The Songbird – A Short Story

by Yohan J. John

54921_birdcage_mdOnce upon a time there was a village on the edge of a vast jungle. In it there lived a little girl who loved to explore the depths of the jungle. One day she heard a sound she had never heard before. She followed it until she came to a great old tree. High up in the branches she spotted a beautiful songbird. She sat by the tree for a time, enchanted by the bird's song. She returned home and told her friends about the bird. In a few days she became known as the Bird Girl, because she led the other children to the great old tree where the bird sang its tune. Soon enough, the adults went along too. Everyone agreed that the bird made a most wonderful music, unlike anything ever heard in those parts.

But the path to the great old tree was dangerous — there were slippery rocks and tangled roots. Wild animals prowled in the shadows. Still, the beauty of the bird's song had an irresistible pull. The village elders decided that the bird should be captured and brought to the village. Soon enough, the bird was caught, and placed in a cage. The Bird Girl told everyone that the song had somehow changed, and that something important had been lost. The elders did not pay her much attention. She went back to exploring the jungle, but rarely told the elders what, if anything, she found.

The villagers gathered every evening to behold the bird and its song. Word spread to neighboring villages, and soon curious pilgrims arrived. The villagers began selling food and trinkets to the visitors. The bird was a blessing!

One day the king was traveling through the region, on his way home from a victorious battle. He heard stories of the songbird, and decided to see it for himself. The bird proved even more impressive than he imagined. Nowhere in the kingdom was there a bird such as this!

The king decreed that such a bird could not be hidden away in an obscure village. He took it to the capital, where more people could be touched by the grace of its song. The villagers were sad to see the bird go, but they could hardly stand in the way of a king.

In the capital city, the king displayed the bird at his court. The courtiers told the king that such a bird could not possibly be placed in a crude wooden cage: it must have a royal cage, befitting its miraculous nature. And so a golden cage was built for the bird.

Over the years the king continued to embellish the cage: jewels and engravings were added to every bar. A temple was built especially for the bird. It was almost as marvelous as the king's palace. People arrived from every corner of the kingdom to behold the bird, hear its song, and marvel at its glorious cage. One day the Bird Girl came — though by this time she was called the Bird Woman. She muttered about how the bird's song had changed. As before, no one listened.

The songbird seemed to live much longer than any ordinary bird. Some said that it did not need to eat, living instead upon the goodwill of its admirers. But fewer and fewer people actually saw or heard the bird. It's cage became so ornate that one could only see the bird by peering through thin slits between the bars. Some said the cage also made the bird less audible. Others said the bird was getting old, so it's voice was becoming softer. Still others said that the noise from the city was drowning out the bird's delicate voice.

By this time the temple itself had become the main attraction. The greatest craftsmen in the land labored upon it. Little shrines featuring statues of the bird cropped up around the main temple. Painters sold portraits of the bird. Musicians sang songs inspired by it. Philosophers explained the bird's meaning to anyone who cared to listen. Thus, the city became for a time a great center of art and learning.

Many years passed. The king had all but forgotten about the bird. Most of his time was spent on the beautification of his capital, which had grown rich from a steady stream of pilgrims.

One day the king grew ill, and he knew that he would soon die. As he lay on his deathbed, he asked his courtiers to bring him the bird, so he could hear its song one last time, and recall the glory of his youth. When they brought the cage to the king, no one could hear even the slightest sound. The king ordered the gilded cage to be opened. Inside, all that could be seen was a skeleton, beautiful but silent.

The new king instructed his courtiers never to tell anyone about the dead bird. After all, the wealth of the capital depended upon its legend. The cage was returned to the temple, and everything carried on as before. The beauty of the lifeless cage and the splendor of the city continued to inspire the pilgrims, the artists, the musicians. But there were whispers around the city saying that something was missing. The poets and philosophers began saying that the bird had never existed in the first place. Great works were written that claimed that the bird was a mere symbol: a metaphor for a deeper truth.

Far away, in an almost forgotten village, a strange old woman could still be found. People called her the Bird Woman. She said, to anyone that would listen, that the kingdom had lost its way. She spoke of beautiful sights and sounds to be found deep within the jungle. But only the children and the lunatics seemed to listen to her.