Monday, April 21, 2014


Of a Saturday or Sunday in the Dark City one is likely to see exhausted birds of every kind, sleeping on rooftops or convulsively clutching tree branches. There always seems to be a sort of truce between them, and one may see wrens and humming birds sharing a roof with owls and hawks and ospreys. Only the ravens flock by themselves on these days, and they are showing their usual wisdom in doing so.

          It used to be common knowledge that, since before the beginning of the world, every raven was obligated to bring a grain of sand to Hell every Friday. No one knows for sure why Hell needs sand, or if it needs it at all, or simply wants to remind the ravens of their old allegience. Me, I suspect that Hell may be trying, very slowly, to switch places with the world, or perhaps they’re building something. In any event, I always try to bring a handful of sand or two back from Hell, just to slow then down.

I don’t think men ever knew what bargain the ravens had made for which this was their payment, and few men now remember why ravens are so familiar with Hell. Still, the bargain holds. On Fridays you must look sharp and quick if you wish to see a raven.

          But ravens are dealmakers, and it long ago occurred to them that they more or less keep their contract if the sand gets to its destination, regardless of the messenger. Thus, they are forever finding other birds who, in return for some ravenly service, or perhaps to pay off a bet, will deliver a grain of sand to Hell. Most make the return journey safely enough, and the ravens do not grieve for those who find no exit.

          Most of the birds which stagger from the sky in the Dark City recruit their strength for a day or so, and then fly off, resolved to make no more bargains with ravens. Some, though, seem content to trade the forest for the roof tops and brooding trees we offer.

          One such is a hen whose bright eyes hold more of wisdom and terror than it is common to find dwelling in a chicken’s head. She came staggering into the courtyard of my building one day and collapsed. Her feathers were singed; and I realized that she had walked to Hell, left her grain of sand, and then walked out again. I spoon fed her on beer for a week, and we parted ways with mutual respect. She’s still to be seen strutting quietly in the shadows, and the cats do not molest her.

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