Michele Young-Stone is the rare writer who can find beauty in the everyday and can create magic where we might not always expect to find it. Her work is at once delightful and complex, delving into issues both timeless and modern, such as identity, sexuality, and finding one’s place in a world that doesn’t always seem welcoming. Especially skilled at creating young adult characters who are facing complicated moments in their lives, Michele gives readers a window into her characters’ lives, but also a mirror in which to see themselves reflected. We have long been fans of Michele’s writing, and are honored that she has trusted us with this, an excerpt from her fourth novel still in-progress, The Hummingbird.
Cold Beet Soup
I’m not the young man I was two years ago. I was more boy than man then, doing everything I could to prove that my growth spurt, the deepening of my voice, and the hair sprouting from my chin, were meaningless. I wasn’t changing. I was the same old Georgie, but Mother didn’t think so. She claimed I’d become moody. She thought I was going to turn girl-crazy and abandon her.
Then one day, as if to cushion the blow of my pubescence, she turned up with three women she’d met in her yoga class: Kasia, Kinga, and Alicia, Polish transplants who lived side-by-side in a cul-de-sac across town. Between them, they had eight grubby children under the age of ten. I couldn’t tell the kids apart.
I was fourteen. I called Mother’s new friends the Polish Three. Mother said I was jealous of them. Of course, I was. Prior to their arrival, it’d been just the two of us.
The Polish Three brought their snot-nosed children to our house and expected me to watch them while they drank wine and taught my mother to make Polish soups and desserts. When they were giddy from the wine, they said that my mother was like family to them. “We love you, Mildred,” they said. They didn’t even know her.
It would turn out that I didn’t either, not how I thought I did. Maybe no child knows his parent. Maybe we don’t want to know.
Mother and I started selling chlodnik, cold beet soup, the prettiest pink you’ve ever seen, at the farmers market with the Polish Three. Mother was not Polish. I don’t know her origins. She looked like a painting abandoned, all whites and marigold except for the eyes, which were steely blue, more steel than blue. In the right light, her limbs were iridescent like the hummingbirds that gathered in our backyard. They arrived in early June in luminescent, vibrating clouds.
We had a dozen feeders. Mother filled them with nectar, boiling two cups of sugar for every eight cups of water. Our yard was landscaped with lemon and coral honeysuckle, trumpet flowers, salvias and columbines. As a boy, I imagined the whirring ruby-throated birds carrying fairies on their backs.
When I was twelve, one of the birds built her ping-pong ball size nest from spider silk on top of our kitchen windowsill. Although we couldn’t open the window, we got to see her babies hatch. There were two of them. The hatchlings were blind and bald, the size of dimes. We watched her feed them, her pointed beak thrusting deep inside their throats, which were like tissue paper. I’d been frightened they’d rip, but Mother assured me that the mama bird knew what she was doing. It was instinctual.
The mama came and went, feeding them throughout the day. By early August, the babies were plumper than their mother. They flew at her side as she took them from flower to flower and feeder to feeder until one day, they left the crowded nest, each on his own. The mother preened, her wings flickering. She hummed and waited. When her babies didn’t return, she left the nest. The seasons were changing. The spider silk wafted in the breeze. Mother removed the nest, cleaning and opening the window. A north wind whipped through the kitchen. Mother sucked in her lip, tears pooling in her eyes. I hugged her and said what she’d taught me: “Hummingbirds return to where they’ve found food. You know they’ll be back.”
She said, “You’re right,” but kept right on crying. She wiped her face on my sleeve and said, “Sorry, Georgie.”
I loved my mother.
It was Saturday, July 16th, twelve-thirty, when I sold our last bottle of chlodnik, the sun beating down, my neck sweating. I boxed the pickles and sauces that hadn’t sold. The Polish Three said they needed to go. Their babies needed naps. They’d come by the house later. They had a habit of doing that, leaving when there was any work to be done, except for the one called Kinga, who sometimes stayed behind, if she’d driven herself. On this day, she’d ridden with Alicia.
Kinga had short dark hair and green eyes. She and my mother were always whispering apart from the other two. It seemed like they’d known each other longer than Mother claimed, but I’d never seen Kinga before the day the three of them showed up with jars of buttermilk, baskets of beets, and bottles of wine, their children in tow.
Alicia, who had the largest and most expensive van that could accommodate the eleven of them and was thus the leader of the bunch, was blonde. She bleached her hair lighter than it actually was. Her eyes sparkled like blue crystals. She was bossy.
The last of the three was Kasia. She was the loudest with a boisterous laugh and snort which made her the most annoying.
I broke down the tent while Mother folded the tablecloths and stuffed packing between the bottles. I slid the tent into the wagon. Mother shined with sweat in the midday sun. A few hagglers, a staple of the market, loitered, hoping for freebies. Mother reached into the wagon for the unsold baguettes, handing them out.
Mother started the wagon and turned on the air conditioning. I climbed into the passenger seat. Her fingernails were silver. She’d painted them the night before. She glanced my way. She had both hands on the steering wheel. The emerald ring she wore flashed a yellow light on the car’s ceiling. We were three blocks from home, passing through the intersection of MacArthur and Sutton. Bowie sang, “The Man Who Sold the World.”
Mother said, “We should have breakfast for dinner tonight.”
I said, “We should watch The Big Sleep.”
She said, “It never gets old.” She could quote the whole film. She opened her mouth to say something else. The something else never got said. I remember a jolt, streaks of white light, a high-pitched noise, and then nothing, until I woke in a hospital bed where I imagined her reaching for me, her fingernails turning to liquid silver. We were back in the wagon. Her nails darted and hovered like hummingbirds.
Her seatbelt was broken. The buckle didn’t latch. The wagon hadn’t passed inspection. She had thirty days to get it fixed. It was on her to-do list. I imagined she flew across my lap and through the open window, but I don’t know. I imagined her wheat-like hair splayed across the pavement and stained with blood. I imagined the most awful things.
There was a man with a badge who spoke in slow motion. He said that an autopsy would be performed. He used hard words like blunt-force trauma, vehicle and ejected. I didn’t know if he was a real man or part of a bad dream. I wished for the latter.
He said that there was a woman with a foot heavy on the gas pedal, on her way to dead, no oxygen flowing to her brain when she went through the traffic light. I thought he said glowing to her brain, and I apparently asked him about it.
The man, whose name was Detective Walden, I would later learn, said, “The woman had a stroke.” I heard the xylophone sound from the Bowie song, but it was a different song. My arm and head hurt. The pain radiated along my limbs and settled in my chest and neck. Someone, a doctor or a nurse, said that I had a fractured ulna and a concussion. Those wouldn’t explain the pain in my chest.
When I was alone, I waited to wake up. I called to her. I got out of bed. Someone came and put me back where they said I belonged. I don’t know how much time passed before a second detective came. His name was Arguillez. He said, “What can you tell us about your mother, son?”
She’s a writer. She writes children’s books under a pen name. She likes Nina Simone and coffee ice cream. She likes Peter Falk as Detective Columbo. She likes Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe. She practices yoga. She’s funny and smart. She says, “Jesus Christ,” a lot. She loves animals. She’s a vegetarian.
I didn’t tell him anything.
He said, “The kid’s in bad shape. I’ll come back later.”
Kasia, Kinga, and Alicia came. They circled the bed like witches. Kinga opened a blue bottle, one of her tinctures, and rubbed the oil behind my ears. She said, “It’ll do more for what’s ailing him than this place.” Then, she cried, her face streaked with mascara. Alicia or Kasia told her to cut it out. She wasn’t helping the situation. She came back a few more times. I remember Kinga being there without the other two despite the gauzy texture of the days.
In and out of consciousness, I imagined a film-noir funeral. Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart were there. Orson Welles was in the foreground directing. The Polish Three wore veiled pillbox hats. Wide, silver-spoked umbrellas popped open as the rain poured down. It’s all a dream. It has to be a dream, I thought.
Detective Arguillez returned to the hospital to inquire about a next of kin. It was like he was speaking Polish. I didn’t understand. I don’t know why I never thought it odd that there was no one but us, but I never did. Mother and I were a duo, like Bogart and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy, only we weren’t lovers, so more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only we weren’t criminals, so Batman and Robin, but we didn’t fight crime. We were mother and son. We were everything to the other.
Sometime later, Arguillez and another detective returned. There was a frustration in Arguillez’s voice. “Tell us about your family. Tell us what you know… Tell us something, son.” I knew that my father was an anonymous sperm-bank donor. I knew that my grandparents were killed in a plane crash on their way home from a holiday in Puerto Vallarta. These were the things I’d been told my whole life.
Detective Arguillez said, “Do you understand that your mother is dead?” He wrote something down and showed it to the other detective.
I don’t think I fully understood, but I knew that she wasn’t there. I said, “Yes.”
Arguillez continued. “Your mother wasn’t who she claimed to be. The real Mildred Glass died in Wichita, Kansas in 1956. Your mother was using her social security number.”
I didn’t understand.
Detective Arguillez said, “She was most likely hiding something. She might’ve been hiding from someone. We don’t know. It’s really important that you tell us what you know. For your own sake.”
For my own sake… You see, if you’re not who you claim to be, then nothing you own belongs to you. It belongs to the county where you live. Your son included.
The detective asked if I had any family at all, someone who would take me in for the time being while things were being sorted. The police kept using that word—sorted—like my life was a sock drawer.
I thought of the Polish Three. They’d said that Mother was like family. I hadn’t believed them, but they’d said it.
That night, I heard a melee of voices. They spoke of shock, of a fever that needed to come down.
Mother said, “Scoot over.” She lay beside me, making a sickle moon with her body, how she’d done my whole life.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I said. “There was a man. He said you were dead.”
She said, “There’s a hummingbird outside the window.”
“At the feeder,” I reasoned. There were always birds at the feeders.
Mother brushed the hair back from my face and kissed my temple.
I said, “Stay with me.”
She said, “Like you’re ever getting rid of me.”
Michele Young-Stone is the author of three novels, Lost in the Beehive, a 2018 O Magazine Top Ten Book Pick, Above Us Only Sky, and The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, “a rich and sure-handed debut.” (The Boston Globe)
She is a mom, wife, traveler, dancer, and artist. She would tell you that her brand is sincerity, but that sounds hypocritical so never mind.