e s s a y  

a n n  m a c k i n n o n  k u c e r a 

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 abandoned child.

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 fairytales.

...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.



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.
                                                                     Austrian Canon

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.

                                                                     Virgil, “Orpheus”


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


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