My little brother is nine years old the first time I decide to kill him.
During the night, snow fell over the jagged wreckage of our land. In the morning I realize he will follow me outside if I call to him. Like an awkward-limbed colt he’ll stumble through the snowdrifts, and I can leave him to the ice and wind in the shadow of a three-walled building. No one will see me. Our father will think he has gotten lost on his own. I too will cry when they find his body. When the mourning is done, however, I will be my father's true and only son. ‘Cam,’ he will call to me, and I’ll kneel down before him.
My father. Master of Ravens. Crow-Runner. The Blackbird King.
I pull on my winter boots, knot the coarse laces.
My little brother asks, ‘Cam. Where are you going?’
‘Out,’ I tell him.
‘To play in the snow?’
‘To look at it.’
When he was born, my little brother was named Taliesin. His is a world without myths, of course. Such things perished in the great fires; books, histories, all the old words. Still, the name has come to mean bright power, shining brow. Cameron means crooked nose.
Outside the sun is bright on the snow and I shield my eyes against its glare. My little brother hasn’t dressed himself properly for the cold. As he shivers he sneaks glances at my face, to see if I notice. I pretend not to.
‘Come on,’ I say.
My little brother is only nine years old but he is stubborn, determined. I will be fourteen next fall and my legs are much longer than his, though our father says they’ll always be so. Besides, my mother was a gypsy. I was born during my father’s wilder days, into motor oil and engine grease. It means I am strong, but the gypsies are tinkers. I can never inherit my father’s birds.
Frail, spoiled Taliesin, who killed his frail, spoiled mother to be born, stumbles at my side. I catch his arm. Don’t die yet, I think. It’s too soon. Don’t die.
I suppose I’m surprised when he follows so far without asking to rest. At last, when our father’s home can no longer be seen over our shoulders, he crouches down and stares off sullenly into the low distance.
‘Stopping now?’ I ask him.
He doesn’t answer.
‘I brought lunch,’ I say.
He still refuses to talk, but his stomach will get the better of him. I leave him where he is to clear the snow off a crumbling wall, and soon enough he appears around the corner to watch me eat.
How will I do it? I wonder. I could pretend we’re playing a game and abandon him, covering the tracks we made on my way home. Yet the chances of him being found or of somehow finding his way back are too strong. What will I do when my father knows I left him to the snow, or when my little brother’s accusations drive me into exile?
‘Fine,’ I say, after he’s eaten his fill of my food. ‘Let’s go.’
Lose him in the woods. Dare him out a window. Lead him through the beehive. Down the flight of stairs marked off as unsafe.
He’s sick so often in the winter: take him outside, feverish, into the cold. Let him crouch with you all night in the rain. Let him wander off while you’re camping. Let him taunt the wild animals. Let him do it his own fool self.
For seven years my little brother evades death, until I begin to believe he’s touched by the grace of some fate I can’t persuade. He breaks the same ankle twice, though, and sometimes when he runs his gait reveals a limp. He doesn’t blame me at all. There’s a scar on his left shoulder and the underside of his left forearm, from the time he fell through the rotting stairs and scrabbled to catch himself on the splintering wood. It was I who pulled the splinters from his skin, under my father’s dark eyes.
My father speaks to the birds. That is his gift. I’ve heard it said that he has come to resemble them, and that I am his raven son. When I was very young he put their feathers in my hair, which may account for the resemblance. All my life I watch my father and listen to him, until by habit I come to understand the language of the black birds. They won’t come to me when I call them. While my father still lives they’re his. I take small, precious comfort knowing that Taliesin is no bird at all.
On his sixteenth birthday my father takes me aside.
‘Cam,’ he says.
As in my waking dreams, I bow to him. I kneel. He may have understood the error of my ways, seen the worth in my quicker hands. The birds let me feed them and only peck at my little brother’s fingers.
‘You’ll teach him what you know,’ my father tells me. ‘Of the birds and their ways. It will be hard; they don’t trust him.’
‘I will.’ I swear it, kissing the back of my father’s hand.
‘He’s your ward, then.’ My father claps me on the back with his broad hand. I know the scars of each finger, the black stone in his favorite ring. ‘He’ll heed you.’
The rookery floor is the highest place in my father’s high-built house. The floor is strewn with dark, glossy feathers. It smells of bird. It’s always been my favorite place, my father’s and my own, and inviolate until I do as my father bids me and bring my little brother to see it.
My little brother is sixteen and proud of himself. This place will be his, its secrets, its mouse bones. He knows it. As I see to the birds he plays with a handful of feathers, tucking them behind his ears or braiding them into his hair, which isn’t the right color for it, and too fine. My little brother looks like a fool.
The ravens agree with me.
Ravens have no need for names. Ply a crow with a bead or a coin and his trust is yours for the day. Blackbirds can’t be bought with good breeding. No bird is bound to the propriety of bloodlines.
‘Does that one have a name?’ my little brother asks.
‘None of them does.’
‘Oh.’ He shakes his head like a dog, feathers dancing around him. ‘That’s silly. What do you call them by, then?’
‘They’re your father’s ravens.’
‘Perhaps,’ my little brother says. ‘Perhaps I’ll give them names.’
How dare he.
The raven’s head beneath my hand fits against my palm, smooth and warm. A raven’s brain isn’t very much bigger than the tip of my thumb. A raven’s eyes are beady and all black throughout. The light a raven’s eyes catch, not his gently curved beak or unruffled wings, is how a raven speaks.
On his roost, my father’s oldest raven preens. We’ve formed an alliance against this intruder. We only tolerate him because we must, shameful blunderer that he is.
‘Come on, then,’ I say. ‘Hold out your hand.’
‘They’re not saying anything,’ my little brother says. He’s nervous. When he edges closer and does as I say my father’s oldest raven stares sideways at him, the way my little brother used to look at people while he was lying. ‘They bite my fingers, Cam.’
‘You’re listening,’ I try to explain. ‘That’s not how it’s done.’
‘Father watches.’ I take my little brother’s wrist and force him to relax his fingers. ‘All things like to be touched. But you must let them tell you how to touch them the right way.’
He lays his trembling hand on the raven’s back.
The raven says, he could claw that hand if it weren’t for the man. The raven says, this boy is too scared. The raven says, how long will he be touching me all sweaty with his shaking hand?
‘He knows you’re frightened,’ I say. ‘Will you let him hold that over you?’
‘They bite my fingers,’ he repeats. ‘They always do.’
I grit my teeth. ‘They’re father’s birds. They’ll be yours,’ I say.
‘They like you better.’ My little brother laughs. I let go of his wrist and he jerks his hand away. A younger bird would have lunged after him, just to let him know his mistake, but they’d never hurt him. They obey my father, as do I.
The raven says, he’s young yet. The raven says, younger than you ever were. The raven also says, you’ve bruised his wrist. Even the raven wouldn’t have gone so far. My father’s birds have always known better than I.
‘You,’ my little brother offers, ‘will you look after them for me?’
‘They’re not mine,’ I snap. ‘If you let them scare you I’ll lock you up in here the whole night.’
‘Father would—’ my little brother starts to say. The ravens are all watching him, and I’m on their side, watching too. My little brother has a white, narrow face, which is only ever unhappy in the presence of my father’s birds. ‘If you did,’ he finishes. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes are guilty.
‘No more today,’ I tell him, careful to hide the bitterness in my voice. He should be sorry, but instead he’s relieved.
That night, after Taliesin has gone to bed, my father asks how it went. Our first day.
‘The birds don’t like him,’ I tell him.
My father’s disappointment soon teaches me when to lie.
Taliesin gets no better at all. Even my father’s oldest raven is barely patient with his unconfident hands, and the younger birds take pleasure in harrying him. If I turn my back they fall upon his head one after the other, a flurry of feathers and beaks and near-misses. The first time they play him this trick I see him wipe his nose with the back of his hand. After that he stands still and lets them tease him as they please.
I am shamed by him. He is our father’s chosen son. His duty is to make our father’s birds obey his will, not mine.
Each day is the same foolishness as the last.
‘I can’t,’ Taliesin shouts. It’s late; he’s hungry. A week has passed and nothing has changed. I too am tired, and the ravens are insulted by him, but we weather his indignity for our king. My little brother has no such compunctions. In his frustration he throws his spindle arms up to protect his head and knocks a bird off its course. Confused and angry, the raven claws his face. Three thin lines of blood appear upon my little brother’s cheek and over his chin. He touches the scrapes, smears the blood, as if he can’t believe it’s there.
Because of this, I will have to kill the bird.
I grab my little brother by his collar and throw him against the wall of the rookery, hard enough that the beams shake. The ravens are all watching us.
‘You’ll watch, too,’ I say. ‘Damn you if you look away—you’ll watch it done.’
I could break the raven’s neck with my own hands but the death would be too bloodless, too clean. I draw my knife instead, whisper my apologies, and cut open its stomach. It’s a quick killing, a kind one, but the bird’s organs spill out over my hands and onto the floor. The smell is sharp and sickly.
I mark my little brother’s face with my bloody hands.
‘That’s yours,’ I tell him. ‘That’s what you would have me do.’
At least he does not look away.
‘You lack forgiveness,’ my father says.
The stairs to the rookery are steep and narrow. When I first brought my little brother to this place he held the back of my shirt in his clutching hand as we climbed. Even now I feel the pull of his need, but, just like my father, I cannot always protect him the way he wants.
‘Do they still trust you?’ he asks. ‘Our father’s birds—will they blame you for what happened?’
‘They’ll blame us both,’ I say.
‘I can’t go back.’ My little brother leans heavily against the door. Perhaps he is more ashamed than I have been all this time. My anger eases, though it still colors my vision. ‘Cam—they hate me.’
‘It’s not your choice,’ I say.
That night my little brother goes missing. My father charges me to find him, has me swear as always by his ring. If only my brother had died as we all thought he would. If only the fever before his fifth birthday had claimed him, or the one before his eighth. If only I’d been strong enough to leave him behind in the snow, when he was no older and no stronger than nine. He would have cried himself to sleep where he sat, and the cold would so easily have claimed him.
I don’t think I know my brother well enough to guess where he would hide. I know he is quick to startle and quicker to cry, and cannot bring himself to apologize. I know the way his hand trembles when he approaches the old ravens. He has his own kind of bravery, I suppose. When he fell through the stairs he shouted but he did not cry, and when I stitched the tear in his soft arm he thanked me. Beyond that, there’s little to recommend him. The most I know of him is that he asks for help he doesn’t need.
‘And how would you be,’ my father once asked, ‘if your ma had died?’
My father could just as well ask his ravens to find his little son. If he will not, then I will.
The rookery at night is quiet. I’ve been here before to see to my father’s birds, or to watch him see to them. My father is the Blackbird King. One day I will serve my little brother the same way I serve him.
My father’s oldest raven tells me, he’s here—the crows are making him nervous. My father’s oldest raven tells me, he’s been here for hours.
We’re surprised together. My little brother hates this place. I scratch the feathers of the old bird’s breast and he watches me from side to side.
Why don’t I go to him?
I suppose I must.
I listen for him in the center of bird noise. The crows are gathered at the far corner of the rookery, where they come and go by the round window. That’s where my little brother sits. I can’t see him with all the darkness and rustling bird bodies between us, but I know just how he’s sitting: with his knees drawn up to his chest and his pointy chin resting between them.
He looks unhappy when I drop down beside him.
‘You’ve worried everyone,’ I say.
‘Not everyone,’ he mutters.
‘Even one should be enough.’
‘It isn’t like I’ve run away.’ My little brother wipes his nose. He’s too old for it. Around us the crows shuffle from side to side, as if they are all small parts of the same large beast.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘The crows.’
‘I’ve been looking.’
‘Your father’s crows,’ I say. ‘Like all crows, they work together. That’s how you must use them. The ravens are different. And the blackbirds. You must learn how to watch them, so that they will do for you what you need.’
‘I thought I’d sleep here,’ he admits. ‘Or try.’
All this time, I think, and I couldn’t kill him. It should have been so simply done. ‘You could have told someone.’
‘You said you’d lock me here until I wasn’t afraid of them. You didn’t.’ Taliesin wipes his nose again.
‘It’s cold up here.’
‘I forgot to bring a blanket.’
I sigh. The crows exchange dark crow looks with one another, until I hold out a hand and beckon them advance on us. They surge forward together until they threaten to swallow us up like the sea. My little brother trembles at my side. ‘Face them,’ I say. ‘They’ll keep you warm if you face them.’
‘You know how to ask them,’ Taliesin insists. ‘I don’t.’ I grasp his chin and force him to look at them, their eyes bright with cleverness and the moonlight.
‘We’re tired,’ I say. ‘We’re cold. Tell them.’
My little brother’s stubborn chin goes hard in my hand. He glares at the crows, as if that will help him. He’s still frightened of them. Crows will do nothing for you if they know you’re frightened.
‘Here,’ I say. I press a coin into his palm. ‘Give them this.’
‘You,’ he says. ‘You want me to bribe them?’
‘This is the language crows understand,’ I explain. ‘Let it catch the moonlight.’
He holds the coin out to them the same way he feeds his favorite dog. I jostle him with my elbow, until his arm shakes and the coin sparkles. The crows’ eyes reflect this currency. They look as if they’re winking at us.
‘I want,’ my little brother says. His nose wrinkles. He steadies himself, flashes the coin, and changes his voice. ‘Keep us warm tonight.’
The crows hesitate. Don’t let them see you waver, I think. Little brother, don’t let them know how you’re afraid. Then, the crows move forward again and all at once, until we are blanketed by them. My brother finds my hand beneath the countless crow bodies, and when he grasps it I can feel he’s still holding the coin, pressed warm between our palms.
After he’s fallen asleep I send a raven to tell my father he is safe and found. We’re in the rookery together, I tell the bird. We will spend the night.
The gypsies call my brother ‘The Little King’ while I am ‘Cam,’ ‘Crook-Cam’ and ‘Cam, So.’ They speak the Tongue in front of him, which he doesn’t understand, and he folds his arms and frowns. During the short summer nights I watch him go to bed angry and rise unsure. He will never be king of the gypsies. There is no gypsy king.
At least the crows are his now. The ravens are not so easily won, while the blackbirds have always done as the ravens do, and always will. Taliesin keeps coins in his pocket and a chain of beads around his neck, all of them bright colors. When our father gathers the lords of each domain for the hottest days of summer, he bids my little brother call the crows. I see the flash of silver before they descend upon the old building from every direction and settle on all our shoulders.
The old raven comes, too, and settles on mine.
He says, the crows are easy. He says, a crow is a simple bird. He preens my dark hair, black as any raven’s wing, and doesn’t mind when I struggle to feel proud of our achievement. We taught him to love the crows. It is a beginning.
While the lords are still in attendance my father calls me to him just as my little brother called the crows. I kneel before him in his private room, the empty shelves, the many doors.
My father examines my hands and the same scars that mar his fingers and mine.
‘Tal could benefit from discretion,’ he says at length. ‘Your mother will know what to do.’
This is how I learn the gypsies call my brother ‘The Little King.’ My own name has always seemed easier somehow in their mouths, but now I swallow my greetings.
It’s true that my mother taught me discretion, in which my father has told me I am never wanting. She taught me to rig a bike, to put a horse from its misery, to speak more kindly to the birds. No bee is wanting for honey, my mother likes to say, and Buy the sting with the sweet. My mother also taught me to duck.
‘Your father’s damn eyes,’ she shouts when I come in her door, flinging her pots, her pans, the small stool my grandmother sits on in the late evenings, her best mirror. ‘Crooked nose!’ Once she threw my uncle’s best guitar and the neck snapped. My mother’s a madwoman, my uncle told me. She’s a damn wild fire. And keep my head down, so.
When she’s done she hugs me.
‘Step aside, then,’ she says. ‘Let’s see the Little King.’
‘I’ve a bike needs seeing to,’ my uncle says.
During the long, hot days, while my mother teaches my little brother discretion, my uncle and I stain our hands black at work on the bike.
‘He’s grown, has he,’ my uncle says.
‘I suppose he’s grown,’ I reply.
The gypsies see to the rubble, deal with the pirates for fuel, fix themselves bikes. My uncle has twelve bikes, all his own, and my father’s Raven tattooed between his shoulders. One day my uncle will serve my little brother, and my mother, and all the gypsies will come and go and serve him, too.
‘They talk about me,’ my little brother says one night. I am beset by mosquitoes when I sleep outdoors with him, but I can do nothing else. He isn’t gypsy. Little King or no, he’s offered no tent, no boxcar shell, no mosquito netting of his own. I swat a mosquito on my neck.
‘You understand them?’ I ask. ‘You know what they say?’
‘I,’ my little brother says. ‘No.’
‘You accuse them without any evidence?’
‘I’m not an idiot,’ he snaps. ‘They use their language so they can talk about me. Say—things. I don’t know.’
I roll over, facing away from him. ‘Hm.’
His voice is tentative when he speaks again. There’s another mosquito biting me, but I’m too tired to wave it away. ‘Do you?’
They call him Snotty. Too-young. Foal-legged. Sickly. Son of his father’s sister. Even Little King is an insult.
The oil drum fires burn in the distance at the center of the camp, ringed by tents and boxcars, the frames of old vehicles, burnt out engines, worthless bikes.
‘They don’t talk about you at all,’ I say.
At night, the songs. I have no voice to speak of but my uncle has the gift, and my mother. The women twitch their skirts, show their brown thighs, wind their fingers above their heads like smoke and stamp their feet. Not even my mother invites my little brother into this circle. He stands just outside it, watching.
When I join him, he says, ‘These aren’t the words. Don’t they know the right ones?’
My little brother knows nothing about gypsies, and he knows nothing about music.
‘Perhaps you don’t,’ I say.
We are in our second week there when my uncle makes the offer.
‘When he is king,’ he says, ‘I’ll be old enough to need help some with the bikes. You’re a good hand. You could come stay here, so.’
‘And when I come home every night, hungry for dinner,’ I ask, ‘would I be greeted by my mother’s pots each time?’
My uncle laughs richly. ‘She’ll get used to it, yes?’
I reach across him for the water. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘or I will.’
His offer rides on my shoulder for days like one of my father’s birds, until Taliesin catches me alone by the bikes. Which of these gray beauties, I’m wondering, would I like most to have for my own?
‘Cam,’ my little brother demands, leaning over the oldest of the bikes. ‘Cam, you’ve had a strange look these few days.’
I wonder if my thoughts have been so apparent that even he could notice them. His expression is petulant, nervous. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he knows what a trouble it would prove to lose his brother and servant. Such thoughts make me act unkindly.
‘My uncle offered to apprentice me,’ I say.
My little brother snorts. ‘That’s stupid,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t!’
I wipe my glistening hands on the towel tucked into my belt. His discomfort has never been my pleasure, but it’s never been my pain, either. ‘I might,’ I admit. ‘I might do well to stay.’
His eyes grow dark and he steps back from the bike. This is where his true contempt is revealed at last, I think, and watch the anger tighten in his face. ‘You can’t,’ he says. ‘You can’t stay here.’
‘I might,’ I repeat. No throne, no birds, no kingship will stop me. Not even my mother’s pots and pans. Only the word of the king is enough. ‘Will you forbid it?’
My little brother draws himself up to his full height. His shoulders tremble. ‘I can,’ he says. ‘I can. I will.’
‘Do it.’ I step towards him and wait for him to bend or break.
‘I,’ my little brother says. He works the words in his mouth for a long time before he manages to spit them out. ‘I—I forbid you to come here.’
‘I’m your brother,’ I tell him. ‘Not your dog.’
‘I’ll be your king,’ he says, eyes flashing. ‘I forbid you to do it. I—I forbid you to come here again!’
The dirt is sleek with motor oil beneath my feet. When I get down on my knees I stain them, and my jaw is so tight my teeth feel on the edge of breaking. ‘Sire,’ I say.
He seeks me out as I’m packing, with his sun-burnt face embarrassed and unhappy. I won’t ease his conscience, I promise myself. I won’t right his wrongs so he’ll sleep more soundly at night. If he has something to say then only he can say it. For a long time he watches me fold my shirts, until I’ve no shirts left to fold. I clean the mud from my boots and knot a frayed lace to mend it for the time being.
‘Father always said you’d stay,’ my little brother says at last. ‘I always thought—I assumed—he told me you would.’
‘Don’t take it back,’ I tell him harshly. ‘The king’s word is law. He must be firm and certain. When the king commands a man to do a thing, he must be sure of it.’
‘I’m not the king.’ My brother stares up at the darkening sky. There are few clouds in the summer, save for when it rains, and the stars have come out early. Taliesin wrinkles his nose. ‘Not yet, anyway.’
‘If your father said it, so, I’ll stay.’
My little brother laughs at the gypsy speech in me. I want to hit him across the boyish face and smack the laughter out of his mouth.
‘I knew it,’ he says. ‘I knew you would.’
On that day I begin calling him sire. That night, I listen to him breathe heavily through the grass, and when the ravens come to visit me I’m expecting their arrival. There are three, my father’s number. He is ever watching me.
The first raven says, you cannot resent your king.
The second raven says, or you will never truly serve him.
The third raven pecks my cheek to chide me and says, if you treat him poorly we will hear it. The third raven also says, when you were done with him he hid amongst the gypsy bikes to cry.
My mother’s taught him discretion, I tell my father’s birds.
But what do I know of how to teach a king to be a king? I am no king, myself.
The third raven pecks my palms until they bleed and I relent. In the morning my little brother asks me what happened to my hands and I refuse to answer him. Eventually he gives up and hands me bandages.
‘Are we leaving?’ he asks.
I shake my head. ‘Your father will send for our return,’ I say.
Until the little cuts heal, my palms sting when I work with my uncle on the bikes. My mother grows more and more impatient each day. He doesn’t see it, but she wants nothing more than to slap Taliesin when he fails to listen to her advice, so. I don’t blame her for the impulse, but I can’t let anyone strike him, not even my own mother.
My father loved her once and perhaps he loves her still, but he’ll kill her himself if she ever harms him.
‘Come,’ I tell my little brother. ‘Let’s go.’
I lead him to the woods where the birds watch us, hidden in the trees. As much as I would like to I can never leave him here. My father will know before the deed is done what I’ve tried. He’ll kill me too, and though sometimes I believe it would hurt him to do so what matters is that he’ll do it anyway.
‘I’m tired,’ my little brother says. ‘Why are we here?’
‘Would a king ask that question?’
Taliesin frowns. ‘Is this for our father?’
What my little brother could benefit from is some intelligence. Instead I teach him what I know of the forest. He is quick with tracks and leaves and mushrooms and finding fallen buildings tangled with the roots of the tall trees.
When I was much younger it was my father who showed me these things. This was long before he wed Taliesin’s mother, a distant, fair cousin whose trust I never won, and before Taliesin was born into my life.
‘There was a great city here once,’ I tell my little brother, the same way my father told me. ‘It fell when all the cities fell, and soon the trees took over.’
‘Cam, look—I’ve found a window!’ my little brother says.
The floor of the forest has grown thick and mossy over the rooftops of the old houses. Most are made of brick and stone, but still the forest is treacherous. Roofs collapse, stone shifts, and even the smallest of little kings can upset their precarious equilibrium. All rotting wood and crumbling brick are unstable. ‘Never go inside,’ my father warned me. ‘But then, you are no fool.’
Not even a dog would go inside.
I catch my brother by his shirt and pull him back from the window just as he moves to step inside it. When he stumbles he shouts. The forest shakes beneath us. From far away, muted through the grass, the stones grumble. The birds rise in the air at once and the crows berate me, while I hold my little brother against my chest. His heart flutters like a crow itself.
I could have let him fall. Even if he didn’t die, he might have been crippled. When I think of it I feel sick at the thought of my father’s accusing face.
‘Are you frightened?’ I ask my little brother.
He nods. ‘Yes.’
‘The forest will swallow you. Your father told me so—you’d do well to heed it.’
Taliesin scrabbles at my hand like a cat. ‘Don’t call him that,’ he says. ‘He’s our father. Ours.’
I pull away when I ask him, ‘Is that an order, too?’
One night I dream of beating him until he falls at my feet with tears in his eyes. ‘Cam,’ he begs me. ‘Cam, I’m sorry.’ All he needs in this life is to be struck, even once. It would fix his eccentricities of stupid pride. I’ve gone too far, though, my knuckles split by his teeth. He’s come this far. He’s begging me. It should have been enough.
Then the ravens come and circle us both, tear at my hair and mouth and ears. They peck out my eyes.
I’ll never do it, not even in my dreams.
For nervousness: valerian root, cloves, rosemary, orange rind. For headaches: willow bark, St. John’s Wort. To sleep, my mother says, boil lettuce with a pinch of salt. My little brother throws back his head and laughs. At least he is good enough to wait until we are in private.
I long to take him back to the forest and let him explore, without a single good instinct, but it’s too late for that. He’s already seen the dangers there. Some things, my little brother learns too quickly.
‘He cannot read a man, that boy,’ my uncle says.
‘Blind as a bedpost,’ my mother agrees. ‘No doors at all in his little head.’
The gypsies, my cousins and aunts, their grandmothers, their uncles, their nieces and nephews, all speak of him in the Tongue. Even the children laugh at him. ‘This is our one-day king?’ they all ask, flinging their arms up in disgust. ‘He’ll have us killed, no-time.’
Taliesin watches them, uncertain. They are rude to you, I wish I could say, because you are rude to them. Instead I grab him by the wrist and pull him into the center of their great exclusion.
‘Call the crows,’ I say.
‘I’ve never done it like this,’ my little brother protests. ‘Not so far away.’
My fingers are too tight around his skinny hands. ‘Do it for your father,’ I say, ‘if you cannot do it for yourself.’
My little brother makes a choking sound that causes the bile to rise also in my throat, but he pulls the coins from his pockets and throws them in the air, a shower of silver and gold. The gypsies watch him. They also watch me. Nothing happens.
I hear a new baby begin to cry. ‘Hush, so,’ his mother says. ‘And quiet.’
They’ve just begun to hate him when the crows come.
The crows are the least majestic of my father’s birds, but they are the most numerous. The sky turns black like an omen and seethes with their teeming bodies, their frantic wings. Taliesin laughs and turns to face me, eyes bright and triumphant. The gypsies, my people, lift their gazes to watch the proof of his kingship just above them. The children laugh and the women twitch their hands.
That is the smoke dance. Even my mother is singing.
My little brother would never have thought of this trick on his own.
‘Next time,’ he tells me, flushed as a fever, ‘I’ll call all three birds. You’ll teach me, Cam. Won’t you?’
I bow my head. ‘Sire,’ I tell him. ‘I will.’
The crows have settled over the gypsy camp, a blanket of black bodies, but when it begins to rain the next day they take off together all at once. The gypsies watch them go and then disappear themselves, heading inside to keep dry. I hear their music call from within. It echoes against the metal walls and through the rain. With no one to tend to them and the rain coming down hard, the oil drum fires go out.
I stay outside with my little brother.
‘We should have a tent for ourselves,’ he says. I toss him my coat.
‘We should have brought one, then,’ I reply. ‘You can’t have another man do all your thinking for you. Remember this. Gypsies have tents enough only for themselves.’
He shivers all day with my coat held tented above him, and by the time night falls his teeth are chattering. I take no shelter either and feel no different, beyond wet, but my little brother is still young and has never been strong. When the rain stops, I light a small fire.
‘Is it cold, Cam?’ my little brother asks.
It’s warm. ‘It gets cold at night,’ I remind him. He can weather the rain, or he will never be king at all.
I give him my blanket and wait for him to fall asleep before I touch the back of my hand to his cheek. It’s as warm as I thought. I coax fire into the soggy wood and ease him closer to its heat. This is no winter fever. Chances are it’ll break before morning.
My mother comes to look after us, stares at his face in the firelight and clicks her tongue against her teeth. ‘Learn that boy to build a tent,’ she tells me. ‘You’ve done him no good service waiting this long.’
It’s his business, not mine, to know whether he wants a tent or not. I say nothing to my mother but ‘He’ll be well enough by sunrise.’
Before sunrise, however, he’s twitching and mumbling. I feed the fire and watch him sweat, until my mother comes out to us again with her mouth angry and her eyes blacker than midnight.
‘You,’ she says. ‘You take him inside. Your uncle’s ’car. You fix him, boy.’
To my mother, I will always be boy. I gather my feverish fool of a brother into my arms and carry him to my uncle’s bed, the red boxcar nearer to gray in this moonlight. There’s smoky wood burning away in my uncle’s stove. The single long room is too hot. My little brother clutches fitfully at my shirt and my hands tremble with the effort to be gentle. I strip the clothes from him, still damp, as my mother and uncle leave us.
‘When it rains,’ I snap, ‘you find shelter. Sit there if you want, do nothing if you want, die—if it please you. Just don’t ask me for the help.’
His neck and face are darker than his shoulders and his chest from all the time he’s spent in the sun. He holds his hands out for me and whimpers.
When he was six and eight he did the same thing. At the height of his fever his delirious imagination terrified him. ‘My hands are growing,’ he had cried then. ‘Please. Please, Cam, help me stop them.’
I slip his fingers beneath my shirt and hold them firm against my stomach.
‘They’re fixed,’ I say dully. ‘I’ve fixed them.’
‘You lack kindness,’ my mother says.
All those nights ago in the gypsy camp, I wrapped myself around his little body naked and shivering. I could have killed him then. I could have gone to draw from the deepest well or the coldest stream. I could have rubbed icy water all over his heaving chest to worsen the fever. I could have pressed the sweetest herbs against his lips, soothed his mutterings, rubbed his back and watched the poison take hold. My uncle’s boxcar is always a private place, with blackened curtains drawn tight over the window. No birds could have brought the news back to my father from where I lay with cold hands, murdering my little brother. I could have done it more swiftly and surely than ever before. I should have done it. I didn’t.
I must realize by now that my duty isn’t simply to teach him but to keep him alive. Any injury, any illness, is my charge just the same as he is. My father seeks to make me my little brother’s man. In name and in performance, I am his man already.
Before we left the gypsies, my mother sat me down beside her. ‘You must list his failings,’ she instructed. ‘You must speak them to a dark, deep hole. Bury them. Grow a humpback tree, as crooked as all your desires.’
‘His failings,’ I told her, ‘are too many to list.’
In my father’s rookery the oldest raven listens as I heed only half my mother’s advice and plant no crooked trees at all. They’ll call him Crow King, I tell the raven. With only the crows to serve my little brother, all the lords who watch him keenly even now will turn on him.
The raven says, we must teach him, even though it has never been our kingdom.
My father took dominion over the scattered domains because he had command of the birds. The men who supported him from the first were tattooed his Ravens. The men who saw the error of their ways before the war was half-way done were named his Blackbirds. Finally, the men whose spirits he crushed and whose land he seized to reapportion were branded his Crows. They scavenge amongst themselves for my father’s scraps. They hate him.
His greatest strength is that they also hate each other. As long as my father has command of the birds these men will never rise against him.
There are three birds, one for each kind of man above whom my father fought to rise. My little brother must learn two more birds or he will ruin the kingdom my father built.
When we return from the gypsies, my father is away. He arrives three days after us, embraces my little brother and rests both hands on my shoulders. I recall the many proverbs my mother has always said, as awkward in the Tongue as they are in English.
You keep the things you love at arm’s length, she told me once, and Your father, too.
‘How do you find his discretion?’ I ask my father. We are alone. He feeds woodland mice to the ravens who gather in his room. I have never felt pity for their small brown bodies and long worm-tails. ‘Has it improved?’
‘Hold your tongue,’ my father says. ‘He is no more than sixteen.’
Before I was sixteen, I think, I knew all the ways in which I could have killed him. No one else knew. Now my little brother is older than I was then, yet he is no wiser.
‘Tell me,’ my father says, ‘how you find his discretion.’
I am still too honest with my father. ‘He knows not when to laugh. He cannot read a man,’ I say.
‘No,’ my father agrees. ‘Not even his own brother.’
‘I cannot teach him the other birds.’ I bow my head before my father’s chair, clasping his hand and pressing it to my forehead. His fingers smell of dying mice. ‘My learning will be no good for him. He will be unhappy again, as he was before the crows were his.’
‘And yet the crows are his.’ My father pulls his hand away. He beckons to a young raven rather than touch me now. The bird alights on his fist, where it begins preening. ‘No one could have taught him the crows but you.’
‘Blackbirds and ravens are not so easily won,’ I say. ‘Crows are the lesser birds. You know this better than I do.’
The birds have always been my father’s power. I had to learn the skill for myself. I’ve spent years watching his mouth and eyes and still the way I speak to his birds is the way I speak to his birds. As they are his, the birds will never be mine.
Let my little brother study you as I have studied you, father. Let him want to learn. Let the work make something stronger of him.
‘This is my desire,’ my father says. ‘The birds have always been mine. We cannot ever teach what is our own nature.’
‘You command me,’ I say.
He sighs. ‘I command you.’
‘When would you have us begin?’ I ask.
My father motions to the door. ‘For the blackbirds he will have to learn to lie sweetly,’ he says. ‘For the ravens he will have to learn to read a man, as you say he cannot.’ My father’s eyes are as dark as a crow’s when he says, ‘You begin tonight.’
‘Blackbirds like songs,’ I say. ‘They are jealous birds and they cannot sing for themselves. You must tell them they are your favorite of the birds. Their feathers are the glossiest. Their beaks the sharpest. They serve you the best of all, and you have saved the best of the mice for them to eat.’ The blackbird on my shoulder turns from preening itself to comb its beak through my hair. ‘You must flatter them,’ I say. ‘You must show them man can rise above petty envy to seize a kingdom. You rule together. All the blackbirds are also kings.’
My brother leaves the crows and steps forward to watch me.
‘Crows will never be jealous when you have coin in your pocket,’ I say. ‘Ravens will never care what you do, so long as you are wise and avoid carelessness. Blackbirds are the middling bird, neither worst nor best. They feel the weight of such indifference. You must woo them, for they cannot bear it.’
The blackbird walks down the length of my arm. I offer him to my little brother. Although he holds still his eyes draw back.
‘Go on,’ I say. ‘He won’t peck you. Only the crows are so foolish. Call him sweet names, tell him beautiful lies. If you flatter him enough, you’ll buy his love for you.’
‘I thought,’ my brother says, ‘I thought they didn’t have names at all.’ He wears a leather glove on his small hand. There is no bravery at all in the way he takes the blackbird from me.
‘It’s flattery,’ I say. ‘Flattery has no use for real names. Call him anything. Beautiful bird, clever hunter, handsome, invaluable, fierce. His eyes are the brightest, his talons so sharp. Tell him you’ve saved the best of the woodland mice for him to eat.’
‘The ravens,’ my brother says. He strokes the blackbird’s head cautiously. ‘What about them? They deserve the best of the woodland mice.’
‘There is no ‘best of the woodland mice.’ If you feed the blackbird the fattest mouse, you’ll feed the raven two mice who are smaller. The raven is clever—never forget that. The raven will know two small mice are more than one fat one.’
‘Pretty bird,’ my little brother murmurs. ‘You’re the prettiest bird I’ve ever seen.’ He holds still as the blackbird begins to preen itself.
‘You must flatter him for nights and nights,’ I say. ‘Until your flattery has become a part of his habits. Then he will always turn to you, and seek your flattery even as he rewards it. The blackbird is the smallest, if not the swiftest. He is necessary, as are all your spies. He feels inferior and he always must—this is the balance and bargain to strike with him.’
‘Cam,’ my little brother says. ‘I haven’t any woodland mice to feed him, Cam.’
‘I have them,’ I say. I kneel down to strap the bag to his belt and loosen the strings. ‘One by one: the fattest woodland mice. You’ve found them especially for the prettiest birds you’ve ever seen. Tell them how delighted you are to meet them.’
My little brother is a poor flatterer. He stumbles over the lies and trips on extravagant words. He is lucky the blackbirds are so eager to be loved. Like beggars, babies, the very old and the dying, blackbirds will accept anything.
I listen to my little brother singing to them. At least he has that, a fine voice. He sings them my gypsy songs with the wrong words.
‘Blackbirds are proud,’ I tell him. ‘Noble birds, regal birds. Sing them something that befits a king.’
‘I don’t know any other songs,’ my little brother says.
I have no talent myself for singing. The blackbirds begin to gather around my brother. Only the ravens are left to me.
My father’s oldest raven reminds me that soon I will teach him to love my little brother more than he loves both my father and me. The raven says, we have always waited for it, since the day he was born.
The ravens are the cleverest of all three birds. Their love cannot be bought. Their respect must be won. How can my little brother make their admiration his own?
By the end of the week he has plied the last of the blackbirds. They flock around him when he follows me into the rookery, preen his pale hair, puff up their feathers. He calls them sweet birds, pretty birds, clever birds. He calls them the blackest in color, the finest blue-black in the light. He feeds them their fat woodland mice and strokes their little heads.
‘I think they’re speaking to me,’ Taliesin says.
‘They’re trying to,’ I agree.
‘When will I be able to hear them?’
‘When the ravens are yours,’ I say.
The third of the rookery that is not his are the most important. He has no time for triumph, I think, but my father assembles the lords again and bids my brother call the blackbirds. They come first, and then the crows. The great hall echoes with the beating of their wings and the cawing of the crows. To the lords, it is as if death itself descends upon them. One or two note the ravens still have not come.
Not one of them understands the significance of the ravens. They simply know the ravens are significant.
When my brother calls the ravens down upon their heads, they will swear fealty to him. My father tells me this when we are alone that night.
‘Your brother must call the ravens by the new year,’ he instructs. ‘I will have all the lords in attendance. He will call all three birds down at once. First the crows, then the blackbirds. At last, he will call the ravens. When they see this they will know he is their prince, my heir. When he is their king they will fear the birds too greatly ever to rise against him.’
‘Even so many months,’ I say, ‘will not be enough.’
My father asks the oldest raven what he thinks. The raven says, it will be a hard business.
‘Perhaps,’ my father says, ‘he might draw strength of character and a more understanding heart if he were to know a wife.’
The raven opens its mouth in a silent laugh.
‘No more than a week past, you told me this yourself,’ I say. ‘That he is no more than sixteen. Too young to blame for his misdeeds, for what wisdom he is lacking. And now you believe he is old enough for a wife?’
‘He lacks understanding,’ my father replies. ‘Those are your words.’
I think of my little brother with his white, smooth hands, without any calluses, trying to court a woman like a bird. Would I be required of him then, too, to stand there and guide his hands against her breasts? Shower her with presents, I would say. A woman likes beads; she is like a crow.
Flatter her, I would say. A woman craves flattery; she is like a blackbird.
Show her you are just, I would say. A woman must trust you; she is like a raven.
‘I have never known a woman,’ I say. ‘Yet I speak freely with all three of your birds.’
‘And he may not marry until he is king,’ my father says. ‘No, Cam—you must teach him understanding. You will have the help of my ravens. They will do their best to aid you.’
I take his oldest raven with me and leave. Outside the door of my father’s private chambers, I stroke the raven’s breast. His feathers are the ones knotted in my hair. The raven says, sometimes I think of you as my own son. The raven says, but if you were mine I would teach you better. The raven says, you would not be jealous like the blackbirds or petty like the crows.
I am a raven most of all, I reply.
You are no raven, the raven says. Nor is your father one.
‘What is he saying?’ my little brother asks as we climb the stairs to the rookery. ‘You’ve been quiet a long time—you must be talking.’
‘Nothing of importance,’ I tell him.
I open the rookery door. The blackbirds and crows have gone. My father has dispatched them to leave us time and no distractions.
‘Cam,’ my little brother asks, ‘what is this? Where have they gone?’
‘Today,’ I tell him, ‘we begin with the ravens.’
You lack compassion, says my father’s oldest raven.
My little brother has no wisdom at all to his name. The days pass without any progression. The nights, too. After the third week my brother stamps his foot and his cheeks and nose are splotched with pink. Raven feathers drift in the air around him.
‘I cannot!’ he shouts. ‘I cannot do it, Cam—I cannot love them!’
‘They cannot love you,’ I shout back, ‘because you cannot make them love you—it is no fault other than your own!’
‘I know they hate me.’ My little brother wipes his nose fiercely on his sleeve. ‘They will never love me. They will never be mine.’
The ravens watch us. I know what they think of him, and me. They think, how silly are the frustrations of easily frustrated men. They think, will they ever seek to resolve their quarrels, unburden their shoulders or speak what they really feel? No man is honest, they think. No man will ever come to a true solution.
‘You are weak,’ I lash out at him. ‘You are weaker than I ever knew.’
‘Then I give up!’ my little brother cries. ‘For I will never see it done!’
I grasp my brother by the throat and pull my arm back without thinking. At last I will strike him, slap the selfishness from his heart. Once I have harmed him I will be exiled or killed, but it must be done. There is no one else to do it.
He shrinks back against the wall and away from the anger in my face. The sound my palm makes against his cheek is too loud and echoes through the rookery.
The ravens are still.
‘What you cannot do,’ I say, shaking, ‘is refuse to learn our father’s ravens. If you fail them you fail his kingdom. Little brother—I refuse your surrender!’
My little brother is also shaking.
My father named him Taliesin, calls him Tal. The gypsies call him The Little King. These days, I call him Sire. These are four names my brother has. In his life he will have countless more. Master of Ravens. Crow-Runner. The Blackbird King.
‘Because my father commands you,’ my little brother says at last, ‘the same way he commands his ravens. You teach me because you must, not for any love you bear me.’
Next year my little brother will be seventeen. He has always been little in my eyes. I think of my father offering him his future bride, a distant, fair cousin who will bear him weak-blooded sons. ‘Because,’ my father might as well say, ‘you must have your worthy sons before you father any others. Your children will be less angry that way, and less resentful. This was my mistake. Heed what I have learned through the pain of experience.’
‘I know what the gypsies say,’ my little brother tells me. His cheek is red where I struck him. ‘They say that I am blind as boxcars. That I have no windows in my heart. And our father speaks to you of what to do with me, for I cannot make the ravens love me—I do not know how.’
I think of tucking his shivering body small against my own in my uncle’s boxcar, his little bed, cones of incense burning in the fire. I could just as well have built my little brother a tent, or taught him how.
I think of telling him when to call the crows. It was his triumph just the same as it was mine. Our father would have asked me why we could not share it, and I would have answered it was because we cannot ever share the throne.
And yet I am still my brother’s man. My father has seen to it, so. I will serve my little brother until I break with the burden of serving him, and then I will beat him. I am no teacher, no brother, no king, no worthy son. My mother says this nothingness is because I am gypsy and gypsies are nowhere at the best of times, nothing at the worst.
‘And what you think,’ my brother says. He holds to the front of my shirt as if he believes he will fall. ‘I know that, too.’
I also think of my own anger when I learn that my father will charge me with his worthy son before giving him away again. My little brother will marry a wife pure as the deepest drifts of fresh snow. He will call on me as he will never call on the crows, just to answer his every reckless whim.
‘If you know what I think,’ I tell him, ‘it is your choice what you make of it. Yours. You must decide what to do.’
My little brother relaxes his hold on the fabric of my shirt. With one hand I have always despised for being so soft, he touches the hardest lines of my face.
‘The ravens will never love me,’ my little brother says. ‘Forgive me, Cam—I cannot, I cannot understand you.’
‘I am of no consequence,’ I tell him. ‘In matters of state. In matters of this kingdom. I am not anyone.’
My little brother laughs wildly, foolishly. ‘You matter most,’ he says. ‘You are my brother and I love you. Forgive me, Cam. Forgive me.’
He kisses me shakily on the mouth and I let him. I hold him.
All this time I have thought of my little brother as my burden, I’ve been thinking of him as mine. For this injustice, I have only myself to blame. I too am as blind as if the ravens pecked my eyes out at birth.
If this is what you’ve wanted, the raven says, all his apologies are yours.
The raven says, only a crow would mistake what reward he wants when it is before him. Only a blackbird would think it is not enough.
But I am no bird at all. I have been my brother’s man since the day he was born.
‘This kingdom,’ I say, ‘will be yours. If you are strong, little brother, and fight for it, I will respect you.’ I pull away from the palm of his hand and sink to the floor. My knees are well acquainted with such a position. As I rest my cheek against my brother’s hip he preens my hair with his fingers. ‘As for the rest,’ I say, ‘I have always loved you.’
In the new year my brother calls the ravens to steal food from my father’s long table. As I watch them descend upon us, proud and beautiful, I know why I have failed to kill him.
- Jaida Jones, "Master of Ravens"