Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.36
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.36

           John Crowley
 

  The Crow stayed by her. In time her ashen hair turned all white. She stopped aiding the grieving, no longer felt she knew how; the art or science she practiced seemed to have fallen into the hands of tricksters and confidence men, fakers of ghost photographs, bell-ringers, maskers. She and her mother-in-law had an army pension to live on, and money Anna’s son sent home. Though she had almost ceased speaking with the dead, she spoke often to herself; sometimes she made the soft mewling sound that Dar Oakley knew was called singing:

  Come near angel band

  Come and around me stand

  At other times she spoke names, of People or of things she wanted and couldn’t feel or touch. Dar Oakley learned in that way a lot of her speech: with her son grown and gone, he was admitted to the kitchen (though not elsewhere in the house), and he could locate for her this and that by chuckling or by tapping on whatever it was. Out on the path she would stop and say the names of flowers, which apparently (Dar Oakley was surprised to learn it) she recognized by their odors. She retained to some degree from the days of her somnambulations the ability to see in darkness, to see what her eyes could not. On late-summer evenings she might stand by the fields when the wind was in the long grasses, lit white by the descending sun, and sometimes there she would say, And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. And he standing on her shoulder, feathers ruffled by the standing wind that brought the sound and the smell of it to her, would think Why does she say that? Why do People say such things? Graves are under grass, yes, but not here; and grass is not hair to be cut. The grass of graves isn’t uncut; the People see to that. But on one evening, a far mutter of thunder and the low sunlight passing through the high grass with the wind so that it seemed a being that moved, Dar Oakley was altered inside, and he saw what Anna Kuhn meant by saying what she said. Not that it made sense, it didn’t, but he knew what would make her say it. For centuries he’d heard People say such things, and fought them away as an annoyance, an irritation, and now, just like that, he knew. The beautiful uncut hair of graves. Ever after he’d say it, not aloud, when the lives of People and their dead were again mysteries to him that he could not solve: and the gold-green wind and Anna’s sadness and his would be in the words that he alone would hear himself say.

  I am unable to find a death date for Anna Kuhn, which is curious, though of course in a way it’s fitting. It was winter, near the end of the century. Whatever day it was, Dar Oakley was aware of it, of her death. He hadn’t seen it, hadn’t seen the drapes drawn in the farmhouse windows in the day, the black wagon and the long box; would not have distinguished the church bell tolling for a death from its ringing for Sunday service. But he knew of it. The two of them had been woven together so long that a tug on one would be felt by the other: death would not have broken those threads.

  He’d long given up his night watches by then, but found himself that winter evening again on the old Pine as the sun went down. He wasn’t surprised to see her in the twilight, walking barefoot over the snow-covered earth; perhaps the white shift she seemed to wear was the one she’d worn when she walked asleep as a child. She seemed to walk a path that went just above the ground, but her steps were steady. He left the Pine to follow her; he says it was like following Fox Cap when she was a Saint in white, leading the Brother: how she seemed to see yet didn’t look, to know but not notice. After an indistinct time she came to higher ground, where there stood something, a structure that Dar Oakley says he couldn’t exactly see or grasp, toward which she went without hesitation, as though it were her own and she was returning to it from an errand or a journey. And that’s all he can say. Soon—he can’t say how long—all of it was over, like a fire gone out.

  I think—and if Dar Oakley and I are connected in any way as he and Anna Kuhn were connected, I can be sure of it—that what Anna went to, and through, was a door. When he told me about that night, I could clearly see it: a tall double door in a casement, of plain wood simply carpentered. Perhaps ajar. Anyway it opens at her touch: the lightest of touches. The night beyond is bright. I hope this is so. I hope (though what use, what value, has my hope?) that among those awaiting her were two young men dressed in bright blue, their sleeves slashed in yellow. They reach toward her, and she toward them. They are whole.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Years before Anna Kuhn’s death, the small farm and house passed out of her hands. The blind woman and her unwell mother-in-law found it difficult to manage the boy Paul, Anna’s son, as he went through adolescence; in the language of the time he was willful, unregenerate—bitter and destructive, impossible to control. A local rich man, a mill owner and big farmer, a childless widower, offered to adopt Paul, give him an education, set him straight, if the two women would sign over their few acres to him; they’d retain a lifetime interest in the place. Paul’s mother agreed. I don’t know if she felt pain in doing so, or relief, or both. The rich man was named Hergesheimer; he changed Paul’s surname to his, and sent him East to study. It can be imagined that he was a reckless and intractable student, but I don’t know. After going through medical training (not all that arduous then), he went off into the world for several years, returning to the farm the day after his mother was buried in the family plot beside her first child and Paul’s grandparents. He may have already adopted by then the long black duster he later commonly wore, and the curious black wideawake hat, the front brim longer than the back and pinned up at the sides to form a point. He may have been wearing these things when he got off the train, when he stood at the porch of the house in the dust in his dusty boots, with his gun cases and his satchels of elk-skin.

  Dar Oakley—even before he determined that this big black-bearded fellow was the same person as the boy who shot at Crows—knew he was seeing an enemy, and made himself scarce. The house was no longer his.

  Dr. Hergesheimer seems never to have practiced much; perhaps his inheritance sustained him, or his later business interests. At that time he considered himself over and above any other pursuits or occupations a sportsman. He favored what were called the blood sports, and first among them all, Crow shooting, at which he was expert even then, and which he promoted whenever he could. His private reasons for this singular pursuit or obsession were of no account; Crows being the most destructive of agricultural pests—everybody knew that—the shooters of Crows did well to shoot them, and could take delight in it freely at the same time. It was both pleasure and duty, Dr. Hergesheimer’d contend, less sport in fact than crusade.

  In the years—centuries—since Dar Oakley had first come storm-driven to this continent, it had grown to resemble in some ways the lands where Dar Oakley had begun life, across the sea. There was no stone tower, no Dux and his cohort, no Abbey of stones piled on stones; but by now the Oak and Beech forests that had covered the valleys and broad lands in One Ear’s time had been mostly leveled, just as the old-world forests where Dar Oakley had been born had been leveled long before. The wide land had greened over as though it had always been treeless, open, arable. Scattered houses acquired company, villages were made. It became the sort of land that’s suited to Crows: wide, long views, with groves here and there for hiding and nesting in and flocking to in winter; still-forested hills where the remains of others’ prey could be found, at least till the Wolves and big cats went farther away. People middens where the braver Crows could get the endless People waste. Stock to follow, chicks and eggs, the yards unfenced where the Foxes and Fisher-cats too got wealth. At evening the light of the sun went out and lamps instead came on in window after window.

  There were differences, though only Dar Oakley noticed them, or cared to make the comparison. The log cabins they’d once built, as low and rude almost as the winter shelters of Bears, had come to be replaced by houses of painted wood, for which planks were cut at mills—it was Dar Oakley who learned what went on in those places by the waterfalls, who watched the raising of the houses and barns made from them, heard the ringing of hammers. The white churches too where People g
athered, from which came the sound of their voices raised all together, while their Horses waited, some wearing in hot summers the hats of straw that their People wore too.

  There was another difference.

  Far away and long ago, Crows and other birds had followed the sowers in the spring, who cast seed from their bags over the plowed earth, step and cast, step and cast, and the birds took up as much as the earth did. Not here now. Like their secret burials, their hidden lives in houses, these People hid their grain from sight, pressed or packed it into the ground with an engine a farmer sat on—a thing resembling but different from the gun-carriages that threw the black killing balls—and was pulled along by big shaggy-ankled Horses. It seemed that no grain, no corn, was ever sown, and yet the crop came up, and not in heaps here and straggles there as the sower threw but in long, straight lines.

  It didn’t matter that Dar Oakley didn’t understand the principle of Jethro Tull’s seed drill. Crows care about cause and effect where it profits them to do so; they don’t see it as general. Not many days after that engine went around, and given good rain and no frost, the long neat rows of green sprouts would appear, bursting the buried seed and pushing up through the soft bared earth. At the root of each corn plant, the kernel that produced it remained: one small mouthful of yellow goodness. And a step away another, and another, until the plowed and planted land ended.

  It was the dawning of the Age of Gold.

  Of course Dar Oakley says that it was he who first pulled up a green corn plant, shook off the leaves, and swallowed the sweet kernel. That it was his long study of People back to the time of the Crow clan of the Longhouse people that taught him that this wealth was hidden there.

  Well, perhaps. What was certain was that People hated Crows for their depredations more than any People anywhere had ever hated them. With the coming of the great cornfields a war began between Crows and People that would last a century and more, and in some places still isn’t won or lost.

  By early summer corn is high, and of less interest to the Crows: they can’t easily get at the ears within their tough jackets. Dar Oakley and his kin and neighbors still gathered in the cornfields, though, and voiced their calls, because ploughed ground yields grubs, and Snails, and Mice, and strong Crows at least could tear away enough silk from young ears to get a bite or a worm; every opened ear would then spoil in rain. Sometimes their calling would bring a farmer with his gun, children running and yelling, a wife shaking her apron. “There they come,” one Crow would call, and they’d lift away, move to a farther field.

  The Crows don’t remember, and neither do People, when farmers first tried to scare them off by making those false People to stand and stare, bowing a little in the breeze but never changing place. Dar Oakley tells how he’d stand watch and call, Watch out, watch out when one appeared as though suddenly standing up, with big eyes like the bird-costumed specter of the Wolves gang. It was enough to make most Crows stand off a ways from one, the braver ones still snatching a corn sprout here and there behind its back, then taking off. But it wasn’t long—not more than a generation or two of Crows—before the difference between a man and a pair of crossed sticks, a pumpkin-head with an old hat on it, and a coat stuffed with straw, became clear. The young were taught, who taught their young in turn. Look him in the eye, shriek in his face, give him a poke in the eye. You see? You see?

  The Crows finally came to delight in the figures; though Crows can’t recognize the many images of People that People make, the use of this one is so evident they can, and it has the effect on their sense of humor that a pun has on some People. They still like to pretend a little fear at first, then go settle on its outstretched arms, and crow in its face—for Crows do crow, in delight at wit and surprise: a sound you’ll come to know if you watch them. As the corn grew high the comical People were propped up higher, or they were left standing and hidden by the yellowing stalks; come late summer when the farmers and the hands, the women and children, came out to cut and shock the corn, the scarecrows fell amid the stalks and waste, lost their heads and hands. Dar Oakley was alone in seeing in them all the gaunt skeletons in his story, the bones of One Ear’s brother, the ragged men on the ground in Na Cherry’s old homeland. He could be startled coming unaware upon one, as though it might lift itself on its skinny arms and turn up its face to him.

  However it was—the final cutting of the forests, the temperate warming of the earth (if it was indeed growing temperate throughout those dry regions, as hopeful opinion had it), or the widespread planting of corn, milo, and wheat—in those years Crows grew numerous beyond anyone’s understanding. Farmers watched tens of thousands of Crows come to winter roosts, “darkening the skies,” clouds of them rising from and falling again to the trees or the ground in elaborate aerial ballets that observers could discern no reason for (they were simply sorting themselves out in order of precedence, and the more Crows there were, the longer it took). It’s easy to imagine the awe People felt, the horror, too: the heart of the country had become infested, and the infestation was spreading like a ghastly necrosis. A rage to kill Crows swept over the wide middle lands that the Crows knew as their own; town after town posted a bounty for a dead Crow. For a long time the Crows were ignorant that a war against them was on, and for all their wits and their cautions, for all the well-remembered stories of fool Crows come to grief, they didn’t escape the People’s fury.

  The strange thing—People and Crows both perceived it—was that no matter how many Crows the hunters bagged or the farmers poisoned, no matter how long the war went on, there never seemed to be any fewer of them. More, if anything. To People it seemed more than strange: it was supernatural, diabolic.

  Likely Dr. Hergesheimer would not have participated in such speculation—he had no truck with the supernatural; he’d dissected bodies and found no trace of soul or spirit in them. A dead Crow was a dead Crow. In his duster and black-billed hat he was a Crow figure himself. He’d work steadily through a day’s hunting with his acolyte hunters around him, cigar between his teeth and the black rags of shot crows scattered over the ground. At the fading of the light he’d go over each corpse, turning it with his boot, looking among the dead for the one with the white cheek.

  Dar Oakley had not mated again. He was much taken, though, with a brilliant and quick-minded female, whose mate was a strong old Crow of quiet disposition. Dar Oakley hung around her so much one spring and fall that her mate got used to him, and Dar Oakley became for the only time in his life (as far as he can remember) a Servitor. Her name was Digs Moss for Snails, or Moss for short. (The snails story is apparently a funny one, but I couldn’t understand it when Dar Oakley explained it to me.)

  “You really never mated?” she asked him, when first they were friends.

  “Oh, sure,” Dar Oakley said. “But—well, you know how it is.”

  The old polite formulation was sufficient, even though she really couldn’t know how it was, not for him. But he left it at that. Ever since his time as a herder of the dead, a night bird, he’d decided that in the day, in Ka, he’d be as ordinary a Crow as he could be.

  Moss was among those (they can be Crows or People) who are devoted to the diurnal, to the this and that of a well-ordered life (to the extent that any Crow life can be well-ordered) and yet whose poise and grace transform those things to worth above all others. Moss never kept a cache of valuables, as so many Crows do—Dar Oakley had by then lost a dozen such, full of beauties he would always regret, but for Moss what she did each in its season, the eggs she laid, the young she hatched, the food she found, the flights she took (she was a flier of wondrous offhand skill, never a show-off) were all the cache she required. Oddly, Moss reminded him of blind Anna Kuhn: her unwasteful motions, her open heart, the simplicities of her daily round. Dar Oakley thought or hoped that he could learn from her to return wholly into Ka. It was all he wanted.

  In spring it was his duty as Servitor to watch over her and her mate in their nest-building and mating
, and he remembered his mother’s Servitor, and how he had cooed like a Dove over their coupling. He thought of the Vagrant, too, and a certain day with his mother in spring—but he was old now and ought to be wise, and he kept his place on a nearby bough and only called soft encouragements and admirations. When the eggs were laid, he helped Moss’s mate (Dar Oakley can’t remember his name, or if he had one) feed Moss where she sat day after day. He thought his own offerings were richer, but her stolid spouse took no notice of that, merely put what he’d brought into her open mouth and went to get more.

  Stronger than any People calendar, than any succession of People fasts and feasts (which were already in those years detaching from life-labors, planting, sowing, gathering): eggs laid each spring and brooded. Four eggs of Moss’s five opened at once at the common time, and the new year began; the tiny beings (they weighed less than an ounce just out of the egg but doubled in size every week) had to be fed, their great pink yawning mouths as large as all the rest of them. Dar Oakley conceived daring plans to get good food in quantity from People farms, using elaborate deceptions and cooperations, and he fell behind in the necessary ceaseless provisioning, of no matter what kind or quality.

  “You,” Moss said at the nest’s edge, without reproach, “were to watch, while we hunted. Where did you go?” She didn’t wait for whatever answer he’d give; was off again. All the pink mouths clapped shut and the dingy little nestlings effectually disappeared in the sticks and leaves of the nest. Dar Oakley looked down on them gloomily. He wasn’t a good Servitor; he’d got bad at being a Crow.

  The one duty of a Servitor that he could do well, and better than any other Crow, was to watch over his mistress and keep her from harm. Harm was everywhere, and always had been; but Dar Oakley knew something about harms new to Crows.

 
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