by Ingrid L. Taylor
The meadow had been hers for as long as it had taken the flowers to pass through one cycle of blooming and fading. She had defended against the larger birds, the crows and the sparrows, as yellow sun had given way to the pale autumn. The memory of her mother’s nest had dimmed, and she learned to treasure the solitary rustle of the grasses and the slow darkening of days. The coyote came with the smell of rain. She heard him at night as he passed around the edge of her meadow, keeping to the shelter of the trees.
Though it was not in the hummingbird’s nature to seek companionship, she felt a fascination for the coyote that slowly grew into love as the sleeting winter rains faded into the warm drizzle of spring. She loved him for his lonely howl that rang clear and mournful on the cold nights when she was tucked away in her nest, and she thought that someone who made a sound so beautiful surely couldn’t be bad. She was a creature of the daytime, of sunlight and flowers and sweet nectar. She was flighty as well, dashing from one flower to the next, never wanting to give a single bloom too much of her attention. She sensed a depth and steadiness in the coyote where she might rest her pounding wings and calm her racing heart.
The coyote came to the beach at the edge of the woods in the early mornings. He ate the crabs that washed up on the shore, and she watched him savor the salty crunch of their shells. Sometimes he ate the seaweed too, when hunting was lean. She imagined the cool sand was soft on the pads of his feet, and the brine soothed his throat, hoarse from his nightly offerings to the moon.
She found excuses to leave her meadow and come down to the beach, hovering over the white flowers of blackberry bushes that tangled the border from forest to shore and taking in their sparse nourishment. The coyote lay down in the sand with a crab shell propped between his paws. His canines gleamed in the early light of morning. The surf sang its endless song. It was the hour of possibility, when the moon and sun touched fingertips before they went their separate ways, and their children, the stars, closed their luminous eyes.
The hummingbird flew to the coyote and hovered above his muzzle, which was flecked with shell fragments and sea salt. His ears pricked forward, and he lifted a paw to swat at her. She avoided it easily—she was fast. The coyote stretched his lips back, and his tongue lolled from the side of his mouth.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She did not often speak to the four-legged animals, only the birds that shared the air with her, and once, a wayward cat that had passed through her meadow. She had fluffed out all of her feathers and buzzed the cat’s head, shrieking at him to leave her territory. Now unsure what to say to the coyote, she took off down the beach, zigging and zagging. He chased her, his body stretched to full length as his feet pounded the sand.
She paused above a fallen log, and he sat and panted at her with his pink tongue. The sunlight slanted off her, and the wet sand steamed as the sun rose in the sky. Soon it would be time for him to go.
The coyote rested his chin on the log, his eyes a soft brown like chestnuts that fell to the forest floor. She perched on the log and folded her wings, certain now he wouldn’t hurt her. He blew his hot breath on her. Her feathers lifted with the force of it, and she was changed in that moment—no longer a creature of air and light but weighted by the burden of meat and bone and soil that invited the decaying flesh.
The heat of the new day pressed upon her, and the coyote was gone. She caught a last glimpse of his bushy tail as he disappeared into the forest.
Day after day, the hummingbird and coyote played together on the beach. Sometimes the chase was long and sometimes it lasted for only a few minutes. At those times, they rested together on the log. She gripped his wiry fur in her tiny feet and curled up on his back, and worried about the outline of his ribs that showed beneath his coat. His food was taken by creatures who left shiny metal teeth on the forest floor, mouths that didn’t devour but maimed and imprisoned. She had heard the cries of the animals caught. The creatures brought the scent of panic and fear, so strong that even she could smell it. It permeated the forest, and darkness spread. Flowers bloomed less brightly, their nectar was less sweet, and she had to fly farther every day to find fuel for her demanding body.
One morning the coyote didn’t come to the beach. She waited on the log, wings folded, until the sun was high overhead and the aroma of rotting kelp and dead fish choked the air. The surf rushed in and covered the sand. Pebbles, caught helpless in the unyielding grip of the waves, tumbled and rolled. The hummingbird watched them as the air closed around her. She looked behind her to the woods. She knew its meadows and clearings, but she had never ventured into the entangled mass of trees and underbrush that made up its dense center. Her heart fluttered, and she was afraid.
Dewdrops clung to blades of grass in defiance of the rising heat of the day. The meadow sparkled in the morning light. Petals swayed in choruses of white, purple, and yellow. She dipped her tongue into a bloom and lapped up the nectar. Its energy flowed through her, and her wings pumped harder and faster. She ascended, higher and higher, until the individual flowers coalesced into a rainbow of color below her. She flew into the woods.
She had always imagined dark and impenetrable undergrowth, but beneath the redwood canopy she saw a loamy path dappled with sunlight and dotted with small bushes. The air was wet. Pale mushrooms sprouted around the trunks of the trees, which were covered on one side with a carpet of green moss. She hovered, weighted by the ancient feel of the forest, and for the first time in her life the hummingbird sensed the depth of time, that all things pass into darkness.
“What are you doing here, little bird?” The owl sat nearby on a thick branch. His eyes gleamed in the dim light.
The hummingbird dashed behind a broad leaf.
“I’m looking for the coyote.” Her voice was thin and high in the stillness between the trees.
The owl’s eyes followed her, immense and yellow. “You would make a tasty snack before my bedtime, little hummingbird.”
“Please—Will you help me find him?”
“Come out from behind that leaf, and I’ll consider it.”
The hummingbird moved from the leaf’s camouflage, forcing herself to hover in front of the owl while her instincts screamed at her to flee.
“Have you seen him?”
The owl looked long and hard at her, then with a shake that ruffled all of his feathers, he settled deeper onto the branch. “You’re lucky that I had a good night hunting. I won’t eat you today. But your coyote was not so lucky. You’ll find him ahead. Look for the biggest tree in the woods.” The owl closed his eyes.
The hummingbird waited a moment, but the owl appeared to be asleep. As she zoomed past him, the owl muttered, “Evil roots in our home. Take care, little one.”
She found the coyote beneath an ancient redwood. He lay on his side, his ribs heaving with each rasping breath. The metal teeth, no longer shiny but stained dark with his blood, gripped his front leg. He lay in a pool of mud and hair and torn skin. There were grooves in the dirt around him where he had dug in his claws, trying to escape.
“My love,” she hovered over him, “how can I free you?”
He had bitten his tongue in his pain and frenzy, and his words were thick with blood. “I must chew my leg free, but I am too weak.”
The hummingbird brought him drops of water from a nearby stream, held carefully in a leaf that she tipped into his mouth. She found some berries nearby and carried them, one by one to his lips, until she dropped exhausted onto a low bush.
“It is not enough.” The coyote’s voice was thin and strained. “Go quickly and find the beaver. She is strong enough to chew me free.”
The hummingbird floated over him. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“Hurry— before these monsters come for me.”
She flew as fast as she could to the beaver’s den, though she was heavy with the scent of his blood and rent flesh.
The beaver poked her nose out. “What is all this shrieking and fluttering?”
“The coyote is trapped, and he can’t free his leg. Come and chew him free with your powerful teeth.”
“Why would I do that? He might devour me once he’s free.”
“Please, we don’t have much time. He’ll die if you don’t help.”
The beaver squatted on her round haunches. “Besides, I don’t eat meat. I can’t imagine the taste of it in my teeth. It’s horrifying.”
“You can spit it out. Please… I love him, and I don’t want him to die.”
The hummingbird’s feathers drooped as the beaver gazed off into the distance. A breeze passed through, carrying the smell of dead fish and rotted wood. She thought of their walks on the beach, and her heart crashed against her ribcage as if it would burst from the confines of her chest.
“All right. I’ll do it, but he has to promise that he won’t eat me.”
The beaver’s steady plod through the forest was agonizing for the hummingbird. The sun slanted low in the sky when they reached the place where the coyote was trapped.
He was gone. Only a scattered pile of bloody leaves remained. A strange sensation permeated the air, sharp and violent, like nothing the hummingbird had encountered before. She flew in furious circles over the area, looking for any sign of him. There was only the silence of the darkening forest. The beaver hung her head, and after a moment she ambled back in the direction of her den. The hummingbird watched her go and knew no word or gesture could contain this moment. There was only the bright pain that washed through her.
In the following days, the pain transformed to a sorrow that muted the shine of her feathers to a dull gray. She sat in a bush by the meadow and watched flowers nod in the wind. She thought often of the beach but couldn’t bear to return.
One early morning she could no longer stand the rustle of the meadow grass and the cloying cheerfulness of the flowers. She went to the beach, to the log where they had always met. The feel of the smooth driftwood under her feet caused fresh pain. She watched the waves topple pebbles and small sticks and thought that she could fly into those waves and disappear.
The bushes behind her rustled, and soft feet padded toward her. A four-legged creature stood on the beach looking at her. The creature had no fur, rather exposed muscle gleamed in the early light, outlined by veins and connective tissue. She drew back, frightened. It took a step towards her. She recognized the eyes of the coyote, though the long lashes and warm brown irises looked out of place in the wet redness of his face.
“I’ve waited for you,” he said.
“You were gone when I came back. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find you.”
“They have taken my skin and fur.”
A fly buzzed around the face of the coyote, then passed through his head and continued down the beach.
The hummingbird fled, beating her wings as fast as she could to escape the horrible raw thing that her coyote had become. She stopped and hovered just at the edge of the beach, where the sand mingled with coarse grass. She could return to the meadow, live out her days among the flowers and grasses, and try to forget the vision of bare muscle and blood. But the coyote’s eyes appeared before her, sad and lost. She remembered how much joy he had brought her, and she knew she couldn’t leave him to his loneliness and pain.
She turned and raced back down the beach, where the coyote waited for her.
* * *
About the Author
Ingrid L. Taylor is a writer, poet, and veterinarian. She lives in the desert with a houseful of cats, two large dogs, and a yard full of pigeons and hummingbirds. When she’s not writing sad and creepy stories, she works as an editorial director for a veterinary publishing department. Her writing has most recently appeared in Poet Lore, Artemis Journal, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Southwest Review, Collateral Journal, and others. She has received support for her writing from the Pentaculum Artist Residency, Playa Artist Residency, Right to Write fellowship, Horror Writers Association, and Gemini Ink. For pictures of her animal family and updates on her writing, visit her at ingridltaylor.com and on Instagram @tildybear.