Birds from the Sea

by Doug Muder (January 1988, revised January 1989)

One day when God was inspecting the distant corners of the world, He came to a large, green island. The sun shone there each day, and each night the clouds came and brought a soft, life-giving rain. Trees grew to tremendous heights, and the island was filled with fruits and insects of all descriptions. “Surely,” God said to Himself, “there is in all the World no place more perfect for birds.”

But as He looked over the island, He saw that there was not a single bird on it. The island itself cried out for birds, but there were none to be found. So He asked Himself, “How can I bring birds here?” Immediately He saw that it was not a simple matter, for the sea that surrounded the island was much too wide for any bird to fly across.

“This will require some planning,” God said to Himself.


On the opposite side of the World, there lived a small flock of birds who did not appear to be outstanding in any way. They did not have the sharp, pointed beaks of woodpeckers. They were not bright red like cardinals or pure white like doves. Nonetheless, they were a very proud and special flock, for these were the First Birds, the original flock of the Creation. All other flocks of birds had split off from this one.

It had not been easy to remain as the God of Birds had created them for all the countless generations, for the World has always been filled with temptation. All of the First Birds knew by heart the story of the large birds who had taken pride in their strength and had flown away to become the lonely eagles. They knew the story of the colorful birds who had taken pride in their beauty and had given up flight to become peacocks. They knew the story of the gluttonous birds who had been tempted to eat the forbidden fish, and had been changed into pelicans.

So that they might be able to resist such temptation, nestlings of the flock were taught deep respect for the heritage of the flock and for the great God of Birds who had created it. Much care was taken to see that the nestlings understood both the laws that the God of Birds had given the flock, and the special place that the First Birds had in his heart. Other birds might see them as ordinary, but this was only because these birds had lost touch with the heritage of all birds, and even with the God of Birds Himself.

Of all the females of the flock, none was more respectful of the God of Birds than the only daughter of the King. On the day she had hatched, the King had been depressed, for he still had no male heir to carry on the unbroken chain of Kingship that went back to the Creation. But that night there was a remarkable sign in the stars, which the Bird King’s wisest advisor had interpreted for him. “This will be your only child,” said the advisor. “But through her child, she will give a gift to God.”

“How can this be?” asked the Bird King. “The God of Birds gives His gifts to all, but who can give a gift to Him?” The advisor had no answer to this question, and all shook their heads in amazement.

When the Princess grew to adulthood, the flock eagerly awaited the nestlings who would be gifts to God, but seasons came and went, and still her nest remained empty. Finally, when all had begun to doubt that the prophecy would ever be fulfilled, she laid a single, perfect, white egg. All the other members of the flock marvelled at it, but when the wise advisor saw it, he spoke sternly to her. “Guard this egg well, for if it leaves your sight for only a moment, it will be taken from you.”

The Princess took this warning to heart, and sat on her nest without stirring. Each day her mate would go out and search for food and water to bring to her, so that she would not have to leave the egg for any reason. One day, however, her mate was late in coming, and as she sat on the nest and waited, she grew hungrier and hungrier. When she thought that she could stand it no longer, she looked about and spotted a small caterpillar crawling on a nearby leaf. “Surely,” she thought, “nothing could happen in the time it would take me to jump out, grab the caterpillar and jump back.”

But as soon as she had left the nest, before she had even reached the caterpillar, she heard a rush of wings, and saw a great hawk flash past the nest, grabbing the egg in its claws without losing any of its speed.

“Come back with my egg!” she called, and flew after the much larger hawk with all of her strength.

When the hawk looked back and saw the smaller bird chasing him at great speed, he was confused and tried to fly even faster. When he was sure he must have left the smaller bird far behind, he looked back again and saw that she had gained and was still gaining. At this, he flew even faster, but when he looked back a third time, the smaller bird had almost reached his tailfeathers.

At the height of the hawk’s confusion, a loud clap of thunder sounded. At this, the hawk became so frightened that he dropped the egg. It fell down into the river below, and the currrent carried it to the edge of the sea, where it sank and rolled under a rock.

The Princess, seeing her egg disappear into the river, wanted to plunge after it herself and drown, but she knew that this was forbidden. Instead, she returned to her nest and refused to eat or drink for several days. “In my lifetime I was given only one egg,” she wailed, “and now that egg has been taken away from me.”

God heard her cries and had pity on her, and in due time he sent her a second egg. The nestling that hatched from this egg grew sleek and strong and became a great King of the First Birds. For the rest of her life the Princess watched over him, and doted on him, and imagined in her heart that he was her gift to the God of Birds.


In the great sea that stretches from one end of the World to the other, there lived a small school of fish who did not appear to be special in any way. They were not as large as the great sharks. They did not have the brilliant colors of tropical fish, or the fearsome weaponry of swordfish, or the sharp teeth of piranha. Nonetheless, they were a very proud and special school, for these were the First Fish, the original school of fish from the Creation. All other fish in the sea had split off from them.

It is, of course, not a simple thing for a school of fish to stay together for so long. But these First Fish had managed to stay together by taking care to return to the same breeding ground every year, by taking care to find all the young fish who had hatched from their eggs, and most of all, by taking care to train the young fish in the Way of the Sea, and to teach them the will of the great God of Fishes.

Kingship of this original school had passed in unbroken chain from father to son since the creation of the first fish from the sands of the ocean floor. And so it had been a great sorrow to the current Fish King that of all the eggs he had fertilized in the many years of his life, only one had produced a living fish, and that fish had been a daughter. Worse still, the Princess herself had produced no eggs at all.

In his distress, the Fish King swam away from the school, down into the dark depths — for there, it is said, the great kings of the past had seen visions from the God of Fishes. The pressure was painful and he could see nothing, but from occasional changes in the currents he could sense the presence of large, hulking shapes. The Fish King was terrified and thought, “Perhaps I will die down here.”

At that moment he heard a voice that seemed to come from all directions at once. “Don’t be afraid,” it said. “You will not die here. By a child that your daughter will raise, she will give a gift to God.”

“How can this be?” asked the Fish King. “The God of Fishes gives His gifts to all, but who can give a gift to Him?” The voice did not answer, and eventually the Fish King returned to the school, trembling but happy.

There was great anticipation that year when the school returned to the breeding ground, for the story of the King’s experience had spread. The Princess most of all was filled with hope, not only because of what her father had told her, but also because of the strange sensations she felt inside. “Perhaps this is what it feels like to be filled with eggs,” she thought.

At the breeding grounds she strained and strained, but when she looked back at what she had produced, it was not the dark, rich roe that she had hoped for. Instead, she saw one large egg, covered with a thin white shell. None of the other fish had ever seen anything like it, and they did not know whether to be joyful or frightened. “We must hide it under a rock,” the Fish King said finally. ‘`Otherwise an eel will find it and eat it.” So they hid the egg, and swam off for their yearly round, wondering what they would find when they returned.

Moments after they left, however, an eel slid beneath the rock and devoured the egg. For nearly an entire year the well-marked spot beneath the rock remained empty. But then, only moments before the First Fish were to return, an identical white-shelled egg fell out of the sky and slipped into its appointed place.


When the First Fish returned to their breeding ground, they were amazed to discover the great white egg unhatched, just as they had left it. But as they watched, the shell suddenly collapsed, and a small creature such as they had never seen before appeared and shot toward the surface. Some thought that the creature was a demon, and they expected that it would continue rising through the surface, and so leave the World. Instead, it stopped at the surface and thrashed about madly as if in great fear. It calmed down only after the Princess swam beneath it and let it ride on her back, out of the water.

The elders of the First Fish met and were greatly disturbed. “We have produced an abomination,” one said. “It must die.”

Many agreed with this point of view, but at last the Fish King made his pronouncement. “What comes from us is ours,” he said. “What the God of Fishes sends, we must receive. This creature is the child of my daughter, and we will raise it in the Way of the Sea, according to the will of the God of Fishes. It will learn to swim tirelessly and dive deep. It will learn to fight with its teeth and to hide among the rocks of the bottom. It will take its place in the Dance of Mating, and continue the line of the First Fish.”

The creature, of course, was none other than the lost daughter of the Princess of the First Birds. And though the fish tried very hard to teach her and she tried very hard to learn, she could do none of the things expected of her. Each day she would try to dive deep and swim tirelessly, only to come gasping to the surface and return to the Princess’ back. She had no teeth, and could not reach the rocks of the bottom. And as for her place in the Dance of Mating, those who would teach her were no less confused than she herself. Night and day she rode on the back of the Princess and was desperately sad.

The Princess too was sad, for she (like the little bird) was unable to do what was expected of her. Night and day she swam or floated at the surface with the bird on her back, feeling the resentment of the other fish for the problems she had caused. “You spoil the child,” the others said to her. “Where would our children be if we had stayed with them day and night, and had carried them on our backs rather than make them swim for themselves?” In time she and the bird were left to swim alone on the outskirts of the school.

One day the bird asked, “Mother, what is that strange sight ahead?”

`That is called `land’,” the Princess replied. “It is the upside-down world where the bottom has become the top.”

“What kind of fish live on the land?”

“No fish live on the land,” the Princess answered. “Only abominations live on the land, horrible creatures that have been forsaken by the God of Fishes.”

“Will I ever live on the land?” the bird asked.

The question broke the Princess’ heart, for she realized that the little one knew all that the others were saying about her. “Never say that!” she ordered. “There is nothing wrong with you. You will grow to be beautiful and be the mother of thousands. You are my gift to the God of Fishes.” But although the Princess said these words, she herself no longer believed them. The little bird said nothing, and that night she had many nightmares about the land.

Towards morning there came a great storm. All the fish went deep to where the water was calm, but the Princess dared not. The bird grabbed tightly to her back and held on with all her strength, but finally the water snatched her away, and the waves bounced the her back and forth between them as if they were playing a game. No matter which way the Princess would turn, she seemed to be swimming in the wrong direction, the bird’s screams grew fainter and fainter. When the winds faded and the waves died, the Princess listened for the call of her child, but she could hear nothing. For days she searched, but at last her father came to her. “There is a yearly round,” he said, “and it cannot be stopped even for a king. We must go.”

The Princess went on with the school, but would not speak to any of the other fish or listen when they tried to comfort her. “I had but one child,” she said in her heart, “and it was taken from me.”

God heard her silent cries, and took pity on her. When the First Fish returned to the breeding grounds that year, she produced a dark, rich roe. And when they returned the following year, she discovered five perfect sons, who grew to be great leaders among the First Fish. For the rest of her life, she watched over them, and doted on them, and imagined in her heart that they were her gift to the God of Fishes.


The little bird lost consciousness bouncing on the waves, and as she was pushed from here to there, she dreamed that she was on her mother’s back, and that her mother had grown to awesome proportions. Her mother’s back was so large that she could not see from one end of it to the other, and the largest waves could not wash over the top of it. The little bird lay on the dream back and felt secure in a way that she could not remember ever having felt before.

When she awoke, she saw the sun overhead and felt dryness beneath her. “The dream was true!” she thought, and leaped up to see. But as she looked around her, she realized that it was instead the nightmares that had come true: she was on the land. “I must get back,” she thought, and ran down to the water. But whenever she tried to swim away from the land, a crashing wave hurled her back. Three times she tried and three times she came crashing back.

As she got up to try a fourth time, a deep, slow voice behind her said, “The Sea does not want you, little one. When you give yourself to the Sea, it gives you back.”

The bird turned and saw that the speaker was a large turtle. “I know,” she said sadly. “The Sea hasn’t ever wanted me. I was born to be an abomination.”

“You were born to be what you are,” the turtle said. “Come, we have all day yet. Take some food, and rest, and tell me how come to be here.”

The turtle’s food did not look very appetizing, but the little bird was very hungry and ate it anyway. The turtle himself did not look like someone her mother would want her to talk to, but he did seem to be kind, so she told him the whole story of her struggles to learn the Way of the Sea.

The turtle listened very patiently. When he was sure that the bird was done speaking, he said, “The Way of the Sea, the Way of the Land, the Ways of Air and Fire — these things are all illusions. I would not worry abou them. They are not the True Way.”

The bird was not at all sure that she had heard him correctly, since she could make no sense of what he had said. “The true way?” she asked.

“The True Way is the Way of the Shell,” said the turtle. “One need not learn to dive deep or swim tirelessly or do any such activity, for these things only draw one deeper into the World of Illusion. One need only become conscious of his shell, and all higher wisdom will follow.”

“But I don’t have a shell,” said the bird.

“All beings have shells,” the turtle assured her. “You have not developed your shell, and so you are not aware of it. If you would stop trying to throw yourself into a Sea that does not want you, you could learn the deep meditations that would make you conscious of your shell.”

Having nowhere else to go, the bird remained with the turtle and began the contemplation of her shell. Most of the time she felt quite silly, but after one long morning of meditation, a memory came to her. “My mother told me once that I came from a shell. A white shell like nobody had ever seen before.”

The turtle looked pleased. “You are making progress,” he said.

One day when the bird and the turtle were meditating on the beach, the bird saw in the distance a wolf trotting toward them. When she spoke of this, the turtle answered from deep inside his shell. “Wolves are an illusion.”

As the wolf got closer, the bird became afraid. “Fear is a reaction to illusion,” said the turtle, his voice muffled.

As the wolf drew closer still, the bird could stand it no longer. As if her legs had a will of their own, she began to run up the hill next to the beach. “Remember your shell,” called the turtle. “Your shell will protect you.”

The bird ran in a panic, waving her wings wildly as the wolf picked up the chase. She turned this way and that, running ever upward, but the wolf gained ground quickly. She could hear the wolf behind her as she ran along the rocky ledge at the top of the hill. As the wolf lunged, a gust of wind lifted the bird from the ledge and carried her high up over the beach. She screamed and continued waving her legs and wings as she had when she was running. “When this wind drops me I will die,” she thought.

But the wind did not drop her, and she flew in terror far down the beach, far away from the turtle and the wolf. At last she saw herself approaching a tall tree, and as the wind whipped through its branches, she grabbed hold of a twig and hung on until the wind had passed.

When enough time had gone by for her to stop shaking, she looked down and saw that she was still high over the ground. She wondered how she would ever get down safely. “At least there are no wolves up here,” she thought.

That night she slept in the tree, holding on to the twig as she had held onto the back of the Princess of the First Fish. As she slept there, God came to her as a great, dark raven. In her dream she saw him fly high above her and swoop down suddenly to her side. “I have never seen anything like that,” she said in amazement. “Surely there is no one else in all the World who can do these things.”

“You can do them,” the Raven said. “I will show you how.”

The bird felt as if she wanted to cry. “Please don’t try,” she said. “I’m sure I would be much too stupid. I couldn’t learn to dive deep or swim tirelessly. I couldn’t learn to stay in the Sea, and now I can’t even learn to hide in my shell. I’m sure I could never learn to do the things you do.”

The Raven continued to fly around her, and as she watched she could feel her wings flex and stroke in imitation of him. She watched him fly and could not remember ever having felt so happy. She began to laugh, and as she laughed, the wind came up behind her and lifted her into the air. “Don’t be afraid,” the Raven said softly in her ear. “You know what to do.”

To her great surprise, she did know what to do. She was neither so fast nor so smooth as the Raven, but all the same she climbed and swooped and spiraled until she thought her heart would burst from it all. After a long, long time she was too tired to fly any more, and she came back to her twig to rest.

When she woke in the morning, the dream was fresh and seemed very real. She looked down at the beach below and tried to remember the wind that had blown her to this tree. She spread her wings and waved them slowly to remember what the dream had felt like. “This is crazy,” she thought, but then she jumped.

The dream had not done it justice. The experience was frightening and exhillarating and oh, so very fast. She climbed high over the island and looked out over its green trees and blue waters. “I can fly,” she thought. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that I could fly?”

That night the Raven came again. “Watch me,” he said. She flew high into the air and stayed there as if on a perch while she watched him. He caught insects, he ate berries, and, as the dawn approached, he built a nest out of grass and twigs.

When morning came, she retraced his route. She caught what he had caught and ate what he had eaten. And by nightfall, she had a nest.

The Raven came a third night and said to her, “Come. I have something to show you.” They flew high over the center of the island, and when they looked down, the sky beneath them was filled with birds of all sizes and colors and descriptions. “All of them come from you,” the Raven said. “You are the great Mother of all birds.”

“I wasn’t even able to be a daughter,” she said. “How could I be the mother of all these?”

But in the morning, she found two eggs in her nest, one blue and one yellow. In due time they hatched and grew into a bright red son and a sleek green daughter. They grew quickly, and had children of their own, each different from any other. As the years went by, the island became filled with birds of even more color and variety than the great Mother had seen in her dream. And for the rest of her life, she watched over them, and doted on them, and imagined in her heart that they were God’s gifts to her.