Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.34
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.34

           John Crowley

  Beyond the fenced and separated space, the bare ground rose farther to a white farmhouse with two chimneys. The land around it hadn’t been turned or planted; there seemed no one there, except that in the yard a lean gray Horse harnessed to a little carriage with a black hood cropped the grass. As Dar Oakley watched, two People came out of the house, females, one in white, and young, Dar Oakley thought, her hair light; the other gray-haired, in black. The young one stepped from the porch—though the one in black tried to hold her back—and walked with a kind of dreamy certainty toward the little graveyard. Dar Oakley felt the two fighters strain toward her but make no advance.

  So there they are, the three of them, motionless, with the graveyard and the stream between them, the Crow watching.

  The two men are the woman’s brother and husband, and she has suspected, even known, that they are dead, but has received no news of that or of their whereabouts; their bodies will never be brought home and placed here beside her parents and her first child. In the woman’s apron pocket are photographs of the two men: perhaps it’s these as much as her person they are drawn to. The pictures are kept on the mantel most of the time, but now and then she must have them with her. The other woman in black is the husband’s mother.

  I know these things about her, which Dar Oakley didn’t then know; and I know more than that. I know that in that year she stood by her window for hours, facing toward the little home cemetery; that with a crow-quill pen she would write down what she felt there:

  There is within the Earth a Door

  That opens to the Sky—

  And there Integument and Self

  Part Company—for aye.

  She knows that we leave the husk of the body behind at death, and go on without it to our next habitation; that somewhere Death has drawn out the essence of her husband and her brother, just as the essence of them was drawn out by the camera artist and fixed on the glass, where it will never change; that wherever, on whatever field they lie, no more harm can be done them.

  She knows all that and yet nothing can console her finally that she cannot touch their dead faces, brush the hair of their heads, bathe their limbs, and wrap them in clean linen to be put in that ground where she herself will one day go, only to depart again. If she can’t lay them to rest in earth, bid them farewell at that door, then she can’t lay them to rest in herself. It’s as though she carries a dead child in her womb that can never be born. And now in the spring of the year she feels them, their selves, souls, persons, returned to here where they ought to lie, from where they might have been able at last to detach from the earth and the world and go on. They want her help, and she can’t help them.

  After a time neither long nor short the two men were gone, despite all their longing, as though even so little existence as they had was hard to maintain. And she knew, and Dar Oakley knew, that she looked at nothing.

  Of the many human persons in Dar Oakley’s stories, she is the one who for certain lived and died in a place and time in our history. I know her name, though Dar Oakley never learned it. My mother said the name to me. She used to hear it spoken, as others also did, by the living and by the dead.

  Dar Oakley never returned to the freehold he had held in that land he’d called the Future, or to that flock he brought there. The Crows of this new country he’d come into, after a time of wariness and even some hostility, came to hold him in some esteem; they could laugh at his brags, but—Dar Oakley notes—nearly all of them bore that old invention of his, a name of their own, whether taken from a parent or a parent’s parent from long ago, or given just yesterday for some deed or some accident: Ran Foxglove, Ke Rainshower, Fats, Muleskin, Gra Brokenfoot. They called Dar Oakley Whitecheek, for the tale he told about his dealings with the Snowy Owl, which of course they didn’t believe. But it wasn’t because of Na Cherry and his failure in the Ymr of Ka that he hadn’t returned to the old place. It was because he was held here now in the Ymr of Ymr: by the People’s dead he had seen in these lands to which he’d wandered, and now could not stop seeing.

  Autumn, and Dar Oakley and the other Biggers—Ke Rainshower, Muleskin, and the rest—led a large band going at evening darkwise toward their roosts, passing over the barns and yellow fields, following the clear line of a small river through the valley. They’d pass over the white farmhouse to which the two dead fighters had come, whose family dead were buried in the fenced space. Crows took no interest in it, could hardly be said to perceive it. But to Dar Oakley’s sight it seemed to brighten, to be larger than others; to glow, at dawn or evening, against the dark earth around, as though a setting or a rising sun struck it but not the land it stood on: of the world but not in it. He saw her, too, on the porch: in white, her light hair disordered, dark shawl over her shoulders; the child beside her angry and beseeching—why? He left the gang and let himself down toward her, called, hardly knowing he did so. She loosened the hands of the boy tugging at her skirts and came to stand at the railing of the porch, putting her hands on it and pointing her face outward and upward but not looking, not at Crows or at anything: he felt sure of that. And yet he felt her seeking.

  Anna Kuhn. Child or grandchild of German immigrants. There are certainly written records of her, and if I had the capacity, I could travel to the archives where they are kept, I could find the letters she wrote or dictated, and the little books of her poems that were put out by her friends and devotees. All that’s beyond me now, and the resources that not long ago could be reached from anywhere—they’re largely in chaos, or locked, or fouled in one way or another. They’d be inaccessible anyway to me here. What I do know about Anna Kuhn is what my mother told me, and some pages about her in those of my mother’s books I still have; and the witness of the Crow. Mother wouldn’t have been surprised that by such means the woman reached me. She was by you, Mother would have said, all along.

  In adolescence Anna was known locally as a somnambule: a sleepwalker. There were many famous somnambules in the years before the Civil War, suddenly appearing across the Republic, exhibiting strange powers. Maybe they’ve been common in all ages, but at that time they seemed to herald something new, or to embody it: an opening to an unseen world. They’d get up and walk dark lanes in their shifts (they were almost all women, as I understand it) or set tables in the night and make meals for no visitor, as though other senses awakened within them when they slept, by which they could see what was concealed in the day, hear what made no sound, feel the sympathetic vibrations that physical nerves could not. Others didn’t ambulate, kept to their beds, lay unmoving nightlong with eyes closed while in a voice unlike their usual one they would sermonize to listeners, answer questions, tell of God’s love and the world beyond death, and yet have no memory in the morning of what they had said.

  Anna Kuhn didn’t speak asleep, didn’t preach, hardly spoke, apparently; in the dark she could see into mirrors, and read her Bible, but when she later recounted the days when she had walked asleep, she mostly remembered being spoken to. Her eyesight was never good; she trusted hearing more than sight. She said she had always sought for the way ahead by ear, and by ear she understood the place that the way led her to. Of those Mansions and Gardens I only hear, I do not see them, but in Hearing I do see, tho’ whether I may trust what I see I do not know—I think the Reality must exceed all that my mind can picture. The harder she tried to see, the less clear the way and the place became.

  She became entirely blind in the years after the War. She told her correspondents that she despaired then—as much for her fatherless son as for herself—but that in time she felt an inward sense open that was more perceptive than her physical eyes had ever been:

  Before Dark fell I fear’d the dark

  And shunned the Shadowed way—

  But now—awake—I know a Night

  Much brighter than the Day.

  She came to wide notice through accounts published by the minister of her church, who was interested in questions of mental sympathy and the condition of
the dead. He took down what she told him about her brother and her husband, that she knew just how they had suffered, how they could not free themselves of the burden of their dreadful deaths. They are like living people who have taken terrible wounds: they can think of nothing else, all their energies devoted to healing and the sufferance of pain. I believe (she said) that in time—though truly there is no time, nor space, there where they now are—their eyes and hearts will be opened, and they will know their true condition. They were heroes of a great crusade, and there is nothing to prevent their entry into joy. A blessed doctrine, the Reverend concluded.

  Among other remarkable signs of her sympathetic powers, he reported that if Anna touched either one of the two ambrotypes she often carried with her, she was able to identify instantly which man it pictured, though the frames and the cases were identical. He’d known the men: had given them their lessons as boys, had prayed with them the morning they went to join their regiments, the day the pictures had been made. Her touch upon their pictured faces, the Reverend wrote, was as gentle as the touch of a mother’s hand upon the eyes of a sleeping child. He couldn’t know—Anna Kuhn herself hardly knew it then—that without a Crow who came near her, a Crow overburdened with stories that he didn’t want, she wouldn’t have been able to know the true deaths and afterlives of the two men shut in their cases of wood and plush.

  Late winter, a day of dense fog, the naked trees black and dripping, black earth pied with white. Perched aloft, Dar Oakley looked here and there for a way to go more promising than any other, and saw none. No Crow called from any direction. He seemed, for this moment, to be the only Crow in existence. Shifting his feet on the branch, he turned his head and caught sight of a crimson smudge in a stand of young trees by the small river.

  A fire. Who would make and keep a fire there? He watched for a time, and the little fire neither grew nor sank away. Dar Oakley felt his wings open; he closed and settled them; they opened again, as though they knew where he should go even if he didn’t. What, was this any business of his? It wasn’t.

  He lifted off the branch and beat toward the grove.

  The two of them sat as they had sat before, looking into their imagined fire—Dar Oakley was sure he could fly right through it without harm; it gave off no heat, heat was not what it was for. They took no notice of the Crow; they seemed to be speaking in turns, but their eyes never met. From a high branch Dar Oakley fell to a lower one and to a stump.

  He couldn’t understand their speech; it wasn’t a language he knew then, it wasn’t One Ear’s or the Saints’. Yet as they spoke, the matter seemed to enter into him, so that he saw what they spoke of. It was as though he had seen enough on the battlefields to see without hearing.

  Caught under a gun carriage when it rolled over. Horse ran away with it in the retreat. Caught up in the reins, trampling me, my legs caught under the gun. The others ran past, didn’t stop, on the run, left me there to die, others too.

  It might have gone something like that—Dar Oakley can only give me hints; the ghost at the fire spoke low, motionless, as though he had said all this many times, as though the saying of it was all he was.

  Cried out as long as I could for help, for water, blood in my throat, Rebs passing over chasing us, them; stepped on my face, one gave me the bayonet, see him still, the teeth in his mouth, old man, broken hat, I see it.

  As he spoke these things, Dar Oakley saw the wounds he named appear on him, eye driven from his head by the boot, his breast opening to bleed. The wounds vanished as soon as they appeared.

  Then he ceased to speak, if he had ever spoken. Dar Oakley’s mind cleared. Then the other began.

  Sent away from my brother-in-law, been promised we would serve together, cruel officer, made to go on patrol leading a squadron of niggers, me but a corporal, never saw or spoke to such before, sent out to look for dead and bury them. Caught by Rebs; they hanged the weeping niggers as I watched, cut at their private parts with their great Reb knives, blood running down, shot me then, though I begged them in Jesus’s name to spare me, threw me headlong in a muddy stream. There I still lie.

  The short clouded day was ending. Rather than brightening in the dark, the little fire dimmed further. Dar Oakley, feeling invaded, as though the two beings had thrust something within him that he couldn’t expel, turned his face away from them and shook himself once, again, and again, as his mother had long ago taught him to do. After a time he looked back: the two sat motionless, hands on their knees. He gave them his back again: to show them he could not be possessed. When he looked back a second time, they were going away through the black trees and the mud.

  But had he tasted them where they lay, on that field, at that creek bed? He thought he might have; he was thinking, now, that he had.

  Husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, they were brought home in their thousands in the baggage cars of northbound trains, in sealed caskets of steel (if such could be afforded) because of the decomposition. Their former enemies going home too in other directions. Those silver tags that Dar Oakley and the Crows saw taken from the necks of some bore engraved addresses that an officer could write to, to tell his loved ones he was dead and when and where he died, but they were uncommon. Others were known because their comrades or officers had carried out their last wishes, to tell their families that they had felt no fear, that they trusted in God, had thought of Mother at the last. Many more were buried in the new cemeteries near the battlefields made specially for them, though not all of the graves were marked or their occupants known, and some were named with names that were not theirs. My great-grandfather lies in one of these.

  If they were known for sure to be dead, if a stone could be raised over their remains, then they could live: somewhere elsewhere, in the land of the heart. If they could not be known to be dead, known for sure, they might never die: they could come ever and again in the night to stand before you with their wounds bleeding, or they’d haunt the mind as images of themselves before the war, child with a hoop, a slate, a young man with a poem for a girl-cousin. How could it be borne?

  Parents and spouses and kin of those who had not been found, whose words hadn’t been recorded at the last or who had been tumbled nameless in the long ditches side by side with others, in time lost hope of ever laying their soldier in a real place of rest. Some, hearts unhealed, were boarding trains themselves in their black clothes and black-banded hats, traveling in hope and grief to call on certain men and women who had learned the new science of souls, who might reach out from the land of the living to the departed one, hear him say that he was well, repeat his words to listeners: it was all they had.

  Anna Kuhn was one of those speakers.

  Spring again, the green corn shoots had arisen, and the great band of Crows, strong, loud, corn-fed from birth, crossed from here and there, calling encouragement daywise to darkwise, billwise to otherwise, heard but mostly not seen as they moved by stages to where the farmers had raised those imaginary People of sticks and straw to scare them from the wealth. The land around the white farmhouse was plowed and seeded in this spring as it hadn’t been before; the woman stood and watched, or seemed to watch, the men at work, good, kind men who were not her men. As Dar Oakley passed on this morning over the house, the Dog raised its head, and the boy did too. Once again Dar Oakley left his band and banked downward toward the porch. She sat there in a high-backed chair with a basket by her side, and from it she took pea pods, broke them, let the new peas fall into a bowl in her lap. She never lowered her eyes to the basket or the bowl, and though her head turned toward the Crow when it banked downward and stalled at the farmyard, wings thudding, she seemed to look not at him but at a place above his head.

  He took a grip on the porch railing, settled his tail. Made a little noise, one of those small growls or grumbles or chuckles whose meanings are still not all clear to me. She paused in her work, sat with hands slightly raised, unmoving, as though to move would disturb the air or the world and lose her the sound she
d heard. He made it again; she put the bowl on the porch floor with care, and stood. Dar Oakley shook himself again, bent to take off at need, but there was no need. He had known People for centuries, knew which were a threat to him, which not, even if—like her—they approached him with a hunter’s stealth. It took some courage, but he sat perfectly still as her hand came close to his head, and then rested on it, a pressure he could hardly feel. He moved, only to show he knew her hand was on him, and she lifted it and placed it again, on his neck and back.

  “A Crow,” she said.

  It’s unclear to me when Dar Oakley came to understand Anna Kuhn couldn’t see him or anything else. But he remembers she said that word then, with her hand on him. He didn’t move. Stillness is a strategy: the less alive you seem, the less you’ll be seen. He kept as still as a nestling fallen in the underbrush from the nest, who knows his parents are near and aware. That was his instinct beneath Anna Kuhn’s hand, but there were other reasons too, ones he had no words for then and none now: relief, maybe; adoption; surrender. Those are my glosses. Anna was still too.

  His instincts then flung him with a cry into the air, even before he consciously grasped danger: a gun was pointed at him from the window of the house. That small child. Its teeth bared. The gun went off with an odd pop, and a thing small as an acorn flew from it, then stopped, fell, and dangled. Dar Oakley was aloft and gone: his last sight was of the startled mother, chiding the laughing child.

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