“We should have known better,” Garu grated angrily. The sparrow perched high in the apple tree, watching helplessly as the gray cat below devoured her kill. “Let’s leave. This is no place for the clan.” His fierce gaze flicked over his now small group: his trusted friend Baklan, Baklan’s mate Teekeh, their grown daughter Kila, and his own son, Liru.
Liru looked up to him with imploring eyes. “Where? Where is there?”
The sharpness in Garu’s voice changed to weariness. “I don’t know. But someplace.”
He took off and the group followed suit. The summer evening air was cool and refreshing, but Garu could not enjoy it. He tried to keep his eyes ahead, but they kept glancing backwards at his son. Why did Liru have to have those pale brown feathers like his mother? Why did he have to serve as a reminder of that terrible event? A pain slashed through his heart. He remembered it all too well.
* * *
He and Lirana were flying together on a summer evening. The breeze was sweet and the sunset was radiant. It turned the green leaves of the forest below to gold. Little pink clouds skipped across the colorful horizon. He could see the smile on Lirana’s face and the gentle sparkle in her eye; a smile of pride at bringing up her first child. Their son Liru was a few weeks old and needed plenty of care, but Teekeh had offered to watch him for a while. Garu and his mate had eagerly taken the opportunity to enjoy the sunset and soar in the pleasant sky. And as Lirana let out a laugh of happiness and did a loop-the-loop in the air, Garu felt as if there was nothing more he could possibly want.
A screech rang in the quiet air, and suddenly all was chaos.
Lirana screamed as the owl swooped towards her. The great talons were wide open, waiting to snatch prey out of the air. They closed with a snap—but Lirana was quicker. Her little pale brown wings tilted ever so slightly and escaped the flying predator. This happened once, twice, three times, and still the sparrow evaded the owl with inches to spare. But it could not last much longer.
Meanwhile, Garu sat stupidly watching the scene from a branch he had crashed into when he had dived to avoid the owl. He yearned to help, but he was overpowered by fear. He was frozen in place.
It had been growing steadily darker. The owl’s eyes were accustomed to the night, but Lirana’s were not. She was constantly twisting and turning. Then suddenly, in her inability to see, she doubled back—straight into the owl’s claws.
Her scream rent the air, and then all was silent as the predator flew away with his kill.
Garu felt numb all over. His claws came loose, and he fell from the branch. He landed in a soft pile of leaves, where he wept uncontrollably.
* * *
After that, he had left the forest, unable to stay at the place of his mate’s death. He had moved from one place to another—swamps, farms, cities, prairies, but never forests. He could not bear to be reminded. But everywhere he went, at least part of the clan was killed by one thing or another. And whenever they were, he left again, searching for a safer territory. But nothing had improved. Predators had picked off the clan one by one, until their number was reduced to a mere five.
Suddenly, a screech rang in the quiet air, and instantly all was chaos.
Garu’s head whipped around at the sound of his son’s cry. A huge mottled owl was diving towards him, and Liru was flapping desperately. Garu’s heart skipped a beat, and then it plummeted down to his stomach. The nightmare was happening all over again.
Baklan, Teekeh, and Kila had fled towards the fields below, leaving Liru to his fate. But Garu refused to do the same. This time he would not sit dumbly watching his loved-one die. He forced his wings to beat, and darted through the air towards his son. “I’m coming, Liru!”
It seemed as if Garu had gone back into time. There was the little pale brown streaked sparrow, dodging and ducking, twisting and spinning. And there was the huge bird of prey, swooping and grasping thin air with gleaming talons. But this time Garu was not a spectator. He was a pursuer.
Suddenly, he slammed into the owl’s back, and as soon as he realized what he had run into, he began tearing the owl’s feathers out, ripping and scratching. The owl was surprised at this ambush and rapidly dived down. Garu fell off the predator’s back and fell. But just in time he opened his wings and swooped upwards. He spotted his son flying away to safety and followed him into the darkness.
The clack of claws sounded next to his ear, and there was a rush of air, ruffling his gray-brown feathers.
The owl was after him.
As he spun away to one side and then to the next, he saw Liru heading towards him. Regardless of his own safety, Liru was returning to help his father.
“Liru, go!” screamed Garu. “Go, now!” He felt the whiff of air and tilted his wings to avoid the keen claws.
“No!” his son shouted back. “I’m not going anywhere!” And he flew ever closer.
“Liru, don’t you dare…” He never finished. Something sharp tore at his shoulder, and then he was free-falling, his wing flapping painfully and uselessly. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was the illuminated golden eyes of the owl, and beyond that, his son hovering in the dark sky.
* * *
Long into the starry night Baklan watched for Garu’s return. He and Teekeh and Kila had flown down to a dense thicket when the owl had attacked. But Garu had stayed and tried to save his son. But Baklan knew that Liru would never return. He figured it would be just the same as every time. Garu would come back with hard eyes and a hardened heart. And now that his son had been killed here, he would probably avoid the open country as well as forests. And they would move on and on.
Garu did not return that night. The three sparrows waited all through the next morning and afternoon, and finally when the sun began to set, he appeared on the horizon. Even from this distance, Baklan could tell that his wing-beats were heavy.
Baklan took off from the thornbush and flew out to meet his leader. But as he approached, he saw that there was something wrong. Garu’s feathers were of a darker hue than this sparrow’s. And this bird was smaller and slimmer… no… it couldn’t be…
It was Liru.
Baklan’s steady flight faltered as he recognized Garu’s son. “Liru! You were… how did… where… Liru, you’re alive!”
“I’d rather not be.” The young sparrow brushed past Baklan and alighted wearily in the thicket. Puzzled, Baklan turned around and followed.
He found Liru staring towards the north, towards their forest home. Baklan fluttered over next to him. Liru did not turn to look at the older sparrow, but his next words were addressed to him. “My father would have wanted me to lead the clan. In honor of his death, I will accept the position. We will leave for the forest at dawn.” There was something of Garu in the determined way he said these words.
“Yes, sir,” Baklan nodded smartly. “Should I take a night watch?”
“No. That is my duty. I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyways.”
“Yes, sir.” He crept down to a lower branch and settled down comfortably. And he peered at Liru’s silhouette until the last rays of the sun disappeared on the horizon, and he fell asleep.
* * *
Garu awoke coughing and spluttering, water pouring out of his mouth. He was drenched to the bone. His shoulder ached unbearably. Only when he was finished coughing up water did he hear the gentle voice. “That’s right. Feel better now? You surprised me; I never saw a sparrow in a stream before. And a good thing I got you out too; you were nearly drowned.”
Garu stumbled on unsteady legs and painfully turned around. There, smiling in a friendly way at him, was a dark brown water rat. “Who… who are you?” But his speech came out in a whisper, and it set off another bout of coughing.
“That’s all right, you don’t have to talk. I’m Hrimi. This is my den. I saw you floating in the stream nearby and dragged you out. I didn’t know if you were dead or unconscious, but I took you in anyway. And here you are, well and alive.”
“Alive,” Garu agreed in a low voice, “but not well.” He shifted his position slightly and winced as pain shot through his wing.
“Yes, we’ll have to do something about that shoulder. Wait here, I think I’ve got just the right herb in my storerooms.” Hrimi scurried off.
Garu took the time to observe his surroundings. He was sitting in a warm, dry burrow in the ground. The burrow must have been deep because the ceiling was high and arched. Roots lined the roof; there must have been a tree growing above him. The room was large and airy. Three windows at the top illuminated the space and the sunlight shining in made it cheerful. Dried grasses lined the hole, and there were a couple of tunnels leading to the rat’s storage rooms. Hrimi looked old. He couldn’t have dug this all by himself.
The hospitable water rat came back with a few dried leaves and a mortar and pestle. “You need to drink this, so I’m crushing it up,” he explained.
As the water rat ground the herb, Garu looked around at the room in marvel. “Did you dig this?” he inquired.
“Oh, no!” Hrimi laughed. “My father and my brothers did. I was the youngest. They’re all dead and gone now. But we had good times. Yes, we did. I remember my father teaching me how to swim. He was proud of me, the way I caught on quicker than my older brothers had.” The rat sighed happily at the memory. “Those were good days. I miss them, and sometimes I feel real lonely, but then I remember one of those happy times and I’m all right again. I’m contented. I’m glad I live in the burrow my father dug.”
And Garu pondered over what he said.
* * *
Liru watched the snow fall gently past him. Last summer he had led the clan back to the forest where he had been born. There Baklan had recognized a few friends of his, and these had willingly joined the group. Their number had gradually grown to around twenty sparrows, and Liru led them. He was happy with his life, except for one thing. The thought of his father had always bothered him. He had never found out whether or not Garu had really died. On that far-off summer day he had searched all along the place where his father fell, but not a trace of him could he find. He assumed Garu was dead, and he forced himself to accept it. But still there was a tiny glimmer of hope, like a flickering candle on a stormy, starless night, that refused to be put out.
Liru gazed upon the clan of sparrows chatting and laughing below. Liru wished he could join in their happiness. But this winter day had reminded him of another long ago, when the ever-shrinking clan, under Garu, had moved to a swamp. The wind was bitter, and it rattled and shrieked in the cattails like a great predator. Liru had been frightened on that frigid winter dawn. Then suddenly he had spotted his father above him, perching in the reeds, watching over his family. And Liru was reassured.
Now, he glanced up as he had long ago. His eyes narrowed. That bump on that limb above him hadn’t been there before. He tried to focus in on it, but the white flakes falling past made it difficult. And then—it moved.
At the same time that warning flags went up in Liru’s head, the tiny glimmer of hope that his father would return began to grow out of control. It flared up and licked at the doubtful part of him, burning it up into nothing but a smoldering memory. Then it blazed brighter and brighter, until hope gleamed in his eyes and he cried out, “Father!”
The figure took off from the limb and dived towards him. Liru spread his wings as well, and time seemed to slow down to a crawl.
A sparrow was floating towards him through the snowy air. His eyes were bright and eager, and his feathers were shining with health. There was pride in those eyes. Pride for his son.
Liru’s heart leaped up into his throat with joy. He linked his claws with those of Garu, and they spun round and round together until their wings could beat no more; then they tumbled down, breathless and dizzy, into the soft white snow. They stared at each other for a moment, breathing hard. But when Liru opened his mouth to speak, Garu shook his head.
“No need to say sorry, Liru. It wasn’t your fault, so don’t blame yourself. I’m here and I want to know all your adventures.”
As they flew up to a branch overlooking the clan, Liru explained all that had happened, and how he had been confused about Garu. “But now,” he concluded, “I’m so happy I could sing.”
“Do so,” Garu grinned, and his son obeyed.
A song came pouring forth from the depth of Liru’s heart, bubbling and spilling over like a waterfall of notes. It flowed and chuckled like a stream, then changed to long, sweet tones, savored and heartfelt. Then finally it ended triumphant and strong, like trumpets after a battle is won.
Garu spoke quietly in a dreamy, faraway voice. “You sound just like your mother did.”
“Really?” Liru asked, pleased.
“Oh, yes. Did you know that was how I met her? Her voice echoed sweet and strong throughout the whole forest. All the males flocked around her, hoping she would pick one of them for a mate. She used to sing you to sleep when you were frightened of the night and its noises. Do you remember that?”
“Yes, I do,” Liru nodded. He paused for a moment, then said hesitantly, “You… you seem happy to talk about her.”
“I am,” Garu confirmed. “Yes, she was a wonderful sparrow. I’m glad to have known her. I’m glad to be back.”