AQUEER, little forlorn bird once found herself upon the edge of the Realm of Singing. Now, she was a stranger in that glorious country, in which she had no kith nor kin, and not even an acquaintance to twitter to her, and she had never been there before. But grand as this country was, it looked so familiar to her that she could scarcely keep from making herself at home in it all at once. Her courage, however, was soon dashed when she began to listen to the various songs that were being carolled all around about her. She knew very well that the law of the land was that no bird who could not sing beautifully should be allowed to dwell within its limits, and I suppose it was because she loved singing and was always trying to sing, that she had found her way thither. I can account for it in no other way, since she had a defect in her wings, which was always bringing her to grief, and which cruelly caused her to ﬂutter along close to the ground, when she was trying with all her might to ﬂy high. And I do not know what pitying wind had drifted her into the land of song. But I do know that she was so glad to get there that she never wanted to go away again.
She had never before heard such wonderful singing as that to which she listened now.
“Oh, I cannot sing like that, they will not let me stay,” she said, and hung her little homely head, sadly enough.
“How very beautiful must be the birds who sing such beautiful songs!” she said, after a space.
She could hardly get a glimpse of the best singers among them, they were so high up; but when the leaves of the trees were parted by the helpful wind every once in a while she managed to see one or two of them, and was almost comforted to ﬁnd that their plumage was fully as dingy as her own. But then they were not lame in their wings. And they must be very strong, she thought, else how could they ever have gotten up so high.
Then the poor heart of her lay like a stone in her brown breast and made her dumb.
“Oh! why did I ever come here?” she cried in agony. Yet, since she had come, she felt that she had rather die than go away.
“I think I can sing a little,” she said, and so she hopped painfully upon the very lowest twig and began:
How shall a bird on a crippled wing
Ever get up into the sky?
Is it not better to cease to sing—
To droop and to die?
There are so many before me there,
With songs so loud and long and sweet,
They startle the passer unaware—
I am at his feet!
And though I sing with a quivering breast
And a dewy eye and a swelling throat;
My heart so close to the thorn is pressed,
That I spoil each note.
And if ever I sing a song,
Sweet of the sweet and true of the true—
All of it’s drowned by the birds ere long,
Up in the blue.
O, for one hour of rapturous strength!
O, to sing one song in the sky!
High over all the birds at length—
Then I could die!
I don’t believe that any one heard her. They were all listening to themselves, and none of them cared for the insigniﬁcant song of this small, lame bird. Besides, she was down low, and none of the strong-winged birds higher up came to keep her company. But she took heart on ﬁnding that they did not notice her enough to drive her away and at last, once in a long while, two or three passers would stop to listen to her low chirps. No one could have been more astonished at this than the singer herself. Yet I do believe that—though she did not look for it—without this small encouragement she would have hung her head and died.
It was her crippled wings that troubled her most, however; for it seemed as if when people found out about them they did not value her singing as much as they had done before.
By and by, a great noise of war shook the land and invaded even the Realm of Singing. There was so much martial music, such a steady tramping of armed men, such a glancing of steel in the sun, that at ﬁrst the small bird, down low, turned giddy and almost fell from her twig. And then this poor thing forgot her sad strait and began to sing out loud, loud! and even in her delirium of excitement tried to ﬂy!
Most of the birds higher up had been stunned into silence by the unwonted tumult below, and that was one reason, I suppose, why this intoxicated creature who had suddenly found her voice, began to be heard. She did not know anything of the science of singing. But her heart was so full that it came out, though in a faulty way, in her song. Some notes were sung at random and sometimes she made queer work of it all; and justice compels me to add that this was not only a friendless and an unfortunate bird, but a careless one too. She loved to sing when she felt like it, but she did not love to study singing. Consequently, many people said:
“What sort of a song is this?” and they laughed at her.
But then again, there were some war-worn men in military coats tramping along by the wayside, sad and tired at heart, who nevertheless liked to listen to this absurd singing, and who were sometimes cheered by it. So after a while, some sharp eyes of other men began to search for the singer. And when they found her on the lowest twig, hidden by the leaves, they said:
“What have we here? A crippled bird that tries to sing? Such a thing was never heard of before. It is impossible for her to sing correctly under such circumstances and we were certainly mistaken in thinking that there was anything in such songs. Our ears have deceived us.”
They then withdrew, adding, “We will forgive you, poor thing, for trying to sing. And all the circumstances being considered, you do quite nicely. But then you know this isn’t singing. The birds who do the real singing are never crippled as you are. Don’t you know that birds in your unfortunate situation never succeed in singing? The pain injures their voices or strikes them dumb altogether, and you cannot hope to be an exception to the general rule. But, as we said before, your efforts, though they fail, are quite commendable. But what’s the use of trying when you can’t, you know! So, ah! Good morning!”
Now, the lame bird thought that this was the unkindest cut of all.
“Why, lameness doesn’t affect my voice,” she cried; “I know it doesn’t because they listened to me and called it singing, till they discovered I was crippled in the wings. And if I did sing false once in a while, it is no more than other birds with sound wings have done sometimes. Ah, it was not because I was crippled that I sang false, but because I hadn’t studied singing! I myself am to blame for my failure; and I’m very sorry now that I was too lazy to study singing. Otherwise they couldn’t have made all those cruel mistakes about me. It serves me right for being such a careless bird, and never rehearsing my songs or getting them by heart before I begin to sing. Instead of that, I never know what I’m going to do till I open my mouth, and I never can sing set songs.”
Then she gave a great pant and drooped her rufﬂed feathers.
“And, O,” she cried, “What did I sing for? It was just because I couldn’t do anything else to help those men in soldiers’ coats. Those were songs sung at need—but they were criticised at leisure!”
Then she was silent a long time. So long a time, that she almost unlearned singing. At last the wound in her heart healed up. She forgot that she had been hurt and she began to chirp again. I am not sure that her later songs were any better than the ﬁrst. She was so very young when she sung the ﬁrst ones; now she was older. But a new difﬁculty arose. She had to catch her own worms; and so, while she sang, she must need keep an eye on the worms below, if she meant to have any breakfast; and it is perfectly well known that breakfastless birds soon are heard no more. Now, most of the birds who went on singing up high had somebody to give them worms, or else they paid for them with their songs.
But our unfortunate one down low had no one to give her worms, and nobody would take her song in payment for them at ﬁrst; and when they did at last, she had to sing a great deal to obtain even one meal, because in the Realm of Singing songs were many and worms were few. There was, therefore, considerable choice in the market, and I do not know, but I suspect that there was still some prejudice against the songs of crippled birds. Therefore, this one resumed singing under difﬁculties.
For instance, sometimes when she was brooding over some new note which she thought might have some merit in it, she was obliged to forget everything else for the moment and hop down after some perverse worm that was wriggling out of sight, and that wouldn’t wait till her song had fashioned itself to her mind as she sat with her head under her wing. Then again, some songs couldn’t be sung at all, there was such long, hard work in looking for breakfasts, and others again were badly sung because she was so dull. For you must know that it is unusually hard work for a crippled bird to catch worms, especially when they are unusually spry or when there is a good deal of competition. And between work and singing, she was always very tired, so that most of her songs were the merest snatches. And one day she stopped suddenly in the midst of one and said: “I wonder if after all there is any good in my singing? Perhaps there is, and yet perhaps I have been wrong to try, and may be I had better hold my peace hereafter and listen to the other birds, if they will only be so good as to allow that my poor chirpings of the past have earned for me the privilege to dwell, in silence, upon the furthest edge of the domain of singing. I will stop and listen to what the passers by are saying to each other, and may be I shall hear some chance word dropped about my songs which shall help me to decide.”
So she settled herself again upon the twig, a little wearily, and kept silence, holding her head carefully to one side to listen. And in her heart she kept saying all the time, over and over, sometimes hopefully, sometimes despairingly, but oftenest doubtingly: “I wonder if there is any worth in my singing after all. Can it be that because a good song has not yet been sung by a crippled bird that it shall never be done at all?”
Suddenly, from the trees high about her, came a burst of warbling. Some of the best singers at the top of the tree were trying their notes simultaneously. The forest was alive with the sweet rivalry. Its green glooms were ﬁlled and pierced through and through with the sharp delight of sudden trills and quavers; or echoed back the mellower perfectness only of cadences long drawn out in melodious death. The sun glinted down through the dew-wet leaves, and made the little brook which ran babbling through its heart sparkle with glee.
The dainty anemones, the pale blue violets, and the bold scarlet columbines seemed to listen, while here and there the shy, bright eyes of timid wild creatures peered inquisitively out of the tangled thickets of wild rose and laurel.
A pang of mingled envy and resentment—the very ﬁrst that she had ever felt—passed through the heavy heart of the drooping bird. They were so blithe; she was so sad. They were so free; she so abject. They were revelling in the exercise of their untrammeled powers, while with all the toil and trouble that she might throw into her singing, she should never be able to give a single full round note, like those which rolled, without effort, from their throats.
The next moment, however, nothing but unmixed sadness was in her heart.
“Alas!” she said, “that to my other misfortunes I should ever add that of being spiteful and envious!”
Silence had fallen again upon the wood. The world which had stopped by the wayside to listen and to applaud its favorites, had now passed by. There remained only a poor little hunch-back who lingered, seated upon the roots of the tree on whose lowest branch this unfortunate bird was perched. His great blue eyes were full of gentleness, and patience; at the same time they were dimmed by suffering and by the tears which were not often allowed to fall. The glorious singing which had brought the rest of the world out of its way coaxed no smile to his pale face. It told of exultation, or laughter, of all the loved joy of life; it struck only triumphant chords, and resonant notes alone came forth. It made the sad heart shrink into itself, and he only sighed wearily while others applauded.
Now, this lonesome bird had not marked that any one remained in the wood. The pain lay so heavy on her heart that she felt that unless she could sing it away it would kill her. It was a low toned, sad little song, all in the minor key, broken by gasps and ﬂutterings that she sang at ﬁrst. But happening to look downward once, she saw two great blue eyes, full of tears, looking up at her. Here, for once at least, was sympathy, and one heart had responded to her singing. She went on; and the song grew to be a wonderful one. First it told of a grief almost too great to be borne, of the care that eats away life in silence, of the great, rebellious sobs of a tortured heart, of the insubordination and misery that will not brook constraint, of a soul in revolt under the pain of shattered hopes! Then it took a clearer and higher cadence. It told of sorrow, worthily endured and nobly over-lived. Of the strength, the ripeness, the sweetness that came with it. Of the perfected joy which lies behind it; of the sublimity of the plan which out of the keenest pain brings the noblest pleasure!
And as she sang, lo, the pain passed from her heart and lameness from her wings. They were outspread ready for ﬂight. And as the constant tide of melody ﬂowed, without restraint, from her full throat she looked down again and beheld a great throng, which had gathered under the tree in which she sang.
They were the weariest of all the world’s wayfarers. The faces that were saddest, the forms that were the most bowed, the hearts that were heaviest, had all gathered there. The sick, the sad, the maimed, the feeble, the betrayed and the lonely ones. Ah, what eyes those were that were strained upwards in the direction of the song! They were sad enough to sadden Heaven itself. But, one and all, they grew brighter as the song led on and up. When it was ﬁnished, there were no loud rejoicings, only tears of mingled sorrow and gladness, and low words of tender delight.
Then, through the silence which fell after this, came from above, a chorused demand, set to warbling:
“Come up hither! Come up hither!”
“No!” sang in reply the bird down low. “Once I would have died to go— now I would rather die than go! I have found my kingdom and my vocation. Both are down low. Let me not be lifted up unless I can lift up with me all these sad hearts over which I reign. Henceforth I sing not to win the world’s word of applause, but to sweeten sorrow—to put out pain—and my ﬁrst true song was not sung till I tried to do this! Now I am content to remain down low!”
A little brown bird, somewhat crippled in her wings, who had timidly ventured upon the edge of the Realm of Singing, and being tired had gone to sleep perched upon a twig low down, suddenly took her head from under her wing, and waking, found that she had dreamed this dream and sung this song in her sleep.
“There is nothing left to do,
But to try to make it true.”
She sang right cheerily, as she shook the dew of the night off her feathers.