Of a swallow, a heron and a sycamore

It was my birthday lately. The previous night, I dreamt of swallows. They lived in a nest which happened to be hung inside, near a French window that my father left ajar. I looked after them.

I had a house martin once, when I was seveteen (or was it eighteen ?). The link is relevant because the French call house martins “window swallows”, hirondelles de fenêtre, whereas the name of martinets is given to swifts. My father had rescued it from his work place. It had fallen from a nest in a place where he felt it would be in danger.

I baptised it Merry, after Tolkien’s character whose strong temperament it soon appeared to share, and it stayed with us – in our flat in Lyon – for a few weeks. If you are asking yourselves what that implied, I can only say that our house martin slightly smelled of cheese, enjoyed being carried around on shoulders, interrupted me whenever my time on the phone exceeded its patience, hung onto our backs with its wings spread, the most beautiful brooch one could ever wear (and yes, we had to change all the wallpapers after its departure). To complement its diet, my father would sometimes catch flies and line them on the kitchen windowsill, having lovingly removed the wings. In the end, as Merry became a confident flyer, it would circle in and out of our flat, flying along the corridors and banking around the outside terrasse. Then, one end-of-September day, when I was in school, it perched onto a neighbour’s balcony. My mother called its name, worried it would fall prey to the cat. It flew away to its freedom.

I still hold onto one of Merry’s tiny black feathers, in a minute treasure box covered in shells. If you have the opportunity, take a good look at house martins : though not as elegantly defined as their swallow cousins and lacking their gorgeous red throat and long tail streamers, they are of a plumper shape, cuter and, in a nutshell, the most adorable creatures.

Little did I realise, ignorant as I was, what an extraordinary gift had been bestowed on me in that kinship with a wild bird, and of a kind that truly belongs to the realm of flight. Nearly twenty years have passed and I can only note how seminal that presence has been in my life. Swallows turn up in my writings, in my daughter’s names, in my inner sky. When I see them swirling in the sun, life gains a fullness of intensity from which the shadow of absurdity simply vanishes.

This morning, my little boy said, rubbing his eyes : “Maman, I had a birdwatching dream” (this one has inherited his English Grandma’s passion). Two seconds later, he cried : “Maman, I can see a heron !” I ran to grab my glasses and came back just in time – incredibly graceful vision of a large heron taking off from the sycamore into a bright silky automn sky.

Is it pure coincidence that a few days ago, a joint decision was taken to heed the tree surgeon’s advice to fell the sycamore ? It grows between our and the neighbour’s sheds, in a very awkward place, a gift of the wind. Although I love trees deeply, I never took interest in this one, knowing it would have to go, eventually. Yet, these last days, I have been preparing to say goodbye, looking at it, feeling its presence. Its branches are so heavily laden with samaras you would believe it knew its days numbered.

Had it desired to entrust its memory to us, how better than by calling and releasing the sign of a heron in front of our fascinated eyes ?


2 thoughts on “Of a swallow, a heron and a sycamore

  1. Loved your house martin story.
    Have very happy memories of these birds myself which – incidentally – are called swallows, too, in German: swallows are “Rauchschwalben” (literally: smoke swallows) and house martins are “Mehlschwalben” (= flour swallows), both named I’m sure after the colour of their throats.
    Can still picture myself and my little sister lying on our tummys in the living room, elbows and heads outside on the balcony and watching for hours the antics of the house matins feeding their little ones in the nest they built in the top corner of the balcony (well, a little more like a loggia – it was a standard, bland Seventies highrise.) To this day, the sight of eager little beaks opening wide and jostling for top position and food never fails to bring a smile and a feeling of content, optimistic warmth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, what a lovely story ! And thank you for the German names : learning words is wonderful. Now I imagine house martins as little swallows who have fallen in a bag of flour ! The French word for swallows is not very original, much like the Latin name : hirondelle rustique. You are right : optimistic is exactly the feeling I have when seeing those birds.


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