Tales of the Jungle by Horacio Quiroga

April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Flamingoes’ Stockings

Once upon a time the vipers gave a dance. They invited the frogs and the toads, the coral snakes, the flamingoes, the alligators and the fish. The fish, not having legs, couldn’t dance; but, as the dance was held by the river, they lay on the banks and applauded with their tails. The alligators, to adorn themselves, slung garlands of bananas around their necks and smoked huge Paraguayan cigars. The toads had stuck on fish-scales all over their bodies, and glided along, as though they were swimming. Every time the toads passed near the river banks, haughty in all their affected splendour, the fish would goad them and make fun of them. The frogs wore perfume from head to toe, and walked on their hind legs with their chests out. And as a finishing touch, each of them was bearing a small lighted torch; a firefly held aloft.

The coral snakes were absolutely splendid. They were dressed in long satin gowns; red, black and white in colour, and they danced in a truly serpentine fashion. When they danced and made little pirouettes on the tips of their tails, the other guests all clapped like madmen.

Prettiest of all were the vipers. Each one, without exception, was wearing a dancer’s costume matching the colour of its skin. The colourful vipers wore little skirts made of tulle; the green ones in green; the yellow one wore yellow skirts; and the yararás, a little smock made of grey tulle patterned with stripes the colour of bricks and ashes; this being the colour of the yararás.

Only the flamingoes – who at that time had white legs, and had then as now big twisted noses – only the flamingoes weren’t enjoying themselves. You see, being rather stupid, they hadn’t known what to wear to the dance. They were jealous of everyone else’s costumes, and most of all of the coral snakes’. Every time one of these passed in front of them, in a coquettish manner, their dazzling gowns flowing behind, the flamingoes felt sick with envy.

So one of the flamingoes said:
– I have a plan. We’ll  put on black and white coloured stockings. The coral snakes won’t be able to resist us then.
So all at once they took flight, crossed the river and went to knock at the door of a village store.
– Tap, tap! – they knocked with their feet.
– Who is it? – the store-owner asked.
– It’s the flamingoes. Have you got any black and white stockings?
– No, I don’t – came the reply – are you out of your minds? You won’t find stockings that colour anywhere.

So the flamingoes flew off to another store.
– Tap tap! We’ve come to buy some black and white stockings.
The store-owner raised his eyebrows, and asked:
– What’s that you said? Black and white what? You won’t find any stockings around here. Are you crazy? Who are you, anyway?
– We’re the flamingoes – they responded.
Once the man heard that, he said:
– Ah, well then you must be very crazy flamingoes …
So on they went to another store.
– Tap, tap! Hello there. Listen, we’re looking for black and white stockings.
The store-owner shouted from behind the door:
– What colour? Black and white? Only big-nosed idiot birds like yourselves would think of asking for black and white stockings. Get out of my sight!
And with this, he flung open the door and drove them away with the handle of a brush.

The flamingoes went from one store to the next and each time they were thrown out like fools. But, as chance would have it, an armadillo, who had gone to take a drink by the river, saw them, and wanting to make fun of them he called them over to him in friendly tones.
– Good evening, gentlemen!  I know what it is you’re looking for. You won’t find stockings of that kind in any store in these parts. Maybe in Buenos Aires, but you’d have to order them by mail. My sister-in-law, the Owl, might be able to get you some. Just ask her nicely and I’m sure she’ll give them to you.
The flamingoes thanked him, and flew away immediately to the Owl’s cave.
– Good evening, Owl! – they said – We’ve been told you have black and white stockings and we’ve come to ask you if we can borrow them for the night. Today is the day of the vipers’ big dance; and if we wear black and white stockings the coral snakes won’t be able to resist us.
– Why, of course! – said the Owl. Hold on a minute, I’ll be right back. And she went off, leaving them there alone.  In a little while she was back with the stockings. Only they weren’t really stockings at all; they were coral snake skins, which the Owl had lately acquired on one of her hunting sprees.
– Here they are, the stockings – she said. There’s nothing to worry about, only take my advice: dance all night long, without stopping for even a moment. Dance with you sides, with your tails and with your beaks and whatever you do, do not stop, because if you do there’ll be hell to pay. But the silly flamingoes didn’t quite realize how dangerous their predicament was, and they fit their legs into the snake skins without giving it a second thought and flew off to the dance in a delirious frenzy.

When the flamingoes were seen arriving kitted out in their fantastical stockings, the other guests turned green with envy. The vipers longed to dance with them, but because the flamingoes legs were moving so fast, they couldn’t make out exactly what material their wonderful stockings were made of.

Later on that night, the vipers began to have their doubts about the stockings. Whenever a flamingo danced up close to one of them, they would crouch down on the ground to get a better look. The coral snakes, in particular, were feeling very uneasy. They couldn’t take their eyes off the stockings, and lay flat against the ground whenever a flamingo came near, trying to feel with their tongues the dancing legs of the birds; the tongue of a snake being able to touch and feel like a person’s hand. But the flamingoes danced on and on, even though they were very tired and completely out of breath.

The coral snakes, becoming aware of this, asked the frogs to lend them their torches, which were little fiery bugs, and waited in readiness for the flamingoes to collapse from exhaustion. And so it was that one of the flamingoes whose legs couldn’t support him any longer tripped on an alligator’s cigar, and stumbling, fell in a heap on the dancefloor. All the coral snakes rushed toward the fallen bird and inspected his legs up close with the torches. They saw immediately what kind of ‘stockings’ these really were, and they let up an awful hissing sound that could be heard even on the far side of the river.
– These are no stockings! – cried the snakes.  We know what they are! They have tried to fool us. The flamingoes have killed our brothers and sisters and have put on their skins like stockings! Their stockings are made of coral snake skins!

On hearing these words, the flamingoes were filled with dread at having been discovered, and tried to fly away; but not one of them had enough energy to move a single feather. So, the coral snakes, taking their chance, threw themselves in a frenzy upon the birds, and biting furiously, they tore off the accursed stockings and snapped at the flamingoes legs hoping to kill them. The flamingoes, in agonies of torture, jumped this way and that, without, however, being able to free themselves from the snakes’ fangs. Until, seeing that there was not one bit of stocking left to tear off, the snakes, feeling avenged at last and putting their costumes back into place, finally released the flamingoes from their grasp.

The coral snakes were sure the flamingoes would die, because half of them, at least, were of the venomous kind. But the flamingoes didn’t die. They ran off to throw themselves in the water to relieve the terrible pain. They cried out in agony, and their legs, which had up to then been white, were now coloured due to the venom in the snake bites. They spent days and days like this, not being able to rid themselves of the awful burning sensation in their legs, which were now red coloured, because they were filled with poison.

All this happened long long ago. And yet, you can still see the flamingoes wading with their coloured legs in the water, trying to soothe the burning sensation of the venom. Sometimes they move up onto the shore, and walk around a little to see whether the pain has gone. But they soon feel the effects of the venom again, and run back to plunge their legs in the cool water. At other times the pain is so bad that they tuck up one of their legs, and stand like this on one foot for hours on end, because they can’t bear to straighten it out.

That’s the story of the flamigoes who once had white legs and now have coloured legs. The fish know this story well and are always making fun of the flamingoes. But the flamingoes, as they cool their legs in the water, never miss an opportunity to take revenge, and gobble up any little fish that comes too close to poke fun at them.

Translated from the Spanish by Rua Breathnach.

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