by Corinna Underwood

That summer Ella’s heart transformed from a hot, pulsating vessel of life and love to a hardened, brittle block of ice. She walked on water for the first time. It was no miracle. As soon as her toes touched the ocean, a vast expanse solidified, and a polar bear romped outside the beach house with her cub.

She tried drinking scalding teas to thaw herself out but only managed to take the smallest sip before they too became solid. She hid herself away at the beach house where there were no friends to help her hold up under her sorrow because she was afraid that she would give them frostbite or that she would make their huge hearts crack and explode.

It was all because of Walter. One moment he was there with his booming laugh and his restless energy and the next there was silence and stillness. She would never have been ready to lose her husband, but to have him snatched away was a cruel twist that she could hardly believe. When she had begun to believe it, a tiny crystal of ice had formed in an instant between heartbeats, and it had steadily grown through her vital muscle.

Time heals, they say. Over the fireplace, Walter had hung a clock that always made Ella laugh because of its oversized face. But now it offered her no solace. Its hands were clenched into fists that sucker-punched her with every tick.

She stopped hearing the birds singing and her heart froze a little harder. Walter had loved the birds; there was every kind of feeder and nesting box in their small garden. He loved their sense of freedom he’d said. But the hummingbirds were his favorite, with their wings in a blur. Flying jewels he called them.

“I’ll come back as a hummingbird” he once said. And she had believed him. He knew everything about them and would feed her facts about them until she came to love them too. Now, she sat by the window watching the feeders, not daring to touch them lest she turned them into nectar popsicles. No hummingbirds came.

One morning she decided to go outside after all. She stepped out into the sunlight and noticed that her herb garden was in disarray. Walter had planted it for her on their first anniversary. He had laid the stone himself in the shape of a wheel with different herbs between the spokes.

“It’s the wheel of life,” he’d said. “Our life together.”

She began to pull out the weeds. Each one turned into a brittle starfish before releasing its hold on the earth. And tiny slivers of ice fell from Ella’s eyes onto the ground where they twinkled for a moment then disappeared.

Ella stood stretching her taut back and rubbing her stiff fingers. Suddenly her ears began to hum and she wondered if this was the end. Perhaps she would be locked in perpetual stasis; a broken-hearted tribute to cryogenics. But she realized the buzzing was not in her head. It was coming from inside the beach house where she had left the door standing open. It was so loud it had to be at least a small swarm of bees. But as she peered around the door there was no swarm, but the hum was louder. Then she saw it.

A tiny silhouette, stark against the windowpane where its wings blurred into seventy-eight beats each second. She watched its sapphire throat and emerald wings glisten in the sunlight like priceless silk. It suddenly stopped hovering and came to rest on the kitchen counter. Head cocked, it turned to her and their eyes met for a long moment.

Ella’s lips moved silently in a sound shape something like ‘water.’ She sat at the table on a throne of ice, wondering what to do, how to set the tiny bird free. But he seemed in no hurry to leave and she could not take her eyes off him. Then suddenly he took to the air again and began to fly at the window, beating its tiny body against the glass.

“Oh please, please stop!”

Ella jumped to her feet. She reached up to release the window’s catch but the pane only frosted over. The hummingbird turned, hovered at eye level for a moment then dived into Ella’s imploring hands. Before she could snatch them away, the bird had nestled in her cupped palm. She felt a tremor of fear through her whole body. The tiny bird held on tight, but it did not take on arctic whiteness like everything else she had touched. Instead, it seemed to pulsate, and she could feel its tiny heart beating at thirteen hundred and sixty beats per minute.

Ella felt a strange sensation in her palm. It seeped slowly up her arm to her shoulder. She realized that it was warmth. A warmth she hadn’t felt in three months. The hummingbird rose. It hovered so close to her cheek that she could feel the subtle draft from its wings. She felt a momentary flicker in her ear and watched as the bird floated to her still outstretched palm where something glistened. It dipped its head and sipped elegantly. Then at the crook of her elbow and the nape of her neck. Her skin was glistening everywhere and when she looked down at the floor there was a pool at her feet. Beneath the thrum of the hummingbird’s wings, she could hear her heart pound. The flying jewel darted out into the sunlight. Ella ran to the doorway and squinted in the bright sunlight. They were back. All of them. The finches, the sparrows, the buntings, and the hummingbirds.

In the evening, Ella walked down to the beach for the second time that summer and took a chance. She dove straight into the waves, wondering if they would close over her head in a sheet of ice. They did not. They felt soft and warm around her like Walter’s arms

Image by Domenic Hoffmann from Pixabay