WHEN THE SUN APPEARED the blackbird began to sing. He was only a dark speck on the topmost branch of a tall and sturdy oak. Yet his singing floated through the forest and spread good cheer like a joyful reveille.
Pheasants, beating their wings loudly, swung down from their sleeping-trees. Their sharp clucks rang clear and metallic in the morning air. The woodpecker started his gay drumming, the magpies began their chattering
and the titmice whispered softly in the underbrush.
The golden ball of the sun rose into the sky that was now turning a pale blue.
Perri the squirrel popped out of her nest. Waving her fire-red tail, she hurried from branch to branch. Then suddenly she sat still to listen to a blackbird. He sang on melodiously, his voice a delicate fluting that rose again and again in fresh cascades of song.
Even the roes lifted their heads to hear his carol. For them it meant that food, till now so sparse, would soon sprout in abundance. Tufts of their winter-bleached fur peeled off on the hawthorn, mulberry and hazel bushes as they slipped into the thicket.
At the forest’s edge crouched a hare, pricking up first one ear, then the other. He peered about him, worried, frightened; both ears pointed yearningly across the little meadow. Mistrustful, he did not dare come out into the open, for the hares were always afraid. At night they feared the murderous claws of the owl, by day the hawk and the buzzard. Both night and day they fled from the stalking fox and the small but even more bloodthirsty weasel.
In the thicket, free of all fear, Tambo the great deer paused on his way to the bed where he rested during the day. For a short time he gave himself up to enjoying the birds’ song, for he, too, longed for spring. He, too, sensed the encouraging approach of warmer days. The first growth of his antlers stirred a gentle fever in his blood.
A pair of young does had made loud frightened sounds when he had first appeared. Tambo watched them scamper off, and felt annoyed by their timidity, as he always did. He shook his head in bewilderment and with noiseless steps went along the path worn through the forest by his ancestors. Suddenly, not far from the trail, the leafless branches of a sapling quaked. Tambo stopped for a cautious look.
He saw a strong roebuck, already wearing his red summer coat. From the tips of his antlers the skin cover he was shedding hung in tatters. Strips of bark flew down from a young spruce and the bared wood shone white as the roebuck polished his horns.
Tambo watched him with approval and thought,
“That fellow’s all right. He’s got sense. I’ll go talk with him. We’ll be friends.”
But he had hardly taken a step when the roebuck gave a cry of fright, then leaped aside angrily and broke away through the brushes.
Tambo’s large, kind eyes grew dark and sad. “No use! They won’t have anything to do with me!”
He continued on his way to the hollow which was his sleeping place. A heavy thicket fenced it in. He let himself down slowly. Hardly a movement of the bushes betrayed his presence.
Perri came and whispered, “Rest easy. I’ll be on watch.” The magpie flew to him and balanced on a branch, promising, “I’ll report even the slightest danger.”
Tambo nodded gratefully. He knew he could count on his sentries.
He would have liked to talk with the lively squirrel and the wise magpie about how shy the roes were toward him. He had often been at the point of mentioning this coolness, which he could not understand. He wanted an explanation very badly. Yet he could
never bring himself to talk about it. He was ashamed because they seemed to shun him.
Gently he laid his head on the ground, moved his chin back and forth several times and then fell asleep.
The sun warmed the forest, gradually drank up the dew that sparkled like a million diamonds, and summoned all life to renewal. In answer the grass sprouted with vigor, violets opened their dark blue eyes, lilies of the valley awoke and moved their leaves like long listening ears. Ants scurried busily in the jungle of the turf. Butterflies unfolded their wings to dance playfully in the air. Tiny insects explored, bumblebees buzzed.
Juicy buds appeared on the bushes, so many that it seemed a green veil had been flung over the brown branches. As if by magic, the trees let their foliage emerge. Though still tiny, gay buds clustered on every branch of the chestnuts, oaks and birches, and on the firs new light-green needles breathed a spicy perfume.
The fragrance drawn forth by the sun’s warmth was wonderfully varied and exciting. From the forest floor rose the sturdy smell of the wood of the trees, bursting
with sap. From the blades of grass and from the flowers streamed waves of good clean odors and impulses of eager new life.
Martin had been perched for hours on the high platform of his lookout and could not rouse himself to leave. He had watched day come, had seen the sun rise into the heavens and the sky change from pale gray to light yellow, to shimmering green, and to the flame of the dawn. He had watched the does grazing in the meadow, Tambo the stag, the hares, the darting weasels, the awkwardly galloping hedgehogs, the slinking foxes. He had been moved to joy by the blackbirds’ song. The chattering of the magpies and clucking of the pheasants had put him in a glad mood.
He looked close about him, then peered into the distance. This sea of treetops was his property, his world. It always brought him happiness.
Finally he climbed down and passed along the narrow uphill path to his house, the Forest Lodge. It stood in the middle of a large garden against the foot of the hillock. In the upper corner of the parklike acre was the stable.
Martin loved the isolation which the Lodge gave him. His only human companions were his old forester Peter and Peter’s wife Babette. They were enough for Martin. For these two, who had served his parents before him and had watched over him since his childhood, were his friends. Solitary life was no hardship for him; and now that he could hardly remember when he had first chosen it, it had become a matter of course. The hump on his back, and the teasing and mockery that his deformity had drawn upon him as a schoolboy, had made him prefer to be alone. Here in the Lodge he lived completely unnoticed by the world. In this quietness of his own choosing, now so familiar, he was well satisfied.
He was never lonely here. The creatures in the stable, as well as those in the forest, had to be tended and cared for. Together they made a wide circle of friends, rich in variety because of the differences in their natures. Above all Martin loved them because they did not make fun of his ugliness, because they were simple and honest and completely free of the cruelty and guile
and bitter ridicule that he had found in so many of his own kind.
As he walked toward the stable now, both his horses came out to meet him: Devil the fiery black stallion and Witch the fox-red mare. They could leave the stable whenever they wanted to; a gentle push on the swinging door and they were outside. They came ambling freely through the garden, lured forth by the golden spring day and by the sight of their two-legged friend.
Manni the donkey, who had been frisking in the garden, trotted over too to greet Martin. Insistently he pushed his long face close to Martin’s humped chest to be scratched. He lowered his head with pleasure when his master softly stroked the space between his ears. When Martin paused as if he meant to stop, Manni grunted and pushed his head up again, wanting the petting to go on. Martin kept it up for some time, but finally said, “That’s enough now, Manni,” and the donkey at once moved aside.
Lisa the cow also came forward at Martin’s call, and he patted her broad haunches. She drew off with apparent indifference, but in reality she was shy because she
was going to have a calf. She was rigidly plump, and almost clumsy in her gait.
Martin stood lovingly by the horses, feeling the silky gentleness of their lips, looking into the dark beauty of their wise eyes. Vigorously he slapped the shining coat of their necks and backs. These animals from his stable made him just as happy as the wild inhabitants of the forest. He was at ease with them all.
At length he turned to walk back to the Lodge. Manni followed him to the very door and received a farewell fondling as reward.
When the donkey returned to the garden, Devil the stallion neighed at him, “You’re always so forward!”
“Forward?” Manni repeated, looking thoughtful. He said nothing for a long time—Devil was always scolding him and trying to start a quarrel—but finally he came to a conclusion. “And you are stupid,” he told Devil.
“Do you mean me?” the stallion burst out.
“You got that much anyhow,” the donkey retorted.
Devil came up to him angrily. “You’ve got nerve! I’d like to show you just once.”
“Show me what?” Manni asked innocently. “I’d like to see.”
Witch the mare intervened. “Don’t get in a row, please! We have such a wonderful life here. You two ought to be good friends.”
Hesitating, Devil mumbled, “I only want to frighten the fresh little nitwit.”
“Well, you haven’t succeeded,” Manni said stolidly. “Besides, I’m not the one who picks the quarrels.”
“There he goes again!” Devil muttered.
Calm and unperturbed, Manni declared, “But, my excitable friend, you started it.”
“Oh, well—” Devil’s tone showed that he wanted to make up. “Are we friends or not?”
“Of course we’re friends”—the donkey grinned—“because I’m so patient when you fly off the handle.”
“There you go insulting me again!” cried the stallion.
“Oh, don’t take it so hard,” the donkey soothed him. “After all, can’t I merely express my opinion?”
The stallion threw back his proud head, “Must you always have the last word?”
“And you the first?”
A loud sigh from the cow interrupted them. “Who cares about me?” Lisa complained.
“What’s the matter?” Witch asked her in concern.
“I’m so afraid,” Lisa quavered, “so afraid.”
“For my baby.”
“You needn’t be afraid for it, you silly creature,” the stallion threw in. “When the time comes, you’ll have your baby and then the matter will be settled.”
Lisa contradicted him. “No, not settled. . . .”
“Nonsense,” Devil exclaimed. “Other mothers bring youngsters into the world. You act as if you were the first one, the only one.”
“That’s not what bothers me.” The cow lowered her head and blew her breath out heavily.
“Then speak up,” Witch urged her. “What are you so upset about?”
“They may take my baby. It’s my first. Maybe they’ll take it away from me.”
Outraged, the stallion began to puff. “Who’ll take
your baby from you? I? The Fiery One here? Or this Gray? None of us would even think of such a thing.”
“The two-legged ones,” moaned Lisa. “They will take my baby.”
The donkey crossed over to her. “Now how did you get that idea? All by yourself?”
Tearfully Lisa looked at Manni. “No, I didn’t get it by myself at all. My sisters and my other relatives told me. They all had it happen to them. When one of us bears a calf, she can’t be happy with it. The Hes steal the beloved little one away from the mother. Nothing does any good. No use pleading or resisting. They drag the poor baby off. ‘That’s the way it will be with you,’ they told me, ‘so be prepared.’ But I’m not prepared. I’m afraid. I can’t bear to think of it.”
“And what do the Hes do with your calves?” Manni wanted to know.
“They kill them.”
“Kill them!” exclaimed Manni. “Why?”
Shaken with horror, Lisa choked out, “The Hes gobble up our murdered little ones.”
“Eat them? Impossible!” Manni insisted, but he shuddered.
Witch, too, was trembling. She stamped, to hide her emotion. “Impossible!”
The donkey found words again. “Our two-legged friends here certainly don’t do that. Perhaps such gruesome things do occur somewhere. Perhaps. Though I doubt even that. Maybe other Hes . . . but ours couldn’t do such a thing.” He shook his head emphatically. “You’ve got to believe that ours are not that sort.”
The stallion whispered in Manni’s ear, “And do you really know them so well?”
Manni retorted quickly, “Yes, I know them through and through,” and turned back to Lisa. “I’ll prove to you that they would never do such a thing.”
“All right, prove it,” Devil challenged. “Show me.”
“Then don’t interrupt,” the donkey snorted. “Listen. You all know—don’t you?—that our younger He never kills and the older He only kills in the forest out of mercy—to protect the innocent and to end suffering. And I’ve seen the dead creatures brought here, and
never has there been a young one killed. Never! Not a single time have I seen a young one brought back. Isn’t that proof? It shows they spare the young—even the wild ones. And they spare the mothers too.” He faced Lisa. “You can trust me. And you can trust them too!”
Only half-reassured, the cow sighed, “If only you’re right . . . if only my baby does stay with me. . . .” She turned and lumbered into the barn. “I must lie down now.”
They could hear her slip carefully to the floor and then sigh deeply.
“You’re really dumb, my friend,” the donkey told the stallion.
Devil shook himself. “Dumb! You think you’re the only one that’s smart around here, I suppose. You’re fresh—that’s all.”
“I don’t know whether I’m smart or not,” Manni declared, “but I know it was mighty dumb of you to pretend to be so wise and then air your doubts and get the poor girl more upset than ever.”
The stallion galloped away rudely instead of answering.
Witch whispered to the donkey: “He doesn’t mean any harm. But it was good you told him. He certainly needs a lesson.” And, as if ashamed of her moment’s disloyalty, she cantered off after the stallion.