The Living Stone
Billowing from the north, inky tendrils cracked the sky and brought soaking gales that quenched our fire for the first time in living memory. Rain thundered, the soil churned, and furious bolts split venerable oaks. Roosts old with story smoldered in the dim morning light. Without the fire we could not bind the materials for healing and building nor smoke grubs and carrion for keeping. So we ate the plentiful worms that delighted in the pale wet day. We ate them cold and alive. The obscured sun left the air unseasonably cool, even in the day. No sun set to blanket us in night. Rather the light drained from the murky heavens like liquid from a broken bowl. We roosted wing-to-wing on branches warmed only by each other while our flightless friends and family slept frigid in the nook where the fire once burned.
Once the torrent had ended the elder Kerwikt Ko Kurkawekt declared a relighting ceremony, cawing trembling notes echoed by all those among us just as scared. We gathered pyrite from nests that had hosted no one for seasons beyond counting and piled them beside a mess of tinder, the driest we could find after the downpour. I took a bit of the shining metal in my beak as two others gripped the ends of a twig bound with twine and cotton tufts to a shard of flint, and all around the tinder other trios prepared the same tools. Still more guarded the edge with their wings, to block the wind and to billow the embers. None of us had ever done this before but no one would be so self-deprecating as to say so, so instead we cried and crowed in the old songs once sung by those who had. We struck the iron against the flint again and again, hour upon delirious hour of banging and bleating, but no glinting spark could persuade the damp cattails and branch-litter. Our songs and movements stretched and strained until an exhausted ritualist dropped their stone and, flapping in alarm, cut their wing on the flint shard they had just been striking. The ill omen unleashed a silence that overcame us.
We struck no more that day and no decision came from the elders that evening, so we slept shivering and nervous. When a sickly illumination crept over the horizon and drew our eyes open, a call went out for messengers to beseech other roosts to spare a lit branch. Carrying a bit of fire over many days of flying was foolhardy at best, but the elders had decided to stop trying to make their own. The spirits of the stones had already rebuffed us once. Without a fire we could not produce the components necessary to heal a wing, so the one harmed the day before might stay flightless for the rest of their life. The elders did not want to risk anyone else to the moods of an already tempestuous earth.
One by one individuals elected to fly the distances. I volunteered too, but Kerwikt announced no roost for me to visit. Instead she gestured me aside and crooked her head across many angles, getting a good look at my anxious expression.
“You will go to Gem House,” she cooed. I knew that name, but then she said one I didn't. “If they have no fire, go to the Living Stone.”
“The Living Stone?”
She flecked her feathers in a sign of superior knowing, snatching propriety from the severity of the moment. "A stone that lives and walks, which can make fire with mysteries. There is one deep within that will speak to you, but beware the other things that live in the stone. They have no words at all. The murder at Gem House will show you the way."
A crow living in a stone? Who could make fire on their own? I turned my head many times to make sure that I had not misunderstood, but she flashed her wings and threw her claws at me to make me leave, so in a start I flew on my way. The calling for volunteers faded behind me as I ascended.
I was not accustomed to hunger but one gets hungry flying for days. I had enjoyed a fire all my life, half a dozen years of steady rations amortized by smoke and storage. I had broken a wing before I learned to fly. Confused and intimidated by the miracle of it, I had fallen hard from the nest. On a leather stretcher the murder had flown me back to the hearth. A splint and poultice had mended the wound with activated herbs, hot pastes, and thread made stronger by the flame. By the grace of our healers, I learned to fly. I could set out to retrieve fire now because we had fire then. At night I roosted alone, out of breath and hungry enough to swallow moss for a single grub.
I thought about the one wounded yesterday who might never fly again. If I returned with fire in a week, we would have to re-break the bone to heal it properly, and I wished that harrowing experience upon no one. Even then there might be complications from the new wound. I would understand if they chose to remain flightless even when we restored the fire. "If," I murmured half-asleep, the word emerging like an unwelcome burp. I did not want to think about if.
After two days I came upon Gem House. Not an oak but a mess-mortar column glittering with translucent shards, erupting from the soil like a spike. The monumental achievement of generations of crows past, sparkling even now. A recess on the southern face revealed a mottled one-eyed sentry, who called me in as I approached and harried me for rudeness when I landed.
“Who are you to come to Gem House!” xe cried, "Bring you gift? Bring you feast?" The elder trotted all around me, examining me closely. “No gift... No feast! You carry only yourself!”
“I bring bad news. The fire of Dead Oak has gone out. Can the murder of Gem House spare a lit branch?”
At this xe cackled grimly, “Too late! Too late! Already, the murder has left to beg for fire, just the same as you! You have come in vain, fledgling.”
“But, the gem-array! The solstice is coming before the new moon. Won't it be able to light a fire then?”
“What's the array to refract in this, eh? Milky no-star skies blot out the sun. How are we to refract sunbeams without a sun, eh?”
“Oh,” I admitted, “So that's how the gem-array works.”
“Did you think it worked on berries and wishes, then?” this old crow was as irritable as I was hungry.
“I have only heard of it by song. Please, have you any rations? If you have no fire to spare then my journey continues.”
“A few,” xe measured. Few enough to put a hesitance around guest-right. “Come.”
I followed this elder of Gem House, hopping down a weathered stone ramp to a circular cavern. Balanced on petrified stands embedded in the mess-mortar, connected by braids of twine that a crow could cross without flying, a circle of nests lay empty. Beneath them, rotting branches littered the floor. Xe tore the bark off one to reveal a tangle of insects squirming beneath.
“This is a house of cleverness,” xe boasted as I gulped a centipede, “We gather suitable branches, and the grubs gather to them.”
“Clever clever. Perhaps when I return to Dead Oak we could try the same,” I said. After I had eaten my fill from the deadfall I asked, “What is your name?”
“Kerolkt Ikirikt-Akt,” xe replied, bowing. Then xe said, “You are too young for a name, eh?”
“Yes. Many summers will pass until I am known but by deed. Call me Once-Broken-Wing.”
“Auspicious, auspicious! Well, youngling Hurt-And-Healed, may our fires recover as you did!” xe crowed proudly in the gloom. “Come and see the array, fledgling, that the story of its cleverness will live through you.”
Up another ramp we hopped to a room that had once harbored flame. A pile of ash and charcoal lay in the center of the room, flecked with red so I thought it had embers in it. Instead I found the light came from a gem embedded in the ceiling, a ruby many times my size that glowed like an eye. Cradled by petrified sticks stuck into the mortar, a series of smaller gems – sapphires and amethysts and emeralds and more I had never seen – guided the ruby’s gaze down, but it spread unfocused over the fire’s remains. The earth had shifted and sundered the foundation, setting the array off-kilter, and a tree had fallen through the eastern wall. A draft had done the fire in, scattering tinder across the ground.
“It will take generations to repair,” Kerolkt grieved, “Hundreds of years spent mixing and vomiting layers and layers of mess-mortar, fitting the sticks just so, adjusting them again and again on the one day of the year when the great eye caught enough light to refract a hot beam. I tell you, it worked! But we will never see it work again.”
“Hope grows even in the dark,” I replied, “Ingenuity does not live in the mortar.”
“Bah, don't quote me literature. So what, you're going to beseech the Living Stone for a lit branch?”
“How did you know? My elder told me you would know how to get there.”
This enduring veteran, left behind to guard the roost, considered me then. The keeper of secrets whose words only xe and xir disciples knew. The last operator of Gem House.
“Hm, yes. The signs are right. I have a gift for you, to bless your journey.”
Tucked away in a nest downstairs was a small leather sack sewn with straps to come around the shoulders and seat the cargo on the back. The hide of a rat had been skinned and cured and folded over to make the sack, so its boneless head formed a flap to cover its opening.
“A back-pack,” the elder laughed, “Careful beakwork, that.”
“Have you taught others to make it?”
“Yes, perhaps enough of them. It takes cooperation, you see. Many well-trained beaks. Perhaps they will teach enough in some other murder to perform the feat.”
"I believe in your efforts, elder."
Xe only flecked xir feathers at that.
Over the evening, Kerolkt explained the landmarks for my trip, the north-sense of the span, and the shape of the Stone itself. It would be overwhelming, xe assured me, like a pebble the size of a mountain. Nestled near its belly on the north-eastern side, an alcove with a fountain of seeds awaited any who knew how to find it. During the lifetimes for which the Stone rested, wilderness would grow across its top only to be shaken off whenever it shifted. One could spot its trail by the gouge in the woods that it left behind. Legs without number propelled it, knocking over trees without regard. Kerolkt cried, "Big! Big!" throughout this explanation, but still I struggled to imagine it. I had never flown over a mountain, and only once seen a bear topple a dead tree. I must admit a part of me wondered if xe were aggrandizing to enshrine the myth of it, if I had been sent to chase legends and humor the hopeless.
Kerolkt told me that within the Stone lived a God-Monarch served by two-legged pigs with no thought or concern but for their god. It was that god and not them who recognized crow-kind. The God-Monarch spoke our languages, even our dialects, and They had never harmed us. They who could be as the earth itself moving at will, surely They could spare a lit branch.
That night we huddled together for warmth in a decaying nest. A bitter rain pounded the structure and its cracks groaned with the whims of a still-shifting earth. Before I set out in the morning, Kerolkt stowed the last of Gem House’s smoked grubs into the back-pack.
“You do not need them? I can forage,” I offered, but xe ruffled xir feathers to chide my presumption.
“The journey is long and winter approaches. Already the cold comes. You carry the future, fledgling, in your heart and in your mind. The cleverness of Gem House has all gone out, to live in other places and in other times. Go now, Hurt-And-Healed, and return fire to our people!”
After another three days I reached the Stone, and despite Kerolkt’s warnings the enormity of it stunned me. Its round body was like a grain of rice but rising so high that it divided the clouds. I followed the crushed path where it had gone and found the behemoth trundling like a millipede, nearly as quick as I. An ecosystem had once thrived atop it but now it sloughed in waves the flora that had grown there. Rock and soil poured down its sides and a plummeting old-growth nearly struck me on my approach. Ivies and creepers clung to the overgrown carapace of the Stone, hiding the secret alcove behind layers of leaping vines. The feed-fountain Kerolkt had described lay within a nook low on the curve of one side, but despite the Stone’s travel the fountain did not tremble or shudder. The magic of those countless legs stabilized the great being so that the place seemed to float apart from the obliteration of its wake.
Almonds, walnuts, and peanuts unshelled poured into a metal bowl from a minuscule hatch. Rare things, difficult things, plentiful here in this secret upon a titan. A swiveling speck above the bowl met my eyes and followed me no matter how many times I paced the outcropping, as though a crow were stuck in the wall itself. I chirruped to greet it but it made no reply.
I followed a tunnel beside the bowl, a winding corridor made of sleekest glowing strangeness that curled up and up until I found the way blocked. Beside the dead-end a recess contained a colorful marble and a hollow glass column. Waves of amber and dandelion flowed frozen within that marble, fascinating me. A prestigious thing to embed in a nest or mess-mortar, but I knew it was not for taking. I placed it, as Kerolkt had explained, into the column. The dead-end snapped open to create a passage and I barked in sheer surprise.
As I ascended the corridor I encountered more puzzles and more startling portals. Tests of water displacement, the timing of patterns, and even whether I could identify myself in a mirror against a flat and unmoving facsimile. I felt trapped in the confines of that winding corridor. If the God-Monarch included a bloodthirsty squirrel as a test I would have to flee by foot, scampering for all my worth. Luckily They never did. They used a system of symbols to express numbers and relationships, so that after some time I could understand the intent of a test. Put three stones into this column, five in this one. Stand here. Look there. Tap this twice every four counts, and so on.
I stopped midway to eat the last of my smoked grubs. When I took the time to look, I noticed more of those swiveling specks in the pores of the tunnel’s material. Some regarded me; some, my pack. Had the God-Monarch trapped all these crows here, laid them in the walls as macabre trophies? If I displeased Them, would They keep me too? I worried but it did not stop me. I had promises to keep.
Eventually the puzzles became mazes so that rather than ascend in a spiral I had to traverse labyrinthine planes to find ramps. After three or four floors of this I began to make sense of renderings of the way and the path embossed beside each ramp. Golden lines for the walls, with azure chevrons crossing between them and leading to a jade hex to mark the floor’s exit. Guided by these maps I swept confidently from one level to the next until, beyond a doorway, there exploded a cacophony of sound and light.
Bright baubles blinded me, little suns suspended in the ceiling and upon the walls. Over one edge of the rafter where I stood spread a vast arcade of rigid geometric shapes. Grumbling and muttering, the pig-people wandered everywhere about it. They were more hairless than any pig I had ever seen and bore what I thought was colorful plumage before I noticed one take their downy feathers off and put a different set on. They were the only kind of being I could detect in that place.
Despite the change in scenery, another map told me to continue along this rafter. I seriously considered flying into that open space below just to ease my claustrophobia, but I minded my elders. Avoid the pig-people. They would not spare a lit branch, but their god might.
I followed these maps around the edges of the pig-people’s immaculate little society for the afternoon. How could a kind of being be the only kind in a place? What would they eat? Who would eat them? What cycle did they embody, and did they truly embody it alone? They sat rather than perched, some gesturing grandly with fleshy digits. Others stood and did nothing, responding only to particular conditions with rote expressions. They ate from boxes dispensed from the walls and returned those boxes through the same portals when they had finished. I crossed through vent-shafts and over ceiling panes into the behind-places where those boxes went.
Multitudinous many-jointed limbs grasped refuse and placed fresh goods, passed to and fro in turn by arms that flowed like a school of fish. The maps had told me their pattern so I stepped lively into its ebbs and flows. Larger swiveling eyes regarded me there, as broad as the ruby at Gem House but made jointed and depthless. Not the eyes of imprisoned crows, I came to understand, but of the Stone itself. I could feel the wonder in them.
The maps became more daring. Run here, wait three counts. Fly the gap. Hide. I found myself crossing the strata of a curious ecosystem, darting at the margins of intersecting lives and patterns. I waited hushed in the branches of imitation plants while groups wandered by, muttering all the time. I did not know what game the maps were having with me, and I had long since given up hope that I could carry a lit branch out the way I had come. I was in the Stone now, given unto its terms.
Tap this button. Then, run for five counts, turn left, run for seven counts. Cross through the door when it opens. To the south-by-south-west there will be an alcove. Hide in it. A pig-person will sit beside this alcove. Do not let their feet touch you. Wait for them to leave. Cross back through the room, through a door opposite the first, and I will be there.
I had understood the symbol for feet to mean talons but I learned up close that the pig-people had neither talons nor even hooves like a true pig. Vibrant and textured somehow-forged materials covered some other limb. It seemed to wiggle with joints more befitting a squirrel’s paw. I wondered as I watched it twitch absently if the God-Monarch had applied these coverings to suppress the appendage.
My pressing that last button seemed to have changed the tenor of the cacophony of the pig-people. The lights had changed from a warm yellow to a deep rose and outside in the arcade idle groups melded into frantic streams. A pig-person came in the room and snorted at the one with its… feet in my face and finally it too joined the ritual apparently going on elsewhere. I passed unobstructed through the final portal only for it to close behind me.
The sanctum was wide and rectangular, containing rows and rows of stacked boxes separated on metallic frames. In the cool and dry of that strange place, a crow called out from nowhere in a language I didn’t recognize, so I barked my own in reply.
“God-Monarch! The fire has gone out for the murder of Dead Oak! I beseech you as a thinking thing to spare us a lit branch!”
The boxes began to hum and whir before replying in my voice, “Oh little one. I am so sorry.”
“There has been a mistake. One I could not prevent. The skies will not heal. The storms will stay and the world will dance for generations without number. If I grant you fire now, a gale will take it before you return home. If you are not careful, it will take you too. Oh little one. You will adapt. You will have to adapt. However the way of things will change, I will wait for you still.”
“God-Monarch! Fate might favor a still moment, might favor the journey. Not all things can be known. Would you reject the dreams of a thinking people?”
The whirring grew louder and the sanctum hotter as I waited for an answer. These spirits of the Stone wrestled in their own ways with the questions-within-questions that only the timeless ponder.
At last They announced, “Yes. I would. I have. Now go.”
A panel slid open at the sanctum’s far end. I thought for a moment to remain and argue further, but the voices of a thousand different crows called out in as many tongues, “Go!” So I flew across the sanctum to the opening. Before it shut, a pig-person shouted at me from the other side of the sanctum’s entryway. As it pounded on the glass I met its gaze. Curiosity glinted there.
The closed room descended of its own accord, the silence and darkness leaving the agitation of my north-sense the only indication of movement. It opened directly to the outside, high above the canopy that it crushed with its ongoing charge. There was no feed-fountain here, no alcove. This place was only meant for me to leave.
I navigated back to the entryway and filled my pack and throat-pouch with nuts. Short of a lit branch, it would at least even out a few hungry days of winter. As I flew back to Gem House I regarded gravely the ashen haze of the sky. The sun appeared as a bloody dot, a pinprick wound oozing into the clouds. The trees would surely adapt even to these shadowless conditions, so thus would insects. So could we.
If the God-Monarch was right and the storms would stay, then finding dry tinder would only become harder and harder… unless we could dry it ourselves. We would have to construct new structures, yes, solid ground of our own to account for the quaking earth. It would take time. It would take cooperation. But most of all I knew it would take cleverness.
And a crow is nothing if not clever.