Sit down, my darling, and listen, and I shall tell you the tale of the nightingale. There are often tales told of an Emperor who lived at a certain time and of what wisdom passed to him through a wonderful gift, but seldom do those storytellers truly speak of the life of the bird that was that gift and so what is known is only half of the real story.
Once upon a time, there was a nightingale. Nightingales are beautiful singers as you know, and this one was no exception. Though her feathers were drab and grey, her voice was like liquid moonlight cascading in pure silver melody through the air. She lived in a great forest with trees so tall that people said that if you reached the top of them you could touch the stars, and the trees would toss their crowns of emerald leaves and scatter their light like diamonds to the world below. The nightingale flew freely there and many people, from the richest lord to the poorest fisherman, came to listen to her sing her most wondrous songs. The nightingale sang for them all, delighting in their attention because as she gave joy with her glorious music so she experienced it herself.
It came to pass that there was a little girl that the nightingale grew particularly fond of and cherished her, for her eyes would brighten at the sound of her song and she called her beautiful for all the bird's feathers were the plainest of the plain. She was not a particularly important little girl - indeed, she was a ragged little thing - but every evening she would pass through the woods. It was a long way to walk for such a small girl, and when she stopped to rest, the nightingale would fly down to sing to her, willing the pain from the dirty little feet and encouraging her to carry on.
One day, the little girl did not come to the forest alone, but with a huge crowd full of people. Curious, the nightingale flew down to investigate, and found that these important and well-dressed folk were in fact discussing her and asking about the beauty of her song. The bird's little grey chest filled with pride, and she opened her mouth to sing. Just then though, a cow began to low.
Immediately, the crowd burst into exclamations of delight and awe. It must be the nightingale for certain - how beautiful, how lovely! Such a powerful voice!
"No, no," the little girl said, "it is only the cow." And the nightingale wondered how foolish these people must be to mistake her song for a cow's voice, and she flew on, following them, deciding to watch for a little longer.
When they had come halfway through the forest some of those at the back were beginning to lag and complain of tired feet. The nightingale thought perhaps that she had watched them for far enough and that she would let them stop now. She landed on a nearby branch, fluffing her feathers up, ready to be admired. Perhaps it would be that they too would see the beauty which the little girl had seen.
No-one seemed to notice though. Nearby, the frogs in the marsh began to croak.
Again, the crowd stopped at once to listen and admire the sound. What an amazing song - like church bells, or the patter of rain!
"No," said the little girl again, "it is only the frogs."
Hurt by not being noticed, the nightingale wondered again about these people who wore such fine clothes, and yet could mistake the sound of frogs for her own lovely voice. She decided that perhaps these people could wait a little longer to hear her, and flew on, watching them.
By now though, the people were growing tired. Their boots were not made for walking through muddy forests, and their fine clothes caught on branches and twigs. They began to complain at the little girl, taking out their own tiredness on her. Perhaps, they said, there was no nightingale at all. Perhaps the little girl had merely pretended to hear it in order to gain attention from such great persons as themselves.
"It was real!" the little girl protested, upset. "She will sing in a moment, if you just keep walking. She always has for me before!"
It was that faith which stirred the nightingale's small heart, and she decided that perhaps this walk had gone on for long enough. She landed on a tree close to them, and tipped her head back, letting loose a starting trill.
Immediately the girl's face lit up and she turned, her eyes quickly finding the small grey form. "There!" she called joyously, pointing. "There is the nightingale!"
"Is that really it?" And now the crowd looked dubious. One of the men squinted up at the nightingale, frowning. "I thought it would be brighter. Still, it has probably turned pale from seeing so many important people."
Was she not beautiful enough already? Was her song not loveliness enough? Hurt, the nightingale was about to fly away again, but the little girl stepped forward before she could.
"Nightingale," she called up to the little bird, "the Emperor wishes to hear you sing."
Emperor? thought the nightingale. Well, perhaps that was a different matter entirely. And she burst into song, her melody encompassing the moonlight trickling of the stream, the dancing patter of the rain, the rustling of leaves at night shaking stars from the sky and the soft gentle sounds a new mother makes to her babe.
"It is beautiful!" the people exclaimed, and the nightingale preened - although not too much, for she remembered that these were the people who had also spoken of beauty in the moo-ing of the cow, and the croaking of the marsh frogs.
"Shall I sing to the Emperor again?" she asked, and fluttered down to take a better look at the finely dressed man she assumed to be the Emperor.
The man laughed at her. "Oh no, little nightingale," he said, "I am not the Emperor. But I am here to request your presence at court this evening, where His Majesty the Emperor will be charmed by your song."
The nightingale hesitated for the woods were her home, and she had never left them before. Without the woods, where would she draw inspiration for her songs? And who would sing for the poor people who came to the woods to hear her? But one did not say no to the Emperor, for he was ruler of all things from the very skies to the deepest ocean.
"My song sounds best in the woods," she warned, but followed them willingly back to the palace.
The palace was very grand indeed. The porcelain walls and floors had been polished until they shone, and it hurt the eyes to look at them for too long. Flowers draped in tiny tinkling bells had been brought into the halls, and they chimed so much and so loudly as people came in and out that the nightingale was afraid no-one might hear her when she sang.
In the middle of the great throne-room sat the Emperor, and next to him a golden perch had been set for the nightingale. Hesitatingly, she fluttered to her place, and when the Emperor nodded to her she puffed out her small chest, and sang as she never had before. Such lovely things in that little bird's song! She sang of the ocean, and how it swelled and surged in storms; of how the sun beat down on lazy summer days to fill the world with a golden haze; of how the moon shone on still nights, giving the world a ghostly light that marked the earth in silent glory. The court went still and silent as she sang, and tears rolled down the Emperor's face as he listened to her song.
"You shall have any reward you wish, little bird," he promised her, humbled by the power of her song. "Here is my own golden slipper - let me hang this around your neck, and then all shall know you have the Emperor's favour."
The nightingale declined, saying shyly that an Emperor's tears were more than enough reward for any bird. In truth, the slipper looked heavy, as though it would pull on her small neck and press on her small chest, and how could anyone sing like that? But the Emperor had wept when he listened to her song, and that alone was enough to make her heart swell in her chest.
Still, the Emperor was not satisfied. He had a great cage built for the nightingale, filled with trees of gold and silver, with flowers made of rubies and emeralds. He gave her a dozen footmen to walk with her day and night, each holding tight to a tiny ribbon tied to her legs. This, he was certain, would make her happy - for wasn't it similar to the attendances he himself had?
But the gold and silver trees did not speak to the nightingale with their rustling the way the trees in the forest had done. The emerald and ruby flowers did not strive to reach the sun, each competing to see which might grow faster, and were beautiful but cold and hard. The walks with the footman scared away the small creatures the nightingale had loved to watch and listen to, for they were not used to such a crowd. Although she now had many who would listen to her singing, the nightingale found that she had lost the things of which she sang, and this made her sad.
But the Emperor himself still listened in awed silence when she sang, and really, what bird could ask for more?
One day, a large package came to the Palace, labeled "The Nightingale". At first it was thought to be a gift for the little bird, or perhaps another book about her. When it was opened though, it became clear that this was not the case. Inside the box was a glittering nightingale crafted from silver and gold. It was studded with precious stones - rubies, emeralds, diamonds and sapphires - and shone as it was lifted out of the box.
"How beautiful!" said the people of the court. "How lovely, how gorgeous, how pretty!"
"iI'm/i beautiful too," the real nightingale said quietly to herself, and she preened her grey feathers self-consciously.
There was a little key on the jewelled bird, and when wound it could sing one of the nightingale's songs perfectly as it wagged its gleaming tail.
"How fascinating!" said the people of the court. "What a beautiful voice! It is almost like listening to the real thing!"
"I am the real thing," the real nightingale said softly, "and I've actually seen the forests in the song."
"Now, let them sing together!" the people of the court suggested, and the nightingale flew to its perch, and opened its mouth, determined to sing in such a way that it should put the fake nightingale to shame.
But it didn't seem to work. While the real nightingale sang of the coming of spring; of how the ground was full of plants trying to break up and free from the confines of the earth and live, the jewelled nightingale could only repeat the same song it had been given. The song came to an end, and the nightingale looked at the court, expecting them to conclude that her song was obviously superior. Instead, she was met with a hostile silence.
"That's not the new bird's fault," the music master said eventually. "He keeps perfect time, just as I have taught him."
Then they wound the jewelled bird again, and as it sang on alone, the nightingale thought again about her song. She thought about the forest, and how it would be growing by now, the first green leaves appearing on the trees. She thought about the sun, and how it never seemed to reach the Palace as it did the woods, and the stillness of a moon-lit night with no-one else around save the music she wound and spun beneath the boughs of the tall, tall, trees.
She thought of all of that, and as the courtiers crowded forward to wind the fake nightingale up once more, the little bird flew away, out of the window and back to her home in the green forest.
The nightingale thought at first that they might send someone to come look for her and fetch her back, but time passed, and no-one came. The nightingale sang again to the poor woodcutters who came through the forest, and to the rich foreign dignitaries whose ships sailed past the wood. She sang and was happy, and in time she came to forget the palace and the golden perch on which she had once sat. But she never forgot the Emperor for, after all, who can forget an Emperor?
Six long years passed, and one day the little poor girl - no longer so little now - came to the woods crying.
"Do not cry!" the nightingale said, and tried to comfort her, singing of the play of baby rabbits when they came out of their burrows for the first time; the awkward tottering of young deer; and the wonder of butterflies who found themselves to be caterpillars no more.
But the girl shook her head, and only wept harder. "I must cry," she sobbed, her face all scrunched up with sorrow. "For our Emperor - he is dead!"
Dead? The nightingale thought again of the man he had once met, the great man who had taken the time to listen and weep at a humble nightingale's song. Surely such a man could not be defeated quickly, even by death.
"Do not cry!" she told the girl again and, opening her wings, she flew swiftly from the woods, and all the way back to the palace.
On reaching the Palace, she was afraid at first that the girl had been right and she had arrived too late. The Emperor was alone in his room, so pale and still that she thought that surely he must be dead. On his chest she could see Death sitting heavily, staring into his face. Overcome by sorrow, the little bird puffed out her chest and sang a song of mourning, a last goodbye for the great man. For he had shed a tear to hear her song, and the cold beauty of her replacement had stirred no such emotion from his heart or tears from his eyes for all he valued it.
It was then that a wondrous thing happened. The Emperor seemed to shift, as though trying to stir, and even Death turned his skull face to the window, and said, "Sing on, little bird, sing on!"
The nightingale hesitated, and said, "If I do, would you spare the Emperor? Will you leave him, give back his banner, his sword, his crown?"
Death frowned. "You wish to save this man?" he asked. "Why, when he has replaced you so easily?" He waved a hand at the jewelled nightingale, placed to the left of the Emperor's bed. "This man has made mistakes. He has not always exercised his judgment wisely."
It was true, and the nightingale hesitated, but remembered once how she had mistook a mere courtier for the Emperor. "All creatures make mistakes," she said. "Have you never mistaken one thing for another?"
Death shook his head, for in his line of work, mistakes were simply not allowed. "Not all creatures," he said. "And what makes this man's mistakes excusable, when he is in such a position to do damage with them?"
The nightingale trembled, for the face of Death was terrifying, but said bravely, "If you please, I don't believe the mistakes were all his fault. How could any man be expected to rule wisely for always and always when he is served by men who would praise a frog croaking as highly as a nightingale song?"
And Death considered this, and put down the sword, the banner and crown as he thought. Once he did so, the nightingale opened her mouth to sing again. She sang this time of Death's own forest where there is no wind to ever disturb the trees; where the air is filled with the sweet scent of white roses and elderflowers and where the dew on the grass is formed from the tears of those still living who weep for those who have passed. She sang of the beauty of this forest forever waiting for dawn, hushed and dressed in pearl tints that smoothed away the sharp edges of all things as souls drifted through the trees, insubstantial as mist. Just as the nightingale once had, Death found that he longed for his own forest, and before the song was done he drifted away out of the window to his home.
Without Death sitting on his chest, the Emperor found he could breathe again, and sat up in the bed. "Little bird!" he exclaimed. "How may I ever repay you? I banished you once, and replaced you, and yet it is you who have been more loyal than any of my courtiers!"
"You have already repaid me," said the little nightingale, "for when I first sang for you, you wept. To a singer's heart, that is more ample reward that any precious metal or stone. Sleep now, my Emperor, and grow fresh and strong." And she sang again, the most peaceful lullaby, and the Emperor fell into a deep and healing sleep.
The next morning, the Emperor woke as well as he had ever been. None of his servants had returned, for they all thought he was dead. Still though, the nightingale sang on.
"Stay with me forever," the Emperor begged her. "Sing to me only when you wish to sing. I shall order the fake bird broken and burnt, for it never sang so sweetly as you do."
"No," said the nightingale, for she saw now the fake bird for what it was, and pitied it. It was only a toy, and could not love and be loved as a real bird could. Its voice was a trick, mere notes placed one after another, not a song which grew from the heart and flourished and bloomed when nourished by emotion. "It did its best. I cannot come and live here at the Palace, for here there is nothing of which to form a song. Keep it and let it remind you of me, and let me come and go as I will. I shall fly to and from my forest, through everything that lies between, and then I will return and sing to you. I will sing to you the beauty of your land, and I will sing you the ugliness, and I will sing you the difference between the two. I shall sing for you what gives the happy people their joy, and what brings sorrow to those who weep. For as long as I live, I shall come and sing to you, as long as you promise me one thing."
"Anything!" promised the Emperor.
"Promise me only that you will never tell anyone that you have a little bird that tells you all," said the nightingale, "for people who confuse a nightingale's song with a frog's croak would never understand why you needed such a thing."
The Emperor promised, and by the time the servants came to look after their dead Emperor, the nightingale had already flown far away.
For many years, the nightingale did as she had promised, and the Emperor ruled more wisely for it. All of the Emperors in all the lands spoke of the great rule of China. But there came a time when the little bird's grey feathers became streaked with white, and though her throat was still as smooth as before, she could not find the breath with which to sing. And at that time, Death returned to the nightingale, and called to her.
"Me?" said the nightingale, and fluffed up her feathers, and trembled. "You cannot mean me."
But Death laughed at her, very gently, and said, "Little bird, I told you once, I do not make mistakes."
"But the Emperor!" the nightingale protested. "He needs me to help!"
"Little bird, has it not occurred to you by now that you have taught him enough for him to rule wisely without your music? Come away with me, for now it is I that has need of your music."
He held out one bony finger to the nightingale, and she hopped on, and found it warm and not at all hard and chilly as she had feared. And Death carried her away, and took her to sing forever in the forest where there had never been music, but always been a need for it, and now those who wander the forest need only follow the song of liquid moonlight to find their way home.
And that, my darling, is the tale of the nightingale, and the Emperor who listened enough to tell the difference between its beauty and the sounds of frogs and cows. Were that all rulers were wise enough to do the same!