Hummingbird in Her Hands

Over the mesa, a tiny bird whirled through the air, a cyclone of power contained within a few ounces of flesh. Sailing over tree tops and corrugated metal roofs, the little hummingbird searched for patches of color, red or yellow, anything that resembled the sweet-smelling flowers that are its food. Finding a small house surrounded by roses, she touched down for a closer inspection.


The roses were nice, but not so delicious. The olive was in bloom, as were the locust trees, but neither were very satisfying. Moving on to the window, she found a red sort of flower, harder than most, whose inner juices seemed endless. Resting her tiny body on the little red handle, seemingly made just for her, she dipped into the sweet-smelling nectar.


Not content to sit for long, she unfolded her wings once more and flew, as if sideways, through the open screen door. What a world was inside here! Morning glories, pansies, aloes and tomato flowers. There was a swarm of color, intoxicating really, as she buzzed from bloom to bloom. Then, all too suddenly, needing some space to clear her head, she felt the urge to…tzzppp. But something, tzzzp…, something invisible, tzzzpp…, had her. She was trapped.


“Dad, there’s a hummingbird in the greenhouse!”


Pema was playing in the lilacs, having come out to retrieve one of her truant chicks. Noticing the hummingbird, she shouted through the open door to me in the kitchen. I was about to answer with a few words about what I could or couldn’t do, when a medium-sized woman with lightly graying hair and thickly calloused hands descended the stairs and saved me the trouble. Silke.


Silke Markowski is a kindergarten teacher. In the thirty years she has been teaching kindergarten, she has touched the lives of hundreds of children and raised two of her own. In the two years that I’ve been working with her, and falling in love with her, I have witnessed firsthand many of those moments. Born on a dairy farm in a small German village, at fifty-two she still has the giggle of a four-year-old along with the no-nonsense manner of someone who doesn’t give a damn about how dirty something is. It would be her job, not mine, to save this creature and both of us knew it.


“I’ve done this before,” Silke said, her hand reaching unhesitatingly toward the buzzing animal, “the trick is to be very still.” The window was on the far side of the garden bed, and as she leaned over to reach it Pema grasped loosely at her pant leg. There is something about the posture of a child, this child, who will hold an adult like an instrument, as if the doing of the task were in some small way mediated by those tiny hands. I stood safely to the side, not wanting that earthquake of a bird anywhere near my precious head.


She’ll never do it, I thought, recalling the time a bird flew into my parents’ suburban home. My dad was at work and my mother, not knowing what to do, ran back and forth with a broom. My brother and I hid behind the glass door. The poor bird flew into the front window one too many times, then landed in the corner behind the cabinet. Later, we found it dead.


I grew up outside, kind of. I was always willing to play a game of football, put together a baseball team or shoot hoops at the playground. We walked all over the neighborhood, went to the park, or just played in the trees. But somehow, even with all that, I never really learned to touch the earth, to hold a frog in my hands or lift a lizard from its perch. Sticks and stones were no trouble, but it has always been difficult for me to hold a life, a vibrant, vibrating life. There is a radiance in my hands that I can never quite put my finger on.


Silke’s hands are thick, like my grandfather’s, with a coarseness that one only finds in people of the earth. I have dainty little snippers. She has paws. As Silke reached toward the frightened hummingbird my palms tingled familiarly. Pema had hers on Silke’s legs, guiding her thoughts into the material of Silke’s body. Slowly, Silke reached forward. The bird buzzed against the window. We all watched as she slipped her thick skin around the trembling bird…and got it.


As a child, we had a mulberry tree in our backyard. It’s large purple berries stained every summer of my youth, and there were always birds shitting white-purple blotches of creamy poop all over the grass and driveway. One particular day, when I was maybe eight or ten, my brother and I found a small bird lying in the grass. As we approached, it hobbled away but didn’t fly. We kept advancing and withdrawing, and after a few minutes it seemed obvious it couldn’t fly. So, we built a trap. We put a bunch of mulberries under a box, then propped it up with a stick to which we tied a string. The bird didn’t go for it. I don’t think this trap has ever worked. Eventually, we got bored and ran off. What sticks with me isn’t so much that we saved or didn’t save the little bird, it’s my impotence. I remember holding that bird in my fledgling heart, but unable to touch it. My hands throbbed with the same sort of I-can’t-handle-it feeling that I still have today.


Once, in my twenties, I worked at a hotel. One afternoon, the housekeepers, Guatemalans who spoke no English, found a live bird in one of the rooms while the guests were out. The housekeepers and I were very fond of each other, and the language barrier was often hilarious. This afternoon, two of them ushered me into the room and pointed out the tiny bird as it flapped haphazardly around the bathroom. I recall the same I-won’t-touch-a-living-thing feeling in my palms. Maybe it was my chest. But the housekeepers, coming from a much more strictly gendered culture than my own, plainly saw this as a man’s business and I didn’t want to make it obvious that I was a priss. Thrusting aside every gut reaction I had, I reached down while the bird was momentarily phased, and, to my utter surprise, grasped the tiny bird in my fingers. I walked out, stifling the urge to wiggle and shake, acting cool, and released it into the courtyard. It hopped onto a nearby table, then flew into the branches of a tree.


Stepping back from the greenhouse window, Silke held the hummingbird to Pema, who, wrapping her own hands around Silke’s, watched as the tiny bird’s beak flicked in and out of the hole left between forefinger and thumb. “Let’s go quick,” Silke said, turning to the stairs, not the open door. Pema followed closely behind, then me. Stepping briskly through the hallway and bedroom, Silke reached the balcony, giggling contagiously. “It tickles!” she yelped.


“Here,” Silke said, handing her phone to me with her free hand. I hit record, then watched as she reached down to the hummingbird feeder. “You can make a wish on it,” she said to Pema, smiling excitedly, “then we’ll let it go.” The little bird ate well, slipping its long tongue in and out of its beak even while being held tight. “I can feel it eating,” Silke said.


Once, as a teenager, I found an injured bird on a golf course. It was still alive, but only barely and it was already being pecked at by some hungry crows, who withdrew to a safe distance as I approached. The whole scene was revolting to me, and I recall that same tingly feeling in my palms. Too much life. Too much death. I can’t touch this. But for whatever reason, and maybe it was my budding manhood, I decided it was my duty to put this bird out of its misery.


Hobbled by my inability to touch its life, or its death, I decided the best course of action was my nine-iron. I felt absolutely horrible as I raised the club over my head, took aim at its head, and swung down with what seemed like a ferocious blow. The bird’s body sunk into the ground with a sickening thud, then rebounded with a flop. Ugh. Still alive. I felt worse now. Hurriedly, looking left and right as if guilty in the eyes of God, I took another swing, followed by the same disgusting bounce of life. The poor animal’s wings and body moved erratically. It was painful to watch. Was the ground too spongey? Was I just a wimp? Stifling thousands of reactions, I reached out with the heel of my foot, then bore the full weight of my body down on the bird’s skull and felt it crack through the impervious pervious rubber sole of my shoe. Fuck.


A child’s life is precious. Every life is precious. I am a man with dozens of faults. In her balled-up fist, Silke Markowski, mother, teacher, desert queen and maybe a witch, held a vibrating hummingbird. Her hands are calloused from years of laboring in fields, and binding yarn for four-year-olds. I watched recently as she crocheted together patches of knitting from her wild girls group, nine- and ten-year-old girls no longer young enough to be in her kindergarten. Silke makes time for them during the week on a day after school. They get together and dance and play, giving them a chance to just be girls. The blanket they knit is for a new child. The mother knows the hands that built it. The girls see their work, stitched together in the patchwork of life, and feel proud. This tying together of life, this holding and caring for it, is visible in everything Silke does. These are the hands that held that hummingbird. These are the hands that reached out to my daughter. These are the hands of my lover.


For whatever reason, no sound was recorded in the video I took of that moment. Everything is silent. One can see only Silke’s hands and the bird’s tiny green head as it sips from the feeder, then Pema comes into view. She bounces once or twice with excitement, then bends low to whisper something to the bird. The wind blows her hair. As Pema stands back up, Silke's hands open. The bird adjusts itself for a second, and flies into the open sky. That’s Silke.


Happy birthday Silke Markowski. I love you.