The Ugly Bird

Once upon a time, there was a king who could not sleep. A great forest stood to the east of his castle, and in it lived a number of birds that would shriek and call all through the night, disturbing him. He tried any number of things suggested by his advisors—sealing his window casements, muffling his ears with cotton, and even sleeping upside-down, which a foreign ambassador suggested, but sadly did not work.

The king made a proclamation that anyone in his kingdom could hunt fowl in the forest if they desired. Peasants and merchants alike came to the forest in large number, taking strings of pheasant and quail away with them. But no matter how many birds they took from the forest, it seemed that some still remained, for the king could hear them at night, twittering and chattering.

Again, the king made a proclamation—this time, a contest: Anyone who could rid the forest of all its avian creatures would receive a prize of anything they wished. Peasants and merchants alike came to him to offer suggestions.

One suggested laying the forest, but it was such a treasure to the kingdom, for its resources and beauty. “No, no,” the king said, “I only want to be rid of the birds.”

One suggested burning the forest, but again the king was dissatisfied. “No, no,” he said, “I only want to be rid of the birds.”

The foreign ambassador suggested importing large, bird-eating snakes from his home country. The king thanked him for his advice, but felt that he had enough problems already without a kingdom plagued by snakes.

So subjects of the kingdom continued to hunt fowl in the forest, but no matter how many birds they took, some still remained, and the king could not find rest.

After a time, the king’s insomnia became so dire that the foreign ambassador said, “My son is travelling this way. Perhaps he can rid your forest of birds.”

The king said, “If there is any hope of that, I only pray he arrives sooner.”

The son of the foreign ambassador was a wiry lad who came riding forth on a copper stallion. His jaw was square, and his nose was flattened, but his hair was a stream of romantic, golden waves.

A flurry of gossip rose up among the subjects of the kingdom, who had heard the son might possibly rid their forest of birds and grant their king some peace. The son was quick to set to it, as well, only pausing to hail his father and introduce himself to the king.

“I thank you for entrance to your noble kingdom,” he said.

The king waved away the notion. “I know it is not the business of your father’s kingdom, but you will do me a great service by ridding me of these birds. If you succeed, you may have anything you wish that I can provide.”

The boy nodded. “I will see what I can do.”

Before he headed off into the forest, his father pulled him aside, giving him a whisper of advice:

“No snakes,” he said.

So the ambassador’s son went to the forest to see what he could do. It was late afternoon, and the sunlight through the leaves was mottled green and grey like the slick wall of a grotto. Occasionally, birdcall echoed through the trees, but when he looked around, he could not find the birds.

After some time, picking his way through the underbrush, keeping his eyes and ears about him, the young man began to hear less and less of the avian chatter. The forest took on a padded silence that only his footsteps disturbed. He neared the heart of the forest.

He heard the trickling splash of water then, and came upon a tall pine forest bedded with a thick layer of needles. Among the pines, a stream flowed in a circle, somehow feeding into itself.

The young man was so intrigued by the circular stream that, in his eagerness to investigate, he nearly tripped over a pile of rags at the stream’s edge.

“Koo,” said the pile of rags.

Startled, the ambassador’s son looked closer, and realized that the lump was not a pile of rags, but a bird—though perhaps it was the most unsightly bird he had ever seen. The bird was balding. Grey, naked skin shone through patches of wilted feathers. The bird’s body seemed unfit for flight, parts of it fatty and others so loose the skin quivered when it moved.

“You are an ugly bird,” said the ambassador’s son.

“Perhaps, but at least I don’t have a pig’s snout.”

The boy jumped, drawing his sword.

With a voice like splintered gravel, the bird spoke again: “Put that away, lad. I have neither claw nor fang to harm you.”

Indeed, he watched as the bird stuck out one knobby leg, where no talons were apparent. But he was not thoroughly dissuaded. “Are you a demon?” he asked. “A curse?”

“I am nothing you know, but I am not a demon, not a curse. I am a foreigner.”

The lad slipped his sword back into his sheath, keeping an eye on the bird the whole time. “But you are a bird, right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am a bird.”

“Would you mind leaving the forest, then? The local king has sensitive ears, apparently. He can’t get a wink of sleep with all the birdcall in here.”

“That wasn’t me,” said the ugly bird. “I haven’t made a peep since I got here.”

“You said ‘koo’ only two moments ago.”

“You would have tripped on me otherwise,” the bird said.

The ambassador’s son rubbed his face and took a deep breath. “Let’s say you truly aren’t the cause of all this noise. The king still has asked me to rid this forest of birds.”

The bird raised his wrinkled head in agitation. The withered feathers on his wings stirred. “I’m going to have a talk with this king,” he said.

“It’s not personal—the king just can’t sleep,” the boy said. “Think of his position—he’s trying to run an entire kingdom. For that, he needs clarity of mind. These birds are becoming a threat to him and all his people.”

The tattered bird blinked his beady eyes, seeming to think this over. He stood up and scratched at the ground like a chicken. “Could you bring me some sulfur powder?” he asked. “And a piece of flint?”

The boy thought that a weird request.

“I’ll need some of your hair, too,” the bird said.

The boy looked scandalized. “Whatever for?”

“For getting rid of the birds, that’s what for!” The bird nodded his wrinkly head. “And you have very nice hair.”

“The king wants the forest intact,” the boy said. “We can’t burn it down, if that’s your plan.”

The bird shook his head. “I won’t burn the forest down. Bring me sulfur powder and flint, and I’ll help you get rid of the birds.”

So the ambassador’s son left the forest, returning to the king and his father, who were anxious to hear of his plans. Promising them that he had an idea, the lad took the sulfur powder and the flint and departed for the forest early the next morning.

The forest was cool that day. It had rained the night before, so the underbrush was damp and dark with moisture. The lad’s boots squashed over the muddy earth.

When he came to the clearing, the ugly bird was nowhere to be seen. Feeling the fool, the boy was just about ready to turn around when he heard a small voice from above his head.

“Good morning,” the voice croaked out.

“My goodness.” The boy took an unsure step forward. The bird looked even worse than it had the day before. Even more of its feathers had dropped, and its skin seemed ready to slough from the bone. The poor thing sat on a crooked pine branch, a bough of needles wrapped over his head in shelter. The boy wasn’t sure how much good it had done to protect him from the rain.

“Did you bring the sulfur?” the bird asked. With a little hop, he alighted on the ground.

“Yes.” The boy nodded, still stricken with surprise at the bird’s decay. “What’s your plan?” he asked.

The bird cocked his head and eyed him with one yellow eye. “First—the hair, as payment,” he said.

The boy drew his sword, frowning, and hoped the bird knew what it was doing—he sure wasn’t fit for eating, that was for sure. With one smooth motion, he cut a length of his beautiful golden hair. It curled slightly at the end where the blade had touched it.

“Here,” he said, holding it out to the bird.

“No, you hold onto it for now. Just wanted to make sure you were willing to part with it.” The bird shuffled on his feet. “Now—you’ve got the sulfur and the flint? We’re going to make me a little more presentable, so I may speak to the birds.”

The lad thought the bird in its present condition would need a fair amount more than some flint and sulfur powder to look presentable, but he said nothing, and placed both on the ground before the bird.

“Don’t just stand there,” the bird said. “Rub the sulfur powder into my feathers.”

Very carefully, so as not to harm it, the boy began powdering the bird with sulfur. He rubbed the yellow powder into the bird’s neck, and its back, and over its misshapen wings, and even its tiny, stubby toes, which the bird held out very delicately for him to rub.

When he finished, he stood and—looking the bird over—came to the conclusion that the sulfur had only made the bird more hideous, as now he stank a little.

“Ah, that feels a bit better,” the bird said. “Now I need you to light me on fire.”

“Are you mad?” the boy asked, blinking in astonishment. “Maybe this is my fault, for listening to a talking bird. That might have been an error on my part. But I’m not setting you on fire, that’s crazy. Do you have a death wish?”

“I assure you, I will be fine,” said the bird. “Now find a really nice rock and let’s get cooking.”

“This is a terrible idea,” the boy said to himself as he scanned the pine needles. It wasn’t until the edge of the circle-stream that he found a good flint-rock. He picked it up and it felt heavy in his hand.

“Not damp, is it?” the bird asked.

“No, but I do think it might be in your best interest if it were.” The boy held the flint in one hand and the rock in the other. Kneeling, he positioned himself to strike so that the sparks would fall on the ugly bird. “I hope you’re right about this,” the boy said.

“Just don’t let the sparks hit the pine needles, or we’ll all roast.”

The boy drew a circle in the dirt around the bird, just as a precaution. If the forest burned, it would be on his head. Then he struck the flint, and a glittering spark fell to the bird.

It was much slower than the boy anticipated. A little golden flame blossomed on the bird’s back, crawling down his wings and casting weird shadows on the pines. The heat turned the yellow sulfur blood red, and it oozed over the bird, coating it in its thick, burning stench.

And goodness, did it smell. The young man coughed, wrinkling his nose and covering his mouth as he tried to escape the odor that was like the cloying body of a week-dead ox. “Is this your plan?” he shouted to the bird, which still seemed very much calm in the face of death—“To scare them out with this awful stench?”

“Patience,” the bird said, but his voice had changed. It was stronger now—clear and ringing over the sound of crackling flames. In a whoosh of devoured oxygen, the fire turned blue and enveloped the bird wholly.

The boy fell to the pine needles, scuttling backward as he shielded his eyes from the brilliant light. The ugly bird was gone, but in its place was something glorious: a jewel-like being that seemed to consist not of flesh and bone, but of light and flame.

The being flew a circle around the clearing, mimicking the orbit of the stream, and when he finished, lighted gently on a pine bough, where he stopped to preen his feathers of blue flame. It was miraculous—just as far from a bird as the ugly bird had been—but the boy didn’t know what to consider it other than a bird.

“I’ll take your open-mouthed astonishment as a compliment,” the bird said, in his bell-like voice. “Now if you’ll hand me that lock of hair, I’ll evacuate the forest.”

“What will you use it for?” the boy asked.

The bird took the hair with one shining talon, but did not harm it. “Nests, my dear boy,” said the bird. “They will use it for nests.”

In the next few days, subjects throughout the kingdom reported frequent sightings of birds leaving the forest. By the third morning, the king slept so soundly that he called a feast in honor of the young man’s accomplishment.

As the day drew to a close, the boy retreated to his quarters. He was just falling asleep, ready for dreamless rest, when he heard a strange rustling beyond his window. Sitting up, he went to the casement and opened it, peering out into the clear night air. There was no sign of the bird, but on the sill was a single feather in fiery blue.