Soloist

It amazes me that our neighborhood, despite the hundreds of houses with barely any breathing room in between them, plus incessant construction clamor and commotion accompanied by all manner of vehicular machinery from dawn til dusk at least six days a week, is home to whole host of birdlife. In our yard alone, every year we enjoy the sights and songs of goldfinches, bluebirds, cardinals, and hummingbirds (one year we had a group of nine tiny fliers who frequented our honeysuckle plants!), as well as sparrows and wrens and finches and thrushes and robins. I’ve seen one solitary blue jay, also, and once in a while a mourning dove or two. I swear there was a flock of actual pigeons one day, including an elegant albino, hanging out in the stand of trees in our traffic circle, and Canada geese storm the streets most years, notoriously feasting on the grass seed put down in the park across the street one spring. Of course, we have the crows, and hawks circle from time to time, but the main character of this vignette is the mockingbird.

As late spring unfurled into summer this year, a mockingbird of considerable stature decided to spend most of his time perched on the topmost ridge on the eastern corner of our house’s gable roof, and from there he produced a stream of song that rarely abated. I named him Pavarotti, and he sang all season in loud, long strains, the clarified timbre of his notes tripping along to produce an almost aggressive music. His range and repertoire, marked by the unmistakeable sound of self-assuredness, as if he were convinced that his voice was the greatest gift to all who could hear, were impressive. And his stamina for spilling forth copious song goes unprecedented in my memory of mockingbirds past. He was animated, too: a true performer, constantly turning his head to regale all audience within range, long tail feathers moving with seemingly impassioned rhythm and expression.

Pavarotti rose with the sun those May days, chirping up my final quiet mornings of the kids’ school year while I sat inside at the computer almost directly below his shingled pulpit, punctuating my typing with his sampling of song that cycled through what must have been about a dozen different birdcalls. At first, I marveled at his tenacious audacity, his presumptuousness at consuming earshot by singing over all other birds, not to mention barreling cement mixers or the thunder of Monday morning garbage pickup. Then I felt just a twinge of perturbation at his utter disregard for my proclivity towards peace and quiet, his strident messages being delivered over and over in a broken record of languages I could appreciate but didn’t understand. And then it occurred to me that there was something sad about this too: the mockingbird’s song is only his as much as he can perfect the songs of other birds. I did some reading on the subject and learned that, though a mockingbird parrots verses of songs belonging to other species’, often with even more refined technique and style, perfect pitch and tone, never would another bird mistake his song for one of their own. It would be like Whitney Houston doing a cover of a Paris Hilton number: same notes, same words, but of a different quality completely.

Despite Pavarotti’s melodic prowess and ability to broadcast, despite his expertise at the craft of mimicry, he was only the author of his song insomuch as he could control the arrangement, the pattern of others’ songs. The only originality belonging to his music was the order in which he strung the strains of other songs together: an avian version of a mixtape, a mashup of borrowed art. I wondered if his bombastic bluster of sound and fury emanated from a place of creative frustration, that his only harmonic occupation was the polished, finely-tuned recapitulation of ancient refrains written in the nucleotides of other feathered friends. I thought of a pastor whose only recourse was reciting scripture to his congregation, a parent who spoke to her child in aphorism only, a writer who couldn’t think to begin and end a story with anything other than “once upon a time” and “happily ever after.” Sure, there’s something to be said for taking the old and making it new, but what if the thwarted artist wanted nothing more than authorship of something purely his own? What if the mockingbird yearned for the ability to sing an original song but had no language of his own, no tune of his own, to conjure one?

I know, I know. He’s a bird, not a human, and there’s every reason to believe he’s blithely happy to do the incontrovertible bidding of his instinct, which is to repeat what he hears, just a town crier proud to make his report. These are purely human projections; surely no mockingbird has ever bemoaned his inability to compose. But just in case, I cranked a crack in the kitchen window so Pavarotti’s display of virtuosity would be better audible, a small, mostly emblematic way to say to him and all others who crave listeners for their voices: I hear you.

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