Horst’s Hummingbirds by Charles Joseph Albert
by Charles Joseph Albert
Horst didn’t become aware of his strange gift he got to college. Not, he told himself years later, that the college had anything to do with it. More because he’d lived his whole life in Vienna, and Graz Tech was the first time he had lived in the countryside.
It was his freshman roommate, Kerri, who first brought it to Horst’s attention on their way to class one morning in the spring.
“So what is it with you and the hummingbirds, anyway?” Kerri asked. Kerri, a tall, fair-haired fellow, seemed to Horst to be impossibly worldly and self-assured. “Every time we walk to class, they’re buzzing around you.”
Horst looked up. There were several hummingbirds in the air. Actually, Horst didn’t have a reason to think he was being singled out; wasn’t it more likely that Kerri, with his expensive suit, perfect tan, and immaculate coiffure was more likely to excite this Disneyesque sort of aviary homage. Horst, shorter, of pale complexion, and with dowdy clothes and an unkempt mop of orange hair, felt conspicuously less glamorous than his wealthy friend.
But walking alone later that day through the open lawns of the campus, Horst was aware that the hummingbirds were not going away. And it was true—he didn’t see the tiny birds gathering near anyone other than him.
He began, then to admire their strange way of dancing around him in the air. Of perching on trees nearby, then flitting from branch to branch in his wake. They were quite something: little winged jewels, disappearing from the branches of a tree he had passed, and then reappearing in the one next to him.
He also marveled that he hadn’t noticed this earlier. True, people often called him oblivious–he liked to think of himself as having acute powers of concentration. He could tune out all distractions in the classroom. So well that he had entered the technical college with a full scholarship.
After a few days of awareness of his winged host, he brought it up again to Kerri. He felt a little stupid, but after all, Kerri had pointed it out first.
“So, what do you think it is about those hummingbirds?” he said as he and Kerri were both closing their textbooks for the night. “I… don’t they ever follow anyone else?”
“No,” Kerri said, and shot him a sideways smile. “Something in your hair, maybe?”
He and Horst both got their toothbrushes, put on their slippers, and padded down the hall to the dorm bathroom.
“I use the same shampoo as half the guys on this floor,” Horst said, turning to face a mirror. He looked at his reflection: rather on the thin side, bony face, unremarkable features. OK, his hair was rather bright orange, but there were certainly other people here—men and women—with the same hair color.
“After shave?” Kerri continued. “Deodorant? Combination of all three?”
“Right,” Horst mumbled through the toothpaste.
“Maybe it’s the florid clothes you wear,” Kerri snickered. Which was a laugh, all right, because Horst’s entire wardrobe was in two colors: brown and dark blue.
Horst didn’t bring it up again, to Kerri or to anyone else. He felt a little foolish even having mentioned it at all. How was Kerri supposed to know what was up with hummingbirds?
He did try changing deodorant and shampoo over the course of the year, just to see what would happen. He didn’t wear aftershave and couldn’t change that. He even wore a hat that fall and winter. But nothing made any difference. The hummingbirds always appeared. From nowhere! And always within a few minutes of his stepping outside.
They would hover a dozen or two feet in the air over his head, performing their curious dance, never too close. Sometimes they would execute tight little maneuvers off to his left of right. They never seemed approached from the front or behind, though, and they never got very close.
After some few attempts to diminish his attractiveness to them, Horst eventually stopped thinking about them. He wasn’t really outside all that much. He had his studies to think of, as well as his new friends at the university. Ultimately, the inexplicable attraction the birds felt toward him didn’t have the much impact on his life. He certainly didn’t intend to show off to anyone, play the freak show. He was a serious young man, he had been raised by sober and hard-working people, and since, so far as he knew, hummingbirds couldn’t be trained to fetch valuables or earn money, he really didn’t see what use they were. And so he lived anonymously with his talent. If it could even be called that.
Only once, in his senior year, did the birds make any sort of impact in his life. There was a pretty girl named Mariah in their introductory Arabic class, dark-haired, with a maddenly appealing slant to her eyes and a beguiling smile. He was too shy to talk to her in front of the rest of the class, for she was very bright, and got the better of even the unflappable Kerri, when they sparred in class.
Kerri seemed to notice Horst’s interest in Mariah, for he invited the two of them, along with his own girlfriend and one other couple, to his family’s cabin in the Lavanttal Alps for Spring break.
Kerri had brought a lot of beer, and everyone got good and drunk the first night. The next morning, after the sun was already high in the sky, Horst woke to find he and Mariah were the only ones left in the cabin.
“Everyone else went to the lake,” Mariah said, popping some aspirin at the one-room cabin’s kitchen sink. Horst, still lying on the floor in a sleeping bag, propped himself up on one elbow to watch her. She was wearing baggy sweats as pajamas, but somehow to Horst she looked more appealingly feminine than ever.
He felt fine, and had only feigned sleep while the others had been stumbling about preparing to leave, under the faint hope that Kerri had arranged for the two of them to be left behind together.
Now, however, with beer cans and food wrappers strewn about, the air stale, and Mariah looking rather the worse for the night’s drinking, he decided that this wasn’t a good time to reveal the heartache of longing he had begun to feel for her. But, to his horror, he discovered that he had grown aroused, just watching her. He shamefacedly got up, holding his wadded jeans strategically in front for modesty, and went to the bathroom to change from his pajamas. There he splashed cold water onto his face and tried to calm himself down.
“Come on,” he mumbled, grabbing a backpack when he got out, “Let’s go join them!”
“Oh—okay,” Mariah said. She was moving very slowly. She went to the kitchen area to stuff some food in the backpack. Horst handed her his bathing suit to put in and then busied himself cleaning up the detritus of the previous night. He wished he had the nerve to say something more to her, something that would let her know he was interested. But what?
She wouldn’t let him shoulder the pack, though at least she seemed pleased by the offer. So they walked along the wooded trail to the lake, Mariah sounding a little forced in her cheerful small talk. Horst saw her looking at him several times with those alluring eyes. And he fortified himself with the hope that she might like him.
Two hummingbirds flitted from tree to tree, keeping up with them. They got to the lake, but the shoreline appeared to be deserted. The others were nowhere to be seen.
Horst and Mariah wandered along the shore until they came to a low, flat ledge of rock that jutted into the lake. Horst stopped there to get a better look, searching the shoreline with increasing gloom. How much longer before Mariah would want to give up and return to the cabin?
Mariah came up onto the rock next to him, and grunted as she slung her backpack to the ground. She had insisted on carrying it herself, and now as she unzipped it, he could see that it contained, in addition to their towels, a half dozen beer bottles.
“Hair of the dog?” she said with a wince, and opened a bottle for him. She didn’t seem to notice three or four other hummingbirds now joined the first two.
“Where are our bathing suits?” Horst asked, digging through the jumble in the sack.
“Yeah–I changed my mind. We don’t need them,” she said.
His heart sank as she clinked her bottle against his. Just drinking, then—no swimming.
They sat down on the rock, warmed by the faint spring sun, and Mariah took a long draught from her bottle. She told him a story about her younger sister and a snake, the lilt of her voice drawing him in deeper, causing him an unexpected torture of desire. Her long, silky hair, partially obscuring her laughing eyes, sent his heart into his throat, though he didn’t know why. This was going nowhere. He stifled a sigh and drained his bottle. At least she seemed content to be with him, for she looked relaxed.
After she drained her second beer, she stood up.
“Ready to go in?” she said.
“Go back in the cabin?” Horst said, stumbling to his feet.
“No, dummy! The water! Come on!”
“But—” he didn’t understand.
“Skinny dipping, silly!” She began pulling her tee shirt off over her head.
Horst choked on his beer. He couldn’t help blushing furiously, though he tried to assent non-chalantly.
He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to watch her. So he bent his head down and focused on pulling his boots off very slowly. But he knew that Mariah was stripping right in front of him. Finally he blurted out, “I’ll just go back to the trees and wait for you to get in.”
“Why?” Mariah asked. “What are you afraid of?”
Horst looked up then, and watched, hypnotized, as she peeled off her panties, then lowered herself down into the water from the rocks’ edge.
She disappeared under the water, springing up a dozen feet to the right. “Come on!” she shouted, turning around. “It’s fantastic!”
That was all he needed. Horst scrambled out of the rest of his clothes and was behind her in a heartbeat. In a few moments they were out up to their necks, splashing around in a kind of innocent sensuality Horst had never dreamed possible.
Mariah could only stand the cold water for a few minutes, though, and then she was back on the rocks, lying out on her stomach in the sun. Horst swam to a spot a dozen yards away and began to climb out, too.
“No, come lie down over here,” Mariah said. Her dark eyes had that irresistible slant to them again; his heart gave a little somersault. “It’s OK,” she added to his obvious consternation. “I’ve got an IUD.”
Later, as she lay dozing, the rapture that Horst had been feeling began to sour inexplicably. A morbid fear crept into his head that all this had happened too quickly. What if he was just a weekend fling? Did Mariah really care for him? Would she move on to someone else once they were back at school?
He leaned onto one elbow. They were both still naked on the beach towel. The pines around them were speckled with his tiny feathered companions. He got up, lovesickness and beer buzzing loudly inside his head, and walked to the bird-laden trees.
“Hey,” he called back to her, turning around. “Look at this.”
“Seen it!” she said with a knowing lilt.
But Horst didn’t move. He stood facing her, arms out. After a moment, she did finally look up. Then she let out a gasp of surprise.
Hovering like a halo around his head were a half dozen hummingbirds. Another two or three swooped lazy figures over his outstretched arms. Then Horst felt the daintiest prick imaginable as one lighted on his shoulder. Another came to rest on his opposite hand, just for a moment, to be replaced immediately by another two.
Mariah sat up, hugging her knees in amazement. “How… how are you doing that?” she said.
They married a year later, though Horst never completely eradicated the worry that she married him because of the thing with the hummingbirds, and not because she truly loved him.
In Vienna, where Horst and Mariah raised their family, hummingbirds only rarely made an appearance to their yard.
On their summer holidays to the country while their three girls were growing up, Mariah would always, always ask him to call the hummingbirds to him. They never let Mariah or the girls near them, however, and would rise up, hovering in their inscrutable dance whenever they came close. Their girls grew up bored by the trick, as though everyone’s father could attract hummingbirds. Even as grown women, they never really paid much attention.
Horst retired from his job with the Vienna planning department when he was sixty. They bought a retirement cottage in the country, where Mariah would gaze in wonder at their aviary posse on their morning and evening walks.
One day, shortly after Horst had retired, he had gone for a drive to the country by himself. He had more time on his hands now, and he had begun to feel remiss in not exploring his “useless gift,” as he had come to think of it.
Why had he never decided to try this before: could he actually communicate with the hummingbirds?
He went to the large park in Wolfersberg. Within a few minutes, he had the usual three or four birds.
“Hummingbirds,” he commanded, “I would like you to fly in a circle for me.”
There was no change; they continued their inexplicable and apparently random hover dancing.
He stood very still and concentrated. “Land,” he commanded.
Still no change in the movements.
He closed his eyes and tried to visualize them landing on the pine tree in front of him. He focused strenuously, calling into his mind’s eye the image of the deep green needles in front of him dotted with the colors of the brilliant birds.
After a long moment, he noticed the buzzing noise was gone, and he opened his eyes.
The pine in front of him looked exactly as he had pictured it: a Christmas tree with a hundred hummingbird ornaments.
He spent the rest of the day there in the park, trying to command their behavior, concentrating, visualizing. But it was very hard work, and he was rarely successful. At last, thoroughly tired out, he went home.
He vowed to come out again sometime and try further experiments, but somehow he never seemed to have the time or the energy for it.
Years passed, and Horst was again out for a walk–this time, with Mariah. They talked about “his” hummingbirds.
“I always wondered why you didn’t go into aviary studies. Or even aviation,” she murmured, following with her eyes their solitary hummingbird accompanist.
“Flying never interested me,” Horst said. “Besides, it isn’t… I don’t know anything about them… It’s just an… affinity. They for me. Not vice versa.” He was feeling short of breath and not very talkative.
“Still,” she sighed, “it always seemed like it should have led to something!”
He recounted again his experiment in the park, how he had managed to visualize them into a pine tree, but how little reward it felt like there was for so much effort.
Something about his increasing difficulty in talking seemed to alarm her, for she steered him back to their house, and kept hushing him. She had him stretch out on the sofa while she made a phone call.
As Horst lay back on their sofa and closed his eyes, he saw once again the dance of the hummingbirds before him: brilliant, vermillion and ruby, or violet, or tiny cerulean ones… their dance as inexplicable as ever. And only now, now that it was too late, he had a sudden keen sense of regret. In all of these years, he had only thought about trying to discover something useful about them. And, all his life, that foolish distraction had prevented him from understanding the true miracle that they had been trying to show him: their unfathomable, entirely and utterly pointless, beauty.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Charles Joseph Albert 2017