John Crowley in Conway, Massachusetts

A Wide, Trackless Space

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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He tells me now that he can’t remember much at all of the worst days of his sickness, and the story that I tell—the backyard, the Crows, the shovel, the bathtub—will have to do for him as well as for me. The one thing he knew and I didn’t was that he wouldn’t die. That would take more than a bout of West Nile, if that’s what this was.

Debra was never a lover of Crows, which was the sole exception I can remember of a thing produced by the natural world that she had an aversion to. Something about their raucous greed, that they ate the eggs of smaller birds; they looked like criminals to her. If she had been still alive, I would certainly not have been allowed to bring a Crow into the house, especially one sick and infected. It seemed strange to me that he showed no fear or even apprehension about being in my house and in my presence, but it didn’t seem strange to me that he was here. I tried to explain it to Debra, in the way we explain things to the dead, as if they still needed mollifying, or convincing; as if they still had a say.

In a few days he could lift himself to the tub’s edge, clutching the porcelain with his seemingly inadequate but actually very flexible and useful feet. When he began to take trips around the house, leaving long white stripes on the floor and the furniture, I opened the windows and bade him goodbye. He flew to the sill but went no farther for a long time, his mobile head twitching this way and that. Curious about this constant act, I did a bit of research (in a bound volume of an old encyclopedia) and learned that Crows, like most birds, can’t turn their eyes in the socket like we can; to change their view, to look in a new direction, they have to change their posture. That sharp, rapid head movement is the Crow equivalent of a shifting glance.

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Of course—it tends to happen, doesn’t it?—when it was clear that he was well and could leave, I didn’t want him to go. And I supposed that the only reason he hadn’t gone was that I’d kept up with the provisions. But I had also from the start been talking to him: random remarks and inquiries—“How are you today? Feeling better? It looks like rain this morning,” and so on. I do the same with the Dog, and the moon; solitary oldsters do. I had no way of knowing he understood; after all, the Dog seems to, and I know how little he does.

But no. The Crow wanted to stay in order to converse. And when I knew for sure he understood me—it was easy to set a few tests to prove it—I wanted to understand him.

I wish I could put together a coherent history of how I came to learn Dar Oakley’s language. It was he, not I, who knew it was possible that we could speak and understand one another’s tongues, because he had done it with others in other places far away. When I began to write notes about the work, I wrote down only what he told me, not how I learned to hear it.

What I wrote, and then went on writing, was nothing like a transcription. Crow talk, Crow jokes, Crow histories have the brevity of koans, or Confucian analects; their richness is in the speaking, like sign language in sounds. Translating from one human language to another is no comparison. A long time ago Dar Oakley had to make his way into Ymr—the name that he gives to the human world—and it was a way full of wrong turns and dead ends; I had to make my way into Ka, the realm of Crows, in order to bring back his story, never knowing if I understood aright what I carried.

But you see, right there: in every human language we talk about ways and paths and bringing and bearing things along them. We come to a fork in the road, a parting of the ways, we take a wrong turn. Crows never talk in that way. But if I couldn’t, I’m not sure I could tell a story, or recount a life. We are beings on the path, always wondering what’s beyond the next turning. Crows live in a wide, trackless space of three dimensions. If I have in these pages replaced the real Crow speech with a human speech different in meaning and affect, it’s because I had no other choice.

What I certainly remember is the daily honest effort of learning, his effort and mine, and our—well, wouldn’t it be friendship that I earned in those days, spring turning to summer, summer to fall? Of course I may be mad, not just confused. The Crow may be a being that can have no sense of me, who has perhaps said nothing to me at all, and this is only a story I have told myself. In any case, what you have before you, imagined Reader—all the story there is or can be— is what I think was said, and what I believe I heard. The tale of how he left the city and the City Crows, and by what ways he came to me, was the first he was able to tell me, the first I was able to understand and write down. And then more, and then the rest: how it began, how it will end. Beginning here.

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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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