ContentsPutah and Cache: Capay Valley

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California Christmas IV

Rumsey Improvement Club Potluck

December 14, 1999

Will Baker

Santa would show up after the carols, so the designated hosts outdid themselves. The Rumsey Opera House (1903) was almost resplendent, with bright red berries and glossy green leaves of fresh toyon, candles inside glass goblets, clean tablecloths. Paper shades on the overhead bulbs made a softer light, the heater was working, and the piano was even tuned.

Oldtimers bustling in with their steaming casseroles or plates of carrot cake forgot to take an eyeball measure of how much further the structure had slouched to the east since the November meeting, and the pre-dinner stand-around talk ran lively and genial. Last week's spot of rain had brought a pale green flush to the mountainside burned over in August, and sunny days before and after had permitted zestful tractor and chainsaw work. There was even a nugget of gossip. One local couple had rearranged themselves. The guy had seen enough of California and hauled it back to Oregon. The lady told the news with a rueful laugh, looking smart in silver and black.

When people went for seconds on dessert, the President rang a glass and the meeting came, if not to order, at least to the level of room-wide badinage. The treasurer was not at the moment in possession of her notes, but announced a balance of around $87 more than whatever it was last month, the total of new dues and interest on the T-bill minus PG&E. The Secretary had her notes but suggested an edited-down version on this festive occasion, a gesture roundly applauded and so executed.

At the query for new business, the Salty Consort of our local backhoe man took the floor to ask for a poll of the membership on whether to ally ourselves with the Adopt-A-Highway program and police the two miles of State 16 that run past Rumsey. In the midst of this discussion my daughter Montana jerked my sleeve and hissed. "Dad . . . Dad! Lookit! Is it a toy?"

Montana and her seven year-old friend Hannah were looking at me, excited, and pointing at our table's centerpiece, the red toyon bunched around the candle. It was a moment before I saw the small, dark spot on the bubble of glass containing the flame. A slender needle projected from the spot. I forgot the Adopt-A-Highway option and leaned closer.

"It really does look real." Our neighbor Dru was leaning in from her side. "Hannah Rose says it moved."

Now I could see it was a tiny bird, fixed rigidly on the glass edge. I stretched out a finger and brushed the back, which was soft as raw cotton. I got very close, close enough to see an eye small as a fig seed, and in a while the eye blinked.

"It's alive isn't it! It's a hummingbird!"

So it was. A hummingbird. Flat on its back now in my palm, needle beak longer than a body hardly larger than an almond shell. Except for an occasional blink of the fig-seed eyes, it made no movement, the tiny claws sucked up almost out of sight into its belly. When I tipped this spoonful of bird just so, the head and shoulders flared a deep neon velvet purple, and the girls moaned in admiration.

"It's so pretty!"

"Why doesn't it fly?"

I thought I saw a subliminal pulsing of the little body, but the creature made no attempt to flutter or even to right itself. Somewhere I had read that hummingbirds consumed daily more than half their own weight in nectar, that their fierce, trip-hammer metabolism translated into a brief, uncertain existence, that they sometimes expired in their sleep from sheer exhaustion and undernourishment. "I don't think it can."

"Was it trying to get warm by the candle?"

"Maybe. But I think it's just weak. Probably dying. They can't live without sugar."


Adopt-A-Highway was still under discussion, but we were aware of a strong undercurrent of queries and exclamations. A bird? What? The hell! Who let it in? Over there where the kids are.

"Do we have any sodas left?"

"We got this." My son Cole gestured. "Martinelli's."

A 12-ounce bottle, about a third full. We found the cap and dribbled in a few drops.

"Don't know about the carbonation, but worth a try." I tilted the bird again, head slanted down, and with my other hand slid the bottle cap under the slender spike of beak until the nickel-sized pool of amber juice shivered with contact.

We waited. For about the space of six human heartbeats, nothing. Then the beak twitched, sudden as the flicker of a tiny D'Artagnan's foil, sending out a spray of droplets. I repositioned the cap to immerse the beak again, and this time there was a visible throb, a shimmer of purple at the throat. A second throb. Then the black wire of tongue twisted out and back.

"It's eating! It is! It's eating!"

"We seem to have a rescue operation, is this the case?"

I looked up to smile back at the President and nod while Cole filled the cap again.

"Good, good. Carry on. As long as we don't have to appropriate any funds." (General laughter.) "Do we want to have a signup sheet for the highway thing or . . . "

The bird's throat worked steadily on this fresh capful. There was no doubt it was drinking, and drinking deep. Three or four adults looked over my shoulder now.

"They're beautiful."


"Lot of 'em this winter."

"Gonna put 'im in your pocket, Will?"

But at a point and all at once our visitor metamorphosed into a familiar, tumultuous blur, exploding up out of my open hand and hurtling across the room, rising almost to the ceiling before veering down again, planing the tables, darting around the upflung hands of delighted children and then soaring again before finally nailing itself to the wall high up. In a few moments the pattern was repeated, even as RIC voted to adopt its two miles of highway and moved on to the main business, which was coaxing Corky to pick up his guitar and lead the carols.

But the music, wobbly and in several divergent keys, didn't help settle the bird, which kept circling and swooping, and seemed to lag lower with each tour of the big room. The program had staggered past He Rules The World and was nearing Jingle Bells—Santa's cue—but the children were preoccupied, anxious for their hummer. It was clinging again to that invisible wrinkle high on the sheer wall, perhaps worn down and frightened.

What to do? The manless lady in silver and black and her noseringed grown daughter slipped away into the night; and even as Santa ho-ho'd his way from table to table they slipped back bearing a plastic feeder charged with bright red sweet nectar. Working as backdrop, subplot, contrapuntal image, they teamed up at the other end of the hall, mounted first a bench then a window sill, and placed the feeder atop the old fashioned curtain hanger. A general rejoicing-for Santa, the kids, our simple gifts, salvation.

The kids lined up, took their place on Santa's lap to be quizzed on the record, blushed, seized their paperbag of knick-knacks, and bolted. About the time the teenagers and even their moms plumped down to mug ribaldly with the jolly old elf, someone pointed and exclaimed. The hummer had located the feeder, was perched on its rim, tail aloft. Cheers, wild applause. A shake of the black needle beak, another flash of purple.

Santa took his leave, ho-ho and goodby. In a clatter and chatter of cleanup, a rush and thrash of muff and scarf, the meeting was adjourned. We left the hosts to fold up the tablecloths, sweep up the ribbons and crumbs, and turn off the lights.

Two mornings later I called the lady in silver and black. She was happy to report they had checked on our hummer and found him present and perky. The vital red nectar would be replenished as needed. The weather was holding, plenty of sun through the high windows of our Opera House. It might, just might, be a pretty good year for us all.

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