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The Ivory Hummingbird

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov's, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in August 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

My mother stored her magic in expensive trinkets, and she brought them out to flaunt her power whenever I came to visit. Her newest acquisition was a hummingbird, carved out of ivory, with a red ruby embedded in its throat. It was a beautiful work of art, but all I could think of was the elephant that had died so some poacher could profit.
"Watch," she told me. The hummingbird's ruby throat started to glow, and the ghostly bird took off and zipped across the room, attracted by an Edo period painting of cherry blossoms. Mom laughed at the bird's confusion as it tried to drink from two-dimensional flowers. She noticed my grim expression and frowned. "What's wrong? When you were little you loved watching my magic."
"Nothing's wrong." I forced a smile. My mother meant well. She came by her collection legally, and saying something about the bird wouldn't bring the elephant back.
The hummingbird landed on the palm of her outstretched hand. The glow of the ruby dimmed, and the carving lost its ability to move. I reached out to touch the hummingbird, but Mom pulled her hand away.
"Touching the bird will break the illusion." She never let me touch any of her trinkets; she always had some excuse. Before, she used to tell me I was too young, but now it was the magic, her all-important illusions. Mom surrounded herself with beautiful pieces of art and ignored the rest of the world.
"Maybe it'd be good to take a break from your illusions." I put on my coat and walked to the door.
She put her hand on my shoulder. "The illusion isn't for me. It's for you."
"I'm not going to lock myself up indoors with a bunch of pretty things and avoid the real world, like you do." I hopped onto my bicycle and coasted down the hill into town. Halfway home, I noticed that my mother had sent her hummingbird flying after me. I stopped and held out my hand, but the hummingbird hovered a few feet above my head. I didn't know what my mother was up to--spying on me? I locked my bike outside my apartment and held my door open for the hummingbird. It landed on the kitchen counter and preened while I poured myself a glass of water and rummaged in the fridge for leftovers to eat for lunch.
I got out hummus and chopped some veggies, all the while pretending that the hummingbird wasn't there, but edging closer to that corner of the counter as I worked. When the bird had its head bent backwards to preen its tail I reached for it, but despite its awkward position the bird was too quick. It darted across the room, where it turned to face me, chittering and scolding.
I held up my hands, apologetic. "Sorry! I wasn't going to hurt you."
The hummingbird gave an indignant chirp and landed on the back of one of my dining room chairs. I loaded a pita pocket with hummus and veggies and stood at the counter to eat, trying not to spook the poor hummingbird further. Something on the counter caught my eye. A tiny feather.
If I touched it, would the illusion break?
The hummingbird noticed the feather at the same time I did and launched itself toward the counter, but I was closer. I covered it with my hand before the bird could snatch it away. This was my chance to see what my mother was hiding from me, the things she saw that I could not. With a nervous glance at the hummingbird, I lowered my palm until the feather was pressed against it. Separated from the bird, the feather had turned back to ivory, hard and cold.
I scanned my apartment, but nothing looked different. The hummingbird flew to the window and landed on the sill. What was the illusion that my mother had been so worried about me breaking?
"Come on," I said to the hummingbird. I held out my hand, palm up. "I've already touched the feather, so whatever it is about not being touched, you don't have to worry about it now."
The hummingbird ignored me. I slipped the ivory feather into my pocket and opened the apartment door. The hummingbird zipped outside ahead of me and disappeared in the direction of my mother's house.
I got on my bike and followed, huffing and sweating as I rode up the hill for the second time that day. I saw no sign of the hummingbird, but my mother's door was ajar. I knocked as I pushed it open. "Mom?"
She looked the same as always, sitting in her favorite chair, sipping a cup of tea.
"Why did you send the hummingbird with me?"
"Oh, I always send something with you when you go, to make sure you're okay."
"I'm not a kid anymore, Mom. I'm fine."
The hummingbird was back on its usual shelf, between a bone china teacup and a tortoise shell box. I felt guilty keeping the hummingbird's feather, especially since it didn't seem to do me any good in breaking whatever illusions my mother was casting. I reached into my pocket to take out the stray feather and return it, but when my fingers brushed against the ivory my mother's chair transformed into the body of an elephant, collapsed in a rotting heap in the corner of her sitting room, legs and head all curled in together, tusks removed.
I froze with my hand in my pocket.
My mother knew the cost of her trinkets, she'd always known. The illusions were to hide that from me, and all these years I've stayed silent instead of confronting her. Saying something about the hummingbird wouldn't bring the elephant back, but it might save the next elephant.
"Mom, we need to talk."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 30th, 2017

Author Comments

As part of the Clarion West Writeathon fundraiser, I offered my sponsors the opportunity to send me a list of 5-10 words, from which I would pick three and write a flash story. The words that inspired this story were: hummingbird, ivory, and bicycle.

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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