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Friday, 3 December 2010

The Tale of the Swallow

Looking back over recent posts, it struck me that this blog has become awfully serious lately. In an attempt to redress this, here’s a little story I heard many years ago.

Once upon a time there was a young swallow whose name was Hiro. Hiro had been born the previous year in summer and when autumn came, with all his friends and relatives, he had made the long journey south to Egypt to spend the winter in a little village above the Second Cataract on the Nile, returning to Europe when spring came and it began to really get too hot there.

Hiro had a wonderful spring and summer. Shortly after arriving he had fallen in love with a pretty young swallow girl called Delle, and together they had built a mud nest under the eves of an old barn. There Delle had laid her eggs and soon there was a lively batch of sparrow-chicks to be looked after, protected and fed and taught to fly. This was a job in which Hiro really came into his own, as he loved flying and was very good at it. He taught his children how to swoop gracefully to catch an insect on the wing and how to be sure to fly low when they felt that rain was coming. He showed them the best places to catch dragonflies at the nearby stream and even introduced them to his friend, the old trout, who lived in a deep pool under an overhanging willow.

Autumn came, the golden harvest was gathered in and as the days grew shorter, the swallow colony became restless. First singly, then in groups, the birds made a final swoop around the eves of the barn and took off to the south for the winter. Finally Delle spoke to Hiro,

“Darling, we really should be going. The children have to be shown the way and my feeling tells me it’s going to get really cold soon.”

Hiro felt very reluctant. “I know, but the autumn colours are really beautiful and besides, it’s not really cold yet …”

Delle became insistent but Hiro remained reluctant. Life around the old barn was just too beautiful to leave. In the end, he told Delle that she should leave with the children; he for his part would spend the winter in Europe and meet them again in spring.

“After all, the sparrows and the robins get along all right,” he argued. “I don’t think it’s half as difficult as everyone says.”

Delle realised that there was no chance of persuading him to go so, with a heavy heart, she set off for Egypt with the children. But, before she left, she made him promise that if it did become too cold he would follow them.

As she winged her way south, she hoped worriedly that he would have enough sense to act on that promise. “The crazy fool,” she thought. “He’ll probably turn up two weeks after us … I hope!”

That year there was a long Indian Summer and Hiro felt quite content for a while. If the number of insects was getting smaller, there were less swallows to compete with and so there was still plenty for him to eat. But Indian Summers, even long ones, come to an end, and one night a strong wind blew up from the north-west, carrying clouds of stinging rain with it.

Hiro huddled miserably in the lonely mud nest under the barn roof for most of the day and at dusk flew through the rain to the stream to consult with his friend, the old trout.

“It’s no use, Hiro,” said the trout, coming to the surface to snap at a fly. “I can smell winter coming and I wouldn’t wonder if there’ll be snow before too long. Winter is no place here for swallows. Even most of the flies disappear, and I’ll have to live mostly from my fat for the next few months. I only get by by doing as little as possible and for a flyer like you, that’s not an option.”

Hiro reluctantly realised that the trout was right. Thanking him and making his farewell, he resolved to be on his way the next day.

Very early in the morning, he swooped around the barn one last time and began his journey south. The rain had stopped and the sky had cleared during the night, but it had become bitterly cold, colder than Hiro had ever experienced before in his whole life. As he tried to make his way forward, his wings seemed to grow heavier and heavier and every beat became harder and harder. He couldn’t seem to get enough air any more and a great lassitude overcame him. He glided ever lower until he no longer had the strength to beat his wings any more and fell the last few feet onto a half frozen field where he lay exhausted, more dead than alive.

A cow came by, pulling industriously at the last shoots of grass. Her shadow moved over him and then she did as cows frequently do, lifting her tail slightly and letting a thick, liquidy cowpat fall, right over the poor hypothermic swallow, lying unnoticed on the ground.

Now, being covered in cowshit is not the most pleasant experience in the world, but the dung had one very positive quality; it was warm. The warmth thawed Hiro out and, realising that he was not going to die after all, he stuck his head out of the cowpat and began to twitter[i] in gratitude for the fact that he was alive. The cow, as cows will, took no notice of him and went on grazing.

Not so a passing cat. Hearing the twittering, she came to investigate. Discovering Hiro, she pulled him out of the cowshit and, holding him firmly with one paw, cleaned him carefully off.

And then she ate him.

* * * * * * *

There are three morals to this story.

Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.

Not everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.

And … if you feel warm and happy up to your neck in the shit, don’t shout it out loud. In particular, whatever you do, don’t twitter it!


[i] I’m not making this up. According to Wikipedia, swallows officially twitter!: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swallow#Calls

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