Once there was a baby boy named Chairon who was born into a family so large that even his parents were not sure how many children they had. There were children old enough to go and find their own way in the world, and children old enough to run the family vineyard, and children old enough to care for the smaller children, and children like Chairon who were too young to do much of anything, and soon, as Chairon grew, there were children who were even younger still. Among all these children, Chairon was not very remarkable. He was neither particularly beautiful nor particularly ugly. He had the same plain brown eyes and the same plain brown hair and the same plain broad face as the rest of his many siblings. He was dressed in the used clothes of his older brothers, and he passed these same clothes on to his younger brothers in turn, so there was not much to distinguish him from the rest of his family, except for his peculiar love of singing.
Now, there perhaps is nothing so very peculiar about loving to sing, but Chairon loved to sing to a peculiar degree. As an infant he cooed and gurgled at his mother’s breast as none of her other children had ever done, and as a toddler he began singing gibberish even before he could properly speak, and as a child he seemed always to be singing, day or night, at home or in the street, by himself or in the midst of a crowd. He loved to sing, and he loved to hear others sing, and he loved most of all to sing with others, so he eagerly joined the hymns at church and the carols at Christmas and the nursery rhymes on the playground.
The problem was that Chairon had the worst voice that anyone had ever heard. It was strained and shrill, and it was always cracking and breaking, and it was never on key, and it was continually out of rhythm. Even his mother and father, who seemed to have love enough to spare for all their many children, could never bear to hear Chairon sing for very long, and the whole family seemed forever to be telling him, as politely as they could, to please stop singing. Others in their little town were not nearly so polite. The other children began chasing Chairon away whenever he sang, but when that failed to stop him, they teased him in the most horrible ways and even threw rocks at him if he dared so much as open his mouth. Although Chairon was allowed to come to church on Sundays and to walk with the carollers at Christmas and even sometimes to sit with the children as they sang their nursery rhymes, he was never allowed to sing along, though this is what he wanted most in the world.
Things went on like this until Chairon at last turned seven years old. This was considered a very important age in his village, and his family held a special birthday party in his honour. They prepared all his favourite foods, and they organized all his favourite games and songs, and they invited almost everyone in town to the party. Chairon had never been so happy, and though he wanted very much to join in the singing, he remembered that the others would only laugh at him, so he kept quiet and contented himself with hearing the voices of the townspeople. When it came time to sing the birthday song, however, Chairon was so excited that he could no longer help himself from singing. He began as quietly as he could, but he grew louder and louder as he became lost in the music, until at last he was singing as loudly as he could, and everyone else had grown quiet to hold their ears against his noise.
At last Chairon stopped, and all the other children began to laugh at him, and some even threw bits of food. Their parents quickly put an end to this, and none of the older people said anything to hurt his feelings on such an important birthday, but Chairon knew that his voice had once again shamed him in front of everyone, and he could no longer bear to be near them. He ran from the house and into the fields of the vineyard, and though his parents called after him, he kept straight on until he reached the ridge that ran along one side of the village, and then he began to climb.
He had often climbed on the ridge before, though he had not dared to go very high. Some of the children boasted that they had climbed all the way to its top, some hundreds of feet, but Chairon had never seen anyone reach higher than fifty or so, because the face of the ridge was very sheer in places, more a cliff than a ridge despite what the villagers called it. Chairon, however, sad and angry and ashamed as he was, determined now that he would climb to the very summit, though he was not himself quite sure what there was to be gained in so doing, and though he knew very well that he was as likely as not to fall and die in the attempt.
All that afternoon he climbed. The cliff face was cut by ledges here and there, so he could sometimes stop and rest and sometimes work his way in one direction or another to find easier places to climb. In this way he reached a height of a hundred feet or more before evening began to fall, and it was then that he stumbled on something like a path that cut back and forth across the cliff face in some places and ran upwards with rough steps in others. Chairon went quite quickly now, more than doubling his height in only a short time, until the trail stopped abruptly in a small hollow. It was walled on three sides by rocks that were far too sheer to climb, and the fourth side looked out over the small town and the sea beyond it and the setting sun beyond that.
Chairon could go no higher, not without descending to find another route, and he was too tired to go further anyway, so he sat himself on the edge of the hollow among the few grassy plants that had managed to grow there, and he looked out at the sunset. The air at that height was clear and cool, and everything was silent except for the sound of some songbirds drifting up from far below him, and Chairon sat thinking as he had never done before. For the first time in his young life he truly understood that he would never be able to do the thing that he loved most, and for the first time also he felt the sadness that one only feels when a great love is disappointed. He began to cry to himself, and then he heard his own shrill voice cry out loudly into the still air of the evening, “Oh, if only I could sing, if only, if only,” and at that moment the sinking sun touched the curve of the distant sea, and a shaft of its light shone full in Chairon’s eyes, and there was the sound of flapping wings, and then the light was gone, and there was sitting at Chairon’s feet a most large and handsome nightingale. Its wings and back were the colour of rich caramel, and its breast was so grey that it might have been silver, and its eyes were large and black and bright.
“Chairon,” it said, and its voice was sweet and trilling and clear, “I am the attendant of the sun, and it is my duty each evening to sing the sun to its rest from this place, which is my pulpit.”
Chairon was so awed by the beauty of the creature and by the melody of its voice that he could say nothing.
“I heard you call to the sun,” said the nightingale “and I heard in your voice that your desire was true, and so I offer you my voice in exchange for your own, but on one condition, that you come to this very place each evening in my stead and sing to the sun as it sets.”
Chairon was still speechless, but at last he manged to nod, and instantly his mouth was opened and filled with the most beautiful sounds. The song that came from his own throat was so marvelous, so magnificent, so wonderful that he could hardly stand its beauty, and the colours of the sunset seemed to deepen and vibrate with his song. It was as if all the world was full of his singing, and he felt that he might sing forever, but at last the sun disappeared entirely beneath the horizon, and the song in him come to an end also, and he sank to his knees.
He realized then that the nightingale was perched on his shoulder. “Remember,” it croaked, its voice as broken now as Chairon’s had been only a few minutes before, a sound more proper to a raven than a nightingale, “you must come each evening without fail.”
“But how will I climb all this way each day,” Chairon asked. Though he was afraid to anger the bird, he was still more afraid of failing in his task. “I am not even able to return to my house now that it is dark.”
“You need not climb at all,” assured the nightingale in its croaking voice. “You must only wish yourself here or wish yourself home, and it will be so, but come you must. Let nothing keep you from your duty, for the great star is not an easy master.”
“I will not fail,” Chairon said, and he had never meant anything more truly in all his life. Then the nightingale launched itself into the night sky, and Chairon watched it fly as far as the thin moonlight would allow his eyes to see.
When Chairon returned home he told his parents everything that had happened. Everyone was as amazed by his story as they were by his beautiful new voice, and his parents told him that he should do whatever the nightingale had instructed, and so every evening he wished himself to the nightingale’s pulpit, and every evening he sang to the setting sun, and people from the village gathered to hear his strong, pure voice ringing out from the cliffs high above them. It seemed to them that the sunsets were more beautiful now than they had ever been, and the whole village stopped each evening to see the splendour of the sun setting to the sound of Chairon’s voice.
Suddenly Chairon was a favourite in the town. He was given all the best parts in the church choir, and he was always being asked to sing at weddings and birthdays and funerals. The village began to hold concerts for him on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and soon people were coming from many miles around to hear him sing. At first all of this excitement and attention made him very happy. He loved the solemn duty of singing to the sun each evening, with the people gathered hundreds of feet below to hear him. He loved to sing with the church choir, to sing the choral parts even more than the solos, so that he could hear his voice mingling with the voices of the others. In fact, he still loved to sing whenever he could, even just to put his younger siblings asleep, and he was full of happiness.
As year followed year, however, Chairon became used to his new voice, and he began to forget that it had not always belonged to him. Like many young men, he became a little vain and a little proud, and he started rejecting offers to sing just so that he could hear people flatter him and give him gifts. He also began to feel burdened by his duty to sing to the sun each evening, especially because it meant that he could never accept offers to go and sing in the city, since the concerts were always held in the evening. He still had everything that had made him happy before, but he was no longer truly happy, and his heart was no longer in his singing. The other villagers noticed the change in him as well. Though his voice was still as beautiful, they said, it no longer came from his heart, and though he still sang to the sun each evening, the sunsets no longer had their unearthly beauty, but were only sunsets, and gradually the people gave up going to hear Chairon sing from the nightingale’s pulpit altogether.
Things went on this way for some time, until one day an invitation came for Chairon to sing a concert in the city. It seemed that the Crown Prince himself had heard of Chairon’s talent and had requested a special afternoon performance to be held in the city so that Chairon could sing for the Prince and still wish himself back to his pulpit in time to sing for the sunset. The concert was to be held on Chairon’s fourteenth birthday as a celebration, and the program was to have Chairon performing with all the great singers and musicians that the city had to offer. There was great excitement in the city, since all the best people in society were planning to be at the concert, and there was great excitement in Chairon’s village as well, as the city’s most famous musicians came to and fro to rehearse with the young singer.
On the day of the concert, Chairon left early for the city in a splendid coach sent to him by the Prince. People cheered him as he entered the theatre and showered him with gifts and with praise. It seemed that the whole world had stopped to celebrate his birthday. The concert too was wonderful. One musician after another, only the city’s finest, stepped onto the stage to perform with Chairon, and he seemed only to sing better as the afternoon wore on. Between each of the performances, the attending dignitaries took turns approaching the stage and offering him the most marvellous birthday gifts, and the Crown Prince himself came after the final song to present Chairon with an order of knighthood. The applause was deafening, and the audience called for encore after encore until Chairon thought that the concert would never end.
At last, just as it seemed that the last encore had indeed been sung, the conductor motioned, and the orchestra began to play the birthday song. The whole audience immediately took it up, and Chairon joined them happily, his clear strong voice floating above all the others.
And then, at that very moment, his voice cracked.
All in an instant he could sing nothing but the croaks and shrills that he remembered from his childhood. He stopped in a panic and cleared his throat and tried again, but his new voice was utterly gone, and then he was seized by the terrible thought that perhaps he had stayed too late, that the sun had set without him there to sing for it. Immediately he wished himself back to his pulpit, and just as he feared, the sun was already half hidden by the horizon, and there was the nightingale, perched on the edge of the cliff, singing the sun to its rest.
“Wait,” Chairon cried, “I have come to sing as I promised,” but the nightingale never so much as turned its head. In desperation, Chairon began to sing along, but the words and the melodies would no longer come to him, and he could only follow the nightingale’s sweet voice with the brokenness of his own.
At last the sun had fully set, and the nightingale ceased its song. “I am sorry, dear Chairon,” it said, “but the sun must have its song, and you were not here to sing, so I had no choice but to take back my voice and sing its song myself.”
“Can I have my voice back again,” pleaded Chairon, “now that you have finished the song? I promise that I will never again neglect my duty.”
“Alas, Chairon,” said the nightingale, “some gifts may only be given once, and the voice of a nightingale is such a gift.”
“But what will I do?” demanded Chairon.
“You will live your life as best you can, just as every other must live. This has always been true, and it will always be true, no matter how beautiful or how ugly a voice you have.”
“Tell me, nightingale,” said Chairon after a moment, “will I still be able to wish myself here to your pulpit?”
“Certainly,” replied the nightingale. “That gift was never taken from you, and it would please me very much if you would join me now and again as I sing to the sun.”
“No, nightingale,” said Chairon, speaking more strongly and surely, “not now and again, for I promised that I would come and sing to the sun each evening without fail, and though I have failed in my duty today, I will not do so again.”
“You will come and sing, even without a nightingale’s voice?”
“This is a noble thing you promise,” said the nightingale, “but promises are more easily made than kept, as you now know, and you must keep this promise without hope of reward, for a nightingale’s voice will never more be yours.”
“I am not now making a promise in the hope of a reward,” said Chairon. “I am only keeping a promise that I have already made and for which I have already been rewarded more than I deserve.”
Farewell, then, Chairon,” said the nightingale, “I will see you tomorrow as the sun sets.”
From that day forward, Chairon never sang again for any mortal person. Though he took as much joy in music and in song as he always had, and though he still sought out those places where music was to be heard, he never again opened his mouth in song except when he sang to the sun each evening.
At first people still sought him out, offering to hold concerts for him or asking him to sing for the events of the village, but he refused them all, though he never told them why. There were many rumours begun about why he had chosen to end his career just as it was beginning, but as with all things, people soon became disinterested, and other things captured their attention, and before long Chairon’s voice was only a story that people remembered now and again with a shake of the head and a wry sort of smile at what might have been.
Chairon himself sold all of the many gifts that his admirers had given him during the time of his fame, and he took this money while he was still very young, and he bought a tenant cottage from his father and worked in his father’s vineyards. In time, he married a young woman from a neighbouring village, and he had several fine children, and he kept his affairs in order, but he never again distinguished himself in any way, except perhaps for his hard work and for his kindness to his neighbours.
Each evening, however, no matter if the weather was at its worst or if his health was at its poorest or even if his wife was in the midst of labour, Chairon would wish himself to the nightingale’s pulpit and join his own poor voice with the bird’s beautiful song. The other villagers all knew this, and they could even see him standing high on the cliff if the evening was clear and they chose to look, but his voice was no longer strong, and he never sang loudly now anyway, so they could not hear him down below, and nobody ever bothered to come and see Chairon sing.
Chairon lived in this way until he came at last to his sixty-third birthday, which was a very old age in those days. His wife, though younger than he, had died a few winters earlier, and he could no longer do much more than feed himself, and on this particular day he was very ill indeed. His daughter-in-law, who now cared for his house and who loved him like her own father, tried to keep him inside, saying that he was far too sick to leave the house, but Chairon would hear none of it, and he wished himself once more to the nightingale’s pulpit. Though it was still a few minutes until the sun would set, the nightingale was already on its perch, and it spoke to Chairon, as it had not done in many years.
“Dear Chairon,” it said, “you have now been coming to sing with me these forty-nine years, and do you remember what I told you when you promised to do so all that long time ago?”
“Oh nightingale,” the old man replied, “I will remember those words even if age swallows up all others. You said that promises are easier made than kept, and I have found this to be true, but I have kept my promise thus far, and I will keep it yet, so long as there is breath in me to sing.”
“You remember truly, Chairon, but what more did I say?”
“You said that I must keep my promise without hope of reward, but I have found that keeping my promise has been its own reward, and I have been blessed many times over again besides, blessed in my wife and in my children and in my labour. I need no greater reward than this.”
“Even so,” said the nightingale, “I spoke wrongly then, for I have come now to grant you a reward for all your long years of singing, though it is a reward that will require an even greater duty of you than the one you promised those many years ago. The time has come at last when I have grown young enough to put off the form of a nightingale and walk again as a mortal man on the earth, and someone must be found who will take my place as the attendant of the sun. I offer this to you now. Though it will bind you more closely still to the will of the sun, and though you will find it a still greater duty than the one you now bear, you will have the voice of a nightingale once more, and it will be your own for the keeping. Will you accept this duty?”
“I will accept it,” said Chairon, and then the edge of the sun brushed the horizon, and a single beam flashed straight and true into Chairon’s eyes, and when he could see again, he knew that he had become the nightingale and that the body he had left behind him, no longer his, had become full of youth and life once more. Chairon leapt to his perch then, and he cast his song like beams of light and like arrows, like lightening and like the crash of waves, and it was more beautiful than anything he had ever sung, more beautiful than anything he could ever have thought to sing, and the sunset that he sang that night was spoken of for a generation.