Mother Swan drew her long neck around as the egg made its final push and cracked, spilling the baby into the world. The wet newborn nestled into the warmth of her downy underlayer, their beaks just touching as they shared the shallow breath of recent effort. For a moment they rested together.
Then she sang her final song, a soft inhale labored between each line:
Wherever you wander,
Whenever you're lonely,
be brave, oh my darling,
then you'll be with me.
He locked the words tightly in his heart, then looked into his mother's shining eye and asked,
“What is brave?”
But the only answer was a gentle murmur,
thu-bump, thu-bump, thu-bump,
from deep within the still form, which soon faded to silence.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“See? You see?”
The dog was chuffing quietly to the farmer, as though defending a story that hadn’t been believed. The hatchling was suddenly lifted from beside his dead mother by a rough hand. His consciousness was stolen by the abrupt rise, and he awoke to a gentle rocking. A slight jolt on either end of the apex kept him disoriented as he was carried in the farmer’s overcoat pocket.
For a moment he had believed he was back in the safety of his egg, though it was too large and coarse against his new hatched body. At least the lingering wetness and been sucked from his feathers. When the dizzying motion finally stopped, he scrambled to gain some footing, unsure of what to expect. The rough hand drew him from the pocket and suddenly he was on the earth in the bright light of day, surrounded by unknown staring eyes.
The old gander was the nearest, and most imposing figure. He looked the rumpled grey clump of a bird up and down, then gave him a sharp nip on his wing as punishment for not being cracked corn or dried oats. As the cranky geezer wandered off, the three plump sisters took prominence with their cackling chatter:
“Goodness, have you ever seen such an ugly child?”
“Oh my, no indeed! It must be some sort of duckling, though, don’t you think?”
“I can’t imagine what else. Poor ugly duckling. He’ll have quite a rough time of it with those looks.”
And they began to drift away, scratching in the soil for bugs as they continued their banter with each other.
Mother Duck and her children had kept a cautious distance, but still the little ones had heard what the hens supposed, and one began to chant,
“He’s the ugly duckling, he’s the ugly duckling”,
Which caused another to break out in tears,
“Mother, I don’t like him! Make him go away!”
Then they all began to chatter while Mother Duck considered the situation.
“He can’t be one of us, can he?”
“It’s just so ugly!”
“Look at those huge feet!”
“He’s the ugly ducking, he’s the ugly duckling!”
Finally Mother Duck flapped her wings together for attention,
“Quiet, children, quiet! If the Farmer has seen fit to bestow this ...child upon us, it is our duty to look after it and see that it is cared for.”
The little ones all began cheeping at once, but she quickly interjected,
“I have made my decision and I’ll hear no complaints about it! Now, it’s nearly time for bed, go and eat your evening snack.”
The five little duckling tumbled off to where the midge flies were dancing near the cooling pool. Mother Duck watched them for a moment, then turned to her new responsibility. She made a slow circle around him to form a more complete impression of what she’d just gotten herself into and then, with a small sigh,
“I suppose you’d better have some flies as well. You look as though you haven’t eaten a meal in your life.”
She moved towards the ducklings, who were cheerfully snapping at the air. When she realized that she wasn’t being followed, she stopped abruptly and looked behind her.
“I don’t like to repeat myself, remember that. Now, come along.”
And the weary, overwhelmed newborn let his hunger pull him across the green to join the others.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Time for sleep!” Mother Duck called from the little landing outside the hutch entry.
During the feeding there had been some possibly deliberate jostles from a few of the ducklings, but overall it had gone rather well and now they all raced to their mother, who greeted each with a gentle bump of bills as they passed,
“My busy Bumble, ...my sweet Blossom, ...my plump Kernel, ...my clever Pebble, ...my little Sunspot, …”
She faltered at the new addition to her brood as he came up the rampway, “My, uh …” then her tone dropped, “Well, get inside Ugly.”
And she brushed through the doorway leaving him to trail behind.
Ugly entered the hutch slowly. The others had already settled into the nest and he glanced around for another possible sleeping place when Sunspot, watching him from just inside her mother’s wing, whispered,
and shuffled over to make a place for him. Her eyes intently followed as he hopped over the frame and climbed across the straw and scattered wood chips, then settled against their warmth. She offered him a little grin and said,
“It is rather funny that you have so much neck, and of course yellow feathers would be prettier, but you really aren’t that ugly, I don’t think.”
Then she closed her eyes, nestled her bill against her fluffy breast, and fell asleep. So Ugly did the same and the ache inside him began to ease, just a little.
Life was bearable, if not pleasant, for Ugly in the bird yard. The old gander was certainly to be avoided, he quickly learned. The three sisters kept pretty well to themselves, preferring their clear patch of grass near the gate to the area just around the pond.
The ducklings, of course, could not be avoided. It became one of their games to try and catch Ugly unaware with a nip or a strike of the bill, or to see if they could knock him off his oversized feet, which his new mother had conceded on his first swimming lesson were “at least of some use” in the water, though she then countered the compliment by scolding him for showing off when he rapidly outpaced the duckling in one of their ‘chase games’.
Sunspot did not join in the small cruelties that her siblings inflicted, but also had no power to influence them against it. She would watch uncomfortably from the back of the group, or deliberately distract herself with some other activity, chasing beetles or resting in a quiet patch of sunlight. If only Ugly had been afforded the same luxury, he might actually have been contended with his life.
It was one of the days when Bumble, Blossom, Kernel and Pebble were using Ugly for entertainment, and Sunspot had wandered away, that the tipping point was reached. Things began pretty much as usual. Bumble had the idea to try and hold Ugly beneath the water to see “how far he can stretch that long neck to reach the air.”
Ugly was a much stronger swimmer, and once the four had climbed atop him, blocking his way to the surface, he simply swam down and away beneath their scrambling feet. This was not how Bumble had intended the game to end. He led the ducklings across the water, following Ugly to the point where he resurfaced near the shore. They pressed him into the shallow water, Blossom and Kernel circling around around to keep him from leaving the pond completely. For a moment they all just stood, looking at each other, not quite sure what the next move would be. Then Pebble said,
“Sit on his head, Kernel.”
Ugly was larger than the ducklings, but Kernel was the biggest of them. With the other three nibbling and squeezing around him, soon his head was pressed firmly against the mud in the shallow water and he could not breathe.
Typically his patience would last longer than their investment in the torment. They would move on to some other activity once they had proven their dominance. In this instance, too, they likely would have let him up before he was really in danger of suffocation, to stumble off muddy and humiliated. This time, though, Ugly would not allow them that satisfaction. He writhed out from beneath the weight of Kernel, the mud serving as lubricant, oblivious to the curses and nips that he’d experienced so often.
For the first time he struck back, unleashing all the unpaid retribution for past hurts. He bit and ripped feathers away. He chased Blossom and Bumble from the water, knocked them down and scratched with his claws at their bellies. They screamed and cried, and soon Ugly was overpowered once again, but this time it was Mother Duck who knocked him aside. She crouched between him and her babies, hissing in rage.
“How dare you! I knew from the first you were an uncultured beast.”
She advanced slowly toward him, her voice low and soft, slipping through her bill like bile.
“I feared you would corrupt my little ones all along, and still I took you in. I shared my nest. I gave you all anyone could have asked of me.”
She was now standing over him. Though he was nearly as large as she, he cowered low to the ground, never having experienced such a piercing wrath.
“My contempt is far greater than my generosity, Ugly,” She spat his name like a curse, “and now you have it. You. are. not. welcome. here.”
She straightened, fluffed her feathers back into place, then looked coldly down at the object of her contempt.
“I don’t like to repeat myself, ...Ugly.”
He regained his stunned functions and scrambled back to the pond. Diving deep he swam to the far shore. Had there been no walls he would have run and run, but a tall stone barricade encircled them all so instead he slipped into the farthest shadow he could find, behind the hen house. There he crouched out of sight and trembled as though his entire being were trying to rearrange its pieces.
Once the trembling subsided, Ugly recalled his mother’s dying song, as he often had in his time with the duck family.
“Wherever you wander, “
He was certainly further from her than he ever had been before.
“Whenever you’re lonely,”
A young bird could not possibly have felt more alone.
“Be brave, oh my darling,”
He had thought he was being brave, just now with the ducklings, but that had only worsened his situation.
“Then you’ll be with me.”
He didn’t even linger on this sentiment. The words felt empty for the first time. The separation was too overwhelming and he saw no hope of achieving the dream it promised. He stay in the shadows, miserable, circling in his own dark thoughts until the entire yard was full of shadow. The sky, heavy with clouds, unleashed a torrent upon them all. Then he stood to face the sky, and let the force of it drive away all his despair, clearing his mind at last.
The Three Sisters
“Don’t just stand there looking all dismal,” one of the hens called from the coop, “come inside where it’s dry.”
Ugly broke from his revery. Automatically obliging he worked his way up the sloped ramp with hesitant steps, just a bit bewildered.
“I didn’t think you liked me,” he admitted, gazing up at the three sisters, cozy in their nest boxes.
“Now, I wouldn’t say we liked you,” one of them clucked, “but no one ought to stand in this downpour when there’s space to share. That’s just practicality.”
“Well, thank you,” he said, “I’ll just sit here by the door.”
“Ha hah! You hear that sisters? He has manners! I’d never have guessed it from the way that duck goes on. I suppose she doesn’t really do right by you, does she?”
Before he could think how to respond the furthest hen tossed down beakfull of straw.
“Here now, that floor isn’t very comfortable to sit on, move over here away from the draft and settle in.”
“What a nice thought, sister!” Then both the others tossed down some straw as well.
Ugly thanked them again, pushed all the straw together in a clumsy pile, then settled atop it. He had followed the instructions more to appease the sisters than for his own comfort, though it was nice.
“You can’t really blame her, though, that so-called mother of yours.” The first hen continued, “You really don’t belong here and deep down she knows it. It makes her uncomfortable and she just doesn’t know what to do with you”
“Quite right!” the bird next to her chimed in, “You belong out beyond the gate. This isn’t your sort of world at all, anyone with eyes can see it. It’s too small for you.”
“You don’t seem to mind it.” He countered.
“No, we don’t mind it at all, it suits us quite nicely. Cozy boxes with fresh straw. Plenty of feed. Of course the farmer steals all our eggs, thinks we don’t notice, I suspect, but that’s quite a reasonable price for comfort and security if you ask any of us.”
“Yes indeed,” the third chimed in, “quite cozy here indeed.”
Then the three fell into a chatter about how nice their life was, settling into the particulars of that day: the unexpected downpour, the fat worm one had found, and they all laughed at the fright they’d had when a pail and toppled over with a clatter, on and on as Ugly considered what they had said. Was there really a place that he belonged, out beyond the gate? He eventually drifted off to sleep with the comforting chatter of the hens and the heavy rain on the roof soothing his troubled mind.
The sisters had a tendency to sleep in, so Ugly quietly left them early the next morning. To his right was the gate they had spoken of the night before, set into the stone wall. On the other side, somewhere, was the place he supposedly belonged. He looked across the yard where Mother Duck and her children were nosing through the mud for bugs and worms that had come up during the storm and lost their way home. Pacing in the background the old gander was looking for something to be cross with. There wasn’t even a decision to be made, Ugly went toward the gate.
He had never really noticed it before, as the pond and duck hutch were on the opposite side of the yard. The daily passage of the farmer as he brought feed was the only association he had with it, and now he regarded the thick planks for the first time. They met a lip of stone at the base, but there was a narrow gap on the side with the latch. A thin sliver of light passed through, but there wasn’t enough space for even the smallest duckling. Still, Ugly could see the hard packed earth just on the other side.
Shuffling backwards, he looked up. It seemed to stretch as high as the sky itself, and he knew there was no hope of climbing over, so instead focused his gaze back on that thin sliver of ‘beyond’, knowing his only real option was to be there.
Then the heavy tread of the farmer arose among the quiet noises of the morning, bringing the early feeding. Ugly stepped to the side of the gap, against the stone wall, and the gate swung wide into the bird yard. As the farmer moved forward, so did Ugly, just behind the large boots, and the gate pushed him out into the world as it swung closed.
The night before, Ugly had been ready to run, but now he was suddenly at peace. Walking the length of the gate he noticed a collection of loose stones against the wall, and moved to the far side before settling himself near them. They nearly matched the gray of his feathers, and he felt among friends. The excited chatter over the morning grain was muffled by the wall, as though the remnant of a dream from which he was slowly waking. It was only when a cool pressure ran across his back that he jolted up, and felt reconnected with the world.
Turning to see what had slipped from his back, he faced a slim green snake regarding him with suspicion.
“I knew you were too warm for a stone.” She slid lazily across the ground to settle on the slope of a nearby rock before asking, “What are you doing out here anyway, don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
“It doesn’t seem dangerous to me.” Ugly replied.
The little snake drew up her head. “I could bite you, you know.”
Ugly held her steady gaze. “I could strike you with my bill.”
But neither of them did. After a few flicks of her tongue the snake pulled her tail around to rest her chin on.
“Shouldn’t you be in there with the other feather heads?” She asked
“Well, I’m…” Ugly considered how to respond. “I’m looking for where I belong.”
The snake gave a little snort. “So you decided you belong in a pile of rocks?”
“You’re here. Do you belong on a pile of rocks?”
She gave him a sharp glance from the corner of her eye, then deliberately, “Yes, until I’ve warmed up. Then I’ll belong somewhere else.”
“Then I suppose I belong here as well, until I go somewhere else.”
He looked down the pathway again, knowing he really shouldn't stay huddled up against the stone wall, but what would he find out there? The thought made him hesitate.
The snake was still watching him,
“It is dangerous out there, you know. There are bigger things than me that would love to meet a soft little bird like you.” Then she added, “You just might do alright, though, if you don’t stand around like an idiot all the time.”
Behind the wall he could still hear the muffled din of the birdyard, but under that there was a steady, comforting sound. Very quiet, and very near:
thu-bump, thu-bump, thu-bump
This is brave, he realized, and set down the pathway.
Ugly had never been alone like this, had never experienced the open world, only the groomed bird yard with regular scoldings and regular offerings of grain. Now, as he snapped at random little flies, the time seemed to stretch out before him like the vastness of the world. He only gave it heed much later when his stomach told him there was an appetizing smell nearby.
He followed it from the dusty firmness of the paths edge to the soft comfort of plant tilled soil, moving through the shadows and sunlight in a delighting game of hide and seek where being found was a pleasure. For the first time he gave no thought to his appearance, or anything other than his desire to explore, specifically the sweetness that called to his hunger.
And then he was there, looking at a tent of brambles and berries, plump and black and shining among the green. Plucking them from the thorny vines proved a bit awkward, so Ugly shuffled along the ground instead, gulping down those that had been knocked loose by the twittering birds. He moved through the drape of vines into the cool heart of the bush, then settled himself to sleep among the sweet songs and smells.
It was likely the sudden silence that woke him, but it was the staring eyes that jolted Ugly to attention. He stayed stock still, and through the now dusky light his eyes traced the pointed ears, narrow nose, slim form, and bushy tail of his observer. The fox tilted his head and spoke,
“Been having a nice feast of blackberries, have we?”
Ugly considered not answering, but he’d obviously already been seen.
“Well, I couldn’t say what you’ve been eating.”
“Oh, not much of anything ...yet.” A grim smile flashed across the face of the fox and danced in his eyes. “I must say, though, you look as though you’ve positively gorged yourself.”
Indeed, he was looking Ugly up and down through the tangle of thorny vines that separated them.
“I say,” he continued, “why don’t you come out here and show me where the plumpest berries are, then we’ll both be well fed.”
Ugly was rather certain that the fox did not intend to feed on berries. The smell of blood and flesh came heavily from his sharply ringed mouth, drowning the smell of sweetness.
“I would rather you just go away.” He confessed, “I don’t think I’d enjoy your company.”
“Oh my dear tender thing, that isn’t polite of you at all. And if you’re determined to remain indoors, as it were,” the kindness suddenly dropped from his voice, “I’ll just have to invite myself in.”
With that the lithe frame, which had been so still, suddenly thrust forward into the bush, the eyes closed against the futile pricks of the thorns, the pointed nose fixed squarely on Ugly who hadn’t even the time to squawk a protest before he was dragged out, tossed into the rosy air, and in a gulp consumed.
Ugly could never have imagined such a blackness. The stench overwhelmed his senses. It was as though none of them existed, as though Ugly himself had ceased to exist, but for the burning. It was hot, and the heat clung to him, covered him, smothered him in its greed.
But still, he could feel the heat, and that, thought Ugly, means that I’m still alive. He forced himself to press against it, and could move a little. His long neck was painfully kinked, and he could sense this, too, through the heat. So he twisted it around and stretched it, as he could, away from his compacted body. He realized, though the pressure against it was newly painful, the heat was lesser now on his head.
"This must be where I came in." he realized, "And if I came down, I can surely go up!"
So he forced his head further, until his neck was fully extended, then tipped his bill to the side and bit into the flesh. It contracted more tightly around him, trying to force him back down, but he refused to let it. Now he pushed with his wings and feet as he pulled his body upwards, digging his sharp toes into the walls of his prison. He stretched his neck out again, against the violent convulsions that now surrounded him, and clamped down higher, further still from the burning. Suddenly the heat was pressing from behind, rising up with him and forcing him towards his goal.
The dimness of the evening sky was welcoming as Ugly blinked through the wet bile the fox had heaved up with him. It sat, demurely, a little ways off beneath an old oak, wiping its mouth on the grass at its feet. Ugly stood, unsteadily, and shook off what filth he could. This drew the attention of the displeased beast. For just a breath it regarded him contemptuously, then announced in a casual tone.
“You know, I’ll have to eat grass now, to settle my stomach.” He shook his head in disbelief, then sniffed around to the far side of the oak, away from the patch he’d used to clean himself. Ugly heard the rip of greenery, and the muted mutter, “Eating grass, ...like a rabbit.”
Having expected some sort of attack, Ugly stood still, waiting. Then he realized this was his opportunity, the fox would likely not be so dismissive once his stomach had settled. He fled, away from the tree, moving as silently as he could and with the expectation that the soft padding of paws would soon follow to avenge his rebellion.
The fox, however, did not prefer prey that put up a fight, and had already dismissed Ugly from his mind.
How dark the night seemed to him. The low branches of bushes helped to wipe more of the filth, but also continually surprised him when he encountered them. Soon he slowed, and moved with more caution. When he came upon a thick growth of reed he forced himself among them, climbing awkwardly through the narrow gaps. His desperation to feel protected in the dark, vast world drove him into the growth. Settled low in the first small clearing, encircled all around, he waited through the night. Each distant scuffle or sniff from moving nocturnal creatures ran coldly through him, as he strained to determine what might be a threat.
As the night passed the noises fell off, as did his attentiveness. Still, he held his vigil until the breaking light cast long shadows over him, heavily stacked through the thick reeds. The tempting murmur of a nearby creek finally drew him out. He stood sorely and navigated his way back to open ground, then followed, trance-like, the call of the creek.
Plunging into the cool water, a rush of alertness ran through him and he devoted a good time to cleaning out the remaining stench from his encounter the prior evening, then allowed himself to upend for a breakfast of beetles and water plants.
As he relaxed, the currently gently drifted him away from the shore, into the warmth of the rising light. The mummer of water became a lullaby, carrying Ugly into slumber.
In his dream, as she had often done, Ugly’s mother came to visit him. Not the farmyard Duck Mother, but his true mother, who sang to him. Who loved him.
He was back on the duck pond. Everything beyond the shore faded and was indistinct as she drifted down from above, a thin layer of shimmering cloud. Bright in the surrounding haze she enveloped him, spreading thinly over the water’s surface.
“Look up.” She whispered.
He was fully covered by her and could not see beyond her glow.
“Be brave, oh ...LOOK UP!”
The voice resonated in his mind with the roll of distant thunder. Then she was suddenly lifted, and distant retreating point of light. He knew he must reach her, and spread his wings to follow, but the duck family was suddenly with him, holding his feathers with their bills from all sides. He was tethered to the water, which began to swell and undulate as though it too wished to take to the sky.
Then a sharp pain pierced him as he broke from their grasping bills and was lifted. Suddenly the world was bright, the pond became the creek falling away beneath him like a straw tumbled from a nesting box. He was exhilarated, flushed with power, and closed his eyes to contain the sensation which felt as though it could suddenly fall from him as the landscape now was.
“Thank you!” He cried out with all his power, though the pain where the dream ducks had held him flared up with the cry. A thanks to his mother, and the freedom and exhilaration he now felt.
The rising sensation leveled off and he hung, suspended in emptiness and fullness. Then an unknown voice, keen and resonant, spoke.
“What was that?” It asked, “Typically all I hear from my prey is screaming.”
Ugly opened his eyes again, and realized, though his feeling of sudden freedom remained, that he was held in the grip of a large bird who’s talons had pierced his side, though not as deeply as the heart.
The dream had become an unexpected reality. The thrill that had accompanied his ascent ran through him again. As there was no apparent means of escape, Ugly decided he may as well engage in conversation with the eagle.
“Thank you for the ride. I’d been walking an awfully long time.” Then, as an afterthought, “...that fox took me hardly any distance at all.”
“A fox?” The eagle considered for a moment.
“Tell me, if you will, how you happened to come into, and then escape, the company of a fox?”
Ugly closed his eyes again, basking in the rush of confidence he felt, and watched the story unfold in his mind as he recounted it to her. They rested comfortably in the warm rising currents as he talked of his fight with the ducklings, his mother’s song, the hens unintended council, and his encounter with the fox.
“So you see,” he finished, “I’ve come quite a way, ...though I expect I’ve further to go yet.”
The eagle had been observing her passenger with her keen sight. Now she spoke to him.
“Look about you.” She advised, “Open your eyes, for you are as much a creature of the air as you are of the earth of water. See the world you belong to.”
He did as she said, and realized that his story was laid out below them. In the near distance was the pitched house of the farm and the little pond where the ducks played. The stone wall and gate where the serpent challenged him. The patch of berries where the fox devoured him, and the old oak where it heaved him up again.
“How small it all is.” He realized.
And directly below them was the marsh, silvery blue and shimmering. But Ugly did not linger there, he lifted his gaze and saw the vast stretch of the sky, around and above, continuing with no end in all directions.
He heard, nearly under it’s breath, the eagle say, “Perhaps we will see each other again some day, across the wide view of our world.”
Then the talons were extracted from his side, the blood began to flow, and Ugly fell.
The impact with the water was painful and shocking. He rose to the surface of the marsh with a gasp, for a moment not realizing what had happened, that he was in control of himself. Then he moved to the bank and scrambled out, his wide feet stirring up the rich mud. He slipped, his wounds pressed against the coolness of the earth. With no energy left he lay there, sprawled half in the water, but he was at peace.
“I was brave, mother.” He whispered, and slipped into welcome oblivion.
A gentle splashing drew Ugly from his sleep. He lifted his head to see a large white bird crunching snails in the shallows just down shore. It’s neck, even longer than Ugly’s, turned towards him as Ugly tenderly stood and straightway slipped clumsily back into the water. He teetered a bit before gaining his balance.
The other bird drifted nearer and called out to him, with a bit of shell falling from his bill,
“You look like you’ve got quite a story behind you. I’ll admit…” a pause to gulp down the last of his morsel, “I’ve never seen such a sorry looking bird in my life, myself excluded of course.”
Ugly lower his head, ashamed.
“I’m sure you’ve never been this ugly. They even call me the Ugly Duckling.”
“Oh, you aren’t ugly, you’re just covered in muck! Come on, thrash around in the water a bit. You’ll feel better.”
So Ugly dove and flailed his good wing, the other only flopped a bit. He kept it near from the pain in his side.
“That seems to be quite the hurt you’ve got.” His new companion observed, “It’ll have to heal before you can fly.”
With the injured wing slightly outstretched, Ugly watched his reflection come together in the stilling water. The two small punctures appeared as dark circles in his lightening feathers. Then his eyes moved along his reflection, up the slender neck to the curve of the head and thin tapered bill. Suddenly it was clear to him.
“I’m not the Ugly Duckling.” He declared.
“I never thought you were.” The big swan replied.
Ugly hesitated. “But that’s the only thing I’ve ever been called.”
He saw the larger version of himself move alongside his reflection in the water.
“You don’t have to be what others call you," his companion offered. "you can name yourself if you’d like.”
After a moment’s consideration he responded, “I suppose Storyteller To The Eagle In The Sky is a bit long, isn’t it?”
“That is quite the beakfull.” The large bird conceded, with a grin.
“What’s your name?” The young swan asked, turning to face his companion directly.
“Well, I haven’t had use of one in quite a while. I suppose I’ve been pretty foolish in that time, so you may as well call me that.”
“Foolish.” It rolled around in his mouth like a wind blown puff down. “I like it.”
Then in a flush of knowing, he blurted out, “Can I be Brave?”
Foolish smiled, the brightest smile Ugly had ever seen. “Why yes, you certainly can.”
The sun was peering through a thin layer of clouds directly overhead, and though he’d just awoken, the brave cygnet was weary.
“I think you could stand a bit more rest.” Foolish observed. “A wound like that doesn’t heal overnight, at least in my experience.”
He lifted his right foot and lay it across his back, pivoting in the water so Brave could see. The webbing had been ripped nearly to the joint, leaving one toe oddly separate, like a naked branch in winter.
Brave was a bit taken aback, he’d never have guessed Foolish bore such a scar. Before he had time to ask about it Foolish took command.
“Have yourself some fairy shrimp, they’re just along the surface here, and then I’ll take you somewhere to rest awhile.”
Foolish gently nudged Brave from his slumber.
“You’d better eat a bit more before we settle in for the night.” He explained.
The sun was low, embracing the marsh in an ocher hue. Brave followed Foolish from the mossy bank where they had settled themselves to rest. He’d recounted his abduction from the marsh and his other adventures before slipping into a healing sleep. Now Foolish kept pace as they both snapped at flies and fed from the water. Eventually they simply floated together as the shadows and sunlight danced on the gently rippling surface.
Before long Brave noticed that Foolish had begun to drift away from his place beside him into a wide arc. He watched a while, bemused, as it became a gradually diminishing circle with him at the center.
“Why are you swimming around me?” He finally asked.
Foolish glanced about, coming to attention, then chuckled to himself.
“Ah, that’s what happens when I get lost in thought.” He explained. “My weak foot gets lazy when I don’t pay attention and takes a nap. Swimming with just one foot doesn’t get you very far!”
“If you don’t mind, how did it happen?”
“I warn you, it isn’t a very happy story.”
Brave considered a moment. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a happy story.”
“Well, I don’t suppose this one will do you any harm."
Then Foolish began, gazing across the open water.
“My mate and I had a clutch that was ready to hatch. She was staying with the eggs and I thought to myself, ‘Those little birds are going to be quite a challenge. I’ll get some nice big snails as a surprise for her.’ She liked snails like no other. I knew they were biggest among the cattails, which was a fair distance from our nest, but I didn’t think there would be any trouble. Sometimes things just don’t turn out like you expect.”
“I’ve learned that.” Brave offered.
“You’ve certainly had a share of surprises, I can’t argue! Well, in among the cattail stalks there was a surprise for me. One of those biting hooks men use to trick fish had gotten tangled all in, and dug right through me. I’ll tell you, it hurt! I couldn’t help but call out, and my dear mate heard me all the way back at the nest. So she slipped into the water, and started toward me, asking what had happened. Then something came after the eggs. I could hear the fight as she rushed back to save them.”
He stopped for a moment, and looked over at Brave.
“Let’s swim as we go, eh? Put this silly foot of mine to good use.”
So they paddled slowly through the marsh, following the memory as Foolish continued it.
“I didn’t even think once I heard her alarm. We were never ones to hesitate, she and I, so I thrust myself back toward home. That mean little hook wanted me to stay though, and held on tight. It kept a bit of my webbing for its determination.”
They passed through the dappled shade of a tree, and into a new clearing of water.
“I hadn’t had any practice swimming with it yet, and couldn’t do a straight line for all of my hearts trying. I just flapped and paddled and kept crashing into reeds and mud banks. All the while, ...well, I told you this wasn’t a happy story. It took me far longer to get back to the nest…”
He hesitated at the recollection. Brave moved closer, pressing his side gently against Foolish as comfort.
“I didn’t get there in time, and found only an empty home, some broken eggs. No more family. I haven’t been able to leave, you see. Even though it was terrible that day, so much of my time here has been full of joy and happiness. I can’t help but think that if I leave, all of it will be gone, the bad and the good. I can’t give up all that good I had with her. Not for that one horrible day.”
They had moved across the clearing, near the further shore. A nest waited there, abandoned.
“Do you know what this is?” Foolish asked.
Brave considered a moment. Then a flash of recognition struck.
“This is where I hatched!” He cried.
He pressed forward and scrambled onto land, looking for some small reminder of his mother.
Foolish watched from his place in the water. “This is where my love died.” He said softly, but deliberately.
Brave paused and turned toward him. “...my mother?”
“Then, are you my father?”
“That seems to be the situation.” and a flicker of a smile replaced his sad recollections.
Brave turned toward the nest again. He listened to his heart.
thu-bump, thu-bump, thu-bump
“She sang to me, before she died.”
“Do you remember the song?” Foolish asked
“With every heartbeat.”
“...would you sing it for me?”
Brave turned and slipped back into the water. As he swam toward his father he sang:
Wherever you wander,
whenever you're lonely,
be brave, oh my darling,
then you'll be with me.
Foolish lowered his head to gently touch his bill with Brave's, and a tear passed between them.
“Thank you, my dear brave boy.”
“Because of Mother’s song?”
“Yes. You just gave me a happy story.”
In the passing weeks, Foolish gave many happy stories to Brave. He told how he’d met Mother Swan, their courtship. Summers and winters and autumns and springs together. Days of exploration and wonder. Nights of comfort and peace. He also prepared Brave to fly, with lessons and demonstrations.
“Stretch out your wings, get those wounds used to the movement.”
He reared up and powerfully beating his own wings back and forth over the water's surface.
“They’ll only carry you if they know what you want them to do.”
One day, when the weather had begun to cool, a group of swans flew overhead, chattering excitedly to each other as they passed from some further north waterspot.
“How’s that hole in your side doing, Brave?” Foolish asked.
“I’d forgotten I even have it.” He confessed. Then lifted his breast and gave a few strong beats as he’d been shown.
Foolish flashed him a grin. “It looks like you’re ready to move on. You should join up with the others. They’ll take you to warmer weather.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going South as well?”
“Oh, don’t you worry about me, I’m too old for new company!”
Then Foolish grew somber.
“I don’t want to leave, even now. I know she isn’t here, but I prefer an empty nest to empty skies. I’m not sure I have enough memories to fill all that space. They might drift away, and she’d be gone for good.”
He broke from his reverie with a little chuckle. “I told you when we met I was a foolish bird!”
“Perhaps I should stay with you.” Brave offered.
“Well, it’s your choice, just as it is mine.”
He came close to Brave and they set their bills against each other before Foolish continued.
“I’ll be here for a while yet, you know. Go with them, and bring back some more happy stories to share with your foolish papa.”
Brave closed his eyes, but he already knew what his heart would say. He turned away from his father, swept his wings powerfully back and forth and moved across the water. Then up, ever higher, for the first time he flew.