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The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights
between Virginia and the West I’d happened
on that particular museum. Any chance
I could, I’d leave my rented house in Lynchburg.
I hated the feeling of stuckness that old city’s humidity
implied. You need to stop running away so much,
Mrs. Jeffers would say when my visits were over
and I leaned down to hug her. Why her words
come to me, the woman dead for the better part
of this new century, while I think of that
nest of web and lichen, I cannot rightly say.
She had once known my mother’s parents.
The whole lot of them, even then, in their twenties,
must already have been as old as God. They were
black—the kind name for them in those days
would have been Negroes—and the daily elections
called for between their safety and their sanity
must have torn even the strongest of them down.
Mr. Jeffers had been a laborer. The sort, I regret,
I don’t remember. He sat on their front porch
all day, near his oxygen tank, waving occasionally
to passing Buicks and Fords, praising the black
walnut that shaded their yard. She would leave
the porch sometimes to prepare their meals.
I still have her yeast roll recipe. The best
I’ve ever tried. Mostly, though, the same Virginian
breeze that encouraged Thomas Jefferson’s
tomatoes passed warmly through their porch eaves
while we listened to the swing chains, and no one
talked or moved too much at all. Little had changed
in that house since 1952. I guess it’s no surprise
they’d come to mind when I think of that cup
of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers
of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it
right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him. I thought her small-minded. In the winter,
I didn’t visit very often. Their house was closed up
and overheated. Everything smelled of chemical
mothballs. She had plastic wrappers on the sofas
and chairs. Everyone must have once
held someone as old and small and precious as this.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology, and served as assistant editor for Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, a Sustainable Arts Foundation grant, and a fellowship from the NEA. Dungy is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.
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