The Meaning of Home... in a Story
A Guest Post by The Story Birds
Graham Swift famously writes in his novel, Waterland, “Man . . . is a storytelling animal.” It’s true. We could not exist without stories.
Folk tales are a particular kind of story. Entertaining to the young and old alike, they convey important truths. These stories have endured for centuries, retold by each generation, and remembered for good reason: they transcend place and time.
The following tale was written specifically for Finding Home and the arrival of this contribution couldn’t be more perfect. Instead of telling you what I see in this tale, you can read it for yourself. I’d love to hear what you think.
With immense gratitude and delight, I present to you The Story Birds.
THE SPARROWS, THE STORM, AND THE SEMUL TREE
by Shaiontoni Bose and Rohini Chowdhury
In the heart of the sal forest, by a winding stream, stood a pair of stately semul trees. Their trunks, buttressed by enormous roots, rose straight and tall into the sky. Their leafless branches were ablaze with red flowers that glowed above the forest canopy, even brighter against the dark and stormy sky. Fierce gusts of wind raced through the forest, shaking the branches and whipping the fallen leaves into a frenzy. Birds and small animals scurried for shelter, diving into holes and burrows, or clinging to swaying branches for dear life.
A flock of sparrows, lost in the storm, had taken shelter in the smaller of the two semul trees. They sat huddled tightly together on a low branch, as close to the straight, strong trunk as possible. Above them, in a small hollow in the trunk, a pair of coppersmith barbets had built their nest. The sparrows knew the barbets well.
“I am glad we got in before the wind began,” said the father barbet, peeping out.
“Do you think our chicks will be alright?” said the mother, peering anxiously over her mate’s shoulder.
“They will be fine,” replied the sparrows. “The storm can’t harm them in this giant tree.”
“We hope you’re right,” said the barbets.
A flash of lightning blinded the birds and thunder rolled across the forest canopy. The barbets retreated back into their hollow to their chicks.
“That was close!” shivered the sparrows and huddled closer to each other.
“I’ve lived in this tree for years and never felt it shake like this,” squeaked a voice. It was a large fruit bat, hanging upside down from a branch above.
The rain was coming down in sheets and showed no sign of abating. A family of mice, flooded out of their burrow beneath the roots, came desperately scurrying out.
A squirrel peeped out nervously from another hollow. A large, red flower came tumbling down and fell upon his head like a big hat, covering his eyes. “The sky has fallen, the sky has fallen!” he shrieked, diving back into his hollow in a panic. “And I am quite dead!” he announced, calmly, from inside.
“Unfortunately, you’re quite alive,” grunted a voice from the bottom of the tree. It was a porcupine, looking extremely prickly and very displeased. “Though the squirrel isn’t wrong,” he added morosely. “The tree is shaking at the roots, where I live. Better get out while we can.” He plodded out into the rain and disappeared into the bushes.
“That porcupine is the voice of doom,” grumbled an owl woken up by the storm.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when, over the shrieking of the storm, a loud crash resounded through the forest and the whole world tilted. The semul, uprooted by the furious winds, fell against the older semul. The branches of the larger tree caught it as it fell and the two trees stood as one.
The owl, jolted off his perch, screeched in terror. The bat clung even tighter to his swaying branch. The sparrows, fortunately, tumbled into the squirrel’s hole, or else they would have been blown away by the wind.
The sparrows fell, chittering and flapping, onto the squirrel’s head. The squirrel still sat there, the flower on his head, now more certain than ever that he was dead. “Welcome to the afterlife,” he said sonorously.
“Don’t be silly,” said a sparrow impatiently, and knocked the flower off his head. “Our tree has fallen! Do something!”
“Stripes and tails! What can I do! What can I do! I was better dead!” cried the squirrel, jamming the wilting flower back onto his head.
“There, there,” said an old sparrow, taking charge. “Let’s all stay calm.”
“We’d feel better if only we could eat something,” said a small one, wistfully.
“Oi squirrel, where’s your store then?” asked the first sparrow. He really had no time for the squirrel’s drama.
The squirrel peeped out from beneath his flower and reluctantly pointed to a corner of his hollow. There, stashed beneath some twigs and grass, was a pile of juicy seeds and nuts.
“Let’s not eat all of it,” said the old sparrow. “Who knows how long this storm will last!”
The squirrel looked dismayed. Not that he minded the sparrows, but this wholescale invasion of his home was a bit daunting. He plucked up his courage and clambered to the opening of the hollow. “The storm is dying down already,” he called, cheering up. “Maybe you could take some of these seeds to the barbets?” he suggested cleverly, hoping the sparrows would leave. “They have chicks to feed! I’ll help.”
“That’s very generous of you, squirrel,” said the sparrows admiringly. Maybe the squirrel wasn’t quite that silly after all.
The squirrel looked modest. It hurt to give away his store of seeds, but anything to have his home to himself again!
The sparrows hopped out of the hollow. The world looked different. Enormous, tangled roots rose up into the sky, and the tall straight trunk of the semul now lay at an angle against the other tree. The ground was littered with broken branches and covered with green sal leaves and the red petals of semul blossoms.
The barbets’ hollow was now tilted towards the sky, but the chicks were still snug and warm inside. The parents were busy pulling twigs across the opening, to hide their home from predators as best they could. The owl and the bat came flapping up, much to the alarm of the barbet parents.
“Don’t worry, we’ll stand guard over your babies,” reassured the owl.
“In a crisis, we must all pull together for the good of our home,” squeaked the bat.
The porcupine organized the mice into orderly troops gathering the storm’s gift of fallen fruit and nuts and seeds into neat piles.
“What a windfall!” cried the sparrows, their feathers ruffled by little flurries of wind that still blew.
“Help yourselves,” called the porcupine. “There’s plenty here for everyone!”
The sparrows were delighted. “It’s a feast!” they chirruped, falling upon the gathered nuts and seeds. But for once they did not think of gobbling it all up. They flew back and forth, their beaks full, carrying the food to the squirrel, who in turn scurried with it to the barbets, his cheeks stuffed to bursting. The barbets watched warily. Usually, they had to protect their nests from the squirrel and his friends for whom birds’ eggs were a tasty snack.
“Don’t worry,” called the sparrows. “He’s promised to help, he won’t hurt anyone.”
Soon, the barbets had plenty of food for their chicks, enough to last the season.
The sparrows now replenished the delighted squirrel’s store. “It’s better to be alive after all,” cried the squirrel, as he put the semul flower jauntily upon his head.
“The storm is over. Should we fly on?” asked a sparrow.
“But why? We’ve made so many friends!” protested a couple of young ones. “Can’t we just stay here?”
“Yes, why not?” said the old sparrow, looking thoughtful. “We have food, shelter, and friends here. What more do we need?”
“The more the merrier!” called the barbets.
“We make a great team,” said the owl.
“Come on, come on, there’s plenty still to do! We have our home to save!” called the porcupine. He had now organized the mice and the ants to pile soil around the semul’s exposed roots. He knew that the other trees had sensed the semul’s distress and would send it help. “The semul needs our care till the forest takes over its healing!” he called.
The sparrows joined in enthusiastically. They had found their home.
Who are we?
The Story Birds is written jointly by Shaiontoni Bose and Rohini Chowdhury.
We are two writers who share a common love for stories. Over the last twenty-five years, we have written, read, told and shared innumerable tales, and have now embarked together upon a journey of exploration that has led us deeper into the world of stories. In order to focus on our work as well to share our discoveries, we decided to start The Story Birds.
The idea of birds as our storytellers grew organically. We drew upon our shared love of birds and childhood memories of listening to tales in which birds featured as sutradhars (literally “thread-holders”, who are the principal narrators and major participants in the prelude to the story). We chose the sparrows to be our sutradhars because they are ubiquitous, social, and inquisitive birds who co-exist well with humans.
We use the traditional Indian narrative device of a frame story to bring our stories to you. Here is our original framing story, A Chirpy Tale: How the Story Birds Were Chosen
We began The Story Birds at the peak of the pandemic and have now been writing together for more than a year. We are pleasantly surprised to find the sparrows have become an institution in themselves and are a great favorite with our readers. So, when Jan graciously invited us as guests on Finding Home, we felt the sparrows deserved another story to themselves. And so we wrote ‘The Sparrows, the Storm, and the Semul Tree’.
Jan’s note: If you’re a Westerner like me, you may not be familiar with the Semul tree, also known as Silk Cotton Tree (Bombax ceiba). Native to India, this deciduous tree is drought resistant and has large red flowers up to 7 inches long and 7 inches wide, which are edible. Considered an Ayurvedic tree, it is used to treat a number of conditions including colds, dysentery, and acne. It is most widely known for the white, fluffy fibers it produces, which are woven into textiles and used in pillows.