Hot, bright days that burn the grass brown and brittle; dim, humid days when the air hangs heavy; gray, stormy days of booming thunder and sweet, cool rain. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the aurora borealis of Coleridge’s theology and poetry through Malcolm Guite’s Mariner, the golden web of mythology and folklore through D.R. McElroy’s Superstitions, the thick jungles and shining palaces of India through Joseph Jacobs’s Indian Tales, the green mountains and stone castles of Wales through the Mabinogion, and the silver dreaminess of legend through Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
While not every myth or fairy tale is my favorite (for instance, some of the monsters in Superstitions were quite shocking) I love how these stories remind me of the wonders of this world – fog on mountains, green tree-reflections on water, the glowing moon – and make me yearn to look over its edge into the wonders of eternity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie story expresses that same wonder with a burning brightness like fireflies at night. Rachel A. Greco retells Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Nightingale, with grace and depth, using such vivid language that I feel like I dreamed it. Enjoy!
The Nightingale’s Song
by Rachel A. Greco
Travelers braved the Briny Sea, the Peaks of Misfortune, and the Sands of Time to hear the nightingale’s song. Brighter than summer’s sun, sweeter than roses, it left the stoutest warrior’s heart quivering. But only at night did the enchanting music flood the forest.
Although the nightingale sang in the forests surrounding his palace, Emperor Ghanzou had never heard or seen the bird.
One evening, while showing dignitaries the splendors of his palace’s porcelain walls, ambassador Rolf asked the emperor, “Have you heard the nightingale’s song? It made me cry like a baby.”
“I have yet to see or hear the bird,” the emperor growled, annoyed the men weren’t complimenting his sculptures. “How do we know such a creature exists? Perhaps it’s just the temple bells or a dragon’s song.”
“Oh no, your majesty,” Rolf said. “It must be a nightingale.”
“Then bring it to me,” Emperor Ghanzou commanded.
The men stood as silent as the jade statues, for they didn’t know how to capture a nightingale or even find one.
The kitchen maid’s daughter had overheard the conversation as she scuttled by to prepare their tea. “Please, your majesty,” she bowed before him, “the nightingale is a special friend of mine. I can convince it to come and sing for you if you wish.”
The Emperor stared at the bowed head and food-smattered apron, surprised such an insignificant girl knew something the men did not. “Bring it at once.”
The maid darted away.
Emperor Ghanzou awaited the bird’s arrival after dinner and told a servant to bring a net in case the bird was as splendid as everyone said.
The emperor’s fingers tapped against his jade throne. The windows opening onto the balcony let in moonlight and the fragrance of jasmine.
A bird landed on one of the windowsills. It was a small, simple creature. How could such magnificent music come from such an insignificant source?
The bird opened its beak, and Ghanzou no longer cared. Crystalline music filled his head with sunnier days, when life was simple and sweet. When he stole kisses from a kitchen maid whom he had loved but couldn’t marry. Tears streamed down his face.
When the bird stopped, Ghanzou blinked as if coming out of a trance.
With his permission, his servant leapt toward the nightingale with his net.
The bird darted out the window.
“Get it!” Ghanzou thundered. “I must have that bird.”
The reward was set, the hunters found, and the search began.
Although the sharpest-scented dogs and sharpest-sighted men trekked through the empire, they couldn’t capture the bird. Years passed, and the nightingale continued to sing, often near the palace, but the little bird proved too clever for the emperor and his men.
Emperor Ghanzou’s rage and longing for the nightingale’s music drove him to bed with illness. As his strength drained away, his anger and greed drained with it. All he wanted was to hear the bird sing one more time before he died since he hadn’t heard its song since the night it escaped.
One evening, when his coughs kept the nurse beside his bed, she said, “The nightingale has come to sing for you, your majesty.”
He turned and saw its small figure on the windowsill, its beady eyes examining him. “So you’ve come now that I’m dying.” He sighed. “I suppose it’s what I deserve for trying to capture you. Thank you for coming.”
The bird opened its mouth and sang. It sung all through the night, and the emperor smiled for the first time in a long time.
“Your Majesty, the nightingale has turned into a girl,” the nurse’s voice hauled Ghanzou out of the pleasant memories the song had given him.
The kitchen maid’s daughter sat on the sill, dirty and simple. But the dawn cloaked her in light.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“I am a nightingale by night and Chynna, the kitchen maid’s daughter who has no father, by day.”
She stared at her feet. “You didn’t want me as your daughter, so I hoped you’d want me as your nightingale. I didn’t want to live in a cage, though.”
She glanced up. “I heard you were dying, so I came to sing for you again.”
Ghanzou knew the kitchen maid had carried his child and let her stay on. But he had put them from his mind so he could rule and produce heirs. Over the years he had forgotten the woman and child until the music had reminded him. He gazed at the young woman. His daughter. Poor and filthy, but not as insignificant as he once thought.
“Come here.” He opened his arms.
She sank into them, healing him with her song.
Rachel A. Greco
Rachel Greco is a YA fantasy author who wishes she was a dragon. Her short story, Fairy Light, won an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and another was published by White Cat Publications. When not writing, she can be found reading, kayaking, or dancing with elves in the forests of her South Carolina home. Visit https://www.rachelagreco.com/ for book recommendations and news about her writing world.