Based on old folk songs (like the one referenced in the title), etchings, and the odd mention in fairy tales, I had long pictured the cuckoo as rather a reclusive, shy bird, associated with such romantic mysteries as the Black Forest, quaintly-carved clocks, and love-lorn shepherds. I was disillusioned later on, in my high-school days, when I learned of its irregular domestic life and parasitic mothering, but the cuckoo regained some charm eventually as I discovered its literary attributions and layers of metaphor.
A ‘cuckoo’s egg’ can be a symbol for an interloper or false pretender; while a ‘cuckold’ is a man deceived into raising another’s child. ‘Cuckoo’ itself is slang for crazy, or mad – an association from medieval times. Yet the bird is also a herald of spring, a symbol of fertility and seduction, a marker of the hours, and was believed by the Celts to travel in the supernatural space between life and death, to serve as a messenger from the souls of the departed. They are, in general, insectivores and monogamous, two qualities I approve.
Yesterday I stood at the top of a long valley, terraced in rice paddies, under some white-flowering umbrageous trees I could not name, watching the golden evening light pick out the lines of the landscape. I walked between ancient tomb guardians, their serene granite faces mottled with lichen, and listened to the cuckoo call.
I tracked her with my ear until I finally pinned her by eye; not lurking in the thickets or hiding in the flowering trees was she, but far above it all, perched on one of the high-tension lines that roped between the massive electrical pylons on either side of the valley. I was on the ridgeline, with all the water-glinting rice fields and farm buildings below me, and the hills stretching like fingers down and away, but the bird was a good hundred feet above me, a single black silhouette breaking the sweep of line. Her repeated eponymous call – so-mi, so-mi – a dropping, questioning note, seemed to suit the sinking sun, the old stones, the white azaleas.
This morning, again, as I stepped out my front door to walk to work in a beautiful May morning (there, another old song “As I Walked out One May Morning”! ) I was greeted by the cuckoo’s song. It pursued me past the pond, the student dorms, the pine-lined road… Again I tracked the call until I found the bird, and again she was not ‘deep in the shady thicket’, but perched on the highest vantage point available…the aerial atop the new dormitory, so that the whole campus lay beneath her purview.
At my office computer, the window open to a clear blue sky, I can still hear her duotonous plaint, the sweep of the hills we nestle in all in her song’s domain. She will mark my hours today more charmingly than any wooden puppet popping mechanically from a clock, if less reliably. I will hear her summoning the spring, speaking to spirits, seeking her lover.