Riding on Hummingbird Wings

By Laird Roberts

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    Antelope—prancing, fleetfooted, swift.

    Sparrowhawk—hovering, waiting to dive with lightning-like speed.

    Trout—swimming, a streak of light in the water.

    Hummingbird—a blur of motion. The fastest of all living things. A distant humming sound; here, gone, vanished. The sudden flash of iridescent color only a memory.

    All of the fastest creatures were represented in the waving line of boys who stood waiting for the race to start.

    Piubi held his magic talisman in his hand, his heart beating hard with excitement. He believed his magic was the strongest of any boy’s in the race. In the small leather bag clutched in his hand and in another one hung from his neck were the feathers of a hummingbird.

    “The hummingbird is the fastest of all living things,” the shaman (healer) had told him. “If you carry its feathers, you will ride as though on the wings of a hummingbird.”

    Piubi wasn’t just relying on the hummingbird’s magic, for during the summer he had run whenever he could with the other boys his age and sometimes alone. Before now—before the hummingbird’s magic—the other boys had always beaten him in a race.

    “You will ride on the wings of a hummingbird,” whispered Piubi, remembering the shaman’s words. He felt lighter and faster than he had ever felt before.

    An elbow dug into piubi’s ribs as the anxious boys moved back to straighten the line. The race was about to begin.

    The crowd cheered as Chief Washakie stepped forward. He was chief of the Shoshone tribe. Tall and muscular, he was dressed in full ceremonial costume—a headdress of eagle feathers and a suit of white elk skin. Behind Chief Washakie stood old Morogonia, who was second only to the chief in importance. Morogonia had been honored for his craftsmanship as a bow maker. Piubi had heard that his bows had been traded for as many as ten fast horses!

    Morogonia held the prize for the race in his arms. Wrapped in a covering of mountain goatskin were a dozen arrows and one of Morogonia’s finest bows.

    Piubi searched the crowd. It looked as though the entire village had come out for the race. In a group with other women, Piubi saw his mother; and with a group of warriors, he saw his father. Piubi imagined the pride they would feel when he won the race.

    The shaman walked in front of the crowd, chanting. He held up a sacred bundle to the four directions in turn, honoring the Great Spirit. Then he stepped back, and Chief Washakie raised his staff into the air. Tension rippled through the line of boys. The crowd was silent as the boys bent over into starting positions. When the staff dropped to the ground, the line jumped forward. Piubi’s feet flew over the earth.

    Piubi was running with the leading group of boys. Shoulders bumping, arms pumping, hearts pounding, they flew over the first hill and on down toward the Snake River. The river was silver and bright in the morning sunlight.

    The runners wound along the twisting shore of the river. Water birds exploded up off the river in front of them. Deer feeding near the water raised their heads and then vanished into the willow thickets.

    The runners were now in a long weaving line. Sometimes one runner would take the lead only to be passed by several others seconds later. Piubi was still with the front runners. He was running faster than he ever remembered. His lungs were burning, and he reached up and touched the bag of hummingbird feathers.

    Piubi was the first to reach the midpoint marker, and he started running even faster to widen the distance between himself and the other racers. The sun was bright and hot in the sky. His legs began to ache, and sweat streamed down his face.

    The runners were now scattered across the prairie, moving back toward the river. Then they started back along the shoreline. One runner passed Piubi and then another. Piubi’s mouth was dry. He longed to stop and drink the cool water, but he saw that he was falling behind. Now there were more boys in front of him than there were behind him.

    They started up a hill, and the climb was tortuous. Piubi’s legs were numb with pain. The sweat from his head burned his eyes. He reached up and touched the bag that dangled around his neck to help him run faster, but it took all his energy and determination just to keep going. Every movement was painful.

    The runners were now onto the flat that led to the village. Piubi fell further back as the first runners crossed the finish line. Piubi could hear the crowd cheering. The sound was distant and seemed dreamlike. Another runner passed him. Piubi managed to turn and look back. I’m in last place! He felt like turning around and running in the other direction.

    Piubi didn’t look up as he crossed the finish line. He slipped quickly through the crowd and walked away from the village. Last place! How can I face my family and friends? he wondered.

    When Piubi reached a small ridge overlooking the village and the river, the wind was blowing lightly. He watched bright billowing clouds change their shapes against a deep blue sky. And high above those clouds he saw a lone eagle soaring on the wind. Its wings were motionless.

    Piubi sat on the hill, feeling his pain. Last place!

    In the distance he could hear the crowd still cheering the winners. The pain he felt inside was growing more intense. I will have no place inthe village as the slowest runner, he agonized. Then he took the bag of feathers and threw it down the hill. It caught on a sagebrush branch. Not even the magic of the hummingbird is strong enough to help me, he thought.

    Then just below the crest of the hill, Piubi saw someone coming slowly toward him. It was old Morogonia. What can he want with me? Piubi wondered.

    The old man had picked up the boy’s discarded feather bag and had opened it. Approaching Piubi, he took a small brilliant feather from the bag and held it up to the sunlight. A wide smile wrinkled his face as he put the feather back into the bag and then sat down next to Piubi. “You must have dropped this,” Morogonia said as he handed the bag to Piubi.

    Piubi took the bag and looked at it. “It didn’t help me,” he muttered. Old Morogonia turned and watched the sky and the land for a short time. He breathed deeply, tasting the air. His eyes followed the course of the river and then scanned the horizon. They mirrored the pleasure he found in what he was seeing. Finally the old man pointed a finger at the sky.

    Piubi saw a small dark speck. It was the eagle, still soaring above the clouds. Then old Morogoni spoke: “The eagle is a noble bird. He can fly higher than any other bird and he is a fierce warrior. But he cannot swim. In the water, even the smallest trout is better than the eagle. There is a place best adapted for every living thing. The eagle can fly, the fish can swim, the horse can run. Everything has its place. It is the same with people. Not everyone can be the fastest runner.”

    “But what place is there for the slowest runner?” Piubi pouted.

    Old Morogonia looked at him and smiled. “I was the slowest runner, too, when I ran my race,” he said. “It would be a good thing to ride on the wings of a hummingbird, but it would be a better thing to ride on your own wings.” The old man stood up. “If you will come to my tepee in the morning, I will teach you how to make a fine bow.”

    It was an opportunity that Piubi hadn’t dreamed possible. To have Morogonia, the finest bow maker in all the shoshone tribe, teach him to make a bow was a great honor! It was even better than riding on the wings of a hummingbird.

    Piubi smiled. “I’ll be there,” he promised.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown