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It was a bleak and dreary night, but that’s not why the young man left through the side door of the gay club where he’d spent the evening. It was December and almost midnight, as he stepped out into the alley. He took a few steps toward Main Street smiling to himself. A dreary midnight in a bleak December. Where had he heard that before?
It had been a fun evening. He was between relationships, and he hadn’t gotten picked up, but he’d danced a lot with a few guys he knew. His clothing was still a little damp, and he was preoccupied with his thoughts as he pulled his coat tight and headed down the alley. It was the easiest way out and he wanted to get home for some sleep before the next day. Dancing and having a good time at a gay club was one thing, but so was a good night’s sleep.
He was focused on the rough pavement ahead of him and wasn’t really aware of his surroundings. He didn’t notice the profile of the creature sitting on the roof line of the building across the alley from the club.
As he walked on, he could see the streetlights illuminating the sidewalk on Main Street, now only fifty feet ahead, and he was still trying to remember why that assemblage of words seemed familiar to him. Focusing on the words was his mistake because he was preoccupied and didn’t realize that he wasn’t alone in the alley. He didn’t hear the footsteps behind him until he was aware of the loud one because someone had stepped on something that snapped.
His defenses suddenly rose up and he started to turn to see what the noise was. That was when he felt the glancing blow on the side of his head that would have knocked him to his knees, except that he was grabbed and pushed up against the rough brick wall of the club. His head hit hard. He felt dizzy and his eyes weren’t focusing on the person who had assaulted him, let alone on the creature atop the opposite building skyline.
“What the fuck?” His hands instinctively reached for his head where the pain originated, but before he could reach it, he felt the two strong hands that had him pinned against the well and heard, “Listen up, fag boy. Don’t try and be cute or give me any shit.” The hands grabbed his coat collar and pulled him up a few inches away from the building before starting to walk him backwards up the alley, past the side door of the club, to the very end where the dumpsters sat. He’d tried to struggle with the assailant, but kept losing his balance as he was pushed backwards, and then they came to a stop against a wall, and he was shoved back hard again. He felt his head hit the wall and another burst of pain emanated from the back of his skull and he saw stars for the second time.
“Understand what I’m saying? Don’t try and fight. Just give me your wallet now, and maybe I won’t punch you in your pretty face.”
Starting to feel faint he realized there was no point in resistance. The assailant was larger and stronger anyway. The pain in his head was sharp and starting to throb with his heartbeat. He was feeling weak and dizzy as he said, “Pants. Back pocket. Take it.”
He felt like adding, Don’t hurt me anymore, but he didn’t have the strength. He felt the coarse hands grasp his coat and turn him, so he was facing the wall. He leaned forward, his forehead on his arms as the hands reached up under his coat, felt down his low back and butt, found the wallet and pulled it out. He heard the hissing voice say, “Good, you didn’t lie to me.” Then he felt the other hand squeeze his butt. “Nice butt, fag boy, but I’m not in the market tonight.”
It seemed senseless that his assailant was saying anything at all let alone talking about his butt. Then he found himself turned back around, held upright away from the wall, facing a ski mask over the face that said, “You didn’t lie to me, so I’m not going to punch you in the face. Wouldn’t want to ruin your pretty looks.” He paused. “I’m not in the market for ass tonight, but who knows? I may want you some day and I’ll come back for more.” The laugh he heard was guttural and he felt the hot breath come through the ski mask. “Have a nice night, fag boy.”
The hands pushed him away, towards the wall that he felt his head strike again. This time the pain wasn’t as intense, but sharper, and he felt the dizziness wash over him in waves. He tried to stay upright, taking deep breaths, but felt weak and slowly slid down the wall. He was staring at the pavement between his feet, so he didn’t see the eyes glinting in the black creature still sitting on the roof line across the alley. They were closely watching him.
He slowly reached up to feel the side of his head where the first blow had fallen, running his fingers though his straw-colored hair. It only caused mild pain as he pushed on the area. He reached to the back of his head with both hands and felt moisture on his fingertips. That’s when he finally realized he was in trouble. He brought his hands back, in front of his face, and while he couldn’t see colors in the darkness of the alley, he could see a dark liquid on his fingers and knew it was blood. Realizing he had to do something, he focused for a few minutes, breathing deeply and trying to overcome the faintness he felt, but to no avail. The sharp pain at the back of his head was increasing and he felt weaker but knew he had to try to stand and get help. Could he make it back into the club? He was thinking enough to remember, though, that the side door to the alley locked from the inside. He’d have to make it to the front entrance, or at least out of the alley to Main Street.
Leaning forward he tried to push himself up from the pavement, then bracing his hands against the brick wall behind him he pushed again. He was almost upright when his strength gave out and he fell back against the wall and slowly slid back down. He fought against it, trying to push up or turn, resulting in a slow twisting fall so that he landed on his back. He lowered his head to the pavement and closed his eyes in pain and desperation. His eyes didn’t see the other eyes intensely watching him, or the purple sheen on the creature’s black upper parts glimmering in the moonlight.
After a minute he opened his eyes. He was staring straight up into the black night sky. He felt fainter than before and tried to breathe deeply. He realized he didn’t have either the strength or the will to try and get up. He needed someone to find him laying on the pavement in this dark alley. His last thought before his consciousness flickered out was ‘I left early. No one else will be out for hours.’
A minute later his eyes opened, and he realized that the thug had frogmarched him back to the dumpsters at the end of the alley. Anyone coming out the side door would turn toward the street, not the dumpsters. He might not be found till morning. As he felt weaker still, a wry thought surfaced in his mind. Frogmarched. What a way to go, frogmarched back down an alley.
Normally he would have found it darkly humorous, but not tonight. He was moving in and out of consciousness and the last thought he had before he drifted off was another word that he remembered somehow went with a dreary, bleak night in December. Something about Nevermore.
As he struggled to regain consciousness, or what seemed to be consciousness, he realized that he wasn’t cold and that the pain in his head was gone. He tried to take a mental inventory, but nothing seemed to make sense. He eventually remembered he’d been assaulted and had slumped onto the pavement in the alley. He opened his eyes. All was black.
He quickly realized that was no surprise. He’d gone down in the dark end of an alley. Of course, there would be no light and it would all be black. That was when he felt the mild clutching feeling on his chest. He’d passed out from having his head smacked into a wall a few times. Was he having a heart attack as well? He was twenty-five and perfectly healthy. No way! He glanced down from the dark sky above him, as if he might see something, then thought to himself, ‘You can’t see a heart attack!’
What he did see, though, was two gleaming brown orbs just barely visible in the blackness in front of him. They were illuminated by the moonlight that was now glimmering down into the alley. He looked at them uncomprehendingly. For a few seconds he tried to imagine what could make for two brown orbs in the darkness. Then he saw motion, and after some more incomprehension, he realized what he’d seen was a blink.
The two brown orbs were eyes. Brown eyes that were staring at him almost unflinchingly, and they’d blinked.
He was at a loss for words, but finally groaned, only to see the eyes blink again, and then heard a voice in his head.
“Hello, Lennon. You’ve returned?”
“If you say so,” he replied. “The way my head felt before I passed out, I never thought I’d make it back to the land of the living.”
He didn’t understand the words. “What? I haven’t? What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not dead as yet, but you are in the process of dying. You’re beginning the process that happens to all humans as they transition from material life.”
“I’ve never heard of that. It doesn’t sound right. Who are you?” Lennon felt the pavement beneath him and shrugged, trying to get more comfortable.
That’s when he simultaneously saw the creature beat its wings once for balance, and realized what was sitting on his chest was a large raven.
After he’d rebalanced and pulled in his wings, Lennon heard the raven say, “I am your friend and don’t be afraid, as you are not alone. I am here as your guide from this life to the afterlife. I know something of you, and know you are well read. You will know that to the ancient Greeks, we ravens were symbols of prophecy. Closer to home for you as an American, ravens are bearers of magic and harbingers of messages from the cosmos for Native American peoples.”
“Why do I need prophecy or a message from the cosmos?”
“Apparently because you have not accepted or understood what I told you, namely that you are close to death.”
“If I’m almost dead then how am I having this conversation with you?” He found himself thinking it was weird that he was being told he was essentially no longer alive but was still carrying on a conversation with a creature informing him of that.
“We are communicating on the spiritual plane. You should also recall that the ancient Greeks even had a term for those like me, that of psychopomps who connect the material world with the world of spirits.”
“I know the term, but I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was just part of mythology.”
Lennon heard a sharp kaww sound from the raven. It almost sounded like a laugh. “Most of you humans are all the same. You think mythology is fiction, baseless stories from the past. Do you not understand that mythology is how different cultures answer the most important questions about who you are and where you came from and where you are going? How can you live a full life without knowing the answers to those questions? How can you hope for a transition from the material world to the spiritual world without some understanding of the answers to those questions?”
Lennon was silent, then he chuckled to himself as he realized he was lying on his back in the black of night, having been told he was virtually dead by a raven who was sitting on his chest and who now was discussing the meaning of mythology with him. How crazy could this night get?
“However,” the raven continued, “my role is that of guide. Those of us allotted this role appear as many different types of animals. I, as a raven. Our role is not to judge, but rather to escort the newly deceased souls to the spiritual realm. So many of you need this guidance that it makes us wonder if you have learned anything of real value during your time of living.”
Lennon was mildly offended. “And that implies that you have learned all of the valuable things there are to know, while we poor humans scrabble around in the dirt like idiots?”
“No, Lennon. No, not at all. I didn’t mean to imply that. Rather that it is so easy for life to be wasted. I know, because I was once as you are. But that is neither here nor there. It has little to do with your present circumstance and why I am here. It was known that you would meet this end on this night, and thus I am here to be your guide. That’s all. No more, no less.”
“You make it sound so… so, mechanical.”
“In a way it is. A human dies, their soul transitions from the material to the spiritual. Very few of you have reached a state of spiritual awareness and understanding that doesn’t require a guide. So, here I am, to guide you.”
Lennon didn’t know quite what to say, but he noticed the raven turning his head from side to side, closely observing him. He felt himself smiling and heard himself say, “If you and your fellow ravens are guides for humans from the material to the spiritual, why is it you are looking at me like you’ve never seen a human before?”
The raven cocked his head, the moonlight glinting off of his brown eyes. He paused and Lennon almost felt like the bird was thinking.
In a minute the raven turned its head back, staring straight at Lennon. “It is because I know your face… or at least I know it from many lifetimes ago.”
“That’s not the answer I expected,” Lennon said. “Surely ravens have a life span like humans do, so how could you have seen me many lifetimes ago?”
“Ravens do have a lifespan, no more than thirty years. That’s much shorter than human lifespans, however.”
“But what did you mean when you said lifetimes ago?”
“I meant something different than normal lifespans. I’ve seen you before, or at least someone who looked very much like you.”
“But if I’m twenty-five and you’re not even thirty and we’ve never met before, then how could you have seen me before? You do realize how strange this conversations is, don’t you? And by the way, if I’m almost dead, why are we even having a conversation? How does that work?”
The raven let out a soft kaww sound, almost like a sigh, and then said, “Our circumstance here is not typical. Not all ravens are guides from this life to the spiritual one. In fact, only a small percentage are, and while we all are ravens, of the family Corvus, we are not mortal ravens as the rest are.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means first that the Corvus family includes ravens, crows, magpies and blue jays. It is a family of physical birds who are born and die within their lifespan. However, as the mythology of so many cultures shows, ravens are associated with prophecy, with healing, with change and transformation. That is because a number of we ravens who were once humans were dispatched to this role of guide.”
“I’ve never heard of that, but like you said, my understanding of mythology is completely wrong.”
“No, Lennon, probably not completely wrong. Let us say, rather, limited in its understanding.”
The raven cocked his head and seemed to smile. Lennon like his attitude and smiled back. “Okay, I have a lot to learn. Will you be teaching me?”
“My task is to guide you, not to instruct you.”
Lennon felt pleased with the response, yet pressed on. “But doesn’t providing guidance also include instruction? You know tons more than I do. I can tell that already. Why would you not instruct me? You wouldn’t be true to yourself if you didn’t? Wouldn’t you be letting yourself down as a raven, and a guide, if you didn’t?”
The raven was still looking at him with his head cocked to the side, as if deeply assessing the person before him.
Finally, he said, “You not only look like a person I knew many lives ago, but you also sound like him. In our land it was referred to as cheek.”
“I’ve heard about being cheeky. Isn’t that a British saying? What country are you talking about?”
“Wales, to be precise.”
“My family came from England. Part of me is Welsh.” Lennon paused, and then continued,“Do you have a name?”
The raven turned his head to look straight at Lennon once more and said, “Yes, from when I was human. It is Bran. I was named after Bran the Blessed, the High King of Britain as told in the chronicle called the Second Branch of Mabinogi. You probably aren’t familiar with it, but it’s among the earliest stories in the literature of Britain.”
“Tell me why you feel like you know me from many lives ago?”
The raven paused. “Lennon, my role is to be your guide, not your instructor. Certainly not to be your assistant in discussing historical coincidences.”
“Is that what this is? A historical coincidence?” Lennon felt hurt.
The raven didn’t respond, so Lennon continued. “I can’t say that I’ve seen you before because you look like a… well, a bird. A raven. But there is something about you that is uncanny, that seems familiar. Maybe that’s why you think I’m cheeky. When I head your voice, I feel like I know you from somewhere, even if you are a bird. I know that’s weird, and like… impossible. I mean, you’re a raven, and I’ve never known a raven before.”
“Lennon, I told you I was once a person, but that was a long time ago. You test my will, though. I am supposed to guide you across and we have little time remaining. Soon it will be light, people will find your body here, the police will be called. Additionally, your spirit will soon depart your body.”
“What happens then?”
“Your spirit will separate from your body and will begin the transition to the spiritual realm. Because so many people have fallen prey to literal religious belief and think of it as arriving at a physical place with pearly gates or feasts with twenty-four virgins or all kinds of equal nonsense, they are not prepared for the time and effort to become part of a new state of being. That is why guides are often necessary.”
“But then, why didn’t you transition? Why weren’t you guided to the spiritual realm? It doesn’t make sense. You said you were a human once, so then you must have died, but now you’re a raven and here guiding people there? What’s up with that?”
“You are persistent, my dear Lennon. I did die, after a fashion, but long before that something happened, and a spell was cast on me.”
“A spell? That’s some kind of magic, isn’t it?”
“It is. There are many powers in this life that are not fully understood, or are simply disbelieved and ignored. Magic and spells are among them.”
“What was this spell?”
“It was a harmful one. Many would call it a curse.” The raven’s eyes appeared to be pensive and pained before he continued. “I don’t know why I am answering your questions… well, actually, I do. It is because of what I said before, that I know of you. The questions you ask touch me in ways I haven’t felt for a very long time.”
He paused again, and after a moment Lennon said, “Bran, tell me more… please.”
“I was cursed by my uncle when I was a young man. The curse was that I would be blocked from fully transitioning to the spiritual realm. That meant when I died, I was locked into this state of intermediate being, still connected to the material realm, but not able to achieve the spiritual .”
“You mean being a spirit trapped in a raven’s body.”
“Something like that. An in-between state. Some would call it purgatory. But we are not meeting here to talk about me, but rather to prepare you to transition.”
“But I want to know, Bran.” Lennon’s voice sounded pleading. “You said you would be my guide, that you would instruct me, you have to tell me what happened to you.”
The raven cocked his head. “Actually, I didn’t agree to instruct you, but I now feel more obligated to do so, and more desirous of doing so.” He looked directly back at Lennon. “I was raised in a noble family in Wales and my uncle was a powerful wizard. He was stronger than my father and determined that I had violated the family code of honor, and so I was cast out and cursed. The curse was that I would be forever prevented from transitioning and so I am trapped here, existing as one of those ravens who have special powers and may act as guides, but never are guided themselves.”
Lennon processed what Bran had told him and then said, “Forever? How could he curse you that way forever? That is so sad.”
“I’ve asked myself that many times, believe me. However, that is my situation. You, on the other hand, have no such restrictions placed on you, and will soon begin your transition to the spiritual realm.”
Lennon realized that although this conversation was taking place between himself and a raven that was sitting on his chest, it no longer seemed weird or outrageous. Now that he understood his assault had mortally injured him and he was almost physically dead and that his spirit would soon depart his body, how it appeared didn’t matter. He would be leaving friends and family and had no control over that. It even no longer seemed strange that he was conversing with a black bird that was some kind of spiritual being. He felt peaceful, and oddly was recognizing some kind of connection between himself and the raven… or more precisely, between himself and the person, Bran, who was now embodied in the form of a raven. Bran, who had once been a young man himself, and then cursed, and now was locked into this in-between state for who knows how long. Bran, who had told him his face looked familiar and he knew much about him. Bran, who had just informed him that he was about to transition to the other realm… the realm away from Bran.
Predawn light was beginning to appear in the sky, and some of it was beginning to dimly illuminate the alley. Without thinking about it Lennon felt his right arm lift up from the pavement and rise above his chest. He was looking directly at the glimmering brown eyes of the raven, who had to have seen the movement but didn’t flinch. It took great effort, he realized, but he brought his hand carefully and softly down on the raven’s back and stroked it.
The raven said nothing, but it appeared as if it’s eyes widened in something akin to surprise. At the end of the stroke, Lennon brought his hand back up to Bran’s head and very slowly stroked the feathers at the back of his head. They were soft and smooth, and as his fingers reached the raven’s neck, he felt the bird’s head move back and his neck arch in response to the touch. He continued to stroke down the raven’s back. Just that simple movement made him very tired, but he slowly brought his hand back up and repeated it. The raven arched his neck again, and Lennon heard a very soft kaww emerge almost breathlessly from Bran.
Lennon was exhausted by the effort to stroke the raven’s head, neck and back, and let his arm drop back to the pavement. He softly said, “Bran, I’m so sorry.”
The raven straightened his head and replied, “Thank you, but you needn’t be. I will tell you though that it has been far to long since I have felt your touch… or any human’s touch for that matter.”
“I’m so tired now, Bran.”
“That is because your body is about to expire, and the time of your spirit’s departure is quite near.”
Lennon smiled up at the raven, feeling trust and empathy and… attraction. Attraction? Was it possible to feel such a thing for a raven after such a short time together? “I don’t want to be alone. Promise me you won’t leave me.”
The raven cocked his eye again and said, “I told you not to be afraid, that you would not be alone. I would like to make that promise, that we would never part again, but it is not for me to make alone.”
“What does that mean?”
“Lennon, it means that we have known each other in a previous life. It also means that your body will very soon die, and your spirit will depart. At that point the process has begun, and I have no control over it. I am simply to act as a guide.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I am saying, dear Lennon, that once your spirit separates from your body, there is nothing I can do to restore it. However, it is within my power to… shall we say… delay it and delay the start of your transitioning to the spiritual realm.”
“Really? I don’t understand. How can that be?”
“In simple terms,” Bran replied, “it means that you would remain here with me in this plane for some time. You would not be alone. You would not begin to transition.” The raven cocked his head again, then turned once more to look directly at Lennon. “It means we would be together for some little while.”
“I have that choice?” Lennon took a deep breath and sighed deeply. “I’m so tired now, I’m feeling like I’m falling asleep. But… but I want to stay with you.”
The predawn light was brightening now, and Lennon could clearly make out the purplish sheen on the raven’s upper parts and how it set off the black plumage. The raven cocked his head once more…or was it Bran that did so? “Is that your conscious wish and desire, Lennon? It must be your choice, made volitionally without influence by me or anyone else.”
“It is. There’s something about you…”
Lennon felt his head loll back as what felt like sheer exhaustion began to overtake him. His eyes were wide open, watching the raven. “So it shall be,” said the raven, who then with a hop aided by the flap of his wings jumped back to land between Lennon’s feet.
As the exhaustion grew in intensity, Lennon kept his eyes on the raven. The dawn light was increasing minute by minute, and enough so that Lennon suddenly realized there were other ravens sitting on the roof lines of the buildings on either side of the alley.
He heard Bran say, “To effect this I must change states,” and settled into watching as a contented sense of peace began to overtake him. In that peaceful state he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The raven standing on the pavement between his feet began to grow in stature. Simultaneously, the ravens on the rooflines took flight and began swooping down and circling above them.
He watched contentedly as the raven got taller, then as his wings and legs grew longer, and then to his amazement as the raven’s legs slowly became human legs at the same time as the main parts of the bird’s wings became human arms. Or was that human arms that had appeared in front of the now larger raven’s wings? It didn’t matter because then the purplish sheen of the upper parts of the raven’s body began to change into a human torso. Lennon was beyond surprise, but when he looked up at the raven’s head, specifically looking for the glinting brown eyes, what he saw was that the brown eyes were part of the face of a beautiful boy with coal-black hair that was emerging before him. He had an astonishingly large set of raven’s wings at his back, wore a black kilt, yet looked strangely familiar.
Bran had been watching Lennon closely as the transformation took place, and immediately breathed, “Just in time!”
He stepped forward and put a hand on Lennon’s forehead, saying, “By all the friendly powers I here assemble and that I now invoke, this transition shall pause. Your soul shall not yet depart, but it shall remain with you and here with me for a time!”
Lennon felt the warmth of the hand on his forehead, followed by a surge of energy, and then the sensation of being scooped up by a strong set of arms. He heard Bran softly say, “We depart now for my land,” and he saw the ravens circling above them.
Next, he felt a swoosh of morning air as he assumed they became airborne, and the next thing he knew he was being set down on a bed of soft ferns somewhere in the mountains. He realized he was still alive and was feeling awake, as if he had more energy. He looked for Bran who had set him down, and was now landing in front of him, his shining black wings fully extended.
The other ravens were circling behind him, but as he settled to the ground backlit by sunlight shimmering through high clouds, all Lennon could see was this beautiful young man that he had come to feel he knew somehow, who had promised him that he would not be alone and that they would be together for at least some time.