"Chapter XXII." by Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), translated by Velma Swanston Howard.
Wednesday, November ninth
THE boy arose before dawn and wandered down to the coast. He was standing alone on the strand east of Smyge fishing hamlet before sunrise. He had already been in the pen with Morten Goosey-Gander to try to rouse him, but the big white gander had no desire to leave home. He did not say a word, but only stuck his bill under his wing and went to sleep again.
To all appearances the weather promised to be almost as perfect as it had been that spring day when the wild geese came to Skåne. There was hardly a ripple on the water; the air was still and the boy thought of the good passage the geese would have. He himself was as yet in a kind of daze – sometimes thinking he was an elf, sometimes a human being. When he saw a stone hedge alongside the road, he was afraid to go farther until he had made sure that no wild animal or vulture lurked behind it. Very soon he laughed to himself and rejoiced because he was big and strong and did not have to be afraid of anything.
When he reached the coast he stationed himself, big as he was, at the very edge of the strand, so that the wild geese could see him.
It was a busy day for the birds of passage. Bird calls sounded on the air continuously. The boy smiled as he thought that no one but himself understood what the birds were saying to one another. Presently wild geese came flying; one big flock following another.
"Just so it's not my geese that are going away without bidding me farewell," he thought. He wanted so much to tell them how everything had turned out, and to show them that he was no longer an elf but a human being.
There came a flock that flew faster and cackled louder than the others, and something told him that this must be the flock, but now he was not quite so sure about it as he would have been the day before.
The flock slackened its flight and circled up and down along the coast.
The boy knew it was the right one, but he could not understand why the geese did not come straight down to him. They could not avoid seeing him where he stood. He tried to give a call that would bring them down to him, but only think! his tongue would not obey him. He could not make the right sound! He heard Akka's calls, but did not understand what she said.
"What can this mean? Have the wild geese changed their language?" he wondered.
He waved his cap to them and ran along the shore calling:
"Here am I, where are you?"
But this seemed only to frighten the geese. They rose and flew farther out to sea. At last he understood. They did not know that he was human, had not recognized him. He could not call them to him because human beings can not speak the language of birds. He could not speak their language, nor could he understand it.
Although the boy was very glad to be released from the enchantment, still he thought it hard that because of this he should be parted from his old comrades.
He sat down on the sands and buried his face in his hands. What was the use of his gazing after them any more?
Presently he heard the rustle of wings. Old mother Akka had found it hard to fly away from Thumbietot, and turned back, and now that the boy sat quite still she ventured to fly nearer to him. Suddenly something must have told her who he was, for she lit close beside him.
Nils gave a cry of joy and took old Akka in his arms. The other wild geese crowded round him and stroked him with their bills. They cackled and chattered and wished him all kinds of good luck, and he, too, talked to them and thanked them for the wonderful journey which he had been privileged to make in their company.
"Presently he heard the rustle of wings"
All at once the wild geese became strangely quiet and withdrew from him, as if to say:
"Alas! he is a man. He does not understand us: we do not understand him!"
Then the boy rose and went over to Akka; he stroked her and patted her. He did the same to Yksi and Kaksi, Kolme and Neljä, Viisi and Kuusi – the old birds who had been his companions from the very start.
After that he walked farther up the strand. He knew perfectly well that the sorrows of the birds do not last long, and he wanted to part with them while they were still sad at losing him.
As he crossed the shore meadows he turned and watched the many flocks of birds that were flying over the sea. All were shrieking their coaxing calls – only one goose flock flew silently on as long as he could follow it with his eyes. The wedge was perfect, the speed good, and the wing strokes strong and certain.
The boy felt such a yearning for his departing comrades that he almost wished he were Thumbietot again and could travel over land and sea with a flock of wild geese.
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
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