John Crowley in Conway, Massachusetts

Some Unsuspected Mercy

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).

* * *

There’s a weird clarity to the light here on these spring days, a clarity I don’t remember in this part of the world before: as though a region of dry mountain air has moved here, or is passing through. Morning skies of a darker blue than is quite real, and for all its intense beauty somehow sinister, forced, untrustworthy. I suppose it’s due to the ongoing ruination of the earth—well, the now unstoppable change in it—though I can’t give evidence of that.

Of course there’s plenty of other evidence. The trees, green already; plants proliferating that once minded their manners, and came out in sequence. So many birds you don’t see or hear anymore. Dawn’s not silent, but it’s underpopulated. But there are also birds around here that didn’t used to be: I’m sure there weren’t Mockingbirds hereabouts when I was a boy, or Orioles.

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Many Crows, though, calling and gathering at morning and evening. I know that things can’t stay the same, that change is the whole of the law: but that not just the human world but the earth and the weather and life itself could be different at the end of a single lifetime from how it was at the beginning… you feel that the world, the earth, can die along with you. Can it? How can I believe that all around me is ruination unless I believe it was once as it should be, and I was alive then to see it? And how am I to know that this is so?

Well. My first thought—maybe it wasn’t even a thought—on seeing an obviously very sick Crow out in my backyard a year, no, nearly two years ago now, was only that I ought to go and bash it with a shovel, for its sake and to keep whatever was the matter with it off me and others.

I approached it warily—those bills are sharp—and heard from several directions the calling of other Crows, so close I thought I ought to be able to see them, though I couldn’t. The sick one made no attempt to get away, and didn’t even watch me come closer. Or so I thought then. It would take me a long time to understand that Crows, courting or walking a field together, never turning their heads to observe one another, aren’t indifferent to or unconscious of their neighbors. No. A Crow’s eyes are set far apart, far enough apart that he can best see very close things out of only one eye. Crows beside one another are, in their way, face-to-face.

Anyway, something caused me to pause and study this one—maybe because I felt studied. I’d never been so close to one not dead. I squatted down—the Crow voices (I could still see no Crows) grew sharper, the Dog barked, teeth displayed, tugging violently at the rope that kept him tethered to the house—and it all seemed to go still and silent. I forgot that I’d been afraid of infection, and bent close to look at the bird’s eyes—cloudy, I thought, not knowing then about the haws or inner eyelids of birds. On its cheek, if that’s the right word, was a patch of white plumage, like the white stripe in some people’s dark hair. From its beak came a murmuring sound unlike any Crow noise I’d ever heard. And I thought that, after a year without meaning (oh, more than one), the earth had provided me, out of some unsuspected mercy, with an omen.

Somehow I knew that he wouldn’t allow me to touch him. I set the shovel on the ground before him, and after some thought the Crow stepped up upon the blade, a nobleman entering his carriage, and I lifted it with care. I could state no meaning yet, but I felt I had responded correctly.

I know now that of course he was no omen, and was a provision of the earth’s only in a general sense. Later on Dar Oakley (“for it was he,” as old novels say) would make it clear to me that he was in my backyard by his own choice. Those Crows that I’d heard had not been crying out on the human enemy (and his Dog) in support of a helpless relative, but had been in the process of mobbing him, driving him away. A sick stranger. And my backyard was a refuge: other Crows would avoid People, but he was familiar with them; and he knew a tethered Dog was no threat.

Yet it was certain that he was sick, near death.

I brought him inside and lowered him, with the shovel, into my bathtub. I don’t remember why I thought this was reasonable—maybe to contain evacuations. Why do we do things like this, why does it seem proper to us to rescue one sick or lost animal when the world is so full of them, and we can likely do them no good? It was no different in its way from children burying with great ceremony one dead chipmunk or baby bird out of all nature’s surplus. I fed him bits of chicken and bread, or at least left them within reach. He moved little, but whenever I entered the bathroom he seemed to try to speak—seemed, even then, to have the intention to speak and not just to call or make sound. It grew dark; I turned out the light. He remained still—I’d have heard him move from my bed, which isn’t far; the house is small. I guessed he’d be dead by morning.

I’d forgotten water. I woke at dawn realizing that, and got up to bring him some in a shallow dish. Anybody as sick as he was would be thirsty, surely. He drank, tipping his head sideways to dip his bill in the dish, then lifting his head to shake the water down inside him. I sat on the toilet seat and watched. I was aware that something remarkable had happened, or was to happen, omen or no, and I’d wait.

What was he thinking, Dar Oakley?

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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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