The Bird that would be King

Albatross_Atl_YN_1_clive_harris_01_november“Fire,” Gertruida said, “is a natural phenomenon. Ever since the first thunderclouds gathered in the sky or the first volcano erupted, flames have been at work on dry grass and old wood. Fire isn’t there just to make light and cook food – nature needs fires to clear land, to help seeds germinate and then allow new growth to take over.”

“That may be true, but the fire in Cape Town destroyed much more than a few old trees. Houses, resorts, forests and the mountainside  will need a lot of time and money to recover. People have been left without homes. Animals were burnt to death. I can’t see the bright side this time, Gertruida, I just can’t.” True to her nature, Precilla dabs a tear.

“Nature – like Life – works in endless circles, Precilla. The forest of today is so often the burnt landscape of tomorrow. Beauty yields to age just like summer must bow to winter. Once we understand that, we know that the devastation we now see, will return to be the fairest Cape of all in the near future.”

“Does it always work that way? Even with people?’

Gertruida sighed. This question, she knows, leads to the one exception of the rule. “Not always. You see, Nature will recover from fires and floods and droughts – simply because Nature accepts the cycles of fortune it is subject to. In contrast, we are prone to overstate our importance, which may very well lead to permanent damage. Let me tell you an old African myth, Precilla. . Maybe it’ll help you understand…”

***

Once upon a time – long, long ago – the earth belonged to the birds. Not only were they the only ones who knew the secret of navigation and seasons, they also could fly high to look for fountains and rivers, forests to live in and safe places to nest. Over the years they became more and more numerous as they occupied the most fertile pieces of the land.

One bird, in particular, outstripped the others in wisdom. It was a  huge animal with beautiful plumage – the envy of all the other flying species.

“I shall rule over the land,” he said as he surveyed the vast continent, “for I am bigger and more beautiful than the rest of my family. And,” he added smugly, “I am so much cleverer than they.”

So this bird – his name I shall tell you in a moment – set about proclaiming his kingship. “I am of royal blood,” he cried, “and all the animals will pay homage to me. It is my right!”

While it was true that this bird could fly higher and remain in the air much longer than everybody else, the other birds accepted his claim and then addressed him as their king. For a while this brought great satisfaction to the self-proclaimed monarch and he bore himself in a manner befitting his new rank. He was gracious and kind and took a keen interest in all those under his proverbial wing.

Then, one day, the big king-bird soared high on the winds and looked down at the small animals grazing on the plains below.

“Is it right,” he mused, “that all the feathered animals proclaim me as their king, and yet those with hooves and paws ignore me? They are surely too small to oppose my rightful claim.”

So the big bird soared down to land next to a tortoise.”I am now your king. You shall respect me as such.”

And the tortoise, slow and small like he was, drew back into his shell to contemplate this.

Next, the bird approached a jackal, repeating his claim.

And the jackal, as clever as he was, slipped into a burrow under a rock to think about it.

Then the bird found a porcupine and informed him that he had to bow down before the new royalty.

And the porcupine rustled his quills and withdrew to analyze the situation.

Finally, the bird landed next to a lion. Before the bird could finish his proclamation, the lion smote it heavily with his huge paw, cursing the bird for being so forward.

“As the king of all the animals, I will not allow such foolish talk. You, who have inflated your importance to the point where you are deceiving not only others, but also yourself….you will henceforth not return to land. You will soar over the oceans, vainly searching for peace and rarely put your feet on solid ground again. Sailors will stare at you in fear, as you will be the symbol of misfortune and bad luck.  A king you shall never be, only a servant of the winds.”

The lion turned to go, but the badly injured bird pleaded for mercy.

“Please, Lion, do not leave me like this. I am but a poor bird and your curse will make me poorer still. Have you no mercy?’

And the lion turned to look at the bedraggled imposter and felt sorry for him. “I am, indeed, merciful. I shall grant you one wish.”

The bird didn’t hesitate.

“Give me something – anything – to help me?”

Lion thought about this and finally agreed. “I shall give you the sharpest eyes of all – so that you may gaze upon the land while you are flying over the oceans. You shall see the land and the rocks and the rivers. You shall observe the animals grazing and playing and hunting. But you, banished over the ocean, shall only see and only observe, for you have laid claim to what isn’t yours and tried to rule over what you have no right to. Your eyes, Bird, will be your punishment and your reward, which will be as one.”

And so the Albatross gathered his feathers and limped away. After he regained his strength, be flew to the ocean, where he resigned himself to his fate.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Gertruida. But…why tell it now?”

Gertruida smiled as she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you see? It’s the story of South Africa. It is also the story of most countries. The rulers of today will one day – if they live long enough – wonder why they didn’t go about their tasks with more compassion and kindness. They’ll look back and see what they have lost.

“Sadly, it isn’t only the politicians and the rulers who suffer this lot. It happens to common people – like us – as well. And the source of this hardship, Precilla, is greed. It’s the ego. It’s the demand to be more important than we are.”

Precilla thought about it for a long time. Then: “The fire in the Cape has come. Now it is gone. And nature will recover?”

Gertruida nodded.

“But people who succumb to greed and ego will lose what they craved for? Rulers and subjects alike?”

“Yes, Precilla. The proud and unbowed necks of too many, will wear the albatross of their folly in the end. It’s in every newspaper, every day – radicals, extremists, fundamentalists – once you proclaim that you have not only all the answers, but the only one, the winds over the vast ocean awaits you.”

“The Cape is lucky, then. It’ll recover.”

“Yes, Precilla. That’s the message. Nature can complete it’s cycles. Humans don’t.”

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