The Angel and the Ostrich
Jo Hewlett

    On a bright and starry night, two angels, Michael and Alexander, were relaxing on a silver-edged cloud, watching the cherubim sliding down the moonbeams and splashing about in the Milky Way.
    “I have been asked to do a little job down on Earth,” said Michael. “Would you like to come with me?”
    “Oh, very much!” said Alexander. “I always enjoy going down to Earth.”
    “The only trouble is, I am engaged in rather a delicate operation,” continued Michael. “I shall have to leave you on your own for a while. You won’t get into any mischief, will you?”
    “Get into mischief!” said Alexander indignantly. “Of course I won’t! I am an angel, you know!”
    “Alright then,” said Michael. “We might as well get going.” And together they floated down through the early morning mist and landed just as the sun was coming up over the horizon.
    They found themselves standing in a desert. With amazing speed, the sun rose in the sky and the angels felt the chill going out of their fingers and toes.
    Over on the left they could see a small oasis, about half a dozen rather skinny palm trees and a small group of huts. The huts had thick, mud walls to keep out the searing heat of the mid-day sun, and to keep in the warmth during the cold desert nights. On top of each hut was a simple roof made up of a large pile of palm leaves. There did not seem to be anyone about.
    “Now I shan’t be very long, Alexander,” said Michael. “You will have to amuse yourself for a little while. You have never been in the desert before and you should find it very interesting. It looks empty, but, if you stay very still, you will see some of the strange creatures that live here.”
    With a wave of his hand, Michael was gone, and Alexander found himself alone.
    He did as he was told and waited very quietly, sitting on a large rock of sandstone some distance from the oasis. Sure enough, within a few moments a tiny brown face popped out of a little hole near his feet. It was a gerbil. The tiny nose twitched suspiciously, and little boot-button eyes peered around, checking the immediate area for anything dangerous.
    The gerbil apparently felt quite safe as he came right out of the hole and, completely ignoring the angel, began a vigorous cleaning up of his fur and whiskers. He was shortly joined by half a dozen other gerbils, who began to jump around and play before setting off across the desert, presumably in search of food.
    After this, Alexander watched, with great delight, a couple of scorpions circling around each other and waving their tails in a rather menacing square dance, before they, too, disappeared behind his rock.
    And then, in the distance, Alexander saw a most extraordinary creature! It had amazingly long, powerful legs on which it was striding towards him across the desert. Its body looked rather like a large, feather cushion, out of which rose a long, snake-like neck. Judging by its beak and large, shiny, black eyes, Alexander guessed that it was a bird – but it was not like any bird he had ever seen before! The strange creature came right up to him and stared into his face in a puzzled sort of way.
    “What on earth are you?” it enquired, looking at him sideways, and fluttering its extremely long, black eyelashes.
    “I am an angel,” said Alexander, “but I must ask the same question: what are you?”
    “I am an ostrich,” said the creature, “and my name is Hannah, and I am very unhappy!” And two large tears appeared in her big, black eyes and plopped onto the sand.
    Alexander was a very soft-hearted angel, and he couldn’t bear to see anyone unhappy.
    “What’s the matter, Hannah?” he asked. “You have a beautiful place to live, and miles of golden sand to run on – what more could you want?”
    “Yes, miles of golden sand … but that is all - nothing else! My dear husband Oscar has seventeen other wives and, as I am one of the youngest, I am not allowed to look after the eggs …. well, hardly ever! And I’m sure that several of the chicks are mine, but his chief wife, Gertrude, is dreadfully bossy and keeps all the chicks round her feet so no-one else can get near them. It is so boring here!”
    Alexander did not know quite what to say, and Hannah sighed deeply, and scratched an aimless pattern on the sand with one of her enormous claws.
    “Where do you come from?” she asked the angel.
    “Right up there,” said Alexander, pointing towards the heavens. “Farther than you can possibly imagine!” 
    Hannah turned her head to one side and peered at him.
    “You’re pulling my leg!” she said. “How did you get here then?”
    “No, I’m not teasing you,” said Alexander. “I really do come from up there. I flew down.”
    An extraordinary expression came over Hannah’s face. She opened her beak extremely wide, and goggled her great eyes at him.
    “Are you telling me that you can fly?” she gasped. “You can really fly!”
    “Yes,” said Alexander, feeling rather embarrassed. “I fly quite a lot, actually.”
    And he spread his great, white wings to show her.
    “I don’t believe it!” said Hannah. “Go on, show me! Show me, if you really can fly!”
    And she danced about in a state of enormous excitement, flapping her rather pathetic little wings and jumping up and down.
    Alexander felt extremely foolish, but there was nothing else for it but to spread his wings and, looking round to make sure no-one else was watching him, he rose in the air over Hannah’s head, and soared round over the palm trees and the little huts, before coming back to land gracefully by the sandstone rock.
    “Oh, beautiful!” breathed Hannah. “Oh, wonderful, oh, marvellous, oh, oh, … do teach me!”
    Alexander was horrified!
    “I don’t think I should do that!” he said. “I have a feeling that ostriches are not meant to fly.”
    Two more large tears appeared in Hannah’s rather beautiful eyes.
    “All birds are meant to fly!” she said. “We could fly a few million years ago; we have just forgotten how to, that’s all! If you could give me a few lessons I’m sure I could be flying in no time. Oh, go on, please do! Don’t be so rotten! What harm can it do?”
    “Well, alright,” said Alexander. “I suppose it can’t really do any harm.” 
    So, stretching out his heavenly finger, he touched her two stubby little wings, and they started to grow – and grow – and grow!
    Alexander was very good at Maths, like most angels, and could work out in his head the wing-span that Hannah would need to get her very heavy and large body and legs off the ground. However, he was rather taken aback to realise that she needed a wing-span of about seven metres!
    Hannah was absolutely delighted. She ran up and down, flapping her new wings madly, and taking tremendous jumps in the air. Finally, after several false starts, she succeeded in staying airborne for several flaps …. after which she crash-landed and her head disappeared in the sand!
    Alexander seized her tail feathers and pulled her back out. She landed sitting on the ground, shaking her head, blinking and gasping.
    “My grandmother used to tell us stories about ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. I can’t imagine why they did it! It’s extremely uncomfortable! But, never mind, let’s try again!”
    Alexander helped her to her feet and, after a few more practice runs, she was really beginning to get the hang of it, zooming round and round over his head, and shouting at the top of her voice with excitement.
    “I can fly!” she screamed. “I can fly!”
    Hannah alighted beside the angel with a curious expression on her face.
    “I am going to nest!” she said.
    “Whatever do you mean?” asked Alexander.
    “I am going to nest!” repeated the ostrich, her voice hoarse with excitement. “I am going to make a nest like other birds, and then I’m going to lay my eggs in it, and then Gert won’t be able to get her great claws on them!”
    She stared around and her eyes fell on the mud huts.
    “Look!” she shrieked at Alexander. “Look at those great piles of palm leaves. Don’t those look exactly like ostrich nests?”
    And, without more ado, she flapped up and landed heavily on the roof of one of the huts.
    “Come down!” shouted Alexander. “I am quite sure you shouldn’t be up there!”
    Hannah half closed her eyes and stared sleepily at him.
    “It’s no good talking to me now,” she murmured. “I am beginning to feel very broody. I may very well lay an egg this morning.”
    At that moment, Alexander saw a large number of figures in the distance hurrying across the desert towards him. It appeared to be another group of ostriches. As they got close they all suddenly stopped, staring in amazement at the roof where Hannah was nesting. They all started to scream and cackle with excitement.
    “Hannah!” exclaimed one particularly tall, thin bird. “How on earth did you get up there?”
    Hannah opened her eyes.
    “Oh, hello, Audrey,” she said. “I’m nesting. I’m thinking quite seriously about laying an egg.”
    Audrey let out a squawk of amazement.
“Nesting?” she screamed. “Whatever do you mean?”
A very large, heavy-looking bird with fierce, black eyes, strode forward through the crowd.
“Come down at once, you stupid bird!” she squawked. “I am the only person who does any nesting around here!”
“Good morning, Gert!” said Hannah, rudely. “I have decided to hatch out my own eggs in future, and there is nothing you can do about it because …” and here she raised her voice and continued: “ …. YOU CAN’T FLY! I FLEW up here to my nest, so you can go and run rings around that rock or do whatever takes your fancy. Just don’t bother me! I’m broody!” 
    And, with that, she closed her eyes again and waved her snaky neck gently from side to side.
    Gertrude was quite speechless with rage, but none of the other ostriches were, and they all started shouting and screaming at Hannah.
    “How did you fly? None of us can fly! You know we can’t.”
    “I do wish you would all be quiet. I don’t see how anyone can lay an egg with all that racket going on. If you must know, that kind angel taught me to fly.”
    The ostriches all turned to Alexander.
    Oh, teach us to fly!” they chorused. “Please, please teach us all to fly!”
    Alexander was beginning to wish he hadn’t come.
    “I am sure I shouldn’t help you all to fly,” he said miserably. “I don’t think ostriches are meant to fly.”
    “Well, I think that is perfectly beastly of you,” said a very young, fluffy ostrich called Fiona. “I think it is absolutely mean of you to let Hannah fly and not us! We shan’t do any harm.” 
    And with these words Fiona gazed sweetly at Alexander. 
    The angel couldn’t resist the appeal in her eyes.
    “Oh, alright,” he said, and, rather reluctantly he touched all the little stubby wings with his heavenly finger and they started to grow – and grow – and grow!
In practically no time at all the ostriches were tearing up and down the desert, flapping their wings, and taking off with great leaps. Some of them were landing on their heads, some were sitting on the sand with very dazed expressions, but some were zooming round overhead with considerable skill.
    Only Gertrude stood staring up with a furious expression on her face, shouting:
    “Come down at once, you foolish birds!”
    But nobody took any notice.
    Suddenly, a rather pale, elegant bird called Esmeralda, glided gracefully down beside Alexander.
    “I think you are an absolute darling!” she said, fluttering her eyelashes. “I am going to nest now.”
    And, without more ado, she swooped up and landed on the hut next to Hannah’s.
    “Isn’t this fun, darling?” she cooed.
    “Hello, Essy!” said Hannah, sleepily, rearranging a palm leaf.
    “I think I shall nest now, too!” said Audrey.
    “Yes, so shall I!” said a rather short, fat bird called Edna.
    “Me, too!” said an elderly ostrich called Albertine.
    “So shall we, so shall we!” called all the others, and they all proceeded to try to sort themselves a space on top of the huts.
    “Go away!” said Hannah crossly. “I was here first!”
    “Don’t be so greedy!” said Edna. “You can’t have a whole roof to yourself so move up a bit, do!”
    Alexander watched in horror as all the ostriches, pushing and shoving, tried to find room on top of the six small mud huts.
    “Get your foot out of my eye!” shouted Albertine.
    “You’re sitting on my head!” squawked Edna.
    At that very moment, there was an ominous cracking, rumbling noise and every one of the six huts collapsed in a great heap of rubble, palm leaves and terrified ostriches. The air was full of dust and feathers.
    “I am not in the least surprised,” said Gertrude, smugly, as several frightened people ran out of the collapsing huts in their night-clothes.
    A very tall, handsome ostrich strode through the crowd, with a very worried expression on his face.
    “What on earth is going on?” he asked, sternly.
    Oh, Oscar, thank goodness you’ve arrived!” said Gert. “I am afraid the girls are all being extremely silly.” And, pointing an accusing toe at Alexander, she continued: “This person taught them to fly!”
    “All you girls,” commanded Oscar, imperiously, “come over here this minute! What on earth are those great wings? You look quite ridiculous!”
    His wives all drooped their long necks and scuffled their claws in the sand in an embarrassed manner.
    Oscar turned to Alexander.
    “I would be most grateful,” he said, in haughty tones, “if you would kindly return my wives to their normal state.”
    Alexander was just about to stretch out his hand when he became aware of someone standing beside him. It was Michael, looking absolutely furious!
    “What, in Heaven’s name, are you doing?” he whispered in horror. Michael was looking at the terrified inmates of the huts, running about, waving their arms and weeping, and at the ostriches all screaming and squawking.
    “I never meant any harm,” Alexander said, miserably. “I only taught them how to fly.”
    “Ostriches are not meant to fly!” hissed Michael, through clenched teeth. “They gave it up because they are FAR TOO BIG! With those great legs they can run faster than any other creature in the desert. They have absolutely no need to fly. Anyway, it doesn’t seem to have done them much good; they all seem to be extremely angry with you!”
    And, at that moment, one of the birds lost its temper and gave Alexander a sharp peck on the ankle.
It was Esmeralda, who had called him ‘a darling’!
    “You interfering idiot!” she squawked.
    “I don’t like to pull rank, old chap, but I am an archangel, you know, and I did particularly ask you not to get into any trouble,” said Michael sadly.
    Alexander hung his head miserably, and great angelic tears, like the purest of pearls, rolled down his cheeks and splashed onto the sand.
    “I’m so sorry!” said Alexander. “Those poor people have lost their homes, and the ostriches are all upset. Oh dear, oh dear, I am a foolish angel!”
    And his tears flowed thick and fast.
    “Oh, come on, old fellow, there is no real harm done,” said Michael, and led his friend behind the palm trees. I’ll get the ostriches back to normal in a moment and they will have a marvellous adventure to tell their chicks, and as for the people from the huts … just you watch a minute, you may get a surprise!”
    The people had stopped running about, and were staring in amazement as their homes were being rebuilt before their very eyes. 
    One small, fat boy wandered over to where Alexander had been standing.
    “Look, Mum!” he cried. (Of course, he spoke Arabic, but angels can understand all tongues). “Look, Mum, at these pretty, white pebbles!”
    He picked something shiny up from the sand and took it to show the others.
    “They are pearls!” cried his mother in amazement, and in a moment they were all searching the sand. 
    Alexander’s tears had turned into pearls in the hot sun, and from that day to this, pearls have been known as ‘angel’s tears’ in that part of the world.