El Colibri - The Hummingbird
A short story set in Mexico
I will always be here. I send my spirit every night to guard you.
We lie in bed listening to the tympani of rain on the tile roof and burrowing into each other's warmth. My neighbors weren't home when Jaime came to visit, so no one saw him. Secrecy wearies me. I fancy the scandal wouldn't upset me that much if everyone in Mexico knew I loved a married man. But that's by the standards of my own culture in the States, where artists dance to their own drummer. Jaime makes it sound like a bigger scandal here.
For the past six months he's been obsessed with secrecy. He worries that the neighbors will catch on and ruin my reputation. Because of his concern with discretion we no longer sit on the patio and enjoy the view of the mountains reflected in the lake.
When he was a child, Jaime lived in a small village on the Gulf about fifty miles from Poza Rica in the state of Puebla. Roaming freely through the hills and bathing in the warm waters of the Gulf, he tended goats.
At sixteen, he was forced to go into the mines to support his family. He married a woman who, like him, was part Totonaca with red-brown skin and eyes so dark they're almost black. As her health grew worse with the fondness she had for tequila, they moved to Guadalajara.
Longing for fields and trees, Jaime fell in love with me and my country house. We met in the season of searing heat and sought refuge under the shade of Indian laurel trees in the plaza of a nearby town. The iron dragons adorning the bandstand seemed to wink at me in my sheer white dress as I listened attentively to Jaime's stories.
Eventually I invited him to the house, set half-way up the hillside. We would sit outside listening to the clear whistles of orioles and the squeaky calls of finches. The breeze off Lake Chapala fanned us and we were content those drowsy April afternoons. By late June when the rains began he had taught me enough Spanish that I could appreciate the subtleties of this man who was old enough to be my father.
I had imagined that the twenty-eight years between us would quell any sexual attraction, but we were both lonely. He took care of a woman who had long since stopped being a wife. He did it for honor, for the sacrament of matrimony and because in a broken-hearted way he still cherished her. By the time the hillsides bloomed with yellow and white wildflowers we became lovers.
Now the rain continues, hard and driving on the tiles, lulling us into a sweet torpor. When it lets up we watch the jeweled hummingbirds collecting nectar from the orange tree outside my bedroom window. I roll on top of Jaime to lie on the great expanse of his body, supported by my arms. His musky scent mingles with the odor of orange blossoms.
"When I was a boy," he begins, and I roll off and settle into the featherbed to hear another story. His tales, sprinkled with totonaca magic, captivate me. "There was a grove of orange trees, bitter oranges like yours, near old Juanita's house. She kept bees, and their honey was unsurpassed. She was a curandera who knew all manner of healing with plants. Long before the Conquest, old women knew how to heal their families." His square hands, scarred from the mines, move as he speaks. I float in the melody of his voice, drift in the current of his tale. His voice is what first attracted me to him, the lilting tenor notes followed by deep bass. No sound of the congestion in his lungs.
He breaks off the story to get up and cough, shutting the bathroom door so I won't hear him and cry. I used to believe I could help him to live a few more years of stolen afternoons.
Never evenings. He always returns home in the evenings. Only the hours from 4:00 to 8:00 belong to us. He is loyal to his wife despite her alcoholism and her gargantuan proportions. He will not dishonor her by staying the night with me. The knowledge that we don't have much time left together makes each moment sweeter.
In the States, sixty-three is not so old, but a Mexican who lives hard and works until he is ready to drop is worn out by that age. The dust from the gold mines in Jaime's lungs insures that he won't live much longer. He returns from the bathroom, his chest and face damp and smelling of soap. His face is a frightening dark color. He drops wearily beside me and caresses my fine brown hair as gently as a father. "I'm an old man, mi'ja. I don't mean to bring you shame by dying in your house."
"If you wish to die here, the house is yours."
"What would the neighbors say if I died in your house?" His scarred hands continue to pet my hair.
"I wish I'd met you when I was younger."
I touch his head, smooth as a baby's fanny. "A few years ago I would have been too young for you. I love you just as you are now." His deep laugh deflghts me. "You're too young for me now." His kiss lands lightly as a butterfly on my cheek.
"Not true. I'm just old enough to appreciate how clever you are. Please go on with the story. No more talk of death and my neighbors, amor.
He settles me in the half moon of his body. "I was fifteen years old and wanted the prettiest girl in Las Brisas, Carmen. She had thick wavy hair and almond eyes. So I went to old Juanita who knew not only how to cure people, but how to make them fall in love."
"No Jaime, that's not possible."
"Yes it is, mi'ja. How do you know I wasn't wearing a love charm when we met?"
He speaks so knowingly of magic that I think he's a sorcerer, a brujo. But I reply teasingly, "Your love charm is your voice which holds both laughter and tears."
"So the old woman sold me a magnet and a red-breasted hummingbird to hang around my neck. Carmen began to invent reasons to see me and in a week she was my girl."
"Did you make love?"
"No. Among our people it's a sin to lure a girl to bed. You're disgraced if she becomes pregnant.
"Well, I can imagine a magnet as a charm, but why a hummingbird?"
"Los colibrís are faithful birds. They return to the same tree and even start gathering nectar in the same place every day." I light a candle in the darkening room. Jaime makes the shadow of a bird with his hand and tips my face to his. "As I do," he says. "I stay in the same place."
"Don't go tonight," I beg. "Stay just this once." He seems so sick tonight that I am afraid I'll never see him again.
"I can't stay, you know that. Are you afraid of being alone someday?"
"Not afraid exactly, but I would miss you terribly."
"I will always be here. I send my spirit every night to guard you. Only some day it won't be attached to the body of an old man."
He kisses my eyelids and I believe with all my heart that the bond between us is more durable than this life. And I know he's a brujo. I stay in bed as he finishes dressing so I won't betray myself with tears. He plucks a twig of orange blossoms for me. "Take care of yourself, amor. Rest."
"Don't worry, mi'ja, I'll always come back to the same flower.
The feeling of foreboding I had that night was justified, for a week later he is dead. The funeral procession winds through the village of San Juan and I recognize his wife, carried on a piece of plywood by four strong men, the loose mountain of her flesh jiggling. Too ill from gout and diabetes to walk, her infirmites are open to public view. I duck into a doorway to avoid her gaze.
As I walk home, blinded by tears, I have such a clear sense of Jaime.
It is stronger as I climb the cobbled road to the hills protecting my house. In a trance I open the door and lie on my bed to keep alive the feeling of his presence. I remember his words, "Don't weep for me when I die." With a feeling of peace I doze off. When I wake again it is almost dusk. The lake reflects the mountains and the fragrance of citrus perfumes the room.
Gradually I focus on the bitter orange tree. The colibrís are feasting here again, starting faithfully at the branch next to the house. The new hummingbird is broader, his breast a lighter shade of red. For an instant he hangs in the air, seeming to look straight into my heart.