by Emily McCosh
My nana likes to tell me the story.
On my first birthday, a swarm of hummingbirds descended upon the house. They lined the power-lines, shimmered across bushes, feathered our roof. My mother panicked, remembering hummingbirds outside the hospital window the day I was born. But the birds just sat. Just watched. Perched on my nursery windowsill, they blinked their sand-grain eyes at me in my nana’s arms. When my mother entered they shuffled raspy wings and tapped the glass with needle beaks, but did nothing.
My birthday party continued, and the flock was gone by nightfall.
By my seventh birthday, we were used to them. It didn’t matter where we went, the birds were always there, blotting out the sun as they enveloped me, their numbers insurmountable. Birthdays were celebrated indoors. They would land on me if given the chance, as if I was crucial to their survival.
The eldest girl at the party was the daughter of my mother’s friend. She wore pink-rubber-banded pigtails and a shirt with a cat chasing a disgruntled mouse. She took one look at the birds perched on the window ledge and wrinkled her large, red nose.
'I want one of those birdies!'
I frowned at her. Until that point, I had assumed such a thing was normal. Didn’t every little girl have hummingbirds on her birthday?
The girl grabbed the window and gave a violent tug, sending it flying open. Most of the feathered company exploded away, but one slipped in and dove straight towards me. The pigtail girl’s meaty hand closed around its wing, and when her mother rushed forward to grab her, the bird flopped to the ground. Anger slid through me, hot tears burning. I grabbed the helpless bird and fled to my room, locking the door behind me. Thousands of hummingbirds swarmed at the window, their beaks tinkling against the crystal like glass raindrops. The one in my hands curled its tiny claws around my pinkie finger. It’s right wing was stretched out, the broken bones creating an unnatural joint.
'Mara?' my mother’s voice accompanied a knock on my door, 'Mara, let me see the bird and we’ll take care of it. Okay, sweetheart?'
I turned towards her voice – Mommy would know how to make it right – but the flock grew frantic. Cradling the bird with one hand, I stepped to the window and grabbed the latch. They calmed, hovering in chaotic order opposite the glass. Turning the latch, I yanked the window open. They flooded the room, encircling me in waves like dust motes around candle-flame. Their colours blended purple, red, orange, yellow, green. A cacophony of wings. But wings did not whip my face and beaks did not scratch my arms. A few separated from the group, latched on to their injured brother in my hands, and lifted him away. They swirled once. Twice. And were gone out the gaping window, leaving inexplicable calm in their wake.
After that, I asked to never have another birthday party. Instead, my parents and I and our little dog Peanut went for day-long trips into the mountains and forests. These hummingbirds were my special gift, and no one else should know them. No one else would understand. They followed the car like rainclouds, low enough to see but high enough to avoid suspicion. In the wilderness, they settled around me in a protective veil, only touching when I held out my hands to them. Peanut went berserk the first time they buzzed past his head, but by my fifteenth birthday, hardly batted an eyelash. They were part of me.
My eighteenth birthday happened to fall on prom night, but my boyfriend, Peter, didn’t let that deter him. We’d been together almost a year. I’d told him about my birthday ritual, but he was determined, birds or no birds. I knew he didn’t entirely understand what would happen, but I wanted him to be alright with it. So I pretended it would be.
It was the first time I’d wished the birds wouldn’t show.
But they did, hovering as I went for a morning jog, ruffling feathers in the water-stream as I showered, fluttering after me to my room. Settling in the folds of my dress as I fixed my hair, they made the gown shimmer with rainbow colours. Idly, I wondered what it would be like to have a dress of hummingbird feathers.
When night fell and Peter picked me up, they followed the car, a shadow in the dark, and chased me as I ran with Peter to the gym, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. Inside, everything was beautiful. Lights flashed across the room, reflecting off balloons and windows in so many colours I imagined the little birds were still perched in the folds of my dress.
Peter had only given the birds a hesitant glance, but didn’t seem to mind their presence. Warmth bubbled up my chest. The night was bird-free.
Parked near my parent’s house sometime near midnight, drunk on the night’s experience, Peter leaned over and kissed me. I wrapped my arms around his neck and leaned in. I’d never been kissed before, but I liked how his lips felt warm and dry against mine. He slipped his fingers under the straps of my dress, pulling my shoulders free of the fabric. I drew away, my fingers finding the door handle. This wasn’t what I wanted.
'Mara,' he groaned, and I didn’t like the look in his eyes.
'Peter, I already told you—'
He grabbed my arm and yanked me towards him, fingers hardened and rough. I yelped and screamed, 'Peter!'
Every window of his car exploded, throngs of raging hummingbirds dive-bombing him. I could hardly see them; they were a deadly shadow in the dark. Crimson lined Peter’s arms and face. I stumbled from the car, hearing his tires squeal away, and ran for the house without bothering to look back. The air around me filled with the protective hum of hummingbird wings, stronger than any shield I could have asked for.
Over the next few years I had a few more boyfriends and a few more friends. I even had a few I trusted. On my twenty-second birthday, my parents were out of country and I spent the day with a combo pizza and a small apple pie at one of the deserted beaches up the Oregon coast, followed by my faithful army. The waves crashed and whipped and swirled in dangerous riptides just under the glossy surface, but the view was lovely. A jagged rock protruded from the salty waves, supporting a single pine tree rugged enough to cling to its surface. I sat on the hot sand, sucking the slippery pie-apples from between my fingers, talking to the birds around me as they shimmered across the shore.
'Do you know what I’d like for my birthday? More than anything?'
They shuffled in currents of diamonds around my feet.
'I’d like to be able to talk to you. To know you.' I said, as if they were one being – sometimes, I thought they were, 'I don’t suppose you could do that for me?'
Thousands of little blue-black eyes just blinked at me, quiet and thoughtful as ever.
On my twenty-third birthday, the hummingbirds didn’t come. I took the ageing Peanut for a stroll. The air was clear, not a wing in sight. I worked by the open window. No shimmering blanket spread around me. I stood outside, staring at the sky, looking for rainclouds. The sky was bluer than possible. My little army was gone.
I lay bawling on the bed while Lucy – my best friend who’d been through several of my bird-filled birthdays with nothing but a big grin on her face – tried to convince me to go on a date.
'I don’t want to go anywhere.'
'Come on.' She petted my hair. 'I’m sure they’ll come back. It’ll get your mind off it. Come on, I was snooping around on your dating profile. Oh, don’t get mad, you don’t care. You got someone new yesterday. He’s so hot.'
'Yes. I’m not going to let you do this to yourself. Let’s go. I set you up on a date with him.'
I gave a glare I hopped would deter her from such activities in the future. A grin was all I earned for my efforts.
She hauled me to my feet and dressed me in a nice outfit, clucking about my hair until it was undoubtedly perfect, and drove me to the restaurant. I sulked on the way, not in the mood to meet any man, but I knew if I crawled out the bathroom window Lucy would have my hide. I stuck out my chin and marched in.
I’d never met him before, but with Lucy’s description, he wasn’t hard to spot. Three minutes after walking in, I was seated across from a young man that made my lungs forget their purpose. His face was thin, cheekbones high, eyes so dark a blue they almost appeared black. He seemed thin, but by his wiry hands and wrists I could tell he must be well built under those clothes. His smile when he first saw me made my heart jump into my throat.
'Yes, I know,' he said, and gave a laugh that sounded like glass raindrops.
With his hands folded on the table, I could see tattoos covering his skin, even peeking out the collar of his shirt. Bird shapes.
I leaned down to put my purse at my feet.
'I like your ink.' He was laughing, and I fiddled with my shirt. The colourful tattoo of a hummingbird was sometimes visible on my hipbone.
'Thank you,' I murmured. He was gazing at me wordlessly, and I tried to fill the silence, 'You know, my friend set me up on this date. And it’s my birthday. I’ve never been on a date on my birthday.'
Hugo smiled. 'There was prom.'
I looked up at his too-dark eyes. He leaned back in his seat and rolled the sleeve on his right arm up to the elbow. Among the black and blue tattoos of hundreds, maybe thousands of hummingbirds, a pink, puckered line split his skin in half. An old scar from a painful wound. Like a broken arm. A broken wing.
'Your birthday wish… ' His fingers rested on the back of my hand, and his eyes closed, as if my touch was all he needed.
Those weren’t tattoos. They were outlines, shadows. I stared up at him, and he laughed, winked a bird-like eye. A slow smile spread across my face.
Emily McCosh is a writer, sarcasm addict, and professional daydreamer residing in the land-of-no-rain, southern California. Her stories are forthcoming or published in Daily Science Fiction, AE Micro 2016, Myriad Lands Beyond the Edge, Perihelion, and others. When not writing she may be found wrestling her two crazy dogs or creating a new character to play with. Visit her online at oceansinthesky.com or on twitter as @wordweaveremily.
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