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Henry Braun became the laughing stock, not only of the investment community, but also of the Ledford community in general. Political cartoons in the Sentinel lampooned him; even his cronies couldn’t help but get in on the fun. When he stepped into the bar at his club, someone called out, “Duck!” and another shouted, “Don’t you mean, crow?” Everyone laughed. Henry’s face turned bright red, and he turned on his heel and left.
“My hands were tied,” the Mayor sniveled when he demanded answers. “The people have spoken, Henry.”
“It was not so much public opinion, Henry,” his pal at Economic Development told him. “The city attorney told us the terms of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust make it impossible for Braun Enterprises to carry out its proposed Ravenwood Resort casino park.”
Jules, you lying, incompetent, traitorous boob!
The investors all said no, too. “Wilder Island is for the birds,” Whitey McDurbin told Henry. “Move on. Take your River Queen elsewhere and then call me.” He hung up without even giving Henry the courtesy of a good-bye.
“It was an omen, Henry,” Lloyd Roberts said. “Getting shit upon even before I see a prospectus speaks volumes. None for me, thanks.”
The others didn’t bother to return Henry’s phone calls. He was enraged. “What the hell is this?” he shouted and slammed his hand down on his desk. “Gutless windbags! Why am I surrounded by cowards?”
He glanced sidelong at the portraits of the Henrys on the wall. All four stared vacantly back. Were they disappointed? Had he failed them? Henry the First was especially aloof; his hard mouth drawn into a straight line. His eyes went straight through Henry, making him feel as if he weren’t even there.
“Screw ’em!” he said and got up from this desk. “Screw you!” he shouted at the portraits. “Screw everyone. Screw the whole goddamned world!”
He opened the wine cabinet and pulled out a random bottle. He opened it carefully, took a long gulp straight from the bottle, and poured himself a glass. Then another. And another until the bottle was empty.
Minnie heard Henry shouting from time to time, and his stomping around his office. When he didn’t come down to the kitchen for breakfast, she brought a tray of food up to him.
“Leave me the hell alone!” he yelled at her from the other side of the door.
“I’ll leave your sandwich and cookies on the floor,” she said when he refused to let her in. When she brought dinner, the lunch tray had not moved. The bread on the ham sandwich had curled around the edges, and the lettuce was wilted.
“Henry?” She knocked. “Henry?” No sound came from behind the door. She piled the uneaten lunch onto the dinner tray and returned to the kitchen.
Henry had refused food for three days when Floyd and Willy showed up at the patio table in the backyard where Minnie ate breakfast alone. Delighted to see them, she hugged their beaks close to her face.
“Well, we’re right happy to see you too, ma’am,” Willy said.
“Yep,” Floyd said. “Long time no see, Miss Minnie!”
The two brothers perched on a chair that had been pushed all the way into the table. “’At’s right,” Willy drawled. “We just thought we’d drop by for a little visit, on account of we haven’t been by since before the picnic. How’re things?”
“Henry hasn’t been the same since the picnic,” Minnie said, looking fearfully up at his office window. “I’m afraid he’s gone off his rocker.” She removed her coffee cup from its saucer and put half a piece of French toast on it and pushed the plate toward the crows.
“You mean, like off in la-la land?” Floyd asked. “Or like in ax-murderer land?”
“Good Orb, Floyd,” Willy said, whacking his brother with a wingtip. “That’s just crude. Can’t you see the lady is in distress enough already?”
“Sorry, Miss Minnie,” Floyd said, looking at the ground. “I just wanted to know—”
“It’s okay, Floyd,” Minnie said, patting his back. “To tell the truth, I am afraid he’s heading toward the ax-murderer kind of crazy. Now please, help yourselves.”
Floyd and Willy each beaked a generous chunk of French toast. Following the sound of a loud crash and a string of unintelligible nonsense laced with profanity, both crows and Minnie looked up at the open window above them.
“Sounds like he’s having a tantrum,” Willy said. “Like he’s breaking things.” He dipped his toast in the small pool of maple syrup on the saucer.
“He’s been doing that all morning,” Minnie said. She poured herself another cup of coffee from a silver carafe. “He started three days ago. I guess there was one joke too many.”
“They’re pretty funny,” Floyd said, snickering. “The jokes, I mean.”
Willy swatted Floyd again as the sounds of destruction continued to pour forth from the upstairs window. “None of this is probably funny to Miss Minnie, here,” he said. “So think before you speak, brother!”
Floyd looked down and muttered an apology. He pecked at the French toast and chopped off a small chunk. He flipped it into the air, catching it on its way down and swallowing it in one gulp.
“Willy, you don’t need to protect my feelings,” Minnie said. “I’m not unhappy about the way things turned out. I mean that Henry didn’t get the island and all. And the jokes are funny. But I’m afraid of him. I’ve never seen him like this.”
She told the crows how the night before she had brought Henry a sandwich and some milk. “He hadn’t eaten since Tuesday,” she said. “So, when I knocked on the door and he didn’t answer, I just opened it and barged in.” She put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath.
“The office was a mess—broken glass and paper strewn everywhere.” She shook her head, remembering. “Henry didn’t notice I came in the room, and I watched him take a poker from the fireplace and smash a big hole in his miniature Ravenwood Resort. And then he slammed the poker down on the pretty little River Queen, and it shattered into toothpicks. I was so shocked because he paid a fortune for it.”
Minnie folded her arms against her chest and shivered. “And then he screamed, like his own bones had broken. And he looked up at the portraits of his ancestors, which he had sliced to ribbons. “Happy now?” he yelled and he shook his fist. And he started swinging the poker again and smashing the rest of it, the little train he loved so much. It was just horrible to watch.” She buried her face in her hands.
“That,” Floyd said, “sounds like a maniac.”
“The man’s off his rocker!” Willy said.
“Flipped his lid!” said Floyd.
“Lost his marbles!”
“Off the deep end!”
“Got a screw loose!”
“Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Floyd said, turning himself around in circles.
“He’s just crazy,” Minnie said, nodding. “I was so scared. I’ve never seen him so violent.” She glanced up at Henry’s office window again.
“Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “you need to get out of here.”
“That’s right,” agreed Floyd. “You should just go. There’s no telling what he might do.”
Minnie nodded and said, “I called Jules this morning. He’s Henry’s attorney and he took care of everything. I’ve got a bag packed inside. As soon as the ambulance gets here, I’m gone.”
The brothers looked at each other and then back at Minnie. “Ambulance? Have you been harmed?” Floyd asked.
“Did that brute lay a hand on you?” Willy demanded.
“Oh, no.” she shook her head adamantly. “Jules called an ambulance to come get Henry. Jules said Henry needs to dry out. I guess so—he’s been on a four-day drunk. And Jules said they’ll do a mental evaluation after he dries out to make sure he hasn’t lost his mind.”
She was grateful Jules had stepped in, his warm, calm voice telling her not to worry. “Just pack a bag and leave for a few days,” he had said. “I’ll get the house all cleaned up and Henry sorted out.”
“Screw you!” Henry’s enraged voice blared out the window. “And you! And you! And you!”
The sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood flowed out of the upstairs window, followed by a wave of incoherent swearing.
“He’s at it again,” Minnie sighed. “Beating things with the poker.” She smiled wanly and stood up.
“Oh, Miss Minnie!” Floyd cried out. He walked across the table and put his wings around her waist. “I hope he doesn’t hurt you!”
“You need to get out of here now,” Willy said, joining his brother. “Don’t wait for the ambulance.”
Minnie stroked their backs. “I’ll be gone soon, don’t worry. I’m not planning on being here when they take Henry away. Jules has a taxi coming for me, so I must bid you both adieu.”
“But where will you go, Miss Minnie?” Floyd asked.
“Will we ever see you again?” Willy asked.
Minnie was touched by their concern and affection. “Of course you’ll see me again, fellas!” She stroked each bird gently. “I’m just going to visit my sister. I’ll be back in a few days.” She blew them each a kiss as she went into the house and closed the door.
Floyd and Willy flew up to the windowsill of Henry’s office and peered in at the wild man inside. He had already ripped gaping holes into the portraits of his ancestors, and the crows watched him beat the canvasses off the wall. He looked up at the ceiling, screaming, “Are you happy now? Are you friggin’ happy now?”
“I say,” Floyd said. “The old chap truly seems to have gone away with the fairies.”
“Right-o,” agreed Willy. “Fully loaded and half-cocked.”
“Oh, look,” Floyd said, pointing a wing toward the driveway. “There goes Miss Minnie.”
The two crows watched her run toward the gate, and the driver of the yellow cab get out and open the door for her. He put her bag in the trunk and sped off down the long driveway.
“Poor Minnie,” Willy said. “Driven away. And not just by a taxi. Too bad.”
Floyd shook his head and clucked. “She’s such a charming woman. And always dressed to the nines.”
“Damn you, friggin’ crows!” Henry shouted and threw an empty wine bottle at Floyd and Willy on the windowsill. “Damn you!”
“I believe we are no longer needed here, brother,” Floyd said as they dodged the projectile and took to the air. “Let us depart, shall we?”
“Let’s,” Willy said.
Alfredo met his friends at the inlet and escorted them up the path toward his cottage. “Majewski sends his regrets,” he told them. “He cannot make it.” Perhaps it is for the best, with Charlotte newly ensconced in the tree house. One day I will have to tell him about his sister. But not today.
“Too bad!” Kate said. “It was Majewski who saved the island from Henry. Without him, we wouldn’t be here celebrating anything.”
“Or the birds,” Jade said. The others looked at her in confusion. “The birds. Without them, we wouldn’t be here either.”
“In other words, the least deserving of all in this affair,” Russ said with a laugh, “are those of us here partying?”
“Is that not always the way?” Alfredo said. He leaped across the small stream and waited for the others before continuing along the path. “But truly, we all brought this about. Majewski, the five of us, the people of Ledford, and the birds. It gives me great hope for the planet.”
They arrived at Alfredo’s cottage, and he opened the door. “Sit down, everyone,” he said, gesturing toward the table. He looked at his watch. “We are officially celebrating.”
“Wow!” Jade said as she slid into a chair next to the window. “You really put a feast together, Alfredo!”
The table was laden with food: sandwiches on three different types of bread, a large garden salad, and a bowl of fresh fruit. “Oh, just a few leftovers from the fridge,” he said, waving away her compliment.
The others laughed, and Kate said, “In a pig’s eye!”
“You don’t have a fridge,” Sam said.
Alfredo slapped his forehead and said, “I knew there was something we forgot when we built this place!” He looked at his watch. “Please help yourselves, my friends.”
He sat down and stared out the window as his guests chatted happily while they piled food onto their plates. He felt anxious about Charlotte and her first day at the Treehouse. I should not have left her alone.
“That was an incredible thing they pulled off,” Russ said. “How did all those birds know? Who told them to gang up on Henry like that? I mean, it’s a feat of communication and organization that I for one didn’t know birds were capable of. Were you involved, Alfredo?”
The sound of his name brought him back to the table. “They told themselves, actually,” he said. “Though I would have been proud and honored to have been involved, this was completely a bird job.” He glanced down at his watch.
“Kind of scary when you think about it,” Jade said. “The way they all ganged up on Henry. “If all the animals could do that …”
“It might give us pause,” Kate said, narrowing her eyes and waving a pumpernickel sandwich at the others.
“Indeed,” Alfredo said. “They do not really need us.”
“Speaking of birds doing extraordinary things,” Russ said, glancing casually at Alfredo. “There was an article in the paper this morning about a patient that went missing from the state mental hospital.”
Kate frowned. Alfredo exchanged nervous glances with Sam as Russ continued, “Yeah, she just vanished, they said. It was funny though. The article said on the day of her disappearance, this huge flock of crows came down on the place and tore it up. They scared the bejesus out of a few inmates and staff.”
“Really?” Alfredo said, hoping to sound sincere and surprised at the news. “They destroyed things?”
“From what the article said, they just kind of acted up,” Russ said with a grin. “They knocked the plastic water pitchers off the tables, overturned chairs, and got into the trash cans. Everyone was on the patio trying to keep control of the patients and keep the crows out of the building. And she just walked away, they said.”
“Who was she?” Kate said, looking straight at Alfredo without smiling.
Alfredo looked down at his watch. He felt exhausted and anxious, wishing there was no party and he was with Charlotte at the Treehouse. His discomfort grew by the moment and he could hardly sit still on his chair.
“They didn’t say,” Russ said. “All they said was she was not violent, and she couldn’t speak English.”
“How could a patient just disappear like that?” Jade asked. “You would think their security would be better than that.”
Alfredo took a bite of the sandwich that had been sitting on his plate. He was relieved that the article had said she disappeared, as opposed to escaped. And that her name had not been published. Thanks to the weekend receptionist’s forgetfulness, the name Dr. Robbins had not been left behind on the visitor’s log.
“It’s an old building,” Russ said, helping himself to another sandwich. “The paper said they’re moving to a new one next week. Security is one reason. But mostly, the building is just flat out too old. They couldn’t upgrade the plumbing or the electrical.”
Alfredo felt grateful to have gotten Charlotte out of the asylum before they moved her to the new facility. It had been laughably easy, and he wondered if he could have just walked out to the parking lot with her and driven her out. He looked at his watch. I wonder if she is all right. Of course she is! Charlie and Rika are with her.
“Well, funny you should mention the asylum,” Kate said. “I heard that Henry Braun’s been committed.”
“Now there’s some poetic justice,” Sam said.
“No!” Jade said, her eyes opened wide. “Why?”
“They say he just lost it after the poo-bath the birds gave him,” Kate said. “And he tore his house up.”
“How’d you find that out?” Russ asked with a big grin. “Don’t tell me a little bird told you?”
Kate threw her head back and laughed. “No, though I have a vast network of spies and informants, they’re all humans, every one of them.”
Though he was relieved that Kate had steered the conversation away from Charlotte, Alfredo felt a new burden of guilt bear down on him. So that is why Minnie has been calling me. I should have returned her calls.
He stood up from the table and took each of their plates to the kitchen area and returned with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a carafe of coffee.
“Oh, I was hoping you’d baked cookies!” Jade said as she took one. “You could market these, you know. They’re heavenly!”
Alfredo laughed and took a cookie off the plate. “Thanks, Jade! If I wash out as a priest—not at all a far-fetched scenario—and a college professor and scientist, I will consider that. Thanks for the testimonial!”
Once Majewski finds out I have his sister here, I will no doubt be cast out, perhaps arrested. If they can find me. Already the idea had germinated in his mind that he could disappear with Charlotte into the bogs and fens and forests of the island near the Treehouse.
“I’m afraid the world will never see these cookies,” Russ said through a mouthful. “Alfredo’s in danger of being signed on as a full-time, tenure track professor!”
“That’s fabulous!” Kate said. “Congrats, Padre!”
Alfredo waved his hand at Russ. “The university wants to be our partner in research here, which in the long run will help our efforts to keep the island intact.” His words slammed incongruously into his fantasy of vanishing in the wilderness with Charlotte. He felt confused, suddenly. And so very tired. He looked at his watch.
“Hooray for the U of M,” Jade cried out, “and long live Wilder Island!”
“Thanks to all of your efforts,” Alfredo said cheerfully, trying to shake off his weariness. He raised his coffee cup in salute.
“Thanks to all of our efforts,” Kate said.
Five cups clanked together over the plate of cookies, and everyone cheered.
“One more,” Sam said, turning to Kate. “Thanks to the Father Superior Majewski for bringing Kate to us, and most especially me.” He raised his cup reverently to her.
“Aw, Sam,” Kate said, blushing.
She loves him. Alfredo could see it in her eyes. And in his. Jade and Russ looked at each other like that. The old, familiar fog of isolation began to envelop him. I wish I could love like that. Charlotte’s face appeared in his head, her gray eyes, so innocent and warm. A few strands of black hair blowing across her face. I love her. He felt his body respond suddenly, in a way he had not felt since graduate school. The tingling. The hardening he did not think himself capable of since then. He felt his face flush.
“So,” Kate said with a grin, “when will you publish your research on the language of the crows?”
“Not any time soon,” Alfredo laughed nervously. He moved his chair slightly. “I have only just begun to scratch the surface.”
“Nonsense!” Russ said. “You’re too modest! You carried on entire conversations with those crows on our table at the fair! Publish, man!”
Why does he keep pressuring me? I have no ambitions as a scholar.
But he smiled graciously and said, “And you exaggerate, Russ! I am many months from a publication, if ever. But how about you? How is your tenure research coming?”
“I’m doing some field work today after we finish here,” Russ said. “If that is all right?” He put a hand behind one ear. “I can’t resist the siren call of the orchids!”
“And I’m going to sketch,” Jade said. “Wilder Island II coming up!”
“Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research station and inspiration.” He felt some anxiety about Russ and Jade out wandering around, with Charlotte in the Treehouse. But she is far away from the bridge and the Boulders. There is no way she can find her way there without help.
“Want to join us?” Jade asked. “Anyone?”
Sam shook his head. “I’ve got to get some work done in the studio. I got way behind because of the art fair. Not that I’m complaining!”
“But another time, I’d love to,” Kate said. “I’ve got some work waiting for me also,”
Alfredo hesitated a moment. I really need to get back to the Treehouse. If I go with them, how will I gracefully excuse myself? But if I let them leave by themselves and they come back and I am not here …
“You two go on,” he said. “I will catch up after I tidy up here.” He hoped they would not find Bruthamax’s bridge and cross the Boulders.
Russ and Jade left Alfredo’s cottage and made their way through the forest. The early afternoon sun infused the woods with crisp clarity, revealing the most intimate details of leaf, twig, and trunk. “Alfredo seemed really nervous,” Jade said as they walked. “Did you notice? He kept looking at his watch.”
“When he wasn’t staring out the window,” Russ said. “Yeah, I did notice. Like he really wanted to be somewhere else.”
“I wonder why?” Jade said. “He invited us; it’s not like we barged in on him or anything.”
Russ shrugged. “Who knows? He’s a strange man.”
Hand-in-hand they strolled through the woods, and from time to time, they stopped while Russ pointed out and named the familiar as well as unusual plants that crossed their path. Suddenly a rustic footbridge bridge appeared through the vines and shrubs. “Wow!” Jade said. “This is pretty cool! Did Alfredo build this? Is it safe?”
“Yes it is safe,” Russ said. “And no Alfredo didn’t build it. But he told me about it. Brother Maxmillian Wilder did. Over a hundred years old, he said, and still sturdy.”
They walked to the middle and looked down at the tumble of huge rectangular slabs of rock below them. The sound of water falling wafted up to them and Jade said, as she peered down into the rocks and trees. “I hear a waterfall, but I don’t see any water.”
“It flows under the rocks,” Russ said, “and comes out on the other side of the island, where we built the sanctuary.”
They crossed the bridge, holding on to ropes of twisted forest fibers. “Oh, look at that!” Jade cried out. She brushed past Russ to the platform where the bridge ended, down the rope ladder to the ground.
With Russ right behind her, she slipped between two trees, pushing the low-hanging branches aside. She stepped into a tiny clearing where the forest gave way to a pond surrounded by scores of tiny flowers. Jade skipped to the pond, dropped to her knees and brought handfuls of the cool water to her lips. “This is what heaven is,” she said and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Cool, sweet water.”
Russ drank from the pond and pointed to a tiny flower growing at the edge of the water. “It sure looks like a Cypripedium reginae, except for the color. I’ve never seen a blue one.”
“Lovely!” Jade said after she flopped down on her stomach on the grass next to him. “What color are they usually?”
“Pink and white,” he said. “You’ve seen ’em. They’re known as Lady’s Slippers, the state flower of Minnesota, though they’ve all but vanished from the face of the Earth. But I’ve never seen a blue one!”
“Crow’s eye blue,” Jade said. “They’re the same blue as the crow’s eyes!”
“Oh, look!” Russ said, grabbing her arm. “The Arethusa bulbosa, the Dragon’s Mouth orchid. Unbelievable! This little beauty is extremely rare. But look!” He gestured with his arms. “It’s everywhere!”
“Oh,” Jade said, reluctantly pulling herself away from the Cypripedium reginae, “but the Lady’s Slipper is so much sweeter!” She examined the Arethusa bulbosa. “Dragon’s Mouth, eh? I never would have thought that, although I can see some resemblance to a tongue, and those little bitty yellow hairs must be the flames.”
Russ had moved on to another flower. “Wow. This is a total score. A Malaxis palodusa, aka the Bog Adders Mouth. It’s a high-latitude orchid, almost unheard of here in the States. But here it is, right in my own backyard, so to speak.”
“It sure is an ugly little thing,” Jade said, bending down close to the wiry little plant with a thick stem. “I thought orchids were all beautiful. This one’s all stem! Where’s the flower?”
“Ah, but it’s an exquisitely rare, ugly little thing,” Russ said. “Who needs beauty? So commonplace! Rare is better! But no, my sweet, not all orchids are beautiful; some are really nasty looking. There’s one that smells like rotten meat, in case you’re also thinking all flowers smell nice.”
“I was,” Jade said with a shrug. “But I should have known.”
Russ stood up. “This is just gobsmacking unbelievable. First the Arethusa bulbosa, which was rare enough, and now the Malaxis palodusa!” All around the glade, multitudes of pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew in astonishing abundance. “I’ve never seen this many varieties of orchids in one place. I can’t say I’ve ever even read about a place like this.”
A spiky little plant with flowers of sticky, needle-shaped petals caught Jade’s eye. She moved closer and saw a drop of clear fluid hanging on the end of each petal. “What’s this one called, honey?”
“That’s a Drosera rotundifolia,” Russ said after a quick look, “speaking of carnivorous plants. It traps insects with those little drops of stick-um.” He touched one of the drops, pushed it against his thumb, and pulled his fingers apart to demonstrate its glue-like qualities. “The plant digests the insect as it struggles to get free.”
“Eeuw!” Jade wrinkled her nose. “I think I’d rather be looking at the lovely Lady’s Slipper—it’d make such a beautiful sketch. But maybe I’ll draw that ugly one over there. Just for contrast”
“That’s fine, honey,” Russ said, and he disappeared from view among the flowers and long grasses. “Wait a minute!” she heard him exclaim. He fell to his belly and disappeared from her sight.
Not until he had examined whatever it was fully and described it in his field notebook in excruciating detail and taken several Polaroid photographs, as well as a gazillion digital pictures, would he allow the outside world to encroach upon his enchanted little world.
She took her sketchbook and a set of colored pencils out of her bag and sat down next to the Lady’s Slipper. With quick, light strokes of a pencil, she blocked in the flower, its stem and leaves, and a few rough details of the surrounding cove.
Russ could hardly believe his eyes. A blue Cypripedium reginae! But there was something else unusual about this flower. It has two seed stems. Impossible! Orchids are monocots!
But there it was. A blue non-monocot Cypripedium reginae. And it grew in abundance in this little cove! Russ felt his pulse quicken. Is this it? Have I found it? My Jadum wilderii?
He took a mechanical pencil out of his pocket and his field notebook out of his pack and opened it to the first blank page. After noting the date and his location, he described the flower in full detail, from the base of its stem to the tips of the petals. He made a few sketches of the leaves, stem, and flowers, annotating each carefully with notes and labels. He took numerous photographs until the Polaroid was out of film and the card in his digital camera was full.
He knew it would be illegal to dig up a Cypripedium reginae plant. But this isn’t a Cypripedium reginae, but he really wanted to see its root system. There seems to be a viable population here. I don’t think it would hurt anything. And I really need to get this into my lab.
He rummaged in his pack for a small spade and carefully dug up one of the smaller plants, put it into a plastic sample bag and stowed it in his pack.
Alfredo escorted Sam and Kate to the inlet and waited with them for the captain. After he saw them off, he returned to his cottage to change into clothes more suitable for a slog down to the Treehouse. As he opened the door, he saw his cell phone blinking, announcing a call had come in while he was gone. He listened to the incoming message:
“Ah, hello,” Thomas Majewski’s voice said. “It’s Thomas. I, uh, I’ve received some very disturbing news concerning my sister. I’m catching a late afternoon flight out your way. I’ll call when I land. Cheers.”
Alfredo stood rooted to the floor for many moments, panicked thoughts racing through his head, the worst of which Charlotte would be returned to the brand-new, high-security state mental hospital. He saw himself alone in a prison cell.
Dear Lord, what have I wrought?
The orb swayed gently on the end of the lamp chain, attracting his attention and breaking his paralysis. He steadied it for a moment, then removed it and put it in his pocket. Just in case.
He tidied up the cottage as anxious thoughts gnawed at him. Majewski will expect me to be here with him tonight, but I cannot leave Charlotte alone so soon. He looked at his watch. 1:20. I have time to run down to the Treehouse and visit with Charlotte, fix her some dinner and be back in time to meet Majewski at the docks.
Or. His hands stopped drying the sandwich platter. If I do not answer my phone when he calls … he will no doubt get a hotel room in Ledford tonight, and I won’t have to deal with him until tomorrow.
He turned his phone off and put it on the table. After throwing a few items in his backpack—some fruit and cookies left over from the party—he wrote a quick note:
Russ and Jade-
My apologies, but I got called away. I have arranged for the Captain to pick you up at the inlet at 4:00.
He stuck it to the door with a small tack and called out to a group of young crows in a nearby tree. “Yo! JohnHenry! I need a favor, please. Find the Captain and tell him that I need him to please meet my guests at the inlet at four o’clock. Can you do that for me?”
“Yessir!” JohnHenry said and took to the air, his three brothers following close behind.
Jade finished her drawing of the blue Lady’s Slipper and stood up to stretch. Russ sat in the same spot where she had seen him go down, hunched over the notebook on his lap. She looked at her watch and estimated he’d be so engrossed for the next half-hour at least. Time enough for a short walk. The cove and pond were bathed in sunlight, but as soon as she stepped through the two sentinel trees where she and Russ had entered the cove, she was in a dark forest of tall trees, so completely unlike the little cove. She looked back through the sentinel trees at Russ, still bent over his work surrounded by sunlight flowers.
The sound of falling water captured her attention, and she thought the bridge was just ahead of her. She peered over the edge of the boulder ravine, through the willows and rocks; the waterfall sound seemed to come from directly below her. She couldn’t see water flowing, but supposed Russ had been right, as always. The water flowed under the rocks.
The boulder ravine cut the island in two, as if the river had chewed its way through from one side of the island to the other. There really is no way across that. All those scrubby trees growing between those huge rocks—I’d never get around them. She sat down in a sunny spot on a flat rock and admired the view with the music of the waterfall in her ears.
Charlotte walked through the forest on ground that was sometimes spongy and sometimes firm. Birds sang all around her, and she heard their many conversations. Her neck hurt from looking up, and her face ached from a permanent smile. A few crows called out her name from the branches and she waved and called out, “Grawky!”
“I wonder where Jayzu’s cottage is?” she said out loud.
A young crow dropped out of the branches and landed at her feet. “That way, Miss Charlotte!” He pointed a wing. “By and by, you’ll come to a bridge. Jayzu’s cottage is on the other side.”
“Thank you!” she said, stooping down to bird level. “And what is your name, little one?”
“Zelda,” she said.
“Grawky, Zelda,” Charlotte said and brushed her hand across the crow’s outstretched wing.
“Zelda!” a voice shouted from the trees above. “Come on!”
Zelda flew off and Charlotte continued walking in the direction the little crow had pointed. She walked around black water ponds rimmed with sedges and rushes, and a marsh where a few ducks quacked their surprise at seeing her.
Charlotte drifted through a patchwork of different shades and hues of yellow, blue, red, orange, and green. Everywhere she looked, a new wonder revealed itself. A spider web stretched across a forked branch, drops of dew from the morning still clinging to its threads. Hundreds of birds flew in and out of the tree branches, weaving a trail of songs through the leaves.
The sights and smells of the forest triggered fragments of memory from her life before Rosencranz. She saw herself gathering leaves and flowers and putting them in a basket. The gray-haired woman with red cheeks smiled as she took the basket and dumped it on a table. She sang as she sorted and arranged the leaves and flowers into small piles:
Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather
Charlotte stopped walking and listened for a few moments to the woman singing in her memory. Mimi! A rush of images crowded her thoughts and she stopped walking. Mimi smiled and said, “Pick me some purple heather, lass?”
Charlotte’s voice sang out into the forest:
And we’ll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will ye go, Lassie, go?
“And here it is, my love,” Russ said as he stood up. “Jadum wilderii. My ticket to tenure!”
But she was nowhere in sight. “Jade?” he called out. “Jade!” He strained to hear something through the chatter of the birds and the cacophony of insects. “Jade!”
He walked through the sentinel trees and stopped. A faint path led to the bridge. Alfredo warned us about the swamps and bogs beyond the boulders. I hope she didn’t go that way. He took the path to the bridge, calling out her name every minute or so. “Jade!” But where else would she have gone?
The sound of the waterfall drew him away from the path, and he walked to the edge of the boulder-filled ravine. Jade’s bag with her sketchbook and pencils lay on a flat rock before him. “Jade!” he called.
He picked up her sketchbook, hoping she had not tried to find the waterfall. Jade’s not exactly the adventuresome type, he told himself. I’m surprised she got this far away from me. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “Jade!”
As if I could hear anything above the bird racket. He returned to the path, and when the old bridge appeared, he felt a strange certainty that she had crossed it and was on her way to Alfredo’s cottage.
He climbed the steps spiraling around the tree trunk to the platform and stepped onto the bridge.
Jade luxuriated in the sensation of warm sun on her back. This is why lizards like rocks. I could fall asleep here. She looked at her watch and shook her head. I’d better get back to Russ. She hopped off the rock and after getting her bearing from the footbridge to her left, she turned right. The little cove is just a few steps this way.
The path took a strange turn and the forest closed in around her. She turned around to make sure she could still see the old bridge. It was gone. She couldn’t hear the waterfall anymore either. And there was no sign of the sentinel trees or the sunny cove of flowers.
Everything looked the same, no matter which direction she looked. Nothing but leaf upon leaf, branch upon branch, like a kaleidoscope of green and brown all the way to eternity. She started to run back toward the bridge, but after a few steps the path disappeared, and she stopped. Nothing looked familiar. The ground was rocky in one place and slippery black mud in others.
She stopped and looked all around. “Where am I?”
“Where am I?” She heard her cry echo through the forest.
She looked up through the trees, trying to get a sense of direction from the sun, but no sunlight filtered down to the forest floor. She could only see patches of blue here and there.
She froze at the sound of someone singing, a strangely familiar voice singing a melancholy tune. Who is that? The singing came closer—a thin and silvery voice sang:
All around the purple heather
Will you go, Lassie, go?
We’ll all go together,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
How can she be here? Am I dreaming? Chloe died five years ago. She slapped her face a couple of times ordering herself to wake up. But the singing continued.
Will you go, Lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
She rushed headlong into the thick forest toward the singing; the thorns and prickly branches of the undergrowth scratched her arms and face as she thrashed her way through. The singing compelled her forward, growing louder at each step.
All around the purple heather,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
Jade burst through the trees into a small sun-lit clearing. Right before her stood a tall, thin woman with a long black braid. But it was the eyes that arrested her. Eyes the color of the dawn.
Alfredo walked quickly toward the Boulders, hoping to see Jade and Russ coming back. The bridge rocked and rolled as he trotted across, and he twirled himself down the spiral steps to the ground using only the rope. He sped down the vague path and slowed to a halt as he noticed Jade through two tall trees that stood side-by-side.
He crept up closer, keeping himself concealed. Jade’s back was toward him, but he could see that she was sketching. And there is Russ. I guess he found the blue orchids. Jade looked back over her shoulder suddenly. He pulled himself into the shadow behind the tree.
When she turned back to her work, Alfredo snuck away, relieved that neither she nor Russ had seen him. They are busy about their own concerns. And I need to get to Charlotte. He felt a sudden urgency, almost panic to get to the Treehouse, though he knew Charlie and Rika were with her.
The panic remained as he sped through scrubby bog birch and fragrant myrtle, feeling the firm ground starting to go soft in places. He stepped in more than one black puddle or pond, cursing as he pulled his foot out of the muck. He tried to pay attention to the different greens and textures, but everything looked the same, yet unfamiliar. As if he had never come this way before.
He tripped on a tree root and slid face-first down a mud-covered slope into a pool of black water. He fished himself out, wiping black mud out of his eyes, and stumbled forward without being sure of where he was going. He stumbled over rock and sprawled onto his hands. Cursing, he picked himself up again and bushwhacked through the undergrowth, using his arms as scythes.
He arrived at the Treehouse, covered with black mud and blood, and he shot up the spiral steps onto the deck. “Where is Charlotte?” he asked, wildly looking around. “Where is she?”
Rika blinked at him. “She is gone, Jayzu. Gone for a walk in the woods, I reckon.” She gestured with her wing.
“Why did you let her go?” he cried, his panic wilting into dread. He stared at her, wondering how she could remain so calm.
Rika blinked again and tilted her head to one side. “As if I could stop her, Jayzu. I had my wings full with the kreegans. I couldn’t watch her too.”
“I’m sorry, Rika,” he said. His shoulders sagged, and he sat down on the bench with his head in his hands. How could I leave her alone with only crows to look after her?
After a few moments, he raked his hands through his hair and stood up. “I must find her.”
He jumped over the railing around the deck, landing in the grass below. “Charlotte!” he shouted as he sped off into the trees. “Charlotte!”
And so ends Corvus Rising. Book 2 coming ‘soon’ (hahahaha!) No, seriously. I am finally almost finished and expect to be publishing it by summer! -mcs
Conspiracy on the Fly
Alfredo put away the last of his nagging voices that made him hesitate. He loved Charlotte; there was no way he was going to leave her to languish among a wasteland of vacant stares. Or disappear forever within an ultra-secure state mental hospital. Sometimes one must do what is needed, he told his inner voices, though he felt like he was about to step off a cliff.
“We have no more time,” he said to Charlie. “All the inmates are moving in two days. We cannot wait any longer. We must prepare Charlotte.”
Alfredo drove to Rosencranz, and after he scribbled an illegible signature with his left hand on the gate-keeper’s log, he parked and entered the lobby. He introduced himself to Dora Lyn’s weekend replacement, and asked to see Charlotte. The receptionist did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log nor the release form to take her out of the building.
Sometimes the Lord speaks more softly than a burning bush.
As soon as Charlotte came through the patio doors, he whisked her off to the gazebo where Charlie was waiting. They ate lunch together at the wrought-iron table, from a picnic basket Alfredo had packed with cheese and bread that he had baked in his solar oven, a thermos of iced tea, and the cookies that Jade loved so much. Charlotte ate them as greedily as her daughter had, wondering how in the world food could taste so good.
After they finished eating, Alfredo took a pad of paper from his briefcase and made a sketch of the plan of the Rosencranz campus—the building, landscaping, driveway, the gazebo, and the fence. “Tomorrow,” he said to Charlotte, “we will come here like we have been doing. But instead of going back to the hospital, Charlie and I are taking you away, to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“Tomorrow?” Charlotte’s face broke into a smile and her gray eyes opened wide with excitement. “Really, Jayzu? Zero more days here?”
Alfredo nodded. Charlotte clasped her hands gently around Charlie and stood up. She held him above her head and danced around the gazebo singing, “Cadeña-l’jadia! Take me home! Cadeña-l’jadia!”
“I think she’s ready,” Charlie called out to Alfredo.
“Yes, she is.” And so am I. Though he had never danced in his entire life, he wanted to take Charlotte in his arms and dance with her all around the gazebo.
Charlotte sat back down at the table and tucked the hairs that had escaped her braid behind her ears. “How far away is Cadeña-l’jadia, Jayzu?”
“Not too far,” he said. “You’ll walk a short way to the river, then travel by boat for a while, which will take you to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“And when we get there,” Charlie said, “I’ll take you to the Treehouse.”
“Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, “we will come here to the gazebo like we have been doing. But we will not stay here.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Come. I will show you.”
He led her out the back side of the gazebo all the way to the fence that surrounded the property. He dropped to the ground and motioned Charlotte to follow him. Without a moment hesitation, she flopped down on her stomach and shimmied along the grass after him.
Alfredo kept them low to the ground until they came to a right-angle turn in the fence. After he stopped, Charlotte crawled up next to him and he said, “Tomorrow, you will wiggle under the fence right here and come out into the woods on the other side. Charlie will be waiting for you and will escort you to the river.”
“But, Jayzu,” she said, smiling happily, “you will be there with me, too!”
“No, Charlotte,” he replied. “If I do not return, someone may notice we are both gone, and they will come looking for us.”
“Oh,” Charlotte said, and her smile vanished. She looked fearfully at the fence and the dark forest beyond and frowned.
“I’ll be with you, Charlotte,” Charlie said from his perch atop the fence above them. He dropped to the grass and put his wing on her arm. “It’ll be like the old times, when we spent our days in the woods behind your childhood home.”
Charlotte tilted her head slightly and her face broke into a smile as a happy memory seemed to dawn and her smile returned.
“I will meet you later, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “At the Treehouse.”
They crawled back to the gazebo on their stomachs, getting to their feet at the steps. They sat back down at the table and Charlie took his perch on the back of Charlotte’s chair. Alfredo took her hands in his and said, “We have to get you out of here in broad daylight, Charlotte. So we need to be very careful. We have to trick them into thinking you are still here.”
“Trick them,” Charlotte said. The corners of her mouth turned up, and her eyes sparkled. “That is easy, Jayzu. They never pay any attention to me. They never hear a thing I tell them.”
Alfredo recalled Dora Lyn’s words during one of his earlier visits. “Charlotte don’t give any trouble anymore. She fought like a wild cat when they first brought her in, but they broke her down. Anymore, she comes and goes as she pleases. Wherever inmates are allowed to go, of course.”
“No one will notice your absence right away,” Alfredo said to Charlotte. “While you and I are here in the gazebo” —she laughed as he mimed drinking tea— “a few crows will be creating a ruckus on the patio, to divert attention away from us as we slither away along the fence.”
Charlotte giggled behind her hands. “Let us do it now, Jayzu!” she said. “I am ready!”
“Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, patting her hand. “We are not ready today.” He turned to Charlie. “Security is pretty lax, thank God.” God’s hand, or habitual inattention? “There is a guard in the lobby occasionally, when he is not on the patio or making sure no one drives down the service road. And there’s one at the guard house.” He pointed up the road toward the gates. “There are three, maybe four, security cameras all around the building.” He glanced up at Charlie. “Can we disable them somehow?”
“But of course,” Charlie said. “My zhekkies will have them out of commission just before they throw a party on the patio, corvid style!”
Charlotte and Charlie said good-bye to each other, and the crow flew home to Cadeña-l’jadia. Alfredo escorted Charlotte back to the building and up to her room. She chatted happily all the way. “I cannot wait until tomorrow, Jayzu!”
“You must,” he said, putting a forefinger to his lips. “And you must keep it a secret, Charlotte. You cannot tell anyone about our plan.”
She nodded vigorously, her eyes shining with excitement. “Yes,” she said as she solemnly put a finger to her lips. “I can keep a secret.”
Her smile charmed him, the way the corners of her mouth turned up. And those gray eyes, completely without guile, yet somehow wickedly endearing.
“And who would hear me if I told?” she asked.
Alfredo drove back to Ledford, going over the details of Charlotte’s escape in his mind. He had shut down the opposition, the voices that bullied him about laws and jail and reason. She needs to leave Rosencranz. Who will get her out of there if I don’t?
The Treehouse was ready. He had cleaned it as well as any man could, but thanks to Rika and Minnie Braun, Charlotte would have a few more comforts. The Treehouse was stocked with some simple cookware, including a tea kettle, an abundance of nonperishable foods—rice, pasta, canned goods—and tea and coffee, a variety of utensils, including a can opener. There were curtains and bedclothes and towels, a rocking chair, a wood stove, two tea cups—“You’ll be drinking tea with the lady, I reckon,” Rika had said to him. Two of everything in fact—plates, bowls, spoons, forks.
“Today is the day, Captain,” Alfredo said, as he stepped aboard the Captain’s ferry at the inlet.
“Aye, Jayzu,” the Captain said, turning his craft around to ferry them across the river to the boat landing. “I’ll be waiting upriver for Miss Charlotte and Charlie. No need to worry none.” He tipped his hat and pushed his boat back into the current.
Sam jumped out of his flesh-colored pick-up as the Captain pulled into the dock. “Does Kate know what we are doing?” Alfredo asked after he got in the passenger side.
Sam shrugged. “I told her I was driving you to Rosencranz to see Charlotte. Which is true.”
Alfredo knew Kate wanted nothing to do with Charlotte’s rescue. “I don’t even want to know about it,” she had said more than once. “And for the record, I strongly advise you against it.”
“You don’t have to do this, Sam,” Alfredo said.
“Yes I do, Padre,” Sam said and looked away for a few moments. “For my sister.”
On the way to the asylum, Charlie flew above Sam’s truck, followed by about sixty or so young crows, including JoEd, JohnHenry, Floyd and Willy. Near the entrance to the asylum, Sam pulled his truck off the road and behind a small group of trees.
“You guys ready for this?” Alfredo asked after the crows landed in the grass next to Sam’s truck.
“We are,” Charlie said. “I’ve been waiting for this day for twenty-five years, Jayzu. My zhekkies here,” he gestured with his beak, “know the plan backward and forward.”
“Pandemonium!” JohnHenry yelled.
“We are ready, Jayzu,” JoEd cried out. “You can count on us!”
“All right then,” Alfredo said. “Everyone knows what he has to do. Make it loud, zhekkies!”
“You betcha!” said Floyd as he stepped forward.
“Pandemonium, ho-o!” Willy shouted.
The crows flew into the nearby trees, and after Alfredo and Sam scrawled unreadable names on the weekend guard’s log, Sam parked the truck in front of the building and cut the engine. Alfredo walked up the granite steps and into the lobby. He smiled broadly at the weekend receptionist, who again did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log. Thank you, Lord.
He strode purposefully through the doors to the patio, sat down at a table near the rosebush hedge. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop and waited nervously for Charlotte. Lord, stay with me now. Protect us and guide us safely back to the island.
He looked up at the sound of Charlotte’s happy voice, and rose from his chair as she approached. “Hello, Charlotte!” His anxiety dissipated, replaced by the certainty that he and Charlie were about to right a wrong.
“Jayzu,” she said, putting her hands in his. “Is Charlie here?”
Alfredo nodded and said, “He is waiting for us at the gazebo. Now let us pretend we are coming back here. We do not want to attract any attention.”
Charlotte held her finger to her lips and softly said, “Shhhh. Our secret.”
He tucked her hand under his arm, and they left the patio through the lobby. “We will return in an hour or so,” Alfredo said as they strolled past the receptionist desk and out the doors.
The sky had clouded over, and Alfredo frowned. Please do not rain. Charlotte skipped across the grass, after he told her to pretend it was the first day they had gone to the gazebo together. They sat down inside; Charlotte chattered while Alfredo looked nervously at his watch and then toward the building. A cloud of black smoke seemed to emerge from the trees beyond the hospital’s excruciatingly manicured lawn. “The pandemonium has begun,” he said quietly.
“And there is Charlie!” Charlotte cried, pointing to the crow on the fence.
“It is time, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Let us go!”
From the trees outside the hospital grounds, JoEd watched Charlotte and Jayzu leave the patio and walk down the sidewalk toward the gazebo. About twenty people sat at the other tables. It was time.
“Nothing scary,” JoEd told the young crows as they waited in the trees. “We don’t want to reinforce their stereotypes about us. Just be silly. Act up. We’re all experts at that!”
Alfredo and Charlotte walked up the step to the gazebo, and Charlie cried out, “Let ’er rip!” as he leaped from his branch into the sky.
From out of nowhere sixty-three crows suddenly burst into the grounds of the asylum, heading for the patio. The brigade of dozing patients in wheelchairs happened to face the stone wall encircling the patio. Old Rosie stood up and screamed something quite unintelligible as she pointed at the approaching black cloud. The old fellow shuffling behind his empty wheelchair turned his whole body sideways trying to look up.
The crows descended on the patio. Screaming visitors, mobile patients, and doctors headed frantically for the doors. But the doors never came open, held shut by many bodies pressed up against them. The pile-up of flailing bodies fell back onto the patio. A few struggled to their feet and hopped over the stone wall encircling the patio and ran for the parking lot.
Crows were everywhere—on the tables, the chairs, the walls, the rosebushes, the trashcans, and the flagstone pavement. Hopping up onto tables and chairs, they made a great show of knocking over plastic water pitchers and creating a scene of utter chaos.
JoEd flew above the pandemonium barking out orders. “Disable the cameras! Sky Team, dive!”
Floyd, Willy, and JohnHenry took their positions at the three video cameras on the roof overlooking the patio and the hospital grounds. Floyd hopped onto one and looked straight into the lens, giving anyone monitoring it an enlarged view of an upside-down crow head. “Smile!” He waved his wings and plastered his eye against the camera lens. “I’m on Candid Camera!”
Willy grasped the wire that connected the camera to its power source, gave a firm tug, and ripped it from its connection. “Camera two down!” he called out as he headed to the video camera at the kitchen. Fledging at a drive-in movie theater had taught him many things about electricity and cameras.
JohnHenry perched with his tail feather fanned open and covering the lens. “Curtain’s closed on camera three!” he shouted.
“Well done, dudes!” JoEd called out to the camera crows. He saw a white coat head for the door to the lobby. “Yo! Hosiah! Jedediah! Guard the doors!”
The pandemonium proceeded splendidly, and JoEd looked around for an opportunity to generate a little disorder of his own. “Mind if I join you, miss?” he asked a stupefied visitor frozen to her chair. “Thank you, don’t mind if I do. The name’s JoEd, what’s yours?” He took a few sips of water from the pitcher on the table as she leaped out of her seat, and ran screaming into the pile of bodies trying to get through the doors.
“Pretty birdies!” the patient she had abandoned said happily. She picked up the cup of water JoEd had just dipped his beak in and took a sip. “Share?” she said to no one in particular.
The crows made an absolute mess of the patio within minutes; overturned tables and chairs co-mingled with emptied plastic cups and pitchers of water and ice, a few books, sweaters, and baseball hats. The white coats screamed for help, and security guards yelled into their walkie-talkies for backup. A few patients continuously howled in terror, while others laughed with grotesque pleasure or cried like babies. Someone pulled the fire alarm, adding the appropriate harmony to the sound and fury on the patio.
Alfredo and Charlotte stepped out of the gazebo and onto the grass. Hand-in-hand, they walked the few steps to the fence and Alfredo dropped to the grass. With Charlotte behind him, they crawled in single file on their bellies until they came to the corner of the fence.
“Now under the fence, Charlotte!” Charlie called down.
“All the way through, Charlotte,” Alfredo said as she shimmied under the fence. “Good! Now stand up and run!”
She dove under the fence, wriggling all the way through and popped to her feet on the other side. The front of her Rosencranz coveralls was covered in black soil.
The fire alarms went off at the building across the grass. Charlotte looked back toward Alfredo. “Jayzu?” she said.
“Go, Charlotte!” he said from the ground. “Go with Charlie! I will see you at the Treehouse! I promise. Now, go! Run like the wind.”
“Come on, Charlotte!” Charlie called down to her as he took to the air. “Follow me, Charlotte!” He flew low enough in front of her that she could reach out and touch him.
Alfredo watched Charlotte run into the woods with Charlie flying overhead until she disappeared. He waited at the fence for a few moments, listening to her laugh fade into the trees. If all goes according to the plan, the Captain will be waiting for them at the river to take Charlotte home. To Cadeña-l’jadia.
And if it does not…
He shimmied back to the gazebo, walked up the steps and out the other side, back toward the building. Cars screeched out of the parking and sped down the curvy driveway, past the guard shack and onwards to the highway. Good, people are leaving. In all the chaos, who will miss Charlotte? He heard sirens in the distance and quickened his pace. Undoubtedly, someone had called 911.
“What the devil is going on out there?” he said to the receptionist as he gestured with his head toward the mess on the patio. “Are we being invaded by crows?” He waved at the crow perched on the windowsill to the lobby, awaiting that signal.
“Oh, Dr. Robbins!” the receptionist cried out. “All of a sudden, a hundred crows dive-bombed everyone on the patio. They were all cawing and carrying on to beat the band. And then they started trying to drink the water from the cups on the table.”
The pandemonium on the patio suddenly ended. En masse, the crows took flight and left. Through the windows, Alfredo saw a few inmates wave and Miss Rosie weeping into her hands as the aides firmly escorted her into the patients’ wing of the building.
The weekend receptionist giggled behind her hand. “People and crows were running everywhere, patients and visitors and people were leaving, and these crows were flying all around. You should’ve seen it a while ago, with all everyone screaming and trying to get off the patio! Absolutely hilarious!”
Alfredo forced himself to smile. “Well, I hope you get everything under control soon. Thank goodness my patient is safely back in her room.”
“Well,” she said, nodding, “things would’ve been a whole lot worse if I hadn’t jumped up and locked the doors to the patio.” She nodded toward the door. “Otherwise they would’ve all come in here! But they’ll get everyone sorted out, though I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a few patients left in cars.”
Charlotte wanted to kick off her shoes and skip through the forest barefoot, but Charlie kept urging her on. She had not run through the woods in so long, and her escape from Rosencranz took every drop of energy she had. There was no time to languish and marvel at the scenery flying by. She would sooner drop dead from running than go back.
She followed him through the woods, leaving the hospital far behind. Charlie let her rest briefly now and then, and drink from the tiny streams that crossed their path. Finally they came to a flowing river, and Charlie dropped down onto the grass into a small cove of fragrant trees. “We will wait here until the Captain comes with his boat,” he said to Charlotte as she sat down on a fallen tree. “He’ll take us all the way to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
Charlotte leaned back against the tree trunk, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The aromas of the deep forest awakened memories of gathering leaves in the sun-dappled days with Charlie. She opened her eyes. “Have I ever been here, Charlie?”
“I don’t know, Charlotte,” he said. “I’ve never been here with you, if that’s what you’re asking. But you and I, we spent a lot of time in woods like this. You used to gather herbs and flowers, and I’d fly overhead scouting them for you.”
Charlotte stood up and pinched a leaf off a low-hanging branch on the tree she had been sitting under. She crushed it in her palm and sniffed it. “Balsam poplar,” she said, though she did not know where the words came from, or what they meant.
A gray-haired woman with red cheeks flashed through her thoughts and was gone. Charlotte had seen her many times since the Graying ended, in other memories, and in her dreams. “I wish I could remember,” she murmured, holding the crushed leaf up to her nose and breathing in its scent.
“You knew all the names of all the trees and flowers,” Charlie said, “and you gathered baskets full.”
“Why did I do that, Charlie?”
“You gave them all to your Mimi,” he said. “You helped her make tea and other medicinal potions from them.”
“Mimi?” Red cheeks, gray hair. A sad smile and blue eyes filled with tears flashed through her thoughts. “Mimi.”
A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie said, “There’s the Captain, Charlotte.” He rose up and unfolded his wings. “We’re going home!”
A silvery forest with beautiful carved oars floated toward them and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. “Let’s go,” Charlie said. He flapped his wings a few times, lifting himself off the ground, and flew to the Captain’s boat. He perched on the railing next to another crow and shouted out to Charlotte, “Come on! Follow me!”
She came out of the shadows of the trees, took the Captain’s outstretched hand, and stepped aboard his marvelous boat—it seemed more like a tree with many birds flying through its tangled branches of wood and iron. Charlie introduced her to the Captain and to a young crow perched on his shoulder.
“We been waitin’ a long time to meet ya, lass!” Sugarbabe hollered. “Ain’t we, Cap’n?”
He grinned and winked at Charlotte. “That we have, Sugarbabe. Pleasure to have you aboard, Miss Charlotte.”
She nodded and smiled at the crow, speechless with surprise. “Grawky!” she managed to say as she brushed her hand across Sugarbabe’s outstretched wing. She turned to the Captain and studied him carefully; his great tattoo-covered arms seemed both flesh and wood as he powered his carved oar through the water. She felt the rhythm of the river through the Captain’s motion and thought perhaps he had been wrought from both river and forest.
They traveled throughout the afternoon on the river, and Charlotte stared in astonishment at the sights and sounds of the world she had not seen in over two decades. She gasped at the huge city on either side of the river as the Captain rowed past the Waterfront.
“Look, Charlotte! Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie cried out.
“Is that the Treehouse?” she asked, pointing toward a white dome. She smiled wildly, hoping that it was.
“Yoomuns call it the hermit’s chapel,” Charlie said. “It is very old, and when Jayzu came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he fixed it all up like it was new.”
“It’s so beautiful, Charlie,” she murmured.
The Captain steered the boat into a wide, shallow pool and brought them gently to a stop at the edge of the water. Charlotte laughed in delight at all the birds in the water, the air, on the cliffs at the edge of the pool, and in the branches of the trees that grew along the water’s edge. A flock of loons screeched by over her head and landed out in the more open water, making waves and splashing each other.
The Captain helped Charlotte out of the boat, and she stepped onto Cadeña-l’jadia.
“Mighty obliged, Captain, my man,” Charlie said as he lifted a wing in salute.
The Captain nodded and said, “I’ll be going for Jayzu now.” He pushed his boat back into the water and waved an oar as he rowed away.
Charlie stretched his wings, and Charlotte stretched her arms, reaching to the sky. “The Treehouse is this way,” he said, pointing with a wing toward the island’s interior.
Charlotte followed Charlie into the dense forest. The trees seemed to raise their overhanging branches, allowing them through what otherwise seemed to be an impenetrable wall of leaf and trunk. They stopped at an apple tree, whose fruit was dragging its branches nearly to the ground. “Bruthamax planted this tree,” he said.
Charlotte picked two apples off the tree and gave one to Charlie. She laughed in sheer delight as she bit into it, and sweet juice gushed out all around, spraying her face.
After drinking from the small stream nearby, they continued on their way to the Treehouse. Charlotte picked her way among the marshes and bogs as if she could sense solid ground among the rocks and water amid sedges and rushes. Vaguely familiar odors tantalized her memory.
At last they stopped in a small clearing underneath a gigantic tree. “Is that your nest, Charlie?” she asked, pointing to the Treehouse roof.
“Yes, that’s the Treehouse, your new home,” Charlie said. “The nest is up above, in the branches, but we only use it when we have kreegans. Otherwise we hang out in the branches.”
As she looked closer, more Treehouse features appeared—walls, windows, a door. There was even a spiral staircase leading up to the deck. Charlotte darted up the steps, laughing like a child, and as she poked her head through to the deck, a friendly voice called out, “Welcome home, Charlotte!”
A crow dropped to the deck from the branches above, followed by four young fledglings.
“Charlotte,” Charlie said, opening a wing toward them, “this is my wife, Rika, and our children, Alfie and Rufie. They’re twins. And Coal, and Lexy, and this is Buzzy, and over there is Burkie.”
“Where is JoEd?” Rika asked. “Didn’t he come back with you?”
“No,” Charlie said. “But he’ll be along shortly, I’m sure.”
Charlotte dropped down to her knees, and the young crows all crowded in her lap. She laughed as they nibbled her fingers, her chin, her ears, her hair. After a few moments, they all ran to the other side of the deck, engaged in an instant game.
“And here is JoEd!” Charlie said as the young crow landed on the deck. “Many crows helped us get you out of Rosencranz, Charlotte, but it was JoEd who led the pandemonium on the patio!”
“Greetings, Fair Lady!” JoEd said, with a bow so low, his beak touched the deck.
Charlotte giggled as JoEd swished his feathers across her hand. “Grawky, JoEd!” she said. “Thank you!”
“No greater pleasure shall I ever dream to have,” the young crow said, “than to assist in the freeing of a lady so fair, with a heart so brave, from the cruel confines of so unjust an imprisonment.”
Charlotte melted on the spot and took JoEd into her lap. Charlie and Rika looked at each other in complete shock at the eloquent speech coming from JoEd’s beak. “I had no idea my son was such a romantic fellow!” Charlie said.
“There are many things you don’t know about me,” JoEd said from Charlotte’s lap. “Many things.”
“Jayzu!” Charlotte cried out as the priest poked his head through the hole in the deck. JoEd flew from her lap to the railing next to his parents.
Jayzu stepped onto the deck, and she leaped up and threw her arms around his neck. He hugged her warmly and said, “I see you made it safe and sound!”
He greeted Rika and Charlie and the kreegans, who all flocked around his feet, squawking and squeaking for his attention.
“Jayzu!” Charlotte said, “I rode on a boat that looked like a forest!”
“I have been on that boat many times,” he said with a smile.
She took his hand and pulled him over to the bench at the edge of the deck. “And I ate a big golden apple off of a tree that Charlie said Bruthamax planted.”
“An apple at this time of year?” Alfredo looked over at Charlie. “I thought we could only get apples in the fall.”
“Bruthamax’s apples don’t know that,” Charlie said.
Jayzu laughed again. Charlotte laughed too, at the sheer joy of being alive in this Treehouse with everything she needed and loved all around her.She followed Jayzu back down the spiral steps to the ground below.
Jayzu showed her the cistern nearby and how to get water from it. “I will keep the water jar in the Treehouse filled,” he said. “But in case you run out while I am away, I want you to know how to get your own water.”
Charlotte nodded and followed Jayzu in the other direction, downhill from the Treehouse. They came to a tiny rustic shack, and Jayzu said, “This is your toilet, Charlotte.” He opened the door. “I am sorry I cannot provide you with more proper facilities, Charlotte, but–”
“Jayzu!” Charlotte said and put a finger over his lips. “This is good enough. I have been trapped in a stinky old building for a very long time, and I had to share the toilets with everyone else, and walk down two hallways just to pee. The floor was always wet, so I had to put shoes on. And there were cameras.”
He stared at her for a few moments and then laughed. She loved it when he laughed, the way his eyes crinkled up and his whole face seem to explode with mirth.
“Jayzu, I am very happy to be here with Charlie, and you, and Rika. And I can pee outside with no one watching!”
He laughed again and took her hand. “Let us go back and cook some supper,” he said. “Shall we, Charlotte?” He tucked her hand under his arm, and they started back to the Treehouse.
“I do not know how to cook!” she said anxiously.
“But I do!” Jayzu said with a smile. “Let me teach you.”
Charlie, Rika, and all the kreegans perched on the chairs and bed, the shelves, and the windowsills and watched as Jayzu and Charlotte cooked dinner together. Jayzu took the loaf of bread he had baked out of his pack, a few onions and garlic, and a fish he had caught from the river. He filleted it, putting the guts onto a small plate. “This we shall save for the kreegans,” he said. He built a fire in the small wood stove and cooked the fish in a cast-iron frying pan.
Charlotte boiled some water and cooked the rice, according to Jayzu’s instructions. She sliced the fresh tomato he had brought and prepared their plates−one for her, one for Jayzu, and a bowl for the crows.
They ate on the deck, sharing their meal with Charlie and his family, as well as a few birds that had flown by and detected the aroma of frying fish. “Delicious!” JoEd said after gobbling down a beak full of fish guts.
After Charlotte and Jayzu washed and dried the dishes, humans and crows sat or perched on the deck under the stars. It had been many years since Charlotte had been outside at night.
“So many stars,” she murmured, looking up at the night sky. “I remember stars. Before the Graying.”
“There is Corvus, the constellation of the raven,” Jayzu said as he pointed toward the southern sky. “Just four stars, see?”
Charlotte nodded and leaned against him. He was so warm and the stars so beautiful. It was hard to imagine that one day ago, she stared at the ceiling alone in her tiny room in a dark, cold building.
“Time for sleep, everyone!” Rika announced. “Come, Charlotte, it is time to dress for bed.”
“Goodnight, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. He held her hands and looked into her eyes, and then pulled her into his chest and hugged her.
“Goodnight, Jayzu,” she said, snuggling into his chest. She loved the way he smelled. She wanted to stay there in his arms forever.
“I will be right out here on the deck,” he said as he held her and stroked her hair. “If you wake up in the night and are scared, just call my name.”
Charlie took the little ones up to the nest as Rika took Charlotte into the cabin and helped her find a nightgown in the box of clothes Jayzu brought. Charlotte brushed her teeth in the small basin next to the stove and said goodnight to Rika. She got under the soft covers and slipped into sleep.
An unfamiliar darkness invaded Charlotte’s sleep, and she awakened completely disoriented. There were no lights, no sound. She sat up and peered into the darkness. Where am I? Opening all her senses, she tried to instill in herself a sense of attachment; that was how she found her balance as the Graying ended.
She focused awareness on her body, concentrating on sensation, any sensation. First, the feet. She could not detect her weight bearing down on her feet. I am sitting. She moved her hands around, palms down, feeling soft, smooth fabric. I am in a bed. But it is not my bed.
A rectangular patch of dark gray—or was it light black?—hovered above the floor. A cool breeze blew across her face. Where am I? She heard faint sounds coming from the gray rectangle—it seemed a lighter gray than before.
A black bird appeared in the window, silhouetted against the pale gray. “Good morning, Charlotte!” the bird said and flapped to the edge of the bed. “I hope you slept peacefully.”
“Charlie!” Charlotte cried, suddenly flooded with the memory of the day before. I am in the Treehouse! “I am really here! I am not dreaming!”
Rika flew through the window, scolding Charlie. “For pity sakes, husband! Can you not let a lady even dress for the day before you barge in on her? Now shoo! Scoot! Go talk to Jayzu while I get Charlotte dressed.”
Charlie obediently flew out the window, and Rika said, “He is just thrilled you are here, dearie! He just couldn’t wait until you’ve done your ablutions. You know, your face, your hair. That’s what my lady called it. Her morning ablutions.”
“I am in a Treehouse!” Charlotte said, leaping out of bed gleefully. She looked out the window.
“On Cadeña-l’jadia, dearie!” Rika said.
“Welcome to Cadeña-l’jadia!” That is what Charlie had said when the Captain let them off his boat. Charlotte did not know where Cadeña-l’jadia was, and she had not asked. What did it matter? She was grateful to be away from the asylum and to be here in a tree house with her old friend Charlie. And Jayzu! What could be more perfect?
She remembered everything about her escape from Rosencranz—the run through the woods to the river, the almost unbearable noise and spectacle of the city they floated through, the heavenly smells and sounds of the forest, the water. And then Charlie took her from the river to the Treehouse, along a path in a forest so green and full of flowers, she could hardly believe it. “Oh, the colors! Charlie! So beautiful!”
“Where is Jayzu?” she asked.
“He’s outside, dearie,” Rika said. She hopped over to the bench against the wall. “Charlie and Jayzu are both outside. You must dress now, dearie. Here are some nice clothes you can change into. You’ll be wanting long pants and sleeves for life here on the island.”
Charlotte dressed herself from the box of clothes Jayzu had brought, delighted at the bright colors. “We all wore gray at the asylum,” she said. “Everything was gray. And now the world is full of color! And music! So many birds singing so sweetly!” She closed her eyes, listening.
She splashed water on her face and undid her braid. After brushing it vigorously, she re-braided it. She opened the door and walked out onto the deck, where dozens of crows, magpies, jays, larks, and thrushes all chattered and screeched their versions of “Good morning, Charlotte!”
“Where is Jayzu?” she asked, looking all around the deck.
“I am here!” his voice said as he appeared through the hole in the deck. He leaped onto the deck, and took Charlotte’s hands into his. He looked into her eyes and asked, “Did you sleep well?”
“Like I was a rock,” she said.
Jayzu laughed and bent down to greet the kreegans that had accumulated around his feet.
“A cup of tea, dearie?” Rika asked Charlotte. “Do you like tea?”
Charlotte nodded and said, “They gave me tea every morning.”
“I will have a cup, please,” Jayzu said as he stood up.
“Then let’s make some tea, dearie,” Rika said. “A cup for you, one for Jayzu, one for me.” Charlotte followed her into the cabin. “Now take the kettle, dearie, and put some water in it.”
Charlie appeared suddenly in the doorway, with Buzzy in tow. “I found him down by the sand bar. Hello, Charlotte!”
Charlotte spun around and reached out to touch his wing feathers. “Charlie!” she cried. “I am going to make tea with Rika!”
“Splendid!” Charlie said.
“You three wait out on the deck,” Rika said, shooing Jayzu, Charlie, and Buzzy out the doorway. “Charlotte, that kettle won’t boil on its own! You need to build a fire!”
Rika pointed to a box of matches on the shelf with her wing. “Now fetch the matches over to the stove. “That’s good, now take some of these small pieces of wood and some paper and stuff it into the stove.”
Charlotte followed Rika’s instructions obediently, paper in the bottom, wood shavings on the top. She held the match to the paper. “Now feed the fire, dearie!” Rika instructed. “You want it to burn and not smother itself. That’s good. Now shut that door, there, yes, dearie.”
She stood up, and Rika pointed to the shelf above the table. “Get that tea down, will you please?”
Charlotte looked at the many cans of vegetables, beans and soup, boxes of rice and pasta, a bottle of cooking oil, and a jar of what she suspected might be peanut butter.
“Tea is in that blue can with all the flowers, right there,” Rika said.
Charlotte opened the tin, and the aroma that emanated from it stirred a vague memory within her of forests, flowers, and sunshine. And the gray-haired woman with the red cheeks. Charlie said that is Mimi. But who is Mimi? So familiar, yet without attached memories.
“Oh! Hoy! The water is boiling, dearie!” Rika startled her back to the present. “Pick up the kettle and pour some water in the teapot, yes, just like that. A little sugar?” she pointed to a ceramic jar on the shelf. “Best to keep the top on that. No need to spill it, you know. None for me, though.”
Jayzu appeared at the door, and Rika said, “Good on you, dearie. We’re just needing another hand in here! Take the cups and what-not out to the bench, please. Charlotte, you take the teapot on out.”
Charlotte picked up the kettle handle with a piece of quilted fabric and followed Jayzu whose hands were full of cups and the sugar.
“Ah!” Rika said after they’d all sat down to tea. She dipped her beak in the cup she shared with Charlie and took a sip, tilting her head back to swallow. “I used to sit with my lady on her balcony Downtown. We’d sip tea, just the two of us, and we’d watch the world go by.”
“This is lovely, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. “Thank you for the tea.”
Charlotte and Jayzu ate the leftovers from the dinner they had cooked the night before. “I must go to my cottage,” he said when they finished eating. “I have some visitors coming, and I must be there.” She frowned, and he continued. “I will be back before dinner. Do not worry!”
Jayzu kissed her on the cheek and disappeared down the hole in the deck. Charlotte tidied up the tree house; she folded her nightgown and made up her bed, washed and dried the tea cups and put them back up on the shelf.
Rika was gone when she went back outside to the deck, and so was Charlie. She reveled in the sunshine and the quiet loveliness of her surroundings. No bells, no one screaming. How exquisite to be alone with just the sounds of the cool, green forest.
It beckoned her, and she rose from the bench and went down the spiral steps to the ground. She looked toward the woods beyond the tree house, just across that little meadow. So close! And there was no fence to crawl under.
I am free.