Jakub Kołas

How The Birds Tried To Save The Old Oak-tree's Life

I don't think I can say for certain beside which river the old oak-tree stood, - whether it was the River Nioman, or whether it was the Śvisłač. In the long run it doesn't matter. What matters more is that year-by-year, old age had crept up on the oak. His top had begun to grow thin, and several branches as bare as bony fingers could already be seen high above, sticking out like candles against the sky. The whole neighbourhood - the osier willows, the weeping willows, the older trees, the pines by the edge of the meadow, and the younger generation of oaks, as well as other inhabitants of the forest, could not but all agree that the old oak by the river was gradually succumbing to old age. To all the eye-witnesses this circumstance brought sad thoughts of their own fate in the future. But the main thing was that everybody pitied the old oak; everyone had grown accustomed to him and liked to listen to his leaves rustling angrily during summer thunderstorms. It was a treat in itself to watch the oak battle against storms and bad weather, standing firm and never bowing his head. His branches and foliage had been green, fresh, and full of life. It had seemed that the mighty giant would never wear out. And all of a sudden such an unpleasant change took place: the old oak had become ill, and little by little was withering away!

It was the magpie who first understood the thoughts of the osier willows, and he started to shriek, crackle and chatter in a dozen different voices.

"Listen to me! Listen to me! Listen to me! The oak has grown old! The oak has grown old! It won't be long before the poor fellow comes crashing down!"

The magpie's shriek roused the jackdaws, the crows, the chaffinches, the loud-voiced landrail, the musician-snipe, the heron and a multitude of other birds. They were joined by the highly-respected raven. On account of his old age, his knowledge of life, and his wisdom he was addressed by some as Professor and by others as Academician. As if summoned by a signal, all the birds gathered around the oak, some under it, and some on its very branches.

"Look, what's happened to the oak, my dear neighbours!" The magpie continued to chatter. "So handsome, so strong he used to be, and look at him now! He is withering away, poor old dear!" sighed the chaffinches.

For some time there was such a hubbub round the oak, that it was hard to understand who was saying what. Suddenly the long-billed raven who was sitting on a dry bough of the oak, spoke in a low voice which everybody heard, however. The raven had a peculiar kind of voice; it was somewhat throaty, as if it were coming out of a fallen, rotting tree, where it had unexpectedly got stuck at some time. It was rather hard to make out what the wise raven said. It seemed to remind some of the words "core, caw, core". Some were even under the impression that the raven had clearly uttered the word "corpse". At that very moment a jay, a blackbird, and a dove arrived.

"Goodness gracious me!" the jay exclaimed, during the spell of silence that had fallen. "Surely he means that the oak is going to die, to become a corpse!"

"No, no, the Professor does not mean that," interjected the dove. "The Professor was trying to say that the invalid needs corn, buck-corn, wheat, millet!"

"You cannot possibly have understood the words of the Professor; he was speaking in Latin," objected the blackbird.

"Silence, you three!" cried the magpie. "The Professor is going to make a speech."

"He isn't a Professor, he is an Academician!" corrected the jackdaw.

And indeed, the raven made a movement, flapped his wings, flew down to the lowest bough, sat up and surveyed the whole avian assembly. They all fell silent and became still.

"Caw!" The raven began his speech in a low voice, in such a low voice as academicians usually use in their speeches at learned councils. "Of ca-a-a-wse, it is clear to everybody, esteemed avian assembly, that our highly respected oak is ill. His head has become bald, and in the lower part of his trunk a hollow started to form. It is indispensable that we should ascertain the exact state of the inside of the old oak. I would like to suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that you should seek out the woodpecker, and invite him here. As you know, the woodpecker is an outstanding surgeon, the tree's best doctor and friend."

Whole flocks of birds flew off into the forest to look for the woodpecker. It wasn't hard to find him: the woodpecker was sitting in a tree tapping out a series of rhythmic sounds like a telegraphist tapping out a telegram. The avian assembly surrounded the busy bird.

"My dear sir!" the jackdaw addressed the woodpecker. "We have come to you on behalf of the avian assembly."

"You see, the old oak is ill, the one that grows by the river," the blackbird continued, after the jackdaw. "He is such a nice old oak, and you, dear woodpecker, must have come and see him more than once. As far as my opinion goes, there isn't a better place than the oak for you to make your music. So please, make haste and visit the invalid. We all beg you to."

The woodpecker stopped his work and started on his way. True, the way wasn't long but the woodpecker was not particularly good at flying; he would fly for a while, then settle on the ground, and through force of habit cast a professional glance at one tree or another. Eventually, however, he and the messenger birds reached the old oak. Unhurriedly, as an experienced physician, the woodpecker examined all the branches of the oak and the smaller hollows. He made the examination attentively, meticulously, and even went right inside a hollow here and there. At times, not unlike a neurologist, he tapped the bark and the branches with his sharp hammer-beak. The birds held their breath, watching each of the woodpecker's precise, easy movements and admiring his accomplished doctor's skill, and all the while they maintained a deferential silence. At last the woodpecker finished the examination of the patient, after which, like a nimble adroit gymnast, he made an astonishingly beautiful turn on the tips of his claws.

"The oak is ill indeed, but not so seriously as to give cause for great anxiety. His life is in no immediate danger. What the oak needs is a complete rest. All the holes that lead inside him will have to be stopped up, and at the same time care has to be taken that the north and east winds should not disturb him. The greatest care has to be taken that not a single drop of moisture, be it rain or snow, should penetrate his inside. The acorns must be removed and the foliage must be thinned out in places, so as to strengthen the roots. I think that's all."

The woodpecker bowed to the feathered assembly, uttered a final "peep" before parting, and prepared to fly home.

"Thank you, thank you very much, dear doctor!" the birds cried and made a deep bow to the woodpecker. Then the dove and the blackbird each took hold of a tip of the woodpecker's wings and in this fashion they flew all the way to the very entrance to his abode without stopping anywhere even once. After this they returned to the birds that had remained around the oak.

"Ca-a-aw!" croaked the raven, addressing the birds with a new speech. "I ca-a-wl on all to provide the medical treatment for the oak. Firstly we must put up an awning to protect the oak from the north winds. What shall we make it of?"

"Let us gather some wolf's claw grass, and make such an awning that the oak will get the surprise of his life!" suggested the magpies.

"Good!" the raven agreed and added, "and we also have to provide a cap for the oak."

"We'll make him one of moss, white pine-forest moss," croaked the crows. "We'll make such a bonnet for him that not a single drop of rain will ever get inside."

"And we'll stop up all cracks and crannies that no drops of moisture shall creep in," squeaked the chaffinches.

The work was enthusiastically started. First of all the acorns were pecked off, then the leaves were removed, but with no acorns and no leaves an oak looks almost like a man who has no trousers on. A large screen protected the oak from the cold northerly and the dry easterly winds, at the same time hiding from him the wider world in which he was very interested. The sealed-up crevices would let in neither moisture nor oxygen. But the birds felt very happy that they had taken such good care of the old oak.

There is not much left to say to bring the story to an end.

Winter came, and winter, as everyone knows, is followed by spring. From the warm lands the storks came back. They had not taken part in the process of providing medical treatment and protection for the oak, because they had not been present at the time. They had already left for the warm lands. As soon as they saw the oak, their bills went up in grief and astonishment: what on earth had happened to the poor oak?

On his bald crown there sat a bonnet like an old woman's. On either side hung wide curtains. All the openings in his trunk were carefully stopped up. The old oak had begun to sag, and looked as though he was hardly able to keep to his feet.

"What's wrong with our oak?"

"Whatever will become of our home?" the lady stork said raising her bill higher and higher.

"Oh, my dear darlings!" the chattery magpie answered the storks. "What care we took of him! What medical treatment we provided for him! But nothing seems to help."

"Took care, - provided treatment!" the gentleman stork echoed, mocking the magpie bitterly. "Your stupid care and treatment have just about finished the poor oak off! Well, old woman," the male stork turned to his wife, "we'd better take care of our oak by ourselves."

Then the storks tore down the awnings woven from the wolf's claw grass, they knocked the bonnet off the oak's head, and pulled the stoppings out of all the cracks and crannies in the oak's body.

The oak took a deep breath of fresh air, and at once he felt better. Soon after, a shower came, and the old oak's body filled with invigorating moisture. It was not long before the oak recovered almost completely. Green leaves started to sprout, and by the end of the summer new acorns had grown on the branches.

"Thank you ever so much, dear children," the oak addressed his tenants, the storks. "You have opened up the world for me again, and it seems that I have come into it anew."

Then the oak smiled and added, "In all things and at all times, one should keep one's head and a sense of proportion as well."

 

1955




Source: Colours Of The Native Country. Minsk, Byelarus Publishers, 1972.
Translation: R. Lipataŭ

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