How the Phoenix got her fine plumage

A very long time ago before men had learnt how to hunt and set traps, all the birds lived together peacefully in a great forest. Theirs was a happy and carefree existence, the forest supplied all their needs.

There was a plentiful supply of nuts, fruits seeds and berries for the birds to feed on and they had no enemies. Because food was to be found everywhere in seemingly endless supplies, the birds came to be rather wasteful. One would pick at a pear here, another would take a bite out of a blueberry there, dig a few seeds out of a guava, and discard the rest of the fruit. They all shared the same carefree spirit, except for one, the phoenix.

The phoenix was a real worrier. She was always telling the other birds to be careful and to prepare for a time that food might not be so plentiful. All the other birds ignored her; some even started calling her nasty names. Eventually nobody wanted to have anything to do with phoenix; they thought there was something not quite right about her, always scolding them and giving out advice they considered useless. They carried on with their usual wasteful habits.

Whereas most of the birds had colourful plumage, phoenix was quite ordinary to look at. Some might say a little ugly, even. Her head was a little bit too big compared to her body. Her feathers were a dull brownish grey. She worried about the future.

What if something bad were to happen tomorrow? One day the fruit might stop growing on the trees, or the trees might drop their leaves, or just fall over, even! She determined to prepare for the worst and started collecting all the fruits and berries and seeds other birds discarded. She stowed them away in places like hollow trees, buried them in the ground or underneath the roots. At first one or two of the others were a bit curious, but then they just got bored. They laughed whenever they spotted phoenix scavenging, and mocked her.

One day a great storm hit the forest, and what phoenix had been worrying about all these years came to pass. Leaves and whole branches were blown off the trees and carried far away by the powerful wind. Some trees were blown over altogether, and with the protection of the dense foliage now gone, the heat of the sun penetrated the forest and dried everything up! Suddenly the birds found they had to fight each other for the odd berry or a stray nut.

They pecked at the hard, dry tree trunks, hoping to extract some nourishing sap. Phoenix started sharing out all the scraps of food she had stored up all over the forest. Now every single bird, large and small, wanted to be her friend. Thanks to phoenix all the birds had something to eat every day. Eventually the gods sent some clouds over the land, which cooled things down a bit, and some rain fell. Green sprouts started to appear again, just as the food stores phoenix had built up started to run out. Slowly the forest returned to its old self, and the birds recovered.

But they didn’t forget their new friend, phoenix. To show their gratitude every bird in the whole forest selected its most beautiful and colourful feather and presented it to phoenix. When they were finished phoenix had been transformed into the most fantastic and multi colourful creature in the forest.

At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never seen phoenix myself, and I don’t know anybody who has. The friendly bird from the forest who told me this story also told me that phoenix stays hidden deep inside the forest, where no human being can ever penetrate. Perhaps that’s just as well, because if any human ever laid eyes on her, the sheer brilliant beauty of phoenix would surely blind that person’s eyes.

(Folktale from Uganda)

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