If the finches of the Galápagos islands can’t sing in key, they may go extinct. The males trill to draw their mates to them, and their courtship songs vary based on the physiological differences of their beaks. Through the ten thousand years or so of their existence, their beaks evolved in distinct variations to best suit the sustenance available across their habitats. Diverse shapes, sizes and sharpness for seeds, insects, or cacti. The birds are also known as Darwin finches, after the scientist whose work was heavily influenced by encountering them.
But a human-caused parasitic infestation is affecting their beaks, and thus their lovesongs. Their nostrils are being deformed by the larvae of a blood-sucking fly, which feed on tissue, keratin and blood. The songs of misshapen beaks, off-key and therefore off-putting, have ceased to have their intended effect. Not only are chicks dying from the parasitic attacks, but the survivors cannot sing their lineage into being. The mates cannot be seduced.
A line from of one of my favourite poems, Anne Sexton’s “Sonnet XLIII”, haunts me as I think of those birds – broken into, their faces and voices mutilated, still desirous, without having that yearning be met. And the thwarted mates: where does their disenchantment go? Beyond some point of no return, loveless but ripe with memory, Sexton wrote: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.” I sought the finches’ songs, and instead found words – reams on their voices and their bodies, but not enough of their music.
Amidst this silence, a resonance. The National Sound Library of Mexico has just discovered and released the only extant recording of what may be Frida Kahlo’s voice. I had never known that I had never known what her voice was like.
In the recording, a woman reads a passage in intimate praise of Diego Rivera. The reading seems practised, with an easy rhythm. The motifs are familiar; the words seem to be Kahlo’s. Rivera the toad, the baby, the great artist whose hands are ever working. At first I wondered what her natural voice must have been like, especially if she had been coached and made a few attempts to perfect the audio. A little moodier, maybe. A little smoke-laced. But this voice is bell-clear, ebullient. Strikingly so when we learn that the recording was aired on radio in 1955, the year after Kahlo’s passing. This would complicate the possibility that it was her, except that the recitation was enigmatically described as being by “a painter who no longer exists”. Researchers believe it was made in the last, painful years of her life.
For a dying woman she sounds buoyant. Even rehearsed, this was Kahlo’s true voice then: her voracious desire to live and her adoration of her beloved both vivid. Having had an amputation, she had written in her diary of not needing feet, being winged. Thus returns the sorrow over the vanishing finches, so misunderstood. I wish for them mates who can perceive their true voices. Even in mutilation and dissonance. And for love or something like it to carry their timbre through.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 20th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.