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The girl who turned into a peacock
Long ago, there lived a very wealthy merchant. He had a daughter named Zahirah, who excelled at everything she did. She was very smart, and beautiful, she could win any race. But she was very, very vain. And the thing she prided herself most in was her lovely voice.
The merchant and his daughter had a fine house, and Zahirah was given only the best. She was waited on by many servants, and lived in luxury. One day, while the merchant was away on business, a mischievous demon came to the house, masked as an old woman begging for food. Zahirah was reclining on a velvet couch when one of the mansion’s guards came to her.
“Miss,” he said cautiously, “there is a woman at the door who wants to talk to you.”
“Tell her to go away. I do not feel like talking to anyone right now,” she barked, annoyed.
“She is rather persistent, Miss”
“Oh all right! Send her in. But be quick about it!” The guard returned with an old woman. She was hunched over and walked with a gnarled cane. Her clothes were ragged.
“How disgusting!” the girl cried.
“Please, a few coins to help an old woman and her family?” the crone begged.
“Do you have any idea who you are talking to?!?” Zahirah shrieked, “Go back to the streets where you belong!” The woman’s eyes flared. Enraged, she limped out of the mansion. When she was out of sight, the demon shed her guise and reverted to her true form. That night, when the girl was asleep, she snuck back to the mansion to punish her selfishness. Thinking the girl as vain and strutting as a peacock, she waved her hand over her slumbering body and turned her into one. Then the demon began her journey home, snickering at her grand trick. She walked all through the night, and finally arrived in a small village not too far away. She waved her hand to disguise herself again, and went to the door of a small house that was really more of a hut, and knocked. A small girl answered.
“Hello dearie,” the woman creaked, “Do you think you could spare a bite to eat?”
The girl had only a small bit of bread and cheese for her own lunch, but she gave them gladly to the old woman. She invited her in to rest a while.
“Where are your parents, sweetheart?” the old woman asked.
“They left before sunrise on the road into the city, to trade some goods from our farm.”
“Ahh,” the old woman answered, “I’m just coming from there.” When the woman had finished her food and was about to leave, she told the girl, “I am indebted to you for your kindness. Should you need something, all you have to do is wish it. I will make it so.” The girl did not really understand what the woman meant by this, and disregarded it as ramblings of someone very old. But she thanked the woman and saw her out.
* * *
Meanwhile, Zahirah was just waking up. She looked down to see herself covered in beautiful, brightly colored feathers. At first she was thrilled. She was extraordinary to behold. She glistened a rainbow of colors in the sunlight, and a silky plume erupted from the top of her head. She opened her mouth to sing with joy, but when she did all that came out was a horrible squawk. Panicked, she dashed out into the hall, feeling a little wobbly on her thin little legs. A maid coming up the staircase jumped at the sight of the large bird.
“Oh my heavens! How did you get in here, now?” she said laughingly, leaning over with her hands on her knees to be level eyed with the peacock.
Zahirah tried desperately to reprimand the maid, but again her words came out as an ear-wrenching screech. The maid squinted up her face in an exaggerated wince.
“Quite a set of lungs on you!” she cried, “But my, you are a pretty little thing. Well, we can’t have you in the house.” And just like that she scooped up the peacock as if she were a bag of potatoes and carried her outside, depositing her on the street and going back into the house.
Zahirah scratched at the door for a while, sobbing desperately, but eventually gave up and started walking through the city, crying out for help. The people of the city covered their ears at the awful squawking sound.
A man busy selling vegetables on the street corner with his wife heard the shrieks. “That creature’s not good for anything but the pot!” he muttered, and grabbing an empty sack, quietly followed the peacock. He snuck up behind her, and, before she knew what was going on, pulled the bag over her and carried her over his shoulder. “This bird will make us a fine Sunday dinner,” he told his wife, and setting the bag on the street, continued selling the vegetables. Now, as it turns out, this man was the father of the same girl who had helped the demon earlier that day.
When the sun was close to setting, the man and his wife began the trip home, taking Zahirah with them. When they arrived at the hut, they dumped the peacock out of the sack and put her in a cage in the corner of the house, to feed them later. But the small girl felt sorry for the peacock, and came and crouched down by the side of the cage.
‘Uhhg! What a homely little girl!’ Zahirah thought. And, indeed the girl was no great beauty. She had a plain face, and her hair was messy. Her clothes were simple and quite worn, for her family was very poor. She was not as talented as Zahirah, either. She could not sing very well or run very fast, she wasn’t extraordinarily intelligent. But she was very kind.
“It’s all right, peacock, its okay,” she cooed softly, trying to comfort the bird. Zahirah squawked loudly. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them hurt you.”
* * *
Two days passed. Zahirah was absolutely miserable. She could not speak or sing, her feathers had grown matted and filthy, all her glory had been lost. And despite the girl’s promises, Zahirah doubted that someone so small would be able to keep her parents from roasting the bird, come Sunday. The only thing good in her life now was when the girl knelt by the cage and told her stories. The girl could weave such beautiful tales, and Zahirah loved them more than anything in the world. They were the only thing that kept her going. She was starting to reconsider the value of her beauty and her finery. This girl was homely, but she had a heart of gold, and maybe that was more important. That morning, the girl was talking to Zahirah, and all of a sudden she burst into tears.
“Oh, I don’t want you to die, peacock,” she sobbed. “I wish you could be a human.”
And at that moment, the mischievous demon heard the wish, even though she was far, far away, and since she was indebted to the little girl, she granted it. Zahirah sprung from the cage, a human again. She was positively exuberant. She hugged the little girl, and thanked her, and ran all the way back to her house in the city. When she burst through the door, all the servants stopped and just stared at her, with her dress ruined and her hair tangled, her face grimy. They were waiting for her to start screaming at them to draw her a bath and get her clean clothes and make her something to eat. Waiting, waiting, waiting. But Zahirah didn’t say a thing. She just walked upstairs and went straight into her room and sat down on her bed. She looked around the room, at all of the fine things. Expensive, beautiful things. All of a sudden they meant nothing to her. How could she have all this, when the girl at the hut had so little? How could she be so selfish? She thought back to the old lady who had come begging for food a few days ago. She wished she had helped her. She had been so vain and self-absorbed her entire life, she had barely bothered to register that there were any other people on the planet, let alone bothered to try to be kind to them. She had thought herself so much better than them- why? Because of her big house? Because of her beautiful face? Her sweet voice? Her fine clothes? None of that mattered. She was seeing that truth now.
She walked over to the bathroom and turned on her bath. It was silly, really, it was such a simple thing to do, so easy, but she had never done it before in her life. There was so much she had never done before, that she expected servants, other people to do. To turn on her bath and make her food, and dress her, and brush her hair. She could do all of that, but she didn’t. She just expected other people to handle it for her, because she thought she was so much better than doing things herself. As she soaked in the hot water, she thought about how helpless she had really been. It was a funny thing how releasing some of her control over other people just made her have more power, over her own life. Zahirah smiled. ‘Tomorrow, I will go to the hut in the next village, and I will give the girl and her family new clothes and enough food for seventy people,’ she thought, ‘tomorrow.’