to go over the procedures. Dean Abadi, the faculty member who had submitted his name to the Fine Arts Committee for consideration, would introduce him, after which he would be forced to listen to a tribute from a fellow staff member, and then he would be expected to give a speech.
The night was cold, people with shoulders hunched and arms tucked into pockets as they hustled across the parking lot toward the large brick building and its well-lit entryway. It wasn’t until the first person called out to them, just as they were walking past the bronze bust of the building’s largest donor, that Andi took his arm.
Pleasantries were offered up like grocery store samples, each served with an awkward expectation attached, as they made their way through the auditorium. All of the salient names were there, looking at him with that cocktail of envy, awe, and a dash of loathing. He shook their hands, thanked them for their aerated praise, and eventually made his way to Dean Abadi as instructed.
The Dean was a slight Arabic man with round, friendly eyes and thick, black hair that parted naturally to one side. His words came in bursts, like a pine squirrel making sporadic chirps at an intruder, and Allen imagined Abadi’s tail jerking with each sentence.
“Tonight’s the big night. Are you excited?”
Allen nodded and averted his eyes. It was clear that Abadi was relishing the thought of his nominee winning such a prestigious award. Success, it seemed, made ripples. Allen made his way to the bar as they spoke and collected his first drink. He wondered if, were it not for Abadi’s infectious enthusiasm, he would have even come to the ceremony.
The auditorium was cast in subdued light, white table cloths with maroon accents in the centerpieces and table arrangements. At the front was an elevated area with an oak podium and a line of chairs. Along the west wall was a table with a stack of Allen’s books, a young grad student seated there taking payments from those who were interested.
Soon the whirlwind settled, the lights dimmed, and the ceremony began. Allen took a seat beside Andi at the front table, situating his jacket and offering a smile each time Dean Abadi praised him, prompting the crowd to applaud.
After the Dean, the speaker meant to give the tribute, a former co-worker whom Allen had taught with and mentored years ago, took the stage. She was a young professor with red, curly hair. Since Jacob’s death, Allen had noticed that Andi always tensed up around her, leaving him to wonder what had changed. He had never cheated or given any indication that he might, but the loss had its side effects. This he knew. He could sense his wife’s tension even now as the woman spoke, and at times he wondered if it might not be a relief to her should he break their vows and cut her loose.
Allen let his mind wander to the feeder, hanging indifferently beneath the eaves. He wished he was there, allowing his mind to drift like the birds, following flowers around the earth and thinking of little else but those life-affirming colors.
“The average weight of a hummingbird is less than a nickel.”
The waiter brought his third drink, pulling him back into the auditorium, and he let go of his wife’s hand to receive it.
“And to write such a book, winning the National Book Award, no less, after undergoing such a tragic, personal loss is…it really is inspiring.” It was here that the speaker choked on her words, as if she were a surrogate for his personal pain.
The image of blood on sage green paint came to Allen then, and he blinked it away, a skill he had become adept at over the past five years. He took down his Glenlivet in one large drink this time, waving his hand at the waiter for another as the speaker left the podium.
Soon, Dean Abadi’s jovial voice was coming across the speakers again. Upon hearing his name, Allen stood and made his way toward the podium. He felt the world sway a bit as he walked the steps to the spotlight.
The applause continued, some of them standing, and he bowed his head, unable to look at the faces. And as he listened, the sound of clapping flattened into a thin, drumming sound. The hollow, steady percussion of water striking a fiberglass bathtub–a sound he heard almost every night as he searched for sleep.
His colleagues stood before him, offering him the acknowledgement he had long searched for, but he was not with them. Instead, he was walking down the steps of their old home, listening to that drumming of water and calling out his son’s name. The light of the bathroom outlined the door, and Allen approached it with a numbed, automatic motion, as if he knew what he would find. The sound grew in volume as he opened the door, and the first he saw was his pistol lying against the tub. A silver Ruger .38 revolver, the very gun he had used to teach Jacob how to shoot. The green wall behind the toilet was spattered with red.
Suddenly the image faded, and he was looking at a room of people, eagerly awaiting the story behind his greatest contribution to humankind. For a moment, he didn’t know if he would be able to speak. Then he looked to his wife, the only person in the room who, for better or worse, truly understood why he wrote, and he spoke to her.
“I would like to start by reading an excerpt,” Allen said. “Admittedly, I did not want to do this, but was asked to do a small reading.” He glanced at Dean Abadi who offered him a glowing smile.
He opened the book and placed it on the podium, removing the square-shaped glasses from his jacket and resting them upon his nose.
“Some say heaven, some Jannah. Others, a sleeping child. And still some a cup of tea steaming in our lap, warming in its simplicity and privilege. The carpenter a sawdust smile at work, formed of fallen forests, and the beggar a bit of fresh bread and a clean pillow. We all share in utopia, therefore we all share in its cost. But bliss by another name is still bliss, and I wish only to find that designation understood by all. A beauty that all can cherish beyond our want of destruction, and an end to this inexplicable desire to kill the things we love.”
When it was over, he drank scotch beside his wife, fielding more questions and compliments. His answers fell within the predicted realm of social acceptability until around his eighth drink, at which point the red-headed woman who had offered the tear-stricken accolade of
Allen’s career approached them.
“I just have to ask, Allen,” she said, and he could already hear the question before she asked it. “How did you manage to write such an inspirational novel in the midst of such struggle?”
Allen looked at her for a moment and said, “I lied.”
She chuckled and touched his arm, then she asked, “When can we expect another book?”
Allen’s eyes went vacant and he took a sip from his drink. He looked over at his wife, swaying a bit on his feet. “My writing days are over,” he said. “I think I’ve lied enough.”
Andi looped her hand through his arm, smiling as she apologized and offered the necessary excuses while she gradually ushered Allen toward the door.
As the city lights faded behind them and Allen struggled to keep his eyes open in the passenger seat, he heard again the thrum of applause, the sage green bathroom filled with her screams. For so long he had been able to drown out the image with his writing, often supplemented by scotch and sugar water. But now, it seemed, he had reached the end of the road and had to choose between simply sitting down, or turning around to retrace his steps. Sit at the peak and look down at all the world, or begin his return down the jagged rock.
“You were right, you know,” Andi said, suddenly, her eyes still locked on the windshield. The dash lights cast a pallid glow across her face, and Allen saw for the first time the age-lines forming around her eyes and mouth. “You don’t deserve this.”
Allen nodded, wishing that he had an adequate apology. It seemed the best he could do was to agree with her.
They said nothing else, and soon the forest that harbored their secluded home rose up into the night, and the lights of their porch flickered through the limbs. The garage door opened slowly, and Andi pulled up until the dangling tennis ball kissed the windshield.
He started to get out, planning to go straight to the couch and pass out, but was surprised when he heard Andi gasp for breath. He turned to see her bent over the steering wheel, face pinched as she wept.
Sliding back into the car, he pulled the door closed, and he placed his hand on her back.
“I’m sorry,” she said when her tears began to subside. “I didn’t mean what I said. I just…I miss him.”
“I miss him too, Andi. I wish I could fix things, but I can’t. Nobody can.”
She looked at him. For what felt like the first time in months, she really looked at him. He thought of all the days he had spent lost in his writing as he listened to the humming of little wings. They had been his escape from grief and all of its associated questions, and he had protected them even from his wife–memorizing factoids while she suffered alone. Looking at her now, he saw that her blue eyes still held a glimmer of the woman he had married, and he could not decide if this hurt him or brought him hope.
They walked into the house, and he listened to the hollow clacking of her shoes dissipate down the hallway, punctuated by the soft click of the bedroom door. He stared after her for a moment, then shifted his gaze to the letter sitting on the counter. The first time he had held that heavy paper in his hands, he had imagined that it might change things. That it would dilute nightmares of blood on green paint.
He stood for a moment, running his silk tie through his fingers. A night that existed even outside of his greatest fantasies, and still he was alone. He felt as he did after consuming the rarest and richest of prime ribs, just to be left bloated and thinking about the dishes that awaited him in the sink, and he wondered if any person had ever truly enjoyed their pinnacle achievements.
He walked to the screen door and slid it open, letting the cool air flow around him. Then he flipped on the porch light and stared blankly down at the deck. Scattered beneath the feeder were the bodies of the hummingbirds. Six of them, lying like little emeralds on white sand, feathers still glinting in the white light, wings silent at their sides.
“A hummingbird can flap its wings at eighty beats per second,” he said.
A part of him wanted to gather them up and stowe them away for himself, and yet another wanted to lie down beside them. Still another wanted to sweep them up and toss them into the fire, warming his hands as that emerald green curled and turned black.
His mind walked through all the moments of his life. The successes and failures, the neglect and the grief. Everything that led up to a night of praise and applause, and he knew that he did not deserve any of it. Nobody did. None should be blessed with the miracles of such tiny creations, wings moving infinitely toward something brighter. Humans could only feign at such perfection. One moment he was holding it in his hands, a perfect and unsullied baby with eyes still wincing in the light, and the next he was dissecting all of his many mistakes, searching for the moment in which that perfection started to die.
Looking at his distorted reflection within the glass of the feeder, he imagined opening the top and taking several long drinks from his concoction, his eyes lowering back to the deck as this plan and all of its ripples percolated.
Then, for the first time in a long time, Allen began to weep. Feeling the weight of all the burdens he carried, he sat down on the chair, the tiny bodies at his feet, and he wept.
Suddenly, a soft buzzing came out of the night. Allen lifted his head from his hands and wiped the tears from his eyes. Never before had he seen a hummingbird at night, and he stared at it as it floated above its dead companions, then lifted up to the feeder where it hung for a moment, smelling the fare that it was being offered. Allen considered leaping forward and swatting it away, but he could not move. He wondered, if he were to frighten the bird away, if he were to do just one good thing, could that one action negate all of the poison he had already offered up? It was the same question he’d had upon opening the bathroom door to his son’s body, upon punching the last period on his greatest work, and he was grounded in the great, glaring lack of an answer.
The little green bird backed away from the feeder, refusing to drink, and Allen watched it turn toward him. It hovered there for a long while, watching him, and it was then that he truly saw it. That undeserved, unexpected beauty and grace. Despite all of his efforts to cast it away– to sink into the despair of the world–it was still there, humming to the tune of infinity. And as much as he felt he might deserve destruction, as much as casting out beauty might mitigate his sins, Allen could not destroy those hidden perfections of life.
Finally, the bird darted off into the night. For a long while, he sat there listening to the night as it wavered back and forth between a hollow drumming of water and a practiced applause, all connected by a constant humming of little wings. Then, with his heart feeling open for perhaps the first time in his life, Allen stepped back inside, turned off the porchlight, and walked down the hallway to his wife.