The Nightingale of St. Petersburg

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Chapters 8-9

Chapter 8

That night I sat and pondered the mystery voice. Maybe I was hearing things that weren’t really there; perhaps this voice didn’t really exist after all, could it be I had made her up? I knew if I told Martha Ivanovna about it, she would surely think I was losing my mind. Maybe even I would believe I was losing my mind if she had remained nothing more than a voice singing in the streets at night. But I had gone to her home, I had found her room and I had conversed with her; I felt her presence every time I was with her. It’s hard to explain this, but we blind people can feel if there is a person in the room. We can feel their distance from us, we can feel their bodily presence and I certainly felt that someone else was in those four walls with me. The problem was, even though I could felt her as a presence, I had nothing physical to tie her down too. I had no idea  who she really was and I couldn’t get her to allow me to find out. I was dying to discover what she looked like, but because she always kept her distance from me, and there was no way for me to feel her.

I know this may sound strange, a man wanting to touch a woman, but a blind person can only see through touch. I just wanted to hold her hand, touch her face, make a mental picture of what she looked like. But even if she just tell me her name, given me her identity I would be happy. At least  I could be sure she was in fact something physical, something of this world. Besides the mystery of her identity, there were other things that didn't make sense about her. For example, why was she up there in that room? And what did she mean when she had told me that her wings had been clipped? Was her room really a cage, did she really have wings; was she really a bird, or a half bird perhaps?

Nothing she told me about herself made any sense and I had a funny feeling that she was doing that on purpose; but for what purpose I couldn’t understand.

Yet, despite all the secrecy, and mystery and lack of logic to her existance, I found that I could not stay away from her. I suppose it would be foolish for me to confess that I had fallen in love with the voice, but I had. I of course, didn't tell anyone about this, because confessing that you have fallen in love with a voice that calls herself a nightingale would make me sound like a raving lunatic. Maybe I was a lunatic, or becoming one, perhaps she had placed a spell on me, I don't know. All I do know is that all too soon tthe only thing I looked forward to was that one hour with my mysterious nightingale.

Margarita Vladimirovna was getting frailer and frailer and mroe often than not she would drift off to sleep while I was playing for her, giving me the freedom to go and converse with my nightingale. The hour always consisted of us simply talking to each other and we talked about many things. We spoke about my humble childhood, about my time in the musical conservatory and of the death of my father. About how I had struggled for a long time, living as a beggar with hardly any food and how I had at last managed to secure a job at the public ball house. We spoke of how I had met Martha Ivanovna, how we now lived together as mother and son and took care of each another. We talked about music and songs, and I found out that all the songs she sang were written by her. Perhaps that was why they all had a tint of this sadness in them, like the rustle of the birch tree when the wind blows.

We spoke of poetry and literature and I quickly discovered that this nightingale was a well educated nightingale who had read a great many books  Since I could not read I was always very interested when she would relate to me all the books she had read and give me her opinion of them.

We often discussed our country and the city of St. Petersburg, we spoke of the Emperor, we spoke of society; we discussed the rich and the poor. So many subjects we covered and I never got closer to knowing anything about her than when I had first met her. I have to admit, that hour with her was the crowning moment of my day.

Similarly, those moments at night when she would sing where the highlights of my night. Passing by her window at night and hearing her sing became my routine, something I was sure I could not live without.  Just the sound of her voice made me glad and I learned not to mind not knowing anything about her. Honestly, if time and money would allow I could have listened to her voice all day long till the end of time.

And then one day it all changed!

Chapter 9

The incident that changed everything was in itself very sad. It was the death of Margarita Vladimirovna. I was most unfortunate to be present. She had been feeling worse and worse and her son, whose name I never did catch, often wondered if perhaps I was tiring her by coming over every day. But this dear woman would never allow one day to pass without me coming to play for her. She never let anyone else play; no other musician would suit her and she made me promise I would not allow anyone else to talk me into not coming.

She really need not have worried; I certainly was not planning on leaving. After all, I was paid to come and play for her and I always need a little extra money, not to mention she was the one reason that got me into the house where my nightingale lived.

Margarita Vladimirovna was a very kind woman, she always made sure they would feed me lunch before I would leave the house. When she was strong enough, she would converse with me a little, asking about how my life was. She had become concerned about a cough that had settled in my chest, but I told her not to fear. It was autumn now and the weather was damp, so it was natural to catch a cough.

Yes, she had been a dear woman and I knew her son loved her very much, I could tell from the gentle tone of voice that he had whenever he spoke to her. His voice was filled with love and respect and care. It was truly wonderful to hear him talking to his mother, and I always enjoyed little snatches of their conversations I would sometimes be privileged to hear.

A few times she talked to me about the voice that sang to her in her dreams. My theory was that Margarita Vladimirovna heard the singing right before she fell asleep and thought it was her dream. Seeing as she was not at all good at explaining exactly how she heard the singing I considered this theory a pretty valid one. She often told me it was the most beautiful voice on earth, and while I whole heartily agreed with her I never once told her that I too heard the voice and that I knew where the voice lived. I allowed her to think it all a dream; it would be easier for her that way.

It was closer to the middle of October when this dear lady passed away. I was sitting and playing for her and when I finished playing a particular song and carefully listened. Nothing but silence surrounded me. I rose and was just about to go upstairs and visit my nightingale when I paused. There was something wrong about the silence. I couldn’t quite place my finger on what was wrong, but something certainly wasn't right. I felt my way over to where Margarita Vladimirovna lay and listened carefully. Nothing, nothing at all. Reaching out, I gently took hold of her hand, it was cold, ice cold.

There is something unpleasant about touching death. I can’t describe it, you have to experience it for yourself. I could not see her, but I knew, from that one touch of her hand that she was gone. I reached out and touched her face. Her features felt peaceful however and I traced a smile on her lips. She had died calmly in her sleep. Her breathing had stopped and this is what had told me that something wasn't quite the way it should be. Margarita Vladimirovna was a loud breather, and I could usually hear her sleeping. I suppose if you are not blind, you will not understand.

I sat down at the edge of the sofa and wondered what to do. Getting up, I placed a gentle kiss on the kind woman’s forehead and then felt for the bell that knew to be by her side and rang it. A moment later I heard the door open and a young girl’s voiced softly called, “is the good lady asleep?”

I shook my head. “Call the master, and inform him that his mother is dead.”

There as a gasp and I heard the girl running closer to us.

“It is true?” Her voice was right beside me. “Oh, the master will be heartbroken, he loved her so dearly. Oh sir, do you know how it happened?”

“In her sleep, I am guessing,” I replied. “I was playing music for her and then I finished and hearing nothing thought her to be asleep. I reached for her hand and it was cold, and I realized that she was gone.” 

I heard a sob come from the maid’s throat. “Oh dear Margarita Vladimirovna, dearest mistress, how sad we are to have you gone. What shall I tell you son? Oh, how on earth will I be able to tell him such news?” She had turned her question towards me, I guessed as much because she had grabbed my hand.

“If you want, I can tell him, but you will have to lead me to him as I do not know where to find him.”

“No, no, I’ll tell him,” she softly said and I heard her leave the room. I went and sat by the piano, not knowing where else to go. I had concluded quite quickly that today I would not be able to visit my nightingale. Soon I heard the door open and the hurried sound of footsteps. There were many voices, the doctor was summoned for, and the priest was called. There were sobs and broken tones. I was asked again and again by different people how it happened and repeated my story over and over. At last I mentioned that I had to get to work or I would be late and I might be sent away. I was put in a carriage and taken back to my home. For a whole day I heard nothing.  Then on the second day a carriage arrived at my little home and a man entered and told me that I had been invited for the funeral of the dear woman. Of course I agreed to come, and I took Martha Ivanovna with me. I wanted to show her the woman who had been so kind to help support us.

The funeral was a sad affair and I will not elaborate on it. After the service and pominki*, Margarita Vladimirovna's son pressed ten rubles into my hand, thanked me in a broken voice for the kind services I had given his mother and with that we parted ways. I was silent the entire way back home as the full truth suddenly dawned on me. This woman’s death had taken more from me than just an extra money source; it had taken away from me the chance to visit my nightingale. That door to her room was now closed to me for good. The only way to her from now on was as it had been in the very beginning, standing under her window at night. This was quite a distressing thought to me; I could no longer imagine a day without my nightingale. I wondered if she would miss me as much as I would miss her. That night the ball seemed to drag out much longer than usual. On a normal basis, I usually didn’t mind working long and late into the night. I felt good that I my small part was helping people be merry and glad and enjoy one another’s company. This night however everything annoyed me and I just wanted to leave. At last it was all finished and I made my way to the street where she lived. Her song this evening seemed a little sadder than usual, and while being as gentle as it had always been it was at the same time very melancholy.  The song and the way she sang it made me feel as though my heart would break.

The next day, all I wanted was stand under her window so she would know that I had not forgotten her, but I was afraid. After all, that household was experiencing grief and they may think my hanging around there a great offence. So I waited, and waited. I believe that day was the longest day of my life. At last the balls were over and I could go to her, but, as I approached the spot, I noticed her voice was gone. Silence was the only thing that surrounded me, complete silence. I stood for a long time, waiting. At last I went home.

What had happened to my nightingale, why had she ceased to sing her songs? The question haunted me the next day, and the next and the next. For an entire week I came to her house and listened, but the song and the owner were no more. The October wind would howl, the trees would creak, but her song was gone for good. At last I gave up.

Where could she have gone? Why did she leave? I wanted to search for her, but I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t know anything about her. It was as though she had never even existed, like she had evaporated into thin air.

What was worse apart from her memory and the memory of her songs, I had nothing with which to remember her. Martha Ivanovna noticed my downcast mood and tried to understand what had happened to me. Was it my cough that refused to go away? Was I not feeling well? I couldn’t have told her even if I had wanted too. How would I explain it? I had heard a voice, befriended it, managed to fall in love with it and now it was gone. How crazy did that sound? She would think that I had really lost my mind.

The thought did occur that perhaps I could visit the house and ask, but what would they think of me? They would probably conclude I had lost my mind as well. My only option was to keep it to myself, along with all the questions that burned in my head. Did the death of Margarita Vladimirovna kill the songs too? Was the voice somehow connected with the old woman? Had Margarita Vladimirovna somehow managed to make the voice come to life and with her death killed it? Perhaps she really had been a bird and while the old lady was alive she had been able to speak and now that she was gone she had become a normal bird again. These and even crazier suppositions passed through my head until I began to truly fear that I would really go crazy. My only resort to keep my sanity was to write down all that had transpired in the past four months, to somehow get it out of me.

Being unable to write myself, I asked my friend and fellow musician, Nicholai Abramov if he would find time to write while I narrated. He agreed. For the past week I have made the journey to his little room to relate to him all that happened while he penned it all down.

But now the story has come to its end, and there are still no clues, no hints, nothing but mystery and unanswered questions. Nothing in this story makes sense, even Koyla agrees with me on that.

Perhaps I imagined the whole thing after all, or perhaps some imp decided to play tricks on me. I should go to church and take communion…but that would mean confessing everything to the priest! I promised I would not tell a soul about her and I’ve broken that promise once with Koyla, dare I break it again? Perhaps I will confess, perhaps I won't, I still haven't decided on that. What I have decided is that I will bind the papers containing this strange tale and hide them from the seeing eyes. Kolya has been sworn to secrecy, he will not retell my story to a single soul. The nightingale no longer sings, this I know for certain. Did she sing once, did she exist before, was she something real or simply a figment of my imagination; that I cannot say. I must not dwell much longer on the subject, or I fear it will drive me mad!

This is the end of the story as I know it, as I have lived it.

End of Part I


*Pominki is where you get together after the funeral service to eat and remember the deceased.

This may be the end of part one, but it is not the end of the story, tune in as we begin to unravel the mystery of the Nightingale :)

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