I settle on the curve of a telephone wire and ruffle my feathers, for the benefit of the humans below. Of course mortals these days have little reverence for creatures they don’t understand; I’ve heard them joke about popping me with an air rifle just to watch the feathers fly. There was a time, a thousand thousand years ago, when they had more respect for those who came with messages from the gods. But that’s no reason to deprive them of the glorious flash of my jet-black wings against the bloody sunset.
A harried-looking woman hurries by beneath me with a phone pinned between her ear and shoulder. Ordinarily I would give a few deep croaks, just to see her jump and walk a little faster - I’ve never seen a mortal, however enlightened they pretend to be, whose blood doesn’t run cold at the villainous croak of a lone raven at dusk. But there’s no playing around tonight. I serve a stern god - Apollo, god of prophecy and truth - and he’s given me a job to do. A mortal has a problem, of course. Have you ever met a human who can so much as find their way around the block? But this time the silly being has begged and pleaded until the gods have sent me to answer their question. And first I have to find the answer.
Has anyone thought to make it easy for me? No, oh no. No one gives a thought to the ravens, the lackeys of the gods. Not so much as a please or thank you - just, “find out the answer before dawn or I’ll turn your feathers to fire.” Ridiculous mortals - leave it to them to cry themselves into madness over a question even the gods can’t answer.
In a burst of black feathers, I sweep into the air and soar upwards. The city lights below me are a swirling blur under the descending darkness, and the cold air flutters my wingtips. I turn in wide circles, pondering. Where can I find a mortal to answer an impossible question?
I think I know where. I bank on a cold gust of wind toward the oldest part of the city. The university’s one of my favourite haunts - I’m quite in my element posing atop a handsome stone monument, or snatching snacks out of student’s hands - but apart from that, it’s always crawling with late-night professors. Who else but the most learned of mortals could answer my question before dawn? Thank gods they think they’re too important to stop working.
I glide over the darkened campus, wishing I had time to swoop past the dorms and ruin a romantic evening or two with some creepy cawing - I happen to specialize in that sort of thing - but I angle my wings toward the high-crowned academic buildings. The courtyard’s empty except for dry leaves scuttling along in the wind, but the building’s windows are still bright even at this time of night. At last I alight on a likely-looking window ledge. Peering into the brightly lit book-lined office, I see a mortal man striding up and down, muttering to himself. He runs his hands through his grizzled grey hair as he paces, and his clothes are distastefully rumpled and unstylish. Looks wise to me. Or at least, as wise as mortals get. Which isn’t very.
“It’s necessary to do x - but the nature of x requires that one does y - but Pickinwerts proves that Glumpe’s assumption is false -”
I take a deep breath. It’s not often that I speak to humans anymore; I must put my best wing forward as a messenger of the gods. I take care to pose my wing elegantly before I give a crisp tap on the window with my beak.
The harried-looking professor takes no notice. “It’s exactly as in Montaigne’s hedgehog thought experiment - are the situations truly comparable?”
I give a sharper rap. He throws me a glance in annoyance and continues to pace. “If only I had a copy of de Worms in the original German -”
“Mortal!” I crow impatiently. “Harken! The god of truth calls upon your wisdom.”
“Stupid bird! I need silence! I need to think!” He grabs a walking-stick leaning by his desk and hurries over to the window, throws it open, and swings furiously at me. I tumble from the windowsill in a squawking bundle of black - most undignified - and wheel up past his window. He’s already closed it and has gone back to pacing. What effrontery! A thousand hydras invade your nightmares!
“Nevermore!” I shriek over my shoulder - I hear this has a delightfully unpleasant effect on humans - and climb the sky again. I’ve wasted precious time on this stupid man. It’s clear that the university is no good to me, and the moon has moved across the sky: I need another idea, and quickly.
Back over the dense glow of the downtown lights, I swoop low for a closer look at the city streets, searching. Finally I catch sight of what I look for: a shop sign emblazoned with certain magical symbols, advertising a purveyor of the secret arts. What mortal but a magician has plumbed the secret depths of knowledge? Surely he will tell me what I need to know.
His window is open, so I flutter in. The room is dimly lit by a single fat yellow candle. Every surface is cluttered with bottles, bones, and books. Some of the pictures on the wall are uglier than Hades, and I’ve been. What an odious human den - he’s lucky I’m willing to grace it with my presence.
The magician is snoring gently at his desk, head resting on a thick and dusty book. I perch on the wardrobe and tilt my head at him curiously. With a long grey beard and luxuriant purple robes, he looks more like a seedy actor than the magicians of old to whom the gods sent me often. They weren’t playacting. Thin, half-starved, dressed in rags - they knew the darkness that they served. Still, he’s my best hope, so I lean forward and screech an ear-piercing note.
He startles and stares around. When he finally notices me blinking at him from the top of the wardrobe, he grows deathly pale.
“Mortal,” I begin officiously, “Hear thou my riddle -”
It’s no use. He screams and falls off his chair. Why must mortals be so tiresome?
“Truly, child of Adam, I mean you no harm …”
“Begone, demon!” He scrambles for the closest object, a fluffy footstool, and hurls it at me. I squawk, offended.
“Listen,” I say, summoning my deepest croak, “I assure you, there’s really no need -”
He’s still scrabbling on the floor and shouting incomprehensible incantations, and next he throws a bottle of evil-looking green liquid, which smashes on the wardrobe and makes a dreadful smell.
“Sir, please compose yourself. I merely need the answer to a single question -” A teapot comes hurtling at me through the darkness, and I flutter up to avoid it - “You see, some questions are beyond the gods’ ability to answer, and if you would just listen -” I dodge a heavy book. “I am bound to find the answer before sunrise or else my master Apollo will do terrible things -”
At the mention of my master’s name the foolish mortal shrieks and clutches his head. I squawk in frustration: it’s just so typical. The silly man has spent his whole life messing about with trinkets and talismans, but at the first sign of the gods really acting, he falls to pieces. I know his kind - a small-time self-flattering trickster. He knows no secrets. I’ve wasted my time again. I give his wardrobe a vicious peck to remember me by, then take wing and swoop out of his window, leaving him sobbing on the floor. If I should find the answer I search for and survive the night, how can I exact my revenge on him? And how long is left til dawn?
I bank away from the glowing city lights and turn towards a quieter part of town, full of houses all asleep. I’m tired and my beak is drooping. I settle dejectedly on a roof ridge and slump, not at all my usual stately self. No matter. No mortals are awake in this night-death stillness to see my indignity. Stupid mortals. Why can’t they leave well enough alone? Why bend their little minds to ask silly questions? Whoever asked them to pry into the secrets that even the gods don’t know?
I’m startled into a flurry of feathers by a tapping behind me.
A little mortal in pink pyjamas is standing at her bedroom window, knocking and waving to me. Waving. A human child awake in the dead of night? Waving at the messenger from another world? Of all the impudence.
She pushes up the window sash and puts one finger to her lips. “Hello birdy,” she whispers. “What’s your name?”
Somewhere under my coal-black feathers, my heart is moved by such gentle courtesy.
“Corax, servant of Apollo, at your service,” I croak.
The little mortal gasps and laughs. “My birdy can talk! Hello birdy!”
I twitch my head to the side. It’s not often that mortals treat me so kindly. I must say I’m flattered. “Little mortal,” I rasp, with a sudden hope, “may I ask of you a favour?”
She nods her curly head eagerly.
“There is a question asked by a mortal, the answer of which I must needs learn before dawn …”
“Mortal child, tell me if you know ...” A raven cannot whisper. I’ve tried. But I croak my question as quietly as I can.
She giggles. Apollo and Artemis, has a mortal ever giggled at a raven in the dead of night before? I swallow my impatience for a long, quiet moment while she looks thoughtfully at the moon. Then her face lights up, and I dare to hope. I hop warily up the slope of the roof to perch on her windowsill, closer than I’ve ever been to a mortal. She cups a hand around her mouth, and with a warm breath that tickles my feathers she whispers her answer.
I caw, caw, caw a laugh that echoes around the empty street. All along, how simple, how simple!
“Shhh!” she scolds. “Don’t wake mommy!”
“Little mortal, I am in your debt,” I croak. “I will pray for your favour to Apollo.”
She shrugs again.
I burst into flight and in moments am far above her house, but I look back to see her waving goodbye. As I watch, a long black feather drifts downwards, and she catches it. What a sweet mortal child. Perhaps in another thousand years I will land on her grave and caw my thanks.
But for now, I have a mission to fulfill, and the day has almost begun to break.
I beat my wings to gain height in the still-dark sky. The journey between worlds is never easy and I’ve already spent much of my strength. Oh, I’ll deserve a nice fat frog in the roosts of Elysium for this. Higher and higher I climb, until my wings truly ache and I struggle for breath in the thin air. And then -
I hurtle downwards, a bolt of darkness lost in darkness, sparing a thought to hope that no drifting balloons get in my way. There’s a flash of light, and the whole sky seems to turn upside-down and pull me in every direction. Ahead of me, I see, as if through the wrong end of a telescope, a glimpse of the world I’m travelling towards, and I beat my wings furiously.
Then I’m through. Below me, a sea of swirling colour, as bright as the dark city I left behind was bleak and dim. The sweet summer air tickles my wings.
I spiral downwards and settle on the gate of a violently green garden, hung about with large red and white roses, where a little table is set with delicate cups and saucers for a tea party. Next to the garden, a tall house leans in every direction. Usually when I come to Wonderland I stop to bandy words with a delightfully cynical caterpillar, and take a pull or two on his hookah, but as you know, I’ve no time just now.
After catching my breath - oh, I might need two frogs, I really might - I open my wings and drift into the house’s open window. Inside, I’m a black spot amid a riot of colour: swaths of ribbons and riots of flowers spill over every surface, and clocks cover every wall. On a pink silk daybed there sprawls a man, sobbing madly, with a magnificent sky-blue top hat wedged askew on his head. He mops his tears with a polka-dot bow tie. Disgusting.
I hop forward, claws skidding on the hardwood, and croak a belligerent introduction. “Mortal! Harken! Your prayer is heard!” And may the gods hear my prayer, that this be the last mortal I have to talk to until the end of this age.
The Mad Hatter springs up and fixes me in a rigid white-eyed gaze, then falls to his knees. His top hat rolls away. “Oh messenger,” he whispers. “I have waited, I have wept - can you tell me - can anyone tell me - why is a raven like a writing desk?”
A raven can’t roll its eyes. But I try.