THE Indians called him Cencontlatolly, or 400 tongues. His scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, or many-tongued mimic. To you and me he's the mockingbird. The mockingbird in gray combat uniform with grand, white insignia on his wings divebombs over Fred, the cat, as he slinks across the lawn. The mocker's nest is up above in the maple tree, and he takes no chances. Fred takes no chances, either, and springs for cover underneath the viburnum. Satisfied, the mocker zooms back to the top of a neighboring television antenna to survey his world, and he begins chanting his 400 tongues.
Mimicking perfectly the sounds he hears about him, he borrows the trills of robins and the caws of crows and builds them into continuous outpourings of song.
My bird book says the mockingbird's repertoire may include squeaky gate hinges, a dog's bark, and the postman's whistle. It includes much more.
One morning I awoke at dawn, thinking someone was using the typewriter in my study. Bounding from bed, I ran to the study and threw open the door. No intruders. But I kept hearing the typewriter.
Through the open window I glimpsed the culprit, tap-tap-tapping away in song, in perfect mimickry of my Smith-Corona. He then rhapsodized in the manner of cardinals, blue jays, warblers, and such. I hopped back into bed, impressed with the impostor's phenomenal memory.
I felt a special affinity for that bird as he continued his daily morning concerts, always including his typewriter concerto lifted from me through the open window.
Although I am an early-morning writer, the mocker was even earlier. He began to shame me into rising earlier each day, and his tap-tap-tapping became the directive I needed for increased production. He was heaven-sent . . . but not always.
``The lark and the nightingale in one,'' said naturalist John Burroughs. The lark in him was fine, but he became a raucous, annoying nightingale. ``To kill a mockingbird'' sounds harsh and callous, but one night/morning at 3 it became a fuzzy near-desire. ``What on earth is he doing up at this hour, squawking like crows and wild things?'' I asked my sleepless husband.
We tossed. Turned. Put pillows over our heads. His concert included works by finches, sparrows, orioles, mourning doves, squeaking gates, bluebirds, postman's whistles, and, yes, even my typewriter. When does he sleep, I wondered?
August came. Our mocker molted, and he was silenced at last, temporarily, just as the book predicted. And then he continued in his usual fashion, teaching his young the facts of life and doing what mockingbirds do to pass the time of day . . . and night.
We saw him less frequently during the winter, but he was nearby. Silent. Catching up on lost sleep, I suppose.
In February, I suspect I heard him again during the night, but the storm windows were closed, so it was disputable.
One day as temperatures soared, I threw open the windows. The sound that greeted me was distant at first. I stopped what I was doing, for there was a familiarity to the sound. I listened carefully. And then . . . the tap-tap-tapping of my Smith-Corona, emanating from the viburnum. My mockingbird! My typewriter! Our song!