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Morning over the bay

Robin Redbreast

Selma Lagerlöf
Translated by Velma Swanston Howard

  • Toni-Anne

    This story of the Robin Redbreast has pierced my heart through with such poignancy and a new awareness of Christ's suffering on our had a surprisingly swift and deep effect on me and brought me so much closer to the source of such wonderous love which had always planned to wash my sins and those of the whole worlds washed clean by the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

It happened at the time when our Lord created the world, when he made not only heaven and earth, but all the animals and the plants as well, and at the same time gave them their names.

Many stories have come to us from that time, and if we knew them all we should have light upon everything in this world which we cannot comprehend.

It happened one day, when our Lord sat in his paradise painting little birds, that the colors in his paint pot gave out. The goldfinch would have been without color if our Lord had not wiped all his paint brushes on its feathers.

It was then that the donkey got his long ears because he could not remember the name that had been given him. No sooner had he taken a few steps over the meadows of paradise than he forgot, and three times he came back to ask his name. At last our Lord grew somewhat impatient, took him by his two ears and said, “Your name is ass, ass, ass!” And while he spoke, our Lord pulled both of his ears, so that the ass might hear better and remember what was said to him.

It was on the same day, also, that the bee was punished. When the bee was created, she began immediately to gather honey, and the animals and human beings who caught the delicious odor of the honey came and wanted to taste it. But the bee wanted to keep it all for herself, and with her poisonous sting pursued every living creature that approached her hive. Our Lord saw this and at once called the bee to him and punished her. “I gave you the gift of gathering honey, which is the sweetest thing in all creation,” said our Lord, “but I did not give you the right to be cruel to your neighbor. Remember well that every time you sting any creature who desires to taste your honey, you shall surely die!”

Oh, yes! It was at that time, too, that the cricket became blind and the ant lost her wings. So many strange things happened on that day!

Our Lord sat and planned and created all day long, and toward evening he conceived the idea of making a little gray bird. “Remember, your name is Robin Redbreast,” said our Lord to the bird as soon as it was finished. Then he held it in the palm of his open hand and let it fly.

After the bird had been testing his wings a while and had seen something of the beautiful world in which he was to live, he became curious to see what he himself was like. He noticed that he was entirely gray, and that his breast was just as gray as all the rest of him. Robin Redbreast twisted and turned in all directions as he looked at his reflection in the water, but he couldn’t find a single red feather. Then he flew back to our Lord.

Our Lord sat there on his throne. Out of his hands came butterflies that fluttered about his head, doves that cooed on his shoulders; out of the earth beneath him grew the rose, the lily, and the daisy.

The little bird’s heart beat heavily with fright, but with easy curves he flew nearer and nearer our Lord, till at last he rested on our Lord’s hand. Then our Lord asked what the little bird wanted. “I only wish to ask you about one thing,” said the little bird.

“What is it you wish to know?” asked our Lord.

“Why should I be called Redbreast, when I am all gray from the bill to the very end of my tail? Why am I called Redbreast, when I do not possess one single red feather?” The bird looked beseechingly at our Lord with his tiny black eyes – then turned his head. About him he saw pheasants, all red under a sprinkle of gold dust; parrots with marvelous red neck bands; cocks with red combs; to say nothing about the butterflies, the goldfish, and the roses! And, naturally, he thought how little he needed – just one tiny drop of color on his breast and he, too, would be a beautiful bird, and his name would fit him. “Why should I be called Redbreast when I am so entirely gray?” asked the bird once again, and waited for our Lord to say, “Ah, my friend, I see that I have forgotten to paint your breast feathers red, but wait a moment and it shall be done.”

But our Lord only smiled a little and said, “I have called you Robin Redbreast, and Robin Redbreast shall your name be, but you must look to it that you yourself earn your red breast feathers.” Then our Lord opened his hand and let the bird fly out once again into the world.

The bird flew out of paradise, deeply thoughtful.

What could a little bird like him do to earn red feathers for himself? The only thing he could think of was to make his nest in a brier bush. He built it in among the thorns in the close thicket. It would appear that he waited for a rose leaf to cling to his throat and give it color.

Countless years had come and gone since that day which was the happiest in all the world! Since then animals and people had left paradise and spread themselves over the earth. Human beings had already advanced so far that they had learned to cultivate the earth and sail the seas. They had procured clothes and ornaments for themselves, and long since had learned to build big temples and great cities – such as Thebes, Rome, and Jerusalem.

Then there dawned a new day, one that will always be remembered in the world’s history. On the morning of this day, Robin Redbreast sat upon a little naked hillock outside Jerusalem’s walls and sang to his young ones, who rested in a tiny nest in a brier bush.

Robin Redbreast told the little ones all about that wonderful day of creation, how the Lord had given names to everything, just as each Redbreast had told his children ever since the first Redbreast had heard God’s word and gone out of God’s hand. “And mark you,” he ended sorrowfully, “so many innumerable years have gone, so many roses have bloomed, so many little birds have come out of their eggs since Creation Day, but Robin Redbreast is still a little gray bird. He has not yet succeeded in gaining his red feathers.”

The little young ones opened wide their tiny bills, and asked if their forebears had never tried to do any great thing to earn the priceless red color.

Robin Redbreast, Easter story social sharing image.

Our Lord sat there on his throne. Out of his hands came butterflies that fluttered about his head, doves that cooed on his shoulders; out of the earth beneath him grew the rose, the

“We have all done what we could,” said the little bird, “but none of us has succeeded. One day the first Robin Redbreast met another bird exactly like himself, and immediately began to love it with such a mighty love that he could feel his breast glow. ‘Ah!’ he thought, ‘now I understand! It was our Lord’s meaning that I should love with so much ardor that my breast would grow red in color from the very warmth of the love that lives in my heart.’ But it did not happen; nor did it happen to any who followed, nor will it happen to you.”

The little ones twittered sadly and began to mourn because the red color would not come to beautify their downy little grey breasts.

“We had also hoped that singing would help us,” said the old one in long-drawn-out notes. “The first Robin Redbreast sang until his heart swelled within him, he was so carried away, and he dared to hope anew. ‘Ah!’ he thought, ‘it is the glow of the song which lives in my soul that will color my breast feathers red.’ But he was mistaken, as were all his descendants – even as you will be too.” Again was heard a sad “peep” from the young ones’ half-naked throats.

“We had also counted on our courage and valor,” said the bird. “The first Robin Redbreast fought bravely with other birds, until his breast flamed with the pride of conquest. ‘Ah!’ he thought, ‘my breast feathers will become red from the love of battle which burns in my heart.’ But that too failed for him and all who came after him, even as it will happen to you.” The little ones chirped courageously, for they still wished to try and win the much-sought-for prize, but the bird answered them sorrowfully that it would be impossible.

What hope could they have when so many splendid ancestors had not managed it? What more could they do than love, sing, and fight? What could…the little bird stopped short, for out of one of the gates of Jerusalem came a crowd of people marching, and the whole procession rushed toward the hillock where the bird had its nest. There were riders on proud horses, soldiers with long spears, executioners with nails and hammers. There were dignified judges and priests in the procession, weeping women, and above all a mob of mad, loose people running about – a filthy, howling mob of vagabonds.

The small grey bird sat trembling on the edge of his nest. He feared each instant that the little briar bush would be trampled down and his young ones killed!

“Be careful!” he cried to the defenseless young ones. “Creep close together and be quiet. Here comes a horse that will ride right over us! Here comes a warrior with iron-shod sandals! Here comes the whole wild, storming mob!” All at once the bird ceased his cry of warning and was silent. He almost forgot the danger hovering over him. Suddenly he hopped down into the nest and spread his wings over his young ones.

“Oh! this is too terrible,” he said. “I don’t want you to witness this awful sight! There are three criminals who are going to be crucified!” And he spread his wings so that the little ones could see nothing. They caught only the sound of hammers, the cries of anguish, and the wild shrieks of the mob.

Robin Redbreast followed the whole spectacle with his eyes, which grew big with terror. He could not take his glance from the three unfortunates.

“How cruel human beings are!” said the bird after a while. “It isn’t enough that they nail these poor creatures to a cross, but they must place a crown of piercing thorns upon the head of one of them. I see that the thorns have wounded his forehead so that the blood flows,” he continued. “And this man is so beautiful and looks about him with such mild glances that everyone ought to love him. I feel as if an arrow were piercing my heart when I see him suffer!”

The little bird began to feel a stronger and stronger pity for the thorn-crowned sufferer. “Oh! if I were only my brother the eagle,” thought he, “I would draw the nails from his hands and with my strong claws I would drive away all those who torture him!” He saw how the blood trickled down from the brow of the crucified one, and he could no longer remain quiet in his nest. “Even if I am little and weak, I can still do something for this poor tormented one,” thought the bird. Then he left his nest and flew out into the air, describing wide circles around the crucified one.

He flew around him several times without daring to approach, for he was a shy little bird who had never dared to go near a human being. But little by little he gained courage, flew close to him, and drew with his little bill a thorn that had been imbedded in the forehead of the crucified one. And as he did this there fell on his breast a drop of blood from the crucified one; it spread quickly and colored all the little fine breast feathers.

As soon as the bird had returned to his nest his young ones cried to him, “Your breast is red! Your breast feathers are redder than the roses!”

“It is only a drop of blood from the poor man’s forehead,” said the bird. “It will vanish as soon as I bathe in a pool or a clear spring.”

But no matter how much the little bird bathed, the red color did not vanish – and when his young ones grew up, the blood-red color shone also on their breast feathers, just as it shines on every Robin Redbreast’s throat and breast until this very day.

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A woodcut by Lisa Toth depicting a robin next to a human face to illustrate the Easter story Robin Redbreast.
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easter stories cover This short story is taken from Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season.
“This thoughtfully curated collection is remarkable for its range and breadth ... A reminder of the great Easter themes of transformation, reconciliation, and the triumph of life over death” (National Catholic Register).