The nest was perfect. So tiny and delicate, yet how fiercely it clung to the narrow spine of the pigmy palm frond in her backyard these last two weeks even when the desert winds whipped up enough to send the frond swaying up and down… up and down, like a green kite on a short leash with a little brown cup clinging to its center. The mother hummingbird had constructed it using twigs and spider’s web; and it was nothing less than miraculous.
“God,” she thought- although God had left her long ago. Still, the nest almost made her second-guess the atheist designation she checked off on any form audacious enough to ask her religious affiliation. She’d supposed it must be human nature to want to classify people, to put them in a box. But the Holy Cross shelter? Still, she missed volunteering there. She missed everything and everyone. Thus, the preoccupation with the hummingbird nest.
She wouldn’t question orders that rained down from above, though. Along with giving up prayer, she’d learned to stop questioning anything – a benefit to atheism oddly enough. You’d think it’d be just the opposite. Man’s voracious appetite to explain the hows and whys of the world, the causes and effects- the knowledge of which he erroneously believed would prevent his planet from flying off its axis – you’d think that an atheist, especially, would rely on and seek out that knowledge to lend a sense of security to things; since there was no longer any superstition to hold tight to. But not so, she found. For with the relinquishing of magical thinking also came a suspension in the quest for answers – a blessing, ironically.
Like most reversals, the change in her philosophical attitude was touched off by a tragic event which befell the family. Ever since then, when her only sibling, her older brother, Johnny, had been transformed from a handsome 25-year-old into a tottering, confused, frightened stranger; his muscle-tone dissolving over the course of a year, melted away along with his confident personality and brilliant mind, leaving behind a patient ravaged by a strange new virus, HIV, which no amount of prayers sent, ears bent or dollars spent could abate in the 80’s.
Since then, she’d learned to stop asking why. Sometimes shit just happened.
Now, this shit was happening. How her brother would have hated being cooped-up like this. Johnny was nothing if not a free-spirit. He didn’t believe in putting anyone in a box. But he too would have appreciated the upside: The observation of small things that had previously gone overlooked when dinners out with friends, brick and mortar shopping sprees, and golf and tennis distracted most of us from life, it’s chaos and its little beauties like hummingbird nests.
She’d fallen in love with hummingbirds after her brother’s death when she positively, absolutely knew his soul was visiting her in the form of a hummingbird in her backyard which appeared daily at her window and wouldn’t fly away even when she went outside and got up close to it. She decided then to study all about the tiny birds; and she learned that the Native Americans believed they were harbingers of good news; and that their tongues, which are twice the length of their beaks, can dart in and out 15 times per second, slurping nectar and spreading pollen from flower to flower, thousands of times a day, helping nature’s still-life to propagate.
Yes, she was certain the hummingbird was Johnny…Until its real target, the gnats outside the kitchen door, made themselves known. Even so, the little birds still reminded her of her gentle brother. And she knew that he too would have marveled at the nest and the two jelly-bean-sized white eggs that lay inside, visible if you craned your neck just so from the upstairs bedroom window whenever the mama bird zoomed off to dine on insects now that they were plentiful after an unusually wet season.
Two days ago, she had placed a hummingbird feeder close to the nest, knowing that bees and gnats would also be attracted to the sugar water, making the mother’s hunt easier. Unfortunately, however, now gnats were everywhere – though one less with each flexing of the mother hummingbird’s jaw, when her elegant beak would transform into a catcher’s mitt.
She couldn’t wait until the eggs hatched. It would be fun to watch, unlike TV with its incessant news about escalating infection rates, extended sequestration mandates and statistics suggesting the virus might actually have a mind of its own. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was pruning the earth of its weak and old.
And in fact, though nowhere near as highly targeted as HIV was in the 80’s when her brother died, Covid-19 none-the-less seemed to have a favorite breeding ground among its human hosts. At minimum, a distinct profile emerged early of who’d be most likely to succumb.
Dr. Fauci, the very same infectious disease expert during the AIDS epidemic, made it clear that older Americans and those with pre-existing conditions were at greatest risk, while healthy, younger people were primarily asymptomatic carriers; which was why everyone was forced to quarantine – at least until there was a vaccine – so that the nation’s health care system wouldn’t collapse. The fact that there still wasn’t a vaccine for HIV some 35 years later, was something she tried not to dwell on.
But the worst was hearing about the fatalities (lonely, as the patient remained isolated) and painful (as his own inflammatory response went into overdrive, causing a ‘cytokine storm’ that either suffocated him or caused a heart attack in many cases.) She worried about her 83-year-old mother, who she insisted stay with her for the last two months. But it was wearing on them both.
After all, there was little to do but go to the market where there was always a run on this or that (typically toilet paper) but at least you could see other people there; though not the way you used to see them, smiling and laughing. Now, only portions of their faces were visible, parts not covered by masks. She made it a point to smile at everyone she passed in the aisles, just the same, and to really look into their eyes.
So many of them probably lived alone and were feeling lost. She smiled big enough so that they had to see it in her eyes, and inevitably they would smile back, the vague sense of ennui vanishing for a moment. What a gift that we can touch one another with just a smile while doing something as mundane as marketing, she thought… And just like that-
“When are you going to the market, Ann?”
Her mother was inside with the AC full blast, and yet she’d felt the need to slide the glass door all the way open before calling out. Ann had to hand it to her, though. Her mother always seemed to know what Ann was thinking, what anyone in the woman’s general vicinity was thinking, in fact. At 83, she wasn’t just wise, Ann’s mother remained keenly attuned to others, especially her remaining child. But today wasn’t about daughters; because this wasn’t just any May day that the Hummingbird and Ann awaited newborn chicks. It was Mother’s Day.
“I’ll go now.”
“I hope their bakery will be open. Wish you would have thought about a cake yesterday, honey.”
“Me, too.” she mumbled as the hummingbird returned to its nest and squatted, full of enough protein now to keep her satisfied for a while. At least this squatter-mater constructed her home. She didn’t commandeer her daughter’s… And as quickly as the thought arose, it was replaced by one of shame. Her mother had been through so much… But couldn’t she try to help with some of the chores? Other Seniors grocery shopped. As long as the protocols were followed, it should be safe. It’d be good for her mom to get out, and it’d give Ann a break from grocery duty.
“Don’t be petulant! It’s not my fault I can’t go to the market!”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“No, but you were thinking it,” divined Ann’s mother. And as always, she was right.
The portion of the pink icing that said “Mother” three-days ago, but which now read ‘Moth,’ might have portended the possibility that one thing could transform into something quite different almost overnight. But it didn’t. It might have been a warning that, for whatever reason, the universe had unleashed more than just a virus in her neighborhood. But it wasn’t. Could those huge orange and black tiger-striped hornets buzzing outside near the hummingbird feeder actually be the deadly Asian Giant Hornets that Ann had seen on the news the previous week?
Like Covid-19, had they too spread from Washington State to California, despite all attempts to confine them? If so, the three-day-old hatchlings might be in danger.
There were only four of the hideous things flying around, but each one was 2” in length with a 3” inch wing span, and they were noisy, drowning out the newborns’ chirps. Nick-named ‘Murder Hornets’ because they used their long, spiked mandibles to tear the heads off bees and carry the bees’ thoraxes back to their nests to feed their young, they were normally found in the tropics of East Asia where the climate is humid. Recently, however, they’d spread to British Columbia and then on to Washington State where a young man watched one kill a mouse in under a minute. The video he’d uploaded to YouTube showed the hornet’s crab-like facial pincers affixing themselves to the mouse’s back before plunging its super-sized stinger into his neck. The mouse struggled, but with a neurotoxin purported to cause cardiac arrest in addition to anaphylactic shock, the little rodent didn’t stand a chance.
Why had it rained so much this season? Why had Ann hung the bird-feeder, which she knew the bees loved, so close to the nest? Why did the mother hummingbird have to choose a pigmy palm only six feet off the ground for her nest, making it possible for Ann to interfere in the first place!
The hornets weren’t after the hummingbird chicks, of course; but the mother dive-bombed them just the same, a brave but futile act, like a sparrow trying to defend against a falcon. Tears welled in her eyes as Ann watched the first chick become collateral damage in the melee, leaving the frenzied mother hovering high above in a panic, her wings a blur of perpetual motion, the iridescent purple on her chest barely visible now from so far below.
The kitchen door opened; Ann’s mother appeared waving a tennis racket.“Mother, no!”
But it was too late. The old woman swung at the birdfeeder, cracking it, hoping the bees and hornets, would leave. But when they didn’t, she flailed away at the hornets, immediately putting herself and Ann in danger. Both women ran into the house, sliding the door behind them, relieved that neither had been stung. Ann knew if her mother were stung, they’d have to go to the ER, and that, she decided, was a bad idea.
If grocery stores (packed like sardines of late) were veritable breeding grounds for the virus, the emergency rooms were anyone’s guess. Everyone knew the Big Apple had been overtaken by Covid-19, making NYC’s hospitals paradoxical dangers; but, here in the desert it was hard to say. The Emergency Rooms might be nearly empty, the genuinely sick staying home rather than chancing catching anything at the hospital. Or they could be packed with Covid-19 patients in addition to lots of paranoid, but perfectly healthy, hypochondriacs, willing to wait in line to have the latest test or therapeutic administered, “just in case they had it”. She’d heard of both scenarios, and the latter sounded like a nightmare.
[Zzzzzz.] Ann turned in the direction of the sound to see that one of the hornets had gotten inside after all.
“Go to your room, Mother!” Her unfortunate choice of words unintentionally highlighted their role-reversal, something she seemed to do often lately; but Ann had to get her mother out of the kitchen as quickly as possible, then shut the door leading from the kitchen to the den to sequester the hornet. The tennis racket was left on the kitchen table, along with Ann’s mask from an earlier market run. What she needed now was something to catch the damn thing. Ann donned the mask, opened the top drawer and pulled out an apron and mitts for further protection, then she looked under the stove for the biggest pot she could find to isolate the beast once it landed.
[Zzzzz.] It eventually settled on the counter. Ann raised the pot, then swiftly came down with a thud. But the hornet was now on the ceiling.
“What’s going on? Are you okay?” Ann’s mother screamed from the bedroom.
“I’m fine. Just stay there!”
Another landing, this time on the wall, followed by another botched trapping. Angry now, the hornet buzzed and darted at her. She grabbed the tennis racket and swung at it, not knowing what else to do.
Damn flying monsters! How was this much different from the bat rumored to have
unleashed the stupid pandemic at some exotic-animal market in China in the first place, leading to her living with a well-meaning, but misguided mother who wielded tennis rackets that pissed off hornets? Of course, Ann couldn’t know if the bat story was true; because, lately what was being unleashed into the atmosphere even faster than pandemics, hornets, and bats, was a slew of misinformation.
“Did you get it?” Her mother screeched.
“I don’t’ know!”
Ann prayed the hornet was dead, but then she heard it again. She turned in the direction of the whirring and saw it land on the kitchen table, a rare rosewood that her mother had purchased for her as a gift to mirror the glorious Steinway Grand that graced the nearby den, another gift, though this one was passed on to her from her Mother. And though the old piano didn’t sound quite the same as it had when Johnny played it so long ago, it retained Johnny’s essence, or at least the essence of his musical acumen, which was considerable. She swung the racket down on the Rosewood table, creating a dent.
“What in God’s name is going on?”
“I’m trying to kill it without getting stung, Okay!?” She knew this time she was, in fact, sounding petulant.
“No need to be rude!”
Rude? I’m going for lethal. But so far, the score was 0-0. No sting, no pest control. And just then, the hornet landed on the closed door leading into the den. It seemed to be insinuating itself between the door and the hinges. If she opened it quickly, could she squish the thing? She grabbed the handle and pulled.
“Oh God, no!” Where was God when you really needed him?
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Stay in your room.”
“But I can tell you’re not in the kitchen anymore.”
And again, her mother was right, because having opened the door, Ann had not killed the hornet but rather given him a tour of her home. There they both were, in the den, the hornet perched on the lid of the revered Steinway, Ann 10 feet away, wondering what to do next.
And just then, as one would suspect…
“The piano!” cried her mother; and sensing that the Rosewood piano, Johnny’s piano which now graced her daughter’s den, might be in jeopardy; she stormed in.
“Don’t hurt the piano!”
“Mom, go back!”
Her mother now in danger, Ann had to make a quick decision, and like all important decisions, no room could be left for second-guessing. Down came the racket onto the hornet with a blow and a crack that rendered the upper right quadrant of the Steinway’s beautiful rosewood lid irretrievably damaged and the tennis racket ruined. But so was the bug. The ugly thing was on the floor, dazed. She smashed it with her shoe.
“What have you done?” There was a pain in her mother’s voice she hadn’t heard in quite some time.
“If you’d been stung, we would have needed to…”
Her mother touched the wounded Steinway, gently running her hand over the crack in the wood, so Ann waited a respectful amount of time before finishing her sentence. “…needed to go to the hospital.”
“It’s like you were at war,” the old woman said, bewildered.
Ann had to agree. In fact, the sentiment had been rolling around in her head for a while now: The notion of overkill, of unintended consequences. And with that, she scraped the dead insect up off the floor using the most minimal amount of toilet paper possible and tossed it away.
Then she looked out the window, over at the nest, for the hummingbird, but it was gone.
“I know you’re hurt,” she offered up to the little creature just the same, wanting to believe that some healing energy might land on the poor thing, wherever it was.
“But, on we must go, for this too shall pass.” … Then she closed her eyes, and prayed that was true.
By Joni Ravenna
A graduate of USC, Joni Ravenna is a multi-hyphenate: TV writer/producer, journalist, published author, and award-winning playwright. Last year, four of her plays were produced. As of March 2020, three have been accepted into festivals, two in NYC and one in L.A. Joni is also Co-Author of the book, “You Let Some GIRL Beat You?- The Ann Meyers Drysdale Story” (Behler Publications, 2012) which Forbes Magazine called “a stunning portrayal of one of today’s legendary women’s basketball treasures.” Currently, Ravenna is working with Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer-director and co-executive producer of the popular ABC series, “MONK”, Fern Field, to convert her memoir, “Letters To My Husband” into a stage play.