Heron Returns the Gift


Heron was back. The ice had gone out with a rush one rainy evening, and the Cathance ran free once more. More or less. The river banks and flats were covered with the litter of winter – last year’s dead grasses and sedges and reeds, ice-downed limbs and deadfalls, and all the ruck Jack Frost heaved up, or the ice fishermen tossed out. Every spring freshet swept flotsam into the river, and great masses of junk were sloshing back and forth with the tide. The hulks of dirty old ice pans were still rafted up in shady places under the bank, but most of the mud flats were fragrantly exposed to the warming Sky.


Heron had returned with the climbing Sun, and this morning she was out wading in the shallows, gazing distractedly at the soup swirling around her legs. Heron had a puzzle to solve, and she didn’t know where to begin. You see, it’s a rule of Nature that the gift must pass. You must give to receive, and the gifts you are granted must be passed along, or the web of the World unravels. Heron had been blessed with a special gift last year. Right beside this very river.

It had been on a gray and raw evening, late last Fall. Heron had lingered too long by these shores. Her parting was well past-due. Ice was skimming over the still reaches every night, and all the tender tid-bits were burrowing into the mud or heading downstream to more salubrious climes. Still Heron strode up and down beside the Cathance – waiting for something.

That evening, as she stalked along the guzzle draining past Wildes Point, she saw a dazzle in the murky waters. One quick stab, and she speared a great Golden Carp. The Carp was much too big to swallow. Heron staggered into the shallow water, where she shook the fish off her beak, and stood contemplating her writhing handiwork.

Carp’s sparkling coat of scales mesmerized Heron. She stood stunned before the shimmering vision. Carp was flopping and gasping, but he could still speak.

“Listen,” the Golden Carp groaned. “I have given myself to you. For it’s my time to rise from the waters. Feed on me and carry me to the sky. I have spent an Age groping in these turbid waters. Now a change is gonna come.”

Heron thought this was pretty high-faluting phonics for an old fish, but she was bemused by the Carp’s eloquence, the iridescence of his scales, and his catchy blues lyric. Even after Carp ceased flailing and gasping, and Heron had gorged herself, she puzzled on his last words. The image of this great fish calling for transformation stuck in Heron’s mind.

“I’ve given myself,” she repeated. Heron shook her head, spread her great wings, and leapt into the air. Beating her wings Heron rose up, turned south and west, and rode down the wind -- heading for her winter grounds.

But Heron couldn’t forget the message of that glimmering gift. As the winter months passed, Heron found herself more and more thoughtful. She always had tremendous patience. Able to stand stock still over a fish by-way for hours, waiting for a mouthful. Now she would meditate all day on the puzzle of giving and receiving, while she stood in rigid silence.
Heron could always pierce deep into the questioning depths and come up with a shining answer. But this was too deep for her. If the Golden Carp had given her the gift of self, how was she supposed to pass it on?

Now it was Spring and Heron was back on the banks of the Cathance. There was still a nip in the air, and the river was icy wading. Every few steps Heron would lift one leg and stand in a thoughtful pose, wriggling her toes until the circulation came back. Baitfish were scare as yet. Eels were slow to rise out of their winter depths, and it was too early for Alewives, but Perch were wiggling into the river, and Heron managed to spear enough of the boney beasts to keep body and soul together. All the while she was thinking on that Carp, and the gift of self. Heron stood in thought.

The morning was misty. Coiling clouds of cold vapor glided along the river, shivering the Pines alongshore, making them play hide and seek. Heron curled her neck back so her chin rested on her chest. Heron stood in thought.

The tide was in flood and the tail of last night’s flotsam flotilla came spinning back into the river’s mouth, jammed and jumbling together. Heron was too sunk in maze to notice the rafts of refuse clogging the tide. Nor did Heron hear the faint piping cry calling through the mist. Heron stood in thought.

The north wind was freshening. There were rents in the river fog, and the headwind had stalled that tangle of trash riding the tide. The vast mat of last year’s leavings began to slowly circle in front of Heron. The tiny cry piped closer. Heron stood in thought.

Out on the flats the Migrant Ducks were slopping around, slapping their feet, gabbling over fresh rice roots. And the whole Crow Tribe was shouting about some rotten thing or another. Heron could hardly hear herself think. Heron stood in thought.

Just then a hole opened in the mist overhead and Heron saw a shimmering sparkle on the water. She jerked up her head, and heard the tiny voice crying out of the raft. She listened for a moment, and heard it again. Heron put her foot down. Stretched out her wings. Bent her knees. And pulled herself into the air with great wing beats.

Heron was still half blinded by the splash of sunlight. As she flew out over the junk pile she could hardly focus on details. The piping was louder now, but sounding more exhausted. Heron hovered where it was loudest. She still couldn’t see anything below her. The piping turned into faint gasping cries.

“What are you?” Heron finally asked.

There was a long silence. Then the faintest of voices sighed and spoke breathlessly.

“Wouldn’t.. you.. know.” The voice piped disgustedly. “Trapped.. in trash.. half drowned.. who comes.. to rescue.. Brother.. Blue.. Heron.”

“Who are you?” Heron called back, a bit uncertainly, her eyes watering, and her great wings milling in the air.

“Breakfast,” the voice answered sarcastically. “AKA ..Master Frog.. but frogs.. won’t learn.. the songs.. this.. year,” the voice died away sadly.

Heron was so stuck by this intelligence she stopped flapping her wings, and almost fell out of the air. She did drop to within a span of the raft, and had to dance from foot to foot on the loose logs and grass clumps until she got back her wing rhythm, and gained some altitude.

It was true: for Heron, Frog was a gustatory delight, and an early one at that, in this season. But Heron never imagined frogs could converse, or – wonder of wonders – be moody.
Heron flapped up a bit higher. Her eyes were clearing, and now she could see an elderly frog, half-shriveled and half-drowned, tangled in the roots of a floating blowdown. Heron cleared her throat.

“Master Frog,” she began. “Master of what? And how did you survive the winter?”

“Quite.. nicely.. thank you. ‘Til now.” Master Frog panted sarcastically. “Every year.. we pick.. Master frog.. who.. best sings.. old songs.. goes to.. Winterhaven.” There was a lengthy pause and a slight groan. Frog went on, “Many years.. haven .. this Cedar.” Another pause. “Not so.. good choice,” the frog fell silent.

“And you best know the old songs?” Heron asked, not unkindly. She was still a bit rattled, but the whole escapade was starting to amuse her. Talking Frogs? Singing Frogs? What next?

“Supposed. Teach. New Frogs. Old. Songs,” Master Frog managed to gasp out.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a frog song,” Heron mused aloud.

“Course not,” Frog snapped. “You come. Frogs shut up.”

Heron is a very patient bird, but when she decides to act she does it with lightening speed. She instantly stabbed down into the junk pile with her bill. Master Frog gave a tiny squeak, and passed out. But Heron wasn’t stabbing him. She was picking and jabbing and yanking away at the litter entangling him. Tossing branches one way and gobs of grass the other. When Frog was free, Heron gently grasped him in her beak and flew to shore. Heron laid the unconscious amphibian on the bank and stared down at him. Heron stood in thought.

It was a long spell before Frog awoke. The sun was high and the clearing wind had done its work. Master Frog lay in a puddle of sunlight. It was the warmth that woke him. He open his eyes, squinting to focus them against the glare, and saw Heron towering over him.

“So you give me Life?’ Frog said, his voice only quavering slightly.

“I wanted to hear your song,” Heron replied.

Master Frog sighed. He sat silently for a long moment. Then he hitched himself up onto his haunches. Took a deep breath. And he sang. Slowly and quietly (and a little sadly) at first, taking long breaths between verses. Then louder and louder and more joyfully. Heron swayed back and forth to the melody, and began to step lightly in time. Then, as Frog’s tune began to jump, so did Heron. Faster and faster they went, until they sang and danced themselves into a frenzy – and collapsed in a gale of laughter. Heron lay on her back in the mud and flailed her feet in the air.

Needless to say, that was the end of any personal enmity. Master Frog rested up and made his way back upriver to await the coming of the New Frogs. Heron tried his best not to eat every juicy tadpole wriggling by. And the days grew longer.

Not long after, on a mild and humid morning, when the swamp gas was especially ripe, and the sound of the interstate particularly loud, Heron was standing knee-deep in meditation at the mouth of the river. Sunlight was dabbling in the morning mist and dancing on the water. Heron had her head down, as usual, staring at the whorls around her legs.

Just then she heard a familiar piping. Heron threw back her head, just in time to see the whole bank of fog surrounding her turn into an encircling rainbow. A chorus of frog voices filled the air with music. It was magic.

In that instant, Heron knew she was even with the Golden Carp. He had given her his Life. Himself. And she had returned the gift of Life. And now that gift had lifted her head to see this glory. And hear this ridiculous music.


Heron didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead she threw back her head, stretched out her neck, and began fluting a wild and wicked tune. The frogs all joined in.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” They sang together in the sunlight.
And even the snide Crows in the Willows began cawing the tune.

Which is why Heron now and then raises her head up, as though listening to a distant tune. And why you have to stick your neck out to find your gift.