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What Stumped the Bluejays
Excerpted from Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad," 1880
This is a story that Twain never published by itself, though it’s been anthologized plenty in the
last hundred years as a stand-alone story. He wrote it as one of many side-notes and ruminations
“A Tramp Abroad,”
a more-or-less nonfiction account of his travels through Europe, which is peppered with similar asides and tall tales. It so encapsulates the Twain style, sense of humor, and attention to detail, his unique voice and ability to write in dialect (much more difficult than
you’d think), and his craft in blending reality with fantasy, that it has taken on a rich life of
its own. It’s a perfectly-crafted little gem.
And it’s a delight to perform – I enjoy playing that bluejay, and its many moods and movements, and the Twain dialect is great fun to sink backwards into, like an overstuffed couch.
Since it was part of a book, not a story of its own, there isn’t a lot of consensus on what its title should be. Though it is often called the “Bluejay Yarn” or “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn,” I prefer the title by which I first came across it, in
“21 Great Stories”
. . . “What Stumped the Bluejays.”
talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself. He was a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner, who had lived in a lonely corner of California,
among the woods and mountains, a good many years, and had studied the ways
of his only neighbors, the beasts and birds, until he could accurately translate
any remark which they made. This was Jim Baker.
According to Jim Baker, some animals have only a limited education and use
very simple words and scarcely ever a comparison or a flowery figure; whereas,
certain other animals have a large vocabulary, a fine command of language and
a ready and fluent delivery; consequently these latter talk a great deal; they
like it; they are conscious of their talent, and they enjoy “showing off.”
Baker said, that after long and careful observation, he had come to the
conclusion that bluejays were the best talkers he had found among the birds
and beasts. Said he:
There's more to a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk – and bristling with metaphor, too – just bristling! And as for command of language – why you never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I've noticed a good deal, and there's no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does – but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use. Now I've never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.
You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure – because he's got feathers on him, and don't belong to no church, perhaps, but otherwise he is just as much a human as you be. And I'll tell you for why. A jay's gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests cover the whole ground. A jay hasn't got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and, four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. Now, on top of all this, there's another thing: a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a bluejay a subject that calls for his reserve powers, and where is your cat? Don't talk to me – I know too much about this thing. And there's yet another thing: in the one little particular of scolding – just good, clean, out-and-out scolding – a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine. Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do – maybe better. If a jay ain't human, he better take in his sign, that's all.
Now I am going to tell you a perfectly true fact about some bluejays.
When I first begun to understand jay language correctly, there was a little incident happened here. Seven years ago, the last man in this region but me moved away. There stands his house – been empty ever since; a log house, with a plank roof – just one big room, and no more; no ceiling – nothing between the rafters and the floor. Well, one Sunday morning I was sitting out here in front of my cabin with my cat, taking the sun, and looking at the blue hills, and listening to the leaves rustling so lonely in the trees, and thinking of the home away yonder in the states, that I hadn’t heard from in thirteen years, . . . when a bluejay lit on that house, with an acorn in his mouth, and says, “Hello, I reckon I've struck something.” When he spoke the acorn fell out of his mouth and rolled down the roof, of course, but he didn't care; his mind was all on the thing he had struck. It was a knot-hole in the roof. He cocked his head to one side, shut one eye and put the other to the hold, like a possum looking down a jug; then he glanced up with his bright eyes, gave a wink or two with his wings – which signifies gratification, you understand – and says, “It looks like a hole, it's located like a hole – blamed if I don't believe it is a hole!”
Then he cocked his head down and took another look; he glances up perfectly joyful this time; winks his wings and his tail both, and says, “Oh, no, this ain't no fat thing, I reckon! If I ain't in luck – why it's a perfectly elegant hole!” So he flew down and got that acorn, and fetched it up and dropped it in, and was just tilting his head back with the heavenliest smile on his face, when all of a sudden he was paralyzed into a listening attitude, and that smile faded gradually out of his countenance like a breath off'n a razor, and the queerest look of surprise took its place. Then he says, “Why, I didn't hear it fall!” He cocked his eye at the hole again and took a long look; raised up and shook his head; stepped around to the other side of the hole, and took another look from that side; shook his head again. He studied a while, then he just went into the details – walked round and round the hole, and spied into it from every point of the compass. No use. Now he took a thinking attitude on the comb of the roof, and scratched the back of his head with his right foot a minute, and finally says, “Well, it's too many for me, that's certain; must be a mighty long hole; however, I ain't got no time to fool around here; I got to ’tend to business; I reckon it's all right – chance it, anyway!”
So he flew off and fetched another acorn and dropped it in, and tried to flirt his eye to the hole quick enough to see what become of it, but he was too late. He held his eye there as much as a minute; then he raised up and sighed, and says, “Confound it, I don't seem to understand this thing, no way; however, I'll tackle her again.” He fetched another acorn, and done his level best to see what become of it, but he couldn't. He says, “Well I never struck no such hole as this before; I’m of the opinion it’s a totally new kind of a hole.” Then he begun to get mad. He held in for a spell, walking up and down the comb of the roof, and shaking his head and muttering to himself; but his feelings got the upper hand of him presently, and he broke loose and cussed himself black in the face. I never see a bird take on so about a little thing. When he got through, he walks to the hole and looks in again for half a minute; then he says, “Well, you're a long hole, and a deep hole, and a mighty singular hole altogether – but I've started to fill you, and I'm d----d if I don't fill you, if it takes a hundred years!”
And with that, away he went. You never see a bird work so since you was born. He laid into his work, and the way he hove acorns into that hole for about two hours and a half was one of the most exciting and astonishing spectacles I ever struck. He never stopped to take a look any more – he just hove ’em in, and went for more. Well, at last he could hardly flop his wings, he was so tuckered out. He comes a-drooping down, once more, sweating like an ice-pitcher, drops his acorn in and says, “Now I guess I've got the bulge on you by this time!” So he bent down for a look. If you'll believe me, when his head come up again he was just pale with rage. He says, “I've shoveled acorns enough in there to keep the family thirty years, and if I can see a sign of one of ’em I wish I may land in a museum with a belly full of sawdust in two minutes!”
He just had strength enough to crawl up on to the comb and lean his back agin the chimbly, and then he collected his impressions and begun to free his mind. I see in a second that what I had mistook for profanity in the mines was only just the rudiments, as you may say.
Another jay was going by, and heard him doing his devotions, and stops to inquire what was up. The sufferer told him the whole circumstance, and says, “Now yonder’s the hole, and if you don't believe me, go and look for yourself.” So this fellow went and looked, and comes back and says, “How many did you say you put in there?” “Not any less than two tons,” says the sufferer. The other jay went and looked again. He couldn't seem to make it out, so he raised a yell and three more jays come. They all examined the hole, they all made the sufferer tell it over again, then they all discussed it, and got off as many leather-headed opinions about it as an average crowd of humans could have done.
They called in more jays; then more and more, till pretty soon this whole region ’peared to have a blue flush about it. There must have been five thousand of them; and such another jawing and disputing and ripping and cussing, you never heard. Every jay in the whole lot put his eye to the hole, and delivered a more chuckle-headed opinion about the mystery that the jay that went there before him.
They examined the house all over too. The door was standing half-open, and at last one old jay happened to go and light on it and look in. Of course, that knocked the mystery galley-west in a second. There lay the acorns, scattered all over the floor. He flopped his wings and raised a whoop. “Come here!” he says, “Come here, everybody; hang’d if this fool hasn’t been trying to fill up a house with acorns!” They all came a-swooping down like a blue cloud, and as each fellow lit on the door and took a glance, the whole absurdity of the contract that that first jay had tackled hit home, and he fell over backward with laughter, and the next jay took his place and done the same.
Well, sir, they roosted around here on the housetop and the trees for an hour, and guffawed over that thing like human beings. It ain’t no use to tell me a bluejay hasn’t got a sense of humor, because I know better. And memory, too. They brought jays here from all over the United States to look down that hole, every summer for three years. Other birds, too. And they could all see the point . . . except an owl that come from Nova Scotia to visit the Yo Semite, and he took this thing in on his way back. He said he couldn’t see anything funny in it.
But then, he was a good deal disappointed about Yo Semite, too.