The Craven

I was hiking a far northern woodland
            In a birch and pine forest one day,
When I spotted a black craven cringing
            In the fork of a sycamore tree.

Though he shrank when he saw that I saw him
            And I hastened my step to go by,
He kept a cold, yellow eye on me
            And seemed just as wary as I.

I'd heard of the craven in legend,
            But never had seen one so near,
And was glad when I'd gotten on by him
            And a little ashamed of my fear.

I shifted my load to step lively
            And told myself not to look round,
But the scream that erupted behind me
            Like a blow, put me flat on the ground.

I twisted about and looked backward
            As the craven arose with a shriek
And a horrible flapping and flopping
            That made all my sinews go weak.

And I stared as he breasted the thicket
            And crashed through a bower of thorn,
And I thought he looked back with his yellowy eye,
            But before I could tell, he was gone.

So I shouldered my pack and plunged onward
            Where the path disappeared in a wood,
And I tried to recall, as I stumbled along,
            The old legend, as best as I could.

In some dream or some tale of my childhood,
            There were cravens that crouched by the way
Of the wilderness trav'ler unsure of his path,
            The lone pilgrim, his favorite prey.

But he wasn't a vulture who'd pick out your eyes,
            Or gnaw on your corpse like a mole.
The craven could eat you alive, in full stride,
            For the craven would feed on your soul.

But it's only a story, I said to myself,
            And nothing to scare a real man,
And just then the trail came out of the woods
            And a path up a foothill began.

The peak I was climbing, Mt. Hero by name,
            Stood shrouded in mist to the west,
But I knew that the start of this foothill ascent
            Was a sign I was well on my quest.

Over rocks and arroyos I climbed for an hour
            And had just scrambled out of a swale
And was rounding a turn when I glanced up ahead,
            And the craven was there by the trail.

Not fifty feet on, he was waiting.
            His yellow eye smoldered with wrath,
And he wasn't up high in some tree to the side.
            He was right on a rock by the path.

His fur, or his feathers, I couldn't tell which,
            Were as sable and black as a pit,
So black you'd have seen him a mile away,
            No matter where he might sit.

His beak pointed down, but curled up at the base,
            As if he were ready to laugh.
And in size, he was...maybe...the size of a crow,
            A big crow, a crow and a half.

He held his head low, between shoulders all hunched,
            So his evil eye peered from the dark
Of his body's black bulk with an orangy glow,
            And I thought I detected a smirk.

I stood there a minute, unsure of myself
            And tried to come up with a plan.
He was big, but I'd seen him run off once before,
            And he wasn't as big as a man.

So I puffed out my chest, and I marched straight ahead
            Till I got within yards of the thing.
But the craven just sat there as still as a stalk,
            And made not a move to take wing.

So I stopped in the path, and I squared myself up,
            Though his eye nearly turned me to stone,
And I raised up my arms in a threatening bluff,
            And as loud as I could yelled, "BE GONE!"

But just as I shouted, the craven unfurled
            Two leathery wings from his back,
With four crooked fingers at each elbow joint
            All gnarly and bony and black.

Then his beak opened wide, and he uttered a hiss
            From a gullet as orange as a torch,
Like the hiss a big possum had hissed at me once
            I surprised on my patio-porch.

Well, that tore it for me, and I lost it.
            I was seized by a terrible dread.
I lost it, I say, and I turned on my heel,
            And I threw down my pack, and I fled.

I fled down that hill with my heart in my throat.
            And I heard myself shriek as I ran,
But the craven came flapping behind as I fled,
            So maybe the shrieking was him.

I ran till I came to a cabin I'd seen
            A mile or so back, coming up.
And I slammed the door shut with a shriek that was mine,
            As the craven crashed down on the stoop.

I crouched in a corner and sobbed for an hour.
            I blubbered and shuddered and shook,
For the craven kept scratching and pecking his beak
            In each cabin crevice and nook.

And he hissed and he gurgled and flopped up and down
            From the porch to the roof to the back,
And I heard his toes scraping the shingles and boards
            Of that lonely, abandoned old shack.

And after the scratching had stopped for awhile,
            I crept to the window to see.
And just as I feared, the craven was there,
            Perched on the stump of a tree.

He was there all that evening. He was there the next day,
            On the stump, or the porch, or the roof.
And whenever I put my nose out the door,
            He would squeak, or say "Oink," or go "Woof."

But the shack had a stove and a tin plate or two,
            And green snails crawled up every night.
So...when the craven stayed put for a week,
            I ate snails, and just thought I'd sit tight.

Spring turned into summer and summer to fall,
            And the craven was there every dawn.
But I got on OK, and I garnished the snails
            With crickets that crept from the lawn.

And when year led to year, I made a career
            Of warning the travelers instead.
And I painted a sign which I hung on my door.
            "BEWARE OF THE CRAVEN," it said.

Trav'lers were few, and those who came through
            Were slow to take heed or obey.
Some would even ignore what I yelled from the door,
            "There's a craven here! Run! Run away!"

I heard one trav'ler say, "Who's that hissing?
            From that cabin? Let's hurry on by.
I can't quite make out what he's hissing about,
            But I don't like his yellowy eye."

Nevertheless, they are out there, my boys.
            Be very afraid, or be caught!
By men, not taught by other men,
            Shall other men be taught.

So heed my advice, all you trav'lers,
            With your schemes and your dreams and your goals.
There are cravens abroad in the countryside, lads,
            And they're waiting to feed on your souls.

Better keep your head low, wherever you go.
            Duck and cover, and never stand tall.
Have a good place to hide. Never venture outside.
            Tread softly, and know when to crawl.

Never stick with plan "A" when you could run away.
            Obey all your doubts and your fears.
Let nobody in. Keep your snails in a tin,
            And the craven won't get you, my dears.