The swallow was a happy bird, but also somewhat superior. Nothing brought her joy the way flying did. Slicing through the clouds and flicking the air with the perfect points of her tail. She believed that birds were the supreme creatures of the world. Because they could fly. Some insects could fly as well, of course. But birds could fly higher, faster, and farther than any insect.
The happy swallow pitied any creature who could not fly. She pitied all the animals who could only jump, like squirrels, leaving the earth for a mere few seconds before being dragged down. She pitied even more so the animals who could only run and walk upon the earth. And for those creatures who squirmed through the earth, the worms, she felt disdain as well as pity.
But no living thing did she pity more than she pitied trees.
Trees grew tall, tall enough to brush the sky. They strained upwards. Yet trees could not even move along the earth. Even worms could move along the earth. So even though she often perched in trees, taking her rest after a long or vigorous flight, or keeping herself dry from rain showers, the happy swallow pitied the trees the most. She loathed to think of them as living creatures at all. It was better she think of them as rocks or earth. For surely, no living thing could abide being stuck, bound, anchored in one place. Every tree was a miserable prisoner.
But as much as she pitied the other animals, she admired her fellow birds.
And there was one bird in particular who had caught her notice.
He was a fellow swallow. And all of his feathers were black. That was rare among the swallows of their region. The happy swallow herself bore feathers of the typical blue on her back and white at her chest, with splashes of orange at her throat and above her beak.
The black swallow was a quick and graceful flier. And he seemed to prefer his own company to that of the other birds. But the happy swallow was determined to become his friend. In her brightest dreams, she was his best friend. And he taught her how to fly the way he did, and she taught him how to catch the juiciest mosquitoes mid-flight.
Every day, the happy swallow tried to impress the black swallow. She flew loops and tumbled in the air. She dove and then rose. She twirled and she swirled.
And while the other swallows were impressed enough to chuckle and cackle at her, the black swallow gave her no mind.
One day, she flew alongside him, straining herself. She would not be able to keep up for long, so all she did was ask if she might join him.
And to her delight, the black swallow, though he said nothing, slowed.
The happy swallow spoke to the black swallow, told him of her day, and of how much she loved to fly. The black swallow still said nothing. But he slowed a bit more. And the happy swallow was able to keep up comfortably, while still speaking.
She listed all of the flying tricks she could do, and all of the ones she could not. She loved to fly, but flying also tired her, so she also loved to rest and to sleep.
The happy swallow kept up this banter. And though the black swallow did not answer, he seemed to be listening.
The next day, the happy swallow did the same. She flew alongside the black swallow. She spoke to him of the wonders of being a bird, and the different kinds of clouds she had flown through, and how she had seen a falling star, and had wondered if she could catch it in her beak and eat it. But the star flew too fast, even faster than a falcon.
So it continued, day after day. The happy swallow and the black swallow flew side by side. The happy swallow told her tales and the black swallow listened.
But soon, the happy swallow found herself in a predicament she had never faced before. She had run out of things to say—at least—she had run out of happy things to say.
While the happy swallow did have stories and thoughts that were not happy, she did not often share them outside of her own mind. But she found herself sharing such thoughts when she flew alongside the black swallow one day.
She glanced down as they flew over the forest and she commented on the stillness of the trees. And she spoke of how she pitied the other animals, who could not fly, and looked down upon the ones who crawled upon or through the earth, like the worms. And she spoke of her aversion for the motionless trees, and how their lives must be worse than death.
And as she spoke, she found herself running out of breath, and realized that it was because she was flapping her wings faster and faster. To keep up with the black swallow. He darted ahead of her. And the happy swallow tried and tried to follow, but she could not keep up. She could barely keep his tiny form in sight. That form dipped down and into the trees.
The happy swallow followed.
The happy swallow found the black swallow perched upon a high branch in a willow tree. She hopped along its branches toward him.
“This tree,” the black swallow said, startling the happy swallow, “that you hold in such contempt is keeping you safe from the dangers that stalk upon the ground, and even those that strike from the sky.” He hopped toward her and peered into her eyes. “You can think as you wish, but I am thankful for the trees.”
With three hops, the black swallow launched himself into the air, straight up, and then he darted away.
The happy swallow was so shocked that he had spoken, and so shocked and shamed, by the words he had spoken, that it took her a moment to recover herself.
By the time she also took to the air, the black swallow was long gone.
She was never to see him again.
But the black swallow was right.
When the next great storm descended, swiping with its fierce winds and beating down with its relentless rains, it was the trees that provided shelter for the swallows.
The happy swallow flew as low as she could, but the winds tossed and buffeted her and kept her aloft. She could not descend below the crowns of the trees. Still she tried and tried. She saw some of her swallow brethren fly toward a willow.
The happy swallow followed.
The wind pushed her back. She caught and steadied herself and tried again.
And in the howling of the winds, she thought she heard something else. A voice speaking to her. And one that sounded familiar.
“Shame on you,” the voice said, “for taking their shelter after all the insult you have piled on them.”
And just as the happy swallow recognized the voice, a sudden blue brightness filled the sky.
The happy swallow was struck with such force that her breath was knocked out of her and her wings were frozen in place, stretched out beside her.
She felt herself begin to tumble out of the sky.
And the happy swallow thought that she would die.
Through a haze of weariness, the happy swallow heard…chirping.
The chirping of sparrows, her fellow birds.
As the haze began to fade, the happy swallow felt stunned to still be alive.
She remembered being struck by something that was without mercy, something hard and sharp. She remembered plummeting to the ground.
She could not yet open her eyes. She did not yet know if she was still on the ground. If she was, she should rise soon, before she was preyed upon by some creature of the earth. But the happy swallow had no choice but to be still and patient.
Soon, she felt her senses begin to open. And she found that she was not on the ground. She was high, high up in the trees.
She must have somehow weaved her way through the merciless currents of storm wind.
She tried to open her mouth to warble, but nothing came out. She tried to stretch her wings, but they would not move. They were outstretched already and seemed fixed in place. She remembered. That’s how they were when she was struck by that force.
A surge of panic began to rise within her. Then she felt a breeze pick up and flow through her.
And on the breeze, there was a voice, a familiar voice. The same voice that had spoken during the storm. But there was something even more familiar about the voice.
“I have changed you, Swallow,” the voice said.
The happy swallow tried to respond, but found she could not speak. Her voice was frozen, even as her wings were. She could not speak. She could only listen.
“I have cast a curse on you, Swallow,” the voice continued. “I have transformed you. You are no longer a bird. You are a willow tree. And a tree you will remain until you have learned your lesson, or until you die.”
The happy swallow then realized that it was not weariness that blurred her vision and her senses. It was because she did not have her natural senses. She was “seeing” through the eyes of a tree.
The breeze ruffled her smaller branches and the leaves upon those branches shook. The happy swallow, who was now a willow, felt the quiver of each leaf.
She strained to send a quiver back, to stretch her branches, to turn her eye. She felt a strange and unpleasant sensation. It was not pain. But she could think of no other word to describe the tension and the dozens of cracks and snaps she felt in her branches.
“Do not move,” the voice said. “Trees are not meant to move. If you try, you will die.”
And even as the voice spoke those words, the breeze began to calm. And then it vanished altogether.
The happy swallow, who was now an unhappy willow, wept and lamented for most of the day. But none could hear or see her sadness. Her tears were slow in falling for they were made of sap. And her lamentations were silent, for she had no voice, and no motion.
When she grew weary from lamenting, she looked out upon the world. She could see through the knots in her bark. Her sight was different, hazier. But some of her knots faced the sky, so she stretched her gaze up. The sky was clear and cloudless. She felt the freshness in the air. Her branches were still damp. The earth around her roots was soaked and cool. The sensation soothed her somewhat.
But then she saw the shapes dart past in the sky.
They glowed with various colors.
At first, the sight inspired her. For a brief moment, she forgot what she had become, and she tried to stretch her wings and hop up to join them.
But when she felt the strain on her branches, she remembered.
All that day she watched birds fly overhead. And she longed to join them. And she envied them. And she pitied herself.
She even envied the insects. The butterfly, the bumblebee. Even with their slow, meandering ways, they could still fly.
The swallow who was now a willow felt the heaviness of her massive body. She felt the stiffness in her branches. Her roots were stuck in the ground, twining deep through the earth.
She could not bear it.
But she could not escape it.
She calmed herself. For there was no choice but to escape her condition. She could not bear it.
She thought of the words that the voice on the breeze had spoken to her. She searched the words for clues. And as she searched, as she calmed herself, she realized why the voice had sounded so familiar.
And she realized why it had taken so long for her to place the voice. She had only heard it once before.
And when she heard it, she had not been expecting to hear it.
The black swallow.
It was his voice she heard in the fierce winds of the storm. His voice she heard in the breeze that passed through her branches.
He was the one who had cursed her.
He must have been a wind spirit.
She remembered the first words he had spoken to her, when she thought he was a fellow swallow. He had been offended by her demeanor toward the trees. He was thankful for the trees.
Surely that was the lesson he wished for her to learn.
So the swallow who was now a willow spoke silent words of gratitude for the trees. She chanted thanks all through the day and all through the night.
Trees did not sleep. So she received no rest from her condition. No brief relief in the oblivion of sleep.
She gave thanks day after day, night after night.
Still nothing changed.
She was a willow.
She was cursed to watch the birds fly by, to watch them, but not be them.
So one morning, she stopped giving thanks and calmed herself. And she thought upon the black swallow wind spirit’s words.
He had warned that if she tried to move, she would die.
And she remembered telling him that she would rather die than be trapped, imprisoned in the motionless body of a tree. She had said it was a fate worse than death.
All she need do was try to move, to strain her branches. She had felt something crack loose on that first day. She almost could not endure it. But she thought she could push herself further than she had that day. And if she did, she would die.
The swallow who was now a willow was desperate to return to her natural form, to be a bird, to break free from the earth. But she did not want to escape into death. The very thought inspired dread.
If all else failed, she might once again face the choice. She might once again have to decide what she abhorred more, life as a tree, or death. But her choices were not yet so limited. She might still find a way to choose the choice she would choose if she could choose it, to once again live as a swallow.
In the days that followed, she lamented and lamented, until she grew tired. She felt so weary that she began to look down and around. She began to notice the passage of the forest animals.
She had before ignored the steady march of ants around her bark and branches, or the skittering of the squirrels after they hopped over from other trees, or scrambled up from the ground, running from a fox. She had ignored the squirming worms that crawled between her roots.
And she had ignored the birds that sometimes landed in her branches, perching and preening.
She could dull her senses so that she could not feel the life pulsing around her.
But now she opened her senses. She sensed all the animals glowing with their own special colors.
She became so engrossed in the daily workings of the forest that she somewhat forgot her own lamentations.
A few days later, she noticed that a bird was building a nest in one of her branches. That bird was a swallow.
The swallow who was a willow had never built a nest before. She had no mate and had never laid any eggs.
The swallow who made her nest in the willow glowed a vivid and lively green. She laid four eggs. They all glowed different colors when she laid them.
But after a few days, the swallow who was a willow noticed that the glow around one of the eggs was dimming. And one day, it stopped glowing altogether. It stopped glowing, and it stopped growing.
The swallow who was now a willow felt sad for the egg that would never hatch, and she felt sad for the swallow mother who expected to welcome four children into the world and would now welcome only three.
The swallow who was a now a willow watched the other eggs closely, keenly, in case any more of them began to dim.
But none did.
The swallow who was now a willow abided in a constant state of worry for the eggs, and for the poor mother, who was doing her best to keep the eggs warm in the creeping cold of autumn.
At last, the day came when the eggs began to hatch.
The swallow who was now a willow watched them through the knots in her bark.
One of them glowed with the colors of water and sky, many different blues. One of them glowed with the colors of sunset. And one of them, the last to hatch, glowed with the colors of a rainbow.
All were colors that the swallow who was now a willow had seen with her swallow eyes, but not in the feathers of swallows, and not with that particular glow.
The swallow who was now a willow was relieved and happy for the new swallow family, and she was thankful that the three eggs had survived and hatched.
And that night, after all had calmed, after the hatchlings were fed, and the mother rested, the swallow who was now a willow realized that she had felt thankful. She was thankful that she had provided the swallow family with a home in her branches.
Confident that she had learned her lesson, that her curse would be broken by morning, the swallow who was now a willow dimmed her senses. It was not the same as falling asleep, but it was restful.
The next morning, her senses opened. The swallow who was still a willow, felt at first perplexed, then irritated, then worried.
She had raised her hopes up to the sky and all the way to the stars the previous night. She was so certain that she had broken the curse.
But she was still a willow.
Old, dark feelings loomed within her. She did not want to feel such feelings. But it could not be helped. She tried to calm herself. But even after the hungry hatchlings began to chirp for their breakfast, the swallow who was now a willow could not forget her disappointment. Still, she focused on those hatchlings and she calmed herself as best she could.
Rain had fallen many times when the hatchlings were still safe in their eggs. And any storms that came were fairly mild.
But a few days after the eggs hatched, a fierce storm struck, much like the storm in which the happy swallow had been transformed into an unhappy willow.
As the winds picked up, whipping through her branches, the swallow who was now a willow worried over the birds that were taking shelter in her branches, especially the hatchlings.
That day, as winds lashed, lightning blasted, and thunder clapped with such force it shook the earth, the swallow who was now a willow felt her weight in a different way. She felt solid and strong, strong enough to shelter those hatchlings. And so she did.
When morning came, those hatchlings had all survived, along with their mother, and several other birds and creatures who had hidden within her branches and hollows.
The willow felt satisfied. She did not feel quite so good as to be happy. But she was satisfied.
Before too long, the hatchlings became young swallows, and they were learning how to fly. And once they learned, they would leave the nest.
Two of the young swallows tried, failed, and finally succeeded in flying. And they flew away. And the willow sometimes saw them fly overhead. But she kept her attention on the third young swallow, the one who was colored like the rainbow.
This swallow was nervous, just as her siblings had been. She tried, and she failed, just as her siblings had. Her mother encouraged her, but the young swallow could not fly yet.
The swallow mother left to find food that night. And when she did not return quickly, the young swallow began to worry.
The willow watched in horror as the young swallow hopped along the branch and braced herself to jump off and try flying. The willow wanted to cry out to the young swallow to stop. The young swallow was likely to plummet to her death if she could not fly.
The willow tried to calm herself, so she could think of some way to thwart the young swallow.
Luckily, the swallow mother returned in a few moments, before the young swallow could do anything rash.
The young swallow lamented that her mother could have been in danger. And the young swallow could not have helped in any way, for she could not yet fly. Her mother comforted the young swallow. And the willow watched.
The next morning, when the swallow mother flew out to hunt for breakfast, the young swallow hopped along a branch and tried again to fly, just as the willow feared she might.
The young swallow was no fool. She was careful to try her flying in a part of the willow where the branches were thickest, so that if she fell, she would not fall far.
The willow watched. The young swallow launched herself off a branch, flapped her wings, and held herself aloft for longer and longer.
Soon, the young swallow began to make loops around the willow.
And if the willow could have smiled, she would have. For she felt happy for the young swallow.
The young swallow, eager to show her mother that she could now fly, darted out from the willow and back.
To the willow, the young swallow appeared to be a ball of many colors streaking across the air. Her flight was wobbly, clumsy. Her turns were wide. She had yet to learn fine control over the muscles of her wings and tail.
The young swallow also had yet to build up endurance, and she was growing tired. But she wanted so much to surprise her mother, to have her mother appear and be startled at the sight of her child sweeping through the sky.
So the young swallow kept making circles around the willow, around and around. She sometimes landed on a branch and rested for a moment before launching herself off again. And she sometimes skipped off the branch, missing it as she misjudged how fast she was flying.
The willow worried that the young swallow would suffer a spasm in her wing.
And it must have been a spasm or a missed branch that caused the young swallow to smash into a branch. She began to fall.
The willow panicked. She opened her senses and she saw that the branches were thin where the young swallow was falling. So thin that the little swallow would fall straight to the ground.
She would not survive such a fall.
The willow strained, with all her will, and all her might, she strained and stretched.
She was a tree.
And trees were not meant to move.
But the willow who was once a swallow did move.
Branches cracked and branches twisted. And the young swallow bounced off one branch, then another, and another, falling through leaves that softened and branches that slowed her descent, and then released her to the next branch, and the next. The willow reached down into the ground and raised her roots. They churned and shifted the earth.
And by the time the young swallow fell into the soft earth between the roots, she fell with no more force or speed than if she had toppled off a rock half her height.
Spasms wracked the branches and roots and trunk of the willow who was once a swallow. And still she watched the fallen young bird at her roots for any sign of movement.
The young swallow suddenly jerked to movement. She sat up, coughed, and glanced around. She hopped up on a root and gazed up at the willow tree. She hopped up, flapping her wings, but she was too worn out to fly.
The willow who was once a swallow had done a forbidden thing. She was tree, and trees were not meant to move. But she had moved. And now she would die.
She did not want to die, but she was glad that her last sight in the world would be the now-fearless young swallow alive and well and gazing up at her.
“You caught me!” the young swallow said to the willow. “Thank you!”
And the willow who was once a swallow felt the familiar sensation of falling. She was falling, but her wings were frozen in place, outstretched. She heard a terrible cracking, and crashing, and thought she must have been crashing and collapsing to the ground. She only hoped that the young swallow would move out of the way.
She blinked. The once-happy swallow who had become a willow blinked her eyes. She found a shape looming over her. And as her eyes came into focus, she realized that shape was the young swallow.
“Where did you come from, sister?” the young swallow said.
With a gasp, the once-happy now-stunned swallow stretched out her wings and righted herself. She toppled over as she did.
She began to laugh. She had forgotten how light she was as a swallow. She had forgotten how good it felt to stretch. She raised her wings, and the young swallow before her did the same.
The stunned swallow gazed up at the willow that still stood before them, its branches cracked, some broken and hanging, the half-uprooted willow.
She was puzzled. She glanced at the young swallow.
“Am I a bird?” she asked. “Am I a swallow?”
The young swallow frowned. “Yes, of course.”
The happy-once-more swallow laughed. But then she gasped. “I can’t see your glow anymore.” The young swallow before her looked like the typical swallow, like the happy swallow herself, blue and white feathers with an orange throat. That distinct and famous tail. The happy swallow had forgotten how many colors she could see as a bird, but none of those colors glowed.
“There was a curse upon me,” the happy swallow said. “You broke it, my young friend.”
The young swallow cocked her head. “I did?”
And the happy swallow took in a breath, savoring the sensation of air in her lungs. She hopped toward the young swallow. And she glanced up at the willow tree that had just saved the young swallow’s life. “We did.”
The happy swallow wanted to fly, but her wings were stiff, and the young swallow’s wings were tired. So she would be patient and she would rest.
The happy swallow gazed up at the sky and spotted a few birds flying by. She felt a swell of joy in her chest, for she hoped to join them soon. Soon, the happy swallow would follow.
But until then, she would take rest with her new friend. And she would do what she once loved to do, besides flying. She would tell some stories. And she would start with a story about a foolish swallow and a heroic willow.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel