I thought I knew what it was to be afraid. I thought I knew it when I was ten and realized I didn’t like girls in the same way all the other little boys seemed to. I thought I knew it when I was fourteen and had my first kiss with Stacey Andrews behind the school and felt absolutely nothing. I thought I knew it when I was sixteen and couldn’t lie to myself anymore.
I was sure I knew what fear was the first I said I was gay out loud to my parents.
Dad left the room and Mom sat very still in her chair, her eyes downcast and fixed on the arm of the sofa. She was quiet for a long time, until I wanted to beg her to speak, to say something, anything, but my own throat was too tight to let any words pass. Finally, she looked up.
“Do you know why I call you and your brother and sister and father my hummingbirds?” She asked softly.
I shook my head, a jerky, nervous motion. I’d never thought much about the nickname, it was one she had always used. I had just thought it was because she liked the small, colorful birds.
“Because a group of hummingbirds is called a charm,” she said, “and my life has never been so charmed as when I met your dad and had you kids. God gave each of you to me exactly as you were meant to be and I will never love you any less for being who you are. I don’t care who you bring home, James, I only care that you are loved and you are happy.”
When Dad returned to the living room, he found Mom and me hugging and crying and he snorted before retaking his seat in his recliner, a sandwich and beer in his hands.
“You manage to get it all out?” He asked around a mouthful of food.
“Oh shush,” Mom said, wiping her eyes.
“What?” I looked between them, uncertain and still a bit on edge since Dad hadn’t really reacted yet.
“We’ve suspected for years, Jimmy,” Dad said plainly. “Mom’s had that speech prepared for a while in case you came out.”
“I just wanted you to know that we love you no matter what,” Mom gave Dad the stink eye and he shrugged.
“You still the same Jimmy you been the last seventeen years?”
“Y-yeah,” I said.
“Then do you need me to give you some kinda monologue about how nothing has changed and you’re my son and the only thing I’ve ever cared about is your happiness?”
“No,” I said and the beginning of a smile tugged at my lips. He’d said everything I needed to hear under the guise of a gruff dismissal.
“Alright then, can I finish my show?”
Even with their support, the fear I thought I’d known didn’t go away. It just got bigger, changed into something new. It was no longer a hypothetical fear of “What if people know”; it was now “They know, what will they do?”.
Not everyone I came out to was so accepting, and not everyone kept it to themselves. I lost friends, lost my spot on the swim team, had rumors started about me. I received threats and anonymous notes in my locker telling me go kill myself. As far as I knew, I was the only gay kid in our small school and some of the other students made it their mission to let me know just how isolated I was.
I endured though, with the help of my siblings and my parents and the friends that I still had, and I graduated high school with a full scholarship to a state university hours away from my hometown. It felt safer there, more accepting, and everything I’d lost to the small minds I’d left behind, I regained quickly; my confidence, my happiness, a sense of belonging.
Little by little, that fear that I carried with me started to fade into background noise, still there, but out of focus. I did well in my classes, discovered a previously untapped love of computer science that led to a change in my major, joined a programming club with some of my classmates, I even went on a few dates with a guy I met in my dorm.
“I knew you’d do great, hummingbird,” Mom told me over the phone during our weekly phone call. “Shout out if you need anything, ok? I love you!”
My first semester was an amazing time and I was able to put a lot of high school’s negativity behind me.
And then Dad called.
There’d been an accident when Mom was on her way from work. A drunk driver going too fast down the wrong way hit her head on. He lived. She didn’t.
I went home for the funeral. I helped carry my mother’s casket. I tossed a calla lily, her favorite, into her grave after she’d been lowered in. I accepted the whispered sympathies and apologies of the mourners in line with my family. I listened to my dad sob alone in his room for the first time in my life that night.
But I didn’t cry. My grief was sharp and constant and there were moments I thought I’d suffocate beneath it, but for some reason, I couldn’t cry. I just lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling and thinking of my mom and how different life was going to be without her.
A week later, I hugged my dad and my brother and my sister and I went back to college.
Things changed quickly even though I didn’t mean for them to. I was distracted and flighty and I lost interest in my schoolwork. My dorm room suddenly felt like a cage and I paced restlessly with a constant need to be on the move, to be busy and unthinking. I got my hands on a fake ID, something I’d never even considered before, and started going out to clubs and bars with older friends.
I drank too much, stayed out too late, ignored the little nagging voices in my head that said I needed to get back on track. Every night was spent out, every day spent in bed, hungover and ill, but I just kept doing it. There was freedom in recklessness, pain and remembrance both far away things, and I hid from Mom’s death in the bottom of any bottle I could get my hands on.
I was a sloppy, careless drunk. I was an easy target.
It was just after two AM. I had stumbled out of the club after a fight with my not-quite-boyfriend, who had become concerned with my drinking, and was stomping back towards campus. I had just wanted to have a good time, and he’d ruined the whole night. I made it a couple blocks before dizziness and nausea overtook me and I had to rest against the side of a building while the world spun around me.
I hadn’t realized I was being followed until someone’s fist slammed into my stomach.
The taunts seemed to come from all directions, ones I naively thought I had escaped: queer, fag, cock sucker. Something about me “gaying up their club” and how nobody wanted to see a couple of guys making out. I was able to focus enough to see it was two of them, obviously a bit drunk themselves, egging each other on and taking turns hurling insults. Trying to walk away just riled them further.
The street, a quiet row of closed shops and dark alleyways, was empty and the punch had sobered me just enough to know I was in a very bad position. I tried to run, hoping if I could back to a better populated place, they’d be scared off, but my legs were like jello and the ground pitched and heaved unsteadily.
It didn’t take long for them to catch me.
I was dragged back to a car, where one of them kept me pinned against the backseat, out of sight from the window, while the other sped off. They cheered and mocked and shouted the whole, long drive, taunting me with things they planned to do to me.
The car was parked alongside a long, unlit road and they dragged me between them, down a ravine, into the thick line of dark trees.I begged and pleaded, tried to pull away, but they were too strong.
I had thought I knew what it was to be afraid. I learned a whole new level of fear that night.
I was afraid of my helplessness and of the pain. I was afraid of all the blood and the cracking bones and of the way one eye swelled shut and I couldn’t see. I was afraid of the things they said and even moreso of what they did.
I was afraid I was going to die.
I think they thought I had. I faded in and out of consciousness and, every time I came to, I thought this was it, the last time I’d wake up. Their torture lasted until the sun started to come up and the alcohol had fully worn off and they could finally really see what they had done to me. I couldn’t move, could barely breathe, and I just lied there with only a single thought, shouted out in a child’s wounded voice, echoing in my head: Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.
They swore and spit on me and laughed still, but there was a nervousness now.
“What do we so with him?” One asked.
“We gotta get rid of him.”
“Let’s just leave him.”
“You want to get caught and let this fag ruin our lives? We gotta get rid of the body. There’s some shovels and shit at my house. We’ll get them and come back.”
They argued all the way back to the car. It roared into life in the distance and there was a squeal of tires and then they were gone and I was alone. All I could smell and taste was iron, all I could feel was fire and ice. My sight was hazy. Tears leaked freely from my eyes, stinging in hot trails down my face as darkness seeped into my mind again, accompanied by that same little boy voice calling out for his mommy.
Something brushed against my cheek. Despite how soft it was, it sent an electric shock of agony up my broken face and instinctively, I pulled away, which only sent more waves of pain rolling through me. It did it again and I let out a gurgling groan. Again and again, it kept touching my cheek until I opened my eye and searched feverishly for the source of my torment.
A hummingbird, bright green and red even in my bleary vision, was hovering over me.
It turned its tiny head this way and that and then whizzed in a fast circle around me, chirping wildly. When I didn’t move, it was at my face again. Very gently, but deliberately, it poked the end of my nose with its beak. I sputtered at the touch, which might as well have been a fist upon my broken nose, and it fluttered in place just above me, its wings beating too quickly for me to keep up.
When I still didn’t move, it poked me again and again, until I pushed myself on to my stomach to keep it away from my face. But it was persistent and kept needling at me, beating at my head with its wings, chirping and swooping. I could barely stay conscious and didn’t know what to make of my newest attacker.
It went on and on, and I dragged myself a little bit away in an exhausting, excruciating attempt to get it to leave me alone.
But then a second hummingbird joined it, buzzing around my head and jabbing its beak into my scalp and neck. I couldn’t lift my arms to swat at them, I could only grab at the ground and wiggle my way forward while the pair took turns dive bombing me.
A third appeared, and then a fourth, and they were all over me, until I was screaming weakly at them to stop. Their chirps were loud and endless and ringing and they picked at my clothes and hair and drilled their tiny beaks into my flesh. Every time they connected was like nails raking across my skin. When I tried to lay still and cover my head, it only got worse, they became agitated and louder, more violent. They only let up when I hauled myself away, inch by agonizing inch. When I stopped, they’d dive again.
For such tiny birds, they were able to inflict a great deal of pain.
More still came, until the air seemed alive with buzzing, vibrating wings and chirps that turned to screeches. They surrounded me, buffeting me and poking and prodding and screaming, and I kept trying to move forward and escape, but they followed, unrelenting. If I tried to turn off in a different direction, they’d swoop as one against my side until I was forced back on to my original path.
Every tiny movement hurt in ways I’d never imagined, but it was worse to be still, when the hummingbirds would attack, and so I did my best to keep my head down and to keep moving, to try and find some shelter from the birds. It seemed an endless, hellish hunt for relief.
It wasn’t until I felt the warmth of open sunlight on my battered body that I dared to look up.
Somehow, impossibly, I had managed to crawl from the cover of the woods into the open ravine. There were cars speeding past overhead. There were people who could help me. I tried to shout, but I had no voice, no strength, and I slumped against the ground, praying for someone to notice.
Overhead, the hummingbirds had risen in and circled where I lay until they looked like a tornado of shining feathers.
Cars started to slow and then a few pulled over. People were getting out of their car and taking pictures and admiring the hummingbirds, which started to swoop again so close that I could feel the rush of wind as they passed.
“Hey, is that…there’s a person down there!” I heard someone say distantly.
“He’s right!” Someone else agreed.
As a handful of people started to slide down the ravine towards me, the hummingbirds rose once more and disappeared back into the tree line, until only one was left. It had settled on a thin branch and was watching with sparkling black eyes.
An ambulance was called and, as I was loaded onto the gurney and carefully carried back to the ravine’s slope, that final hummingbird sang one more time and the took off.
I was in the hospital for weeks recovering. I gave my statement to the police, tried to remember everything I could about the two who had almost killed me, and then I focused on healing. It took me a long time to shake the anger, longer to start overcoming the fear, and it was only then that I started to think of those hummingbirds.
Those hummingbirds who had pushed me forward. Those hummingbirds who had ensured that I didn’t stop and give up. Those hummingbirds, who had made sure I survived.
Everyone else who was there that day agrees it was a miracle that those hummingbirds happened to be there when I was to attract people’s attention. They say that they were my lucky charm. I disagree, though.
Shout out if you need anything, she had told me during our last phone call, and I had done just that, crying out in my mind for her when I needed help, just as I always had.
No, it hadn’t been a miracle that saved me.
It had been my mom.