King of Crows
by Midori Snyder
The day had been hot and dusty, the sky a wide bowl of blue overhead, when Johnny Fahey walked into the canyon. His parched lips parted in surprise at the sudden sweet taste of water in the air. Along the high walls of the canyon, the wind whistled in the deepening crevasses and scattered drifts of pink sandstone. Johnny smiled and then he sighed, his exhalation a dry puff.
He’d walked much of that day and the day before, always on the lookout for the mining camp, the lonely settler, and the small towns with their weddings and wakes. Johnny Fahey had left home many years since, left the green of his own country to wander across the sun-bleached West, the dry flat roads of the plains, and the dark rugged mountains. But no matter where he traveled, stranger though he was, he was never at a loss for words, for he needed none. The music of his fiddle spoke for him, and it was welcomed wherever he went. Doors opened at its sound, a place was made by a campfire, and food and drink appeared. It was a free life, one that chased forward like the sprinkle of notes, each connected for an instant but not remaining.
In a patch of grass, Johnny sat down to rest in the shade. He leaned his back companionably against the rocks and took off his hat. The wind played through his damp blond hair and cooled his forehead. At thirty-odd years, Johnny had the face of a child with china-blue eyes and an easy smile. His cheeks had reddened beneath the sun’s glare, but the skin of his forehead, protected by his hat, was white, and no lines creased the smooth brow beneath the straight fine hair.
He took from his pack a small canteen, shaking it first to hear the splash of its contents. Not much left, came the echoing reply. He opened its lid and drained the last few sips of water. The canyon would provide more. If there was grass, there must be a spring or a stream, he reasoned, somewhere in the heart of the canyon. Johnny closed his eyes and rested, feeling his limbs sink into the yielding grass. It was peaceful after a day’s walk.
But he didn’t rest long. The wind that tugged at his hair brought with it sounds.
Johnny opened his eyes and cocked his head to the wind. There it was again—a sharp shrill call. A bark, he guessed, imagining the coyotes taking their pleasure like himself in the unexpected grass. No, he thought, uncertain now as the wind brought the sound closer. Not a bark, but the harsh cawing of crows, their raucous voices rising from the hidden basin of the canyon.
Johnny stood up and, shouldering his pack and fiddle, walked deeper into the canyon. The road twisted and turned through the high-walled corridors until at last the canyon opened into a wide grassy field. Spread across the field were crows, fanning their black wings over the grass. He stopped, awed at the sight of so many, their necks thrown back as they called to one another. The swirling flocks settled themselves uneasily, stalking through the long grass, their heads reared to catch the sunlight. And with a common cry, they shook their feathers, beaks breaking and limbs stretching until they had shaped themselves into the semblance of human form. Now standing before him were men and women striding over the green, their wings transformed into cloaks of black silk and velvet.
And among them was one who caught Johnny’s gaze. Her face was moon-white in the night sweep of her long hair. Across her forehead the black brows arched over eyes of glittering jet, and her pouting lips were stained mulberry. A black velvet ribbon fluttered at her white throat. The black cloak was draped over her rounded shoulders that perched above small breasts and a slender waist. As Johnny Fahey gazed at her, music burst in his head into a loud and joyous peal, the reels tripping over the stately waltzes, the fast jigs into the slow aires; and the more the music tumbled, the more his heart felt driven by the girl with black eyes and the moon-white skin. He had no fear of the strange assembly, for the music coursing in his veins had chased it out, and, without another thought, he walked into the green field where the crows stood arguing in the rough shouts of human speech.
“The King must name his successor!” cried a man whose dusty black cloak carried a border of gray diamonds. “Before it is too late!”
“He has a daughter!” cried out a woman, her hands curled tightly around the billowing folds of a rebellious cape.
“But she must have a mate! The law requires it. And she refuses!”
“Do you blame her?” a younger woman cackled to her companion. “Not one among them would I choose if it were up to me.”
“It isn’t up to you anyway,” the second snipped in return. “But who would you pick?”
“The one with the loudest voice, who else? To be heard over this!” the companion answered, shaking the folds of her light cape.
“Rilka has to choose among us!” came a new chorus. “She must marry! There must be a new King crowned before the end of the season.”
Johnny felt the earth tremble through his feet as he approached the court of crows. The whistled wind was hushed beneath their loud cries, and the crickets were silent between the rocks. Johnny bowed his head, the sounds of their rising arguments clashing in his ears. They did not listen to each other, but each voice shouted more loudly until they merged into a single cacophony of sound.
The crows parted at Johnny’s approach, some turning astonished faces at his unexpected presence, but never stopping in their cries. It wasn’t until Johnny stood before the girl with the white skin and the black hair that the violent arguments subsided into grumbles and then at last into an uneasy silence. The girl stared at him with curiosity, her head tilted to one side as the glittering eyes fastened on his face. A smile crooked the edges her mouth, and the arched brows drew together in a challenge.
“Who are you?” she asked, voice sharp as a scythe.
“No one as grand as you,” he answered softly.
She lifted her chin proudly, the sweep of black hair flowing over the curve of her back. Opals sparkled in her earlobes like tiny stars, and around her waist she wore a belt of turquoise and fresh water pearls.
“What are you?” she demanded, shoulders hunched and face thrust forward.
“A musician,” he said, arms resting at his sides.
The cloaks of the crows fluttered in the rising wind with a dry chaffing noise.
“Play for us,” she ordered.
“Rilka, we’ve no time for this!” a man barked. Johnny Fahey turned to the man, hearing immediately the authority in this voice. A singular voice after so much discord. The man was old, the plumage of his cloak speckled at the breast and dull and ragged along the hem. But circling his forehead was a narrow crown of silver, set with turquoise. There was still power in his carriage, the heavy body leaning over his hips, his shoulders arched back. In one hand he held a scepter made from a fresh stalk of corn that gleamed as bright as newly minted gold. Johnny had no doubt but this was the King of Crows. He looked back at the girl called Rilka, and the music in his heart stumbled as he realized that the girl with moon-white skin and black hair was the King’s daughter. No chance for you, the sad chords played, no chance this haughty creature could be charmed by the fiddle’s song.
“I want to hear it, Father,” the girl demanded, “if only to hear something other than their bickering,” and she tossed her head toward the line of men who stood glowering at the quiet figure of Johnny Fahey.
The King rolled his eyes to the blue bowl sky.
“Spoiled bitch,” came a nasty whisper followed by snickering.
“Play then!” the King roared, turning on the restless court to silence them.
Rilka lowered her face, the shadow of her hair on her cheek not quite hiding the angry blush. Johnny winced seeing how the insult cut her pride to the quick. But he took out his fiddle and tucked it under his chin. He rested the bow over the strings and waited a moment more to hear what the wind would bring him. A tune came from listening, knowing what was already playing in the hearts of those gathered. He thought he could well guess at the tunes a crow might wish — something wild, with the harsh rasps of the double-stops. Then Rilka lifted her face, and he saw in the dark eyes an unexpected yolk of longing, of gentleness.
The soft whisper of her sigh touched him, and without intending to, he lowered his fiddle again and began to sing slowly in a clear tenor voice.
I met a fairy woman
There followed a silence, filled only with the rise and hollow of the wind in the grass. Johnny Fahey heard the slow beat of his filled heart. Abruptly he put the fiddle beneath his chin again and played a reel as fast as his song had been slow. He might gain her, the notes sang, but how could he keep her? He might lose her now, but she would be forever in his thoughts. Amber rosin smoked over the strings and the white hairs of his bow broke like the strands of a clinging web. He drove the tune, as if to empty the sight of her face from his heart, and yet as he finished the last notes he looked up and her glittering eyes snared him.
“Teach me to do that!” she demanded.
Johnny gave a weary smile. “To play the fiddle?” he asked. “It’s not that easily done.”
“No, not the fiddle,” she answered shaking her head, her black hair shimmering blue in the sunlight. “Teach me to sing.”
The King, silent until now, threw back his head and roared with laughter. Around him the court followed suit, their strident cries glancing off the stones and circling the air. Rilka’s white face flamed and she turned angrily to the King, her fists clenched.
“Laugh if want, but I won’t choose a mate until I have learned to sing!” she proclaimed.
“You already sing well enough!”
“No, not like that. A sweet voice, that’s what I want.”
“No!” the King protested. “You are my daughter, a crow, and must call with a crow’s voice.”
“I’ll learn to sing, or I’ll not be married!” Rilka cried again, stamping her foot.
The King frowned, his expression sour, but his daughter crossed her arms and stood stubbornly facing him, the flaming cheeks adamant.
Johnny gave a slight smile. “I’ll teach your daughter to sing,” he said quietly. “But on one condition.”
“A waste of time,” the King said gruffly.
“I’m in no hurry,” Johnny replied.
“What’s your condition?” Rilka asked, eagerly.
“That if I succeed, I be made the King of Crows,” Johnny said, surprised by his own boldness. But how else to gain her? he thought.
The King laughed again and the court followed in a clamoring chorus. The King’s cloak snapped fitfully in the rising wind and he lunged toward Johnny. A gnarled fist grabbed Johnny around the collar of his old shirt and lifted him up on his toes. The King searched Johnny’s face, the black eyes piercing.
“You think she’s a woman. Make no mistake musician, she’s a crow. And harsh though her call, she’ll be no other thing but what she is. Your offer is foolish and has the mark of a man stupid enough to love a creature beyond his reach.”
“And still I make the offer,” Johnny said calmly, though his heart was pounding. The King slowly released his hold and Johnny felt the soles of his feet returning to the earth.
“Fair enough. You will have until the end of summer. If you succeed I will relinquish this crown to you, though I’ve no fear that this will happen. And when he fails,” the King turned to his daughter, “I’ll choose your mate, and the matter will be settled once and for all.”
Rilka opened her mouth to speak, but the King’s upraised hand commanded silence. “Think well on it, daughter. You’re a crow, the daughter of the King of Crows, and there is no musician that can alter that truth.”
“I’ll learn to sing,” Rilka said tartly.
“And then what?” the King asked. “Whom will you sing for? For us?” He opened wide his arms to the court of crows.
“I’ll sing for myself.”
“Then you’ll sing alone, my daughter,” the King replied. “But so be it, you’ll learn the hard way that you are a crow.” The King looked over his restless court and exclaimed, “I am done here.”
All around him the waiting court burst into noise, the shrill cawing and harsh scraping of their voices breaking the spell that held their forms. Their cloaks flapped wildly, lifting the dust from between the bladed grass, and in the swirling clouds, they gave themselves over to flight. Johnny held his hand over his face to protect it from the seething dust, glimpsing in the turquoise sky the black veins of their parting. And then the winds quieted, the dust was exhaled back to the earth, and the sky shone clear again. Johnny Fahey found himself alone with Rilka, daughter to the King of Crows.
“What are you called?” she demanded.
“What sort of name is that?” she asked, head cocked back as she looked up at him with her sharp eyes.
“One without shame,” he shrugged.
“And where did you learn to sing?”
Johnny smiled remembering. “It was all around me. I had only to listen. My mother —”
“— Just listen?” Rilka interrupted. “That doesn’t sound right. Surely there were people who taught you, gave you the know-how so you didn’t make a fool of yourself. That’s what my father says. You have to get the way of it from someone who knows, otherwise you’re stuck, flying in a circle with just one wing. Have you ever seen the deserts from up high? Of course you haven’t. You can’t fly. Well, I have and let me tell you— ”
And on she went, not stopping for a breath or pause, scarcely caring whether he answered her rapid questions or not. Johnny’s face turned slowly to stone, the constant rattle of her voice hammering against his ear. It amazed him, for on the one hand, as a crow she had seen a great deal of the world and was only too willing to talk and talk and talk about it. In small spoonfuls, it might have been interesting. But the words poured from her in a deluge as if all her life she had stored them up, waiting for this moment to release them.
The sun rose higher in the sky, tinting the green grass to a fallow gold, and still Rilka talked. It was only when the sun had reached the lip of the high canyon wall that Johnny stuttered to life and caught the girl by the shoulders.
“That’s enough for today’s lesson,” he blurted out, exhausted.
“But you didn’t do anything,” she said peevishly. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You did quite a bit,” Johnny said. “And now it’s time to end. Tomorrow I’ll try again.” Johnny stumbled wearily to where his pack lay and made camp for the night. Rilka watched him and he heard the flurry of angry wings as she transformed herself and flew away into the dimming sky.
That night as he lay beside his fire, listening to the sound of the dry wood sigh itself into ash, Johnny wondered how he was going to reach beyond Rilka’s chatter. She talks, he thought, because among the crows listening is not valued. She talks, he thought, because no one has ever listened to her. Until now. Did he have the patience, he wondered, to listen while she talked, while she emptied herself of all the words she needed to say before she could listen? He would have to teach her how to listen without words. He stirred the fire and in the black coals rimmed with white-hot flames saw her cheek against the black hair. He chuckled, knowing himself to be smitten, and for that, he would listen a long time. And maybe there were small things, gestures that might gentle her tongue and make her settle into quiet. Only then would she be able to hear the songs that waited inside her voice.
When he woke in the morning, Rilka was beside him, stirring up the campfire. He got up from his blanket, shyly, and she laughed at his hair that stuck out over his head like so much thistledown. He combed it with his fingers good-naturedly and offered her coffee. She nodded yes and began again to talk. She chattered on about the world, about the tops of the mountains, the sea, the stupidity of the court, even about her own beauty. The morning sun caught her face, and the white skin glowed. And in Johnny Fahey’s heart, the day began.
Johnny said not one word, but did his work. Moving slowly round her, where she sat on a stone by the fire. He mixed the dough for biscuits, he ground the coffee beans in their burlap sack between two stones and set them in a pot of water to boil. He soaked the beans and bacon in a second pot and set them over the fire. He hummed as he worked, his voice a subtle background to the constant prattle of her voice. He touched her hand from time to time, putting a cup in it, a biscuit, every gesture in the rhythm of his hummed tune. The flow of Rilka’s words broke and stumbled with the touch, but just as quick returned.
Only Johnny heard the moment her speech began to flow with the rhythm of his tune. She smiled now as she spoke, almost without realizing that his song carried her along, changed the harsh tone of her chatter into a sweeter babble. But babble it still was, and Johnny was glad when they ate, for it gave him a moment’s respite from all her talk.