Once, long ago, a little girl was saying her prayers one night when she heard a curious sound outside of her window. Going to the window and throwing open the sash, she was astounded to see a sad, lonely whippoorwill sitting on a tree branch, crying out in low, mournful tones the saddest song she had ever heard.
The little girl, suddenly not feeling quite as cheery as she had when she had come upstairs to bed, asked the bird, “Mr. Whippoorwill, why are you so sad?”
And, to her surprise, the bird suddenly poked its beak in her direction and exclaimed through muffled tears, “Oh, it is the same as it has always been! I am a whipporwill, you see, and so must sing a low, mournful, weeping tune! I was born to sing this sad song, and never know happiness, and flit and fly about under the moon, alone!”
And with that, the whippoorwill let out such a torrent of weeping and wailing that the little girl soon found she was crying too. Just then, an idea popped into her head.
“Oh, Mr. Whipporwill, since you are so sad, and have never known happiness, I tell you what I will do. I will give you all of my happiness to take with you! Oh yes, I’ll wrap it up in a little silk rag, tied with a bow, and you can carry it with you in your beak. Build it into your nest, and, someday, when you are done with it, and wish to return to being what you were before, you can come flying back, and return it to me! Does that make you happy to think of, Mr. Bird?”
And the sad bird answered, “Oh, delightful! I shall be so glad to have your happiness with me wherever I go, hither and yon! And, I promise you, I shall take good care of it until I return!”
And so, wiping her eyes, the little girl (who, of all the little girls int he world, was always quite cheery and pleasant, even when she dropped her ice cream ont he ground), went to her dresser, and took out a silk hanky and a piece of blue ribbon. Then, screwing her eyes shut, she managed to take all the happiness swirling around inside her head, and wad it up in the little square of silk, tieing it securely with the length of blue ribbon before racing back to the window and offering her present to the bird.
“Here you go, Mr. Whippoorwill! Please, take good care of it, and be careful not to lose it! I don’t know what I should do if I lost my happiness forever!”
And with that, the bird bowed, thanking her for her graciousness and generosity, and, with the little silk bundle hanging from his beak, flew off, into the night. The little girl strained ot see him go, but eventually lost sight of him as he was framed against the bright, fat moon.
In a few moments, as the girl crept back to bed, she began to notice a change steal over her. She felt heavier, slower; more glum. More tired. And everything seemed to take on the same shade of dismal, dingy grey.
“Oh!” she said to herself, “I do so hope the whippoorwill returns with my happiness soon! I suppose in the state I am in, even a rainbow would look dull, and dirty, and grey!”
And she then burst into tears, burying her face in the pillows and crying herself to sleep.
It was not a day or two later that her mother began to become very concerned for her little girl. She did not brighten when she ate her desert, nor even when presented with an angelfood cake (which was her favorite). Nor did playtime seem to amuse her; nor did new toys; sunshine; bright days; fluffy white clouds; or her pet kitten.
She no longer skipped rope, or drew hopscotch, or dilly-dallied amongst the dandelions, instead preferring to sit in her room in a gloopy, gloomy mess, weeping silently while staring at the four walls and complaining that the light of the sun, or even a lamp, hurt her eyes!
Her father, taking her to the carnival, found that this did not cheer her, either. Her mother, planning a special party for her with little friends from the neighborhood, found that her daughter sat in the center of the big table, amongst a little legion of happy, shouting, laughing, jostling little girlfriends and boyfriends, and wept silent tears.
Furthermore, the mother noticed the little girl continually staring out the window, as if expecting someone or something to come flying up to the great tree outside.
Finally, after weeks of her daughter’s solitary mourning, the exasperated mother put her fists on her hips and said, “Oh daughter of mine, whatsoever troublest thou? For, have we not done everything in our power to make thee merry and glad? And yet, thou weepest when thou shouldst laugh, and frown when thou shouldst, by rights, smile and be of good cheer! What, on Earth, couldst thou possibly be tormented by, that thou shouldst carry on in suchlike manner?”
And, at hearing this, the little girl burst into tears again, saying, “Oh, Mother! It is dreadful, but, one night, I heard the Whippoorwill outside of my window, singing his mournful tune. And, feeling sorry for him, I wrapped all of my happiness into a silk kerchief, and, tying it with a bow, gave it to him, allowing him use of it until he returns. And so, I have no happiness left, and all my pleasant feelings have vanished. Now, it seems as if the cursed bird shall never return, and thus never again shall I laugh, or smile, or feel merriment and joy!”
And she began to boo hoo very loudly. Her mother, horrified at what she heard, put her hands to her head in panic, and exclaimed, “Foolish child, what hast thou done! Thou hast given away all they smiles and gladness in the world to a conniving old bird, who has surely made haste with it to some far-off land, wherein he may enjoy the fruits of thy happiness, while you are drowing in tears!”
And, not knowing what else to do, the mother went straightaway to the conjure woman, an old crone who lived in the woods and had a bad, sinister reputation.
The ugly old crone croaked, “There is only one thing to do: Thou must bake thee a pie, in the center of which wilt thou bake four and twenty blackbirds…and a single snake. And then thou must set the pie upon the ledge below thy window, and wait! Soon, the whippoorwill will come, and the thing will right itself.”
And so the mother made the pie crust, carefully rolling the dough, and filling the center with four and twenty blackbirds. Then, she went out into the yard, and pulled from the weeds choking the edge of the garden a single snake. Into the pie went THAT as well. Then, she set it to bake.
After it was done, she set the thing on the window seal and sat down with her gloomy daughter to wait.
The smell of the pie was quite strong, and, in time, they heard the whippoorwill come flying up, resting on the old branch of the old tree. Curiously, he was still singing the same gloomy tune, although he had stolen all of the little girl’s happiness.
The whippoorwill pecked and poked his beak into the pie, smelling the delicious smell of cooked blackbird. As soon as he got his beak in the crust, however, the snake reared up, bared its fangs, siezed upon the luckless whippoorwill, and swallowed him up!
The little girl’s mother then sprang up from her chair and, like a bolt of lightning, had the snake collared with one huge hand, squeezing it’s long skinny body so that it could not bite her.
She then began to pound the head of the snake against the floor, until its blood and brains oozed out from between her fingers. And, also, quite a lot of blackbirds.
The little girl rooted around in the blood and carcasses on the floor. Finally, her little hand fell upon what she was looking for: it was the little bundle of silk with all her happiness tied up, with the same blue ribbon, inside.
She quickly snapped the ribbon, releasing her happiness so that, forever after, she wore a smile on her face, and had a spring in her step, even when she was at last old and grey.
And the moral of this story is: Look before you leap. Or, before giving everything to a stranger, make sure you have considered your own needs first. Or, make sure your charity and pity for others will not hurt you, in the end.
Or, never put much trust in a flighty character. It’s for the birds.