The Firebird XXVI

Birds in Flight 001

I awoke to find myself lying unharmed upon a shelf of the rock.  The storm had passed and the raging of the sea had subsided.  Above me the stars were once again visible in a deep blue sky.

I searched the water, but not a trace could I see of any of the raftsmen.  Gone, too, was the man with the young face, the old eyes, and the scar across his chest.  Here and there I saw logs and other fragments of the raft bobbing in the dark water.

All at once a thought struck me and I sat bolt upright.  Crawling and groping frantically along the ledge, I scanned the waves below, straining my eyes to see in the half-light.  At last I gave up and lay back against the rock in despair.  My lamp, my cloak, my basket of apples – all were now lost to me, and I had little hope of ever finding them again.

Now what? I moaned as I lay there staring up at the black pinnacle above me.  And as I stared, I became aware that something was moving up there on the very peak of the rock.  At last, as my eyes came into focus, I realized what I was seeing:  four birds strutting and preening against the dark background of the star-studded sky.

I was up again in an instant.  “The raven!” I said under my breath.  “The dove!  The sparrow!  And …”

Even as I spoke, the smallest of the four came fluttering down to perch upon my shoulder.  It was the small gray bird with the eyes of burning blue.

“Oh!” I cried.  “I’m so glad to see you!  You’ve come back to help me at last!”

The bird said nothing in reply.  Instead, he merely sat staring at me out of deep and unblinking eyes.

After a moment he chirped loudly.  At his signal the other three birds leapt lightly from the topmost point of the rock and began descending to us through the clear air.  The sparrow came with the quick, darting, flitting movements of its kind.  The dove glided gracefully on soft rose-colored wings.  But the raven soared, wheeled, and swooped in a majestic arc, then circled the rock slowly several times before coming to rest on a narrow ledge just above my head.

I clapped my hands in delight.  “This is wonderful!” I said.  “Is it now that you are going to restore to me my cloak, my lamp, and my basket of apples?”

They all regarded me out of still eyes for what seemed a very long time.  At last the raven spoke:

“We have come to hear you give an account of the treasures we entrusted to your care.  Do you mean to tell us they are lost?”

“Wh-why, yes,” I stammered, taken aback by her response.  “They were lost in the storm when the raft was wrecked upon this rock!”

The dove cocked her head and looked at me quizzically out of one eye.  “Raft?” she said, in her soft, silvery voice.

“Yes,” I replied.  “A raft with several men aboard.  They were rowing back to land, and I – well, I loaned them the use of my cloak in exchange for passage.  It was for a good cause.  To warm a sick man.  Or at least I thought he was sick at the time.”

“But what made you think of seeking passage back to land?” chirped the sparrow.

Words failed me at this point.  It had all seemed so obvious and logical when I was alone in the sea.  Everything the raftsmen said had made complete sense to me at the time.  But now as I sat facing the four silent birds, all of my reasons for doing what I had done escaped me.  I could not for the life of me think of anything sensible to say in answer to the sparrow’s question.

“I cannot tell,” I said at last.

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