The Hummingbird's Cage
Author:Tamara Dietrich

The Hummingbird's Cage by Tamara Dietrich

To every woman with a story of brokenness.

You are stronger than you know.


Writing can be a solitary business, but getting a novel ready to pass into the hands of readers never is. Every manuscript needs gentle readers, hawkeyed nitpickers and wizards of the Big Picture.

First, to Mike Holtzclaw and Veronica Chufo for giving the first draft an early read and forgiving its countless rough edges. Novelist Leah Price, whose keen sense of plot helped add depth and drama, and whose ongoing moral support is invaluable. My fellow Pagan River Writers—Diana McFarland, Hugh Lessig, Sabine Hirschauer, Felicia Mason and Dave Macaulay. You help keep the creative torch burning every month with pizza and wine, page reviews and good humor when it’s sorely needed. To jazz diva, writer and sister-from-another-mother M. J. Wilde, who has always believed in magic and miracles and, most important, in friends.

To Trudy Hale at the Porches on the James River and Cathy and Rhet Tignor at Pretty Byrd Cottage on the Eastern Shore. Their retreats were sanctuaries when I needed them—peace and quiet and blissful views from my window.

My literary agent, Barbara Braun, at Barbara Braun Associates, who took on a would-be novelist and steered her toward her lifelong ambition. Editor Jenn Fisher and editorial director Claire Zion at Penguin/NAL, for seeing promise in the manuscript and shepherding it through to publication.

I can’t overlook my sixth-grade teacher at Northeast Elementary. Eons ago, Betty Hinzman was the first to believe in an awkward adolescent who said she wanted to write a book one day. She’ll never know how much that meant.

And last, but never least, to my mother, Betty Phillips. (See, Mom? This is what you can do with a creative writing degree.)

To all, my warmest thanks and gratitude.

Part I


It’s difficult to discern the blessing in the midst of brokenness.

   —Charles F. Stanley

January 1

My husband tells me I look washed up. Ill favored, he says, like old bathwater circling the drain. If my clothes weren’t there to hold me together, he says, I’d flush all away. He tells me these things and worse as often as he can, till there are times I start to believe him and I can feel my mind start to dissolve into empty air.

There’s no challenging him when he gets like this. No logic will do. No defense. I tried in the past, but no more. Back when I was myself—when I was Joanna, and not the creature I’ve become at Jim’s hands—I would have challenged him. Stood up to him. If there were any speck of that Joanna left now, she would at least tell him he had his similes all wrong. That I am not like the water, but the stone it crashes against, worried over and over by the waves till there’s nothing left but to yield, worn down to surrendered surfaces. That every time I cry, more of me washes away.

This is all to Jim’s purpose—the unmaking of me. He’s like a potter at his wheel, pounding the wet clay to a malleable lump, then building it back up to a form he thinks he might like. Except there is no form of me that could please his eye. He’s tried so many, you would think that surely one would have won him by now. Soothed the beast.

In the early years, I was pliant enough. I was young and a pure fool. I thought that was love, and one of the compromises of marriage. I didn’t understand then that for Jim the objective is not creation. It’s not building a thing up from nothing into something pleasing. What pleases him most is the moment when he can pound it back again into something unrecognizable.

I understand what’s happening—I do—but it’s all abstraction at this point. I am not stupid. Or, I wasn’t always. In high school I was smart, and pretty enough. I completed nearly two years of college in Albuquerque before I left to run away with Jim, a deputy sheriff from McGill County who swept me off my feet with his uniform and bad-boy grin.

In the beginning, it was a few insults or busted dinner plates if his temper kicked up after a hard day. He would always make it up to me with a box of candy or flowers from the grocery store. The first time he raised a welt, he drove to the store for a bag of ice chips, packed some in a towel and held it gently against my face. And when he looked at me, I believed I could see tenderness in his eyes. Regret. And things would be wonderful for a while, as if he were setting out to win me all over again. I told myself this was what they meant when they said marriage is hard work. I had no evidence otherwise.

A part of me knew better. Knew about the cycle of batterer and battered. And she was right there, sitting on my shoulder, screaming in my ear. Because she knew this wasn’t a cycle at all but a spiral, gyring down to a point of no return.