Raven talks man onto the ledge

A nightmare in three parts

Photo by LongQuattro/iStock/Getty Images

PART ONE

The sound startled me, as if someone had crept up from behind and flung out a sheet of canvas like a bedspread. In that exposed and windswept place, it could be only one thing: the sound of a bird’s wing. A large bird. I turned and saw a raven’s silhouette disappear behind the near foreground of sage and chamise; heard a raven’s crusty caw swing west behind a cluster of buckbrush and trace an arc southward. I followed the bird with my ears.

But before the raven swung behind the chaparral foliage I registered a disturbing impression: the raven was way too large to be real. A normal raven’s wingspan is a hair short of 5 feet. This thing’s wingspan was at least 10 feet. I’d been T-boned by an optical illusion or I was in for an eventful evening.

The raven reappeared about 50 feet away, sailing on a northwest wind:  a black, eerily-large presence cast on the purple-grey backdrop of Marsh Creek Canyon. Suddenly it wheeled toward me, hung at the wind’s edge and spewed a stream of staccato clicks like the noise of a woodpecker hammering on a resonant sea shell.

I reached for my camera, flipped the power switch, boosted the magnification and lowered the exposure a click – all while keeping eyes riveted to the raven. It hung there, kiting. I raised the camera to my eye and peered into the viewfinder. The raven was gone.

Twenty minutes earlier I’d settled into the sandstone contours of what I call Wek-wek Ledge in Morgan Territory late in the day in late January. Since the trail skirting the ledge is named Prairie Falcon, I named the ledge after the Miwok word for Prairie Falcon: Wek-wek, which mimicks the sound of the falcon’s call. Prairie Falcon was the son of Molluk the Condor and grandson of Olétte, Coyote-man and creator of the world, confirming the rumor that the Miwok gods had practiced flagrantly unbiblical sex. All bets were off; these gods might be crazy.

Due west a mile and a half across the canyon rose the apex of Highland Ridge, elevation 2,300’, masking the low Sun. Above the ridge hovered swirling bands of lenticular clouds the color of cream atop flowing down to peach. My perch stood at 1,950 feet above sea level and fell 200 feet nearly straight down a sandstone escarpment into the steep east slope of the canyon. The canyon, carved by the headwaters of Marsh Creek, traced a snaking descent from below my perch to the foundations of Mt. Diablo and its twin peaks seven miles north.

The gibbous Moon had just cleared the foliage behind me; the Sun would set in a half hour. By the time moonlight would overpower the light of dusk and set Mt. Diablo aglow in pale pearl, I’d be headed for a place on the far side of the canyon: Roger Epperson Ridge, its bare undulations cresting beneath Diablo’s North Peak like an ocean swell, lit by the Moon. The wind faded to a breeze. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them I realized I wasn’t alone. To my right, 10 feet away, sat someone staring at the sunset sky. My scalp turned to ice. The stranger had popped onto the ledge and sat down without making a sound. Or had I fallen asleep?

He wore a black poncho; its wide hood pooled on his shoulders. The garment, stippled grey in a design suggesting feathers, cascaded over his knees; its ragged hem brushed the floor of the ledge. The man’s skin was ebony, his chin long and thin. A goatee spread to thick black throat hair. He cocked his head my way like a bird, with a quickness that made me flinch. His eyes were small and circular, his irises bright amber, his pupils large. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. Those were bird eyes.

“Beautiful sunset!” I said with strained enthusiasm.

He jerked his head back west. “Beautiful” was his reply. But the word wasn’t enunciated; it was croaked. He pulled back his hood and black hair jetted back like feathers. Damn.

If ignorance isn’t bliss, I don’t know what it is. Were I ignorant of Native American myths I’d be merely hyperventilating. What I knew of those myths graced me with the calm of certainty that I was about to die a picturesque death. In the silence of familiar dusk on a familiar ledge above a familiar canyon I realized I was sitting in the presence of Kókol, raven god of the Native American Miwok.

Or I was dreaming. Before I could fully form the thought “I vote for the dreaming thing,” Raven said, “Do you have the time?”

Were I given 100 chances to guess what he would say, “Do you have the time?” would have snuck in at around 83.

I looked at my watch. “Yes. It’s 5:37.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“So what time is it?”

“The time is always now. Right now.”

Raven delivered “right now” with such authority that I swallowed hard and poked my hand into my pack for my flask of bourbon. Dreaming or not, I needed a jolt of liquid anesthesia. I threw back my head, felt the spirits burn down my throat and grabbed my hiking pole. In its folded state it made a respectable club. I might have little chance against Raven’s assault, but it would be a fighting chance.

For a moment we sat there, Kókol eyeing me more in amusement than malevolence. “What is it that you drink?” he asked.

“Bourbon,” I replied. “It’s a barrel-aged distilled spirit that –”

With an outward thrust of his left hand, Raven cut me off. Then he dropped all but his index and middle fingers – more talons than fingers – and curled them back and forth as if to say “gimme some.”

I tossed Raven the flask. Still staring at me, he unscrewed the cap with a practiced deftness and took a long quaff, letting the bourbon swirl in languor down his throat. He took another swig and said, “Don’t imagine that my fondness for this liquid offers you any ray of hope.”

So discombobulated were my senses that “ray of hope” flashed through my brain as Ray of Hope – a name, like Joan of Arc. Then I knew what I must do to prolong my stay of execution. The Miwok believe Raven is a jokester.

“I’m not Irish,” I said. “So if you insist on calling me Ray O’Hope, I insist on calling you Baril O’Monkeys.”

Photo by xochicalco/iStock/Getty Images

PART TWO

Raven’s eyes blinked and his head shook, as if he’d swallowed vinegar, not bourbon. He whipped a glance at me, paused a moment, then burst into a hybrid caw and snort. He seemed to smile – the man-bird face was hard to read – and said, “No. I insist on calling you Patakasu.”

A long silence followed. Had I given Raven the impression I was some sort of Miwok linguist? Then he croaked in exasperation, “Patakasu: tiny ant that bites hard.” And leaning toward me, Raven rasped, “Surely you can bite harder.”

What on earth did “surely you can bite harder” mean?

“I challenge you to Kamata,” said the god.

“Kamata?’

“Game of risk. You believe yourself clever; you believe you can abuse me better than I you? Ha! You suffer from delusions of adequacy.”

It took a moment for the sarcasm to sink in. Hey, not bad for someone for whom English is decidedly a second language. Then it struck me: if Raven is a jokester, could this be the Kamata? A Silly Insults contest?

“You call me Baril O’Monkeys,” he croaked. “But since you are human, Ips O’Facto, I call you Mired in Illusion.”

Yikes. The Miwok god speaks Latin. Fine. If he wants a Silly Insults contest, I’m in. But “Mired in Illusion”?

I leaped back into the fray: “Your voice is the mating call of two pieces of chalk,” which had the virtue of being accurate as well as descriptive.

Raven shook his head with the rapidity of a dog shaking off water. “Your insult is Lokni,” he said and paused, staring a hole through a spot precisely in the middle of my forehead. Then his pupils rolled upward. “Rain dripping through a small hole in the roof.”

Not the most withering criticism I’ve heard. Depended on your domicile, I suppose. We’ve got the roofing guy’s cell number on our fridge.

My turn. “Speaking as an outsider, what’s your take on ‘wit’?” I asked.

Raven snapped his head down and sideways, absorbing the drift of the quip. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Mere Notaku.” I shrugged in ignorance. “You are the growl of a lazy bear as I pass by,” he said and flung the flask vaguely in my direction. I dove for it, scarily close to the edge of the ledge.

I hung on to the flask – not the ledge. The first few vertical feet, as I road-rashed my way over small but edgy speed-bumps of sandstone, were exhilarating. No time to pee the pants; time only for a lunge at a scraggly manzanita sapling anchored in the escarpment. It held.

I looked up and saw the silhouette of Kókol looming above the horizon of the ledge. “Need you my help, Patakasu?” he said.

When your life hangs by a handhold, it’s best not to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “In all likelihood,” I said after careful thought. Is the contest still in session? Better take no chances.

“I challenge you to a Silly Names kamata!” I yelled while clinging to the manzanita like Harold Lloyd clinging to the minute hand of a clock 12 stories above a New York City street. Silly Names: in a world populated by D’Claude Katz and Dr. Loki Skylizard, I shouldn’t run out of material.

“Call me Claire Voyant,” I said, “but I’m about to fall to my death.”

“Well played,” croaked Raven. “And call me Miss Ann Thrope, for I might not care.”

The silhouette of Raven’s head disappeared. I heard a swoosh of poncho and a crunch of sandstone. Raven reappeared, closer and on his knees. He held out his hand. My flask was firmly clamped in my left hand; the flora of deliverance in my right. I lunged upward with my left, assuming Raven would catch my wrist. What he caught was the flask, picking it cleanly out of my hand. My arm swung back down and I nearly lost hold of the manzanita. I could feel it begin to pull away from the rock face. Raven threw back his head and put the flask to his lips – if you could call them lips.

“Help me up!” I yelled. “Help me up, you Fractal Pterodactyl!” was the best I could do under the circumstances.   

“C.C. Señor,” Raven cawed cheerily and spread his arms. The poncho billowed into wings. He leaped off the ledge and vanished above and behind me. I felt a talon like a curved dagger slide beneath my left armpit; three talons grasp my right shoulder. Suddenly I was hurtling upward, twisting and landing atop the ledge with a lung-scrunching thwomp.

I hoisted myself to an elbow. The light of dusk had contracted to a small dome of coral in the southwest. Below, moonlight like a tide began filling the depths of the canyon. A flotilla of high clouds drifted over from the east, dimming the Moon. In the lustrous but muted light I couldn’t tell if Raven’s mantle had returned from feathers to fabric.

What I could tell: Raven was quaffing bourbon like a guy about to get cut off by – well, by any bartender on Earth. “You are now in my debt,” he said, referring, I suppose, to saving my life. Never mind that my dangling from the escarpment was entirely Raven’s fault.

“But,” he said squinting and eying me sideways, “‘Fractal Pterodactyl’?!”

“That was a stretch,” I conceded, still panting and groaning.

Ah, well. Since I haven’t been able to shake this stubbornly vivid nightmare, I might as well swing with it. Who knows? I might find a way to avert catastrophe and suffer mere fiasco. The thing training its neon-amber eyes on me, whom the Miwok call Kókol, evidently is in no danger of dematerializing. I’m stuck with him.

Photo by Maksim Ratomskikh/iStock/Getty Images

PART THREE

“I accept your challenge,” said Raven, slurring the words. “Make it a Silly Sobriquet kamata. Now compose yourself or I’ll dub you The Archdeacon of Freakin’.”

Oh, no; here we go: nicknames. Okey dokey. If Raven’s getting drunk, it’s time to fry his circuits and make a snappy exit.

“Oh, yeah?! I dub you The Sibyl of the Crossover Dribble,” I said, more or less at random. Raven’s neck convulsed; his mouth spewed at least two ounces of bourbon into the moonlit air. Waste of a good small-batch product. And a pretty hackneyed sight gag.

Raven dragged himself to a small boulder and lay against it, head down. In a tone of queasy contentment he brawked, “You are truly The Marquis of Obloquy.” And his belch echoed down the canyon.

I waited what seemed a century – probably eight seconds – to see if Raven would raise his head and demand a comeback; to see if he was still conscious. No movement; no sound. I waited some more, what seemed an eternity – probably a minute. Raven began snoring.

Then, of all the evening’s remarkable events, the most remarkable occurred: I stayed. Instead of high-tailing it out of there, I sat and watched the final embers of light in the west die in a smudge of violet. I traced the canyon’s charcoal course north to a mountain paling in the slow crescendo of lunar light. A great-horned owl’s whoo-hoo hoo hoo hooooo rose from far below like smoke in a gentle updraft.

I looked at the dark heap of Raven slumped against the boulder, an odd posture for the god reputed to interpret visions and reveal mysteries deeply hidden. What insights had I gained from this crazy deity? What wisdom lurked in his dismissive quips?

An intense sensation of buoyancy rose from my core to my extremities. My bones felt light, as if hollow. I stood, walked to the edge of the ledge, spread my arms and bent my knees. Poised to launch. It seemed perfectly reasonable: surely the canyon’s dense air would support me. I leaned over the ledge’s edge and took a look straight down.

Then it hit me: I’d hiked to Wek-wek Ledge a hundred times; every time I stood on the drop-off, my knees would wobble and I’d retreat. Not now. I realized, to my astonishment, that I wasn’t afraid.

Were this a dream, I could choose to fly like a bird, push off the ledge like a cliff diver, see the umbrella-shaped crowns of oaks speed toward me, then recede as I thrashed upward on impossible wings. Was I a man who fell asleep and dreamed he was a raven? When I awaken, will I wonder: am I a raven dreaming I’m a man? I leaned forward and gazed into the canyon once more. The bleached branches of buckeyes glowed in the delicate white fire of lunar light.

Decision time: should I fall to my knees, crab-walk my way back from the edge and take flight down the trail, forever wondering if I could have taken flight off the ledge? Or should I take the plunge and risk doing something truly interesting with the last six seconds of my life?

A bank of cloud passed beneath the Moon, throwing a shroud over the ledge. I stretched out my arms; from my sleeves flowed the faint form of feathers. I couldn’t be sure. From beneath the back of my jacket protruded feathery wisps vaguely resembling a tail. But it was dark. Then I watched myself, as if from a distance, take three steps backward and without hesitation two long leaps forward.

Arms spread, I floated into the canyon’s moist air, falling with the drowsiness of a leaf in autumn. But I was a bird, and knew that by the time I reached the treetops I’d have lost the momentum needed to make a swift ascent; I’d be forced to flap furiously back up. I yanked my arms back to my torso and became a projectile.

My body, whatever it had become, obeyed laws of physics. I gained speed toward the treetops, spread my arms and began carving a shallow arc upward like a tower-buzzing stunt pilot pulling 6 G’s. When I finally lost momentum and started flapping my way back up to the ledge, fear overcame the urge to explore – fear of sinking so far into the fantasy of being a raven that I’d become a raven. Permanently.

Besides, flapping is hard work.

Photo by Homunkulus28/iStock/Getty Images

Exhausted, I spotted the ledge, overshot my landing spot and nearly crashed into Kókol. The racket of skidding on sandstone and plowing into the crackly sage didn’t matter. Raven was still out for the count.

I grunted my way to a standing position. Time to get outta here. But first I would get the last word and in terms the jokester would understand. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it,” I whispered, quoting Groucho as I tiptoed past Raven.

That settled it: I must be dreaming. No way in a waking state would I risk rousing a drunk demigod. A lightness of spirit spread over me. “I know the debt’s in arrears,” I sang softly to myself, paraphrasing the Dead song. “Raven’s not been fed in years. It’s even worse than it appears.” The ledge glowed in Luna’s silver sheen. “But it’s alright.”

From behind I heard a rustle. “Don’t be so sure,” croaked the god. I stopped. “Tonight’s ledge merely prepares you for tomorrow’s.” And a whoosh shattered the stillness. I looked up and saw a thousand edges of feather reflect a brief but searing flame of moonlight, heard massive wings whap straight up and cut back toward the canyon. Something heavy struck my shoulder with a splat and I realized Raven would get the last word.

Bird poop. With a whiff of bourbon.

THE END