Once upon a time a pair of swallows lived in a beautiful valley near to the West Coast of Scotland.
The Mama Swallow was small and feisty and wild and had the kindest heart you could ever imagine.
The Papa Swallow was strong and brave and loved Mama Swallow fiercely because she had the kindest heart you could ever imagine.
One warm May evening, Mama and Papa decided that they wanted to start their family. They searched up and down the valley to find a safe place to build a nest and eventually settled on a sheltered spot, in the eaves of a house, near a small burn.
For days they carried mud, grass and feathers up into the eaves until, eventually, their home was ready for their eggs to be laid. That first year, they welcomed eight healthy, happy chicks into the world, in two sets of siblings. Mama Swallow’s heart almost burst with pride at what they had achieved.
That winter they travelled back to South Africa, across the great wide, warm Sahara, with a huge feeling of love and joy in their hearts.
The next spring, they made the long journey back North and headed to the valley and their nest. At first, there was some confusion as they discovered that a pair of House Martins had found the nest empty and thought that they might take out a temporary let on it. But Papa Swallow took the Daddy Martin across to a branch of the ash tree by the burn and talked about boundaries and the hard work that it had taken to make the nest. The Daddy Martin realised his mistake and asked for a few tips about making a nest of their own and all was well.
Mama and Papa Swallow soon settled back into the nest and before they knew it, they had four beautiful chicks, almost ready to fledge. One night, they were roosting on the branch of the ash by the burn when they noticed that the rain was falling harder than they had ever known before. The burn had swelled and burst its banks and the field beyond the burn looked more like a lake than a field. Mama Swallow noticed that the rams, who usually lived and grazed in the field, had been pushed right into the far corner up the hill and were huddled, bedraggled and sad-looking, near the fence. She peered through the dim twilight at her nest and hoped that her brood were warm, dry and fast asleep. She leaned in against Papa Swallow and let her eyes close, longing for the morning when she would be able to dry her wings in the sun and fly across to her Babies to feed them and gently nudge them to spread their own wings.
When she woke with the sunrise, she knew that something was wrong. An eerie silence shook her from her slumber and she looked across to a sight that tore her heart in two.
The nest had disappeared from the eaves.
She shot like a bullet from the branch and across to the house and without even needing to rouse him or ask, Papa Swallow was at her side.
There, the nest was lying on the ground; the heavy rain had washed too much of the mud away for it to hold firm under the eaves and it had tumbled down onto a patch of soft grass below, throwing the chicks out as it fell.
Mama Swallow’s heart filled with horror as she saw her chicks motionless on the ground. She screamed and screamed at them in the that they might wake but after what felt like days she was hoarse, exhausted and still unable to rouse them.
After a while, Papa Swallow encouraged Mama to return to the ash branch and rest. There she sat, frozen in fear. He brought her food to try and help her build her strength but she could not eat. In fact, she could barely breathe and she felt as if her life was over.
Meanwhile, in the house, a Gentle Giant who went by the name of Steve had been woken by the sound of the crying outside.
He hurried to the window to see what was wrong and felt a wave of shock and upset as he discovered that the nest had come crashing down.
He rushed outside.
There, dazed and scared, were the four Baby Swallows.
Ruffled, fragile but perfect.
At first Gentle Giant Steve just watched to assess the damage and distress.
One by one, the Baby Swallows started to shift, shake themselves and feel the warmth of the sun on their wings.
The eldest, Number One, soon realised that his wings were ready to hold his weight and with a deep breath and lot of straining and determination, he fluttered, half-flying, half-tumbling, away from his siblings, onto the grassy bank and then away across the burn. His re-union with Mama and Papa Swallow on the ash branch was all it took to shake Mama back into action and to start to mend her heart. Soon she was away, finding insects and doing everything she could to soothe her boy, fill his tummy and nurse him back to strength.
Papa soared back to the house to see that Baby Swallow Number Two was following her brother’s example. He swooped down to give her some encouragement as she shuffled, ruffled and shook herself into flight.
Gentle Giant Steve had watched all of this with great excitement. But he also noticed that the two remaining Babies were struggling to follow suit and to venture into the great unknown. He wondered whether Mama and Papa might notice this and come back to feed them on the ground but, for some reason, this didn’t seem possible.
After a while longer, and with one inordinate show of strength, Number Three pulled himself onto his feet, took a run at the grass bank and fluttered into the air. Gentle Giant Steve held his breath, muttered “come ON” under his breath and was devastated to see the bird drop to the ground, just short of the hedge at the bottom of the bank.
Gentle Giant Steve took a moment to think what to do. In his head were all the wives’ tales about “never touching chicks” and “mothers abandoning babies”. He took a deep breath and decided that not doing anything was not an option.
He hurried over, scooped Number Three into his hand and transported him back to the safety of the grassy patch next to his brother. Once again he watched and was frustrated to see that, although Mama and Papa kept swooping across and low to see their Babies, they did not come with any food and seemed unable to do anything to help.
He looked up and began to hatch a plan in his head. He knew that, if he could re-create something close to a nest, there might be more chance that Mama and Papa could feed their Babies and so he wandered back into the house to see what he might do.
On the other side of the burn, Mama Swallow’s heart sank as she watched him disappear. She did not know what magic this Gentle Giant had performed to help her Babies but she knew that without him, the two still on the ground had little hope.
After a while, Gentle Giant Steve returned with his invention. He had brought a box with some soft paper and scraps of food inside and scooped Number Three and Number Four into it.
He placed the box up high on a windowsill and fixed it so that The Babies would be safe and secure. For a while the tiny birds just lay there, breathing and trembling and doing little else.
“Come ON” muttered Gentle Giant Steve. “Don’t give up now”. He thought to add some of the grass, feathers and mud from the original nest and with this, Number Three seemed to gain some strength; before Gentle Giant Steve knew it, he was up on his feet and calling at the top of his chirp.
Mama Swallow responded at once and swooped across with a big fat insect in her beak.
This was all it took for Number Three to make a spirited effort to launch himself into the wide blue yonder ; in a flurry of legs, wings and desperate flapping, he too made it across to join the rest of his family on the ash branch.
Back in the windowsill and Number Four was so frail and sad looking that Gentle Giant Steve wondered whether the chick might just give up. He talked quietly to him and suggested that he should give him a name. He thought for a while, searched through memories of other rescues and other swallows and soon decided: this was Siegfried.
Over on the ash branch, where Mama was feeding Number Three, she felt her heart strings tug at the sound of a cry. She looked across to the house and spotted Siegfried, perched up high and calling as if his life depended on it. Without a moment’s hesitation, she flew up into the sky to catch an insect and then swooped over to feed it to her famished boy on the window sill.
She could not believe it as he took her gift and felt as if she had been given a second chance.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she flew away and back again with insect after insect, only hesitating from returning to Siegfried when she could see that Papa had gone to him.
The sunshine was often bright but the showers were never far away. Each time she felt a raindrop, Mama found herself trapped in the memory of her Babies stranded on the ground, in the aftermath of the downpour. She found it hard to shake herself free of the image but knew that she had to move on and not allow what had happened to sap her determination.
And so she tirelessly fed and fed, building Siegfried up and giving him more and more strength.
At the same time, Papa Swallow had realised that their nest needed to be rebuilt and had started to collect grass and mud and take them up to the eaves. He knew that they could build back better and that with luck, they could make a stronger and safer structure for their next brood.
Once she knew that Siegfried was well-fed, Mama joined Papa in the re-building project but she was soon reminded by Siegfried that he wasn’t letting her go again that easily. He might have been small, frail and scruffy, but his cries for food and attention were fierce!
She smiled at his tantrums and quickly let him know that she was there for him.
As night began to fall, she tried to encourage him to fledge. He knew what he had to do but each time he teetered on the edge of the box nest, he felt full of fear and anxious that his wings would not support him. The memory of falling after the rainstorm paralysed him and he just couldn’t make the leap. He fell backwards into the box and sobbed in desperation.
Watching him from inside the house, seeing the sun setting and realising that it was getting cold, Gentle Giant Steve knew that he had to help out once more.
He went and collected the box, muttered quietly to Siegfried that he would be safe til morning and took him into a dark, quiet corner of the house.
Siegfried settled into the deepest sleep that he had ever known.
When Gentle Giant Steve collected the box and Siegfried at the crack of dawn the next day, he was worried that perhaps the sleep was of the deepest kind possible. Siegfried was still and oh, so quiet.
Back on the windowsill and in the warm sun, something stirred him, however.
Across on her ash branch, Mama Swallow saw Gentle Giant Steve place the box carefully back on its perch and soared across to see her boy, a big insect ready in her beak.
Hearing her close by, Siegfried shook himself back to life.
Slowly and surely, he started to feed again, guzzling whatever Mama and Papa delivered and all the time stretching and flexing his wings to check whether they might be ready.
And then a magical thing happened. For a short while , Number Three appeared by Siegfried’s side. No words were spoken. Nothing was done. But Number Three was there. Just being and waiting.
After a while he fluttered off again, back to the roost over on the ash branch with the rest of the family.
And then suddenly, a tingling feeling started to spread through Siegfried’s little frame. It started in his toes and worked it way down to the bottom of his forked tail and up and out, to the tips of his wings. And then he knew that he was ready. He tottered to the edge of his perch, looked straight ahead at his Mama waiting with bated breath on the ash branch.....and he flew.
Nigerian Igbo proverb:
Oran a azu nwa.
It takes a village to raise a child.
BY STEVE (IMAGES) AND LENA (WORDS) CARTER. © COPYRIGHT STEVE AND LENA CARTER 2020