There are a lot of talented nightingales around the world, and they sing a lot of songs. They hover calmly, looking at the world from their bird perspective, scattering their feathers and their songs over all the ends of the earth. Perhaps except those ends where it’s too cold for birds, but still, even there some nightingale can be found that isn’t bothered by the cold, to fly over the tundra, dash across the snow, and make the vast white wilderness echo with its song. Because there will always be a song, and the song will always be everywhere. Even if it is just some miserable human whistling.
That’s what my father was saying before he died. We all thought that the pills were taking their toll at last. What nightingales and what songs? My father was an unskilled worker who knew nothing about birds. He made fun of ornithologists himself, and he himself laughed at the word ornithologist. He would sit and laugh: “What kind of people are these orinthologists? They sit all day long with their huge binoculars and stare at the birds. What is there to stare at about birds? They hover and grumble and that’s it, and that guy even gets money from the state to stare at birds! ” This whole tirade continued with curses at the government.
Nobody knew where the stroke that took my father had come from. He wasn’t a smoker, he wasn’t at risk, he never burdened himself with too much thinking, but still, he suddenly fell ill. And several days before he passed, may he rest in peace, he wouldn’t stop talking about the songs of the nightingales. He talks and smiles. He looks at my face and doesn’t see it. He looks at my mom and doesn’t see her. He stares at the nightingales, and dreams of them, trying to copy their song.
Shriveled, he lies on the metal bedspring, wrapped up in mom’s sparkling white sheets, he sits and tries to puff out his cheeks. He purses his shriveled lips and starts letting out air. This seems to make his face even thinner. He has no air in him anymore, and no cheeks. His eyes sink back into their hollows and what is left on the surface is just the cold blue flame of his dying life.
“You will look for it, my boy, and you will find it. Even if you don’t listen to me, he’s the one you’ll hear, and you will see how far the song will reach. And now, to the nightingales.”
Then he passed. I cried like a child for several days. The whole time I would hide in the basement, in the kitchen, in the attic, just so my mom wouldn’t see me. She had it the worst. And I had to support her. Our relatives, they came and went. They looked at my dead father, they crossed themselves, drank some brandy in the name of God, and left us alone. And the house fell mute. We heard only the quiet screeching of the doors. My grandmother had told me that when someone dies he comes back to check if he has forgotten something. So there was my father making the doors screech. But when I hid in the basement I couldn’t hear the screeching. I could only hear my hastened breathing and my mom sobbing upstairs, in the attic. I hid from her, she hid from me. I had no idea why we couldn’t just cry together. I guess grief, even if it’s in the family, remains a deeply personal thing. Even the most social and united communities sometimes cry on their own. In silence.
The next several days that silence would stick to the house, stick to the soles of our shoes, stick to our words. There’s a reason people call it deathly silence. Someone passes and nature falls silent. No nightingales can be heard. Just a whistling. I was surprised, I thought I had imagined it.
I go out in the yard and see someone in the distance. A man. In a white suit. I have never seen such a white suit. There was nothing whiter than that even at my sister’s wedding. And my grandma used to brag about her whitest aprons, veils, and so on. The way all grandmas do, they know best. But no grandma has heard of this man’s white suit. Only in their dreams perhaps have they seen a shirt as white as this man’s.
And there he is, walking towards us in the most poetic way, looking serious in his white shirt. When he stands in front of me, he takes off his top-hat and gives me the whitest smile, he doesn’t greet me, but just keeps on whistling, an absolute nightingale. He greets me not only with his song, but also with his stare. With his lively eyes, it’s strange that they’re grey. Come to think of it, it’s not really that strange. We live in a small village and we haven’t seen townsmen’s eyes. We know only the provincial eyes. They are often hazel, but never grey.
So here he is, the man with the grey eyes and the white top-hat, passing by and greeting me in the most musical way. He passes by, but the whistling stays. It’s right in front of me. It’s so thick that I can scoop up some of it with my hand. So I scoop it up. I put some whistling in my pocket and think about my father.
I wonder if he also thinks of me. I don’t know, but I know that I want to whistle. And I walk down the road, whistling. I have a melody in my pocket, and I’m not afraid that I might get it wrong. Because I’m making it up myself. I walk, leaving whistling behind me.
I don’t know why, but wherever I went with my melody, someone would take it up. He would warp it in his own way, put high tones where the low ones were, breathe in instead of out, choke up, then continue in his own way. Then someone else would take it up and mess it up.
And I keep on whistling my melody. My melody isn’t complicated, my song isn’t like birdsong. It is a single song, and only mine. Maybe that’s why the others make up their own melodies. To have their own melody to whistle.
And they don’t stop. Someone in the field takes up the melody, and it scatters all over the wheat and into the bread, and those in town who buy the bread and break it off with their hungry hands, will take up our miserable little melody, warp it to make it urban, make it their own way, and continue eating, but this time with a song.
Or a melody. They go out of their homes and keep on whistling. And the whole town starts whistling. I watch and I can’t believe it, is the melody that the little fellow gave me and that I have in my pocket so strong that it enchants entire towns?
From the town, it goes along the streetcar tracks, then – to the station, and from there the melody goes beyond Bulgarian lands. It sets out on the endless meandering rails of the trains and ends up at the world’s end. I soon hear whistling from all ends of the earth. And everyone whistles their heads off, makes up their own melody and walks down the road with it.
And I’m thinking about my father, wondering if he knew the little fellow with the white top-hat, or if he had just assumed that he might pass by our village. I don’t think my father was that bright, and he probably couldn’t have imagined that the whole world would start whistling my melody.
And it is simple. I guess my father had a similar melody. And it’s not impossible for it to have made it to the tundra. And there, in the tundra, a nightingale sits in a snowdrift, hears my family’s whistling and bursts out laughing at our fragile and simple little human melody.