Tag Archives: Chauna Craig

Chauna Craig

A Glittering of Hummingbirds, a Charm

I am the knife and the wound it deals.
–Charles Baudelaire

Walk to the beach everyday. This self-prescription, a pledge I can keep. The northern, rocky beach of Orcas Island is a quarter mile from the artists’ residency, with clear day views of Lummi Island and Mount Baker. On fog-drenched mornings I can still see and hear the slate waves lapping, mergansers adrift, bobbing unbothered by winter waters. I sort rocks in the rain, pick over driftwood and snail shells, their rigid lips plugged with pebbles impossible to spit out. I listen to the hypnotic buzzing of light aircraft ascending over the sea. Focus on these, and my mind settles for awhile.

This is not a nature essay. Except that every essay is an inquiry into the nature of something.

*****

A hummingbird emerges from the bluing dawn outside the window, bowing its head to the feeder. This may be the tiniest bird I’ve ever seen. Cup it in my hands and its wings could still flutter. One moment the bird appears dull, monochromatic as rain, but the next slight turn, a fiery jewel. I begin to doubt what I see, but the bird book tells me I’ve just met Anna’s hummingbird, a species that doesn’t leave the island.

*****

The night before I left Pittsburgh for Washington State, fear spread its first tendrils around my heart, which convulsed, trying to shake off the sickness, the building dread. I thought about canceling. I told myself to stop. Please stop. Not this again.

Six years earlier, I’d left someone whose all-consuming self left no space for empathy, even when I was at my most needy. I no longer recognized myself—anxious and depressed and so dull. I’d been awarded a month-long residency in Vermont where I intended to write, return to myself and then to an apartment I’d leased in secret. Only I felt disloyal and guilty and told him anyway, calling it my “summer writing studio,” a farce we both pretended to believe until I slipped and mentioned the two bedrooms.

*****

There are children on the edges of this story. And they make it impossible to tell this story. They also make it impossible not to.

*****

He told his first set of children, the ones from his first marriage whom I’d helped raise, that their biological mother had abandoned them. I imagined the trio as victims in a fairy tale—a lonely woodcutter and his two children starving for love in a cottage deep in the forest. Who could counter this sad story when he had custody and she lived in another state? Who wouldn’t pity this man the burden of single parenthood and its companion, loneliness? Then, I still believed I could trust the evidence someone else laid out for me.

*****

On my third morning at the beach, I perch on a boulder to meditate on the waves and notice what appear to be the legs of a crab rising from the water. Squinting, I recognize the feet of a sea bird cramped and curled like claws. Waves slap out from a boat’s wake, the water raising one drab, bedraggled wing like a greeting. Not waving, but drowning. Not drowning, but drowned.

*****

The hummingbird chooses the only feeder that appears empty. Sugar junkie craving the syrupy sludge at the bottom. Head raised after a long drink, its body forms a vector from sleek tail to needle bill, poised like an arrow. I see movement in its throat and what looks like a fine spray from the end of its bill, gargling before an operatic burst of song, its rapid, ribbon tongue unspooling to taste the air.

*****

I left for Vermont, for a future unknown, and the thrill of escape eroded with every mile. Low-thrumming nerves morphed into fear, ballooning into terror after a sleepless night in a house full of strangers.  He was a long day’s drive away, but I was afraid. After thirteen years, I was leaving a man who’d once held a kitchen knife to my throat.

This is not a hostage story. Except that it is. And suddenly I want to apologize for being a cliché, for having these experiences, for not knowing better, for still feeling the effects. Which is to say I (still) want to apologize for being human.

*****

Every morning I return to the rocks on the beach. I breathe slowly. I let the constant waves lull my brain: rest, rest, rest. I tell myself, Don’t think of the dead gull. Which summons its image from the crypts of my mind. Okay, at least don’t look for it. There, Mount Baker, snow-capped and stunning. There, mergansers, puffing their heads. The clouds shape-shift, sunlight burns distant but fierce, and I feel my life pulsing from every cell. Still, I look. I look until I see those pale legs: The dingy wing separating like a frayed hem. I never draw closer to look at the whole corpse, but I never sit on the other side of the rocks either. I hope that one morning I will not see any evidence of this fallen thing submerged and stuck between shore and sea.

*****

We made dinner together in his apartment one night in our first months together, his children gone visiting their mother. I was chopping lettuce when I felt him behind me, mouth warm on my ear. Then the thin, cool edge of his knife at my throat. My brain blanked. Love or danger? I froze, waiting to learn what to believe. He kissed my neck. He used that knife to finish preparing a romantic dinner for two.

*****

I could not stay at the Vermont residency. Panicked and frantic, my brain wired for motion, I bolted, leaving one kind friend’s house then another, weaving my way back to the good things left from my marriage: the biological children we shared.  I picked them up from daycare and called him. Choking with the shame of my vulnerability, this all-consuming distress, I told how I’d broken down, terrified, unable to stay. His words, little knives severing my last threads of hope: “Have you ruined my chances of going there now?”

*****

I keep the evidence I need to remind myself of the nature of a relationship six years in the past and receding, but still punctuated with court filings and contemptuous messages, ugly exchanges over those children who I keep pressing to the far edges of this essay. Not forgetting, but protecting them.

*****

We lived apart for a year before I moved to join him. In one of our many emails, I wrote, “Danger is sexy. You’ve held a knife to my throat before.” He confirmed this memory, adding, “I suppose I had a need to ‘push’ your trust in me to see if you really did trust me.” Encouraged, I elaborated, recalling how I smiled and pressed my body back into his. But he insisted that he would have remembered that. No, he told me, you didn’t smile or even flinch. “I thought you’d do something.” But I froze and I waited. For thirteen years. Love or danger? When I finally tapped into that other possibility, I ran for my life.

*****

There are still children darting along the edges of this story, children I leave behind for these necessary retreats. There is guilt and fear. Anger when my phone calls go to voice mail and my texts asking about times to talk to our kids go unanswered. Memories of him telling my step-children, the ones created in his long ago prior marriage, how their biological mother had abandoned them. The piled weight of his scorn and contempt followed by long, silent stretches that still say you are dead (to me).  But, finally, too, there is my refusal to play dead.

*****

One spring a student shared her writing teacher’s favorite metaphor: Love is a hummingbird with its throat cut.  Another impressed student stole the line for a short story. I was sickened but careful in my response because I, too, had once been impressed. I’d craved the sugared rush of violent passion, terrorism packaged as some twisted test of trust and love. His knife, once at my throat, remained there for years, held by my own willing fingers.

*****

I keep my promise to visit the beach every day. On the windy, rain-slicked morning that I don’t see legs or wing when the tide pulls back, my heart seizes. If it’s not there, where I expect to find something horrible, I don’t know where or when I may be ambushed. I edge closer, wanting a glimpse. Nothing but the brutal, empty kisses of water and rock.

*****

A gathering of hummingbirds is called a bouquet. A tune. A glittering. Or a charm.  On my last morning on Orcas Island two hummingbirds frolic in the mist, luminous as light shattering water. When they pause to rest in a bare hydrangea, they rub their bills against the branch like whetstone.  Staying sharp, staying ready. They will not be caged in hands, even gentle ones. They are no one’s sacrifice, not even their own.