How the flamingoes got their stockings
Once the snakes decided that they would give a costume ball; and to make the affair a truly brilliant one they sent invitations to the frogs, the toads, the alligators and the fish.
The fish replied that since they had no legs they would not be able to do much dancing; whereupon, as a special courtesy to them, the ball was held on the shore of the Parana. The fish swam up to the very beach and sat looking on with their heads out of water. When anything pleased them they splashed with their tails.
To make as good an appearance as possible, the alligators put necklaces of bananas around their throats; and they came to the ball smoking big Paraguay cigars. The toads stuck fish scales all over their bodies; and when they walked, they moved their forelegs out and in as though they were swimming. They strutted up and down the beach with very glum, determined faces; and the fish kept calling to them, making fun of their scales. The frogs were satisfied to leave their smooth green skins just as they were; but they bathed themselves in perfume and walked on their hind legs. Besides, each one carried a lightning bug, which waved to and fro like a lantern, at the end of a string in the frog’s hand.
But the best costumes of all were worn by the snakes. All of them, without exception, had dancing gowns of the color of their skins. There were red snakes, and brown snakes, and pink snakes, and yellow snakes—each with a garment of tulle to match. The yarara, who is a kind of rattler, came in a single-piece robe of gray tulle with brick-colored stripes—for that is the way the yarara dresses even when he is not going to a ball. The coral snakes were prettier still. They draped themselves in a gauze of reds, whites and blacks; and when they danced, they wound themselves round and round like corkscrews, rising on the tips of their tails, coiling and uncoiling, balancing this way and that. They were the most graceful and beautiful of all the snakes, and the guests applauded them wildly.
The flamingoes were the only ones who seemed not to be having a good time. Stupid birds that they were, they had not thought of any costumes at all. They came with the plain white legs they had at that time and the thick, twisted bills they have even now. Naturally they were envious of all the gowns they saw, but most of all, of the fancy dress of the coral snakes. Every time one of these went by them, courtesying, pirouetting, balancing, the flamingoes writhed with jealousy. For no one, meanwhile, was asking them to dance.
“I know what we must do,” said one of the flamingoes at last. “We must go and get some stockings for our legs—pink, black and white like the coral snakes themselves—then they will all fall in love with us!”
The whole flock of them took wing immediately and flew across the river to a village nearby. They went to the store and knocked:
“Tan! Tan! Tan!”
“Who is it?” called the storekeeper.
“We’re the flamingoes. We have come to get some stockings—pink, black, and white.”
“Are you crazy?” the storekeeper answered. “I keep stockings for people, not for silly birds. Besides, stockings of such colors! You won’t find any in town, either!”
The flamingoes went on to another store:
“Tan! Tan! Tan! We are looking for stockings—pink, black and white. Have you any?”
“Pink, black and white stockings! Don’t you know decent people don’t wear such things? You must be crazy! Who are you, anyway?”
“We are the flamingoes,” the flamingoes replied.
“In that case you are silly flamingoes! Better go somewhere else!”
They went to still a third store:
“Tan! Tan! Pink, black and white stockings! Got any?”
“Pink, black and white nonsense!” called the storekeeper. “Only birds with big noses like yours could ask for such a thing. Don’t make tracks on my floor!”
And the man swept them into the street with a broom.
So the flamingoes went from store to store, and everywhere people called them silly, stupid birds.
However, an owl, a mischievous tatu, who had just been down to the river to get some water, and had heard all about the ball and the flamingoes, met them on his way back and thought he would have some fun with them.
“Good evening, good evening, flamingoes,” he said, making a deep bow, though, of course, it was just to ridicule the foolish birds. “I know what you are looking for. I doubt if you can get any such stockings in town. You might find them in Buenos Aires; but you would have to order them by mail. My sister-in-law, the barn owl, has stockings like that, however. Why don’t you go around and see her? She can give you her own and borrow others from her family.”
“Thanks! Thanks, ever so much!” said the flamingoes; and they flew off to the cellar of a barn where the barn owl lived.
“Tan! Tan! Good evening, Mrs. Owl,” they said. “A relation of yours, Mr. Tatu, advised us to call on you. Tonight, as you know, the snakes are giving a costume ball, and we have no costumes. If you could lend us your pink, black and white stockings, the coral snakes would be sure to fall in love with us!”
“Pleased to accommodate you,” said the barn owl. “Will you wait just a moment?”
She flew away and was gone some time. When she came back she had the stockings with her. But they were not real stockings. They were nothing but skins from coral snakes which the owl had caught and eaten during the previous days.
“Perhaps these will do,” she remarked. “But if you wear them at the ball, I advise you to do strictly as I say: dance all night long, and don’t stop a moment. For if you do, you will get into trouble, I assure you!”
The flamingoes listened to what she said; but, stupidly, did not try to guess what she could have meant by such counsel. They saw no danger in the pretty stockings. Delightedly they doubled up their claws like fists, stuck them through the snakeskins, which were like so many long rubber tubes, and flew back as quickly as they could to the ball.
When the guests at the dance saw the flamingoes in such handsome stockings, they were as jealous as could be. You see, the coral snakes were the lions of the evening, and after the flamingoes came back, they would dance with no one but the flamingoes. Remembering the instructions of the barn owl, the flamingoes kept their feet going all the time, and the snakes could not see very clearly just what those wonderful stockings were.
After a time, however, they grew suspicious. When a flamingo came dancing by, the snakes would get down off the ends of their tails to examine its feet more closely. The coral snakes, more than anybody else, began to get uneasy. They could not take their eyes off those stockings, and they got as near as they could, trying to touch the legs of the flamingoes with the tips of their tongues—for snakes use their tongues to feel with, much as people use their hands. But the flamingoes kept dancing and dancing all the while, though by this time they were getting so tired they were about ready to give up.
The coral snakes understood that sooner or later the flamingoes would have to stop. So they borrowed the lightning bugs from the frogs, to be ready when the flamingoes fell from sheer exhaustion.
And in fact, it was not long before one of the birds, all tired out, tripped over the cigar in an alligator’s mouth, and fell down on her side. The coral snakes all ran toward her with their lanterns, and held the lightning bugs up so close that they could see the feet of the flamingo as clearly as could be.
“Aha! Aha! Stockings, eh? Stockings, eh?” The coral snakes began to hiss so loudly that people could hear them on the other side of the Parana.
The cry was taken up by all the snakes: “They are not wearing stockings! We know what they have done! The flamingoes have been killing brothers of ours, and they are wearing their skins as stockings! Those pretty legs each stand for the murder of a coral snake!”
At this uproar, the flamingoes took fright and tried to fly away. But they were so tired from all the dancing that not one of them could move a wing. The coral snakes darted upon them, and began to bite at their legs, tearing off the false stockings bit by bit, and, in their rage, sinking their fangs deep into the feet and legs of the flamingoes.
The flamingoes, terrified and mad with pain, hopped this way and that, trying to shake their enemies off. But the snakes did not let go till every last shred of stocking had been torn away. Then they crawled off, to rearrange their gauze costumes that had been much rumpled in the fray. They did not try to kill the flamingoes then and there; for most coral snakes are poisonous; and they were sure the birds they had bitten would die sooner or later anyway.
But the flamingoes did not die. They hopped down to the river and waded out into the water to relieve their pain. Their feet and legs, which had been white before, had now turned red from the poison in the bites. They stood there for days and days, trying to cool the burning ache, and hoping to wash out the red.
But they did not succeed. And they have not succeeded yet. The flamingoes still pass most of their time standing on their red legs out in the water. Occasionally they go ashore and walk up and down for a few moments to see if they are getting well. But the pain comes again at once, and they hurry back into the water. Even there they sometimes feel an ache in one of their feet; and they lift it out to warm it in their feathers. They stand that way on one leg for hours, I suppose because the other one is so stiff and lame.
That is why the flamingoes have red legs instead of white. And the fishes know it too. They keep coming up to the top of the water and crying “Red legs! Red legs! Red legs!” to make fun of the flamingoes for having tried to borrow costumes for a ball. On that account, the flamingoes are always at war with the fishes. As they wade up and down, and a fish comes up too close in order to shout “Red legs” at them, they dip their long bills down and catch it if they can.