- One -
There is no telling the age of the trees in the Pecan Grove. Maybe a million years from ancient seeds buried in the glacial sludge of the Great River.
The trees were so old the branches had fused into one tangled maze colonized by an infinite number of migrating birds. In the spring and through the summer berries were plentiful along the levy and insects spawned daily in the murky waters of a nearby bayou.
Bordering the grove, wedged between two fields of cotton, was a wood house mostly used to store seeds and equipment. The back of the house had a porch that faced the grove and the levy, and on the porch was a large cage with several cockatiel families. Winter was finally over and gone and a new generation of scraggly little birds, featherless but resolute, ventured out of their shells to discover their small world.
Silver, the last in the batch, soon tired of wandering around the cage floor with his clumsy siblings. He preferred to watch the birds outside. He wondered why he was in a cage while they were free to fly where they wanted.
Greybird, one of the older cockatiels, had been out once and all summer Silver plied him with questions. The old bird told him what it was like to soar high above the trees and Silver’s heart ached with longing. He’d stand high on his spindly legs and flap his pitiful wings, overturning food and water, sending the cage in a cloud of dust.
- Be happy with what you have, his mother said.
His uncle told him about the hardships outside the cage; of snakes and cats, and dying of hunger.
- Much safer to stay inside, advised Aunt Wilma.
- Don’t you ever want to go back out? he asked Greybird.
Greybird told Silver what happened to him the day it snowed. He’d been out about a week when the first snowflake landed like a whisper, then another and another until his head was covered, then all of a sudden the snow fell thick as a blanket. He couldn’t see anything. Snow was a rare event and Greybird was disoriented.
- Everything was white; the sky, the branches, the ground…and the cat.
The cat was staring at him, motionless, the snow almost entirely covering her fur. Only the occasional twitch of her tail gave her away. Suddenly she sprang in the air in a flurry of white dust and caught the inexperienced cockatiel in her paws.............
- 2 -
Mockingbird, Yolanda’s close friend who stopped occasionally to the grove for a visit, flew to the honeysuckle and found a comfortable spot to settle and chat. He saw how determined the young cockatiel was to learn everything there was to know, and wished he could make things easier for him.
- You’ve learned a lot, you can be proud of yourself, said Mockingbird.
- Maybe so, but it doesn’t change anything in my life, or the life of my family and friends.
- Be patient. It’s always better to be prepared in case the opportunity does arise.
Silver tried to be patient but he was short-tempered with his siblings and his mother. This made him feel awful, it wasn’t their fault. One morning he was on the floor of the cage, sulking, when he heard a thin, twangy voice.
- For Heaven’s sake, stay focused! it said.
Silver looked around until he noticed a small fierce-looking dragon diligently forging its way through the seed husks littering the ground. Spooked, he stepped back and almost fell.
- Miss Rose. Pleased to meet you. I couldn’t help but notice how sad you looked. The hardest thing to learn is patience, don’t you agree?
Under the camouflage, Miss Rose was a worm. Tiny feathers carpeting the cage floor had attached themselves in clumps over her entire body. To complete the absurd image she sported a pair of green sequined glasses perched over thick red lips. The tinted glasses (a gift from her grandchildren) gave her a slightly cross-eyed look that was disconcerting. Altogether she was a sight to behold.
- Are you talking to me? asked Silver. Don’t you know it’s dangerous for worms to hang out in a bird cage?
- You have to stay focused, trust me, said Miss Rose, ignoring his warning. She sneezed.
- Isn’t that an odd name for a worm?
He wondered why Miss Rose wasn't afraid of him. Then again, who would want to eat anything wearing shades and lipstick.
- My mother's right, said Silver. What good is it to know anything when there’s no purpose to it? What good is all this knowledge in a cage?
- You spend way too much time on the things that are wrong in your life, a waste of energy. Knowledge is everywhere, keep accumulating, stay focused. That’s my advice, said Miss Rose.
- Look around you. What is there to learn here?
- There’s something to learn in everything that happens or doesn’t happen, said Miss Rose. You have to be completely certain of this or you’ll never find what you’re looking for.
- How do you know what I’m looking for?
- Trust me, said Miss Rose. She slipped through the honeysuckle vine and into the night as if she had never happened .............
- 3 -
Silver settled for a spot near a marsh where several large bushes boasted a quantity of edible berries. Birds generally avoided the area because snakes loved the swampy ground but he was so hungry he felt he didn’t have any choice. He couldn’t resist spending more and more time near the marsh until one day, inevitably, a snake hidden in the mud flung itself in the air and caught Silver’s leg in his mouth. The more Silver struggled, the harder the snake clung to his leg. They hung there dangling for a minute, Silver with one claw on the branch and the other in the snake’s mouth.
- What a fool to go against the council of the other birds!
He heard a noise coming from the water, tilted his head and saw two huge eyes looking up through the sawgrass. Then he noticed the long, stubbly snout lined with razor-sharp teeth and there was no doubt a very large alligator was about to make a feast of both of them. The snake saw the gator as well, quickly let go of Silver’s leg and slithered off.
With the last of his strength Silver pulled himself onto the branch before the alligator could reach him. He was in shock. His leg was broken and bleeding and it took him all night to reach his hiding place. He assessed the damage and saw that the leg would be useless to him. How would he survive?
Silver felt very much alone. The words of his mother and the other cockatiels kept creeping into his head. Be happy with what you have, be realistic, don’t go where it’s dangerous, have an exit strategy. Know your enemy. He was mortified. He’d failed miserably and, under these conditions, he could never go back and face his family.
The small, frightened, cold and hungry cockatiel would not have made it through the winter had it not been for the cowbirds, naturally gracious, who shared their food and lent him comfort.
Finally the frost melted and the bird community greeted the first signs of warm weather with enthusiasm. It was so beautiful not even Silver could keep from rejoicing as the sun caressed his tired body. With practice he’d learned how to balance on his good leg but he lost his self-confidence, something he needed to have to compete for food. One especially warm night he looked up at the full moon and it reminded him of Yolanda. He felt sad and alone.
Something stirred on one of the leaves and he made a quick move to snatch a possible meal.
- Miss Rose! he cried.
- How nice to see you out and enjoying the moonlight, said Miss Rose, pretending she didn’t notice that he almost ate her.
- As you can see, he said pointing to his bad leg, I got into trouble and I’m not myself.
Miss Rose was having her own problems. The leaf was about to fall under her weight and she was half suspended in the air.
- All things considered you seem to be doing rather well, said Miss Rose, pulling herself up.
- I’d have two legs had I listened.
- You’d still be in the cage had you listened.
- I’d have two legs had I stayed in the cage.
- Do you regret leaving? Why don’t you go back for a visit?
- My family will think I’m a failure.
- Because you survived the winter?
- Because I lost a leg.
- The ego is a dangerous thing. Don’t ever let your ego dictate what you do. It puts your mind in a box which is just like living in a cage. Do you ever stop to think how your family is feeling, not knowing if you’re dead or alive?
Silver realized how much he missed his parents and a huge lump came to his throat.
- I wanted to be free. I wanted to find the Realm of the Birds. What was I thinking?
- If freedom is your goal you have to see what price you’re willing to pay for it. Did you think you’d never get into trouble? That it was going to be easy? ........
- 4 -
Silver saw something move under a shrub, he was off in a flash to the highest cypress tree. Eventually curiosity overshadowed his fear. He edged closer.
It was a huge old snake trapped in a net that had twined itself around the scraggly shrub. Fearing a ruse Silver stayed at a distance to see what the snake would do. The more it moved the more it seemed to get tangled. Finally it lay still for so long Silver thought it was dead. He turned to leave.
- Don’t leave, said the snake. Help me out of this mess.
- Why should I help you? I was almost killed by a snake and I know enough to know I shouldn’t trust you.
- I’m trapped. Help me get out.
- It could be a trick to catch me.
- I give you my word of honor.
- I’m sorry. What would happen if I went and told the others I saved a snake?
- Is it important to you what others think?
- As a matter of fact it is. But of course it’s not the most important thing.
- What is most important to you?
- I don’t intend to discuss my views on life with a stranger. I’m sorry I can’t help you.
Silver flew off but the vision of the snake, helpless in the heat, waiting to die, made him return. He inched closer and saw the snake was barely breathing. A long file of tiny red ants had circled the snarled body, preparing an ambush. Silver moved closer, pecked at the ants until they scattered in all directions, pulled the net so the snake could get out and flew back to the cypress tree.
To his dismay the snake didn’t move. Silver stayed all night to scare away any possible predator, and place water over the snake's parched skin. By dawn he was exhausted. He dozed off, for just a minute, and when he woke up the snake was in front of him, eye to eye. Silver’s heart sank. What a fool!
- Thank you, said the snake politely. My name is Zachariah. Snakes always keep their word. ...........
- 5 -
- Is there a Realm of the Snakes? (Silver asks Zachariah)
- We have a different view of life. We believe that what is important is what happens the moment it happens. We have neither the time, nor the desire, to ponder the future or something we can’t explain.
Silver didn’t stay long with his friend. The birds who passed through the grove had described what it was like at the edge of the world where it was always warm and the food plentiful. It was as good a place as any to start looking.
As he made his way south he didn’t recognize many of the plants. Before eating anything he watched which foods the other birds chose, and one day saw a large bird with an amazing assortment of colors pecking away at a shrub. Silver flew to the opposite side of the bush to eat the bright purple berries bursting with juice.
- I wouldn’t do that if I were you, warned the large multicolored bird, coaxing an enormous bright yellow feather into place with a thick, gnarled beak.
- Excuse me? asked Silver, spitting the berry already in his mouth.
- You don’t want to eat that. I can eat it but you could very well die.
Silver thanked the awesome creature for warning him, and the flamboyant parrot introduced herself as Madame Lafolle. Madame showed him which berries to eat and they discovered they were traveling in the same direction.
Madame Lafolle was like nothing Silver had ever encountered. Eccentric and unpredictable in everything she did, sometimes he wondered if she was insane. He was mesmerized by her impulsiveness and followed her even when a voice inside told him he was taking unnecessary risks. Madame loved to play tricks and her favorite was to descend on unsuspecting birds like a rainbow gone crazy, squawking horribly, her thick, knobby claws spread close over their heads. Afterwards she would fall over herself laughing, tears in her eyes.
- Did you see their faces? she’d cry, gasping for air.
Madame lived on a large property overlooking the coast shaded by giant oak trees. She said she was treated well and the door of the cage was always open so birds could come and go as they pleased. Silver thought, this could very well be the Kingdom, and when Madame invited him as a guest he accepted.
As they continued south Silver noticed something different in the air, pungent. Everything was different, the smells, the sounds, the trees. When he saw his first palm tree he asked Madame what it was. She said it was a sign their journey was almost over. ...........