There are writings one can read in which a whole new venue opens. Such was the case with my first reading of the Robert Service poem, “To the Men of the High North”. I was thrilled and frightened by the reading. I was all of 10 years when I first read it. But I soon forgot it. It affected me, but did not open doors for me. It was, therefore, not the initial reading, that so engraved the lasting mark on my mind, but the reintroduction.
It can be said that many things are written on bathroom walls, which are often read but should not be. It is rare that something is placed upon the walls of stalls that can be found worthy of reading, let alone retaining for memory.
But once upon a moment, for me, it did.
In a tiny bathroom, in the Forestry building on the campus of Purdue University, I happen to look left and read:
The nameless men who nameless rivers travel, and in strange valleys greet strange deaths alone; The grim, intrepid ones who would unravel the mysteries that shroud the Polar Zone.
There was not attribute given. Thus, I did not know whom was being quoted. I only knew, I had heard it before. And that I must find out the writer’s name.
This was in the early days of the building wave of information access. To become known as, the Internet. So the search for information was still conducted the old-fashioned way: Library card files!
I will admit it: I HATE, card files! I love information, but my ADHD; or so it was labeled; but we both know it was just sheer impatience that would rattle my brain. By the time I was nearing a location, I would lose interest and quit. This dilemma, into which I bulldozed each and every time, was one of the core reasons I began a dogged search for, as I used-to-say,
“I am looking for a method technology that would allow me to live from ‘here to Okavango, Botswana’ and still do my work, market my work, sell my work and communicate with business associates, colleagues and clients.”
What I had sought since May 1975, I would find in January 1990, the technology that became the Internet.
Needless to say, I neither asked the right people for help and I did not find the information in the hell-hole, known as the Dewey Decimal card file system! Thus… the WHOM behind the verse went unanswered.
Fast forward to the year 2004. I was doing my usual Google Search for one thing and finding an entire Universe of something else, vastly more interesting and informative. In the process I came across the quote again. But this time, I was able to bread-crumb it back to the source. VOILA! I found Robert Service and and a wonderful online compilation of his poetry.
In honor of the fabulous writing of Robert Service, I have produced this eLITHOGRAPH image, from a photo I took in 2004 while in Alaska. When I took the photo on 10 October 2004, standing alongside a paved highway, looking out over this glacier fed river in the heart of the Alaskan wilds, my mind immediately went to the Robert Service poem, “To the Men of the High North“, I had rediscovered only a couple of months earlier.
It fit. I so amazingly fit. I saw it. Smelled it. Tasted it. The ‘intrepid ones’… I could hear their voices. And I thanked them for their courage and suffering. I still do.
This eLITHOGRAPH is named, “Nameless Rivers Flow”. It measures 34″ x 24.5″ and prints out as a watercolor.
The clouds over the mountain chain began to boil. Not unlike the surface of a sour mash kettle setting atop a hot fire. Great masses of cloud material began to move about, the tops of the mountains serving as giant stirring paddles. The wind currents diving through the mix like giant salmon, jetted the mass of heavy water vapor about in dozens of chaotic directions. Each entry and exit, creating equally chaotic formations. None of them were static. The entire palette was changing every 5 minutes or so.
I was mesmerized. I stood motionless, being gently buffed, side-to-side, by the surface winds falling off the face of the mountains, that came sprinting across the open prairie to me. It felt like a very spiritual moment. The wind carried the coolness of the mountain snows and the freshness of the altitude. Instantly I was chilled; excited; energized; transfixed. It was intense…
A raven called off in the distance to my left. Its call clearly defined it as a raven, but was quickly diluted, then lost, amid the influx of wind. Another raven called from somewhere behind me. It sounded very close. As I turned to investigate, I caught the sense of motion. Very close behind me and moving slightly n my direction.
Before I could wheel about to mount any form of worthy defense, the most soothing, female voice I have ever experienced, spoke.
“Impressive isn’t it? I come here often to watch the artistry between the winds and clouds. It chills me and excites me at the same time. I like those kinds of polar extremes. You?”, whispered the voice.
The voice was so soothing. Yet, I was immediately taken aback. I don’t know why, but I was. As I slowly began to focus on the person in front of me, the sheer beauty of the woman began to take form. So soft was her voice. Yet, despite coming from a distance of 30 feet and speaking into the chilling winds off the mountains, I heard her as clear and distinct as if she were speaking the words directly into my ear. I was startled by the absolute sense of its purity; its clarity; its seductiveness.
“Yes! Most impressive,” I stumbled in tremorous fear.
The woman’s mouth, with the fluidity of a wave, danced toward the left side, into an upturned smile. She knew she had the upper-hand here… and engaged.
“So. Do you see them? In the clouds?”, she mused.
Turning around to reply, I noticed the woman was now just off my left shoulder. I then turned again to study the activity above the mountains. I replied, “The clouds? Or something more specific? As a kid, I enjoyed deciphering cloud shapes into imaginary creatures and shapes”, I interjected.
“Yes. The Ravens. Do you see the Ravens?” she explained.
I looked closer. Then, I really studied the clouds above the mountain, closely. Over the following few seconds, I noticed the air currents, working rapidly to form and erase the shapes they were making. Everything was changing fast; nearly as fasts the ephemeral images, little kids make, with fingers in sand. I was intimately cognizant of her. Her presence filled the open space like nothing I had ever experienced. My pulse gained elevation. So did my temperature. I really had to force myself to refocus, and look ONLY at the clouds and their formations.
“Well,” I stumbled, “there are some areas that oddly seem to remain constant, despite the rapid influx of wind and cloud moisture. For instance …that large one moving over the top of Squaw Peak. I don’t need to work hard to see it as a Raven looking, with both eyes open wide; looking off to my right, with its beak slightly open.”, I replied with a panning glance to my left.
I jumped back. As startled as if a grizzly had just popped up into view, causing me to awkwardly stumble in the loose gravel.
There was no longer 8 feet between us. Now a mere 20 inches, off the tip of my nose, stood this shockingly beautiful woman. Standing, turned slightly to my left, looking over my right shoulder. Her dark, telling eyes, wide open and her perfectly formed mouth, just like the cloud-raven… slightly open.
Instantly she snapped here eyes, looking directly into mine and said, “Oh! Are you OK? You seemed to stumble, and you look a bit … out-of-sorts.”
It was yet early in the inevitable embarrassment cycle every awkward, self-destructive, male enters, when he finds himself in the presence of a beautiful female. But, I was already desperately attempting to wade through the quagmire of destruction, preceding the obligatory, state of hormonal shock.
I stammered, “Well! In all honesty you… you… DID, startle me a bit. When I glanced at you, your facial expression was so similar to the cloud-raven, it… frankly scared me. Given, your substantial natural beauty and the haunting expression… well, I must admit, I was shaken. Not in bad way, mind you, but I was shaken.” Oh, this was so, awkwardly painful!
And… there it was again. Her provocative, upturned smile. Rolling softly, off to the left side of he mouth. Her very, alluring, beautiful and perfectly formed, full-lip framed, mouth.
“Oh, that,” she began. “I just feel the expression in the clouds and before I know it, I cannot seem to help it, but I just —mimic them. I can’t seem to avoid it. The whole occurrence just seems to direct me. I am so sorry if it startled you. Please forgive me”
“So,” she continued, “You, think I am beautiful? What is beauty to you?”
OH MAN!!!! Despite the open air area, exposed to winds off a distant icy snowfield, and blowing at 25 miles per hour, was it EVER getting HOT! I was both uncomfortable and frightened. I must say, I have never been cornered by such a frighteningly, beautiful woman. I’ve been cornered by grizzly bears and it was never this intense! My mouth suddenly felt like the soles of shoes walking on the salt flats: dry as a bone.
Carefully I picked my way through the conversation. Gingerly and with great care I determined to cloak my growing fear, so I would NOT say something so embarrassingly wrong! She sensed it. I could tell. That grin on her left lip-line just stayed there. She was enjoying my predicament, and THAT was both titillating and frightening. “Well, ma’am” I started, but she immediately interrupted me.
“Raven. Raven Birdsong. That is my name. Please. Call me Raven. What is your name?”
“Uh, hmmm, Ms. Raven…” I began, then paused a long thoughtful pause. Suddenly, I was aware of a growing awareness of her name, Raven. Odd? I heard two distinct raven calls before I noticed her. Then, she asked if I could see the-ravens-in the cloud formations. Suddenly the sensation gnawing at me, was changing nearly as fast as the clouds over Squaw Peak! I began to feel like I was in the midst of a Twilight Zone episode.
That grin was still there. And, the ‘there’, was beginning to look like the most beautiful sight on earth: her mouth …
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you, Raven. Hmm, beauty? In my mind, it is more than a skin-deep reality. The beauty from within is far more lasting, defining and difficult to realize, than the immediate surface appearance. But, I must say, In your case, I am not sure that applies. I cannot see how your inner beauty, which I can only imagine is near endless, could possibly out-compete your near-perfect external appearance. You are a most extravagantly beautiful woman.
Taking a very nerve jangled, hormone induced, breath, I continued, “I am going to take a leap here and guess you are Native American? With a last name like Birdsong and a first name of, Raven, it all seems quite possible, if not inevitable. Am I correct? Do you live around here? Oh, by-the-way, my name is Wyatt Sachs.”, I finally ejected!!
She giggled a bit at my obvious blurting out of my name at the end of my reply.
“Yes, Wyatt Sachs. I am Native American. Crow nation, to be exact. You are quite perceptive of the finer points of beauty. This is nice to see. A trait not shared by many of your male peers, regardless of tribe. I won’t fein embarrassment, for I know I am an attractive female. It can be both blessing and curse. I am warmed and grateful by your compliment. And I must say, you are quite a nice specimen of your tribe as well. As to where I live? I live twenty-five miles in that direction,” she pointed toward the mountains. “As the crow flies, so-to-speak”, she ended with a snort. Obviously, she also had a witty, sense of humor that took a not-too-serious-position toward herself.
She was also deftly aware of her beauty and the force behind, and within. This also chilled and thrilled in the same lane of emotion. I was not at all sure how to feel about this, so I just felt… uneasy! But she did say, I was, “… quite a nice specimen…”, eh? WOW!
I looked at the line she had pointed toward and mentally mapped the referred twenty-five miles to her home in the mountains. The destination she stated had to be, up the mountain quite a long distance, maybe even over, and down the other side. Immediately my brain shifted into research and denial mode. There were no roads in that direction. There was no way over the mountains, unless you FLEW over them. The closest, by-road-option was a 125 mile drive around the far east side of the chain of mountains. Or, a 275 mile drive westward.
She noticed I was processing. Just how much she could determine about my processing activity, was unknown. But something told me she knew as much, maybe more, than I did about my own mind. Again. Uneasy.
As I stood there muddling in my own hormonal stew, squared up and looking right at this gorgeous creature before me, I could ‘study her’ better without looking like an obvious staring pervert. The first thing I noticed was her over all air-of-nobility. She was wearing a native colored jacket; typical tribal glyphs and colors. It was made of finely processed wool. The jacket came to, and accentuated, her waist. It flared a bit at the bottom, Western style. She had on roper jeans; snug but not skin tight. It was clearly obvious, Raven did those jean a mighty fine piece of justice. She was wearing low-cut hiking shoes; one of the popular brands. Her hair was just like one would imagine for a girl named Raven – dark as coal. It shone as well as any well brushed show-horse I’d ever encountered. And it had an amazing, almost athletic, bounce. She looked like a slo-mo shampoo commercial when she moved. Her mane of hair, was quite long, maybe two feet past her shoulders. There, she stood, draped in a coal-black, high-shine, mane of life-like hair. It was all I could do, to keep from closing the 3 feet between us, and running my hands through her hair. Each strand seemed to calling out to me, “Touch me! Please. Touch, me.” She wore no lavish jewelry as one might expect to see on such a beautiful woman. Only an interesting choke collar. It was an array of beads, in alternating colors of red, black, yellow and white. At the throat-latch there was a single black feather, attached at the quill tip. It appeared to be made from something dark and solid, with a reflective surface, like obsidian. But it could have been something else; even real.
That last thought was what made me jumpy. There was something about this beauty that really bothered me. Not scary, just real puzzling way. Something I could not put my finger on. But, there was something.
“So, you like my necklace… eh, Mr. Wyatt Sachs?”, Raven spoke breaking the silence.
“Uh, yes. I do. It is very interesting. What is the feather made from?”, I questioned.
“It’s not obsidian, like you were thinking. It is actually made from a very hard piece of anthracite coal. It carves well and polishes like a gem.”
Obviously I must have looked stunned because she came in close to me – a mere foot from my face was here most pleasing – and alluring mouth – and her raven-black hair was haloing her presence.
I actually thought I stepped back. But instead I stepped forward – into her smile zone and asked, “Obsidian? And how do you know what I think?”
Before I knew it, her mouth was making a lunar landing over mine and I could feel myself melting into oblivion.
——————— <> —————————
“Really! You did that?”
I was rudely awaken by these words coming from the sound of painfully pitched voice – like that of a violin bass note off-key.
As I opened my eyes I was greeted by the vision of a very fleshy guy, bearing a scraggly black beard, and a well-used [ read: filthy! ] Stormy-Kromer plaid-and-corduroy cap, with the ears pulled down, now saying,
“Hey Mister… are you OK? You need to get up off the ground and get that raven peck, on your forehead tended too. They can get infected, if you don’t.”
The guy repeated, “You sure you’re OK?”, then offered me a hand-up’. He then told me he found me laying on my back, on-the-ground, at the Raven Point observation platform; the one looking out upon Squaw Peak.
I was looking around from side-to-side, so the Fleshy-guy, asked me, “What are you looking for?”
I blurted out, “Did you see her? Is she still here?”
The Fleshy-guy smiled and nodded. Looked out at Squaw Peak and said something in some, I reckoned, Native American tongue. And was silent for a moment. Then he turned to me.
“Well, I see you met Raven… eh?”
“YES! Did you see her? Where is she?”
“Oh yes, I see her quite often; And him; And it. The Raven is quite the trickster.” He continued. “Sometimes Raven comes to you as the most beautiful maiden imaginable, sometimes it appears as a most disgustingly old hag squaw. Other times a young brave or an aged old man. I have seen Raven in its natural form-the Raven as well-and owl, coyote and dog. No matter what form Raven shows you, it will leave you with its mark. That, ‘peck-spot on your forehead.”
Fleshy-guy turned and looked at my face, then laughed, “Oh White-boy, you got real close. Raven must have been the beautiful maiden … she kissed you and you – he chortled! – YOU idiot you – you, kissed back.”
Fleshy-guy began to laugh … and soon he was near to rolling in the gravel himself. He kept turning and looking at me, stare a moment, then would burst out laughing all over again.
“WHAT?” I screamed, finally regaining some steadiness. “WHAT in hell are you looking and laughing at?”
Fleshy-guy stopped his laughter. Turned and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Raven leaves its mark on all who are taken in by its charm.” He turned to the sky, looking over toward Squaw Peak, he studied it a bit and asked,
“SO. White-boy. How many ravens did you see in the sky over Squaw Peak? Eh?”
My mind was spinning. I kept seeing Raven, her suffocating beauty; the thick beautiful coal-black mane draping her shoulders; her beautiful lips… and her mouth. It keeps calling to me…. calling…. Suddenly I looked up at Fleshy-guy and started to say something very meaningful – as our eyes met. Fleshy-guy immediately burst out laughing.
Still a bit wobbly I gathered my feet under me…and stood. As Fleshy-guy was doubled-over and shaking his body in fitful laughter. Ethereally I hoped he’d choke on his spit. But I really didn’t even realize I was thinking this.
I was more present to the fact that I was every bit shaky; unsteady in the vertical position. I worked hard to steady what I could, on my feet. It took a moment, since I was feeling quite woozy throughout the process. Once I gained some semblance of stability, I walked over to my car to get a bottle of water. Horny-toads, I was dry as the Mojave in mid August. I reached for the door and that’s when I was thunderstruck with the reflection in the front-door window.
What I saw in the reflection so stunned me I could not speak, squeak or squawk! There-looking back at me-in the reflection off the driver’s window was a “ME”… with coal-black hair, no, JET BLACK hair. JET BLACK, instead of the BLOND hair I’ve had since birth! And… when I got out of this very car, less than 8 hours earlier!
I was totally stunned… Shocked. Speechless. Dumbfounded. I just stood there. Immobilize and looking at my reflection in the car window. My mind was racing through every single moment of my intersection with Raven. From the minutes before, looking at the clouds over Squaw Peak through the moment Raven smothered me in a most unexpected embrace. What on earth WAS that creature? Who was she? What was She? She surely wasn’t human. But WHAT was she… or, IT?
It was at that moment my vocal cords found traction. The scream nearly skinned Fleshy-guy. Jerking him straight-up-and-into a blood curdling tandem scream; horribly out-of-key and echoing mine! The tandem sound scared both of us again – inducing a jacked-up, in both volume and intensity, scream. The echo that came back from the distant hills was reminiscent of 5 year old, mimicking a strangled turkey. Oh, believe me! It was ugly.
“DANG IT! White-boy! What on earth are you trying to do, KILL ME!!??”, yelled Fleshy-guy.
“ME? What are you yelling at me for, you Fleshy-bag of laughing hyena crap! My hair! I am blond, not jet-black! I AM A BLOND! Look at me!“ I screamed causing further echoed confusion.
Fleshy-guy, trembling from the life-shortening fright I had just given him, was looking at me. And in the first couple of seconds of this stare, I could see he was again relapsing into a full-blown gut busting row of laughter. This time he went to his knees. Doubled over and pawed at the ground.
It’s a good thing I was not armed. I may have committed 1st Degree!
Then something, from the conversation — the one just before all this insanity began – post the insanity of my visit with … or by… Raven. I heard Fleshy-guy, as he was looking out toward Squaw Peak, ask me … “How many ravens did you see in the clouds?” My inner right-lobe was asking in reference to it relation with Squaw Peak. My subconscious ME, was asking, ‘Why did you ask that?’
Sobered by this epiphany I calmly asked, ‘What exactly did you mean by, “… how many ravens did I see in the clouds.”, I scowled.
Fleshy-guy skidded to a sliding stop just nanometers from the edge of hysteria, raising into a full-on serious-as-a-heart-attack, mental sobriety. The transformation nearly gave me whiplash.
“Because, White-boy,” he spoke with keen deliberation, “ … that will be how many years you will have coal-black hair and the ‘upturned tick’ to the right corner of your mouth.”
“WHAT?” I screamed.
Fleshy-guy just stood there… slowly turning toward Squaw Peak, he spoke.
“Raven is the craftiest of the animal gods. He is a trickster, more so than even Coyote. He enjoys transforming himself into the visages, most prominent, present in our subconscious thoughts; which he can easily know. He then presents himself to the object of his trick, and begins a dialog. “
Fleshy-guy continued, “As the trick plays out, Raven gets bolder and takes more risks with his tricked-one. Just before Raven is discovered – or his magic wears off – or in your case, broken – he puts the tricked into a deep sleep, then marks them with some physical attribute of the tricked-one’s fascination with the illusion he presented. For you it was Raven’s jet-black hair. Normally the tricked-one only receives one Raven-mark. But you-YOU- have two. Because YOU, kissed Raven, back. YOU pushed Raven. Pushed him so hard the spell was broken.”
Fleshy-guy swallowed, deep and said, “You have a very STRONG spirit. You were able to break Raven’s spell. That is quit rare and it is why Raven gave you the second mark.”
“What do you mean ’second-mark’”, I blasted.
Grinning broadly, Fleshy-guy asked, “Have you not noticed your mouth? Go. Look again. Closely at the right side. Raven appeared to you as a gorgeous beauty, with an expressive mouth and lips that seemed to sing to you. And she had a most alluring uptick in the right corner of her mouth. Correct?”
“Yes, she … er, IT! … did.”, I said looking into the car mirror and noticing for the first time the very same up-tick in the right corner of my mouth that I found so compelling about her.
Fleshy-guy asked, “You kissed her back… passionately… didn’t you?”
Thinking for a moment, then remembering the sudden swell of emotion the moment her lips met mine. I felt more like Old Faithful than a surprise recipient of a kiss from a gorgeous, total stranger, woman.
“Yes. I don’t know why, other than I just could not help myself. It was like being….”,
“Swept along in a wide river rapid”, Fleshy-guy finished my exact words.
“Yes!” I said in amazement. “How did you know what I was going to say?”
“Because for 7 years, from age 18 to age 25, I had hair as white as snow, where it had been, since birth, coal-black. I also had an up-tick in the right corner of my mouth. Because, when I first encountered Raven, she was a gorgeous Indian princess, with white-as-snow-hair and a mouth with lips that, ‘talked to me’, and an irresistible ‘up-tick in the right corner of her mouth’. I was spell-bound. When she came upon me like a sudden rush of spring wind, I exploded and embraced her, holding her tight and kissing her back.”
Fleshy-guy continued, “Like you I awoke some hours later, startled and frightened, with such obvious changes in my appearance. I ran away from home and hid in the mountains where no one could find me. I was so ashamed. In the beginning, I was not actually sure why. But as time passed, it began to dawn on me that I had done something wrong and was being punished.”
“I met an old shaman that lived on Squaw Peak, who when he saw me, began laughing just as I had when I saw you. For the same reason. For he, too, had an encounter with Raven. He taught me much about the ways of our People and the stories of our Ancestors and the gods.”
“At the end of my seven years, my hair, over-night, returned to its original jet-black color and the ‘up-turned tick’ was also gone. I was afraid to return home, but the old shaman said I must. He gave me a bag to give to my parents. I could not open it, but he said when they did, they would understand and we would be fine from that moment on. It worked. Just as he said it would.”
“I do not claim to understand all of what I saw, or of what I have been taught. Nor, do I think I actually know if I really believe in it. But I do know one thing for certain. I know what happened to me was REAL. How it happened, I have had explained to me many times. I am not sure I believe that explanation. But the thing-it DID happen. That much I am sure of. And it is about all I am truly sure of.“
“Did you ever see her again?”, I fumbled.
“The beautiful princess? No! And truthfully, I hope I never do. Raven is a trickster. There is no heart in its work. It is dark. I do not want to go there again. For this reason, I come to this place each time I see the clouds churning about so. I just know some hapless human will have a visit with Raven and they will need some help. Whom better than one who has already been touched by the Raven. “
“You should not wish to see her again either” he warned.
“So. What do I do now? I don’t want to go live in a cave on the side of Squaw Peak. That’s for sure!”, I scowled.
“That is for you to decide White-boy. That is for you-and ONLY YOU-to decide.”, came his reply as he turned toward his truck. In an instant he had hopped in, fired it up and was a half-mile down the road before I even came to the realization, Fleshy-guy…was gone.
I stood there, wanting and not wanting to leave. How much more craziness could I possibly experience in one 9 hour period? I don’t know. But, I am quite content to NEVER find out.
I turned to my car. Gripped the handle and started to open the door, when a light breeze, off the Squaw Peak Range blew into the lot. It was chilling, yet exciting. I paused. I heard something …
“So. Do you see them? In the clouds?”, softly spoke the voice of Raven.
——————— <> —————————
I have been driving for 21 hours and I am NOT stopping until I get home.
Seven Raven Sky is a short-story written by Les Booth, inspired by the image he created, in collaboration with photographer Jen Klassen of Smithers, British Columbia, Canada.