The day before the cliff swallows return to traditional nesting sites in canyons near where I live in southern Utah, the sky hangs quiet, with only a few ravens, hawks, and eagles spiraling through. The next day, whoosh! Swallows arrive reeling in their folklorico like revelers at an unseen party spilling onto a quiet street.
I don’t know why cliff swallows leave tropical wintering grounds to craft their mud, grass, and saliva chambers in Utah canyons, but Utah is a better place because they do. Certainly they bring sparkle to my garden and wanderings.
There’s a wonderful Korean folktale featuring swallows. Once upon a time, Older Brother and Younger Brother lived according to their fortunes as dictated by birth order. Upon their parents’ deaths, Older Brother received the family’s rich estate. Younger Brother inherited only a hardscrabble farm. Older Brother had little to do with Younger Brother, leaving him to strive with poverty.
Swallows built a nest beneath Younger Brother’s eaves. One day, Younger Brother discovered a snake raiding the nest. He chased away the snake but found the nest empty. The snake had eaten all the birds. Or had it? On the ground Younger Brother found a baby swallow that had fallen from the nest and broken its wing. Younger Brother bound up the swallow’s injured wing. He returned it to its nest and gave his children charge of the injured bird. Under their care, the swallow’s wing healed. When autumn arrived, the bird flew south with the rest of its kind.
The next spring, Younger Brother noticed a lone swallow perched on his roof. It flew over and dropped a seed at his feet. Younger Brother said to his wife, “The swallow has given us a pumpkin seed!” They planted it and looked forward to harvesting its pumpkins.
The plant grew quickly. Soon, three pumpkins larger than any Younger Brother had ever seen plumped on the vine. At harvest, Younger Brother tried to cut one open, but it was so big no knife could pierce it. He fetched his axe and sank it into the first pumpkin’s shell. It split with a loud crack. A fountain of gold and silver erupted from inside along with rare and valuable jewels and clothing of the sort the well-off wear. Filled with wonder, Younger Brother and his wife broke open the second pumpkin. Sacks of rice fell out and filled their yard. Then Younger Brother cut into the third pumpkin. Tiny carpenters tumbled out and built an elegant house upon Younger Brother’s poor fields.
Older Brother heard of Younger Brother’s good fortune and came to see it with his own eyes. He found a house rivaling his own sitting on Younger Brother’s land. Younger Brother himself emerged from it to greet him, wearing fine clothing.
Older Brother scowled. “What underhanded thing have you done to acquire such riches?” he asked.
Younger Brother told Older Brother everything: how the snake raided the swallows’ nest, how one baby bird fell and broke its wing, how he bound up the wing, how he and his family cared for the bird. He told how the following spring a swallow brought them a pumpkin seed, which they planted, and how all their newfound riches had sprung from the seed’s gigantic fruits. As Older Brother listened, he thought, “I’ll get even more wealth for myself this way.”
The next spring, Older Brother and his wife watched for swallows to build a nest beneath their eaves. A pair did, and from their eggs hatched three swallow chicks.
Older Brother waited impatiently for a snake to eat the swallows, but no snake came. He caught one and brought it to the nest, but it escaped without eating any of the birds. Losing patience, he took one of the chicks from the nest and injured its wings with his bare hands. He splinted and bandaged the injured wing, saying, “Next spring, you must bring me one of your magic pumpkin seeds.” He returned the bird to the nest and paid it no more attention. The bird recovered and in the fall flew away with the other swallows.
Older Brother and his wife sat in their fine house all winter, waiting anxiously for spring’s arrival. Indeed, at first warmth, a swallow arrived calling, “Thweet thweet!” Older Brother rushed out to meet it. It dropped a pumpkin seed at his feet and flew off.
Older Brother and his wife planted the seed. The vine that sprang from the seed produced three pumpkins, just as Younger Brother had described. When the pumpkins ripened, Older Brother cut one open. A horde of filthy beggars rushed out and began eating everything in Older Brother’s ancestral home.
Astounded, Older Brother cried, “This is all wrong! Our riches must be in the other pumpkins.” But when he and his wife cut open the next pumpkin, reeking slime poured out, burying the house’s beautiful grounds. Wading through the slime, Older Brother and his wife cut open the third pumpkin. Out swaggered an army of midget ogres swinging clubs. They rushed upon Older Brother’s beautiful house and bashed it to splinters. Then they turned their clubs upon Older Brother and his wife. They gave them a sound pummeling and threw them onto the heap of rubble that had once been the ancestral home.
Younger Brother heard of Older Brother’s misfortune. He and his wife hurried to help. Searching through the rubble, they found Older Brother and his wife, senseless and bleeding. Tenderly, Younger Brother and his wife carried Older Brother and his wife out of the filth and rubbish. Older Brother opened his eyes and saw his brother’s face. “When you needed my help, I turned my back,” he said. “I see now that I have been wrong, Younger Brother. I have been wrong about everything.”
“Never mind, Older Brother,” Younger Brother said. “Don’t talk. Save your strength. Come live with us; there’s room for all.”
Based on a tale retold by Suzanne Crowder Han