Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.18
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.18

           John Crowley
 

  “Demons!” the Brother cried, and the ones doing the digging looked up in alarm. “Demons, devils out of Hell, sent to harry the blessed. Why would the good God allow them to?” He set to work, lifting a little dirt and tossing it. “We can’t know. You angels, conduct him safely into paradise, blessed child!” And he touched forehead, breast, and shoulders the way they all did all the time.

  Toward evening they carried the dead boy from the church on a board that they lifted to their shoulders. The boy was wrapped head to toe and couldn’t be seen. With the tall cross the Abbot led them to the place the Brother had dug, and there they gently laid him, all singing all the while: calling God’s attention to the place, so that the child soul could know his way back to this place on the last day to rejoin the body. The parents they bore out and put together in the larger hole beside him.

  Dar Oakley—having a sort of role on this day as cruel Death’s representative—sat looking down from the capstone of the churchyard cross and was not chased away.

  As the Brothers spoke and sang, earth was thrown in on the wrapped People. One Brother carried a pot hung from a strap, in which hot coals had been put. Another took a handful of something from a pouch and scattered it over the coals.

  Gray smoke arose. A puff of wind brought it to Dar Oakley. The rictal bristles above his nostrils rose: he had breathed in this smoke before, this heavy odor, somewhere, sometime; not here, not in the life he lived now. In Ymr. What is Ymr? This is Ymr: the world around drawing close to him, the People and People things large, the farther-off things small and vague. All in a moment he was no longer where he had been; but where he now was he had been before.

  He saw his Brother go to the Abbot and kneel and speak rapidly to him: Dar Oakley could hear and understand. The Brother was asking permission to remain by the boy’s grave and pray through the night. The Abbot—tiny, sun-browned, and withered like a winter apple—wouldn’t allow it; the Brother begged again, bowing nearly to the Abbot’s gnarled feet.

  “He was as I once was,” the Brother said. “I too was an oblation, my family’s gift. I was his age then.”

  The Abbot looked up to the sky as though he saw something there, and put his hand on the Brother’s head and nodded.

  Day was nearly gone when the hole the boy was laid in was filled again with the earth that had been taken from it, and his kin in their grave also covered. An Abbey servant brought a thick candle or torch made of bound reeds and butter, and a stone bottle of water, and placed these beside the Brother. The other Brothers departed, casting looks of annoyance at their Brother that Dar Oakley noticed and felt.

  Then they two were alone.

  Watch with me, said the Brother, in speech not like his common speech.

  I will, Dar Oakley said without speaking—at least not in words of Ka—and the Brother nodded in gratitude.

  So they stayed, the Crow on the cross, the Brother on his knees below. Now and then the Brother got up groaning from his knees and cast a pinch of the odorous stuff into the candle flame, where it let out its smoke, and Dar Oakley, near sleep, would wake again.

  His bones rest here, the Brother said. His soul goes up.

  Up? Dar Oakley asked.

  Good souls go up, the Brother said, to live forever in heaven above; bad souls go down, far down under, to live in darkness.

  Dar Oakley didn’t know this, about the soul that the Brothers talked of so often, a part of People that became detached at death. He thought he had once known something like it but something different. The smoke tasted of what he had known.

  One day, the Brother said, when all things are accomplished, souls will return again to their bodies. So we pray here by this boy, that he will know the way to this gate of his resurrection, and not wander in the forest where the wild axmen killed him, unable to find where he lies.

  I know who killed him, Dar Oakley said. I saw them.

  Corve! said the Brother. Who are they? Where are they?

  Dar Oakley didn’t know how to answer that. He thought about it. He fell asleep, and slept till the smell of the smoke woke him again.

  It was near dawn, a faint light almost darker than darkness.

  Corve, said the Brother. Look.

  The earth and stones piled high over the place where the boy lay seemed to shift; pebbles rolled away—Dar Oakley thought it might be only the candle’s shaky light. But then he heard it too. The click of little stones rolling away together.

  Something appeared there, at the center of the pile, something bright, yellow like a candle flame, but steady. It was poking out of the dirt, as though pushed up from below. The Brother was still, staring, whispering in his other sacred language.

  What is it? Dar Oakley asked.

  A ladder, the Brother said.

  More of it appeared: the rails, then a rung, then another. Dar Oakley knew what a ladder was; the rails of this one bent together at the top, like the ladders the Brothers used for apple picking.

  Golden, said the Brother.

  Dar Oakley knew about gold. It was smooth and heavy, heavier than stone; or it was beaten thin, like bark. Sun-colored, not like silver. But this gold was not like that, and not like the gold of the Brothers’ special vessels, either.

  The ladder kept coming up out of the ground, rung after rung, reaching toward the dark sky. Then there was more disturbance of the grave-earth, something more coming forth. A blond head, golden too.

  Laudate dominum, the Brother whispered.

  Two white hands appeared, fumbling out of the wrappings they had been bound in so as to grip the ladder’s rails and pull the boy from the grave. As he came out, the cloths around him fell away, and he could be seen to be whole, unharmed, the wounds on him healed or gone. All white, almost translucent, like an Owl’s egg; he glowed, enough to light the air around and the Brother, watching him unmoving, hands apart and lifted. In paradisum deducat te angeli.

  The naked boy was now well off the ground and mounting higher. The top of the ladder couldn’t be seen; it disappeared into darkness. Before he, too, climbed up too high to be seen, the boy turned his glowing head on the Brother and the Crow.

  You who ate me, he said. You who gathered me. You who dug a place for me. Remember me. Killed in the bud before I could learn to pray and taste God on my tongue. Remember me, mourn for me, and in Christ’s name I charge you, avenge me.

  He looked up, then, as though to see how far up he still had to climb, and stepped to the next rung. A groaning or stirring came from the grave where his parents lay: calling him back? Asking for his help?

  I never did, Dar Oakley said. I never ate him, I didn’t. Not him.

  He watched the boy go out of sight, grow as dim as the clouded moon, then dim as a star, and gone, and the ladder followed him up. Day came.

  “Corve,” the Brother said to Dar Oakley. “You must go away from this place, and on pain of death never return.”

  They stood within the outermost of the three low concentric walls of stones and earth around the Abbey. Dar Oakley clung to the Brother’s hand. The Brothers and the Abbot, gathered there, all watched as Dar Oakley was cast, took wing, sank, rose, and was gone over the church-top. All of them crossed themselves and murmured.

  No one believed the Brother had seen what he said he saw or had heard what he said he heard, and the Brother offered no witness except a Crow, who couldn’t speak, and who in the light of day wasn’t so sure himself. The Abbot thought it likely that the Brother had dreamed a deceiving dream. The Confessor asked why a saved soul would ask for vengeance; none would; they ask for mercy. The Brothers said their little Brother had been perverted by a devil in the form of a Crow: no true vision would be vouchsafed to such a one.

  So a trial was held; Dar Oakley was declared anathema and sent away.

  On the next Sunday the Brother went to the Abbot and begged to be allowed to make a pilgrimage, so that he might do penance for his foolishness and pray at a holy shrine for the soul of the boy, the soul that he now agre
ed he hadn’t seen. The Abbot, after a time of prayer and thought, said he might. It was the time of year for pilgrimage. No other Brother, however, chose to go along with him. The Brother took this without rancor or spite—the Confessor thought his experiences might have changed him—and on a green morning he set out alone, with a little food and drink in his leather satchel, a stout staff, a seashell for a begging bowl, and the Abbot’s kiss of peace on his cheeks.

  The Abbey had fallen well behind him when he reached the stream that marked the limits of the Brothers’ demesne. From the branches of a willow growing by the bank Dar Oakley called.

  “Corve,” the Brother called up to him. “The Willow is an evil tree. How can you sit in one?”

  Dar Oakley crowed in delight. It was this tree, by this bend in the stream, by this islet where roses grew, that he had been told to visit every day until the Brother came to meet him; and it tickled the Crow strangely, how glad he was to see him again. He descended upon him, took a perch in the rough woolen stuff by his ear, and spoke the Crow word—one of the few the Brother had come to know—that means Tell me more.

  “Well, the Willow,” the Brother said, girding up the skirts of his robe. “Everyone knows. In the night the Willow can pull up his roots and go walking like a man around and about; and might come up silently behind a traveler, take him in his long withies, and strangle him!”

  He laughed, Dar Oakley laughed, and the Brother waded into the fast stream, stepping with care on the stony bottom and feeling with his staff. On the far bank the path went on, leading toward the holy site, some days’ walk away. Before they two came to it, they would reach the hall of the Brother’s clan.

  “Are those of your kind ready?” the Brother asked. “Did you explain? Are they going to do it?”

  Dar Oakley becked in answer. They were ready.

  “Then let’s go on,” the Brother said, wringing the water from his robe, “to the hall of my kin, and do what we were charged to do.”

  Dar Oakley knew about clans—he was himself of a clan, no matter that he had gone away from it for periods. But his clan wasn’t like a People’s clan. People knew the ones to whom they were related, and in exactly what degree; their clans included the dead, from whom they got their status and wealth, if they had any, and to whom they owed care and labor and the prayers that would help them go Up. It seemed to Dar Oakley that People were often uncertain whether one of these dead had gone Up, like the white soul he had seen, or Down, where the Brother said almost everyone he knew would go. Most weren’t Up or Down but in a middle place, and maybe it was thought that the prayers and the singing of the Brothers and rich gifts to the Abbey could push them Up. Dar Oakley couldn’t say. Crows have no dead to please or help.

  After his banishment from the Abbey, before he went to meet the Brother at the Willow by the stream, Dar Oakley went home, to the old demesne—which was no journey at all, and yet was a long one: from Ymr into Ka.

  They were glad to see him there; he was always good for a laugh, he and his People and his stories.

  “Va Thornhill,” he said, having found Va busy hunting for nest materials in a thicket. “I have a question.”

  “What’s your question, Dar Oakley?”

  “Do you still follow those People who are Wolves?”

  “Ha!” Va Thornhill said. “Their pack’s grown. No one’s as powerful as they. Don’t let your Brothers near them now.”

  “They don’t need you anymore, then?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You’re still scouting for them.”

  “We have been. Sometimes. And getting the riches they leave.”

  Dar Oakley on a branch above snapped open his broad tail and spread his wings in a shudder—the Crow equivalent of a yawn and a stretch. “You,” he said, “are a smart Crow.”

  Va Thornhill lifted some mossy stuff in his bill and blew it out.

  “I’ll tell you something,” Dar Oakley continued. “I listen to People and hear about their doings. Say I were to learn about People who were intending to go over the mountain, along the path they have through the forest where your Wolves go. If I told you about that, would you bring your Wolves there? Would they follow?”

  Crows, I think, detest bargains. They don’t speculate, and they don’t like the future—for which they had no word then. “Well,” Va Thornhill said. “Just now it’s hard to get Crows together.”

  “Ah yes,” said Dar Oakley. “Nests. Freeholds. Young.”

  Va Thornhill looked up and billwise and darkwise, as though he would prefer not to discuss these homely things with the other Crow. “It’s busy now, is all.”

  “It certainly is,” Dar Oakley said.

  “You,” Va Thornhill said, “have no mate.”

  This was true just then, though Dar Oakley knew he had had mates, and young, too. “But this is easy prey,” he said. “Rich. If I bring it, can you bring the Crows?”

  “Well,” said Va Thornhill. “I just said.”

  Suddenly Dar Oakley descended and came down heavily so close to Va Thornhill that the big Crow dodged away. “Tell me not to bother and I won’t,” he said. “I’d just as soon. If the Brothers caught me at it, I’d be killed.” He aimed a darkwise eye at Va Thornhill. “And you don’t need those Wolf leavings, do you? There’s always bugs to find, no? Peewits’ eggs. This and that.”

  Va Thornhill eyed him back. “You just go learn what you can, Dar Oakley,” he said in a sudden angry hiss. “If you’re so sure. Come tell us. We’ll bring the Wolves in.” He turned back to his search for soft nest linings. “Somehow I think you know more than you say, Dar Oakley.”

  “How could that be?” Dar Oakley said, bill high, an honest Crow. “We’re kin, aren’t we?”

  The Brother’s kin knew all about the Wolves gang. They had the region in fear, doors barred in the night, householders listening for the horrid wail of them. A storm of hail that had nearly destroyed the springing crops was certainly their doing, or had been caused by their evil. How could they be fought against? By all reports they weren’t men at all but great demons who drank up the blood of their victims, one taller than a tree—a bird twice a man’s height—beings with tusks and claws both. When the fighters of the clan had gone in search of them, they’d vanished into air and couldn’t be found.

  “No, no,” the Brother told his kin. “Men, mere men. Thieves. Godless. Not drinkers of blood. Killers, yes—but cowards, killers of women and children.”

  The uncles and brothers and sisters gathered in the hall weren’t sure. Those Wolves, they said, were always accompanied by a murder of Crows—death-birds with devil souls. Here the uncles and brothers regarded Dar Oakley perched on the back of the Brother’s chair. Who lowered his head humbly.

  “Not this Crow,” the Brother said, pointing to Dar Oakley. “This Crow has repented of his evil ways, and hopes for redemption. Watch.” He turned to the Crow up behind him and said, “Corve. Who made you?”

  Dar Oakley twisted his tongue within his mouth and squeezed his larynx. God, he croaked. God. The Brother’s kin made sounds all together, moans of awe or cries of delight and wonder. Some drew away, some leaned forward.

  “Bless this house, Corve, and its Dux and his lady.”

  Dar Oakley lifted his bill up, down, darkwise, daywise. The People looked at each other and nodded. The hall was dim and smelly—the People-smell of wool and smoke, cooked food and soured ale. The Brother’s elder brother, head of the clan since their father’s death, sat in a tall seat, the others around him on stools or standing. Being so close to so many, armed and thickly bearded, was uncomfortable, almost unbearable, but Dar Oakley didn’t think he could make it to the small, low window without being caught or struck by a weapon. So he kept still and tried to obey.

  How had it come to be that he was now a Crow who did what People asked of him? Once done with this, he wouldn’t anymore.

  Since morning the Brother had laid out before his People the story and the plan, and the
y had argued and declaimed. Now the Brother opened his satchel and took out a little box of wood and beaten gold, and after he had murmured words in his other language, he opened it. The clan around him made again that sound, of satisfaction, awe, fear, whatever it was.

  From his perch on the chair Dar Oakley peeked in. Inside the box was a small, yellowed meatless bone. Dar Oakley thought he knew where it had come from, and having lived so long with the Brothers, he felt a strange shudder of fear or guilt at what the Brother had done. The clan came close and bent over the box. Some of them knelt. All their eyes were on the bone, and it seemed to Dar Oakley that the pressure of their looking drew something from it: the fragment of toe or finger faintly but distinctly began to glow.

  “Blessed Saint,” the Brother addressed it, “who has helped us in the past. Help us now to defeat the enemies who afflict us. Help us to avenge those who have no kin of their own to do it. In Jesus’s name we ask this.”

  Dar Oakley, with all the others, bowed his head.

  Crows, flying singly and by twos and threes into the forest that covers the mountain. When some halt to rest, others coming on behind overfly them; when they rest, the ones that they passed pass them. The whole body of them moves forward that way, calling now and then to the scouts and those standing to watch over their passing, and their calls keep the flock—that part of it engaged in this action, the smart curious ones, the Biggers—together, going toward what they know they seek.

  On the faint track that goes through the trees and over the hump of the hill and down into the shadow of the glen, a small band of People hasten, two males and a female, a few Sheep, burdens, staves. When they have gone down from the sun-shot heights into the shadows, they stop; here the path goes through a narrow place between high rocks, and a stream has cut a passage. Overhead in the trees the Crows have noticed them, and some are already going back the way they came with the news: People on the trail, with their animals, vulnerable.

  The Wolves at their camp in caves overhung with vines and low-hanging branches of Yew look up: they hear the Crows, and by now can tell when those birds speak to their kind and when they speak to the Wolves. Clever birds! Calling their women, the Wolves begin to prepare, turning themselves into other beings, laughing, ululating.

 
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