“You don’t seriously mean-?”

“I’ve been out of work for a year. I quit my computers, retired early, I’m only forty-nine, and have been threatening to knit macrame’ to give friends to spoil their walls, day after day. Which shall it be, friend, macrame’ or Mozart?”

“Are you Mozart?”

“Just his bastard son.”

“Nonsense,” cried Black, pointing his face like a blunderbuss at the trees as if he might blast the choir. “That tree, those birds, are a Rorschach test. Your subconscious is picking and choosing notes from pure chaos. There’s no discernible tune, no special rhythm. You had me fooled, but I see and hear it now: you’ve had a repressed desire since childhood to compose. And you’ve let a clutch of idiot birds grab you by the ears. Put down that pen!”

“Nonsense right back at you.” Fentriss laughed. “You’re jealous that after twelve layabout years, thunderstruck with boredom, one of us has found an occupation. I shall follow it. Listen and write, write and listen. Sit down, you’re obstructing the acoustics!”

“I’ll sit,” Black exclaimed, “but-“ He clapped his hands over his ears.

“Fair enough,” said Fentriss. “Escape fantastic reality while I change a few notes and finish out this unexpected birth.”

Glancing up at the tree, he whispered:

“Wait for me.”

The tree rustled its leaves and fell quiet.

“Crazy,” muttered Black.

One, two, three hours later, entering the library quietly and then loudly, Black cried out:

“What are you doing?”

Bent over his desk, his hand moving furiously, Fentriss said:

“Finishing a symphony!”

“The same one you began in the garden?”

“No, the birds began, the birds!”

“The birds, then.” Black edged closer to study the mad inscriptions. “How do you know what to do with that stuff?”

“They did most. I’ve added variations!”

“An arrogance the ornithologists will resent and attack. Have you composed before?”

“Not” -Fentriss let his fingers roam, loop, and scratch-“until today!”

“You realize, of course, you’re plagiarizing those songbirds?”

“Borrowing, Black, borrowing. If a milkmaid, singing at dawn, can have her hum borrowed by Berlioz, well! Or if Dvorak, hearing a Dixie banjo plucker pluck ‘Goin’ Home,’ steals the banjo to eke out his New World, why can’t I weave a net to catch a tune? There! Finito. Done! Give us a title, Black!”

“I? Who sings off-key?”

“What about ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’?”


“’The Birds’?”


“Damn. How’s this: ‘It’s Only John Cage in a Gilded Bird’?”

“Brilliant. But no one knows who John Cage was.”

“Well, then, I’ve got it!” And he wrote:

“’Forty-seven Magpies Baked in a Pie.’

“Blackbirds, you mean; go back to John Cage.”

“Bosh!” Fentriss stabbed the phone. “Hello, Willie? Could you come over? Yes, a small job. Symphonic arrangement for a friend, or friends. What’s your usual Philharmonic fee? Eh? Good enough. Tonight!”

Fentriss disconnected and turned to gaze at the tree with wonder in it.

“What next?” he murmured.

“Forty-seven Magpies,” with title shortened, premiered at the Glendale Chamber Symphony a month later with standing ovations, incredible reviews.

Fentriss, outside his skin with joy, prepared to launch himself atop large, small, symphonic, operatic, whatever fell on his ears. He had listened to the strange choirs each day for weeks, but bad noted nothing, waiting to see if the “Magpie” experiment was to be repeated. When the applause rose in storms and the critics hopped when they weren’t skipping, he knew he must strike again before the epilepsy ceased.

There followed: “Wings,”


“Night Chorus,”

“The Fledgling Madrigals,” and “Dawn Patrol,” each greeted by new thunderstorms of acclamation and critics angry at excellence but forced to praise.

“By now,” said Fentriss, “I should be unbearable to live with, but the birds caution modesty.”

“Also,” said Black, seated under the tree, waiting for a sprig of benison and the merest touch of symphonic manna, “shut up! If all those sly dimwit composers, who will soon be lurking in the bushes, cop your secret, you’re a gone poacher.”

“Poacher! By God, yes!” Fentriss laughed. “Poacher.”

And damn if the first poacher didn’t arrive!

Glancing out at tree in the morning, Fentriss witnessed a runty shadow stretching up, handheld tape recorder poised, warbling and whistling softly at the tree. when this failed, the half-seen poacher tried dove-coos and then orioles and roosters, half dancing in a circle.

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray