Friday, August 21, 2015

Tiny Mercies

By Bettyann Moore

Rare, progressive and untreatable.

Ardys White repeated the words over and over.

“Rare, progressive and untreatable,” she said, then gave a wry snort. “Reminds me of that old movie with the kid and the scarecrow. “Lions, tigers and … what was that other one?” she mused. “Right, lions, tigers and bears, oh my. Rare, progressive and untreatable, oh my!”

Talking to herself was just something Ardys did. There was no other human in the house, no cat, no dog, and there never would be.

She pushed her chair away from the desk and powered down the last computer for the millionth and last time. She stood, then grabbed onto the desk for support as hot-white stars of light flashed in her vision. Her failing vision. The vision, the doctors said, that would be gone within a year.

Ardys stood there, swaying, until the flashes died down and her sight, what was left of it, cleared. She noticed that another little star, like light shining through a tear in black fabric, had settled into place like others before it. Soon, she knew, there would be nothing but white stars.

Picking her way slowly across her basement computer lab, Ardys’ heart hammered in her chest and her hands shook. The blindness to come was just half of it. For the first time in 30 years, she would be separated from her beloved machines, her job, her lifeline – her life. It was the hardest choice she’d ever had to make. She liked to think it was a choice, anyway.

“Get out of that basement and away from those confounded screens,” Dr. Murphy told her. “Get out, take a look around, see what there is to see while you can still see it!” He stopped, knowing he might have been too abrupt and patted her hand. “Seriously, Ardys, dear, drink in some of the beauty out there.”

“Good ol’ Doc Murphy,” Ardys said, gripping the railing and climbing the stairs. “He always did have a lousy bedside manner.” Lousy or not, Murphy was the only person on the planet who cared about Ardys White. She had no friends, no family and, while she wouldn’t go so far as to call him “friend”, Doc Murphy was the closest thing she had to one.

Home-schooled long before it was trendy, at least until her knowledge far exceeded that of her parents, Ardys never longed for a close friend or a boyfriend. Rather, she built her first computer from scratch and from then on was lost in the world of data.

After her parents died in a fiery car wreck that also killed a family of four raccoons, Ardys clomped down the basement steps and planned. Over the phone, she hired a crew to dismantled the rumpus room – a room her father had built to encourage Ardys to invite friends over to play pool, to listen to music, anything – and had them meticulously follow her computer-drafted plans for a state-of-the-art computer lab. It was a thing of beauty.

Government and corporate projects rolled steadily in; some top secret, some not. If it weren’t for having to travel down the mountain to buy groceries and other necessities, which she did in the wee, dark hours of the morning, Ardys would never have to leave the house. After the advent of the Internet, she hardly left the house at all.

Ardys stood before the family room picture window and contemplated the draperies, draperies that hadn’t been opened since her parents had died 30 years before. Small fissures had opened here and there in the heavy, dusty fabric, letting in small leaks of light. Ardys tugged on the cord and sneezed. As dust sparkled in the sunlight and sifted down over her head, Ardys shut her eyes, then slowly opened them to survey the neglected back acreage.

“Not seeing much beauty out there, Doc,” she said. It was early May and the dry, brown grasses were only just revealing small patches of green. Downslope, the lodge-pole pine forest appeared to have gotten closer to the house; small evergreens marched toward it, dotting the field. Ardys frowned when she spied chimney smoke on the next hill over. There’d never been houses there before.

Ardys sighed. A feeling she couldn’t identify – empty, hollow – washed over her. She thought she saw movement through the distant trees. She blinked, then blinked again. Nothing. She shut her eyes and leaned her forehead against the warm glass. When she opened them again, she saw a brown shape emerging from the woods. It paused, then advanced cautiously. Another shape followed. Then another. Deer, she realized, a buck and three does. They lowered their heads and pulled up the tender green grasses. One began nibbling on a pine.

Loneliness, she realized. It was loneliness she felt.

She didn’t go out that day, nor the next. There were plans to be made. Hearing Doc’s voice in her head, Ardys compromised and left the tattered curtains open and dutifully looked out now and then. Sunrise, she conceded, truly was beautiful, especially when there were a few clouds. Before the sun rose over the top of the next mountain over, its light cast deep red, orange and even purple shadows. She had no camera, but it was ridiculous to think about capturing the image; her memory would have to suffice. For everything.

“When was the last time I was in those woods?” Ardys wondered aloud as she stood at the edge of the meadow two days later. “Ten years ago? Twenty?” She couldn’t remember. She did recall how cool and silent they were and how rocky the land was. She glanced down at her feet. Ardys didn’t own any boots, but had found a pair of hikers at the bottom of her mother’s closet. The leather was stiff and brittle and they had red shoelaces, for crying out loud, but they’d have to do.

Few sounds disturbed the quiet as Ardys followed what she assumed was a deer path, given all the green/black pellets along its length. A dog barked somewhere; distance and direction were hard to determine in the mountains. She heard some chirping in the trees, but would be hard-pressed to identify the birds – if that was what they were.

“Could be insects for all I know,” she said. She stopped to pick up a fairly straight, weathered branch, its smooth length shot with intricate worm-shaped impressions. She remembered, then, that her father always carried a walking stick whenever he set off on a hike. “To beat off the bears,” he liked to say. Ardys had forgotten about bears.

She found the sturdy stick comforting. “I guess at some point I should dip its tip in white paint,” she muttered.

The forest was as she remembered it only taller. Its floor was littered with branches, pine needles and sometimes whole trees. The land sloped more dramatically the deeper she went. At one point she stopped abruptly, not able to identify what it was she saw under one of the wider, taller trees. It was a pile of something, at least six inches deep and six feet across. She poked at it with her stick, cocked her head and pondered. Just then a pine cone dropped right at her feet and she nearly jumped out of her boots as a gray squirrel in the branch above her head began to loudly scold her. It scampered off, jumping from tree to tree, still chattering as Ardys laughed. She’d found the tree where the squirrel had torn apart the pine cones it had gathered, looking for the tender seeds within. Judging from the size of the pile, that squirrel and others like it had been using it for years and years.

There was still some ways to go, but suddenly Ardys was bone-tired.

“Face it, girl,” she said, retracing her steps, “you haven’t exactly run any marathons lately.” She threw back her head and hooted at that, picturing how she’d throw bags of garbage into the trunk of her car to drive them to the end of the driveway for collection every other week.

As she came out of the gloom of the forest, Ardys braced herself for another onslaught of stars, but there were none. There was a buzzing, though, like the low, slow buzzing of a bee, only louder.

“Great, now my ears are going.” Ardys moaned. Then she ducked as the buzzing got even louder and closer, brushing past her ear. What she saw streaking past was much too big for any bee, though. “Hey!” she cried as it zoomed by again, this time dipping down toward her feet. She swatted and waved her arms, then stumbled on a rock and fell – hard – on her bottom.

“Persistent little devils, aren’t they? Are you okay?”

Ardys didn’t know if she was more shaken up by the buzzing, the fall, or the voice that came out of nowhere. She struggled to her feet as a figure half-ran, half-slid down the ridge to her left. With the help of her walking stick, Ardys was upright by the time the person reached her side.

Then she was down again.

The stars exploded, harder, faster than they ever had before. To Ardys they sounded like thunder echoing through the mountains. She held her hands over her eyes, knees pressed against her chest, and waited for it to pass. She was only vaguely aware that someone crouched next to her, rubbing her back.

As the attack subsided, Ardys slowly lowered her hands from her eyes and even more slowly, opened them. The tanned, deeply-lined face of a woman peered closely at her, concern etching the brow beneath her seed cap.

“Damn, you don’t look so good,” the woman said. “Maybe just sit there a while, huh? Anything broken? Damn birds.”

“No,” Ardys said, “I don’t think so. My backside’s a little sore is all. Birds? What birds?”

The woman rested back on her heels. She wore a flannel shirt, battered jeans and well-worn hiking boots. Gray curls snuck out from under her cap.

“That little bugger who was dive-bombing you … the Broad-tail?” she said. “Probably going for your red shoelaces. She don’t mean no harm.”

“Broad-tail. Shoelaces. She.” The woman seemed to be speaking another language.

“Female Broad-tail hummingbird,” the woman said. “I’m Lila, by the way. If it were a male, you’d-a heard him a mile off. They’re such show-offs. You new to the mountains?”

Ardys shook her head. A hummingbird. How come she never knew there were hummingbirds here? “No,” she said, “I’ve lived right here all my life.”

Lila stood and held out her hand. “Huh, how bout that,” she said.

Ardys hesitated, then took the offered hand.

“We’ll do this nice and slow,” Lila said, pulling gently.

Once she was on her feet again, Ardys held onto the other woman’s hands for a few seconds. There were some stars, but just a few. She let go, staggering a bit.

“Say,” Lila said, gripping Ardys’ hand and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “How bout we get you up to the house? Maybe a cup of tea? Put your feet up?”

God, how I hate this, Ardys thought. I hate being grateful. I hate having to be grateful. I hate having to rely on someone. I hate losing my privacy.

“That sounds good,” she said, adding, almost painfully, “thank you.”

The woman was pushier than Ardys was resistant and before Ardys knew it, she was sitting on the couch with her feet up and a stranger was rummaging around in her kitchen, making tea.

“A nice cup of tea is always good for what ails ya,” Lila was saying as the kettle sang.

“Not for what ails me,” Ardys said, then realized she’d spoken aloud. Lila gave her a hard look as she carried the tea things to the living room.

“Didn’t know how you took it, so I brought it all,” Lila said, setting the tray on the coffee table. “Lemon, milk, sugar, honey ...”

“I like it plain,” Ardys said. A few beats later, after she dusted off her manners, added, “Thank you for going through the trouble.”

“No trouble, no trouble at all,” Lila said, pouring two cups of tea.

Ardys had been hoping the woman would make the tea, then leave. She refused to chastise herself for the unneighborly thought. At least she hadn’t said it aloud.

“You ain’t offered, so I’m asking,” Lila said. “What is it that you’re called?”
Half a dozen things ran through Ardys’ head … computer nerd, loner, woman going blind … before she realized what Lila was asking.

“Oh, it’s Ardys,” she finally said.

“You got no feeders, Ardys,” Lila said, settling into a dusty armchair.

“Excuse me?” The woman always seemed to be talking in a foreign language.

“Hummer feeders,” Lila said. “Most folks up here have two or three, though the Tylers up on Madge Circle got at least a dozen.”

Ardys didn’t know what to say to that. Lila didn’t seem to notice.

“I put mine out the end of March and don’t take em down til late September in case of stragglers. A course I got to bring them in at night when it’s freezing, but I do that anyway on account of the bears.”

Ardys blinked at her guest over the rim of her cup.

“They’re pure-D fun to watch,” Lila said. “They all have their own little personalities, you know? The boys are mean little buggers, but you ain’t seen mean til the Rufous show up in July.”

“Rufous,” Ardys repeated, hoping understanding would follow. It didn’t.

“Named for their color, of course,” Lila went on. “Red-orange with an orange gorget that flashes in the sun, at least the boys. The girls are just green with some rufous and tiny patch of yellow on the gorget. Funny how in nature the boys are flashier than the girls.”

Ardys’ head was spinning. The woman showed no signs of winding down. Ardys set down her empty cup and gave a long, barely disguised yawn.

“It ain’t really that they’re mean,” Lila continued, oblivious to her host’s signal. “They’re just doing what nature taught em to do. I guess saying they’re mean is, whatchallit, anthro-whatever.”

“Anthropomorphizing.” Ardys couldn’t help herself.

“Yeah, that. Still, when they’re swooping and chasing, it’s hard not to.”

Enough was enough. This was the longest time Ardys had spent in the company of another person in years.

“Very interesting, Lila,” she said, yawning and stretching again. “But I really think I could use a little nap, so …”

Lila scrambled to her feet. “Lordy,” she said, “old ladies can go on, can’t they?” She didn’t seem to take offense. “I’ll just put these things back in the kitchen ...”

“No!” Ardys said a tad too forcefully. “I mean, I’ll take care of them later.” She got to her feet, hoping for a couple of reasons that there were no stars. There weren’t. “Thanks again for coming to my rescue and making the tea … and the hummingbird lesson,” she added.

“It’s what neighbors are for,” Lila said. “Mountain folk like their privacy, but that don’t mean we can’t be neighborly when it’s called for. You take care, now. I’ll see myself out.”

When the woman took a hint, she took a hint. And, finally, she was gone. Ardys sighed and eased herself back down on the couch. She really could use a nap.

It was hard for Ardys to wake up in the morning and not head right down to the basement. And she would, too, had she not scrubbed the computers’ memories, then destroyed their hard-drives, one by one. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, so far. She rolled over on her side and blearily eyed the brown bottles on the bed stand. A harder thing lay ahead of her.

Each night she lay for hours enumerating all the reasons why she, Ardys White, could not live a life of blindness. And every morning, rather than reaching for those bottles, she got out of bed. Why, she wasn’t sure. Her best guess was that it was a primal survival instinct held by even the lowliest of creatures. That, or she was just scared shitless.

Once again, Ardys crawled out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and went to make tea. She didn’t brush her teeth nor her hair. What was the point? Even so, daytime was when she unraveled the night’s rationales, turned them on their heads and called them excuses.

She wasn’t too old to learn Braille. The house could be adapted and people paid to take care of things she couldn’t. She could get used to having a service dog, really. Too bad dogs couldn’t be taught to drive, or use a computer. Surely other blind people lived in the mountains. What did they do?

“They have families,” she said, pouring her tea, “friends.” Suddenly overwhelmed, Ardys did what she did best, pushed the thoughts aside and avoided them. She took her teacup outside to the back porch. The sun was just coming up as she sat in one of the ancient Adirondack chairs. She quickly stood back up, though, when she realized she was sitting on something.

“What the?” The thick, well-worn paperback book sported a red-orange bird with a bright orange throat on the cover. It was the strangest looking, but also the most beautiful creature Ardys had ever seen. “Hummingbirds of North America,” she read. “Gosh, I wonder who put this here?” she said, not wondering at all.

“I was afraid of this,” Ardys said, setting her cup on one wide arm and the book on the other. “Once you give an inch ...”

She stopped mid-sentence when she saw the feeders. There were two of them hanging on either end of the porch from hooks Ardys could swear were never there before. They glowed fire-engine red in the increasing sunlight, swaying slightly in the small morning breeze.

“The nerve!” Ardys cried. “I thought mountain folk prided themselves on keeping to themselves!” She glanced around, suddenly self-conscious about talking aloud. Someone capable of hanging two feeders in the dead of night is perfectly capable, she figured, of skulking about in broad daylight as well.

She took a sip of her tea and spit it back into the cup.

“Ugh, cold already,” she said. She picked up the book instead, finding a note tucked inside.

She slipped on the thick reading glasses that dangled from cord around her neck. “Hang them and they will come,” she read. “The recipe is four parts water to one part sugar, but don’t add any of that horrible red food coloring to it, it’s bad for the birds! You can read all about it in the book. And don’t forget about the bears!”

Ardys groaned. There it was, one of the reasons she disliked the human animal so much: the tyranny of gift-giving. It was bad enough that people gave you “gifts” of things you simply didn’t want, but then they felt they could dictate how you used – or didn’t use – those gifts. And what about the damn bears anyway?

“I really should nip this in the bud,” Ardys said. “Before I know it the old woman will be trying to drag me to bake sales and bridge games.” She struggled out of the uncomfortable chair and went to one of the feeders, fully intending to take it and the other one down. She froze in place, though, when she heard a low humming.

Less than a few feet away, a tiny, iridescent green bird warily approached one of the feeders, its wings a green blur. It started, stopped, started, stopped, then finally dipped it needle-like bill into a fake flower on the base of the feeder, its body bent in an impossible S-shape as it hovered and drank. It pulled back a bit, seemed to look right at Ardys, then dipped once more. This time it settled on the rim of the feeder, its wings finally at rest.

“Well, would you look at that,” Ardys marveled. Its claws – if that’s what they were called – were no thicker than some of the wires Ardys used to build circuit boards. Its green feathers sparkled in the sun as its sides heaved in and out as it drank.

Out of nowhere came a high trilling sound and Ardys instinctively ducked as another bird flew at the one on the feeder, barely missing it as it zoomed past and up. The little one hung on and seemed to drink more greedily. The other bird made another pass, then another, the high-pitched trilling accompanied by a zooming sound like kids make when they’re pretending to fly a plane. After the third pass, and seemingly upset about being ignored, it fluttered in close, tail feathers spread wide, chirping wildly. Its throat, set off by a brilliant white collar, sparkled the color of fire, the color of warning. The first bird lifted off the feeder and mimicked the red-throat’s stance, but took off, the other in close pursuit.

Ardys was speechless. She shook her head to clear it, then stumbled back to the chair and sank down. She felt … she felt privileged to have witnessed that short display, even if she didn’t know what was going on, exactly. Some territorial thing, it seemed. What had Lila said? The boy birds were “mean” and “show-offs” and you could “hear them a mile away”.

And then there he was, approaching the feeder with none of the caution the other exhibited. He zoomed in, making that odd trilling sound, landed right in front of a fake flower and started drinking. Every once in a while, he’d pull out his bill and look around, putting his throat on display. Then he simply lifted off and trilled away.

Ardys couldn’t help herself. After first moving her chair closer to the feeders, she slipped on her glasses and started paging through the book, her attention drawn away every time another drama played out at the feeders.

Although she paid the price for all that reading when she experienced the worst attack she’d ever had later that evening, Ardys didn’t regret a minute of it. The birds were fascinating: from their non-stop migration over the Gulf of Mexico, to the average wing beat (50 times per second!), to their mating rituals (a male broad-tail won’t bother a female at the feeder if she’s one that he has mated with), to its incredible lifespan for a creature with such a high metabolism (10 years!).

If she were lucky, Ardys could expect to see the Rufous’ migrate through, as well as the Calliope with its funky long-feathered gorget (gorget, not throat!) and maybe even one of the largest hummers, the Blue-throated, or the Magnificent. What a great name, Ardys thought. She was already getting better at telling the Broad-tails from the Black-chins.

That night for the first time in a long time, Ardys fell instantly to sleep. Tiny birds flitted, darted and swooped through her dreams throughout the night.

To her credit, Lila kept her distance. In fact, it was two months later before Ardys saw her neighbor, even though – much to Ardys’ surprise – she actually looked forward to seeing her again. As it was, Ardys had to figure out on her own how to make nectar and learned the hard way about the bears. They loved hummingbird nectar and had no compunctions about climbing right up onto the porch to empty (and break) feeders. Ardys bought several more and never forgot to bring them in at night from then on.

Finally, a third of the way through July, Lila rapped on Ardys’ door and sang out “Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?” By the time Ardys opened the door, the old woman was inspecting the new feeders, which sported six flowers rather than four.

“Pretty fancy-schmanzy!” Lila declared. “I take it the bears got the other ones?” She winked and smiled as Ardys blushed. “Happens to all of us at one time or other,” Lila assured her, “but usually only once.”

“The extra holes have come in handy,” Ardys said, nodding her head at the feeders. At least a dozen birds vied for position.

“Same at my house,” Lila said, “and since it’s July 10, I thought it’d be fun to be here instead of there.”

The woman still talked in riddles. “Why, what’s special about July 10?” Ardys asked. The two women settled into chairs to watch the show. Ardys had already pushed her chair closer to the feeders because the stars were beginning to outnumber the fabric of her eyes.

“I been keeping track,” Lila said. “And for the last 10 years, the Rufous show up on July 10.”

“Come on, seriously?” Ardys cut her eyes at the woman, who looked serenely at the feeders.

“They haven’t disapp … well, looky there,” she said, pointing.

Ardys heard him first. She’d gotten used to a certain kind of hum coming from the everyday hummers, but this sound was lower and slower. When she finally saw the bird, aside from its obvious color difference, it moved oddly, with a hunched back. It looked like a mechanical shark moving through thick water. All he had to do was get within a dozen feet of the feeders and the other birds scattered, even the male Broad-tails. Then it would smoothly fly back to its perch on a tree branch.

“Wow,” Ardys said, “they’re amazing. He seemed to glide rather than fly.”

“Smooth as buttah, as they say,” Lila said. “That’s why I call him Frank.”

Once again, Ardys was clueless.

“Frank? This particular Rufous? You can tell them apart that well? And why Frank?”

Lila chuckled. “Oh, no, not this particular bird, just every male Rufous. They’re smooth like Frank Sinatra.”

Ardys laughed. It felt good to laugh and she’d been doing quite a bit of it lately.

“I have a confession to make,” she said. “I call the male Broad-tails ‘Bruno’ because it’s a tough name for a little tough guy.”

The old woman howled, scattering the hummingbirds.

The two women spent the next couple of hours talking about and watching hummingbirds. They compared observations about “their” tiny flocks. They cheered whenever the Broad-tails were able to thwart the Rufous by hiding behind a post, then darting to the feeder when his back was turned. The morning went quickly.

“Well,” Lila said, slapping her hands on the arms of the chair, “I guess this is good-bye then.”

Ardys was momentarily flustered. Did the old woman know about her plans?

“Oh!” she said, thinking she understood. “Well, you’re welcome to come back any time. I’d love to see your feeders sometime, too,” she hinted, much to her own surprise.

“No,” Lila said, working her way to a stand, “I mean a real good-bye. I’m leaving the mountain.”

“What?” Ardys cried. “Why? I thought you loved it here.”

“More than anything,” Lila said, turning away to hide a tear, “but my son’s got other ideas.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right now he lives down at the foot of the canyon, but he’s getting transferred to Wyoming.”

“Okaaaaaaay ...” Ardys said, not getting it once again.

“He says he don’t want me living up here all alone, that I’m too old. Said I need to move, too. You ask me, I think he just don’t want to be bothered checking up on me every now and then. It’s not like he does much of that now.”

“Can’t you just refuse to go?”

“Might could, but he holds the paper on the house. He’s got a Realtor coming round tomorrow.”

“He’d do that to you?”

Lila shrugged. “I am gettin’ up there. Be 72 come October.”

“Seventy-two? That’s hardly old at all!” Ardys cried. “You don’t act old … you’re strong.”

She stopped. It really wasn’t any of her business. It was someone else’s drama, she had enough of her own. She stood up, intending to at least give the woman a hug, maybe walk her to the end of the drive … then, wham! It was like someone had hit her upside the head with a frying pan. Ardys dropped back down into the chair and put her head between her knees.

“Ardys? Ardys? What do you need me to do?” Lila was on her knees in front of her.

Incapable of speaking while the stars burned, thundered and flashed, Ardys reached out. Lila caught her hand and held on tight, which is exactly what Ardys needed her to do. Later, when she could, Ardys would ask her if she could drive and whether or not she knew how to use a computer.

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