The Language of the Birds

By Verra de Blumenthal

Illustrated by Lucy Fitch Perkins

Somewhere in a town in holy Russia, there lived a rich merchant with his wife. He had an only son, a dear, bright, and brave boy called Ivan. One lovely day Ivan sat at the dinner table with his parents. Near the window in the same room hung a cage, and a nightingale, a sweet-voiced, gray bird, was imprisoned within. The sweet nightingale began to sing its wonderful song with trills and high silvery tones. The merchant listened and listened to the song and said:

“How I wish I could understand the meaning of the different songs of all the birds! I would give half my wealth to the man, if only there were such a man, who could make plain to me all the different songs of the different birds.”

The Language of the Birds, illustration by Lucy Fitch Perkins

Ivan took notice of these words and no matter where he went, no matter where he was, no matter what he did, he always thought of how he could learn the language of the birds.

Some time after this the merchant’s son happened to be hunting in a forest. The winds rose, the sky became clouded, the lightning flashed, the thunder roared loudly, and the rain fell in torrents. Ivan soon came near a large tree and saw a big nest in the branches. Four small birds were in the nest; they were quite alone, and neither father nor mother was there to protect them from the cold and wet. The good Ivan pitied them, climbed the tree and covered the little ones with his kaftan, a long-skirted coat which the Russian peasants and merchants usually wear. The thunderstorm passed by and a big bird came flying and sat down on a branch near the nest and spoke very kindly to Ivan.

“Ivan, I thank thee; thou hast protected my little children from the cold and rain and I wish to do something for thee. Tell me what thou dost wish.”

Ivan answered: “I am not in need; I have everything for my comfort. But teach me the birds’ language.”

“Stay with me three days and thou shalt know all about it.”

Ivan remained in the forest three days. He understood well the teaching of the big bird and returned home more clever than before. One beautiful day soon after this Ivan sat with his parents when the nightingale was singing in his cage. His song was so sad, however, so very sad, that the merchant and his wife also became sad, and their son, their good Ivan, who listened very attentively, was even more affected, and the tears came running down his cheeks.

“What is the matter?” asked his parents; “what art thou weeping about, dear son?”

“Dear parents,” answered the son, “it is because I understand the meaning of the nightingale’s song, and because this meaning is so sad for all of us.”

“What then is the meaning? Tell us the whole truth; do not hide it from us,” said the father and mother.

“Oh, how sad it sounds!” replied the son. “How much better would it be never to have been born!”

“Do not frighten us,” said the parents, alarmed. “If thou dost really understand the meaning of the song, tell us at once.”

“Do you not hear for yourselves? The nightingale says: ‘The time will come when Ivan, the merchant’s son, shall become Ivan, the king’s son, and his own father shall serve him as a simple servant.’”

The merchant and his wife felt troubled and began to distrust their son, their good Ivan. So one night they gave him a drowsy drink, and when he had fallen asleep they took him to a boat on the wide sea, spread the white sails, and pushed the boat from the shore.

From Folk tales from the Russian, by Verra de Blumenthal.
Chicago, New York, London: Rand, McNally and Company, 1903.

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