Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.27
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.27

           John Crowley
 

  She’d said, You know it to be so. The way the earth rolls up over the horizon as you fly toward it and look from high, high up? It’s so, it does.

  Dar Oakley, who’d tried to believe this though he could barely understand it, had said that even if it were so, and the world was like the trunk of a tree and so on, no Crow could ever live so long. And how could she know such a thing unless she had circled that world-tree herself, and come back to where she started from? Which she could not have done in a Crow’s lifetime.

  She’d given him a mocking look and didn’t answer. And yet without any good reason he’d come to believe that she had had life enough.

  “Then tell me,” he said to her now. “By what way did you come around to this place, this lake, this Beech? Darkwise, or daywise? Did you cross the sea? I did, Kits, and died.”

  “I never died,” she said. “I came from darkwise, going into daywise, all over land. And here we are, you from one way, I from the other, side by side. Again.”

  That was true: it was she, and he was here beside her. Like two little pecking birds circling a tree trunk in opposite directions, they’d come together as far from where each had started as they could go, and something he’d lost forever was returned to him, which was stranger by far than the losing of it. Which had been strange enough.

  “Kits,” he said. “When we parted that last time. When I set out with the red-haired People woman on that journey that I shouldn’t have taken.” She nodded, the cooler and more skeptical of her two eyes turned on him. “You said you might not be there still when I came back; that lots could happen, we might not meet again. And I said to you, ‘You and I, Kits. For life.’ And you said, ‘Life is short.’ ”

  She laughed, as though she now remembered that, and hadn’t till just then. “Well,” she said. “For some.”

  “You are the oldest of all the Crows,” he said. “You were old when we mated, when we had young; when we carried the dead of those People to their right lands, and ate the flesh they left behind. You were old as old. I knew it then. I just—I didn’t know how to know it. But I did.”

  “You,” she said, “are one smart Crow.”

  “How did you know I was nearby here, and you could find me?” he asked. “Who in this country spoke my name to you?”

  “Your name?”

  “Ravens came to me, and they knew my name. They said they came from you.”

  “No one ever spoke your name to me,” she said. “But I heard there was a Crow, of a lineage some days away, who taught Crows that the People could provide.”

  “Provide?”

  “That the greatest wealth for Crows was dead People, and to be friends with People, you must take part in their deaths; that’s how you get that wealth. I thought, I know that Crow; I know that old deceit.”

  “No deceit,” Dar Oakley said.

  “I sent messengers, daywise, darkwise, to say your name everywhere, and find who answered to it. That was many seasons past. I’ve waited.”

  Messengers? Dar Oakley looked down the Beech where he and she sat. The crowd of Crows who’d ushered him here were staying below, at a distance, and yet keeping a watch, too, and listening. And he thought: Servitors. That’s what they were, her Servitors. He’d never known a Crow with more than one, or rarely two: a helper, feeder of young, sometime lover but not mate. His mother’s, long ago. If these sleek silent Crows were Servitors, then Kits had more Servitors than he could count. Had they, too, lived from then till now, only adding to their number? And himself, was he one?

  “Well here I am,” he said. “Now tell me. What is it you wanted from me?”

  She said nothing for a long time. He had begun to see that, beautiful and strong as she was, she was old, old in subtle ways: the sockets of her eyes were deep, the feathers of her head were thin. Her toes were long and twisted, like ancient vines.

  “Look there,” she said. “The sun’s low; the days are growing shorter. The lineage will be gathering. Stay here by me, Dar Oakley, and when it’s morning I’ll answer you.”

  Think of a Crow that goes on producing young each spring for a thousand years. Her children engender grandchildren for her, and those grandchildren great-grandchildren, and on and on even as she herself has more daughters and sons. At the end of those centuries how many direct descendants could she have? How large a flock that called her its mother or queen? Not all of them have followed her, surely; tens of thousands could have gone away, or been left behind as her flock migrated, spread out widely and mated with other populations and were alienated.

  A thousand years? More, surely—I don’t know how many more; I don’t have facts to calculate with. Crows don’t count in thousands, or even in tens; Dar Oakley ceases to speak when I try to ask him to imagine how long it’s been, how long since he was born, how long she can have lived and crossed the world.

  Why did she cross the world?

  Was she in fact born among the American Crows, Corvus brachyrhyncos, and only after long years found her way west to live among the Eurasian Crows, Corvus corone? She was always different from them, Dar Oakley’s kind. Or was she born in the Old World, a sport, a genetic oddity, and were all the Crows of America her offspring, and looked like her? After a thousand generations, they’d have overcome any rivals, just by the numbers of them, and formed a species of their own.

  Or maybe she was a plain Crow of Dar Oakley’s kind, who over time moved east across the world and finally over the ice bridge to the Western lands, following nomads; and in that time her shape and look changed, the iridescence of her plumage, the pitch of her call, just from living so long among the generations of Crows she met and mated with, before she turned back for some reason—restlessness, exile—to the lands where she was born, to find a mate in Dar Oakley.

  How many mates before, how many since? How many were lost, died, grew old and failed, were caught and eaten, gone, never seen again? How often was she the one lost, though never lost to herself?

  “You never died?” Dar Oakley asked her. “In all that time?”

  “No.”

  “But there are so many ways to die.”

  “I’m not a hothead like you,” she said. “I made friends who helped me, watched me; mates who stayed by me.”

  He dipped his head a little at that, and looked away.

  Morning had come. Together they walked the ground, kicked up the yellow withering leaves and with their bills knocked on the fallen Beechnuts they found to get the meat; they walked the rocky lakeshore, picked at this and that. Always one Servitor or another watched them from not far off. Otherwise it was as it had been, only with everything different.

  “So now tell me, Kits—you said you would. Why have you brought me here? And how is it that you can be here, so far away from where we were, and so long after?”

  “Well, and how is it that you are, dear Crow?” she said. “Here among the living Crows, I mean; here in this season of the world.”

  For a long moment he couldn’t remember; it was as though he’d suddenly gone blind. He couldn’t remember how he could be here, or what had happened between that time and now, or who he’d been before.

  “I went into Ymr,” he said then. “I stole a thing there, the Most Precious Thing, and though I right away lost it, I have it still.”

  “Ymr,” said Kits, as though she knew the word or the name and yet didn’t know it: the way we speak the name of something when we want someone to keep talking about it.

  “Ymr,” Dar Oakley said. “It’s the realm where what People think is true is true.”

  She laughed. “There is no true,” she said. “Only what happened, after it has.” She lifted her ashy head; her bill was parted, her eye was dry. “I stole it too,” she said.

  “You stole it? From what being, where?”

  “From around the neck of a People child. In another land far from here.” She stooped to peck at something, discarded it. “A little stone. I wanted it and I took it.”

  “And did
it,” Dar Oakley said, remembering suddenly, “speak to you?”

  “No.”

  “Oh.”

  A little stone, strung on a red cord around a People child’s fat neck. A thing she couldn’t keep from looking at and spying on. Did it catch the light like a chip of quartz, was it gold, or worked silver? No, it wasn’t. It was a plain little yellow-gray stone, but when the baby sat in the dirt or sucked at its mother’s breast, the stone seemed to glow and fade, as though restless; it seemed to be seeking escape—how could that be?

  So she stole it. It was nothing; why should the child have it, why would People miss it? She settled on the child’s stomach as it slept in the sun, and with a quick bite she tore the bead from the string and was away, hearing the child wail and the mother cry out below.

  She found a hiding place for it, and when that place seemed insecure, she found another—as any Crow would do. She went often to visit it, look at it with this eye and then with that, turn and turn it, and yes, it was as though she heard it speak or sob in words she didn’t know, for she’d take it up in her bill to comfort or soothe it somehow.

  On a day when she was holding it that way, she looked up to see a People woman staring at her. A People woman, but not like others: tiny, squat, toadlike. How could it have snuck up on her, a Crow, without her noticing? The woman crept forward, holding out her hand with a grasping motion, eyes fixed on Kits. It was clear what she wanted, but not why. Kits hopped back, somehow unable to fly—the little woman’s stare held her to the ground. But when the creature came close enough to leap swiftly for her, Kits was so startled that she snapped her bill—and the little stone went down her throat.

  She rose up, horrified, shrieking, transformed (though she didn’t know, and for a long time wouldn’t know, just how transformed). The small being raised a finger, longer than it ought to have been, and pointed at Kits, and bared its stubs of teeth. Kits flew, and the little someone ran after her, faster than Kits would have thought it could, reaching up its long arms and twiggy fingers as though it could take hold of her. And Kits knew: That thing around the child’s neck was hers, and she wants it back. She wants it back as much as I want to keep it. I will never give it to her and she will never cease to seek it from me.

  That day she began to leave that country and People. But she carried the stone with her, inside her, and never passed it. And the Small People, whose stone it was, followed after. Whatever lands Kits came to, wherever she and a mate would settle, after a time the Small People would begin to appear. The thing she had stolen, that gave her this length of life, was the same thing that keeps Small People in existence forever—Kits was certain of that. And for forever they followed her—or followed Crows, because they couldn’t tell which bird it was who’d robbed them.

  “From that day to this,” Kits said. “From then until now.”

  “No,” Dar Oakley said, appalled. “Not possible.”

  “They can be found, around here, not so far away.”

  “But Kits,” he said. “Two Crows? Each given the one thing People most want, or stealing it right out from under them? Then each finding the other, after who knows how long?”

  “Why not?” she said. “There could be many of us. We could be common.” She had that stance, that stance that said, Don’t believe me when I say this, even if I’m telling you it’s so.

  “Many?”

  “As many as there are ways to find that thing and get it. It’s ours; it’s meant for us.”

  “We stole it, Kits. From them, from People. Both you and I.”

  “Don’t they say that about everything we have or get? Thieves: Isn’t that who we are to them?”

  Dar Oakley flitted, resettled his wings, shook his head and bill in confusion.

  “Well, tell me this, Dar Oakley,” Kits said. “Who did you steal it from in Ymr, that precious People thing?”

  This Dar Oakley could see vividly, as though he were there again, as though Kits’s question flung him there: to the top of the tallest Beech—yes!—and the house where the black Dog and the black Pig kept watch. The house of the Crow of that world.

  He’d stolen the Most Precious Thing from a Crow.

  “It’s not for them, Dar Oakley,” Kits said, “that thing. Not People big or small. No matter who of their kind thinks it is. The story of it may be, but not the thing. The thing’s for us. It was and is. And this is why I sent for you to come.”

  The sun had gone to the West again, and the long autumn evening was thickening.

  “I’m dying, Dar Oakley,” Kits said. “Dying for good. And there’s only one thing that can be done for me. You must go into the . . . realm, did you call it, that realm of Small People from whom I stole the stone of life everlasting. And steal it for me again.”

  “Never make fun of the Small Ugly People,” One Ear told the Crow clan children and others gathered around him. “Never laugh at them. They know they’re ugly and they’re ashamed of it, but they can’t change it. They hear better than any other being, and they’ll know you mocked them. They’ll hide from you ever after, and you won’t find them even when they could do you some good.

  “They’re water-folk, and they hide in streams; when they choose to they can appear to be Otters. If you see Otters sliding on their mudslides in spring and you keep still, you can sometimes hear them talking as Otters never talk. But if you startle them, they will swim down to a country of their own below the water.

  “Anyway, some say that. Some say they prefer caves and deep fissures in the rocks, where they keep things precious to themselves but useless to others. Or maybe they build stone houses—piling stones on stones to make a small round lodge no bigger than a hornet’s nest. They love stones, and roll them around in the night for reasons only they know—have you ever heard them? Maybe it’s a game. At night when you hear a Nighthawk, look for them. Sometimes you’ll think you hear the whine of a Dragonfly, but not see one—that’s them too.

  “They live very long lives, and almost never have sons and daughters, so the number of them always stays the same. They love children, though, and sometimes they’ll come to women in childbirth. Now listen. A long time ago there was a boy whose mother was in labor and the baby wouldn’t appear, and it looked like both would die. The boy went out into the night forest and when he heard the Nighthawk call, he begged for the help of the Small People for his mother. No answer came, but as he went back to his lodge he felt that he was followed. Rather than go into the lodge, he hid by the door, and after a time he saw a tiny woman go in to where his mother lay. He knew he mustn’t look, but through a chink in the wall he saw the Small Ugly woman kneeling between his mother’s legs and speaking softly and urgently into her, and to the baby inside, and after a time it appeared. It was dead, with the cord wrapped around its neck. The Small Ugly woman freed the baby, and she tied a string around its neck where the cord had been, and on the string was a little bead: a small, ugly, discolored stone. The baby opened its eyes at that, and cried.

  “The little woman put the baby—almost as big as she was!—to the mother’s breast, and whispered in her ear, and though the words were strange to her, the mother knew what she had been told: Never ever take the stone from around the baby’s neck; for as long as it remains, the child will live and grow.

  “It was so. The child grew fat and strong, until one day she was sitting in the sun with her brother and a Crow came near. You know that Crows love things that catch the sun and glitter. Before the brother could chase it away, the Crow had snatched the bead and flown away.

  “When the boy told his mother, she was grief-stricken, and sickened with fear. That night when the moon was risen the boy took her to where he had spoken to the Small Ugly People, and begged for the little woman to come help.

  “Not until the moon was down did the boy and his mother hear words spoken. They saw no one, but they were sure it was the voice of the Small Ugly woman. They were told that the child would do well and grow, but it was too bad the stone was
stolen, because as long as the child wore it she would never die. Now that it was gone, she would live only as long as it was her nature to live.

  “Well, the woman cried happily at that, and thanked and thanked the Small Ugly woman. With good luck and care, her child, who should have died at birth, would live to have children of her own, and grandchildren, and be loved and cared for in her age, and one day she’d lie down and die and go to a far world where her own mothers waited for her; and who could want more than that?

  “No more was said, but in the darkness they heard a tiny weeping, as soft as the whine of a Dragonfly at your ear.

  “That was very long ago in another country, and for sure the mother and her son, and the child and all her children, have lived their lives and died since then. But maybe that Crow who stole the Small Ugly People’s stone is still alive.”

  “No,” Dar Oakley said. There was a murmur around him—the Servitors, who were never far, had heard Kits too, and were gathering, solicitous.

  “Yes, I’m dying,” she said, “and all along I have been, like every other Crow.” She lifted her wings, as though to show how ragged they were, and they were. “I’ll die. Not now, not this morning or this season, but not never.”

  “I’ve died,” Dar Oakley said. “I’m here still.”

  “It’s not the same,” she said. “One day like me you’ll begin to die for good, no matter how long it takes before you do. You’ll live so long you’ll think your life’s forever, and you’ll call it forever, but it’s not. You’ll see.”

  “I don’t care,” he said. He was beside her, with her, and he felt as deathless as any youth. “It’s enough.”

  “Can you have enough life?” she said.

  “You can’t have more.” He came to groom her, took the feathers of her head in his bill one by one. “Not more than all.”

 
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