Night-Birds

Grade: 
11

The Boy stood among the dust of men. Above, the shrouded sky lay mournful, mirroring his mood. He had little time; by sunset he would fade. He would crumble to dust, for he had lived his day, had watched the sun rise with hope, as if it would never set. But it was leaning away now; three-quarters of the way across its arc, and the Boy did not know what to do. What does anyone know to do? His time is coming, his time is going, and he knows his day is almost up.

            In the earliest reaches of morning, he had played in the shining river, laughing and splashing until he was cold. What was the purpose of this, his one and only day, if not enjoyment? Many others were playing there also. They had awoken that same morning, and with a singular desperation set out to live. Some had run into the forest, dancing among the trees and singing along with the birds that trilled their eternal songs. It was a lie. The birds were older and they would last beyond this puny day of humanity, but they were not eternal.

            Later in the morning he had climbed out from the flow of the river and lay shivering in a grassy field. Within minutes the sun had warmed him, filling his small frame with tingling comfort. He thought of going back into the river but then he would be cold again and here he was warm and comfortable, even if the grass tickled his back a little. For awhile he regarded the sky and considered its vast blue dome and wondered what lay beyond his comprehension. Drowsiness crept over him, and for a moment he embraced it and closed his eyes. But he remembered that his time was finite so regretfully he pulled himself to his feet, shaking his head to clear the fingers of lethargy from about his head.

            At midday the Boy found a book with some words in it. The writing was shaky and rushed, for the writer knew his twilight was stalking him too, so he had scribbled whatever thought crossed his mind as he sat in the woods. He expressed his wonderment at the size of the tallest trees, and the greenness of their highest leaves, dancing in the sunlight. He felt the soil under him and wondered if the powdered bones of his forefathers lay beneath him. He listened to the birds and tried to understand what they were saying but he could not. Their songs were not for human ears. Perhaps they were singing to the trees. The writer was becoming afraid. The sun is going down, he wrote. My light is gone and I have sat here writing down my thoughts instead of playing in the river like the others. But my words will live and I will not. That is the choice I have made. The sun is touching the horizon. Goodbye.

            The Boy was shaken by these mortal words and in the early afternoon he walked on the edge between the river and the woods, listening for a revelation but hearing the halfway mark of his existence. I have done nothing, he thought. I wish I had a book to write in too. Then something of me could live on. But he could not find another book, and he did not know what he would write anyway except that he did not want to die. As he walked he realized that he was getting away from the others and for a moment he thought of heading back but he decided to keep going. He could not hear the birds singing in the forest and for a moment had a flash of horror but did not know why.

            In the mid-afternoon he came to the ruins of an unfinished wall. The stones were shaped and fitted and piled on each other and fastened with caked mud, and the Boy wondered how many people had spent their only day working to build this wall. There was a corner—perhaps they were building a house or a storehouse. The river flowed by and laughed at their futility from a stone’s throw away. Maybe they had hoped that others would work on the wall and the corner after they had gone, but nobody had. They were playing in the river and listening to the birds sing in the forest. Why would they want to sit behind a wall or shelter in a house anyway? What was the point?

            The Boy sat there now, on the stones placed there by those who had came before. Undoubtedly they had expected it to serve as a wall, not as a seat for a young boy afraid of the end of the world. The rushing river is weary now. The sun is going down. He cannot hear the others playing or the birds singing. He is as alone as he can be in a world filled with people looking for someone else. He feels like crying but knows it would be a waste of time. Ah, to be playing in the river and not know that the night will catch you.

            A glint catches his eye. He reaches among the dead stones and holds a tool in his hands. It is a chisel, shaped with such care that the Boy thought it must have taken one’s entire existence to craft. Surely it had been used to shape the stones for this meaningless wall. He weighs it in his hand. It was given to him by the world; what shall he do with it? It catches the light nicely. He decides that he hates this ugly wall. With a stab angry at the world he levers it between two stones and pries the top one away. It falls dead to the ground. The wall is not so strong after all. It is weak and only held together by hope and mud. The Boy feels sad and ashamed and remembers the people who built the wall with their lives and he replaces the stone gently. He is not angry anymore.

            A sound from the woods. Startled, he whips his head around. An old man is coming from the forest, wreathed in mist like some elemental. Was the forest watching as he pried apart its unfinished temple? The old man is as gray as the withered lichen that clings to the trees, but as he draws closer the Boy sees that he has eyes bright with life like the glint from the bubbling stream, and he smiles at the Boy with a vibrant energy. He is wrinkled like a prune but projects an aura of youth and joy. The Boy has no reason to be afraid now. The old man is coming to sit beside him, so he moves to make room. With a grateful nod, the old man reclines, sighing on the stones. He looks out over the forest and the river growing dark with twilight and sighs but not regretfully.

            “Why, it grows even more beautiful as the sun sets,” he observes.

            The Boy disagrees but meekly says nothing.

            The old man turns his gaze to regard the small one sitting next to him. “You have the look of one who is chewing on something, yet has nothing in his mouth.”

            The humorous analogy elicits a reluctant smile. “I’m just thinking.”

            “That is a noble pursuit.” The old man studies his face. “And yet, you look quite troubled for one so small.”           

The Boy fidgets uncomfortably, emotion and thought swirling in his mind. “I’m thinking about how night will soon come, and then I’ll die. I don’t want that to happen. I hardly did anything today.”

“Ah.” The old man looks up at the sky and exhales. As evening takes hold it is becoming chilly. His breath hangs in a mist. “You hardly did anything? Tell me what you did today that was so unworthy of your time.”

“Well… in the morning I played in the river for awhile. When I got cold I lay on the grass in the sun. I almost fell asleep.”

His elder’s eyes are focused on his face. “Were you quite content, laying in the grass in the sun?”

“I suppose. But I got up because I wanted to do other things too. It was almost midday by that time.”

“Hmm. And what did you do then?”

The Boy tilts his head, remembering. “I found a book and read it but it made me sad. Then I walked along the river near the woods. I could hear the birds singing. I didn’t stop to listen, though. I kept walking and I came here. I found this wall. And this chisel.” He opens his hand to show the tool lying in his palm.

The old man looks at the chisel but does not take it. “Ah. Have you done anything with it?”

The Boy ducks his head in shame. “I pried a stone off the wall. I was angry but I don’t know why. Then I felt sorry and I put the stone back. I don’t know why I did it.”

The wrinkles soften. “You were angry at the world. The futility of the wall-builders. The fading joy of playing in the river. The songs of the birds reminding you of their paradox. Their sweet songs will fade. And you were angry for a moment but now sadness has retaken you.”

Tears sting the Boy’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” says the old man firmly. “Do not be sorry. You may be angry and sad but do not be sorry for how you have spent your existence. Embrace your fragility. I did not create the universe and its rules but I am sorry, not for myself but for the sadness that grips the heart of little ones such as you.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The old man traces a finger along the ragged wall. “You are afraid of passing away. And I am not sorry that there is death, but I am sorry that you are afraid.”

“What do I do?” The Boy’s heart feels full to bursting. “I don’t want to be afraid. How should I have spent my day? What is the purpose?”

The old man shakes his head. “Do not ask me what the purpose of life is. I do not know. Should you strive for the joy of those who ran into the woods and sang with the birds until they forgot their mortality? Should you make a monument to your existence, like the mournful book filled with regretful words? There is no answer.”

A tremor shakes the little shoulders. “I just wanted to be happy and enjoy my time. I didn’t make anybody else unhappy. But I still fell hollow and empty. And the sun is dying.”

Indeed, the horizon was bulging now, and a fiery glow shone in the sky, the defiance of passing souls. The orb of the sun seems mere inches from the edge where the sky and earth joined. A radiant farewell.

With a groan, the old man rises to his feet and brushes himself off. “Would you like to hear a secret?”

The Boy sniffles. “I guess.”

“First, let me ask you—what is death? What happens to you after you pass that dreaded gate?”

“It’s the end. The end of life.”

Wagging a finger, the old man bends and scoops up a handful of earth. “No. It is not the end of life. It is a continuation of life.” He offers the clump of soil to the Boy. The Boy takes it in his hand, feeling the surprising coolness.

“Why are we doing this?” The Boy is taken by a brief flash of panic. “The day is fading. I was thinking of going back down to the river.”

“It’s too late,” the old man says gently. “But listen. Do you know what you are holding?”

“Dirt and stuff.”

“No. You are holding a memory. In your hand is part of everything and everyone who came before you. They have dissolved into the universe and come together in everything.” He pokes the Boy in the chest. “You are made of other people. People who you say have died. They do not fade away. They come together again.”

The Boy lets the soil trickle through his fingers. “I don’t understand.”

“That’s the beauty of it. Nobody understands. Nobody can. It’s not meant for us to understand.” With a sweeping gesture, the old man indicates the woods. “Those mighty trees, you know, grow from the dust of men. Do you remember that book you read? After its creator wrote his goodbye and passed away, his spirit fled and his body rotted. It is not pretty but it is true. And the dust of his body seeped into the ground and became part of everything else. And the trees can only grow there because everything has given it its life. And without the trees there would be no birds to sing for the living.” He holds a hand to his ear. “Can you hear them singing?”

The Boy listens but hears nothing. “No. They’ve stopped because the sun is setting.”

“Indeed they have. But this is what many forget. That after night falls there is birdsong too. There are dusky night-birds that come from their places and fill the stars with a symphony that the birds of the day can only wonder at. The night-birds sit on the highest branches and quietly sing their songs to the universe. For while the singers are not eternal the song will last forever.”

The Boy’s heart swells with wonder at these words. His eyes reflect the fading sun as it nods at him in rosy peace. Only moments now before it disappears below the horizon. The hour is upon them. The world watches in reverence.

The old man sits again beside the Boy and wraps his cloak around the two of them to stave off the chill. He smiles at the Boy. “Are you still afraid, my son?”

The Boy regards the flaming horizon. “No, I guess not. I’m just worried that I won’t be me anymore.”

The old man’s beatific smile lights the sky. “No, my boy. You’ll be everything.”

Sunset flares goodbye, but the boy is no longer afraid. His eyes are filled with visions of things far away, of stars exploding and sending their tears of life out into the universe of creation. He speaks softly to the wizened figure beside him. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Oh, my boy, my boy. It isn’t bad at all.”

And silently the sun has fallen below the rim of the earth, and night steals over the world. When it comes to the old man and the innocent Boy sitting together on the ruined wall it pauses a moment in reverence. Then it sweeps over them like the warmest and most comforting of blankets and they become part of the whole. And with a flourish the stars flare overhead and the moons and planets resume their unfathomable dance. Across the world creeps the silence of eternity, but it is a profound silence. And the night-birds sing.