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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


64. [Plate 53]
The Parrot with a Golden Beak

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a parrot with a golden beak. He always hewed to the party line, whatever it was, and if he had any thoughts of his own, he was careful never to give voice to them. So it was that he became a Papal nuncio.

Now at the time this story begins, some priests in a certain city had done something very, very naughty. Like when you punch your kid brother, only worse. This made the moms and dads unhappy, so the Archbishop moved these priests to other parishes, where they did exactly the same naughty things all over again. This happened so many times that the faithful came close to open revolt. Shocked, the local bishops agreed to certain reforms.

But when the Pope heard of these changes, he was outraged. "We cannot be ruled by laymen," he said.

"We cannot be ruled by laymen," the parrot agreed.


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"Ecclesiastical trials must be held in secret."

"Ecclesiastical trials must be held in secret."

"Go and tell the bishops we will not put up with this."

"We will not be put up with this."

The parrot with a golden beak met with the synod of bishops. They had what adults call "a free and open exchange of views." That means they yelled at each other.

"You can't tell me there's no need for change!" one cleric shouted angrily.

"There's no need for change," the parrot replied.

"You act as if the Pope speaks with God's own voice."

"The Pope speaks with God's own voice."

"Rubbish! That's like saying that snakes are ducks."

"Snakes are ducks," the parrot said.

"You're being ridiculous!"


On and on went the debate, but because the parrot brought nothing new to it, and yet never shifted his position one inch, eventually the critics got tired and went away. Some quit the Church and went to Hell when they died. Others simply kept their mouths shut and their children away from priests. Those who remained marveled at the parrot's wisdom.

When the parrot went back to Rome, the Pope said, "Tell me that everything's fine now."

"Everything's fine now."

"That's good," said the Pope, "Change is bad."

"I agree," said the parrot.

Now, wasn't that a good story? Yes it was. It has a moral, too. Here it is:

   A wise old parrot there was of old;
   He only said what he'd been told;
   Which he repeated, word for word.
   Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?


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This is the 64th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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