I saw him when I went out for my evening walk along the labyrinth. He was black against the purple earth, lit only by the setting sun, stiff, lifeless. His eyes were gone, his inner lamp snuffed out. I didn’t yet know his story, how he had been haunting the rose garden. I took him for an ordinary raven. Now I know better.
The raven’s story begins in the nest, with the laying and hatching of an egg, and the coughing chorus of adult ravens rejoicing the fact. I am not really interested in the mundane bits and pieces of his life. It is what sets him apart from more ordinary ravens that makes me think of him every time I venture into the open air where I wonder: “Has there ever been another like him?”
I am told it all began when the raven was young, without a mate, a member of a flight of young ravens just starting out. I remember the day when they first settled in the ancient, gnarled chestnut trees that mark the border between my gardens and the woods beyond.
My gardens are extensive. I have a walkway, a labyrinth of my own design. It snakes through the vegetable patch, around the rock gardens, and carries on until it reaches my pride and joy, the rose garden. The rose garden is quiet, perfumed, a fitting place to rest before turning back along the labyrinth. There is no other way out.
The young ravens settled in the chestnut trees as a bolt of lightening settles on a rooftop. I felt bad for the chestnuts, but what could I do? As long as the ravens left my gardens alone, I vowed to leave them be. But one fateful day the black pirates harassed my lily pond, going so far as to peck at the old bullfrog. I had to teach them to keep their distance, so the next day I lay in wait behind a willow near the pond. At my side was a bucket of fist-sized stones. When the ravens descended to mess about by the water, I let them have it. Stones flew out of my hand, hitting the water and hitting some ravens, too. Some of the lilies were torn apart, but I was beside myself. It was my pond. They were my gardens. I would defend them until I ran out of stones.
I hadn’t noticed the raven. He had been struck so that the wind was knocked out of him. Badly bruised, he dragged himself along the walkway until he came to the rose garden where he collapsed into unconsciousness. His companions scattered, leaving him for dead, at first.
Later, I was told that the raven spoke to his companions of the flower whose perfume and hue stood out from all the others, the rose that smiled down on him when he opened his eyes and saw that the world had renewed itself, for him.
The raven would not leave the rose. My rose garden was watered by an automatic sprinkler system, so fresh water was not a problem for him. I do not know what, or if, he ate. He was so taken with the rose that he likely did not think about his stomach. Perhaps he was too bruised to eat comfortably; I imagine the expanding and contracting of his bruised breast would have been unbearable. I do not know for sure.
No one can say why the raven singled out one particular rose. The heart, even a raven’s heart, is as mysterious as the darkest vent in the deepest ocean. A breath of warmth in an otherwise cold place can stir odd forms of life, fit for no other place imaginable.
The perfumed head of one red rose so thoroughly captured the raven that when his companions called for him to rejoin them in the chestnuts he did not even turn in their direction. The young ravens descended on him, coughing their disapproval of his tarrying in the garden. The sound made the roses tremble. I likely heard the ravens; I do recall spilling tea into my saucer one day when they grew raucous enough to rattle my windowpane.
Apparently, the raven was undeterred by the scorn of his companions. A young female raven said to him, “A rose is not a fit mate for you.”
A young male raven laughed at her, saying, “I suppose you want that job.”
“He will never be able to embrace the rose,” she retorted. “It’s as simple as that.”
Then the raven, full of feeling for the one red rose, tried to wrap his black wings around her stem, but the rose’s thorns tore into his breast, leaving a bloodied gap where feathers had once lain in glossy streams.
“The rose is incapable of returning your feeling, leave her,” said one of the companions, and other ravens echoed the statement until hard croaking consumed all other sounds.
But the wounded raven replied, “My breast is as red as my love is. We are now a perfect match.”
The other ravens, badly shaken by their bloodied friend’s lack of reason, returned to the chestnuts.
It rained for the next three days, and the raven never sought shelter. I didn’t go out to my gardens during that time and so I had no chance to come upon the raven, soaked to the skin, keeping his bloody vigil.
I am told that when the rain finally stopped, the raven was determined to embrace the rose. Though his breast had partly healed, it was still matted with his clotted blood. He used his beak to carefully snip off the rose’s thorns, and then he wrapped his wings around the rose’s barren stem. He was so intoxicated by her perfume, I am told, that he did not notice when a small group of his companions appeared at his side.
Once more, the young ravens implored their friend and brother to fly away with them.
“We are a smaller group now,” said one of the ravens. “Everyone else has paired up and gone off to lay eggs. We are the only ones left without mates.”
The raven only said, “I have already chosen mine.”
The young ravens were very distressed, and they discussed the notion of forcing the raven to accompany them. But how could they do it? He had been severely injured, by me in my quest to rid my pond of the dark menace, so that he could not fly, they guessed, more than a few feet at a time. By the afternoon, all but two of the raven’s companions had left.
That night a terrible storm thrashed the land for miles around, and did a season’s worth of damage to crops and gardens. The raven and his two remaining companions took shelter among the roses and were quite tattered in the feathers afterward. By morning, the worst of the storm was over. The raven remained with his rose, but his friends sought refuge in the familiar chestnuts. The birds were exhausted after their sleepless night.
I remember the morning following the storm. It was clear and bright, but the damage to my gardens cast a cloud of a different sort. When I ventured into my gardens, I cried. I couldn’t help it. A month of work was undone in a single night. What the wind and rain hadn’t torn apart, the deer, who took no time at all to discover the new hole in my fence, finished off. There was nothing to be done about it. I began the cleanup. Only the perfume of my gardens, released fully after the rain, gave me what I needed to carry on. Without the fragrance, the splashes of color, and the fluting and chatter of the songbirds, all was desolate.
Things were bad for the raven, though I didn’t know it then. His two remaining companions hid in the storm beaten chestnuts, refusing to go near the rose garden in the belief that their companion’s bizarre attachment to the rose was what brought the wrath of the sky upon them.
The raven was not as bruised in the chest as he had been immediately after I struck him with a stone, but one of his wings could not be fully extended. His companions saw him standing near the rose garden in a kind of stupor. His special rose, having had her thorns detached, had been targeted by the deer that broke through the damaged fence. The rose’s stem had been chewed through, and she hung, face down, by a thin twist of green fiber.
The raven watched helplessly as his love swayed in the light breeze. When the last of the rose’s green tendrils finally broke, and she fell to the ground, the raven laid his beak along her petal cheek.
I have no words of my own for such a thing, just this:
Nobody knows this little Rose —
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it —
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey —
On its breast to lie —
Only a Bird will wonder —
Only a Breeze will sigh —
Ah Little Rose — how easy
For such as thee to die!1
The raven gathered what was left of his love in his beak and tried to fly. Where was he taking her? If only I had looked out my window then to see him, a great black bird with a curious splash of red, an odd feature for a raven.
He wheeled above the gardens, in ever diminishing rings, tracing his own labyrinth in the sky. And then he fell, with no sea below to dignify his remains, as even poor Icarus had.
When I went out for my evening walk, I came upon the raven, black against the purple earth, lit only by the setting sun.
1 From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson