The theme of “Night Calls” by Lisa Fugard is the combination of freedom and hope. Let's look at how this plays out in the story.
The narrator is thirteen-year-old Marlene. She has been at boarding school, but she comes home to the small animal sanctuary at Modder River on vacations to stay with her father. Her mother died in a car accident five years before. This time when Marlene comes home, she realizes that her father is not the same. He is apathetic and close, unsmiling and silent. Marlene does not understand what is wrong.
At the sanctuary lives a rare red-crested night heron, perhaps the last of its kind, that Marlene's father took in about the time her mother died. He has cared for this bird all these years, connecting with it in a way no one else has. Yet now the heron is listless and unwell, just like Marlene's father. They seem to be suffering together, perhaps both trapped in their situations, unable to be free, unable to find hope.
Then one night, Marlene sees her father carry the heron to the river. The next morning he tells her that a hyena broke into the pen and killed the bird. What has really happened is that Marlene's father has given the bird its freedom. His own spirits seem to rise, and he begins to work around the sanctuary and enjoy his time with his daughter. Perhaps he, too, has found freedom, maybe freedom from the guilt of keeping this bird captive for so long.
The bird remains close, however, and Marlene hears it cry at night. When it does, her father goes out to it. The connection between human and heron remains, and this provides hope for a continuing bond even in the bird's freedom. But one night the bird does not call. Marlene's father's eyes grow dull, and he spends long hours searching for the heron. Freedom does not seem to be all that it is supposed to be.
Marlene actually finds the heron's body, and she buries it without telling her father. She instinctively knows what the bird means to him, so that night, she mimics the heron's cry so her father can hear it. In so doing, she restores his hope that freedom was the right choice.