El Valle, 1991

An early lesson in strength and fragility

In the mountains north of Santa Fe, there is an adobe house. It is clay, sand, and straw mixed with the sweat of my great-grandparents, Jacobo and Eloisa. They dug the clay soil and mixed it in a wheelbarrow, taking turns with a shovel, stirring the clay and straw with water from the galvanized metal tub on the ground beside their feet. The water had come from the acequia that trickled through their land. The water in the acequia had come from the Río de las Trampas, the River of Traps. Their hands were slick with mud, mud that would bake in the sun, a rich reddish brown that would fade with age. It would dry into bricks, into the mud plaster on the walls of their house, into caked layers on their weathered brown hands. There were traces of the mud on their shoes, their loose pants, my great-grandmother’s pink apron vest. One day the house would have a porch with strands of chiles hanging to dry.

• • •

We sit on the porch of this adobe house, waving our hands in the sunlight that shines through the row of hummingbird feeders as if through stained glass. The porch hums with laughter and conversation in Spanish, which I crave, but from which I can only gather a few words. My great-grandmother wanders in and out the front door, busy in her kitchen, busy watching her house and porch full of family again. My cousins and I swing our legs, tap our feet against the wooden boards, shove and tease each other.

“Shhh, be still,” says my Uncle Lalo. “You’ll scare them away.”

We are waiting for the hummingbirds, waiting for them to swarm, panels of light and color dashing around the stained glass of the feeders.

They do come, and Uncle Lalo eases his body from the creaking wooden bench. He slips his feet closer and closer to the feeders. It is a slow dance. He raises his arms, stretches his hands toward the fluttering birds. They are intent on their meal, bickering and squawking at each other in defiance of the name given to a group of hummingbirds—a charm.

Then Uncle Lalo’s hands snap shut, fingers closing around the delicate frame of one bird. We clap and giggle, scaring off the rest of the tiny birds.

• • •

As a child, I thought the hummingbird was a moth or a butterfly, an insect with feathered wings, sucking sugared water from the feeder with its straw-like beak. Or perhaps the beak contained a curled straw tongue that flicked out from its small opening, unfurled its probing length, and extracted red liquid.

But that is not how the hummingbird drinks.

The needle-like beak is a scabbard for a forked tongue fringed with tiny, hairlike structures called lamellae. It meets in grooves, like two troughs edge to edge. When the hummingbird extends its tongue into a flower, the two grooved forks spread apart, the lamellae exposed like the fingers of an open hand, gathering the nectar and drawing it back into the bill.

The hummingbird retracts its tongue, drawing the sugared sustenance up, wetting its throat. The tongue extends again.

A hummingbird can extend and retract its forked tongue up to eighteen times per second. It laps up nectar carefully, not slavering or splashing about. Gently, rather like the slow-motion scoop and pull of a mother pumping her breast milk, meticulous in saving every drop of fat and protein for a day when her baby will need the nourishment of her body in her absence.

A hummingbird can also bend its lower beak downward by 20 degrees. This magnificent property allows hummingbirds to feed on insects, protein they need for their relentless rush. The thrumming bird parts its beak, flexes its lower jaw downward, widens its open maw, and snaps it shut.

• • •

Uncle Lalo holds it cupped inside his palms, fingers wrapped around fragile bones doused in flesh and feather. He waits until wings stop their furious beating.

Then Uncle Lalo parts his hands, holds out a jewel, heartbeat flashing.

I am nine years old with dark hair and straight teeth. I am Hispano and Anglo. My skin is nearly as dark as my great-grandmother’s in the New Mexico summer sun. I am learning Spanish words one by one: oso, estrella, gato, and caca, because every nine-year-old needs at least one swear.

I am nine years old, and I see the bird in his cupped hands. I see its long, thin beak. Hunched and crooked. Cracked.

I imagine the crack, like the crack of a piñon nut between my teeth. We gather these nuts from the cones as we wander between the piñon and juniper trees that dot this dry landscape, eating them raw or bringing them back to gently roast in a cast-iron pan over the kitchen stove. I worry that my teeth will break on the dense husks of the piñon, that the strain will shatter and crush them. But each time, with the slow squeeze of pressure, the husk splits open sharply, revealing the soft nut inside. Each time, my teeth are still intact, unlike the beak of this tiny bird.

When I look up, all the adults look away.

• • •

This was no downward bend by degrees, no flexing of the jaw, no adaptation a million years in the making.

This was broken. And whether it was broken by the work-calloused hands of my great-uncle, by the act of driving beak into flesh with a desperation to escape, by birth or accident of nature, or by the frenzied energy of tiny territorial beasts that fling and thrust their weaponized mouths at each other, I tell myself I do not know.

I wanted to believe that the beak was bent before my uncle wrapped his fingers around the flickering bird, before a ring of children gathered to watch hands that flexed and snapped shut, before we held our breath and waited for his fingers to unfold.

Instead of unfolding, we saw bending. Bent and broken. Top and bottom turned together, 45 degrees or more, though at the time I could not calculate degrees in this way.

I wondered if it would die the slow death of the six-inch trout we had pulled from the Río de las Trampas with Grandpa. The gills had opened and closed, opened and closed, until there was not enough oxygen to power the body, until the silver scales had stopped flashing with each pulse of the tail. When we caught these tiny trout, I had thought they were bait fish, like the herring we used to catch salmon back home. I didn’t expect my grandfather to bring the fish home, to cook them on an open fire next to the porch, scraping tiny flecks of meat from the transparent bones into our waiting mouths. 

About the Author

Aurelia Kessler

Aurelia Kessler lives in Alaska, where she works at her local public library. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tidal Echoes, Wildheart Magazine, Cirque, Crab Fat Magazine, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry.

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