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the boy wwho spoke to the birdsThe Boy Who Spoke to the Birds

This is a story from Russia about a boy who learned the language of the birds. As it turns out, his parents are not so nice, but he is an excellent son.

Read by Natasha
Adapted by Bertie

Some time in Russia, there lived a merchant and his wife. Their only son was a kind hearted boy called Ivan. This boy loved to listen to the song of a nightingale which the family kept as a pet, or some might say as a prisoner, inside a gilded cage.

“What is the meaning of her song?” he often wondered, “It is so lovely, yet so sad.”

One day, his father heard Ivan asking this question out aloud, and he agreed, “Yes I too long to understand her beautiful music. I would give half my wealth to the one who could teach me the language of the birds.”

His father’s words made a big impression on Ivan.

Not long after this, he was out for a walk in the woods, when the weather became bitter. The rain was trying to turn into snow, but not quite succeeding, and instead fell to earth in large cold drops, plop, plop plop - most unpleasant. In the midst of this downpour, his kean ears caught a flustered sound up in the branches above his head. Little voices were crying out “tweet tweet tweet!” quite pitifully. He looked up and saw a nest where the heads of baby birds were bobbing up and down and crying in the cold rain. Ivan felt most sorry for the tiny creatures. Instead of hurrying home, he climbed up the tree and spread the flaps of his kaftan over the nest to protect the fledglings from the rain. This Kaftan was a coat that his father had given him: it was embroidered with gold thread, and not the sort of garment you would would choose to go climbing trees in. He waited there some time until the mother bird returned. When she saw that the kind boy had saved her young ones from catching chills, she was filled with thanks.

“Young man,” she said in good Russian, “you have done me a service. It so happens that I have magical powers and I can give you a fine reward. Say what you want, and it shall be yours.”

The boy replied, “Gracious bird, as it happens, there is one skill that I would dearly love to posses. Could you please teach me the language of the birds?”

“Most certainly,” replied the mother bird, and they arranged that he should visit her every day for a month and learn the words, the grammar, and the tunes of the birds. Fortunately, the boy had a good ear for music, for birds communicate in song. He learned his lessons well, did his homework, and by the end of a month could understand everything that the birds told one another.

Soon after this, Ivan sat at home on his usual couch, listening to the nightingale in his gilded cage. Now he understood the meaning of the beautiful bird’s song, and felt overwhelming sad. His parents could not fail to notice his unhappy face, and his mother asked, “Dear Van-ooshka (that was the pet name she used for him), why are fat tears rolling down your cheeks? Are you suffering from a love that is not returned?”

“No mother, I am still too young for love. I have learned the language of birds, and now I understand the meaning of our pet nightingale's song, and that is why I am so sad.”

His father was intrigued by this and said: “Well, Ivan, tell us the meaning of our beloved bird’s song.”

“He sings, dear father,” said Ivan simply, naively, and foolishly, “that one day Ivan shall be a prince and and his father shall be his servant.”

Ivan’s parents had not been expecting such an insolent speech. They wondered greatly about what had become of their polite young son. Perhaps listening to the birds so much had made him quite bird-brained. Indeed, they no longer trusted him. Not long after that, the boy’s mother made up some warm milk for Ivan, and mixed it with a strong sleeping potion that would be sure to put him under for a sound night’s sleep. When he was completely out, and snoring loudly, his parents carried him down to the shore, and by the light of the moon, they put him into a little boat and pushed him out to sea. They thought that he would drown and nobody would be the wiser.

But it was not Ivan’s fate to drown at sea. The currents brought the sleeping boy in his tiny boat alongside a ship. It was a starry night, and the watchman saw Ivan lying in his fragile craft, at the mercy of the next big wave that would surely tip him into the water. He called to his fellow sailors for help, and one of them used a rope to climb down the side of the ship Into Ivan’s boat, where he smacked the boy around the chops until he awoke. The sailors then hauled both of them up to to the safety of the deck. In this way, by the kindness of the ship’s crew, Ivan’s life was saved.

The next morning, Ivan sat up on the deck wrapped in a warm blanket. A flock of cranes flew overhead, and he tilted his head to catch what they were saying. This is what he heard:

“Quick, quick, fly as fast as you can. Head for the shore. A terrible storm is on its way!”

The boy tried to warn the sailors of what what the birds had said, and urged them to head for the port before the storm ripped the ship to pieces. But the sailors laughed, thinking that the poor lad must have caught too much sun while he was adrift at sea.

But the storm did come, and it was every bit as fierce as Ivan had warned, and the ship took a mighty battering from the wind and the waves that did it much damage.

A few days after the storm had passed, a flock of swans flew over the ship. Ivan heard what they were saying:

“Over there is a ship full of pirates who plan to do much mischief.”

Ivan reported what he had heard to the captain, who this time took him seriously. He ordered the crew to turn and head for a safe harbour. The swift pirate ship began to chase them. They raced towards the port, and the boat carrying Ivan and the good sailors reached safety just in time.

Now it so happened, they had arrived at a town ruled over by a king, who was extremely troubled by three crows. These noisy and noxious birds sat on the window sill of the king’s bedroom and cawed day and night. Servants had tried to shoo them away with brooms, and soldiers had tried to shoot them down with arrows, but all to no avail.

Now the king offered a reward - his daughter’s hand in marriage and half his kingdom to the one who could free him of this trouble. But he warned that any time-wasters risked losing their heads.

Ivan heard about this problem from a little bird, and he understood that this was a golden opportunity. He made his way to the castle and offered his service in the matter of the three crows. The king’s chamberlain showed him to the window where the birds sat and squawked. Ivan listened to what they were saying and told the chamberlain, “There are three crows, a father crow, a mother crow, and a son crow. The mother and father are seeking a divorce. They have come here to ask the king to judge who the son should follow: the mother or the father. Until they have received judgement in this matter, they will not leave.”

When they chamberlain relayed this problem to the king he ruled: “The son crow must stay with his mother.” As soon as he made this decision, the father flew off on his own with an ill-tempered “CAWWWWW!’ and the mother and son left in another direction.

The king was delighted that the crows had finally cleared off from his window sill. He gladly gave the hand in marriage of his youngest daughter to the boy who understood the secret language of birds.

As Ivan’s fortune went up, little did he know that his father’s star was falling. His wife had gone to a better world, and while he was grieving he also lost his fortune when pirates attacked a boat carrying all his merchandise. The old man became a wandering beggar, dependent on the kindness and generosity of strangers. His travels brought him to the castle where Prince Ivan was living happily with his princess. There the old man came before the young prince, and begged for alms. His sight was failing him, and he did not recognise that His Majesty was none other than his own son.

“Old man, what may I do for you?” asked Prince Ivan.

“Be so kind, as to let me stay here and work as one of your servants,” said the old man, “for once I was rich, but now I have lost everything, my dear wife, my honest son, my fortune, and finally my pride.”

“Dear father,” said Ivan, “you once doubted the song of a nightingale, but now you see that my translation was true.”

At first the old man was puzzled, and then stunned, and then frightened. He knelt before his son and begged forgiveness.

But wealth and good fortune had not changed Ivan. He was the same good hearted boy that he ever was. He stepped down from his throne to embrace his father with the words, “Papa, I wish for nothing more than to love, comfort and support you in your old age.”

And Prince Ivan was true to his word.

And that is the traditional story, from Russia, of the Boy who spoke to the birds, adapted by Bertie, and read for by me, Natasha.

You may like to know that we have loads of stories and myths from all over the world at Storynory, so do drop by and listen to some soon. And if you follow us on the podcast please leave us a nice comment in iTunes or any of the podcast apps.

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