Once upon a time, an old crow lived by the seaside. He had grown fat over the years because he was too lazy to work for his food. He preferred to sit than fly. He followed the other animals to get their leftovers, taking what wasn’t his, and annoying them by begging for some of their food. The other animals shunned him. They had chased him from many places, until he found himself on the coast. He was unwanted and unloved.
One day, a flight of doves appeared. They were young, inexperienced doves fresh from the forest, who didn’t know their way around the water’s edge. They looked confused and worried. The crow flew over to them.
“Are you lost?” he asked them. “Do you need some assistance?”
“Yes,” said the doves’ leader. “We are new here. We don’t know what’s good to eat. We don’t know where to nest so we are safe from the winds and the foxes.”
“I will show you,” said the crow. “I have lived here a long time. I know everything about the shoreline. Listen to me and you’ll be fed and safe. But beware. Don’t listen to other animals. They will try to trick you. Some will hurt you. Only I can keep you safe.”
“All right,” said the dove. “We trust you. You are a nice, old crow. Surely a crow wouldn’t harm doves because we are all birds. We will let you show us the way.”
So the crow led them to a big tree. In it was an old nest that had been abandoned by its makers years ago. Crow was living in it, but it was too small for him, and it was falling apart because he was too lazy to fix it up. It was drafty and uncomfortable. But he told the doves, “Here you go. This is my home and I am happy to share it with my new friends. It is a wonderful nest you can live in. It will protect you from the wind and the foxes. Don’t worry about me. I will find another place to live. All that matters to me is your safety.”
The doves tried to fit in it, but it was too small for more than one at a time.
“This nest isn’t good for us,” complained the doves’ leader. “It is too small. And it’s falling apart.”
“I’m sorry you don’t like my gift,” he said, shaking his head with sorrow. “I’m just a poor, old crow and it’s all I have to offer.”
This made the doves ashamed for turning down his generosity. “Maybe we can make it better,” said the doves. The crow brightened and nodded his agreement.
“It’s easily fixed,” said the crow. “Just fly down to the ground and pick up more sticks. You can make it bigger and better in no time. I would do it for you, but I’m old and cannot fly like you young birds can.”
So the doves did what he said. They flew down to the ground and picked up sticks and flew back with them. The crow sat on a branch nearby and directed them. The doves fixed the nest and patched the holes. It took many hours, but at last it was done.
They tried to fit into it, but still couldn’t.
“It’s still too small,” said the leader. “And it’s very hard.”
“Oh, that’s because it has no lining. It needs feathers to make it comfortable and warm. I am just an old crow and my feathers are harsh and thin. I would pluck them out and line the nest for you, but I haven’t got enough. But if it were lined with feathers like a proper nest, it would be safe and warm for all of you.”
“That’s okay,” said the dove. “We will use our own feathers.”
So the doves plucked out their own feathers and lined the nest. Soon it was done and soft feathers filled the inside. But the doves still couldn’t fit in it together.
“The nest is fixed, and with our feathers it is warm and comfortable, but it’s still too small for all of us,” said the leader.
“You could sleep in it one at a time,” suggested the crow.
“No, we like to nest together,” said the dove. “We will have to build a bigger nest. We will let you keep this one.”
“Thank you,” said the crow, eyeing his beautiful, warm, repaired nest. “You have made an old bird very happy.”
When it looked like the doves were about to start making their own nest, the crow interrupted them and asked, “Are you hungry?”
“Yes!” said the doves. “We have been working hard to fix your nest without food. Can you show us what we can eat here? We would like to eat before we start building our own nests.”
“Of course. Come with me.” The crow flew down to the water’s edge by the tide pools on the rocks, with the doves following. “Here. See those shells? They are the houses of fat clams. There are many of them here. They will feed all of you.”
The doves tried to peck at the shells, but their beaks couldn’t break them. “This food is no good for us. We cannot get it open.”
“Ah, that’s because you don’t know the trick. You need to pick up a clam and fly high.very high. As high as you can. Then drop it onto the rocks. That will break the shell and you can eat the clam.”
With that, the leader of the doves picked up a clam in his claws and flew very high. It was hard work, hoisting the heavy shell up that high. Then he let the clam go and it fell to the rocks, breaking it open. The doves gathered around it and tasted the clam. They drew back.
“This is not our kind of food. We need seeds and berries. We cannot eat clams,” said the leader.
“I am sorry I have disappointed you,” sad the crow, sadly. ” I am just a poor, old crow trying to help my friends. This is the only food I can offer you here. Seeds and berries can be found in the woods. I would show you where they are, but I have not eaten in days. I am too old and tired to fly there.”
“Why don’t you open some clams like you showed us?” asked the leader.
“I am a weak, old crow,” he responded. “My wings are creaky and I cannot fly high enough. I can only hop along the ground looking for shells with a bit of something left in them.”
“Since you have been so generous to us, we will help you,” said the dove. “We will drop many clams so you can eat your fill. Then you can show us where we can find food.”
So the doves gathered up clams and flew very high to drop them on the rocks. They worked hard and flew many times. The crow hopped around the tide pools, choosing the biggest clams for them, and then eating those they dropped. Soon he was full.
“Thank you, young doves,” said the crow. “I haven’t had a meal like that for many years. You have made me very happy.”
“Now will you show us where we can find seeds and berries?” asked the doves’ leader. “We are hungry and tired, and it won’t be long before dark. We need to eat and find shelter for the night.”
“I’m sorry,” said the crow. “I am too full to fly very far tonight. And I can’t see well in the dark, so I might miss the bushes with the seeds and berries. I will have to rest and sleep before I can go further.”
With that, the crow flew back into his nest.
“What about us?” wailed the doves.
“Don’t worry my friends,” said the crow as he settled into the soft, comfortable feathers. “Tomorrow I will show you everything you need to know. After I’ve eaten, of course. Be here at dawn so you can get me the biggest clams so I will have the strength to help you.”
With apologies to Marie de France. Her original fable (number 12) is titled The Eagle and the Crow and is somewhat shorter and less convoluted. But the moral is still the same. The original ends with the moral about a villainous man who “…deceitfully will steal/All the goods the other got/Who laboured hard for what he bought.” The translation of those lines is by Harriet Spiegel, from the Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching series, no. 32, University of Toronto Press, 1994. This fable – and many others of hers – struck me as remarkably appropriate to local politics and situations. I’ve also written about the relevance of Aesop’s fables to modern (and local) issues in the past. I’ll have more in the future.