An Unkindness of Authors: A conversation with Peter S. Beagle

On a warm midsummer night in August of 2008, the Green Man is nearly empty.

It’s a fine evening for a pint, mind you, and the barkeep’s not short of customers. It’s a matter of location; no one seems to want to stay inside. The new moon is a patch of pale, straight as a precision cut against the horizon. Something about that distant line of pearl is drawing everyone out of doors, to wander, to settle. Even the regulars who prefer to take their drinks in two or three yeasty mouthfuls are taking the time to savor. The conversations are idle, scattered, voices hushed down as soft as the night air.

The pub’s not completely empty, though. There are two people inside, a man and a woman, deep into a rapid-fire conversation. They’re discovering shared memories, shared places in times long past.

There are also ravens — five glossy birds, settled along the back of a booth. They’re having a little natter of their own.

No one saw them fly in. It’s a trick ravens have, for night flying; they become part of the darkness, their wings and backs just another pattern of blackness stitched against the sky. Four of them had come in together, an unkindness flying straight and low. Heading for their usual corner, they’d stopped mid-flight, and gone into hover mode. The bird at the front let out a loud, irritated clack.

‘Right, boys, look lively, now.’ The comment, aimed at his mates, moved along lines of thought, audible only to those at whom he’d aimed the comment in his head. ‘Luke, Matthew, Mark, careful now. There’s someone taken our spot.’

The bird already in possession watched the others approach. At first glance, all five were cut from the same cloth. A closer look, however, revealed subtle differences, and one obvious one — the newcomers were larger by far.

‘Evening, mate. Shove over and give us a bit of room, will you? Ta.’ The leader settled down, the others following suit. A rhythmic pattern of sound echoed out across the nearly empty public.

The two humans lifted their heads a moment, glancing at the ravens across the empty tables and half-full glasses. The woman smiled, nodded, the man lifting a hand in a passing salute, a moment of acknowledgement — the man knowing his own raven, the woman knowing her unkindness. They went back to talking.

‘Haven’t seen you round the old Green Man before, have we?’ The leader of the unkindness had his head tilted, regarding the stranger. ‘Name’s John. These here are my mates — the big one’s called Luke, and that’s Matthew and Mark, the little one down at the end. You?’

‘I don’t have a name.’ Her jerked his head toward the humans. ‘He never gave me one. I’m just the raven.’

Deb: …I love that t-shirt. Django Reinhart? Perfect. You like wearing black — do you know Neil Gaiman?

‘You’ve got no name? That’s just wrong.’ Luke had his wings folded back; he looked enormous and imposing, but his voice was friendly. ‘She gave us names. Maybe it’s just easier for them to name us when there’s more than one. Where are you from, mate? That’s a weird accent you’ve got.’

Peter: Neil and I ended up onstage together at Balticon in 2006 — a last minute thing. We were there for five minutes, two guys wearing all black, leather jackets and all, and we went straight into this spontaneous father-son shtick, like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner doing their 2000-year-old Man routine. Why?

Deb: Neil once said something about how he was going to wear black until someone invented something darker. That’s why I asked. But I can totally see you guys riffing.

‘I’m from the Bronx. Top end of the New York City map. I spend a lot of time in the cemetery up there. You? European, I’m guessing, from the accent and the size.’

Peter: …I’m a big fan of Georges Brassens — he was a cat person, did you know that? I learned French by playing and singing Brassens in a supper club. Some nights, there would be one person eating while I played…the problem with learning French that way is that Brassens was from the south of France, so that was the accent I developed. A friend told me that my accent had moved so far south, it had left France and was now in North Africa.

‘Here, there, everywhere.’ John winked. ‘Bit of London, bit of the country, wherever she sent us off to. Always been in the UK, though. Nice to get a bit of real travel under our wings for a change. So, what did he have you doing, then? We were guarding a human after a plague — bit simple, Ben was, but a brill painter.’

Deb: Omigawd, I love Georges Brassens! Brassens, Aznavour, Yves Montand, and of course there was Piaf — we had all their albums in the house. Part of the music I grew up listening to. Remember that Montand cover, with the kitten poking its head out of his jacket? All cat guys.

‘Jesus, listen to those writers. Still talking. Don’t they ever shut up? Hang on a minute, will you? I’ll be back.’ The American raven lifted suddenly, heading for a table across the room. He landed, clumsy and grappling for a hold, just long enough to dip his beak into a glass full of amber liquid.

Deb: …Peter, I brought you a bribe. Confession time — I, um, well, stole your raven from A Fine and Private Place, and used it in Plainsong, so I brought you a copy. That scene at the beginning, the raven stealing the bologna from the Bronx deli? I have mine stealing pie to feed their human after a plague wipes out nearly everyone. You’re the only living writer I can think of who wrote a book I can actually point to and say, that book had a direct influence not only on the way I write, but on how I process the universe around me.

‘Cider. Man, that’s good stuff.’ The nameless was back, belching. ‘Sorry, what did you want to know? Oh, what did he write me doing? Same thing she wrote you doing, pretty much. I had a disgraced pharmacist who’d been living in the cemetery for about a jillion years. I used to swipe food to keep him alive. Well, you know what that’s like, I’m sure.’

He lifted his shoulders, spreading the feathers, letting them settle again. ‘Didn’t she just say she stole the idea? That makes me your father, or something, I guess. How should I know? I’m just a bird. Boy, would you listen to them? Talk talk talk, they never shut up. People don’t, do they? Oh Christ, he’s talking about cemeteries again. What is it, with people and holes in the ground?’

Peter: …You know Miles Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery? Have you seen his gravestone? It’s huge, shiny black marble, sheet music carved across the bottom, a trumpet, and big letters saying ‘Sir Miles Davis.’ Then just across the path there are stones, set almost flat into the ground. If you didn’t see them, you might even walk on them or trip over them. Those are the graves of Duke Ellington and his parents. Nearby there’s a series of stones, members of Duke’s band. If he wants to jam, his guys are buried close enough to sit up and grab their axes. You look at Miles’ stone, you can’t imagine anyone daring to get close enough for that.

‘Crikey, mate, you’re right. All they ever do is rabbit and write, people do. Blah blah blah, words words words.’ Matthew, listening and absorbing, suddenly lifted himself off his perch, moving fast, a bit clumsy. ‘Excuse me a moment, but I fancy a beer.’

Up, over, a table close to the two humans. He dipped, drank, paused to listen a moment, and drank again.

Across the pub, Luke snorted. ‘He looks like one of them bobbing bird toys. What’s he doing, then? Eavesdropping? Can’t imagine why he’d bother. They can’t have anything interesting to say, you know?’

Deb: …Marilyn Monroe? Really?

‘How right you are, mate. They’re talking about some woman who had It. Not a clue what It is, though, and I don’t give a rat’s arse, either.’ Matthew, hovering, looked a bit shaky. He had a mean look in his eye. ‘Shove over, mate, give a bird a place to sit. Nice beer, but strong stuff.’

Peter: …Really. She and my cousin were walking down the street together. Marilyn was wearing an old raincoat, no makeup, and people were walking right past her. No one gave her a second look. She asked my cousin, You want to see me turn it on? My cousin swore Marilyn hadn’t done anything different, but suddenly, heads were turning and people were whispering and it was Marilyn Monroe. It was as if she’d flicked a switch. She told my cousin, It’s a trick.

Deb: My own theory is that it’s pheromones. Send out a banner scent on the air — that whole trick, pheromonal control, that’s a form of witchcraft, magic.

‘Matthew, you sozzled or something?’ John was watching his friend, who seemed to have a serious tilt backwards. ‘Oi! Might want to straighten your back there, mate. You’re going arse over teapot, you don’t watch it.’

Deb: …Holy shit, you didn’t like Bob Dylan either? Saw him live when I was barely an adolescent and thought he was a pretentious snob with adenoids. It took me twenty years to appreciate anything he did at all.

Peter: …A friend of mine at the time told me Dylan was going to be huge. I thought he was crazy, and said so. The guy couldn’t sing, couldn’t play guitar, couldn’t even blow a good harmonica. My friend said, he’s going to be huge because he wants it so much more than anyone else out there.

The nameless lifted off, heading back to what remained of the cider he’d raided. Unluckily, he got there just as the barmaid, reaching the table a nanosecond before him, was reaching for the glass. He let out a loud croak, and moved; his beak rapped the table no more than an inch from her fingers. She jumped back, met his eye, and moved away, leaving the cider where it was.

The bird took another few hits from the glass and went back to the unkindness, muttering to himself; he seemed to be going from irritable to morose. The two humans, watching him with some amusement, noted the slight weave to his flight pattern, and went back to their conversation.

Peter: …had a dog, years ago, around 1974. Part coyote — her name was Maya. She was very shy, very nervous. We loved that dog. One day, a friend came to visit. He was driving an old van, and the clanking and the noise scared the dog and she ran away. She was gone for days. I was working on a script for Earl Hamner, Jr., the guy who did The Waltons, and I couldn’t get any work done. Too worried about the dog, and the kids were devastated. Hamner called me to ask how it was going, and I had to tell him, it wasn’t. I told him about Maya. He said, Peter, I really need that script. But listen, my wife has this animal deity thing, and when she really wants something, she visualizes it and talks to it. She calls it Superdog. Want me to ask her to talk to Superdog for you? I said, sure, couldn’t hurt.

Deb: …!!!! Earl Hamner’s wife knew a TRICKSTER GOD!

Peter (grinning): Around midnight that night — I am not making this up — we heard a scratching at the door, and there was Maya. She was thin, sore patches all over her, crying and weak and scared but she was THERE, she was home. The kids were all over her, hugging her, my wife was crying. I called Hamner — I woke him up — and said, kiss your wife for us, because it worked. So now, whenever I need to pray to anything, I just pray to Superdog. We should probably think about heading out…Deborah, can you get the barmaid’s attention? Oh, hello, listen, we need a couple of pints, cider and ale — no, not for us, but put it on our tab, and can we settle up?

The barmaid, a brimming glass in each hand, headed for the ravens. She did a wide circle, taking the long way round, approaching with one cautious eye on the birds. She set the glasses down at the ravens’ booth. ‘Compliments of Uncle Fox and the Rocker Chick,’ she told them, and backed away.

‘Now, I call that civilized. What have we got, then? Cider and pale ale?’ John, about to dip in, caught a look from Luke, and sighed. ‘Right, okay, designated flyer. Price of leadership. Cheers, mate. Help yourselves. I’m flying dry tonight — I’ll lead the way home.’

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