The Goldfinch

Minstrel— how your coat is patched!Joy into our homes you’ve hatched. Under the bright and credulous gaze of a child, I sat last night and listened to his story.Once upon a time—a long, long time ago—we were caught in a dreary winter. Snowstorms had filled up the valleys and eddies had piled white mountains of snow. Through every window, the wonder-struck village children gaped at all the sugar spread on the road. They were all agog to dash out and taste it, but as soon as the door opened and the frost nipped them, they scurried to the fireplace, to warm up next to the cats.That same year raven eggs first cracked in their nest. The cold seemed to have come from the dead frozen seas of the North. So the frightened birds held a great council under the church roof. They huddled together shrieking and ice shards glistened in their eyes. All the feathered inhabitants of mountains and valleys, of plains and fens, as well as the tiny songbirds of groves and meadows were there. They all implored–each in its own language—and complained that their feathers did not stop the cold anymore.After considerable arguing, the golden eagle—the ancient empress of the mountains—rapped the church bells with her wings, requesting silence. And thus she spoke: “My beloved, we are left with no other choice than to imitate man by stealing fire from the skies. Otherwise we shall perish, just as he would have done, had he not been so cunning and skilled.”“How well and true spoken!” everybody exclaimed, “Your words are wise, Your Highness!”“Undoubtedly,” the empress replied. “I am never wrong. Moreover, I have always proved my boundless grace to you, by sacrificing you only when I was truly hungry. In the same spirit, I am now showing you the path to salvation. We just have to decide who will steal the fire for us.”The smaller birds began to chirp enthusiastically.“Your Highness, you are the one who should go. You are the empress, you rule the sky and you alone can fly that high.” The eagle empress shook her head and watched them pitifully.“How could you even consider such a thing?” she cawed. “What if the world lost its ruler?”“Who should go then?” asked the raven. “I would gladly volunteer, but I am too old and weak!”The large birds immediately stepped forward, surrounding the smaller ones. They fully and justly proved that they were either too feeble or utterly indispensable to the world. The empress therefore wisely ruled as follows: “It is right and proper that one of the smaller and faster birds should go.”Menacing beaks croaked in agreement. Ample wings flapped and clapped. The puny songbirds retreated in a corner, watching each other with tiny petrified eyes. “Since the honour is yours, you decide among yourselves,” the eagle spoke. “If you do not bring the fire back, we shall all perish because of you! You will be held accountable before God at the Last Judgment.”“Your Highness,” dared the shrill-voiced chaffinch, “we lack strength and we only know how to sing.”“What impudence! What ingratitude! What lack of love to one’s kin!” croaked the large birds with indignation. “What lack of decency and cowardice!”The shy and faint-hearted goldfinch—the smallest of his kind—was finally persuaded to step forward.“Please stay calm. Since it is crucial to our survival, I shall go!”Everybody was finally content, though slightly mistrustful, and he was sent off. He left the church, the council and our village behind him on the frozen white plain. The goldfinch flapped his little wings, ascending into the clear sky. He flew and flew, full of energy and determination, until he reached the sun. An immense blinding furnace burned in front of him, in a white haze. He seemed to be just a speck of blown ashes. With a final effort, he entered the source of eternal fire and caught a beam.Nearly blind and gasping, with his feathers charred and naked—quite a pitiful sight—the goldfinch dove towards earth—barely alive, but carrying the sun in his beak.The council awaiting him on the ground felt a sudden relief. The sunbeam shone and the snows touched by it started to melt. The stream soon thawed with great noise and began to flow foaming, and the grass soon sprouted. When the goldfinch landed at last, the first flowers rose and bowed their white heads to him, from among dead leaves. In the warmth of the sunbeam, the birds grew merrier. The empress and the large birds in her court gave out a few sounds and waved their wings ever so slightly to express their friendship for the little songster. Then in the mildness of the blooming spring, they flew towards their homes. Upon noticing that the hero stood naked and ashamed, the magpie burst into malicious laughter. Her laughter cheered everyone up, as they left for home. The smaller birds remained however around the goldfinch and tried to comfort him. Having long meditated upon the issue, the grosbeak put up a claw and chirped with emotion:“Brothers and sisters, let’s join forces and make a new dress for the poor goldfinch! It’s such a pity to leave him naked.”“Let’s dress him up, let’s dress him up!” the tiny birds trilled together. “And let us sing to praise his deed!”Tweeting and skipping, the songbirds escorted the goldfinch to the nearby grove. There, each bird gave a feather to make a motley new dress for the poor fellow. Puzzled and startled, he let them have their way. It was on that day that the goldfinch gained his strange attire: purple fez and patched coat. Perhaps that is why he is still so shy and modest. He rarely shows his face in spring, although, as the story goes, he was the one to bring the sun back to earth in his beak. 
Translated by Brânduşa Ciugudean 

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)