Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.41
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.41

           John Crowley
 

  “It does, though,” I answered him. “You of all persons know it.”

  “I don’t know a thing,” he said.

  “You carried them there,” I said. “So many of them. So you said.”

  “So they said.”

  “Just take us to the gate,” I said. “That’s all I ask. As you took the Singer.”

  He tilted his head up, darkwise, downward, daywise—in difficulties, thinking what to say. “It’s very far away.”

  “Well, yes, perhaps.”

  “So far away it doesn’t matter how far. Too far to go. Especially for one who can’t fly.”

  “It is very far away,” I said, “but it’s also easily reached. Isn’t it? They say not a day and a night passes between the moment I’m no longer here and the moment I’m there.”

  “That’s a little hard to swallow,” he said. “Don’t you think?”

  “It’ll be short enough if you’ll stay by me.”

  He stood looking at me with first one eye and then the other, and it was easy to know what he thought: that he’d been there and I hadn’t. “All right,” he said, “I will go with you as far as I can. But then I’m for elsewhere.”

  “It’s all I ask,” I said.

  “It’s no place for Crows,” he said.

  “No, you have your own place. You told me about reaching it, that it was hard but possible.”

  He looked at me, one eye, the other eye.

  “A story about cherries,” I said.

  “Ah,” Dar Oakley said. “That story.”

  It occurred to me at that moment for the first time that Dar Oakley may have lived lives he doesn’t now remember—lives that were too short, too dull, or simply lost in time and unavailable to him as story or as memory. I’ve been thinking about that. I wonder, too, if the stories he does tell me, of lives he remembers living and leaving, are actually chosen by him for me alone. The ones I need most to hear. To Crows he may tell others, full of interest to them. These are mine. And this one the last.

  CHAPTER TWO

  This was when Dar Oakley was one among the thousand who roosted in winter in the trees of the islands rising in the river. They had long since ceased to migrate south; the riches available here never ceased being produced, and now springs came sooner, summers were longer than they once had been, winters warmer. Young Crows came in from the farmlands and the surrounding country to get in on the endless provision, nesting in the parks and in abandoned factory complexes. They were fast, careless, assured, these young ones; they spoke in ways new to Dar Oakley, their language changing with each generation that came and went. As good as Corn, they’d say of something that was both common and necessary; in a snare, they’d say, meaning any unresolvable trouble, though none of them now had ever seen a Crow desperate and terrified in a Crow-catcher’s snare. Got a Gun? young males strutting and rousing would yell, a taunt meaning, You don’t have the stuff to drive me away.

  They had over time withdrawn from the old city center where they used to feast, the alleys where the wealth was dumped nightly in overflowing containers. The great mountain was near, and held almost all they needed. The avenues and squares within the towers were too alarming, no place for Crows; full of crowds and sirens and flashing lights, smashed windows, guns fired, corrosive gas. At night, home from their forays over the garbage heaps, the Crows on the river islands might awaken to see the dull glitter of fires that way too, the city burning.

  Dar Oakley’s city, where he lived. But looking down at daybreak on the river in spring flood, laced with yellow scum and speeding so fast that even the Gulls (who’d come from who knew where) couldn’t fish it, Dar Oakley could feel put out of space and time, liable to fall from the branch he clung to. The lights of cars streamed over the bridges as fast as the river fled under them, just as endlessly, too.

  “Say,” a Crow beside him said. “Look there.”

  “Ah,” Dar Oakley said. “They’re back.”

  Down there by the river along the stretches of open ground between People buildings and barriers lived another crowd of birds that had ceased to migrate. Dar Oakley remembered them too from long ago, big gray Geese with long black necks and heads, white chin-straps, flying over and coming to rest on ponds and lakelets, then going their way again north or south. They weren’t the ones who were back. They lived here now all year, building slovenly nests along backwaters, laying their big eggs, taking young to the water at morning and back at night, their settlements fouled with green turds. The flock the two Crows could see were just now sitting spring eggs. What Dar Oakley saw returning were dim gray shapes in trees and bushes farther from the river. Crows had glimpsed them around here before, though they had no name for them. Lean four-legs, a large one and another, then two young ones. Sharp-faced, with great pointed ears and full brushes. The Crows could see a large one, then two young ones. Gone when you looked for them, then again appearing.

  Dogs? No, not Dogs. You never saw Dogs that looked all the same exactly, as these did. Dogs came in packs, but not in families. Foxes? No, not Foxes, either, bigger than Foxes but not Wolf-size, and dull in color. They seemed at home; watchful, but at home. Like Crows, Dar Oakley thought: scavengers, improvisers, opportunists. Right now they were after those eggs, and maybe a gosling. As yet the Geese, readying for sleep, hadn’t perceived them. But now Dar Oakley could see them very well: they seemed to confer, their twitching ears turning toward one another. The largest slipped away through the abandoned People furniture and trash and disappeared.

  The city had swallowed up the country, and with it, black-masked Raccoons, eaters of eggs as well as People, Muskrats and Otters in the river; Fishers and Martens who preyed on Felis domesticus and broke their owners’ hearts. A Marten could sometimes climb a tree and take and eat Crow nestlings. Ghost animals, too, that People claimed to see, Bobcats and Cougars and Wolves, as though they expected the ancient wild to return and take back this realm, as this realm had taken it from them long before.

  These gray ones were real enough. It was fun watching them work their plan. The three who remained on the landward side of the Geese crept on their bellies to get close, and then poked up their heads and yipped, then hid again. The big male Geese came toward them, opening their wings and hissing threats, and the gray ones retreated. The Geese and the Dog-Fox beings went back and forth, each staying short of the other, more Geese coming to threaten and protect. Meanwhile—Dar Oakley had guessed it—the big one who’d slipped away had swum up through the shallows and now came out and rushed the rearward, where the goslings were sheltering, and he got one almost before he was noticed. As soon as the Geese turned, shrieking, and ran toward him he was away, and—this was the neat part—his kin immediately rushed in and got an abandoned egg, and had slurped down much of the goodness and the half-formed gosling within before they, too, were cried out on and had to flee. One little one glanced back at all the eggs remaining.

  The two black Crows up above laughed and laughed.

  After that Dar Oakley began keeping a lookout for the beasts, though it was only at dawn or evening he saw them. Night-beasts. He followed them, but they’d slip away or vanish, only to materialize elsewhere and catch his eye.

  On a heavy fall day with a red sun sinking through brown-tinged humidity they appeared in the open, climbing a ramp that cars no longer used up to a bridge over the river—not the one that ran over the Crow’s islands but one farther downstream. In bad repair, stone facings falling, guardrails broken. It sagged. High fences of heavy wire blocked the entrances at each end to keep People from entering onto it, and flaming oil-pots too for a warning. The four animals, the large one in the lead, all heads low, constantly looking side to side and to the rear to see pursuit, went up to the fence and on their stomachs squeezed under it and went out onto the bridge.

  The same family? It seemed to be. Dar Oakley sailed that way and caught up with them as they reached the broken slabs in the middle. He’d watch from one of the high pillars that stood
at regular intervals surmounted by stone eagles and unlit lamps, then fly to the next. The gray beasts never looked up: nothing for them upward. But as they reached the bridge’s end and the young ones crept under the fence there, the big one turned its face to where Dar Oakley looked down. And held his regard for a long moment.

  The places across the bridge were largely empty; factories and warehouses and garages, some burned to nothing, but others standing and occupied by People with nowhere else to go. Lights flickered in broken windows. Water gushed from a broken main and People—females, mostly—stood to fill cans and basins. Shouts and talk from here and there. The gray ones avoided these People. Dar Oakley watched them enter a patch of weeds and stunted city trees by a brick wall and disappear. He took a perch on a post and waited. Night was coming and he shouldn’t be here in the open alone, but something made him stay and watch the place where the gray ones had gone down—though he also kept a nervous watch upward. Hawks nested on high rooftops like these, hunted Rabbits in the grass. Hunted Pigeons and Crows, too.

  A face came out from a hole that ran under the building, hidden by the weeds. That older one. He regarded the Crow, and the Crow him.

  Looking for something? said the beast.

  Crows and others don’t speak the same way, much less the same language—but even before he registered the impossibility of it, Dar Oakley had answered, No, nothing.

  We’ve got no scraps to spare, the beast said.

  No, no, Dar Oakley said.

  Then why have you followed us? Poor beasts that we are.

  Dar Oakley, who had no idea why he had followed them, said nothing. The beast’s eyes were the yellow of a Falcon’s, but warm and wary. He asked, How is it that you can speak to me, and me to you?

  Are we speaking? the beast said. He drew his body out from the den and shook himself from throat to tail in a complicated shudder; he lifted one hind foot, threw it as though casting something from it, then the other, and began to trot off.

  Follow me if you like, he said. I’ve got some traveling to do. We can introduce ourselves. If we don’t already know us.

  Coyote, I told Dar Oakley. It wasn’t a word he was able to say, though he tried it out a few times; it defeated his mimicry. And anyway it wasn’t the name the creature called himself, a name that Dar Oakley couldn’t say either: his standard imitation of a Dog’s low, questioning, unperturbed huff was as close as he could get.

  Night should have fallen by then but somehow hadn’t, as though the sun hovered just below the horizon and sank no farther. Dar Oakley followed the beast through the wilderness of the riverbank ruins; they passed among People unnoticed, the People seeming dim and hardly present. It was light enough to fly, and sometimes he flew, unable otherwise to keep up with Coyote’s ceaseless trotting.

  He wasn’t from these places, he told Dar Oakley; not city-bred, no: he was unwelcome in the city, and if he was caught by the People, he’d be got rid of without hesitation.

  Of course they have to catch me before the trial can start, he said, if there’s a trial, which there wouldn’t be, because they don’t catch me, so on we go.

  Dar Oakley tried to learn of his travels, where he’d gone, but mammals don’t seem to have any sense of the four directions, never know where they are in the large world, though some of them can trace by odors the winding ways they’ve taken, and return to anywhere from anywhere. And in the dark, too.

  So it was far away, Dar Oakley said, where you started from.

  Can’t tell you, Coyote said.

  A long time to travel from there to here?

  Coyote didn’t answer.

  You’ve known People all that time?

  Known them? the mammal said. I made them.

  You made People?

  Well, so they say.

  The dark ways were lit here and there by fires that People had started in tall cans, or from windows where People had got city light somehow for themselves. The hunting Coyote slipped around the pools of light, and stopped for a moment to bite at something. He chewed it as though it tasted bad, black lips curled back in what seemed disgust, and swallowed. Always his eyes turning toward threats.

  There’s a story, he said then, and set off again.

  I’m listening, Dar Oakley said.

  It seems, Coyote said, that there was a gigantic bird. There were no People then. And this bird was catching all the animals, taking them up to the sky and eating them. He caught a Toad, for one, to have for a mate, a wife, you know? And this Toad was the aunt of an Eagle who was an uncle of mine.

  A Toad? An Eagle?

  That’s what they say, he said, and made an odd snickering noise that Dar Oakley was pretty sure was laughter.

  So, Dar Oakley said.

  So I, I myself, climbed up to the sky. And the Toad told me how to kill this monster bird, and it’s said that I did that. And Uncle Eagle taught me what to do then. I had to cut off the bird’s wings and pull out the big wing feathers one by one. . . .

  At that Dar Oakley, who’d perched on a post for a rest, tightened his wings around him, drew down his tail.

  That’s right, Coyote said, and I planted them in the ground to make trees. These were the first trees. You still listening?

  Tell me, Dar Oakley said. What color was this bird?

  This bird was black.

  Oh.

  I planted the smaller feathers, and they became People. People, to replace all those animals who’d been hunted and eaten all up.

  You made People, Dar Oakley said. And now People hunt you.

  How it goes, said Coyote.

  I, Dar Oakley said, was once married to a Beaver.

  Is that so.

  So People said.

  Coyote stopped his walking, looked around and behind, squatted down and wiggled his backside into a hole in a vast pile of rusted trash, a place he had obviously long known was there; he put his head on his crossed forelegs, licked a sore. He was hard to see there, or maybe just hard to believe in. Dar Oakley took a perch on a length of pipe.

  So you, he said to Dar Oakley. Come from someplace else?

  Across the sea, Dar Oakley said.

  Across the what?

  Never mind, said the Crow. Far away.

  For a long while then the two regarded one another, the same thought within each, neither knowing how to ask the question. Dar Oakley thought of saying, Mostly we don’t live so long, we animals. But instead he said, That was your family I saw?

  Them? Oh yes. The wife and pups.

  Had many?

  You tell me, Crow, the Coyote said, amused. You tell me about all your bird-chicks and all the mates you’ve had back to the beginning, and I’ll tell you where we are and why we’re talking here.

  So Dar Oakley did.

  The light, neither dawn nor day, didn’t change. They neither ate nor hungered. Dar Oakley didn’t need to be told where he was. It was where they were while they were what they are: where the stories he told and that Coyote told could be told, and be heard. Coyote listened with care, big ears pricking now and then, gaze drifting away across the surroundings. When he reached the beginning and was done the Coyote said, So you stole this thing. The precious thing.

  Yes.

  And you’ve had it ever since.

  Yes.

  Can’t die unless you touch it again, but who knows how or when that would be.

  Yes.

  If ever.

  Yes.

  And they hated you for stealing it.

  Yes, Dar Oakley said. In hearing the Coyote say that—they hated you for stealing it—Dar Oakley thought it himself for the first time, and thought that it was true.

  I thought so. Coyote yawned, showing long tongue and teeth; his yellow eyes crossed, his tongue licked his dark chops.

  Then he told this story:

  People, he said, say that once long ago People just went on living and living and never stopping. There was no death. Which was good, except that they also kept having People pups wh
o grew up and ate the food and used up the wealth, and so there were too many of them. They started thinking it would be better if old People just went away somewhere for a while, you know? They’d be “dead.” They could be called back with singing and drumming and so on whenever People wanted them back. There was a lot of talk about whether this was a good idea, and the talk went on a long time. Back then there were People who could talk to us—us not-People—if they learned how and practiced. So when one of those came to us—well, to me—and asked what I thought, I said no, those dead ones should be dead and gone forever. Life’s for the living, I said. That’s something we beasts know and People don’t. Am I right? And this speaker brought my words to their councils, and he got voted down. Having Death was maybe good, they admitted, but the idea of never seeing their friends and kin ever again was just too sad for People.

  So here’s what they did: they built this lodge of grass, of the kind they make, to put their dead ones in. And they decided there should be two doors, one for bringing in the dead, which would be shut when the dead were inside, and another for the spirits to return by after they had rested up or whatever they did, and get back into their old bodies. And it was to stay open always.

  I still didn’t like this idea. First of all, sharing. Too many to share with, and that included me. That land then was pretty poor. Then, just no. Dead’s dead. If spirits come back so the dead are up and doing again, what do they get to do? What seats do they sit in? Do they get all their wealth back? Not that that was any of my business, but I knew it was wrong, and I thought I’d see what I could do. And here’s what they say happened next: When the dead were tucked up in that lodge, and the wind that brought the spirits back started to blow, I went and closed that spirit door. I pushed it shut and I kept it shut, and the wind blew hard and I held hard, and the wind couldn’t blow that door open.

  So at last the spirits went away. They figured that no door had been made for them; that the house was the house of the dead only, where spirits were forbidden. They had better go off and make a land of their own. And they were right.

 
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