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Fall 2009

The Mystery of the Four Birds

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Bernardo Atxaga

It was a very short song, and the birds that were mentioned, four in number, were only small; but the secret the song concealed, the clear meaning it contained for anyone able to see beyond its absurd surface, had a great deal to do with what we term the “major themes.” The song was a traditional song and widely known, sung over and over by generations of Basque children, and it went like this:

Txantxangorria txantxate,
Birigarroa alkate,
Xoxoa dela meriante,
Txepetxa preso sartu dute.

Which means:

The robin sings his song,
The song thrush is the jailer,
And, with the blackbird’s help,
They’ve put the poor wren in prison.

It obviously wasn’t pure nonsense, nor was it a folk version of some English limerick, since, albeit obscure, it did make some kind of sense. But the idea that a bird—the poor wren—should have ended up in prison on the orders of the authorities—the song thrush—and to the great delight of Robin Redbreast, was not much help in gaining an overall understanding of the story, nor did it answer the fundamental question: what had gone on between the robin and the wren? Or to put it another way: why was one so overjoyed at the other’s misfortune?

All of us are detectives at heart and all of us—whether by instinct or education I don’t know—enjoy following the trail of whatever “cases” life presents us with; and that, by asking a few questions here and there, was what I began to do. I found out that there was indeed a relationship between the two birds or, even better, a shared characteristic. A former schoolfriend, now a professional ornithologist, told me:

“They’re both very sociable birds, and you certainly can’t say of them as Sarrionandia does in one of his poems: ‘they always fly away from us.’ The robin and the wren do exactly the opposite. You often see them near houses or following someone who’s out for a walk.”

“And what about their size? They’re both very small, aren’t they?”

“Well, everything’s relative,” sighed my friend, making me lose my detective-like composure which I had, until then, managed to maintain. I was beginning to get agitated.

“Only the wren is what you’d call small,” said my friend, after a silence. “Remember that song by Otaño that says: ‘euskal lurreko txorietan txikitxuena da bera,’ ‘of all the birds in the Basque Country, the wren is the smallest by far,’ or what Emily Dickinson wrote about herself: ‘I am small, like the wren.’”

As you can see from his answers, my friend the ornithologist was a keen reader. He had a book with him on that occasion too, and I realized that he wanted to stop talking and get back to his reading.

“I’m deep in this book by Robert Graves at the moment, The White Goddess,” he said, after another silence, confirming my suspicions and prompting my departure.

I had found a connection, a thread I could pull on and reveal the whole story; the difficulty was getting a firm grasp on the end of that thread. I decided to go to Obaba and consult people who were used to living amongst birds.

“All I know about the robin is that it’s a holy bird and that you mustn’t kill it,” a carpenter told me, continuing his hammering. “They say it was the robin that plucked out the thorns from Christ’s forehead and that’s why its breast is red, because it got stained with the blood of Our Saviour. Not that I believe that, mind. I don’t really believe anything any more. The way things are going nowadays…”

“Yes, I know what you mean,” I said, interrupting him. I wasn’t particularly interested in his worldview just at that moment. After all, I was a detective. I was only interested in my investigation.

“Can you just tell me something?” I went on. “What connection is there between the robin and the wren?”

“None,” he said bluntly. “One you see nearly all the time, the other almost never. It only arrives with the cold weather.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see the wren all year through, and it only disappears when it gets really cold, usually in December. With the robin, it’s the other way round: it only turns up when there’s snow on the ground, shortly before Christmas. Like certain other people I could mention.”

I ignored the remark and summarized what he had just told me.

“Now, if I’ve understood you right, that means that the robin appears precisely when the wren disappears.”

“That’s what always happens. Some come and others go. I’m about ready to go myself. I’m pretty much past it now and…”

I listened to his complaints and his gloomy predictions for a good long while. It was the least I could do for a man who had set me on the right track. Now I had something to go on. The contrasting behavior of the two birds and the disparity of the situations referred to in the song—the joy of the robin, the imprisonment of the wren—must be connected. They had to be.

I left Obaba and I thought about it all for a couple of days. Then I picked up my notebook and I wrote a poem in the form of a haiku:

I hear the robin.
The poor wren has disappeared.
Another year gone.

I was still not satisfied. It was true that the whole thing seemed related to the theme of Time, but, in that case, why four birds when apparently only two were needed? When people stopped seeing the wren, that was a sign that a year had passed. And if, at about the same time, the robin reappeared, then that was a guarantee that the sign was correct and not mere coincidence.

The question was: what role did the blackbird and the song thrush play in all this?

I wasn’t the one who came up with a solution, at least not on my own. My friend the ornithologist helped me.

“Can you come over?” he said on the phone. “I’ve just finished that book by Robert Graves and I’ve got something to tell you.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Graves mentions birds too.”

I caught a taxi to my friend’s house. I listened to his explanations with my detective’s heart tight with excitement.

“Graves says that, at the end of the year, the ancients used to put a wren in a kind of glass urn and then sacrifice it. However, on that same day, they did exactly the opposite with a robin: they carried it to an altar and then released it. So, the wren symbolizes the year that is about to die and the robin, the year to come, the new year.”

“I thought as much,” I said. “The new year kills the old.”

“Just as the robin kills the wren. That’s why it has a red breast. It’s stained with the blood of its rival.”

“The carpenter in Obaba has another theory. About the stain, I mean.”

We sat for a while in silence. I was thinking about the remaining loose ends.

“As for the traditional song, it seems pretty clear to me,” said my friend, guessing what was in my mind. “We know that the theme is time, or rather, the year. Now, how many seasons are there in the year?”


“And how many birds are there in the song?”

“Four,” I said again.

“Do you still not get it?”

“I think I do,” I said. I may have been a detective, but I was no Hercule Poirot.

“Of course, you do,” said my friend, smiling. “Put another way, what the poem is basically saying is this: ‘You’ve seen the wren, you’ve seen the song thrush, you’ve seen the blackbird, you’ve seen the robin: four seasons have passed, a year has passed.’”

“Oh, I see.”

“On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss a possible second reading,” my friend went on, somewhat emboldened. “The song could be a definition of Time with a capital T. ‘What is Time?’ we ask. And the song, which is very repetitive, answers: ‘Time is something that has no end, like me, a repetitive song, or like a wheel that turns. But that repetitive song or wheel has four different parts, the robin, the song thrush…’?”

An hour later, after listening to my ornithologist friend’s further lucubrations, I got back to my apartment. It was night and the neon lights on the building opposite blinked in the darkness. I took a bottle of Glenfiddich out of my desk drawer and settled down to celebrate a successful end to the case. I had just poured myself a drink, when the phone rang, and a soft, female voice, etc., etc.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Bernardo Atxaga is a Basque writer whose most recent novel is The Accordionist’s Son. His translator, Margaret Jull Costa, has won several major prizes for her translation of Eça de Queiross The Maias.

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