How to hatch miracles

In our village we are always aware of the unending miracle of the beauty of the surrounding countryside, with northward views toward the Highland hills, southward to Arran, Ailsa Craig and the sea, but every now and then we come across another miracle, the kind that happens in the human heart.

The one that went down in village annals brought about the ending of an acrimonious feud between the sworn enemies, Johnny and Fergus. For Fergus, the schoolmaster, one of the joys in life was watching birds, for Johnny, the deadliest shot in all the county, it was slaying them.

Johnny's dearest companion, his third arm, was his gun. With it he slew grouse, partridge, pigeons and pheasants. Nothing feathery was safe from him, neither the jackdaws who warmed themselves at his chimney pot, nor the swallows who nested in his eaves, nor the blackbirds who raided his strawberry beds. When Fergus saw him returning from a day's shooting, plumes and claws bristling from his knapsack, he would exclaim bitterly, ''Saul has slain his thousands but Johnny his tens of thousands!''

Then, as if a curse had been laid on him for so much massacre, Johnny's hunting days were brought to an abrupt end. One winter's evening, crossing the frozen burn, laden with his spoils, he slipped on the ice and crashed down. The sharp report of his gun in the frosty air made us jump. It must be Johnny! He had broken not only a leg but his arm. ''He's lucky to be alive,'' Fergus said. ''He might have shot himself this time!''

Johnny sat now at his front door, his gun laid harmlessly beside him, and a new sound entered village life - no longer Johnny's shooting but his grumbling. ''What am I to do with myself. Naething! My hunting days are ower!''

In our country terminology this was known as girning and there was no greater term of contempt. Love your life, poor as it is, says Thoreau, but Johnny no longer loved his and complained incessantly. Only the birds were left in peace.

The first stage of what we came to call a miracle took place that spring, at the time when Fergus prowled the woodlands to see if the same birds had returned to their old haunts. Above the burn where Johnny met his downfall the mallards had nested again. This particular day Fergus was in time to see the mother duck sailing off down the burn, followed by a fluffy golden trail of ducklings. In the deserted nest lay one unhatched egg. Fergus picked it up - there might still be life in it.

When he re-entered the village the first thing he heard was the querulous note of Johnny's grumbling: ''Naething to do! Naething!'' On an impulse he pushed open the gate and walked up the path. ''Here's something for you to do. See this mallard's egg. Instead of shooting birds you can hatch one out!''

Johnny gave a bellow of rage. ''Catch me hatching out ducks' eggs!'' and was going to hurl it at Fergus's retreating back when he stopped short. Perhaps something about the greenish-blue colour, the shape, the mystery of the possible life stirring within the shell, made him hesitate. He laid the egg carefully inside his Glengarry bonnet and held it on his knee.

By the next morning the news was all over the village that girning Johnny was hatching out a mallard's egg. We had never much liked him, we had avoided him because of his bad temper and sharp tongue. Children never called to him over the garden fence, no one lingered at his gate. That changed now. ''Hear you've got an egg,'' we shouted to him. Johnny only grunted in reply, but when he thought no one was watching we saw him turn the egg over very carefully in his large hand.

Fergus began to drop in on him, awkwardly at first, then with growing enthusiasm. ''Queer thing, an egg,'' he would begin. ''Which came first, duck or egg, tell me that! Life's hotching with mysteries and wonders. There you are, Johnny, you'll not only be neighbour to birds like Thoreau at Walden Pond, but father to one. There's a thing called imprinting.''

''What's yon?'' Johnny asked casually, not liking to admit an ignorance, especially to his old enemy. ''You'll be the first person that duckling sees,'' said Fergus. ''It'll take you for another bird and follow you everywhere, just like a dog.'' Johnny snorted but later we heard him repeating, ''Imprinting!'' bending his ear closer to the greenish-blue curve of shell.

From being the loneliest person in the village Johnny became the most important, with his front door our meeting place. The children besieged him with questions. ''When will it hatch? What'll you feed it on? Can we dig up worms for it? Will it follow you like a dug as the Maister says? What'll you call it?''

''I hope yon egg's no' addled,'' muttered Davie, the pessimist.

''Wheesht!'' commanded Fergus with a glower. ''Nane of your gloom.''

We had odd inklings of something new going on in the heart of the hunter. Johnny sat there, for the first time in his life taking in the marvel of spring, the dawn chorus, the shimmering tracery of the trees, the foam of cherry blossom and everywhere a sense of growth, especially in the egg snuggled warmly in his Glengarry bonnet.

We pushed aside all dark doubts - what if Davie were right, what if it were addled. We speculated with growing excitement on when it would hatch. It was like having Christmas in May.

It happened one May afternoon, when we found Johnny sitting very still with a look of wonder on his face. Down his jacket, fragments of green-blue shell were scattered and on his knee was perched a bead-eyed duckling.

''Did you notice . . . ?'' Fergus began, more to himself than to anyone in particular. It wasn't till later that we took in the fact that Johnny's gun had vanished. There is no doubt that a country village is a place where miracles of all kinds are possible.

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