Copyright 2000 by Madison Smartt Bell; this story first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Harper's Magazine.
Small Blue Thing
Madison Smartt Bell
First of all, it wasn't a raven. I am not a raven, thanks a lot. Thank you. No applause, please. They always get it wrong. A raven, an actual raven with a five-foot wing spread and a beak like a samurai sword, probably wouldn't have even fit in the freaking house. I am a crow, thanks very much, an American Common Crow, corvus brachyrhyncos, harsh call and a ragged shadow on the lawn.
"Poetic license" is what they call it. When they get it wrong.
Ungainly fowl, he called me. Stately raven? Might have been flattering if he'd got the right species. Then, fiend, devil, thing of evil, etcetera, etcetera. Ebony bird-- I could live with that.
House not big enough to swing a cat, much less accommodate a raven. I suppose you might have walled up a cat in there somewhere. One of his fancies: walled-up cats. Lord have mercy on my poor soul, he said at the end, and, some time before or after, the best thing a friend could do for me is blow out my brains with a pistol. Do I have that right? He also kept asking for someone named Reynolds which was wrong too because the only person he knew named Reynolds was not going to be any help to him then or there, not that anybody else was either.
Why did I come to them, the first time? To that house, that place. Far below the spiral of warm air on which I soared, there was a glint, a sparkle: sunlight riding a crack in a window
pane. He lied about the weather too. It wasn't even night.
Poetry. Try cutting your tongue up the middle with a pair of rusty dull sewing scissors-- I'll give you poetry. Think I'm kidding, do you? Think it's a joke?
We're not buzzards, by the way. Not stinking baldheaded wrinkle-necked puking vultures. We're crows. On the other hand, we do take notice of distress. We do.
Also, Nevermore, I never said it. The first word out of my mouth was a simple "Hello." Not fantastically original, I grant you. That bird-trapper, him with the rusty sewing snips, was not the literary type. He didn't teach me any brilliant conversation. So it was just hello
just to fill up the dead air and create a distraction while I sidled nearer to the big round shiny thing on the mantel: that cloudy pearl with its curved reflection.
My greeting wasn't getting it for the poet though. The simple O sound didn't do it for him. It had to be ore, preferably with a few other syllables draped over the front. This was the guy, remember, who declared in one of his lengthy disquisitions that the most beautiful phrase in the English language was cellar door. Nutbag, you say? You wouldn't be the first to think so.
But here he comes, first flapping the same quill pen he'd been writing with, then a moldy old feather duster he dragged up from somewhere behind his table. Here he was, the ambitious or formerly ambitious writer, enacting a bunch of stupid feather puns. Can feathers cast out feathers? ...whatever. Of course he didn't expect me to know. I was an animal to him! He thought I was going to crap on his parchment or something, him with the inkstains all over his fingers, and on the cuff of his shirt too, where he'd unconsciously dragged it through his blots and cross-outs. Never get those stains out, never. It looked like an expensive shirt, too.
The cat, meanwhile, was scrunched up in a corner with its eyes bugged out and its fur all sticking up on end. They did have a cat even though there wasn't room to swing it. It was black too, but the adorable little white socks it had on kept it from looking as scary as it probably would have liked. I mean, come on, gimme a break, so you don't see a crow in the house every day, so? Let's wall your skinny ass up somewhere and then see what you have to say.
The poet is flailing the duster around in a way that obscures my objective. The window is open-- why won't the crow fly out? It was hard to fly in such a small space without knocking a whole lot of stuff over (ungainly fowl, indeed-- let's see you try and do better) so I adopted a pose on top of a lamp and tried to change the subject.
Feed me meat, I said. Then, in case he wasn't listening, with the big commotion and all, I said it again. Feed me meat.
See, that guy the birdnapper, Mister Scissorhands-- I had to expand beyond his vocabulary in the end. It was my ticket out of there. The birdnapper sold my tailfeathers to some early captain of industry who intended me as a gift for his wife. Company for her was the idea I guess, since (as I learned during my transportation, in various hotel rooms and even a time or two on the train) this early capitalist porker expended most of his own social grace on other women: sluts and whores normally, not to put too fine a point on it. Wifey kept me in a cage about big enough for a parakeet, and during her lonely evenings she'd try to chat me up. All this a long time before TV, remember, or even the radio. She didn't read much either, because she was a moron. Well, I thought of some other stuff to say, even if it was really just only quotations of things I had recently happened to hear, such as **** me! Oh, **** me harder, Horatio! (this was the capitalist porker's name) **** me in my **** right now! Oh, Horatio, your **** is so big! (Horatio had been paying for this dialogue, naturally). These quotations of mine worked a little too well-- nearly got my neck wrung for my trouble. Luckily Mrs Horatio Capitalist-Porker was squeamish. Didn't want to touch the nasty crow. So she heaved it out the window, cage and all. Good job for me the door popped open when it hit the pavement.
Feed me meat, I said. Not the worst thing in my repertoire, you see? Besides, I meant it; I was hungry.
The poet has lowered his feather duster, thank God. He's standing there huffing and sweating from that little amount of exertion. He was never really in very good shape. Eyes bugging out at me big as the cat's. That's right, buddy, the crow is talking. Pinch yourself; it isn't a dream. The crow is talking. Feed me meat.
You looked at him, you saw the longing. I put my head on one side, then the other. Left eye, right eye, left. Dark hollows painted around his eyes. The mouth rather small, reddish, pursed; some might have called it weak. His hair too long and disheveled, pasted this way and that over his spiraling baldness by the cold unhealthy sweat. The little dandy's mustache had been left ungroomed for a long time. But there was a trace of the dandy about him still, gone seedy like the mustache and the shirt. His skin was delicate, pale, translucent. Blue vein beating there on his temple, still another beating in the hollow of his throat. Next to nothing between his blood and the open air! Everything got through to him. He was curious as a child, wanted to know everything. What would it be like to fly?
Then what do you know he went and got me some. Meat, that is. I mean, this was a sympathetic individual if you once got his attention. I felt like I sort of saw the idea form in his mind so I went hopping along after him when he left the room. The cat was still slinking around the baseboards, not getting any too near. Don't even think about it, cat. I clacked my beak, hopping over the threshold. Crows aren't anywhere near the size of ravens, but get close enough to me and I'm bigger than you think.
In the kitchen my man is uncovering the slop pail and what have we got here? Item with a fine high odor, lustrous with slime. A slice of beef, would be my guess, which through the operation of time and neglect had evolved into a choice piece of carrion. Not that they could afford that sort of waste around this joint. They couldn't. But the lady of the house, through no fault of her own, had sort of been letting the housekeeping slide.
Lunch! I chowed on the thing. I'd flown a long way, it seemed all of a sudden. The cat was winding through the table legs the whole time I ate, pink nose wrinkled in feigned disgust, making like it didn't want a bite.
There was some tearing to be done. Got to work if you want to eat. I kept the meat pinned down with a claw (not that it was going anywhere) and tore strips out of it with my beak. There was commotion at the kitchen door. I was concentrating so I hardly noticed. Meat, you know. But a bustle, a gasp, whirl of shawl, sickroom smell, cough, crumple, Darling, you mustn't exert yourself, etcetera. He seemed to be guiding her out of the room. Leaving me alone with my meat, and the cat watching with its witch-green eyes. When I was full was when the meat was gone. Then it occurred to me that maybe now there was nothing between me and my goal.
Another thing, there wasn't any pallid bust of Pallas. There wasn't any bust at all. What he had on the mantel was a crystal ball. Like for a wizard or a fortune-teller, some gypsy con. I don't know what he was doing with the thing. Nobody in the house ever seemed to play with it. It sat above the fireplace and sucked up everything it could. All the room and its furnishings warped away in its curved reflection, and the window where I'd entered. Where he let me in.
It had been a cloud-blown day, damp, windy and warm. Darkness of the window pane when I landed on the sill. When the cloud passed from the sun the crack on the glass began to glitter once again. I saw the crow floating in the glass, glossy-winged strong black devil. Okay, I pecked a time or two. There's your famous tap-tap-tapping. But look-- we don't actually think there's another crow behind the mirror! We're not stupid. When you fight your reflection, you know it's yourself you're fighting... that's the point.
That was when I saw him first, swimming up from the darkness of the pane. His face was inside my reflection. The shining of his eye matched mine. And through this pairing, somehow too, the shining of the crystal ball.
I don't really know why he opened the window. Maybe he thought I was going to break it. One of the panes was already cracked. He'd scrunched his writing table up against the inside sill to get the best of the daylight he could. It was a crooked little house, and poorly angled for natural light, but they had to scrimp on candles and lamp oil and things like that.
Besides, like I said, he was curious.
He used to play with logic like a rubber band. The Gold Bug, Eureka, all that stuff. The horrors came from somewhere else, floating upward from the dark depths of the crystal. He was thin-skinned; everything got through to him. There was that goofy story that pasted the logic to the horror. A guy is looking out his window and sees a gruesome arachnid monster laying waste to the surroundings, how absolutely utterly awful, etc. Turns out it's only a spider about the size of a dandruff flake, suspended on its invisible thread a half-inch from his eye.
All a matter of perspective, don't you see?
There was the crow in the crystal ball. I never considered pecking that. It was too beautiful. If only it had been the size of a marble I could have carried it off and hidden it somewhere. If I gaped toward it my craw slid over the surface stretching wide enough to swallow it altogether. But that was illusion. I hopped backward, turned my head from one side to the other. Right eye, left eye, each eye expanding on the globe to cover it completely. I took another hop, sideways on the mantel. The whole room swam inside the crystal, and everything in it. That cat, composed below the fireplace with its four white booties neatly together, looking up at me harmlessly enough, the picture of innocence, yeah, right. The poet struggling with the poker, trying to coax a little warmth from the miserable tiny coal grate. In the background which was more or less the center of the crystal was that one, the little girl, expiring on a divan. Not dead yet. I saw her raise against the cushion, the movement swimming in the crystal. With her fingers she curbed the edges of her mouth. It was unsettling to me somehow. I turned from her reflection to face her.
You always thought of her as a little girl even though she was twenty-four by that time, and a married woman. But she'd been eleven when they met, sixteen when they married. Little Virginia Clemm-- not the euphonious sort of name he liked. Clemm, come on, get outa here. Call her Ligeia, or Annabel Lee. Something sibilant and whispering.
Consumption, that was her situation. She still went creeping around the house at times. She'd leave her couch and wander, as she'd done this day. But she was already a goner by then. Her round little face turned all cadaverous, turned discreetly aside to catch the proceeds of a wet cough in her lace-edged blood-clotted handerchief. There's your lost Lenore if you like. She was dead meat.
I never perched upon a bust of Pallas. I didn't perch on the crystal ball either. Too hard and slick for claws to get a purchase. And if they had, they would have scratched it. I didn't want that.
I perched on the mantelpiece beside it, shuffled my feathers and faced the room. There was fear in her face as she looked up at me. Recoil. Harbinger of her death she was thinking. Her husband's mad fantasies leaking through. Grim, ungainly, ghastly gaunt and ominous bird of yore, etcetera. She had reason to be frightened, poor small thing, though not of me. I'm racking my brains for something reassuring to say to her. Something decent, if it comes to that. Feed me meat seemed a little risqué. The tongue slit hadn't really made me more articulate. Most all of my phrases came from sailors and whores. Hell's Bells was mildest thing I could think of. Or Ring my bells! but in a way that was worse.
Bells, I said. Bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells.
When she took her fingers down there was a smile. Dab of blood at the corner of it but still a smile. The crow talks. The crow is talking, what a novelty, Bells, it says. The poet straightened from the coal grate, the poker balanced in his fingers light as air. You could see in his face he didn't quite trust it. He was going to get this moment. Smile and never mind the blood, the bloody fingertips. A small orb of warmth swelled into the room. Just for this moment everything would be okay.
It's a crock about how I loomed over him for all eternity, my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted-- nevermore! and blah blah blah. I didn't stay forever and aye. Not perched on this nonexistent bust of Pallas nor anywhere else. There was the cat, for one thing. (It had a name but I wouldn't acknowledge it.) I'd have been a match for the thing in a fair fight, and it knew as much. But hey, you got to sleep some time. It was hard to relax with the cat's witch eyes all over me me. And the house was too low and cramped for me to find a really secure perch.
So I used to come and go. With weeks between and sometimes months. We've got migration to consider, after all. But whenever I lit on the sill they'd let me in and sometimes they would feed me. A place they let you in and feed you meat-- now that's worth something.
I swear she lit up to see me return, the poor small thing. Like I was the first freaking robin of spring.... It proved that something kept on happening. Another day come and she wasn't dead yet.
It took her years and years to die, and she had little rallies. Evenings she'd come down and play the little spinet backed into the wall, opposite his writing desk. Him and her mother and me and the cat all sitting up polite like we were in church, attending her frail melodies. They never lasted long.
Such a bad rap he got later on for those relationships. Like he was a kid-fiddler, and a fiddled kid too, and I don't know what else. Think about it, sixteen was not so young to marry in those days, and raising your bride from a bulb, so to speak, wasn't all that unusual either. As for the mother, old lady Clemm, so, so what? He got along better with her than you're expected to get on with your mother-in-law, and that's it. She was a kindly old stick when you once got used to the fact that she looked like one of the witches out of Macbeth, once you understood that the flat line of her toothless mouth was meant to be a smile. I admit it, I used to sit on her finger sometimes. She liked it. She would feed me meat.
Just the three of them trying to make a nest was all it was, with some warmth and softness and some shiny things scattered here and there. You take what you're given and that's what he got. After all the guy was an orphan himself. I'd sit on the old lady's finger and see it her way. Later on people tried to make out it was some kind of child molestation, but really they were like two children clinging to each other and the cold night pooling all around.
He used to sing to her sometimes. I mean he would also read her his poems and essays and stories, though not the most horrible scary ones, but that was when she was lucid, and strong enough to sit up. When she was sick and off her head he would hold her and sing old lullabies, when you wake you shall have all the pretty little horses and so on. God love him, his singing voice was worse than mine. The girl was delirious, it was nothing to her, but the cat would slink off into the alley, while old lady Clemm lurked in the kitchen, fingers practically stuck in her ears. Maybe not so much against the racket as... well, it was distressing. They were in a bad way.
Now what's the other verse to that one, dumda dumda dum and (can't remember the first line quite but it involves a calf I think and)
...way down yonder in the meadow
Buzzards and flies, pecking out its eyes
Poor little thing cries Mammy......
I mean, quite a choice for your invalid moribund spouse, or for anybody else if you think about it; imagine singing that to some kid or whatever, into the cradle you're rocking. He must have picked that one up down in Virginia. This was still slavery time, don't forget, so some of the songs the Mammies sang were kind of grim.
Eyeballs now, take eyeballs for a minute. The eye of a dying creature is like cloud swimming over the crystal, dull milkiness, occlusion. Makes me hungry, sort of, just to say that. We eat eyeballs. Yes, we do.
Green cat's eyeball on a stick? Thank you, why yes, I will have another. They're good! Besides, you gotta eat.
But joking aside, it's hard to talk about it. The blind calf, yawing with its bloody sockets, is not an edifying spectacle. It's just a need we feed on.
In the crystal when the room was empty, flowed the warped crow figure and beyond: the vacant writing desk, the spinet with its empty bench, and above, her tintype portrait hanging on the wall.
Funny but he'd seem to know when I was leaving. He'd look at me with a sort of envy then. If only he could just shrug on a pair of wings and fly away from that whole death trap till it shrank away to a little tight ball, a marble, a dot, then nothing. With all the crazy stuff he wrote sometimes I think that was the worst he ever thought.
I mean, the poor guy -- it was never anything weird or perverted. If not for all the stories he wrote probably no one would have thought so. The guy was into dead stuff, face it! It doesn't mean he loved her any less. Probably he'd seen the future. There's nothing in a crystal ball. No magic. It's empty. Because it's empty, you sit there and you look at it and the thing you're looking for appears in your own mind.
I wanted to fly like a mimosa leaf, one time. Stooping, flirting, drifting down. It was so beautiful even though it didn't really shine. That sadness in the papery dulling of its gold. I tried to follow it, accompany it, imitate its movement. But I couldn't. It's just not a feasible way for a crow to fly.
We all have our little frustrations. I used to see that leaf in the crystal, or just at the back of my own eye. Feathering down to land on water silky smooth as oil. Dark tarn of Usher. The yellow fan-shape floating on that tide.
He'd have liked to fly off the handle too. That would have been another way out, go stark raving screaming mad like a hero of one of his grislier stories. But in reality the guy was pretty sane. He stayed that way. He just stood there and took it. Even the drinking and drugging was greatly exaggerated later on. Mostly it was just medicinal use. Of course at the end after she was dead and buried and he was sick himself and in great pain, he needed a lot of medicine.
Bells, I told her. Sometimes when the bells are ringing, I fly so high I can hardly stand it. Till the orb of the world shrinks away from me to the size of a blue-green marble. A dot, then nothing. And still I feel its bright eye watching me, in the night of the universe so black I couldn't pick out the shape of my own wing against it. The lonely distant glittering stars. Nothing but darkness and the darkness is me.
Keeping time time time in a sort of Runic rhyme to the pæan of the bells of the bells keeping time time time in a sort of Runic rhyme to the throbbing of the bells of the bells bells bells to the sobbing of the bells as he knells knells knells in a happy Runic rhyme to the rolling of the bells of the bells bells bells to the tolling of the bells of the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells -- ah Christ won't somebody make it stop?
I still fly over the place sometimes. It's the projects now, West Baltimore slums. All crack dealers and whores in spandex. Everything's right out there on the street. They lost something when they let go the whalebone and lace. Long fancy opium pipes and hookahs like he sometimes smoked. Something, certainly, has been lost.
How long do crows live? Take a good look at me and figure it out. We live as long as we're given to. In the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation. The horror and the logic both come out in the same place. I live, I live on, I am still flying.