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Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
Table of Contents
About The Book
“One of our country’s absolutely finest novelists.” —Peter Straub, New York Times bestselling author of Interior Darkness and Ghost Story
From award-winning author John Crowley comes an exquisite fantasy novel about a man who tells the story of a crow named Dar Oakley and his impossible lives and deaths in the land of Ka.
A Crow alone is no Crow.
Dar Oakley—the first Crow in all of history with a name of his own—was born two thousand years ago. When a man learns his language, Dar finally gets the chance to tell his story. He begins his tale as a young man, and how he went down to the human underworld and got hold of the immortality meant for humans, long before Julius Caesar came into the Celtic lands; how he sailed West to America with the Irish monks searching for the Paradise of the Saints; and how he continuously went down into the land of the dead and returned. Through his adventures in Ka, the realm of Crows, and around the world, he found secrets that could change the humans’ entire way of life—and now may be the time to finally reveal them.
Before the mountain at the world’s end was built on the river plain, before the high city there grew up, before most of the Ravens went away into the forests of the deep North, before the People’s long rage to kill Crows, before Dar Oakley’s sea-journey to the West, before the Most Precious Thing was found and lost again, before the ways were opened to the lands of the dead, before there were names in Ka, before Ymr came to be and therefore before Ka knew itself, Dar Oakley first knew People.
Dar Oakley didn’t have that name then, or any name. It would be eons before Crows had each a name, as they do now; then, no, they had no need of them, they called those around them Father, Brother, Older Sister, Other Older Sister; those they didn’t know as relations, or forgot in what degree, were spoken of as Those Ones, or Others, or All of Them There, and so on. And since they had little to say about other Crows or very much need to talk about them when not in their presence, this was enough.
But without names it’s impossible to remember stories, and hard to tell them. So Dar Oakley will begin as Dar Oakley in this one.
There weren’t many Crows then. Or rather there were very many, all around the world; but not many in any one place. Where Dar Oakley had been hatched and fledged, except in the winter roosts that drew Crows from far away, there were not more Crows than any one of them could know by sight and voice. If it were to happen that an unknown Crow came trespassing among them, he or she would be seen off, or at least kept at bay a long time; many seasons could pass during which a strange pair would remain strangers, and even when they were accepted, no one would forget they weren’t really Us.
Dar Oakley’s parents were two such. Where they came from, where their birth flock had its demesne, why they left and came here, Dar Oakley never knew: for as soon as they could, they forgot it themselves, each wanting only to belong here, one of these Crows; eventually they would be as disparaging about newcomers as the rest. Even so, from their birth Dar Oakley’s older brothers and sisters were looked on with suspicion, everyone sure they could still detect something different, something not-Us, about them: and one by one they left the flock, to seek out brothers and sisters who had left before them, or to be strangers elsewhere, no one knew where—or indeed if there was a Where or a There to go to.
So these Crows weren’t just like the Crows in the fields and woods beyond my house.
But that demesne between the wide, shallow river and the forest was a fine one for a flock such as that one was then. Most years the river flooded its plain in the spring, which kept the tall growth and the young trees down. There were mussels and fish in the river—when the Salmon ran, a family of Bears would fish there, and their leavings were rich—and there were grubs and Voles and quick red Newts and a thousand other things in the earth. Crows ventured across the river and up over the foothills of the stony and densely forested mountain, but never very far; nor did they often go far into the woods that began where Hemlocks grew at the river-meadow’s edge, though they claimed them as theirs to an indeterminate distance. The woodlands provided them with the cadavers of small animals, with snails and slugs and the eggs and nestlings of other birds when such could be got, and big dead things they could pick over with the Ravens when the Wolves were done with them. There was enough for all, but not much more. Winters were hard, and they ranged farther then for food, even over the heath to the big lake that lay darkwise from their demesne; but the rest of the year they stayed close to the places they were born and claimed as theirs. Far beyond where they went were other Crows, Crows they had no dealings with, and who themselves rarely left their own demesnes.
That was how it had been forever, a past too long and featureless to be remembered, and rarely spoken of. When they talked, these Crows mostly talked about the weather.
And then the People came.
A long while after that, for all the wealth they’d get as a result, for all that they flourished and multiplied as never before, old Crows of that flock would sometimes say, I wish they’d never come over the mountain, or crossed the river; I wish they’d never come at all.
They could say such things because by then Crows had learned the trick of thinking that the world could be different from the way it is, and therefore to wish it was.
Dar Oakley invented that. So he would say.
Dar Oakley’s family freehold was far off from the others, one that had been claimed by the parents in the early years when they were outsiders. It wasn’t rich. It fed his mother and his father, his mother’s Servitor (a melancholy male who had loved her since he was a fledgling), and himself and two sisters. They were the nestlings of that spring who had survived infancy, their coats still not the lustrous black of grown-ups, all three of them still needing to be watched, though they didn’t think so themselves. And a young vagrant such as Dar Oakley’s parents had once been, who kept warily apart and had yet to communicate much with the rest but who was tolerated, perhaps for long-ago’s sake. In autumn Dar Oakley reached the age to be a watcher—not all by himself, his task was only whatever word was given him by his mother or father or the Servitor perched in a high spot. Through the day they all moved over their reach of ground, walking its well-known hillocks and streams, looking for anything interesting and possibly edible. At each move they posted a watch, a couple or three of them who listened for calls from distant families and watched the sky and the trees and the ground for Hawks, or Foxes, or other intruders. Only after the call-and-response was done—All right? All right here, as I see—would they descend to eat.
Dar Oakley liked to take a wind-shaken perch absurdly high in the tallest tree around, where he could see threats come from miles off, if there had been any threat, which there had never been in his short life; the common threats to cry out about—a Weasel, a Fox, a Hawk—were close at hand. Often enough he wasn’t really watching, only looking; sometimes he’d forget to eat at his turn, gazing over the far reaches beyond the flock’s habitations, wondering what that was that he could see but not quite resolve. How far that way could a Crow go?
He had a talent for getting lost on sleepy afternoons when the others lay listless in the autumn sun or nodded in the Hemlocks: gone by the time his mother called for him, too far to hear her. Much as he loved his family and still followed his mother and father as he had in the spring, he never minded finding himself alone. He liked thinking, when he was far away, that he was overseeing or standing in places no Crow of his flock had ever gone to.
Never lost, though, really: not when that dot of certainty like a compass needle behind his bill, between his eyes—all Crows have it—could always point him north, “billwise” they say, and thus also daywise, east, and darkwise, west. (Crows—at least nowadays—have oddly no word for south. Perhaps that sense in their heads means both south and north at once. I’ve never determined.)
“You’d probably not believe me,” Dar Oakley said one day to the Vagrant, “if I told you how far from here I’ve been.”
The Vagrant, poking in the mud of a pond’s edge for larvae or Frogs’ eggs or whatever else might turn up, said nothing in response.
“I’ve been where there are no Crows at all,” Dar Oakley said. “None anywhere but me.”
“No such place,” the Vagrant averred.
“Oh no?” said Dar Oakley. “Go as far as I have.”
The Vagrant stopped his hunting. “Listen, fledgling,” he said, in a low but not soft voice. “Long ago I left the places where I grew up. I was run out. Never mind why. Always between then and now I’ve been on the wing.”
Dar Oakley had stopped eating too. This was more than the Vagrant had said in all the days he’d been nearby the family. “On the wing,” he said again, as though he resented it. “And nowhere there’s no Crows.” He poked at what might be the remains of a small Frog, dead in a drying puddle. “Might have liked it better if there was such a place. But no. Nowhere. I’ve been driven off by Crows from here to sunrise. ‘No Crows,’ oh sure.” He shook his head, either in disbelief or to shake a nasty taste from his mouth, and took off for a farther spot.
“I say it’s so,” Dar Oakley called after him, chagrined.
He flew. Daywise the lifting lands could be seen glowing through the thin poles of the dead bog-wood, and the bare moorlands where the hunting was poor. He went to the crown of a tree he liked, a spreading Oak close to the forest’s edge. If ever he were to find a mate and engender young, he thought a crotch of this tree would be the place to build, though he knew the choice would be hers, not his.
From a swaying limb, Dar Oakley’s wide, sharp sight gave him a big angle of the far lands to study. A mile off (though Crows didn’t then count in miles or in any unit of distance) he could see Rabbits in the clover, and farther, a cloud of Rooks rising and settling. Farther off than that, the sparkle of the lake, which he knew about, between the folded wings of the hills. Clouds farthest of all.
He would like to have gone where the Vagrant had, if the Vagrant told the truth. He was sure he’d have enjoyed it more, wouldn’t have been so dour and silent afterward. He’d have won over the Crows he came upon, telling stories of the places he’d been and they had not. He wouldn’t have been run off as the Vagrant had, and when he chose to leave, they’d have taught him which direction to go, to places far from any Crows and full of other things instead.
One eye just then saw, down near the foot of his Oak, a small movement in the fallen leaves and husks of old acorns. He knew what it was, or anyway what sort of thing it was likely to be. He fell as soundlessly as he could to the spot, and stabbed at it even before he alighted. The Vole that had stirred the leaves made a mad dash, but Dar Oakley’s foot was on it and his bill struck it hard. Thoughtfully he took it apart and ate what could be eaten.
In doing all that he forgot what he had been thinking about, but when the Vole was in his crop, the thought bloomed in sudden force in his breast. Far. He looked around himself. He could hear from several directions his family and other Crows calling, saying the things they always said, locating one another. What would they think or do when he didn’t answer?
His heart rose. He bent his legs deeply and lifted his wings high, and as he leapt up with his tensed legs he beat down with his wings—the leap upward that had taken so long to learn when he was just out of the nest, that he did now a hundred times a day, but this time remembering those first attempts even as he did it with a new purpose; and when the leap-and-wing-beat had got him off the ground, he scrabbled upward as though climbing the air with his feet, and beat again and then again, and he was aloft—and before he’d stopped marveling at the thought of how impossible this had once seemed, how easy now, he was far away and going farther.
All day he flew. Now and then he’d settle and walk awhile, eye out for food, feeling a little exposed with no one on a branch above him to call Danger, but for the same reason exalted, a kind of creeping laughter in his throat. Then he’d be off again. He reached the great lake, which he had never seen; he could have gone by stages around its margins, but on an impulse he crossed it, its wrinkled surface under him for a long way, almost too much for him. Partway across he rested at a small island amid a clump of water-loving trees and found slugs to eat. Then he went on. On the far side he had reached a distance from home that it would be impossible to retrace before dark.
And then there he was. He was sure of it. He took a perch in a low tree of a kind he felt he had never seen before, and listened. He could hear the day: the few songbirds not napping, a Thrush, a Lark. Hush of wind; an Elk’s bellow far off in the gloomy forest. Nothing more, and none of his kind to see or hear. He called, not loudly at first, just Where are you? No answer came. A little louder. Still no answer, not the faintest echo of his call.
Too far for Crows. His brain felt hot, and his eye-haws winked.
Just to be sure, though, he flung his body sunward again. Too far wasn’t quite far enough. He went up higher than necessary on warm currents rising from the sun-heated earth. He wondered if it was possible to make day last longer by flying straight toward the sun, and somehow getting under its descending. He was so lost in imagining this, and in the feel of his strained muscles and the emptiness in his gut, that when his billwise eye caught the beings on the earth below, the sight startled him into a sudden roll.
He’d wanted new lands and other things to see. And now look at this. He righted himself and banked that way. There were four: one big and slim-legged like a Deer or an Elk but not either of those, and one shaped like a Wolf—Dar Oakley had not often seen Wolves, but often enough to know this wasn’t one. Those two were four-footed. But the other two stood upright like Bears when they reach for berries on high branches, or threaten. Mostly hairless, though, pale flesh showing, as though skinned. Their necks and forearms were laced around with something that caught the late light and shone like ice or mica. The four walked all together, friends, in a way that Dar Oakley had never seen four such different beings do. In their long, slim forearms the two-legged ones held sticks as long as themselves, resting on their shoulders—for what? Dar Oakley stalled in the air above them, trying to see every detail of them—were those skins flapping around their middles? What were the thick paws of their feet? Then as he circled he saw one of them raise the stick from his shoulder and lift it skyward, toward where Dar Oakley was, and then the other pointed more darkwise with his.
Dar Oakley banked away, alarm breaking on him. Up darkwise and black against the low sun was a Falcon; he knew its shape instantly, as though it matched a shadow in his brain. Making toward him, sharp wings slashing air.
He was in the open, too far to make the nearest trees, though impelled that way irresistibly anyway. The Falcon was gaining on him and climbing at the same time. There was only one way to evade her, and it rarely succeeded: you had to let her fall from her height upon you, she readying herself to strike you with that huge foot, and somehow cause her to miss. Then she would fall below you and have to climb back above you to strike again. It’s the way a Falcon strikes: descend at an awful speed onto you, crack your head with a downward blow of a clenched foot, and then grapple you as you fall killed or stupefied to earth. She’d rarely do it otherwise. Hawks are powerful and ferocious, but not inventive. They don’t have to be. It’s their prey that needs to think.
Dar Oakley made for the impossible trees, feeling that shadow over him, unable to turn and look up lest he lose speed. He knew by the sudden silence of the falcon’s threshing wings that she was descending, like—Crows had no word for it then, like an arrow, a shot. Somehow sensing the last possible moment for it, he somersaulted, reversing his course. The Falcon fell past him with a talon-punch, so close to him he could see her yellow eye and open bill, feel the wind from her wings. He rolled over and began to climb.
The reason the trick doesn’t work is that the Falcon gains altitude faster than a Crow can. Dar Oakley tried to wing upward and at the same time angle toward the trees. As he aimed that way, he saw—he’d never forget—the two stick-wielding beings, still lifting their sticks upward.
When the Falcon was high enough, the trees were almost close enough, as though reaching out to gather him in. And it could have gone either way, but as the Falcon dropped again Dar crashed into the trees, losing feathers, nearly breaking his neck as efficiently as the Falcon could have done it. He was safe. Unlike an Owl, she wouldn’t pursue him into the dense foliage; she’d quit and hunt elsewhere. Dar Oakley, panting open-billed, eye-haws overdrawn, heart thudding as though to exit his breast, hugged a Hemlock branch and made himself small.
She might wait, though, might hang a long while making lovely patterns against the sky. Their awful patience. Dar Oakley crept deeper into the thicket, feeling a cry extracted from his throat, the cry of any Crow for help: Come, come, trouble, trouble, not far but near, the worst there is. Knowing he had put himself beyond help.
Yes: the Falcon now sat perched on a bare branch, out beyond the thicket where he cried aloud. As he looked she dropped heavily, dodged at the Hemlocks where Dar Oakley hid, her strong wings beating at the branches to scare him out. He wanted to flee, to be in air, utterly foolish as he knew that to be. He kept crying out, now as softly as a flightless nestling on the ground, just enough to keep his head and his heart in his voice and so do nothing, not move a feather. Her eyes looking in at him, large and pale as noon sun, with a black ball in the center—no, surely she couldn’t see him.
After a while she went away, but how far? Dar Oakley stopped crying. The sun had almost set now, and he was alone in a place he’d never been. He hadn’t ever spent a night beyond calling distance of his family. Good night, Mother. Good night, Father. Good night, Others.
What if the wood he’d plunged into held an Owl?
Soft hush passing by him in the deepening darkness, just night wind, maybe, surely.
He slept, waking in the night over and over, to listen, stare into the dark branches. Beings moved around him, up the nearby trunks and down on the forest floor, scratching and rustling—the usual ones, likely, and no threat to him, but still. Dawn came, taking forever, the red glow daywise worse than the darkness. With the sun, Dar Oakley remembered the strange beings he had seen—he had forgotten all about them in the flight for his life and the night.
He unfolded a little in his thicket. Sore. That Falcon couldn’t be near, now; except in the spring, when everyone was up at first light to feed their young, Falcons were late hunters. Mist lay over the ground he could see, dispersing. He left the branch he had clung to and got going, hopping from foothold to foothold in the thicket (how had he ever got in here so deep?) until he could make open air and fly.
The strange beings were all gone, four-legs and two-legs. But there, on the dry knoll where they had stood, the sticks they carried were thrust into the ground, pointing upward. Something thin and feathery hung from each, and stirred in the mist. The sticks that they had lifted toward him, and toward the Falcon.
He skimmed the place, but was somehow unwilling to settle and study it. He banked darkwise, his wings recovering their strength; wanting to be far from here and near Crows again.
Dar Oakley couldn’t know then, nor did he know it for long afterward: the two People who had come here with a Horse and a Dog, who had watched a Crow battle a Falcon and escape, had seen a sign. He wouldn’t have known what a sign was, and sometimes even now thinks perhaps he doesn’t understand, truly. But he and his troubles had been a sign for them. The sign had told them, In this place, between the mountain and the lake, you will escape the enemies who drove you from your home places; here you can build again, raise young, bury your dead. They had left their spears there struck in the earth to mark the sign they had had, so they could return.
Dar Oakley turned for home. He thought he had come far, but returning now, it seemed not that far at all. Before the sun had reached the height of the sky he heard, from somewhere in the bogs and meadows that he flew toward, the call of a Crow.
No one believed his tales of the ones he had seen, of course, because he had (his father said) told too many such stories since he’d learned to talk, and too few of them had turned out to be quite as he’d told them. Dar Oakley didn’t want to go back to the place, though he told himself that soon he would; now and then in the dark of night he would feel that Falcon whip past him and the terror of that foot, and wake with a cry. One day when the Vagrant and the Servitor were teasing him about the story, he challenged them loudly to go with him, if they dared, and see the place, and the beings if they were there; and with much laughing and pretend fear and mock displays of courage, they went with Dar Oakley to the place, complaining about the distance and the toil, resting at the same lake island where Dar Oakley had rested. The way there was drawn in his brain.
There were the two sticks thrust in the ground.
“See? You see?”
But since that was all, and no beings approached, the other two were happy to carry the story back, making great fun about the wonderful and never-before-seen pair of sticks, and on and on till Dar Oakley wished he’d never convinced them to go there. He didn’t go again, and hoped that (true as he knew his story to be) everyone would soon forget about it and stop shouting, “Sticks!” whenever they saw him.
The weather was growing colder. Families began to leave their freeholds in the evenings and retire to the communal roost that was forming for the winter. As food grew scarcer it wouldn’t be possible for a single family to hold off the many others in search of provender wherever it could be found, and the family’s land would anyway cease to produce enough for all the members. So they joined the majority, and went wherever they went, and came back at night with everyone.
It was a good time in the year, though, at least until winter grew deep. The roosting-place changed from time to time, but for some years it had been a wooded island far down where the river widened, thick with Poplars and several kinds of Fir, and some tall giants too, Oak and Ash. Crows in ever-greater numbers came in as the sun set and the clouds colored, yakking away as they winged down the river, or out of the daywise-dark sky, out of the vanishing sun or from the mountains. There was even a crowd of Rooks who joined them nightly at the frontiers of the roost, chattering together and all at once about their affairs, impossible to understand even if anyone had cared to try.
This was the first roost Dar Oakley had known, and his heart rose and he gave voice as Crows strange to him, young females, too, came to be beside him or below him or above him on the incoming evening flight, so many. His mother and father were somewhere in the throng, and brothers and sisters of Dar Oakley’s from earlier years and far freeholds. They had their own company, enough of them vagrants or newcomers to make their own family seem like old permanents, and he wouldn’t see much of them through the winter; his father would spend evenings with Crows of his status, his mother with hers, see you in the spring.
What a roar they made, settling in those branches, calling to friends and foes, shouting out their opinions to one and all, moving from branch to branch and saying, You! Oh, you! There you are, here I am! and a hundred other meaningless but not useless remarks—older and bigger Crows, louder and better-friended ones, made their way by such greetings into the middle of the crowd, where in the freezing nights they’d be warmed by the mass of Crow bodies around them, while younger and smaller ones went to the outside. Toughen them up, their elders thought, keep with their friends. The young ones hopped from branch to branch, getting as far in as they dared, males around females, females beckoning males—young Crows who wanted mates in the spring had better look now. Hello there, hello! Better to be high up than down low, if you could find a place: those down low were often shat upon by those above, awaking in the morning to find white streaks on their black coats, lots of laughs for others.
It had grown nearly dark on a certain evening, with a big moon rising, and the Biggers were calling, Settle down now, settle down, when a thrashing or commotion began in the woods on the far bank of the river, a noise that for a moment stilled the Crows who heard it. Something large was coming through the underwood over there, and something else coming after in pursuit. The Crows started up yelling at whatever it might be—always best to cry out on any predator, though you might benefit later from its leavings—but what was it? Too early in the dark of the year for Wolves . . .
A Deer, a small female, burst out into the moon’s light, taking staggering leaps toward the river. After her came—were they Wolves? No, not Wolves, like Wolves but not, and making sounds that Wolves would never make hunting. And after them came two others, taking long steps, upright on two legs.
“It’s them!” Dar Oakley cried, and cried again over the noise in the trees.
Dar Oakley could see, as the Deer plunged into the river, that fixed in her flank was a stick, one of the kind that the two-legs had carried—that’s what they were for. The Wolf-like ones leapt in after her, trying to bite and swim at once; she could hardly hold her head above the water. The Crows were shouting alarms or encouragement or just marveling. Dar Oakley leapt from branch to branch, crying, “Them! Them!” as the youths around him nearly lost their perches laughing.
The two-legs were at the water now too, wading in like Bears up to their waists before striking out with their forearms. The Deer reached the island and the shadows and it was hard to see, the Crows pressing in and shoving for vantage. She’d never have found the strength to mount the rocky bank if it wasn’t for the animals harrying her from behind—it was impossible to tell how many of them there were as they flopped and skidded over the rocks and the mossy logs. But the Deer was failing, her legs were buckling, they were leaping for her throat. The two-legs then made the island and came up the bank, and that was too much for the Crows—many of them rose up and into the treetops to get as far as possible from this thing happening, as they would have for anything they couldn’t account for, and who could account for these hunters?
The two-legs reached the tangle of animals, and with harsh cries they pulled the snarling ones from the now placid and surrendered Deer. Then the larger of the two-legs straddled her body, took her neck in his two pale hands, and ripped it open. Blood spurted richly, black in the moonlight.
No, it was not with his hands he had done it but with another sort of thing he had somehow all along been carrying, but it was only Dar Oakley who understood that; the others were baffled by the impossible behavior in the dark and the struggle.
They rested, briefly, their Servitors (as it was clear the four-legs were) stirring around them but not daring more. Then together the two of them lifted the Deer, flung her on her side, and with the tool (now it was clear to all it was a thing they wielded, it caught a flash of moonlight), they tore it open down its breast to its vent. It took only a moment. The Deer’s guts slid glistening out, and other parts; with the tool one hunter took the liver just as though he had reached in and tugged it out. They pushed away the rest, like Wolves showing little interest in it, and the four-legs fought over what was good in it.
Above in the trees the news went from bird to bird: the two-legs were dragging the emptied Deer, her head knocking the rocks, into the river. Swimming strongly each with one arm, bearing her up with the other, they brought her over the shallow river to the shore. For a while their animal helpers, left behind, called furiously after them, or went on messing with the mass of offal, but one by one they went into the water to swim across.
What were the Crows to do or think now? It was dark, fully night, the moon high and small. Crows don’t see well in moonlight and almost never chance a flight. But those riches lay down there on the ground, and they each thought how they could reach them in the morning before others did—or should they at first light go over the river and see what those hunters had left? Surely they couldn’t have eaten it all. It kept them from sleep, thinking and talking, changing place to look out over the river to where a dim glow could be seen that none of them understood.
At morning there was no sign of them across the river. There was smoke and the smell of burning (the oldest among them knew the smell; fires in that land in a dry summer were rare but memorable). And the Deer was gone entirely: no skin, no skull, no bones, nothing. Where had they gone? Some of the young ones followed Dar Oakley up and up into the morning to see, going out following the way he had gone that first day—and there! Out on the moorland between the river and the rise of the land they saw them, the two-legs, and the Deer as well: her four feet affixed somehow to a sapling stripped of its branches, carried swaying between the two-legs, the four-legs sniffing at its lolling head. And there on the high ground were others of their kind.
Yes, they were here: they were as Dar Oakley had described them, though the flock soon grew tired of his telling the story. Nor for all his bragging was he the first or only Crow who knew of such ones. They were strange to the Crows of his own demesne, but word was that Crows roosting with the flock had tales of the beings, things they’d heard from some other Crows somewhere. One young female claimed to have seen them herself. She seemed not to find them that interesting. Dar Oakley schemed to perch beside her.
“What are they called?” he wanted to know. “How do you name them?”
“Called?” she asked, in a sort of disdain. “Why would we call them something?”
“Things are called by a name.”
“There was no reason to talk about them,” she said. “They were just there.” Her attention was drawn away from Dar Oakley to other youths, but then she seemed to remember something, and offered it to him. “The thing I heard about them,” she said, “is how much they leave.”
“Don’t use, I mean. And if you dared to go get it . . .” But then, done with him, she gave him a quick beck—a polite dip of her head—and was gone.
Over that winter Crows in twos or threes, sometimes in dozens, went the way Dar Oakley had gone, to the place on the high ground beyond the lake. Soon there were more of the beings settled there than those Dar Oakley had seen, if the two who had caught the Deer were even the same two as had marked this spot with their spears. They all looked alike to the Crows at first, and it was hard to tell how many there were—a few were small, young ones perhaps. They had begun piling up on the plain some things, things that were like great nests, or (some said) burrows above the ground, shelters like the heaps of boughs and leaves a Bear will sleep under all winter, or perhaps like the stones a Caddis Fly sticks together to hide within—for they were indeed made of stones and sticks and wattles, whitened somehow the way a Heron’s nest is whitened with ordure; and the beings, for whom the Crows had still no name, went in and out of them, so that the Crows couldn’t tell if the same few were appearing over and over or if many were hidden within. More of these dwellings or nests were being made, too, whenever the Crows came to look.
Smoke came from holes in their tops.
Now and then there was a Deer, or an Elk, even a Boar they had caught, and some number of them would be going at it with their things; they’d hack at it, with amazing ease getting a leg or a rib cage detached and then taking the flesh from it in long strips, which they didn’t always eat right away but hung up on a thing of branches they fixed together (wonderful to watch them, their hands and the things they held, how quick and clever) that they set before a pit or hole where they kept a fire going, never large but never fading to smoky nothing, now and then throwing in sticks or dung so that sparks and flame shot up and Crows fled away.
Crows, at least Crows then, were wary birds, easily alarmed by novelty. They could not have imagined such things as they now, undeniably, witnessed; but Crows are also hardheaded and practical, and would prove (in the long relationship that this flock was just now setting out on) very adaptable. It wouldn’t be long before the new creatures and their ways became familiar, and though other smart animals never lost their fear of fire and of the smell and sound of People, Crows soon didn’t mind. They’d never seen fire managed before, even those few who knew what it was at all, but here it was, and before winter’s end it had ceased to frighten them; it became part of the way things were. And yes, the beings did leave a lot: rotting carcasses at the settlement’s edge, offal they didn’t want. Crows might not know swords and spears, but they knew offal. If you dared to get it, that disdainful female had said.
“But why do they let their four-legged ones at that meat and not take it themselves?” the Vagrant said to Dar Oakley in a hungry week of ice, as they overlooked the midden. “Those ones are an annoyance, that’s for sure.”
“I wonder,” said Dar Oakley.
They watched the beings tussle and square off, small ones and large ones, differently colored and framed. Was feeding beside them like feeding among the Wolves, who paid you no attention? Or would they argue with you? Hard to know. Keep far from them and nibble at the margins.
They saw newcomers arrive, following new beasts unknown to the Crows, heavy and tall like Elks but short-necked and dull; the two-legs pushed and harried them and drove them in a herd from place to place but never slew or ate them, and the Crows wondered: Who of these served whom? Then a new thing came in, impossible to describe to those who hadn’t seen it—even some of those looking down on the settlement from the winter-bare trees seemed unable to see it at all. One would say, It’s like a fallen tree rolling down a hill, and others would say, No, it’s like a Deer caught in a deadfall and trying to pull free, and those who refused to see it at all would shrug and depart. Dar Oakley had no description to give, but he saw clearly what it was for: a big mild animal in the lead tugging at the wooden arrangement following on after, the two-legs tugging at the animal’s head or striking it gently now and then with one of their eternal sticks. They were all doing one thing: moving something along too heavy to carry. With it they brought in thick boughs, stones, and other matter they for some reason wanted.
They also brought in others of their kind. One day as Dar Oakley watched from above, many came out from their shelters in seeming excitement and went to walk alongside the mover, pushing it as the animal pulled, into the settlement, up to a house. And from it was lifted one who could not stand on his own legs. Thin as though starving. With great care and under the eyes of all the others, this one was carried by two strong ones to the shelter—Dar Oakley thought of the Deer he had seen carried over the river and beyond. His hair (Dar Oakley felt it was a male) was the strange long plumage-like hair they all had, but his wasn’t dark and glistening; it was as white as Hawthorns in spring. He looked around himself at the place and the sky and the trees—his gaze pausing at the lone Crow on a bare branch—and then he was borne within. Dar Oakley on his perch and his kin on the earth beneath watched that shelter as though something striking might come out of it, but nothing did.
“Better get back,” the Vagrant said, looking darkwise.
Through those nights, as the Crows in their winter trees flitted and slept and woke and the Owls on muffled wings hunted the forest’s black edge for whatever showed itself, the little settlement between the long lake and the winter mountain lay silent. The doors of those for whom the Crows had as yet no name (nor a name for doors or houses, either) were barred and the small windows blocked up; their animals kept them warm, and at night when they slept in heaps together they smoored their fires so that they might be built up again in the morning with sticks and straw and dung. The smoke rose out the roof-holes and caught stars. Stories were murmured and children engendered; the stripped meat of the Deer and other beasts, smoked and dried, was chewed; mothers chewed it for their babes. On the coldest nights the long red Wolves could be heard on the mountain calling to one another, and when spring was near and hunger was sharpest they came down to walk at night amid the alien smoke and the houses, sniffing at the doors, and the ones inside in the dim dark could smell them too.
In time nights grew shorter. The People came out of their houses in the dawns into the mist and the holy sun, and got ready to work and to build.
Thus the cold moons were passed, though the Crows hadn’t marked them, Crows having no theories about how moons come and go or how many of them there are. They know very well how the days grow longer and the sun higher, and they know when winter is at last truly gone and won’t return; they know it not only in the weather and the forests but in themselves, a sort of madness beginning in their breasts and worsening by the day until it seems to them they have always been this way and no other, as though it’s they who cause the mad Hares to come out and battle in plain sight, the green Woodpeckers to rattle the dead trees, Toads to belch in the swollen ponds.
We People think we feel overweening desires, joys, furies, in spring, but those are mere vestiges of what the greater part of the living world feels. I suppose it’s like having a whole year’s lusts and longings packed into a few weeks. Dar Oakley says he’s seen enough springs, old as he is now, and says he’d prefer not to see another come: not in the world or in himself. It’s just too hard.
By now the great winter roost was shredding, as though a disaster had befallen it. All the flighty Rooks had gone in a cloud to where Rooks go. Families sorted themselves from the restless crowd, couples separated from families, and young ones talked about going—going anywhere, going just to go. Two of Dar Oakley’s siblings were drawn away one wet, mild morning with a swarm of young Crows related to them and not, without a thought and without farewell, going out to Who-Knows-Where, somewhere far from here, to spread, to reduce the land of no Crows by a little more. As they were subtracted from around him on that morning, Dar Oakley felt his own shoulders tense as though asked to take wing too.
Why didn’t he follow? he wondered, and still wonders. He was the same age as his fleeing, chattering siblings—Older Sister older by only a few days, and wasn’t he the first to leave the nest? His mother had told him so. Wasn’t he a Traveler, even then? So he’d told the Vagrant, who’d scoffed at him for it. Maybe what kept him from the exodus was that desire or bent in him, hard to recognize much less acknowledge, even if there had been words for it: that bent to be alone.
What he told himself was that he wanted to remain near those beings on the plain. He might not have gone far in his young life, but no one else had ever come upon those ones. He wanted to keep watch on them, his own discovery.
“Come along,” Father said to him, startling him; he hadn’t heard him step close. The big Crow (he seemed bigger than ever this day) was in a state, imperious, impatient. “We’re off.”
“Home. It’s what’s to do now.”
If you are a Crow barely full grown, it’s hard to grasp the coming of new seasons. It takes a longer life not to be taken by surprise, not to ask yourself, What? What’s this? and get no answer. The answer is, This has been, and will again be, but even older Crows sometimes forget that till it comes around again, and then they know.
“Home?” Dar Oakley asked, but Father had already flown to rouse another of his family, the one Dar Oakley called Younger Sister. She’d returned to the roost after first flying off after the departees, and now sat sullen and regretful. Then he went on around the fast-emptying roost, calling for kin he couldn’t see. The Vagrant answered, but wouldn’t follow, indifferent to Father’s urgencies. Dar Oakley decided he’d do nothing until others did who knew what it was they were to do. Maybe he’d go look for something to eat.
“Come along, come along!” his father called at him. He’d fly in the direction of the family freehold, then drive back furiously when it seemed no one was following, at length taking a perch on a pine branch and snatching needles from it in exasperation, at his wit’s end. It was Mother he seemed chiefly frustrated with. Unlike her mate in his passion, she seemed to have grown slow and distracted, sitting low and still on her branch, walking the ground, head turning this way and that, her Servitor walking anxiously near her but saying hardly a word. When at last she was moved to leave for the freehold, it wasn’t at Father’s insistence—he was gone off that way by then—but by a sudden motion of her own. Her Servitor sensed it. Of course he’d seen it before, had been watching for it, greeted it—even Dar Oakley could tell that.
“Come on,” she called to Dar Oakley. “You’ll have to help too.”
Her eye was not on him. If she saw anything, it was a thing not present, not yet in existence—that thing that Crows, female ones, know before its coming to be: can know because, in them, it already has. Dar Oakley said nothing in response, only flew with her, the Servitor coming after.
The first thing to be done when they reached their freehold one by one was to roust the squatters who’d got there first and pretended that it was theirs, or this part of it was, or were anyway saying it was theirs now and they were staying, let these newcomers go elsewhere, who are you anyway? And Father without answering drove at them recklessly, screaming invective, as he might at a sleepy Owl caught in daylight. Seeing that the squatters weren’t going to put up much of a fight, Dar Oakley joined in, but his mother sailed past him and dashed at the fleeing Crows, as fierce as her mate. The Servitor and Younger Sister yakked and cursed from the trees and scattered the sticks the squatters had begun laying for a nest in an Oak’s crotch there. How dare they! By evening that was done; they slept in their own trees in their own place, and in the morning fed on their own snails and bugs, and then when the sun was high began to work and to build.
In what way exactly the Crows of that far time and place built their nests, Dar Oakley doesn’t any longer remember, having now for so long built nests in the way it’s done hereabouts. If it was the same there and then as here, it began with selecting a site, crotch of a tree just high enough, just secluded enough but not too far out of the warming midday sun. Younger Sister said that the place the interlopers had chosen looked good to her, but Mother would never choose someone else’s nest, not even one only just begun; no more would she use a nest of her own from the years before—the collapsing remains of some could still be seen on the freehold if you knew where to look. No. Owls and Hawks and others have long memories, she said. She said Younger Sister would understand when her turn came.
Because the Oaks of the grove weren’t yet in leaf, she chose a place amid the evergreens at the grove’s edge, less comfortable but less visible. Yes, when it was built, and housed her and her young, the Oak would be deep in leaf, but before then any hunter could note its placement and plan to return to it. She pondered the possibilities of the Pine, knowing she would sense the right spot when she had rejected all the wrong ones.
“This one,” she declared. “Here.”
“You already said no to that place,” her mate said, but she paid him no mind, turning and turning in the Pine crotch to be sure. And Father said nothing more.
After the choosing of the spot came the making of the new nest. The mates shared the task, with a lot of bickering and dispute. The laying of the big sticks that would brace the whole isn’t easy for beings who have only a bill and one foot to use, even if they’ve done it many times before.
Through the days the nest grew, round and strong and habitable. Despite an abundance of deadwood everywhere, Mother or Father would spend time hacking with their bills at a green branch, wrestling it and finally breaking it off, or giving up on it. Father’d lay a stick and fly off to get another; Mother, left alone, would throw out that stick and fetch one she liked better. Sticks that were dropped in the making lay scattered at the Pine’s base. The builders would never retrieve a stick once dropped.
“Why is that?” Dar Oakley asked.
“Because,” said the Servitor.
“Sure,” said Younger Sister. She’d tried to contribute a stick or two that had been rejected.
Father brought in another stick. His mate, after trying it here and there, tossed it out too, and it joined the litter of discarded matter on the ground. He glared. The others, watching, fell silent and motionless, Father too, as all of them waited for an outburst of wrath from him. Mother took no notice, though; all her attention was on the interior she was shaping. No: one eye turned quickly on Father and away again. But there was no point in wrath, no point in saying, And what was wrong with that one? Because she didn’t know what was wrong with it, only that it was wrong, and it was she who’d have to sit there. When his posture had altered, bill opened and closed in a sigh, and he’d gone off again, she looked up from her fussing to Dar Oakley and the others, and he saw amusement in her black eye.
Younger Sister went to help, or to learn, leaving Dar Oakley and the Servitor on watch.
“Why was it never you she chose over him?” Dar Oakley asked.
“Oh, well,” the Servitor said, as though the answer was too obvious to state, or the subject too huge to address.
“You’re nicer than he is.”
“Oh dear,” said the Servitor. “I don’t think that matters so much.”
“He’s a great provider. Look at him laboring. A good mate.”
The mates were rarely apart now, not only at the nest but in flight, on watch, searching for food. They hardly noticed the others. When they weren’t eating or building they preened devotedly, bills searching each other’s breast or head, grooming the feathers, plucking away the scraps of food, bugs, skin, or other matter. Lift your bill to have your neck worked over, bow your head to have the black cap cleaned and put to rights. They’d stop what they were doing and bill-wrestle, one taking the other’s bill and holding while the other twisted away, then swapping, tails spread and trembling. Now and then the play reached a kind of intensity and they’d fight for real, their bills open and their eye-haws flashing white. Then for a space they’d part, whether ashamed or just wearied Dar Oakley couldn’t tell, but anyway they couldn’t sulk for long, and it was back to work again. It was marvelous and yet alarming to watch.
At evening they left the nest site for the Oak grove. No need to let night-goers see you near where your young would soon be coming forth. The others gathered from their hunting and feeding to be with them—all but the Vagrant, rarely seen these days, loitering at the outskirts of the demesne, uninterested apparently.
“Was it this way when I was . . . ,” Younger Sister said, and Dar Oakley said, “Yes, was it this way when we . . .”
“Yes, it was,” said his father. Only in the nights were the mates at rest, and the nights were growing shorter. “It’s always the same. Unless it fails.”
Mother had closed her eyes, but opened them a bit at that.
“In one spring,” Father said, “a storm blew away all that had been built. Nearly done, too.”
“What did you do?”
The siblings were quiet.
“In another year,” Father said, as though unable at last not to speak of these things, “weasels. Weasels took all our brood, just hatched.”
Mother, eyes again closed, flitted restlessly.
“And,” Dar Oakley said, “did you start again?”
“Too late,” his father said.
“The moment had passed. There is a moment, and it passes; and it had.”
Small birds could be still be heard—some sang now through the night—and the insects, filling the air after the winter’s silence.
“I never will,” said Younger Sister. “Not me.”
“You don’t know,” Father said. “You know nothing.”
Dar Oakley roused a little, suddenly hot, why? “Well, it’s hard!” he said.
“It’ll be harder soon. You’ll all have to help. You’ll see.”
“But why do we keep doing it this way?” Dar Oakley whispered. “What if we did it differently, or better? This is . . .”
“This is our Fate,” his father said, his eyes fierce in the low light and farseeing. “There is this for us to do, to do in this way; we have always done it and we will do it.”
Dar Oakley fell silent. With awful gravity Father turned from his son and closed his eyes. They all grew still; their legs as they settled in sleep locked their feet around the branch they held to, so they wouldn’t tumble off in the night. Their bills sank to their breasts. Dar Oakley heard a soft cry, a whimper, from his mother, or was it Younger Sister perched up billwise? He felt restive and dissatisfied. He wanted something more to say, or to be said.
Fate: the Crows only name it at this season, or at the memory of this season. It’s the closest thing that Crows have to a belief about the world and their place in it, which otherwise they never think of: why the world is what it is, and why they do what they do in it. They can say, It’s the way we are at any time, but only at certain times can they say, It’s the way we must be. Fate says nothing more than that.
The nest was done, lined with soft stuff—underfur of a dead Rabbit the family had been feeding on, fuzz plucked from plants they had no name for but for which they knew this use. His mother and father now spent much of their day in behaviors that the Servitor seemed to find touching and even gripping but that their children thought comical and disturbing at once.
“Ah. Ah,” said the Servitor, imitating the odd chuckle Mother was making for her mate. “Ah, look.”
“Oh no,” said Younger Sister.
They’d begun feeding one another, little morsels of this and that which they’d place in each other’s mouths, clacking their bills in delight and approval. They’d beck deeply almost in unison, she’d back away from him and he’d step forward, and then they’d reverse. She’d fly away from him up to the nest, beck coyly from there till he followed, and they’d repeat it all again. Father flew off to find her more treats, doing a few rolls and dives to show off for her. “Like a young one again,” said the Servitor. “Happens every spring.” Dar Oakley and his sister could stand no more and went away laughing, untouched, they thought.
They hadn’t been gone long when a commotion arose back that way, the Servitor’s cry of alarm or botheration. “Ignore it,” Younger Sister said. The Servitor often went off without real reason. But the sound grew urgent, and Dar Oakley turned to go back, and Younger Sister groaned and followed. Even as they approached they could see Mother down on the forest floor below the nest site amid the white Hawthorns, and the Servitor leaping from branch to branch above her in distress; and near to her, Father, his wings open and his tail spread tautly and trembling. Hers too, her head lower than his and her wings cupped, nearly sweeping the ground.
Except that it wasn’t him. The Servitor was yelling because the Crow down there with their mother was not their father but the Vagrant. He was the one she bowed low to, murmured to.
“Uh-oh,” said Younger Sister. “Stay away from this.”
Just as they understood what was happening, a black mass of whirring feathers shot from nowhere and into the Vagrant, rolling him over, and rolling over Father, too, who’d bowled into him. Mother shrieked, and the Vagrant leapt up and got aloft, all disordered, rising to a branch and nearly tumbling from it in his haste to make a stand. Father dodged at him where he sat, bill-snapping, foot-grabbing.
“Traitor!” he shrieked, in a voice Dar Oakley had never heard before. “Traitor!”
The Vagrant got away to a farther tree, then turned again, prancing, mocking. “Go die!” he called. “Old Crow! You’re not wanted! Go far and die!”
At that Father pecked viciously at the branch he sat on. Chips flew. He tore away twigs and scattered them. “Oh, I’m mad!” he yelled. “I’m so mad now! We let you in. Now this!”
“You’re mad? I’m crazy mad!” the Vagrant yelled back. He too plucked twigs and shook them from his bill. “Mine now. You go. You’re done!”
As they cried out on each other they moved closer, branch by branch. Their heads were fuzzed, their throats and shoulders enlarged by the standing feathers. Dar Oakley felt the feathers of his own throat erect. His mother on the ground looked up at them, making no show, as though it had nothing to do with her.
“I’ll fight you till you die,” Father shrieked. “I’ll eat your breast like a Hawk!”
“Oho, you will?” the Vagrant called, wings alert to go. “No, I will!”
“Get, get, get,” Father yelled, and went from his branch at the Vagrant as though flung through the air. TheVagrant was younger and quicker, Father older but stronger, and the Vagrant arose, backing away, spiraling out toward the open air, fighting and fleeing at once, Father spiraling after him, the two rising as though borne upward by one another. Black feathers that they thrashed or clawed from each other flew away in their thudding wing beats.
Then the Vagrant breaks and flees, just like that. Father rolls out, surprised, then sets off after. Both of them silent now, Father relentless and heedless, harrying the other, falling on him, dagging at him with his sharp beak, trying for the eyes, the face. He chases him like a whole band of Crows chasing a Hawk, dodging at him from below, taking a nip at his tail, backing away when the Vagrant turns to snap back.
Dar Oakley and the Servitor stay in the nest-tree. They were on watch, weren’t they? Yes, and here they are.
His mother rises to the nest, to sit gripping the strong armature of it, unalarmed, watching for Father to return. She looks Dar Oakley’s way, and it is as though she shares a secret, a funny secret but not so funny really, with him alone. And as she bends her breast toward the nest, and her tail spreads wide and her bill opens and her eye-haws close and withdraw, Dar Oakley feels the strangest, deepest, sweepingest impulse. Almost irresistible.
“No,” says the Servitor—Dar hadn’t known the old Crow was so near to him. “No.”
And then Father’s there, his feathers all still erect and flecks of blood on his cheeks, taking his place on the nest’s edge and there making a few hasty becks and motions, just enough to count, and it seemed to Dar Oakley that the drumming of his father’s heart could be seen in the feathers of his breast. His mother moved for him, tail rising, so that he could press beneath. It wasn’t easy; it never is. She cried aloud as he did so, strange noises Dar Oakley had never heard before; and the Servitor made them too, or his own sounds that were like those of hers. And in a moment it was done.
Often in that day and subsequent days was it repeated, not always succeeding, but often enough: “Enough,” the Servitor said, “so that he knows every one of those eggs she makes will have a chick of his inside it.”
Fate went on unfolding more things for Crows to do. Mother began producing a clutch of blue-green eggs speckled browny-black, and the others had to feed her where she sat—she’d starve before she’d leave them unguarded for more than moments. There were spring-hungry beings abroad. Even other Crows wouldn’t mind getting an egg if they could catch her off the nest. Standing too close, threatening and horridly friendly, till they were driven off by Father returning.
She sat all day and night; her mate slept near her, and in the evening and at morning the others, farther off, could hear them talking together in soft voices, call-and-response, things they’d said before: old nests, old days, young ones long gone off. In the morning the others went out to get from the thin spring provision enough for themselves and more for her, to keep her hale and fat so that her eggs were thick-shelled and held strong young.
“How many are there now?” Dar Oakley asked. He put a morsel into his mother’s mouth.
“Five.” In general, five is as high as Crows can count. Five is the last number before many.
“Will there be more?”
“I hope not. Five is quite enough.”
Flowering plants filled the sunlit edges of the grove, glowing in the long sun; a multitude of gray sticks had produced in the usual way a multitude of colors in a multitude of shapes, as though they had been hidden within, waiting to be brought forth. Birds whose names were unknown to Dar Oakley but whose songs he knew were also brought forth by the season. Where had they all been? He could hear but not see them.
“They’re nesting too,” his mother said, “and don’t want to be seen. But keep your eyes open.” She moved gently on her brood. “It’s a good sound,” she said. “A providing sound.”
She seemed to feel something below her, rose a little, settled again.
“I was the first out of the nest, wasn’t I?”
“First out?” his mother said. “Oh yes. You fell out.”
Dar Oakley laughed—he knew the story, which was why he asked for it.
“Kept poking your head out and over the edge, no matter how often I’d push you down. Big gawky head on you, long scrawny neck. Then one day as I was stuffing the others, I just saw your little backside go over the top.”
It was his own earliest memory: hurtling down through the branches to the forest floor, his fall broken by undergrowth. Everything for a moment still and silent, even himself—something made him motionless, bill shut, calls stopped. After a while—a long while, it seemed—his father came down to him, bringing a shred of some fatty flesh, and popped it into his pink gaping mouth. Keep still. He was many days too young to even try to fly; every parent of every kind of being in that wood had babies to feed; Dar Oakley had scarce odds of not being eaten before he could fly.
“I should be dead!” he laughed, hearing her tell the tale again. “Dead and eaten.”
“Dead,” his mother said. For days they’d fed him as often as they could, though not often enough for him, and kept him hidden where he lay, dull and mottled against the earth, until they could get him into the air and the trees. And they did: the Servitor yelling encouragement, his father prodding until his son managed to hop into the air, little wings beating—his father actually got under him and bore him up to a branch, where he clung on, alive. And learned to go higher.
His mother moved again on her brood, and then stood a little, taking care, peering down below her breast where the brood patch was thick. “Well, well,” she said. “Here we go again.”
Nests are fearful places. Dar Oakley thinks it’s funny that People suppose birds live in their nests. Big, highly visible structures, full of helpless infants who have to be left at least briefly while their endless provender is acquired, just barely smart enough to keep their heads down and their mouths shut? Dar Oakley’s own young have over the years been eaten by Stoats and Martens, by Jays and Shrikes, drowned in rainstorms, spilled out, shoved out by greedier siblings and not so lucky as he. It’s nothing but worry, such worry you wish you didn’t care about them at all, when you care about them more than anything.
“Now,” said his mother, in a kind of cool fury, pushing the cracking egg upright with a foot. “Now we begin.”
So much food has to be brought for those new mouths that in the spring Crows change their ways: they become hunters. In later times, when the People began paying more attention, it would be said that Crows could devastate the songbirds of a region, ruthless, pitiless Crows, black killers. But in fact no matter how many Robin babies or Wagtail eggs a Crow will snatch, somehow there’s never a shortage of Robins or Wagtails come the next year.
So Father and Younger Sister brought to the nest in the Pine tree hard-won half-swallowed naked hatchlings of whatever sort, and coughed them up for Mother to tear to pieces to stuff her own with; and the Servitor with a Linnet’s egg in his bill, to feed them the yellow yolk and the forming chick inside, the shells, too. Did their parents mourn in their hideouts in the underwood or the rock ledges? The Crows didn’t think about it, though they could admire the courage of some tiny Finch and her mate who’d fight off a Crow, give him what for with all their might, make their specks of young not worth the getting.
Dar Oakley meanwhile had a different plan.
All through the busy days he’d been thinking of the ones in their shelters on the high ground near the lake. About their bounty, how carelessly they’d throw wealth to their helper-ones. There’d been enough there in one place to feed a nestful of young all spring, if it could be had. He thought about the big-jawed four-legs, baring teeth like Wolves to snarl at one another. He thought of how the Crows sometimes had to contest with Vultures for carrion; those naked-headed birds were so much bigger than the Crows, slow and ungainly with their huge trailing wings, that it was hard to get in among them and reach the richest parts. It took at least two Crows—one to tug hard at a Vulture’s raggedy tail, then dance away when the big head swung around in anger to drive you off, while another dodged in for a bite. Then it would be the first’s turn. Many Crows could play the trick at once, and each get more.
So if Dar Oakley could find Crows brave enough to join him in that . . . Those four-legs at the garbage, they had tails, didn’t they? It’d take more courage to pull one than to pull at a slow-moving Vulture’s tail, but courage—he had courage, and others did too. Those beasts were quick, and liked to chase things, so the more Crows at the midden, the more confusion they could make, and the more food they’d get.
He tried to explain the plan to Father, but that bird was too busy to listen or comprehend, and anyway he’d never visited that place. The Servitor was as always doubtful. So on a thundery, humid day he set off alone, flying down the long demesne and crying out, Come on! Come on! I have something! Follow me! A few young Crows came after him, some dropping away when nothing immediately promising appeared, but a few more joined, and in a ragged crowd they went out the long but by now well-known way to the place of the Lake Beings.
They could see even from far off that something had changed there.
Some stretches of the long slope of flat land between their funny shelters and the lake had been scored in long, straight lines, the earth turned out in running heaps like huge molehills—what was that? Some of the beings scratched with sticks at the scored earth, digging for who knew what—but as Dar Oakley’s gang passed over, they looked up to see, making that indicating gesture; then they threw down their stick-things and followed the Crows, as though joining their progress toward the settlement.
It seemed to be empty. The barking beasts, the tenders of fire, the young, were nowhere to be seen. Some few who might be elders were on their way together toward something beyond, where now the Crows could see the mass of the settlers were gathered, and from where strange noises were arising. The Crows gathered calling in the high branches of the Oak grove away from the settlement, from where with Crow sight they could discern what was happening, but not why. From away off billwise, many new beings of that kind were coming, all in a crowd, an alarming number of them. That noise the Crows had heard was coming from them, a noise they made by clashing together the things they carried, things bright as flames when they caught the sun; they made a high whine with their mouths, or was it with something stuck in their mouths? They came on toward the settlers, who faced them and made the same noises themselves.
“What is it?” the Crows around Dar Oakley cried. “What are those? What are they doing?”
Dar Oakley didn’t know. “Watch and you’ll see,” he said.
“See what, fledgling?” a Crow near him said.
It was the Vagrant. Dar Oakley’s eye-haws flashed, but the Vagrant only becked in mock deference at him.
“Say, look now,” Dar Oakley said.
The new ones had come with their own rolling carrier, pulled by a sleek black high-headed animal. It was pulled out before them all, the being carried in it standing tall, bearing nothing but a green branch of Oak. The settlers pulled their own carrier out from amid them, which bore one of their own—it was that white-haired one who couldn’t walk, legs thin as a Deer’s forelegs. He stretched out his hands and began to call toward the newcomers—high, piercing sounds changing rapidly in pitch and tone, as varied as birdsong. Somehow it stilled all those others in their advancing. He reached out toward them and the ones most forward stepped back, as though they feared his long, strong arms could cross the wide space between them and take hold of them.
“We’ll go closer,” Dar Oakley called. He’d never known of a being not a bird who had a song, if a song was what this was. “Let’s go!”
The others complained and hesitated, but they followed, without really knowing why. Everyone on the plain below turned to watch them come over, and the Singer gestured toward them as though to draw them close. They clustered on a high outcrop of bare rock, so near the crowd of beings that the teeth in their mouths could be seen when they opened them wide to yell.
For a long time nothing more happened. The Singer on this side and the one with the Oak branch on the other took turns crying out in long, lilting phrases, the sound of Oak Branch low and rumbling, the Singer high. Far off behind the newcomers, well away from the face-off, were others, were they their females? And children, too, and fires smoldering—how long had they all been squatting there? Back at the settlement, children and many females hid behind a high palisade of sticks that surrounded their shelters, a new thing not there before.
There came a huge roar as some very large ones came forth from each side, black hair to their middles and long slasher-cutter things in both hands but none of the trappings and wrappings the others had, their sex visible. They strutted in the wide-open space between the two gatherings, loud-hailing and cursing and mocking their opposites like fighting Crows, stamping on the ground like rutting Elk in combat, all the while coming closer and closer. And then something began to happen so hard to understand, so startling, that several Crows arose, to see it better or to flee it. The naked two-legs rushed together, raising and whacking their opposites with the things in their hands. Instantly blood began to flow, actually leaping from the fighters, as all the rest cried out in joy. They cheered and pointed at the Crows aloft, even as their champions clashed together. Then everyone joined in, colliding and yelling and beating at others with their weapons.
Weapons. For it was a battle, and the Crows themselves were in and of that battle—a word they’d only later learn to use, a word that would afterward be spoken among them sometimes in exultation, sometimes in reverence (or as close to such a feeling as Crows ever come) because of the change that it brought to their lives, a change never after to be annulled, not for a thousand years, and which would make them rich and populous, feared and honored. On this day, the Crows of the region joined the history of People, and their own history began.
“Well, look at that,” the Vagrant said.
In the midst of the tumult, one of the big naked ones with a cry had driven his weapon deeply into the other’s gut. The blood spurted just as the Deer’s had done on that winter evening beneath the trees where the Crows roosted. The big newcomer fell to his knees, clutching at the thing stuck in him, but then sprawling headlong and heedless.
“He’s killed,” said Dar Oakley.
It was true. The one from Dar Oakley’s side (as he thought of them) hadn’t just driven the other away, hadn’t defeated or discouraged him, he’d killed him dead where he stood. What were they doing? It was apparent that the new ones had come to take the others’ freehold, and the ones in possession were fighting them off just the way a Crow family would fight off invaders, crying at them and threatening and even tangling with them, the invaders doing the same. But it wasn’t like Crows at all. The defenders fought against the others as against interlopers, but they killed them like prey.
“Look how he’s ripped that one open.”
“I think he wants to tear his head off.”
All day they contested, all against all, till the sun moved to stand over the darkwise hills. More and more went down, blood-covered, dead or nearly dead. The Crows leapt from rock to rock or took to the air to see, unable to guess what would happen next. At last the newcomers began to retreat. Seeing that, the settlers—anyway, all those not themselves killed or hampered by wounds or exhaustion—roared all together and ran after them, flourishing the bloodied things they carried, the weapons.
Strangely, Oak Branch and the Singer stood their ground, as they had all along, though their horses shied and cried out and shook the carriers now and then. The fighters of both sides went around them, never touching them.
The settlers didn’t pursue the fleeing ones far, only as far as to be sure—like a mob of Crows pursuing a discouraged Hawk—that they wouldn’t turn back to fight again, and yes, they were fleeing in a ragged line back to where their females and their fires were, done with fighting. Oak Branch calmly turned his cart around to follow them, unafraid. From out of the palisaded settlement behind, the females and young were coming out, the danger past.
And Dar Oakley and the Crows looked down on the greatest bounty that any band of eaters of dead flesh had ever seen.
If all his family, and half the flock to which they belonged, were to eat here for days and days, they would never get it all before it spoiled even beyond a Crow’s taste for carrion. A weird feeling of repletion such as he had never felt heaved Dar Oakley’s stomach and passed. He flew high over the battlefield and began to call with all his might: Look, look! Come here where I am! Come now, come quick! He cried it and cried it, and the Crows who’d witnessed the battle cried it, and from the grove where the more timid of the Crows had lurked it was taken up: Come here, come on! Dar Oakley heard it repeated, and he cried it louder.
Over the flock’s range the call was relayed, reaching inward a great distance, one Crow handing it on to others, who handed it on to more: something extraordinary was happening there where the calls came from. Crows not sitting in nests began to leave their family freeholds and move toward their neighbor’s that lay in that direction, which they found undefended, because the family there had left too, winging toward the summons; and thus the families’ holdings collapsed one after the other as the Crows joined into a mass, going to the lake and the moorland.
By the following day they were clamoring together in sight of the fields where the dead beings lay, but they didn’t know what to do next. Astonished at the wealth spread out, almost unable to comprehend it, yet still afraid of the living ones, everyone waited for someone else to do something. Go, go, they cried, and no one went. Be careful, be careful, they called, and We’ll be careful, watch us, the bravest called back as they dodged and hovered over the bounty and away again, no way of knowing how much of it the victors and killers would want for themselves.
But those strange beings, they made no claim to the enemy, they only investigated them, kicked them over. Those that were alive but too hurt to flee they killed outright. Their females went among the dead attackers and—no, didn’t disembowel them or cut them in parts as they had the Deer in winter. They tore from them those trappings neither pelt nor skin, and sometimes stabbed them, dead as they were; they chopped pieces from them, from between their legs, but then only threw them aside as though they had chosen the wrong parts and didn’t want them after all.
“Maybe they won’t eat their own kind,” Dar Oakley said. “A Crow wouldn’t.”
“No,” said the Vagrant. “Never.”
“But a Crow would never kill another Crow.”
“Well,” said the Vagrant. “Hardly ever.”
Dar Oakley could bear no more. What was a skinny nestling, a baby Rabbit even, compared to this? And he was hungry, hungry! Almost without willing it he lifted from the rocks and coasted toward the meat all splayed and red. He cried to the others to follow, not daring to look back and see if they did, but when he settled beside the nearest dead one, there were wings around him. Three, five, more. None of the two-legs threatened them or appeared jealous; indeed some pointed at them and made a wavering cry that seemed to be welcoming. The smell of blood and opened gut in the sun was terrific. Flies were gathering. Keeping an eye out, Dar Oakley chanced a bite, a rip of the gashed flesh of one, the fat beneath. Nothing happened, no objection, and he jumped up on the body to get more. Look at the teeth in its mouth, amazing; it took daring to pluck at the soft and swollen tongue.
Now the flock descended, seeing that the early arrivers were not chased off. The timid ones settled and then arose when the weapon-wielders turned their way, but were soon enough partaking, ignoring everything else, meat-drunk, squabbling with friends and foes over bits as though unable to see how much there was. Dar Oakley, gulping and choking, laughed to see it. A Crow would tear off a great gobbet and fly off to hide it beneath the bushes, cache it there for later, and another would follow to catch him at it and steal it for herself—that was always the way of it, of course, but it made no sense now, just eat till your crop was stuffed.
There was one curious thing. The People cared not at all that the Crows dug through the bodies of their opponents, but if a Crow should fall upon or even come near a body that had been one of their own, they’d drive her off with sticks and cries. They pulled their own dead together, laid coverings over them, stayed by them as though they weren’t dead at all but still at threat of harm or insult. Crying aloud perhaps to keep Crows off. That was hard to understand, but hardly mattered.
Night fell. Bills bloody and breast feathers slick with fat, the weary Crows headed nestward bearing as much as they could carry, or they went to the near trees to sleep, too full to fly very far. Through the night fires flared amid the dwellings, and the two-legs could be heard mourning or rejoicing or crying in pain, it was hard to tell which.
Of course they wouldn’t eat their own dead. Ravens didn’t; neither did Wolves. Why not? It was the way they were. But why did these beings drive off others, Crows, who came to eat them? Not from all, only from their own? A Crow would always cry out on a Hawk caught on the dead body of another Crow, whether old friend or old foe, surely. But still that Crow would be eaten, by one being or another, and who could take it amiss?
Dar Oakley pondered.
Why did they tend to their dead and guard them as they did?
Maybe they couldn’t tell that those ones were dead.
Maybe it was their fate, what they must do because they must, like it or not. It was likely so, yet as when his father had told him of his own fate, Dar Oakley was not reconciled, and did not assent.
Through the next many days Crows went back and forth over the distance to the nests, taking away what they could and coming back for more—filling their nestlings’ small pink maws so full they topped up with meat as flower-cups top up with rain. Even more came as bodies burst open and flesh softened in odorous decay, the way the Crows like it. Among the Crows were Father and Younger Sister, as eager as the rest.
“You see?” Dar Oakley cried to them between bites. “You see?” Of course they pretended not to hear or notice him, but Dar Oakley didn’t care; he’d known since the first of the two-legs had raised their spears to him that he had discovered a thing that would change their lives, and for the better, and here was that better life.
Light rain fell over the field. Rooks discovered the bounty, following the Crows; a couple of Ravens from the upland forest too, who claimed one carcass for their own and were not disputed. The cherished dead of the settlers had all been carried away into the shelters, the dead of the attackers left in their different attitudes—except when (Dar Oakley was there to witness it) a number of the settlers went among them searching until they found the two big naked ones who had been first in the fight on the other side, and pulled off their heads. It took a while. They stuck the heads on long poles and with noise and gesturing carried them to the palisade around their dwellings, where they propped them up, long hair stiff with blood, jaws dropped and eyeballs gone.
Summer grass, then the drifts of leaves and snow, spring floods over the fields, covered the bodies and wore them away till only Jackdaws went on picking at the bones; but those two heads long remained aloft, familiar, bare, staring toward where they had come from.
About The Illustrator
- Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (October 24, 2017)
- Length: 464 pages
- ISBN13: 9781481495592
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Raves and Reviews
A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2017 Selection
Publishers Weekly Top 10 Fall 2017 SF, Fantasy & Horror Selection
"Ka, is a beautiful, often dreamlike late masterpiece.
Elegiacal and exhilarating, Ka is both consoling and unflinching in its examination of what it means to be human, in life and death. If, as Robert Graves wrote, “There is one story and one story only,” we are very lucky that John Crowley is here to tell it to us."
– The Los Angeles Times
"John Crowley is one of the finest writers of our time.
In sum, Ka is just the kind of deeply moving, deeply personal “late work” that a great artist sometimes produces at the end of his or her career."
– Michael Dirda,, The Washington Post
"One of the finest fantasy novels of the year, gains the power of a true epic."
– The Chicago Tribune
“John Crowley has long been one of our country's absolutely finest novelists, the equivalent in what could generally called Fantastika to John Le Carre in spy literature, and in KA he has given us a masterpiece in the form of a beast fable. Sentence by beautiful sentence, the book sustains its ravishing narrative above a constant awareness of the duality, partiality, and mystery of our own goals, desires, and excitements. An entirely grown-up wisdom and hard-won grace suffuse every scene. Quietly, subtly, the tale of Dar Oakley entertains its readers, for sure, but expands and enhances them as well.”
– Peter Straub, New York Times bestselling author of INTERIOR DARKNESS and GHOST STORY
"Covering thousands of years of human history, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr may seem at times more like a chronicle than a tale, but the tales within it, from Dar Oakley’s own love stories, to his acerbically distanced view of human development, to the nearly self-contained tales of figures like Fox Cap, the Brother, Anna Kuhn, and the narrator himself, recapitulate its central themes of death, survival, and the value of story in ways that are as haunting and provocative as anything Crowley – or almost anyone else in the last several years – has written. It may be some sort of masterpiece."
– Locus Magazine
"This unusual narrative from Crowley ostensibly consists primarily of the recollections of a long-lived crow who’s capable of communicating with humans, one of whom named him Dar Oakley. Crowley cleverly grounds the book with a prologue recounted by an unnamed narrator in a near-future world on the verge of collapse from climate change; he recently lost his wife and is “mortally sick in more than body” himself. It’s never clear whether the human lead merely imagines all of Dar Oakley’s reminiscences, but this ambiguity sustains, rather than lessens, the reader’s engagement with Dar Oakley’s stories."
– Publishers Weekly
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