–From Summer Story, by Mary Oliver
Glossy hummingbirds have always flocked to my mother’s huge garden, to my delight and marvel. As a child, I mused about the paradox they represented. How could they flap their wings so fast yet hover so effortlessly? In their pulsating stillness, these fickle creatures seemed just like those moments that people always talk about; the moments when time moves so quickly yet seems like it has stopped. As I grew older, my fierce curiosity with hummingbirds was replaced with an insatiable wanderlust. The summer after my junior year of high school, I seized the opportunity to travel to México with my Spanish class.
After exiting the tarmac in México City and sweeping through customs, I stepped into the soft night air, marked with the unmistakable scent of a big city. For the next leg of our journey, my classmates and I boarded a bus that transported us to our final destination of Cuernavaca, a city reached by way of a serpentine, mountainside highway. During the drive, I fixed my eyes on México City which slowly grew fainter as the bus chartered us forward. The city lights glistened under the inky black sky, like scattered diamonds waiting to be collected, just like the memories I soon gathered of this new, mystifying place. My forehead pressed against the window while my breath fogged up the glass, inviting my finger to trace a small heart on the window. That heart soon faded, but the mark México would leave on mine…I had no idea what was in store for me.
One day, my school group visited the town Tepoztlán, which is located at the base of a mountain. My amigos and I climbed the mountain first, with plans to explore the city after our high-altitude adventure. The blazing sun and craggy terrain made for a difficult hike and I took a warranted, breezy respite at the summit. I perched on a Maya ruin on the mountaintop, gazing down at the spectacular labyrinth of Tepoztlán, soaking in the beauty of such a majestic country, brimming with a vivacious and vibrant culture.
After my fellow gringos and I descended the mountain, and we snaked our way through the streets to reach the market. We hustled ourselves into the throng of other students honking in English and street vendors twittering in Spanish. I wanted to buy something special to commemorate my time abroad, and I had plenty of pesos tucked in the folds of my passport. I figured a simple piece of jewelry I could wear daily would service my desire. My group weaved through the market, and beneath feathery, fluttering banners of papel picado and fresh laundry, there was a rickety jewelry stand layered with beautiful silver jewelry. An elderly couple, both with faces crossed with laugh lines and set with kind eyes, guarded the stand.
Eager to practice my Spanish, I greeted the vendors and inquired about both them and the jewelry.
“All is from Taxco,” the man said, “Check for the stamps, they are there; all is authentic.”
I appraised the rings I found stacked on the corner of the stall. Then my eyes landed on a ring cast of small hummingbirds, my childhood muse.
“Gracias, señor,” I murmured. I slipped the ring on my finger, and I instantly knew it belonged there. “It’s beautiful. How much does it cost?” I asked, knowing it was an arbitrary question because I would pay whatever it cost me, nor would I choose to barter the hummingbird ring down; I had to have it.
“170 pesos.” That was approximately 17 American dollars, a price that I felt undercut the value of the ring now resting on my left middle finger, glinting in the sun like a hummingbird’s sleek feathers in the midday sun.
I wordlessly slipped my hand into my bag and drew out my crumpled bank-issue envelop with my pesos, and handed the man a 200 peso note. He fumbled in his battered cash box, and smiled as he reached over his unsold wares that would surely become someone else’s treasures to give me my change.
“That is 20 pesos extra,” he said, nodding with satisfaction as I took my change.
I do not know why he gave me extra change; perhaps took pity on me because I looked so bedraggled from my mountain climb or maybe because I actually carried on a short conversation without making any grammatical mistakes, earning his respect and two more American dollars for myself. Perhaps the transaction for this ring was just markedly special for some unknown reason.
A few days after the day trip to Tepoztlán, my American friends and I flew home. I remember sitting in the airport terminal, translating snippets of passing conversation while recalling the moments which seemed to pass so quickly yet remain still, locked in my memories forever. I thought about how mouthwatering the sweet bread concha is, how much my conversational Spanish had improved, and how much I would miss the new amigos I had made. I reflected on how much México resonated with me, but I considered more than just my experiences.
What could I do to come back? What could I do to see more of this world? What could I do to have more compelling memories? So it was with my hummingbird ring and these heavy thoughts that the plane touched down on an American tarmac.
Soon the rest of the summer passed, and my memories of México settled into a comfortable hum in the back of my mind. My senior year of high school started, and I enrolled in AP Art History. One of the historical topics was ancient Mesoamerica, which meant my teacher devoted a few days to the ancient Aztecs. We discussed Huitzilpochtli, one of the cornerstone figures in Aztec mythology and art. His name, from the Aztec Nahuatl language, means “left-handed hummingbird.” He is the god of war; he is the fighter.
As my teacher continued lecturing on Aztec mortuary art, I glanced down at my left-handed hummingbird ring from México. It felt surreal, to have purchased a trinket that shrouded so much meaning. The back of the dimly lit classroom vanished, and I mindlessly transported myself back to that moment in the market of Tepoztlán. It was one of those moments adults always talked about; it passed so quickly and yet it remains still in my mind, even to this day. I realized the moments I had heard about were true. Every day in México passed swiftly, yet every day seemed still, just like how hummingbirds pass their time. I realized that these kinds of moments are exactly like Huitzilpochtli too: the paradoxical, hummingbird-like ones are the ones worth fighting for.
Three years later, my ring is still in place and I have successfully sought out more of these hummingbird moments, though in Mérida, México.
Note: The author adapted this post from an essay she wrote as a freshman in college for Professor Aitken at the University of Minnesota, which speaks for the work’s “younger” voice. She credits Aiken as her most significant mentor as a writer, although Emily did not fully actualize creative writing as a serious interest until two years after enrolling in Aitken’s course.