It was a tall, unbelievably beautiful tree, finely shaped, with a great, green spreading crest, black dark green leaves, pale blossoms and long, sharp thorns.
But in spite of its being a splendid sight, some said it was deadly.
Certainly all the birds said so. They were used to bending the branches of a shorter, homely nearby tree with their weight as they chattered among themselves about butterflies, bees, worms and the other birds that had flown in among the magnificent trees spreading branches and had never been seen again.
“It may be a beautiful tree, but who cares if you look beautiful if that’s what you’re really like,” said one fluffy brown bird.
And then the birds all gossiped about the strange, towering tree, so beautiful and so alluring, and yet so sinister. But in grand, stately appearance and various attractions, truly the tree had no like.
Then a strange bird, a newcomer, flew into the deep wood.
He was red in color with a big crest, strong-beaked, and he was a bird who clearly liked to think things out for himself.
That was his strength. He heard what others said, but it never moved him, for he thought with his eyes. They alone told him the truth. The eyes never lied to you.
The new bird instantly saw that the tall tree was beautiful. He saw its lines, its grace, and its majesty of spectacle. He clung tightly with his clawed feet to a branch of a tree nearby and looked at the tall magnificent tree, struck, moved, touched.
Around him, one by one, gathered the full, feathery chattering sparrows and small birds who talked tirelessly of the tall tree.
One, a little sparrow, quite fearless, tilted her head to one side and said to the big red bird, “Why do you watch it so?”
“Because it is a pleasure to my eyes,” the crested bird said, not deigning to look at the sparrow.
The sparrow quickly shook its head. “If something harmful were ugly, you wouldn’t look at it, but because the tree is pretty, you can’t take your eyes from it.”
The sparrow thought its remark clever and insightful, but the crested bird thought the sparrow merely envious of the tree’s size and beauty.
He didn’t see that the little sparrow respected and cared for him as a friend and fellow creature.
The crested bird kept looking at the tree. He kept thinking, “Perhaps no one has looked at it as I am looking at it. Perhaps if I look deeply enough, I will see what no one else has seen, something beyond the rumors, something beyond the fear, something enduring and wonderful, that is hidden from the rest.”
And he kept looking at the tree, gazing at it, rapt.
Twilight came, softening the outlines of things, darkening the mountain, the bushes and shrubs, and the red bird sat and watched the darkening tree.
In the dark, its color gone, the delicate blossoms muffled, the outline of the tall tree was a sinister shape full of menace.
And the bird felt a flicker of fear. Maybe the other birds were right and he was wrong.
He snuffled his feet and feathers, uneasy, still looking at the tree from his branch, about to fly away, when a voice was heard to say:
“You needn’t feel fear. You needn’t be afraid.”
And the bird looked this way and that, wondering where the voice was coming from and to whom it was speaking.
“It is you, and only you, that I am addressing,” said the voice, coming clearly to him across the darkening air.
The bird nerved up his courage, for he was not in the habit of taking counsel of his fears, but he was hardly able to believe what was happening. Finally, it addressed the dark, huge towering shape, feeling foolish and frightened.
“I am here. Who is speaking to me?”
“I speak to you through your heart,” said the voice.
The bird, greatly alarmed, almost flew away, and it was only with a great effort that he calmed himself and remained on his branch.
“But who are you?” he said.
“I am your heart’s desire,” the voice said kindly.
The bird cocked his head, entranced, alert but listening.
“I have no heart’s desire,” the bird said, “and if I did, I would tell no one of it, for fear they might find a way into my heart and be able to do me harm.”
The tree with its spreading, dark outline answered: “I would not harm you. I may have harmed others, but that was because they came to feed on my blossoms or peck into my sap, or try to make use of me in some way. So many have tried. All have tried. But I have seen the way you look at me, and you I would not harm.”
The bird, greatly disconcerted, cocked its head to the other side, shifting its clawed feet on the branch. “And how have I looked at you?”
“With love, with gentle love. Because you don’t believe the other birds,” said the lovely voice.
The red bird, nervous, puts its head down, then up, and then cocked it to one side.
“That means only that I wish to think for myself,” he said.
“Then why do you look at me so?” said the voice from the tree.
The bird, nervous, shifted position again.
“Because you are beautiful,” the bird said, quietly, but firm and fearless in telling the truth.
The huge tree said nothing. In the dark, night began to deepen, the sky was specked with stars, but the tree was almost black. And again, with it wide, crown-like crest, the tall tree looked almost menacing.
But the bird, now warmed and moved by what the tree had said, recollected in its mind how beautiful the tree’s colors had been by day, in the summer sun’s full flood.
“I can feel your thoughts,” said the tall tree in the dark.
“Unlikely,” scoffed the crested bird, but feeling a bit frightened.
It cocked its head sideways again.
“You think my colors beautiful in the sun,” the voice said.
The bird stiffened upright, lifting first one foot, then the other, then cocking its head to one side again.
“Come to me,” said the tree.
The bird cocked its head to one side, peering into the gloom at the menacing shape.
“Come to me,” the voice repeated, its tone a kind of gentle urging, so gentle, so soothing, so full of tender love.
“Come to me, and I will love you. On me you can lay your head to rest. With me you can be free of your cares. I will nourish your hopes. I will remove all pain from you and refresh and renew your innocence of heart. I will give you love and make you love your life. All this I can give because you are you and special.” It paused, and then said: “I want to give these only to you. You only have to let me.”
The voice sent a thrill of release, of humble gratitude, love, abandon, through the soul of the bird. He cocked his head again, alert, looking at the tree in the dark.
The sky behind the wide crest showed traces of silvery star light. The trees details and features he couldn’t see. But its shape looked full and mysterious, more alluring.
The bird, proud, defiant, felt that only fear held him back. He knew he could master fear. And now, his eyes, which he had always trusted and which had always been so keen and never betrayed him, seemed his enemy.
“My eyes be damned,” he thought, and, gathering his weight, he flew off, heading in a fluttering zigzag path to the tree, alighting with a flutter on an outstretched branch.
It was the peace and brilliance of morning. The sun cast a flood of warm light on everything. The foliage of the trees, which the night before had been black, were now like golden spangles, waving and tossing in the sunshine.
A flock of birds spread through the air to narrow in a funnel that landed on the grass to peck for seed. They were in high spirits, hungry, bursting with life, chattering shrilly.
Suddenly a sharp cry and they stopped eating, poised to fly, terrified.
The cry was repeated. It was a sad cry, a cry full of heartbroken grief, not fear. The flock of birds turned to see it came from a big, brown bird with a crest.
The birds rose in a noisy, clamorous crowd and flew to settle on the grass where the brown crested bird had alighted.
The brown bird was rocking back and forth, crying aloud in anguish, saying something that the rest could not understand.
And then they saw it too.
Lying in the grass, its face composed and peaceful, its red crest undisturbed was the red-black bird, dead, a thorn lodged in its heart.
And the dull, brown birds swirled and twisted like a scarf up into the clear air, winding in spirals back and forth on front of the tall tree, shrieking and scolding.
But the tall tree, beautiful and graceful, decked out in its blossoms, simply stood, holding her braches wide, silent and full of satisfaction.
Magnificent. Thanks for this gift. It arrived at a most opportune moment. Just yesterday, a dark eyed junco laid her dark blue-green eggs in a nest in a rhododendron bush just outside my window. I’m keeping the blinds shut so I don’t disturb her. I watch her and wonder what goes through her mind.
Thank you Richard Sale.
Great story, Richard. The wisdom of the crowd?
Great details, well written.
There is tree near near our rental condo
in Florida called a “Monkeys puzzle” which
has some of the physical attributes you
mention in this piece. Birds rarely land
because of its thorn type braches. It does
have a foreboding appearance especially
near dusk with its cascading branches.
Richard, I won’t be forgetting your story any time soon. I have a chattering monkey brain that keeps making associations. The following mental montage, as I read your tale, was going on in my brain room:
“I Knew a Woman” poem Theodore Rothe,
“Trees” poem Joyce Kilmer,
DARPA The voice of God program,
“Duino Elegies” poems (“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”) Ranier Maria Rilke
& thoughts of a magnolia I planted about 26 years ago that’s in beautiful aromatic
bloom & now about 80′ tall & fills up with fireflies @ night if the neighbors don’t
spray too much mosquito spray, my mystical Christmas tree…sure I’ve talked with birds not at them but with them… but lately my avian experiences have been less than stellar. The Swiss rooster next door has taken to viciously attacking me; a sparrow flew into my house & was trying to nest in my hair while I was sleeping; came eye ball to eye ball with a large black vulture buzzard…
all these thoughts as I read your story.
Hope it’s ok that as a after thought I’m imaging a blithe spirit, like an iridescent fairy has sprinkled gardenias on your poor dead bird, he has recovered having
learned his lesson. Thanks.
A wonderful story Richard.
Rilke is one of my favorite poets.
Thank you, It means a lot.
You have a sharp eye. Thank you.
Thank you Fred.