Sunday Snippet, Hummingbird by Bill Chance

“The haft of the arrow had been feathered with one of the eagles own plumes. We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.”

― Aesop

Trinity River Audubon Center, Dallas, Texas


There was this old, old guy – he was my neighbor and my landlord. I rented half of a duplex and he lived by himself in the other half and owned the whole thing.

We used to talk in the back. It was a covered carport back there and I set up all of my weight lifting iron under the overhang by the alley. I’d spend a couple hours each day out there jacking steel and he’d waddle up when I was finishing for a chat.

He talked about how his wife and kids were killed in a car accident years ago. He said they had a really nice house but he couldn’t stand living there because it reminded him too much of them. He sold it and bought the duplex, “So that it would bring in a little money.”

I think he bought the duplex because he was lonely. Fine with me, I didn’t mind the chat and the rent was cheap.

The old guy was weird. He kept the yard immaculate. He had this ancient aircraft-carrier sized car that he hardly ever drove. It sat there so long that one day when he decided to drive it to the station and put some gas in it he came back in a panic.

“I’ve forgotten where the gas cap is!” he told me.

I looked at the model and year and went to the internet.

“It’s behind the left rear brake light, the left when you are facing the front. The light swings to the side.”

He was grateful for the help and amazed that I could find that out on my phone.

He was always buying hummingbird feeders and putting them all over the back of his half of the house. Some looked like bulgy flowers, some like bottles, some like dishes. He’d fill them with sugar water or red powdered stuff he bought. He did this for years and never, ever saw a hummingbird. It was crazy.

Then one day, I was pumping iron and he came out all excited. He could barely contain himself.

“I saw one,” he said.

“One what?”

“A hummingbird.”

He died the next day. He collapsed on his front walk going out to get the mail. I was at work, a neighbor saw him. They said he was probably dead before he hit the pavement. I guess it was good he snuffed it out front like that – if he had died in his sleep God knows how long it would have been before anyone would have checked on him. I know I wouldn’t have.

Still, I felt bad. I read about his funeral and thought about going. I was nervous because I figured there would be nobody else there. He always talked about how he had nobody left. Then I decided to go anyway. There was a handful of us… the lawn guy, the neighbor, his lawyer, some strange woman standing off by herself….

It was a graveside service. As they lowered the coffin, we saw it. It was amazing. It was like a cloud or a column of smoke, but multi colored. And it moved on its own. Flowing and pulsing, changing shape, growing round then stretching out. The lawyer said something about “Murmuration.” I had never heard that word before… I thought it had something to do with the sound (now I know better, I Iooked it up) which was more like a high-pitched buzzing that a murmur.

It was on the news, it was in all the papers, someone shot a video and it went viral. There were interviews with experts, professors, zoo people and they all were perplexed. Nobody had ever seen hummingbirds behave like that before. Literally millions of them had come from miles and miles to form that huge cloud.

“I have never seen hummingbirds cooperate in a social way,” one expert said, “Especially when you take into consideration that there were several different species involved.”

None of them made the connection that the birds were in a changing formation, a performance, over the cemetery.

The lawyer told me there was a will and that the old man had left me the duplex. I’ll rent the other side out, and get the lawn guy to keep the landscape up really nice; he gave me his card at the funeral. I went next door and collected all the hummingbird feeders and moved them to my side.

I have to make up barrels of sugar water now. Hundreds of those birds show up every day.