As we neared the beach I perceived that the rest of the children were moving shoreward as well. By scores, by hundreds, by thousands, perhaps, they converged upon a spot where the softly rippling water lapped the sparkling sands. There at the water’s edge I saw a simple wooden cradle, rocked by the wind and the waves, draped in white silk and shaded by a canopy of the same delicate fabric.
An inviolable hush fell over the scene as, ankle-deep in the water, the children gathered in groups around the cradle. Those nearest to it stood on tiptoe, leaning forward in great excitement, their faces filled with anticipation and an almost painful longing to draw back the veil and look inside. But none dared.
Nearby, on a grassy slope between the sand and the edge of the forest, grazed the eight-legged horse. Upon seeing him I started so violently that the boy almost dropped me. But though I looked intently on every side, the horse’s rider was nowhere to be seen.
The boy wrapped the edge of his cloak around me, for the morning air was chill and damp. As he did so, I glanced up to where the heaven-blue garment was fastened at his shoulder. There, just above the silver brooch, sat the small gray bird with the burning blue eyes.
The bird bent down and held me in his gaze, and in that moment I understood – oh, so many things I understood! Beyond all belief, I had passed through the sunset and washed up on this bright shore beyond the world’s edge. From this place I could look back over my journey and see it in an entirely new light; and as I pondered each step and each stage, I realized that, for all my sad mistakes and bungled choices and unfounded fears, it could not have been otherwise – not in a million years. All this I saw and grasped in a single moment. And yet there was one thing that I did not understand.
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out but a musical cooing. The bird, however, read the question in my eyes.
“He is here,” he answered, cocking his head toward the cradle. “He has come to you in the appointed place, as promised, but He has done something more besides. He also meets you here by becoming like you.”
From over the treetops above the beach three birds came flying: the raven, the dove, and the sparrow. The children clapped their hands with joy to see them descend and perch upon the canopy of the cradle. There they sat for a few minutes, each of them eyeing the crowd first out of one eye and then out of the other. At last the dove, who held a sprig of holly in her beak, took off towards the edge of the forest.
Within the grassy strip where the eight-legged horse was grazing stood a well of hewn stone. To this well the dove flew swiftly, alighting briefly upon its gray brink before plunging into its depths. A moment later she burst forth into the clear air, the holly branch bright and dripping, and soared in wide circles above the crowd of children, sprinkling them liberally with the water from the well. The boy and I turned our faces upward and felt the cool drops upon our cheeks and foreheads. We opened our mouths and caught them on our tongues, shouting and laughing for pure joy.
Her task completed, the dove returned to her companions. An instant later all three birds were gone and in their place, at the margin of the land and sea, stood the three ladies I had known as the givers of the gifts.
A gentle breeze passed over the heads of the children, ruffling their tousled hair and bringing with it a hush. A smile like the sunrise broke across the face of the lady with the auburn hair. Stepping forward from between her two friends, she lifted her head, shook her ruddy locks, and called out in a loud voice:
“Children! Why have you come?”