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There Is Only One Nightingale

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“Why two?”

Aziraphale looked at Crowley. It always astonished him how innocent those almost-lidless yellow eyes looked, especially at times when Crowley’s voice was at its most insinuating.

“Well,” said Aziraphale, patiently. “With two animals...one of each sex...they can make more. After it’s, you know, all over.”

It might after all be a serious question. Aziraphale was fairly certain that most angels didn’t understand reproduction. All the angels and demons that would ever be had all been created in the same instant. There was no way to make more. Certainly angels and demons couldn’t do it. Aziraphale had the feeling that even She couldn’t do it. Those destroyed during the war in heaven had not been replaced. 

“Yes,” nodded Crowley. “But why only two?”

Aziraphale shrugged. “It’s a question of space,” he said. “It’s a big boat, but there are so many animals. Not to mention all the seeds and cuttings...”

“But what if something happens to one of them?” Crowley said. “Look at those panthers, headed up the gangplank, right behind the emus. An extinction waiting to happen, isn't it?"

This was, of course, how tempting worked--or at least how it worked with Crowley. The maddeningly naive posing of perfectly reasonable questions, all designed to imperceptibly lead one down the garden path to heresy, whence it was just a hop, skip, and a flap to insubordination, and thence to eternal damnation.

How long is this flood meant to last?” Crowley continued.

“Adequate provisions have already been loaded,” said Aziraphale, loftily. “The logistics are infallible. I saw to them myself.”

Crowley nodded, and lapsed into silence. Like all of Crowley’s silences, it was deceptive. Aziraphale knew he was cogitating, sifting through the sands of that boundless mind, searching for the perfect needle with which to prick him. 

“Seems a bit like cheating to me,” Crowley finally said, mildly. “Giving them a divine logistician. May as well just miracle them all up onto a floating cloud, or something, for the duration.”

“She certainly could if She wished to,” Aziraphale said, taking the bait and furious with himself for it. “But this is meant to teach them stewardship. How to take proper care of Her creation.”

Crowley let out a gentle, sighing, hiss. Aziraphale began to feel that familiar burning sensation at the back of his neck. Irritation, with a little extra something he couldn't quite identify.

“Hang on.” Crowley, who had been leaning languidly on the fence, suddenly drew himself upright and darted one of those sharp-edged citrine glances at Aziraphale. “Where are you going to be during all this?”

Aziraphale blinked. 

“I...I suppose...”

“You don't know," Crowley said.

Flustered, Aziraphale blurted out, "Well where are you going to be?"

"Where should I be? You're the logistician."

"Well you should be in--" 

Aziraphale couldn't bring himself to say hell. Crowley heard him not saying it. The golden eyes flickered.

"Well no worries, angel. I can look after myself. But I should think you'd at least have a plan for your own continued incorporation."

Aziraphale struggled to find a cutting retort.

“This is actually the very first time you’ve given the matter a thought, isn’t it?”

“I--I’ve been busy.” 

“Just as well for them,” Crowley said, glancing inscrutably up at the threatening sky. “Looks like rain.”

And that was how it happened that forty-eight hours later, Aziraphale--having adopted the form of a peacock and smuggled himself on board--was strutting through the below-decks aviary, fanning his tail and trying not to mind the smell, when the cat got loose.

It was a quite ordinary cat, lean and tawny and only acting according to its nature. When Aziraphale first saw it, the cat held it its jaws a limp bundle of gray and brown feathers. As he looked on, horrified, the cat dropped the little handful of ravaged flesh and feathers on the deck and then snapped the poor bird’s head off in one bite.

Aziraphale uttered a peacock scream. 

The cat’s green eyes locked onto Aziraphale. It forgot all about the drab little corpse between its front paws. 

Six unauthorized miracles later, the cat was securely confined in the predators' quarters and Aziraphale, now striding the boards in the slightly less conspicuous shape of a passenger pigeon, wound his way back to the crime scene. 

The sight of that little body was heartbreaking. Aziraphale understood the biological function of the heart well enough, but it was the metaphors around it that really made his soul flutter. Celestial matter was undifferentiated. To lose an arm was no different from losing a head. Incorporation had given him, for the first time, one of these shuddering things inside his chest, and he loved it extravagantly, in human form or out of it. In his pigeon's body, Aziraphale's heart shimmered and trilled and palpitated at the sight of the pitiful sodden heap--and at the little brown-headed, gray-bellied creature pacing round and round it, flustered by grief. 

She was obviously the poor thing's mate. Like most mortal creatures, she was frightened by death without fully understanding it. The animals didn't understand that as part of Her new creation, they would not and could never be destroyed. They would simply reappear elsewhere, on earth or above it, in some other form. Humans understood even less about death, though they were just now beginning to approach that problem with their apparently inexhaustible talent for extravagant invention. Aziraphale was not liable to death; the closest he could ever get to that would be discorporation. But he feared annihilation. The War had taught them all to fear that.

In this little bird, hopping on its tiny claws round the lifeless vessel of its helpmeet, Aziraphale felt that he saw and foresaw the whole tragedy of humanity. If he could somehow endow her, at this instant, with the knowledge that her mate was not gone, would be hatched from some other egg or sprout from some seed or birthed from some mammal when the waters receded and it all began again, it wouldn't help. She had known her mate through that one bird body, unique to her among all their species. That one bird body would never exist again.

No bodies like hers, or his, would ever exist again. They had been the only two of her kind. Now she was the only one.

The little gray-bellied bird stopped her hopping, ruffled and settled her feathers, and began to sing a song of grief.

It was the most beautiful thing Aziraphale thought he had ever heard, on earth. And once that little bird died, no one would ever hear it again. 

A wise angel--an angel whose soul had never descended from the realms of gold, or, having so descended, had been pure enough to fend off the sweet contagions of mortality--would have reflected, dispassionately, on the paradox of God's creation. Such an angel would have meditated upon the strange interdependence of the ephemeral and the eternal. That angel would have, in hopes of purifying his celestial being, contemplated in awe the great Mystery of Her love, which was lavished so fully on beings that she had doomed to perish. It would all have been very improving, very enlightening, very holy.

Aziraphale was not that angel. 

The little bird--Adam had, Aziraphale knew just by looking at it, called her a nightingale--never noticed when the pigeon who had been listening to her song puffed out his chest, shivered his feathers, rapidly increased in size, and finally became human-sized and human-shaped, apart from the wings. She continued to sing, and felt no fear as Aziraphale gently lifted her into his cupped hands. Trills and whirrs continued to pour from her throat. To her, the slight ruffling of the feathers on her breast was an ordinary sensation, too faint to register at the moment of her grief. And to Aziraphale, it was as natural as breathing--which in fact it was. A little bit of the divine pneuma. Not enough for an angel to miss. Just a little more than any mortal being was ever meant to have. 

* * *

There is only one nightingale. 

She has been singing since the Flood. She sings of her many joys, and she sings of her one great grief. From human beings--and from cats--she keeps her distance. But a blind sympathy with hearts in pain leads her from bush to tree, from dusk to dawn to dusk, around the material world and through its mortal time. Philomela, left to scream and weep on the floor of an abandoned cottage, hears her singing in an olive tree just outside its walls. Iphigenia looks up from the altar to see a little bird-shaped blot against the sun, praying the sacrificial blow might strike while she is still listening to its song. Later, Agamemnon hears her song again, and understands, at the moment of his death, how his own hands prepared the net in which he is drowning. 

There is only one nightingale. But imagination hears her; imitation re-creates her. Hearing that song, neither fully mortal nor fully divine, humans begin to sing it themselves, after their own fashion. She sings outside the balcony of a room in Verona, reassuring two star-crossed lovers that night still draws its protective wing above them, that they need not part just yet. Darkling the humans listen, as she sings to them from the twilight forest, half-giving pain and half-promising relief from it. She sings in the boughs of a chestnut tree outside a haunted three-story house, as passion bursts from the heart of a poor young woman whose plumage is as drab as her own. She sings outside a poor student's window, pressing her breast against a thorn, for love's sake dyeing a white rose red with her own heart's blood.

There is only one nightingale; but you would never know it, if you lived enough of your life in the pages of old books. If you, for instance, spent enough time in the window-seat of a quiet little bookshop in Soho, browsing its proprietor's extensive collection of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century fiction and poetry, you would think nightingales were as common in England as sparrows. You would think she was everywhere. And then she would be.

Logistics has turned out not to be Aziraphale's best subject. He's far more successful with literature.

There is only one nightingale. But there is only one created being on Earth who knows that.

Well, two.

Crowley had, in fact, had a plan for surviving the Flood all along. Aziraphale might have guessed it, too, had he cared to. Perhaps he did. If he weren't trying not to know where Crowley was riding it out, Aziraphale might have ventured into the reptiles' section a time or two whilst on board. He might have seen those glittering eyes staring at him from a knot-hole as he lifted a small, singing, grieving bird to his lips to give it the breath of life.

And if Aziraphale were not striving mightily to pretend that he was not at all interested in the question of whether his Opposite Number was still incorporated on earth during those horrible first months when they were trying to grow trees and crops on the slopes of Mount Ararat, he might perhaps have felt the air move as a human form slunk amongst the struggling seedlings in the darkness. He might perhaps heard that form hissing, between clenched teeth, Grow...better.

Humans used to tell each other that a snake can capture a bird just by staring at it. The bird becomes hypnotized by its glare, and is soon engulfed by its coils. 

In fact, birds sometimes are fascinated by snakes. But just as often, it's the other way round.

* * *

The nightingale is not well suited to the English climate. She prefers the Mediterranean, the warmer winds of Asia and Africa. For most of its history, she avoided London, hating the coal smoke and the poisonous fogs. Like her presence, her absence entered into human song and human story. A nightingale singing in the middle of London is said to be as unexpected, as impossible, as the end of gravity, or as true love. 

The truth is that sometimes, angels really do dine at the Ritz. And the nightingale knows, in the way her bird heart can know, that they had to turn the world upside down and walk across the fallen stars to get there. 

So she comes back, and perches in one of the trees that line a little oval of green grass and benches up in Mayfair, and she sings. And it doesn't matter that the Ritz is half a mile away in Picadilly. Aziraphale and Crowley can always hear her. And so can anyone else who happens to be looking at them, and who knows how to listen.

 

THE END