A condor fell in love with a young woman tending her flock of sheep. He changed himself into a handsome young man and came and stood beside her where her flock was grazing.
“What do you do here?” he said. “I graze my flock,” she answered. “I sing my songs, and with my slingshot I chase away the fox who comes to eat my lambs and the great condor who tries to snatch me up in his talons.”
“Would you like me to stay with you and help you chase the fox and scare away the condor?”
“Oh no,” she replied, “for then I would lose my freedom. I love my sheep and I love to be free, to be alone, and to sing. I do not wish to marry.”
“Then I will go. But you have not seen the last of me.” The next day the condor returned, again disguised as a young man.
“We can talk, can’t we?” he said.
“Yes, we can talk,” she said. “Tell me, where do you come from?”
“I come from the high mountaintops, close to the thunder,” he said. “I see the first light of dawn and the last light of evening. And there among the brilliant snows I enjoy pure solitude and perfect silence. Won’t you go there with me? You would be the queen of the air. The clear blue sky would be our roof, and from deep in the valley the flowers would send up their perfume. Won’t you go there, my love?”
“No, I do not care for your mountaintops. I prefer my pasture and my sheep. And I love my mother. She would cry for me if I were gone.”
“I will say no more,” he said. “But do me one small favor. I have a burning itch behind my shoulder. Lend me the long pin from your scarf so I can scratch it.”
The young woman lent him the pin, and when he had finished using it, he went away. The next day this same young man returned. “You have bewitched me,” he said, “and I cannot live without you. Come away with me now.”
“No, I must not,” she said. “My sheep would miss me. My mother would weep.”
“Ah,” he blurted, “I have the same burning itch behind my shoulder. If only you would rub it for me with your smooth fingers, smooth as alpaca wool, you would cure me forever.”
As he bent over, the incautious young woman climbed onto his back. The moment he felt her resting on his shoulders he became a condor and flew swiftly into the sky with his precious cargo between his wings. Higher and higher they rose, and after a soaring voyage they reached a cave near the summit of a mountain. In that cave lived the condor’s mother, an ancient lady with faded plumage. And in other caves on the same peak lived other condors. A great multitude. The condors greeted the young woman’s arrival with shouts of joy and noisy flapping of their wings. The old mother was delighted to see her and anxiously cradled her in her huge wings, for she was shivering in the cold air. The girl was happy with her young condor. He was affectionate. But he brought her nothing to eat.
At last she said to him, “Your tender caresses make my heart happy. But I am growing weak with hunger. Don’t forget that I must eat and drink. I need fire. I need meat. I need the good things that grow in the earth. I am hungry, my love, and thirsty.” The condor took flight. Discovering an untended kitchen, he stole some hot coals from the hearth and carried them home. With his beak he opened a spring in the mountainside and brought forth clear water. From the fields and pathways far below, he collected bits of flesh from dead animals. He dug up gardens and brought home potatoes.
The meat was foul-smelling. The potatoes had gone soft. Overcome with hunger, the young woman devoured this unpleasant food. She wished for bread, but the condor could not provide it.
All this while the young woman’s mother was weeping in her empty house. The young woman herself felt homesick. She wearied of the bad food and the constant embraces of her amorous condor. She was thin and her body grew feathers. She laid eggs. She was indeed the condor’s wife, the queen of the air. Hers was the work of hatching chicks that would someday soar fearlessly through the sky like their father.
And still her abandoned mother wept inconsolably in her house. Pitying her, a parrot who lived in the neighborhood came and spoke to her: “Do not weep, dear woman. Your daughter is alive in the high mountains. She is the wife of the great condor. But if you will give me the corn in your garden and enough room in your trees to perch and nest, I will bring her back to you.”
The mother accepted this offer. She gave the parrot the corn patch and room to nest in her trees.
The parrot flew to the high mountaintop. He chose a moment when the condors were off guard and picked up the young woman and carried her back to her mother’s side. She was thin and ill-smelling from the poor food she had eaten. The glossy feathers that hung about her gave her the ridiculous air of an outcast human dressed up like a bird. But her mother received her gladly. She washed her body with the tears from her eyes. She dressed her in the finest clothes she had. Then she held her in her lap and gazed at her with boundless satisfaction.
Grieving and angry over the loss he had suffered, the condor set out in search of the parrot. He found him in the garden, stuffed with corn, flying contentedly from tree to tree.
He swooped down on the parrot and devoured him whole. But the parrot went straight through the condor’s body and came out the other end. The condor swallowed him again, and again he came out. Furious, the condor seized the parrot, tore him to pieces with his sharp talons, and swallowed him piece by piece. But for each piece he swallowed, a pretty little parrot came out the other end. And this, they say, is the origin of the parrots we know today.
The sorrowful condor returned to his mountain. He dyed his plumage black as a sign of mourning. And the tears he left behind became the airborne ashes that swirl like butterflies above the hearth.