When all the world is dark and the blossomed flowers have folded petals to closed bud and the butterflies sleep, and the deer, and the sheep; while bats unfurl and eat the night and frighten humans who do not like what they devour or what they are; the nightingale sings. Lovers pause in tumbled sheets and hold that song in their gaze. God smiles on us, they say and return to embrace of limb and soul, or at least limb, and, of course, forget everything in that waking sleep of sex or love, the waking sleep of humans; not just lovers but children in their candy games and Pokémon hours, teenagers glued to the power of screens, TV, computer, the messy world of tactile sensation diverged; and even the old, who forget what the toaster is for, but maintain a sort of creaky wisdom, if anyone would listen between the obvious confusion of words, even they, if their hearing aids are turned just right, hear the nightingale song and think, How nice, what beauty. Who remembers why? Perhaps it’s best it remains unspoken. Why uproot the beautiful flower to expose its ugly source? Why remember the song’s inception? Why remember anything but love, and joy, and, of course, e-mail addresses and where the remote control is?
High schools still insist on a history prerequisite for graduation but let’s face it, our brightest minds are not in universities bent over papyrus and yellow-paged books, but surfing the Web and unleashing the awesome power of space, selling the present for brighter teeth and mobile lives and what’s really important here? Ghosts? Even those that drop feathers (germy, potentially full of disease) and sing golden songs in the dark? Very nice. But what’s the point?
Graveyards creak with too many bones, and the weight of headstones, and when the wind blows the air is dusty with the dead. Ah life, its hoary inevitability. What’s the point? Progress promises, as it always has, immortality, but for now there is only life and it points to death and after that, there are all sorts of theories, but the only thing certain is decay, the rattle of bones and dust. So who can blame us for loving the nightingale’s song in the dark and forgetting the rest?
THE STORY OF THE NIGHTINGALE’S SONG
Philomela and Procne are sisters who play in the grass or by the stream from a time when children played like that, with each other and imagination. But let’s not get too sentimental here. Things happened then that today, in all our imperfect knowledge, we would never thrust upon a young girl. Right? For instance, once, when there was a plague of locusts, green-eyed and scrying, the earth undulating with their greedy mandibles, a friend of theirs who menstruated in the corner of her house was forced out to walk amongst the insects and bleed over the crunch of them beneath her bare feet, to cast away the plague, with her womanly power, which was not immediately successful, and when she returned, weeping and bitten, locusts in her hair and on her skirt, the adults swatted at her as if she was one of them, until all the locusts were corpses, and in a way she was too, her eyes like shallow water.
And there was war. Great and savage battles where men actually saw who they killed and even had the blood of the dead on their hands and it splattered on their faces, in their beards, and it took weeks sometimes to comb it all out. The girls’ father, Pandion, was in just such a war, even as they played by the stream, he fought for the reason humans still fight.
In frustration Pandion calls for a mercenary, a great fighter who will help him to win, and Tereus takes the job and slays some men and also plots battle strategies that win the war. Tereus combs the blood from his beard with bones of Pandion’s slain, and when the other men complain, he laughs, because to him, it’s all the same. The dead are the dead, and that is the only victory.
Pandion thinks Tereus is like a son. A great warrior son. Come home with me, he says, we will settle payment there. You will feast with us and celebrate. Tereus doesn’t really care but he is hungry and likes the sound of sleeping in a bed, though in reality this disappoints him and soon he has set up a tent on the castle grounds which everyone thinks is really funny but nobody comments on, except the girls, who are innocent, and do not understand what Tereus does for a living.
What Tereus does now is sit in the tent and sharpen his swords and watch the girls playing by the stream. Procne, the older, her hair in a braid that comes undone as she runs in her muslin, still shaped more like bones than woman, and the little one, Philomela, her red hair long and in wild disarray of grass and clover, her dress stained with green, her little girl laughter and screams larking through the meadow, and for a moment Tereus stops sharpening and something like a smile plays at his lips.
Pandion, seeing this, celebrates the obvious. It is clear what Tereus wants for payment. Tereus nods, it’s true, and there’s no shame in it, for there’s no shame in him. When Pandion brings the wrong daughter, the older one, Procne, Tereus accepts her. What does it really matter? One thing Tereus knows is a body is just a body, one much the same as the other. Blood and bone. Skin and hair. Teeth.
What a wedding! What a feast! Roasted hummingbirds, and roasted larks. Sugared flowers and stag’s blood, and twelve pipers, and mead, pomegranates, and shank of deer and lamb and cakes decorated with violets; and dancing girls, and the young bride, her cheeks red as apples, her rounded lips, her eyes all shining. All this for me? she thinks. Then glances at Tereus. He sits grinning, the great warrior, watching Philomela, a brother to her now. What did they mean, the ladies who dressed her, warning her of his sword’s sharp thrust? He grins and claps. My husband, she thinks, I shall not fear him, he is dangerous only in war.
Well, innocence. Even now, we have our innocence. In spite of the worst that we know of ourselves, we still have innocence. The nightingale’s song, for instance. We hear only that, and forget the rest, just as generations to come will remember Columbine only as a flower.
So Procne had her innocence and it was thrust from her, given up by her father to Tereus, who enjoyed it, I guess you could say. Joy may not be the right word. At any rate, they were married and the marriage was consummated. He took her to Dailus, which lay in the high pass and she soon gave birth, in a torment of blood and pain, to Itys. She suckled baby and husband until her breasts were always sore and between these tasks she did needlework and thought often of her sister, dear, dear Philomela, who plays beside the stream and pretended they were still together, while Tereus, in a battle-free period, wandered restless through the fields, slicing wildflowers with his sword and also thinking of Philomela, her glorious red hair, her little girl smile.
When Tereus leaves, unexplained, to bring Philomela to Dailus, Procne does not guess the reason for his absence but shifts Itys to the right breast and remarks to the suckling babe, that whatever the reason for his departure, she is glad of it. Oh, but if only she could see her dear sister once more.
Why is it that evil is good’s opportunity? If only Tereus was speaking the truth when he told Pandion that Procne missed her sister so much he had come for her, to bring her to her sister as a sort of May Day gift. If only, as Philomela squealed with delight and packed her little sack with muslin dresses and needlework and flower garlands and colored ribbons, Tereus, who waited in the hall with Pandion, was thinking of bringing Philomela to her sister, of Procne’s smile, instead of Philomela’s pretty lips. If only he was interested in happiness.
Philomela is going on a journey! Philomela is going to see her sister. Goodbye Nurse. Goodbye Cook. Goodbye little dog. Goodbye birds. Goodbye Papa, goodbye. Goodbye house. Goodbye stream. Goodbye meadow.
Goodbye everything she ever was and dreamt of, though she does not know this as Tereus helps her to his horse, and wraps his great arms around her. Goodbye innocence. Goodbye.
Somewhere between Pandion’s castle and Dailus it happens. He takes her into the forest where she chats happily as she picks flowers for her sister until Tereus pushes her to the ground and rapes her. How much shall be described? The sky was blue with two fat clouds, one in the shape of a bird, the other like a sleeping dog. The ground was bumpy and a sharp stick jutted in her back. The sun shone through the leaves, that dappled color, as if she were a fish in the stream. There was one flower just near enough to observe closely, purple lips and a red center; the green stem bent slightly, a tiny white bug on the second leaf. When Tereus is finished he is not completely satisfied. This girl talks too much. He cuts out her tongue and casts it into the brush. She screams and bleeds and weeps. He salves the wound with curing plants he stuffs in her mouth and then, he rapes her again. The birds sing, the horse paws at the ground, a chipmunk twitters in a tree, a squirrel scurries past but she is silent. When he removes the curing leaves the bleeding has stopped. He mounts the horse, pulls her up in front of him. They continue on their journey to Dailus.
Why remember? Why tell this tale of horror? Why does evil happen? Why does it happen so often to children and what does the nightingale have to do with this tongueless child, this evil act, this sister with Itys at her breast who, like his father, never seems satisfied?
Tereus brings Philomela to Dailus but he does not bring her home. Rather, he brings her to his house in the country, where he locks her in a room. He hires good servants who are comfortable with keys, and unquestioning of tongueless, imprisoned girls, to bring her food and water, silks and threads to keep herself busy in between him until at last he leaves. She watches him from the window, riding away on his horse, she watches his great arms and broad back recede to a dot until he is gone and then she begins stitching, a picture story of sorts. When words are taken, what remains?
She sends back the trays of bread and cheese, meat and fruit. The cook frowns at the empty water bowl. What will happen if the prisoner dies while the master is gone? It is clear that is not his intention. Next meal the cook outdoes herself and prepares a meal of roasted quail stuffed with chestnuts and sliced apples dipped in honey and a bowl of sunflower seeds and millet. This time when the tray is returned the roasted quail is untouched and the sliced apples are brown and there are two flies in the honey but the sunflower-millet bowl is empty except for a small stitched cloth of a red haired girl smiling and this is the first time anyone, ever, has given the cook a present. The next day Philomela’s tray has four bowls of sunflower seeds and millet and even a little flower which is meant as decoration, but comes back with a crushed appearance as though Philomela had thrust it to her lips for its nectar so the next day the cook sends several flowers and six bowls of sunflower seeds and millet and all the flowers come back crushed, and five of the bowls empty and in the corner of the tray is a small square of fabric stitched with the picture of a sun, even though the day is rainy. The cook puts the fabric into her apron pocket and imagines collecting dozens of them and stitching them into a quilt.
And perhaps that’s what would have happened, if that’s all there was to Philomela’s needlework, but in her lonely little room she stitched the sad story of the girls playing, a wedding, the red haired girl alone, the groom’s return, the girl with him on the horse, the flowers she was picking, the man astride the girl, the knife near her throat, the tongue held up, the girl weeping, the house in the country, the window with the girl sitting in it, sewing. This she wrapped in a muslin dress and tied with ribbon addressed to her sister, returned on the tray with another package for the cook, who paid a messenger boy from her own savings to deliver the package safely and then unwrapped hers, a lovely shawl stitched with daisies which she took to wrapping around her shoulders at night, in her lonely little room off the kitchen, and even if no one saw, and it didn’t make sense to wear it, she loved to do this, and it became her favorite time of day, though never, for even one moment, did it occur to her to free the girl.
When Procne receives the package, she recognizes the muslin dress it is wrapped in and unfurls the ribbon eagerly. Itys sleeps, a rare occasion, and Tereus has gone to work, so for Procne this is a moment of peace, and now this missive from her sister, a moment of joy. She unfurls the ribbon, shakes out the cloth and reads the pictures in horror. She understands every unspoken word, every stitch. She recognizes the little house in the country, not even a day’s distance. She brings Itys to the wet nurse who secretly moans when she sees the greedy suckler and his mother approaching, mounts her horse and rides to free her sister, her little tongueless sister, who used to sing and chat so happily. Procne rides and plots endlessly. Revenge.
The human need for balance. Restitution. The endless accounting of gain and loss. The urge to unburden the evil act, return it to its source. What to do for the tongueless girl?
When Philomela hears the horse approaching she weeps in the corner of her room, she curls up into herself, like a little bird, her head beneath her arms, her bony elbows jutted out, she tries to make herself smaller and smaller as the footsteps approach and the keys rattle. When the door opens she does not look until she hears, no, it cannot be, but yes, she hears her sister’s voice. “Philomela,” her name lovingly spoken. She raises her face of tears and sees Procne, her dark hair wild from the ride; her purple gown all wrinkled, just as she used to be in the meadow, by the stream. Behind her stands the cook, her white pasty mouth open, the ring of keys in her doughy hands.
“Oh, sister, dear sister.” Procne bends to embrace her and Philomela flinches but then remembers who is with her and leans into the loving arms. Procne holds her and thinks how weightless she has become, as if her tongue was what held her to the Earth. She carries her out of the room and down the stairs and out the door to a horse, saddled and waiting as ordered. This she mounts with Philomela before her, a tiny package, a little girl, a living wound. She gallops off leaving only dust and the cook who dabs her eyes and wipes her nose and goes back inside to her pot of onion soup.
Procne brings Philomela to her house. Not their father’s, but who can blame her for this choice? After all, it is their father who gave them to Tereus, yes, innocent of his evil intentions, but perhaps he should not have been so gullible. At any rate, it is clear this matter rests in their hands. Tereus is still away, killing the enemy, no that’s not right, Procne amends, Tereus is still away killing. It is hard to remember that he has no enemy, only those he is paid to kill and those he is not, and they are interchangable. What ever was her father thinking to give her to such a man?
Procne retrieves Itys from the wet nurse and he immediately cries and grabs at her breast. She unlaces and lets him suckle greedily. Philomela flits about the room and shakes her head at the various plans of revenge Procne offers until at last, in exasperation, Procne says, “Well, what?” Philomela raises one small white hand and points at Itys who suckles with wide open eyes, the color of his father’s. Procne looks down at him and finds the answer to the question she most often thinks when he is suckling, will this never end? Will he want me with his teeth? She looks up at Philomela, who stands beside the fire, and she nods. Yes. Itys.
When news arrives of Tereus’s return from battle, Philomela hides in a great basket in the corner, curled up as if in a nest, and Procne turns the roasted meat on the spit, well done, they thought he’d return sooner, but this isn’t really about appetite anyway.
He roars into the house, the great beast of a man. Dried blood clings to his beard and eyebrows. He is hungry and lusty and says he will eat, then have her and then, he thinks he needs some time in the country. She feeds him the roasted child. He devours it … innocently. When done, he pats his full stomach, undoes his belt and this is when Philomela rises from the basket and he realizes he’s been found out. But oh well, he’s still the master. Then, Procne tells him.
“You just ate Itys.”
He roars, as you can imagine. He reaches for the fire ax and chases the two sisters, whose victory seems rather short. They are weeping, and he is screaming and the gods see this and decide it must be put to a stop. Why now, and not sooner? Where were they when he raped Philomela in the woods? Where were they when he cut out her tongue? Where were they when Itys reached for his mother’s breast and she unsheathed the knife instead? Where are the gods most of the time? But at last they stop it, with a wave of godly hands. Tereus is changed to a hawk, Procne a swallow, and Philomela, a nightingale.
Later, the child’s bones are found by the cook who unwittingly feeds them to the dogs. She thinks they have all gone to the house in the country and the cook there, wrapped in her daisy shawl, and fingering the fabric stitched of a smiling girl, thinks they all remain in town, and the hawk swoops down to catch a gopher, the swallow flies to Capistrano, and the nightingale discovers, on one dark and starry night, that she can sing, so she does.
At close, the questions remain. Why do people hurt each other? Is evil someone born, or something between us, something ephemeral that grows in circumstance that allows it? Why do girls and women, even today, in our modern and knowledgeable world, suffer rape, and mutilation? Why does anyone suffer? And what does fable, myth, story have to do with these important questions, certainly worthy of a search on the Web in between those auction sites where there are some really good deals, and at least the questions are real and the merchandise is real, even movies are real, sort of, because they have real people in them at least, but fiction? What’s the point? Everyone knows a bird is just a bird, a song is just a song, a story just a story. Why pretend it means anything?
How do stories help us solve the terrible riddle of being human? How do we take all our suffering, the rapes, and wars, and children dying, and turn it into something like a bird song in the night? How do we become better than we’ve been? And how do we get from here to there, when the gods seem so reluctant to help? Could it be, even they don’t know the answers?
Maybe inquiry isn’t what we need. Maybe the more we pick at the fabric of our beliefs, we find how fragile it all really is, and how there’s nothing behind the cloth except empty space, an infinite sky that cannot support the gravity of our assertions, how weightless we become without them. Maybe it’s better not to think about that.
Maybe it is just enough to know that the nightingale was once a brutalized child, and when all the world is dark, she sings.
© 2003 by M. Rickert.
Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.