What the Sparrows Did
You probably remember, when you were a child, asking your father how the light came into the light bulb. He would have been reading the newspaper, as fathers do, or watching the baseball game. You were looking at the lamp, and when he heard your question he emerged slowly from the deep waters of his own thoughts, like a whale coming up for breath. His eyes lingered for a moment on the front page or the eighth inning, and when they came to rest on you, you felt the weight of them.
The way he answered you would depend wholly on what kind of man he was.
If he was a serious man, he would tell you that it comes from electricity. If he was a scientific man, he would tell you about circuits and the free movement of electrons. If he was an imaginative man, he might make up an answer.
But if he was a truthful man, he would tell you this:
“Well,” he would say, and there would be a little smile on his face, “it comes from the sparrows.”
“In 1821,” Father said, “there were two inventors. One was a very nervous man, and his name was Granville T. Faraday. He was very brilliant. The other was named Emily Lovelace, and she was as shrewd as they come: she knew all about the different kinds of forks and how to eat an oyster and how to listen to a man when he is yammering on and on and not betray that she was actually thinking about wheels and pulleys and numbers on a blackboard. She was brilliant, too.
In fact, Granville T. Faraday and Emily Lovelace were both so brilliant that when they met at a cocktail party—where Ms. Lovelace showed Mr. Faraday all about forks and oysters—they knew right away that they had to get married. It was nothing short of a scientific necessity. In just a few short years they had moved to the city, where they had a small laboratory and two young children, a boy and a girl.
Now, in those days children had a very tough time of it. This was because there was no light after dark, and the sun went down very early.”
“Didn’t they have candles?” you interrupted.
Father thought for a moment. “The rich people had candles. But most people were poor. Granville and Emily were poor: they had spent all their money on Bunsen burners and test tubes and all kinds of things for their laboratory. This meant that their children, Nicholas and Noel, were like all the other poor children in the city: they had to wake up very early for school, as soon as the sun was up, and go to bed very early, as soon as the sun was down.”
“That is bad,” you said. You hated going to bed early.
“Yes,” said Father. “And the worst part was, Nick and Noel always had to get up so early that even on Friday nights they would be too tired to stay up and watch cartoons.”
“They didn’t have cartoons back then!”
“Of course they did! Ever since the first man scribbled stick figures in the dirt there have been cartoons. It’s just that in those days it was much harder to watch them. Back then they would draw each cartoon on a hundred pages like a flip book. The men from the television company would go around the city with the pages in their briefcases, and when you wanted to watch a cartoon your parents had to go out to the street and flag one down. Then the man from the television company would come inside and sit behind the TV, which back then was just a big box with curtains, and he’d have to flip the pages one by one until the cartoon was over. Then you’d give him a nickel and he’d go home.
In any case, this difficulty with the light was not lost on Granville and Emily. They saw how tired their children were in the morning, and how little they enjoyed going to bed so early. And since they were scientists, they decided to do something about it. They put blue and yellow chemicals into bottles. They looked at things under microscopes. They wrote long equations on the blackboard. But, brilliant as they were, they were stumped.
Until one day when Emily was taking a walk. The city was just getting started in those days: they didn’t have near as many buildings, and nobody had quite thought of taxes yet. Back then, there were still a great many trees and quite a bit of grass, and Emily liked to walk by them and think.
But on this particular day, she was walking down the road toward her favorite patch of trees when she saw that there was a group of construction workers digging them up by the roots.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ she asked. ‘What are you doing with these trees?’
The foreman tipped his hat at her in a way that looked kind but actually meant he was going to talk to her like an infant because she was a woman and, naturally, couldn’t be expected to understand. ‘They gotta come out, ma’am. I got here plans for a new office building.’
‘Let me see these plans,’ said Emily.
He showed them to her. ‘You can kick and scream all you want, ma’am, but it’s happening all around the city. Trees are getting pulled up, buildings comin’ in. It’s the 19th century, after all: this here’s the modern age.’
Emily watched in distress. She watched as the men put big chains around the trees, and she watched as they gave a great heave and pulled them up out of the dirt.
But as they fell to the ground with a great crash, she noticed something: from amidst the green leaves, she saw the flurry of little wings and heard the startled chirping of little throats. Just then, a whole flock of sparrows went darting from the branches. They whizzed around for a moment, and she saw the looks of distress in their black eyes before they zipped up into the sky and flew away.
The gears of Emily’s vast and wondrous mind began to turn. She went right home and found Granville in the laboratory.
‘Granville,’ she said, ‘I have it. We must draft a letter and make a hundred copies. Then we must send it around to the chiefs of all the birds within a hundred miles.’
And that’s just what they did. They stayed up all night writing the letters, and then they tied them with yellow ribbon and sent them out with that morning’s post. Soon enough, word had spread to all the birds in the surrounding area. It was on that fateful morning, a Tuesday, Granville and Emily sat down in the park with the chiefs of all the birds for a meeting that would change history.
‘You can imagine that we are quite upset,’ began the cardinal, who, because of his beautiful red plumage, always assumed he was in charge. ‘This business with the trees is most—’”
“Hey, wait!” you interrupted again, screwing up your face. You had that little tickling behind your ears that usually meant your father was teasing you. “Birds can’t talk!”
“Says who? Have you ever tried speaking to one?”
“Well, the next time you’re outside and you see a bird, try calling its name. You won’t need to be loud: they have very little ears. A whisper will do. In any case, the fact of the matter is that birds can talk; it’s just that birds and humans rarely have anything worth discussing with each other.
But on this important day in 1821, the two species did have something worth discussing. Something crucial, in fact. Thus it was that they put aside their differences and gathered together in the park, with Granville and Emily sitting cross-legged on the ground and the chiefs of the birds gathered on the pavement in front of them. Every once in a while, a carriage would go by or a businessman would blow his nose into his handkerchief, but nobody paid any mind to the odd pair of inventors getting grass stains on their trousers. No one had any idea that history was being made right under their noses.
‘You can imagine that we are quite upset,’ began the cardinal. ‘This business with the trees is most distressing.’
‘They’re cutting them down all over the city,’ said the robin. ‘Soon we will have no place left to live!’
‘Yes, we understand,’ said Emily. ‘My husband and I are quite alarmed about it ourselves.’
‘Are you, human?’ said the crow. She was the most untrustworthy of the bunch, and that also made her the most untrusting. ‘Your home is made of brick. It can’t be pulled up by the roots.’
‘You’re very right,’ said Emily. ‘I’m quite sure I can’t imagine what it’s like, being turned out of your homes, seeing your nests destroyed. I would like to say, on behalf of the city, that I am truly sorry for our behavior.’
The birds chirped and sang to each other in their own languages, and it seemed like quite a disagreement rolled through the group.
Then the sparrow, who was the wisest, said: ‘That is well and good. But your condolences don’t solve our problem.’
‘Right again,’ said Emily. ‘But we also have a problem, and my grandmother used to say that when you put two problems together sometimes you get a solution.’
And so Granville and Emily explained their plan. The birds were wary at first, but by the end they were all nodding.
‘This is a good plan,’ said the sparrow. ‘I, for one, will stay here and help carry it out.’
‘Me, too,’ said the pigeon. ‘I have never been partial to trees, myself.’
‘Nor have I,’ said the seagull.
So Granville and Emily went to go see the mayor, to whom they made their proposal. Emily in particular was so charming and so persuasive that the mayor clapped his hands and called the city planner, and the city planner called the chief engineer, and the chief engineer called his secretary, and his secretary called her boyfriend—who happened to be acting manager at a bank—and when everyone had arrived they wrote up the contracts on the spot.
The very next day, Emily marched down the street to where the construction workers were pulling up the trees. The foreman tipped his hat at her. ‘Ma’am, like I said yesterday—’
‘The trees have to go, I know,’ said Emily. She handed him a contract. ‘I’m not here about that. I would like to commission you for something else.’”
“One month later,” said Father, “after the trees were gone, teams of construction workers went out all over the city. They took long beams of wood with them and long rolls of wire. And they started to put up telephone poles.”
“Telephone poles?” you asked.
“Yes,” said Father. “Only there were no telephones yet, so they were only called ‘poles.’ The citizens of the city watched with curiosity and some alarm as the construction workers strung the wires up everywhere, hanging them on the poles, connecting them to houses and buildings like some giant rubber spiderweb. In places where the buildings were too close together, they buried the wires under the earth. But everywhere else and far out into the countryside, the poles rose up like the trees were returning from the dead.
Meanwhile, Emily and Granville were hard at work in the laboratory. Nick and Noel sat on the stairs and watched, and in the rafters were blue jays and woodpeckers and swallows staring down with interest, for Emily and Granville were making something new. There is a kind of hush that goes over the world when something truly new is being made, like all of creation is sitting in the waiting room, listening for the first cry.
Emily and Granville worked for a long time. When they were finished, they stood back from their table and there it was: the first light bulb.
Emily looked up at the birds in the rafters and she smiled her charming smile. ‘Now, if you please.’
The birds spread their wings and flew out the open window. They flew out from between the buildings, up and out into the sky. It was evening, and the last bits of the red sun were lighting up the horizon in the west. In the houses, mothers and fathers were tucking their children into bed. The birds flew by all of it, into the countryside. They flew over fields and forests, and finally they flew over oceans.
Birds, you see, can go faster than people realize. They can go faster than anybody. Which is why, as the sun went down over the curve of the earth where no one could see it, the birds flew after it. They chased it all the way around the curve until they got to it, and when they got to it they plucked a little bit of it and brought it back.
They brought it back to the basement where Emily and Granville and Nick and Noel were waiting, and when they arrived holding bits of sunshine in their beaks they dropped the light into the light bulb.
And on the table, the light bulb glowed like a candle.
After that, Emily and Granville sold light bulbs to everyone in the city. They sold them for a penny each, and so many people bought them that they became quite wealthy. Soon all the houses and apartments in the city had light: for every night, after the sun sank, the birds would chase after it, bringing bits of it back and dropping it into the wires, where it would travel to every light bulb in the city.
Pretty soon, the people of the city began to use the light for all sorts of things. Some used it for heat. Some very clever people discovered how to use it to talk to each other through the wires. The television company used it to make its pictures move on their own, which caused quite a number of layoffs. All over, people were finding ways to use the light and the wires.
As for the birds, they couldn’t have been happier. Their home had been saved: though the trees were gone, they now made their nests on the telephone poles. These days, if you go into the city you will see birds everywhere. They will be sitting in window sills. They will build nests on roofs. They will perch on street lamps and on wires. And when night falls and the city lights shine in the darkness, you know it is because of the birds.”
“But what happened to Granville and Emily?” you asked.
Father paused. On the TV the announcers were shouting about a walk-off home run, but Father wasn’t paying attention. He was thinking. You knew it because you could see his eyebrows knitting together the way Grandma’s needles went when she was making socks.
“Well,” Father said slowly, “for a while they ran their light bulb company. All over the city, children were very happy; now they could stay up late reading comic books and watching cartoons.
But then, one day, Emily got very sick.”
When Father said this, you were quiet. Your head filled with thoughts about that funny hospital smell and the cold floor and plastic bags filled with fluid.
“She was sick for a long time,” said Father. “Granville was very nervous, even more nervous than usual. He became very tired and he would often sit in the living room and stare at the television or the newspaper, but in his mind he was thinking anxious thoughts.
But Nick and Noel, they were very brave. They went to their room and emptied their piggy bank on the floor, and when they had counted it all up they had seventy-two cents, two buttons, and a ball of lint. They took their money—leaving the buttons and the lint—and went to the corner store, where they bought some seeds. But they didn’t plant the seeds: that night, they opened their window and held the seeds out in their palms, whispering softly for any birds that would listen.
After a little while, a sparrow came along. He perched on Noel’s finger and eyed the seeds. Then he looked up.
‘I know you,’ he said. ‘You are the daughter of Emily Lovelace.’
Noel blushed. ‘Our mom needs your help.’
‘She’s terribly sick,’ said Nick.
The sparrow looked at them. ‘Your mother is a wonderful woman. When all the other humans would have driven us away, she made a home for us here in the city. Tell me what you need.’
‘The doctor says there is a darkness in her,’ said Nick. ‘It’s in her chest and it’s growing.’
‘We thought,’ said Noel, ‘that, if it wasn’t too much trouble, you could bring some light for her.’
‘How much light?’ said the sparrow.
‘A lot of light,’ said Nick and Noel, and they grew sad as the weight of what they were asking settled on them.
The sparrow considered. Then he nodded. ‘It will be done.’
Taking a single seed from Noel’s palm, he flew away.
The next day, all the people of the city were going about their usual business. Men in suits looked at their watches and wrinkled their noses, old ladies cut petunias in their gardens, little dogs barked at squirrels like they were demons from hell. It was an altogether ordinary day.
That is, until precisely 9:23 a.m. At 9:23 a.m., a shadow went over the city. The men in suits looked up. The old ladies looked up. The dogs kept barking (they were quite stupid). In the sky was a whole flock of birds, the biggest flock that had ever been seen before or has ever been seen since. It was made up of birds of all kinds: sparrows and robins and cardinals and seagulls, goldfinches and ravens and starlings and wrens. They moved like a black cloud over the city, and below all the people could hear the beating of thousands of wings. Up and up the flock flew, up over the city and into sky, heading straight for the sun.
Granville was visiting the hospital that morning, as he did every morning. He was sitting at Emily’s bedside. He’d brought her flowers, the yellow ones she loved so much, and arranged them in a vase. Emily was asleep; she was very pale. Granville sat in his chair and watched her breathe.”
Father cleared his throat. It took him a moment before he could speak again. “You know, everyone thought Granville was very strong. They admired how he continued on in the laboratory day after day, even while his wife’s condition grew worse and worse. He was a good father, they said, taking care of Nick and Noel the way he did.
But inside, Granville felt like a scared little child.”
You looked at your feet. Young as you were, you knew deep within yourself that there are times when we must look away, when eyes must be averted. Times when a man is suddenly stripped naked and laid bare before the wind and the rain. On the TV, a Coca-Cola commercial was playing.
After a little while, you said: “And then what, Dad? What happened next?”
Your father took a breath. “There was a knock at the window. Granville looked up. There, to his amazement, was a sparrow on the window sill. It had a bit of sun in its beak.
Granville got up and opened the window.
What happened next is hard to describe; not even Granville saw it clearly. Everyone knows that you mustn’t look at the sun or else you will go blind.
But that day, the birds brought the sun to Emily Lovelace.”
With that, Father became silent.
“And she got better?” you asked.
“Yes,” said Father. “She got better. Emily and Granville and Nick and Noel went on to do many great and amazing things, things that would take hours to tell and would fill a whole bookshelf full of stories.”
Father stood. “And that is how the light came into the light bulb. Which is why, whenever you see a sparrow in your yard or sitting on a telephone wire, you must whisper a breath of thanks, not only for bringing the light, but also for saving the life of Emily Lovelace. Now,” he said, and he reached out and switched off the lamp, “let us give the birds a rest for the night, shall we?”
You probably remember your father tucking you into bed that night: it was, most likely, one of the few nights you went to bed without protest. Perhaps your father gave you a kiss on the forehead, or he brushed the hair out of your eyes. His presence was strong and tall in the room. In that moment, as you felt the weight of his eyes and watched him submerge again, and saw his thoughts return to deep places unfathomable, you knew that you loved him. You told him so and he smiled.
“I love you, too,” he said. “Goodnight.”
He went out and closed the door.
Now, if you were a serious child, you probably went right to sleep. If you were a scientific child, you probably lay awake for a while and thought about all the errors in your father’s story. If you were an imaginative child, you probably began dreaming up a story of your own.
But if you were a truthful child, you got out of bed and turned on a lamp. You watched it glow and flicker. Then you opened the window and put both arms on the sill, looking out into the night.
And then you began to whisper for the sparrows.
Story by Matt Mills