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
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
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
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
from Rain: A Fable for All and None