“Seven Birds, Seven Arrows,” Friend, Sept. 1993, 27
Ancient One sat in a ray of golden sunshine on the banks of a slow-moving, muddy-green river. The day was warm, but Ancient One was as wise as he was old. He knew that many cold days were soon to come. As a boy running swift and strong, he had not minded the cold. He had shouted with glee and bounded through the new-fallen snow.
While remembering the boy he had once been, Ancient One noticed a small flock of birds gathered on the opposite bank of the river. Seven birds stood in a row, as if taking turns at some game.
The first bird in line flew up, higher and higher, slowly flapping his glossy black wings, his shiny black beak pointing at a cloudless sky. His shadow chased him along the water’s rippling surface. When the bird was as high as the tallest tree, he folded his wings, pointed his sharp black beak at the water, and began to fall. Diving faster and faster, he became a blur in Ancient One’s large black eyes. Just when it seemed that he would plunge into the water, the bird spread his wings wide and sailed to shore, taking his place once again in line.
Ancient One saw, with the eyes of his mind, his boy-self walking with his father in the bright sunshine of a day many years gone. His father was tall and muscular, the boy small and thin, his bare feet dusted with soft, orange sand. How he had loved his father, so strong and handsome!
The boy and his father were walking side by side, heads bent, eyes searching the ground. Father stooped and picked up a small black stone. He showed it to the boy, then stowed it in a leather pouch that hung from his waist by a thick strap. They walked on. Now the boy crouched to pick up another stone. He showed it to his father, who nodded approval. They kept searching until there were seven black stones in Father’s pouch.
One night in the midst of the long, cold winter, Father took the stones from the pouch and sat cross-legged in front of the fire, chipping away at them. Flickering flames made his shadow dance behind him as he worked.
The snows finally melted. The grass grew green, the trees budded, and the flowers showed their young faces. Father presented the black stones to the boy as part of the celebration of his seventh spring of life. But the stones had changed. Father had shaped them into seven sleek black arrowheads, which he had attached to seven straight shafts of wood and feathers. Father also gave the boy a bow that his own father had fashioned for him from the willowy branch of an ash tree.
Filled with happiness and excitement, the boy ran toward the woods, his bare feet kicking puffs of dirt behind him. It was a warm day, but in the woods the air was cool and damp. Sometimes mud squeezed up between his toes. Birds sang in the trees, and insects buzzed. Leaf shadows from hundreds of tall trees played on the ground. The boy vowed to stay in the woods until he could shoot his arrows straight and far. He would earn the look of pride in his father’s face and be a step closer to manhood.
When he came to a meadow deep in the woods, the boy placed the first arrow on his bowstring and tried to remember all his father had taught him.
Facing a dead tree that stood alone in the meadow, he pulled the string back and let the arrow fly. It stuck in the ground well to the left of the tree. The boy frowned. He quickly shot another arrow. It skittered along the ground to the right of the tree. Anger boiled up inside the boy. Gritting his teeth, he quickly shot the five remaining arrows, missing the mark farther each time.
Fiercely blinking back angry tears, he ran to the closest arrow and jerked it from the ground. He grasped it in both hands, ready to snap it in two. But as he looked at the arrow, he remembered his father sitting patiently by the fire straightening the shaft, sighting along it with a critical eye and then straightening it again and again and again. To become a great hunter and warrior like his father, he would need not only strength and courage but also patience and wisdom.
He gathered the arrows and returned to his shooting spot. This time he took a deep breath and tried to make his mind as quiet as the feet of a stalking hunter. He shot again and missed but let his anger drift away like smoke in the wind.
Again and again he shot, growing calmer each time. At first he still missed badly, but gradually the arrows began flying farther and straighter. When one finally hit the tree, he whooped and danced with joy.
The boy returned to the meadow every sunny day. Time after time he shot and retrieved the arrows. Gradually his arms began to feel at one with the bow. His eyes began to see, his mind began to know when and how to let the arrows go. By late spring most of the arrows he shot sliced swift and true through the air.
One day the boy hit the tree dead center with every arrow. His heart beat strong with pride and joy. As the sun sank and the light of day began to fade, he shot each arrow into the sky—seven arrows for the seven springs of his life. Each one sailed up, higher and higher. Glossy black feathers rippled in the wind; a bright black arrowhead pointed at a cloudless sky. When the arrow had soared as high as the highest tree, it turned toward the earth and began to fall. Diving faster and faster, it became a blur in the boy’s large black eyes. Each arrow landed, taking its place in line with the others. The boy tipped his face to the sky and laughed out loud. He gathered his treasured arrows and raced home, his heart full of happiness.
Ancient One smiled at the boy in the eyes of his memory. The sun had sunk low in the sky, and the light of day was fading. The birds had flown off to roost in the trees. Ancient One laughed aloud and stood up. He dusted the soft, orange sand from his leathery hands and walked slowly home, his heart full of happiness.