The Absence of War

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Hummingbirds hum, yes, but why? I'd not grasped that it was their crazily oscillating wings that did it until we got the feeder up last year. Now I know. I hear them every day, every evening, whipping air into sound, dive bombing past my head in the dusk.

Also a surprise: incessant warfare and chirping. I watch videos of other hummingbirds in other places, and they're co-existing, clustered around feeders or even sipping nectar out of human hands. It's charming. But it's not my life. My hummingbirds are vicious little bastards. As soon as one enters the scene and floats within sight of the feeder, in rushes another, enraged, infuriated and then there's a chase, and quite often a crash. Impossible as it seems, I can actually hear that impact, the ridiculous little thud that sends them reeling and chirping. Humming.

This is happening now – three are out there, engaged, taunting and testing – but it's on the other side of this kitchen window, and I'm here on this side, clutching an egg. A chicken egg. I wonder, as I often do, when these hummingbirds manage to eat anything. The level of the nectar recedes day by day, but I hardly ever see a bird rest long enough to consume any of it. All they do, it seems, is fight.

I'm wondering about that, squeezing this chicken egg in my hand. I'm squeezing it hard, doing physics right here on a Sunday morning, confident that the egg won't break because our homeschool years – wait, we call it a season now, right? – our homeschooling season taught me all about it, and how many times had Charlotte and I stood at this very sink testing hypotheses, squeezing eggs, tentatively at first, not believing it could be true, then gleefully as the eggshells held firm. How many skewers pushed carefully through balloons that wouldn't burst, how many tea bag helicopters shooting up into the air, showering ash lightly on our heads, powered by nothing but a flickering votive?

A chair scrapes the Mexican tile, and like that, I'm collapsed and tight again. Whether she's heading in my direction from six hundred miles away or six feet, it's the same. I glance at the top of my mother's head as she reaches my side. I've been taller since I was eleven but that's not the only reason that it's hard to imagine a past that includes me collapsing into her lap or enveloped by her arms. It's a foreign concept, that past, as is the notion of a present in which one of us standing here at the sink rests an arm on the other's shoulder or playfully nudges or even, God help us, smiles. All I can remember is wary distance and all I can envision, if life proceeds as it seems to be, is me moving around my own house day in and day out, a person-sized knotted rope with legs.

A photograph tells a tale though, gives evidence that I did, that we did, that we were once in that place. It was back in DeKalb, my mother and I cuddled in my bed, a picture book opened in front of us, a teddy bear in my arms and yes, we're both smiling. Beyond smiling, really. End-of-a-summers-day stringy bangs, flushed-faced elation. My mother lounging behind me, amused, me laughing, my face tilted up, eyes closed, mouth wide open, chortling. As if I felt joy.

So it happened. It's a square photograph, colors faded to grayish pastels, the image framed by that white border they used to have, the date stamped on the side, so there's no doubt it recorded a moment in history. I don't remember a damn thing about it, though: what it feels like to feel that way when my mother is around, but I'll trust the evidence. For a while, a long time ago, I loved my mother.

I crack the egg on the side of a bowl – for you see, it's the focused force that breaks it, in contrast to more evenly distributed forces that it can withstand – and pick up another. My mother holds up the treasure she's taken from the shelves beside the sink.

"Why not use this sweet thing?"

I remind her she'd voted for an omelet a few minutes ago. "But if you want soft-boiled, sure."

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