Once upon a time the crow was the most accomplished of all songbirds.
And he knew it.
And the world knew it.
Every day, and long into the evening, even after the sun had set and as the stars began to twinkle, you could hear him match their glitter note for note.
Families, at their evening meal, would stop eating, and make no noise with spoons and forks and plates—would even stop chewing—when he set out again in song, whether from afar or near, perhaps he would sit in their garden apple tree. And no one at table would say a word until the crow had finished his song—so enticing were his melodies, so pure his notes. Even the stars seemed to twinkle a little less while he sang the better to hear.
Once done, the crow would shift slightly on his apple-tree branch and cock his head in the direction of the candle-lit kitchen the better to hear the silence softly cease by resumed movement of spoon to soup, of fork to mouth, and by the father praising to his children the song just sung.
And then he would as often as not spread his wings and roam the air for another meal to interrupt, for another attentive silence and subsequent fatherly praise.
Most other birds were jealous of his song, this in varying degree. The wren was not only jealous of the crow, but a little afraid, too—the crow being so large and the wren so small.
The finch would stop singing whenever he heard the crow, so ashamed was he of his own meager melodies.
The barn swallow had an easier time of it. He knew that he could fly so much better than the crow, and while he could not sing as beautifully, he would dance away his shortcoming in swooping and airy circles.
The warbler, as a rule, was too busy to worry one way or another, but knew in his heart that the crow had the most beautiful song in the world.
The sparrow would tell his children to stop talking when the crow began his song; it was impolite to disturb such a master. And maybe if they would listen more closely, they would learn a thing or two.
The crow would hear this at times and smile to himself, satisfied that respect was shown even in the smallest quarters.
Of all the many songbirds that envied the crow, only one bird was not intimidated by him, and that was the nightingale.
The nightingale could sing, there was no doubt about it; the crow knew this, too, and this irritated him a little. But while all other songbirds would hear the crow and think to themselves, “Oh, listen to him. I will never sing this well, no matter how hard I’d try,” the nightingale, upon hearing the crow sing for the first time, thought to himself, “Aha! That’s how well you can sing,” and set out to learn to sing like the crow by practice, and practice and more practice, often long into the night.
And with each season the nightingale sang a little better, and then a little better still, while the crow—singing, in his mind, supremely already—did not bother to practice or improve (for how do you improve on perfection?), but was content to dazzle with the gifts he had.
And the world turns many times, and circles the sun many times, and the nightingale sings more and more beautifully, till one night the father at the dinner table motioned his family to hush and listen—no, not to the crow, but to this new song, the one almost as beautiful as (some even though more beautiful than) the crow’s. And spoons and forks grew quiet and no one chewed for the span of the song, and then the father wondered aloud who could have sung so well. If the nightingale heard this, he didn’t care, for he sang for the singing, not for the praise, thinking that someday soon he would be ready to seek out and sing for the crow, to share with him what he had taught the nightingale. A thank you of sorts.
But before the nightingale could seek him out to proudly share his now much improved song, the crow had heard about him, and was none too happy the news either.
“Sings just like you,” said the raven.
“Sings as sweet as anything,” said the kestrel.
“A little marvel, that nightingale,” said the mourning dove.
None of which the crow took kindly to. And the more he heard about this little upstart, the grimmer he felt. Soon it seemed there was not a bird he met that did not relish pointing out that the nightingale’s song was almost as beautiful as his—none dared tell him equal to or more beautiful than, though many now thought so.
One evening the crow had had his fill of these nightingale news and set out to find this little upstart to assess the situation for himself—for surely they were all exaggerating and telling lies, envious of him as usual.
Over the darkening landscape he flew, ears straining for anything even approaching the beauty of his own song. Over misty field and muttering brook, he flew, over copses of birch and linden he flew, using his wings sparingly the better to hear.
Over village and homestead he flew. Over town and marsh.
Over lesser songs by lesser birds he flew, growing more certain by the mile that he had been misinformed—surely.
Until. Softly on the wind at first, more like memory than song. A younger song, many moons ago. But with each long, and now more and more eager, beat of anxious wings the song grew stronger, and now assumed direction as well. A manor, a house the size of a manor anyway, up there by the foot of a long and lazy hill, birches climbing. A garden, a large and well-tended garden, with many groomed trees. And from one of these, the closest tree to the house but one, a pear tree, rose the song.
It was as if the tree itself sung, for the crow could not yet spot the singer, so small was the nightingale—who perhaps had become song by so much practice.
Then, too, he saw the singer. A drab little thing with soot-black eyes, mouth agape and pouring into the evening—the crow could not quite believe his ears: it was the most beautiful song he had ever heard.
He glided around the pear tree once, twice, never taking his eyes off the little singer (who appeared unaware of the crow’s presence—but surely wasn’t, for had he not raised his voice a little, brought on a new clarity, more beautiful still?). Then he swooped for the branch, and only at the last moment held up and landed not a hand’s width from the nightingale, and with such an impact (the branch gave way and then swayed up and down for a while) that the song stopped dead.
Wide, black eyes stared up at him. They should have, but held no fear.
“What do you think?” said the nightingale once the branch had come to rest.
“What do I think about what?” said the crow.
“What do you think about my song?”
“Is that what you call it?”
“It’s all right, I guess. For an amateur.”
If the nightingale took offence at this, he did not show it. “I have been practicing every day and every night,” he said. “Ever since I heard you sing, and realized how beautiful song can be.”
“Are there more of you?” asked the crow.
“Do they all practice?”
“Oh, no,” said the nightingale. “Only I.”
The crow seemed happy to hear this, for he nodded his head a few times as if accepting a satisfactory turn of events.
Then, without warning, the crow struck the little bird with his strong wing, and the singer tumbled, stunned, to the ground below.
Before the nightingale could recover the crow was upon him, pinning the gray little body to the ground with sharp talons. The nightingale, getting his bearings now, opened his beak to wonder what on earth, which was precisely what the crow was waiting for, and in one swift, vicious strike, reached into the little throat with his strong beak, and ripped out his throat in a tiny rain of blood.
The little bird shuddered but stayed alive.
The crow, mission complete, rose into the air and after several lazy beats of satisfied wings dropped the red little voice of the nightingale into the mist now rising. He did not hear it land, nor would he have cared if had he done so.
Terpsichore, whose world embraced song of all kinds, including that of birds, and who had been listening to the nightingale with delight, saw everything. More stunned even than the little bird who still remained on the ground, and breathing only with difficulty, she descended into the garden and soon found where the crow had dropped the torn-out throat of the little singer. Gently she retrieved it and brought it to her lips and kissed it.
Carrying the golden throat in her cupped hand, she walked over to the nightingale and kneeled by his side. Large black eyes, cloudy with pain and slowly receding shock tried to make sense of what they saw as Terpsichore brought the now healed throat to the little beak, softly opened it and restored the song to its owner, gilded now with the muse’s kiss.
The pain cleared from his eyes, and the nightingale scrambled to his feet.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Terpsichore,” she answered. “I am song.”
“Terpsichore,” he repeated. “You are magical?”
“What is magic?” she answered. “If not that which we cannot readily grasp.”
“So you are magical,” he said.
“If you will.”
“The crow?” asked the little bird.
“Gone,” said Terpsichore.
“He,” began the nightingale.
“Yes, he did,” she said. Then said, “Sing for me.”
“I can?” he wondered.
So the nightingale drew breath into lungs that felt larger and fuller than ever before and gave voice to the wonder of magic with such clarity and volume that the lord of the manor halted his fork mid-air and paused. “Do you hear?” he said to the dinner party. “The crow.”
“Only more beautiful,” said his wife.
The oldest daughter rose and walked over to the window the better to hear and perhaps catch a glimpse of the crow. What she saw no one later believed, for she saw Terpsichore rise with the nightingale in her hand only to dissolve to let the little bird take wing and settle on a branch close to the window, where he took up the song anew.
“It’s not,” said the daughter. “It’s not the crow.”
“It isn’t?” said the wife, and rose to take a look for herself.
Soon the entire family was crowding by the window, stunned by the little performer who sang like he had never sung before.
The crow, meanwhile, pleased with a job well done, settled in for the night miles beyond the lazy hills. He was soon asleep, but in the night he had a terrible dream.
And in this dream, as real as anything, he found himself pinned down to the damp grass by a crow many times his size with talons like tongs and eyes like hate. The giant bird then reached into his mouth with a beak like two javelins, and down his gullet to the heart of his song they pierced and then pinched and then tore it all out in one vicious tug and a small shower of blood.
The pain startled him awake. He found he had trouble breathing. And with a pain that should not linger from a dream, he thought (but which lingered nonetheless), grew a cold and hollow absence: for in the place of the well whence his song would rise, there was nothing.
A rising suspicion brought a fear cold and terrible. This had been no dream. Trembling now, and despite the hollow pain, he tried a note, but no note came: only the harsh grating of rocks crashing.
He tried again, and more rocks sundered.
After many dark and bewildered thoughts, he took to wing and left the lands of men and many birds, and did not return for longer than memory can fathom, and when he did and called to announce his arrival a little boy tugged the sleeve of his father’s jacket and said, “What bird is that, that big, black one crushing rocks with his throat?”