ONCE upon a time there was a man and a woman who were very unhappy because they had no children. Their house was built, like all the houses in Uganda, in the middle of a banana garden, and the garden bordered on the caravan road.
In those days wicked people used to come to the country and steal men and women and children and take them away as slaves. Sometimes they stole them at night.
One day these slave-traders met a woman with a baby girl tied on her back, and they caught her and put her with the other slaves and drove them down the road; but they found the baby a great trouble, for it coughed all the time, so they left it in a banana garden by the roadside and went away across the borders of the country to the distant land, where they sold the people as slaves.
Now the garden happened to belong to the man and woman who wanted a child so much, and when the woman went out early in the morning to dig in her garden she found the baby, and ran and told her husband, and they rejoiced very much, and they took the little girl into their home, and she became like their own child, and called them father and mother, and because she had come to them in the early morning they called her Dawn.
They noticed at once that she had a curious little mark on her shoulder, like the footprint of a bird on the wet sand, but she was healthy and strong, and the cough soon went, and as she grew up the woman taught her how to keep a garden and how to cook the different kinds of bananas and vegetables and sauces and dried fish, and they were a very happy little family.
Near the house was a big tree of wild plums, and every season when the plums were ripe the boys from the village knocked them down with sticks and stones. But one day some parrots were in the tree, and a stone hit one of them and broke its leg, and although it managed to hold on with one claw to the branch, at last it was so exhausted that it fell to the ground. Dawn was near and saw it fall, and she saw how distressed the other parrots were, for they could not carry their brother home, and they were afraid that a wild cat might eat him if he slept out of doors all night.
So Dawn said: "Let me take care of him. My father and mother will soon make his leg well." So she took him home, and her father bound up the broken leg, and they gave him a nice place to roost in and some nuts and water, and he stayed with them till he was well.
The parrot had five brothers, and they came over from the islands every day to see him, and they and Dawn made great friends, and they told her many things about their life on the islands and the strange things they saw while they were flying over the country.
Now in those days parrots were quite grey, tails and all, and they told Dawn how much they would like to have red tails, for that is the heart's desire of every parrot; and the six parrots taught Dawn the recitation which every mother parrot teaches her children before they leave the nest:
Never get up till the Sun gets up
Or the mists will give you a cold.
And a parrot whose lungs have once been touched,
Will never live to be old.
Never eat plums that are not quite ripe,
For perhaps they will give you a pain;
And never dispute what a hornbill says
Or you'll never dispute again.
Never despise the power of speech;
Learn every word as it comes.
For this is the pride of the parrot race,
That they speak with a hundred tongues.
Never stay up when the Sun goes down,
But sleep in your own home bed,
And if you've been good, as a parrot should,
You will dream that your tail is red.
One day, while they were playing in the garden, a tortoise came up from his bed among the dry leaves and looked sleepily at them.
He was a very old tortoise, and he was very wise, for more than a hundred years he had said wise things to people, and everything he said came true. When he saw Dawn and the six grey parrots he said: "What is your greatest wish?" And Dawn said: "My greatest wish is to see the King, but we live so far from the capital I am afraid it will never be granted."
Then the parrots said: "Our greatest wish is to have red tails, for parrots love red more than any colour in the world; we should like tails like the sky at sunrise."
The old tortoise blinked his eyes at them for a minute or two, and then he said: "Dawn shall see the King, and all the parrots shall have red tails." And he went back into his bed of dry leaves and was soon fast asleep again.
Quite soon afterwards Dawn was standing by the big plum-tree on the road and the six parrots were chattering in the branches when two men passed. They were slave-traders, and when they saw Dawn was alone and no one was in sight, they thought they would steal her.
Dawn was so startled that they could easily have caught her, but the six parrots swooped down from the tree and attacked the men; they buried their claws in their hair, and pecked at their heads and ears and faces, and scratched them down their shoulders and arms, and Dawn shrieked, and the parrots screeched, and the men yelled with fright and pain, and people heard the noise and came running up.
Then Dawn told them what had happened, and they caught the two men and tied them with ropes and took them to the chief of the village. The next morning the chief heard the case, and he said: "I think these are the two men they are looking for in the capital. They must go before the King's Council, and the witnesses must go with them."
So Dawn and her father and mother and some of the people of the village and the six parrots set off for the capital.
When they arrived in the Council House they all knelt before the King, and the six parrots bowed low until their foreheads touched the ground; and Dawn hardly dared to lift her eyes.
When the King heard the case he said to the parrots: "You have saved this child's life. What reward can I give you?"
Then the six parrots bowed again till their foreheads touched the ground, and they said: "Oh, King, give us red tails, for that is the desire of every parrot's heart; give us tails like the sky at sunrise."
And the King said: "Your wish is granted. After the next moulting season your tails shall be red for ever and ever."
When the case was finished they all knelt again, and as Dawn bowed her head the King saw the little mark on her shoulder like a bird's footprint on the wet sand, and he asked:
"Who is this child?" And they told him her story.
Then the King sent for an old Princess who was his aunt, and when she came into the Council House he asked:
"Do you know this mark?" And she answered:
"It is the little lost Princess who disappeared with her nurse when they were going to the doctor to get some cough mixture many years ago."
Then the King took Dawn in his arms and said she must live with him always, and he allowed the man and the woman who had taken care of her and loved her so much to come and live with her too.
And when the next moulting season came the parrots lost their grey tail feathers and beautiful red ones grew in their place. And the six parrots who had earned this gift for their tribe were sent as ambassadors to thank the King, and as they bowed before him till their foreheads touched the ground, all the chiefs in the Council House saw their red tails and clapped their hands, for the colour was so beautiful, just like the sky at sunrise. Since that day all grey parrots have had red tails, and are very happy, and they love men and do what they can to help them, and even take the trouble to learn their language because the King gave them their heart's desire.
And the mother parrots added a verse to the recitation which they teach the children before they leave the nest:
Always remember that man is your friend:
Serve him and never tire.
And be true to the King in everything,
For he gave you your Heart's Desire.
Then Dawn told the King about the wise old tortoise, and they sent to fetch him, but the messengers couldn't wake him up, he was so fast asleep, and perhaps he is asleep still.