As I got ready to leave town for 10 days, I worried about the baby hummingbirds near my porch.
I had watched them each day as they began to move around and make noise and ask their mother for food.
The day before I left, I heard a new sound.
A lizard had climbed high into the bougainvillea and was jamming its snout down into the teacup-size nest. The two baby birds were squeaking and chirping and scrambling to avoid their attacker.
I reached for the lizard. He jumped to a lower branch, then scampered to a hiding place at the base of the tree.
I went back to check the nest. The hatchlings were agitated, but unharmed.
I didn’t feel good about leaving town. The lizard knew where the nest was. There was nothing to stop him from returning the next day.
So I went and tracked him down.
It was evening. The lizard was in the leaves next to the rose bushes.
“Look, that wasn’t cool,” I said. “The thing with the nest.”
“Up there,” I said, “you trying to eat the baby hummingbirds.”
“I wanted to see the nest,” the lizard said.
“That doesn’t feel super truthful,” I said.
“It’s my truth.”
“Oh jesus. For real?” I said.
“‘My truth’ — all that crap. I didn’t know that’s in the garden too.”
“I can see that for a fascist, it might be frightening that others might see the world differently from him,” said the lizard.
“Fascist?” I said. “Because I didn’t want you to eat baby hummingbirds?”
“Because you’re out here trying to control everyone,” the lizard said, “deciding who’s allowed to see the nest, who isn’t.”
“You weren’t going to see it. You were going to eat the babies.”
“Why are you so obsessed with eating hummingbirds?” the lizard said. “It almost seems like you’re the one who wants to eat them.”
“I don’t eat any animals at all, let alone baby birds.”
“La-dee-da,” the lizard said.
“I’m not bragging,” I said. “I’m just stating a fact. I’m vegan.”
“Cool, so is that another rule the rest of us have to follow? No one eats any animals because you don’t eat any animals?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Right. You just tried to grab me instead,” the lizard said. “For the sake of argument, what if I was trying to eat the birds? Then what? Is it your job to protect them?”
“It’s not a job,” I said. “I just care about them. I’ve watched them grow up.”
“They’re like three days old,” the lizard said.
“But I watched the mom build the nest. And sit on the eggs. And I saw the babies right after they hatched. I feel … invested.”
“Are you going to be their bodyguard forever?” the lizard said. “What happens when they leave the nest one day?”
“When they leave the nest,” I said, “they’re on their own.”
“Ahh, so there are borders to Fascist Land.”
“Look,” I said, “you can keep saying that word as much as you want. I reject it entirely. I was looking out for tiny brand-new baby birds. Which you were about to eat. And as long as we’re on the subject, I want to tell you that I’m leaving town tomorrow and I’ll be gone a couple weeks. My wife’s cousin will be staying here, and she too feels strongly about the baby birds. I am going to bring her up to date on all this, completely.”
“Is she grabby too?” the lizard said.
“I’m not grabby. And I’m not a fascist. You can go anywhere else in the yard, you can eat whatever you want. Just not the baby birds.”
So that was our conversation. And I didn’t feel great about it. The look on the lizard’s face was sort of neutral and smug.
When I returned home 10 days later, the first thing I did was check the nest. There was just one juvenile bird. No sign of the sibling or the mom.
The next day I got to watch the young bird learning to fly. It took short trips from one part of the yard to the other. At first I thought it was injured, but then I realized that it was just brand-new to flying.
Eventually I saw the mom join her child at the center of the yard. The fledgling was resting on the ground. The mom hovered in the air right beside the child, as if to say, “C’mon, it’s fun! Give it another try!”
I was entranced. I had never seen a bird learning to fly. But I still wondered. Where was the other one?
Had it been eaten by the lizard?
Had it already left the nest and successfully launched?
I saw the lizard the next day and asked him.
“Look who’s back,” the lizard said.
“I just want to know,” I said, “did you eat the other one?”
“Oh my god with the hummingbirds,” said the lizard. “Just admit it, you want to eat one.”
“Why was there only one bird when I got back? What happened to the other one?”
“I’m going to be honest,” said the lizard. “I don’t like your tone.”
“Did you eat it?”
“You really want to know?”
“Okay, so why don’t you go over to the pool filter in your massive, stupid swimming pool and check that before running through your whole fascist routine again.”
I felt sick to my stomach as soon as the lizard mentioned the pool filter.
I ran to the plastic plate covering the filter basket. I yanked it open. The missing bird was floating in the leaves, branches, and debris which had accumulated while I was gone.
The bird had landed in the pool during one of its own early attempts at flight, and then never gotten out.
I felt sad — and deeply ashamed. I had known the pool was a death-trap. That was why I spent so much time checking it for bees, ladybugs, and anything else which might fall in, even lizards. But then I’d left town, and I hadn’t even thought of the pool as a threat to the birds.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” the lizard said.
He had followed me to the side of the pool. He was perched on the long yellow deck chair with old metal railings. He watched me clean off the bird and then lay it on a leaf.
“Was it really awful?” I said. “Was the mother going crazy?”
“She was trying to figure out what she could do,” the lizard said. “But listen … stuff happens.”
“It’s my fault,” I said. “I need to get a cover for the pool.”
“It’s not your fault,” the lizard said.
“I’m sorry I accused you of eating it,” I said.
“It’s okay,” the lizard said. “The truth is, that was why I went up there that day — I was going to eat them.”
“Did you try again when I left town?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because by then I knew they were important to someone.”
“I’m really sad,” I said.
“I know,” said the lizard.
I thanked the lizard and said goodbye. I stood up and took the tiny, waterlogged corpse to a secret corner of my yard where my dog is buried. I dug a hole for the hummingbird beside a lantana bush blooming orange and yellow.
I apologized to the bird for my negligence, for not covering the pool. I told the bird I was laying it to rest beside my best friend of all time, my dog Boomer. I said it was the most special place I could think of. Then I laid the tiny bird down and covered it with dirt.
I get why people bury loved ones. You want to be able to visit them and talk. And apologize.