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