THEY WERE BEDDED down quietly in the Norfolk reeds, gazing at the broad expanse of water beyond them. They weren’t talking.
“How come you’re so white?” he suddenly blurted out.
She looked out across the water, as if recalling a dream, and sighed. “It’s a long story”, his mother replied, giving him a look as if to say: ‘Why d’you ask?’
“All right, you don’t have to answer that one,” she smiled. “Anyway, you didn’t hear what I said. So I’ll tell you, if I must, so long as you keep still for a while and pay attention.”
“Please. I want to know.”
“It’s quite a story, so don’t interrupt the way you usually do.”
She looked out across the water again.
“It begins with us having to fly a long way north. It took days to get there; the journey seemed to go on forever and ever to me. And I wasn’t alone in thinking like this.
“Eventually, we saw a lake in the mountains. It was lying in a bowl of pure whiteness surrounded by reed beds.” ‘If only we could be as white, we’d be acceptable’, I thought.
“Everything was covered in snow. It was all white, except for us. We would always stand out as we were, even against the drab murkiness of the reed beds.
“Nevertheless, we decided this was the place for us, so we flew down to the lakeside, to rest up after the long journey, and settled ourselves there for the night. It was very peaceful and quiet. Almost unusually so. Almost deathly quiet. It wasn’t long before we were asleep.
“When I first woke it was dark. That didn’t bother me too much – darkness has never frightened me – and I was soon asleep again.
“The next time I woke, it was broad daylight and, as I looked around, I saw that we were all losing that greyness, the same as you have at the moment.
“You can imagine; I was quiet alarmed. Things like this didn’t happen to us.”
Her listener, paying intense attention for a change, made little or nothing of her remark.
“After a while,” she went on, “it seemed to be natural and I didn’t panic, as you might think. We were all losing our greyness, and no one was in pain, so it seemed OK to me.
“The rest of the day went off quietly. We weren’t disturbed, neither did we make a lot of noise.
“At dusk, I thought I saw a movement on the far side of the lake. The reeds parted and I fully expected to see a gamekeeper come out, with a shotgun. ‘Good heavens, I thought. What’s going to happen next!’ But no one appeared.
“Instead, I saw a black swan at the head of what looked like a flotilla of nearly all black birds. Cormorants, I guessed.
“Now I really was alarmed. This was an alien group, or at least a different species.
“Then, quite suddenly and without any warning, the whole flock took off and, wheeling round against the white, snowy mountainous backdrop, flew away and were very soon out of sight.”
Now her listener did begin to agitate. “Well, what happened next?”
His mother, puling herself together, said: “The sound of all those birds taking off had woken everybody.
“We weren’t all white, but nearly so. I suppose we didn’t know what to do.
“Then one of our number, who seemed to be in charge, rushed out of the safety of the reeds and took off, flying vaguely southwards, towards home.
“Just like sky-borne sheep, we all followed and were soon flying southwards.
“Everything went well, except that we got lost and ended up on the shores of the Black Sea, where – as you may guess – we all turned black.
“We took off, once more heading home.
“When we eventually arrived I noticed that we’d all turned white.
“Funny, that, nothing had happened during our flight.
“But there you have it. That’s why I’m white and you’re not. You haven’t yet been to the lake in the north!”
For few moments he said nothing.
“How far is it?” he blurted out. “This lake in the north.”
“Oh, not so far that you couldn’t get there. The only trouble is, I can’t remember what it’s called. Or how to get there quickly.”
“I’ll find it,” he said, full of bravado. “And, just you wait, when I come back I’ll be white as the driven snow.”
She laughed. “I hope the snow hasn’t been driven too much!”
He shuffled out of the reed bed and took off, unaware that he had been joined by several others.
Together, they flew northwards, his mother giving a sigh as if to say: ‘Hotheads.’
A while later – he didn’t know how long – he spotted a lake lying in a fold in the mountains. It was the only dark smudge on the white landscape.
‘This must be the place,’ he thought, as he swopped down to land on the surface with much splashing, leaving a small wake behind him.
Looking around, he spotted some reed beds, which must have been those his mother rested in.
“I’ll rest here a while and see if anything happens.”
He was soon asleep, and slept for the rest of that night. When he awoke it was broad daylight. He looked around to see that nothing had changed, not even the colour of his feathers had worn when he left the place he called home.
The rest of that day passed off quietly. He and his comrades made little or no noise, as if they knew something was going to happen and had to stay silent to be ready for whatever it was.
At dusk, just as his mother had before him, he thought he saw the reed beds stir on the other side of the lake. He drew breath, and then gave a start.
He was looking at a lone black swan.
He and his comrades immediately took off and, without a backward glance, set off towards home.
Back among the safety of the Norfolk reeds, he settled and blinked as he saw a small boat pass by, no doubt headed home, its grubby white sails tinged pink by the dying light of the sun.
By his side, his mother laughed quietly to herself.
“What’s so funny?” he gasped.
“You should see yourself, and all the others.”
He looked down at himself, and then at the others.
Everyone was quite white.