Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts – Saint Keneth of the Gulls

[Saint Keneth of the Gulls]
Once upon a time, more than a thousand years ago, a great white sea-gull was circling above the waves which roll between South England and Wales. He was pretending that he was doing this just for fun; and he seemed very lazy and dozy as he poised and floated without much trouble to move his wings. But really he was looking for a dinner, though he did not want any one to suspect it. And he hoped that some unwary fish would swim up near the surface of the water within diving reach of his great claws. His keen gray eyes were open all the while unsleepily, and not much that was going on down below on the water escaped his notice.

Suddenly his eye caught sight of a little black speck on the waves. “Aha!” he said to himself, “I think I see my dinner!” and with a great swoop down he pounced. You could hardly think how anything which looked so lazy and quiet could dart so like a flash of lightning. But a gull is an air-ship that can sink whenever it chooses. And when he gives a fish a sudden invitation to step in for dinner, the fish is hardly able to refuse.

But this was no fish which the hungry gull had spied. Before he reached the water he saw his mistake, and wheeling swiftly as only a gull can, he flapped back again into the air, uttering a screech of surprise.

“Cree-e-e!” he cried. “‘Tis no scaly water-fish such as I like to eat. ‘Tis one of those smooth land-fishes with yellow seaweed growing on its head. What is it doing here? I must see to this. Cree-e-e!”

No wonder the great bird circled and swooped curiously over the wicker basket which was floating on the waves. For on a piece of purple cloth lay a tiny pink-and-white baby, sound asleep, his yellow hair curling about the dimpled face, and one thumb thrust into the round red mouth.

“Well, well!” said the sea-gull to himself when he had examined the strange floating thing all he wished. “I must go and tell the others about this. Something must be done. There is a storm brewing, and this boat will not bear much rough weather. This little land-fish cannot swim. We must take care of him. Cree-e-e!” So off he flapped, and as he went he gave the family cry to call the gulls about him, wherever they might be.

Soon they came, circling carelessly, swooping sulkily, floating happily, darting eagerly, according to their various dispositions; and as they came they gave the Gull cry. “Cree-e-e!” said they, “what is the matter?” “Follow me,” said the White Gull to the great fleet of gray-winged air-ships. “Follow me, and you shall see” (which is Gull poetry).

Then he led the flock over the spot where the wicker cradle tossed on the growing waves. “Lo,” said he, “a land-fish in danger of being drowned among the Scaly Ones. Let us save it. See how pink it is. Its eyes are a piece of the sky, and its voice is not unlike ours – listen!”

For by this time the baby had wakened, and feeling cold and hungry and wet with the dashing spray, opened his pink mouth, and began to cry lustily. “E-e-e-e-e!” wailed the baby; and as the White Gull had said, that sounds very like the chief word of the Gull tongue.

“Poor little thing!” said all the mother gulls in chorus. “He talks our language, he must be saved. Come, brothers and sisters, and use your beaks and talons before the clumsy nest in which he lies is sunk beneath the waves. Cree-e-e, little one, cree-e-e! We will save you.”

Now, I don’t know what cree-e-e means in Gull. But the baby must have understood. For he stopped crying instantly, and looked up laughing at the white wings which fanned his face and the kind gray eyes which peered into his own blue ones.

So the strong gulls seized the corners of the purple cloth on which the baby lay, some with their claws, some with their hooked beaks. And at a signal from the White Gull they fluttered up and away, bearing the baby over the waves as if he were in a little hammock. The White Gull flew on before and guided them to land, – a high shelf which hung over the sea roaring on the rocks below, the nicest kind of a gull home. And here they laid the baby down, and sat about wondering what they must do next. But the baby cried.

“We must build him a nest,” said the White Gull. “These rocks are too hard and too sharp for a little land-fish. I know how they sleep in their home nests, for I have seen.”

Now the gulls lay their eggs on the bare rocks, and think these quite soft enough for the young gull babies. But they all agreed that this would never do for the little stranger. So they pulled the downy feathers from their breasts till they had a great pile; and of this they made the softest bed in which they laid the baby. And he slept.

This is how little Saint Keneth was saved from the waves by the kind sea-gulls. And it goes to show that birds are sometimes kinder than human folk. For Keneth was the Welsh Prince’s little son. But no one loved him, and his cruel mother had put him into the wicker basket and set him afloat on the waves, not caring what became of him nor hoping to see him again. But this in after years she did, when Keneth was become a great and famous Saint whom all, even the Prince and Princess, honored. She did not know him then because she believed that he was dead. How proud she would have been if she could have called him “Son!” But that was many years later.

Now when the gulls had made Keneth this comfortable nest, they next wondered what they should do to get him food. But the White Gull had an idea. He flew away over the land and was gone for some time. When at last he returned he had with him a kind forest doe, – a yellow mother Deer who had left her little ones, at the White Gull’s request, to come and feed the stranger baby. So Keneth found a new mother who loved him far better than his own had done, – a new mother who came every morning and every night and fed him with her milk. And he grew strong and fat and hearty, the happy baby in his nest upon the rocks, where his friends, the sea-gulls, watched over him, and the mother Deer fed and cared for him, and washed him clean with her warm crash-towel tongue.

Now when Keneth had lived in the sea-gulls’ home for some months, one day the flock of guardian gulls left him while they went upon a fishing trip. The mother Deer had not yet come with his breakfast, but was at home with her own little ones, so that for the first time Keneth was quite alone. He did not know this, but was sleeping peacefully on his purple quilt, when a strange face came peering over the edge of the rocks. It was a Shepherd from the nearest village who had clambered up to seek gulls’ eggs for his breakfast. But his eyes bulged out of his head, and he nearly fell over backward into the sea with surprise when he saw Keneth lying in his nest of feathers.

“The Saints preserve us!” he cried, “what is this?” But when he had climbed nearer and saw what it really was, he was delighted with the treasure which he had found. “A beautiful little baby!” he exclaimed. “I will take him home to my wife, who has no child of her own.” And forthwith he took up Keneth, wrapped in the purple cloth, and started down over the rocks towards his home.

But Keneth wakened at the stranger’s touch and began to wail. He had no mind to go with the Shepherd; he wanted to stay where he was. So as they went he screamed at the top of his lungs, hoping some of his friends would come. And the mother Deer, who was on her way thither, heard his voice. She came running in a fright, but she could do nothing to protect him, being a gentle, weaponless creature. However, she followed anxiously to see what would happen to her darling. So they went down the rocks, Keneth and the Shepherd, with the Deer close behind. And all the way Keneth shrieked loudly, “E-e-e-e!”

Now at last a messenger breeze carried the baby voice out over the water of the Bristol Channel where the gulls were fishing.

“What is that?” they said, stopping their work to listen. “Is it not our little land-fish calling us in Gull? He is in trouble or danger. Brothers, to the rescue! Cre-e-e-e!”

So the flock of gulls left their fishing and swooped back to the rock where they had left the baby. Dreadful! The nest was empty. They flapped their wide wings and screamed with fear, “What shall we do?”

But just then up the rocky hill came panting the mother Deer. Her glossy hide was warm and wet, and her tongue lolled out with weariness, she had run so fast.

“He is down there,” she panted. “The Shepherd has carried him to his hut and laid him in a nest such as human-folk make. The Shepherd’s wife loves him and would keep him there, but he is unhappy and cries for us. You must bring him back.”

“We will, we will!” screamed the gulls in chorus. “Guide us to the place, mother Deer.” And without another word they rose on their great, strong wings, and followed where she led. Back down the hill she took the path, over the moor and up the lane to a little white cottage under the rosebushes. “Here is the place,” said the Deer, and she paused.

But the flock of gulls with a great whirring and rustling and screaming swooped in at the little low door, straight up to the cradle where Keneth lay crying “E-e-e-e!” as if his heart would break.

The Shepherd’s wife was sitting by the cradle saying, “Hush!” and “Bye-lo!” and other silly things that Keneth did not understand. But when she heard the rushing of the gulls’ wings, she gave a scream and started for the door.

“Cree-e-e!” cried the gulls fiercely. “Give us our little one.” And they perched on the edge of the cradle and looked tenderly at Keneth. Then he stopped his crying and began to laugh, for these were the voices he knew and loved. And in another minute the gulls had fastened their beaks and claws into the purple cloth, and once more bore him away as they had done when they saved him from the sea.

Out of the door they flew, right over the Shepherd’s astonished head, while his wife stared wildly at the empty cradle. And soon Keneth was lying in his own nest on the ledge above the roaring billows.

After this no one tried again to bring the gulls’ adopted baby back among human folk. Little Keneth tarried and thrived with his feathered brothers, growing fat and strong. When he came to walk he was somewhat lame, to be sure; one of his legs was shorter than the other, and he limped like a poor gull who has hurt his foot. But this troubled Keneth very little, and the gulls were kind. He was always happy and contented, full of singing and laughter and kind words for all.

And here in his wild, spray-sprinkled nest above the Atlantic breakers, Keneth dwelt all his life. The Welsh peasants of the Gower peninsula revered him as their Saint, knowing him to be a holy man beloved by the gulls and the deer and all the wild creatures of shore and forest, who did their kindly best to make him happy.

- from The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, by Abbie Farwell Brown, illustrations by Fanny Y. Cory, 1900