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How to hatch miracles

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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.


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