Eight-year-old Lilith pressed her face against the glass and giggled. “Mom, look at that funny bird out there!” she squealed in delight and clapped her hands. “Mmm-hmm,” Lilith’s mother said without glancing up from her VOUGE.
“Chirpee, chripee, chirpee. Wee-oooo, wee-ooo, wee-ooo. Caw, caw, caw. Eeeeepe-E! Eeeeepe-E! Eeeeepe-E! SCREECH! SCREECH! SCREECH!”
“Lilith! Stop that racket! Why in heavens are you making that awful noise?!?” Lilith’s mom yelled. “That’s what the bird says, mama!” Lilith replied simply enough. “Don’t make up fibs, Lilith. No one likes fibbers. No bird makes all of those sounds,” Lilith’s mother said as she put down her magazine and walked to where Lilith’s face was once again pressed tightly against the window pane. Looking in the direction of her daughter’s gaze, Lilith’s mother saw the little bird who was causing all the racket. “Oh, well that’s a mockingbird. Guess you were right, sweetie. Mommy’s sorry,” feeling a little guilty about wrongly chastising her daughter, Lilith’s mother continued, “Did you know that a male mockingbird can learn up to 200 different songs? And, they can learn to mimic the sounds of other animals too, like insects and amphibians. Isn’t that neat?”
“What’s mimic mean?” Lilith looked at her mother quizzically. “Mimic means to copy something. So your little friend out there knows how to copy how other birds and animals talk. They mimic,” Lilith’s mother explained. Lilith’s eyes had grown wide with wonder at her mother’s explanation and before her mother could say another word, Lilith had flown out the door in sudden haste to get outside.
Outside, Lilith slowly approached the bird and stopped about 10 feet away. She sat down in the grass under the adjacent tree to the mockingbird’s perch and said, “Hello mockingbird, I’m Lilith. Can you say Lilith?”. The mockingbird cocked its tiny head at the girl and began a string of songs that lasted for what seemed like forever. “No, no, no,” Lilith said, “None of that sounded like Lilith. Listen. Li-lith, Lil-lith, Li-lith!” she sang to the bird.
He flew away.
“Humph,” Lilith crossed her arms and wandered back inside. She was undeterred, however, and the next day when she heard her chatty friend outside she quickly went to her seat under the tree and listened. “That was pretty, now listen to this,” Lilith breathed deeply and then sang her name, over and over to the little bird. “Now you try,” she said after a few minutes. The mockingbird replied with a string of croaks and clicks that sounded like a bullfrog followed by what sounded like the legs of a grasshopper rubbing together. “That’s not even close!” Lilith shouted at the mockingbird.
He flew away.
This went on for days. Lilith’s mother was beginning to worry about her daughter and decided she better have a talk with her. “Lilith honey, that little bird is never going to be able to say your name, even if he really wanted to,” she looked at Lilith with sympathy. “But mom, he can mimic 200 other animal voices, why not mine?” It was a very good question. Lilith’s mom paused and thought before responding, “Well sweetie, I don’t think he has the proper vocal cords or muscles to say ‘Lilith’. ‘L’s’ are very difficult to say, even for people. When you were learning to talk, do you know how you would say your name?” Lilith gave it some thought, “No, what did I say?” she asked. Lilith’s mom chuckled and said, “You waddled around the house saying, Wiw-wiff, Wiw-wiff”. Lilith giggled and then she ran outside again. Walking by an open window several minutes later, Lilith’s mother heard her daughter in the yard singing, “Wiw-wiff, Wiw-wif,f Wiw-wiff, Wiw-wiff,” . “She’s nothing, if not persistent,” Lilith’s mother smiled and resolved to let her daughter try to teach the mockingbird her name until she found something else to entertain her time.
Lilith sang to the bird for the rest of the summer, never giving up hope that one day he would sing her name back to her. She’d grow frustrated some days, and scream that she was giving up, but without fail she would be back under that tree the next day, trying it again. Around October, Lilith’s winged friend had stopped coming to the backyard, and Lilith’s mother thought that finally, her daughter would lose interest. But rather than pick up another fascination like Barbies or riding bikes with her friends, Lilith asked to be taken to the library where she checked out piles of books on birds, bird anatomy, vocal chords, the science of singing, bird calling and anything else that related to song or avian biology.
Soon, the Spring had sprung, and Lilith’s patient waiting was rewarded when she heard the unmistakable and sporadic song of her mockingbird. Skipping outside, she planted her tush in the still-wet morning grass and began singing to her friend. First she started with simple sounds, and then progressively moved to singing more complex songs. This became her daily routine, every day after school (following any homework she had to finish) she would come to her tree and run through what she called, ‘voice exercises’ with her mockingbird.
32-year old Lilith yanked her glasses off and rubbed her tired eyes. It was 3:02 am and she had been in the lab all night. She thought she had stumbled on a breakthrough and excited to see it through had canceled dinner plans to work with her birds. Lilith, one of the world’s top Ornithologists specializing in song learning and the neurological implications it could have on brain-injury patients, rubbed her forehead and decided to call it a night… er, morning. Shutting down her machines, clicking off lights as she went, Lilith walked over to the large cage containing two mockingbirds. Giving them a little smile, Lilith chirped to them her name as she had done every night, and began to drape the cage’s covering over the birds’ temporary home.
“Leee-le-eth, lee-le-eth, lee-le-eth,” came a muffled reply from within the cage. Frozen by the sound of the mockingbird’s response, Lilith slowly turned back to the cage and slowly removed its covering.
“Leee-le-eth, lee-le-eth, lee-le-eth,” the bird chirped happily.
“I knew it,” Lilith grinned and booted up her computer. “Hang in there little guy, we got some work left to do” she cooed to the mockingbird who replied “Leee-le-eth, lee-le-eth, lee-le-eth.”
The Not So Fantastic Reality:
The above story was inspired by the following tidbits I encountered today:
ONE: On my way to grab some lunch on campus, I was walking behind a yound father clasping the hand of his little girl, and what I assume was a friend of his. As the adults talked I kept my eye on the little girl, she must have been around four, out of pure curiosity. I must admit, having hit the big three-oh, I have weak moments when I ache for a mini-me of my own… you know, a kid. This, I assure you, has nothing to do with my rational desires, I chalk it up to being a slave to my gender, biological clock and all that (Andy, you can put your heart back in your chest). Ahem, anywho… I was walking behind this trio when out of nowhere a mockingbird swoops in front of me and as it flies a few feet above and behind the little girl it lets out a loud, “CHIRP, CHIRP, CHIRP!”. To which the little girl instantly responds back with her own “CHIRP, CHIRP, CHIRP!”. I am delighted. A stupid smile is all over my face as I think about how great it is to be a child and to respond however your imagination propels you. No second thoughts. No hang-ups. No moments of embarrassment. I also relish the fact that I was not the only one following the bird with my eyes, but someone else had shared my curiosity over a bird I’ve seen thousands of times. I looked around after this less-than-exciting exchange between girl and bird and no one had even glanced in their direction. Not even her father. This made me smile even more and send a little ‘thank you’ to the man up top for allowing me to maintain a shred of my childlike wonder, even now. I felt blessed in that moment, and for several minutes afterwards I felt a kind of quiet happiness that even now, as I write this, forces my face into a grin.
TWO: I heard the name Lilith on the radio talk show I tune into during my daily commute. That name has always somewhat fascinated me, for reasons unknown, so I thought I’d plug it in.