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Once Upon A Time...
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Once Upon A Time...

Once, when Alexandria was quite little, she happened upon Rosie as he was crouching beside the long mirror that stood on the dining room sideboard in her mother’s house. She could see that the cat was planning an ambush. His body was so tense with concentration that Alexandria stopped at the door afraid of disturbing him. Sometimes she liked to watch him, wishing she could read his thoughts, especially at moments like these when he was poised for attack. She tried to imagine what inherited drama he was playing out when he set out to hunt. Akoth taught them that every creature, man and beast alike, lived the same drama generation after generation, and it only cost a little attention to discover each creature’s particular story.

Her grandmother’s chickens, for example, had a habit of scratching the ground, scattering roots and soil with their legs and stopping every once in a while to look up at the sky, clucking away as their little hatchlings followed behind. Alexandria knew that many people thought that the chickens were just looking for seeds and worms, teaching their babies how to fend for themselves. But the truth is they were actually desperately searching for the hawk’s lost needle, watching the sky out of the corner of their eyes in case he happened to be passing by to carry off a chick.

But it hadn’t always been that way. In fact, Gweno the hen and Ongowo, the hawk, had once been best friends. They spent most of their youth together and planned to look after each other’s families when they grew up. They themselves were quite different then than they are today. Gweno, although she had always been rather flighty, was also very slim and agile and fond of going to parties, especially because it was a great opportunity to keep her finger on the pulse of the intimate affairs of her neighbors. Ongowo, on the other hand, was a shy bird who made his living weaving and sewing.

He had a magic needle that could transform any bird into a vision of perfection, regardless of shape or size, by sewing for it the perfect outfit to measure, complete with disappearing seams. It had, under the hawk’s talented eye, dressed all the birds of the Savannah as well as nearly all the residents of the Highlands for all the big social events and some of the small parties that occasionally took place in the area. Ongowo’s creations were famous and greatly esteemed and birds flocked to him from far and wide to get that distinctive look that was impossible to imitate. The only drawback was that the hawk could not meet the demands fast enough: the needle was one of a kind and once a bird had put on an outfit made by it, the outfit could only come off if the needle itself revealed and unstitched the vanished seams. So the hawk had to personally dress and undress anyone who came to him. Whenever Gweno had a party to attend, she headed straight for Ongowo’s workshop to get dressed and encouraged everyone who knew her, and admired her style, (which was everyone), to go to him too. Between the occasional party, the entire host of clamoring birds, and his magic needle, Ongowo was busy all the time, and he enjoyed it most of the time. However, as time went by, he grew lonely, especially after Gweno got married to a local rooster. So Gweno decided that the only way to cheer up her friend was to find him a mate. All that was needed was the right opportunity.

One day that opportunity presented itself. All the birds were invited to the sky for the biggest party of the year and Gweno insisted that Ongowo go with her. She was sure that there would be hundreds of stunning birds up there, and since everyone, but everyone, was going to be there, they were guaranteed to find someone for Ongowo. All they had to do was look irresistible, arrive early to meet every avian guest, and leave late after having enjoyed themselves thoroughly and, of course, found a mate for Ongowo.

Preparation for the party took several weeks and all the birds hurried to Ongowo to get the perfect party dress, each claiming Gweno’s personal recommendation. The weaverbird, who had apprenticed with the hawk for sometime, wanted something to compensate for his small size, so Ongowo made him a suit of gleaming golden feathers complemented with a short black cape. The flamingo wanted Ongowo to flatter her long, graceful neck, but with something different from the swan, since she also had mile high legs and not the squat paddles the swan shifted around in. The swan heard about the flamingo’s request and quipped that at least his nose wasn’t bigger than his head, and unlike some people, he did not have to eat upside down. The feud that ensued lasted for generations, but it is part of another story. Suffice it to say that faced with their respective requests, Ongowo decided to dress the swan in cloudy white to complement his golden beak and black set eyes, and he softened the flamingo’s (admittedly awkward) gait by drawing attention away from it with a series of cool and hot pinks that changed intensity as she moved, keeping the beholder entranced. All the barbs about feet and noses being hurled around made the pelican a little nervous, so he asked Ongowo if there was anything that could be done to flatter his rather large beak pouch and his unfortunate feet. The comprehending hawk recommended a subtle palette for him and when they were done, pelican was so pleased that the smile he had on stayed on his face permanently.

Gweno of course went for a bold palette and asked Ongowo to let his imagination loose. She was after all, the trendsetter, and as the gown he made for her took shape, she knew that she would be the belle of the ball. The rusty orange collar was trimmed with iridescent blue and green feathers, and the black wings tinged with red and burgundy accents. The effect of these colors was set off by a deep pink head-dress that began at the forehead and rose to a peak just over the crown. The master touch, however, was the flowing train of black tail feathers—also accented with blue and green iridescence—that arched up into the air and then flowed down behind, creating a wonderfully fluid effect and presenting the hen in all her majesty. When the parrot, an incorrigible copycat, caught a glimpse of the gown during one of Gweno’s fittings, he had to have the same thing. But the needle, as it was well known, only created distinctive pieces that were impossible to imitate. So although the parrot got a bold palette, with yellows and greens and reds, his outfit had none of the breathless subtlety of the hen’s imposing gown.

Gweno, like all the other birds, went to Ongowo’s several times to get fitted and refitted for her party dress. At every visit she painted the most vivid picture of Ongowo’s future happiness with his mate. He and his mate would have lots of children, just like Gweno planned to do; they would drift happily through the skies together, riding the wind; at every party they attended together they would be the envy of the province, since Ongowo was such a wonderful weaver and his bride would undoubtedly be stunning; and so on and so forth. At first Ongowo just humored his friend, but it wasn’t long before he started listening and even embellishing the future she projected for him. Very soon he was just as eager as Gweno, if not more, to go to the big party in the sky. Finally the dress was ready and Gweno took it home to show off to her new husband the rooster.

On the day of the party Gweno arrived at Ongowo’s feeling a little funny. The last of the other birds had just left with their dress when she came in, slightly winded. She was unusually heavy and she told her friend that she had started laying eggs. It looked like she was going to have her first set of babies! Ongowo was delighted, and then, as it dawned on him that Gweno may not go to the party with him after all, his spirits fell. No, no, no, said Gweno, of course we are going together. Today is the day we find you a bride, so don’t even imagine backing out now. But how can we go, Ongowo asked reasonably, I don’t think you can fly very well and besides, your gown won’t fit anymore and there is no time to re-do it. No problem, the hen told him. You go on and prepare yourself and I’ll go home and adjust the gown myself. But you don’t know anything about sewing or weaving, Ongowo protested. It won’t matter if you give me your magic needle. I can just tell it where to make the adjustments and let it do the work. No, you don’t understand how it works. You have to hold the needle very carefully – not too tightly because then it won’t be able to move, and not too loosely because then you might drop it and then you will never be able to find it. Don’t worry, Gweno insisted, just show me how to hold it and I will be very careful with it. Once I have adjusted the seams for my gown I’ll bring the needle right back and we can leave for the party, ok?

Ongowo was reluctant. He was a skilled weaver in his own right, but the magic needle was a family heirloom and no one outside his family had ever learned how to use it. But if he did not find a mate soon, there would be no future generations to pass the heirloom to. And besides, Gweno was practically family. Are you sure you can manage the needle? He asked, trying to believe that he was doing the right thing. Absolutely. Gweno assured him, If anything happens to it, you can take my babies in exchange.

Hearing Gweno’s extravagant promise, Ongowo laughed. He relaxed and showed her how to use the needle, warning her to be very careful because it was slippery and although it would not harm her or her eggs, it sometimes had a mind of its own and might decide to wander off without telling her. He would get ready and then wait for her so that they could fly off together to the party. Gweno was thrilled and left clutching the needle in her beak, dreaming of her perfect party gown, the perfect impression she would make on all the assembled, and the perfect mate she would find for her perfect friend.

She had flown most of the way home when, suddenly, she realized that the needle was no longer in her beak. Maybe she had put it somewhere else, she thought. She alighted on a branch and started checking herself. She brushed through her breast feathers but found nothing there. She looked under her right wing, and then under her left wing. She even combed through her tail feathers, hoping to find it somewhere. But she could not. What had she done with Ongowo’s magic needle? She decided to retrace her flight path to see if she could spot it. She realized quickly that flying up in the sky, she could not see the ground very well, let alone find a wandering wayward needle. So she alighted once more and started walking along the same terrain she had flown over. After a while she arrived at Ongowo’s house again. She was about to let herself in to tell him what had happened when she decided to turn back, sure she could find the needle and avoid worrying her friend needlessly. This time she went all the way to her own house, looking intently at the ground, hoping desperately to spot the needle.

The rooster met her at the door wearing her gown, impatient to remove it so he could put on his own party attire. She had asked him to help her get ready by putting the dress on to fill it out while she altered it with the magic needle, and he had put it on while he waited for her to return. But she had taken too long and he was nervous. He was beside himself when he heard that she had lost the magic needle. Well, she had to find it tout de suite, he exclaimed. He was supposed to accompany the flamingo to the party and he had to get going! How would it look if he arrived late? Besides, he did not enjoy lingering around in his wife’s dress. He did not notice that Gweno was getting quite distraught as he continued to make a fuss. The cocky bird worriedly puffed out his chest and strutted about, anxious that passers by would laugh if they saw him. Gweno only became more frantic searching for the lost heirloom.

Hours passed and Ongowo waited for his friend. He had expected Gweno back fairly quickly so when she still did not appear after he had finished dressing up, he began to worry. Most of the guests would already have arrived at the party and he and Gweno were probably going to get there among the last. He did not know whether to keep waiting in case Gweno just happened to be on her way, or whether to go looking for her. He decided that it would be better to wait for little while longer before searching for his missing friend who was probably just unable to tear herself from the mirror.

But he grew nervous waiting, and started imaging that something had happened to Gweno. He should go and find her. He should stay. He should send a message. But there was no one to send. Everyone had already left for the party ages ago. He would have to go himself. He would fly high in the sky so that in case she was on her way to his place, he would catch a glimpse of her, or at least of the magnificent gown he had made for her.

There was no one in the sky that evening. Ongowo hurried to Gweno’s, finally convinced of the worst: something horrible had happened to her. As he drew closer, he saw her on the ground, still not dressed, picking and scratching everywhere with all her might. There did not seem to be any pattern to her movements. As he got closer he called out to her, Gweno! She looked up as if startled and then darted under a tree. Puzzled, Ongowo followed her and asked her what the matter was.

Nothing, she said with a fugitive look. She could not face him. She would not look him in the eye. Please tell me what’s wrong. The party started a long time ago and if we don’t leave soon, we are going to miss it. Why aren’t you even dressed? Gweno finally looked at him and said, I haven’t adjusted the dress yet. Why not? asked her friend, even more puzzled, didn’t the needle work? I lost the needle, she confessed finally. I have been looking for it all afternoon and I can’t find it. I am so sorry, but…

Ongowo saw his future, his dreamed of mate, his projected family, vanish as she spoke. After a while he thought, since there would be no heirs, there is no need for an heirloom. He looked at his friend for a while, his livelihood evaporated and said simply, I’ll just have a chick like you promised me and then we can call it even. What? cried Gweno. You want my chick? Yes, that way at least I’ll have a child to call my own who will look after me when I am old and I don’t have to worry about never getting married. No, no, no! Gweno said emphatically. I can’t give you my child. What do you take me for?

Ongowo thought for a minute and then said, since you cannot find my needle and you will not give me what you promised, I will take a chick every time I pass by until you find that needle and return it. Then I will stop. With that, he flew away, leaving Gweno flustered and a little frightened.

She spent the rest of the evening looking for the needle to no avail. The next day, and the one after, and for several weeks following, she looked for the needle and still she had no luck. During the hours she spent sitting on her eggs, she thought only of finding the needle, overwhelmed by remorse as she slowly realized what the loss meant to her friend’s life. The rooster was no help to her. In fact, he was so fixed on getting the dress off that every morning, even before the sun had risen in the horizon, he would harass her out of the coop to look for the needle, making sure to make as much noise as possible to wake up his exhausted mate. Whenever she got up, she did not fly off to chat with passers by to find out what her neighbors were doing as she would have done in the past. Instead she simply set about looking for the needle, scratching away at the ground, hopelessly hoping it was buried somewhere beneath her feet.

Finally her chicks hatched and they became the center of her attention. By now she was so used to scratching the ground that when she finally took them out, she started doing it and little ones gleefully followed suit. She had nearly forgotten Ongowo’s last words, half believing that he had only spoken in jest, but when she saw her hatchlings imitating her, she told them to watch for a magic needle and to tell her if any of them happened to find it.

One day a shadow passed over the ground near where Gweno sat with her brood. She recognized her old friend and went out to greet him. Ongowo however, was not paying a social call. He had spent a long time isolated from everyone because he did not want to hear about the big party in the sky, about what he had missed; he did not want to face the frustrated avian flocks that crowded to his workshop. At first when the birds had come to him to have their finery removed, he had asked them to return later, hoping to buy time to find his magic needle. It quickly became apparent that he could not help them and many who had formerly sworn devotion to him suddenly became hostile. They were forced to walk around in all too splendid attire, even when doing the most mundane things, and they were not at all pleased. They thought that Ongowo was playing a trick on them and they shunned him for it. To this day, all the birds who had gone to Ongowo still have on their party dress. Understandably Ongowo’s life became very difficult and he grew sad and bitter. His troubled mind found some comfort in the once careless idea of raising one of Gweno’s chicks as his own, and he gradually became convinced that it was the only way he would ever have any company, anyone to love. So he swooped down to where the little chickens were and in a single swift motion lifted one neatly off the ground and flew off.

Gweno was stunned and at first she could not move. Then she tried to follow him, but she had spent so much time scratching and pecking away at the ground that she could no longer take to the sky. Her body had grown round and squat and her wings lacked the strength to lift her up. Akoth told her grandson and her great-grandchildren that in order to avoid being caught off guard by swooping hawks, hens had even learned how to drink water looking up at the sky.

from Rain: A Fable for All and None