Every day the seagull flies around the harbor looking for morsels left by the denizens of the seaside town in which he resides. As he glides from boat to boat he often finds himself listening to the music played by an old fisherman in a tiny skiff tied up to a nearby pier. Each day, while the old fisherman waits for the fish to take his bait, he pulls out a worn, raggedy fiddle and plays a tune. After so many years, one would expect a diversity of repertoire, but the old fisherman always plays the same song, dawn to dusk, scratching away at the strings and humming along softly in unison. The seagull, having his own preferred musical stylings, used to be bothered by this but over time has become accustomed to and has even begun to adore the sounds of the old fisherman as he plays his familiar melody throughout his often fruitless fishing expeditions. Although the seagull could never hope to match the unique timbre of the old fisherman, he desperately longs to learn the melody and sing it on his own. After much deliberation - and lowered inhibitions due to eating a bit too much rancid crab - he decides to ask the old fisherman to teach him the tune.
S: Excuse me! Hello there!
OF: Yes? Oh, hello. Are you here to bother me for scraps like the others?
S: Oh no sir, I’m not here for —
OF: — Cause if you are I haven’t got any. All I have is for the fish and I can’t be
wasting precious bait on flying rats!
S: Again, not at all! I simply came to ask for a lesson.
OF: A what? A…lesson? In fishing?
S: No no no no, not fishing, I wish to learn your tune! The one you play every day.
OF: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s EVERY day, and even if it was some would argue that it’s a damn fine tune anyway so…
S: You have me wrong, I mean to say that I love it and wish to learn it so that I too can have it to cherish and sing for myself.
The old fisherman looks at the seagull in disbelief, unsure of what to make of the situation. He had seen these birds try a myriad of ways of getting him to part with his bait but this was a whole new tactic that he had little experience fending off.
OF: How should I know whether to believe this request or not? Seems awfully suspicious. Haven’t you got your own song to sing?
S: Yes, of course I have, and it too is a thing of beauty as I’m sure you’ll hear.
The seagull proceeds to demonstrate his own singing to the old fisherman, and although the bird’s voice might bring it a slight “piercing” quality there is inarguably a melody of particular beauty buried deep within the rasp of the squawking tone.
OF: That certainly was a song, I’m sure of it…
S: — But after so many years, I’ve come to long for something new, something fresh. An exquisite piece of music that I can call out from atop the masts of ships, from across the harbor, from the depths of my soul, and that will echo out in rapturous jubilation for all to hear and rejoice in! And the song I have been searching for, is yours.
Taken aback - and fairly confused by the effusive nature of this bizarre creature - the old fisherman is slow to respond.
OF: I see…This is flattering, yes, but unfortunately I’m afraid there isn’t a way that I could possibly —
S: — Surely you are mistaken! Surely there is a way for you to show me your song, isn’t there? Surely you can see my hunger to learn, and can feel my passion towards this music of yours. Surely you’ll teach me, surely you will! Won’t you?
The old fisherman begins to boil with annoyance at the audacity of the seagull to expect such a lesson, especially as he is trying to catch his dinner.
OF: Now see here, you. This presumption of yours that I would waste my time trying to teach you this song is both baffling and infuriating. Can’t you see that I am in the middle of my day’s work?
S: I do understand that you’re busy, but I assure you it won’t take too long for me to learn if you’d give me a bit of your time.
OF: Oh, so my time is yours to take now?
S: No it’s not that at all —
OF: — Then it’s that my tune is so easy that anything able to produce a noise should be able to do it without much instruction?
S: Again, I believe you’re misinterpreting my words. All I am saying is that your song speaks to me, and that I believe I can sing it with the same passion as you show for it.
Undeterred by the seagull’s persistence, and increasingly agitated by this distraction as he tries to keep one eye on his fishing line, the old fisherman decides to take drastic measures to extricate himself from this mess.
OF: That’s enough, I can’t take this any longer. You have wasted as much time as I am willing to allow for this ridiculous escapade, so now you listen. I sing this song for me and me alone, to keep me company as I sit in this wretched boat and wait for fish that never come. This song is my heart beat, my sanity, and to think that I would give it up to you is blasphemous at best. It is utter lunacy that I should be bothered with such matters as trying to teach, of all creatures, a seagull how to sing my song.
Stunned by such harsh words, the seagull is speechless for a moment as he waits for a reconsideration that never comes. Even though he can feel his heart shattering like a shell on the rocky shore, he tries once more to change the old fisherman’s mind.
S: But, dear fisherman, please I beg you, teach me this song. It is all I ask and all that I want in this world.
OF: All you ask? All you want? Seagulls. All any of you ever wants is to feast on the work of others, the toil and earnings of old, sea beaten fishermen. You feathered locusts swarm our boats, tear at our bait, steal our food, and then call out in cacophonous rapture as you devour your ill gotten bounty. No, no I will not give you both my back and my soul. Fly away and hound some other poor fool, perhaps he will offer you the skin off his bones.
Hollowed out from the old fisherman’s insults the seagull sits at the edge of the boat’s bow, despondent. Having exhausted all methods, the seagull laments and cries out in despair.
S: Maybe you’re right, I suppose it is not proper for seagulls to sing the songs of fishermen. After all we are limited by our nature and our design, therefore how could we pretend to be worthy of such gifts as you all have? And yet, I find myself stricken by your song. My heart, although it may be smaller and avian, still sinks as your melody falls and floats as it rises. As I listen, I can feel every crashing wave you’ve faced, taste every succulent fish you’ve caught, and see the harbor at dawn when the morning fog lifts and reveals the glassy water yet to be disturbed by the bustling of man and beast looking to fulfill their day’s needs, as if a fresh slate of water on which fortunes can change and a better life be found. All our lives, we seagulls are forced to call out the same notes as every other seagull. It may be our instinct but it is not our desire. We too long for purpose, to create something of beauty but are doomed to never reach it. When I heard your song, I knew I had found what I have been looking for and had only hoped for even a glimmer of what it felt like to have something like that. But I suppose this is the way it must be.
The old fisherman, seeing the true nature of the seagull’s request, begins to realize the pain he has caused. As he was so entangled in his own dissatisfaction he couldn’t see this small creature reaching out its heart to him in a desperate search for meaning that mirrored his own. This seagull was baring his soul in much the same way as when the old fisherman would as he’d bellow out his tune in scratchy baritone at the end of the day when all the other boats had come in full of fish. As he’d watch the sun begin to disappear under the vast span of ocean before him, he’d put the fiddle away, and after making sure all others were gone, he would sing out his song so loudly that it would thunder off the rusted hulls tied to the docks and cascade over the water past the horizon line. He could hear it echo back to him off the boats and feel it vibrating the shabby timber of his skiff, as if the harbor were answering him in acknowledgment. It was his way of clearing the board, of calling the match for the day but declaring that he would return again to accept the challenge tomorrow. Then, with renewed conviction, he’d pick up whatever he had managed to catch and all his supplies and head back home to rest and prepare his strategy for the battles ahead.
This, the old fisherman thought, was what the seagull heard and this is the gift the fisherman should give.
OF: Dear seagull, I have misjudged you and have regretfully ignored my own familiar sorrows in favor of false accusations. What I see now is not a bird but a soul as strained as my own. One that has bore the brunt of many a storming sea or the cruelness of an idle tide. After all, we here in this small port are bound together by similar forces and therefore must recognize in each other the simple desire to make due with what we are given and honor the search for purpose beyond that which our nature has predetermined. It is in this spirit, and because of your insistent passion, that I will teach you.
The seagull looks up at the old fisherman with watery eyes and softly replies with words just audible over the waves lapping at the side of the skiff.
S: You will teach me your song?
OF: Only on the conditions that you sing it with the same fervor as you have shown today, and that you in turn allow me the honor to learn your song from you.
S: You…want to learn my song?
OF: After listening to a wise friend of mine, I have come to realize that I too long for something new. An exquisite piece of music that I can call out from atop the masts of ships, from across the harbor, from the depths of my soul, and that will echo out in rapturous jubilation for all to hear and rejoice in. And the song I have been searching for, is yours.
Fighting back tears, the seagull nods to accept the conditions and the old fisherman answers with a smile.
S: Seems like a worthy exchange to me, my friend. Shall we begin?
OF: We shall.
And with that, the seagull and the old fisherman begin to sing in harmony, swapping their songs, and beginning a new chapter in this small seaside town. One in which men and birds sing their songs together and maybe once in a while even share a little bit of their catch with each other.
This was written to aid me in composing my Duet for Clarinet and Bassoon. It's the story of a seagull (clarinet) trying to learn the song of an old fisherman (bassoon). The inspiration for the story was an illustration by Robert Lee (Methane Studios) for the poster of the 2015 Newport Folk Festival.