Authors: Steven Erikson
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
To the memory of May-Britt Lundin
for all the ships that never sailed
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Two crows returning. The years sweep past under their wings. The clouds scud like motes before their eyes. Roll away these years. It is too late, too late to stop their driven flight.
The past is uncertain. It is a place filled with wishing, with invention. To look back is to see what was begun. To go back, however, is to begin again.
I have been down to the river – stay with me. I have my reasons. The crows sat on a branch overhead. Even now, as then, the season is spring, and the young buds on the trees are clenched like fists. I have sent a gift from now, sent it into my past. It is not an easy gift. I don’t believe in easy gifts.
And now the crows take flight, from now to then. Back and back. They wheel in their sudden freedom, and look below to a steaming city, and onwards to where it stumbles to an end in low, evenly laid suburban homes, and along the river factories persist, squatting like dark fortresses on foreign soil. They glide over farmland caged in by roads. In the fields the black earth lies rippled like a brown and muddy cloak. Grey and leafless windrows stitch the scene forlorn and frayed.
Over here the air is cool. It tastes of the rendered earth. The breeze spreads the season’s quickening breath across the world.
The crows swoop low over a farm. Their shadows flit over a muddy field and then frame four boys walking, walking for the river.
Long ago, now. What I have done is unfair.
Memory begins with a stirring. Spring had arrived. There was life in the air, in the wind that turned the cold into currents of muddy warmth. And life in the ground as well – a loosening of the earth and its secrets, a rustling of spirits and the awakening of the dead.
Like remembrance itself, it was a time when things rose to the surface. Forces pushed up from the tomb of wintry darkness, shattering the river’s ice and spreading the fissures wide. Sunlight seeped down, softening the river bottom’s gelid grip. And things were let go.
What I look on now, after all these years, is a place of myth. For this was a place that told us that there was more than just one world. Middlecross sat between the farmlands and the city, grasping fragments of each, the first with sad mockery, the last with diffidence. A land of suburban homes and fallow fields. Along the river crouched patches of forest, slowly being peeled back. The new money fashioned flat bungalows with impeccable lawns while the old money rose in shadowed mansions. Between them, overgrown lots hid the rubble of past ruin.
The year was 1971. Middlecross was my family’s last stop in our migration from the city, from the ever smaller apartments out to rural sprawl. It was part of a struggle we’d always known, against something faceless, and we’d had our share of last, desperate gasps. Outwardly, my family seemed plain enough: a father, a mother, a sister in her teens, me on the edge at twelve, and toddler twins. Outwardly, the world holds no secrets. That was my family.
I continued my schooling in the city, and would do so until term’s end. Each day I made a bus trip between two worlds, one tired and heavy with a vague, confused air of familial failure, the other new, unlike anything I’d ever known before.
It was a time and place of discord. This much my memory tells me. But memory is not enough …
Hodgson Fisk had giant hands, the kind of hands that forced bent nails into wood, that twisted wire, that broke fragile presents; the kind of hands that made fists in pockets and curled around the arms of a chair like roots gripping rock.
His knuckles were bloodless, scarred white by a lifetime of closed doors and encroaching walls. The nails, chipped and stained amber, protected flattened fingertips that had long since gone numb.
His muscles were like taut ropes now, as he sat rocking in his chair on the porch like he usually did in the late spring afternoon, when the chill returning to the air reminded him of death. Beneath the sure grip of his hands, the chair’s arms reassured him with their smooth, warm familiarity.
Fisk listened to the crunching, grinding ice in the river beyond the row of trees. He stared at the black mud of the field before him. Tufts of yellow grass dotted it like human heads. Squinting, he thought he could see them sinking.
Slowly, his rocking stilled. A long, narrow shadow had crawled imperceptibly across the unkempt lawn, and now – at last – it reached for him. There wasn’t any need to look up, no need to find its source. Marking the boundary between the lawn and the field was the maypole. It rose fifteen feet high, a galvanised pipe pitted with rust, unadorned for the last eleven years, since his wife’s death.
Once it had heralded spring’s birth with gaily coloured ribbons, with stringed popcorn and tiny brass bells. And covering the earthen mound at its base, there’d be freshly painted flowers – white, yellow, red and violet – he’d never known their names, it never seemed to matter back then. Didn’t matter now.
The maypole’s shadow was like a spear, edging up the porch steps. And the earthen mound was tangled with dead weeds and shredded nylon still bearing the memories of colour. It had been his wife’s maypole, his wife’s celebration of the new season. But that, Fisk told himself, was a memory he didn’t want to revive. For her, spring – the turning over of the season – had marked some kind of victory. For him, spring was the turning over of the earth – the black mud – and nothing more. More daylight meant more hours of work. That was all.
He hated spring. The season that Dorry had celebrated had also been the season of her death.
The shadow climbed the steps. Fisk resumed rocking, his boots skidding on the dusty gravel that covered the wood planks. As he rocked he let his head roll forward and snap back in time, until the hot blood in his skull seemed to swish back and forth, numbing his cheeks and mouth and ears. Only his eyes felt alive, fixed like buoys in the storm inside his head, fixed on the field of mud.
Odd, he knew, that a sense of urgency could hold him rooted to his chair. Waiting for the darkness demanded patience, and he was a patient man. He’d waited eleven years, and was still waiting. Nothing was going anywhere, he told himself. Not the maypole, not the storm in his head, not the field of mud.
None of us is going anywhere.
* * *
Fisk watched the four boys trudge across his field in the growing dusk. Their presence didn’t surprise him. It had been their ritual since the snows melted. They crossed his field with impunity. His dark eyes followed their vague shapes, tracking them, fixing their gestures, memorising their every movement.
It was something he’d come to, an idea that had both excited him and terrified him. The terror made sense. The excitement didn’t.
Stacked high around him, crowding his porch, rose wood and wire boxes. Walls of long, narrow cages to his left and right, cages where the flowerpots used to be, cages blocking out the living-room window and its faded lilac curtains, cages jammed against the railing. Others around here grew wheat when they grew anything at all, but Fisk didn’t – not any more. For the last ten years he had raised mink. Over six hundred animals lived with him now.
At night he’d often stand at his kitchen window with all the lights turned off, and his back yard would glow with hundreds of unblinking, yellow eyes. Eyes like imprisoned moonlight, watching him.
In the crepuscular air the field had grown smooth in front of Fisk, like a pool of oil. The four boys had reached its far edge, their grey shapes disappearing like wraiths between the ash trees lining the river. The field looked deep in a way that Fisk found disturbing. The muscles in his chest trembled, as if he’d brushed feelings that had long since sunk into oblivion. He didn’t want to dredge up those feelings. It frightened him to stand at the edge, as he did now, and gaze at the dark surface of his life, seeing ripples as something moved beneath it.
He sat still a moment longer, then he lurched to his feet, turned and entered the house. The screen door banged behind him, its spring humming in the darkness. The hallway that led to the kitchen door was narrow, the hardwood floor creaking beneath him. He felt his hands tremble and slid them into his pockets. The faded flowers of the wallpaper marched by on either side, a dead garden, the leaves of a sealed book. In the closet beside the kitchen entrance he collected his work gloves and put them on. At the back door he flicked on the yard lamps. Cages rattled under the sudden blue-white glare. Fisk’s breath quickened.
He opened the door and descended the flatboard steps. He approached the rows. Eyes flared as small bullet-heads turned in his direction. He sucked air through his teeth and entered the first row.
Something he’d come to. Terror, and pleasure.
‘Four,’ he muttered, scanning the cages, ‘I want four of you.’
We crossed the field that day as usual, on our way to the river, and I could feel Old Man Fisk watching us long before we came close enough to see him sitting on his porch. There was light enough to see his face and it seemed it was made of cracked plaster and chicken wire. Something evil and viciously small slunk behind it. Watching him sitting there amidst his cages, I imagined that he had gone to a place beyond death, and now stared out at us from that unearthly realm.
Fisk’s field lay between us and the river. Our steps slowed as we crossed it, boots burdened with straw-laced clumps of mud that climbed up around our ankles. We carried some of that gritty clay to the river and watched it dissolve in the current pushing past our shins.
Beside me Lynk pointed. ‘Look! A fuckin’ cow!’
Two crows stood on its bloated flank, watching us and laughing.
We threw stones, trying to dislodge them.
we screamed. Our arms ached as we tried harder and harder. Digging rocks out of the mud, following with eager eyes their curved flight, swearing as they fell short.
In minutes the current pulled the cow and its raucous passengers away. We remained on the dock, ankle-deep in flowing water. We felt the current wrapping the cold rubber of our boots around our shins. It made us feel invincible, time itself parting around our feet.