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A short story by Selma Lagerlof

The Legend Of The Bird's Nest

Title:     The Legend Of The Bird's Nest
Author: Selma Lagerlof [More Titles by Lagerlof]

Hatto the hermit stood in the wilderness and prayed to God. A storm was raging, and his long beard and matted hair waved about him like weather-beaten tufts of grass on the summit of an old ruin. But he did not push his hair out of his eyes, nor did he tuck his beard into his belt, for his arms were uplifted in prayer. Ever since sunrise he had raised his gnarled, hairy arms towards heaven, as untiringly as a tree stretches up its branches, and he meant to remain standing so till night. He had a great boon to pray for.

He was a man who had suffered much of the world's anger. He had himself persecuted and tortured, and persecutions and torture from others had fallen to his share, more than his heart could bear. So he went out on the great heath, dug himself a hole in the river bank and became a holy man, whose prayers were heard at God's throne.

Hatto the hermit stood there on the river bank by his hole and prayed the great prayer of his life. He prayed God that He should appoint the day of doom for this wicked world. He called on the trumpet-blowing angels, who were to proclaim the end of the reign of sin. He cried out to the waves of the sea of blood, which were to drown the unrighteous. He called on the pestilence, which should fill the churchyards with heaps of dead.

Round about stretched a desert plain. But a little higher up on the river bank stood an old willow with a short trunk, which swelled out at the top in a great knob like a head, from which new, light-green shoots grew out. Every autumn it was robbed of these strong, young branches by the inhabitants of that fuel-less heath. Every spring the tree put forth new, soft shoots, and in stormy weather these waved and fluttered about it, just as hair and beard fluttered about Hatto the hermit.

A pair of wagtails, which used to make their nest in the top of the willow's trunk among the sprouting branches, had intended to begin their building that very day. But among the whipping shoots the birds found no quiet. They came flying with straws and root fibres and dried sedges, but they had to turn back with their errand unaccomplished. Just then they noticed old Hatto, who called upon God to make the storm seven times more violent, so that the nests of the little birds might be swept away and the eagle's eyrie destroyed.

Of course no one now living can conceive how mossy and dried-up and gnarled and black and unlike a human being such an old plain-dweller could be. The skin was so drawn over brow and cheeks, that he looked almost like a death's-head, and one saw only by a faint gleam in the hollows of the eye sockets that he was alive. And the dried-up muscles of the body gave it no roundness, and the upstretched, naked arms consisted only of shapeless bones, covered with shrivelled, hardened, bark-like skin. He wore an old, close-fitting, black robe. He was tanned by the sun and black with dirt. His hair and beard alone were light, bleached by the rain and sun, until they had become the same green-gray color as the under side of the willow leaves.

The birds, flying about, looking for a place to build, took Hatto the hermit for another old willow-tree, checked in its struggle towards the sky by axe and saw like the first one. They circled about him many times, flew away and came again, took their landmarks, considered his position in regard to birds of prey and winds, found him rather unsatisfactory, but nevertheless decided in his favor, because he stood so near to the river and to the tufts of sedge, their larder and storehouse. One of them shot swift as an arrow down into his upstretched hand and laid his root fibre there.

There was a lull in the storm, so that the root-fibre was not torn instantly away from the hand; but in the hermit's prayers there was no pause: "May the Lord come soon to destroy this world of corruption, so that man may not have time to heap more sin upon himself! May he save the unborn from life! For the living there is no salvation."

Then the storm began again, and the little root-fibre fluttered away out of the hermit's big gnarled hand. But the birds came again and tried to wedge the foundation of the new home in between the fingers. Suddenly a shapeless and dirty thumb laid itself on the straws and held them fast, and four fingers arched themselves so that there was a quiet niche to build in. The hermit continued his prayers.

"Oh Lord, where are the clouds of fire which laid Sodom waste? When wilt Thou let loose the floods which lifted the ark to Ararat's top? Are not the cups of Thy patience emptied and the vials of Thy grace exhausted? Oh Lord, when wilt Thou rend the heavens and come?"

And feverish visions of the Day of Doom appeared to Hatto the hermit. The ground trembled, the heavens glowed. Across the flaming sky he saw black clouds of flying birds, a horde of panic-stricken beasts rushed, roaring and bellowing, past him. But while his soul was occupied with these fiery visions, his eyes began to follow the flight of the little birds, as they flashed to and fro and with a cheery peep of satisfaction wove a new straw into the nest.

The old man had no thought of moving. He had made a vow to pray without moving with uplifted hands all day in order to force the Lord to grant his request. The more exhausted his body became, the more vivid visions filled his brain. He heard the walls of cities fall and the houses crack. Shrieking, terrified crowds rushed by him, pursued by the angels of vengeance and destruction, mighty forms with stern, beautiful faces, wearing silver coats of mail, riding black horses and swinging scourges, woven of white lightning.

The little wagtails built and shaped busily all day, and the work progressed rapidly. On the tufted heath with its stiff sedges and by the river with its reeds and rushes, there was no lack of building material. They had no time for noon siesta nor for evening rest. Glowing with eagerness and delight, they flew to and fro, and before night came they had almost reached the roof.

But before night came, the hermit had begun to watch them more and more. He followed them on their journeys; he scolded them when they built foolishly; he was furious when the wind disturbed their work; and least of all could he endure that they should take any rest.

Then the sun set, and the birds went to their old sleeping place in among the rushes.

Let him who crosses the heath at night bend clown until his face comes on a level with the tufts of grass, and he will see a strange spectacle outline itself against the western sky. Owls with great, round wings skim over the ground, invisible to any one standing upright. Snakes glide about there, lithe, quick, with narrow heads uplifted on swanlike necks. Great turtles crawl slowly forward, hares and water-rats flee before preying beasts, and a fox bounds after a bat, which is chasing mosquitos by the river. It seems as if every tuft has come to life. But through it all the little birds sleep on the waving rushes, secure from all harm in that resting-place which no enemy can approach, without the water splashing or the reeds shaking and waking them.

When the morning came, the wagtails believed at first that the events of the day before had been a beautiful dream.

They had taken their landmarks and flew straight to their nest, but it was gone. They flew searching over the heath and rose up into the air to spy about. There was not a trace of nest or tree. At last they lighted on a couple of stones by the river bank and considered. They wagged their long tails and cocked their heads on one side. Where had the tree and nest gone?

But hardly had the sun risen a handsbreadth over the belt of trees on the other bank, before their tree came walking and placed itself on the same spot where it had been the day before. It was just as black and gnarled as ever and bore their nest on the top of something, which must be a dry, upright branch.

Then the wagtails began to build again, without troubling themselves any more about nature's many wonders.

Hatto the hermit, who drove the little children away from his hole telling them that it had been best for them if they had never been born, he who rushed out into the mud to hurl curses after the joyous young people who rowed up the stream in pleasure-boats, he from whose angry eyes the shepherds on the heath guarded their flocks, did not return to his place by the river for the sake of the little birds. He knew that not only has every letter in the holy books its hidden, mysterious meaning, but so also has everything which God allows to take place in nature. He had thought out the meaning of the wagtails building in his hand. God wished him to remain standing with uplifted arms until the birds had raised their brood; and if he should have the power to do that, he would be heard.

But during that day he did not see so many visions of the Day of Doom. Instead, he watched the birds more and more eagerly. He saw the nest soon finished. The little builders fluttered about it and inspected it. They went after a few bits of lichen from the real willow-tree and fastened them on the outside, to fill the place of plaster and paint. They brought the finest cotton-grass, and the female wagtail took feathers from her own breast and lined the nest.

The peasants, who feared the baleful power that the hermit's prayers might have at the throne of God, used to bring him bread and milk to mitigate his wrath. They came now too and found him standing motionless, with the bird's nest in his hand. "See how the holy man loves the little creatures," they said, and were no longer afraid of him, but lifted the bowl of milk to his mouth and put the bread between his lips. When he had eaten and drunk, he drove away the people with angry words, but they only smiled at his curses.

His body had long since become the slave of his will. By hunger and blows, by praying all day, by waking a week at a time, he had taught it obedience. Now the steel-like muscles held his arms uplifted for days and weeks, and when the female wagtail began to sit on her eggs and never left the nest, he did not return to his hole even at night. He learned to sleep sitting, with upstretched arms. Among the dwellers in the wilderness there are many who have done greater things.

He grew accustomed to the two little, motionless bird-eyes which stared down at him over the edge of the nest. He watched for hail and rain, and sheltered the nest as well as he could.

At last one day the female is freed from her duties. Both the birds sit on the edge of the nest, wag their tails and consult and look delighted, although the whole nest seems to be full of an anxious peeping. After a while they set out on the wildest hunt for midges.

Midge after midge is caught and brought to whatever it is that is peeping up there in his hand. And when the food comes, the peeping is at its very loudest. The holy man is disturbed in his prayers by that peeping.

And gently, gently he bends his arm, which has almost lost the power of moving, and his little fiery eyes stare down into the nest.

Never had he seen anything so helplessly ugly and miserable: small, naked bodies, with a little thin down, no eyes, no power of flight, nothing really but six big, gaping mouths.

It seemed very strange to him, but he liked them just as they were. Their father and mother he had never spared in the general destruction, but when hereafter he called to God to ask of Him the salvation of the world through its annihilation, he made a silent exception of those six helpless ones.

When the peasant women now brought him food, he no longer thanked them by wishing their destruction. Since he was necessary to the little creatures up there, he was glad that they did not let him starve to death.

Soon six round heads were to be seen the whole day long stretching over the edge of the nest. Old Hatto's arm sank more and more often to the level of his eyes. He saw the feathers push out through the red skin, the eyes open, the bodies round out. Happy inheritors of the beauty nature has given to flying creatures, they developed quickly in their loveliness.

And during all this time prayers for the great destruction rose more and more hesitatingly to old Hatto's lips. He thought that he had God's promise, that it should come when the little birds were fledged. Now he seemed to be searching for a loop-hole for God the Father. For these six little creatures, whom he had sheltered and cherished, he could not sacrifice.

It was another matter before, when he had not had anything that was his own. The love for the small and weak, which it has been every little child's mission to teach big, dangerous people, came over him and made him doubtful.

He sometimes wanted to hurl the whole nest into the river, for he thought that they who die without sorrow or sin are the happy ones. Should he not save them from beasts of prey and cold, from hunger, and from life's manifold visitations? But just as he thought this, a sparrow-hawk came swooping down on the nest. Then Hatto seized the marauder with his left hand, swung him about his head and hurled him with the strength of wrath out into the stream.

The day came at last when the little birds were ready to fly. One of the wagtails was working inside the nest to push the young ones out to the edge, while the other flew about, showing them how easy it was, if they only dared to try. And when the young ones were obstinate and afraid, both the parents flew about, showing them all their most beautiful feats of flight. Beating with their wings, they flew in swooping curves, or rose right up like larks or hung motionless in the air with vibrating wings.

But as the young ones still persist in their obstinacy, Hatto the hermit cannot keep from mixing himself up in the matter. He gives them a cautious shove with his finger and then it is done. Out they go, fluttering and uncertain, beating the air like bats, sink, but rise again, grasp what the art is and make use of it to reach the nest again as quickly as possible. Proud and rejoicing, the parents come to them again and old Hatto smiles.

It was he who gave the final touch after all.

He now considered seriously if there could not be any way out of it for our Lord.

Perhaps, when all was said, God the Father held this earth in His right hand like a big bird's nest, and perhaps He had come to cherish love for all those who build and dwell there, for all earth's defenceless children. Perhaps He felt pity for those whom He had promised to destroy, just as the hermit felt pity for the little birds.

Of course the hermit's birds were much better than our Lord's people, but he could quite understand that God the Father nevertheless had love for them.

The next day the bird's nest stood empty, and the bitterness of loneliness filled the heart of the hermit. Slowly his arm sank down to his side, and it seemed to him as if all nature held its breath to listen for the thunder of the trumpet of Doom. But just then all the wagtails came again and lighted on his head and shoulders, for they were not at all afraid of him. Then a ray of light shot through old Hatto's confused brain. He had lowered his arm, lowered it every day to look at the birds.

And standing there with all the six young ones fluttering and playing about him, he nodded contentedly to some one whom he did not see. "I let you off," he said, "I let you off. I have not kept my word, so you need not keep yours."

And it seemed to him as if the mountains ceased to tremble and as if the river laid itself down in easy calm in its bed.

[The end]
Selma Lagerlof's short story: Legend Of The Bird's Nest