The Birdsong Flute

Some speak of the forest’s great trees, fire-scarred and crowned with the nests of birds extinct elsewhere, and others speak of the tigers, who delight in giving terrible advice to travelers when they are hungry, but can always be trusted to be honest about go stratagems.  The forest has known exiled poets and princesses, pious warriors and worried monks, and it writes their names in its loam just as it writes the secret lives of the squirrels and hedgehogs.

One pilgrim came to the forest to visit what she believed to be its finest treasure, a flute that sang in the voices of all the world’s birds.  She found that the way to the shrine of the flute was not barred to her.  The very pebbles of the path were kind to her feet.

The shrine was tended only by an old woman whose hair might have been black when the moon was young.  The pilgrim explained her heart’s desire, and the old woman nodded and set aside her broom.

“There it is,” she said, leading the pilgrim to the altar, lit only by cloudlight.  The flute was plain and dark, worn smooth and carved with a single curling feather, like a riddle of smoke.  “You will find no finer chorale in the halls of the world: swan’s lament and lark’s song and crane’s cry, the voice of every bird that has lived beneath the roof of the sky.”

“If this is so,” said the pilgrim, greatly wondering, “why is this treasure not played where people can hear it?”

As the pilgrim looked at the old woman, she saw that the birds of the forest had gathered around them: sleepy owls and small wrens, falcons with their fierce eyes and magpies in their handsome black-and-white.

“If the flute contains the voices of the very birds,” the old woman said, “what do you think is left for the birds themselves when it is played?”

The pilgrim thanked her and headed home, on a path no less friendly, singing an old travel-song in her own rough voice.

for YKL