Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.1
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.1

           John Crowley
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Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr


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  For H. B.,

  with gratitude for many things

  The crows assert that a single crow could destroy heaven. Certainly this is so—but it proves nothing against heaven: for the definition of heaven is simply the absence of crows.

  —Franz Kafka

  PROLOGUE

  There has come to be a great mountain at the end of the world. This mountain is not high but long and broad—and great because it grows all alone from a plain where no other mountains are. All around it are straight roads and soft fields—there are few stones even, and the mountain isn’t made of stone.

  It continues to grow, and will grow for a long time before it begins to settle. Before dawn a yellow Caterpillar fronted with a plow moves over the flank of it, which quakes beneath the weight, for the matter of the mountain is still soft and loose. At first light a line of fat trucks moves up the mountain on traversing paths that have been made for them, and at designated places they empty what they have brought, voiding it from their rears in steaming heaps. The Caterpillar disperses and begins to cover it.

  Some of it burns.

  On either side of the mountain are lesser mountains, older and abandoned ones, lying now prone and grass-covered, fat men asleep and digesting their vast meals through the years. Only the heights of the newest are still open, piled with unswallowed stuff.

  Along the roads leading down and away from the mountain toward the high city are houses and clusters of shelters. As soon as there is enough light, People begin to come out from them and ascend through the lesser mountains to the great one still open like a wound. They are women and children and old ones mostly; they bring sacks and buckets and other containers to carry away what they find in the new piles and what others have missed in the older and sinking ones. Smoke dims the rising sun.

  The People are still climbing the paths when the first Crows come from their winter roosts in the dense trees along the river and out on the islands of the city’s river. A long and continuous line of them, passing by above the People, hundreds and then thousands. I suppose if the People were to describe the Crows to themselves, they might say that the Crows are like a black scarf drawn over the sky reaching from beyond the horizon to the mid-heaven. But the Crows don’t see themselves in that way; they don’t see themselves as a veil or a mantle or a black bearskin, they see themselves not as a mass but as many: each of them is one, one amid others, keeping a careful distance, never touching, each one able to see where all of them go.

  They see the People moving slowly below them, the trucks with their staring lights. They know where they are.

  And the People likely give them little thought. In other days and other places they might have blessed themselves, standing under such a soft-thundering cloud; might have whispered a prayer, or a rhyme, or a verse of some gospel; studied the flock’s undulations to learn something about the future, or the weather. But that time’s long past. The scavengers ignore the birds, or despise them—black beggars, “rats with wings,” they say. The children throw things at them or chase them from the piles until older People call them to their picking again. Sometimes Crows pursue a child, thinking it has something they’d like to have, or just for fun, the old cautions long since gone. The children don’t usually have what Crows want. What the pickers want is scarce, but of food for Crows there is plenty. The trucks disgorge it in tons, mixed with inedible things but still so much wealth that the Crows don’t need to compete for it.

  I used to watch them. At evening or at dawn after sleepless nights, I’d stand at the window of a tower building in the hospital district of the same city, where on a high floor my wife was being treated and not cured. I’d look toward the mountain and see the Crows arise from the river island in their numbers and return again to the bare trees, though at that time I didn’t understand what they did. Perhaps the Crow Dar Oakley was among them then.

  New diseases have arisen: I have one, and also some lesser ones subsidiary to that one. Debra died not of the condition that brought her to that hospital far from home in search of relief, but of a disease that raged through the district as she lay there: died as I sat beside her, dressed head to toe in fabric-like stuff, masked and gloved, unable to touch her at the end. Sick myself, mortally sick in more than body, I brought her from that city back to the old cemetery in the county where we had long had a house, this house in the north, my house. Which was as far as Dar Oakley, sick too, got on his own journey away from the long mountain at the end of Ymr.

  There’s a weird clarity to the light here on these spring days, a clarity I don’t remember in this part of the world before: as though a region of dry mountain air has moved here, or is passing through. Morning skies of a darker blue than is quite real, and for all its intense beauty somehow sinister, forced, untrustworthy. I suppose it’s due to the ongoing ruination of the earth—well, the now unstoppable change in it—though I can’t give evidence of that.

  Of course there’s plenty of other evidence. The trees, green already; plants proliferating that once minded their manners, and came out in sequence. So many birds you don’t see or hear anymore. Dawn’s not silent, but it’s underpopulated. But there are also birds around here that didn’t used to be: I’m sure there weren’t Mockingbirds hereabouts when I was a boy, or Orioles.

  Many Crows, though, calling and gathering at morning and evening.

  I know that things can’t stay the same, that change is the whole of the law: but that not just the human world but the earth and the weather and life itself could be different at the end of a single lifetime from how it was at the beginning . . . you feel that the world, the earth, can die along with you. Can it? How can I believe that all around me is ruination unless I believe it was once as it should be, and I was alive then to see it? And how am I to know that this is so?

  Well. My first thought—maybe it wasn’t even a thought—on seeing an obviously very sick Crow out in my backyard a year, no, nearly two years ago now, was only that I ought to go and bash it with a shovel, for its sake and to keep whatever was the matter with it off me and others.

  I approached it warily—those bills are sharp—and heard from several directions the calling of other Crows, so close I thought I ought to be able to see them, though I couldn’t. The sick one made no attempt to get away, and didn’t even watch me come closer. Or so I thought then. It would take me a long time to understand that Crows, courting or walking a field together, never turning their heads to observe one another, aren’t indifferent to or unconscious of their neighbors. No. A Crow’s eyes are set far apart, far enough apart that he can best see very close things
out of only one eye. Crows beside one another are, in their way, face-to-face.

  Anyway, something caused me to pause and study this one—maybe because I felt studied. I’d never been so close to one not dead. I squatted down—the Crow voices (I could still see no Crows) grew sharper, the Dog barked, teeth displayed, tugging violently at the rope that kept him tethered to the house—and it all seemed to go still and silent. I forgot that I’d been afraid of infection, and bent close to look at the bird’s eyes—cloudy, I thought, not knowing then about the haws or inner eyelids of birds. On its cheek, if that’s the right word, was a patch of white plumage, like the white stripe in some people’s dark hair. From its beak came a murmuring sound unlike any Crow noise I’d ever heard. And I thought that, after a year without meaning (oh, more than one), the earth had provided me, out of some unsuspected mercy, with an omen.

  Somehow I knew that he wouldn’t allow me to touch him. I set the shovel on the ground before him, and after some thought the Crow stepped up upon the blade, a nobleman entering his carriage, and I lifted it with care. I could state no meaning yet, but I felt I had responded correctly.

  I know now that of course he was no omen, and was a provision of the earth’s only in a general sense. Later on Dar Oakley (“for it was he,” as old novels say) would make it clear to me that he was in my backyard by his own choice. Those Crows that I’d heard had not been crying out on the human enemy (and his Dog) in support of a helpless relative, but had been in the process of mobbing him, driving him away. A sick stranger. And my backyard was a refuge: other Crows would avoid People, but he was familiar with them; and he knew a tethered Dog was no threat.

  Yet it was certain that he was sick, near death.

  I brought him inside and lowered him, with the shovel, into my bathtub. I don’t remember why I thought this was reasonable—maybe to contain evacuations. Why do we do things like this, why does it seem proper to us to rescue one sick or lost animal when the world is so full of them, and we can likely do them no good? It was no different in its way from children burying with great ceremony one dead chipmunk or baby bird out of all nature’s surplus. I fed him bits of chicken and bread, or at least left them within reach. He moved little, but whenever I entered the bathroom he seemed to try to speak—seemed, even then, to have the intention to speak and not just to call or make sound. It grew dark; I turned out the light. He remained still—I’d have heard him move from my bed, which isn’t far; the house is small. I guessed he’d be dead by morning.

  I’d forgotten water. I woke at dawn realizing that, and got up to bring him some in a shallow dish. Anybody as sick as he was would be thirsty, surely. He drank, tipping his head sideways to dip his bill in the dish, then lifting his head to shake the water down inside him. I sat on the toilet seat and watched. I was aware that something remarkable had happened, or was to happen, omen or no, and I’d wait.

  What was he thinking, Dar Oakley?

  He tells me now that he can’t remember much at all of the worst days of his sickness, and the story that I tell—the backyard, the Crows, the shovel, the bathtub—will have to do for him as well as for me. The one thing he knew and I didn’t was that he wouldn’t die. That would take more than a bout of West Nile, if that’s what this was.

  Debra was never a lover of Crows, which was the sole exception I can remember of a thing produced by the natural world that she had an aversion to. Something about their raucous greed, that they ate the eggs of smaller birds; they looked like criminals to her. If she had been still alive, I would certainly not have been allowed to bring a Crow into the house, especially one sick and infected. It seemed strange to me that he showed no fear or even apprehension about being in my house and in my presence, but it didn’t seem strange to me that he was here. I tried to explain it to Debra, in the way we explain things to the dead, as if they still needed mollifying, or convincing; as if they still had a say.

  In a few days he could lift himself to the tub’s edge, clutching the porcelain with his seemingly inadequate but actually very flexible and useful feet. When he began to take trips around the house, leaving long white stripes on the floor and the furniture, I opened the windows and bade him good-bye. He flew to the sill but went no farther for a long time, his mobile head twitching this way and that. Curious about this constant act, I did a bit of research (in a bound volume of an old encyclopedia) and learned that Crows, like most birds, can’t turn their eyes in the socket like we can; to change their view, to look in a new direction, they have to change their posture. That sharp, rapid head movement is the Crow equivalent of a shifting glance.

  Of course—it tends to happen, doesn’t it?—when it was clear that he was well and could leave, I didn’t want him to go. And I supposed that the only reason he hadn’t gone was that I’d kept up with the provisions. But I had also from the start been talking to him: random remarks and inquiries—“How are you today? Feeling better? It looks like rain this morning,” and so on. I do the same with the Dog, and the moon; solitary oldsters do. I had no way of knowing he understood; after all, the Dog seems to, and I know how little he does.

  But no. The Crow wanted to stay in order to converse. And when I knew for sure he understood me—it was easy to set a few tests to prove it—I wanted to understand him.

  I wish I could put together a coherent history of how I came to learn Dar Oakley’s language. It was he, not I, who knew it was possible that we could speak and understand one another’s tongues, because he had done it with others in other places far away. When I began to write notes about the work, I wrote down only what he told me, not how I learned to hear it.

  What I wrote, and then went on writing, was nothing like a transcription. Crow talk, Crow jokes, Crow histories have the brevity of koans, or Confucian analects; their richness is in the speaking, like sign language in sounds. Translating from one human language to another is no comparison. A long time ago Dar Oakley had to make his way into Ymr—the name that he gives to the human world—and it was a way full of wrong turns and dead ends; I had to make my way into Ka, the realm of Crows, in order to bring back his story, never knowing if I understood aright what I carried.

  But you see, right there: in every human language we talk about ways and paths and bringing and bearing things along them. We come to a fork in the road, a parting of the ways, we take a wrong turn. Crows never talk in that way. But if I couldn’t, I’m not sure I could tell a story, or recount a life. We are beings on the path, always wondering what’s beyond the next turning. Crows live in a wide, trackless space of three dimensions. If I have in these pages replaced the real Crow speech with a human speech different in meaning and affect, it’s because I had no other choice.

  What I certainly remember is the daily honest effort of learning, his effort and mine, and our—well, wouldn’t it be friendship that I earned in those days, spring turning to summer, summer to fall? Of course I may be mad, not just confused. The Crow may be a being that can have no sense of me, who has perhaps said nothing to me at all, and this is only a story I have told myself. In any case, what you have before you, imagined Reader—all the story there is or can be—is what I think was said, and what I believe I heard. The tale of how he left the city and the City Crows, and by what ways he came to me, was the first he was able to tell me, the first I was able to understand and write down. And then more, and then the rest: how it began, how it will end. Beginning here.

  PART 1

  DAR OAKLEY IN THE COMING OF YMR

  CHAPTER ONE

  Before the mountain at the world’s end was built on the river plain, before the high city there grew up, before most of the Ravens went away into the forests of the deep North, before the People’s long rage to kill Crows, before Dar Oakley’s sea-journey to the West, before the Most Precious Thing was found and lost again, before the ways were opened to the lands of the dead, before there were names in Ka, before Ymr came to be and therefore before Ka knew itself, Dar Oakley first knew People.

  D
ar Oakley didn’t have that name then, or any name. It would be eons before Crows had each a name, as they do now; then, no, they had no need of them, they called those around them Father, Brother, Older Sister, Other Older Sister; those they didn’t know as relations, or forgot in what degree, were spoken of as Those Ones, or Others, or All of Them There, and so on. And since they had little to say about other Crows or very much need to talk about them when not in their presence, this was enough.

  But without names it’s impossible to remember stories, and hard to tell them. So Dar Oakley will begin as Dar Oakley in this one.

  There weren’t many Crows then. Or rather there were very many, all around the world; but not many in any one place. Where Dar Oakley had been hatched and fledged, except in the winter roosts that drew Crows from far away, there were not more Crows than any one of them could know by sight and voice. If it were to happen that an unknown Crow came trespassing among them, he or she would be seen off, or at least kept at bay a long time; many seasons could pass during which a strange pair would remain strangers, and even when they were accepted, no one would forget they weren’t really Us.

  Dar Oakley’s parents were two such. Where they came from, where their birth flock had its demesne, why they left and came here, Dar Oakley never knew: for as soon as they could, they forgot it themselves, each wanting only to belong here, one of these Crows; eventually they would be as disparaging about newcomers as the rest. Even so, from their birth Dar Oakley’s older brothers and sisters were looked on with suspicion, everyone sure they could still detect something different, something not-Us, about them: and one by one they left the flock, to seek out brothers and sisters who had left before them, or to be strangers elsewhere, no one knew where—or indeed if there was a Where or a There to go to.

 
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