Long ago, when the world was young, and in some ways smaller than it is today, and in other ways, greater than it is today, there happened a moment of mischief.
A small bird with blue-and-black feathers sat upon a single egg in her nest. It was to be the last of her children. She had laid six eggs already in her life. Raised six chicks. Seen them fly away on their own or with mates. Six times she had watched her hatchling’s fluffy grey feathers fall out. Six times she had seen beautiful blue-and-black feathers emerge. Six times she coaxed a hesitant and fearful hatchling to the edge of the nest to try his or her wings. Six times her heart had sunk as they dropped, and leapt as they leapt and rose into the air in glorious flight. And six times she had taught her hatchlings to sing. For in those days, all birds sang.
The blue-and-black bird sighed as she ruffled her feathers and shifted in her seat over the egg. She had been a bird-mother for most of her life now. And while she loved her children and had reveled in raising them, she was tired. And she was fearful. For six times, she had raised her children with her mate. But this time, she would do so alone. Her mate was lost to the world, to her.
She sorrowed that the last hatchling would not know its father. But her other children had promised to stop in and help her as she needed, and to keep her company, and to tell their newest sibling all about their father.
She nearly dozed as she sat upon her egg. She did not know that, as she sat perched upon what was soon to be her last child, eyes were watching her from a tree across the clearing.
The monkey liked to watch other animals in the forest. He watched their comings and goings. He listened to their greetings and partings—and everything in between. He made note, in his intricate mind, of the stories of their lives. And he waited until an opportunity arose from the knowledge he had gathered. An opportunity to make mischief.
So, he had been watching the little blue-and-black bird sit upon her single egg. And even as he watched her, he watched another expectant mother with a single egg, a small many-colored snake. And while the creatures were quite different, their eggs looked to his eyes to be quite similar. This observation, this knowledge, tickled the mischievous edges of his mind. And he…hatched a plan.
The monkey hired some of his fellows to lead both the serpent-mother and the bird-mother on a merry chase. The monkey minions wrapped a few dead earthworms around twigs, hid among the bushes, and wiggled the twigs in the open until the serpent or the bird gave chase.
Each mother soon discovered the ruse and scolded the monkeys for their mischief. But by then, they were each already tired.
Later, as the exhausted mothers slept deeply, the monkey snuck close and stole their eggs. Then, he switched them. He rubbed each egg all over its new nest to hide the scent and aspect of its origins from each mother. He hid his own tracks so that neither mother would suspect.
The next morning, he strolled by the nest of the many-colored snake.
“Good morning, monkey,” the snake said in the common tongue that all creatures shared in those days. “How do you do?”
“Ho there,” the monkey said. He frowned and cocked his head. “I am well, but you must not be, for your egg looks to be a bit off this morning.”
This was the final part of the monkey’s plan. He reasoned that if the ruse were discovered, he would not be suspected if the mothers remembered that he commented on their eggs. For why would he risk directing their attention to the switched eggs, if he were the one who had switched them?
The serpent-mother wrapped herself around her egg. She hissed at the monkey. She examined the egg, checking it for cracks or damage, by running her flickering forked tongue over it. The monkey held his breath.
“My egg is well, monkey,” the serpent-mother said. “Perhaps you are the one who is ‘a bit off.'”
The monkey bowed his head humbly and scurried away.
Next he visited the blue-and-black bird.
“Good morning, monkey,” the bird said, stretching her wings. “How do you do?”
“Ho there,” the monkey said. He frowned and cocked his head. “I am well, but you must not be, for your egg looks to be a bit off this morning.”
The bird-mother cheeped at the monkey as she hopped off her egg. She examined the egg, checking it for cracks or damage, peering at it with her sharp eyes. The monkey held his breath.
“My egg is well, monkey,” the bird-mother said. “Perhaps you are the one who is ‘a bit off.'”
The monkey bowed his head humbly and skittered away. He had to clap his hand to his mouth so the bird would not hear his laughter. He sat in a high branch in his favorite tree that morning, and laughed and laughed until his mouth grew tired from stretching so far for so long.
When the monkey first devised his trick, he had intended to eventually switch the eggs back. But day after day, it amused him so much to watch each mother care for an egg that was not her own, that he let it be, so he could spend another day laughing in the tree, celebrating his prowess in trickery, and wondering what expression he would find on each mother’s face if the eggs should hatch. He lamented that he would never find out, for he would switch the eggs back before they hatched. And then reveal his ruse…from a safe distance.
Each day, he told himself, “I’ll switch them back tomorrow.” And the next day would come, and he would be so amused, that he would say again, “I’ll switch them back tomorrow.”
And tomorrow. And tomorrow. The monkey put off switching the eggs back. Until finally, it was too late.
Both eggs were beginning to hatch.
The monkey did not know what to do. Both mothers were too alert now. He tried to lure them away from their nests, but he failed. They would not leave their nests while their eggs were hatching. And if he tried to explain himself and take their eggs, still they might not listen. He saw the dangerous gleam in each mother’s eyes. And he wisely stayed away.
He began to fear what would happen after the eggs hatched. Surely, his ruse would fail. Surely, the bird and the serpent would realize that the monkey was the culprit.
Afraid, confused, and at last, regretful, the monkey fled to the caves where his kind took haven during times of need.
The blue-and-black bird watched the cracks form in her egg. She sat aside, patiently waiting, fighting the urge to help her hatchling out. This was the first lesson, after all. The hatchling had to find its own way out. If it struggled too much, then it might be too weak to survive. She would help it then. And watch after it as best as she could. For it was still her child, whatever was within that cracking egg.
The final emergence happened quickly. Shards of the egg flicked open, and something dark and wet wiggled out. The bird expected the newly arrived chick to shake the wetness off itself and begin to cheep out of hunger. She had a meal of earthworms ready for it. It would take only a little while for the chick’s wet feathers to dry and puff, and the bird-mother relished the thought of sleeping next to her fluffy new child that evening.
But the creature that emerged from the egg did not shake itself. It slithered out, and whipped the head of its long and limbless body toward her. Two lidless black eyes gazed at her. And from between its slightly parted lips, there flicked a forked tongue.
There was a snake in her nest.
The blue-and-black bird was terrified. The newly hatched snake was not very big, not much bigger than the earthworms that she had caught that morning. But the bird was loathe to come near it. She told herself that it was too big for her to grasp with her beak and toss out of the nest. Even if it was small enough for her to grasp, she feared that it would turn its head and bite her if she tried. Perhaps if her true hatchling had been present, had been in danger, the bird-mother would have acted anyway, without thinking, upon some blind instinct to save her child.
But there was no other hatchling.
The bird-mother did not think long and carefully about what might have happened and how, but she did know now that the egg in her nest was not the egg she laid. The serpent, of course, was not her child. In panic and despair, she took flight, leaving the baby snake in her nest.
If the egg in her nest was not her own, then her own egg was somewhere else. Someone had taken it. And it might even now be hatching. She flew high over the forest, peering down with her sharp eyes, searching. After many hours, she caught sight of something on the forest floor.
As she descended, her horror mounted, for she saw that she was too late.
The egg was hers, and it was shattered.
The bird saw the tracks in the dirt, the winding tracks of a serpent.
She lamented. For she understood then that her true hatchling had been devoured by a snake. She had failed to protect it.
Later, when her grief faded and only her anger remained, she would vow vengeance on the creature who had stolen her egg. Later still, when even anger faded, and only bittersweet sorrow remained, she would set aside the vow and forgive. But she would never forget the child she lost.
And the only reason her sorrow was touched by some measure of sweetness was because of the child she found.
The bird-mother flew back to her nest, still longing and lamenting for her lost child. When she returned, she noted that the baby snake was still in the nest, and she had eaten all the earthworms. She had been sleeping, but she woke when she sensed the bird-mother’s return.
Perhaps it was that the blue-and-black bird had been shocked by the sight of the sleeping serpent. How gentle she seemed, when she was wrapped around herself in a coil, sleeping. Even with her eyes open, in the fashion of serpents, how helpless she seemed.
It had grown dark, so the bird decided to watch over the serpent for the night. Perhaps its mother was lamenting and fearing for her child just as the bird-mother had done for her own child. The bird would carry the snake down to the ground and help her find her mother. But the bird needed to rest first and recover her strength.
Serpents tended not to hear very well. Nonetheless, the blue-and-black bird made soothing sounds of cooing to lull the serpent back to sleep. And when the serpent coiled back up, stretching her mouth in an awkward first smile, the bird-mother smiled back. For the baby snake was not to blame for another’s malice.
The bird had only meant to delay a few days, but the serpent grew faster than the bird expected. It grew too big for the bird to carry it. A few days became many, many days. The bird tried to teach the serpent how to fly, but soon realized that would not work, for the serpent had no wings, or even flaps of skin on which to glide, as the flying tree squirrels did. The bird decided that when the serpent was strong enough to slither out of the nest and all the way down the tree, she could help it find its mother.
The bird-mother taught the serpent-child how to speak the common tongue of all creatures. And she taught the snake about the forest. She did not yet reveal that she was not the snake’s true mother. And the snake, in these early days of her life, did not realize that she was different from the bird.
One day, on a lark, the bird tried to teach the serpent-child a snippet of bird-song.
In those days, when all creatures still spoke a common tongue, before knowledge became split into many separate pieces, it was still possible for a serpent to learn the song of a bird.
The first time the serpent-child sang out, she uttered a hissing squeak. Startling herself, she ducked her head out of embarrassment, but her mother encouraged her to try again.
The serpent-child was hesitant. She did not try again for a few days, despite her mother’s coaxing.
But she longed to sing as beautifully as her mother sang. She could never fly, for she had been born without wings. But she might sing someday. So she listened. And she practiced gripped and winding, so that she became adept at moving through the branches of the tree.
One day, as she was winding and slithering and jumping among the nearby trees, she startled a couple of young birds who had landed in a branch just before her. The serpent-child tried to greet them, but even as she opened her mouth, they leapt into the air and flew away.
When she later recounted the tale to her mother, the blue-and-black bird at last told the serpent the truth. The bird thought the serpent-child would be angry, but it was not so. The child was relieved to learn that she had not failed to fly or sing because she was an inferior bird, but because she was another type of creature altogether.
At this, her bird-mother bopped her head with a wing, informing her curtly that there were many worthy birds in the world who did not fly and did not sing.
Humbled, the serpent asked about her serpent-mother, but her bird-mother had nothing to tell, for she had never met the serpent who had borne the egg that found its way to the bird’s nest. The bird did not mention that she suspected the hatchling from her own egg had been eaten by that very same serpent.
So the serpent-child, who already longed to leave the confines of the tree to find adventure, now longed to find her serpent-mother. She practiced her winding and slithering. And seeing the strange sorrow in her bird-mother’s eyes, she practiced her singing too.
One day, she uttered a cheep just like her mother’s. Then another. And another. She demonstrated for her mother at dinner that evening, and was delighted to see her mother’s spirits lifted at the sound.
Soon, the serpent learned to trill, to whistle, to warble, and coo, just as her mother did.
The birds in that part of the forest became accustomed to the sight of the serpent. They came to learn that she would not harm them.
But they never quite became accustomed to the sound of the serpent.
She was teased and looked upon with envy and malice and confusion and wonder. So she aimed to learn bird song so well that she could out-sing a natural-born bird, hoping to inspire only wonder. With her mother’s help, and even that of a few curious and friendly birds, she did learn. She would raise herself upright, reaching into the depths of her now-long body, taking in deep breaths, and stretching her mouth wide. And she would sing.
Her song did become more beautiful than that of all the birds in that forest, for she worked and practiced, and listened, though the sound that reached her serpent ears was far duller than what the average bird could hear. Her song became so beautiful, so enchanting, that one day it did indeed enchant another creature.
The serpent had begun her search for her serpent-mother. She began by searching the area around her nest. Many creatures fled when they sensed her coming. But her song had helped to soothe a few into standing still long enough to answer some of her questions. She learned that she was not a particularly fearsome type of snake. That was why some creatures let her be. She learned she should be careful, for she was larger than her bird-mother now, but she was still smaller than many of the forest creatures, even other snakes. So she was careful when she searched. And she was careful not to sing unless she was in a safe place.
She was high above in the trees cooing and trilling one day when she spotted the creature below. A monkey.
He glanced up. She kept singing, but watched him closely as he climbed up to her.
He peered at her, but was silent before the sound of her singing. When she finished her song, she took a breath, so that she might make her introduction. But the monkey spoke before she did.
“There is mischief and there is mischief,” the monkey said, his eyes wide with wonder.
For he needed no introduction. He knew who the serpent was, who she must be. He knew who her mother was.
Nevertheless, the monkey asked the serpent how she had learned to sing like a bird, for she was the only serpent he knew of who could do so.
The serpent swayed her head and flicked her tongue with pride. She told the monkey her story. Then, the monkey told her his part in her story. He admitted to her that he was the one who switched the eggs. He had carried the serpent egg up into the bird’s nest.
“Then my sister’s death is your doing,” the serpent said, lowering her head to the branch. She slithered toward the monkey, and the monkey recoiled.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The serpent told him of her mother’s search for the bird egg, and how she had found it shattered. By this time, the serpent knew that her bird-mother suspected her serpent-mother of eating the newly hatched chick. The serpent had learned that her kind of snake did not typically eat birds, but she had said nothing to her bird-mother, for what comfort could such knowledge bring? Either way, the chick would still be gone.
“But it is not gone!” the monkey said. And he laughed, half in joy and half in relief, for he had good news to tell the serpent who had suddenly become menacing.
He knew it to be true that the hatchling bird was alive and well, at least after she had just hatched. The chick and the serpent-mother had both fled, once the bird was hatched, for the serpent had realized the monkey’s mischief, and had aimed to escape him before he did any more harm.
He had seen her flee, carrying the fluffy gray chick upon her back, but had been too afraid to approach.
The serpent-mother did not know that the monkey would retire to the haven of the caves.
There he remained until he began to hear a strange song. A song that sounded like bird song, but had some echoing quality that he had never heard before. The song haunted him. As it came closer to him, he sought to come closer to it.
And that was how he came upon the serpent that day.
The serpent heard little of the monkey’s extolling of her song. After hearing that her mother’s chick was still alive, she could hardly stop herself from leaping toward the next tree, and slithering down and back to her nest.
But then she stopped when she realized that she did not know where her bird-sister was. She returned to the monkey and asked him, but he did not know. He only knew the direction in which he had seen the serpent-mother flee.
Her bird-mother knew that she was searching for her serpent-mother. The serpent would also go searching for the chick—who would be a bird by now, with blue-and-black feathers, like her mother. She dreamed of bringing the bird-child and the serpent-mother back, so that all could be revealed, and forgiven. And so they might all be reunited, a strange and unexpected family, brought together by a monkey’s mischief.
So the serpent renewed her search with fresh vigor, and as she slithered along, the monkey followed.
The monkey, no longer mesmerized by the serpent’s song, began falling into his old ways. He began to tease the serpent about her “silly” dream of reuniting with her mother. The serpent had a happy life, strange though it was.
“Why stir up trouble?” the monkey asked.
The serpent halted her winding for a moment and drew herself up. “A strange thing for you to say.”
“Trouble is my purpose,” the monkey said with a shrug.
“Why are you following me if you disapprove of my quest?”
The monkey smiled. “Perhaps its end will be amusing. I haven’t laughed in a long while.” And he hadn’t gathered knowledge in a long while. If nothing else, he was curious. Just curious.
“Why don’t you try being helpful for a change?” the serpent said.
The monkey waved his hands before himself. “And be ridiculed? As you say you do whenever you sing? Serpents aren’t supposed to sing and monkeys aren’t supposed to be helpful.”
“Who says?” the serpent challenged. “There are some limits that we cannot overcome. I cannot sprout wings and fly. But there are many limits we can overcome, because we have set upon ourselves. We have done so for good reason. But if such reasons go too far? What then? You would never hear the song of a serpent. Imagine a day when we have no common tongue in which to speak so that we may teach each other. That is what might happen if we insist that serpents cannot sing and monkeys must always make mischief.”
The serpent lowered herself to the ground and continued onward.
The monkey stood where he was. Struck by the serpent’s words, he climbed up to a high branch of a tree so he could think.
The serpent traveled for days. She traveled far, farther than she had ever gone before. And she sang less and less, and only when she was well-hidden and protected. She watched for dangers from the sky and dangers from the ground. She sometimes was welcomed to stay the night in the hollows of friendly serpents, but she was mostly alone.
One day, she sensed a danger nearby and climbed atop a boulder. Another snake slithered by. Not a harmless one, like herself, but a predator, a viper.
Once the viper passed, the serpent-child, who was now many-colored like her serpent mother, continued on her way.
But not too long after, she began to feel that certain dread again, the dread of being hunted. Once again, she searched for a high place where she might perch and watch her hunter pass.
But this time, she waited for a while, and no hunter passed by. That sense of dread did not leave her as the day waned. She would take no chances. She decided to climb up into a tree and find a safe hollow to hide in till morning.
As she prepared to climb, she heard a sound that froze her in place.
Without thinking, she slithered away and felt a whip of wind behind her. She hid behind a fallen branch and turned to see the viper slowly winding toward her.
She was fast, but the viper was bigger. It could move faster. It had chosen to follow her. It would surely chase her. It was coming closer.
She had no defense. She had no venom. No hood to make her appear larger. No rattle to distract. She had only one hope. She rose and reared her head back. She summoned the force from deep within the length of her body.
And she began to sing.
The viper kept coming. Its ears, like hers, could not hear as well as the ears of other creatures.
The serpent sang more loudly. And in her song, she wove the song of distress, a warning, and an entreaty. And then she wove the song of battle.
The viper kept coming, but suddenly, it stopped. It was close enough now to hear her song.
And it appeared to be stunned by the sound.
If it remained stunned long enough for her to climb, then she might survive. But the serpent-child was afraid to stop singing. With other creatures, when she stopped, they quickly shook off the effects of her song.
She remembered how her mother would coo her to sleep. She began to wonder if she might be able to do the same to the viper. She softened the edges of her song, and she began to sway her head side to side, singing and swaying, cooing and soothing.
The viper did not move. Then, slowly, its head began to droop.
The serpent kept singing. As her song softened, she heard a sound beyond her song. A sound that almost made her stop.
Suddenly, something darted past her and struck the viper, breaking the spell of the serpent’s song.
The viper reared its head, and something darted toward its head again, and again. All was dim, and the serpent saw only a ball of heat that seemed to hover in the air and strike the viper’s head, just as a snake would strike, jabbing. And the viper in turn jabbed at the ball of heat. But by some skill, the ball of heat dodged the viper’s strikes.
Suddenly, they both stopped.
The ball of heat hissed at the viper, and the viper hissed at the ball of heat. As they stood at an impasse, as the viper considered who was attacking it, the serpent saw what the ball of heat was.
A small bird with dark feathers.
“Leave her be!” the bird said, not in the common tongue of all creatures, but the hissing language of the serpents.
The viper seemed to hesitate, startled perhaps at being addressed in her own language by a small bird. But she recovered herself. And before she could strike, the serpent began to sing again.
Both the viper and the small bird remained as they were, frozen at impasse. Whether they were keeping each other at bay, or the serpent’s song was keeping them mesmerized, the serpent could not tell.
Another sound reached her ears.
A larger animal dropped into the clearing. A monkey.
He held in one hand a large stone. His other arm was full of more stones.
The serpent stopped singing, meaning to cry out for the monkey to be careful not to hit the bird. But when she stopped, the viper snapped its head as if shaking off the serpent’s song.
The viper glanced from the monkey to the hissing bird to the the singing serpent. She dropped to the ground and slithered away from them into the undergrowth.
The small bird darted through the air and hovered before the serpent.
“Are you all right, serpent-sister?” the bird asked. For it was the very bird-child that the serpent-child had sought.
The serpent had known it from the moment she realized that the hissing ball of heat was a bird.
It had come to pass thus…
The monkey had thought about the serpent’s words. He had hidden for a long while, knowing he could never make amends for the trick that had turned into a tragedy. But after hearing the serpent’s words, he knew he must try anyway. And he knew how he could start.
He could move much faster than the serpent could, so he went searching for the bird-child and the serpent-mother. And he found the bird-child.
Upon the monkey’s shoulders, the serpent enjoyed an easy ride high into the trees. She learned the sad news that her serpent-mother had died a while back from an illness. When her serpent-mother had discovered that a baby bird had hatched from the egg in her nest, she remembered the monkey’s words, and understood what he had done. But she did not believe he had made the switch out of mere mischief. She had feared he meant some malice. So she aimed to carry the chick out of the forest, far from the monkey, and then to return for her own serpent-child, whom she hoped would be cared for in the meantime.
As they fled, though, the serpent-mother became injured. She could not make such a long journey back, so when her bird-child was old enough, she entreated the child to go find her serpent-sister.
“But I could not leave my mother,” the bird-child said. “I was right to stay, for she soon grew ill and died. I would have come to find you once my mourning was done. But the monkey found me first.”
“And as we were traveling back to your mother’s nest,” the monkey said, “we heard your singing.” The monkey glanced between the serpent and the bird. “I have never heard such an enchanting song from a serpent, nor have I ever encountered such a fierce and formidable bird.”
It was as the serpent had dreamed it, a happy reunion. Her mother was overjoyed to learn that the last of her bird-children had lived. She embraced the little blue-and-black bird until the bird-child hissed in distress. She vowed to always honor the memory of the serpent who had raised the bird-child. She told the monkey that she forgave him.
And she praised her serpent-child for her perseverance. For her song.
In time, the other creatures in the forest became accustomed to the serpent who sang like a bird and the bird who hissed like a serpent. They never quite believed however that the monkey was capable of setting mischief aside, at times. But when the serpent tried to teach other serpents to sing like birds, or when the bird tried to teach other birds how to strike like a serpent, there were few who were eager for such lessons.
For it was a too strange a thing for a bird to hiss and a serpent to sing.
In time, what the serpent-child had warned the monkey about came to pass. The common tongue among the creatures was forgotten. Most creatures could no longer pass their knowledge on to those outside their own kind.
But there would always be those who dreamt of reunion. Whenever they heard the story of the serpent and bird, they were heartened.
For it is a most spectacular thing, for a bird to hiss and a serpent to sing.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel