The narrow bar of bright light from the gap in the curtains crept across the room. It moved across the face of the sleeping girl and she stirred, the red glow through her eyelids dragging her away from her dreams.

It was Christmas morning and Christmas had been saved.

For weeks, Stella had been worried. Her family was going through a very dire financial time. Her father had been out of work for months; food was scant and there was certainly no money for presents or luxuries. The oldest of five girls, Stella hadn’t wanted to face the disappointment of the younger children when Father Christmas didn’t come.

Father, good man that he was, had gone out yesterday afternoon and sold his most precious possessions so that he could buy each of the children a gift. The three youngest girls were each getting a rag doll. The shop owner had given Father a big discount as these were the last three rag dolls she had and she was happy to make the sale late on Christmas Eve. Stella had helped her Mother wrap them and they were beautiful. Stella and her sister, Beth, the second oldest, were getting the stationary that they needed for school the following year.

Stella was grateful that she would have the things she needed for school but a small part of her longed for a rag doll. Stella loved dolls.

Christmas morning progressed happily. The dolls delighted the younger children who gathered happily together, examining each dolls face and hair and comparing their pretty dresses and silky pantelettes. They played imaginative games where the dolls attended marvelous picnics and parties together.  

“The basket was filled with the most delicious food,” Sarah, the middle child, said. “chicken and ham with freshly baked bread. For afters there was apple pie with cream and biscuits with all sorts of different cheeses. Everyone could eat as much as they wanted.”

It broke Stella’s heart to hear the small children speaking about food this way. She knew they sometimes went to bed hungry and she was grateful for the large turkey that Father had bought home last night and which was currently roasting in the oven. The delicious small wafted through the house.

A great noise of loud barking broke into the pleasant scene. The family owned two large brown Great Dane dogs and they had gone mad, barking and howling. The dogs were generally gentle and a bit stupid, so the unexpected frenzy was unusual. Despite their large size, the dogs seemed to be thriving on a diet of maize meal and milk rather than the expensive dog food they had enjoyed before the family’s economic crisis had begun.

Right now, the two dogs were standing in front of a tall tree at the far end of the garden, barking incessantly. They were leaping around and tripping over each other in their fervent efforts to reach higher up into the tree.

Mother and Stella rushed outside. To their horror, they discovered that the dogs had discovered a bird’s nest in a hollow in the tree. Although only a few minutes had passed since the barking started, the dogs had already killed all of the baby birds except for one. It sat in the devastated nest, a terrified bundle of tiny feathers.

Mother calmed the dogs down, she was very good with them, while Stella gently picked up the one remaining baby bird and gently cradled it in her hands.

Mother and Stella hurried back to the house. They needed to try to save this tiny baby bird.

Mother and Kelly, Stella’s baby sister, set about turning an old basket into a warm nest for the baby. Kelly had never been this close to a bird, baby or otherwise, and her large, blue eyes were shining with interest.

Mother lay a worn out and thin pillow inside the basket and right up its sides. She then laid pieces of cut-off cotton material over the pillow. Kelly, under Mother’s direction, draped a worn-out toweling nappy over the handle of the basket, leaving a narrow opening to allow for airflow and some light. Seeing as the baby bird had come from a nest in a hollow in the tree, it seemed reasonable to keep its new home fairly dark and intimate.

It was impossible to determine what kind of bird this fragile little creature would grow into; if they could manage to keep it alive. Baby birds cannot feed themselves. Their mothers put the food directly into their gaping beaks.

Stella and Beth had a robust discussion around what they should feed the bird.

“I think pronutro cereal is the best thing,” said Beth. 

“Yes, we can mix it to a thin consistency with water and feed it to the bird with a syringe. We have a few left over from Kelly’s last course of antibiotics.”

Mother went off to see to the lunch and the two older girls undertook the job of feeding the bird.

Stella filled the syringe with one millilitre of the pronutro mixture and slowly injected it into the bird’s mouth. When the baby saw the syringe coming it willingly opened its beak, making the process easy for Stella. The baby seemed to react well to the cereal and so she refilled the syringe and once again the baby opened its beak, allowing Stella to inject the food into its mouth.

The girls decided that two millilitres of cereal was enough for the moment. Mother was calling that lunch was ready so the two girls left the bird and went to join the rest of the family which had gathering around the dinner table to enjoy their delicious windfall meal.

What an amazing meal it was. The turkey was tender on the inside and lovely and crispy on the outside. Mother had made her delicious roasted potatoes and there were steamed courgettes and baby spinach out of the vegetable garden.

Everyone was happy and Stella felt her own anxieties dissipating in this warm and loving environment. The lunch time conversation was excited and light; there were the presents to delight over and the baby bird to chat about.

Stella was a big reader. She had a vast collection of books, some new but many old and foraged from second hand bookshops and book sales. She knew that somewhere, in one of these many books, she had read about how to rear a baby bird.

After the lunch had been eaten and the dishes washed and packed away, Stella and Beth fed the baby bird again, using the syringe. They then set about looking for the book that could give them some more advice about rearing a bird by hand.

To be continued