A tale of the Great Patriotic War

Editing copyright 2002 by Hugo S. Cunningham
(The original Soviet text was not copyrighted)

File added 20021207
Last minor change 20021207

The following story appears as an English-language reading lesson in
E. Belova and L. Todd,English: A Textbook of the English Language for the 7th Grade in 7-year and Secondary Schools (third edition)State Textbook and Pedagogical Publishers of the Ministry of Education of the RSFSR, Moscow, 1951; pp. 102-105.

The Nightingale

by Petras Tsvirka

A detachment of German soldiers entered the heap of ashes that had once been a Russian village. On a cart pulling a field-kitchen behind it, sat a tired-looking lieutenant. Evidently he was looking for something, for his eyes moved again and again from the map on his knees to the ruins of the village. There was not a soul to be seen.

At the far end of the village, the road forked. One path led to the fields and the other turned sharply towards the forest. Here the lieutenant gave the order to halt. He jumped down from the cart and carefully examined the place through his field-glasses. The soldiers stood silently watching him.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the call of a nightingale close at hand. The Germans began to look for the bird in the bushes. Then they saw a boy of about thirteen lying in the grass at the side of the road with his feet in the ditch. He wore a green jacket and no hat. He was busy scraping a stick with a pocket-knife.

"Hey, come here, you!" called the lieutenant.

The boy quickly put his knife in his pocket and approached the officer.

"Show it to me!" said the German. The boy took a little birchwood whistle out of his mouth and handed it to the officer with a smile.

"It's well made, my boy, well made." For a second there was a smile on his unpleasant face. "Who taught you to whistle like that?"

"No one, sir. I learned it myself. I can make the cuckoo's call too." And he suited the action to the word. Then he put the whistle back in his mouth and again the clear sweet trill of the nightingale was heard.

"Are you the only one in the village?" asked the lieutenant, raising his field-glasses.

"How the only one? There are lots of birds here -- sparrows and crows, and nightingales, and cuckoos. Sure I'm not the only one here."

'Idiot!" shouted the fascist officer angrily. "Are there people here?"

"People? There haven't been any people here since the beginning of the war," answered the boy, not at all afraid. "When the shooting began and the village was burned down, everyone began to shout: "The wild animals are coming!" and ran away.

"And why didn't you run away?"

"I wanted to see the wild animals. Once I went to town and a man there was showing a cat as big as a calf for 50 kopeks."

"Weak-minded," said the officer in German, turning towards his men.

"Do you know the way to Surmantas? That's what the place is called, isn't it?"

"Why, sure I do," answered the boy confidently. "I went there with Uncle Yuri to catch fish. The fish there can swallow a goose, they're so big!"

'Then the lieutenant took a cigarette-lighter our of his pocket and showed it to the boy. He said that if the boy showed him the right way, he would give him the cigarette-lighter.

"But if you lead us wrong," he shouted, "I'll wring your neck, whistle and all!" The boy said he would lead them straight to Surmantas.

The detachment moved on again. The boy walked beside the lieutenant. Sometimes he trilled the nightingale's sing, sometimes he called, "Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"

The forest became thicker and thicker.

"Are there partisans about here?" asked the lieutenant.

"Partisans? What are they'? Mushrooms? No, they don't grow here. There are only brown mushrooms, red mushrooms, birch mushrooms, and white mushrooms," the boy answered.

The lieutenant saw that it was useless to question him further and said nothing more.


Deep in the forest, hidden behind the trees, lay several men armed with rifles. A bend in the road could be seen from where they hid between the trunks of the trees.

"Listen!" said one of the men suddenly. "The Nightingale! Do you hear?"

The man next to him listened carefully but could hear nothing.

"You only seemed to hear it," he said. However, he took four hand grenades from behind a stump and laid them in front of him.

"Now do you hear?"

The sound was already quite clear. The man who first heard it began to count "One, two, three, four... Thirty-two fritzes," he said softly, as he listened to the bird's song. "And two machine-guns," he added as the call of the cuckoo followed the trills of the nightingale. "We'll manage them," he said as he took up his rifle. "Petrov and I will let them pass. When the rest of you begin firing, we shall attack them in the rear. If anything happens to me, don't forget the Nightingale."

In a few minutes the German detachment appeared round the bend. The Nightingale trilled on as gaily as ever.

Suddenly another whistle came out of the wood like an echo in answer to the boy's. The boy halted, then dashed aside into the bushes. Shots rang out, breaking the silence. The lieutenant fell, and one by one the German soldiers fell after him. Groans, shouts and the sharp words of command filled the air.

Not one German soldier reached Surmantas, and not one went back to the place he had come from.

The next day, at the end of the village where the road forked, sat a boy of about thirteen, with his feet in the ditch. Now and then he looked up the road into the village as if he was waiting for someone. From his lips came the trills of the nightingale, and in his hand was a stick which he was scraping with a pocket-knife.

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