There was a time, when the world was only just beginning, and everything glowed with the magic of creation. Then, anything could happen, because with magic, all things are possible.
It was then that a man named Fionn lived. He was old, and had no wife or children, so there were no others in his house, save for a few servants, for Fionn was not poor. However, though Fionn had lived a long life, and had had many friends, he was so old, that everyone he grew up with had died long ago. Fionn never thought about just how lonely he was, because it made his heart ache and his eyes water with loneliness. Instead, Fionn walked every day in the forest, where he would hide his feelings by filling his mind with knowledge.
Fionn would spend hour after hour staring into a little green pool, watching, until he could tell you almost anything you could wish to know about all the fish that lived in the river. When Fionn tired of this, he lay back on the leaf litter, and listened to the birdsong drifting from the treetops. He listened so often that after a time he knew the voice of every bird in the forest, and soon learned the meaning of their songs.
When winter came, and snow lay thick on the ground, Fionn could not walk to the forest, for he was an old man. Instead, he would throw breadcrumbs on the ground outside his window, and he would listen to the chatter of the birds and still, he hid his loneliness.
When spring came, Fionn would return to the forest and watch the fresh buds unfurl a little more with each new day, and listen as the nestlings in the treetops learned the songs themselves.
So, the years passed, and Fionn became even older and frailer, though he still walked in the forest whenever the sun was shining. One year, the winter was colder than ever before, and though Fionn threw breadcrumbs out the window everyday, fewer and fewer birds would return to visit. Fionn grew sadder, and would gaze listlessly out the window, lips twitching as though he were praying for more of his feathered friends to come.
Fionn grew thin as a wraith, and the servants began to whisper that he would not see the spring. The days passed though, and at long last, the first day of spring dawned, though snow still lay heavy on the ground. Fionn threw the breadcrumbs out the window, and waited, to see how many birds would come today. Fionn waited and waited, but no birds came. Softly, he began to whistle. Not as men whistle a tune, but as a bird makes soft trills and chirrups, to tell his friends that there is food. But still no birds came.
By this time, the sun was high in the sky, and Fionn, still whistling, began to walk. He waded through the deep snow, singing to his friends and praying, in his heart, for an answer. As Fionn walked, he slowly lost hope, and that crushing loneliness he had worked so hard to keep at bay began to fill his mind with sorrow, until he felt so desolate that he could not go on. So Fionn stood and sang in the snow, and he sang a song so mournful, that the forest itself seemed to echo with its pain. He sang like a bird, but it was no birdsong that Fionn sang, for no bird ever felt such a deep and painful longing.
When the sun began to set, Fionn's song at last came to an end and the old man stood trembling in the snow, completely spent.
As he turned to follow his footprints home, he heard a soft flutter, and saw a puff of snow rise not far along the path. Fionn, hurried over, and had you been watching, you would have seen an old man stoop over a patch of snow, with a soft cry, as though his heart were breaking. He stood, and his face seemed to melt with joy, as tears flowed in rivers down his face.
Clutched in Fionn's quivering hand was a tiny grey chick. He glanced up at the trees around, but could not see any nest, or an anxious parent hovering overhead. So Fionn tucked the small creature against his breast, and began walking homewards again, this time with a spring in his step, like a man suddenly much younger than his years.
Fionn reached the house, to find that the servants had all left, believing that their master had wandered into the forest to die, for certainly such a frail old man could not survive there for long. Fionn was not distressed by this, being far more anxious to care for his unlikely gift. He made a small nest out of towels, and set it as close to the fire as he dared, and then rushed to the kitchen to soak some bread in sugar water, to feed the little bird.
The bird grew quickly and soon shed its soft grey down, replacing it with smooth silver plumage. She was like no other bird Fionn had ever seen, and he knew all of the birds of the forest. Fionn sang to her every day, and with every song he seemed just a little younger, a little less careworn and a little happier. He named her Laul, as despite his constant singing, Laul herself never spoke. She made only the occasional croak, which Fionn heard as 'llllaaul'.
As Laul grew, Fionn began to fear that she would fly away, or get lost or hurt. Every time she perched on the windowsill, his stomach clenched with dread that she would venture further, and a little of his old loneliness would resurface, making him appear once again an old man. Fionn began to fashion a light cage from willow twigs, so neatly woven that Laul could never squeeze through the gaps. When it was finished, Fionn took Laul on his wrist, and placed her ever so gently into the cage. When he closed the hatch, and looked up at Laul, perched in her cage, she wore such a look of betrayal on her face that Fionn almost opened the door again, to let her go free. But he felt a chill draught from the open window, reminding him that winter was on its way. So Fionn chose to keep Laul caged, for fear that she would fly free and meet the same fate as her kin.
Throughout that winter, Laul continued to watch Fionn from the confines of her cage, her eyes filled with an obscene mixture of unconditional love and the agony of betrayal. Fionn saw, and this winter, as with the last, he began to grow thinner and sadder. Soon, all the life and energy that Laul had given him in the spring was gone, and Fionn was nothing more than a shadow, slipping from room to room in his lonely house. He still sang every day to Laul, but his songs grew shorter and softer, for his muscles were so weak that he could hardly control his breathing. Once again, the days passed, and the first day of spring drew near. Fionn knew he would be lucky to see it, for he could feel his life slipping away, as slowly and surely as the snow was melting. On the first day of spring, Fionn opened Laul's cage. He had no desire to die in bed and leave her to starve slowly, not when she had the rest of her life before her.
With a quick flutter, Laul left her prison, and perched on the windowsill. She looked back at Fionn, who had turned away so that he would not have to watch her leave. Then, with a brief rustling of feathers, she was gone.
Fionn sagged into a chair and drifted into a half doze, his mind filled with green leaves and silver feathers. He was roused by a thread of song drifting through the window. It was the same call Fionn had whistled exactly a year before, as he wandered through the forest calling his friends. For a whole year, Fionn had heard no natural birdsong, but here, now, was this question hovering right outside his window.
Before Fionn could lift his voice to answer, there was a chorus of calls from the forest, which had lain silent for one whole year. A gale of wingbeats later and Fionn rushed to the window, to see a great turret of whirling birds in the garden, all singing his song.
Fionn sang back, and as he sang, the birds spun faster and faster. Each time he caught a glimpse of a silver feather, Fionn's song would falter and the column would slow, but the feathers would disappear. Fionn sang and sang and the birds flew and flew. With the setting sun his song ended; birds began to separate from the whirling column and fly off to their roosts. Soon, all that was left was a tower of dust, and that too began to settle, revealing a soft grey shadow within it.
Fionn rushed outside to find that where the birds had been now stood a young woman, clad in a smooth grey gown, with thick, arched eyebrows and piercing black eyes. Her hair was a dull brown, almost grey, but it shone so in the last rays of sunlight that you would have to call it silver.
Fionn, who had been so long without human company that he had almost forgotten that language, greeted her with a soft trill. She smiled, and answered with a magical chorus of chirrups. 'Laul,' he said, stepping forward to embrace her. And once again, the years fell from his face and the old man's tears seemed to wash the wrinkles away, leaving only a youth with a broad smile on his face and his whole life ahead of him.