Once there was a little brown bird-a lark-and though she was not much to look at, hers was the sweetest voice ever heard in those woods. But the lark was vain and selfish. She refused to give the flowers a song to dance to and did not even answer the fish in the brook when they asked her if she would sing for them. In fact, she never once sang for anyone but herself.

One day, lark was deep in the woods, picking at a berry, when the tree she was on spoke to her.

“Little bird,” it said to her, “Won’t you give me a song?”
“Indeed I won’t,” said the lark, “for what have you done to deserve it?”

“Why, I have fed you and nourished you, given you a home and kept you safe.”

“Such lies!” the lark said curtly. “I have looked after myself all my life except for that short time in my nest. I have never even ventured so deep into the woods before. Then pray tell me, what help have you been to me? The lark had hardly finished when the boughs began to shake and creak like monstrous brown creatures and leaves rained down on her.

“Ungrateful bird!” the tree said angrily. “You will regret your arrogance! For I will teach you a lesson you will never forget!”
As the branches bent towards her, the terrified lark darted between the groping, gnarled fingers and without a backward glance flew off into the safety of the woods.

That night, safe in her nest, the lark forgot all about the tree’s warning. She sang herself to sleep as usual, marveling at the beauty of her own voice. When morning came a terrible shock awaited her: she could not move her legs. They were stiff and shone a smooth, glossy brown. None of the woodland creatures knew what to do. Even the wise old owl was at a loss for words. No one could help her. No one wanted to either. Finally, desperate and helpless, and with great difficulty, the lark flew back to the tree.

“O Great Tree,” she said, for indeed she knew now that this was no ordinary tree, “what has become of me?”

The Tree looked at the tiny bird perched on its branch. When it began to speak the wind rushed through the trees around it so that the whole wood was filled with the eerie voices of the trees and clouds of swirling, fiery autumn leaves.

“I am the Mother of the woods,” it said. “I have seen this land when it was a barren piece of earth. I have watched each tree grow from a fragile sapling. I know every creature in these woods: they can feel my heartbeat and I can feel theirs.” With a great creak the tree bent down and studied the lark.

“No creature is perfect. But never have I seen one as deplorable as you,” it said in its rumbling voice. “The thread between us has long been severed because you, proud bird, chose it to be so.

Have you ever thanked me or shown compassion to my creatures? Your heart is like a little black stone, only a thousand times uglier, because you chose to blacken and harden your heart.”

For once the lark was speechless. She could only stand there, shivering, while the trees shook and the grass and flowers quivered before the Great Tree.

“Listen closely, vain bird, your lesson is one for life. For every song you sing a little of you will turn to wood. You will remain so until purely out of the goodness of your heart you prove to me that the stone inside you has crumbled.”

Then the Tree slowly straightened up, stretched its boughs and became still. At once the wind died down and the wood was silent once again. No amount of begging and pleading could make the tree talk again. And the lark was left all alone, standing on her wooden legs.

A story by me

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To know what happens next, read Free, The Nation next week.

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