In 2019, a group of Swedish scientists published a paper on the migration patterns of the European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). They had discovered that the migration patterns of the birds, worldwide, are linked to the lunar cycle. This led me to wonder what tales nightjars would tell each other if they could speak? Perhaps their strange thrumming call is a folksong or ballad: the story of their species’ creation. Part of a series of creation myths told from the point of view of our other-than-human kith, here is my interpretation, in human language, of the nightjar’s originary tale – inspired by the light, and the pull, of the moon.
Brother Earth, Sister Moon
In the beginning, Earth and Moon lived side-by-side. They circled slowly around each other, day and night and day. The universe was young then, and the stars glistened, newly hatched, still wet from their shells.
From the earth, the sky was filled with moon; from the moon, the sky was filled with the earth, horizon to horizon. They were twins from a single egg: one mottled green and blue, as iridescent as a starling’s throat, the other white as the lifted wings of a swan.
Brother Earth and Sister Moon were happy, content to swirl around each other in the vast space of these early times. One day, Moon had an idea. “Brother,” she said, “wouldn’t it be good to have some company? To have others to talk to once in a while?”
Earth agreed, and set to work at once. He filled his forests with butterflies and birds, set eagles to soar and circle, and insects to burrow and flit, stocked the streams with fish, let loose bear and deer to roam, beavers to build and mice to gnaw. The air was filled with sounds and cries, from the deep bellow of elk and the bittern’s booming to the high squeaks of harvest mice and the crepitation of beetle wings. Out of the white dust of the moon, his Sister fashioned the creatures of the night: bats and badgers, wolves and foxes, glow worms and fireflies. She painted designs on the wings of moths and folded them together before they were dry. From her own moonbeams, she sculpted the owl and set his golden eyes alight. With great care, she created the nightingale and blew into its open beak to give it both life and song. Finally, she gathered up scraps of mottled shadow to make the nightjar’s patterned feathers, and then she could do no more.
Exhausted from their work of making every living thing, Moon and Earth lay down to rest. Sister Moon closed her eyes and fell to dreaming. Brother Earth looked upon all of creation – every plant and rock, every tree and leaf, everything that swam, crept, slithered, climbed, ran, hopped or flew – and he was pleased. He stretched, sighed, and smiled up at the quiet face of the moon. She looked so peaceful, so beautiful. But Brother Earth had a sudden thought that jolted him awake. What if she grew tired of this circling dance, grew tired of these creatures, tired of his forest-thick countenance? What would his world be like under a moonless sky?
Troubled, he got up quietly and made his way to the lair of the spider-god.
“O Anansi,” said Brother Earth, “Wake up. I need your help.”
Anansi emerged from his cave, stretching his eight legs out one by one and yawning mightily. “What is it? Why are you disturbing me at this late hour?”
“How can I make sure the Moon does not leave?” asked Brother Earth. “I worry that all this –” he gestured to everything they had made – “will not be enough for her quicksilver mind. I cannot be alone.”
“Leave it with me,” said Anansi.
The spider-god climbed to the top of the mountain and, balancing on his huge mandibles, tilted his great green abdomen to the skies. All night he span and stitched, and when the work was done and the first light of dawn tinged the sky, he vanished back into his dark cave.
When the Moon woke from her deep sleep, she found herself wrapped in a fine net of silver thread.
At first, she was delighted.
“Why, Brother,” she cried spinning around, “what a shawl you have given me! So bright, so light! It’s beautiful.”
Earth was pleased to see her so happy – and secretly relieved she had not guessed the real reason for his gift.
The moonfolk played among the silver webbing, weaving up and over, around and through it. They tested the threads with their feet and claws, nudged it with their snouts or feelers, played their antennae along its delicate filaments. One day, seeing that the threads stretched right down to the earth, a brave little carpenter ant decided to see for herself what lay beneath the canopy of trees. She hopped nimbly onto a thread and then, waving goodbye to her friends, scuttled down and disappeared.
And the Moon was lighter by one.
“Where did she go?” wondered the other creatures. “What did she see? What is she doing? Will she be back?”
Overcome with curiosity, a firefly volunteered to find out. “I shall find our friend the ant, and I shall bring her back.” The rest of moonkind watched as the firefly’s light grew smaller and smaller as spiralled down the silver thread and disappeared.
And the Moon was lighter by two.
Other creatures followed: the moths with their feathered antennae ruffling with excitement; the foxes, on careful padding paws; the bats rushing away like dark water sucked down a hole; the owl took to the wing and silently spun away. And every time another one left, the silk strands stretched a little tighter, chafing against the living rock. They frayed as Sister Moon twisted and turned, and one by one they broke. The craters of the moon, that had been filled with song and chatter, fell silent, and the white mountains lay still and blank. Sister Moon found herself gazing more and more at the star-speckled sky, and wondering what lay between and beyond.
This went on until there were only two creatures left on the moon: Nightingale and Nightjar.
“Nightingale, you and I will stay, won’t we?” said Nightjar. “The rest are fickle. Their heads have been turned by the lure of the forests, the charm of the trees, the pull of sea and shore. But you and I know: there is no home like the moon.”
“But there is nothing to eat! All the others have gone. We cannot live on moonlight alone,” said Nightingale and he, too, flew to earth.
There was only one thread left connecting the earth to the moon, and it was stretched tight. Nightjar half-closed his eyes and settled into the dust determined to stay to the last. But the Moon could feel the tug of freedom pulling her up and away. She longed for the vast reaches of the dark sky in which to sail, to explore the great expanse of the universe.
Despite the fact that he could hear his friend, the nightingale, singing – so delighted to be on earth among all his old friends and feeding like a glutton on the insect riches of the forests below – Nightjar would not leave his post. He guarded the final thread with his life, growing hungrier with every passing hour.
Finally, he could bear it no more. With the silver thread as his guide, he flew, open-beaked, down to earth, determined to eat his fill and return before the moon could know he was gone. But the minute he arrived on earth, the single remaining thread snapped. The Great Emptying was complete and Sister Moon, finally free of her silken prison, floated high into the sky.
Brother Earth cried out in anguish. He roared with thunder and hurled great spears of lightning into the sky. His grief burst the mountaintops and flowed down their sides in hot, red tears. But the Moon did not hear. She was already too far away, her face turned towards the distant stars and full of wonder.
Down among the leaf-litter, disguised as dead wood and dappled shadow, Nightjar yearned for his lost home. A song of longing thrummed in his throat and shook his body. It ran through the night air, a ripple of sound, like beads of amber threaded on a string. Far above, Sister Moon listened – and every so often would turn back and draw a little closer to hear old companion sing.
And on moonless nights, the creatures of the earth fall silent and listen to the nightjar’s song, for they know – as you and I do – that the only thing holding back the moon from floating away altogether is the nightjar’s song calling, calling her back.
Anita Roy’s books include Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021) and Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased (Westland, 2021). Of dual Indian and English heritage, she lives in Wellington, Somerset where she is chair of the Transition Town Wellington group. anitaroy.net
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