“Once upon a time,” Serena began, “There were three birds. They were quite ordinary small brown birds, sparrows or starlings, I don’t know, but I’ll tell you something. If you looked close at those birds, you would see they were not all exactly the same like birds usually are. You see, one was more colourful than the other two. Oh, it was a brown bird, certainly, but somehow it shimmered, and its colours were never the same two days together. Another flew higher, and faster as well, and the third had a different voice, almost as if it were trying to speak to you in our language. Anyway, this is what happened.
There were once three sisters who lived with their mother and father in a small house away from the rest of the village, higher up the hillside. Not our village, I don’t mean that. It was another village entirely. They kept sheep, beautiful rams and ewes and lambs. Different kinds they had too, some pure white, some soft brown and all of them clever and tame. The girls’ father went up the hills with the sheep and lived out there with them for days at a time, and their mother stayed at home and spun the sheep’s fleeces into the softest yarn, and wove that yarn into the finest cloth all day long. The father loved his sheep above all else, more than people certainly, and the mother loved him. She thought about him all the time when he wasn’t there, but she never minded him being away. She could make the thoughts of him last, that’s what she said. And when she spun the fleeces into yarn she felt as if it was him she was spinning, and he was there in her hands the whole time.
So when the girls came along, there was no room for them there, or at least, there was no love for them. The father was in love with his extraordinary animals. They were extraordinary because of his love. They were like people, kind of, though I don’t really know very much about them, except people say they talked to each other in a language of their own. The girls’ father could speak that language, that’s what I heard, and those sheep told him wonderful stories, but I don’t know if it’s true. And the mother was in love with him and the fleeces she felt were made of him.
The wool and the cloth that the mother made were so fine they were sold all over the country and overseas too, I expect. They were made out of love, you see, so anyone who wore that cloth felt loved. The father was always gone with his family of sheep and the mother was always making cloth out of love, so the girls grew up in the presence of all that love, but they never received any themselves.
They helped as best they could with the spinning and dyeing and the weaving, but they could never do it well enough and their mother shook her head and sighed over the spoiled hanks of yarn and the unevenly woven cloth, and she set the girls on other tasks. Despite all of this, those girls were cheerful souls, and they were great friends. They would walk to the village or, with the pony, all the way to town, and they would sing and laugh and tell stories together.
The girls grew up, and one day they came back from selling cloth and wool at the market and buying dyes and dresses and plenty of other things besides. They came into the house singing, scattering bundles of colourful this and fragrant that all over the kitchen table, and their mother turned from her seat at the loom with thunder in her eyes. “All you girls do is chirp and cheep from morning till night! When will there be peace once again in this house?”
The girls were tired from their long walk and their long day, but nevertheless they felt sorry and sad that they had upset their mother, and they stopped singing and laughing immediately and fell silent, clearing the table and getting supper ready. The mother went back to her weaving but her dreams were broken; the girls’ father would not come back into them, no matter how much she called to him. The girls sat down for supper, and as they ate they began whispering to each other. Soon they were giggling under their hands. When the supper was all but eaten, so the girls’ voices grew louder, and by the time they were fetching water and washing plates, they were also singing and calling to each other as loudly as they had been before. Their mother looked at the cloth she was weaving and suddenly saw that it wasn’t right. Somehow the girls' chatter had interrupted her thoughts of love and the cloth looked just like any ordinary wool cloth that anyone could make.
She leapt up in a rage. “You girls and your chatter!” she cried. “You girls and your cheeping and chirping all day long! Be birds and fly away! Be birds I say!”
And the girls were turned that minute into three ordinary brown birds. They flew around the kitchen, around and around because they were frightened. The mother opened the door and shooed them out of it, and they were gone, simple as that. Then she cut the cloth from her loom and threw it on the fire, took up a new fleece and began spinning all over again.
The girls’ father came home some days after that with his head full of the sheep and their stories. The house seemed quiet and his wife serene, lost in her dream of love. He wondered where his three daughters had gone to, and he even asked their mother.
“They grew up while you were away, my love, and they left,” she said.
And he nodded his head and held tight to his wife’s hand, because she was the only person in the world who understood him and he was grateful.
The three brown birds flew, but not very far. They settled in the village where there were plenty of worms and snails and spiders for them to feast on. They lived a long time those three brown birds. They were never quite like other birds because they were really three girls, one brighter, one faster and one with a clearer voice, but they learned to live amongst birds. They flew over the whole of the land from sea to sea and over the sea too and they saw things that you and I will never see. But they always came back to their village in between, and they always stayed together because they loved each other, those three sisters.”
Serena, the miller's daughter, is a storyteller. Her stories are magical, though she does not know it at first. 'The Three Birds' is a story Serena tells to her brother, Misha, after he reveals that he has fallen in love. The story weaves itself into Misha's future, but he never realises it, even after it is too late to change what has happened.