Drummer in the Dark
by Kristin Berger

On the day I first heard about the new species of fairy shrimp discovered in Idaho, a female Rufous hummingbird was making her early spring rounds through our yard. Due to the overrun cat population in our neighborhood, people rarely put out feeders for the birds. Instead, the hummingbirds have found a colorful network of flowering bushes and trees to nourish their winter-starved bodies. A few Ruby-throats endure the rains through December and January, as there is almost always something blooming here in the Pacific Northwest, some insect that suits them. In our yard all hummingbirds come to the wildly pink flowering currant, a bush that gives off its own heat and rosy light on the darkest, wettest day.

The currant surrounded me that late, February afternoon with its whip-thin veins and capillaries reaching, like being in the heart of a live creature. Each branch ended in a perfect Japanese arrangement of new leaf, closed bud, and opened cup. The rain had stopped and left its syncopated dripping behind. A murmuring of wings began, a concentrated buzzing of bird-business, then a pause. The Rufous was back from its South American retreat and was resting somewhere within the tangle. She remained where she could safely keep an eye on me. I decided to give her a private welcome-home meal and tiptoed back to the house.

As I opened the door to the warm kitchen with a handful of coral-pink cuttings from the currant, I heard the report on the radio. A new species of fairy shrimp had been discovered in a dry lakebed in Idaho, the first new species to be recorded in North America in years. It had actually piqued scientists' interest years before, but no one was able to make a positive identification. The search had halted in a desk drawer for ten years, as dormant as the shrimp themselves through the dry seasons in Idaho.

But now the species had been identified, categorized, and labeled and was one of the largest inland shrimp species ever recorded. When the rains fill up the lakebeds, the shrimp feed furiously, mate efficiently, spawn the next generation, and die, all within a matter of weeks. They take their cues from the terrain and the weather, living whole lives quickly and fully without being detected, proficient in surviving life in a landscape as harsh as the high desert. They had been eluding attention and spending their furtive existence in a place few would ever find themselves looking: at the edge of the practice bombing grounds of the Idaho National Guard.

It saddened me to think that now that the shrimp had been "discovered;" it would have to prove its right to continue to live on land already spoken for. The act of recognizing a new species could add much to our body of knowledge and provide another layer of beauty to the complex world around us, yet it could also mean that mystery's doom. When we gaze upon the new or the rare, we light the way to what has remained elusive, solitary, and whole, then judge its worth. Would the shrimp survive such human-centered scrutiny, especially during this age of Homeland Security? The reporter asked a National Guard representative if bombing practice would continue.

My daughter, Alice, an 18-month old toddling force and as curious as the cat, spied the rough bouquet in my hands and my set-aside shoes. She ran to the front door and brought back her own new pair.

"Mama's inside now. I brought these flowers for our table. Would you like to help Mama put them in a vase?" I asked, wanting to hear more about the shrimp. She shook her head then shook the shoes at me.

"She saw you through the window," my husband said over his shoulder. "Why don't you take her back out while I finish up with dinner? It'll be a good distraction." I could sense his hurriedness at trying to cut vegetables and keep a toddler entertained at the same time. I put the branches in a pint glass of water, helped Alice with her shoes and slipped mine back on. She sang at the top of her lungs, doubly pleased to also be wearing her yellow raincoat. Like so many conversations, thoughts and pieces of music, the radio report would remain half-heard, half-understood, for a while.

Alice walked ahead of me to the backyard, under the blooming arch the bush had created over the pebble path. In that winter-spring, rose-infused light, I was witness to her small feet finding their unsteady way toward blooms that I had already visited, but that for her would be brand new, as if they never existed until then. And in a way, that was true. There would never again be this late afternoon with the two of us on this path, her young and me not so young, and more rain charcoaling the clouds to the west. But for a short while, with childhood surrounding her like a magical cloak, these flowers and this path would be experienced as if for the first time. She would never tire of putting on the new blue shoes with the red laces and tromping off. I would have to be willing to follow her lead.

Just as we passed the ferns, their old brown fronds curled and rain-heavy, we heard a soft whirring. "Alice!" I whispered, crouching next to her face. "Look up!" She followed my pointed finger until she saw the Rufous darting in and out of the bush. The hummingbird stopped at each outstretched branch like she was trimming the tree with her own touch, a garland of beak blessings. "BIRD-A!!!" Alice cried. The Rufous zipped to the back of the bush, startled and again hidden.

We stayed as still as an excited young birder and her guide could until the Rufous had cautiously circled back towards us. When her sepia-brushed body came to the tip of the closest bloom, I held my breath for all three of us. Here was the smallest of birds finding the food she needed, with no help from us (except for providing the bush). She extracted the energy she needed from each blossom, enough to fuel her body, and take with her only what she could hold. No storage tanks of nectar, no reserves nearby. I envied both her and the fairy shrimp, living lives barely detectable, yet as gracefully simple as a baby nursing from her mother.

At what point do we live beyond our means? When do we say enough is enough and trust the world will provide? And how do we reign in our attentions and affections so that what is before us is all that we need?

As we waited for the hummingbird to finish her evening meal, Alice looked down to what the rain had brought out in abundance—worms. Almost as exciting as quick, colorful birds, worms had the ability to stop her in her tracks and captivate her for whole minutes. While she placed them in her palms and giggled with their tickling, I looked north past the lunging sips of the Rufous, to where the fairy shrimp might be coming to life under these same Northwest rains. I imagined further on to where caribou clawed the tundra with their collective migratory will, thousands of them following ancient routes to the calving grounds they trust will be there for them, as always. I imagined their coming spring, their endless arctic evenings, the tender, indistinguishable mosses and lichen that they depended on for survival.

When the Rufous had finally disappeared from view, I led Alice like Gretel down the path, one worm to the next. We passed the dining room window, coated in steam from the boiled pasta and homemade sauce. A single red tapered candle burned next to the currant bouquet, lighting the hearth, lighting the way.

Later, as my husband passed the salad across the table, he filled me in on the radio report: the National Guard's field biologists, who had made the positive identification, said that, for now, the shrimp were safe. The lakebeds were not within the bombing grounds but still on land claimed by the Federal Government. I relaxed into the back of my chair and scooped the bright greens into my bowl. I tried to take in this good news as a balm to all the negative that usually swirled around us every night at dinnertime from the radio, to see it as a balance to at least some of the losses.

Here, at the cusp of night falling, our small family gathered. The cat and the dog curled up just beyond the candle's shadows. Alice ate contentedly, slurping her spaghetti and laughing. I looked out the window through the day's dim leftover light at the currant bush's shaggy presence. As reposed as a closed bud between storms, the Rufous rested on a branch, tucked into the tangle. Her profile slanted into a nearby leaf, nearly camouflaging her. And like the new opened leaves waiting for the next baptism of rain, the bird's heartbeat was a determined drumming of life, belonging. Alone, undetectable, except to the one on the other side of the glass, the one patient for just one more glimpse, ready for any sign.

Kristin Berger lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter and writes poetry, essays, and fiction. Her work has appeared in Hip Mama, The American Poetry Journal, The Comstock Review, and online at The Pedestal Magazine and mamazine.com. She recently won the New Poets Prize from the Oregon State Poetry Association.

Read Kristin's previously published feature and poem on mamazine.com.

feature added on 2006-04-09 :: ::

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