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The Scream of Nightingales

The square is one of my favorite haunts. It has changed over the years. Once it was a venue for shabby intellectuals such as myself. Time happens; change happens. Today it is upscale, pandering to the corporate intelligentsia who crave sanitized old world culture. I do not care. The shops I frequent remain. If the bookstores have more glitter, still they sell books. And the sidewalk cafes have proliferated like mushrooms after a rain.

There is a class of people who must talk to strangers. It is a blessing and a curse that I am a magnet for such, a curse because they are so often bores, and a blessing because it sometimes chances that they are windows into the curious and strange. The square is one of the places where such people gather.

It happened on a fine spring evening. The sun was preparing to set. The day had been warm. The cooling air promised the spice of a chill night. A poet accosted me.

I had thought he was a beggar or perhaps a religious fanatic with tracts and messages to dispense. Certainly he was shabby enough to be a beggar. There was nothing in that. They all want money; either that or they want to save your soul. Money is cheaper and the better bargain.

As I say, he was shabby and, to be honest, he smelled. His breath was vile and his eyes were bright with some obsession. Lord knows when he last bathed.

He plucked at me and I shook him off. By that I knew he was not a professional. The constabulary has its rules; beggars may plead but they may not touch. The merchants insist that their valuable clientele be given their wonted atmosphere but not be alarmed. The beggars do well here (I have often thought of acquiring rags and taking up the profession myself - it would be more honest and more lucrative than my current occupation) and are careful to respect the rules.

I heard him out. He did not ask for money. He had his pride. He wanted to read his poetry to me. I bade him nay, stepping back a bit for he truly did smell. He offered me a tattered manuscript, a few pages of handwritten verse on cheap paper. Freely he offered it.

I took it. He didn't ask for money but I gave him some. He demurred but I insisted. Truly, I do not think he cared. He had found an audience, a reader for his verse. I had no great hopes for his production - he was but another madman - but it was an event out of the ordinary and that sufficed for me.

I went my way. I stopped at a shop, one where I was known, and made a purchase of a delicate nature. Satisfied, I wandered a bit to survey the crowd and then settled in at a sidewalk cafe to read my paper.

I read my paper and sipped my coffee. Paper read, I meant to peruse a rare volume that I had come across. As I began to extract the volume I uncovered the manuscript and thought to myself that I would read my little poetry purchase instead.

It was odd. There was a title line, Homage To Keats, but the poet had neglected to inscribe his name. I read. It was not easy; his handwriting was none of the best. My God, the man was a genius.

He had taken as his theme, Ode to a nightingale. It was not a simple poem; it was a cry of despair at what our world had become, a world of plastic and machines, a world in which nightingales no longer sang - they screamed.

I read. I cried. I said to myself, this must not be. I must find this man. Beneath the shabby clothes, the bright eyes, and the unwashed reek is one of the great poetic geniuses of our time. I paid off my bill and rushed off into the square in search of him. I went to and fro, coursing the square. I found him not, not then, not ever again.

I returned to my digs and considered the matter. Clearly the poem should be published. It deserved to be. I had connections. It could be. And then I was tempted.

No one knew of this mad genius, this passing garret poet of the square. I write verse - not well, perhaps - but I am vain enough to think it has some merit and wise enough to know that it has little. It occurred to me that I could publish this under my own name and no one would be the wiser. My reputation would be made. It was not an honest thought but I saw that it could be done.

In the end I did not. Perhaps it was a vestige of honesty, perhaps it was the fear of being caught. It matters not. I would not yield to temptation. But what should I do? As long as I held this bit of mad beauty I would be tempted.

I resolved to burn it. You may say, as I said to myself, this is a work of rare beauty. It may well have been the finest poem written in this century. So what. It is the nature of beauty to bloom and die. In some remote valley the most beautiful flower that ever grew bloomed, cast its scent into the air, wilted and died, unseen by anyone.

I laid a fire in the fireplace and threw the pages into the flames. As the pages curled and browned, gone forever, I thought I heard the scream of nightingales.


The Shoe Salesman is a sequel to this story.

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This page was last updated June 5, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter