“He heard cracking sounds and glanced around. Nothing. He looked behind him, in front of him, above him, and even went downstairs to make sure it wasn’t just Gregory breaking something. It wasn’t. He went back upstairs.
More cracking sounds.”
Swallows are special birds. They build their nests on the sides of old buildings, in the gaps between the roof and the exterior walls. The foundation is made mostly out of little bits of mud. The inside is lined with grass and old feathers. The entire painful process may take months, even whole seasons.
The Thompsons were an ordinary family living in a very, very old house. There was Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, their three children, and Mrs. Thompson’s mother, the kids’ grandmother. Victoria was the oldest child at the age of thirteen. Gregory, who was about to turn eleven, was the perfect example of an aggressive, obnoxious, video-game-obsessed middle child. Then there was Jamie, the youngest, who had just turned nine. Jamie was quiet and thoughtful, and was therefore a big disappointment to Gregory, who had always wanted a rowdy, competitive little brother to play rough with.
The children’s grandmother had lived with the Thompsons for as long as anyone could remember. Her husband had died of cancer right before Victoria was born. She was a strong and energetic woman for her age, and usually the peacemaker of the family.
The older members of the family were glad Jamie hadn’t turned out like Gregory—with two Gregorys in the house, it would be a miracle if the roof didn’t come crashing down on the family.
Mr. Thompson worked in a small town nearby, where the kids also went to school and did their shopping. Their father drove them to school every morning, and their mother picked them up in her car at the end of the day.
It was a regular Tuesday afternoon. Victoria was clothes shopping at the mall with her girlfriends, and Gregory had gone to a classmate’s house to check out their birthday loot, which included the latest Mario Kart and a virtual reality set.
Jamie was the only one going straight home. As usual, he went straight up to his bedroom to do his homework.
Some time passed. He heard the screen door slam, a sure sign that Gregory was home.
There was a faint chirping noise outside. Jamie looked up. It was an old barn swallow gathering mud for its nest. Fascinated, he observed it for a while, then went back to work on his math problems.
The nest was finally ready. It had taken so long.
The female swallow, after careful consideration, had decided to build hers right outside a dusty brick house on the outskirts of a small town near a huge lake. The lake was a perfect water source for making mud pellets. The nest was hidden under the roof directly above a second-story window.
After gathering materials for the final touches, the swallow returned to the nest. Her mate was already there. He was painstakingly lining the edge of the nest with grass and old feathers. He had to be very careful—there were four tiny white speckled eggs sitting in the center, due to hatch in one week.
The female added the last bits of mud to the nest corners. Being careful not to move any of them around, she sat on the eggs. Until they hatched, she wouldn’t be able to leave again. Abandoning the nest for those last ten minutes had been extremely risky.
It was going to be a long week for the two swallows.
Chapter 2 – one week later
The female swallow and her mate silently watched their babies push their way out of their eggs. The nearest one already had its beak sticking out of the shell.
The new parents bent forward to help crack the eggs. It was hard work.
Twenty minutes later, it was done. Four tiny baby swallows were resting in the nest with their eyes closed. They had all survived.
Jamie was doing what he did every afternoon—homework.
He heard cracking sounds and glanced around. Nothing. He looked behind him, in front of him, above him, and even went downstairs to make sure it wasn’t just Gregory breaking something. It wasn’t. He went back upstairs.
More cracking sounds.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pinpoint the source of the sound. Eventually it stopped and he decided he had imagined it.
His mother called him down for dinner—spaghetti and meatballs. Jamie sat across from Victoria, who was staring at her food like it was an alien from another planet, and next to Gregory, who was busy violently stabbing his meatballs for no apparent reason.
“Vicky, eat,” Jamie’s mother prodded.
What’s new? thought Jamie.
Victoria took a deep breath, as if she was about to say something very important, and cleared her throat. “Mom, I’m… I’m going vegan.”
Mrs. Thompson groaned. “I spent so much time on these meatballs. How long will you be doing this?”
“As long as I can..?” Victoria trailed off, seeing the look on her mother’s face.
Jamie’s grandmother spoke up, turning to her daughter. “ Samantha, let Victoria do what she wants to. She’s old enough to know what’s good for herself.”
Victoria gave her grandmother a grateful look.
Mrs. Thompson looked lost for a second. She glanced back and forth between her daughter and her mother. Even Gregory, sensing the tension, had stopped stabbing his meatballs.
“Fine,” Mrs. Thompson relented.
“I’ll eat your meatballs,” Gregory volunteered.
Victoria transferred her meatballs to Gregory’s plate one by one. “As long as you eat them instead of pretending they’re your enemies in a video game, go ahead.”
“Wrong. They’re my opponents on the race car track. You’re allowed to knock out your opponents.”
“Whatever. Same thing.”
“Whaddaya mean same thing?” Gregory stabbed his meatball so hard, Jamie jumped in his seat. “They’re completely different, Vicky!”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “Don’t call me Vicky.”
“Well, she shouldn’t either.”
“Stop arguing, you two,” Mrs. Thompson ordered.
“But Moooom, he’s the one being annoying…”
“Yeah, well, I’m allowed to talk about video games, Mom…”
Jamie listened to his siblings bicker uselessly. He wolfed down his food, excused himself, and sat on the sofa to read a book. It wasn’t enjoyable to be the youngest child. In fact, ever since he had started fourth grade, his life seemed to be a cycle of school, homework, eat, sleep, repeat. He couldn’t remember the last time he had experienced anything really exciting. He wanted something interesting to happen for once.
Two weeks had passed. Being in charge of four baby chicks wasn’t an easy job. The swallow and her mate had to take turns finding food and bringing it back to the nest every half hour.
At the moment, she was staying with the chicks and her mate was looking for food. They had opened their eyes only a few days ago and were now hopping about. The new parents had taken careful precautions to build up the sides of the nest so the chicks wouldn’t walk off the edge.
Suddenly a crash resounded from inside the house and the wall shuddered. The nest lurched sideways. The mother swallow let out an alarmed chirp, followed by her chicks. The world tilted.
Bit by bit, the nest was crumbling away from the exterior wall.
It took some time for the swallow to realize what was happening. In a flurrying panic, the mother swallow flew out of the nest. She had no way to save her chicks. She let out one more distressed chirp.
The nest, her beautiful nest that she had worked so hard on, broke apart from the wall and fell, her precious chicks along with it. The nest landed on the ground with a thump.
The mother fluttered down to the broken remains of the nest, fearing the worst, and almost collapsed with relief. All four of her chicks were frightened but alive.
The nest, on the other hand, was a problem. It had shattered into tiny pieces.
The swallow stared at the rubble in shock. What was she supposed to do now?
It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Jamie, Victoria, and their grandmother were playing cards in the den. Gregory, who wasn’t blessed with the ability to sit still and pay attention, let alone “stare at numbered pieces of paper,” as he put it, was swinging his plastic club and pretending to be a ninja. Their mother’s china vase sat on the window.
Victoria scanned her cards. “It’s my turn. Jamie, Give me your Jacks,” she said.
“Don’t have any. Go fish.”
Victoria took a card from the deck. “Gram, what’s Mom making for dinner tonight?”
“I have no idea. It’s my turn… Vicky, give me your sevens—”
The whole house shook. The three card players glanced up to see a guilty Gregory leaning on his club with shards of china littered all over the carpet.
Gregory frowned. “Oops…”
The children’s grandmother stood up. “Jamie, Victoria, clear out,” she said slowly. Her voice was low and dangerous.
Jamie scrambled out of the den after his sister, shut the door, and ran up to his bedroom, which was directly above the den. He would be able to hear the conversation below with no problems.
He closed the door and then pressed his ear to the carpet. His grandmother was busy chewing Gregory out. She was on a roll.
“…don’t you realize how expensive that vase is? You just wait until your mother finds out, Gregory! You have to be more careful! This was nobody’s fault but yours…”
Just then there was a faint thump. Jamie felt it more than he heard it. It seemed to come from outside. Jamie heaved himself up, opened his window, looked down, and drew in a sharp breath. He didn’t believe his eyes.
Mr. Thompson was enjoying a peaceful afternoon snack all to himself when his youngest son barreled down the stairs three at a time, yelling at the top of his lungs. “Dad! Dad, oh my God, you wouldn’t believe what just happened – it’s crazy, you have to see this—”
“Is everything alright? I heard a crash in the den,” Mr. Thompson said worriedly.
“Yes, Gregory broke Mom’s vase—”
“-but that’s not important- Grandma has it under control—what you really need to know is that there’s a fallen swallow nest outside, Dad, come see, c’mon…”
Mr. Thompson followed his son out of the house with one last anxious glance at the den door. Jamie led him around to the back, below his bedroom window. “C’mon, Dad… right here, look…”
Mr. Thompson looked over his son’s shoulder, awestruck. There were scattered pieces of a swallow nest in the dirt, and huddled together in the middle of it all were two swallows and four baby chicks.
“What do we do, Dad?”
Mr. Thompson bent down to observe the chicks. “I don’t know.”
“Hey, Dad…” Jamie thought for a minute. “What if we make them another nest?”
Jamie’s dad frowned. “How? We can’t piece these mud pellets back together.”
“Like… we could use a box. Or… something.” Jamie realized he hadn’t really thought it through.
“Actually, Jamie, that could work! I could nail it below your window.”
“Below? The old nest was above. That’s why I couldn’t see it until it fell down.”
“You’ll see. Jamie, I’ll be right back…” Mr. Thompson re-entered the house.
He returned a few moments later lugging a tool kit and a small cardboard box in one hand and a long maintenance ladder in the other.
“Dad, I didn’t know we’ve always had a giant ladder in the house!”
Mr. Thompson grinned. “Well, I finally have an opportunity to use it. It’s been in the downstairs closet all this time.”
They got to work. Jamie picked out the strands of grass and feathers that had lined the old nest and set them in the new one. Then, with some difficulty, he and his father placed the baby swallows in what would be their new nest. The swallow parents instinctively flew in too to stay with their chicks.
Mr. Thompson unfolded the ladder, set it up under Jamie’s window, and climbed onto the top step. Hands shaking, Jamie lifted the cardboard box and handed it to his father. He fingered the hem of his shirt anxiously and watched Mr. Thompson nail the box to the wall. He hoped the new nest would hold up better than the old one.
The hammering stopped. It was done. The nest was now firmly attached to the wall. Jamie suddenly realized why his father was putting the new nest under his window instead of above—he would be able to see it from his bedroom without any difficulty, and he could keep an eye on the swallows.
Mr. Thompson made his way down the ladder. Jamie helped his father bring the tool kit inside and put the ladder back in the closet. As soon as they were finished, he ran up to his bedroom, opened the shades, and looked out his window. The swallows were safe and happy. Jamie smiled to himself.
That night at dinner, Jamie recited the entire story to the family. They listened without interrupting him and seemed impressed—except for Gregory, who couldn’t care less, despite having caused the crash that was the most likely reason the nest had fallen in the first place—but Jamie didn’t mind. He was happy and content. With Mr. Thompson’s help, he had saved a family of swallows. He felt very proud of himself.