Science Fiction & Fantasy




Noah’s Raven

Ten months after the ark first floated, and forty days after its keel snagged on a drowned mountain peak, Noah released a raven to look for land. Her name was ungraspable by humans, but might be translated as Bessary, plus a term ravens used for the taste of three-day-dead goat when the temperatures have stayed just above freezing, plus a color at the 327-nanometer wavelength, plus a sensation along the rictal bristles in a particular sort of cool air. Her feathers rustled like silk, and the arch of her beak was very beautiful.

The other raven had been called something roughly translatable as Arum/the 11th day of the moon/the taste of iron-rich water/fourteen young raised to adulthood.

• • • •

If Noah had asked, the local ravens would have met and determined a good pair: old enough to have sense but still young, strong and with a successful nesting history: smart ravens, good at problem solving. If Noah had asked—and if he had been right that the entire world even could be covered in water. But that was nonsense: even a young raven knew this. A flood only covered parts of things. Fly high enough, and you would see something, somewhere. And Bessary and Arum were not even paired. Arum had eased into a slightly tufty, late middle age with his partner, Tanipelis, whereas Bessary was flapping enthusiastically toward full adulthood, and spent her time with a crew of similarly light-winged adolescents who ate and played together, and slept in comfortable rows in the communal night-trees.

But Noah did not ask, not the ravens, not anyone. He had been told: seven of each clean animal, two of each unclean, which was a lot of work in a hurry. God had implied that the animals would come to Noah, but that’s not how it worked out. Some did come, or maybe were just wandering past the ark site on their way to someplace else. Others had to be hunted out.

By the end, Noah was getting sloppy. If he didn’t have enough of an animal, he killed what he did have, and hid the bodies in an ever-growing corpse pile on a hillside nearby. What, was God going to check up on every single vole? Would He even notice the absence of the rose-beaked wren or the ghost mouse? If He liked them so much, He should have made sure they showed up on time. Some animals, Noah never caught even one, and these he treated as children’s tales and legends, even if in his youth he had thrown sticks at them and stalked their woodland nests.

The birds were a special challenge. Noah did his beleaguered best: set snares in trees and beside marshes and in fields, then assigned his daughters to sort and cage the captured birds. There were mistakes, of course. They could not always tell the difference between this sparrow and that, plus females and males often did not resemble one another. Noah’s daughters gave it a good try, but in the end, they caged what seemed a reasonable number of small brown birds all together and left them to sort it out amongst themselves. If they got more than they needed of something, they freed the extras, but any birds injured in the nets were killed and their bodies tossed into a sinew- and feather-threaded heap.

The bird-corpse pile was how Arum and Bessary were caught. The vultures and other carrion birds went to Noah’s larger corpse pile, but the ravens were curious. So much carrion in a single place was surprising, but all birds? It was not at all a known thing and surely merited a look. And so it was that Arum and Bessary were squabbling over the corpse of a white-capped nightfisher when a concealed net snapped closed. A few yards away, Tanipelis had been plucking the feathers from a dead red-tailed hawk. Rattling with fear, she tore at the net, and when Noah’s daughters approached, she attacked them. Protecting their heads, the daughters shoved the tangle of birds and net into a bamboo cage painted with tar, and fled. They left the cage in the staging area for birds, and a day later, when they at last risked returning, they found that Bessary had bitten the net into shreds, and the ravens now huddled in opposite corners of their cage. Arum was silent; Tanipelis was gone.

Crates and coops, stakeout lines and fences, nose twitches and goads, ever more noise and smell. The largest cages were pushed up the long ramps on cedar-log rollers, then lowered into the ark’s deep hold. The animals that could be led were dragged into the stenchy dark and tied, struggling, into their stanchions. Noah had plans for which animals went where, but by the end there was no order to any of it: antelopes stacked atop cheetahs next to newts; beavers by wolves beside a dirt-filled crate for the star-nosed moles; smaller cages crammed into every crevice and corner.

Bessary and Arum were placed on deck, part of a stack of cages tied down tightly beneath a oilskin tarp, where the larger birds were kept.

• • • •

The rain started; the rain kept on. In a series of shuddering jolts, the ark lifted at last from its blocks and was afloat. It had been hastily made, and water came in everywhere, seeping up through the ballast, and down from the hatches, and between the planks of the deck and hull. Noah’s sons set the oxen to the treadmill pumps that would keep the ship afloat: As long as they were here, they might as well make themselves useful.

The rain kept on, and kept on. Water seeped through the oilskin, down past the skysweeps in the cage above. Bessary and Arum crouched on the rotting remnants of the net until the shreds slipped at last through the floor and fell onto the giant petrels beneath them; then they slept on the cage’s bare bars. So much water rinsed the tar from the cages, and after a time, Bessary saw it would be possible to bite through the cords that secured the bamboo. But why? The rain kept on and kept on. Where would they go? At least there was plenty to eat.

Every so often Noah or one of his sons staggered along the rain-swept deck to slop a rank stew that changed every day into wooden bowls in the cages. The stew was delectable, Bessary thought, but Arum only picked at it, sunk into a lethargy she could not stir him from. She prruked and rattled and knocked and sang at Arum, but he would not speak, just gave the sound that meant back off, and after a time, not even that. When he slept, she groomed him delicately, so as not to awaken him.

Nothing at all, until a day when he said: The snow markhors are gone.

What do you mean? she asked, but he said no more. And she in any case knew, because now that he had said it, she could taste their death. Somewhere in the ark’s reeking belly, the male snow markhor had died, shaking his heavy-horned head and coughing. And in the cold counting-game of the ark, one of a species was the same as none of a species, and so the female was killed as well, and both were thrown together into the stewpot.

The rain kept on. Four days later, Arum said: The reticulated honeydrinkers. After that: The crested aurochs. Arum collected the names of the dead like shiny objects found on the ground, then dropped them into the nest of her mind. The giant pangolins.

Bessary, with all the time in the wet world and the taste of the dead on her black tongue, thought it through. She knew what Noah believed was going on, because he talked about it all the time: the world swept bare by water and wave, this fat floundering ark containing the last creatures in all the world. But that was nonsense: no flood could cover the earth. So Arum must mean that all the reticulated honeydrinkers here, on the ark, were gone. There must be others, on high lands Noah had no notion of.

The rain kept on. The paladin shrews. The speckled skinks.

The fieldcats. Ravens had a practiced palate, but Bessary, each day tasting a mix of creatures she had neither seen nor known of, was becoming an expert at fathoming the truth of what she ate. That’s how she knew that the fieldcats were really gone. Floods might not cover the earth, but they had covered all the fieldcat ranges. These two fieldcats really had been the last two, until they were dead. It was all perfectly clear in the stew’s flavor, as clear as the alpha-keratin of fur, the iron of blood. The fieldcats were gone. Extinct.

The hemippes. The monkeyface wallabys. The rain stopped, and the wind began. The ark was a graceless vessel, toiling across the waves in juddering heaves. The great gnidans.

The skysweeps. Their cage above the ravens was taken away, and now Bessary and Arum were the top of the stack, the tarp pressed against their cage. Bessary tore free a piece of oilskin that she pulled in through the bars, giving them a patch of coarse cloth to sleep on, and incidentally leaving a hole through which she could see the world outside: red-eyed Noah or his sons when they stumbled along the heaving deck, beyond that the broken gray sea—and beyond that the sky: a sharp thin blue, layered with stratus clouds and high, thin cirrus like lost, ragged veils.

The gray efts. The cryptic treehunters.

The wind. Arum had always taken their situation harder than Bessary. After his molt, his feathers grew in ragged and raw-edged, no longer smoothly nestling into their places. He ate so little that Bessary wondered how he knew who had died.

She was afraid. They were not even friends, let alone mates; but if he died, into the stewpot he would go. And then so would she—and it would not matter whether there were other ravens in the world, because there would be no more Bessary. Extinction can be as global as all, or as personal as me.

• • • •

The sea starlings. The scimitar oryxes. The bennū herons.

• • • •

The rain and then the wind, the cage and Arum dying beside her and the growing list of the lost. It had been going on forever when the ship gave a deep wooden shout and staggered to one side, like a dog writhing away from a wasp sting. The waves changed gait, and instead of tossing the vessel, they slammed against it. It had been so long that even Noah did not understand it immediately. The ark had grounded on a crag a few fathoms beneath the waves. The waters were dropping.

The sea otters sensed new-growing seaweed and young shellfish just on the other side of the hull, and squealed in excitement. They could survive—if anyone could have gotten to them to release them. For everyone else, land underwater was no land at all, and waters dropping were not waters gone. And the waters, they stayed and they stayed, perhaps a little lower each day but still: not land.

The queen vultures. The passenger pigeons. Gone: gone from the ark, or gone entirely, if not this time, then the next.

By the fortieth day of the ship’s grounding, Noah was nearly mad with exhaustion and despair. Plus winter was coming, again. He came on deck. The tarp over the birdcages was worn thin by sun and wind and rain, so it was no great labor to pull the oilskin away and unveil his biggest birds. He looked them over. Gone: the skysweeps, the ordinal phalaropes, the desert condors. The remaining birds were a draggled lot, many ill, others hard to rouse from their anomie or despair.

The ravens’ cage was eye-height. Noah contemplated Bessary, clinging to the side of the cage, disheveled but alert and watching him with one bright eye. Arum lay flat on Bessary’s scrap of oilskin, unmoving except for an occasional flick of ragged feather; but that might have been the wind.

Noah said, “Well, he’s dead, but you look strong enough.” He pulled out a small hand axe and began to chip at the bamboo of their cage.

She said, “He’s not dead.” This is before the Tower at Babel fell and words between tribes and species failed, but anyone could have read the mantling of her wings and her fierce stance for what it was.

Even so, he misunderstood. “Don’t worry, it’s not about that.” He meant the stewpot and the taste of Arum and Bessary in tomorrow’s meal. “I need something.”

She waited: wings still half-mantled, a skeptical eye.

He said, “There’s land somewhere, I know it. I need someone strong to fly high, look around, and then come back and tell me whether this is almost over.” Even to a raven, he sounded weary and sick at heart.

“Why would I do that?” said Bessary.

He had returned to breaking open the bamboo cage. “Why wouldn’t you? It’s what animals are for, doing things.” He meant: doing things for us. “You’re worried you’d come back and be killed since the other one’s dead? I swear I won’t.” He looked solemn; he thought he spoke the truth. “Come back, and even if you don’t find any land, we’ll keep feeding you. We’ll feed you extra, so you can try again in a week or two. In fact, you could even stay with us. After, I mean.” He put down the hand axe and bent back a wall of the cage. “You’re smart and good at things, right. You’d be useful.”

Bessary tried to hop out, but it had been a long time since she had moved more than a wingspan in any direction, and instead she fell gracelessly. Noah caught her and placed her on the deck, then stepped back quickly. Free, she was as tall as his thigh, a hook-beaked, taloned shadow the color of an oak tree killed in a lightning strike.

She looked around. Even from his safe distance, he towered over her. But beyond him, and past the railings and structures that had hemmed her in for so long, the sky was enormous. She cupped her wings to the tiny drift of air along the deck, flicked them out to full extension and then preened, settling each feather into its right place.

He was still talking, still thinking it out. “Yeah, you’d be as good as a dog. Better. Smarter, and you can fly. You could herd, or guard, or even just keep an eye on things. Too bad about that mate of yours, though. Maybe you could have young with someone else, a crow or maybe an eagle? That would be something.”

She hopped to the railing and extended her wings experimentally. They were weak but good enough.

“Bring us good news, raven.”

“I’m gone,” she said, and she was.

• • • •

At first, Bessary was clumsy. She stepped off the railing and, where her wings should have caught her fall and lifted her without thought, she tumbled instead, fast toward the water. But her muscles remembered their work in time. Her wingtips flicked out and she powered up, past the railing, past gaping Noah and the tower of cages, past the birds as they blinked in the unaccustomed light and called to her.

When she was clear of it all, she hovered, tipping from side to side as she read the bright particularities of the air until she located the ark’s updraft, shaped by cookfire and the effluence of a thousand breathing lungs, and cedarwood warmed by the morning sun. Slanting across, she slipped into the sweet spot and began to ease upward in tight circles.

Up and up. When she had been on the ark, her existence had contracted to the single point that was the cage, but now it unfurled until she flew in a three-dimensional foam of air, rich with variations in texture and temperature. The horizon rose as she climbed, a pale thin line, ever more distant. Beneath her, the world looked like a vast bowl brimming with water. Blue sky and clouds stuttered on the rough waves so far below, but she could also see through, into the water, and there she saw the land that Noah craved and would eventually claim: the puckers and wrinkles of mountains, paler where the water was shallower; the valleys, still only deep blue mysteries. Such a pointless errand: a month or two from now, the flood would have receded anyway.

From this height, the ark was the size of a wood chip, a thing so small that a pebble might crush it. A disk of soiled water haloed it, jetsam and effluvium half-concealing the mountain on which the ark had snagged. In the northeast, a vague discoloration still dirtied the water over which it had passed; to the west, a current dragged a broad stain from the ark, extending as far as she could see.

If Noah was right, this flood had been God’s judgment on humans as a species, and the very last of them lived on that flake of bark below her. If he was right—but of course that was nonsense; even a young raven knew that. Of course there were others. The humans would keep doing what they do: the quaggas, the thylacines, the burrowing boas, on and on, an unending list of their killings. But Bessary had grown expert at tasting the dead. Eventually the humans also would be gone, she knew: if not this time, then the next. And the world would rebuild itself along new lines, without golden toads, without warrahs, without lesser gray-winged tierces, and without humans.

And without Bessary—but that time was not yet. She was very high now, the sun hot on her wings. She saw a dark fleck in the air a little distance away, so she flicked her wings to slide across and inspect it. It was a small brown spider, suspended from a thread a thousand feet up, sailing the sky to a new home it had never seen. Another time, she might have eaten it. But today, Bessary slanted away, and flew back along the wind, toward a green moment barely visible on the horizon.

Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards, among others. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she is also the associate director for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.