must have been already dizzy from the heat to have
gone walking at noon on a cloudless midsummer day without a hat. If she
had noticed my departure, Magdalena would have pressed a straw hat down
on my head, but this was my own private escapade and I slid out unseen.
My husband spent much of his time tapping desultorily
on his typewriter, closed away from the children, with a fine view of
one of the harbors of Majorca beyond his shaded window and a rapidly
emptying jug of wine beside him. My life, on the other hand, was one of
frustration, of rushing heatedly about trying to make an American home
without any refrigeration, fresh vegetables or running water, surrounded
on all sides by kindly but incomprehensible fishermen with their boats,
nets and quaintly dressed families. This day I left the children napping
under the care of the strong-minded Magdalena, and slipped away for a
quiet solitary walk.
All was a confusion of heat, soft powdery dust and
blinding light. But I followed the hot road that wound beside the
Mediterranean shore for a quarter mile or so until I felt it would be
much wiser to return, pausing under every shady tree to cool off before
plunging out into the unbearable sunshine again.
It was while resting beneath one over-arching tree
that I became aware of a bird singing just over my head. It was an
unfamiliar sound, not the usual series of repeated trills but a long
sustained and varied song, repeated over and over after short silences.
The curious thing was its unusual beauty. I found
myself on the verge of tears listening to it. The song seemed to be
addressed directly to me, telling a story or carrying a message that I
could not quite catch. I tried my utmost to memorize the notes so that I
could recall the song later, to hear it again in my mind and then try to
understand it. But I was unable to do so, because as soon as I had
memorized the first few notes I forgot them in the strong feelings
brought on by the rest of the melody.
When the bird tired of its branch and fluttered away
through the hot sunlight to another tree, the combination of my emotion
at the beauty of the song and frustration at being deprived of it were
so violent that I began to sob. I croaked out such foolish things as “Wait
for me!” and “Don’t leave me!” as I ran blindly after the bird
until I could stand under it once more in the shade of its new tree.
It did not seem at all put out by the fuss I was
raising under its branch but continued to pour out its lovely song,
while I, now too upset to even try to memorize the notes, only attempted
to remain unobtrusive enough not to drive it away, stifling my sobs and
restraining my breath, praying to it in murmurs not to leave me.
It flew to the next tree and waited for me to appear
below before beginning its song anew. Why was it not afraid, or at least
a little shy? It seemed to be teasing me by flying just out of reach,
then lighting on a twig and whisking its tail while it sang a few
repetitions of its song before darting again into the sunlight, to light
in another tree where it watched to see if I would follow.
By now I was calling more openly to the bird, begging
it to stay, whining and sniveling; my eyes were nearly blinded by tears.
I felt that if it flew away and left me alone that would be the end of
any happiness or hope in my life. The thought of the dark ordinary world
closing in on me was more than I could bear. I argued and scolded, but
the bird continued on its way, coaxingly flicking its tail whenever I
was too slow in catching up, and rewarding my efforts with another spell
of divine song. My clumsy progress in the blazing heat was making me lag
and the blurring tears made me stagger.
Now the bird was running out of trees to sing from. It
flew across the unshaded road to where a low stone wall held back large
spiny cacti, probably prickly pears, edging a nearly hidden cliff of
jagged rock, falling steeply down to the sea. The bird lighted upon a
tall cactus and sang a little as I knelt on the wall and looked
frantically for a clear spot among the prickles where I could stand
close to it and listen. But the grove was thick with threatening spines.
The bird left its cactus perch and ducked down over
the edge of the cliff. If it had found some protruding branch below to
sing from, the sound was drowned out in the roar of the waves smashing
against the base of the cliff far below.
I was perfectly aware that following the bird would be
the end of me, first by slashes from the cactus spines and then by a
tumble down the cliff face to the sea, but I had seriously calculated
the least painful spots to place my feet during a passage through the
spines before the bird had foiled my plan by disappearing. Only then did
I give up and face the bleakness of reality at that harsh line where it
borders the heart’s desire. I sat on the wall and cried like an
I staggered home dizzily, back to my shady house. When
I returned to my senses I wondered what had happened. Had I gone mad in
the hot sun and started fantasizing in a dream world? I also carefully
considered the possibility that I had a strong death-wish which the bird
had merely facilitated? Was I that unstable?
The shameful story remained locked in my breast for
the next fourteen years, during which time I straightened out my life,
bought some binoculars and become a bird watcher. At long last I
confided my tale to a fellow birder, Dr. Elizabeth Boyd, then head of
the Biology department at Mt. Holyoke College. She was not a
fault-finding person and I was able to confess my aberrant state of mind
now that so many years had passed.
“What did the bird look like?”
“Oh, like nothing at all; just a little brown bird.”
“Then it had to have been a nightingale. For that is
the exact description given by all those who have encountered one. I
have never been fortunate enough myself, but it is well known that they
affect their hearers in the same way you were.”
Now that my alarming experience had been given a name,
I suddenly remembered reading the famous naturalist John Burrough’s
account of hunting through the woods all night in the rain after hearing
only a few notes of the nightingale’s song, and being forbidden entry
into an English inn the next morning on account of his disheveled
condition. I had read that throughout Europe and the rest of its
extensive range the little bird, which had the power to create joy and
uncontrollable yearning, had been incorporated into local mythology and
...a poor little kitchen maid who said, “Oh Heavens! The
nightingale? I know it very well Every evening I am allowed to take
broken meat to my poor sick mother..... when I am tired I rest
awhile in the wood and then I hear the nightingale. Its song brings
the tears into my eyes. I feel as if my mother were kissing me.
Hans Christian Anderson, “The Nightingale”
In addition to the feeling of having received a loving touch from the
song, the characters in these stories are also aware of an overpowering
desire to understand the bird’s language and to keep the it nearby, by
capture or coaxing.
A laborer lay listening to a Nightingale’s song throughout the
summer night. So pleased was he with it that the next night he set a
trap and captured it. “Now that I have caught thee,” he cried,
“Thou shalt always sing to me.”
Aesop, “The Laborer and the Nightingale”
The sweet nightingale began to sing its wonderful song with
trills and high silvery notes. The merchant listened and listened to
the song and said, “How I wish that I could understand the meaning
of the different songs of all the birds. Ivan sat with his parents
when the nightingale was singing in his cage. His song was so sad
however, so very sad, that the merchant and his wife also became
sad, and their son, their good Ivan, who listened very attentively,
was even more affected, and the tears came running down his cheeks.
FOLK TALES FROM THE RUSSIAN. Rand
Alles Schweiget, Nachtigallen
Lochen mit sussen Melodien
Thranen ins Auge, Schwermut ins Herz.
Out of the silence the sweet singing Nightingales
Draw tears to the eyes and melancholy to the heart.
Both Virgil and Oscar Wilde, with their
heightened poetic sensitivity, must have thought that the nightingale
herself must be unhappy to cause others to weep so in sympathy.
...but all night
Grieves she, and, sitting on a
bough, runs o’er
Her wretched tale, and fills the
wood with woe.
So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn,
and the thorn touched her heart and a fierce pang of pain shot through
her. Bitter, bitter was the pain, wilder and wilder grew her song, for
she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies
not in the tomb.
Oscar Wilde, “The Nightingale”
There is little reported about the quality of the notes
themselves. Burroughs heard only “a quick brilliant call or whistle.”
If I remember correctly, Shakespeare heard, “Jug Jug.” Wordsworth
reported, “They pierce and pierce; tumultuous harmony and fierce!” To
Wilde it was, “like water bubbling from a silver jar.” To me the music
was sweet; if it pierced, it was painless. Perhaps the listeners hear what
they need to hear.
Though I cannot recall the sound or order of the notes I
remember very well my joy and sorrow; the tears run down my cheeks as I
write about them. And I still puzzle over the unanswered question: Was the
nightingale’s song reality or the dream into which we all yearn to
escape? Or was it the paradox of both at once?
© Ann McKinnon Kucera, 2001