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Authors: Joseph D'Lacey

Tags: #Crowman, #Black Dawn, #post-apocalyptic, #earth magic, #dark fantasy

The Book of the Crowman (9 page)

BOOK: The Book of the Crowman
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14

Denise wept for a long time when she saw what he’d done.

Gordon sat at the top of the steps to the back door again, giving her space and time. She rearranged some of the flowers he’d picked and found a few more: foxglove and comfrey among them, framing the grave with dainty touches of colour. The sky had brightened and in places the clouds seemed weak enough that they might let the sun through.

Denise came to the bottom of the steps.

“It feels a lot better knowing she has somewhere… safe to go.”

“That’s good.” He rose from the top step and came down to her. “Do you want to go back now? Spend a little more time with her?”

“No. I want you to bring her here now. I’m ready.”

Gordon thought about it for a moment.

“Have you got anything to… cover her with?”

“I’ve dressed her and she’s wrapped in her blankets. I’ve put all her stuff in a bag. I was going to see if I could find a child to give it to but I’ve changed my mind now. I want everything buried with her.”

Something must have shown on his face. He regretted his lack of inscrutability.

“Don’t worry. I’ve kept all the Crowman stuff separate. She would have wanted you to have it.”

Looking down, Gordon said:

“Thanks.”

“Can you manage everything?” she asked.

It wasn’t a serious offer and he was glad to see her reluctance. Even if she’d wanted to, he wouldn’t have let her come with him. It was a weird time, the separation immediately after death. Denise probably would have taken one look at Flora, snug in her blankets, and decided to keep her a little longer. This way was better.

“I’ll be fine. And I’ll be gentle with her, Denise. You don’t need to worry. Stay here and enjoy this light while it lasts.”

He walked away before she could change her mind.

 

Flora could not have looked more comfortable or peaceful in her place of rest.

Denise had cocooned her in blankets, swaddling her like a tiny baby. Only Flora’s cowled face met the weak rays of sun as they laid her down. Within her grotto, she was soon encased once more in shadow. Denise placed Flora’s belongings beside her and put a daisy beside her head. Gordon placed a large black crow feather on her chest.

“Do you want to say anything?” he asked Denise.

She nodded but it was a long time before she spoke. The words sounded weak and hollow at first.

“Flora… you had a short life. Not what anyone could call a good one. I often thought it might have been better if I’d… got rid of you before you were born. I wasn’t fit to be a mother. But now you’re gone, knowing I won’t see you again makes me realise how good it was, our time together. This world has got bad enough, God knows, but it’s going to be a lot darker without your little light shining. I hope you can forgive me for all the ways in which I could have been a better mum and for all the times I didn’t say I love you – the times I just thought it instead. And, wherever you’ve gone to now, I hope it’s paradise compared to the life you had. I love you, Flora, and I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

Gordon let a few moments pass.

“Do you mind if I speak?”

“It’s OK.”

He was quiet for a moment, gathering the right words, wanting to speak only truth. There had to be a way to address the earth and sky and whatever power lay beyond their physical lives. It came to him then, like a whisper:

“Great Spirit,” he began, knowing the words were correct. “We mourn the loss of our little sister, Flora, but we know her spirit has flown back to you. Grandmother, we place her body inside your body, where it belongs, where it came from. Flora, I only knew you for the shortest time but I came to love you and your fearlessness. Thank you for telling me so much about the Crowman.” Gordon paused, his mouth dry. “I… I’m sorry I didn’t…
couldn’t
help you. I tried. But I know your departure from us is a homecoming for you. May your spirit be peaceful and fulfilled until it returns to walk the earth again.”

Gordon took a few grains of dirt and sprinkled them onto Flora’s blankets. Denise knelt and did the same thing. She stayed crouched there and Gordon knew a few more silent words were spilling forth. He waited until she stood again. He caught her eye and she stepped back from the graveside.

“OK?” he asked.

“OK.”

He used the pickaxe to push the excavated earth back over Flora’s body. It was only when the earth touched her cheeks and eyelids, caught between her lips and fell into her ears without any flicker of a response, that Denise began to cry.

 

Moving Denise out of her attic and into 257 was a swift job. So quick it was like some obscene desertion. When the burial was complete, Denise had come to Gordon and rested her head on his chest. He’d held her.

“I don’t think I can be in that room without her now. The silence would drive me mad.”

“We can find you somewhere else. There’s places everywhere. It just means a little searching.”

Denise had become frantic.

“No. I need to get out of there now. I can’t go back. I can’t wait up there while you look around. I never want to see that room again.”

She’d been close to hysteria, weeping and pushing her forehead into his chest, as if to burrow away from the light.

“Hey, hey. It’s OK, Denise. I’ll get your gear down for you. You can stay here until we find you somewhere else. This place is huge.”

She was crying too hard for her words to make any sense by then, so he’d walked her to the back steps and sat her down before making the first trip to the attic. She’d already packed everything she owned into a couple of suitcases and a few cloth bags. The attic was featureless now, but for the dark stains on the bare wooden boards where Flora had passed away.

He made three trips back and forth. On the last, he pulled the ladder up into the attic and sat there in the quiet for a while. The little light coming up from below seemed not to belong there.

“I’m so sorry, Flora. I don’t know how or even
if
you could ever forgive me for what I’ve done but, like the fool I am, I still hope you will. And I hope wherever you are now, you’re happier than you were down here. I know it’s impossible to repay you but I’m going to try. Somehow, I’ll make sure your life wasn’t wasted on my stupidity.”

Gordon took a feather from his pocket, a magpie feather he’d kept for years, and placed it near the bloodstained floorboards. He leapt down through the hatch and found the pole for closing it under a pile of mouldy wallpaper in a room off the top landing. He pushed the hatchway into position and the latch caught, holding it closed. Once again, it was almost impossible to tell the trapdoor or the attic it led to existed. Gordon snapped the pole over his leg and threw the pieces into the back garden as he passed the bedroom and its broken window.

15

“See you when the work is done.”

That’s what Mr Keeper always says.

This time Megan fears the work will never end. She writes all day and late into every night. But on the seventh day, some time in the afternoon, the thread of telling ends – very suddenly and without any warning – and Megan is spent. With the story up to date, her duty is to return to Mr Keeper. But she needs to rest first; to be in her own world for a while and put a cushion of time between writing and furthering her training.

She lays down the raven quill and stands up. Her buttocks are numb from so many days of sitting. Her lower back aches with stiffness and her shoulders are hoisted high with tension. She takes a few deep breaths and performs some of the exercises she has seen Mr Keeper do to keep himself strong and limber. After a few minutes, the life begins to seep back into her muscles and the stagnation drains from her lungs. Nonetheless, her eyes are hot and strained and her right hand is hooked into a claw. She has lost count of how many times the blister on her right middle finger has filled and burst where it made contact with the shaft of the quill. She spends some time massaging the rigor from her writing hand, pressing the fingers back and the thumb open.

Through the bedroom’s tiny wind-eye she can see how winter’s touch has hardened and stiffened the land. Everything is either dying or sleeping. Even the animals are quiet. Smoke rises in straight shafts from every chimney into the still, icy air. The gathering of harvests is complete and all that remains in the ground are the overwintering crops for which her father carries the greatest responsibility. Every day, he inspects the rows of cabbages, sprouts and parsnips, making sure they’re healthy and protected from rabbits and pigeons. Those animals that come too close find themselves integral to the harvest.

Every tree is bare and bony, but for the distant pines of New Wood among which Mr Keeper lives. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, when she feels rested, she will return to him but for now she feels only two sensations: hunger and fatigue.

Amu is not in the house but there is half a wheaten loaf on the sideboard. Megan cuts it into two pieces and takes a cup of milk from the stone ewer. She sits beside the stove chewing, sipping and staring into nothingness until the food and drink are gone. Resisting a great weight, she stands again, rinses her cup and turns it upside down beside the others.

In her room she takes off her shoes but keeps all her clothes on and slips into her bed. She pulls the blankets and skins right up to her nose and turns onto her right side, curling tight.

She dreams of a girl.

 

Megan is in his world, the world of the Crowman, Gordon’s world.

She is in a cramped, dark room with a cocked ceiling. It smells of sickness and human waste. At first she thinks the room is empty but then Megan notices something moving under a pile of dirty blankets. She assumes it’s an animal until a tiny crooked hand emerges. The shock causes Megan to draw a sudden breath. From the blankets emerges a little girl, grubby and deformed by some cruel disease of the bones. Her hair is unwashed and tangled and there is dirt under her fingernails. Her face is thin, the skin stretched tight over hot, fragile bones.

The girl struggles to sit up, in obvious pain. She reaches for a pile of blank pages, takes a pencil and begins to draw. Intrigued now, Megan creeps a little closer to the girl. Despite her crippling illness, the girl has a gift. Her drawing is a simple but unmistakable reproduction of the Crowman in flight. Megan gasps and the little girl’s pencil stops moving. Megan holds her breath. The pencil begins to move again.

When the girl’s work is done, she pushes the page away and studies it. Megan studies it too. A simple yet arresting image of the Crowman swoops out of the paper. There is something so lifelike about it that he is almost more real than when Megan sees him in her visions. The girl has simplified his image though – whether deliberately or not, Megan can’t tell – and the result is iconic, so that not only is he alive in the art, he is also somehow eternal in it, a symbol of something.

The girl picks up the piece of paper and holds it out to Megan.

“I knew you were coming,” says the girl. “I made it for you.”

Astonished, Megan tries to back away quietly. The grimy, twisted little girl looks up and makes eye contact with Megan, smiling the way only a child who has suffered years of pain can smile. She has much power for one so young, if she can see a traveller in the night country.

“He said you’d visit me. And he told me what it meant.” Suddenly the girl looks like she will cry. “I’m so glad you came. It means everything is going to be alright. It means everything he’s told me is true. I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Hesitantly, Megan reaches out for the piece of paper, finding it as solid as any object she has ever touched. She brushes the graphite markings very softly feeling powdery smoothness and tiny granules under her fingertips. With perhaps less regard for the poor child sitting in front of her than she ought to have, she tears it very slightly near one corner just to be sure. It is real. She rolls the paper into a scroll and puts it inside her tunic.

Still wary of the child and repulsed by her sickness, Megan kneels down on the bare boards a safe distance away.

“I’m very grateful. It’s a beautiful drawing.”

The girl is delighted by this. Her masklike face opens into a broad grin to reveal receding gums and loose, yellowing teeth. At first bold, now she is shy.

“Thanks.”

If the room smells bad, the girl’s breath is worse. Megan detects rampant decay in her teeth and pestilence in her lungs and stomach. Living in cramped darkness can’t be doing anything to help the weakening child. What she needs is the clean air of the hills and the dawn sun in her eyes, the touch of pure flowing river water against her parchment skin. She needs to run and tumble in meadow grass and wild flowers, to hear the language of wind spoken through the leaves of trees. She will experience none of this, though, Megan is quite certain.

“You say he told you I’d visit. Who do you mean?”

The girl points at the pocket in Megan’s tunic as though she is stupid.

“Him of course. The Crowman.”

“You know him?”

The girl rolls her eyes now, with adult impatience.

“Oh, please,” she says. “He’s my best friend. He visits me all the time. More than you can say for mum’s
friends
.”

Megan looks around, suddenly nervous about being discovered in here.

“Where is your mother?”

“I don’t know. Out. Maybe with Gordon. He seems really nice. I think he’d be a proper friend.”

Megan shivers to know how close she is to the boy. The focus of her visions varies from telescopic to microscopic. Sometimes she watches all from high above, as though borne by wings. Other times she looks out through Gordon’s eyes, makes his search and keeps his vigil with him. This trip to the night country is not mere observation though; she is on his level, in his time. He could arrive here at any moment and they would come face to face.

The girl is watching her, intrigued.

“Do you know him?”

Megan smiles.

“I know him the way you know the Crowman.”

“Oh.” The girl looks disappointed, as though Gordon is someone she could keep just for herself and her mother. “He never mentioned you.”

Megan understands without even having to think about it. The girl simply loves Gordon Black. Perhaps her mother does too. Megan tries to keep her feelings for him pushed to the horizon but spending so much time in his world, watching the boy grow through failure and successive trials, makes it hard not to want something more than just watching, merely studying his life. What more she can’t say but when she isn’t in his world, she yearns for visions of him, constantly wonders how he is faring and whether or not he is safe. It has been a little like having a brother who has travelled to a far land, and waiting for his letters. A brother or perhaps something more.

This little girl is already possessive about Gordon and yet she is willing to share her best friend, the Crowman, as easily as she might pick a daisy and hand it to a stranger. Something the girl said a few moments before brings Megan back to the moment.

“You said you were frightened. Why is that?”

“The Crowman told me I was going to die. Very soon.”

Megan is aghast and unable to hide her shock. Why would anyone ever say such a thing to a child?

“It’s alright,” says the girl. “I told you. I’m not afraid any more. I’m ready.”

Megan can do nothing but shake her head. Tears well at the corners of her eyes. The little girl puts out one hot, crooked hand and places it over Megan’s.

“He told me everything would be fine if you came. He said it was a sign that I wouldn’t disappear forever into blackness. That’s what I was afraid of. He said if you visited me it was a sign that I would live again. In a strong body. In a bright day.”

Megan folds the girl very gently into her arms and rocks with her, though it is Megan who takes comfort from the contact rather than the child.

She is still rocking like this when the temperature drops and she opens her eyes to find herself in almost complete darkness. She is sitting in her own bed swaying back and forth with tears coursing down her face. Waking makes her cry even harder.

After a while, she wipes her face and blows her nose on her bedside handkerchief. She slips out of bed and lights a candle. She puts her hand into her pocket and cries out when her fingers touch a scroll of paper, the likes of which have never been made in her world, in her time.

She draws it out and unfurls it with reverence. The paper is torn in one corner and there upon it, by the flickering glow which makes his wings beat and his head turn from side to side as he flies, she sees the Crowman, as magnificent and powerful in art as he has ever been in her visions. She watches him move by candlelight for a long time, losing herself in his grace and splendour and menace.

Her head begins to nod and she places the paper on her table. To flatten it she places the drawing underneath the black book, inside its box where it rests in the soil beneath her bed. She collapses back onto the mattress. Sleep draws over her like the shadow of his wings.

 

While Denise slept, Gordon spent much of his time at the top of the back steps, enjoying the proximity and impenetrability of the wild garden. Being next to it was enough. He was surprised to find he was comfortable watching over Flora’s grave too. Perhaps it was some combination of imagination and wishful thinking but a great sense of ease and peacefulness radiated from her resting place. Far from activating his guilt, knowing she was nearby gave him a sense of continuity. It was in this place, sitting quietly, that Gordon entered a state of absence. He welcomed its arrival.

The brave sun, so strong that morning, so nearly visible through whatever combination of dust and vapour cloaked London, had lost its bid for freedom. Once again it was obscure, at best bringing gloom to what would otherwise have been darkness.

Nevertheless, some sense of power and strength had been bestowed by its brief struggle to break through; Gordon felt it in the air and in the ground. He felt it in his muscles and his resolve. He hadn’t come this far to falter and give in. As much as he had felt for Flora, hers was only one more death among the millions who had already claimed by the Black Dawn. Darkness, that of the Ward and mankind’s own hand, was still falling across the face of the Earth. The Black Dawn’s influence had not yet run its course. There would be more death. More sickness. More evil; man against man and against their mother, the land. The Crowman knew how to counter all of this and he was close now. Gordon could hear the whispered beat of his wings each time he slept, woke always to the caress of a downdraft as something resembling a black angel departed from his dreams.

In this comfortable trance, he was well aware of the presence of the Crowman and trusted him both to guide and stay his hand. There was never any doubt about his existence as a physical being, as a man. The Crowman was real but only in his dreams and daydreams was Gordon truly able to accept this. On this day of farewells Gordon was able to sit uninterrupted on his step and go very far away to that nearby place, a place where he could sit beside himself and see, really see, how things were in the world. Remembering these absences wasn’t really important, when he was there he knew this, what mattered was that he carried these times in his heart, in his very organs and bones, long after he had returned to the world and become once more a sceptic, a young man with little but fear and doubt for company on the long nights.

Today, even the sight of the earth moving in Flora’s grave was not enough to make him start. At first he thought she would rise up. She didn’t. Something was touching the bare soil. Dainty fingers. A girl’s fingers but not Flora’s. These fingers were straight and soft. Their skin was tanned and healthy. These were fingers which, though small and shapely, had worked the earth and knew it well.

The fingers smoothed the soil, caressed it. The owner of the hands appeared.

Gordon stopped breathing for a moment, afraid the sound of it would scare her away. Yet, in not breathing he risked coming out of his reverie and losing the vision of her totally. He allowed his chest to unlock and let himself relax. The girl became solid and he watched her, awestruck.

She was a ghost, for sure. Her clothes were simple and looked handmade, the fabrics rough and sturdy. She crouched by the graveside, her peasant weeds disguising her shape. Still, Gordon was able to see that she was both slim and strong; a hardy country girl a little younger than him. Her blonde hair brought light with it from wherever in history she’d lived and there was a brightness around her, an aura of dusty sunshine.

Not yet able to see her face, she was still the most beautiful creature he’d ever encountered. Gordon could feel her wholeness and goodness radiating outwards. Without speaking a word to her he knew that she was honest and trustworthy, generous and kind. Had she not been a spectre from the past – some golden age of simplicity and rural living – he would have spoken to her, pursued her. This was the young woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Other than in this vision, however, he knew he would never meet her. Nor was it likely he would ever see her again. Ghosts, and he had seen a few these last three years, must be left to their business.

Knowing all this and heartbroken over everything that would never be, he watched as the girl drew out a white lily from her tunic and placed it on the recently turned earth. Beside this she laid a magpie feather, its deep, lustrous turquoise shimmering in the warm summer light of a distant era.

What the connection between the ghost girl and Flora was, he didn’t know and trying to think about it now would be to lose this trance and this vision. But the ghost girl knew something about Flora and her passing – she had chosen to leave the same feather as Gordon had. All he could do, all he wanted to do, was watch this girl and be captivated for as long as she was willing to stay.

That turned out to be a very short time.

She appeared to make some gestures and he thought from the tiny movements of her head that she might be speaking to Flora or saying a prayer for her. When she was done, she stood up. Watching her move set fire to his groin. In his searching and travelling he’d always pushed feelings like this aside. Getting close enough to be intimate meant opening up to danger. Since his first terrified escape from the Ward, when the Palmers had nursed him back to health, his rule had always been not to let that happen. This was different, though. He was drawn to her the way a falling man is drawn to Earth.

When she turned to him, everything stopped.

No breath.

No heartbeat.

He was right, of course, her face was as beautiful as her movements and aura had suggested. She was tanned and her cheeks were touched pink, as though by a frosty morning. Her green eyes glittered in the light from that other time. Her voice was so sweet it anguished him to hear it.

“I see you, Gordon Black. You are loved by many, and more than you know.”

He wanted to answer but time had stopped. His body would not respond.

“Flora’s time had come. It was signalled by your arrival and it was right that she passed – no matter what you believe. She recognised you and she loved you. And so do I. Never forget that everything you need will come to hand in the very moment of its requirement. No matter how dark the world may seem to you, everything is as it should be and can be no other way. Keep searching, Gordon. Keep fighting and never give up. If you can do this, if all people can do this, there will always be a future.”

Surely he would suffocate now. Surely his heart would not restart.

“I see you, Gordon Black. I see you.”

The girl began to withdraw into her light and her light began to shrink. When she was gone time began again. He breathed, and his heart continued to beat – both as though nothing had happened. Gordon wept at the loss of her, as though she were the world. Where her light had been, London's gloom gathered like something intelligent, drowning the memory of her, erasing her presence in this time. The sky descended, closed in over the abandoned houses and empty streets, wrapped his head in shadows. Darker and darker until he thought the world was ending.

When he finally roused himself from his fugue, the darkness finally made sense to him. He’d been drifting for a long time. It was night.

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