Why they did what they did

There they were, all in a row, crowding the wires strung high over the street, balanced over tight-gripping claws, looking something like small crows. But they were sparrows.

They spoke to each other frequently, calling out over this wing or that. Their words were lost in the wind, or heard, depending on how high their wings were hunched– when a sparrow was fearful or trying hard to keep its balance, its wings would hunch up high, muffling the sound of its words.

One sparrow was never fearful and was always well-balanced. But the old boy’s wings were permanently hunched, and he couldn’t turn his head to his fellows when he spoke — age had stiffened his body. When he spoke his often wise and reassuring words, the only one to hear him was the wind.

What were the sparrows discussing? On the ancient lane where they usually gathered, men had come with machines, to tear down the crooked old houses and shops. The sparrows needed a new place to gather. So they’d called a conference amongst themselves on this particular day.

They had included the old sparrow in their talks, because they respected his wisdom. But being youngsters, they didn’t intend to listen to what he had to say. And in this wind, they couldn’t hear him anyway.

He knew they were like this. But he took his responsibility seriously. So he thought for a while, then advised them: “There, on Candlemakers’ Lane, that’s where you should gather,” he said. “The candlemakers’ discarded bits of wax and tallow will make you fatter. You’ll do very well, in cold winters. The candlemakers’ wives are happy, because candles are always needed, and their husbands are rich. There’s no shortage of grain in those houses. Daily they make more bread than they can eat. Abundant stale fragments are thrown out into the lane, for creatures like us to feast on.” And the wind heard him, and agreed.

“Hatters’ Lane, that’s the place for us,” said one of the younger sparrows. “The lane is wide and runs north and south. The sun will warm us early every day. And the hats are very high-style, lovely things to look at, with shimmering colors layered over them like the feathers on our wings. Why, I’d like a hat for myself. Will they make hats for sparrows, do you think?” The sparrows turned and looked over their wings at the speaker, with great interest. Sparrows are mousy-looking birds much of the time, and a little borrowed splendor might be a very fine thing. So, after a little chirping back and forth, the birds agreed they’d try for Hatters’ Lane.

The wind listened to their conversation and shivered. The shivering was passed on to the sparrows, who were inexperienced enough to feel cold, not stupid. All except the old boy. He knew he wasn’t cold at all.

“Not a good idea, dear friends.” The oldest sparrow knew what they did in that street. “Do you see the third stories on Hatters’ Lane? That’s why the street is wider, so the sun can wake the inhabitants early. That’s where the falconers and netters live. They go out early each day to catch birds like us, and return each night with the mangled remains, and bags of feathers they’ve stripped from the poor dead bodies. It’s those feathers that make those hats beautiful. And do you know what spare food is in that lane? It’s the crisped bones of our brothers. Are we cannibals, after all?” And the wind heard, and agreed.

But the younger sparrows didn’t hear. And as the afternoon light turned golden and shadows lengthened, they took off in a flock. They were never seen again. Presumably they went to Hatters’ Lane. Maybe their feathers are shimmering on a fine hat or two. Hats for sparrows aren’t made, by anyone. Sparrows are for hats, not hats for sparrows. Starvation was an alternate possibility to being mass-murdered. Sparrows aren’t cannibals, after all — they only eat grains (cooked or raw), a little fat of any kind, water, gravel, cicadas and grasshoppers. Hatters’ Lane people are meat eaters. Bird-eaters, actually. Not a good choice, for a sparrow’s survival prospects. We readers hope, of course, that the sparrows realized their mistake, and immediately went in search of another lane to live in.

After the youngsters left, the older sparrow swayed on the line for a while, his small oval body lonely against the darkening sky. He looked like what he was — a sparrow, not a small crow. He slept for a while. When he woke, the stars were burning small holes in a midnight sky. The wind was sharper. He ruffled his underfeathers, and took off, wheeling over crooked houses and shops till he saw the glow of masses of candles. The lights told him he’d found the windows and people of Candlemakers’ Lane.

After a small feast of stale bread, some fresh water, a chewy bit of wax, eight fine grains of quartz gravel, and ten pieces of broken barley, the older sparrow searched for, and shortly found, a chink in a southwest-facing wall. It would be warm almost the whole year round, and it would be his new home.

Candlemaker’s Lane makes a good sparrow-home, despite the fact that its northeast-southwest orientation puts it at the mercy of the Himalayas’ always-chill winds. It has a high inventory of crannies, chinks and nooks for sparrow-nesting. The fields nearby have tangles of weeds and brush, to pluck for sparrow-nest linings. Generous rations of spare crumbs and grains come to the birds each day, from candlemakers’ happy wives.

To the Lane, the sparrows return offerings of sweet music, performed in concert, twice a day, in the electrical wires strung up over Candlemakers’ Lane. And images of freedom, in the flash of their flight.

Some say the old sparrow still lives in his southwest-facing chink in Candlemakers’ Lane. If the rumor is true, the old boy has outlived his own generation and at least two that followed. They do say it’s true. They also say he’s beloved by the young sparrows, who take his life to heart, as showing them the wisdom of their preference of staying in their parents’ Lane, and taking their wives and husbands from amongst their cousins.

— The idea of a story is a phantom. Hard work makes it real. I like the fable form. I always think it will be easy to work with, and it never is. I don’t know if northern India or Pakistan has sparrows, or if anyone wears hats with feathers on them, in these countries. Probably not, to both.

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