The Eagle and The Swan – A Fable by S. Henison
While other eagles rode the wind, one young eagle stared longingly into the sky. For a moment, Eagle Girl closed her eyes and imagined the weightlessness of flight. What must it be like to feel the gusts beneath her wings? To spread them wide and soar?
Leaving the fantasy behind, she tugged miserably at the strap of a heavy sack tied around her neck. Like most days, her inadequacy as a hunter had been repeatedly proven. She was hungry, tired and angry.
Turning her beak to the ground, she scrounged for anything that might resemble food. Quite close to her, a mouse poked its head from the earth. She lunged, but the mouse scurried faster than she could drag the heavy sack. The critter dove into a hole and reappeared only three wingspans away, but it might as well have been a distance of a thousand. Seemingly aware of Eagle Girl’s inabilities, the mouse strolled blithely out of sight.
In the not-too-distance, a pond lay still, reflecting the summer sky. Eagle Girl dragged her heavy burden forward. At least a pond couldn’t run away. She leaned in for a drink, and felt a pebble beneath her talon.
“A stone!” she cried. She picked it up with her beak and tossed it angrily into the water. The pebble plunked, making ripples that spread in ever-growing circles.
Then, in the place where the water met the sky, she spotted something else. With eyes as keen as any eagle’s, she watched a small white spot on the far edge of the pond grow larger and closer.
Eagle Girl had much reason to worry. The burden she bore made her an easy target. As she watched the spot approach, her feathers raised slightly away from her skin in the futile anticipation of flight. She clucked her beak tight, dismissing the ancient instinct with disgust, and simply hoped she wouldn’t have to drag the sack much further that day.
Ah—it’s only a swan.
The water moved with the swan, the ripples swirling and bowing until they’d completely reversed direction and moved towards the Earth-bound eagle. In this way, the swan seemed to carry the entire pond as she approached.
Eagle Girl watched the tiny waves and the sky and the loamy ground, and determined only through stolen glances that the swan was an elder and therefore posed little threat. Even so, she stood in front of the sack and flexed one wing in a casual pose that she hoped would conceal her burden.
When the swan came to a graceful stop at the edge of the water, Eagle Girl turned her head sideways, tucking her beak into the feathers of her own throat in the customary bird salutation.
Having returned the greeting, the swan elder lifter her head high on her graceful neck. “Have you a question?”
Feigning interest in her own sand-flecked talon, Eagle Girl pecked a few loose grains as she pondered the query, for while she had many questions, she had never before been asked to say them. The water grew still with anticipation. When a small wrinkle bubbled up near the swan, Eagle Girl feared she was turning to leave and finally blurted out, “Have you answers?”
The swan took nearly as long with her reply. The only movement on the water’s surface was the reflection of a passing cloud. Finally she said, “I have watched and listened and studied and absorbed but still have much to learn.”
“Was that an answer?”
“Was that a question?”
Eagle Girl lifted the feathers on top of her head in annoyance. “Well, since I am so unskilled at questioning, perhaps you should start.”
In the ensuing pause, she feared the swan would ask if she had answers and she had no answer even for that.
“Tell me,” the swan began, “Why does an eagle sit desolate at the edge of a pond when she owns the sky?”
All the longing of a lifetime swelled within the eagle. In resolute desperation, she stepped aside and dropped her wing, exposing her weakness.
The swan moved effortlessly over the water, finding a better vantage to study the sack. “Is it quite heavy?”
She paused again in the oh-so-still water before finally asking, “How did it come to be tied around your neck?”
Eagle Girl fixed her eyes on the last slivers of light as the sun made its evening journey beyond the horizon. “I have no memory of a time before.”
“And what,” the swan began with some trepidation, “is within the sack?”
The eagle turned, pushed her beak through the narrow mouth of the sack, and with some effort, pulled out a tiny pebble. She held it up for the swan to see before pushing it back into the sack.
The swan swam in small circles, considering the situation. When she stopped, sun-colors spread over the pond’s glossy finish, surrounding the swan in a whirl of hues. “I believe I may have a solution.”
Every feather on Eagle Girl’s body raised up as a thrill ran through her, but no words could capture a question.
Elder Swan went on without need of verbal coaxing. “Can you give me one of the stones?”
“Well, I suppose I could, although I don’t know what you’d want with them. They’re less than useless.” Eagle Girl stuck her beak back into the sack, skeptical but wanting to hope. When she’d caught another pebble, she pulled it free and then leaned towards the swan. Craning her neck as far as she could, she waited for the swan to take the stone.
Instead, the swan said, “Drop the stone there.”
More skeptical still, the eagle dropped the pebble. It plunked with a small splash, and dropped beneath its own ripples.
“It’s as I thought,” she alleged, cryptically. “In the morning, return to this spot and drop in another pebble. When I feel the ripples, I’ll return.”
“And then you’ll have answers?” the eagle asked, her doubt clearly offered with her words.
“In time,” the swan said as she turned to glide away, “you will have answers.”
After a sleepless night, the eagle returned to the water’s edge. With the feathers on top of her head rising with disdain for her own silly hope, she dropped another of her many pebbles into the water. The gentle whirls it created were almost imperceptible, but before long a white spot appeared on the far side of the pond. As it grew larger, the stubborn hope within the Eagle grew as well.
All day the eagle and the swan conversed, their words moving in circles that echoed the swirls in the water. When nightfall was imminent, Eagle Girl woefully said, “A whole day has passed, and still I have no answers.”
“There are many days, Eagle. Many more days.”
“But, this sack of stones makes each one misery.”
The swan straightened her long neck, lifting her head high. “Has this day been misery?”
The eagle had to admit that day had been less miserable than most.
“All right, then. Tomorrow, return to this spot and drop two stones into the water. When I feel the second one fall, I’ll return.”
The next morning, Eagle girl returned with a little less hope but a bit more will to survive. Perhaps she’d be tethered to the ground forever, but at least it seemed she wouldn’t have to spend all her days alone. She dropped a small stone into the pond and followed it with another. Her eyes tracked the ripples to the horizon and the gift of an approaching white swan.
When the swan was near, they each bowed their heads in the familiar beak-to-throat greeting.
The swan asked, “How are you, Eagle?”
“As I’ve always been,” she sighed. “And you?”
“I am as I am today.” The swan’s eyes smiled.
Eagle Girl felt the feathers on top of her head lift. “Is that an answer?”
“If you offer a fish, I will return with a fish. But, if you only offer stones….”
Eagle girl narrowed her eyes as she might when they shone on prey. “Why do you talk in riddles? You know I have only stones.”
“Do you what? Talk in riddles? Or think I have something more to offer?”
“I suppose I do.”
By this time, the feathers were rising all over Eagle Girl’s body. “I don’t like riddles. What else could I offer?”
The swan swam in circles, seemingly delighted in the eagle’s distress. “I believe,” she said after a lengthy pause, “you may benefit from contemplation.”
“Yes. Today, think of what else you might have to offer. Tomorrow, if you wish to continue this conversation, return at first light and drop three stones into the water.”
“Three? More each day? And… I would hardly call this farce a conversation! Most eagles would laugh you right out of the sky.”
“Ah, perhaps that’s why I live in the water,” she said over her wing as she glided away.
Despite her irritation, first morning light found Eagle Girl standing at the edge of the water. Plop, plop, plop… three stones dropped out of sight and the ripples spread like wings towards the distant shore.
Not wanting to appear eager, Eagle Girl refused to watch the swan approach. She focused instead on the muddy ground. When she sensed the swan’s presence, she gave the greeting without looking up.
Swan asked, “How are you, Eagle?”
Eagle stared into the distance. “I am unchanged. And you?”
“I am as ever-changing as the pond.”
The eagle lifted one clawed foot, gesturing to the smooth water. “The pond is as unchanged as I am!”
“Oh, yes, I suppose,” the swan said, as too she gazed out over the water, “if you look only upon its surface.” With that, she ducked her head down beneath the rippling water and when her face popped back up, a small, writhing fish was caught in her beak. She tossed it onto the shore. “Have you had breakfast?”
If Eagle Girl wasn’t so hungry, she’d have left the fish where it lay, but a pity fish was better than none. She swallowed it whole.
Days passed, as they do. Each morning Eagle Girl dropped stones into the pond, increasing the number by one a day. Always, the swan was there to answer her call. They talked about the world as they knew it, and wondered about the things they knew not. A great fondness swelled in Eagle Girl’s heart, and she was certain the swan felt the same.
On the day of fifty stones, the swan again asked, “How are you?”
“Still full of questions.”
“Give me one, then.”
“Why do I have to drag this sack of stones?” Anger flared bright. “And what became of the culprit who tied it onto my throat?”
“Two questions but only one answer.”
With one eye narrowed, the eagle cocked her head. “One answer for both? And what would that be?”
The swan dunked her head and pulled up a frog. She tossed it towards the shore. With three quick hops, the frog hid itself in a clump of grass, still within the eagle’s reach.
Though hungry, the eagle said, “I don’t eat frogs.”
“And if you did?”
“Well… then I would.”
“Exactly what?” the eagle cried, all her feathers ruffled out, her wings lifting in a show of size that belied her lack of power.
The swan ducked down again, this time returning with a fish. She tossed it to the eagle who, becoming used to the swan’s antic’s, caught it easily in her own beak. After swallowing her breakfast, she said, “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Will answers lighten your burden?”
Elder Swan circled as she was wont to do. The ripples stretched towards Eagle Girl and outward towards the limits of sight. “Eagle,” she said, dipping a wing in to create a larger swell, “we each live according to our nature.”
Eagle Girl pecked at a loose feather, but listened closely to the swan’s words.
“Today, the fish was consumed to feed your hunger, but the frog will live because you won’t eat it.”
As if on cue, the frog splashed back into the pond, creating its own ripples.
The swan continued. “I will create swirls in the surface of this pond and dive down to find its hidden treasures.”
“Well… yes… but what does that have to do with the scoundrel who left me this?” She tugged angrily on the strap around her neck.
“Scoundrels will live and die according to their nature, and as long as you search for your particular scoundrel as if that is the question that needs answering, you will always drag a sack of stones.”
“Always?” she asked.
Knowing the elder swan’s ways, Eagle Girl left to ponder the puzzling answer on her own, not wishing for any more riddles.
Each morning she returned to the pond.
Always the swan answered her call.
Every night, Eagle Girl wondered what questions she was meant to ask in order to get the answers she needed.
By the day of a hundred stones, counting them had become time-consuming and tedious. Why did the swan demand ever more of her as the days went on? It took most of the morning to pull the stubborn stones from the sack and drop them one-by-one into the water.
When Elder Swan appeared, she offered her usual question.
“How are you?”
“As always, wondering.”
“And the question?”
“Is it not my right to accuse my offender? Am I not supposed to be angry? Shouldn’t the culprit be punished?”
The swan wordlessly dipped a wing into the water as she thought.
With growing impatience the eagle exclaimed, “I’ve offered three questions! Have you not a single answer?”
“Always talking in riddles! You’ve offered me nothing, not even a fish!”
“Have you not eaten?”
In fact, the eagle had eaten. That morning, a mouse had popped up from the ground and she had somehow, miraculously caught it. “That’s not the point.”
“Indeed it isn’t.”
Turning in anger, Eagle Girl said, “I’m tired of riddles!” She stormed away.
Before she’d gone far, the swan called out, “How quickly you move.”
Eagle Girl paused mid-step, talons splayed in shock. She had moved quickly. Turning back to the swan she asked, “How is that possible?”
The swan was already heading back to her distant shore. Over her wing she called, “Ah, a much better question, don’t you think? Sometimes the right questions are better than answers.”
That night, the eagle puzzled over the swan’s parting remarks. How could no answers and more questions be better?
The next day, she returned to the pond and began carefully counting out one-hundred-and-one stones. That is, until she suddenly came to the bottom of the sack.
It was empty.
She spread her wings and lifted off the ground, just a wingspan, but more than she ever had in the past. She flapped wildly with excitement as she searched for the swan on the Horizon.
Oh no! I’ve counted only sixty stones. She isn’t going to come!
She managed to loosen the sack’s strap a bit, which brought incredible relief. Then she realized if Elder Swan was there, she might help her loosen it further. All day, the eagle paced the shore, wondering how she could get the swan’s attention.
The following day, she stared mournfully across the still water, missing her friend terribly. She tossed in all the stones she could find, and then all the sticks, which only floated, and many blobs of mud which merely dissipated and turned the water murky. There seemed to be no way to get the swan to come back.
The following day, she returned to the shore again with a new question. “Oh Swan,” she called out, “If you were here, what would you do?” She paced and pondered all of another day away.
The next day, as she began her daily pacing, Eagle Girl remembered how the swan had spoken of treasures hidden below the surface of the pond. She went to the water’s edge and then took another step, and another. The water was up to her tail-feathers and she dared not go any further.
She peered down through the water. Unable to see any treasure, she bent over and tilted until her head was under water. She searched the depths with her eagle eyes until the sack around her neck grew soggy and sank, obscuring her view.
Just as she was cursing the sack for making it impossible to find the answer to another question, it became so heavy with water that the strap slid right over her head. She stared down at the sack, already disappearing under the silty bottom of the pond as the reality gradually took hold.
She was free.
She lifter her head out of the water and felt the lightness of life without the burden she’d carried forever. Then, she tilted her head up towards the sky. Without another moment’s hesitation, she spread her wings and flew. Rising, lifting, soaring until the water below her was only an amorphous bit of blue on the brown and green landscape, she cried out to the world, “Look at me!” The exhilaration! The pure joy of the air beneath her wings! It was so much better than the fantasy; more than she ever could have asked for, even if she’d known what to ask.
Suddenly she knew that the only question she should ever have asked was, how can I leave the burden behind? “Oh Swan,” she called out as she dipped and rose again. “Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve wasted so much time!”
Just before she fell into exhausted sleep that night—settled high in a tree, in the proper eagle way—it occurred to her that she hadn’t actually been wasting time. The sack had to be emptied one stone at a time. If it hadn’t been empty, it never would have been loose enough to slip from her neck. And if not for the swan, she never would have begun to empty it and all her days would have been as lonely and miserable as the ones before.
She awoke at morning’s first glow, and swooped blissfully down to the pond for a drink. After an easily-attained breakfast, she rose up and flew across the pond. Her heart was full of gratitude and she wanted to share it with her one, true friend. She glided over the shore, slowly, hovering here and there as she rode the wind, until she found the elder swan floating in a small cove.
“Look,” she called as she dropped down near the swan. “The sack is gone!”
“I see,” the swan replied.
The eagle had expected more. She pruned her feathers, stretching them out in the sun as she spoke. “I’ve missed you, Swan. How are you?”
“I am as I am today and tomorrow I will be as I will be.”
“Still talking in riddles I see.”
“I am well! I am better than well! I am… wonderful. And I’m so glad I found you.”
“Have you another question?”
“Oh, many, I’m sure, but always it’s seems I’ve asked the wrong ones.” They were silent for some time. Finally, she asked, “What now?”
The swan answered, “Breakfast.” She ducked down, caught a fish, and came up swallowing it.
“But… what about me? What do I do next? What happens to… us?”
The elder swan pecked at her feathers, cleaning and pruning, but did not respond.
“Don’t you have a single thing to say?” the eagle laughed, hoping to bring some of the old humor back to the swan.
“Questions and more questions,” was all she said.
“But still no answers?” Eagle Girl brought her wings in tight, and stood silently, waiting. The wait extended through two gusts of wind.
Finally, the swan said, “Eagle, we live in different worlds. I live only in the realm of this pond while you own the sky. Surely you can answer your own questions, now.”
“But… I like to hear your riddles. I’ve missed your answers, cryptic as they are, and… I thought you liked to talk to me.”
“I hear your gratitude and the joy you display brings me joy as well. But our time together has reached its logical end.”
“Logical… end? But why? Just because I have no stone to offer? Just because I can fly?”
The swan looked out over the water. Ripples spread toward her, calling her in another direction. “I have to go now, Eagle. Take care. Enjoy the sky.”
“No, Swan! Wait! Why? Why would you leave?”
A thousand more questions were at the tip of her beak, but the swan was already moving out of sight. Eagle Girl lifted up, and flew over the swan, swooping back and forth, soaring on the wind, but the swan was only a small white spot, and growing smaller as the eagle rose higher.
In time, Eagle Girl found her own answers. Still, she often returned to the shore where she’d first watched a white spot appear on the horizon. Sometimes she looked into the water, trying to catch a glimpse of the burden she’d once carried, and other times she watched the ripples in the water and wondered which ones called to the swan. It had been difficult, but she was gradually getting used to living without the swan. What she might never get used to was the gratitude she had for a sack of stones, without which she never would have found the answers, or the greatest questions of her life.
A slightly revised ending to The Eagle and the Swan:
“No, Swan! Don’t go! Why would you leave?”
A thousand more questions were at the tip of her beak, but the swan was already moving effortlessly away.
Eagle Girl rose above the water to follow. She swooped back and forth and saw her reflection in the image of sky on the pond’s smooth surface. The swan dipped a wing and ripples broke through the illusion, exposing the secret of depth’s abundance. From where she flew, Eagle Girl saw that all the swan’s answers were there, waiting to be discovered.
Seeing the murky depths beneath the swan brought a new clarity to the eagle. She rose until the swan was only a white spot in the small sky-like pond. Then, with a last goodbye, she turned her eyes upward. She soared, her wings creating ripples of their own, and discovered the secrets of the sky.
Eagle girl often returned to the shore where she’d first spotted fate in a bit of white where the sky met the water. She watched the ripples and wondered which ones called to the swan. Her gratitude was bigger than the pond and the endless sky. It spilled over as thanks to frogs and fish, to the swan and the shifting winds, and even to a heavy sack of stones, without which she never would have found the answers or indeed even discovered which questions to ask.
We Come From Love, We Are Made Of Love, We Are Love! Everything else is false.