Once upon a time, there was a young crow, who spent most of his days gazing at his reflection in the water from a tree branch that grew by the side of a river. The river was so wide, the bird could not see where it began, or where it ended. All he could see were the two little channels which separated him from the wide, fast-flowing water beyond, and the little islands of vegetation created by slow-moving, gentle eddies.
Every day from his perch on the mossy branch, he sat and gazed in his watery mirror, admiring his long shiny black feathers and his grey-feathered neck. “I must be the most beautiful bird in the world,” he said to himself, turning his head this way and that, to see as much of himself as he could without straining his delicate, elegant neck. He spent so much of his time preening and admiring himself that he often forgot to eat. The other crows at the top of the tree, most of who were related to him, thought he was the vainest bird they had ever known.
His parent’s nest lay high above him, and they watched him daily, despairing of him. How they had raised such a vain chick? They shook their heads, sighing and worrying about what would become of him. They had tried to lure him upwards, by hanging tasty worms on the smaller branches above him, but he pretended not to see them. He was the most uncrow-like crow they had known and the worried pair were often left wondering where they had gone wrong. Had they been bad parents? Their other offspring were not like him. They all behaved like ‘normal’ crows: eating, sleeping and coming home to roost each night. Their wayward son, on the other hand, didn’t seem to understand that he was a bird as he spent so much time looking into the water. Perhaps that was the problem, they thought. Maybe their son wanted to be aquatic, rather than airborne. But they could not entice him away and eventually gave up trying.
One day, the young crow was sitting above the water, admiring himself as usual, oblivious to his parent’s despair, when he spotted a fish swimming below him. The fish was looking for flies, creating ripples in the water distorting the mirror-like quality of the water’s surface as she leaped out and twisted back in with a noisy splash.
“Hey,” cawed the bird loudly. “Hey you. You in the water. What do you think you’re doing there?”
The fish looked up in surprise. “I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” She stuck her head above the surface and gulped in a large fly that had landed right beside her.
“Yes, I’m talking to you!” the crow shouted, sticking his neck out to bring his beak closer to the water but not so far that he toppled, unbalanced, off his perch. “Why aren’t you listening to me?”
The fish created so much rippled water that the crow could only see the dark shadowy outlines of his body. Gone was the shiny lustre of his feathers and his long sleek wings. Gone too were his striking dark eyes which, in his opinion, glittered with curiosity and rook-intelligence. “Stop, I tell you,” he cawed, furiously. “I can’t see myself anymore.”
The fish stopped swimming and looked up at the angry young bird, her curiosity overcoming her need for food. Poking her head out of the water again, she took a gulp of air and stared cross-eyed at a beak which was now virtually touching her nose.
“What are you doing?” she asked the bird, who had begun to hop up and down on his branch, his wings flapping and a panicked look in his eyes.
“What am I doing?” screeched the rook, “What am I doing? What does it look like I’m doing?”
The fish looked puzzled. “To be honest, I can’t tell because you’re jumping around so much! Right, now that you’ve calmed down perhaps you can answer my question. Are you fishing, perhaps? Hunting?” She gulped, a little warier now.
“Do I look like I’m fishing?” the crow asked, in a voice reserved only for the stupidest of creatures.
“Well, no, you don’t,” answered the fish, scanning the shoreline as if she was looking for something. “I’ve seen kingfishers flying high above the water and then diving deep to catch small-fry, and those long-legged herons with their needle-like sharp beaks-.” She shuddered, sending tinier but faster ripples outwards. “No, you definitely don’t look like either of those. And,” she added with a relieved grin. “I’m glad you don’t look like them. That would be awkward – and a little dangerous. But, if you aren’t fishing, then – what are you doing? And more importantly, what kind of bird are you?”
“You really don’t know anything, do you?” the crow cawed, imperiously. “I am doing what most birds do every day. I am taking care of myself. This is my morning ablution; my daily cleansing and preening routine. You obviously don’t have a morning routine or you would not have asked.” He looked down at her with disdain, then stuck his beak in the air and gave a little shake, as if to shake her off. “And, for your information, I am a rook.”
A cacophony of derisive laughter came from high above him and he glared in his sibling’s direction. They flew off laughing and cawing and teasing. “You’re a crow!”
“I’m a rook!” he shrieked after them then turned his attention back to the water. ‘Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to finish what I was doing before your – untimely interruption.”
“Sorry for existing, I’m sure,” the fish retorted, but after a brief pause, her curiosity once again making her desire to hear more, said, “I don’t mean to sound stupid, but how does sitting in that tree looking at the water help with your morning routine? I hope you don’t think I’m rude but I really don’t understand.”
The crow, now entirely convinced of the fish’s lack of even a rudimentary intelligence explained slowly, so the fish would understand what he, the clever rook, meant by ‘gazing at his own reflection’. “Well,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I look at myself in the water so 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.”
“Right,” said the fish slowly, glancing up to see a tree full of birds that she thought all looked exactly the same. She thought about this for a minute, before asking, “Why do you need to look your best? Don’t you always look like that? I mean, a crow is a crow is a crow. Right?”
“What do you mean? A crow is a crow is a… that doesn’t make sense!” The crow rolled his beady black eyes, then glared down at the little fish pout sticking out of the agitated water. “And I’m not a crow!”
“So you keep saying,” the fish replied, glancing upwards.
‘If you must know, I have to look my best or the river won’t love me any more.”
The fish had to go underwater for a moment to collect herself. When she re-emerged she tried to keep a straight face.
“Are you laughing at me?” asked the incredulous bird, bobbing his head up and down with anger. “I don’t see what’s so funny?” The other birds had stopped now too and were sitting on the branches above him watching with interest.
“No, no, I’m not laughing. But what makes you think the river loves you? You’re just a crow, like them,” and she jerked her head upwards.
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”.
“So you spend every day gazing at your own reflection?”
“Well, yes, most days.”
“And when do you eat?”
“What?” the bird asked with surprise. When had he time to eat?
“You’ve got to eat sometimes, surely?”
“Oh, I find little things on these branches-“
“Do you ever fly?” the fish interrupted.
“Of course not! I have to stay here.”
“Gazing at yourself, in the water…”
“Well, yes.” The rook’s confidence was beginning to ebb. The fish made it sound so – ridiculous.
“Out of curiosity, you don’t have to tell me, of course, but when did you first begin this habit of water gazing?”
The crow thought back to his time in the nest. He had been the first of four eggs to hatch and had been so hungry that whatever his parents brought him, he devoured, often taking his sibling’s share too. Without even a smidgeon of guilt. One day, his feathers grown, he happened to glance over the side of his home and saw, beneath him, the image of a beautiful black bird reflected in the water. In that moment, he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and happened to mention it to his parents when they next came to feed him. His mother told him that the bird he saw was himself and that indeed he was beautiful. She also added that it was because the river loved him so much. It never occurred to him at the time that it was simply a story and that she also meant his siblings. They were all beautiful.
“Aah,” said the fish, nodding sagely. “I see.” And she began swimming in ever larger circles so the water became very agitated.
“Stop, stop,” screamed the bird wildly. “You’re ruining everything! Now I can’t see anything. STOP”.
She stopped and let the water settle again until it became the calm, mirror-like surface it had been before. The rook sighed with relief and searched anxiously for himself.
Then the fish asked quietly, “If the river loves you so much, which you believe it does, how do you think I can change it all in an instant? How can I make it change what you see?”
The bird stopped gazing at his reflection and stared at the fish, fear gripping his belly like a vice. “What do you mean?” he asked, holding tightly onto the branch with his talons, feeling lightheaded. He believed what he saw in his reflection and never for one moment thought there might be another reason for it. He had always been the special one, the most beautiful, the beloved. No, she couldn’t be right. But what if she was? No! That would mean he was just like the others. Drab and boring, little dark specks in the sky, not shiny-blue black and beautiful in the water. 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 her. “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 other cro – rooks.” Then she added, just to torment him further as she liked the effect her words were having on him. “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 and looked at him. “You see Rook, I live in the river and I know all her ways. I eat from her, live in her, lay eggs in her. I know her currents; her moods. But you? You only see the surface and that can change in an instant. But you, you will never understand that because you are a bird of the air and you do not know how to live in the sky, as the other birds do. You may not think them beautiful, or special, but at least they know who they are; they know where they belong. Every creature has its home, its domain, that place that nurtures him, that keeps him safe. Yours, dear bird, is the air and in the trees that stretch their arms into it. Not the water. You are not a fish. Your place is not here.”
She looked long and hard at him and then said, “I wish you well, young crow, and I hope you find your true source of happiness one day.” And she dived beneath the water and was gone, her tail creating a splash and a dozen, distorting ripples.
The crow stared after her; watching her disappear into the distance. When she had gone from view, he turned away from the water, unwilling to see the reflection that no longer meant anything. It was only an image, after all. An illusion. The fish was right; the river was a river; another world. But not his world.
He was a crow.
After a few painful minutes of emptiness, he raised his head and gazed at the other birds in their nests and at his family, flying to and from their tree, searching for food, and he realised he was hungry. He had spent so much time looking at himself that he 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 any more. 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 crow, 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; which wasn’t very far as he hadn’t exercised them for a while.
His parents, who had been watching him and wondering what was happening on the lower branches overhanging the river, were suddenly struck with fear that he might fly too high. But then they stopped and looked at each other, each one having the exact same thought at the same time. “Our son is flying. FLYING”. They cawed wildly with excitement and threw their wings around each other. “Our son is flying!” they cried together. “He has become the crow he was destined to be.” And, they hugged each other and watched as the young bird soared through the clear blue skies where he was soon joined by the other crows. His parent’s hearts swelled with joy and they settled down in their nests glad that their son had finally found his true home, back in the bosom of his family.