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Alfred de Musset (1810–1857). The Story of a White Blackbird.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter I

HOW glorious it is, but how difficult, to be an unusual blackbird in this world! I certainly am not a fabulous bird, and Monsieur de Buffon has described me. But, alas! I am extremely rare, and very difficult to find. Would to God that I were entirely impossible!

My father and mother were an excellent couple who had been living for a number of years in the depths of a retired old garden of the Marais. Their family life was exemplary. While my mother, sitting in a thick bush, laid regularly three times a year, and while she slept, kept her eggs warm with a truly patriarchal fervor, my father, who was still very neat and very impatient, in spite of his great age, picked busily around her all day, bringing her nice insects which he took delicately by the tip of the tail so as not to disgust his wife, and, when night came on, he never failed, if the weather was fine, to treat her to a song which delighted the whole neighborhood. Not the slightest quarrel, not the slightest cloud, had ever troubled this peaceful union.

I had scarcely come into the world, when, for the first time in his life, my father began to show ill humor. Although I was as yet only a doubtful gray, he could not recognize in me either the color or the appearance of his numerous progeny.

“Look at that dirty child,” he would sometimes say, with a cross glance at me; “it seems as if the young rascal must go and stick himself into all the old plaster and mud holes he can find, he always looks so ugly and dirty.”

“Heavens, my dear,” my mother would answer, as she sat rolled up like a ball in an old porringer where she had made her nest, “don’t you see that it is because of his age? And you too, in your younger days, were not you a charming scapegrace? Just let our little blackbird grow up, and you will see how handsome he will be; he is one of the best that I ever hatched.”

Although she spoke up bravely in my defense, my mother had no illusions about me; she saw my wretched plumage starting and it seemed to her a monstrosity; but she followed the custom of all mothers, who often love their children better just because nature has used them unkindly, as if they themselves were to blame, or as if they must try to resist in advance the injustice of the fate that may sometime overtake their children.

When it was time for my first moulting, my father grew very pensive and examined me carefully. As long as my feathers were falling, he still treated me rather kindly and even fed me when he saw me shivering almost naked in a corner; but as soon as my poor little trembling wings began to be covered with down, my father got so angry every time he saw a white feather appear that I was afraid he would pluck me bare for the rest of my life. Alas! I had no mirror; I did not know the cause of this fury, and I wondered and wondered why the best of fathers should be so cruel to me.

One day when the sunshine and my new feathers had made my heart rejoice, in spite of myself, as I was fluttering along a path, I began to sing, unfortunately for me. At the first note that he heard, my father sprang into the air like a rocket.

“What is that I hear?” he cried. “Is that the way a blackbird whistles? Is that the way I whistle? Is that any way to whistle?”

And, throwing himself down beside my mother with the most terrible expression on his face:

“Wretched bird!” said he, “who has been laying in your nest?”

At these words, my mother was so indignant that she threw herself out of her porringer, hurting one of her claws as she did so; she tried to speak, but her sobbing suffocated her; she fell to the ground half swooning. I saw her apparently dying; horrified and trembling with fear, I threw myself at my father’s feet.

“Oh father!” I said, “if I whistle all wrong, and if I am ill dressed, do not let my mother be punished for it! Is it her fault if nature has denied me a voice like yours? Is it her fault that I have not your fine yellow beak and your handsome French-looking black coat, which makes you look like a church warden swallowing an omelette? If the powers above have made me a monster, and if some one must bear the blame, let me at least be the only one to suffer!”

“That is not the question,” said my father. “What do you mean by daring to whistle in that absurd fashion? Who taught you to whistle like that, contrary to all rules and customs?”

“Alas, Sir,” I answered humbly, “I whistled as I could, because the fine weather made me feel gay, and perhaps I had eaten too many flies.”

“No one whistles like that in my family,” replied my father, beside himself. “For centuries we have been whistling from father to son, and I would have you know that right here, there is an old gentleman on the first story, and a young grisette in the attic, who open their windows to hear me whenever I sing at night. Is it not enough that I must always have before my eyes the hideous color of your foolish feathers which makes you look as if you were covered with flour like a clown at the circus? If I were not the most peaceful of blackbirds, I should have plucked you bare a hundred times before now, like a chicken ready for roasting.”

“Very well!” I cried, indignant at my father’s injustice, “if that is how you feel, so be it! I will take my departure, I will relieve you of the sight of my unfortunate white tail by which you pull me about all day. I will leave you, Sir, I will fly; there will be enough other children to comfort you in your old age, since my mother lays three times a year; I will go far away and hide my misery from you, and perhaps,” I added sobbing, “perhaps I shall find, in our neighbor’s garden or in the gutters, some worms or spiders wherewith to support my sad existence.”

“As you please,” replied my father, who was not at all propitiated by my words. “Only let me see no more of you! You are no son of mine; you are no blackbird.”

“And what am I then, if you please, Sir?”

“I have not the slightest idea, but you are no blackbird.”

After pronouncing these astounding words, my father went slowly away. My mother picked herself up sorrowfully, and, limping as she went, returned to her porringer to weep her fill. As for me, sad and bewildered, I flew away as best I could, and as I had threatened to do, I went and perched on the gutter of a neighboring house.