The Nightingale

Read by Lisa DiSimone

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"The Nightingale" by Hans Christian Andersen

Once upon a time in China, there was a great emperor who lived in the most beautiful palace in the world. In the forest just beyond the garden gate, there lived a nightingale who sang the loveliest songs. Travelers from every country in the world came to admire the emperor's palace and gardens, but what they all loved best was the nightingale. On their return home, the travelers told of what they had seen, and some even wrote books about it.

These books soon traveled all over the world, and eventually ended up in the hands of the emperor. He sat in his golden chair and read, pleased to find such beautiful descriptions of his palace. But when he read that the nightingale was the most beautiful of all, he was confused.

"I know nothing of any nightingale," he said. "Is there such a bird in my empire?"

He instructed his noblemen to find the nightingale, so that she may appear at court that very evening. They searched through all of the halls and passages, but couldn't find the bird.

"The book might be fiction," they told the emperor. "You can't believe everything you read."

"The book was sent to me by the great emperor of Japan, so it must be true," he said.

The noblemen set out again to find the bird, and they finally met a young maid in the kitchen who said she knew of it. "She lives by the sea shore," she told them. "And every night on my way home, I sit down in the woods to rest and listen to her song."

She led them through the woods, and they soon found a little gray bird perched on a branch. The noblemen were surprised by how plain and simple she looked.

"Little nightingale," they said. "We have the pleasure of inviting you to sing before the emperor this evening at his palace."

"My song sounds best in the woods," said the bird, but she still came willingly when she heard it was the emperor's wish. The palace was elegantly decorated for the occasion, with beautiful flowers and lamps. A golden perch had been fixed for the nightingale to sit on, and the whole court was there to hear her sing. The nightingale's song was so sweet that it touched everyone's heart, and tears came to the emperor's eyes.

The emperor was so delighted that he wanted to give the nightingale a golden slipper to wear around her neck. But she told him she'd been rewarded enough already. "I have seen tears in an emperor's eyes," she said. "That is my richest reward."

The nightingale's visit was so successful, that the emperor ordered that she remain in court. She would have her own cage and twelve servants to attend to her, and would be able to fly twice a day as long as she kept a silken string fastened to her leg.

One day, the emperor received another package from the emperor of Japan. It was an artificial nightingale made to look like a living one, and was covered with diamonds and rubies. As soon as it was wound up, the artificial bird could sing like a real one. It was so pretty to look at, and could sing the same song dozens of times without getting tired. But when the emperor turned to show the real nightingale, she was gone. No one had noticed as she flew out the open window and back out into the woods.

"How strange," said the emperor. "But we still have the best bird of all, even better than the real one."

The real nightingale was banished from the empire, and the artificial one placed on a silk cushion near the emperor's bed. The whole court was enthralled with the fake bird, which sang again and again for them, the exact same song every time. Only a poor fisherman, who had often heard the real nightingale, said, "It sounds pretty enough, but there's something missing."

A year passed, and soon, the whole royal court knew the artificial bird's song by heart. But one evening, the emperor was lying in bed listening to it, when something inside the bird made a whizzing sound. A spring had cracked, and the music stopped. The emperor called for his doctor, but what could he do? They sent for a watchmaker, and after a great deal of examination, the bird was repaired. But he said it must be used carefully, for the springs were worn, and it would be impossible to replace them. Now, there was great sorrow, for the bird could only be played once a year.

Five more years passed, and the emperor became very sick. He was not expected to live long, and a new emperor had already been chosen to replace him. He lay cold and pale in the royal bed, and all was silent and still. A window stood open and the moon shone in on the emperor and the artificial bird. The poor emperor could hardly breathe, and when he opened his eyes, he saw Death sitting there, wearing the emperor's gold crown and holding his sword in one hand and his beautiful banner in the other.

The emperor cried desperately for music, anything not to hear Death's words spoken aloud, but the artificial bird refused to sing.

"I've given you gold and costly presents," the emperor cried. "I've hung a gold slipper around your neck. Now sing! Sing!" But the bird remained silent. There was no one to wind it up, and so it could not sing a note.

Death continued to stare at the emperor with his cold, hollow eyes. Suddenly, there came through the open window the sound of sweet music. Outside on the branch of a tree, sat the living nightingale. She'd heard of the emperor's illness, and came to sing to him. And as she sang, the shadows grew paler, and the blood in the emperor's veins gave life to his weak limbs. Even Death himself was listening. "Go on, little nightingale," said Death. "Go on and sing."

"Then you'll give me the emperor's crown? And the golden sword and banner?" said the bird.

So Death gave up each of these treasures for a song, and the nightingale continued her singing. She sang of a quiet churchyard where white roses grow, and Death began to long to see his garden. He floated out through the window in a cold, white mist.

"Thank you, little bird," said the emperor. "I banished you from my kingdom once, and yet you charmed Death away from my bed, and banished him from my heart with your sweet song. How can I reward you?"

"You have already rewarded me," said the nightingale. "I'll never forget how I drew tears from your eyes the first time I sang to you. These are the jewels that delight a singer's heart. I'll gladly sing to you again."

And as she sang, the emperor fell into a sweet sleep, and when he awoke, he was strengthened and restored. The sun shone brightly through his window, and the nightingale still sat beside him.

"You must always remain with me," said the emperor. "You can sing only when it pleases you, and I'll break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces."

"Don't do that," replied the nightingale. "The bird did very well as long as it could. And I can't live in the palace, but I'll sit on the branch outside your window, and sing to you in the evenings so that you may be happy. I love your heart more than I love your crown, and so I'll come to sing to you always."