Fiction: “The Crow of Nine-World”

For this week’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenge, which involved starting a story using a title selected from a list of randomly-generated options. I went with “The Crow of Nine-World”, because coming up with something that “Nine-World” could seemed like an interesting problem to be solved.

“The Crow of Nine-World”

The sandpiper was only from One-World, but he had enough questions to fill up all the nine worlds and more.

There were nine worlds exactly, for birds have no need for numbers more than nine, which is the number of talons on both feet plus one, which is a vast quantity of worms or eggs or crusts of bread. The One-World, where the sandpiper had hatched and grown to the fullness of life, was the world of sands and shorelines, and it was warm and bright in the summer and cool and gray in the winter, and the sandpiper loved it.

But he thought he might also love to live in the Two-World where the wind played in the soft tall grasses, or higher yet in the Five-World where other birds built their nests in the waiting branches of gentle young trees. He did not dare to aspire to the Six-World, that of the tallest and wisest trees, nor yet to the Nine-World high up on the mountain. But he wondered: why must the birds be divided so, from shore to grassland to the great heights of the mountaintops?

And he wondered too why the sun sank always into nearly the same place in the ocean while the moon and stars wandered across the sky, and he wondered too where the secret tunnel under the water was that the sun could slip under the land to roll up into the sky come each dawn. And he wondered why the cat shredded birds into feathers and ligament, why the fox must make his meal of a bird’s lifeblood, why the man should wish to shoot a bird down from the sky and not even watch to see where it fell.

The others of the One-World, the pipers and plovers and tall wading birds, they did not know the answers to his questions. And so the sandpiper wondered if he might ask the crow of Nine-World, he who sat atop the highest peaks, and who saw all the world from the dawn’s first light to pink-fingered dusk, if such a bird held the answers he sought. And a question of this kind could not be answered with wondering, but only with doing, and so one summer night when the stars hung low and bright over the beach, the sandpiper flicked up his wings and took flight.

He flew over the Two-World, though the wind in the grass sang sweetly and the red-winged blackbirds trilled so merrily in answer. And he flew over the Three-World, where the robins and catbirds tucked their nests snugly into the warm embrace of bush and shrub. He stopped beside the Four-World, by the still waters of a pond fed generously by a sweet-watered stream, for the familiar whisper of water on shore comforted him even as the differences chilled him: the too-close roof of overlapping tree branches, the smallness of it all. But the birdfolk of the Four-World, the ducks and herons, they spoke kindly to him and welcomed him as much as the soft voice of the water did (though their accent fell strange on his ears).

The folk of the Four-World knew no more of the answers to the sandpiper’s questions than his kin in the One-World did. “We’ve often wondered the same,” they said sadly, and a little wistfully. But when he told them he wished to visit the Nine-World and ask the crow who lived there, they bobbed their heads and flicked their wings in encouragement. The crow was wise, they said, and this buoyed him up during his rest there in the Four-World. But when the morning pushed its way through the tree-tops and the sandpiper took wing once more, he wondered a new question: if the crow of Nine-World was so wise, why had none of the Four-World folk ever gone themselves to ask him their questions?

The Five-World full of young green trees and the Six-World with their older, shrewder cousins coasted by, so far below that the sandpiper’s wings left no shadow on their leaves. He flew quickly past the Seven-World where braver birds build their homes in the structures of mankind, and up into the Eight-World itself. No bird lives in the Eight-World, the very skies themselves, but it is their privilege to visit from time to time, and the sandpiper tipped his wings in greeting to a flock of starlings that swirled through the air on the back of the wind.

And then the Nine-World loomed up before him. Wondering fell away, and there was nothing left in the sandpiper but determination.

The crow was not hard to find. His kind never are, when they are being sought. The sandpiper landed some yards back from him and approached slowly, his wings spread wind behind him in deference. “Nine-World Crow,” he said, “I come to you for answers.”

The crow’s feathers were as black as night. Not the sweet starry night that shone over the shores of the sandpiper’s home, but a night very far away from home, from the memory of light. “Ask,” he said, and his croak was as old and as serrated as the rock on which he’d made his home.

It was not, perhaps, the greeting the sandpiper had hoped for, but he dipped his bow lower and asked. “Why, o Crow, do the pipers and plovers live down in the sand, while you live high on the mountain and our other kin are scattered to every corner of the earth and sea and sky in between?”

“Thus were they made,” said the crow, and silence like a kingfisher’s strike, like the sharp knives of men, stretched between him and the sandpiper.

The sandpiper did not like the crow’s answer, but the sandpiper had come so far and could not turn now, not with all the questions he had still churning in between the pebbles in his gizzard. He asked the crow why the sun never strayed from its course – “thus was it made” – and why the moon and stars were braver to move so far afield – “thus were they made”. He asked why the fox’s sharp teeth tormented his kin – “thus was he made” — and how the sun could slide beneath the land without burning it to embers – “thus was it made”.

And with each answer, the unanswered questions thrashed inside the sandpiper, and with each answer the crow’s croak was as unwavering as the first. And when the sandpiper asked, “Why is it the bird’s lot to be torn and sliced and devoured and slain?” he knew what answer was forthcoming.

But then, the crow looked at him for the first time, and for a moment the sandpiper felt a shiver of hope. And the crow said, “Thus were we made, you and I, thus ever so.”

And the sandpiper fell upon the crown, and with his long sharp beak he pierced him, again and again he pierced deeply into the thin old flesh. And when he was done, and he stepped back, aghast, he could see that the feathers of the raven were not night-black, or not only so. Beneath the gore, he could see now that in their darkness they contained all the colors of the world, the emerald green of leaves in summer, the royal purple of a winter sunset, the gleam of sun on the water.

And there was more, too, to the terse answers the crow had offered. It was true that things were made to be what they are, but what a destiny that unfurled before them: he thought now of the graceful cant of the starling’s wing in flight and saw how good it was that the starling was privileged to the Eight-World so often. And he saw too the duck’s webbed feet, the oil painted on to a piper’s feathers, that fitted them so gently in the watery worlds to which they were born, each to each. He looked down over the mountainside, down over each of the nine worlds, and he saw the beauty in them each.

But from his high vantage he could see too the suffering and sorrow that had led him on his quest. He saw the constellation of cardinal feathers thrown into the air by a cat’s sharp claws. He heard the cries of pain of a dying duck trapped beneath a dog’s slavering jowls. He saw each bird that fell to the earth, never to visit the Eight-World again, and this was not beautiful at all. It simply was, was the only question and the answer to itself all at once.

He raised his head up, and crowed once in mourning. Not a sandpiper’s friendly pip, but a rusty croak. A sound that shook the mountain, but went no further. No; to hear his voice, to have the satisfaction of his terrible knowledge, his kin would have to come to him.

Perhaps one of them would be worthy of it.

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