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The Tale Of Princess Laughing Dove

Once there was a man, neither young nor old, and his name was Wainaina. He lived alone on his farm at the forest edge, in the house he had built himself. The house was small but that did not matter, for whenever Wainaina opened his door, or drew back his curtain he could see the blue peaks of Mount Kenya. Up they rose like church spires and whenever Wainaina saw them, his spirits soared too - high in the blue.
     "I'm lucky to be alive," he'd say. But then he would sigh, "If only I had a wife to share this with."
     A wife indeed! So why couldn't Wainaina find himself a good woman when the countryside was alive with good women? And why, when a village girl caught his eye, did she walk straight on by, before he'd said hello? This was what he asked himself, day in day out, as he sowed and hoed and tended his crops.
     "Perhaps," said Wainaina. "I haven't the heart for it."
    
But that wasn't it. The truth was this. Wainaina was not a handsome man, nor even plain. He had grown up downright ugly. And he did not know - because the little shard of mirror that he used when shaving only showed his chin. Nor did his village fellows say, not wanting to hurt the good man's feelings. Poor Wainaina. And though he tried not to make a tragedy out of being wifeless, sometimes his spirits hardly soared at all when he saw the great mountain.
     "Life has its ups and downs," he said.
     Then one morning as he was dressing for work, he heard a tap tapping at his window. When he pulled back he curtain there was a laughing dove sitting on the sill, cooing and bobbing at its reflection in the glass.
     "Ah," said Wainaina gently. "You think you've found a mate. Poor bird."
     At the sound of his voice the bird flew off, but for the rest of the day Wainaina thought of it.
     "So," he said. "I am not the only one without a love."
     Later, when Wainaina was stretching his back from a day's hard digging, an idea crept into his mind:
     "You've earned a rest Wainaina. Why not walk down to the stream?"
     And why not indeed? It was a bosky place with mossy roots and green arches. Clear mountain water gurgled by smooth rocks where blue dragonflies danced.
< 2 >      "Mmmmm," said Wainaina when he came to the water. "It is so peaceful here."
     But not for long. Suddenly from the overhanging branch of a mugumo tree came the oh-cook cook-oo-oo of a laughing dove. Wainaina looked up: was it the one he'd seen earlier. The bird bobbed and cooed and seemed to catch his eye. Then it flew off down the path and perched in a flame tree. Oh-cook cook-oo-oo.
    
Wainaina followed - which was when he heard the tumble of laughter that out-sang any dove. He pushed through the reeds to the water's edge: who could be making those sweet, sweet sounds?
     Wainaina soon saw. Across the stream a young woman was gathering her washing from the bank where it had been drying. She was laughing at the yellow butterflies that had settled on her wrap. And though Wainaina had come silently, she glanced back at once, coyly smiling over her shoulder. Then she arched her neck in the most beguiling way.
     His heart missed a beat. And why? She was just a woman like any other, a little plump perhaps. In fact, she rather reminded him of the dove. He waded into the stream,
     "Don't go," he said. The woman lodged the wash bucket on her hip. "And why shouldn't I?"
     "Because I--I want--I want to pay you my respects." Wainaina fumbled. So much conversation and all at once. Perhaps it meant he had a chance...?
     "Well begin," said the woman, bowing her head to one side as the dove had done.
     And so Wainaina did, and this is how he found his love; and this is where he met his love again and again in the weeks that followed. She said her name was Njeri, but Wainaina having a fanciful streak, said
     "No. Never! You are Princess Laughing Dove," which only made her laugh the more.
    
Then one day as Wainaina was weeding his crops he decided to ask Njeri to marry him. For wasn't it the best time for a man to take a wife - his maize store full to bursting, his beans and pumpkins fattening in the field? He dropped his hoe and ran down to the stream, but then he thought,
     "What if she refuses me?" and for a long time he hid in the reeds, screwing up his courage.
< 3 >      But as he crouched beside the stream, he saw his face reflected in a pool.
     At first he didn't realise, but then the pain. He couldn't stop the cry,
     "Am I really so ugly?"
     "Oh much worse," came the laughing voice of Princess Laughing Dove from across the stream.
     "Which means you won't marry me!" Wainaina wailed.
     "Well not if you don't ask me...."
     "But I'm so ugly. That's why no girl would speak with me..."
     "Then they were foolish..."
     "But..."
     "You have a good heart, Wainaina. It's all that counts."
    
     So Njeri, Princess Laughing Dove, married Wainaina and went to live in his house on the edge of the forest. Each morning they woke to the blue spires of Mount Kenya. Each night they went to bed happy with their day's work. And when one day Njeri told Wainaina there would soon be a child, he thought he would burst with joy. He told everyone he met, the mountain too:
     "A child coming! Just think. I must work harder."
    
But as it turned out, the day the baby came saw an end to Wainaina's joy. The birth was hard and by the time he brought the doctor to the house, Njeri was dead, and the newborn howling like the wind off mountain snows. Wainaina's own howls soon brought the villagers to his door, and when he saw their silent staring faces he thought his heart would break.
     "Now what will I do? Who but Princess Laughing Dove would love an ugly man like me?"
     The village wives hung their heads, for secretly they had envied Njeri her good hearted, industrious man. And when they had helped to bury her down near the flame tree, they picked up the baby and told Wainaina,
     "We will care for the child between us, until you come for it." The grieving man barely nodded: what did he know of babies when he had lost his only love?
     So Wainaina's black times began. He went back to his house and there he stayed. The blackness in his heart seeped into every bone - as an ink blot spreads its stain across a page. He could do nothing. He could think of nothing, except the pain of losing Njeri. Days turned to weeks, one month, two...
     Then one night as he sat sleepless in his chair he heard her laughter. Somewhere near. Out into the moonlight he ran,
< 4 >      "Princess Laughing Dove, you've come back!"
     But there was no-one there; only the dead leaves of his neglected maize rustling in the breeze. Wainaina fell in the dirt and wept.
    
"I am going mad," he cried. "And it's because I have nothing to remember her by." For grief had shut all thought of the child from his mind.
     Now Wainaina tore at the maize stems till they were nothing but straw. The pale shreds flew up in the wind, and good riddance to them: what use were crops?
     But no sooner said than an idea flitted through his mind. Quickly he gathered up the straw and ran back to the house - where he lit the lamp and unsheathed his knife. He wasn't a craftsman, not by any means, but with some loving care this was a thing he might do.
     So all through the night Wainaina worked: tying, trimming, plaiting, moulding. And when the first streaks of day showed through the curtain, he blew out the lamp, hung the fruit of his labours in the window and slept as he had not slept for many nights.
     And he didn't wake - until the sun was pouring through his window, lighting up the straw dove that hung there.
     "Why you're beautiful!" said Wainaina to his creation, and while he stirred his porridge on the stove he chatted to the bird just as he had once chatted with Njeri.
     "Must clear the maize field today. The rains will soon be here." And
     "That dead tree by the stream. It's time I chopped it for the fire."
     All the same, Wainaina did not eat the porridge he had made, nor go to work. He just sat in his chair and talked to the straw bird. Somehow the talking eased the ache in his heart for Njeri. Dear dove!
    
Then some days later, as dawn broke on Mount Kenya, turning the ice peaks pink, there was a tap tapping at Wainaina's window. Out on the sill was a real laughing dove - oh-cook cook-oo-oo. It bobbed and bowed and puffed out its breast before the straw dove. At first Wainaina was flattered that a living bird should woo his dove. But as he persisted, Wainaina grew angry. He ran outside and waved his arms like a windmill,
     "Off with you. Can't you see she's all I have?"
< 5 >      But the next morning the dove was back. He flew at the window again and again as if to break the glass and free the straw one; and only when he fell exhausted to the ground was Wainaina sorry.
     "What would Princess Laughing Dove think of my good heart now?" he said sadly. So he took down his dove and put it near the fallen one.
     "See my friend. She isn't real." The laughing dove only blinked his black bead eyes. Oh-cook cook-oo-oo.
     Just then a gust of wind caught up the straw bird, tossing it high in the sky where, to Wainaina's astonishment it began to flap its maize leaf wings, began to soar through the blue, a real laughing dove with her suitor flying after. Wainaina could only stare, for who would believe such a thing? And yet his dove was gone, there was no doubting it. Grief filled his heart once more, and it was then he heard Njeri's voice ringing in his head,
     "Life goes on Wainaina. Remember!"
     Wainaina gasped - a bolt of lightning through his heart.
     "The child! How could I forget?" And he ran, fleet as a reedbuck to the village.
     "Where is my child? I want my child."
     The women who had taken the baby months before greeted him.
    
"It's time you came, Wainaina. Your daughter grows bigger every day. Eating us out of house and home, and us with children of our own to feed." They scolded Wainaina roundly, though secretly they were glad to seem him back amongst the living.
     And what were a few cross words to Wainaina - with a brand new spark in his heart? A daughter indeed!
     "She won't mind my ugly mug. Not if I love her well."
     So he thanked the women and took the child at once. There was something he must do.
     Back at his house, Wainaina held up the baby to the mountain.
     "See, here's the child I told you of." And to his girl he said, "Now aren't we lucky to be alive." The baby cooed obligingly. The father stared and stared.
     "So. I have a little Miss Laughing Dove on my hands! And with her mother's lovely looks. That's good," said Wainaina. "Very good."
     It was not long after this that a pair of laughing doves came to nest in the flame tree by the stream. Whether they were his doves Wainaina could not say. But what he did say was this, "Life goes on - oh-cook cook-oo-oo."
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