Silent Bells

It burst in front of me like an iridescent cloud.  Blooming with seraglio colors it hovered and dipped like a wayward carpet, alive with Byzantine patterns.  Its tinted sinews smeared the spinning flight:   magenta and green flexed in the air.

It swooped, dipped and paused in mid-flight.  A doubtful sprite of velvet reflections, it traced an invisible latticework of tracks and pathways:  meandering, creative, senseless.   It was as if femininity’s frail nucleus was compressed like coal in an invisible hand, writhing within nameless muscles, waiting and suffering.  And when the birth was over, the hand would open to release a diamond faceted with color– and the hummingbird, in a grateful blur, would fly away.

I heard the impudent buzz in my ear; taking tiny dares to hide in my shadow, to follow in my footsteps. I saw it dive into gardens of flowers, to pierce the fragrance, to shatter pockets of pollen into a gilded mist.   I watched it disappear into bowers of vines and thorns, into cradles of blossoms – to emerge satiated and ready to continue on its chaotic progress.

This tiny vision has stayed with me; Nature’s whimsical compromise between insect and bird. And yet I recall another vision:  one of a garish thing, engraved and metallic, heavy and debauched. It is what is now referred to as “novelty” jewelry, but what in reality is a travesty that only the misguided creativity of the Victorians could produce.

It is a necklace; made up of a single golden tier, decorated with shields seeming ready to be carved and quartered with the family crest by the jeweler’s steel quill.  But instead, as part of the creation of this necklace, many delicate decapitations were committed.  Affixed to each shield was a hummingbird’s head; each mounted at a different angle, so that when the lady opened the velvet case she would be struck by the light that angled across the deceased feathers.


A lady’s magazine of the time described the petite corpses “…as plump and tempting to epicurean palate as any ever served up broiled on toast.”


And when the lady held the dainty executions to her throat, bloodless and gaping, she would admire the kaleidoscope of colors that mirrored across her skin.  She would love the golden beaks, the echo of life in the glass eyes – the deaths done in her honor, inconsequential, ultimately, because they were so small.

She would always treasure her frivolous horror, her captured prisms:  the errant lives that now hung from her neck like silent bells.


7 responses to “Silent Bells

  1. I’ve never seen such a thing… Such unbelievable cruelty. It makes one wonder the thought processes behind the creation. But as always I adore your writing!!

  2. I am amazed and horrified at the same time.

  3. As a writer of disturbing things, even I could not have thought this up. Where did you see it?

  4. As much as I love your blog, I had a hard time reading through this post. I love hummingbirds and cannot imagine doing anything so cruel to such beautiful creatures. The times and mores have changed, I realize, but even in the 19th or early 20th century I can’t believe someone thought this was a good idea.

  5. So many humans with horrible ideas of what is beautiful or “impressive”. Baking thrushes inside an ox?

  6. I thought I’d seen it all, but clearly I hadn’t. I don’t even know what to say. When I first glanced at the first photo, I did think the colors were beautiful — but I thought they were gems. The cruelty is astonishing.

  7. FeyGirl – sometimes I think of the VIctorians as children: they simply don’t realize what they’re doing. “Cruelty” as it extends to animals just wasn’t in their vocabulary.

    Doug – I wonder, if this item was bought as a gift, if the buyer thought the same thing?

    Laurie – I think I once saw one in London; the British Museum? I’m not sure, but it was in the same room as a cross bow carved out of ivory. Much later, I splurged on a book ($90!) on Victorian jewelry and there it was in all its awful glory.

    Hangaku Gozen – Maybe more people were appalled than we realize! Yet if it was rare, if it was fashionable, it was desirable. It’s the same even now.

    Lauri – I’m surprised that the law against the hunting of birds for their feathers was passed as early as 1918, but it was. These type of necklaces disappeared even earlier, I think, because the hummingbirds had nearly completely vanished. No law was necessary.

    shoreacres – Couldn’t they have used ‘pretend’ birds – did people get that much of a charge out of those tiny decapitations hanging from their necks? Perhaps they thought it was daring, or the 1870’s equivalent of ‘edgy’. The colors are magnificent – but think how much lovelier they would be, dipping in and out of their gardens?

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