hummingbird

 

By: Polly Buckingham

 

The girl pulled the oars inside the boat and dropped a mushroom anchor off the stern. She stepped over the center seat and dropped another off the bow so that the boat wouldn’t swing too close to the rocks that jutted out beneath the cliff. The beagle sat in the bow seat, his nose in the air. He was not disturbed by her movement nor by the splash of water as the anchor dropped in the bright green water. The girl wore a solid blue bikini and a white v-neck t-shirt. She was barefoot. She opened a beer, sat in the center seat and stared at the water; ropes of green algae climbed toward the surface. Three small, blue dragonflies flew in loops as if tying each other in knots.

A woman swam a slow crawl toward the lake’s no-wake buoys—three in a row from one cliff edge to the other, a span of about a quarter of a mile. The girl took a long sip of the Budweiser. A boat pulling a water skier buzzed toward her then curved away as it approached the buoys. Another boat was anchored just beyond the buoys; three children in the water wrestled each other over a blow-up float shaped like a giant doughnut. Two men were fishing off the dock at the Rainbow Cove Resort not far from where her boat was anchored. One was black, the only black person she’d seen in days. The other was tall and lanky. He wore jeans and no shirt. Even from her boat, she could see the way his chest seemed to sink inward as if to accentuate his sway back. The two men were on opposite sides of the dock.

The dragonflies continued their methodic circling. The girl pulled a Zip-lock from her backpack tucked under the seat. In it was a half smoked joint, which she lit. She cupped her hand over the joint and bent over, not so much to protect it from the wind—because there was no wind—but to hide what she was doing. She took two long hits, put the joint away and slid the backpack under the seat. She dipped her hands into the water and splashed her face and the back of her neck. Then she slipped onto the floor of the boat, her knees propped up on the center seat, her head resting on a seat cushion floatation device.

The sky was a bright blue streaked with white, which at the moment appeared to be the rays of the sun rather than wisps of clouds. She felt the sun on her skin like a flame. Her knees prickled with it; it made her face hot; it crept across her scalp. Her neck was sweaty with it. Her mother, who had always pushed the sunscreen at her, would have insisted she cover her nose with oily zinc. When she was a child, she’d come in from the sun with pale streaks of her mom’s handprints running down her bare legs, red just beginning to brighten in spots around the fingerprints where her mother had missed. But her mother wasn’t here now, and that was a good thing. Her mother was in another state, as was the college she’d briefly attended. In this state, on this lake surrounded by cliffs and desert scablands, the girl was anonymous, and that, too, was a good thing. The sun reached beneath her skin. It set her whole body on fire. She sat up and sipped on her beer. The beagle stepped gingerly off the bow seat, stepped over the center seat, and sat beside her. She held his spotted face between her palms and kissed him on the nose. He leaned against her and she scratched his ears, his head bending into her hand.

“What kinda dog’s that?” She shaded her eyes with her hands and looked toward the voice. It was man with the sunken chest fishing from the dock.

“Beagle,” she said.

“The wife wants one of them.”

“A beagle?” the girl asked, though it felt more like calling, since the dock was at least 25 yards away.

“A dog,” the man called back.

She sat up on the seat, as if to acknowledge her willingness to continue the conversation.

“I don’t know though. They hard to take care of?”

“It just depends,” she said.

“What do you do when you leave the house?”

“Dogs can stay home alone.”

“The wife sure wants one. That one’s awfully cute.”

The beagle had joined the girl on the seat. She rested her hand on his shoulder blades. The wake of a motorboat caused her boat to rock slightly. The dog took the rocking well. He stretched his neck into the air, as if smelling something off the cliffs.

“You rent that boat?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Sure is a nice day.” The man had laid his pole across the dock. She didn’t know how long he’d actually been fishing, or if he’d fished at all. The black man on the other side of the dock had his back turned to them. He occasionally recast his line. He was a large man in shorts. “Does it cost much?”

“The boat?”

“The dog. How much do they cost? I told the wife we’d have to afford it.”

“You can get them free at the pound.”

“To keep them. Does it cost much to keep them?”

“Sure, it costs,” she said. “You have to buy food, and sometimes they get sick and go to the vet.”

“Can you get insurance?” he said, stressing the first syllable.

“What?”

“For the dog’s health.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You want a beer?”

The girl looked at the six pack in the bottom on the boat, with only one empty plastic ring.

“It looks like a real nice dog. They all that nice? I mean, don’t some of them jump all over you?”

“Sure, some do. But you can train them.”

“That cost much?”

She went to the bow of the boat and pulled the mushroom anchor up. It was as light as a small fish on the end of a line going through the water and heavier once it hit the surface. Still, it was a small anchor, easy to maneuver. Then she pulled up the stern anchor. The beagle returned to his spot on the bow seat, as if prepared to row back across the lake as they’d done earlier, or to another spot. For days she’d been renting a row boat from the resort on the opposite end of the lake, about two miles away where she and the dog had been camping, and making her way around the lake, stopping in the prettiest spots just to hang out. The dog had the routine down. Occasionally they’d gone ashore, and he’d run through the bush chasing squirrels and marmots and once a porcupine who scrambled up a tree. The dog had stood with his nose against the scrub pine yowling up at it. The girl called to him to come, but he wouldn’t leave his spot, until finally she’d pulled him away by the collar, put him back in the boat, and rowed away. Now the beagle seemed prepared to move on to a new spot.

Instead, the girl rowed toward the dock where the man stood not fishing but drinking a beer. When she pulled the boat up beside the dock, the black man turned to look at her. His expression showed his shock. He wore a striped t-shirt, shorts, and large blue and white plastic sandals. Out on the water, the woman swimming had reached the first buoy and had turned toward the cliffs on what appeared to be the second leg of a large triangle, each leg about a quarter of a mile. She was doing a lazy breast stroke, her head never really dipping into the water. She stopped briefly to float on her back, then turned to look at the situation unfolding at the dock.

Up close, the thin man’s hairless chest sunk so far in, his shoulder blades appeared sharp and his shoulders square and permanently thrust forward. The small of his back cupped inward so that his upper body formed a loose S. His shoulders and chest were surprisingly white, but covered with red blotches of acne or an awkward sunburn. His hair was parted in the middle and fell rigid and flat on either side of his head, and his face was sharp and angular. He reminded her of a cartoon character from a wild west saloon scene in his straight legged Wranglers and brown cowboy boots.

The water was still, and the boat floated easily against the dock, rocking it slightly. She got out and began to tie a line around a pylon on the dock. “You stay,” she said to the beagle, who watched eagerly, prepared to jump onto the dock. “I don’t trust him,” she said to the man. “Sometimes he runs off.”

“You don’t need to tie off,” he said.

“Huh?”

“I’d rather go for a ride.”

He’d picked up a case of Pabst from the dock—it was hard to tell how many were left in the box—and stood ready to step in the boat.

“Okay.” She glanced at the black man who was still staring at them as if ready to say something; he appeared more confused and concerned than curious. She tried not to look at him again.

“You got the good stuff,” he said, looking at the Budweiser’s. Before the girl had a chance to get back in the boat, he stepped in. “Sure is a nice day. A real scorcher. The wife don’t like the heat,” he said as he settled into the center seat and took up the oars. “But I do.”

The dog stayed in the bow, and the girl sat in the stern watching the man’s back as he heaved the oars through the water. It was clear now that some of the red splotches on his skin were boils. She sat with her shoulders slumped forward, awkward without the oars in her hands. The dog occasionally turned to look back at her and then turned forward again, his nose high in the air. It was late afternoon, and tiny bugs and bits of pollen hung above the surface of the water. The metal of the boat was hot to the touch. A tiny anxiety stirred inside her, but she reminded herself of her anonymity, of her great distance from home—her parents on the other side of the country; these things comforted her as the oars broke the still surface again and again.

The engine of the boat pulling the water skier got louder as it whizzed down the center of the lake yet again. It got close to the no-wake buoys and again slowed and turned. A couple in a metal boat like hers trolled near the rocky cliffs, the woman controlling the motor, the man with his line in the water. They stopped where the cliffs cupped inward slightly and she too cast a line. The girl could not see the cove where the other resort was, where her tent was still pitched beneath the pine trees.

“I was thinking about having a picnic,” the man said. He was steering them across the quarter-mile width of the lake toward the other cliffs. “There’s a place you can pull a boat up and climb back into the woods.”

“I don’t have food.”

“I wasn’t thinking that kind of picnic.”

She turned to look at the closest shore where the swimming woman had just gotten out of the water. She stood on the beach in her one-piece bathing suit, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand, and watched them, the dog in the bow, the man in the middle, the girl now slumped in the back.

“There’s a real pretty pond back there.”

“Okay.” She hadn’t seen any ponds around there, but the foreign landscape was alluring to her, and she hadn’t done much exploring yet, except on the lake. The only thing she’d wanted to do since she’d left home was to wander without direction or intention. She’d wanted to get outside herself.

“Mind if I have one of these?” he asked as he pulled a Budweiser out of the plastic holder.

“No.”

He flipped the top and took a long sip. She watched it slip down his birdlike throat. “Hold this for me.” He handed her the beer.

It took about twenty minutes for him to row her across the width of the lake. He pulled up to a spot where the cliffs gave way to grass, a tiny beach, and a rocky trail. The beagle jumped out first, even before the man tied the boat to a small tree—it was the only tree around. “Hey!” she called to the dog, but it was impossible to get out of the boat. The tree he tied the boat to was small and growing tenuously out of rock; she worried the branch would break, but she could see no better place to tie off. A marmot head appeared on the rocks above them; it shrieked—a high pitched chatter—when it saw the beagle, who immediately took off after it.

“Come back!” she yelled. But the dog had scrambled up the cliff trail and disappeared. She grabbed her flip flops from the bottom of the boat and rushed out.

“Don’t forget the beer,” the man said as she set out after the dog.

When she turned back to him, he was holding out her four remaining Budweisers.

“Thanks,” she said and went up the trail after the dog, but the going was rough. Little rocks slid under her feet and rolled down the cliff. Dust clung to her wet feet. The flip flop straps pinched her toes.

“Slow down,” the man said, grabbing her elbow. His grasp was surprisingly firm, and she stumbled. “He’ll come back.”

When she stopped to look at him, questioning, he let her elbow go. “Thank you,” she said and scrambled to the top. “Come!”

At the top the man took the lead. “The pond’s just this way,” he said.

“I have to find the dog. He runs off sometimes.”

On the other side of the cliff, the landscape fell into a series of ridges and ravines. Just a few steps away from the cliff’s edge, the trail dropped down into trees and brush. The trees were tall and thin, and many of them had fallen so that the terrain was crisscrossed with deadfall.

“Hey,” the man said. “Listen to me.”

She turned around again, startled at the sharpness in his voice. His eyes seemed suddenly shadowed, his face tightened and grim.

“Listen to me,” he said. “We’re going to the pond.”

Above his head was only sky. She could no longer see the lake. No one on the lake could see them. She imagined the swimming woman standing on the shore shading her eyes with her hand. She imagined the large black man and his open, questioning face. The man grasped her elbow again, the case of Pabst hanging from his other hand. “The dog will come.”

“Okay,” she said.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen something like this coming. Having anonymous sex seemed to come with the territory of being anonymous. As she’d moved slowly across the country with her dog, her little car, and her little tent, gone from home now for months, she’d seemed to slip further and further into a dream state—one man replaced the next, one state replaced the next, one campground replaced the next, as if no matter what happened, her waking would erase everything. Some men would be rougher than others; that was merely a matter of odds.

Still, she was surprised by the change in the man’s demeanor, in his expression. His jaw was set tight, and his grip on her elbow was firm as they moved through the trees. She listened to his boots crunching tiny rocks and her flip flops clicking helplessly. Her elbow hurt; she tried to move it so he wasn’t pinching her.

“I could break it if I wanted,” he said. But he didn’t need to say so. She could feel his strength well enough.

Instead, she dropped the four beers.

“Pick those up.” He bent down with her. They were covered in dust.

The woods fell into a series of depressions. “These were all lakes once,” the man said. “Scablands created from glacial runoff. Most of them are all dried up now.” The sound of his voice had changed—it was deeper, more assured. His cowboy accent was gone. “But some of them still have water.”

The pond was covered with a pale green algae. Smaller versions of the lake’s cliffs rose up on most sides of it, though brush and trees grew more tightly around the pond’s rim then around the lake. They headed down through the brush, not on a trail at all anymore. This was not the type of place you went for a picnic, certainly. There was no sign that anyone had ever gone down to the edge of the pond. They scrambled over deadfall, the sharp ends of sticks tearing at the skin on her feet; she only winced. The man held her elbow and pushed her ahead of him. There was nothing to do but hold the beers in front of her face to keep the branches from poking her in the eyes. A thorny branch got caught between her toes, and she stopped to loosen it.

She heard something fall, maybe the case of beer. He pressed his body up against hers, pressed himself into her back, into the bottom of her bikini. He didn’t feel sweaty and loose, but instead cold and hard, and that’s when she felt the knife against her neck. “Don’t slow down,” he said. Was this the way she was going to escape from herself? She could feel the prick of the knife tip and then the flat of the blade, as if he were teasing her with it.

The lake smelled like oily mud. Her feet sunk in muck making a sucking sound as she reached the edge of the pond. Her legs were scratched. He pushed her bikini bottom aside to make room for his fingers. The whole place buzzed with the sound of mosquitoes. She stared across the pond, alive with tiny bugs, his body pressing hard against hers. Red limber trees rose up around them.

When she was a child, she used to spend a lot of time at her best friend’s house. Her best friend’s mother was dying, and her Japanese grandmother had come to stay with them to take care of the mother. The girl felt more at home at her friend’s house than at her own house. There were small statues of dragons and lucky bamboo plants growing in braids and knots all over the house. The grandmother always smiled and let the girls do whatever they wanted. She was very busy with the mother, cooking, giving her shots, helping her to the bathroom. But she liked to sit with the little girls in the garden and talk with them, listen to them prattle on about school and the boys they liked and the girls they didn’t. The grandmother never judged them. She always smiled at their stories and nodded her head. She always supported their angers and their crushes, no matter how petty or misguided.

One day they were sitting in the rock garden out back in white plastic chairs, bamboo surrounding them, when something hit the girl in the chest. “What was it?” she asked, startled. But she knew immediately. She could hear the frantic beating of the hummingbird’s wings, as it buzzed like a giant bee into the bamboo. “Wow,” she whispered. “Did you see that?” She was seven years old. A hummingbird had hit her in the chest.

“That’s good luck,” the grandmother said. She seemed excited. “Very good luck.”

The girl looked for the hummingbird, but it had disappeared. The bamboo stalks were green with golden stripes, just like the hummingbird’s wings. She stared into the forest of it; the light between the stalks was green like another world. The boat shaped leaves quivered with an invisible force, which was the wind.

“I was in the garden last week,” the grandmother said, “I was planting flowers, and a hummingbird was with me. I know it was my husband. Things are hard now. He came to help me.” The girl imagined a hummingbird made of glass but also alive; it threw off prisms of colored light as it buzzed about the faces of the grandmother’s flowers. What the grandmother said was true, perhaps the most true thing she’d ever been told as a child, and now, as she stood at the edge of the pond, the air above it glowing green, it was true all over again. At the time the girl had wished she had a grandmother like her friend’s grandmother. She’d wished her parents saw dead people in birds. “You will need good luck,” the grandmother had said.

She knew, as the flat of the man’s blade pressed against the back of her ear, then turned again to the tip of the blade, she knew as the tip of the blade turned to the edge of the blade, that the knife was no longer teasing her: she would not leave this pond, she would be submerged under the bright green algae, she would be the ropes of seaweed reaching up through lake water. No one would find her. But at least she had the grandmother’s gift. She imagined the hummingbird smashing into her seven-year-old chest over and over again, a little flash of green. Her story, the story that would end on the edge of a pond in state far from her home, was only a tiny flash here and gone in an otherwise magical world. She felt filled with luck.