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,
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.
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
“Or else he would have imprisoned all the criminals who are at
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.
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
It was exactly as it had been in his dream. And now the old man
understood what the tree-swallow meant.