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.
From award-winning author John Crowley comes Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, an exquisite fantasy novel about a man who tells the story of a crow and his impossible lives and deaths in the land of Ka. Available October 24th from Saga Press.
The Crows have no dead.
It’s not that they live forever, never die, though Ymr has at various times believed that of them. Nor is it that they care nothing for those who die, and don’t mourn: they do. Mothers who have lost nestlings, mates who have lost their fellows—they can be driven to distraction by it. They hate death; a dead Crow discovered can occasion hours of loud keening by a big congregation, and the place is avoided for long after. Leave even a scrap of black plastic in a field and Crows will come and cry out on it in alarm and horror, keeping a distance, until they dare come see it’s nothing.
No, they know death, they mourn: but the dead aren’t alive to them; the dead are nowhere—in a nameless hollow in a heart, in memory or in story maybe, but no presences they can speak to, to comfort or be comforted by. No dead to love or fear. At least so it was then, and mostly still is.
For such beings it was hard to understand what People did. It appeared to them that People love death: they cherish dead People bodies, and strive to make more of them, to handle or to harm.
“Do you not honor your dead?” the Singer once asked Dar Oakley, but not as though he didn’t already know the answer well enough. “Those who went before you, to whom you owe everything, life, knowledge, speech, everything?”
“I don’t know anything about them,” Dar Oakley answered. “They’re dead.”
“From whom then did you learn to fly, what foods to eat, what dangers to avoid?”
“From myself,” Dar Oakley said. “My mother too. Her Servitor. Others.”
“And who taught them?”
Dar Oakley didn’t respond.
“There is a bond, a binding,” the Singer said, closing his eyes, “between the dead and those yet unborn, which the living must keep.” He reached out as though to take the hands of others, those on this side, those on that, himself between. And Dar Oakley felt beside him his own mother and his father, whose anxious heads he could remember looking down at him when he lay hidden on the forest floor; and behind them the mothers and fathers who had taught them, and behind them, others, forever. All dead but the living.
When had Crows begun? Not with himself, for he had parents; but so had they, and their parents too had parents, and there could have been no beginning, because each Crow had been hatched from an egg laid by another, and there could be no first of either.
“Crow is unborn,” the Singer said. “Crow never dies.”
“Crows die,” Dar Oakley said. “We do.”
“Crows die,” the Singer said. “Crow never dies. When Crow dies, Death will die too.”
Dar Oakley and the Singer sat on the rocks above the grassland, from where Dar Oakley had by that time witnessed several battles. The Singer could not climb so high; a strong one had carried him up on his back, and would return when the sun was low to carry him down again. Below and far, the People (as Dar Oakley had by then learned to call them) herded their animals over that ground to graze. Dar Oakley could see a whitened People rib-cage, like the claws of a great beast reaching out from under the earth.
“When you win a battle,” he said, “and kill those others, why do you all go around the field, and cut and stab and abuse them?”
“To take revenge on them for the hurts and humiliations their kind visited on our ancestors.”
“And the ones whose heads you keep?” Dar Oakley asked. “The same?”
“No,” said the Singer. “They were great fighters. We honor them in that way, and in our possession they grant us some of their strength.”
“They’re dead,” Dar Oakley said. “Dead as dead.”
“You’ve learned to speak our words, Crow,” the Singer said smiling. “But you remain outside them still.”
* * *
How it was that Dar Oakley learned to speak to one of the People in this way, to argue with him and listen, is part of the story of how he came into Ymr; and it begins with the time Dar Oakley saw a Fox.
It was once again summer, toward evening. He was on far watch for his family, and at the glimpse of russet he was about to call a warning, but even as he bent forward with open bill something made him pause.
A Fox? He had glimpsed its red head and black nose, certain of that, there around those Hawthorns he had seen it, high up—but how would a Fox get high up in a bush? He’d never seen one climb and didn’t know if they could.
There it was again, that warning russet, there and gone again. Not coming closer, certainly. Dar Oakley moved to a better perch to see, and then to another. Where was it, that Fox? He gave a warning call, unable not to, but almost too small to be heard. And as though summoned, the Fox stood up, not far off, and looked his way. Stood up, like the two-legs. It was a two-legs, with a head like a Fox’s, a Fox’s ears and snout, but its own eyes, green below its empty fox-eyes. It was a two-legs with the head or pelt of a Fox put on top of its own head, with the Fox’s back fur and brush dangling down behind. In its hand the two-legs held a hunting stick, with fang-sharp point.
For a long moment the two-legs studied Dar Oakley, and in that green-eyed gaze Dar Oakley felt a feeling new to him. Except by other Crows, or by a scanning Hawk or hunting Weasel for reasons of their own, Dar Oakley had never been looked at for his own sake. He was caused to feel conscious of his own self there on this branch at this moment, as though he were both the looker and the seen. It was uncomfortable, like an itch beneath his head-feathers.
The two-legs raised its stick and pointed, in that way they had: like a bird raising hackles, a Grouse inflating its breast or a Boar pawing. It said I am here and I defy you. It seemed Dar Oakley was to respond in some way—fly away, come closer, call friends. The two-legs dagged the air, eyes not leaving him. Annoyed and goaded, he broke off a dead twig from the branch where he sat, and getting it firmly in his mouth and pointed right, he becked, aiming his own stick at the two-legs, and then again. There, take that.
The being—it was a small one, perhaps young—did something remarkable then. It opened wide its mouth and called. It made a sound that resembled a Crow’s call, though not so closely that any Crow would mistake it. Ka-ka-ka-ka it said in a rapid trill. Dar Oakley could see its blunt white teeth. It raised its own stick again, and it was clear now what was wanted—Dar Oakley pointed back with his. Again the two-legs made that Crow-like call, but smaller, and after trying the same trick again it went away, losing interest maybe. Dar Oakley let it go, and shook the stick from his mouth; but then before the two-legs was gone from sight he flew to a higher perch to watch.
Was it hunting? It seemed to move in no definite way, ambling here and there, suddenly ducking down as though to stalk prey, or maybe sensing something that followed it, though Dar Oakley up above could see there was nothing near. He counseled himself to forget about it, go eat, see where his family had got to (he could hear the Younger Sister far away call, and no one answer); he kept watch on the being, unseen by it. But dark was coming. The two-legs seemed to feel that too: Dar Oakley watched its restless head turn this way and that (the sightless Fox head turning too) and its feet carry it first one way and then another, stop and pause. In this fashion the two of them went a long way into the forest, the birds and small animals falling silent as the two-legs went among them kicking at the entangling growth, and no wonder, but Dar Oakley was puzzled how a being could hunt if every being knew of its coming.
Not hunting. What was this game? The being went faster, turned more often, making a wide circle within the forest, why?
Then Dar Oakley understood—though what caused the understanding he couldn’t have said.
The little two-legs was lost.
It sat down then with a sudden bump, as though just then knowing it was so: lost.
How curious. It wasn’t at all far from where its family or kind had settled, there was enough day left even to walk there, yet the two-legs didn’t know the way to go.
Dar was made to think of that time when he first got out of the nest and tumbled to the ground, a place he’d never been before (he’d been no places before), and how Father and Servitor had yelled at him to get up and fly, and his Mother from a branch above had called to him to stay still and not move, her eye looking everywhere at once. And like the two-legs he’d sat, and not moved.
He called sharply to it, get up, go on. It looked up at him—understanding now that Dar Oakley had been following—and raised the stick, in welcome or gladness. Now how could Dar Oakley know that? But he was sure of it. He dropped from the branch and flew in the direction the young one should go, stopped and looked back. The two-legs still stood, but then, in the same sudden way that Dar Oakley had understood the being was lost, it understood that it was to follow the Crow. Come on, come on, Dar Oakley called, and the strange being, what could it be thinking, fell into a low crouch and began to move through the brush and over the fallen logs in the direction Dar Oakley had shown it, raising its head now and then to look around just like the Fox whose head and tail it bore! And it was Dar Oakley’s turn to laugh, for from where he sat above, it really did look for an instant like a prowling Fox.
In this way they went toward the thinning of the forest. The two-legs got tired of the Fox game and stood on its long legs. Dar Oakley never got very close to it—the young one seemed too lost and confused to be harmful, but Dar Oakley was no fool, and knew that trick.
Clouds smeared the sun darkwise. It seemed important that the little one reach its roost before night. He flew on, not straight but in long waves over the moorland, so that the two-legs child (he was sure now that it was a child) would see where he went. High up in an Oak he went—here he had rested on the day he had gone looking for a place where no Crows were, and almost got eaten. The child knew the way now, and was running as fast as its legs could go. It turned back once, though, and with its stick and a call seemed to summon Dar Oakley to come along.
So he did, flying on ahead again, then alighting and waiting for the two-legs to catch up. For the first time he thought how tedious it must be not to have wings. When they came in sight of the palisades of the settlement, he could see an older one standing there, one of those he had decided (without really knowing why) were females; when she at last caught sight of the young one in the tall grass she came running to catch it up with cries, pull off the Fox’s head from its head to tug at its hair, press her face to the young one’s face. The young one squirmed away, and pointed at Dar Oakley, though the older one wouldn’t look his way, only pulled at the young one to follow; and they went in through the gap in the palisade where the two fighters’ heads still stared down.
Dar Oakley mounted to the top of the palisade, found footing, and looked down into the settlement. The young one, seeing him there, called a greeting, and Dar Oakley, spoken to he was sure, answered with a call: Here I am. He would think, long after, that this was the first time he had spoken in answer to one of the People. He wanted more. It was late in the day, he was hungry, but he was more curious than hungry.
He flew to the twiggy rushy top of one of their shelters, and looked down into their places and their lives, their fires and the things they used, themselves coming and going in and out. He wasn’t the only bird there: there were the ground-nesting birds they kept, and Sparrows around him in the rushes, a Linnet that had got stuck in an arrangement of sticks by the entrance of the dwelling and couldn’t get out, singing its song. None of the settlers paid Dar Oakley any attention, except the one he’d led here, in the Fox cap. Older ones around her also tried to take the cap from her head when she squatted among them, but she wouldn’t permit it. Their mouths moved constantly, making that long soft murmuring they all made when together.
What were they saying, if they were saying anything, and not making sounds just for sound’s sake? If he could get close enough maybe he could tell. Sometimes one would throw back her head and make a louder noise, the Ka-ka-ka-ka that the little one had made in the forest, and the other would take it up in response. Mostly it was the low sound, the cooing like a fledgling Crow’s inquiries, but not that, and not the throbbing of Doves either, whatever Doves meant by that noise they made all day long.
You might think that Crows must understand the languages of other birds at least, but it’s not so. Crows understand no one easily except one another. Everyone understands alarm calls, cries of distress or threat, anyone’s—the meaning’s clear enough—and Crows, like Jays and others, can imitate those cries when it serves them. Crows can understand some of the high speech of Ravens, but some words they share have other meanings when Ravens use them. For that matter Crows don’t always understand strange Crows who come from other flocks and other places; their speech is one mark of their strangeness. But of the speech of Doves or Sparrows or Geese—or Boars or Wolves, if such beings have language—Crows understand nothing. Crows who can say a few words in People speech are common now, but Dar Oakley believes no Crow has ever learned it well enough to talk freely with one of them.
No Crow but he.
He dared to come a bit closer, though never staying long on any perch. He watched them, observed their ever-moving hands manipulate things, take them up, put them down, alter them. All that they used, he understood, they had made themselves—what other being did that? Was it a burden, that they had to? It must be that they spoke, for when one uttered a string of sounds another would take some action, just as though the first had said something and been understood.
He bent his head toward the gathering of them. Ymr he thought they said. Ymr ymr. His ears heard his throat make sound, and the tongue in his mouth tried to shape it.
Much later he’d wonder: had he heard the sound and learned it, or made the sound and taught it to himself? Was it theirs or his own? By then there was no way to know.
The young one with the Fox pelt caught sight of him then, and pointed at him and drew the others to look. Should he flee? She—for now he had decided or felt it to be a young female, maybe only because she sat close among the other females as no fur-faced male did—she patted herself, then pointed at him, cooing and yakking, as the others also looked up at him; and he understood. She was telling them the story of how he had found her and led her here.
He called to them, trying somehow to vouch for her. The single loud sound, the universal call.
“Ka!” she cried back at him, and spread her thin arms like wings; and he knew she had meant to speak, to call him, make meaning to him.
“Ymr,” he said to her. It was hardly a sound at all, a strangled gurgle as though he had swallowed a Tree Frog. Yet she leapt up, exulting.
She had said his word, or tried to, and he had said hers. They knew they had spoken, and that was all. It was enough.
* * *
From then on she sought for him where she thought he lived—that sunshot and open region of the young forest where he’d first seen her—and moped when he couldn’t be found; he in turn spied on the settlement, annoyed at the crowds she always seemed to be within, young or old, as though she belonged to everyone. When they did find each other alone, they’d each say the word they’d learned, and then try another, both of them good at imitation, but they hardly knew what they said when they spoke it.
It became clear soon enough that she couldn’t speak his language in his way, and he couldn’t speak hers in her way: their mouths and tongues and throats weren’t made to do it. But word by word as summer went by they came to hear each other’s language, and to know what was meant by the words in it. So that’s the way they went on: she spoke in her language, he in his, and back and forth they began to understand each other. There are so few words in his language—she said the speech of Ka, calling it after the sound she’d first made, the one she heard most often—and they are deployed so differently in different tones and circumstances, that she learned slowly; he in turn had to remember vast numbers of her words, all sounding the same to him, mostly used in just one way. Over time he came to use some words of hers in his speech, and she words of his in hers—the mystery words for which their own languages had no equivalents.
Strange how the knowledge of a name gives possession of a thing. When he learned spear and carriage and pot and cow from her, those things separated from the mass of things seen and became at once themselves and his. Other things took longer to grasp. He saw that she could call a call in the middle of a crowd of her kind and only one of them would turn to answer her. How? She had, she told Dar Oakley, called that one’s name.
“What name?” Dar Oakley asked.
“His own name,” she said. “The name that is his only.”
They were on the high rocks from where Dar Oakley had watched his first battle. They were rarely apart now, unless he was with Crows of his acquaintance who were fussed by her nearness, her fang-stick and her cries; or if she was in her house as she called it with her kin, who did not like a Crow to be too close or too constant. “Death-bird,” she’d said, and then she fell on the ground headlong, eyes closed and motionless (death) then up and leaping with arms flapping (bird) and pointed to Dar Oakley. It was his name, or the name of his kind.
Death. Bird. He thought of those naked fighters, summoning Dar Oakley’s flock to the field down there. Death-birds.
“But everything has two names,” she said. “The kind of thing it is, and its own name.” She pointed up toward the heights that rose behind them. “What do you call that? What is the name of it?”
“But it’s own name,” she said. “What is it’s own name?”
“Why would a mountain have a name? It can’t answer when you call it.”
She fell back laughing, her white stomach shaking, the little twist of skin in its middle. “You don’t know anything, Bird,” she said.
She had not one but many names all her own, some of them given to her and some that she had chosen herself; some meaningless to her except as calls; some the same as her mother’s or her father’s but with her own difference.
Her mother and her father had had their own names too, she told Dar Oakley, though they were both dead. The whole crowd of her kind—the People, as she named them—took care of her, though the one she loved best was the one Dar Oakley called the Singer, whom she too called the Singer with a word in her own tongue that meant the same thing, but not quite.
“His father was a Beaver,” she said. “His mother was a wave on the water, and her mother was a stick of wood.”
She lay down flat on her back and looked up at the sky and the fast low clouds. “You ought to have a name,” she said.
It was strange to hear that, like flying out of fog into clear air, or maybe the opposite. “How do you get a name?”
She thought about that, batting a bug from her face. It seemed odd to Dar Oakley that her own thick hair, and the bands of hair over each eye, were nearly the color of the Fox pelt she wore everywhere. One of her names for herself was With the Fox Cap. “You think of what you’ve done, and where you’ve been,” she said. “A thing you did that no one else did. You take a name from what you are.”
Dar Oakley pondered this, as well as he could.
“I saw you in the Oak tree deep in the forest. Your name can be In the Oak Tree in the Forest.”
“There are a lot of Oaks,” Dar Oakley said. “And a lot of Crows in them.”
“Then which one is yours?”
Dar Oakley thought of the Oak tree from whose high dead branch he had first imagined a land of no Crows. It wasn’t deep in the forest but at the edge of the open grassland, the lea.
“All right,” said With the Fox Cap. “You will be Of the Oak by the Lea.”
“Still,” he said.
“And a secret name too.” She sat up suddenly, as though she had heard a call, or sensed a threat, though there was neither, and she looked straight ahead at nothing, and made a sound. He looked at her wondering. She made the sound again. It was short and harsh and he could make it too.
“Dar,” he said.
“Dar of the Oak by the Lea.”
He tasted that. It named him alone among all the things and beings of the world. Surely no Crow but he had ever had it, but then there was no other Crow anywhere who had any name all his own.
Summer turned to autumn; she followed him everywhere, running fast as a hare on those long legs, leaping rocks and streams, calling to him Wait, wait when he vanished in the distance—how short their sight was! He followed her too, to places she regarded as distinct and important, though he could rarely see a difference between them and the surroundings; some she wouldn’t go into, he couldn’t grasp the reason why—the name of the reason had no cognate in his own tongue, for there was nothing in his world that needed such a name. She’d speak it when she hesitated to enter a certain dim grove, but the name didn’t say she was afraid; she said it when she knelt by a cold spring no different to him than other springs, dipped her hands into it and let the water pour out of the cup of them before she drank, but she wasn’t just refreshed or satisfied. He never knew when she’d use the word, or whether when she did she’d then stay away or rush toward whatever it was.
What they both agreed on: there was no reason to go into the dark reaches of the forest that clad the high mountain on one side of her demesne and his, and stretched forever beyond the river plain the other way. She’d been lost there, and not even deeply in, when Dar Oakley found her; she told him that when she was back again among the People, they’d warned her—she could be led astray, and be taken in so far she’d never return.
Led astray? Taken in, by whom or what?
She gave names, but not of things in his memory of her words; and when he asked what things the names named, she seemed not to know or not want to say. How, he wondered, could you know the names of things, and not know the things?
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “It’s just not worth it. It’s unpleasant. You can’t fly—you can’t run. It’s not profitable.” He could see farther than she could, but she could see things that he could not.
Autumn, and the great roost rebuilt itself. Fox Cap sat and watched them gather in the old place—Dar Oakley could see her far off across the river, wrapped in a pelt but (as he had directed her) hiding away the Fox cap, so as not to alarm his friends and relatives. They questioned him anyway—most beings don’t like a bigger one sitting still and staring at them—and even if now and then she left a hare’s carcass or scraps from a roasting for them, they’d still give her one eye. What’s that one doing here, and why doesn’t she go away? Dar Oakley shook off their questions, not my business, has she harmed you?
It was in those gatherings at evening that Dar Oakley tried to explain to the Crows about names, and how it could be that they could each have one of their own that was no one else’s. Few understood what he was on about, and the rest argufied and scoffed. One or two defied the rest and queried him about it, glancing around themselves at the lookers-in as though waiting to be mocked.
“You,” Dar Oakley. “You could have a name.”
“I already have a name,” the one he spoke to said. “Crow.”
The rest laughed, but the Crow was in earnest. “No, but why do I need another?”
“Well,” Dar Oakley said. “Suppose you’d done a big brave thing—“
That got a laugh too, but Dar Oakley cried out above the laughter. “It was you, wasn’t it you, who once pulled an Eagle’s tail, made her drop that Rabbit she had?”
“Fish, it was.”
“Tearing it to bits by the river, and you just went right in there to annoy her, tug her tail, and kept at it till she turned on you, and left the fish. Which we all got.”
“I got least.”
“So now we tell the story,” Dar Oakley said. “But who’ll remember one day that it was you?”
“And when you’re gone?” The Crows grew quiet; that’s not a subject to be mentioned lightly. “How would it be if ever after we around here could name you as the one who long ago did that?”
The Crow stared up and down and around as though unable to gather this thought to himself. “So?” he said at last.
“So your name. It could be Pulled the Eagle’s Tail.”
“That’s a mouthful.”
“Well,” Dar Oakley said. “It’s a story.”
“Have you got one?”
“Mine is Of the Oak by the Lea.”
That was greeted with rapturous hilarity, but the Crow now named Pulled the Eagle’s Tail didn’t join in. He did dash and jab at one who teased him, and the rest cried out on him for it, hey hey, but it was sleeptime now and the elders were shushing them.
The next day a Crow who’d been nearby on that evening came to Dar Oakley alone at the feeding-place, and said in the lowest of calls that she wanted a name too, if she could get a good one.
Her name, when it was found, and the other names that began then to adhere first to this Crow and then to that one: in time they came to be passed on to young, who in the names carried their mothers and fathers; and their young added others all their own. The names were carried away with those who departed the flock. Over the course of a hundred generations the names (like the names the People bore) were worn smooth the way river stones are worn rolling over one another, until the act or the place or the habit or the tale at the heart of a name could hardly any longer be discerned: but it was there, and still is.
Excerpted from Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, copyright © 2017 by John Crowley.