The Raven, Revisited

Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For what was ripe, and fell full last.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
Once acorn they left, and no more might you spy.

James rolled up the note and threw it on the street. Who would stick such shit under the windshield wipers of his car? “I’ve had it with the fucking wannabe poetic wankers in this town,” he told Mike as they got into the Nissan. “Fucking fairies. They should get a job. Or else, we should line ‘em up!” James and Mike chuckled.

It was Thursday night. The two were on their way to James’ country home in Essex to spend the weekend. James and Mike knew each other from college, then they went to business school together. James had always been in charge, and so it remained when he founded his own consulting agency with Mike as his junior partner. They came out to the Essex house every once in a while to have a weekend with their mates away from London. Darrell, Curt and Andy were expected tomorrow. They would shoot darts, play snooker, drink whisky, tell stupid jokes, reassure each other that women had no brains, and ridicule the poor.

James unlocked the door to his own private lodge at around 11pm. When he flicked on the light, him and Mike stared at a big board someone had put on a chair facing the entrance:

Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he then blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.

“What the fuck?” James said. Then him and Mike felt a blow against their heads and passed out.

When they woke up, they found themselves tied to chairs in the living room. They were facing another board:

Where then did the raven go?
He went high and low,
Over hill, over dole, did the black Raven go.
Many Autumns, Many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many Summers, Many Winters –
I can’t tell half his adventures.

“What the fuck?” James said again.

Then a man appeared from behind the board. He was lean, dressed in black and maybe 30. “James. Mike. Remember me?”

James and Mike didn’t.

“Well, I’m not surprised,” the man in black said. “Why would you? To you I was just another dumb farmer’s boy who you cheated out of his property.”

James and Mike looked confused.

The man sat down on another chair. “Okay. Let me help you: Seven years ago you came here to lease some land ‘cause you supposedly wanted to hunt. I had just got married, and my wife had had a child. I needed the money even though I never wanted you rich city cunts out here. I said you could have the land for a year. You drew up a contract, and I signed it without reading it, because I can’t be bothered dealing with shit like that. Turns out you had a sense that I wouldn’t, and I ended up selling you my land. For next to fucking nothing, even though this doesn’t even matter. I wouldn’t have sold you any land ever, not even for 10 million quid, because this land was never meant to be yours. And then you even had the audacity to use the trees my grandfather had planted to build yourself this little wooden castle, while my family had to sell everything just to get by – and then it still fell apart. Quite an achievement, isn’t it?”

Now, James and Mike looked worried.

The man in black continued: “When I came to you to clarify the situation, all you did was laugh at me. You said that it wasn’t your fault that I was so stupid and that we had always talked about selling, not leasing. When I told you that you knew that this wasn’t true, you laughed even more, asked me if I really thought that this mattered since the power was all yours and I was just a dumb farmer. Finally, you told me to ‘wise up’. Then you threw me out. Remember all this now?”

James and Mike were looking for words. Finally, James muttered: “Yes, yes, I think I do remember. But … aeh, sorry, I don’t recall your name, but, see, this was all a big misunderstanding. I mean … wasn’t it, Mike?” He turned to his junior partner for help. Mike only managed to nod.

“Of course. A misunderstanding,” the man in black said. He didn’t try to conceal the sarcasm. Then he continued: “Do you like poetry, gentlemen?”

James and Mike seemed lost for words.

“No,” the man in black smiled. “I didn’t think so. However, I’ll make you listen to this.” He pulled a small paperback out of his pocket:

At length he came back, and with him a She,
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built then a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy anow.
But soon came a woodman in leather guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.
The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They saved it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship could withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rushed in fast:
Round and round flew the Raven, and cowed to the blast.

“Nice, isn’t it?” The man in black got up.

James tried to say something, but it was all a mess: “But … Mr. … sorry, I still don’t know your name … but … see … what?”

“Shut up, James. There’s not much point in trying to say anything anymore really,” the man in black responded.

“But, I’m sure we can settle this matter somehow!” James finally blurted out.

“Oh, yes. Indeed,” the man in black exclaimed. “And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.” Then he disappeared.

He was back two minutes later with six canisters of gasoline. He poured them out all over the house, particularly around the living room, and particularly around the two men tied to their chairs.

They were pleading with him now. He reminded them to shut up. They did. The fear of death makes people do funny things.

After throwing the empty canisters into a corner, the man in black sat down once more to get the paperback out. “The poem’s not finished yet.”

He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls –
See! See! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls!
Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,
And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:
They had taken his all, and Revenge it was sweet!
The man in black stashed the paperback away.

James and Mike looked terrified.

The man in black got up, opened a window, and sat down on the ledge, ready to jump. “Water, fire, it’s all one,” he said, while striking a match. “In the end, the elements always get theirs.”

“No!” James yelled.

“Oh, yes,” the man in black smiled, and threw the match into the room while leaping out the window.

It was a huge fire. Everything pointed to arson and murder. The man in black was the prime suspect. However, he would never be found.

(Poem: “The Raven”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798.)

(2003)