Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.22
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.22

           John Crowley
 

  It’s the longest seasonal migration in the kingdom of the birds: this I’ve learned. When autumn comes, the Arctic Terns set out from nesting grounds within the Arctic Circle, go out over the islands of the North Atlantic where Dar Oakley encountered them, down along the coast of Africa and out over open sea for a thousand miles to Antarctica, where spring will have just come. The seas are rich with food. There they molt entirely and regrow their plumage. As the days grow shorter in March, they return as they went, and reach the summer lands of the North. There, at the edge of the ice, they lay their eggs in scrape-hole nests on the ground, and when the young are fledged and the days grow short, they all fly south, adults and young, on their circling journey.

  Summer does move down across the world, as the Terns told Dar Oakley. And the Terns move with it, and have done so forever.

  Once long ago—Dar Oakley only remembered this for the first time there by the sea—he had told an older Crow that one day he, Dar Oakley, would travel so far from his demesne that he would come to a place where no Crows are. And the older bird had told him there was no such place. But there was, and it was more of the world than all the Crows everywhere possessed.

  Still he couldn’t tell whether the tales of the Terns made the world seem larger, or actually smaller. The world’s ends were so far apart that the thought of it caused a hole to open in his heart if he thought of it incautiously. Yet the same stories made the world a world; it had ends; these little birds crossed it, laughing as though it were easy.

  Meantime, down on the sands of the long beach that ran below shattered rocks, Dar Oakley saw the Brother often, sitting with the ones who went out in boats to the sea to catch fish, unsuited as People were to that business. The Brother had been consigned to silence, but he seemed to have forgotten that: he talked as much as he listened, making sweeps of his arms toward the sea, or holding them apart as though they held something huge. Dar Oakley could see his jaw wagging. It had always cost the man: talking and not listening.

  Another morning, coming from the Terns’ cliff side with his head full of the Terns’ tales, he saw the Brother helped aboard one of the People boats and carried out to sea: the oarsmen pulling at the slender oars, the boat lifted almost upright on the surf and then riding low and purposefully on the calmer waters farther out. Dar Oakley wondered if he’d come back—if he wanted to, if he would be able to.

  But there he was at sunset toiling up the path to his cell, a string of fish and a grin on his face. The bald strip on his head was fiercely red from the sun.

  “Corve,” he called, waving. “Signs and wonders. Come eat.”

  The Saints had a plot of ground where they had planted beans in rows—there was so little soil on this rocky land that the People of the island had long ago made soil for the Saints from beach sand mixed with seaweed. So there were beans and fish to eat, and cresses that grew along a little stream that issued from the well where they got their water. A fire pit where they cooked when it didn’t rain, which wasn’t often.

  “There are lands to the West, Corve,” the Brother said. “The fishermen know it, though few have ever reached them.”

  “Yes,” Dar Oakley said. “Great lands, billwise and darkwise. North and West.”

  “Yes.” The Brother stirred fish-guts and meal to cook for the Crow, and laid his own fish on the hot stones. “Some say that the sea goes on forever, or to the world’s edge. No.”

  “No,” said Dar Oakley. “A few days’ flight billwise there is land. Islands, one after another, like this one. Or different.”

  “The Isles of the Blessed lie that way,” the Brother said, gesturing to where the declining sun hid behind clouds. “A land promised to the Saints, where no one dies.”

  “A land where the sun never sets, or never rises.”

  “A great Dux went that way. He went in a three-hide boat with a cohort to row. He came to islands where there is no death.”

  “Lands made of ice that never melts away,” Dar Oakley said. “Summer is warm there but the ice remains. There they make their nests and raise young.”

  As though just then realizing that the Crow had all this time been speaking to him, the Brother said, “Who does?”

  “The Terns,” Dar Oakley said. “The Terns with the sharp red beaks.”

  The Brother considered this, eyes looking inward as though trying to remember ever seeing such a bird.

  Perhaps attracted by the smell of the frying fish, one of the other Saints came forth, the large, long-armed one whom Dar Oakley had been told was a female, though it was hard to see that—she was beardless and wore the same robe as the others, but her hair, though cropped short, wasn’t shaved across her head. She sat without speaking, and the Brother gave her half a fish on a flat stone.

  “This Dux,” he said. “He traveled many days, perhaps it was months. He saw an island of giant Ants, and an island where great Horses ran a race forever. Fierce seabirds attacked his company, but they were fought off. They saw a great demon riding in a carriage over the surface of the sea, as easily as you might across a field.”

  “Bran,” said the female Saint. “It was Bran who went that way.”

  “He came to a land of Joy,” the Brother said. “Where everyone laughed all the time. A land of Grief, where they never ceased weeping.”

  “Or maybe it was someone else,” said the female Saint.

  Since the Terns had told him of none of those islands, Dar Oakley kept silent. The other Saint, a long, lean one, had come up and now stood motionless, listening.

  “Then he came to an island,” the Brother went on. “It was always spring there. Great fruits grew on every tree. The sun never set, springs of sweet water never failed. Women and boys of great beauty sang God’s praises all the endless day.”

  “Yma,” said the third Saint. “The Isle of the Blessed.” The ball in his throat—his gizzard, Dar Oakley thought of it, though it was a different thing—wobbled. The Brother had told him that this Saint came from the land over the short sea to the East of this island, where the People suffered greatly from sadness and longing.

  “Paradise,” said the female Saint. Her beardless chin was greasy with fish. “The good souls go there. The innocent, who never sinned.”

  “But this Dux,” the Brother said, “went there alive as you and me.”

  “You can’t,” the female Saint said. “In no boat of this world.”

  It had begun softly to rain.

  “Listen,” the Brother said, and tapped his breast. “I went down in this flesh into the land of the damned souls. In this flesh I will go West to the land promised to the Saints, and see it too.”

  The female Saint snorted, and arose, drawing her hood over her head. The other Saint seemed reluctant to leave, squatting by the fire where fats and raindrops sizzled. But after looking long out to the cloud-occluded West, he too went away.

  In his dank cell the Brother wrapped himself in his sole possession, an ancient, mangy robe of Wolf-skin that his brother the Dux had given to him. Dar Oakley found the sight of the fur moving in the darkness of the cell unsettling.

  “That Dux returned over the sea to his own land,” the Brother said, seeming near sleep, “and when his boat neared the shore, one of his companions, homesick, leapt from the boat and swam to land. But when he climbed out onto the sands, his body crumbled all to dust and bone, as though it had lain there a hundred years. The Dux called from the boat, telling them who he was, and where he had gone. None of them remembered him or his name, but they said that long, long before, a great Dux then living thereabouts was said to have set out on such a journey, and never returned.”

  Dar Oakley in the little window said nothing.

  “Yet that was he, the same man who had gone out.”

  “Would that happen to you,” Dar Oakley asked, “if you went out that far and returned? Crumble into dust?”

  “I wouldn’t return,” the Brother said. “Not ever.”

  They were still for a time. The c
louds broke and began to part.

  “Corve,” the Brother said. “How do the Terns know how to cross the sea?”

  “They know. They go—” Now which word was the People word for billwise? “They go North,” he said. “And . . . West.”

  “How do they know these ways? Do they study the stars, or . . .”

  “They know,” Dar Oakley said. “It’s clear. I know.”

  “You do? Always?”

  “Yes.”

  The Brother said no more then. But the Wolf-skin heaved like a big beast, and heaved again. The Brother murmured his long prayers, and listening, Dar Oakley fell asleep.

  For a long time thereafter the Brother and the others talked about a journey to the West and the land promised to the Saints, but only as though to determine if it was right or wrong to go there, or even to hope to go there; whether such a land could be, whether God would permit such lands to exist at all, and if they did exist, who might inhabit them, and in what state, in the body or not, exalted or not.

  Of course they had each made a vow not to talk at all about anything, except at need. But they did. And talking felt itself like a voyage.

  “If,” the Brother posited, tapping the finger of one hand into the palm of the other, “if we are meant for heaven, why should we have to pass through death to reach it? Don’t we want to enter into that place without going down into the grave? For great Austin said: it’s what all men want, and what the soul wants too.”

  “Christ died,” the female Saint answered. “And went down into Hell, and returned to earth and life again.”

  “Which is to say,” the Brother said, “you may go down into the darkness and suffer the pains of Hell, and come back from there in this flesh alive. So why may we not go to paradise in this body, and come back alive? Why would God not want that for us if we can gain it? He made that land as he made all things. Not to keep it from us.”

  “This,” the third Saint let them know, “was asserted by a great theologus of my own country: God will save all men, and wishes to. But his opinion has been condemned.”

  The female Saint said, “We are here on earth, all of us, to ready ourselves for death. So that it doesn’t come upon us when we are still in sin, our penances uncompleted.”

  “Not me,” the third Saint said.

  “So then,” the Brother responded, “if those lands could be found when the soul is still in the body, death couldn’t take you unawares. For once there, you—I mean a person, whatever person—wouldn’t die. If the tales are true.”

  The female Saint argued that when the person returned, there would still be death and the penance awaiting.

  “But,” the skinny Saint would say, “if all that’s so, then once we—once a person—got there alive, to Isle Yma, so called in our tongue, would he want to come back at all?”

  And at that the Brother sat back, hands on his knees, and smiled on them, as though they had learned a lesson, or got the point of a story.

  Dar Oakley, who neither wanted to go there nor believed he could return, thought of asking whether there were any Crows in that place, or those places; but he supposed he knew the answer. If a Crow could be there, it wouldn’t be the place they spoke of and hoped for. His presence, the presence of a single Crow, could spoil it all.

  Death-bird. Memento mori, the Brother sometimes called him, words of the other, the special language. But it was they, People, who concerned themselves with death. All a Crow wanted was to live: wanted it in so deep a part of him it couldn’t be found or named or spoken.

  Provisions at the place of the three beehive cells grew so scarce in winter that Dar Oakley’d become a seabird. He couldn’t dive like the Terns or chase the receding waves like the Sandpipers; he didn’t join the crowds of Gulls who harried the People boats as they came in at evening, pecking at the catch and shrieking at one another; but he took his turn at the guts and the sea-flesh the fishers didn’t want and flung on the sand. The Gulls by now paid him no attention, seemed not to notice him, or yelled at him only as much as they did at their own kind.

  The fisher People would draw up their boats on the broad beach of a sheltered cove, turn them over onto piles of flat stones, to keep them dry; go over them with care, heal the wounds in their hides with hooked needles and gut, spread old butter and seal fat over the lapped seams to keep out water. New boats were made here as well, of wood and hides. Dar Oakley kept watch on one being built down the cove well up from the waterline, a boat of a kind—though Dar Oakley couldn’t know it—that hadn’t been built before on this island, where every boat was the same as every other.

  He could see that it was going to be large, very large. A big crowd of People was at work on it, coming and going through the days with long wicker staves and stiff cowhides tanned with oak-bark and other things necessary. The Saints came to watch over them, and on the White Stone days the Brother fed them with bits of white bread where they knelt on the sand, putting the morsels into their open mouths like a mother bird feeding young. No work was done on the boat on those days; the Saints and the fishers told tales, and drew figures with sticks on the smooth sand, and pointed this way and that out to sea.

  The Brother’s plan was getting into the heads of others, more every day, old and young.

  The great boat was being built with its bottom upward. The bar that ran around the boat’s edge, which the fishers would grip when at sea, was laid down first, making a shape tapering toward the front. The arches of the ribs were raised over this frame and fastened to it in a way that Dar Oakley couldn’t perceive. That took many days. The growing boat resembled a collapsed Whale’s skeleton, except that instead of falling in, it was growing up as more ribs were stuck on. Then when the skeleton was complete its skin was put on, in about the time it would take for a dead Whale’s to fall away. That was the cowhides they laid over it, and then treated to keep water out: giving it by hand what the Terns and Gulls were born with.

  There was a skinny boy who had been taken as a slave by coastal raiders, was ransomed by the Brothers of the Abbey, and now served them in the kitchens—Dar Oakley never learned his name. He had spent his growing-up on boats and galleys, and of all the island People he was readiest to be off with the Saints to lands that weren’t this one, or at least to go to sea and not come back. When the boat was done to the islanders’ standards, he protested, No, no, no, to go far it would have to be like the boats he’d known, which he’d helped to build, that flew over the sea’s hills and valleys faster than any of theirs; and he danced and spoke in their tongue as best he could and made things of sticks that would show the head shakers and laughers what to do. But the Saints knew what he meant: a naviculam, a barca, a navis longa. They were shown in books.

  So that was how the Boat of the Saints got a mast stepped amidships with a square sail hung from a yardarm and handled with ropes rigged port and starboard. And a stern-mounted rudder with a long tiller arm to turn the ship—for now it was a ship—into the way it must go: all carved from precious oak and bound in iron and blessed many times.

  The winter was passing, the prevailing winds shifting: Dar Oakley, seabird, felt it. By the time the great boat was finished, the Terns were beginning to leave for the lands of ice and warmth. A kind of fever or passion had come over them, and Dar Oakley found it hard to get their attention. He wondered if what they felt now was like what Crows feel when a winter roost breaks up in spring and the families depart to build nests again and make more Crows—but it must be different, for these birds went from summer to spring to summer.

  Yes, yes, yes, they cried to him, yes, we go.

  He asked them, Is there really a big land to darkwise, far, far off? Not only sea islands?

  Oh yes, big lands, lands with no sea beyond them, we don’t go look but we know. Terns say so.

  And the islands that lie that way, Dar Oakley said. Is there one of giant Ants? Is there one where Horses run without stopping?

  What is Ant? they shouted, laughing. What is Horse
?

  They knew nothing of the earth or its beasts, and cared nothing for it but that it bordered the sea, as a Crow cares nothing for the sea but that it borders the earth.

  But they had said it: land to the West. He couldn’t ask them if springs never failed there, or if the trees bore fruit all the time and their leaves never turned and fell: they’d know nothing of such things.

  If People wanted to go there, he asked them, to the great lands darkwise, how would they go?

  How the winds go! Billwise, billwise! Island to island. Cross the waters between, rest there, go again! Cross the long sea billwise-darkwise! Reach that land.

  They can’t, Dar Oakley said. They don’t know which way it is. Only if they can see sun or stars and guess.

  The Terns found that so hilarious their cries drowned out Dar Oakley’s questions, and most of them went away, having got their laughs. But a few remained.

  Could you guide them, though? Dar Oakley asked. If they could follow you—I suppose you’d get nothing out of it, but—

  How can we? one said, one of those who’d chased the Skua that chased Dar Oakley. We fly high, high over the long sea. How can we see them? Little specks down on the water, how tell one from another?

  Well, Dar Oakley said.

  You, cried the Tern. You, you, you we know. When we see you flying? We come help!

  The bird lifted off the rock and mimed the scene: Fly, look down, cry out Ah!, come down.

  We come! said another. Maybe we come.

  We look, look, look out for you! Crow of your kind, only one of you! We will see you later! Good-bye!

  He watched them go off from the sea-cliff, one’s departure lifting the next and the next out over the water. He seemed to see the Saints far away on the same water, clinging to their boat, in danger of death and failure.

  On the beach People stood around the great boat, not at work, waiting, as though for the thing to move on its own.

  He would have to go with them, that was all. Billwise-darkwise against the winds, to the land that he could likely never enter, just so that the Saints wouldn’t die before they got there and all go down into the Down forever.

 
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