Word Association. The full pitch is "A Continuity of Crows-- A Story of Things Lost and Things Found"
Poy St. Aubin-James was well into the second month of investigating his own delusions when he saw the Clean Man. Poy was walking along the 1st Street overpass, looking down and across the glazed and fecund expanse of the east delta at the mudlarks and under-grubbers picking their way around the shore. Cripples and downgrades, demented res-syphilitics, and the purely poor walked side by side with the muck fauna and sewer creatures that had evolved into anthropoid shapes in the belly and bowels of the City. The dark slivers of the Crows were busy here, clustering thickly in the air around the urchins and underlings, swarming like midges in the heat, but Poy knew that he was the only one that could see them.
He couldn't say exactly when he had begun to notice the Crows. They had edged into the periphery of his life, very much like shadows growing in late afternoon. By the time he began to pay attention, they were already familiar. At first it was like blinking with his eyes open. An afterimage, a quick starburst of darkness on the head of a woman in the laundromat, a thin line at the edge of his vision clinging to the collar of a man at the grocery store. Small flickering scraps of blackness that fluttered and crawled on people in bus stations and restaurant lines. They became more solid, more apparent. Lightning darting dark lines like cracks in a window, licking and kissing faces. Two-dimensional butterflies dipped in ink. The people always seemed oblivious. Poy never said anything, because he knew he'd sound crazy. He believed that he was crazy, but he wasn't sure what he should do about it.
At first he tried to ignore them, to go on with his life, or at least his daily business and pay them know mind. He had been living on automatic for months now anyway, ever since he'd graduated from University into a bland world of empty apartments and vacuous jobs. Poy didn't have any significant friends anymore, and his family was far away. He moved through the days breathing just because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. He had no strong feelings about anything, and in a way that was fine with him. He was tired of losing things, tired of failing. It was easier just to live only to keep living. But the flickers wouldn't let him do that. They wouldn't leave him alone, and they kept getting more and more real.
At first they just got larger, and it was worrisome when hallucinations that had been the size of houseflies grew to the size of house sparrows, perching like epaulets on the shoulders of the goth boy outside the club on 8th street, mixing with the pigeons at the feet of the old men in the park. Poy began to fear that his vision would eventually be blocked out entirely by their moving black silhouettes. But their size stabilized and plateaued when they got to be about twice as big as a robin. Poy had relaxed a little and consoled himself with the fact that he'd never seen any of them inside his house, or glommed to his reflection in the mirror. They stuck to other people, followed in their wake, but they seemed to leave Poy alone.
He heard them for the first time when he was taking the cablecar to Beacon Hill to visit his cousins. The car was clack-clacking and the line was creaking, people were talking and laughing, and there were a hundred thousand sounds of life on a late Sunday morning. Poy was almost able to ignore the dark flickers that swooped around the heads. A young man was sitting next to him, dressed in blue jeans, a t-shirt and a vacant stare. The City unrolled itself before them, and Poy smiled at the panoply, but the man seemed lost in thought. A shadow lit on his forehead, and Poy heard it as it slid down over the man's eye. It wasn't so much a sound as an absence of sound, in the shape of whispering susurration. It was the sound that bird wings make when they swoop overhead, not flapping, not rustling, but the sound of feathers slicing through the air. Poy heard it through the din of the city, and he knew immediately what it was. He got off the cablecar at the next stop and skipped brunch with his cousins.
In the next few weeks the noise had become all but omnipresent. Everywhere the flickers were, so was also that gap in sound, as if someone had turned down the volume on one single slice of the bandwidth of the world. Poy found it all but impossible to tune out. He sat in his apartment alone and watched TV. If he went to the movies they were there, flying through the projected images without casting a shadow on the screen, swooping over the couples holding hands. If he went to the pharmacy they were there, moving above the aisles, clustering heavily on the woman by the pregnancy tests, and the young boy being dragged away from the candy counter. If he ran into his neighbor, the old woman who lived with her two cats in a hideous paradise of overstuffed pink furniture, they were there, sitting lightly on her shoulders, pecking gently at her ears. They were practically inescapable.
When he saw them leave feather tracks in the dust at the library he decided to go see a Physician. Poy waited in line at Central Health for two days before he got past the receptionists and interns and synths. The Physician was a big bald man, with the green and blue striped skin of an islander. He was very good at his job, and made Poy feel as if he was actually paying attention. He asked Poy a number of questions, which Poy
answered with complete honesty, if some hesitance and embarrassment. Yes, he'd been seeing these things for a while now. No, he knew they weren't real. Yes, he tried to exercise regularly. No, he hadn't had any pain in his eyes, or problems seeing things. Yes, he was allergic to sulfadrugs and to Rivertalc, but no he hadn't come into contact with either since he was a kid. No, he hadn't had any strange headaches or back pains. No he hadn't had any exotic fruit or been Upriver recently. No he hadn't had sex in a while, and he'd never paid for it.
The Physician took notes on a palmtop computer, poking and stabbing at the screen with his stylus, and looking thoughtfully over the triple layered lenses of his magnifying glasses. He took a blood sample and sent it in a small pneumatic tube to "the lab." The two of them made idle chitchat for the next five minutes, before his palmtop flashed and chimed. The Physician studied it intently for a few seconds, frowning and shaking his head. Then he looked up and told Poy that there was nothing physically wrong with him, at least nothing that they could find. He pointed out that this was good news in a way, since it ruled out res-syphilis, stroke, schizophrenia, Curie's Disease, methmetaphoria, and a number of other very serious conditions. He said that Poy was welcome to make an appointment for a more "invasive" scan, but that the odds were nothing would turn up. He then suggested that Poy seek guidance from "another philosophical school" possibly something with more experience dealing with "psychiatric or spirituo-religious" issues. Then he stood up and told Poy to check out at the front desk.
Poy found black feathers on the bench near the bus stop, but they faded into fine powdery dust when he tried to pick them up.
That was two months ago, and Poy had been to see several dozen guides, sages, savants, and priests since then. He had been told many things: that he had issues with his mother, that he had an overwhelming obsession with death, and a fear of failure. That he was cursed, blessed, gifted, blinded, and drunk. He made an extensive offering to the internet Psychopomp, who in return conducted an exhaustive para-Boolean search and told him that there were 14 psychiatric conditions, and 543 lesser and greater gods, that specifically referenced visions of crows. The professional proselytizer of the self-nihilists (who couldn't speak up for themselves since they were too busy trying to lose their identity and become a street or a boat or a cat or a washing machine) had suggested that he was already on the right path and that he should embrace the visions more fully, abandoning his "individual preconceptions." The Sister, in her dark warren, skull candles burning, prime numbers tattooed on her knuckles and wrists, told him that this was to be expected, because life is hell and there was no way out, except to seek order in the chaos. His mother told him that he was working too hard, his father and brother both said that he needed to find a woman. The woman he hired told him that the going rate was $150 an hour, but she didn't tell him anything about the Crows, and when it was over they were there, black flickering shapes sitting on the edge of her bed.
Poy had pretty much given up on getting any good advice, and instead he'd taken to wandering around the City. He made notes on the crows, their behavior, their locations, their size and shape and sounds. So far he had seen them everywhere, on everyone. They surrounded little children on playgrounds, old people in rest homes, the wealthy girls wearing fashion in Uptown, the homeless ghetto drifters under the elevated tracks. They were thicker on some people, in some places, at some times. They were heavy at funerals and at weddings. Thinner on people playing and lounging in the park. They hovered darkly over the head of men in rumpled suits sitting alone, belly to the bar on late Saturday nights, but they were translucently thin on couples going home together. They circled heavily over jungle gyms and toy stores, but they all-but ignored the maternity wards. There was a pattern, Poy knew it, and he could almost find it, but it danced just outside of him, just beyond his grasp.
He'd come home late last night, dejected because he'd seen the Crows clustering heavily on a mother holding her newborn daughter. The woman had been patently, gloriously happy, firmly disproving Poy's nascent theory that the Crows were attracted to, or actually were the physical incarnation of, sadness. As he shucked off his windbreaker and trudged into the apartment, he caught sight of himself in the hall mirror, just out of the corner of his eye. There was a Crow flitting above his head. He screamed and ran into his bedroom, flailing wildly at his head and shoulders, burying himself under the thick down comforter, and shivering there in frightened disgust until he passed out.
The next morning he'd checked himself a dozen times or more in the mirror, but he hadn't seen anything. He didn't feel relieved though, just exhausted. He'd thrown on last night's clothes and walked downtown, telling himself that he was looking for something to eat, but actually just wandering, trying not to think, trying not to see.
And that was when he found himself on the bridge, staring down at the Clean Man, as he made his way amongst the gutter snipes. He was small and middle aged, wearing a ragged dress coat and thigh waders, gouging inattentively at the slime and mud that sucked at his calves. He was all but indistinguishable from the half a hundred or more other figures spread out across the mudflats and mire. Except that there were no Crows on him. Or near him. He was alone and the air was empty except for the sparkle of sunlight on dirty water. The Crows never came close; they veered a wide circle around him. Poy stared at him for ten seconds or so before he began to run towards the side stair that led to the embankment and from there out to the flats.
Poy yelled as he slogged through the cloy. Pluff mud and detritus pulled at his shoes, so he kicked them off, felt his bare feet slide through the slime, tickling the thin skin between his toes. His pants were ruined. He didn't know what to call the man so he was yelling, "You! The...guy...the empty guy! Wait! I need to talk to you!" Half way there he slipped and fell on his face, thick salty dirt slurping into his mouth and nose, sticking in his eyes, making them water and weep. His clothes were ruined, and by the time he was close, he was panting and snuffling and speaking in nonsensical gibberish. No one looked up - he didn't seem so different down here with all of the dirty people, raving to themselves and prodding in sewage and waste water.
"Pleasewhowho... are you? Whyaren't...theyonyou? Where...are..they?.... How come you're clean?"
The Clean Man just looked at him. Stared him up and down with watery blue eyes, and scratched a dirty stubbled throat that was pockmarked with scabs and crusts. A dirty locket hung from a leather strap on his wrist, and his thumb rubbed at it continuously, an idle motion that seemed an obsessive habit. He held a long pole, almost a pike, with a rusty bent hook on its end, tucked under his arm, and a plastic shopping bag filled with the bits and pieces he'd dredged up slung over his back.
In a voice that was quiet and raw from disuse he said "I don't know you."
Poy bent double, trying to heave air into his leaden lungs, gasping out "No...but the Crows...they, they're not with you! Why...please...I need to know."
The Clean Man looked at him and looked through him. He let his gaff slip into his free hand, his thumb still rubbing the locket. He said, "You're crazy. You leave me the fuck alone. Or I'll stick you."
He backed off a few feet, turned slowly around, taking great sucking steps in the mud, looking guardedly over his shoulder as he walked away, leaving Poy by himself in the muck. Poy was crying, but the slime on his cheeks was too thick to be etched by the tears; they just trailed over the mud leaving it imperceptibly wetter and more salty. Poy almost collapsed, almost let himself sink into the sludge here at the base and bottom of the City. He wanted to wail, but he didn't have the breath. He wanted this to end. But it wouldn't end.
"Ewouldn leco." It was a high pitched voice, almost a squeak, almost a whine. It came from behind Poy and below him.
Poy turned his head and saw a ratman staring at him, head cocked half down, black opalescent eyes leaking thick mucous over mangy muddy fur. Crooked yellow teeth. Half of a right ear. Thin hands that seemed to have an extra joint and slender black brown claws. The creature was mostly naked, but its crotch was buried somewhere under the mud. A loose cord of plastic twine trailed out across the mud for ten feet or so behind it, tangles of wire and tin cans and plastic bags tied to it at uneven intervals. A Crow was sitting on its neck, right at the hunch where its head met its spine. Two others circled in the air above it.
"Ewouldn leco. Thas yi ey leave im lone. Ewouldn leco of is roken reams, so ey yant elp im."
Poy stared for a long time. The ratman stared back. Blinked.
Poy swallowed, felt his lips crack, said "What?"
The ratman cocked his little head in the other direction, showing a bright blue bottle cap hanging from his left ear lobe, a proud decoration. His lips pulled back along his snout in an expression that Poy couldn't recognize.
"E blak irds. As yi ey not aroun him. E eeps his roken reams to imsel. E won let em take em."
Poy stood up as best he could, felt something sharp dig dully into the meat of his foot. "What? The birds...don't bother him because he holds on to his dreams? You mean...they steal dreams? Wait, you mean you can see them? What?"
The creature nodded, made an upwards twist with it's snout that might have been something like rolling its eyes. It turned and began to reel in the long line of its possessions. It said over its shoulder, "Course I see em. You see em, why not me too, us ause Ahm atman, don men Ahm stooid no lind."
Poy rushed forward, stopped when the little creature looked up, startled, took a step back and raised his hands, tried to smile.
"No please, it's just that, no one else, no one else sees them...I don't...how do you see them? Do you all see them? What are they, God…why are they here?"
The ratman looked shaken a little, then let go of his rubbish creel and scratched at his balls under the mud. Sighed. "I ont know...I us, see them, I never as anyon else, ey jus alays ere. Oo cares anyay? Ey us doin eir yob, like me. Gettin rid of tings no one wans anyor."
Poy looked desperately confused. The ratman leaned in close. His breath smelled like rot and shit. But strangely fresh. He pronounced a single word very slowly, enunciating as best as he could.
He smiled broadly, displaying a patchwork of teeth, then he swam-walked away, leaving Poy standing in the mud, still confused, but with awareness beginning to dawn. Crows began to circle above his head.