Adapted by Rafe Martin, Essay by Cristy West.
Brave Little Parrot is from an ancient Jataka tale from India. When a forest fire breaks out and threaten forest animals, a little parrot tries to put it out alone by carrying drops of water on its back from the lake.
Once a little parrot lived happily in a beautiful forest. But one day without warning, lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and a dead tree burst into flames. Sparks, carried on the rising wind, began to leap from branch to branch and tree to tree.
The little parrot smelled the smoke. “Fire!” she cried. “Run to the river!”
Flapping her wings, rising higher and higher, she flew toward the safety of the river’s far shore. After all, she was a bird and could fly away.
But as she flew, she could see that many animals were already surrounded by the flames and could not escape. Suddenly a desperate idea, a way to save them, came to her.
Darting to the river, she dipped herself in the water. Then she flew back over the now-raging fire. Thick smoke coiled up, filling the sky. Walls of flame shot up, now on one side, now on the other. Pillars of fire leapt before her. Twisting and turning through a mad maze of flame, the little parrot flew bravely on.
Having reached the heart of the burning forest, the little parrot shook her wings. And the few tiny drops of water that still clung to her feathers tumbled like jewels down into the flames and vanished with a hiss.
Then the little parrot flew back through the flames and smoke to the river. Once more she dipped herself in the cool water and flew back over the burning forest. Once more she shook her wings, and a few drops of water tumbled like jewels into the flames. Hissssss.
Back and forth she flew, time and again from the river to the forest, from the forest to the river. Her feathers became charred. Her feet and claws were scorched. Her lungs ached. Her eyes burned. Her mind spun dizzily as a spinning spark. Still the little parrot flew on.
At that moment some of the blissful gods floating overhead in their cloud palaces of ivory and gold happened to look down and see the little parrot flying among the flames. They pointed at her with their perfect hands. Between mouthfuls of honeyed foods, the exclaimed, “Look at that foolish bird! She’s trying to put out a raging forest fire with a few sprinkles of water! How absurd!” They laughed.
But one of those gods, strangely moved, changed himself into a golden eagle and flew down, down toward the little parrot’s fiery path.
The little parrot was just nearing the flames again, when a great eagle with eyes like molten gold appeared at her side. “Go back, little bird!” said the eagle in a solemn and majestic voice. “Your task is hopeless. A few drops of water can’t put out a forest fire. Cease now, and save yourself before it is too late.”
But the little parrot continued to fly on through the smoke and flames. She could hear the great eagle flying above her as the heat grew fiercer. He called out, “Stop, foolish little parrot! Stop! Save yourself!”
“I don’t need some great, shining eagle,” coughed the little parrot, “to tell me that. My own mother, the dear bird, could have told me the same thing long ago. Advice! I don’t need advice. I just” cough, cough “need someone to help!”
Rising higher, the eagle, who as a god, watched the little parrot flying through the flames. High above he could see his own kind, those carefree gods, still laughing and talking even as many animals cried out in pain and fear far below. He grew ashamed of the gods’ carefree life, and a single desire was kindled in his heart.
“God though I am,” he exclaimed, “how I wish I could be just like that little parrot. Flying on, brave and alone, risking all to help, what a rare and marvelous thing! What a wonderful little bird!”
Moved by these new feelings, the great eagle began to weep. Stream after stream of sparkling tears began pouring from his eyes. Wave upon wave, they fell, washing down like a torrent of rain upon the fire, upon the forest, upon the animals and the little parrot herself.
Where those cooling tears fell, the sparks shrank down and died. Smoke still curled up from the scorched earth, yet new life was already boldly pushing forth shoots, stems, blossoms, and leaves. Green grass sprang up from along the still-glowing cinders.
Where the eagle’s teardrops sparkled on the little parrot’s wings, new feathers now grew: red feathers, green feathers, yellow feathers, too. Such bright colors! Such a pretty bird!
The animals looked at one another in amazement. They were whole and well. Not one had been harmed. Up above in the clear blue sky they could see their brave friend. the little parrot, looping and soaring in delight. When all hope was gone, somehow she had saved them.
“Hooray!” they cried. “Hooray for the brave little parrot and for this sudden, miraculous rain!”
Doorway to Possibility: “The Brave Little Parrot”
“The story is a place of possibility in which we take part in a world that enhances us, enlivens us, and offers us something with which we can identify.” Richard Lewis
When I settled down to a stint of long term storytelling work in a special school for “emotionally disturbed” children, I made a few basic decisions. In the first place, I would offer only one carefully chosen tale per session an experience of intimacy and connection in contrast to the hyperstimulation of our tv-saturated culture. Since the children had different talents and learning styles, I also wanted to include a variety of creative activities, drawing, mural-making, movement, poetry, mask-making, music, singing and creative dramatics. My background as an arts therapist served me well in coming up with new ideas.
Each session was structured around a familiar format which the children seemed to relish. This included the passing around of a “talking stick” to elicit individual participation. Almost any object, such as a bone or feather, could serve this function but I had made one from an old bone with ribbon, feathers, bones, shell, stone and shark’s tooth tied on. I explained that among indigenous people, when people came together in council, whoever held the stick must speak from the heart while others, in turn, listened attentively. The closing ritual at the end (“snip snap snout this tale is out”) also helped structure our sessions. I also brought in a beachball globe of the world to identify the countries where a story came from and laid down a friendly red rug on the floor to help demarcate the space as being “special.” As well I liked to include some small tangible object related to the story of the day.
Personal storytelling was a regular aspect of our sessions. I wanted children to become aware that their lives were filled with stories about a new pet or an outing with grandmother or a time they were sick. In every meeting, I invited anecdotal contributions from their day-to-day lives. Within this so-called “therapeutic” setting, it was especially important to involve them in activities that helped de-pathologize their sense of self.
Preparation for a session involved conscious planning as well as intuitive leaps of faith. I came ready with a “lesson plan” and usually stuck to this, though leaving myself open to cues from the group. I also considered each session in relation to those which come before and after. For me, the actual telling of the story was only one small aspect of a far more encompassing transaction. I did not worry much about my “performance style,” which tends to be fairly low key and unpolished. This essay will examine one such session, with the understanding that it is part of a much larger whole.
I should say that children at the school had been referred because they could not succeed within the typical public school environment. A large majority were ADD (hyperactive) and many had learning disabilities as well as problems on the home front. All received guidance and close supervision from a large, nurturing staff of therapists and special teachers. This is a great school and I was lucky to be part of it. My classes were intimate, made up of four or five children ranging in age from 8 to 10. I visited the school one afternoon each week, offering two hour long sessions to each group and using essentially the same format for both. Racially, the students were a mixture of African-American and white. The fact that I was working with two different groups offered an excellent basis for comparison and I learned that much of what transpired was related as much to the children’s mood or energy level as it was to my overall plan.
The session I will describe was only the second meeting. In the first session I had told the African story, “Who’s In Rabbit’s House,” which is one of my stand-bys. This had offered chants and lots of group activities and, as a follow-up activity, I invited participants to draw individual pictures of scenes from the story. This had gone well although I noted that some children were not adept at art and resisted making pictures. In the second session, I wanted to use a tale from a different geographical area, hoping also to include more participatory activities. I selected a familiar tale, “The Brave Little Parrot,” originally from India. At the end of the session I wrote up “process notes” to describe for myself how the session had gone. These included sections on:”Goals”, “Story Choice” (story summary and reasons for choosing it), “The Group” (names of those present omitted here), “The Session” (description of what actually happened), “Evaluation” and “Planning” (ideas for next session.) These became the basis for weekly phone discussions with a storytelling mentor who is also a practicing therapist. Here are excerpts from my process notes, with names omitted or changed. The full text of the story is provided at the end.
to build on momentum of first session, offering some new modes of exploring story. To foster group cooperation through the activity of mural-making. To provide an outlet for pent-up energy through the kinesthetic activity of “making it rain.”
“The Brave Little Parrot.” When a forest fire breaks out and threaten forest animals, a little parrot tries to put it out alone by carrying drops of water on its back from the lake. A god changes itself into an eagle, urging the parrot to cease her useless task but the parrot continues anyway. Moved to compassion, the god’s tears fall as rain and this puts out the fire. Grass and trees are restored and the parrot’s feathers are transformed into bright colors.
I was concerned that this story did not have quite enough narrative thrust and that it depended too much on the mystical turn of events, i.e., the god’s divine intervention. Nevertheless, I was drawn to the theme of how one small creature’s efforts can make a big difference. The tale provided an emotional journey which echoed the children’s attempts to wrestle down problems in their lives. I also saw a ready opportunity for the participatory game of “making a rain storm” (palm-rubbing, finger-snapping, shoulder-slapping, thigh -slapping, foot-pounding as the storm comes in and then in reverse as it abates.) For follow-up activities, I planned to invite children to make a mural together although I was not at all sure they would be able cooperate in this task. I also wanted to evoke a group poem though again wondering if I could “sell” this activity.
Passing around the talking stick for openers, I asked every participant for comments about what they had done the previous week, which had included the fourth of July week-end. I emphasized that “everyone has stories.” Because the group was still new, I was careful to stay away from any material that might be sensitive for the children, such as family or behavior issues. I then opened my “story bag” and took out a small wooden parrot. Next I showed them where India was on my beachball globe. In this particular session I also taught each group how to “make it rain” using hand gestures. Then I launched into the telling, fostering involvement whenever possible and closing with the groups chanting in unison, “Hooray! Hooray for the brave little parrot!” The group stayed with me all the way through the story, joining in the rain-making part with great enthusiasm and energy. They did not seem at all troubled, as I had been, with the god’s intervention. With the tale completed, I then asked each child to offer a line for a group poem something the animals might say by way of thanks to the parrot. Here are the two group poems that resulted:
You are my hero!
You saved the forest!
You saved the world!
You are brave!
Hooray for the rainbow parrot!
I like your colors.
Thank you for saving us.
Thanks for helping put out the fire.
Thanks for summoning the gods.
Thanks for saving the day.
A little help made a big difference.
I then set each group to making a group mural, working on white mural paper attached to a large piece of foamcore. The first group exceeded my fondest expectations. Their mural included swirling flames and smoke, the trees (with faces!), a few animals in the flames, rain, the eagle with tears gushing out of his eyes, the lake, the parrot with drops on her back. They signed their names proudly.
I then propped it up for them to admire and together we read aloud their group poem. Before dismissing the group, I sounded the chime to signal the session’s end and together we did our ritual closing, with gestures (“Snip snap snout, this tale is out.”)
The second group, which included one particularly hyperactive child, did not focus so well on the mural project. Two boys were particularly eager to draw the thunder and lightning but then moved into representations of the rainstorm and forest animals. But the mural was far less coherent, with figures drawn willy-nilly, with no regard for a baseline. One boy seemed to regress during the drawing phase, stretching out on the floor and sucking his thumb briefly until the counselor and myself persuaded him to rejoin the group.
These session seemed to go pretty well and I was glad to include different kinds of expressive activities to draw the children out. However, I did note that part of the difficulty with this story was that it was relatively short, allowing less opportunity for listeners to “disappear” into story events which, for me, is an essential part of the ” healing magic” of the storytelling experience. Later on in the residency I planned to bring in longer stories.
Seeing how much more successful Group A was in comparison to Group B, I reflected that I must learn to be comfortable with different levels of participation. I also felt that the larger, softer stuffed animals of the previous week and been more inviting to the children than the small wooden parrot used in conjunction with this tale. But I was pleased with how, on the whole, the groups seemed to be moving forward and coming together around story. I was also aware how, in the second group, the two especially hyperactive boys were going to be a particular challenge.
For the next session I would want to find a story from yet another geographical area, one that would have a stronger plot line. I also began considering other new ways of “extending” the “experience” music? theater games? riddles? (I would select the Ecuadorian tale, “The Search for the Magic Lake.”)
At the beginning of the term I had, with help of staff, set down on paper a list of goals for the children. These included: To gain self-confidence and self-esteem. To learn about story sequencing. To learn about the expressive power of language. To have a new arena in which to work on the behavioral objectives established by school.
I had also submitted a long list of “Benefits of Storytelling in Therapeutic Settings.” These were: To foster optimism. To promote socialization. To inspire laughter and delight. To promote trust between listeners and teller. To encourage emotional release. To externalize conflicts. To encourage “cognitive reframing.” To teach respect for other cultures. To embody symbolic truths which can then be internalized.
As the term unfolded, I felt that all the goals were met in spades and the benefits illustrated. Yet how, finally, does one measure success in work like this? This is a question I no longer ask myself. Sometimes I feel like the Brave Little Parrot herself, desperately tossing a few drops of water on a blazing inferno in the hopes that my contributions will make a difference. For me to goal is to show up, share my stories, do the best job I can, reflect on the process. But I believe I do make a difference in the lives of these children. I believe that the stories was well as the activities that accompany them are offering doorways to hope and creative possibility. And in the process, I continue to learn and to grow.
My dream is that, in time, more people will choose to do compassionate, satisfying work like this. As this happens, the knowledge base will grow and storytellers will gain respect and a decent salary for doing it. Already the field of interactive biblio/poetry offers a pragmatic model which, I think, may provide a basis for storytellers to start from. It is this model which has structured the approach described here. I look forward to reactions about this essay. And I also look forward to learning about story work others are doing in the field. Let the rainstorm begin!
From an ancient Jataka tale from India adapted by Rafe Martin. Found in More Best-loved Stores Told at the National Storytelling Festival, (August House,1992.) Martin has published other versions of this tale in The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, legends and Jataka Tales (Yellow Moon Press, 1999) and as a children’s picture book, The Brave Little Parrot (G.P. Putnam’s, 1998, illustrated by Susan Gaber.)