What The Tree-Swallow Sang In The Buckthorn Tree by August Strindberg

If you are standing at the harbour where all the steamers call, and look out towards the sea, you will see a mountain on your left, covered with green trees, and behind the trees a large house built in the shape of a spider. For in the centre there is a round building from which radiate eight wings, that look very much like the eight legs on the round body of a spider. The people who enter the house do not leave it again at will, and some of them stay there for the rest of their life, for the house is a prison.

In the days of King Oscar I, the mountain was not green. On the contrary, it was grey and cold, for neither moss nor heart’s-ease would grow there, although these plants generally thrive on the bare rock. There was nothing but grey stone and grey people, who looked as if they had been turned into stone, and who quarried stone, broke stone, and carried stone. And among these people there was one who looked stonier than all the others.

He was still a youth when, in the reign of King Oscar I., he was shut up in this prison because he had killed a man.

He was a prisoner for life, and sewn on his grey prison garb was a large black “L.”

He was always on the mountain, in winter days and summer time, breaking stones. In the winter he had only the empty and deserted harbour to look at; the semicircular bridge with its poles had the appearance of a yawning row of teeth, and he could see the wood-shed, the riding-school, and the two gigantic, denuded lime trees. Sometimes an ice-yacht would sail past the islet; sometimes a few boys would pass on skates; otherwise it was quiet and forsaken.

In the summer time it was much jollier. For then the harbour was full of smart boats, newly painted and decorated with flags. And the lime trees, in the shade of which he had sat when he was a child, waiting for his father, who was an engineer on one of the finest boats, were green.

It was many years now since he had heard the rustling of the breeze in the trees, for nothing grew on his cliff, and the only thing in the world he longed for was to hear once again the whispering of the wind in the branches of the lime trees at Knightsholm.

Sometimes, on a summer’s day, a steamer would pass the islet; then he heard the plashing of the waves, or, perhaps, snatches of music; and he saw bright faces which grew dark as soon as their eyes fell on the grey stone men on the mountain.

And then he cursed heaven and earth, his fate and the cruelty of men. He cursed, year in, year out. And he and his companions tormented and cursed each other day and night; for crime isolates, but misfortune draws men together.

In the beginning his fate was unnecessarily cruel, for the keepers ill-treated the prisoners, mercilessly and at their pleasure.

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But one day there was a change; the food was better, the treatment was less harsh, and every prisoner was given a cell of his own to sleep in. The king himself had loosened the chains of the prisoners a little; but since hopelessness had petrified the hearts of these unfortunate men, they were unable to feel anything like gratitude, and so they continued to curse; and now they came to the conclusion that it was more pleasant to sleep together in one room, for then they could talk all night. And they continued to complain of the food, the clothes, and the treatment, just as before.

One fine day all the bells of the town were ringing, and those of Knightsholm rang louder than any of the others. King Oscar was dead, and the prisoners had a holiday. Since they could talk to one another now, they talked of murdering the guards and escaping from prison; and they also talked of the dead king, and they spoke evil of him.

“If he had been a just man, he would have set us free,” said one of the prisoners.

“Or else he would have imprisoned all the criminals who are at large.”

“Then he himself would have had to be Governor of the Prison, for the whole nation are criminals.”

It is the way of prisoners to regard all men as criminals, and to maintain that they themselves were only caught because they were unlucky.

But it was a hot summer’s day, and the stone man walked along the shore, listening to the tolling of the bells for Oscar the king. He raised the stones and looked for tadpoles and sticklebacks, but could find none; not a fish was visible in the water, and consequently there was not a sign of a sea-gull or a tern. Then he felt that a curse rested on the mountain, a curse so strong that it kept even the fishes and the birds away. He fell to considering the life he was leading. He had lost his name, both Christian and surname, and was no more now than No. 65, a name written in figures, instead of in letters. He was no longer obliged to pay taxes. He had forgotten his age. He had ceased to be a man, ceased to be a living being, but neither was he dead. He was nothing but something grey moving on the mountain and being terribly scorched by the sun. It burned on his prison garb and on his head with the close-cropped hair, which in days long passed had been curly, and was combed with a tooth-comb every Saturday by his mother’s gentle hand. He was not allowed to wear a cap to-day, because it would have facilitated an attempt at escape. And as the sun scorched his head, he remembered the story of the prophet Jonah, to whom the Lord gave a gourd so that he might sit in its shade.

“A nice gift, that!” he sneered, for he did not believe in anything good; in fact, he did not believe in anything at all.

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All at once he saw a huge birch branch tossed about in the surf. It was quite green and fresh and had a white stem; possibly it had fallen off a pleasure-boat. He dragged it ashore, shook the water off and carried it to a gully where he put it up, wedged firmly between three stones. Then he sat down and listened to the wind rustling through its leaves, which smelt of the finest resin.

When he had sat for a little while in the shade of the birch he fell asleep.

And he dreamed a dream.

The whole mountain was a green wood with lovely trees and odorous flowers. Birds were singing, bees and humble-bees buzzing, and butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. But all by itself and a little aside stood a tree which he did not know; it was more beautiful than all the rest; it had several stems, like a shrub, and the branches looked like lacework. And on one of its branches, half hidden by its foliage, sat a little black-and-white bird which looked like a swallow, but wasn’t one.

In his dream he could interpret the language of the birds, and therefore he understood to some extent what the bird was singing. And it sang:

Mud, mud, mud, mud here! We’ll throw, throw, throw here! In mud, mud, mud you died, From mud, mud, mud you’ll rise.

It sang of mud, death, and resurrection; that much he could make out.

But that was not all. He was standing alone on the cliff in the scorching heat of the sun. All his fellows-in-misfortune had forsaken him and threatened his life, because he had refused to be a party to their setting the prison on fire. They followed him in a crowd, threw stones at him and chased him up the mountain as far as he could go.

And finally he was stopped by a stone wall.

There was no possibility of climbing over it, and in his despair he resolved to kill himself by dashing his head against the stones. He rushed down the mountain, and behold! a gate was opened at the same moment–a green garden gate … and … he woke up.

When he thought of his life and realised that the green wood was nothing but the branch of a birch tree, he grew very discontented in his heart.

“If at least it had been a lime tree,” he grumbled. And as he listened he found that it was the birch which had sung so loudly; it sounded as if some one were sifting sand or gravel, and again he thought of the lime trees, which make the soft velvety sounds that touch the heart.

On the following day his birch was faded and gave little shade.

On the day after that the foliage was as dry as paper and rattled like teeth. And finally there was nothing left but a huge birch rod, which reminded him of his childhood.

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He remembered the gourd of the prophet Jonah, and he cursed when the sun scorched his head.


A new king had come to the throne, and he brought fresh life into the government of the country. The town was to have a new watercourse, and therefore all the prisoners were commanded to dredge.

It was for the first time after many years that he was allowed to leave his cliff. He was in the boat, swimming on the water, and saw much in his native town that was new to him; he saw the railway and the locomotive. And they began dredging just below the railway station.

And gradually they brought up all the corruption which lay buried at the bottom of the sea. Drowned cats, old shoes, decomposed fat from the candle factory, the refuse from the dye works called “The Blue Hand,” tanners’ bark from the tannery, and all the human misery which the laundresses had batted off the clothes for the last hundred years. And there was such a terrible smell of sulphur and ammonia that only a prisoner could be expected to bear it.

When the boat was full, the prisoners wondered what was going to be done with their cargo of dirt? The riddle was solved when the overseer steered for their own cliff.

All the mud was unloaded there and thrown on the mountain, and soon the air was filled with the foulest of smells. They waded ankle-deep in filth, and their clothes, hands, and faces were covered with it.

“This is like the infernal regions!” said the prisoners.

They dredged and unloaded on the cliff for several years, and ultimately the cliff disappeared altogether.

And the white snow fell winter after winter on all the corruption and threw a pure white cover over it.

And when the spring came once again and all the snow had melted, the evil smell had disappeared, and the mud looked like mould. There was no more dredging after this spring, and our stone man was sent to work at the forge and never came near the cliff. Only once, in the autumn, he went there secretly, and then he saw something wonderful.

The ground was covered with green plants. Ugly sappy plants, it was true, mostly bur-marigolds, that look like a nettle with brown flowers, which is ugly because flowers should be white, yellow, blue or red. And there were true nettles with green blossoms, and burs, sorrel, thistles, and notch-weed; all the ugliest, burning, stinging, evil-smelling plants, which nobody likes, and which grow on dust-heaps, waste land, and mud.

“We cleaned the bottom of the sea, and now we have all the dirt here; this is all the thanks we get!” said the prisoner.

Then he was transferred to another cliff, where a fort was to be built, and again he worked in stone; stone, stone, stone!

Then he lost one of his eyes, and sometimes he was flogged. And he remained a very long time there, so long that the new king died and was followed by his successor. On coronation day one of the prisoners was to be released. And it was to be the one who had behaved best during all the time and had arrived at a clear understanding that he had sinned. And that was he! But the other prisoners considered that it would be a wrong towards them, for in their circles a man who repents is considered a fool, “because he has done what he couldn’t help doing.”

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And so the years passed. Our stone man had grown very old, and because he was now unable to do hard work, he was sent back to his cliff and set to sew sacks.

One day the chaplain on his round paused before the stone man, who sat and sewed.

“Well,” said the clergyman, “and are you never to leave this cliff?”

“How would that be possible?” replied the stone man.

“You will go as soon as you come to see that you did wrong.”

“If ever I find a human being who does not only do right, but more than is right, I will believe that I did wrong! But I don’t believe that there is such a being.”

“To do more than that which is right is to have compassion. May it please God that you will soon come to know it!”

One day the stone man was sent to repair the road on the cliff, which he had not seen for, perhaps, twenty years.

It was again a warm summer’s day, and from the passing steamers, bright and beautiful as butterflies, came the sounds of music and gay laughter.

When he arrived at the headland he found that the cliff had disappeared under a lovely green wood, whose millions of leaves glittered and sparkled in the breeze like small waves. There were tall, white birch trees and trembling aspens, and ash trees grew on the shore.

Everything was just as it had been in his dream. At the foot of the trees tall grasses nodded, butterflies played in the sunshine, and humble-bees buzzed from flower to flower. The birds were singing, but he could not understand what they said, and therefore he knew that it was not a dream.

The cursed mountain had been transformed into a mountain of bliss, and he could not help thinking of the prophet and the gourd.

“This is mercy and compassion,” whispered a voice in his heart, or perhaps it was a warning.

And when a steamer passed, the faces of the passengers did not grow gloomy, but brightened at the sight of the beautiful scenery; he even fancied that he saw some one wave a handkerchief, as people on a steamer do when they pass a summer resort.

He walked along a path beneath waving trees. It is true, there was not one lime tree; but he did not dare to wish for one, for fear the birches might turn into rods. He had learnt that much.

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As he walked through a leafy avenue, he saw in the distance a white wall with a green gate. And somebody was playing on an instrument which was not an organ, for the movement was much jollier and livelier. Above the wall the pretty roof of a villa was visible, and a yellow and blue flag fluttered in the wind.

And he saw a gaily coloured ball rise and fall on the other side of the wall; he heard the chattering of children’s voices, and the clinking of plates and glasses told him that a table was being laid.

He went and looked through the gate. The syringa was in full flower, and the table stood under the flowering shrubs; children were running about, the piano was being played and somebody sang a song.

“This is Paradise,” said the voice within him.

The old man stood a long time and watched, so long that in the end he broke down, overcome by fatigue, hunger, and thirst, and all the misery of life.

Then the gate was opened and a little girl in a white dress came out. She carried a silver tray in her hand, and on the tray stood a glass filled with wine, the reddest wine which the old man had ever seen. And the child went up to the old man and said:

“Come now, daddy, you must drink this!”

The old man took the glass and drank. It was the rich man’s wine, which had grown a long way off in the sunny South; and it tasted like the sweetness of a good life when it is at its very best.

“This is compassion,” said his own old broken voice. “But you, child, in your ignorance, you wouldn’t have brought me this wine if you had known who I am. Do you know what I am?”

“Yes, you are a prisoner, I know that,” replied the little girl.

When the old stone man went back, he was no longer a man of stone, for something in him had begun to quicken.

And as he passed a steep incline, he saw a tree with many trunks, which looked like a shrub. It was more beautiful than the others; it was a buckthorn tree, but the old man did not know it. A restless little bird, black and white like a swallow, fluttered from branch to branch. The peasants call it tree-swallow, but its name is something else. And it sat in the foliage and sang a sweet sad song:

In mud, in mud, in mud you died, From mud, from mud, from mud you rose.

It was exactly as it had been in his dream. And now the old man understood what the tree-swallow meant.

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