Two years ago I bought a book of commandments owned by one of my nine great grandmothers. Yes, nine. That same year—in fact the same week I bought the book—I watched a soccer match on TV and listened to announcers interview the players following the game. The lead striker was asked about the tattoo on his wrist. He held up his wrist and pointed to two intertwined Ruby-throated hummingbirds. They mate for life, he said. Only one person, he said. He hugged his longtime girlfriend. Just like us.
He wasn’t correct. Hummingbirds actually live a somewhat harem-like lifestyle. However, the idea stuck with me. I found that many animals mate for life, among them the great albatross that covers great distances in long and soaring arcs, yet always returns to its one and only mate.
The book I purchased is a religious one filled with counsel from the heavens, from the gods, from the prophets of old. My particular copy cost thousands because this book has become something of a collector’s item in my church. This one was notably special to me because inscribed on the front is the name Marinda Johnson.
My third great grandfather is Orson Hyde, and he had a number of wives, just like those beautiful hummingbirds—the Magenta-throated windstar, the White-bellied mountain gem, the Bronze-tailed plumeleteer.
Marinda was one of those wives. Her name is scrolled in beautiful gilt-embedded gold cursive across the front of the book in the bottom right-hand corner. The first time I opened it I saw that there were numerous markings in the book, all in red pencil. The markings cut deep into the old leaflet pages, the weight of Marinda’s veined, snowy hands sinking into the pencil and page, weighted down by her obsession with certain passages. I imagine her hands so heavy that at times they almost dropped through the book, through the table, and through the oak floor below.
That’s what I imagine, anyway. Because the only thing underlined in this book has to do with commandments that speak specifically of each man having only one wife. One man for one woman. A commandment the albatross understands. Every passage that speaks of mating—of marriage, of love, of the bond between two people and only two people—is underlined heavily. In some places it is clear that the passage has been underlined twice, or even three times, the page likely to tear with too-quick a turn.
I imagine my grandmother waking to the sound of Violet-tailed sylphs whirring next to her window, dancing in U-shaped patterns for attention, flying backwards and dipping and swaying and vanishing behind the trees. I imagine her attending to daily chores, but never alone. Always seeing other faces, those that share equal time with her husband, those that tend to similar chores, those other hummingbirds who think themselves the most precious, the most loved, the most treasured.
And I imagine Marinda thinking she is more open and honest with Orson than any of the others, and he with her; that when they lie awake and talk of the tomatoes in the garden or their Sunday walks or the ache in her lower back, Orson listens and thinks about how to leave all the others for Marinda, for her curved lower back that aches sometimes, for her thin wrists and long hair, for her and her alone. I imagine those ideas haunted her.
And those pages now haunt me. Every day.
I look at my beautiful wife and my two boys and wonder. I sit with the weighty book of commandments in my hands and trace Marinda’s name with my fingers, and feel those red pencil lines sinking through the pages into my skin, into my bones, curling around my vessels and shooting through my body with the anxiety of all those hummingbirds of my church’s past.
My son often cries when I take one of his toys—his football, his boxcars, or his pirate sword—and offer it to his younger brother. You have to share, Mac, I say. And he always responds the same way: Why dad?
I imagine my great, great, great grandmother kneeling each night on the knotted oak floor, elbows pressed against the bed, her hands folded in prayer with the moon spilling long waves of quiet light onto the book of commandments on her bedside table; I imagine her doing this and asking her god—her father in heaven—the same question.
ABOUT THE STORY: It just so happened that the same week I saw this soccer game I found the Book of Commandments for sale, the same book that (quite serendipitously) belonged to my great, great, great grandmother Marinda Johnson. I remember being impressed by the soccer player when I first heard that post-game interview. I thought, Wow, this guy is ready to spend forever with this gal. Then I got curious about the tattoo. Anyway, I found out that hummingbirds don’t mate for life, and that got me curious about the animals (like the albatross) that do mate for life.I was excited to have something that belonged to someone in my family so long ago. The book is filled with her pencil marks, and I flipped through it the day I got it just to see what she underlined—Where was her focus? What passages moved her? I saw her heavy marks under verses about marriage, and I felt my chest heavy with confusion and curiosity and love for my grandmother. She was Orson’s first wife. The other wives came along later, and stole time and memories from her. That’s the way I saw it, anyway, and it was quite hard to deal with. So how did I deal with it? Just like I deal with everything else that breaks my heart or causes me confusion: I started writing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Spencer Hyde’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Sweet: A Literary Confection among others. He edits fiction for elsewhere magazine. He currently lives and writes in Utah.