She was the youngest daughter and no one noticed her. She was not beautiful, but she was quiet and kind. She excelled at quiet things: cooking, fishing, walking though the marsh at dusk. She spent her evening knitting, using two twigs she’d found in the woods as her needles, spinning the wool she was given from a neighbor’s sheep in exchange for chores. She helped her six sisters in all things and did as her father told her. But there was one thing about her no one who knew her would have guessed.
She had a secret.
From the time her mother died, when she was eight years old, she had journeyed into the marsh in the evenings.
She had run off crying after her mother’s funeral. No one had noticed her missing. They were visiting with the neighbors, serving a cold supper, but she was devasted. Without her mother, there was no one who loved her and knew her for the person she was. She ran until she was lost. To see where she was, she climbed high into a tree. But the night was too dark to spy the path she had taken, and she soon fell asleep. When she awoke she discovered that she was in the nest of a heron, surrounded by it’s fledglings. When the mother heron arrived home she felt compassion for the strange girl fledgling she discovered, perhaps because she was featherless and defenseless. She let the girl full of sorrow sleep under her wing. Every night the girl came to the heron’s nest, and even when the chicks grew up and flew away she slept there. Until the weather turned chilly and the time came when all herons must leave for warmer climates.
The girl knitted a shawl of feathers from the ones her sisters and brothers had left behind. She wanted to make certain that her heron mother would not worry for her because her skin was bare. By now there was ice on the water, and her mother had no choice but to fly away. They both cried when they parted, for herons have hearts that allow them to love what is quiet and kind.
Every spring the girl waited for her heron mother’s return, wearing the shawl of feathers. She helped to raise the new fledglings. Each time a new group left, she stood on the edge of the huge nest woven of twigs and moss and wished she could fly away with them. In her human life, each of her six sisters was married by now, and her father was old, a hundred at least. Years passed and she was now a woman, one who carried her secret of the other life she led close to her heart.
One morning when she came home her father confronted her: Where had she been? Why were there feathers in her hair? Mud on her feet? A string of fish she’d caught on a string, ready for cooking? Why was she always disappearing?
She could not explain, so he decided she was up to no good and it was time for her to be wed. He arranged a marriage for her, with a man who ran the lumber mill that cut down trees in the marsh. She hated him before she met him, for she had the emotions of a heron, and herons love trees as much as they love flying through the air. The mill owner came to supper; he looked her up and down, felt her leg, then said he’d have her. She cried all that night in the nest on the marsh. Throughout the years her heron mother had learned bits of her language. She knew certain human words: Love, sorrow, kindness, comfort, fish, feather, fan.
Before you marry, she told her human daughter, slip on the shawl.
The wedding was held in a hall in town made of stone and bricks. Her six sisters, who had always ignored her, were there with their husbands and children. The Mill Owner looked older and meaner in the bright daylight. The girl who had lived with herons wore a plain blue dress. She asked that all the windows be left open, for it was a warm day. She wanted sunlight, blue sky, escape. There was a wedding cake on the table. The girl made it herself, knowing she would never taste a bite. Let the neighbors devour it; let them eat every crumb. When she and the Mill Owner stood before the reverend the girl wrapped the shawl of feather around her shoulders. She felt a freedom inside her, the taste of the salt of the marsh. Afterwards, people said she rose up and left through the window, some even said she become a bird, a beautiful blue bird as large as a woman. Her nieces and nephews swore they found feather on the floor.
She went back to the marsh. She knew the way by heart. She found an inlet that no one without tall boots and a map would ever find her. A fisherman saw her take off her shawl and thought she was beautiful and kind and quiet. She lives with him in a cottage right next to the water, so they can catch fish from their front porch. There is sunlight and blue sky and freedom. In the dusk of evening, she kisses her fisherman before she throws her shawl over her shoulders and goes to visit her heron mother. Her husband trusts her to come back by morning, and she always does. Some people say that if you walk through the marsh at midnight you may spy two blue herons, a mother and a daughter, mending their nest of twigs, and if you’re fortunate enough to find one of their feathers, you can weave it into your own shawl. Then, every night, you will dream the same dream the herons do.
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