(a Cherokee tale)
When the Earth was new, every bird wore brightly colored feathers, some silvery blue, others emerald green, some bright as the sun, some as pink as the daintiest roses. Some of the birds wore feathers as colorful as a rainbow after summer storms.
But one bird had dusty, pale brown feathers, and when the others looked at him, they frowned. “Your feathers are too dull,” they said.
The golden fish sighed, “Your feathers look like dirty sand.”
And the red-winged blackbird chirped, “Your feathers are as dead as winter leaves.”
The poor brown bird grew sadder and sadder, and day and night he sat in the highest branches of the trees pondering his fate.
The warblers and jays, sparrows and larks, blackbirds and bluebirds crowded round him and cried, “Come sing with us. Never mind your dull feathers. Sing! Sing!”
But the poor brown bird was too sad to sing.
Fish leaped from the gurgling streams and called, “Come swim with us. Feel the cool water on your feathers.”
But the dull brown bird could not even look at the water without feeling sadder still.
The hawks circled overhead and screamed, “Come fly in the blue skies with us!”
But the sad brown bird could not bear to look at the sun or the sky or the water. They were so colorful.
The deer and mice scampered to the foot of the tree where he sat, calling out, “Come run with us through the woods and drink from the fresh running streams!”
But the poor brown bird did not budge.
Hearing the news, the bears tramped through the woods and rumbled, “Come sit with us in the warm sunshine; it feels so good upon the back.”
But the poor brown bird just sat there staring straight ahead, listening to the hummingbirds.
Then one day the sad brown bird looked down and saw Raccoon racing along the riverbank. The bird could hear Raccoon’s breath coming fast and short and hard, and he saw Wolf bounding through the tall green grass behind him. Faster and faster they ran, but Wolf’s tongue hung from his mouth, his legs trembling with exhaustion, and the brown bird said, “He’ll never catch Raccoon. He’s too fast.”
But now he saw Raccoon had stopped and turned and was laughing at Wolf, who had fallen to the ground, exhausted.
“Wolf is tired and thirsty,” the brown bird said, and he watched as Wolf gulped water from the stream. Then Wolf yawned and stretched his legs and curled up in the grass. A moment later he was fast asleep.
As soon as Wolf began to snore, Raccoon peeked out of his hiding place and tiptoed toward him. The brown bird flew closer to get a better look.
Raccoon circled Wolf. Then he scooped a handful of soft mud and covered Wolf’s eyes with the stuff. Wolf did not move, and Raccoon ran off, laughing at the trick he had played.
All day the brown bird watched as the sun beat down and baked the mud upon Wolf’s eyes. He kept a careful watch, eager to see Wolf’s surprise. At long last, as the sun began to set, Wolf yawned, stretched and rubbed a paw across his eyes. He rubbed again. And again. He threw himself upon the ground and rubbed his head in the tall, prickly grass, but nothing worked. The mud stayed hard and fast.
The brown bird smiled; it was amusing to see Wolf outwitted, since he was always tricking other animals. But then he began to think about how sad he would feel if he could not open his eyes and see the blue sky and the green grass and the bright yellow sun. How terrible not to see the beautiful world.
Soon, feeling sadder and sadder for poor, blind Wolf, the brown bird flew down from his branch and said, “Hold still, I’ll help you open your eyes.” He perched upon Wolf’s head and pecked at the sun-dried mud, and after a while, the mud fell away.
“Thank you! Thank you!” cried Wolf gratefully. He stared at the brown bird and said, “Your feathers are as dull as the mud that blinded me.” The brown bird was again flooded with sorrow and hung his head in shame.
“Why do you dress that way?” Wolf asked. “All you need to do is paint yourself,” and he began to paw at a rock. He turned it over and showed the brown bird that there was red inside the rock.
“Peck at this and paint yourself!” Wolf said.
And that’s exactly what the brown bird did. He pecked and pecked until his beak was red, and then he wiped his beak across his feathers. Before long every feather on his back and chest and wings was bright, bold red — the brightest red in the world.
“Much better,” Wolf said. “Now you’re as bright as sunrise,” and he disappeared into the woods.
When the blue jay came to sip from the river, he spotted the bright red bird and cried, “My goodness, your feathers are as red as a forest fire!”
When the fish saw him, they gurgled, “Red as autumn leaves you are!”
The brown bird was so pleased with himself that he began to sing, and he sang louder than all the other birds. Feeling giddy, he leaped into the stream and began to fish with all the kingfishers. And soon, feeling the wind, he spread his bright red wings and flew into the sky, and there he danced with the hawks.
When at long last he grew tired, he sat in the sun with the bears and rested peacefully. After that he was the happiest of birds, filled with pleasure at his beauty, and mindful that it was his compassion and generosity that changed his life.