Parts of this entry rise a little above-average personal in nature. I don’t mean to make this an “alms before men” post. I want to try to show how easily— for me, anyway— thinking can slide between my experiences with animals and the ones I have with people. Also, I don’t remember ever having written down the “Hillbilly Dilly” episode noted below, and since the hummingbird called it to mind, after my not thinking about it for many years, I imagined the moment right for the telling.
April 22, 2008
At the cliff this morning, I find a colony of white-throated swifts fully active, hunting the wild blue, tangling into the wind gusts that stream through the canyon’s channel and splash against its rocks.
A vulture passes by, very low, slightly out from the ledge where I sit.
A swift just cut in quite close, the vrrrrr of its wings as they sliced air sounding like a miniature jet. A pair of hawks circle high overhead.
Will eagles come? I barely finish writing the question when I look up to see a golden eagle, juvenile or maybe second year, brown feathers flecked with white. As I gaze up at the eagle, a black-chinned hummingbird rises like a helicopter into my line of sight, directly between the eagle and me, probably examining the burgundy tones in my shirt, faded overall but most vivid in the cuffs.
Or … what?
The hummer sheers off. The young eagle flies about seventy-five feet out at maybe a fifty-foot elevation above my position. After having a close look at me, it dives steeply into the canyon as though swinging on a swimmin’ hole rope then glides up smoothly to the opposite canyon rim. This behavior is more in keeping with what I’ve observed out here when I’m alone. The pattern has been that they fly below me if it’s just me, showing me their broad, gold-mantled backs. Perhaps they’ve become accustomed to the figure on the cliff.
The swifts sparkle today, glancing off breezes or knifing through in moments of calm air, playing gravity’s game.
A canyon wren chimes. A pair of cliff swallows bombs past at rimrock level.
I stand to put my back to the sun so as to see the swifts better. A flock of about ten to twelve whirl high overhead in a tornado of communal flight. Some pair off, backmost pursuing the foremost, and I wonder if I’ll witness a mating flight. Swifts mate on the wing, couples tumbling through the air in a pinwheel of motion. I saw this once before in this canyon.
But something behind me snags my attention and I turn in time to see an eagle at the opposite canyon rim perform a €œstone dive, € folding its wings in, and, rounding its shoulders to throw its weight into the top half of its body, dropping over headfirst then downward fifteen-to-twenty feet, where it opens its wings to level off, then folds them in and drops again. It does this two times more then flies off along the opposite rim, heading south.
The sun is punishing today but I can’t see details of movement in the eagles’ flights against the cliffs if I wear my sunglasses. Besides, eagles seem to dislike the glasses. Hats, too.
Oh well, eyes need some relief. (Puts on glasses and hat).
A lizard crosses the stone near where I’m sitting, head bobbing whenever it stops. It skitters over and pokes around my canteen then skims behind me and without breaking pace runs over the edge of the rock head down. In acts like these I can see the connection between lizards and birds in their relationships with gravity. Not hard to imagine some lizard, already prone to acting in defiance of that tension, letting go and bending the business more toward flight.
Swift shoots by again, very close. How confident they are in their long, angled wings, especially for how little these birds weigh! Less than two ounces— I know, I’ve held one in my hand.
At risk of missing something— the bird zone is so active here today!— I decide to lay back on the stone and soak in heat and light from that fireball burning above. To mute the intensity of the sunlight, I tip my hat forward over my eyes. Like rain, the light falls quickly along the length of my body and soaks in. The sensation is deeply, thoroughly satisfying. Bird shadows make it through the hat’s fabric to glance across my closed eyes. I hear a hawk fussing, probably at me, and lift my hat and see it dive away, emitting its sharp, single-note cry. I sit up for a better look. Sounds like that Swainson’s hawk that used to chide me for hanging €˜round its nest, but I’m not very familiar with hawks. I lay back down, drawing the blanket of warmth back over my body’s length.
I hear a hummingbird draw close in, a black-chinned from the tenor of trill. Following with my hearing the thin bell-like sound it makes I can tell when it moves in tight to hover at my left ear. Could it be that it’s examining the bit of my *PWS showing from beneath the hat, examining my cheek for petals and nectar? Wondering this causes an old memory to flash up.
After I graduated from high school, I worked nights and graveyard as a roll bagger at local Italian bakery. A man, considered a derelict, whom my co-workers— a bedraggled lot themselves — called €œHillbilly Dilly € used to come into the bakery (itself somewhat derelict) from time to time. My co-workers said he talked in rhyme, and indeed, the man did at times speak in natural phrases of poetry. Legend was that he had a genius for music and played a lively piano at a local bar until either a woman, drink, or both ruined him. He fascinated me.
One night Hillbilly Dilly opened the bakery’s big double doors and wobbled in. That night, I was working near the front, and he approached. He wanted to buy a loaf of bread. I took this to be a good thing and fetched a fresh loaf for him. Looking at me deeply with his rheumy eyes, he dropped a few coins in my hand— nowhere near enough to cover the loaf’s cost— and said, in an uneven, raspy voice, €œI don’t have enough to pay you all tonight, but I’ll pay you the rest tomorrow. I promise. € “Okay,” I said. “I promise,” he repeated. “I’ll be back.” “I believe you,” I said. I handed him the loaf and he left.
As soon as Hillbilly Dilly was out the door, my supervisor dove on me. €œWhat did you do that for? € he barked. €œHe’s not even going to remember coming in here. €
I said, €œIf he doesn’t, I’ll pay for the loaf myself. € It was easy to take what for me amounted to a small risk. But who knew what it was for Hillbilly Dilly?
I don’t recall if he came in the next night, or even the one after that. Sometime that week I was working the ovens at the very back of the bakery when another worker called to me over the screech of the oven’s rotating shelves. He had a wry but urgent glint in his eyes. €œHillbilly Dilly’s here,” he said. “He’s asking for €˜the girl with the rose on her face.’ €
A bolt of wonder struck me. The girl with the rose on her face. That would be me, and me only. I’d never heard anyone speak of my coloration that way. And yet, it was a good name. This man, in the tatters of his musical nature, could say something about me others couldn’t, that even I hadn’t thought to say. Feeling summoned more directly than if a fiery holy creature had called me forth, I dropped what I was doing and walked quickly to the front of the bakery. There stood Hillbilly Dilly, his face not showing much but his hazy blue eyes turned on me directly, his gaze, open. He picked up my hand and pressed a few more coins into it, gave it a squeeze. I thanked him, he thanked me, then he turned and marched, in his weaving way, out the door.
I didn’t have to count the coins to know they still didn’t amount to enough to pay for the bread. I fetched my wallet and took out more than enough money to make up the difference and dropped the coins into the can we kept above the benching area for spontaneous purchases of this sort. It was the least I could do, in light of the gracious and somehow insightful metaphor he’d given me in exchange. I threw my supervisor, who had watched the scene unfold, a smile. He said nothing more about the business.
I move not a muscle while the hummingbird satisfies whatever wonder it has about me. It’s so close, I wish not to frighten it, causing it to spend energy unnecessarily.
When the hummingbird leaves, I notice that I feel my pulse in the tip of my nose where my hat rests against it. It is beautifully, peacefully slow and steady.
Swifts make an interesting buzzing call.
When I sit up to write, big, winged shadows slide over the rock where I’m sitting. I look up to see three vultures, heads bald like monks who have dropped their hoods. They sail by in procession without batting a wing. They spend little flight in extra movement, no €œstone dives € from them.
Cliff swallows dart past, flying something like bats in a fluttering tumble. They’re classified as songbirds, and they belt out short phrases of a song I think belongs to a particular portion of their aria of flight. Good notes to end my visit on.
No, wait— a pair of swifts cuts past.
This is one of those days when my time here, full of excellence and brilliant with life, is going to follow me home in streaming ribbons.
A beautiful cloudless Earth Day on the cliff.
*PWS: port-wine stain, a birthmark on a person’s skin ranging red to purplish in color, in my case, spread like jam across the left side of my face.