Once upon a time there was a boy called Lo who lived on a beautiful wooded island in the South China Sea. Every day, even wet windy ones, he went down to the beach near his home and played in the soft sand or splashed in the glassy sea. Every night, even wild wolfy ones, he looked at the glittering stars twinkling above the mountains and said, "What a lucky boy am I."
After school, around five o'clock, a herd of cows visited the meadow near Lo's home. Ferdinand, a big black bull with long curly horns, would lead his family of mummy cows and calves down from the forest to eat the fresh green grass. Years ago, Lo's grandfather had set them free from pulling ploughs in the paddy fields. Every day the cows ate and drank to their fill then licked each other clean with tickly pink tongues. Every night they lay under banyan trees, sniffed the fresh salty air breezing up from the sea and mooed, "What lucky cows are we."
Although no-one took care of them, the cows were happy. After all, they had nothing to fear, because the villagers didn't throw sticks or say cruel things like "you smell", or "you'd make a tasty sirloin steak". And there was always plenty of cud to chew and trees to shade from the burning summer sun, or a fleeting thunderstorm.
One night Grandfather told Lo that Ferdinand had magical powers. "Rub his horns," he said, "and he'll turn you into a fly." Before sleep, Lo looked out of his bedroom window and tracked the flashing lights of a passing aeroplane.
Next morning, in the meadow, with the steady rip-rip of grass torn by grazing herd, Lo was kneeling, willing himself - knee by knee, - to get closer to the bull. Ferdinand was snoozing under a banana tree dreaming of leaves coated with morning dew, his favourite snack. Lo stole nearer and nearer, smelling the bull's sweet stink. Cautiously, he reached out and touched one of the bull's horns. It was as smooth and shiny as sea-polished shells gathered from the shore.
For a moment nothing happened. Then Ferdinand flicked his tail and Lo was flapping a pair of wings. Joyously, he buzzed around, zipping this way and that, taking care not to be hit by the bull's swishing tail. "Such fun," he squeaked with a new fly-size voice.
"Keep away from Kissa the crested crane," warned a fellow fly. "She's hungry."
Kissa was a shaggy grey bird with a red sack hanging from her throat and a head crowned with gold. She was rat-a-tap-tapping her beak against Ferdinand's hooves. "I'm not just any old bird," she grumbled. "I'm the national bird of Uganda.'
Ferdinand opened one big brown eye, then the other, and snorted. "Don't believe you," he said, plucking a banana leaf from a nearby branch.
"You silly old cow," clucked Kissa, stamping her long skinny legs. "Haven't you seen the Ugandan flag?"
"Can't say I have," said Ferdinand, enjoying the leaf's sugary taste.
"It's black, red and yellow, and has me in the middle of it."
Ferdinand's jaw stopped mid-munch.
"Ugandan soldiers pin badges of me on their uniforms,' bragged Kissa. 'I give them the courage to fight. I'm also a messenger from the Vermilion Bird of the South."
"Then you're an important bird and I must listen to what you have to say," said the bull.
Kissa fluffed her feathers and settled down to tell the story of Una, a poor black widow from Uganda.
Una was a poor black widow, not because she was a spider, but because her loving, hard-working husband had fallen from a tree and died. One day, as she was chopping corn at the back of a little mud hut in the middle of a dirty brown field, Baakir had come to tell her the news of the accident. She flailed and wailed, pounded the ground with her gnarled black fists, but nothing could bring her husband back.
Una had ten children, so many that she sometimes forgot their names. She was a simple woman, but a wise one. She knew that after her husband's funeral, Baakir and Badrani, his brothers, would push her (and her ten children) out of their home. That's because, by law, the little mud hut belonged to her husband's family.
"If only I had three hundred shillings," she confided to Masani, her next door-neighbour, over a late-night camp fire. "All Baakir and Badrani want is money. With three hundred shillings I could pay them for this little mud hut we call home."
At first light the next morning, she sat outside in the mud and threshed corn for the day's measly meals. There had been no rain for three months and the corn was barely enough to feed her chickens, never mind her children. Tears dripped down her furrowed face and a cheeky chicken scuttled by and stole a kernel of corn.
"If only I had a cow," she murmured, "then my ten children would have milk to drink; and I could fertilise my corn with manure, and sell milk to get money to buy more seeds, and save up to pay off Baakir and Badrani for the little mud hut that is my home."
A sloppy tear slid down Ferdinand's cheek.
"Could you give Una one of your wives?" chirped Kissa.
The bull nodded. Of course he could. But which cow should he give? And how could she travel to Africa?
"Easy, peasy," said Kissa. "She can fly with me."
"But cows can't fly!" said Ferdinand.
There was only the sound of munching and buzzing as the bull, the bird and Lo pondered this problem.
Out of the blue sky, an English nursery rhyme floated into Lo's head. "Yes, they can," he squeaked, "as well as flies can fly!" and started to sing:
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon
"Yes, they can!" cooed Kissa the crane, twitching her tail feathers with excitement.
Ferdinand mooed a triumphant moo. "Lucy, come here. You're going fly to Africa!"
A young heifer stopped grazing. "Fly to Africa! That sounds fun," she said.
"Moo-chas grassias; thank you very much," hooted Kissa, extending her wings for flight.
"Wait for me!" said Lo. "I want to come too!" He flew over to Kissa and snuggled inside her thick grey feathers.
"Off we go!" called Kissa, hovering in the air. She flapped her wings, Ferdinand swished his tail and the crane, cow and fly were gone...
...Gone, they were, flying through the sunny blue sky. As they passed by, a famous French painter called Chagall painted a painting of them and called it L'Envol.
"Fly me to the moon," sang Lo as they flew over all the tea in China; the treasures of India; pirates over the Gulf of Aden; giraffes, elephants and lions on the African savannah.
Then, with a plonk!, they landed on the hot dry earth near Una's hut in Uganda.
"You're a gift from heaven," sang Una, tethering Lucy to a rickety fence nearby. She ran to get a bucket to milk the cow. Squeezing Lucy's udders, fistfuls of warm wet liquid squirted this way and that. One cup, two cups; one litre, two litres; enough for tea, enough for dinner, enough to feed her ten hungry children!
Later, Una collected Lucy's manure and spread it on her field. The corn grew tall and sturdy.
A few weeks after that, Lucy gave birth to a little calf who grew to give milk herself. Two cows, three cows; four cows, five: giving enough milk to feed Una's children, and to sell to her neighbours Abbo and Masani and Mangeni and Nabulungi.
Ten shillings, twenty shillings; one hundred shillings, two hundred shillings, three hundred shillings; enough to pay Baakir and Badrani for the little mud hut she called home.
That spring Una and her sons planted potatoes and millet, pulses and cotton, as well as corn. That autumn she bought three goats. For New Year she sent her children to the forest to collect firewood and cooked a huge cauldron of fresh goat stew. That night they lit a bonfire; ate and sang, and danced and laughed, and laughed and danced again.
Just before she went to bed that night, Una hobbled over to the fence to say good night to Lucy. "You are the sweetest little cow in the whole wide world,' she said, stroking the cow's sticky muzzle. Then she looked at the sparkling stars twinkling above and said, "What a lucky old lady am I."
That night the silvery feathers of Kissa, the crested crane, shimmered in the moonlight. "Little fly, it's time I fly back to the heavens above," she tweeted. "The Vermilion Bird of the South is calling."
In the distance, Lo heard the honk honk of a bird many thousands of miles away. "What about me?" he buzzed. "How can I get home?"
"Easy, peasy," answered Kissa. "Jump on to my back and I'll fly you back."
Lo buzzed over to the bird and nestled in her warm fluffy feathers. What a wonderful adventure, he thought. How comfortable I feel lowering my head on this feathery bed. And how sleepy I feel...
And that's how he found himself lying in the meadow near his home, scratching his head and wondering if it had all been a dream.