A Dark Sage

Art: Arthur Rackham (1919)
Art: Arthur Rackham (1919)

In this dreamlike, eerie and allusive little tale, a boy's mother "disappears into the sky," carried off by owls, and a visitation of crows heralds a dark new presence in his life.

The boy follows a wake of crows; their shadows cast by moonlight are reflections in dark glass. 

His mother has disappeared into the sky, carried away by a parliament of owls. Now the boy is alone except for the crows, but they offer no comfort other than their knowledge of his way home. 

He doesn’t know why he knows that’s where they are taking him. He simply trusts that it is so.

He is too stunned to think much about it. He was walking with his mother, the most beautiful woman in the village, maybe the whole country, perhaps the world, a woman of light and softness and warmth. They were deep in the woods, further than he’d ever been before. It was a windless night, yet leaves shimmered and trembled and trees swayed as if in the breeze, or to music. Birds woke and broke into song, deer trailed behind them, arboreal animals, eyes bright in wonder, watched them from the trees. 

His mother was naked, her long hair swinging like a pendulum across her back and shoulders. She held his hand and it was warm and he felt no fear because she was with him. 

The next moment, as if descended from stars, there was a rush of snowy white feathers. His mother was lifted in a pearly mist of feathers and starlight, radiant and opalescent, and vanished into the sky. 

He was deep in the woods, deeper than he’d ever been. It was night. He was alone. He was lost.

Now come the crows. They drop low from the sky. Hundreds of them. Not raucous and harsh as a crows often are, but silent and shadowlike, their wings a soft, soothing whisper. They fly in formation, forming a darker arrow against darkness, only feet above the boy’s head, arching and swerving along the windy path, slow and dreamy so the boy can keep pace. 

When he arrives home, the crows depart. Silent, they twist into a funnel like a feathered tornado, ascending wider and wider in an expanding circle until they disappear. 

Two remain, roost in a branch in front of the house, their eyes glittering and intense, they watch like sentinels at the gates of a keep. 

The boy feels a hollowness as empty and lonely as famine. He sits at the kitchen table. Early morning light floods into windows. He listens to water drip from the faucet in the sink. 

In a daze, he hears a tap-tap-tapping at the door. A nosy neighbor? The police complaining about his mother causing more distraction and disharmony in the community? 

She has history with the police. People are enchanted to damage and sometimes death by her beauty, her warmth and her light. 

He rises, a weary dream of indifference, answers the door: There is no one. 

He looks up and down the street. Empty and still. Too early for people to begin their daily routines. Too early for children to ride their bikes or walk to school.

He looks up to the trees. The two crows still stand sentry, observe him with dispassionate eyes.

The boy returns to the kitchen. Twists the tap at the sink. Halts the annoying drip. Again the tap-tap-tapping at the door. 

He ignores it. Sits at the table, covers his ears, but he can’t block the tapping at the door, which becomes louder, more insistent. 

Tap tap tap. Tap tappity tap.

He rises. Clenches his fist. Walks to the door. Rips it open. 

Nothing. Then — the crows caw and screech. Eyes twinkling. Laughing. He searches the veranda for a stone, a bottle, anything to throw. A crow takes wing; the other, still and silent, fixes him with cold eyes, challenges him. 

He takes a tired breath, looks up and down the street.

And there, perhaps a block away, a woman, old but not ancient, dressed in black flowing layers, draws nearer. 

The crow flies before her. She pulls a cart behind her without effort. The crow perches in the branch next to its mate. The woman stops at his gate. Six eyes stare at him.

Do you want something? the boy asks.

Yes, says the old woman. I want a boy with manners. Invite me in, she demands. 

And he does. He is overcome. After all, who wouldn’t be? It’s been a tough night. His mother has disappeared into the sky. He was left alone deep in the woods. Has no one to turn to and he’s barely twelve years old.

The woman, dressed in black and friend of crows, somehow seems trustworthy and nonthreatening.

She opens the gate, enters, the cart follows. She looks up at him. Smiles.

I’m alone, he says. My mother disappeared in the sky. I’m not certain what to do. 

He doesn’t cry. Not because he doesn’t believe in crying. Not because the situation doesn’t warrant tears — but because the woman is a stranger and tears are for those who are close.

The woman takes a square box from her cart, places it on the ground beneath the tree. Snaps her fingers. There’s a buzz-buzz-buzzing. Bees emerge, forage among the flowers. She nods towards the tree. The two crows respond with caws and take wing. 

There, she says. A gift from your mother. Now you know. You’re never really alone.

What’s your name? he asks. Why are you here?

Call me Grannie, she says. I don’t mind. Don’t worry, she cackles, I will enchant no one with my beauty and I’m here because your mother is not. There are two sides to a coin. I’m the other. She was a wisdom of light. I’m a wisdom of dark. I’m here to mind you. Mentor you. Provide the other half.

The boy is confused. After all, who wouldn’t be? His face shows it.

 The woman smiles and her laughter is joined by the crows.

When some things end, others begin, she says, making her way towards the house. Now. Be a good lad and invite me in. 

Alpheus Williams lives and writes in a small Australian coastal village with his wonderful wife and their border collie. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail Winners Anthology, Barren Magazine, Storgy, The Write Launch, Phantom Drift, The Fabulist Magazine, et al. Twitter: @AlphWilliams

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