I Want to Be a Blackbird Man

Nacho Docavo Alberti

Nacho Docavo Alberti, Spanish novelist, essayist, and adventurer, has embarked on an ambitious narrative project: he is telling the history of humanity from the point of view of ordinary people, of the anonymous people who make up the real mortar of memory, beyond the prominent names and cults to personalities. With remarkable erudition and a pleasant and accessible language, the author moves through history— through these Stories of Ordinary People— without ceasing to write, like a steamroller, he says, fiction about every relevant moment in our history, in all latitudes of the planet and with a vision ready to rescue the extraordinary being that hides behind each of the people we are. We thank the author for his authorization to publish the story dedicated to the discovery of music in UNAM Internacional.

UNAM Internacional

The oldest known flute was found in Slovenia and was dated forty-five thousand years old. However, it was later shown that the holes had been made by the teeth of a hyena, and it is impossible to know for the moment if anyone ever used it as a musical instrument.

Urarku was wandering through the mountains with his bow ready in case prey appeared when he saw a piece of bone gnawed by a hungry wolf or bear sticking out of the grass. He picked it up carefully and noticed it was lightweight and almost as long as his index finger. “No doubt a vulture’s bone”, he said to himself, but would it be any use having that row of small holes? Without knowing the answer, he put it in his small leather pouch and continued hunting. That day, he could not even hit a wood pigeon, the only prey that appeared within his bow’s reach. When he got back to his cave, he was so frustrated that he left his stuff and went to the river to drink and bathe. He was hungry, but he did not want to eat the leftovers of the fawn he had hunted three days ago because he would rather have his three kids and his wife, Arrak, who was still breastfeeding their newborn girl, had their respective portions. When he got out of the water, he sat on a rock, picked up the pouch he left on the riverbank, and noticed there was something hard inside. Intrigued, he introduced his hand to see what it was and found that shard of pierced bone he had completely forgotten about. He looked at it, felt it, took it to his lips, and blew out a short, dry breath to remove the dirt.

“Wooow!” he exclaimed, astonished, and almost fell to his bottom as a high-pitched, intense beeping sound sprang up from that magical instrument. He could not believe the sound came out of the bone, so he examined every side of it to see if there was a little bird inside… He confirmed there was no bird: it was completely empty. He blew on it once again, more carefully, and that sound again! But now it was even more charming.

“Wooow! It’s like there was a bird inside!” he cried out, taking another look because he could not process the fact that a bone could chirp. When he tried it for the third time, he covered two of the holes with his index and middle fingers. What came out of that heavenly object paralyzed him: it was just as if a blackbird was singing, just like he had heard it many times before in the woods at sunrise. Somewhat shocked by the discovery, he spent the rest of the evening rehearsing different combinations. He was so excited that he ran back to his cave to tell his family about his new discovery.

“I’ll call this a flute, which in our language means ‘talking bone,’” he announced to his wife, who, in return, looked at it mystified and continued curing a hide.

And there started his ruin.

From that day on, whenever he went out hunting, he would be frequently distracted looking for short bird bones—or from any other animal—and he would neglect the hunt, thus the food supply for his whole family. Even more: whenever he found a thin or hollow bone, he would chew over its possibilities, and, instead of lurking a prey, he would sit under a tree and pierce the bone with an ivory awl that he always took along. The result of that growing obsession was that, towards the end of the summer, his family had barely something to eat, so one night, fed up, Arrak stood up in front of him and told him off:

“Can I get to know what you’re thinking about, Urarku? Several moons have passed since you started to think only of blowing those damned bones, and you’re hardly bringing any food home: just a squirrel or a weasel that are barely enough for a day. What happened to those tasty deer and goats you used to bring? Don’t you realize your family has been almost starving the whole season? Look at your little girl! She’s so weak that she can’t even walk because I can’t give her good milk. That wicked trinket is ruining you, and along the way, you’re going to ruin us all. I would go with you, but I have to stay in the cave caring for your family. Yes! Your family, abandoned and starving. Look at Jark and Yiark, your elder children. Each of them has only lived three and four winters, but they spend the whole day in the woods trying to gather nuts, almonds, fruits, or anything edible. And I’m worried to death because of the danger they would face if a wolf found them. Besides, as you might have noticed, winter is coming, and we’re running short of supplies. Those bones you find are filled with the sounds of the Great Evil, so you either stop wanting to talk like the birds from now on or face the consequences. Is everything clear?” She turned her back and went away really pissed.

Urarku heard her, bashful, knowing that everything she said was true. He followed her through the high cave filled with stalactites, begging for forgiveness and promising to fix his mistakes, starting tomorrow. A promise that would last no more than a blink. During the first few days, he refrained from looking for and working on bones. He did hunt a deer and two rams, but, as soon as he saw his pantry full of meat, he went back to his old ways. Without suspecting nor wanting it, the will of that man, who until then had been an excellent hunter and a responsible father, was haunted by the spirit of music, and there was no way out of it.

Because of that evil enchantment, just before the first snow, when he went back to his cave after a fruitless hunt, he found it empty, and even though he screamed the names of his partner and children, only the echo would answer. The blame was all on him: he was responsible for his reckless obsession, and as a result he had been abandoned by his family. He wandered through the woods looking for them and desperately yelling their names, but he never came to see them again.

Drowned in his loneliness and consumed by guilt, he took refuge in music, and until the day of his death, he collected bones of several species. He hunted once or twice a month, ate poorly, and was dirty because he spent all of his days trying one bone after the other and carving more or less holes in them. In consequence, after some years, he could play different scales. Not only was he able to imitate the chirp of blackbirds, plovers, and hoopoes, but he also created melodies that the world had never heard before. But, weak and lonely, he could not live for long, just as demonstrated by the skeletal remains of a malnourished and toothless individual found forty thousand years later in the Devje Babe cave in Slovenia by the paleoarcheologist Mitja Brodar.

Next to the skeleton was one of those flutes.

From those primitive instruments like flutes, zithers, and tam-tams, made by different cultures in different continents, to the complex orchestras of our days, music has always kept us company during our journey through time, demonstrating that humans need not only feed their flesh but also their souls with beauty and sensations.
Nacho Docavo Alberti, ethnographer, novelist, essayist, and adventurer, has written books while traveling around the world, knowing peoples and cultures. After publishing a couple of dozens of youth novels he ventured into literary essay, wiyh titles as La edad de las palabras (The Age of Words) and La historia del agua (The History of Water). He lives in Gambia, West Africa, where he develops his Historias de gente corriente (Stories of Ordinary People).

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