Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle

3 Books Donated 15 min

Ravens and Riddles

 

Ravens love riddles.

 

In fact, ravens greet other ravens by telling a riddle. When one meets another, he’ll introduce himself by asking something like: “Can a raven and owl be friends?”

 

The other might shift from one foot to the other, puzzled, because ravens and owls are mortal enemies. But then he’ll think of an answer like:

 

“Yes, if the owl is stuffed and mounted on the wall!”

 

Then both ravens will start laughing in a coarse, throaty way that sounds rather painful, but it is just raven laughter.

 

A good many raven jokes are about owls. This is because ravens fear owls. Owls prey on ravens and eat their young; they swoop down upon their victims soundlessly; they are cold-hearted killers. Ravens consider owls to be stupid and dangerous, which is why they get so upset when they hear people use the expression “as wise as an owl.” There isn’t an owl alive who is as clever as a raven.

 

The most popular riddle ravens tell is the one about owls and sparrows.

 

“How stupid is a sparrow?” the first will say.

 

“As stupid as two owls!” the second will reply.

 

After this, they will cackle with laughter and become fast friends.

 

Why do ravens greet each other with a riddle?

 

It is to tell the good ravens from the bad.

 

Jst added 15 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading to support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell

 

This may surprise you, but long ago, ravens were our best friends. Ravens talked to us as easily as we talk to each other; they traded jokes and sang to babies to amuse them; they flew high above the fields and watched over our sheep; they led our fishing boats toward great schools of fish in the ocean. Out on the battlefields, as knights and soldiers lay wounded or dying, their faithful ravens would tend their wounds, give them medicine, or carry messages home for help.

 

After one tragic battle long ago, a grim phantom of a bird appeared. It looked like a raven–the same beak, silky feathers, and dark talons–but its eyes glowed a sickly yellow that pierced the mist of death around the fallen soldiers. This phantom asked each raven a question:

 

“How would you like to live forever?”

 

“Live forever? Impossible! How can any raven live forever?” each replied.

 

“It is simple,” continued the phantom. “Eat the flesh of your master.”

 

Many ravens were disgusted and flew away; but one raven listened. He had stood by his master for hours, offering words of comfort as the soldier’s last mortal breaths faded in the chill air. Death was a horrible thing, he told himself. Feeling terribly alone and helpless, he considered the grim bird’s promise.

 

“Could I truly live forever?” he replied.

 

The phantom nodded. “One bite.”

 

The raven leaned over the body of his fallen companion and took the tiniest peck of flesh. First he felt ashamed; then a queasiness filled his belly, followed by an icy sensation that trickled into his heart. Suddenly, his heart began to race so fast that he thought it would burst from his chest.

 

In the same instant, time began to move faster for him: the grass wriggled out of the ground in a hurry to reach the sky; the sun crossed from east to west as quickly as a second hand sweeping around a clock. Then the terrible part–he felt hunger: a nagging, gnawing, craven ache in his belly. He ate more to make the hunger disappear, but it grew worse. When his master was nothing but a pile of bones, he became horrified. Had he done this? A cold, wretched bitterness engulfed his soul.

 

The hole in his belly would be there forever.

 

“You are a valraven now,” said the phantom to his new disciple. “Come, help me. We shall make more of our kind!”

 

Soldiers couldn’t tell the difference between ravens and valravens. When they saw one bird eating the flesh of a soldier they blamed all ravens and swatted them away with their swords and told their families, “Don’t trust ravens anymore; they’ll eat you.”

 

It saddened the ravens to be shunned by men, for they were loyal creatures who loved jokes, laughter, and life. Afraid of being stoned or caged, they dared not speak to humans anymore. Instead, they spoke only to each other and kept company with their own kind.

 

As for valravens, they were vicious, spiteful creatures. If a raven refused to join them, he would be killed or blinded. Perpetually hungry, valravens never lost their taste for human flesh.

 

That is why ravens use riddles to tell the good ones from the bad.

 

No riddle is funny to a valraven.

 

That is always the first clue that you are in trouble.

 

So if a valraven asks you a riddle, what should you do?

 

Run for your life.

 

The Book of Ravens

 

Gabriel Finley didn’t know anything about ravens, but he loved riddles.

 

He loved them the way other kids love baseball or computer games or mystery books. Riddles were like locks to Gabriel. He liked to pry them open and figure out what made them work. He liked the tricky ones that forced you to think about double meanings in words:

 

When is a door not a door?

 

When it’s ajar.

 

He liked riddles that used unfamiliar words, like ajar, which means a door that is slightly open, but he also liked riddles that stretched your imagination, like this one:

You’ll always see me in first place in a running race, third in a marathon, fourth in a tear, yet never in a dash! Who am I?

 

He spent a day puzzling over it, until, finally, he wrote it down and realized that the letter “r” comes first in running race, third in marathon, and fourth in the word tear.

 

Of course, Gabriel had another reason for loving riddles. His father had been a master of riddles. He’d told Gabriel a riddle every day, every single day–that is, until the day that he disappeared.

 

The Finleys’ house was nestled in the old part of Brooklyn, where all the houses were brownstones with flickering lamps in the front yards, curved glass windows, and wrought-iron gates. It had once belonged to Gabriel’s grandparents; the front door was cracked and weathered, its stairs were creaky, and its furniture was peculiar–lumpy armchairs of faded silk and velvet tasseled pillows, locked desks and cabinets with carved animal feet, a chandelier with candleholders made of antique pistols, and odd paintings of relatives (all very strange people, from the look of them).

 

The oddest painting hung in the study over a black desk. It depicted a boy of about twelve. Most of his features were in shadow, but the visible parts were very disturbing: his mouth was so small you might think he didn’t have one; his hair was black and iridescent, like the rainbow of colors in an oil slick. And the nose? It was more like a raven’s beak–strong, curved, and sharp at the tip. His eyes watched you with a cold, heartless stare and followed you wherever you stood in the room.

 

A single word was printed on the bottom of the portrait’s frame. It didn’t sound like a boy’s name, but it suited the figure in the picture. Corax. Someone solitary, mysterious, and terrible.

 

“Did he really grow up to be my uncle?” Gabriel asked his aunt one late-summer evening during dinner.

 

Aunt Jaz had looked after Gabriel for the three years since his father went away. They were eating mu shu pork from a cardboard container (Aunt Jaz rarely cooked because the ancient kitchen stove made creepy bonking noises).

 

“Who, dear?”

 

“The boy in that weird painting upstairs.”

 

When she didn’t want to talk about something, Aunt Jaz’s eyebrows rose high into her forehead. They weren’t really her eyebrows; she had bright red hair and such faint eyebrows that she used a pencil to darken them into two little black boomerangs. When the boomerangs reached her hairline, Gabriel knew he had asked a difficult question.

 

“Painting?”

 

“Yes. The one in the study.”

 

“Oh, yes, that’s Uncle Corax Finley.”

 

“Is there a grown-up painting of him?” asked Gabriel.

 

His aunt’s expression darkened. “No, dear. He hasn’t been seen since he was twelve. Corax is the black sheep of our family.”

 

“Why? Where is he?”

 

“I haven’t a clue.” Aunt Jaz gave a shudder as if she didn’t even want to know.

 

When Gabriel’s inquiring stare persisted, her boomerang eyebrows wilted in surrender. “Your father probably knows.”

 

At the mention of his father, Gabriel dropped his chopsticks. “Aunt Jaz? Are you sure you don’t know where my dad is?”

 

His aunt shook her head, rose from the table, and distractedly emptied her food into the sink and her plate into the trash can. Gabriel had seen her make this mistake many times before. He fished the plate out of the trash and wondered if there was any other way to find out about his father.

 

Jasmine Finley was a schoolteacher, a very eccentric sort. She could speak Chinese and write her own name in Egyptian hieroglyphs but was ignorant of the simplest things. For example, she became terribly alarmed when Gabriel outgrew his clothes. Looking him up and down one morning, she had fretted, “Dear me, how did this happen? Do you need to see a doctor?” She had been teaching for so many years that she assumed children came in one size: fourth grade.

 

Gabriel was never sure if she was hiding something or just confused. But he knew she loved him.

 

The next morning at breakfast, as they finished the Chinese-food leftovers, Gabriel tried another question.

 

“Aunt Jaz, you remember telling me that my mother disappeared when I was a baby?”

 

“Yes, dear, of course I do!”

 

“Did something happen to her?”

 

“Oh, no. Nothing happened. As I think I’ve said before, it was just a sudden disappearance.”

 

Any child would have been upset to lose a parent this way, but Gabriel lost his mother when he was too young to remember her. Finleys seemed to disappear in unexplainable ways.

 

“Aunt Jaz?” Gabriel turned a piece of pork thoughtfully between his chopsticks. “Do you think she could . . . reappear?”

 

“I certainly hope so. Anything is possible.”

 

“And my dad?”

 

This time, her boomerang eyebrows tilted kindly. “Yes, Gabriel, I’m quite sure he will.”

 

“I miss him,” Gabriel said. “I really miss him. Tell me something more. . . .”

 

Aunt Jaz’s eyes became misty. “My poor Gabriel,” she said. “There are so many things you must know, but every answer is like a fruit.”

 

“A fruit?”

 

“Yes, dear,” she replied. “Answers have a correct time, just as fruit is ripe at a certain time. I want my answers to be sweet rather than bitter. Do you understand?”

 

“I guess,” said Gabriel, although her answer just made him more curious.

 

A few weeks after seventh grade began, Gabriel did find out something remarkable about his father. Oddly, it happened because of a new boy who had joined the class.

 

His name was Somes Grindle. When the teacher first pronounced his name like sums, he raised his hand and explained that it rhymed with roams.

 

“What an interesting name, Somes!” said Ms. Cumacho. “Where does it come from?”

 

“My mother’s from Maine. There’s a big gap of water there. . . .” The boy’s voice trailed off as he became aware that everyone was staring at him. He exhaled sadly, his large dark eyes retreating to his hands, which were also unusually large.

 

That was the most Gabriel ever heard the boy say, at least until a week later. Somes was seated directly behind him. During a quiz, Gabriel could feel the boy’s breath on his neck as he uttered deep, unhappy sighs.

 

When the quiz was returned, Somes saw that he’d failed. Gabriel didn’t do very well, either. Once they were out in the corridor, Somes lifted him with his enormous hands.

 

“I thought you were smart,” he growled. “Every answer I copied from you was wrong!”

 

“Sorry,” said Gabriel nervously. “I guess you picked the wrong person to cheat off of.”

 

With a look of gloomy disappointment, Somes dropped Gabriel back onto his feet and shuffled away.

 

As he walked home after school, Gabriel heard Somes’s low voice calling after him. “Hey! Tell me the answers to the homework!”

 

When Gabriel refused, Somes reached out and raised Gabriel against a fence so that his feet dangled off the ground.

 

Helpless in the boy’s grip, Gabriel shared his answers. But he had another reason for doing this–there was something pitiful about Somes. He felt a little sorry for him.

 

Now, before we go any further, I must warn you that this is not a story about a bully; it is a story about riddles, ravens, and a remarkable adventure. Still, it is important for you to know how adventures can sometimes begin with the people we least expect.

 

That evening, Aunt Jaz noticed a rip in Gabriel’s jacket. When he explained about being hung from the fence, she peered at him over her horn-rimmed glasses. “Gabriel? You must never give that bully your answers again!”

 

“Well, he was pretty desperate,” Gabriel explained.

 

“You must stand up for yourself!”

 

His aunt made a small fist, which amused Gabriel. He explained that he couldn’t stand up against a bully if his feet were already off the ground.

Aunt Jaz shook her head. “Your father never had such problems when he was a boy.”

 

“What kind of problems did he have?” Gabriel replied curiously.

 

His aunt’s boomerang eyebrows converged suddenly, and Gabriel knew he had stumbled upon a very important secret.

 

“Oh, nothing really,” she said, her eyes doing a little scramble, as if looking for somewhere to escape.

 

“Aunt Jaz? Won’t you tell me anything about him?” Gabriel asked.

 

Now her painted eyebrows tilted in a look of obvious sympathy.

 

“Oh, Gabriel, I’m a terrible aunt,” she confessed. “You deserve so much better than me!”

 

Later that evening, in bed with the lights out, Gabriel became aware of his aunt’s presence. She kneeled by his bed and patted him. He didn’t open his eyes because she was only affectionate this way when she thought he was asleep.

 

The next morning, he realized she had placed something on his bedside table. It was a small notebook, bound in black leather. If he had opened it, he would have seen that the first page said The Book of Ravens, and it was signed in child’s lettering–Adam Finley–with a small but carefully rendered drawing of a raven beside it.

 

Adam Finley, of course, was Gabriel’s father.

 

And if Gabriel had started reading it right then and there, he might have forgotten about breakfast, or perhaps even to go to school; but since Gabriel had overslept, he gave the notebook a quick glance, then stuffed it in his school backpack, planning to take a closer look at it later.

Instead, it was the notebook that was forgotten. It lay in the bottom of his backpack among a pocket pack of tissues, twelve gum wrappers, a worn eraser, and several very short pencils–a place where something might be lost for a long time.

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