Once upon a time there was a very vain rook. He spent most of his days gazing at his reflection from a branch high on a tree that grew on the side of an enormous river. The river was so large that he couldn’t actually see where it began or where it ended.
His branch overhung the river in a quiet part of the river, where two little channels separated from the main river and created little islands, surrounded by clear, slow-moving water.
Every day from his perch he would sit and gaze at himself, admiring his long shiny black feathers and his grey-feathered neck.
“I must be the most beautiful bird in the world,” he would say to himself as he turned his head, this way and that, to see as much of himself as he could in the water. He spent so much of his time preening and admiring himself that often he would forget to eat and the other rooks that spent time in the tree thought that he was the craziest bird that they had ever known.
His parents, whose nest lay high above his branch, despaired of him, wondering how they had raised such a vain chick. They shook their heads and sighed and worried about what would become of him.
One day, while he sat above the water, admiring himself as usual, he spotted a fish swimming below him. The fish was looking for flies as she was hungry and she created ripples in the water distorting the mirror-like quality of the water’s surface.
“Hey,” cawed the rook loudly. “What do you think you are doing there? Can’t you see I am doing something?”
The fish looked up in surprise. “I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” she asked, her mouth gulping in a large fly that just landed on the water above her.
“Yes, I’m talking to you!” the rook said indignantly, and he stuck his neck out trying to bring his beak closer to the water to get a closer look at this rude intruder.
The fish went on looking for flies and other tasty morsels and as she was so hungry; she didn’t really have much interest in the rook, or his behaviour.
“Are you listening to me?” the rook demanded, becoming more irate. The fish swam around so much, and created so much rippled water, that the rook could only see the dark shadowy outlines of his body. Gone was the shiny lustre of his feathers and his long sleek wings and dark piercing eyes.
“Can’t you stop?” he yelled loudly in an angry caw. “I can’t see myself anymore.”
The fish stopped swimming and looked up at the angry young rook; her curiosity overcoming her need for food. She poked her head up out of the water and took a couple of gulps of air. She stared up at the rook, whose beak was now right in front of her little face. She had to twist her head slightly sideways to get a better look!
“What are you doing?” she asked the bird, who was by now hopping up and down and doing, what to the fish, looked like a very comical dance.
“What am I doing?” screeched the rook, “What am I doing? What does it look like I’m doing?”
The fish looked puzzled. All she could see was a young black rook sitting on the branch of a tree gazing into the water.
“Are you… fishing – perhaps?” she gulped, warily.
“Do I look like I’m fishing?” asked the rook in the voice only reserved for the stupidest of animals… or in this case, fish.
“Well, come to think of it, no you don’t,” answered the fish. “I mean I’ve seen those beautiful kingfishers flying high above the water and then diving deep to catch small-fry, but no, you don’t look like one of those,” she reflected. “I mean,” she added with a relieved grin. “I’m glad you don’t look like one of them. So, if you are not fishing – what are you doing?”
“I am taking care of myself,” answered the rook imperiously, thinking to himself that this was the most ridiculous fish he had ever come across. Didn’t she know anything?
The fish frowned a fish frown, which was barely perceptible to the rook. Not that he was looking at the fish anyway as he was too busy trying to see his own reflection.
“Taking care of yourself…” the fish repeated, trying to find out what this meant. “Em… I don’t mean to sound stupid,” she added after a brief pause, “But how does sitting in that tree, looking at the water all the time equal you taking care of yourself. I don’t understand.”
The rook, now believing entirely in the fish’s stupidity, explained slowly, just so the fish would understand what he, the clever and vain rook, meant by taking care of himself.
“Well,” he said, puffing himself up, “I look at my reflection in the water so that I can see how I look. I have to look my best you know, as do all birds,” he jerked his head toward the other birds, “But they don’t understand that.”
“Riiight,” said the fish slowly, still not understanding what the bird was talking about. She thought about this for a minute, then she asked carefully “So why do you need to look your best?”
The rook looked up to heaven, exasperated beyond measure. But, a little doubt crept into this mind. He had done this since he could leave the nest, in fact, he reflected, since even before he left the nest. He remembered sharing the nest with his brother and two sisters and as he grew older and bigger, he would peer out over the edge and see himself reflected in the water below. He thought then that he must be the most beautiful of birds as he never could see the reflection of his brothers and sisters in the water – only his. He felt this must surely be because he was the most beautiful and so the river only wanted to see him. He must be the special one. And so it was important that he look his best at all times, otherwise the river might lose interest in him and then he would be… just ordinary… like the other birds. “No,” he thought, feeling a little worried, and stating aloud, forgetting that the fish was beneath him in the water. “I am the most beautiful. I am special.” He looked down at the water and saw the fish, who was looking up at him with a quizzical expression on her face.
“You’re special?” she repeated, curious now as to what this crow saw in himself. All she saw was a rook, and not a very handsome one at that, if handsome was a word one could use with rooks! “And beautiful?”
“Yes, yes, I am,” stated the bird, straightening his neck to create the best profile.
The fish laughed. She had to go beneath the water to get her breath back as she was laughing so hard. She thought she might drown with laughter. Once she had composed herself she rose again to the surface.
“What do you mean – laughing at me?” screamed the rook, flapping his wings and bobbing his head up and down angrily. “What is so funny about that?”
“I just don’t see what makes you the most beautiful… or the most special of all the birds.” The fish answered chuckling. “I mean… you’re a crow. What’s so special about that?”
The bird was furious. “I’m not a crow,” he sputtered, “I am a beautiful rook. And that is why,” he added breathlessly, “the river loves me so much. She sees me every day and shows me how beautiful I am. Just look,” he pointed his beak at the water. “See, there I am, right there. How wonderful I appear”.
And the bird leaned out over the water trying to prove to the fish just how much he was loved for his beauty.
The fish was by now in hysterics. After all, she lived in the river; she knew the river was just water and didn’t love anyone. Water was water!
She swam in circles and the water became very agitated.
“Stop, stop,” screamed the bird wildly. “You’re ruining everything! Now I can’t see anything. STOP”.
The fish stopped and let the water settle into quietness once again. It became the calm mirror-like surface it had been before. The rook heaved a sigh of relief and gazed anxiously into the water to see himself.
Then the fish asked the rook quietly, “If the river loves you so much how come I can make ripples in it and waves so that you cannot see yourself anymore?”
The bird stopped gazing at himself and stared at the fish. Fear gripped his belly like a vice. He had never considered that before, believing that the river was all there was and that her reflection of him must mean that he was the beloved.
“What do you mean?” he asked shakily. He gripped the branch tightly with his claws lest he fall off the branch.
“If the river loves you so much, which you believe it does, and that is why she shows you such a wonderful reflection of yourself, how come I can change it all in an instant? How come I can make her change what you see?”
The rook became lightheaded. This thoroughly confused him. He had never thought of this before. He believed what he saw in his reflection and never for one minute thought that there might be another reason for it.
He felt he was going to faint. What if the fish was right, and he wasn’t the most special of all the birds… or the most beautiful? Then what? Would that mean that he was just like the others? Drab and boring, not shiny and black as he was? No, no, that couldn’t be true.
“I don’t believe it,” he said finally, sticking his head in the air and refusing to acknowledge the fish. “It’s just not the truth. I am special. I know it.”
“Oh, you might be special,” the fish said, “But no more special than any other cro – rook.” Then she added, just to torment him further as she liked the effect her words were having on the conceited young bird. “I, on the other hand, am special. Look how I can change the water and make you look ugly and distorted.” And she laughed at the bird who had now turned a whiter shade of grey!
She spotted a fly and darted for it, catching it deftly in her mouth and swallowed it whole. She turned then and looked at him. “You see Rook, I live in the river and I know all of her moods and I know that in order to survive we must respect her and be grateful for what she gives us. But you, you will never understand that because you are a bird of the air and you do not know how to live in her, as the other birds do. They know where they belong. You don’t.”
She looked long and hard at him and then said, “I wish you well, young rook, and I hope you find your true source of happiness one day.” And with that she dived beneath the water and was gone, her tail creating a splash behind her.
The rook sat on the branch, his wings drooping and low and his head fallen on his chest. He couldn’t bear to look in the water, to see the reflection which no longer meant anything. After a short while, he raised his head and watched the other birds in their nests. He watched the other rooks, flying to and from their tree, searching for food, and he realised he was starving. He had spent so much time looking at himself that he really hadn’t taken care of himself at all. He hadn’t been feeding himself but starving himself, and for what, adoration? Love? He didn’t know. But he knew this, he would never trust what he saw in the river again. The reflection could change at any time and it didn’t tell him who he truly was. He was a rook, and was supposed to be flying free above the trees and the earth. And, he realised with gleeful surprise; it was something that the fish couldn’t do either. And with a loud and exultant caw he flew into the air and soared as high as his wings could take him.
He flew so high that his parents, who had been watching him and wondering what on earth had been going on, were struck with fear that he might fly too high. But then they stopped and looked at each other. They each had the same thought at exactly the same time. “Our son is flying… FLYING”. They cawed wildly and excitedly and threw their wings around each other. “Our son is flying,” they cried together. “He has become the rook he is destined to be.” And they hugged each other and watched as their son soared through the clear blue skies where he was soon joined by the other rooks. The young rook’s parent’s hearts swelled with joy and they settled down in their nests glad that their son had finally found his wings.