King of Crows (Continued)
by Midori Snyder
And so it went throughout that day and the next and the next; Johnny saying little, only a nod, a murmured reply between the softly whistled tune to show that he heard her. He wondered that it didn’t drive him away, so much empty talk. But something in the soft pleading of her eyes, in the need to speak so much, stayed him. And gradually, he heard the torrent of words begin to exhaust itself. Passages of silence broke in, like sunlight sparkling in a cloud break at the end of a long storm. One day she sighed, folded her hands into her lap, and said nothing for a long time.
“Is it done, you are?” Johnny asked, taking out his fiddle.
Johnny smiled and put the fiddle beneath his chin. He played a sweet aire, slick as new grass and sad as the bent bough. Rilka heard it and tears gathered in her eyes. Johnny stopped playing and put away his fiddle.
“Come on, then,” he said, giving her his hand. “Walk a ways with me.”
They walked through the canyon walls, then climbed the back of the high escarpments. Along the rim of the canyon, Johnny whistled a tangled tune, and far in the distance, coyotes yipped.
“Can you hear it?” he asked her, the flow of sound touching him. A jig, he thought, to shape the barks of the coyotes.
“Hear what?” Rilka asked, puzzled.
Johnny touched her softly, a finger gently tracing the outline of her ear, inviting. “It’s there,” he whispered.
She raised her face, waiting, almost afraid. And then her eyes hardened. “I hear nothing.”
“It’ll come,” he promised, and let his hand hold her chin. Her upturned mouth was so close that he leaned in to kiss her.
She pulled her head free from his hand and bristled angrily. “But I want to sing. Make me sing!”
“Rilka,” he said softly, stepping back from her. “You will sing, but first you must hear.”
“That’s ridiculous! I’m sure I hear well enough,” she replied hotly.
“If you can hear the tune, then you can sing it.”
“Is that all there is to it?” Rilka threw back her head, her white throat to the sun, and opened her mouth to sing. But out came only the harsh cries of a crow, and the harder she tried to sweeten her voice, the louder she croaked and cawed. At last, stamping her foot in frustration, she leapt from the canyon wall, and in the open air transformed into a crow. But Johnny saw her face just before the black feathers claimed it, and it was hurt and sad.
“Well,” he muttered as she flew away, “you’ve unraveled that.” And he walked slowly down the trail to the camp.
He couldn’t bring himself to leave the canyon just yet. He’d enough food and water, and so he remained there, one eye glancing hopefully at the horizon for sight of her. Almost a month passed before Rilka returned again. She came one morning early, walking through the long grass, dew spangled on the hem of her dress. Her expression was pensive, her hands clasped together.
Johnny nodded in greeting and quietly set about making coffee. He mixed the dough for biscuits and set the beans on to boil. And when it was done, he held her hands lightly before he gave her the coffee cup and touched her on the shoulder when he handed her the biscuits. She sighed deeply and shook out her long hair.
And then she talked again, her voice hard–edged but not hurried as it once had been. She talked about the court, about her father’s wish to end his reign, and about the life that was being shaped for her among the court of crows.
Johnny heard the somber pitch of sorrow in her voice. He wanted to hold her and shelter her from whatever sadness had brought her to him now. She was proud, but her pride had bowed before defeat. There was no eagerness, no arrogance in her voice, and she sat hunched, arms folded over her chest.
“I am to be married,” she declared at last. “For I sing like a crow and will never be anything other. Or at least my father has told me. I don’t like the mate he has chosen, but he has a strong voice and will be heard over the racket of the others,” she added bitterly.
Johnny trembled as he took her hands between his, rosin leaving a pale gold dust on her palms. “No,” he said, “no, give it more time. Give yourself another chance yet. At least until the end of summer.”
She gazed sharply at him. “It would be a waste of time. I learned that on the cliffs.”
“No that isn’t true. Listen to me, Rilka.”
She stiffened, pulling her hands free of his grasp. “No. I couldn’t hear it then, and I won’t hear it now,” she said angrily.
She started to stand but Johnny held her by the shoulders and kissed her on the mouth.
On his tongue her soft lips tasted of elderberries, and her cheek smelled of sage. At first Rilka didn’t move, startled Johnny thought, as was he, by his boldness. And then she leaned into the kiss, her face tilted up to meet him. Her hands circled his neck and Johnny felt her cool fingers lace through his hair. He embraced her, pulling her body close to his chest, to hear the rapid beating of her heart and the soft murmured sighs of her throat. It was a long kiss, and when they broke apart, there were no words to match its fire. He stroked her cheek, his eyes never leaving her face. She held him by the waist, and smiled.
They stayed together that day, wandering through the canyon and marking the slow passage of the sun. In the night Rilka lay beside Johnny, and in the moonlight, the length of her bare skin blazed like a comet beneath the black velvet cloak. He called her name over and over and it carried a tune all its own. She answered and the words breathed from her mouth into his and back again until it was all one song. And late in the night, when both grew weary, Johnny laid his head against the pillow of her white breast and slept, hearing the wind shiver through the long grass.
He woke in the morning to find himself alone. He sat up, confused, not knowing when she had left him. He walked through the grass, following the trail of dew-damp footprints until they disappeared abruptly. He searched the pale morning sky and knew, by the utter silence, that she was gone.
He stayed another week, stubbornly refusing to believe that she had returned to the court of crows. But the wind shifted, growing colder, and he felt the summer come to a close. If he remained much longer in the canyon, hoping against hope to see her again, he would be trapped when the winter came with its blinding snowstorms. Reluctantly he packed his dwindling food supplies. He filled his canteen at the spring, and with slow, heavy steps he left the canyon.
On the following day the court of crows returned. They flapped their wide black wings in the air, descending into the grass with their shrill caws. Once transformed into human form, they continued bickering, tugging at wedding gifts and challenging each other for the right to stand beside the bride and groom.
The groom preened himself, stopping now and again to crack out orders to his attending men. He was tall and stood erect, his inky hair slicked down over his proud head. He shook out his cloak, straightened the fine embroidered vest and glanced occasionally where his bride stood, silent among the noisy throng. He frowned at her, wishing she’d more to say for herself.
Rilka looked around in the canyon. She had not thought to see any signs of Johnny Fahey, and yet his absence pained her terribly. She knew how much she had silently hoped for another sight of him. Her arms felt heavy at her sides, her hands empty. She raised her hands, looking at her palms, seeing again the faint dust of rosin from his touch. And then she remembered with a smile that he was always putting a cup into them, or a biscuit. Always giving something of himself to her without a word. And she heard in her ear like the sudden lilt of the thrush the constant tune he had hummed. She shook her head, the black veil rustling, and this she heard as music. He had taught her to listen, not by words, but in his deeds and touch. Her constant chatter had deafened her to his message and she had fled, humiliated by her own ugly voice. She had blamed him for her failure until that last day when she had come to see him once more. In a single day he had surrendered everything of himself to her, his body, his love, even the music. But she had held back, fearing the ugliness of her crow’s voice. It was her vanity that made her leave him in the morning and not return.
Her serving women crackled and groused, pulling her dress into place, lowering the black veil and smoothing the train behind her. But all Rilka could hear now was the sorrow in her heart. Her vanity had cost her Johnny Fahey’s love; it had made her deaf to the music. And now she would marry a man like herself: a crow, sharp-tongued and loud. Through the burn of tears, she recalled Johnny’s smile and she touched her lips through the veil remembering the soft fullness of his mouth, the breath that even as he kissed her carried a tune. And as Rilka swallowed, her throat was filled with the thick sweet taste of wild honey.
“Wait,” she cried to the assembled court.
“For what?” demanded the groom.
“I will sing,” she said softly.
“Rilka, enough of your foolishness,” the King of Crows declared. But already summer had aged him, and his voice was subdued.
“I will sing, Father, and we will see who is the King of Crows.”
Rilka lifted her veil and brushed it back from her face. She gazed up into the sky, blue as Johnny’s eyes and started to sing. She knew at once the words and the tune; it was his song. He had sung it often to her when they had sat together by the fire or walked along the rim of the canyon, though she had scarce heard through her chatter. Now it was in her ear as clear and insistent as the sweet piping of finches.
Her voice rose in her chest and traveled the length of her honey–coated throat until it issued forth beyond her lips. Not a crow’s voice at all, but a low hollow sound, sad and haunting as she continued to sing. The long black veil faded into a fine ivory lace and the black wedding dress softened into a pale smoky silk. Rilka let the song change her, bleed the color from her shining black hair and her jet black eyes until her cloak was a soft gray and her eyes red with weeping.
And before the astonished court she shuddered out of her human form and took the air as a dove. She flew over the high walls of the canyon, and her mournful cry was carried aloft by the wind.
The court of crows disbanded, for according to the King’s own bargain, Johnny Fahey was the rightful King of Crows and he could not be found. The crows searched, but every time they met, they scrabbled and fought, and news that might have aided their search was dropped like useless scraps.
Johnny Fahey had made his way through the mountains until he had come to a small farmhouse nestled in a grove of cedar trees. There he met a woman with hair the color of wheat and an easy grace. He married her, and the children came, one, two and three. He played the fiddle for the weddings and the wakes, and in the winter months he played for his family.
But always in the spring, when the birds returned to the cedar grove, Johnny Fahey would find himself alone late at night standing on the porch of his house. His wife and children asleep, he would listen to the sad song of a mourning dove hidden among the fragrant trees, and without knowing why, he would lower his head and the tears would come.
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