Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.20
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.20

           John Crowley
 

  They walked on—the Crow hopping to keep up—over broken flints that showed a faint path: the only thing that made this place a place.

  I know it’s not so, the Brother said. But you aren’t an angel-guardian, either. Too naughty for that.

  I am what I am, Dar Oakley said.

  It may be, the Brother said, that you are a kind of middle spirit. There are many such. Spirits neither bad nor good, though they may be willful. They live long lives, maybe as long as till the Day of Judgment. But they won’t be judged. No, no, not they.

  Dar Oakley couldn’t tell if it hurt the Brother to think this, that there were beings who wouldn’t be judged; if it comforted him; if he was jealous. All he knew was that this was a place where souls (the Brother said) were tested and judged, and that the Brother was afraid of that, so afraid that he could hardly stand upright the way he must go. Dar Oakley hoped he was a middle spirit; it seemed the best thing to be. He wondered what behavior he could show to prove it.

  Now there should be a valley, the Brother said. A valley of shadow.

  And there was: the land ahead of them became one, as though torn open just by the saying of the word valley. There might be a glitter of river down in it; it ran bare and dark to a red sunset. Dar Oakley took flight, and could see, at the head of the valley, a figure standing and looking away along it.

  She. He was certain. She wore clothing she’d never worn in life; she was young here and straight and her hair was fiery. Had she got back into her flesh, flesh he had himself bitten and torn and swallowed? No, this was her down here, a soul. He tried to cry out, but though in this place he could talk—in a tongue neither his nor the Brother’s—he could not call a plain call. He flew over her to show himself to her, and she saw him and smiled, but not in recognition; and she set out on her bare feet down the way into the valley. It was clear they were to follow.

  It was she, he knew it; but did she know who she was?

  Blessed Saint! the Brother cried, coming up breathless and reaching out to her, but she didn’t hear, or didn’t turn, only went on, her bare feet skimming over the rocks, her gray unbelted dress moving with her steps. He remembered how the dress of those here seemed not put on but a part of them, like his own plumage. The place around her was enriched as she crossed it, though she paid no attention to that either: scurrying People half-glimpsed, strange wailings, tall cut stones with metal staples and rings embedded in them. She came to the river, black water tinged with the red of the sinking sun. A rubbled pass led down to the water’s edge past the bones of a Horse.

  She watched there as though awaiting something. Her eyes were mild and unseeing.

  Was this his doing too, Dar Oakley’s?

  He could not be damned, the Brother said: he had no immortal soul, and couldn’t sin. Yet he did sin, and he’d lived again after dying: he had stolen that power from Fox Cap, and his sin had brought her here, when she should instead have lived forever in the sun and he should be long dead and eaten to the bones and the bones become dust. Dar Oakley longed to speak to her, hear her voice. But she had become no longer a person but a task: this task.

  Soon a cockleshell boat appeared, making for shore, with two ancient Brothers in white rowing. The Brother, seeing them, rushed sliding and slipping down the bank, and Dar Oakley followed.

  The two boatmen looked up but made no other sign of welcome or recognition, occupied with getting their little boat secure. Their white beards nearly reached their knees. Then one gestured to the Brother, a gathering-in gesture, and when the Brother reached them, the two pulled him aboard as he clung to them gratefully. Dar Oakley watched them push away from the bank with their oars. Should he follow? He had promised to go where the Brother went, but he wanted more to follow Fox Cap, speak to her if he could. He arose, turning: but Fox Cap was gone. He ascended up and over the no-place, but couldn’t see her. Then when he banked back toward the river, the boat was gone. So was the river. So was the way they had taken to reach this place. You never go back in again by the same way, Fox Cap had said to him so long ago. Because you never do go back anywhere. You only go on.

  The sun hadn’t set, hadn’t sunk at all, as though it couldn’t. In the folds and clefts of the land beneath him, he could see People hidden or trapped, and People-shaped black beasts who were busily tormenting them—it made him think of the Wolves gang and their victims, and of Crows, too, settled on those victims, dagging for flesh and bickering. He kept flying toward the dull sun, and now he perceived large birds coming out of it, a flock, moving toward him.

  No, not birds. They were beasts of earth, but with wings stuck onto their backs, which beat rapidly like the wings of Moths. Fat-bellied, with naked tails, mouths full of Wolf-teeth. How did their puny wings carry them? He was amid them, going the way they went, as though they had drawn him in. One cried aloud and pointed below: it had seen prey of some kind, and summoned the others to go down, buffeting Dar Oakley with their wings as they passed him. The smell of them was terrific. And down on the black ground he could see the Brother toiling along alone. The winged beasts—it took Dar Oakley a moment to understand this—had been seeking him.

  They descended in a mass. The Brother looked up in fear, but all he could do was wave his arms at them to bat them away like hornets. They fastened on him and lifted him up, each holding a part of him, and crying in triumph they bore him away wriggling, a fish in an Osprey’s talons.

  Later on, when Dar Oakley and the Brother had both returned to the land of the living, the Brother would tell Dar Oakley that it was then, just then that he was sure he was to be damned, and would never escape. Those two white-bearded Brothers who had borne him over the water? In life they had been kind to him, and when he was first committed to their care at the Abbey, they had brought him out of the despair he had felt. He had often prayed by their graves. Maybe those prayers had brought them to him at the black river, to carry him over. Holy men! But they could go no farther with him. And then he had been alone, with no help from anyone.

  “The pains of Hell got hold upon me,” he’d say. “The sinners and the demons strove to drag me down with them farther into death, but I fought them off. Alone.”

  Here he would pause in the tale—whenever he told it, which was often—and look up to the sky as though for pity, and then at Dar Oakley in reproach—oh, how well the Crow had come to know such People faces!—and Dar Oakley would mumble like a fledgling in apology, though there was nothing he’d done wrong. He knew it. The angel who had judged him down there had told him so.

  How long Dar Oakley searched for the Brother in the dark valley he can’t say—a day, a year, a season—because none of those were discernible there. Even the valley itself wasn’t always there. If he looked for it below him, he could see it, but if he looked away from it, he’d have to search for it again, as though his looking were all that brought it into being.

  And something else came clear to him: the changeless red of the sky darkwise wasn’t a setting sun, and wasn’t darkwise. There seemed to be no sun here. It was a vast fire burning inside a mountain, glowing out through caves and fissures, spitting flame like a blacksmith’s forge. He went, reluctantly, closer to this horror, toward which winged beasts flew like Rooks toward a night roost. They drew him along with them, seemed to think he was one of them—he was black, as they were, and winged, as they were.

  Where you going?

  That was a voice—he’d been spoken to by a black Boar with a Cock’s tail, flying beside him.

  Don’t know, Dar Oakley replied. Looking for someone.

  Oh, don’t be picky, the beast said. Plenty everywhere to work on.

  No, no, Dar Oakley said. Just this one. A Brother.

  Oho, said the flying Boar. Lots of them here.

  One in particular, Dar Oakley said. Just come.

  He couldn’t tell if the being was giving this thought, but then it said, Little, fat, peevish, whiny?

  Well, Dar Oakley said. Yes.

  I know tha
t soul! he shrieked with glee, and showed tusks. I worked on him! Follow me, follow!

  He descended, flapping his bat wings, and a few other beasts came after him, and Dar Oakley followed them.

  Peck their eyes out! one cried to him, grinning, a beast with a thrashing snake’s tail. That’s your way, yes? Then peck their eyes out again!

  Dar Oakley, beating through the heavy air, looked down on People—souls—in travails of every kind, inflicted by beasts like the ones he flew with. It was clear to him now that, whatever they said, the worst thing for People isn’t that they die, but that they never do.

  How long will they be done to this way? he asked. When does it stop?

  Stop? cried the snake-tailed one who had urged him to peck out eyes. Never! Never ever! Never, never, never!

  One day in seven they can rest, said the Boar. Look there.

  Dar Oakley perceived, amid a mass of sufferers, two wide dishes or bowls that held a number of large dark stones and one white one. A black beast like a strong People fighter picked up a black stone from the dish of the white stone, and dropped it into the other. At this the tormented souls seemed to weep and thrash with impatience.

  Waiting for the White Stone day. But how do they know, Dar Oakley wondered, when one day ends here and another begins?

  That’s him, isn’t it! said his guide, unrolling a jointless arm and pointing to a low promontory or ledge not far off.

  The Brother was there, kneeling before a People-shaped beast, black and hairy and horned, with great yellow teeth—surely what the Brother called a demon. The Brother was naked, his body marked with bruises and cuts; he wrung his lifted hands in terror or supplication.

  Judgment! cried the snake-tailed beast. Going to go hard for him!

  Dar Oakley looked again, and as he looked the black demon and the black mountain and the smoky sky ceased to be there. Instead a person in white, female she seemed to be, pale and golden, stood before the Brother—it was she whom he appealed to—and beyond her were white towers, almost invisible, rising into a clear sky, and a shining bridge that led up to them, so long and pitched so high it vanished into white distance.

  Dar Oakley banked to leave his crew of tormentors and descend, and at that the place of the black demon and the black mountain and the flames appeared again. When he banked the other way—right, he thought was the word that People used for this side of him—only the other, the light and white place, appeared. And yet (it was quite clear as he neared the ground) the two beings, angel and demon, were actually side by side, talking together. Arguing.

  He settled among various beings large and small who were gathered there and listening. No one paid him mind.

  Damned! he heard the black one cry, pointing a long-nailed finger at the Brother. A damned soul.

  Can’t be, the other said with white hand raised. He’s not dead yet. There’s time to repent.

  Not dead yet! the black one bellowed. Why, here he is before us!

  His body still lives. It awaits his return.

  Oho! One of those tricks, the demon said. Well, still.

  No, said the other. No damnation. Not yet.

  Dar Oakley, like the Brother, looked from one to the other as each being spoke; and when they looked toward the right-hand side, they saw the towers and the bridge and the sky, and when they looked the other way, they saw the black mountain and the fires.

  But he’s a damned sinner, said the demon. He knows it too. Look at him sniveling. Shitface! Coward!

  He is a priest of God, said the angel, her voice sounding like the voices of the Brothers’ choristers. He came willingly here to be judged, and he has suffered willingly. He will have mercy.

  Gets to choose his own fate, does he? And here I thought such a judgment was God’s alone, and always just!

  You! What can you know of God’s judgments? Does God share the secrets of his heart with you?

  I know this, said the black one. This person did a murder. And he a priest! Does he get to forgive himself for that?

  Done for cause, she said. To protect others. The People of that place, and his Abbey. Penance will cleanse him.

  See how you are? said the demon indignantly. He did a murder! A murdered murderer is still a murder. Look!

  He hauled out from nowhere a body, a shabby sooty grizzled person, still in the rags of his bird costume.

  Tell what you know, he commanded.

  The murdered Wolf tried to answer but couldn’t, only choked, black spittle coming from his mouth. The white being crossed her arms and shook her head in mild impatience. Then she pressed her hands together before her and looked upward. With a bell-like voice she spoke a word; and from the white clouds of her realm a ladder, a golden ladder, descended rung by rung.

  Oh, thank God, the Brother whispered.

  The martyred boy came down, bare feet feeling for each step. His ladder was now poised delicately above but not touching the filthy stones. Turning to them but looking at nothing or at everything with his wide golden eyes, he lifted a hand, the first two long fingers raised—Dar Oakley had seen the Abbot do the same.

  He spoke, his sweet voice not always audible amid the rumblings of the earth and the shrieks of beasts and souls. He told how he had asked the Brother to take revenge on those who had murdered him, that it was a fault in him to demand that, a fault that because of his youth and his goodness had been forgiven and wiped away. The Brother had done in love and kindness only what the boy had asked.

  He ceased speaking then, and ascended away.

  There, said the angel. This man is free. He will have life enough to atone for his crime, if crime it was.

  I refuse to consent! the demon roared, and fires flamed from the mountain beyond. If his body lives a hundred years, it can’t wipe out his crimes!

  Seven times seventy times. If repentance is genuine. Don’t argue with the rules.

  I call a witness! My own witness! the demon said, throwing out his hand. I call—the Crow!

  Dar Oakley stared at the being’s indicating finger. Himself? He felt the eyes of the beasts around him turn his way.

  The Crow! the winged things cried, pressing closer. The Crow!

  He thought they’d eat him if he didn’t obey. The angel from her white realm summoned him with her baculus to come forward. In one reluctant wing beat he was next to the Brother, who wouldn’t look at him. He wondered if the Brother was wrong, and even though he was a Crow he was damnable after all, and what that might be like.

  Give your evidence, the demon said, crossing his hairy arms before him just as the angel had crossed her slim white ones.

  I don’t have any, Dar Oakley said.

  Don’t lie! You were there with him in the rocks of the glen. Tell about his sword, his wicked grin, tell about the joy with which he cleft the head of his victim!

  I don’t remember that, Dar Oakley said, and he didn’t, but at the demon’s telling of it he began to.

  Speak, the demon demanded. Or you’ll go into the fires yourself. How would you like that?

  Stop it, the angel said. You are coercing the witness.

  They went on disputing, but Dar Oakley stopped listening. He had begun to see—perhaps because of his Crow eyes, set far apart, able to take so much in—that all around others were likewise being judged. Countless debates like this one were proceeding on stone piles and ledges, countless People souls thrust wriggling into the fire by beast-things, a few escaping up the slippery bridge to the shining towers as winged black things tried to pluck them off.

  Long ago Fox Cap had told him: in Ymr is a thing of every kind there can be, but only one of each. In this place, though, Dar Oakley saw only one kind of thing, endlessly repeated.

  I hate it here, he said. And in his own tongue: “I hate it here.” The towers and the mountain shuddered as though they heard.

  Death-bird, the demon called, as though from far away. You will answer, or serve me here forever.

  No, Dar Oakley said. I’m not of this realm.
You can’t keep me here. Fubun on all of you.

  Corve! the Brother whispered, and put out a warning hand. But Dar Oakley knew it was true, whatever they thought. The Brother could be judged and suffer here, but he, Dar Oakley, couldn’t. Not because he was a living being, not because he was a Middle Spirit, not because he hadn’t sinned, but because he wasn’t here at all.

  You, he said. You are all of Ymr. I am of Ka. I am not yours.

  He stretched his wings, lowered himself, beat down as he leapt upward, and was aloft, drawing his feet to his body. Hell fell away below him faster than he could fly up into what should have been sky but grew ever blacker, with clouds like dark boulders; it was as though he could reach and touch it. In not many wing beats he first felt and then saw another being near behind and then passing him: it was the Brother, his robe on him again, sandals drooping from his flying feet. Dar Oakley caught up with him and fastened to him; he lost his sight; there was an odor of earth and dank stone, an awful closeness drawing closer, holding them.

  Then nothing.

  Then the Brother’s voice, his ordinary voice, next to his ear: “When will we be gone downward?”

  He could smell the Brother’s flesh. “We’ve come back,” he said. The Brother didn’t respond, but when a heavy clanking came from above them, he startled and stirred. A strip of day. The door out of Hell. It opened wider.

  “What became of me?” the Brother asked, and Dar Oakley couldn’t answer. Hands were reaching in to pull him out, and the Crow that rode on him as well. Glad cries, praise to God, sunlight and the air of day.

  On the long way back to their home places through the summer days Dar Oakley and the Brother tried together to account for all that had happened in the time they had spent below; neither could quite remember it. But the little that one of them could summon up, when added to what the other was prompted to remember, and the dogmas the Brother held about what ought to take place there, became a story as they walked and talked.

  Talked: Somehow being in the hole of the Singer and the land of Fox Cap had revealed to the Brother that Dar Oakley spoke a tongue of his own, one that the Brother could learn to understand, though not to speak; and as they went on day after day he did learn it, word by word, thought by thought. While they paddled in cool streams, lay in the sun half-asleep, looked for berries, they talked. Talked and talked.

 
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