Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Secret Language of Crows

On the first day the light returned to the sky, a willow of a woman dipped a vessel into a stream. Expecting to be met only by her own reflection, she was startled to find, just below the water’s surface, a strange creature of a drowning man.
         She grabbed a hold of him, fighting against the weight of the current, and haluled him to the shore, where she stripped off his heavy cloak of feathers, and tossed it back in the water to be carried far away to the distant ocean.
         She built a birch bark fire, and dried the body of the strange man with her hair, then wrapped him in it, and suckled him at her breast. And, because she was a great nurturer he soon became strong, his own hair growing long and dark, until it fell to his waist. She took the many thick black strands of it in her hands and plaited it into two braids that hung over his shoulders. And as she made these braids, she wove into them the songs and the stories of her people, so that he could learn their language and always carry it with him.
To show his gratitude, the strange man made the kind and nurturing woman his wife. And because she was a normal woman with a normal woman’s wants, she made him vow to never speak of how he came to the river, either to her, or anyone else
But, often the strange man would walk out into to the deepest part of the woods where he would practice the secret language of Crows where no one else could hear it, just to remember the stories and the songs of his own people.
On one such day a lone Raven caught his notes on the wind. She held no memory of her own kind, but the song sounded familiar, as something she once knew well, but had now forgotten, and so she followed its calling. However, instead of taking her to another bird, the song drew her to a man.
“How is it you can speak my language?” she asked. “You’re a man.”
He turned from her and looked in the direction of his wife’s home, knowing he could not answer, and so he remained silent.
“Please,” asked the Raven, “It’s been so long, I no longer remember, and I want to remember.”
“All right,” said the man who spoke the language of Crows. I will talk with you, but don’t ask my secrets, for I have vowed never to speak them.”
The Raven burned with curiosity, but respected the man’s wishes just the same, and asked no more than to hear the words of her forgotten tongue.
With harsh throaty cries, the Crowman returned the stories of her people to her, and reminded her who and what she was, in the way only like-kind can after alienation has turned the spirit into something strange even to itself.
Day after day she met the Crowman in that same place in the forest to hear him unfold the tales she was hungry to retrieve. But as time turned by, more and more it was the man himself that drew her to come and listen, and not as much his stories. And this made her sad, because she was a Raven, and no matter how strange he might be, he was a man.
Still, the curiosity overcame her one day, so after he was finished sharing his story, she made to leave, but instead, flew by stealth from treetop to treetop, following him home. And there, the Raven watched as a beautiful willow of a woman, with kind eyes like gentle fires, stepped through the door and took the strange Crowman in her arms, kissing his forehead.
The raven could not stifle her pain and let out a jealous and guttural squawk.
Hearing her cry, the man turned around and flailed his arms at the raven. “Go away, you silly bird,” he said in the language of man. “Shoo. You have no business here.”
The Raven flew back through the woods, so heavy with the gravity of grief, she could barely maintain flight. Until she dropped from the sky crashing at the feet of a miner at work near the river.
“What have we here?” asked the miner, dropping his gold pan and picking the bird up roughly from the dirty shore. The Raven’s cries hurt his ears, and he dropped her again, to cup his hands over them. “Quiet!” he demanded, but the Raven could not stop. “Enough of that racket! Now, tell me what’s wrong?”
The Raven fell silent with shock, to realize that she could understand the miner’s words. Through her sobs she asked, “How is it you know the secret language of Crows?”
The miner released his ears and picked up the raven, more carefully this time. “I was once married to a raven, when I lived in the South where I come from. She taught me to speak your tongue. Now, what is the matter with you?”
“I love a man,” cried the Raven.
“That is not so unusual,” said the miner. “You’re not the first.”
“But, he already loves a woman.”
“Ah, I see,” said the miner. “That is also not a first. But, perhaps if you were a woman too, you could tempt him to your heart instead of hers.”
“But I am a Raven.”
“Yes, but I know how you may become a woman.”
The Raven’s eyes brightened with hope. “Please, tell me.”
“First, you must give me three of your feathers.”
The Raven plucked three of her feathers out with her beak and gave them to the miner.
“Good,” he said. “You must now find me a nugget of gold as large as the nail on my littlest finger. Bring it back to this spot tomorrow and I will tell you what to do next.”
The Raven, having an eye for shiny things, searched the river bed and after several hours found a nugget to bring the miner.
“Now,” said the miner, “you must give me three more feathers, before I tell you what you must do.”
The Raven plucked three more of her feathers and gave them to the miner.
“Good,” he said. “Now you must find me a nugget as big as the nail on my ring finger and bring it back here tomorrow.”
“But I have already given you six feather and a gold nugget,” she protested.
“Well…” said the miner turning to walk away from her, “you will be here tomorrow or you won’t. Depends on how bad you want it.”
The Raven returned the next day with a larger piece of gold, only to be asked for three more feathers, and an even larger piece of gold. Day after day it went on like this, but she was no closer to becoming a woman. She filled the miner’s pockets with nuggets, and stripped her hide bare, to no gain, until she had too few feathers to fly, and was left to hop through the woods to keep her meetings with the miner.
“You have done well,” said the miner at last, seeing that she could find him no more gold in her condition. “Before I reveal the final thing you must do, you must come inside my home.”
She followed him to his small cabin and went inside. “What now?” she asked.
“Ah, ah. First, you must give me three feathers.”
“But, they are the only ones I have left. Surely you could have compassion enough to leave them to me.”
“You won’t need them once you become a woman,” said the miner.
Reluctantly, she plucked her last three feathers and handed them to the miner.
The miner opened a large sturdy box and placed the three feathers along with the others she had given him. Then, he locked the box.
“What must I do now?” asked the Raven.
“Nothing,” the miner laughed. “I have waited a long time for another raven to take the place of my wife, and now I have found one. You are no longer able to fly, and I will never teach you how to walk like a woman, so you will stay here and be my wife and loneliness will never visit me again. Now,” he added cruelly, “don’t cry. Look, you have yourself a man.”
The Raven sobbed and pleaded, but the miner had a cold and selfish heart and took no pity on her. Instead, he grabbed her by her throat and snipped the bottom part of her tongue so she could no longer speak the language of Crows. “I am tired of speaking your words. Now, you must speak the language of man,” he told her. But she refused to utter a word.
The miner had been raised in a large and noisy city and as the snows settled in, the isolation and darkness burrowed into the man’s cold heart. He pined for bright lights and loud conversation. The Raven however, was used to isolation and did not fear the dark, as she was a daughter of the North. And so she took her fate of her imprisonment in stride, while she watched the miner pace, growing agitated at every creak the wind played on the old boards of his cabin.
“Speak!” he commanded the Raven, “this silence is driving me mad!” But still she was silent. “Speak, or I will kill you,” he threatened. And still, she showed no sign of fright, believing that in truth, death would be better than captivity. “What must I do to make you speak?”
The Raven pointed to the wooden box and held up three fingers. The miner could take no more silence, so he drew the key from his pocket, opened the box and handed her three feathers.
“I will tell you a story of what happened to the light, this long cold darkness,” she promised. “I will tell it, as it was told to me by the man I loved.” She sat before the fire and waited a long time before she began, unsure she could trust her tongue to continue speaking in this foreign language. “A greedy man, much like you, stole the light from the universe and locked it inside a box, like the one you keep my feathers in, and then he locked that box inside another box, and another and another and another. He locked it in so many boxes, he could no longer remember how many there were, and then he hid the box.”
The miner leaned forward to hear more, “Well...”
But the Raven was again silent. He cocked a hand to smack her, but she did not cower from it and offered no more words. Instead, she pointed again to the box and raised three fingers.
“No,” said the miner and he went outside to check if there was light enough for him to resume prospecting. There was only darkness.
After several days the silence began to gnaw at his sense of ease again, and he feared the light might not ever return again. He asked the Raven to tell him more of the story, of what happened to the light, but she only shook her head and held up three fingers.
“All right,” the miner conceded and took the key from his pocket, opened the box, and handed her three more of her feathers.
“This greedy man,” she began, “had a daughter he loved more than almost anything...anything that is but the light of the universe which he held captive. A raven who knew that the greedy man held the light, saw the daughter and devised a plan to use her to get the light for himself.
When the daughter went to the river to drink, he disguised himself as a pine needle and entered her drinking vessel. Unknowingly, she swallowed him deep inside of her.”
Again, the Raven fell silent.
“Speak! Speak!” shouted the miner, but she would say no more. She held her lips together and raised three fingers.
The miner turned his back to her and went to check, once more, for the return of the light.
After many more days had passed, the miner came to the Raven with three feathers in his hands. He accepted them and continued her tale.
“The daughter grew large and fat and knew not why, until she gave birth to a son that the greedy old man loved even more than the light he held inside the boxes. But the grandson cried constantly. His wails were unceasing, until the man could stand no more and asked him what would make him happy. ‘Oh Grandfather,’ said the raven who lived in the boy, ‘please, give me your boxes.’ The greedy old man scolded the boy and refused, but as the crying went on without end, the grandfather eventually relented and gave the boy the first of the boxes. Unsatisfied, the boy continued to cry, and little by little, the greedy man gave his grandson box after box, until at last he had handed over the final one, which contained all the light of the world.”
The miner was on the edge of his chair by now and begging for more, but his Raven wife fell silent and would not speak.
“Damn you!” he said, throwing his chair at her. “Speak!”
Still, she refused, again holding up three fingers.
The miner cursed her and went outside to look for the smallest glint of sun to illuminate his pan. There was none. Slowly, he lost hope, and despair set in. So he took three more feathers from the box.
“Fine,” she said, taking them. I will tell you more. “When the grandson received the last of the boxes, the trickster raven leapt from his throat and swallowed the light from inside the last box, then escaped into the sky.” And then she spoke no more.
The miner knew by now what his captive wife’s silence is meant. He looked out his window and saw that the light had not yet returned to the sky and grew anxious. “More! I must know more,” he said. But, the Raven shook her head and raised three fingers.
Defeated, the miner took the key from his pocket and withdrew the last three feathers and handed them to the Raven.
“Well,” she continued, “an eagle saw that the trickster raven held the light of the world inside of him, and so he pursued him through the sky. He swooped down on him, causing him to crash against a mountain. The impact forced the trickster raven to cough some of the light from his belly, which bounced off the neighboring mountains and landed in the sky as the specks of stars you see. But the trickster raven would not give up the rest of the light so easily, and again he took flight. As he did, the eagle dove hard into him and he was forced to release a larger chunk, which floated up to become the moon you see at your sill.”
The miner looked to these things out his window and felt assured.
“Finally, the eagle caught the raven in his talons and shook him hard, until the remainder of the light was shaken from his beak and took its place as the sun. The raven broke free of the eagle, but was so injured; he crashed into a river below.”
            She laughed. “But you are a silly fool, just like the greedy old man. This happened many, many years ago. If you were not from the South and so new to this place, you would know that this time, the light is only hibernating like the bears. It wakes in time, if you give it time. Perhaps tomorrow it will open its eye a spell. And now,” she proclaimed triumphantly, “I have earned my feathers back.”
The miner spat on his floor. “Yes, but what can you do with a handful of feathers? Because that is all they are. A handful of feathers. Just as giving them away could not make you a true woman, holding them between your hands can not return you to your former self. You will always be stuck between.”
The Raven was not finished with her plan, however. Later, after the miner had filled his guts with whiskey and beans, and slept too soundly to wake, she found a needle and thread amongst his things and worked quickly to sew the feathers into a shawl, which she wrapped around her shoulders to protect her from the harsh elements outside, and then stumbled out into the seemingly eternal night.
Reaching from branch to branch and trunk to trunk, she made her way toward the strange Crowman’s house, learning to walk with the partial gate of a woman and the part glide part hop of a bird.
When she finally found the Crowman and Willow-woman’s home, she wearily knocked at the door.
“What are you doing here, and what has happened to you?” the Crowman asked her in the secret language they shared.
“I was captured by a miner, and imprisoned as his wife. He has left me trapped between two forms. Please, tell me you can share the knowledge to help me return to the body of a raven,” she begged in the language of man.
“Why do you speak this way?” he asked her, again as a Crow.
She pointed to where the miner had slit beneath her tongue. The strange man kissed her in that place where she had been injured, whispering a prayer against the wound.
The Crowman’s wife came up behind him and took her husband by the shoulder. “Who is this and why do you speak the secret language of Crows?” she asked angrily. She reached for the man’s face and held it firmly between her hands. Looking into his eyes, she saw for the first time that they were the black orbs of a corvid. “I’ve been tricked!” she cried, her own kind eyes turning hard with hurt and shame. She threw her husband into the snow bank and slammed the door shut.
“But wait!” pleaded the strange man. “It is you who tossed my feathers back into the river and refused to see me as I have always been. It was you who made me promise not to tell you who I really was. And,” he said with his voice cracking, “it was your believing eyes that made me a man and I have I loved you for it. It was your hair that concealed me from the eagle. Your breast suckled me and gave me new life. I was always grateful for it.  Please, open the door.”
A strong wind rose up and the snow began to whip and lash around the Crowman and the Raven. Still, the Willow-wife had no pity to take her husband back in, though he shivered violently in the snow bank where he lay. “You,” he said, looking to the Raven, “why did you come here?”
The Raven knelt beside the man, and taking off her cloak of feathers, wrapped him in it. “I loved you when I thought you were a Corvid like me,” she said, as her naked flesh began to freeze. “I loved you when I saw you as a man. And still, I love you now that I know you are even more as I than I could have imagined. I would love you if you knew no form at all.”
The strange Crowman looked now to the door that had been closed to him. He knew it would never open again, and he wept as much for the love his wife had withdrawn for him, as he did for the love he could no longer have for her. From his throat rose a mourning song in the language of man. As he sang it, he invited cold into the empty cavern of his heart, and his limbs began stiffen.
The Raven remembered the song of hatching now, but could no longer sing it for her cut tongue, so instead, she let the beats of it rise from her heart...and really, the hatching song was always a heartbeat song.
 The Crowman let his song fade to listen to hers. He reached up and pulled the Raven close to him so he could better hear the beginning song of Corvids. It was a song he knew, and so as they huddled together under the cloak of her feathers, he taught her how to sing it again, their voices generating enough warmth to keep them both alive.
 As the winds died and the sun awoke from its slumber, two Corvids evaporated from their half-human bodies to dance up into the lights, their spirits as eternal as all that belongs to one sky—belonging to no one and nothing, but each of them hatchlings of the light.    

The End

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