By Emily H. Jeffries
Whenever I am sent, the angels say, “Would you like any help, Francis?” But if the angels come, I don’t get to know the animal as well as I’d like; and I never get to say goodbye. I suppose it’s because they are angels, and I am a man, but I do have a weakness for creatures.
The creatures of the Nubian Desert occupy a particularly warm corner of the world (and my heart). They are such a reserved, practical folk that they never know what to make of me. I think they prefer the angels, aloof as they are, because of their efficiency and splendor. But man was the original caretaker of the animal kingdom, you know – I hope that isn’t prideful of me to say.
This time, the prayer came from a young mockingbird with white and grey streaked all over. I named her Lorenza and loved her immediately, although she seemed not to notice.
“My mate has not come back,” she said plainly. “When I hunt for insects, I have to leave my egg alone.”
“Yes, I heard you praying,” I said. “Is the egg so very helpless? I see that you have made an ingenious nest among the thorns of this tree …”
“There are snakes in this tree,” said Lorenza, shaking her feathers out.
“I see,” I said. “You are a dutiful mother, little mockingbird.” My eyes welled up with pride in Creation.
“What is to be done?” she said. She can’t be blamed, of course; birds aren’t acquainted with crying.
“I’m afraid I don’t know if your mate will ever be back,” I said. “But, I will watch over your egg while you hunt. You must understand that I cannot interfere with Providence. If something should happen to your egg, I cannot prevent it. I can only pray earnestly that you will be given the grace to bear it well.”
“Shouldn’t an angel have come?”
This, I thought, was delightfully candid of her.
“I flatter myself, I was confident my assistance would suffice.”
Lorenza stared and twittered in thought. “Angels can make miracles, can’t they?”
“Very seldom for the animals, I’m afraid.”
She hesitated. “I suppose you will do.”
Days went by as Lorenza gathered insects, filled her stomach, and returned to her egg. It was a helpless, freckled, hidden jewel. Lorenza and I were so proud, and her mate was not mentioned again.
I saw one day a band of cowbirds, blinking and chirping in the brush and watching Lorenza’s nest, making note of her movements.
“We must be one step ahead of them, Saint Francis,” Lorenza warned. “They are not like us; they lay eggs in honest folk’s nests, so that they do not have to care for them.”
Scandalized, I agreed we ought to be diligent.
But one morning, Lorenza was restless. The catch from her last hunt was poor, and her pebble-sized stomach complained. So, before the cowbirds left for their breakfast, Lorenza flitted out and left her egg with me.
I was not yet comfortable against the trunk of Lorenza’s tree when I heard a rustle and a chirp above my head. A cowbird was in our nest! With a fleeting lift of her hind feathers, the cowbird dropped her egg next to Lorenza’s and reeled away.
Lorenza returned, satiated, and hopped scrupulously about the rim of her nest. Surely, I thought, she would discover the intruder and eject it. Then what would I do? I shuddered to think how I would be able to leave the egg on the ground, innocent and defenseless. But, to my surprise, Lorenza settled in her nest again and, from then on, looked after them both.
In the following weeks, I prayed urgently for my friend, kneeling at the foot of the thorny tree at night. While the sand grouse searched for water and the sand cat stalked the jerboa, I implored Him to keep safe the cowbird egg and grant generosity to Lorenza’s list of admirable qualities. I knew that, soon, she would need it.
The cowbird hatched first, and Lorenza busied herself bringing mouthfuls of worms and crickets to her nest.
“I love her,” she whistled.
“I love her, too,” I sang.
The second egg hatched, and Lorenza whistled all the more. The mockingbird chick received his share of the meals, though Lorenza had to work twice as hard. Often the little mother would go hungry, for there were not enough hours in the day, nor insects in the desert, to feed all three.
A week passed, and I noticed that the cowbird, whom I named Nicola, had a white rim about her mouth. Gio, Lorenza’s beautiful boy, had a yellow rim and was lighter in color than his sister. Finally, Lorenza came to me.
“One of my chicks does not look like a mockingbird, Francis,” she stated.
“No,” I said.
“Where did the female come from?” she asked.
“I’m so sorry,” I said with a sorrowful heart. “A cowbird laid her egg in your nest.”
“They invaded my nest!” Lorenza cried. “They did not care I would have to feed two instead of one!”
Nicola and Gio hardly ate that day, for Lorenza was so beside herself.
That evening, when the blistering sun dissolved, and the sand cat and the jerboa resumed their chase, I threw myself on the dunes. I cried a thousand tears for Lorenza, and two thousand more for Nicola and Gio. And when, cold and covered in sand I returned to Lorenza’s tree, I found she was not there. Nicola and Gio huddled together, keeping warm against the desert night. I could not climb into the tree for the thorns, nor could my arm reach the nest. How small and cold they looked.
Oh, if only that was the worst of our troubles that night!
By the white of the moon, I spied a tree snake slithering between the thorns. Powerless, both because of the thorns and because of my vow not to interfere, I watched as the tree snake grasped little Gio with his fangs and glided away with him. Nicola flapped wildly in Lorenza’s nest, petrified. For, the snake’s smooth body had brushed against her as he carried Gio away.
Lorenza returned later that night. She hopped about the rim of her nest while Nicola cheeped and cheeped for the comfort of her mother’s breast.
“Where is the mockingbird?” said Lorenza, ignoring Nicola’s plea.
“Snake,” was my only reply.
In the following days, Lorenza continued to feed little Nicola, but she did not whistle a single song. I spent most of each night in prayer, meditating on His words: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Finally, one morning, as I trudged back to the thorn tree from my prayers, I could hear Lorenza whistling a jubilant song.
“I’ve discovered something,” she said, warbling. “I was hunting, and I noticed I was anxious. I was afraid a snake might take my only chick, my cowbird. Saint Francis, I realized that, if it was my cowbird that had been taken, and not my mockingbird, I would have been just as sorrowful.”
“And this makes you happy?” I said.
“Yes,” said the little mother firmly, “for it means that I still have one treasure in my nest, and I will not neglect her.”
That night, as I prepared to pray, an angel appeared.
“Francis,” she said, “On the other side of that dune, you will see another thorn tree. Go to the foot of its trunk, and see what you will find.”
Immediately, I climbed the dune and went to the tree. My heart racing, I stooped at the trunk and scanned the blue sand. There on the ground, fluttering weakly, was a helpless cowbird chick. He looked to me with hopeful eyes, and I knew exactly what to do.
The sand grouse chuckled at me as I stumbled and tripped over my own sandals, running headlong across the dunes. But I laughed along, keeping that fading life safe in my palms. I named him, Agapito.
Perhaps I should have brought an angel to Lorenza. But, I must confess, I will always cherish our goodbye — the one between the mockingbird, her two beautiful cowbirds, and me.