John Crowley in Conway, Massachusetts

Piled with Unswallowed Stuff

August is Daily Nutmeg’s Summer Reading Month, and John Crowley is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from the prologue to Crowley’s latest novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017).

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There has come to be a great mountain at the end of the world. This mountain is not high but long and broad—and great because it grows all alone from a plain where no other mountains are. All around it are straight roads and soft fields—there are few stones even, and the mountain isn’t made of stone.

It continues to grow, and will grow for a long time before it begins to settle. Before dawn a yellow Caterpillar fronted with a plow moves over the flank of it, which quakes beneath the weight, for the matter of the mountain is still soft and loose. At first light a line of fat trucks moves up the mountain on traversing paths that have been made for them, and at designated places they empty what they have brought, voiding it from their rears in steaming heaps. The Caterpillar disperses and begins to cover it.

Some of it burns.

On either side of the mountain are lesser mountains, older and abandoned ones, lying now prone and grass-covered, fat men asleep and digesting their vast meals through the years. Only the heights of the newest are still open, piled with unswallowed stuff.

Along the roads leading down and away from the mountain toward the high city are houses and clusters of shelters. As soon as there is enough light, People begin to come out from them and ascend through the lesser mountains to the great one still open like a wound. They are women and children and old ones mostly; they bring sacks and buckets and other containers to carry away what they find in the new piles and what others have missed in the older and sinking ones. Smoke dims the rising sun.

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The People are still climbing the paths when the first Crows come from their winter roosts in the dense trees along the river and out on the islands of the city’s river. A long and continuous line of them, passing by above the People, hundreds and then thousands. I suppose if the People were to describe the Crows to themselves, they might say that the Crows are like a black scarf drawn over the sky reaching from beyond the horizon to the mid-heaven. But the Crows don’t see themselves in that way; they don’t see themselves as a veil or a mantle or a black bearskin, they see themselves not as a mass but as many: each of them is one, one amid others, keeping a careful distance, never touching, each one able to see where all of them go.

They see the People moving slowly below them, the trucks with their staring lights. They know where they are.

And the People likely give them little thought. In other days and other places they might have blessed themselves, standing under such a soft-thundering cloud; might have whispered a prayer, or a rhyme, or a verse of some gospel; studied the flock’s undulations to learn something about the future, or the weather. But that time’s long past. The scavengers ignore the birds, or despise them—black beggars, “rats with wings,” they say. The children throw things at them or chase them from the piles until older People call them to their picking again. Sometimes Crows pursue a child, thinking it has something they’d like to have, or just for fun, the old cautions long since gone. The children don’t usually have what Crows want. What the pickers want is scarce, but of food for Crows there is plenty. The trucks disgorge it in tons, mixed with inedible things but still so much wealth that the Crows don’t need to compete for it.

I used to watch them. At evening or at dawn after sleepless nights, I’d stand at the window of a tower building in the hospital district of the same city, where on a high floor my wife was being treated and not cured. I’d look toward the mountain and see the Crows arise from the river island in their numbers and return again to the bare trees, though at that time I didn’t understand what they did. Perhaps the Crow Dar Oakley was among them then.

New diseases have arisen: I have one, and also some lesser ones subsidiary to that one. Debra died not of the condition that brought her to that hospital far from home in search of relief, but of a disease that raged through the district as she lay there: died as I sat beside her, dressed head to toe in fabric-like stuff, masked and gloved, unable to touch her at the end. Sick myself, mortally sick in more than body, I brought her from that city back to the old cemetery in the county where we had long had a house, this house in the north, my house. Which was as far as Dar Oakley, sick too, got on his own journey away from the long mountain at the end of Ymr.

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Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
by John Crowley
Where to buy: Amazon | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | RJ Julia

Image, photographed by Sorrel Westbrook, depicts John Crowley at his home in Conway, Massachusetts.

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