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The Crow's Word
I'm not sure if I should start with the crow or with Carla. It began with them both,
but it did not end with them. The crow spoke his word and flew. Carla spoke hers
and did the same. It ended, as all stories do, with Mab. But Carla and the crow
were the keys. They were the first cracks in the wall. When I try to remember, I'm not sure which found me first. I'll start with the crow, because I can no longer recall Carla's eyes. Here in the
hills, I imagine that fact should pain me more than it does. I know her eyes were
sharp though. The crow's were sharp too, tiny points of flint that studied me one at
a time as it cocked its head. (Mab wears a crow's head at times, but her skin is
always white.) Fall started early, and the crow found me one clear day in the middle of August
when it should have been warmer than it was. There were about half dozen crows
sitting on the antenna of a house a few down from mine. They were having some
kind of debate, rough and loud enough that their voices would have woken me had
I not already been up and walking to school. I usually biked the several blocks to
campus, but one tire was flat and I hadn't had a chance to repair it. They broke off when I approached. When I passed, one spiraled away and perched
in a low branch farther down the sidewalk. I fished out the peanut butter sandwich
I'd packed for lunch, tore off a piece, and tossed it. The crow caught it deftly in its
beak. That was more or less how Hamilton adopted me. I did not know then that Mab
had sent him, though I would like to think that on a cool August afternoon like
that he would have found me anyway. I'm sure he gave me a name, but I never
learned it. I couldn't decide whether to call him Hamilton or Lagrange, but he
struck me as a crow more Irish than French. The first day he followed me all the way to campus, watching me pass on the
sidewalk and then flying to a tree where I would pass again. By the time we
reached the gates, he had gone through half my sandwich. He didn't come any
farther, just perched on a lamppost and watched me walk down the brick pathway
into campus. I know he couldn't have waited there all day, but when I walked
home in the evening he was sitting at the same lamppost. It only took a few days of that before he was riding my shoulder and I was packing
an extra sandwich for him. I was never sure he'd come back, but he always did. I had always wanted a pet crow. You don't see many people walking around with
a tame one on their shoulder. (Hamilton certainly wasn't tame, but he pretended.)
We had only been together for a few weeks before he started talking. There are many crows, and they all talk. They call Mab's name, and in the stormy
evenings they bring her news of the far and the wide world. I've asked them about
Hamilton, but they say they don't know him. Perhaps they've disowned him for
the word spoken on my behalf.
by Stephen Case
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller
I'm not sure if I should start with the crow or with Carla. It began with them both, but it did not end with them. The crow spoke his word and flew. Carla spoke hers and did the same. It ended, as all stories do, with Mab. But Carla and the crow were the keys. They were the first cracks in the wall.
When I try to remember, I'm not sure which found me first.
I'll start with the crow, because I can no longer recall Carla's eyes. Here in the hills, I imagine that fact should pain me more than it does. I know her eyes were sharp though. The crow's were sharp too, tiny points of flint that studied me one at a time as it cocked its head. (Mab wears a crow's head at times, but her skin is always white.)
Fall started early, and the crow found me one clear day in the middle of August when it should have been warmer than it was. There were about half dozen crows sitting on the antenna of a house a few down from mine. They were having some kind of debate, rough and loud enough that their voices would have woken me had I not already been up and walking to school. I usually biked the several blocks to campus, but one tire was flat and I hadn't had a chance to repair it.
They broke off when I approached. When I passed, one spiraled away and perched in a low branch farther down the sidewalk. I fished out the peanut butter sandwich I'd packed for lunch, tore off a piece, and tossed it. The crow caught it deftly in its beak.
That was more or less how Hamilton adopted me. I did not know then that Mab had sent him, though I would like to think that on a cool August afternoon like that he would have found me anyway. I'm sure he gave me a name, but I never learned it. I couldn't decide whether to call him Hamilton or Lagrange, but he struck me as a crow more Irish than French.
The first day he followed me all the way to campus, watching me pass on the sidewalk and then flying to a tree where I would pass again. By the time we reached the gates, he had gone through half my sandwich. He didn't come any farther, just perched on a lamppost and watched me walk down the brick pathway into campus. I know he couldn't have waited there all day, but when I walked home in the evening he was sitting at the same lamppost.
It only took a few days of that before he was riding my shoulder and I was packing an extra sandwich for him. I was never sure he'd come back, but he always did.
I had always wanted a pet crow. You don't see many people walking around with a tame one on their shoulder. (Hamilton certainly wasn't tame, but he pretended.) We had only been together for a few weeks before he started talking.
There are many crows, and they all talk. They call Mab's name, and in the stormy evenings they bring her news of the far and the wide world. I've asked them about Hamilton, but they say they don't know him. Perhaps they've disowned him for the word spoken on my behalf.
I need to say something about Carla here, too. Mab has not answered all my questions about her; about the things she was able to do. She says only this: "I grow old, and all stories have a beginning."
Make of it what you will.
I don't think Mab sent her. That might have been the only part of this story left to chance.
This was a college town, and there was something that everyone joked about, but they were sort of serious too: you came to school here -- or at least, lots of us did -- hoping to leave married. In lots of ways it was that type of college: small, denominational, traditional. It was a bit embarrassing sometimes how hopefully parents would scan the crowds at orientation.
Carla wasn't one of the girls from campus. She worked at a gas station several blocks from school, along the route I walked or rode my bike each day. I think she had taken classes on campus for a semester or two, but she hadn't stayed.
She worked the night shift. I first became aware of her when I went in one evening to ask about the air machine. I was on my way home, and one of the tires on my bike was again low. She had to come out and show me the button.
I say the gas station was on my way to and from school, but it was actually along one of many potential routes. After that evening, I went that way every time. I started trying to think of reasons to stop. I bought candy bars. I wished I had a car to get gas. Finally I stopped buying anything and would just go in to see her. When I stayed late on campus there was usually no one else at the station, so I'd sit at the counter and we'd talk.
I eventually found out that she was engaged to a guy named Dan. He never came around though, and for some reason the engagement seemed irrelevant.
One evening I stayed until she got off work, which was close to midnight. I volunteered to walk her home. She didn't live far from the station so she didn't drive to work. She said fine, but she first needed to stop by the library. I assumed she needed to drop a book off in the after-hours return.
When we got there she reached into the satchel she carried and pulled out a wrench. There were two metal lions flanking the library's doors, some rather pathetic echo of the lions at certain, more famous, public libraries. The lions stood with their paws fixed by huge bolts to cement pedestals. It was to these that Carla applied the wrench, her small arms straining.
"What are you doing?" The library entrance was not in any way secluded. We were standing in front of a well-lit parking lot beside the main street downtown. Cars passed every few moments.
She didn't say anything, just glanced at me with one raised eyebrow as if to ask why I wasn't helping.
I should say something about Carla here, something more than I have. I should say it, even though Mab waits with lifted arms beneath the tossing trees.
She was lovely. You do stupid things when you think you're in love with someone, even if she says she'll be marrying a man you've never met. She had dark hair that fell across her eyes as she strained over the bolt, and she had blue eyes.
I watched like an idiot until the first bolt holding the lion's front paw was out. When it was clear she wasn't stopping, I took the wrench from her and went to work on the second.
In a few moments they were all out and no one had stopped us to ask what we were doing. I stepped back and looked at the lion, wondering what she'd do now.
"The other one," she whispered, pointing at the paws of the second lion. I shrugged heavily and turned to it as Carla started whispering to the first. She had taken its head in her hands while I was working on its back paw.
The second lion was nearly unscrewed when something brushed my leg and I felt more than heard a low rumble. I nearly dropped the wrench and looked behind me.
The first lion was still the color of dull metal.
It rubbed its head up against my leg and kind of purred.
Carla wasn't saying anything now. She was watching my progress on the second lion like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
When I just stood there, staring, she got this bemused expression and took the wrench and loosed the last bolt herself. Then she went to its head and started whispering again. I couldn't tell when exactly it happened, but the lion stretched itself, flexed the paws where they had been bolted to the cement, and bounded down from the pedestal.
The two lions looked at us for an instant, and then slipped off into the darkness.
That was the first crack, but I had forgotten about it before the crow started speaking. I think I made myself forget, though it had not been hard. Sometimes things happen that don't have any connection to the rest of your life, and that's not how the human mind works. Your mind works by making connections. When it can't make one -- when a fact can't be grafted into the network of experience that makes up our mind or memory -- sometimes it just gets dropped.
That's what I did. Carla never said anything about it. I walked her home that night like nothing out of the ordinary happened, though she did hold my hand. When I passed the library after that, I did not glance at the empty pedestals. The newspaper ran a story about the theft. No one had seen anything.
It didn't make sense, so I ignored it.
The crow was more difficult to ignore.
When he started talking, the first word he said was "Dresden."
I was walking home from campus, and he had taken his customary spot on my shoulder. We would walk like this, and sometimes kids from the elementary school who were getting off the bus along my route would want to stop and try to pet him and ask me how I caught him. I would explain that he didn't like to be petted and that I hadn't caught him. He would eye them patiently and sometime give the kids an obligatory caw, which always thrilled.
The day Hamilton started talking, one of the kids, who must have been about seven or eight, walked alongside us for a block chattering about things he had read in a book on crows and ravens. He asked me if mine talked.
I told him it did not.
"Ravens are real smart," he said, oblivious to the fact that Hamilton was not a raven. "You're supposed to be able to teach them how to talk. Say something, Hammy. Say, pretty bird."
"Dresden," Hamilton said.
The boy clapped and smiled.
A few blocks later, having left the kids behind, Hamilton said it again.
When the kids weren't following us home from school a bunch of other crows might, and Hamilton would keep up a running conversation with them from my shoulder. But those were crow-noises. They weren't words like "Dresden."
Plus, each time he said it, it was clearer.
The third time, I finally bit.
"Okay. What about Dresden?"
He cocked his head at me but didn't say anything else. When we stopped at the station to see Carla I tried to show off his new trick, but he wouldn't perform.
The next morning he was more talkative. I had begun keeping the screen off the window in the living room so he could come and go freely. I don't know where he went at night, but in the mornings I would fix myself some oatmeal and set some raisins out on the table for him, and within a few minutes he'd fly in and hop onto the back of a chair.
"The Russians," he said, proudly, as if he'd been practicing. "Dresden."
I pointed out that Dresden was in Germany.
He talked like a crow: harsh and loud, heavy on the r's and the vowels, having trouble with his s's and n's.
I was not sure why I took it as such a matter of course that my adopted crow would first of all begin to speak, and second of all try to explain something to me about Dresden. It seemed like there were only a few options: ignore it, imagine I was going crazy, or take it in stride. The first had worked with the lions, but Hamilton was louder and wouldn't leave me alone. The second really served no purpose.
"Dresden," he said again, bobbing his head in what I took to be agreement. "The Russians."
"The Germans," I insisted. "Eat your raisins."
He muttered something I could not understand and hopped down to the table.
But it got me thinking. I knew enough to know that the Russians had cause to be in a lot of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I did not know enough geography though to know whether Dresden was in the east or the west, and I didn't know enough history to know why it was important.
He finished his raisins and muttered the word I couldn't understand, louder this time. He kept repeating it as I gathered my things and headed out the door. I didn't bike anymore now that I had a crow riding my shoulder each morning.
"You've got to practice more," I told him. "I can't understand what you're saying."
When we passed the kids coming home from school the next day, the same kid as before wanted to know if Hamilton could talk yet.
"Pretty bird," the crow said, and then, when the kid's jaw dropped, "Leave me alone."
He wouldn't stop chattering about Dresden. "Carla, Carla," he croaked as we walked up to the gas station. Again though, once we were there he would not show off. I asked Carla about Dresden.
"Like, have I been there?" She shook her head.
"Neither have I. But do you know anything about it?"
"Not really." She paused. "They had a museum exhibit a while back that was supposed to be a bunch of art and stuff from there. Dan and I went. I guess Dresden was the art capital of Germany or something before the war. They called it the Paris of Germany."
"What happened with the Russians?"
The Russians were coming from the east, and the people of Dresden didn't want their art and sculpture -- what remained after the firebombing -- carried off or destroyed. Carla was right, and the city had been called "the Paris of Germany" for good reason. Its museums were packed with pieces assembled over hundreds of years.
When the Russians arrived, the museums that still stood were empty. The Russians clomped through the marble halls in boots that had marched across frozen steppes, but only echoes greeted them. The walls were bare of paintings; the pedestals held no sculptures. The museums' contents had disappeared.
I never bothered to look any of this up. Hamilton explained it bit by bit over the next couple weeks. His vocabulary seemed to grow daily, though his pronunciation often had a hard time keeping up.
"Empty museums," I said. "Got it."
"No, no. Taken away. Hidden."
"The museums were hidden?"
We were walking in the park. It was closer to September now, and I wondered if Hamilton would need to migrate soon. I was unsure if crows stuck around during the winter.
"Art! Art hidden!"
"Who hid it?"
"Everyone," he clucked, slightly softer, though carrying on a conversation with the bird always entailed him shrieking at some point. "Peasants, farmers, old ladies, houses, attics, cellars. Hidden." He cocked his head one way and then the other, a gesture I had learned was roughly equivalent to a human spreading his arms. "Empty museum."
Hamilton was explaining it all to me, but I still did not understand.
"She's letting me talk now," Hamilton said from the lamppost. I was sitting on the porch with a book. "Really talk."
"You've certainly gotten better," I said, trying to arch an eyebrow. "Who is?"
"The fairy queen?"
The bird bobbed his head.
"Look," I began, "it's enough that I have a talking crow and --"
"We have to find her museum," he croaked, cutting me off. "Like in Dresden. But there, the people brought it back themselves. Not here. It's been too long."
Carla was inside, washing the dishes after dinner. It was the first time I had invited her to my place, and I had been surprised when she had not refused. I cooked pasta, and after we ate she made me go outside while she cleaned up. I had a server for creamer that was shaped like a tiny cow, and I could hear its ceramic hooves clinking against the sill of the window in the kitchen as she worked.
Suddenly everything seemed to click into place.
"Carla is the fairy queen," I said. "I fell in love with Queen Mab."
The crow cocked his head and looked at me like I was an idiot.
"Mab won't come. Or at least, you better hope she won't. She tends to put undue pressure on reality when she shows up. She needs you though, to start putting the museum back together."
He spread his wings. "The one that used to be here."
A few minutes later Carla pushed the door open with her hip, bringing two mugs of coffee. Hamilton eyed her from the lamppost, and she smiled at him.
"Who were you talking to? I thought I heard voices."
I didn't like lying. "A neighbor."
"Oh." She took the other rocker on the porch and sipped from her mug. "Your cow creamer thing is gone," she said. "I'll get you another one."
"Shaped like a cow?"
She shrugged. "If you want."
Maybe things were not moving fast enough. Maybe I was dense, or I thought the talking crow was some kind of game or gimmick.
In any case, Mab did end up coming herself.
She didn't look like I expected. In plays and paintings she wore a dark gown with gems and leaves in her hair. In the rain, standing in the grass in the backyard, she looked far less human. One breast was painted black and the other silver. She had twigs in her hair.
I could not remember why I had stepped out into the backyard in the rain.
"Once upon a time," she was saying. She spoke as though resuming a discussion we had been having before something interrupted us. "There were two brothers who fell in love with Death. They saw her for the first time at the side of their father, who called them to his bed as he died. When their mother reached down to close his eyes, the two brothers saw Death standing there behind her in a black gown, and they loved her, for she was lovely."
Mab stooped, holding her hand a few inches above the ash sprout I had let grow up beyond the grass. She stood like that for a while, the rain tracing the arch of her back, but nothing seemed to happen to the tree.
"The first son became a soldier, though whether he would have anyway I could not tell you. He would see Death on the fields, flashing through the battle, towering over the carnage, harsh and serene. Sometimes she would be there at his side, her face set. The soldier loved her, though as close as he came she always held her distance. He would whisper to her over the rattling breath of the dying, lift his bloodied hands to her silent form, but she said nothing."
I did not know if, watching her naked form move across the lawn, I should feel something. I would say she was like a dancer, but she did not move quite like any human. And then I would say like a sculpture, but she had not been birthed from any human mind.
I was fearful more than anything.
Mab stopped suddenly and looked at me. "You will find my things?"
The change in tone and topic was so abrupt that I just stared. The crow shifted uneasily on the top of the clothesline pole.
"My things and my people." She tilted her head like a child. "My museum. They all went away, but I think they can come back now. You will find them for me?"
"If I can. I don't know where to look."
"They will probably find you, mostly." She started ticking off names on her fingers. "There is the Red Hand, Christopher 57, all of the gripe water, Thirteen Shades and his lovers, and Janie Wringer."
She shrugged and held up her hand, five fingers outstretched. "All on this hand."
She shook her head, coming closer, moving like a snag of cloth caught in a breeze. The closer she got the harder she was to see, until she was whispering right in my face. I smelled dirt and dry leaves on her lips. "Then you would understand too much," she was saying. "Then you would know the whole story."
I took a step backward.
"They will mostly find you," she repeated, and then she was gone.
I wrote the names down on a piece of paper and put it on the refrigerator so I would not forget them, and then I promptly forgot them. This was difficult to do because I still had a bird that spoke, and he would perch on the top of the fridge and crane his neck to look down at the list.
"Good list!" he said. "Good things!" His vocal range seemed to have decreased again now that he had explained what he needed to about Dresden and the museum.
"Sure." I mixed equal parts orange juice and cranberry juice against a coming cold.
"Find them!" He cocked his head so I knew it was a question, and I shrugged in response.
"She told me they'd find me."
I was taking Carla to a movie that evening. She was still engaged, and I still had not met her fiancé. The stories about him always seemed to change. Now it appeared he was working on an offshore drilling rig. I did not want to meet him when he came home, if he even existed.
Nor did I want to see Mab again.
I did not get either wish.
"Thirteen Shades lives in the Blur," the god of the garage told me.
"I don't care."
The god of the garage -- I could not get him to explain if he was the god of all garages or simply the god of my own -- had pulled himself together from a gasoline can, some rags, an old sheet, and gardening tools that still had caked dirt from the summer before. When he spoke, some of the dirt fell from his lips. He smelled of gasoline and mowed grass.
"Why should I care?"
I had stepped into the garage to find something -- the air gauge for my bicycle tires, I think.
The god ticked items off on a hand formed from a bent metal rake.
"People -- and I use the term here loosely -- are using you. The Blur is beginning to leak. Thirteen Shades can help you find the rest of the lost items."
I shook my head. "Mab said they would find me."
The god sighed. He climbed up to an old metal shelf and sat on it like it was a throne. Perhaps it was. One of his eyes was a broken piece of an old bottle; the other was the metal lid of the gasoline can.
"They'll find you if you're in the right place. Anything will, really."
"Okay." I shrugged. "Okay. What is the Blur?"
"It's a sort of place."
"What kind of place?"
"It was a big place once. Big and important. Now it's settled down beside this place, tucked into corners where things are lost."
I waited, but it was clear that was the only explanation I would get. "Where is it?"
He pointed in a direction I could not see.
"But you can't get to it that way. You've got to slip through where it comes close." He paused, considering. "What's today's date?
I told him.
He muttered something, then nodded. "Good, good. There will be a gathering tonight in a garage two blocks over. You'll find it easily enough. Go late, when the dancing is nearly done and the alcohol consumed. There will be a girl there. The Blur is behind her eyes."
I stared up at him. "That's it?"
Oily rags shifted as he shrugged.
"That's the closest it will be for a while, though your neighbor's dog goes there every night in its dreams. You can't get in that way though."
I recognized some of the music coming from the garage two blocks away. It had been a party, spilling out into the alley and the houses beside. Kids my age and a bit younger were still coming and going, though mostly going by this time. I caught a few drunken stares, but no one said anything. Inside the garage (carpeted and with furniture) there was a couple on a couch making out disinterestedly. A few bodies were sleeping or passed out on other chairs. I found Carla in a corner, curled up by a turntable.
"You didn't even ask me to come along," I muttered as I bent and lifted her. She was even lighter than she looked, as though she had wilted in sleep. Her breath was heavy with beer and something sharper.
As we left the garage she mumbled a question.
Back at my place I put her on the sofa. She began snoring before I even had a blanket over her. I stood there for a moment, looking closely at her eyelids. They were lovely but seemed to hide nothing out of the ordinary.
That night I dreamed of stormy blue spaces, and Thirteen Shades rode up and down the plains on his demon horses. His lovers were the winds, and they whipped around him and screamed like harpies. I told him it was time to come home and he stopped and turned all his faces towards me.
"The doors," they said. "The doors are not opened."
I asked him what he meant.
"There is no entry without the gate and no gate without the doors and we all went forth and we all were lost and the doors were closed."
When I woke up, my head felt as though it was stuffed with sand. I lay in bed for several minutes wondering what I was hearing, what river was rushing behind my eyes and ears, before I realized the shower was running. Carla was singing, though I could make out no words. I moaned and buried my head in the pillow.
When I finally rose, strangely unsteady and with a pounding behind both temples, she was in the kitchen, scrambling eggs in my skillet and wearing a pair of my pajama pants and sweatshirt.
"I had the most amazing dreams last night," she said by way of greeting. I grunted and fell into one of the chairs.
Nothing seemed right. She should be hung-over, not me. Yet whatever chemicals should have been clogging her head this morning had apparently been poured into my own. I could hardly move.
"I was a cloud. Or a bird. Whatever it was, I could fly."
"Could you make statues come to life?" I asked. The sand slid from my head to my mouth.
She shook her head.
"How was the party?"
She paused in stirring the eggs, as though she had forgotten for a moment the events of the night before. Then she shrugged.
"Fine, I guess. Some of Dan's friends were back in town and they wanted to get together."
The supposed fiancé. I still had not met him and was becoming more and more doubtful of his existence. She had slept on my couch, after all, hadn't she? She was making breakfast in my damn pajamas, in my kitchen.
He could not exist. Fate could not be so cruel.
Carla opened the window, and Hamilton dropped onto the sill.
"I'm supposed to be collecting pieces from a museum," I said, "but I think I have to unlock the doors before I can put the pieces together."
Carla sat down opposite me and pushed across a plate of eggs. "Sounds fairly simple."
"It's not. It doesn't make any sense."
"To you," she corrected. "It doesn't make any sense to you."
I looked at the eggs. Their mangled edges made me think about the weird blue and grey clouds that tore across the skies in my dream. Those clouds did not stop at the horizon; they marched down and beat against the ground like surf.
"Apparently there were pieces of a museum here. Someone's museum." I had been about to say Mab's, but Hamilton shot me a warning look. "Someone had collected things or built things, and then they all scattered. I think this was before we were here. I think they left when we came."
"The French Heritage museum just opened up in the Stone Barn downtown. I've been meaning to make it over there."
"I think this was before the French."
I trailed off, watching her eat. It was hypnotic. She took small, precise bites. There was something that sparked at the ends of the strands of dark hair that fell over her face as she ate, something that caught the light of the silver fork.
"How is it that you brought those statues to life?"
"Which ones?" My eggs were untouched, but the pounding in my head was beginning to recede. I sipped the orange juice she had poured. "The lions in front of the library. That cow creamer I had. Those porcelain birds that had been my grandmother's."
Her eyes lowered for a moment. "I hoped you hadn't noticed those. I felt bad."
"Does this have something to do with your museum?"
"I don't know. Does it? A god in my garage told me where to find you last night." I was suddenly angry. "Nothing like this has happened to me before, and I'm fairly certain none of it is normal. But you seem normal enough. But then you do this thing where you bring statues to life."
She shrugged. "I don't think I bring anything to life." Her plate was clean, and she took it to the sink and ran water. "They're already in there. The shapes hold them, like . . ." She paused and wiped her hands. "If you saw something frozen. If there had been a sudden chill, a sudden frost, and you went out and saw that there was a frog frozen under the surface but you knew it wasn't dead, you'd break the ice and free it, wouldn't you?"
Hamilton was at my elbow and I dropped a few bits of egg onto the table for him.
"But how do you do it?"
She shrugged again. It was strange to see my sweatshirt draping those shoulders. I had wondered about those shoulders for a long time.
"Have you always been able to?"
She leaned over the table and touched my hand.
"I don't really run with that crowd anymore," she said, and it took me a moment to realize she was changing the topic to the party last night. "I haven't done the sort of things I did last night for a long time. I'm glad it was you that found me. I knew the first time I saw you that I wouldn't regret --"
But she obviously regretted saying too much. She wouldn't say anything else.
I didn't say anything either. I finished eating.
She did not have to work until that afternoon, so we walked downtown to the French Heritage Museum. I wasn't sure what to think, apart from the whole thing about bringing statues to life. She had spent the night at my place. She held my hand loosely as we walked. I would need some clarity here soon. For all I knew this was as Platonic for her as the forms she thought she pulled out of statues.
The French Museum was indeed in the Old Stone Barn downtown. I wondered how the city had gotten built up around it. It was one of the oldest buildings in town and had been in turn a pub, meeting hall, church, restaurant, and pub again. The wooden floors and stone walls were scrubbed and as polished as the display cases, and they seemed to have shed the years.
Carla wandered among them aimlessly, commenting on bits of the county's history. I had the vague idea that coming to a museum might give me some insight into whatever it was I was supposed to be doing for Mab, but nothing here seemed to have much relevance.
I wandered over to a corner where wooden steps led up to a roped-off second floor and sat down. There was a mop and some rope barriers in the shadows below the stairwell. They shifted as I sat.
"Dreaming about Thirteen Shades riding the Blur isn't the same as actually going to the Blur and bringing him out."
The mop lifted itself into a sitting position and filled out the rest of its form with a cobweb and some old brochures.
"This isn't a garage," I told him.
"It's a barn," he agreed. "That's what they used to call garages, before they attached them to houses again."
"So you can go back and forth between all of them?"
He waved away the question with the wrist of a dead spider.
"He said the door was locked. Thirteen Shades. He said he couldn't get out."
"It's because her eyes were closed. You were supposed to wake her with a kiss. Her eyes would have opened, and you could have walked into them, into the Blur, and brought Shades out."
"I didn't know."
He made a sound of exasperation.
"Why do you care? Are you part of this museum?"
"We're all part of it. Some pieces are just more interesting than others. I have my marching orders, just like you."
"You're daydreaming again." Carla was beside me, and the god of the garage was a pile of half-discarded work items beneath the stairs. "I wanted to show you something."
There was a display on the Native Americans who had lived in the county when the first Frenchmen came, Potawatomie mainly. A photograph showed what was supposed to be their last major gathering before most of the tribe went west into Indian Territory. There was a young man in their midst with painted arms. Another picture showed him again, apparently the same age, standing before a weathered general store. Then there was a third, a schoolmaster at a desk in a suit, but still with hands obviously painted. Placards identified them as Red Hand, Son of Red Hand, and Son of Son of Red Hand.
She pointed to the first picture. "Do you recognize where this was taken? That stone is still there, but now it has plaque on it. It's in White Town, a block from my house."
They didn't call it White Town as a racist thing. It was because back in the thirties and forties someone had relocated a bunch of houses from a dying coal town in the western part of the county to a neighborhood next to the river here, and they were all painted white. I knew the stone Carla was talking about. You could see it from the road beside the river.
"I didn't know you lived in White Town."
"Where did you think I lived?"
I was genuinely confused. "But I've walked you home. To a house a block behind the filling station."
"That's Dan's. I stay there when he's out of state."
We left the museum and walked toward the college. There was some research I should be doing, and she was heading to work.
Hamilton kept pace with us, following in lazy circles above. I wondered if people thought he was a carrion crow, marking me as he would a sick animal. I felt fine though. I felt great. Carla was beside me, though her hand had slipped from my own.
There was a man getting out of a truck outside the filling station. His face broke into a grin when he saw us approaching.
"It's Dan," she said. She laughed and waved.
Then she was gone.
I lay on the floor of the lab. Hamilton looked down on me from the half-opened window with all the benevolence of Poe's raven.
There were solutions mixed, but they were not going to get tested today. It was late in the evening, and no one else would be in.
"He was real, Hamilton. Dan exists."
The bird croaked.
"You saw the way she looked at him, right?"
The long rows of plastic cuvettes watched me mutely. The solutions inside winked beneath the lab's fluorescent bulbs. I could not remember the various concentrations I had mixed the day before.
"You found Red Hand," Hamilton finally said, as softly as the crow could manage.
I sighed. "Yeah, it was him. Clearly the same guy in every picture. An old Indian who doesn't age and keeps posing as his own son. The stuff of local legend, alright." I pulled myself into a sitting position. My stomach felt like lead. "Perfect for Mab's museum."
"Lives in the state park."
I looked up at him.
"If you knew that, why didn't you say something when Mab mentioned him the first time?"
He fluttered down to the table beside the solutions. "Didn't know it was him. But know what he looks like now, knew where I had seen him before."
"How did you know what he looked like?" Every time I moved or tried to speak, it was around a shard of ice in my chest. She had sort of melted into him, there in the parking lot beside his truck. I guess he came back early to surprise her. When she introduced us and he shook my hand, I was surprised it had not come off in his own, the way a snake's discarded skin falls to powder when you touch it. "You weren't in the barn with us."
"God of the garage told me."
"You're all in cahoots." I lay down again and passed a hand over my eyes. "If you guys can figure this all out on your own, why do you need me?"
He said nothing, and I lay like that for a long time, waiting for an answer. When I opened my eyes again, he was gone.
There was a storm that night, and a gust of wind blew my window open, though it was not the kind of window that opened like that. If the wind had been that strong it should have just shattered. But it didn't. It opened and Mab spilled in like a piece of the Blur's sky poured through an open mouth.
"There was a man who was made of crows," she said, crouched for a moment at the foot of my bed. "Every morning when he woke up he was a man again, but in the evenings he dissolved into a murder that flew off in a hundred directions and winged over the town until dawn."
The thunder was coming, but I could hear her voice clearly. She stood and ran her hands curiously over the things beside my bed -- watch, wallet, cell phone, spare change -- turning them this way and that and leaving a thin sheen of rain over everything.
"Each morning they folded their wings against the coming of the sun into the contour of a man who thought he had a name and a collection of memories. But each day it grew harder to hold them together, until he found even by daylight tiny beaks and eyes and wings opening and shutting along the backs of his legs and his hands."
I realized suddenly that the stories were her greetings. Where you or I would simply say hello to start a conversation, in order to acknowledge and begin a social exchange, Mab had to offer a story.
She was a thing of stories. They were all she had to give.
"Until one day he met a woman with bone-white skin who each night became a swamp oak that stood in the fields beyond the town. 'Find me,' she told the man made of crows, 'and you can rest on my bone-white branches.' 'How will I know where you are?' the man asked. For a moment his cheekbone wavered as a wing lifted. The woman smiled. 'I will tangle the moon in my branches,' she said."
The thing was, she never finished the stories.
I had not moved as she spoke. It was hard to move in Mab's presence. It must be a bit like what a wounded bird feels at the approach of a serpent, or someone staring out the window at an approaching funnel cloud. It was hard to breath, though when I did draw breath I smelled the strong, clean, somehow steely smell of rain. Mab was leaning over me, and the rain was still coming down off her hair in waves, spotting my chest and sheets.
"You have found Thirteen Shades and all of the gripe water and the Red Hand." She smiled, and it was a jagged line of lightning beyond the window over the trees. "I do not chose among you often, but when I do I always choose well." She was leaning closer, and in her eyes I saw no blurring at all. I saw the trees bowing in the wind and the stars through cracks in racing clouds. Her fingers were on my chest, spreading like the roots of a hungry tree. "Kiss me."
The phone on the table beside me flashed faint and blue. I reached for it, afraid of this moment, afraid of what was happening, fumbled to flip it open, and heard a tinny voice report that I had missed one call and had as many voice mails. I stabbed the menu and heard Carla's recorded message.
Mab was fading, though my sheets were still damp and cold. There was a mirror over my bureau and in that mirror another window into the backyard. It was through that second, reflected window that Mab left.
I lay shaking for a time, listening to Carla's message over and over.
The next day was cold. The storm the night before had succeeded in scrubbing autumn's crispness from the sky. The trees were getting bare.
I rode my bike up the gravel path that lay over an old railroad bed. The grade was good. It would have been quicker to drive out to the state park but in no way better. The undergrowth was bare. I rode through a child's scrawled pencil drawing, under graphite loops of brambles.
I thought about Carla's message. It had said nothing of real interest, just an outline of potential plans for the evening -- dinner at Dan's place, a movie afterward -- and an invitation to come along.
It was Platonic. It had always been Platonic.
The trail climbed a bluff over a bend in the river. There was a circle of elm and ash at its summit, surrounding a cottage. A man with painted hands was splitting wood at its corner.
"You had a guide," he said without turning . "You never would have found me if you hadn't."
It was true. Hamilton had flown ahead.
"You're the Red Hand."
"More of an ochre, really. I'm only Grandson of Grandson of Red Hand." He held up the hand that did not grip his wood-splitting ax. The paint was actually hundreds of tiny spots, like the mottling on a turtle's back, in intricate patterns. There was a large spiral on his palm and a small one on the tip of each finger. "What do you want?"
"Mab sent me to collect the pieces of her museum," I said, and then added for some reason, "The important pieces."
We talked in the scratchy shade of narrow trees. The river arched cold below. When he was done splitting wood he went into the shack and got earthen mugs and a jug of some clear liquid.
"You've got to use your head," he said. "Think this through. You've got it backwards." He sat erect on the crate he used for a chair. "You think she means like a museum you see today? Those are mausoleums, cemeteries to dead history with someone's found trinkets for headstones. You think that's what she wants, what her museum was like when the French were a rumor on the horizon?"
I thought of Carla moving among the display tables in the Stone Barn.
"I guess I hadn't thought of it." You don't think of the surreal. You watch it go by or -- in my case -- get pulled along with it.
"She wants us back out and roaming. That was what she had then -- some stones in the woods and some hills where the old wonders clustered a bit thicker."
I took a drink and coughed.
"She said it was like Dresden. Or her crow told me that. Things in the museum had been disassembled and taken away to be hidden."
I imagined paintings dissolving like sugar in water, melting away until they were invisible because there were tiny pieces of them everywhere.
Red Hand nodded slowly, his face rising and falling like a piece of granite teetering at the top of a mountain somewhere.
"Will you come if she calls you back?"
He kept nodding. "We called her Old Woman of the Wood. If she's decided it's time to come forward again, there's no arguing."
I saw Thirteen Shades keeping pace with me as I pedaled back into town. He flickered in and out of view behind the trees and at times behind the clouds as well.
When I got back I headed to campus, taking a route that avoided Carla's filling station. I wasn't interested in seeing whether Dan's truck was there.
Back in the lab -- which was again empty, since it was Saturday -- Hamilton brought a silver bowl. At least it looked silver. It might have been stainless steel. The cuvettes of solution looked like liquid pewter. I popped open the dozen or so plastic rectangular containers and poured them into the bowl. They shimmered at the bottom like quicksilver but did nothing of interest beyond that.
"All of the gripe water?" Hamilton asked from my shoulder.
"No," I said. "Not all of it."
I hung my head over the bowl and willed myself to think about Carla and what an idiot I was. It took a while, but a handful of tears came. They were as grey as the rest of the liquid, and when they fell I felt emptier and lighter.
"We don't have to."
I looked up.
Hamilton hopped down from the window. "We don't have to." He looked like he was wrestling with the words. "I could stop talking. You could go back to whatever you were doing before."
I shook my head. "There's no reason for her not to get what she wants. That's why no one argues with her. Red Hand was right. It's like arguing with a forest."
"People do that all the time." He cocked his head. "Bulldozers and subdivisions. Development."
I felt like we had shifted sides. He was the bird after all. But I had never known the forest to have a voice before, or a form that blew in my window at night. I had never met a wood that wanted to be haunted again.
There was a bonfire that night at Dan's folks' farm, and Carla wanted me to come along, said that Dan wanted me there too. When I hesitated, she offered to pick me up in her yellow Fiat 600 -- the one she had restored herself -- and I couldn't argue with that.
She was like Mab. There just didn't seem any point.
There were faces around the fire I didn't recognize and some that I did. Dan told stories about the woods around the farm that were supposed to be haunted, about the times that he and his older brothers were absolutely positive the trees were moving at night, how they had tried to mark the forest with bits of rope and scraps of paper to determine whether the trees really walked, and how in the morning their markers were always moved.
He told stories well.
I left at one point to use the bathroom in the barn, and when I got out, Carla was waiting for me.
"They don't normally stick around," she told me. "The lions wandered off into the woods. The birds flew away. Your cow creamer I let out the back door, and it got larger every step, until it was a regular milk cow wandering off down the alley and out toward the fields."
I wasn't sure why she was telling me this.
"Before, it had only ever been animals. But one day there was an art market, and an artist had done all these figurines of wood. And you were there, reading under a tree with your knees up and this resolutely bewildered expression on your face. And I couldn't just leave you there, frozen."
I felt the rough wood of the barn behind me and realized I had been backing away. She took a step closer. It was hard to see her face this far from the fire.
"I didn't even buy it, just touched it and then watched you stumble off into the crowd. But you didn't wander far. And eventually you found a place to live, found a job at the college, and found me again."
For a moment I couldn't breath.
"That's not true." I felt like Hamilton, trying to will my unwieldy tongue to form words. "I have memories. I remember moving here. I remember growing up. If you woke up a statue, it wasn't me." I forced myself to laugh. "In a sense you're right, Carla. You did bring me to life, but only in the normal way."
She didn't answer.
"I'll walk home."
I did, heading up the long dirt driveway. It was a stupid thing to do. It would probably take me a good forty-five minutes just to get back into town. But you can't have conversations like that and then go back to the fire, and you certainly can't have conversations like that and then meekly wait for a ride home.
Mab found me when I had nearly reached the highway.
"I don't want a story tonight, Mab." Her eyes were two stars low on the horizon, but I could feel her breath on my neck.
She flowed along the road from shadow to shadow, filling them with her presence and then moving on. It was hard not to watch her progress, sometimes a dance, sometimes a wavelike roll, sometimes a run, but it was also hard to see her clearly.
"Wants to comfort you," Hamilton mumbled. "Doesn't know how."
"Tell her to leave me alone, Hamilton." I thought about what Carla had said. "Tell her I'm not real."
He left my shoulder. I didn't realize what I had asked.
Lights stabbed up behind me, and Dan's pickup pulled alongside.
"Carla asked me to give you a lift."
The worst thing about Dan was that you couldn't hate him. I climbed in, and he asked about Hamilton.
"He just sort of found me. Things do."
Dan spoke easily. When it was clear I didn't have much to say, he filled the silence. He talked about the rig he had been on. Apparently you give them names, and apparently they're usually female, but Dan said this one had been called Christopher for some reason. He talked all around Carla. She was there, sitting in the center of the conversation like a hole.
Time must have passed, because my lab faded to my house and back again, and the world in between them had gone as grey as the gripe water. Hamilton disappeared. He only said one thing before he left, though I didn't realize he was leaving for good. It was something I didn't understand at the time.
"I spoke it," he said. "She will leave you alone now. Thanks for the raisins."
I hoped he found his family or whatever it was that crows had. No strange things pressed in at the seams any more.
But that wasn't quite true. Shapes began to appear in the rain. I could tell that they were Mab's people, drawn back to the curio of wonders she was reassembling. They looked in at the windows with long, drawn faces that blurred and ran with the rain. I tried to ignore them.
I did not see Carla again.
I started running in the evenings, and I got the cable hooked up again so I could have human voices tell me nothing whenever I wanted. Classes started at the university. I tutored in the chemistry lab.
Carla and Dan got married. I found a semi-legitimate reason to be out of state on the day of the wedding.
It kept raining, and the fringes of the world stayed grey. I started to believe it was normal. Then one day Red Hand came running into the lab.
"Take it." He pointed at the gripe water and tossed me a silver canteen. "Let's go."
There were a few students hunched over one of the lab benches. They stared at him with wide eyes. He was wearing jeans and a dusty leather jacket, but he still looked like he had wandered out of yesterday's basement. And there was a hatchet stuck in his belt.
The gripe water had waited, nearly forgotten, in its silver bowl on a shelf most of the semester. It tossed crystal reflections on the ceiling now. There was too much of it to fit in the canteen, but it pulled itself together and flowed into it anyway. I followed Red Hand into the corridor.
"This is Janie Wringer."
I had seen her before, in local artists' shops. She looked as old as Red Hand looked ageless, but she matched us stride for stride down the hallway.
"The gripe water's been calling all winter. Didn't you hear it?"
I shook my head and then thought of the rain.
"Is that why it's been so grey?"
Red Hand shook his head. "It's grey because Mab is gone."
I followed them until we were standing outside the science building in the half-overgrown quad between clock tower and parking lot.
"Someone used a word of power," Janie whispered.
"It was your bird," Red Hand grunted. "The crows were said to have had one. Mab may have forgotten. Or imagined they had. Or not cared. What did you tell him?"
"Your bird. He spoke it on your behalf."
"I don't remember." I paused. "I think I told him I wanted my life back, that I wanted to be left alone."
Red Hand looked at me like I was a child who had disappointed him.
"What do you care?" I glanced past the two of them, both almost wholly ciphers, to where there were solid, unyielding cars in the parking lot. Beyond that was a road clustered with lights and advertisements. "Why should I? I did whatever it was she wanted me to do. You're back, and apparently the others won't be far behind. You guys go do the things that old wonders do when they get back together."
The canteen sloshed against my thigh.
"We're Mab's hand." Red Hand held up his own. "The first five she named. What's a house of mirrors without light?"
I gritted my teeth. "You're not making sense. You said yourself that I had it backward."
Something huge shuddered into view over the horizon, and I had the impression of the uppermost reaches of a ship's rigging rising out of a cloudbank.
"Christopher 57," Janie explained. "It took him longest. He woke up in the South Sea, and he said someone had built a city on top of him whilst he slept."
"You need to bring her back."
"Why me?" I fought the urge to sit in the grass and refuse to move. "I was supposed to bring you back."
"She's like a child. And you spurned her."
"I don't know what Hamilton said to her. Maybe that we both just wanted to be left alone."
The shape swung into view again between the trees, impossibly large, with flanks of thunderheads.
"No one is alone," it rumbled. I felt the voice in my teeth. "To request solitude is to provoke exile."
How could you ask the storm and the light to leave you alone? Where would it go if you did?
I forced myself to look upward at its impossible bulk.
My garage had not changed. For the past few months I had been reluctant to go into it. Thirteen Shades joined us on the walk home, and the thing they were calling Christopher 57 waited above like a minor planet. I pushed the door ajar and looked around.
The god of the garage was waiting on top of an aluminum ladder.
"I wondered when you'd be back."
"I need to get back into the Blur," I told him.
"You were never really there, remember?" He winked at me, or at least one of the old beer bottle caps caught the light. "You never kissed her."
"She was the wrong one."
"Was she?" I always felt like he should have had a pumpkin head, but he never did. This time it was a plastic watering jug. "I'm never quite sure which way these stories will go. I thought maybe that was your exit."
"It wasn't. Can you get us there?"
He motioned to a door in the wall that had never been there. "I couldn't do this before, but what with all the old wonders out and about again." He shrugged. "Only room for one though."
It had begun to storm.
It was a long time before I found her, out there at the edge of the Blur where the legends get raggedy and start bleeding off the map. She seemed faded in those winds, and I had to yell for a long time before she turned.
"They're all here," I told her. There were clouds where her eyes should have been. "They've all come back."
I held up my hand. It was impossible to tell how many fingers there were.
"They were just names," she said sadly. "Invented things."
"Right. Your old wonders. They found me, like you said they would."
There were things that rode the wind. A fleet of them passed near us now, trailing tiny beads of lightning.
"There was a girl who wakened forms."
I nodded. "Carla."
"What did she tell you?"
I thought about the night beside the barn. "That it was Platonic. That I was an unfrozen form. Is it true?"
"We are as true as all false and solid things can be. Only those things which do not end are real. In a thousand years she may be me. She may try to gather all the things she has stirred to life."
"You need to come back," I said helplessly. "Return and do . . . whatever it is a fairy queen is supposed to do."
She was turning away again. Her face was revolving like a star, like something huge and heavy that would take a million years to circle, a million years for her eyes to swing back into view.
"Mab, I'm sorry." I wasn't sure what for, but I said it. Then I said it again.
The wind ripped the words away as soon as they were past the safety of my lips, and they fled toward the horizon. Her form was receding now as well. The clouds kept coming down from the sky and breaking between us.
I yelled again.
I had no hold on her. I had nothing to offer. I hadn't even brought her museum back together. It was like she had said, they had all found me. I wasn't an actor here. I wasn't an agent.
What did I have to give?
"Once there was a man," I began randomly. "A man who . . . was in charge of lighting all the stars every evening. They were lanterns, hanging from a boat that had been turned upside down. That had crashed a long time ago. But no one remembered, and he had to light the lanterns every night."
She paused, her bare shoulders white as distant mountains.
"And he did this for as long as he could remember. Alone each night, climbing the hull of the wrecked ship, kindling each wick with a long taper. Every morning the wicks would burn low and the Sun would rise again, and every evening he would climb the long, cold planks of the ship to light them."
The wind was moving her back toward me, but not in a straight line. She curved off to one side, or I was curving around her. Straight lines were impossible in the Blur.
"And one night when the Moon was high," I continued, grabbing at words that kept trying to scatter. It had been easier when she was turned away, but now her eyes were bright and locked on mine. "One night he noticed something he had never seen before. In the moonlight he saw that the old, wrecked ship held a figurehead. A statue, carved up at the front of the ship. The, uh . . . the prow."
It was okay. The story did not have to have an ending.
"She was beautiful, but she was ivory and cold, and the old man loved her, though he did not know how to wake her."
When they touched my own, her lips were the rain and the earth and the leaves.
We left the Blur together, though parts of it spilled out around us and into the garage, until years later people wondered why there was a bower of vines and flowers and an impossible valley behind that particular house.
The old wonders were waiting for her, and she sent them forth, commanding, back out into the world down paths that were strange and winding. Their coming, however, was not completely unexpected, nor were the changes they wrought.
In the evenings we haunt the hills together.
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