The Fable of the Birds and the Bears

 ‘Building hit by missile in Kharkiv’s Freedom Square’ [1]

On International Women’s Day 2022, we celebrate the creative writing of Jeni Williams and her contributions to our project. Jeni has been an inspirational member of the Covid Chronicles team over the last two years. In this fable by Jeni, each bird is an allegorical character representing a different aspect of freedom: to act, speak, think, write. These are the four corners of Kahrkiv’s Freedom Square. Together the four birds represent Ukraine and the different sized bears, Russia. The nightingale is the national bird of Ukraine It is also Philomel, the Greek girl, whose tongue was cut out by her rapist to silence her, but transformed to a nightingale, she gained the voice of poetry, and the tale of her suffering spoke to all. Because of this she became the ‘stock symbol of unassuaged grief in Greek tragedy’[2]. Philomel the nightingale was the traditional figure of poetry and the poet in English. The line the nightingale sings was spoken by Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, at a press conference on the attack.

Image by @HamiltonShand

Once there was a square in a place a long way away, like Kharkiv. It had the usual four corners and, in each corner, stood a bird.  At first glance they might have seemed stone, but they were not.

In the first corner sat the crow, head cocked, eager, sharp-eyed and definite. He had no airs and graces. Quarrelsome but purposeful, he worked with his family, planning activities together. They weren’t above mockery but it wasn’t vicious. They were successful. They bent twigs into usefulness, found solutions and quickly drove any rival away.

In the second corner the lapwing sat on her nest. She raised her crest like a knife and warned off intruders with loud piercing cries. She screamed at anything, no matter how large, that came near. At times she waded with the golden plover and the black-headed gull, and they protected each other from hawk and eagle. Sometimes she tricked predators by feigning hurt, trailing a wing to draw them away from her children, then flew away free, triumphant.

In the third corner sat an owl. He was the most like stone, hardly moving, watching his territory with meticulous care. A big intelligent bird, he banished invaders with pitiless efficiency. His flight was noiseless and deadly. He mostly hunted at night listening for and targeting any sound. He tore flesh from bone with a beak and talons as sharp as those of a kite.

The nightingale was more contained, she sang night and day in a low bush in the fourth corner., She was familiar with savagery and rape, and she wanted others to understand. So she polished her song until it glimmered, and she practiced until the notes hung trembling in the air. Her listeners marvelled: they called her the queen, the poet, the breaker of hearts.

It was a beautiful square, the biggest and best in Europe the birds agreed. They felt safe and proud until one day everything changed.

One day the brown bears began to arrive. They had been there before, but that had been a long time ago. They didn’t belong in the square – but then, someone had told them there was honey for the taking.

On the first day they growled angrily, demanding the sweet gold as if it belonged to them. But the birds refused to listen and told them to leave. The bears were not happy and on the second day they returned, pushing their way forward. One carried rocks in his massive paws and he tried to break open the sweet places. The birds were alarmed, but they were the guardians of the square so they worked together to make a plan. This was why the lapwing kept guard and hid the children underground, that was why the crows made Molotov cocktails.

On the next day there were more bears, and bigger bears, and they were angry. This time they brought boulders. They started to smash the buildings round the square. The Owl was angry, slashed ferociously at the bears’ thick flanks. Some tried to catch him but he was too silent, too quick. And some bears ran away.

But the next day the bears came back even more angry. There were more and more of them. This time they smashed the square and tried to kill the birds. They fought back as hard as they could but even the owl could not overcome so many bears. Only the nightingale kept singing her lament. Safe in her bush, at least for the moment, she sang, and sang again: ‘No one will forgive, and no one will forget.’

She never stopped singing and she broke everyone’s hearts.

[1] BBC News, 1 March 2022

[2] H.W. Garrod, ‘The Nightingale in Poetry’, The Profession of Poetry and Other Lectures, Oxford, 1929


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