March 05, 2015 18:40 UTC

American Stories

'The White Heron' by Sarah Orne Jewett

A story about a girl, a bird hunter and a rare bird.

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SHEP O'NEAL: Now, the Special English program AMERICAN STORIES.

(MUSIC)

Today's story is called "The White Heron."  It was written by Sarah Orne Jewett. Here is Kay Gallant with the story.

(MUSIC)

KAY GALLANT: The forest was full of shadows as a little girl hurried through it one summer evening in June. It was already eight o'clock and Sylvie wondered if her grandmother would be angry with her for being so late.

Every evening Sylvie left her grandmother's house at five-thirty to bring their cow home. The old animal spent her days out in the open country eating sweet grass. It was Sylvie's job to bring her home to be milked. When the cow heard Sylvie's voice calling her, she would hide among the bushes.

This evening it had taken Sylvie longer than usual to find her cow. The child hurried the cow through the dark forest, following a narrow path that led to her grandmother's home. The cow stopped at a small stream to drink. As Sylvie waited, she put her bare feet in the cold, fresh water of the stream.

She had never before been alone in the forest as late as this. The air was soft and sweet. Sylvie felt as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the silver leaves that moved in the evening breeze.

She began thinking how it was only a year ago that she came to her grandmother's farm. Before that, she had lived with her mother and father in a dirty, crowded factory town. One day, Sylvie's grandmother had visited them and had chosen Sylvie from all her brothers and sisters to be the one to help her on her farm in Vermont.

The cow finished drinking, and as the nine-year-old child hurried through the forest to the home she loved, she thought again about the noisy town where her parents still lived.

Suddenly the air was cut by a sharp whistle not far away. Sylvie knew it wasn't a friendly bird's whistle. It was the determined whistle of a person. She forgot the cow and hid in some bushes. But she was too late.

"Hello, little girl," a young man called out cheerfully. "How far is it to the main road?"  Sylvie was trembling as she whispered "two miles." She came out of the bushes and looked up into the face of a tall young man carrying a gun.

The stranger began walking with Sylvie as she followed her cow through the forest. "I've been hunting for birds," he explained, "but I've lost my way. Do you think I can spend the night at your house?" Sylvie didn't answer. She was glad they were almost home. She could see her grandmother standing near the door of the farm house.

When they reached her, the stranger put down his gun and explained his problem to Sylvie's smiling grandmother.

"Of course you can stay with us," she said. "We don't have much, but you're welcome to share what we have. Now Sylvie, get a plate for the gentleman!"

After eating, they all sat outside. The young man explained he was a scientist, who collected birds. "Do you put them in a cage?" Sylvie asked. "No," he answered slowly,  "I shoot them and stuff them with special chemicals to preserve them. I have over one hundred different kinds of birds from all over the United States in my study at home."

"Sylvie knows a lot about birds, too," her grandmother said proudly. "She knows the forest so well, the wild animals come and eat bread right out of her hands."

"So Sylvie knows all about birds. Maybe she can help me then," the young man said. "I saw a white heron not far from here two days ago. I've been looking for it ever since. It's a very rare bird, the little white heron. Have you seen it, too?" He asked Sylvie.  But Sylvie was silent. "You would know it if you saw it," he added. "It's a tall, strange bird with soft white feathers and long thin legs. It probably has its nest at the top of a tall tree."

Sylvie's heart began to beat fast. She knew that strange white bird! She had seen it on the other side of the forest. The young man was staring at Sylvie. "I would give ten dollars to the person who showed me where the white heron is."

That night Sylvie's dreams were full of all the wonderful things she and her grandmother could buy for ten dollars.

Sylvie spent the next day in the forest with the young man. He told her a lot about the birds they saw. Sylvie would have had a much better time if the young man had left his gun at home. She could not understand why he killed the birds he seemed to like so much. She felt her heart tremble every time he shot an unsuspecting bird as it was singing in the trees.

But Sylvie watched the young man with eyes full of admiration. She had never seen anyone so handsome and charming. A strange excitement filled her heart, a new feeling the little girl did not recognize…love.

At last evening came. They drove the cow home together.  Long after the moon came out and the young man had fallen asleep Sylvie was still awake. She had a plan that would get the ten dollars for her grandmother and make the young man happy. When it was almost time for the sun to rise, she quietly left her house and hurried through the forest. She finally reached a huge pine tree, so tall it could be seen for many miles around. Her plan was to climb to the top of the pine tree. She could see the whole forest from there. She was sure she would be able to see where the white heron had hidden its nest.

Sylvie's bare feet and tiny fingers grabbed the tree's rough trunk. Sharp dry branches scratched at her like cat's claws. The pine tree's sticky sap made her fingers feel stiff and clumsy as she climbed higher and higher.

The pine tree seemed to grow taller, the higher that Sylvie climbed. The sky began to brighten in the east. Sylvie's face was like a pale star when, at last, she reached the tree's highest branch. The golden sun's rays hit the green forest. Two hawks flew together in slow-moving circles far below Sylvie. Sylvie felt as if she could go flying among the clouds, too. To the west she could see other farms and forests.

Suddenly Sylvie's dark gray eyes caught a flash of white that grew larger and larger. A bird with broad white wings and a long slender neck flew past Sylvie and landed on a pine branch below her. The white heron smoothed its feathers and called to its mate, sitting on their nest in a nearby tree. Then it lifted its wings and flew away.

Sylvie gave a long sigh. She knew the wild bird's secret now. Slowly she began her dangerous trip down the ancient pine tree. She did not dare to look down and tried to forget that her fingers hurt and her feet were bleeding. All she wanted to think about was what the stranger would say to her when she told him where to find the heron's nest.

As Sylvie climbed slowly down the pine tree, the stranger was waking up back at the farm. He was smiling because he was sure from the way the shy little girl had looked at him that she had seen the white heron.

About an hour later Sylvie appeared. Both her grandmother and the young man stood up as she came into the kitchen. The splendid moment to speak about her secret had come. But Sylvie was silent. Her grandmother was angry with her. Where had she been. The young man's kind eyes looked deeply into Sylvie's own dark gray ones. He could give Sylvie and her grandmother ten dollars. He had promised to do this, and they needed the money. Besides, Sylvie wanted to make him happy.

But Sylvie was silent. She remembered how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sun rise together from the top of the world. Sylvie could not speak. She could not tell the heron's secret and give its life away.

The young man went away disappointed later that day. Sylvie was sad. She wanted to be his friend. He never returned. But many nights Sylvie heard the sound of his whistle as she came home with her grandmother's cow.

Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been? Who can know?

(MUSIC)

SHEP O'NEAL: You have been listening to the story called "The White Heron" written by Sarah Orne Jewett. It was adapted for Special English by Dona de Sanctis. Your narrator was Kay Gallant. Listen again next week at the same time for this Special English program of AMERICAN STORIES. This is Shep O'Neal.

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