Long ago and far away, a beautiful young woman was thrown into prison by the Evil Emperor for refusing his advances. All day this young woman would stand at the window of her cell, which looked out on a busy street, crying out to passers by for help. And the sight of her face, beautiful and tear-stained, peering out through the bars, moved all who saw her, man or woman, to pity.
But what could be done to help her? At first the young people of the Kingdom organized secret rallies to call for revolution, plotted the overthrow of the Evil Emperor and the release of all the young women (for there were others, of course) rotting away in his dungeons. But the Emperor soon got wind of these plots and had the young people executed.
After that, the good people of the Kingdom, though genuinely compassionate about the young woman, decided to keep their support at a purely symbolic level. It was clear that there was no way they could actually better the young woman's lot - real change was impossible, or had to depend on the softening of the Emperor's heart, which came to the same thing - but at least they could offer her their moral support.
One day, a traveling poet came up with the perfect expression of that support - the gift of a single white feather, slipped into the young woman's window, as though to say: "We wish you flight".
His simple gesture captured the public imagination. Soon, no one would pass beneath the window of the young woman's cell without stopping to hand her a feather, assuring her of their goodwill and their support for her cause. Street hawkers patrolled the nearby corners, ready to supply moderately priced feathers to those who had not brought their own. The Kingdom's bird population started to decline. The symbolism of white feathers was quickly forgotten (white was so boring!), and a competition to offer the most exotic feathers began. Peacock and quetzal feathers became common sights in the local markets, and one rich merchant even claimed to have found the feather of a Phoenix. But whatever the source of their offering - whether ostrich or sparrow - the people of the Kingdom were proud of their gesture, proud of their defiance of the Evil Oppressor, and of their sensitivity in offering the poor imprisoned woman their emotional support. They would stop by her window, offer her their little token, and then go home to their comfortable beds and sleep the sleep of the righteous.
The Emperor, of course, knew all about these seditious feathers. In fact, it was he who had given the orders for his guards not to interfere. After all, what threat could a whole mountain of feathers be to him? Besides, his spies were watching the young woman's prison window at all times, taking careful note of who gave her what, and marking those whose gifts seemed particularly expensive, so the Emperor would know whose property to seize the next time his personal coffers ran dry.
And what of the young woman? At first she was touched by this show of solidarity. She even imagined the feathers might help her escape - Daedalus-like, flying away on freshly made wings. She soon realised, however, that this was impossible. The bars across the window were still there, for one thing, and besides, there was no way to patch these separate feathers together into a proper set of wings. They were discarded feathers, moulted feathers; in other words, mere fluff.
So she watched in discomfort and then despair as her tiny cell filled up with thousands upon thousands of loose feathers. She took to separating out the ones that looked the softest, piling them up in an impromptu bed, and slipping the rest out from under her door where the guards took them and sold them back to the street hawkers who sold them, in turn, to a new batch of pilgrims. But the young woman didn't know this. All she knew was that it was lovely, when the night came, to sink into that heap of feathers. She felt so comfortable lying there that after a while she no longer bothered to stand at the window and call out for help. A few months passed and the people forgot all about her. But she didn't mind. She had enough feathers to last her a lifetime, and there were still a few people for whom the feather offering had become an act of faith, so that they kept bringing her feathers, even though they no longer remembered what the gesture was supposed to mean.
As for her imprisonment, she wasn't sure she minded that anymore either. After all, if they were to release her, where would she go? And the cell didn't seem so bad, now that it was lined with all these wonderful feathers; in fact, it felt positively luxurious. Hardly like being in prison at all.
Optional reading: William Butler Yeats - On a Political Prisoner