Natty loved to sing. She wasn’t any good at it, but she sang anyway. When she was younger, her grandmother told her “Sing the words in your normal voice child. You’ll get it someday.” Her grandma ought to know;she was a blues singer in Vaudeville. Traveled with an act from town to town, singing to small and large crowds. Grandma Nora had a voice like a caramel coated apple; dark, rich, yet tart, juicy, and sassy. Natty longed to know how it felt to sing in front of a theatre filled with people. All there to hear you sing.
The closest she had come to an audience was her cousins. When she was 8 years old, she made up a song called “Come back to me baby”. As she strutted down the porch steps, she sang it in her best voice.
Come back to me baby, for I love you so,
Come back to me baby, for I love you so.
When she got to the last step, she sang the chorus finale.
And if you don’t come back to me, I’m gonna fall down and cry,
And if you don’t come back to me, I’m gonna fall down and cry.
At which point she fell down onto the last step, hanging her head as if heartbroken. Waited for applause. At that exact moment, the ice cream truck’s song clanged through the neighborhood, and she lost her audience. Her cousins were tough critics with short attention spans.
Still, Natty had dreams of being a singer. She sang all the time when she was alone, but she particularly liked singing as she walked home from school. The quickest way home was through the woods. In the cool damp places between the towering trees, the creatures of the forest were her audience.
One day as she was walking in the woods, she started singing ‘You are My Sunshine.’ Her voice carried through the trees, and soon reached the ears of a Wood Thrush. The thrush, curious, flew to see who or what was making that horrendous noise.
The bird landed in a tree near Natty, and sang its staccato bup-bup-bup call, which signals mild distress. Natty sings on, oblivious to the bird’s anxiety. The thrush’s song increases in pitch, grows louder and more complex until it becomes a distinctive, machine-gun-like pit-pit-pit alarm. Natty halts in mid verse, looks up into the tree.
“Why are you fussing at me like that?” The thrush, caught off guard, answers, “Someone needs to teach you how to sing.”
Natty has had a lot of strange things happen in her short life, but a bird talking to her is at the top of the list. Nonetheless, she responds, “Who are you to criticize my singing?”
And with that the thrush launches into one of its haunting melodies.
Natty is spellbound. It is the most beautiful song she has ever heard.
“You are wonderful! How did you learn to do that?’
“I’m a natural. I can sing over 50 distinctive melodies. But anyone can sing if they put effort into it.”
“Can you teach me to sing?”
The wood thrush is taken aback, but flattered nonetheless.
“Well. No one, especially a human has ever asked me, but I am willing to try.”
They agreed to meet in the woods every day and the thrush would do his best to teach her.
Weeks go by and Natty is gaining more confidence with her voice. The wood thrush teaches her to match his pitch, and work on her vocal control. He sings a long note and she repeats it back to him.
He teaches her how to hold the note and the importance of breathing.
One afternoon, Natty races into the woods, looking for the thrush.
“Exciting news! The school is putting on a talent show, and I signed up!”
“Well, each year the school allows a show where students can sing or dance, or play an instrument. I am going to sing.”
Are you sure you’re ready? What have you decided to sing?”
“A song from my favorite singer, Dusty Springfield. The song is “Wishin’ and Hopin.”
“It’s in two weeks, so we need to practice, practice,practice. The winning act gets free ice cream with lunch for a whole month.”
Two weeks go by in a flash and the big day arrives.
As Natty stands in the darkened wings, she thinks about her feathered vocal teacher and wishes he was here to see her first time in front of an audience. A herd of elephants are marching through her stomach. Can she do this? Is she going to make a fool of herself?
The teacher calls her name and she makes her way to center stage. The music starts, but she freezes. Oh God, I can’t do this.
The hot lights are bearing down on her. She has to do something.
All at once, she hears the first note of her song coming from a tree outside the auditorium windows.
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. Asks the teacher to start the music again.
Her voice explodes from her, surreal and angelic. Powerful.
After, the thunderous applause is overwhelming.
Dewy eyed, Natty takes a deep bow. She alone hears the sound of the wood thrush’s melodious, captivating song and knows it is for her. He is proud.
Linda Lee Lyberg
Photos Courtesy of: Tracy Villalobos