Crazy Man Michael
You speak with an evil, you speak with a hate
You speak for the devil that haunts me
Richard Thompson / Fairport Convention
There was madness enough for both of us. And blame. History will remember Michael unkindly, but there are more truths in the story of my death and his life than have been recorded or can be believed.
Nor am I, in truth, dead.
Michael, Mikhail, Mikal, time has lengthened and softened his name, just as it has darkened it. When I knew him he was Mica.
He was but a lad, raw boned and rough tongued, heedless when the wildness was upon him, but he was granted much leeway as the Shaman of his tribe. His master died early, Mica came into his power young and untested, and I came to him too late.
The calling of Familiar is complicated. I was conduit to his power, his voice into the vastness and lens into the mysteries, I was his conscience when his morality failed before his power, his counsellor where he had neither the wisdom or experience to judge the proper course.
His body warred with his mind. He was young, barely fifteen when the mantle fell upon him, old enough for a warrior, or a huntsman, but young by two decades to begin the calling of guide and keeper of the lore.
The mystery claimed him when his master slipped from the stepping stones and drowned in winter flood waters. More truths to be told, but not here and now, save to say he had no business to be abroad that midwinter’s night.
In that at least Mica was innocent. As his master drowned Mica fell by the hearth in the Chief’s hall and would have dashed his brains upon the hearthstone had the head woman not cradled him like a babe, and the Chief’s men not held down his limbs.
He was not yet into his growth but with the unchecked power of the mystery he might have thrown off all the bearded muscle that restrained him, had the quick thinking woman not crooned a lullaby and stroked his brow with the tirelessness of a matron. All night he thrashed and foamed, but no more harm came to him than bruises. At least not to his body.
I flew in to see that scene and settled on his chest. I could smell the fear rolling off the men and the resignation settling on the woman.
His body warred with his mind, and lost. The mystery filled and lifted him, I was already too late. In the days that followed it rode upon the waves of all his manhood growth and boyhood confusion. It showed him myriad paths to knowledge like the gaps in standing stones, and like a child he opened every doorway just for the joy of opening. Aye, and spread the skirts of every girl, and while none would begrudge a Shaman’s bastard at their hearth and daughter’s teat the other young men muttered darkly in the corners.
I don’t know if I tamed him, or if the bestiality of the couplings shamed his burgeoning senses. Not two months had passed but he foreswore them all, even those who came, timid or bold but uninvited, to crawl between the furs in his far hut.
To one who could hear the early signs of spring in the shoots stirring to life beneath the last frost, the tribe seemed deaf, blind to the knowledge written in leaf and cloud. He served the Chief summarily, and day by day it was less and less. He disdained all other company. All company but mine. I rode upon his shoulder and he stroked the feathers of my breast and whispered, “if only I could find a lover with your mind.”
Mica’s distance to his fellow men grew so far the Chief came to call upon me while Mica slept. Long years the Chief had ruled, and two Shamans buried in his reign. He knew I could hear him, though I could not answer in a tongue that he in turn could hear.
He pleaded for the life of his tribe, which suffered, wayward without the guide, with no one to interpret the Gods’ will or call the auguries. He thought like a man, and a ruler of men. “Find him a woman who will settle him, ease his unruly passions and bring him back to the tribe.”
And what of me? My charge was the wild boy, failing in his duty, but oh so beautiful in his power. He knew no restraint, we threw wide the doors to darker arts and sweeter sensations. When he drew the magic through me I was alive unlike any of my fellows. My own magic wrapped around me, and through me, and I found I had a power known only rarely in my kind.
It was glorious, but it was no kindness. I had gained the gift of foretelling, though I could only see a little way before the veil of time closed on the future like a jealous lover. I saw Mica on his deathbed, still young and hale but utterly still, if he continued on this path.
The wise words, the man’s words of the Chief struck me then. The mind blight would settle on me when Mica died. The connection that kept me tethered when the vastness opened up before me, pouring magic and knowing into Mica would be lost, and I would be swallowed back into it. The body of the raven would fall lifeless and I would become part of the madness of the Gods and their dreams.
I loved him. There was no malice in him, no desire to hurt, but his mind had outstripped the ability of his body to contain it, and shattered all the ties around him. No others saw the nights he spent doubled up in anguish, too hot, too cold, gasping for air, as his knowledge of things trod over all the things he knew. Yet he tried to hold on to the branch spinning down the stream of his calling. It was courageous, and I loved him for it.
I took a human form, my hair black as my wings, my eyes glowing like coals, a sultry thing as he would not have ever seen. I lead him to a bower I had made deep in the forest, I hid and changed into the Forest Maid and fell with him to the fecund earth of summer. When he was spent I spoke to him with the perspicacity that he craved.
It calmed him. A release he could not find in human discourse, nor claim from me as his Familiar, he found in the Forest Maid. In her guise I bled him of the excess energy of his mind and body, and slowly he brought them into balance. He came more to his people, and when the Chief deferred to him in the matters of fortune and the Gods, Mica answered with clarity and the perspective of one who sees beyond the boundaries of the world. He dressed wounds, he blessed children, and the tribe began to prosper.
Curse the gift that imprisons and chains. For the foretelling was still upon me, and Mica knew somewhat of it. I would settle on his shoulder when he walked back from the bower to the tribal lands and he would ask me of his future and if he might marry the Forest Maid of the bower.
I saw. I saw the first time that he asked me, even as he set the broken limbs of huntsmen and brewed potions for the midwives. I saw myself as the Forest Maid, dead upon the grass.
As Shaman he had power over me, his Familiar. He compelled me as he walked to his daily assignation. So I told him the truth. He would never marry his lover, for she would die by his own hand.
He threw me from his shoulder, and roundly cursed me then. Betrayer, bird of envy, jealous monster, thus he called me. And as I opened up my mouth to caw a nay and say that I was she, to change my form before his eyes, he drew his dagger, steel bright in the sunshine and he slew me.
The sky span as if a mighty whirlwind stood still and turned all of creation. The world tightened ropelike and recoiled. Mica had broken the sacred tie of Shaman and Familiar, and the vastness and the mysteries closed upon him like a snapped bowstring. He stumbled and swooned even as my raven’s body dropped, and the Forest Maid landed on the mossy ground.
The change was upon me and I had no living form in which to contain it, for both were heart pierced and dead. I could feel the draw of the vastness clawing at my unravelling form, dragging me like an unseen current to drown in its eternal madness. I begged the spirits of the trees and grasses, the flowers and the bushes to take me in. It is not in their nature to refuse their gifts to any.
And Mica? My broken, mad Mica? He woke to find this lover at his feet, her heart’s blood staining the front of her dress. He raised his hands to draw the life back into her, and found his power fled.
He raged, he raised his arms to the heavens and roared until his lungs failed and he coughed gouts of black blood to soak into the sod with mine.
With no open doorways in his mind, and no means to speak to Gods and wisps and wights, the knowledge bled swiftly out of him. From the boles of the trees I saw his eyes clear, from the bobbing seed heads I heard his breath grow steady. Every creature in the forest wide had heard his voice howl in loss and self recrimination. I saw the moment he became a man again.
He died old. Some remnants of my power kept the bower free of winter cold and washed only lightly by the rain. He became keeper of that wild garden, and my long exile went easier while he lived. He tended the trees and the flowers where my spirit had settled, unable to hear my whisper in the grasses, but knowing there was a penance to be paid. He was cursed by all the Gods and men for breaking his most sacred trust, but I think he knew that I forgave him.
When I first heard Sandy Denny’s voice singing Crazy Man Michael I assumed it was an old folk tale. I t had all the hallmarks of something passed down by word of mouth through hearth and tavern until someone sought to set it down.
It isn’t a folk tale at all, but a reflection on death and blame and guilt written by Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention in 1969, following the tragic death of his girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn in a road accident.
I’m indebted to Murder Ballad Monday for the background and various story cues.
None of that truth changes the fact that it is a beautiful and haunting story, and since there was no authentic proto story to use as a source I wrote my own. It is largely faithful to the song, but I have expanded into the areas where the lyrics are silent. Why was it natural for Michael to converse with a raven? What power did the raven hold to change shape? and so on.
Who knows, after the world ends and aliens pick through the remains of our civilisation maybe they will find my story first, and then the song.
The photo is one I took, and probably isn’t a raven. Bite me.