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A Congregation of Nightingales

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There is, O Best Beloved, an old story of a foolish hunter who caught a nightingale, and let it go again, because it promised to teach him wisdom; and all the wisdom that it taught him was not to lament for a choice which cannot be undone. But that is a different story, although this one also concerns nightingales.

§

At first the path had run through a wood, the earth soft and muddy beneath her feet, the way half grown over with greenery that left her skirts damp with dew. The woods, though, were a familiar thing, and even when the path was so obscured she’d had to walk round and round in widening gyres to find it again, her ears had been filled with the reassuring twitter of bird song, and the comforting smell of loam and leaf-mould rose up around her. Later, though, sometime around mid-morning, the path had emerged from the cool dim forest and joined up with a proper road, bare and exposed, which ran steeply up the rocky ridge separating her village from the nearest town.

The road was hot and dusty, lying all day exposed to the summer sun, and it was full of sharp little rocks, particularly as it wound higher, away from the rich valley soil. The girl had a pair of shoes with her, her best (and only) pair, red leather with fine red tassels, but it would not have occurred to her to wear them, perhaps damaging them on the rocks. No, she walked barefoot, as she always did (except to church on Sundays), the shoes tied together and hung round her neck.

There was a single tree by the road, stunted in height compared to the woodland trees, but still green. She would have liked to stop in its shade - she had a canteen of water with her, and hard cheese and a heel of dried bread, but she had no idea how far the town was, never having been there before, so it seemed wisest to press on. Besides, the cheese would probably have to do for dinner as well as lunch, for it seemed unlikely to her you could just turn up in town and be given work at once, especially if you arrived late in the day. There was, she thought, some sort of market in the mornings (some of the men of her village went there sometimes, walking all through the night with their goods on panniers across their shoulders), and that was, she hoped, where you went to find work.

The exact procedure was rather unclear to her - there was no shortage of work in the valley, in the sense of things which must be done, but there was no work at all in the sense of jobs for which one was payed a wage. You worked on the farm, and cooked, and cleaned, and mended for your family; you might be paid (normally in kind) for making something, if you were a carpenter or a blacksmith or a cobbler, but as to the method by which you were taken on as, say, a servant girl, well, she hoped it would become clear when she got to town.

She was, as it happens, the youngest of three sisters, but that was not an important circumstance.

§

There was another road, elsewhere, wider and less steep than the one the peasant girl was climbing, though still rocky enough that the carriage jerked and jolted, so that the young woman it carried was bound to arrive quite thoroughly bruised. She hardly noticed, however, for her heart was singing within her, and a bride on the way to her wedding could not have been happier or more eager.

The house - more of a mansion, really - where she had grown up was only a street away from the town church, and her mother, God rest her soul, had been reliably devout (had realised also at some early point that trips to church were her only allowable excuse for venturing outside her husband’s property - there were servants to do the shopping). The church was large and old, as dim and cool as any forest, and the light struck in through the great window over the altar, making a golden road in the dusty air. As long as she could remember, she had loved the church: the carvings on the pews (monsters and angels and a paradise of winding branches), the scent of smoke and frankincense, the subdued glow of gilding in the candlelight, the great silence when it was empty and she prayed alone, the soaring harmony of voices when the choir sang their praise to heaven… She had longed always to be there, dreaming as a child that she could live in the church itself, her thoughts turning as she grew older to convents and a life of contemplation.

It had not been easy. Her father had wanted her to marry well, not only for his benefit, but because she was his youngest and dearest daughter, and he wanted greater happiness for her than he thought she would find buried away beneath walls, and bars, and endless rules. Her stepmother too, no wicked fairytale but a good and kind woman, begged her not to walk into a trap from which there was no escape, spoke reassuringly of the marriage bed, of childbirth, of the thousand fears which might prey upon a young girl, only to be found on marriage so many phantasms, terrifying but without substance. But she had remained firm, rejecting suitor after suitor, begging her father to understand that there was only one way for her to be happy, trying to convince her stepmother that if the convent was a cage, so too was marriage, and at least the convent was a golden cage, made precious by its holiness, and with bars as much designed to keep the world out as the woman in.

And now, at last, she was to have her way. Her sisters both married, and married well, and her younger brother taking his first steps in their father’s business, her parents at last gave way to her, half won over, half worn out with endless arguments. She was to visit her eldest sister, see a little of what life had to offer, and then turn her back on the city and her family forever.

§

Strictly speaking, the city was further from the town than the town was from the little village in the valley, but having left home once, it was easier to do it a second time: by every measure other than literal distance, it is a greater leap to abandon everyone and everything you have ever known than to leave a reasonably satisfactory job and new-made friends in the hope of a slightly better job elsewhere.

And the city was everything the village girl could have hoped for, a compendium of wonders. There was the port, noisy and dirty with its ordered chaos of unloadings and provisionings, rats everywhere, and definitely not safe at night, but full of ships, ships that creaked and jostled and splashed, crowding together like a colony of seabirds; ships that bore out to sea, huge and stately, surrounded by little, fussy tugs; ships that cleaved the water sharply, skimming fast with white sails like wings; and all of them part of the endless chain of comings and goings that supplied the city with its wealth, with tea and spices, silk and tin, precious dyes and clockwork marvels, salt and wool and paper … all the ordinary treasures of the world packed up in crates and boxes and carried at endless cost and risk across the seas to her.

There were sailors, too: rough men, for the most part, and the main reason a sensible girl would avoid the port at night, but they had been everywhere, seen things further still from the city than her village had been, and it seemed to her they shared the grace and freedom of the ships, gliding away across the horizon, perhaps never to return. It was strange to think a man who was here today, in the same city as her, real and concrete, bargaining for an apple, complaining about the price of dockside beer, might tomorrow be anywhere, might have vanished away to some fabled land no more real than a storybook, while she herself remained. Did fabled lands become real when you visited them, she wondered? Did they too have rats and sewers and endless work, or was it only her city that was really real? How could you quite believe in places so far away beyond your sight?

There were markets, too, in the city, and these she loved if anything more than the port. There were the food markets, of course, fruit and vegetables (more choice than the village, but rarely as fresh or as good); an ocean’s worth of fish; the stink and flies of the butcheries; and these she visited often, by necessity, but the other markets … the spice market; the pots and pans; and oh, the best of all, the bales of cloth, brilliant hued and more varied than she had ever dreamt of - silks shot with two colours, who knew how, so that they looked first the one, and then as you moved the other, velvets softer than woodland violets, figured brocades and fine embroidery … had she had time, she would have spent days admiring the scarlet and green silks, the burgundy velvet, the ribbons that shimmered in shades of fire and wine.

These things she knew she was not supposed to admire. Her employer was strict, and thought it best to safeguard the immortal souls of his workers, in the hope that this would incline them to honesty and obedience. Therefore she sat through many sermons, every Sunday when she could have wandered the city in peace, and the burden of a surprising number of them was vanity, and shallowness, and general worldliness, all of which were most wicked sins. Privately, she thought that was well enough for the priest, who had a comfortable house, and plentiful good food, and fine clothes, without having to do any of the work for those things: no cleaning out grates for him, no washing sheets, no mending, no cooking. When he dismissed comforts and luxuries alike as worthless, what did he know of their value, who had never had to work for them?

She knew the work it took to keep one man in comfort - who better than one who did such work? And she remembered perfectly well back in her village how much work it had taken to survive from one summer to the next. Why then should she not want a flame red ribband for her hair, or a little glass brooch that glowed in the sun like Indian ruby? Why should she not admire the silk and velvet dresses and precious jewellery she would never own? The shallowness was in the minds of those who condemned. Could they not see the skill and care in the creation of even a cheap brooch? The way it partook in a little of the same beauty as the glorious soaring spire of the cathedral, the trim lines of the fleetest ships, a snatch of song, the times the sky itself became a pyre for the setting sun?

Had she been better educated, and more inclined to argue, she might have tried to explain to the priest this strange thread of beauty she saw in things, how much joy and pleasure there was in even the simple things of life (a piece of sweet fruit, soft and juicy; a pillow to sleep on; stretching luxuriously in the morning, before one must get up and work; clean clothes to wear; the freedom to explore, to decide for yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’, not knowing where either would take you, and other such ordinary luxuries).

She might even have tried to explain how these things seemed to her a warrant of some great inner beauty to life itself, some deeper meaning she could never quite grasp, so that she’d gone from her family and her village to the town, and the town to the city, and perhaps one day onwards from the city to some unknown elsewhere, led on by the promise of beauty, the certainty that there was always more to know of the world, and that knowledge sweet and good in the knowing. So perhaps it was as well she did not try to explain these things, for while perhaps the priest might have told it was the grace and beauty of God she saw refracted and reflected in her ribbons and fruit, it is much more likely he would have dismissed her as a sensualist, her eyes blinded and her mouth stopped with the dust of this world.

§

It was a great scandal, everyone said so. Shocking. Horrific. Too gruesome and terrible even to imagine (though not, of course, to gossip about). The pretty, virginal sister. The ungoverned lust of her brother-in-law. His desire that his wife, and all the world, should never know the thing he had done, of which he was already ashamed, and would have given everything he had to undo (and indeed it is easy to be remorseful when you have already had what you wanted). The obvious answer of the waiting convent, and the desperate fear word would somehow escape even from its well-guarded depths. It was barbaric, there was general agreement it had been barbaric: not at all the way things were done here.

This was quite true, for it was hardly uncommon for a woman to be taken against her will, but it was not at all usual for anyone to bother tearing out her tongue afterwards. Presumably the brother-in-law must have felt quite uncommonly guilty, which could be taken, in a way, despite the gruesome cruelty of his actions, as a credit to some hidden vein of natural goodness of his character. (It is doubtful that either the girl involved, or her sister, his wife, took it that way, but then no one asked their opinion.)

Where the girl went afterwards, no one knew, nor cared very much, since her part in the story was over. Perhaps she stayed in the convent. Perhaps she left in shame and went who knows where.

§

Serving girls come and go, and it is not much remarked upon, there being an endless supply of them, trudging in from field to town, from town to city, looking for something a little better than the life they know, and no one asks where they go when they leave.

§

Once upon a time, there was a witch who lived in the woods. It is late, O Best Beloved, for once upon a time, when the tale is nearly done, but better late than never. This witch made women into birds, into nightingales, and kept them in golden cages. There were very many nightingales, so either the witch had been at it a long time (and the nightingales lived a lot longer than is generally the case), or more women must have come to her than you might expect to find idly wandering in the woods. Particularly woods said to harbour a dangerous witch.

It could be the women came deliberately, seeking out the witch. The story doesn’t say so, but then the story is not overmuch concerned with either the nightingales or the women. Really, it has nothing at all to say about what they thought, or what they wanted, or why they were there, so we may, O Best Beloved, please our own fancy. Let us say they came deliberately. Women go other places deliberately, and become servants, or wives, or nuns, or any number of other occupations, as seems good to them, so why should they not go to the woods and become nightingales?

But, as it happened, there was a young man. Not a prince, or a fool, or a the youngest of three brothers, but just an ordinary young man. He was good tempered and hard working - not the saintly good temper of the storybook, which will bear the greatest injustice with unswerving patience, nor yet the magical ability of the hero who can plough ten fields in a day, or chop down a forest in an afternoon, but a serviceable and workaday goodness of character, which if not so very rare is still rarer than it should be.

This young man was engaged to a girl from his village. She was to him the most beautiful girl in all the world, although in truth he had seen little of the world for purposes of comparison, and this matched nicely her feelings for him, since she felt him to be the handsomest and best of all young men. Still, she was not sure it would hurt to see a few more young men, just to be sure. And even if there were no finer young men, perhaps she could see a little more of the world, just for the sake of having seen it. But, O Best Beloved, it is a very large world, and those who go too far into it very rarely find their way back to the place where they started. Indeed, there are those who say such a thing is impossible, and even if you come back either you or your village will have changed out of all recognition. So the young man thought it better that the girl should stay with him, and marry, and they would have children together. Nor was this thought unpleasing to her, it was just that the world was so very large, and she had seen so very little of it, and she did not have his trick of being contented with that little bit of it in which she happened to find herself.

So it came about that, by one path or another, she took to the woods and became a nightingale, and flew hither and yon, as the desire took her, though she returned every night to sleep in a golden cage in the witch’s hut. And the young man, who had not wanted at all to adventure out into the world, found that after all he had no choice, if he wanted to find his bride. He went to this place and to that, asking always about nightingales, and by this method he learnt many curious stories, but it took him a long time to learn the secret he sought, because it was quite common knowledge, but only in a land far distant from his.

One day, however, he met a man from that distant land, a traveller and a merchant, who was happy to talk at length about nightingales, and to talk usefully (from the young man’s point of view). In particular, he spoke of their great love for roses, which was proverbial in his country, so that a poet wishing to express the yearning of one lover for another, or of the worshipper for god (not the young man’s god, a different one, for the traveller said there were different gods in different places, though of course only one was the true god), or of the poet for beauty, spoke naturally of the yearning of the nightingale for the rose. And so the young man went back to his village, and to the woods nearby, and he found a red rose, with the dew still fresh upon it like a pearl (for the pearl is a symbol of tears, and of mutability, and of the world itself), and with his rose he walked boldly into the witch’s hut, having prudently picked a time when she herself was absent, and tried to tempt his fair Jorinde back to him.

Have you heard, O Best Beloved, a thousand nightingales in song? It is a thing beyond your dreams. But we all make choices in life, and sometimes it is better to choose reality, even with its hard work, and its rats, and its dangers, over romance and dreaming (though there is a price to be paid for that, and the roses of this world, howsoever red they bloom, are perhaps not quite as fine as the roses of which the poets sing, and who is to say you cannot find in truth the poets’ rose, if you search far and long enough?) One day, O Best Beloved, you too will have to choose. But not today - not for many years to come, when you are quite grown up; and by then I will have taught you, night by night, the stories of each and every nightingale, as they sang them to me, and their knowledge and their wisdom shall be yours, to guide your choice, whether or not you choose as I have done.