David ran down the sandy path holding the small sand grouse carefully in his hands. “Bird,” he whispered, “it’s all right. I’ll take care of you.”
The boy had found the sand grouse on the desert. Its wing was broken and the feathers fanned out when he let go of it, so he held it close to his chest with both hands.
David lived alone in a cave under the edge of a rock. Before he was old enough to remember him, his father had left. David often thought about his father, imagining him as a tall, strong man who would protect his son from the wolves, bring him food and firewood, and hold him close in the night when it was dark and when frightening sounds came from outside the cave.
David tried not to think about his mother. She hadn’t been gone as long, and her memory was still too close to his heart to remember without pain.
It was getting dark, and the tall palms stood out black against the red desert sky. David, alone with the sand grouse, could feel its tiny heart beating rapidly against his hands. He scraped up some cold ashes and bits of straw into a pillow on which to lay the hurt bird so that the softness came up and around and held its wing.
“Lie still now, bird,” he said. “I’ll fix your wing for you.”
David found a stick and some leather strips he’d been saving in a pouch. Every time he found a piece of wool or a strip of leather blowing on the desert, he’d carefully save it and tuck it into his pouch. Sometimes these bits and pieces were useful in unexpected ways.
As he wrapped a tiny piece of leather around the stick and the bird’s wing, he thought, Maybe this sand grouse can be mine, and I can be his. We can belong to each other.
After David finished wrapping the bird’s wing, he dropped some water into its open mouth. Its helpless eyes gazed at the boy as he worked.
Gently David put the bird down onto the soft straw pillow. He tied one end of a leather thong around the bird’s leg and the other end to his own wrist. Now, he thought, if it flutters about in the night or tries to fly, I can keep it from hurting itself.
David lay down on the dirt floor of the cave, curled up on his side so that he could see the bird. The sand grouse stared at him. David smiled and said, “Good night. I love you.”
During the night David awoke to a chattering noise. At first he couldn’t tell what it was. Then the string on his wrist tugged and pulled. The bird was silhouetted against the mouth of the cave, and there looked to be hundreds of birds outside. They were perching on the cactus, flying and darting about, and walking in the sand. David had never seen so many birds at once! The thong on his wrist tightened as his bird limped along, trying to reach the others.
The great flock of birds chattered and teased. They seemed to say, “Come along. Hurry and come with us.”
Walking over to the mouth of the cave, David called, “Sand grouse, you can’t go. You can’t fly yet.” Then the boy shivered at the cold and dampness in the cave. Every bird on the desert must be here! he thought. What does it mean?
David held the sand grouse close as he stepped out into the starlit night. At first all he could see were the birds circling and swooping. Then he saw a great light in the sky that was attracting the birds, and David knew where they were going. Suddenly he wanted to go with them.
David followed the birds over rocks and hills, down gullies and crevices, and on over the wind-whipped sand. Then their chattering stopped and all David could hear was the sound of his own feet and the beating, whirring wings.
David began to have a warm feeling inside that seemed to come from the lighted sky. He was hurrying to keep the birds in sight when, suddenly, he bumped into something and stopped.
“Say, there,” came a man’s deep voice. “What’s this?”
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry,” David said, looking up at the tall, smiling man before him. He wore a shepherd’s robe and held a wooden staff. A curly, dark beard went up close to the man’s kind eyes, and he was carrying a lamb.
“That’s all right, boy,” the shepherd said. “What’s that you have there? A sand grouse, is it?”
“Yes, sir, I found it on the ground with its wing broken. After I bound the wing with a thong, the bird’s friends came and wanted it to go with them. But I don’t know why we’re following them.”
“Come, walk with me,” the shepherd invited the boy. “I’ll tell you about this night.”
So David and the shepherd walked together on the desert under the bright light of that holy night, led by the birds. The shepherd told David he’d been watching the sheep when an angel came.
“An angel?” David asked in wonderment.
“Yes, an angel, who told us that a king had been born in the city of David.”
“A king?” David questioned, even more astonished.
“A king of all the world,” the shepherd replied. “I’m taking this lamb as a present for that kingly Baby.”
“A baby king,” David said, still hardly believing. “I’d like to give him something, too, but I have nothing to give.”
“That’s what I thought, but I did have this lamb,” said the shepherd.
“And I have only —” David stopped. Then he continued in a quieter voice. “I have only this sand grouse. It belongs to me and I belong to him.”
David thought about the sand grouse as he and the shepherd walked together until they came to a stable in the little town.
“The King wouldn’t be born here in a stable,” David said, “with hay all around Him and animals close by.”
“Yes,” the shepherd said, “the angel told us we would find Him in a manger.”
The great flock of birds that had been flying ahead of David and the shepherd settled in the trees near the stable.
They found the Babe lying in a bed of hay. As the shepherd stepped forward and put the lamb down beside Him, the mother smiled. Holding his friend, the sand grouse, David felt himself pulled forward by her smile.
The bird’s eyes had become black and shiny. David untied the thong from its wing. The sand grouse hopped a little, ruffled up its feathers, and moved both wings without any trouble. David untied the thong from his wrist and laid it aside.
The bird fluttered closer to the Baby and stood there. Its eyes shone, and it turned its head from side to side, looking first at the boy and then at the sleeping child.
“Good-bye, sand grouse,” David said. “Good-bye, my friend.”
He turned to where the shepherd was waiting for him at the edge of the heavenly light. As they went out into the dark streets of the city together, the shepherd put his hand gently on David’s shoulder. “It’s wonderful to think we have seen the King of the world,” he said.
“Yes,” David answered, although he felt happy and sad at the same time. When he thought of the Baby, a happiness ran through him, but when he thought of being all alone again, there was a hollow, hurting ache in his chest.
The shepherd said, “Your sand grouse seemed to feel as though it belonged there. Its wing was fine, and it looked happy.”
“I think it was proud to be standing next to the baby King,” David said, “and I’m glad. But it was the only thing I had of my own, and now I’m alone again.”
“Then come with me,” the shepherd suggested. “I’m alone, too, except for my sheep.”
David could hardly believe his ears. “You mean, I could go with you? Live with you?”
“And belong to me. Yes, and I would belong to you, David,” the shepherd said. “Do you need to go back to the cave for anything?”
“All I had was the sand grouse and I gave that to the King,” David answered. He was quiet for a moment. Then looking up into the kind eyes of the shepherd, he said, “And it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”