If you take the leg bone of any creature that dwells on this earth and slice it open, there in the marrow you will find a wondrous land populated with castles and citadels, golden-leafed forests and wide open wilds far more fantastic than mortal minds alone can conceive.
In this land, if you look closely, you will see there is a little gathering of dwellings, each one barely enough to be called a house, and even altogether barely enough to be called a village. Just a little gathering, then. A little huddle of souls. And in the skies above this huddle, one particular star-winked night, a stork was sailing.
His wide white wings caught the moonshine like a silk sheet and for a moment he glowed silver against the indigo sky before tilting his tips to spiral down and down and down, through the tunnels of air and shadow, to alight upon a thatched rooftop. And there he stopped and considered himself for a moment.
Side stepping awkwardly on his long jointed legs, he approached the chimney stack and was about to peer inside when he suddenly remembered the bundle in his beak. So he stopped. Paused. Thought about it some.
A crow, who had been waiting on the rooftop since sundown, tilted its head and regarded the stork with curiosity.
After a while, the stork laid the bundle down carefully beside him on the rooftop and then proceeded to stick his long, inquisitive beak down the chimney. He withdrew it immediately with a squawk of alarm. This is what he had seen:
In the single room of the dwelling below, a man and woman lay in peaceful slumber, wrapped in each other’s arms, and, in a rocking chair beside the hearth, an old woman likewise lay with eyes closed and her mouth fallen softly ajar. From the breast of each silent figure there flowed a river of blood. It slicked their skin and matted their hair, soaked their sheets and clothing and, in the light of the dying embers, the floor shone red like a vast pool.
The stork ruffled his feathers, let out another shrill shriek of near-hysteria and began side stepping a strange and agitated dance up and down the rooftop. So great was his obvious distress, that the crow thought, really, and against his own better judgement, that he ought to try to offer some assistance. He stepped out of the shadows and inquired what the matter was.
“The matter? The matter? You ask me what is the matter? I am supposed to deliver a new life into the loving bosom of this happy household and what do I find?” his pitch rose, feverishly, “Dead! All Dead! Every last one of them down to the crone in the rocking chair and don’t,” he pointed an accusatory pinion at the crow, “pretend you know nothing about it! And now what am I to do? I cannot very well leave the infant on the doorstep can I? Not when there is no one to come and take it in! Stone dead within a few hours and what will be the point of that? Hm?”
“I think you should calm yourself at once,” the crow said, dark eyes each like a tiny galaxy, their light coming from so deep within. “Remember that none of this is our concern. You are bid here this night to bring life into the world and I am bid here to take life out of it. This is our way and always shall be and whether or not this infant is destined to spend but a few hours in the mortal realm has nothing to do with us at all. Please do the job you were sent to do, no further responsibility is yours to claim.”
“But if I don’t do something…”
“But if you do!” The crow’s voice was suddenly stern, “If you do act, with your limited understanding as your only guide, you may do greater harm than good. Souls must pass in and out of the mortal world and you and I have neither the wit nor the wise to dictate how and when that should be so.”
But the stork had got himself all worked up into a frenzy by this time. Damned was he if he would leave this babe to freeze to death outside a door that was never going to open to welcome it in. Violently, he snatched up the bundle in his beak once more and, with three beats of his mighty wings, he rose again into the air. Exactly what he would do, he had not yet decided but the crow’s words about his own impotence and ineptitude for decision making had settled like a red mist around his senses and he could not think clearly. He would take the babe to some other village, some other house, a great house, a palace perhaps…
Fearing that he had only made the matter worse, and seeking now to correct it, the crow left his watch post on the rooftop and swept like a rag of storm-harried cloud into the sky in pursuit of the stork. “Come! Come come! Back! Back back!” he croaked, weaving this way and that around the enormous bird so that soon the stork grew so vexed and dizzy that, forgetting all that he was about, he lashed out savagely at his tormentor with his harpoon of a bill, slicing open the side of the crow’s head from beak to glittering eye and, yes that’s right, he dropped the bundle too.
Two tiny scraps of flailing life spiraled down through the stars to earth…
and landed on the doorstep of a high-turreted castle, way up in the mountains and far from anywhere. The door creaked open and a woman made all of stone leaned out, picked up the bundle in one hand and the broken crow in the other, then slid, with a grating sound that would rattle teeth, back inside the castle and shut the door.
The stone woman slid on a network of metal tracks that covered the flagstone floor. Down long, cold corridors she went, where tapestries fluttered briefly in her wake, depicting the glorious endeavors of the living. Through halls populated with still and silent figures like herself, through the grim, dark-vaulted castle, she continued her slow but steady progression until she came to a winding spiral slope, then up and up and upwards she wound her way to the top most tower and there she pushed open a wooden door and creaked inside.
The old man, bent crooked over his desk and teetering atop a high wooden stool, lifted the visor on his welding helmet and peered at her with bright reptilian eyes set deep into brown leathery tortoise skin. He did not speak. Like everything else, the woman’s ears were made of stone. She held out the bundle and the crow and the old man lifted them gently and placed them on the desk in front of him, clearing away the parts he had been working on with paternal care.
The white sheets in front of him were stained claret with blood. He opened the bundle carefully and frowned; bending brows of feather-white quills over those bright little eyes. On the desk lay a boy child and out from his chest, out from his heart beneath his ivory skin, blood flowed bright and shameless, staining everything it touched crimson, matting through his white blonde hair in thick unsightly clots of black.
The ancient gentleman shook his head. “So fragile…” he muttered softly to himself “…so delicate, so fallible. No, no, no, a child cannot go through the world with a heart that bleeds. And this child, one day, will need to be a man. But no matter, no matter eh? He has come to the right place. I will make him a heart that will last a hundred years and more.” And at once he set about the task of making the child a heart so strong that it would not be able to bleed even if it wanted to.
The crow, barely clinging on to its body, struggled to squawk a protest but, if he heard it, the old man did not look up from his task. “Your turn next, birdie,” was all the muted muttering that filtered through his white moustache and, all the while, the stone woman stood in the corner and waited.
The old man was an inventor of some considerable skill and experience. Soon he had fashioned a marvelous heart and he carefully cut a hole in the flesh of the sleeping infant, plucked out the heart that wept so much claret over everything, and fitted in the new heart, sealing the chest cavity with a metal plate, screwed down through flesh and bone. The babe screamed and howled and the crow beside him fluttered feebly, but he could not do anything to help.
“Now, now my boy, what an ungrateful whelp you are eh?” the old gentleman chuckled “Don’t fuss now, don’t fuss. See this new heart will last you a hundred years and more, that one you came with would not have served you five minutes. Not in this world, certainly not. Now then,” he turned at last to the stone woman, lifted the screaming child awkwardly from the workbench and placed him into her strong, cold arms, then he turned his attention back to the bench, “alright then my little black bird, let us see what we can do to fix you now, shall we?”
The stone woman did not need to have ears of flesh to be told what to do with a baby. The inventor had made her plenty of stone children of her own, just as he had made her, her husband, and all the other stone figures that populated his castle. Insatiable in his desire to create, he churned out figure after figure until the castle was plagued by the grim, grey host. Still, he never once descended the tower steps to see how his creations were getting along without him.
The stone woman took the screaming baby to the nursery. She trundled across the wooden floor and laid him in an empty crib with silk sheets and soft wool blankets. She tucked a bottle of milk into his chubby white hands and he drank and slept. Then she turned on her tracks and trundled out of the room, leaving the baby alone, in the dark, with row after row of silent stone babies sleeping soundlessly in their cribs. Their sightless eyes did not need light. Their stone skin did not ache for the warm touch of throbbing flesh. Their carefully carved ears did not strain for the sound of comforting voice rising softly in song.
In those silent halls, hung with curtains of shadow and frosted breath, the baby grew to be a child. He wandered through the long vaulted corridors with their tattered tapestries and picked at the threads, wondering at the tales depicted there. He sat in the courtyards, crowded with statuesque figures who never spoke or sang but only trundled here and there along the metal rails their inventor had laid out for them.
Once he found a boy. Sitting with his back pressed against a bulky pillar, reading a book. But the book was made of stone as well and all the boy could do was turn a single page – back and forth – upon which was written a tiny scrap of story that his sightless stone eyes would never read.
Still the child wandered and explored the many rooms and passageways of the castle until, at last, investigating a staircase that wound skyward up a tower which swayed back and forth in the howling mountain winds, he came across a cage.
The crow in the cage cocked its head on one side and regard the child with a glittering eye that seemed to hold a galaxy, its light came from so deep within. Half its head, including one eye and all of its beak, was made up of metal plates but, the child’s breath caught in his throat, the rest of the bird was feather and flesh and bone. The bird radiated the warmth of life, it moved with its own purpose and intent and, when it opened its beak, sound – the croak of a voice, rusted but not yet broken.
“Back! Back back!” The crow spluttered. “Back, child, you should go back! Back to the village, back to the cottage, your place is not here in this castle. No. No. Go back. Go back back!”
The child filled his enormous eyes with the feast of the creature before him. Tears pooled.
“I am not who you think I am,” he whispered. Voice a cobweb in a storm. “I did not come from any cottage or village or far away better place. My place is here. It always has been.”
“No. I am not mistaken.” The crow ruffled its feathers and flapped its wings against the bars of the cage. “You are the baby, brought by the stork, to a village far away from here. But the stork thought he knew best and delivered you to this castle instead. I was there, I tried to stop him.” He clicked his mechanical beak crossly. “There is none so stubborn as a stork, it seems. But all is not lost, child, set me free. Set me free from this cage and I will show you the way back.”
The child caught his tears on his fingers. The crow’s words made sense; he had never felt he belonged in this world of stone figures. Never found a way to slide easily along the inventor’s metal tracks as they did. He longed for things he sensed were real, although he had never experienced them – warmth, touch, song and movement unprescribed. Although a secret part of him whispered that if he did not belong here in the castle, he surely did not belong anywhere, he ignored it.
He reached up pale fingers to the latch, opened the cage door with a snap and a swing, and the crow leapt out and perched upon his shoulder . Together they left the tower, down the spiral stair, and fled the castle forever for the long and difficult road across the windswept mountains.
Night was spreading his cloak over the land as the child and the crow sank down into a wooded valley. As the light dimmed to a pumpkin glow, shadows rose around them taking form from fancy and conjecture.
“Light! Light light! We must have light. Strike a flint child, light a flame that we can see our way through the darkness.”
But the child did not know how.
In desperation, the crow snatched up the last bright thing from the forest floor, as the sun sniggered into its sleeve and slipped away. A last pale leaf, softly luminous in the moonlight. He handed it to the child and the child clung to it, fixing his eyes upon its faint, cold glow. But it was not a flame, only an imitation of one. It gave no warmth and nothing at all was illuminated.
All night long, the crow and the child sat huddled amongst the trees and clinging tight to their leaf.
They heard things pass them in the darkness; some far off, some so close they could feel their breath. They smelt good things cooking on campfires, saw the distant dance of what might be a flame or a farmhouse. Sometimes a voice would hail them, “Hey! You there, is that somebody there? Have you lost your way then? Come with us, we will show you the path out, we have food and light over here, come out of the shadows and join us!”
But the crow advised the child to close his ears to all of this. It was so dark, after all. The voices could belong to anyone. Or anything. So they clung to each other. And their leaf. Through a night they started to believe might never end…
But nothing is ever as eternal as it seems when we are in it. At last a paleness began to seep slowly over everything. The night’s dense pelt teased apart into fine needles of shadow and the child and the crow heaved their cold and aching bodies up out of the dry leaves and blinked at each other, surprised to recognize familiar form after all the liquid swell of night through their senses.
They saw the path. The crow remembered the way. Through the dense wood, never stopping, out of the valley and over hills which became green and spongy with succulent moss and sedge beneath their feet and whispered tales of secret underground springs and maidens and moles and other goings on beneath the soil.
The scent of that soil rose up like iron, bold and beautiful and life affirming and it wove a robust rhythm with the heather and the broom that danced like gypsies wherever they pleased as the wild wind tugged playfully at their hair.
The child and the crow did not dance over the hills with the heather. They were too weary from their long and watchful night. Heads down, wings and shoulders hunched, they trudged. Each footstep a tiny miracle. If they had chanced to look up, they would have seen the little huddle of dwellings, each one barely enough to be called a house and even altogether, barely enough to be called a village, rising out of the landscape ahead.
It happened all of a sudden; the way you can be standing in a room sometimes, floating in waves of conversation that ebb and swell without conveying meaning, until someone on the far side of the room whispers your name. And you blink. And suddenly the world makes sense again.
The boy stopped. And blinked. His feet were wet.
In fact, the ground all about him was saturated with something thick and oozing. He lifted one foot, curiously, and then the other. The crow put his head on one side and then flapped excitedly off the child’s shoulder and began to circle a giddy, euphoric spiral above his head. “Back! Back back! This is the place child, we have found the way back!”
But the boy wasn’t listening to the crow anymore. At that particular moment he didn’t need to.
He simply knew.
As soon as he felt the warmth of the blood between his toes, the blood that flowed down the main street of this place like a river, he knew it for the same rich, red life that pulsed through his own flesh in such abundance that it ached to be released. He sank to his knees, he washed his white flesh in it, he licked it off his wrists and arms and the taste of iron made him weep like a starveling cub.
Ravenous, he raised his eyes and saw people hurrying towards him, boots splashing through the flood of red that flowed, shameless, out of their breasts and into the street. They didn’t ask his name, who he was or where he had come from.
Perhaps they knew he was one of them.
Or perhaps they did not care.
They welcomed him, they brought him inside, fed him and clothed him and the child bathed and soaked and gorged himself on blood that seemed inexhaustible because everyone bled and fed and bled some more…
The child stayed in the gathering of bleeding hearts. He never found his parents because the crow could not remember the dwelling to which the stork had brought him, but that did not matter. He had found a place filled with folks that were more akin to him than any cold castle filled with stone automatons. And did it worry him that the inventor had so brazenly stolen his heart all those years ago? Well, yes, after a time it did start to bother him. It bothered him so much that one day he sought out the crow who had helped him to find the place where he belonged, and together they set off on a quest to steal back his bleeding heart… but that story is a long one, and will have to wait until another time…