Swallow Clears the Air

Swallow was in high spirits. It was an early morning in mid-Summer and the big bug hatch at the Town Landing was in full buzz. Swallow and her partner had already hatched and reared four youngsters, and the whole tribe was swooping and diving – gorging on the morning mosquito rise.

The mosquitoes at the Town Landing are a rare breed of jumbo bite-less mosquito. A stranger in a cloud of them might be anxious about involuntary anemia, but they are all buzz and no bite. They are especially toothsome to swallows, however, which is why Swallow and her mate returned year after year to their nesting site under the eaves of the Town Stage – hard by this bug patch on the Cathance. Their planning was paying off big time this morning, as the clan feasted to surfeit on sweet skeet.

The youngsters were still a trifle awkward in their aeronautics, and as the bug count diminished Swallow decided some flight drill was in order. She started going through the Argentine Protocol, calling out the numbers, and executing each evolution from the manual in a slow and deliberate way. The chubby youngsters fell dutifully in line behind their mother, and the random confusion of the feeding frenzy morphed into a disciplined pattern of aerial dancers.

“Tres,” Swallow called, and the whole company did horizontal figure-eights with snap rolls.
The boat-tails in the riverside maples stopped their morning chaffer to watch in admiration. Even the shags squatting on the local boats to dry their wings applauded when the last swallow in line did a spontaneous triple Montevideo at the X-point. Swallow had seen the stunt over her shoulder, and she was impressed, too.

“That youngster must have it in the blood,” she thought.

You see, Swallow has been a professional aerial dancer since her childhood “discovery” in the bright lights of Buenos Aires. And she spends her winters as a principle dancer in the famed “Company of Swallows.” Maybe this gifted child would follow in her flight path.
But now the Sun was over the trees, and the remaining morning bugs were seeking shelter. Swallow called a halt to the exercise. The whole troop swooped to scoop a drink from the Cathance, then scattered to their perches under the neighborhood eaves.

Swallow didn’t go back to the nest over the Town Stage. She was avoiding her mate. He was hot to start a second brood, and she wasn’t that eager. Yes, there was an abundance of feed, and the first batch were well on their way, but, truth to tell, Swallow would rather dance than breed.

She had finally shaken off her post-partum funk, and was getting back in shape. She’d prefer to give this gifted child some pointers, and keep herself limber for the winter season, than go through all that domestic drama again.

Last year she had succumbed to her partner’s attentions, and the second hatch had been difficult, compounded by the hardships of an early frost. By the time she had conveyed the whole brood down to Argentina she’d been a wreck. To cap it, that upstart swallow dancer from Nova Scotia had stolen all the kudos, and Swallow had lost her place as Prima in the company. She was determined to get it back this season, so she was dodging her mate’s advances. She could hear him whistling “their” tune on the nest, and it was very touching, but she was feeling too good, too energized, too on top, to submit to the subservient postures of breeding. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

When her partner wasn’t looking, Swallow swooped into the willows on the far side of the river, and headed for her secret meeting place. Recently Swallow had discovered this refuge from domesticity. It was a big hollow in a shattered bog ash, that stood knee-deep in the willow swamp, just back from the riverside. Swallow had been in hot pursuit of a particularly elusive butterfly, whose apparent random-walk flutterings must have disguised one of those new stealth trajectories, because Swallow kept overshooting or under-running the sneaky thing. She’d chased it into the woods and was just about to catch it, when the butterfly disappeared into a hole in this blasted ash. Swallow did an angry Tarantella around the tree in frustration, and a deep voice spoke to her out of the ash.

“Fantastique,” the voice said, authoritatively.

Swallow might have shied off, ordinarily. Strange voices in dark places didn’t usually appeal to her. But the cultured tone, and her hunger for artistic approval stayed her flight.

“Who are you?” she asked, doing loop-the-loops around the tree.

“Actually, that’s my line,” the voice said, and a booming laugh rose out of the darkness.
Swallow was more curious now. Despite all her instincts to fly away to safety, she swooped closer to the shadowed opening into the ash, trying to see in. But the daylight was too brilliant, and the cavity was too obscure. Swallow hovered at the entrance, beating her wings.

“You can lite, you know,” the voice assured her. “I wouldn’t hurt such a spectacular dancer.”

Flattery will get you everywhere with Swallow, and she immediately landed on the lip of the hole. She stuck her head in and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. What she saw was Little Old Man Owl, seated on a ledge just inside the hole, where he could look out toward the river. He winked at her.

“Come into my parlor,” he intoned. The he laughed again.

“I’m afraid you’ll eat me,” Swallow said, teasingly.

“Well, you do look tasty, but it would be a shame to lose such a stellar performer. I give my word, I won’t hurt you,” Little Old Man Owl promised. Every swallow knows that an owl’s word is as sure as moonrise, so she hopped into the Ash hideaway.

That had been the beginning of their relationship. For it turned out that Little Old Man Owl wasn’t just an aficionado of the dance, he was a master choreographer in his own right. It was he who was teaching the butterflies stealth flying, and he’d once coached the Canadian Nation Gannet Team in synchronous diving. It wasn’t long before Swallow and Little Old Man Owl were fast friends.

Whenever she could slip away, Swallow visited Little Old Man Owl. At first his knowledgeable praise attracted her, but he was soon giving her useful suggestions on how to improve and perfect her act. With his help maybe Swallow could recapture her role as Prima next Winter. So, when everyone else was drowsing in the mid-day heat, Swallow and the owl would be discussing the fine points of aerial choreography. Then, at night, when all the other day birds were sleeping, Swallow would practice new routines under the big streetlight at the Town Landing. If he wasn’t out hunting, Little Old Man Owl would watch while Swallow danced herself into a state of euphoria. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

Today Swallow’s mate was getting restless, though. He wondered where she was in the noontime and until late at night. He didn’t suspect her of disloyalty, even when she came home dizzy with ecstatic exhaustion. He figured it had something to do with dancing. She showed just the same excitement at high season in Buenos Aires. After all, it was her passionate nature which had attracted him to Swallow in the beginning. But it was getting late to start a second clutch, and it was a fine year for it. Still Swallow kept avoiding him all that day. Around and about the Town Landing she swooped as the Sun went down. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

When Swallow came home late that night they had a screeching row about it, and Swallow’s partner was still in a foul mood the next morning. Swallow got up as though nothing had happened and went out into the dawn. She circled up until she rose out of the morning mist. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

Swallow felt marvelous. She was in peak condition, the new routines Little Old Man Owl had suggested were becoming reflex, and her young protégé had the promise of being a child star. Morning mist was rising off the river, and now the whole clan was wheeling and diving through the fragrant humid air, feasting on unwary bugs. What more could you ask for? Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

A man was bailing his boat on a mid-river mooring and the swallows were swirling around him like a cloud of piping spirits. Swallow wondered if he appreciated the art of their intricate maneuvers or the subtle choreography. Little Old Man Owl had told her that some men have a surprising inner life, although you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They seemed so intent on getting and spending and manipulating the material. Swallow sighed. There was so little understanding of art. Even her mate thought breeding was more important than dancing. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

The rising day got hotter and more sultry. Swallow decided to take her nooner on the nest, if only to mollify her mate. Besides, she was very tired from all the mid-day brainstorming, and the late night dancing was beginning to take its toll. She put her head under her wing and fell into a deep sleep. She didn’t even stir when her partner wrapped a wing around her. So he just held her as she slept.

In her dreams Swallow was dancing the lead in “Swallow’s Return,” a traditional piece well loved in Buenos Aires. It was about the Sacred Sparrow who never touches the earth, rising above the mundane in ever more beautiful and elaborate flights of fancy. The dream audience was standing enraptured, gape-mouthed in awe. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

Then darkness began to creep onto the stage, obscuring the earthbound dancers. The Sacred Swallow danced higher and more wildly as the dark devoured the world below. Finally the only light was shining on her, spinning in an ecstatic solo. With a crescendo the music stopped. The light went out. And the Sacred Swallow was gone.

Outside the Town Stage thunder boomed and the sky opened up in a downpour. Towering thunderheads, which had been expanding and growing more ominous as the day grew hotter, exploded over the river, and everyone ran for cover. Rain came teeming down.

Swallow slept right through the uproar. In her dream the audience was wildly applauding. Then the music came up again. Sad now, and slow – in a minor key. Light began to rise, but a dark figure dominated the scene. Only the lowest, most earthbound, dancers started to move -- in crude, halting steps. The shadow figure led the way.

A cool wind swept through the Town Stage, but Swallow never stirred on the nest.
In her dream the music shifted mode from Aeolian to Dorian, and the color of the light warmed. The dancers moved more gracefully. There was a choreographic conflict between the dark figure and the dancers. Some made faltering attempts to fly, only to be pulled down out of the air by the shadow.

Outside the rain eased.

When the dream music moved into the Mixolidian, Swallow appeared high in the sky, in a brilliant spot of light. The Sacred Swallow had returned. She dove on the black figure, and drove him from the stage. All the dancers arose in flight. The music shifted to Dorian. The lights came up, and Swallow led the troupe in an ecstatic finale, getting huge “Oles” for her new maneuvers. The music raced to a culminating chord in the Lydian. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

Outside the storm had passed. Late afternoon sunlight sparkled on the fresh-washed world. Everything steamed. A rainbow arched over against the purple darkness thundering away to the east. Swallow slept on. She slept straight through the evening rise, and her mate had to lead the youngsters in their foraging and flight drill. Swallow didn’t stir until the band began to play.

It was a music night at the Town Landing, and a local band had set up their equipment on the stage under the swallows’ nest. The swallows had more or less ignored these performances before, as human music wasn’t really to their taste. The distraction was just one of the prices they paid for their otherwise splendid accommodations. But tonight Swallow was woken by the music. Maybe it was the rollicking R&B the rhythm guitar man was laying down, or the Latin syncopation the drummer was working, or the flute riffs weaving through the driving blues. Whatever the reason, Swallow began swaying to the music. Hopping from foot to foot.

As though in a trance, she glided off the nest, and began to circle the big street light at the dock. The drummer was working it faster, playing shimmering figures on the cymbals. Now Swallow danced more quickly, swooping in and out of the shadows, round and round the light in glorious arabesques. The lead guitar took off on a furious excursion and the whole band upped the ante. The bassman made shuddering runs while the rhythm guitar punched in the chords. Swallow danced all her old steps, then all the new ones, in gay abandon. The flute soared above the band, trilling to the hot tempo. Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

The human audience was up and dancing, too, and Swallow could see bats flitting in the shadows to the music. She heard happy hooting mixed with the whistling of the bats, and knew Little Old Man Owl was watching. The band played faster and faster until CRASH – it was over. The humans howled and clapped, and Swallow could hear the bats and swallows and creatures of the night calling her name, and shouting “Viva!” and “Ole.” Swallow danced a wild Fandango in the air.

Swallow danced through the whole gig. Even after the music stopped she danced around the light. She only flew back to the nest when the band was packing the last of their gear in the bassman’s truck. Swallow’s mate was still awake, wide-eyed in wonder.

“That was the most beautiful dancing any swallow has ever done,” he said, in awe.

Swallow blushed. She discovered she really wanted him to hold her now, and she hoped he wasn’t still angry with her. Maybe it was all possible, she thought. Maybe she could dance and breed and fly halfway round the world and still have energy to spare. And when he whistled something in her ear, Swallow was ready to hear him.

Which is why there is a second brood of swallows in that nest above the stage. And why you must dance to the music.