Caribou Transmitters & Hummingbird Math

“Benny? That you?”

“Nobody else at my house this time of the morning, Walter.” 

“You’re not gonna believe this.”

“Then wake me up and tell me?”

“I’ve got fifteen hummingbirds outside my window.”

“So?”

“Well, they’re either smoking or holding tiny pieces of chalk in their beaks and scribbling all over the rock we just put in next to the garden. They’re buzzing all over the place and scribbling like crazy.”

“Walter, how much did you drink last night?”

“Benny, you know me. I went to bed early and read.” 

“That leaves this morning, even though it’s pretty goddamned early.”

“Benny, just come over and look at this.”

Benny puts the phone down and rubs his eyes.

*

Benny swaps pajamas for sweat pants and a NASA T-shirt. He doesn’t bother with what little hair remains on his head and slips on a pair of crocs and walks out his front door, across the silent cul-de-sac, and up the path of brick pavers to Walter’s front door. He enters without knocking. He walks through the house to the kitchen. Walter nods a greeting and hands him a cup of coffee. 

Benny looks out the bay window of Walter’s kitchen. A cloud of fifteen to twenty hummingbirds hover and dart in mysterious choreography above the smooth cobbles he and Walter hauled up from the gravel pit along the Kenai River to border Walter’s lawn. Past the rocks, the yard gives way to cow parsnip, watermelon berry, and then a tangled mass of spruce. 

Benny sips coffee. “I wonder what they’re up to out there.”

Walter shrugs. “They don’t seem to like the sun.”

The two men contemplate the hummingbirds, the variously colored glints of sunlight sparkling off the seething mass of their tiny bodies as they work their equations toward the rocks that are still shaded by the spruce growing behind the house. 

After a few more sips of coffee, Benny says, “No. I guess they don’t.” 

“Don’t what?”

“Like the sun.” Benny pauses. “It’s a little bit creepy.”

“It’s a big bit creepy.” 

Benny looks up at his friend, nodding his head. 

“It’s got me spooked,” Walter says. “Last time I checked hummingbirds didn’t do math. I feel like Mother Nature’s launched some kind of Manhattan Project in my backyard.” 

“You have to admit, there has been some provocation.” 

Walter doesn’t say anything. Then, “That is one way of putting it.”

Benny finishes his cup of coffee. “Did you say something about breakfast on the phone?”

“You know I didn’t, but let’s see what I’ve got lying around.”

*

“Hummingbirds migrate, you know.”

Benny says this as Walter scrambles eggs, the fork ticking against the metal bowl. Walter makes no response. “Some cross the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to the Yucatan. They can fly thirty miles an hour, sixty in a dive.”

Butter sizzles as Walter pours the egg mixture into a pan. “Does this catalog of facts have a point?”

“Just that these are formidable animals.” Benny watches Walter stir the stiffening eggs, then presses the lever on the toaster.

Benny and Walter eat scrambled eggs on sourdough toast and drink another cup of coffee. Outside, the day grows warmer.

Moving slowly, the two friends leave the house and walk with bowed heads along the rock border of the garden, trying to decipher the chalk on the rocks. The hummingbirds have abandoned the yard and moved into the cover of the spruce forest.

Benny is the first to speak. “You think the little buggers could write any smaller?”

“You’re looking at equations written by hummingbirds and complaining about font size? I have to tell you, Benny, it’s impressive to miss the point so widely.”

“I’m just saying.”

“You thinking, too, or just complaining?”

“I’m thinking about radios.”

“Radios,” Walter mimics.

“These equations…looks like they’re working with radio waves, how to build transmitters, or something along those lines.”

“Benny, come look at this.”

“What have you got?”

“It looks like a schematic, and I think it will make you think about caribou.”

Benny crosses the yard. “Not a lot of ‘bou left around here.” He says this to himself, thinking of hunting, near extinctions, reintroductions, and poaching. He looks toward the Cook Inlet. The water is out of sight behind the spruce, but the air carries a hint of salt along with the smells of the forest baking under the tireless vigil of the May sun.

Benny stands next to Walter next to a rock that is still shaded. The two friends look down. Walter looks at Benny.

 Benny looks at the rock for a long moment. “Well. That’s a caribou, all right.” After a pause, Benny says, “And a transmitter.”  

Walter peers into the spruce. Benny follows his gaze. They see flashes of color, the movements quick and sharp with an angry, almost martial air about them. 

“Benny, what do you think of getting another cup of coffee and thinking about this inside. I think we might be onto something we shouldn’t be.”

Benny nods. “Maybe we could fortify that coffee a bit.”

“I think we will.” The two friends retreat to the house. 

Deep in the spruce, small, quick darts of color swarm a collection of electronics painstakingly collected from trash heaps and unattended construction sites. Its form corresponds to the drawings on the rocks in the yard.

“Don’t worry,” one hummingbird says to another, “the two humans won’t be able to resist coming back for another look. We’ll take care of them then.”

***

Note: This prompt was supposed to be “hummingbird moth,” but I misread my own handwriting and so Cami and I wrote on “hummingbird math.” I enjoyed the result, I hope you did as well. Feel free to let me know in the comments—good, bad, or whatever you like.

Leave a comment with a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location and I will write a story based on your prompt and tag you when I publish it.

Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash