A Wisp of Straw – Pratibha Nath

GrandmotherPinky was standing at the kitchen window when she first saw the bird fly past. A small black and brown bird, when a patch of pure, dazzling white on the wings. In its beak it held a wisp of straw. Pinky strained hard to peep out of the window but the bars held her back. She only saw the bird turn the far corner of the kitchen and fly out of sight. And just then her grandmother called out sharply, “Pinky, Pinky, why haven’t you made your bed yet?”

“Coming, Nani,” cried Pinky. She bolted the kitchen door behind her, ran across the courtyard and burst into her room. “Oh, Nani, Nani, I just saw a bird with a wisp of straw in its beak. I am sure it is building a nest!”

Nani frowned. “Maybe, but we have no time to stand around watching birds. Now clean up your room, fast.”

“Yes, Nani,” said Pinky meekly. She picked up her pillow and shook it out. From one corner of eyes she looked at Nani, busy tidying up the big cupboard in the corner. Nani had her points. She did not grudge pocket money and she really was a super cook. But everyone was scared of her, she scolded so. Now Amma (mother) was different. One felt close to Amma…

Pinky made her bed in record time, swept the floor and to the kitchen. Nani handed her a heap of rice on a plate. “Now clean that for lunch and peel those potatoes,” she said. “And when you go back to your Amma after the holidays, remember to help her, too.”

Plate in hand, Pinky went and stood near the window. There was the bird again. A small and brown bird with a patch of pure, dazzling white on the wings. In its beak it carried another wisp of straw, longer than the last. Pinky craned her neck as far as possible but once again the bars held her back. The bird turned the far corner of the kitchen and was lost to view. With a sigh, Pinky went back to the rice.

After lunch, Nani cleared the kitchen and lay down for a nap. Pinky waited till Nani had turned over to face the wall. Then she raced back to the kitchen and took up her position at the window. The minutes ticked by on Nani’s old timepiece on the kitchen shelf but the bird did not come. Pinky knew that Nani never slept for long and once she was up, hanging around watching for the bird was out… Suddenly she had an idea. The terrace! She could watch for the bird from the terrace!

As Pinky reached the terrace, a breeze sprang up and soon enough, riding the breeze, flashing the patch of white on its wings, came the black and brown bird, a short length of fiber held firmly in its beak. Over the parapet flew the bird, straight to the small room at the end of the terrace. Through a broken window-pane it flew into the room. When it came out a little later, the fiber was gone. Pinky drew in her breath sharply. Oh horrors! The bird was actually building a nest in her grandfather’s room.

She rushed forward. “Don’t!” she told the bird which had alighted on the parapet for a moment’s rest. “Don’t build your nest here, I am telling you!” The bird took off in alarm. But a little later it was back again, with another wisp of straw in its beak. “Shoo,” said Pinky. “Shoo.” But the bird dodged her and flew in straight through the broken pane. Just then Nani called out from down below, “Pinky, Pinky, where are you?”

From that day Pinky simply could not put the bird out of her thoughts. So small and yet so hard-working. But why did it have to build a nest in Nana’s room, of all places? Nani would not stand it…Nana’s room was out of bounds. Nobody was allowed inside.

He had passed away four years back but his things were all there. Nani kept them spotlessly clean. Every few days she swept and mopped the room herself. Birds nesting in the room? Not a hope! Nani might even throw out the nest. Why, only last year she had done that to a pair of sparrows who had insisted on building a nest in an alcove in the courtyard. Nani liked a clean house and she could be very, very strict about it.

In the days that followed, Pinky watched helplessly as the bird flew in and out of the room of the terrace. Some times Pinky saw its mate, the mother bird, smaller in size and plain brown in colour, without that spot of white on the wings… How hard the two of them worked to build a home for their babies! And how terrible if Nani should suddenly decide to put them out of the way! Where would the mother bird lay her eggs then? It must be about time for her to lay. It was time for Nani to clean the room, too. She did it every week or so. Suddenly Pinky knew she had to help the birds. She simply had to shift the nest out of the room.

It was not so easy. There was a lock on the door and the key swung on a ring tied securely to Nani’s sari. The following morning when Nani was going for her bath Pinky hovered around. Nani untied the key-ring, put it on her table and went into the bathroom. Like a whirlwind Pinky picked up the key-ring and made off for the terrace.

Nana’s room was crammed with books. Apart from three bookcases packed to capacity, three was a wooden bookshelf running the length of one wall. At the far end of this shelf, Pinky found the nest. She reached out and scooped it up between her palms, pausing for a brief moment to admire the perfect cup shape and the smooth lining of the down.

There was no time to lose. With the nest held firmly in her hands, Pinky ran out of the door. Her eager eyes swept the scene but there was not a single spot suitable for a little nest. The terrace was simply a flat surface with low walls. The neem tree at one end was out of reach.

“Ah, I know,” cried Pinky. She placed the nest on the window-sill on the outer wall of Nana’s room, just below the broken pane. “There,” she said happily, wedging the nest into a corner, “now the birds can’t miss it!” She spun around, clapping her hands. Then she locked the door and ran down.

Once, just once before Nani came into the kitchen to start lunch, Pinky saw the little black and brown bird on the ground outside the kitchen window. “You have a surprise coming your way,” she told the bird happily and smiled to see it fly away.

Pinky did not go to the terrace again that day, though she was dying to, lest her presence should frighten the birds. But the excitement within her kept bubbling out in a song. She walked on light feet and slept easy in her bed, secure in the thought that she had made the future safe for the baby birds.

Early next morning Nani announced that she was going to clean up Nana’s room. Pinky jumped. How lucky she had moved out the nest just previous day! Nani went ahead with a broom and a duster and Pinky followed, walking on tiptoe for sheer excitement. Reaching the terrace she darted to the window. The nest was still there, exactly where she had left it but it was empty. No eggs. No birds either.

Pinky looked around, suddenly afraid. At the far end of the terrace she saw the mother bird sitting quickly on the parapet. “Hello,” said Pinky, “why aren’t you in the nest? It right there, is waiting, for you.”

But the bird only took wing and disappeared behind the neem tree, just as Nani came rushing out of the room crying, “Pinky, Pinky, come and help me clean up this place.”

Pinky followed her in. On the shelf, exactly where the nest had been, lay an egg, spotted brown and white. So delicate-looking and pretty, only it was cracked. On the floor below lay another egg. No, two, both smashed to pieces. “whoever laid an egg without first building a nest?” Nani was saying. “what a stupid bird!”

Pinky burst out crying, “it was not the bird, Nani. It was me, me. I am to blame!” She hid her face in her hands and dropped to the floor, sobbing her heart out in anguish. A few minutes went by and then a very strange thing happened. Nani put her arms around Pinky. “Don’t cry,” she said in the gentlest tone possible. “Tell me all about it.”

Bit by bit, the whole story came tumbling out. Nani heard it through and sighed. “Dear child, I am terribly sorry,” she said. “But we can’t interfere in the lives of these creatures of the wild.” She stroked Pinky’s hair till the sobs had ceased. “Don’t fret now,” she comforted. “These birds come every year. Next year they will come again. They will build again and raise a nest full of babies…”

“You won’t have the nest removed?” asked Pinky in a trembling voice.

“No. Not even if it is in Nana’s room.”

“Promise?” asked Pinky.

“Promise,” said Nani.

Pinky raised her tear-stained face and gave her grandfather a tight hug. “Thank you, Nani,” she whispered, “thank you.”

∼ Pratibha Nath

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