The Picture of a Hummingbird

I uncovered another short story from a past writing class! One that I have not shared yet. I don’t remember the inspiration for this one, but I did always have a particular affection for it. Enjoy!

 

A light fell across my face, and I opened my eyes to the stream of sunshine peaking in through the window blinds. I didn’t have to look at my clock to know it was about seven in the morning. I was an early riser. There was someone else who would be awake before me, though, and I hopped up out of bed to go see her. A cold blast of air met me once I opened my bedroom door. I never liked sleeping in the cold. I turned around and snatched my robe off the back of the door before heading downstairs to the kitchen. I stopped at the entrance and just looked on to the image of my little sister, sitting daintily on one of the chairs, her golden head tilted up to the window. I looked where she was looking. Hanging just outside the kitchen windows was a bejeweled hummingbird feeder. An equally glittering and bejeweled hummingbird hovered busily, collecting the red-colored nectar from the little holes. I looked back at Julie. She was faced away from me, but I could imagine she had a gentle, dazed smile spread across her rosy cheeks. I made sure to have my slippers on before I came down, so I wouldn’t make too much noise moving around the tile. I set about to make Julie and I’s favorite summer breakfast: pancakes with blueberries and raspberry syrup. It was obvious I was there, what with the clattering of pans and containers, but Julie did not look away from the hummingbird. Another had joined the first, and both of them shimmered like rainbows in the dewy morning light. Julie giggled as I poured pancake mix into a circle in the center of a frying pan. I smiled to myself. She had the loveliest laugh. Sometimes I wish she really believed that herself.

“Good morning, Karen.”

I turned and at last saw her emerald eyes glowing at me. Every morning it was as if she captured some of the magic of the hummingbirds in those eyes, and they retained that magic all the way to bedtime.

“Good morning, Julie.”

“Aren’t hummingbirds beautiful?”

She asked that question every morning. And, every morning, I would smile and give her my answer.

You’re beautiful.”

She blinked at me, as if saying, oh, sis, you’re so funny. She turned back to the window, and my face fell.

“Are you working today, Karen?”

“Yeah, but I’ll be home by three today. Are you going to work in your garden today?”

Julie didn’t answer. I looked away after flipping a pancake.

“Julie?”

She was still looking out the window, but the hummingbirds were gone. I hummed our special three-note tune to get her attention, quietly and smoothly. It was something Julie’s therapist had taught me. She slowly turned her head, and I saw that her emerald eyes glistened like they were underwater.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Not today. My tulips are dead.”

“What happened?”

“They weren’t blooming big enough.”

“You have to give them time. They will bloom eventually.”

Julie’s brow crinkled, like she was becoming angry. I knew that look, and I sucked in a steady breath.

“Julie, did you-“

She stood up so suddenly the table shook. I sighed heavily and shook my head, turning my attention back to the pan.

“Would you like to get the blueberries from the fridge?” I asked. I didn’t hear the fridge door open, so I looked back at her again. She stood with her arms tightly crossed in front of her body, glowering at the ground. I approached her steadily and attempted to uncross her arms, but she whipped them out herself at a numbing speed.

“No!” she bellowed. I kept myself sturdy. She didn’t like when we jumped. I glanced over her head and noticed another hummingbird at the feeder.

“Jules, look. Another hummingbird has come,” I said, nudging her shoulder with a small amount of force. She turned, and I felt her shoulder relax as she gazed upon the little creature. I returned to the stove and finished the pancakes, and I didn’t mention the garden again as we sat down to enjoy our summer breakfast. Mom was awake by then. She had those bags under her eyes, something that told me she didn’t sleep well again, and something that told me I shouldn’t mention that Dad called again last night. She kissed us both on the top of our heads as she brushed past us to the pantry. Out of mom’s view, I saw Julie scrub her head rapidly, as if trying to rid it of an unwelcome pest that flew into her hair.

I left work right at three. I wanted to go home as soon as possible. Something inside told me Julie would want to go outside today, and after her reaction this morning I was worried about her. I came in through the door to the sight of my mother standing at a window across the way, looking out to the backyard and biting her knuckle.

“Hey, Mom, where’s Julie?” I kept my voice solid and steady.

“Outside.” She glanced at me timidly, as if she feared making eye contact. “Your dad called.”

I groaned aloud. “Why? And she was having a good day.”

I immediately headed for the backdoor. I found Julie outside, poking aimlessly at the dirt of her garden with a tiny shovel. Water was dripping rhythmically from her face to the ground. I knelt down beside her and pinched the soil between my fingers.

“Remember what I said about him, Jules,” I said.

She nodded. “Don’t bother with him.”

“Right.”

A gentle breeze shifted by, stirring up her golden hair and my nut brown locks.

“I wish I was as talented as you, Karen.”

I flicked some dirt at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. You are talented.”

“Dad thinks you’re talented. And beautiful.”

“You’re beautiful.” I brushed a bit of dirt across her cheek, leaving a brown streak. “Even like that.” I wanted to get her thoughts off of him. I could imagine she was recalling memories, memories of him and mom and their fights and how much they tormented her fragile mind. I myself couldn’t help but recall a memory: I was four years old, sitting outside mom’s delivery room. A nurse knelt in front of me with a hand on my knee and told me my newborn sister was mildly autistic. I still wonder to this day why she bothered to tell me. A four year old wouldn’t know what that meant.

She seemed to try to smile, but I accepted what tiny lift of the lip she could offer. I looked over the garden, ravaged and pitiful. Some of the tulips lay flat against the ground, smashed in.

“You should replant your tulips,” I suggested, caressing a delicate petal that still clung to life and color.

“They don’t attract hummingbirds,” Julie said. I furrowed my brow, a little confused at what that meant.

“Hummingbirds are beautiful when they’re moving. Flowers don’t move,” she said.

“You silly. Something can be beautiful even if they don’t move.”

“I don’t move.”

“Yes you can.” I grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet. She fought me, but I persisted. Once she was up I pulled her along with me, and I made my way across our hilly yard, speaking to my sister through my eyes. Don’t you see? Don’t you see how amazing you are?

She squirmed her hand out of mine and stopped. I stood where I was, keeping a respectful distance. Julie looked up at me with emerald eyes that were beginning to grey.

“Dad doesn’t think I’m beautiful.”

It did not come out mournfully, or even the least bit regretfully. She said it like it was.

“That’s okay,” I whispered, my voice almost disappearing in a passing breeze. “He doesn’t think I’m beautiful either.” If he didn’t accept Julie’s beauty, I wouldn’t let her think he accepted mine.

The sun was gone over the hill when the doorbell rang. Mom wouldn’t have gotten it. She went to her room earlier that day, and I heard the click of the lock, so I knew she wasn’t coming out. It was the regular routine since her divorce. I opened the door, and when I saw who it was I drained all emotion from my face.

“Hi, Karen,” Dad said with struggle. He shuffled his feet while he stood there on the steps, attempting to keep eye contact with me while he held what looked like an empty frame against his hip.

“I, uh, called earlier. I guess Jules wasn’t feeling good…”

I pressed my knuckles into the inside of the door.

“Not her best today,” I replied with dignity. I even smiled, because I was well practiced with Julie.

“I just wanted to tell her I got her this.”

He turned the frame around, and my breath caught in my throat. It was a painting of a hummingbird, pastel and faint. The wings were frozen, painted with smooth strokes of blue and green. The birds hovered with its long, thin beak poked daintily at a large pink flower.

“She’s a lot like a hummingbird, you know? She likes to, you know, go everywhere, and stuff…”

I wordlessly stepped forward and grasped the picture on both sides. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from it.

“Would you…give that to her for me? And let her know I hope she feels better soon.”

I think that was the nicest thing he’d ever said about my sister. Dad rubbed the back of his head roughly. I remember him doing that a lot.

This time, I smiled for real. This time, I looked my dad squarely in the eyes, and this time, I felt my heart pulse inside my chest.

“Sure, Dad.”

He smiled awkwardly and walked backwards a few paces.

“I guess I’ll, uh, I’ll see you soon,” he said. And he turned. I didn’t bother seeing him get into his white sudan. I had looked back at the picture of a hummingbird.

Yeah, I think Julie will feel better soon.

 

 

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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One thought on “The Picture of a Hummingbird

  1. I think when I read a story, (and during most normal days), if my mind doesn’t shut out the world and focus on the story, then there’s not enough attraction there. This one kept me captivated- well done!

    Like

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