The music of the city drowned beneath the cacophony of hawkers fighting to hook my ear. A finely attired gentleman, even one in a mask, was indeed a rarity in a Five Points bazaar. To them I must resemble the goose that laid golden eggs as I strolled through the crowd. Their hungry gazes followed my every move, hands prized for the score of the money I must have in my pockets.
The mild spring evening brought out much of the population in a spirited mood to experience the mingling of cultural sights, scents, and sounds. Colors clashed too bright on the roll-carts with their banners. The spicy and sour scents of the cultural foods migrated from their homelands churned in the air like a nauseating miasma. I was grateful for the filtration of my mask. Languages of countless dialects battered against one another forming a discordant net of sound I struggled to escape from.
Yes, I understood most of their pitiable cries. Their languages, a map of the Old World, betrayed the country from where each man, woman, and child originated from before thrust into this melting pot. They clung to traditions like a shipwrecked sailor to a splinter of a ship. But this New World sought to drown them. It would. Ages ago, in my travels across Eurasia, I realized the futility of clinging to the fragile threads of my nationality. I had been born French, and though Manhattan noted that above all else, I held no allegiance to any piece of land. No land would ever claim someone like me.
I suppose that was what attracted me to the bazaars. These lamentable attempts of those who still clung to their origins, waving flags like banners of honor, selling their heritage to those who could afford the luxury of the exotic. Men like me. The people in Five Points held such esteem in who they were. Secretly, I envied them.
This evening I had nothing in particular in mind as I wandered save escaping my too quiet home. Christine was performing in Hartford, and Charles at boarding school. Nadir remained poor company, troubled by a minor ailment that rendered him into a whining baby. I had sent the maid into his room with a cup of tea, with a little something extra concealed in the fluid. He should sleep the day through untroubled by his sinuses. In the oppressive silence I grew weary of hearing the chime of the clock relentlessly marching through the hours.
A man bumped my shoulder, knocking me from my reverie. He turned with a fist raised toward me, until his eyes met mine—beneath the mask. He shrank back, grabbed his tweed cap in both hands and wrung it. “ ‘pologies, sir. I dinna mean ta bump inta yah.”
I adjusted my cloak with a sweep, turning my shoulder to him. “On your way.”
His eyes remained on me as he slunk away. The moment he was out of reach, he turned and ran.
With a sigh, I brushed off my brocade vest. Pointless waste of energy, running. I had no desire to kill him. I simply desired to wander the bazaar to slake my boredom. I had promised Damrosch a new composition for the Symphony Society and now I contemplated why I had done so. I entirely lacked inspiration. I suspected what I truly sought here was nothing more than that. Some illusive spark to reignite the passion of writing.
All for naught.
Notes pierced the air.
Like one of my automatons, I turned toward a longer cart draped in dyed fabrics. A warm glow flickered beneath the bright hued florals, lantern gleam. Shadows danced. The flick of small creatures, their movements independent from the flames. Through the senseless avian twittering, a single refrain pulled my feet up the steps into the wagon. A forlorn strain cast out into the growing evening of such skill and complexity, I questioned if any earthly body could achieve such a feat.
Before I saw him, I knew it was indeed possible. I knew which creature held this exceptional gift. The unremarkable, diminutive nightingale hardly rivaled those in the bird kingdom with his plumage. But his voice, oh his voice! Our eyes met and my soul leapt to his ardent plea.
Held captive by the woven twigs of his cage, the nightingale could not even spread his wings. His song remained all that could reach to the heavens. He pined of winging to great heights, of lush gardens and beautiful blooms, wild lands far from here that remained but a memory. The notes rose and fell in mastery. The cadence matched my heartbeat. I could not look away from the pull of his beady brown eyes.
A Dutchman sidled up. I watched him from the corner of my eye, still enthralled by the spirited bird pleading from his cage. In stilted English, the man addressed me. “Fine taste. This is a rare bird. Nightingales are crafty, hard to catch. But they are fit for the emperor.”
“Yes yes. I know that ancient story. In fact I have heard it from roots far older than the common tale.” I waved him into silence, wanting only to admire the cascade of notes.
The nightingale took a single hop, his beak thrust out the front bars. Two hops back and his tailbone would strike the rear. He could not even turn. My finger drifted toward him, bidden by the music from his ruffled throat. A twin spirit to my own pleaded.
Don’t leave me in only a memory of flight! He sang. Without flight, one such as I perishes. Give me the sky. Let me sing, let me wing with others.
I knew his song, for I had sung it before. This was not the song either of hearts longed to sing. We were meant for jubilation, but this world caged us, reduced us to despair. So far from our homes.
I plucked a handful of coins from my pocket, not even looking to see how much, and thrust them into the man’s hand. He only gasped as I seized the ring of the nightingale’s cage and departed.
Out in the evening air, the nightingale’s song altered to a thrill. I walked back to my brougham entranced by his exultation. Inside, beneath the lantern, he composed the most glorious ballad, never falling silent. Without discarding my cloak, I carried him up to my study and set his cage on an end table.
The latch had been secured by a mass of twisted wire. It took even my deft fingers minutes to work free. He observed my every motion, his hard beak millimeters from my fingers, brushed against my flesh. He vibrated, hopped as much as his confines would permit. At long last, the wire slipped free, the tiny door opened.
The nightingale shot through like a dart, unfolding his wings the moment he cleared the confines. In an arched flight he landed clumsily on the music stand of my Steinway. His chest heaved as he puffed his feathers and shook from head to unfurled tail. He turned his head my way, the silence of the room weighed on me.
I spied a silver tray of fruit left here for convenience. When was the last time this little bird had been fed? I picked up the tray and brought it over to him. At first the nightingale darted his gaze between me and the tray several times before he tentatively leaned forward and pecked at a plum. The juicy pulp clung to his beak. He gorged himself, sticky juices clumping his chest feathers. Painstakingly, he twisted to clean up his plumage, freeing it from the remnants of his meal.
Once finished, he looked at me and piped a cheery strain. He spread his wings and flitted out the window.
Bittersweet. I sat at my piano, fingers silently caressing the keys in memory of his music. I longed to hear him again. To keep him caged would bring nothing but torment to a creature meant to touch the heavens. No one understood that more profoundly than I.
All I could do was remember. Note by note I let my fingers draw his music from the keys. The carefree jubilance seeming inconceivable to be born by such a diminutive creature. An earthly reminder that we are rarely what we seem. Lost in the music, I mimicked the turns and twists of his original melody setting it to memory.
A harmony danced around the piano. The windy strain stepped in time, wrapping notes around the melody as a dancer his arms around a partner. Elegant, free-spirited, true.
I half opened my eyes. A shape flicked in the dim light. My imagination?
My eyes opened. The nightingale perched on the music stand, his tail flared out as he shifted to the music we composed together. His patterns shifted. As I imitated what he sang, he offered me yet another variance. I smiled as I dove into ever more complex arrangements. The clock chimes marched on into the early hours of the morning, and yet we remained in spirited song.
Dawn’s rays spilled pastel into the sky. The nightingale ceased his song and flitted to the fruit. He silently pecked his fill, cleaned himself once more. And then, with a simple bow, launched himself through the open balcony door
I followed, lingering in the balcony door as the tiny spirit spiraled into the washed sky. I held a hand to my chest and bowed. “Thank you for your gift. I shall cherish it, always.”
Sleep would wait. I pulled out a stack of vellum and my special red ink over to my Steinway. I wanted every nuance before it evaporated in the dawn.