Corvus Rising – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The Million Bird Stand

 

Grawky! JoEd,” Jayzu said, smiling at the stunned crow on his step. Alfredo looked up from the papers he was grading at his table, distracted by the loud thump he heard against the cottage wall. He out his pen down, went to the door, and opened it to find a motionless crow lying on this doorstep.

JoEd struggled to his feet. “Man, that was some jaloosie!” He smoothed his ruffled feathers back against his body. “It took me as soon as I left Downtown, Jayzu! It took me way up—higher than ever!”

Are you all right?” Alfredo stooped down to see if the bird was injured.

Oh, yeah! I’m fine.” JoEd looked up at the sky. “But I wasn’t even trying to ride a jaloosie. It just took me and dropped me here. I have come for the Million Bird Stand.”

As I suspected,” Alfredo said. “Birds have been flying in from all over for the past two days.”

He had watched a steady stream flying over the treetops all day. Many landed in the trees near the hermit’s chapel — corvids mostly, to admire Bruthamax’s worship nest. It was rather astonishing, that many birds. And how marvelous that so many different species came to gather in one place briefly, to make a stand against the destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia!

An island this small could not support such a huge number of birds, even for a few days. Alfredo noticed many of them flew off the island in the morning, presumably to feed in the city of Ledford, in the surrounding fields and pastures, and along the riverbanks.

I have been out spreading the word,” JoEd said. “It’s going everywhere, Jayzu, around and around, in wider circles all across the land.” He dipped his beak several times in a puddle on the stone step.

We cannot stop the Bunya without you,” Alfredo said. “I am grateful for your help.”

I would be nowhere else,” JoEd said. “We are small alone.”

Alfredo watched him disappear into the forest as he flew off in the direction of the tree house. For just this one day, I would like to be a crow. To be one of them when they take a stand against Henry Braun. The Bunya.

This is ours,” Charlie had said when Alfredo asked if he could help with the Million Bird Stand. “You’ve already raised your voice. You have done much, Jayzu, to keep Cadeña-l’jadia the way it is. We know you are with us in spirit. It’s our turn now.”

 

JoEd found his parents perched on the rail around the deck of Bruthamax’s tree house. As he approached, Rika nudged Charlie with her wing and said, “My Orbs! Husband! I think our son has come home!”

JoEd landed on the railing and put a wing out over his mother and said, “Hi ya, Weebs!” Rika pecked him lightly and spent a few moments grooming him until he squirmed away from her.

Aw, Weebs!” he said, flapping his wings. “I’m not a hatchling anymore. I can clean my own feathers!”

Your weebs is happy to see you,” Charlie said. “As am I.”

It’s good to be home, Zazu!” JoEd said. “I want to make a stand with you.”

Well, that is tomorrow,” Rika said, nudging her son. “First you must tell us where you have been and what have you seen since you flew the nest. You look a bit thin. Have you been eating enough? Have you found a mate?”

JoEd thought of Shannon, the pretty little crow he had met on the roof of the River Queen. She seemed to like me. He wondered if he could find her again.

I eat just fine, Weebs,” JoEd said. “There’s so much food in the city, it’d be hard not to eat well. And I’m still a bachelor.”

When it is time,” Rika said, nodding, “she will come.”

JoEd looked at his mother with great love. She is so wise, my weebs.

I am in Keeper training,” JoEd said. “Just like you, Zazu! I am a novice. Starfire says I take after you. ‘You’re a quick learner, just like your zazu’—that’s what he said!”

I’m proud of you, JoEd,” Charlie said. “You have done well.”

JoEd roosted for the night in his ancestral tree. He’d been all over since he left, intoxicated by the sight of the River Queen and Downtown. And the university! He thought he’d seen a huge chunk of the world after Antoine flew him around the university. But when he flew out to spread the word for the Million Bird Stand, he was staggered by the sheer size of it all. He flew for hours over strange landscapes without trees, huge lakes whose opposite shores he could not see, and off in the distance, mountains!

But it was good to be home.

 

Henry stood at the window of his office, scowling at the thousands of birds that swirled above Wilder Island. The picnic was tomorrow; everything was ready. “The last thing I need is a bunch of flying vermin in the air crapping all over the place,” he growled to Jules Sackman. He wanted to throw his shoe at those two smirking crows in the tree outside his window.

He closed the window shade and took a seat in the huge leather armchair behind his desk. He fidgeted with the stapler and then the pens in the leather holder that matched his chair. He leaned back, swiveling away from the windows and toward the portraits of his ancestors. Henry the First’s eyes bore down on him. What is it? Have I forgotten something?

I wonder why so many of them suddenly flocked to the island in the last few days,” Jules said, picking at a fingernail. “Almost like they knew something.”

You and my insane wife,” Henry said, waving away the attorney. “You think these stupid birdbrains are capable of thought? It’s just a coincidence—probably some dead animal on the island they all want a bite of. That’s all they know, Jules. They don’t have thoughts, just urges. Eating, shitting, and screwing.”

Henry the First nodded. “Don’t let them stop you, Henry. It was the crows that took down my bridge, you know. Just like now—thousands upon thousands of them flying in at night, so no one saw. The next day, the bridge was no more.”

No filthy crow is going to stop me again!” Henry nearly shouted at Jules.

But what were all these birds doing here? If crows destroyed the trestle bridge, he shuddered to think what they could do to his picnic. He engaged briefly in a dark fantasy of thousands of crows bringing the helicopter down, loaded with his investors. And him.

He shook his head quickly a few times to dispel the gruesome image of bodies floating in the water and the helicopter lying on its side like a dead insect. He tried to focus his attention on the ceremony in the morning. He had dreamed of this day for years. He’d have an official ribbon-cutting and flag-planting, right on the banks of the island. He’d even commissioned a special flag of his family crest, in honor of reuniting the Brauns with their lost ancestral homeland.

Tomorrow, the island will be mine!” Henry said, forcing a grand smile. “And I, Henry Braun the Fourth, shall turn it into a paradise. First I plant a flag, reclaiming the island for my family honor. Henry Braun Island—that’s the new name.”

Henry the First nodded and winked. “That’s the spirit, boy!”

Henry,” Jules said, “you can’t just summarily change the name like that. Wilder Island is on all the maps. And, the island isn’t yours yet.”

A technicality!” Henry said, waving his hand at Jules. “What’re they going to do, sue me?” He laughed bitterly. “And the name ‘Wilder Island’ was never official. It’s my island; that makes it private property, and I can call it whatever I want.”

Yet the private property rights of others,” Jules said, “doesn’t apparently stop you from taking their land.”

Henry the First frowned down upon Jules. “Whose side is he on? How is it you tolerate this insolence?”

This whole eminent domain thing was your idea, Jules,” Henry said, mopping sweat off his forehead.

Don’t whine, Henry.”

He looked up at Henry the First.

“Fire the leech.”

 

After breakfast on the day of Henry the Bunya’s picnic, all the birds on Cadeña-l’jadia, residents and visitors alike, convened at the edge of the forest near the tip of the island where he would land his helicopter. The noise was horrendous, as thousands and thousands of birds of all breeds and sizes flew in and found places to perch, sit, or stand. Every bush and rock held as many birds as could get a foothold. Younger trees bent to the ground under the weight of their bird load. Birds covered everything.

Charlie perched at the top of a dead tree whose leaves and smaller branches were long gone, a high point from which he would speak to the birds gathered below. He unfolded his wings and shouted, “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!” He made a complete rotation on his perch, his strong mature voice flying out over the crowd as he repeated his salutation. “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!”

He waited until the birds had mostly quieted down to continue. “Thank you for coming to the Million Bird Stand. In a few short hours, a small yet deadly invasion of the Bunya will begin. If we cannot stop them now, it will mean the end of Cadeña-l’jadia.”

The birds squawked, hooted, cawed, honked, cheeped, quacked, trilled, and chirped their displeasure.

But we are not just here to save Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie shouted. “The Earth beyond this little island is also a beautiful place and home to many more birds and many other creatures of all kingdoms! All creatures seem to know how to live here more or less peacefully. All but one. Humans. And the Bunya is their king.”

The birds again voiced their disapproval, some standing up and flapping their wings, some stamping around indignantly—though there was not much room, and everyone chattered at once. Charlie’s voice somehow arched over the noise. “We can turn them back now, all of us. Though we are each small, together we form a multitude, a force to be reckoned with. We shall turn back this invasion, island by island, forest by forest, for however many tomorrows it shall take. Today, the multitude of us will just say no.”

What if they have guns?” a thrush asked in a reedy voice.

We do not need to fear guns from this crowd,” Charlie said. “They will not be armed with guns; they arm themselves with orbs. They think their orbs will protect them. But they are sorely mistaken. We will use the weapon of our guts, and our sheer multitudes to chase the Bunya off our island.”

Charlie flapped his wings and shouted, “It is time! Let us now assume the position. Follow me!”

He swooped off his perch and flew low to the ground, leading a parade of walking, flying, and hopping birds. He dropped to the sand at the edge of the forest and shouted, “It is here we make our stand!”

As the birds arrived, he directed them into position. “We will create a barrier of birds. Yes, a solid wall of birds staring the Bunya down.”

He knew most of the birds could not hear him, but those who did followed his instructions and began layering themselves into a solid wall of feathers, beaks, wings, and claws. “Larger birds on the bottom!” he shouted.

As the multitudes of birds arrived at the site, they followed the others, assuming their positions in the great wall. “One bird every half wingspan—in all directions,” Charlie directed. “Find a perch in the trees, on the ground, on rocks, each other.”

The wall of birds was enormous, comprising many species, many colors, many eyes. It was a marvelous spectacle. There were whole bevies of quail and dove, nides of pheasants, gaggles of geese, flushes of ducks, rafters of turkeys, sieges of herons, murders of crows, conspiracies of ravens, tidings of magpies, descents of woodpeckers, hosts of sparrows, charms of finches, exaltations of larks, wisps of snipes, kettles of hawks, parliaments of owls, and parties of jays. All within a wing’s reach of one another, they formed a barrier of birds from the forest floor to its treetops.

Hookbeak and Starfire perched in a tree near the great wall of birds as Charlie spoke. “At my signal, we all take to the air, and we dump on him from above. The Bunya is our main target, but do not go out of your way to avoid hitting the others. Some of them are as guilty as he and, given the inspiration, would do exactly what Bunya wants to do. So, let it fly. Get some on everyone.”

Some what?” Floyd asked Willy. “Toxic waste? Hot wax? Fliers?”

I believe he means excrement, brother,” Willy replied.

Ohhh,” Floyd said, nodding. “I see.” After a few seconds, he said, “Ours?”

Who else’s?” Willy said.

Oh, goody,” Floyd said gleefully. “I love a pasting!”

Henry Braun looked up at the clear blue sky from the deck of the River Queen. Not a bird in sight—a matter of great relief to him. No dull roar of bird noise came across the river. “Good riddance,” he said with a growl. “And stay off my island!”

The River Queen pulled away from the dock with its cargo of Ledford’s well-heeled elite, and headed across the river to the city boat landing where they would board the helicopter. Henry didn’t dare try and take his beautiful River Queen to the island—not after what happened to his great-grandfather’s trestle bridge. Thirty or so of Henry’s guests sipped champagne and filled their plates at a buffet brunch on the promenade. While the boat paddled slowly past Wilder Island, the passengers enjoyed a marvelous feast that included grilled salmon, a mountain of jumbo shrimp, prime rib, quiche, a vast array of colorful fruit, and an exotic juice bar.

Originally he had planned to serve the feast on the island, but Jules had talked him out of it. “Come on, Henry!” he had said. “Think about it! Most people would prefer to dine on the decks of the River Queen than on the sandy banks of a deserted island. Remember, the island is full of crows; you don’t want to create an attractive nuisance.”

Create an attractive nuisance?” Henry was sick of Jules. “Seems to me those blasted crows are the nuisance.”

It was not an affair for children or spouses. This was not entertainment; it was business. The guest list was restricted to investors and influential politicos, including Henry Braun’s long-time crony, the Mayor. They were wealthy, all of them—except the newspaper people—otherwise they would not have been invited. A reporter from the Sentinel and his cameraman had been hired to publicize the event for Henry, and he magnanimously allowed them to indulge in the food but not the champagne.

After brunch, everyone disembarked from the River Queen. Half, including Henry, boarded a large helicopter that waited in the parking lot. The helicopter took off almost immediately and bore down on the island like a dinosaur-size bird of prey. After disgorging its passengers, it returned to the dock for the second load.

Henry climbed out of the helicopter, strode up the bank, and stopped. The forest in front of him was dark and forbidding, and its stillness seemed uncanny. It unnerved him that he could not see very far into its shadows. This was his first time on Wilder Island, and he wanted to savor these first moments of almost owning it. But the forest repelled him. The profound silence bore down on him. He shook his fist and raged silently. The day is coming, I promise, when I burn you down!

Turning his back, Henry forced himself to override his fear. At least those damn birds aren’t still flying around overhead. He climbed up to an elevated position on a rock and watched his guests make their way toward him. By the time they all arrived, Jules had finished setting up an easel to hold a set of colorful charts illustrating impressive returns on investments in Ravenwood Resort.

My friends, at long last I fulfill a boyhood dream,” Henry addressed the carefully chosen faithful, arms outstretched. “I’ve asked each of you here to witness this momentous occasion where I bring this island back into the fold of my family where it rightly belongs.”

Henry gestured behind him as he spoke. “Many years ago, my ancestor Henry Braun the First was swindled out of his rightful ownership of this island by corrupt politicians and a railroad desperate to survive. Through the next three generations, each Henry Braun brought fortune and good times back into the family. But we have gnashed our teeth, waiting for the time to restore what is ours. This island. It is now that time. With great honor and pride, I plant my family flag on Henry Braun Island, as it shall be known from here onwards.”

Unfurling the flag with the Braun family crest emblazoned in gold, Henry stuck the flagpole into the sand. Jules handed him a small sledgehammer; he smacked the top of the pole a few times and handed it back. Turning again to his guests, he threw his arms out and said, “Welcome to Braun Island, my friends. Upon this island we will build Ravenwood Resort.”

The people before him remained silent. No applause, no cheering, no flag waving, no celebration. Henry’s smile vanished and his neck hairs stood erect suddenly. He glanced over his shoulder at the forest and saw nothing but dark shadows woven into a patchy fabric of leaf and branch. Still, there was something not quite right about the scene.

He turned back to the investors, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets and licked his lips nervously. “I ask each and every one of you to join me in prosperity. Invest in Ravenwood Resort on Braun Island. Each of you has a prospectus and—”

No one was paying him the least attention. The investors looked past him into the forest, eyebrows raised incredulously. Henry stopped talking and turned slowly toward the trees. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, but where a few minutes ago only a dark spooky forest stood, now thousands and thousands and thousands of eyes stared at him from within a great wall of feathers and beaks.

 

The birds remained motionless, but for the occasional blinking of an eye. Charlie suddenly flapped out to a rock adjacent to Henry Braun, fixing his blue eyes upon him.

Well met, Bunya,” Charlie greeted Henry politely, extending his wing in the traditional crow salutation.

Complete silence reigned over birds and humans. “In case you are wondering, Bunya, we are here to let you know that it is us, not your fellow humans that you will ultimately have to contend with. Your own species cannot stop you. We will.” The crow turned toward the investors and said, “Best you all leave now, lest you become soiled.”

No one moved. “Have it your way, then.” Charlie leaped into the air above Henry and shouted, “Let it fly, birds of all feathers! Let it fly!”

The wall seemed to dissolve suddenly into an astonishing cloud of birds of all shapes and sizes. They flew toward Henry, a tiny target for so many birds, but in this they were adept. They had been practicing since dawn—a simple drill Charlie had devised, where they all circled and dumped in an intricate yet simple pattern.

The birds orbited Henry, and each took their turn diving and letting it fly. A thunderous noise of beating wings and ridicule from the beaks of the multitude accompanied the mass dumping.

Your mother plucks your feathers!” yelled JoEd as he shat upon the Bunya’s bald spot.

You weren’t hatched, you were laid!” Willy hollered as his load struck Henry’s prominent nose.

I wouldn’t wear that suit to a dog fight!” a magpie yelled, her tuxedo markings clean and flawless as she dumped her load.

Not to be outdone, Floyd bombed Henry with his own repartee, “I’ve seen bigger peckers on chickadees!” Splat!

After whitewashing Henry’s head, the birds moved on to other challenging territory: his suit coat, his trousers, his shoes. It took a long time for a million birds to dump their loads, and they did not hurry. The Bunya huddled near the rock upon which moments ago he stood in triumph, blubbering like a baby.

Starfire and Hookbeak flew out of their tree and took hold of the Bunya flag and pulled it out of the sand. They flew out over the river and dropped it in the water. “So long, Charlie!” Starfire yelled over his wing. The two old ravens parted company, as each headed for his respective tree in their respective cemeteries on either side of the river.

Once Henry had been thoroughly encased from head to toe, Charlie gave the signal for the birds to desist. “Birds of All Feathers, land in the sand!” The bombing suddenly abated as the birds dropped out of the sky. The entire tip of the island was covered with birds. Not a grain of sand could be seen from the river to the forest. “We don’t want any of them to think about coming back,” Charlie said. “Make it so there is no room for a human to stand.”

The sudden shower of shit scattered Henry’s guests all over the riverbank. No one escaped getting hit, but Henry bore virtually the complete brunt of the birds’ fury. The investors had all abandoned him, clamoring over one another for a seat on the helicopter. The pilot jumped out and shoved half of them back, shouting, “I’ll be back. Just stay right here. I’ll be back.”

Only faithful Jules stayed with Henry, waiting patiently for the birds to finish, but far enough away to avoid getting too badly pasted himself. The pelting finally stopped, but the sudden noise of that many birds crowing, quacking, honking, whistling, chirping, tweeting, clicking, and clacking all at once was hardly less fearsome. Henry ventured a quick peek. “Jules, where are you?” he cried out, digging his fists into his eyes like a lost little boy, smearing and grinding bird doo into his eyesockets.

I’m right here, Henry. Come along now,” Jules said, flicking a bit of birdshit off his sleeve. He handed Henry his handkerchief to wipe his eyes and escorted him to the helicopter. The birds closed in behind them.

I can’t let you aboard my ’copter all covered in crap like that, Mr. Braun,” the pilot said, blocking Henry from climbing aboard. “You’ll ruin my upholstery. Take off the shirt and slacks. Clean him up as much as you can,” he said to Jules. “I’ll be back.”

The group of spattered yet well-heeled investors took off in the helicopter while Henry stripped down to his skivvies. The pilot returned for him and Jules after leaving the guests in the safe hands of their chauffeurs at the City Boat Landing. Henry climbed aboard and left Wilder Island forever.

Mission accomplished, a million birds headed home. All except for JoEd, who had promised his weebs he’d come back to the tree house for a few days. She had completely forgiven him, as mothers will do, for flying away to the River Queen and not coming home for days. But he wanted to spend a little time with her, before he left for good. And to say a proper good-bye.

 

Never Mind!” shouted the Sentinel headline the next morning, right above a photo of Henry Braun covered in bird droppings. The caption read: “Wilder Island birds just say no to Ravenwood Resort.”

The whole front page, filled with news about Henry’s precious island, made Minnie smile. She laughed at the pictures of Henry, remembering his cold rage when he came home from his picnic the previous day.

Changed Our Minds!” headlined the article where the city revoked its condemnation of the island. Oh, thank the Lord! She heard Henry coming down the stairs and flipped the paper back. As he entered the kitchen, she set his perfectly cooled coffee on the table.

Henry scowled, and without touching the newspaper, he picked his coffee cup off the table and climbed the stairs to his office.

Minnie smiled and reread the lead article in the Sentinel, a humorous account of Henry’s picnic, including photos of the birds in action. “As if they enjoyed it,” the reporter wrote of the birds. “As if they enjoyed pelting the wealthiest man in the city with their excrement.”

I enjoyed it too! Even if I did have to launder his stinky clothes afterward. It was worth it! Go, birds!

She wondered if Floyd and Willy had been there. Would that I could have been a crow for that day! She giggled into her coffee. Alfredo Manzi’s name leaped out of the article at her.

“‘Ganging up on and pelting,’ says Dr. Alfredo Manzi, noted professor of ornithology at the university and pastor of the old hermit’s chapel, “are not uncommon offensive tactics that many birds employ to drive off predators—the smaller birds, especially. I am most impressed at how this so-called attack harmed no one, yet completely conveyed the message, ‘Hands off our island!’ Everyone is washable. We humans should take lessons.”

Minnie laughed to herself. Oh, I love that man!

 

Kate Herron’s inside sources informed her that the Mayor’s office had been deluged with the Friends of Wilder Island postcards, with notes that read, “Save your job, Mr. Mayor! Save Wilder Island!” “No to Eminent Domain!” “Keep the island as is!” “No Casinos!”

The city website shut down briefly,” she told Alfredo on the phone. “Too many people tried to log on and voice an opinion. Three to one, the e-mails, faxes, phone calls, letters, and telegrams expressed support for keeping Wilder Island wild.”

God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.

Well,” Kate said, “we dodged a bullet, I think. If Henry had planned something other than a gambling casino, things may’ve turned out differently. Still, the birds had the final word. That should give the next guy pause.”

 

Russ finished reading the Sentinel article aloud to Jade, and the phone rang. “Good morning, Russ!” Alfredo’s warm voice said. “Have you two seen the morning paper?”

We have!” Russ said, pushing the speaker button so Jade could hear. “I keep wondering if I’m dreaming. Is it true? Wilder Island is still ours?”

Still ours,” Alfredo said with a chuckle, “thanks to thousands of birds, our land trust, and the people of Ledford. Is it not marvelous! I am thinking it is only appropriate that we celebrate our victory here on the island.”

I’ll second that thought!” Russ said. “The island is the only place to celebrate this. We deserve a party for all the work we did! This weekend? And maybe afterward I can show Jade around a bit? I want to get some more photos, and she’s dying to see more of the island.”

Yes I am!” Jade cried out. “I’ll paint while Russ hunts for the flower he’ll name after me!”

Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research and painting area; come and go as you please, both of you. I will call Sam and Kate, and Thomas too—he will be glad to hear this news. If you do not hear otherwise, please meet the Captain at the loading dock at nine on Saturday. I hope that is not too early?”

Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”

 

www.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515

Corvus Rising – Chapter 17

Lone Crow (2016) Pauline Teel Photography

We Are Small Alone

Minnie Braun watched the sky reflect the colors of the sunset from her balcony, after Henry took a butcher knife to the two paintings she had bought at Jade Matthews’s art show.

I’ll not have this woman’s work in my house!” he had raged, slicing through Leave Me as she watched, stone-faced. “She is my enemy! And as long as you’re married to me, she is your enemy too, understand?” Henry plunged the knife into Catching the Wind, and Minnie grabbed her midsection as if it had penetrated her own guts. She ran up the stairs sobbing and closed herself in her bedroom.

She had no idea what had happened to The Wilder Side, the beautiful painting of the island she had outbid everyone at the auction for—only that it had never made it to the library. She had tried to call Father Alfredo to tell him—he always made her feel better—but she could not reach him. She had called him twice. Three times. But he hadn’t returned her calls.

She gazed in despair out her window, at the dark trees of Wilder Island. Henry will destroy that too. Is nothing safe from him? When Floyd and Willy sailed down to her balcony, she cried out in happiness. “Oh, fellas, I’m so glad you’re here! I’m feeling pretty low this evening.” She looked over her shoulder, making sure her door was closed.

We cannot have that, Fair Lady!” Floyd said.

Indeed!” Willy agreed. “What makes you so blue, Miss Minnie?”

The two crows perched on the railing looked at her with such affection and sympathy, she nearly burst into tears. “Henry destroyed something I really loved,” she said, trying to hold back the tears stinging her eyes. “Right in front of me.” Minnie removed a hanky from her pocket and dabbed her tears.

What a beast!” Floyd said. He put a wing out and rested it on her shoulder. “He didn’t hurt you, did he, Miss Minnie? I’ll peck his eyes out if he so much as lays a finger on you, let alone an ax.”

Minnie laughed through her tears and said, “Thank you, Floyd! But it was a butcher knife. And Henry never touches me, so you need not worry about that. Which is not to say he hasn’t found other ways to hurt me.”

I’m afraid I have to agree with Floyd,” Willy said. “He is a beast.” The brothers nodded to each other then turned back to her.

He’s obsessed,” she said in a low voice. “He’s like a crazy man over that island. The city as much as gave it to him, he says, so he’s making all these plans to ‘christen Ravenwood Resort.’” Minnie looked over her shoulder, checking that the door to her bedroom was still closed.

Izzat so?” Floyd said. “The beast. What’s ‘christen mean?’ Where’s Ravenwood Resort?”

On Wilder Island,” Minnie said with a sigh. “Even though it isn’t his to build on—at least not yet. He wants to park that riverboat he’s been giving everyone rides on at the island, he says. And he’s going to build casinos and shopping malls and hotels and, well, everything that Wilder Island is not. That’s Ravenwood Resort.”

Yeah, yeah,” Floyd said, nodding. “I remember now. Flapjack tables, roulette, and bingo.”

That’s blackjack, Floyd,” Willy said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

Yes,” Minnie said. “Blackjack, slot machines, roulette—all of that. He said the city condemned the island because it’s a nuisance. ‘A sewer of crows.’ That’s what he calls it.”

How very uncouth,” Willy said. “In polite conversation, a gentleman should not invoke the sewer. Don’t you agree, my brother?”

The cad!” Floyd said as he gathered Minnie’s hand in his wing. “To speak so in front of a lady so fair, I am shocked, nay, outraged!” He laid his head sideways on her hand.

Thank you, Floyd,” Minnie said, gently stroking his cheek with her free hand. “But now, listen. Henry is planning this picnic on the island—”

Oh, goody!” Floyd said. He danced on the balcony railing and flapped his wings as he crowed, “We love a picnic! We a love picnic! When is it?”

Floyd,” Willy said, flapping his wings at his brother. “Please. Let Miss Minnie finish!”

We don’t love this picnic, Floyd,” Minnie said. “Henry plans to do some very bad things to the island. But he needs a lot of other people’s money to do it. That’s what the picnic is for, so he can squeeze it out of his rich friends.”

I didn’t know you could do that,” Floyd said, tilting his head.

Do what?” Minnie said, confused. She glanced back at her bedroom door.

Squeeze orbs out of humans,” Floyd said. “Where do they come out?”

Crimony, Floyd,” Willy said, cuffing his brother with a wing. “It’s a figure of speech. Forgive him, Miss Minnie, but Floyd tends to take things literally.”

Oh, that’s okay,” Minnie said, laughing. “It’s a pretty silly saying. Floyd, I meant that Henry will try very hard to convince people to give him money.”

Ohhhh,” Floyd said, nodding thoughtfully. “I get it now. I thought you meant—”

Floyd! Shush!” Willy said as he put a wing over his brother’s beak.

Minnie looked over her shoulder, making sure, again, that her door was closed. She leaned closer to the crow brothers. “Henry’s afraid to take the paddleboat to the island, so he invited his wealthy friends for a private ride on a helicopter for champagne breakfast.”

Champagne breakfast,” Floyd said. “Yum!”

A helicopter?” Willy asked. “You mean a whirly-bird? Them things are huge! Where will it land?”

At the opposite end from the hermit’s chapel,” Minnie said. “I don’t know where, other than he said they’ll land on a beach or a sand bar or something. He doesn’t want to run into Father Manzi, he said.” She looked over her shoulder.

He won’t want to run into Charlie either,” Floyd said to Willy.

Absolutely not!” Willy agreed.

Nosirreebob,” Floyd shook his head emphatically.

No way, Jose’!” Willy said.

Under no circumstances!”

He’d be real sorry.”

Might as well just throw himself off a cliff!”

Sooner he should cover himself with honey and sit naked on an ant hill!”

Better he should shoot himself at sunrise every day for a week!”

Or boil himself in oil!”

The two crows looked back at Minnie. “Nope, that’d be something he wouldn’t want to do. Run into Charlie!”

Minnie could hardly contain her laughter. She loved Floyd and Willy; they always cheered her up, no matter how terrible things seemed. But she felt nervous that Henry would hear them.

Shhh!” Minnie said, her forefinger across her lips.

Sorry!” Floyd whispered.

Both crows hunkered down on the balcony railing. “When is this shindig, Miss Minnie?” Willy asked in a low voice.

A week from yesterday,” she said. “Next Monday.”

Minerva!” Henry’s voice permeated the house, vibrating walls and windows.

What was that?” Floyd said.

Sounds like the man of the house has awakened,” Willy said.

Gotta go, gents,” she said and blew them each a kiss.

We ought not to miss this shindig, eh, brother?” Willy said with an air of great dignity and sarcasm as they leaped off the balcony.

 

In his ancient tupelo tree, high above the Woodman’s Cemetery, on the northern borders of the university, Starfire awaited his friend Hookbeak. Before retiring within its sprawling branches, Starfire and his wife had raised a large number of young ravens, every year building a new nest not far from this very tree. He knew precisely how many children he had sired, and grandchildren. He even knew how many generations of great-grandchildren he had. Seven. Of course he could not come up with all their names, just their numbers.

As Chief Archivist, Starfire dealt in corvid genealogical data on a daily basis. It was a simple task to access the archival lattice; he could do it in his sleep. But he was not concerned with the names of his many descendants at the moment. Another fireball had ejected during Charlie’s trance, and Starfire was flummoxed. He had created several Extermination Chants and went after the bugs that seemed to be eating the data. Charlie had struggled to speak as the lattice closed, and had said something that sounded like “ugs”. Did he mean to say “bugs”?

The roar of the lawnmower on the other side of the cemetery distracted his thoughts. In spite of the noise, he appreciated mowing days for the evening buffet of chopped lizards, toads, insects, and other creatures that couldn’t seem to get out of the way.

He watched his friend Hookbeak approach, admiring his wingspan and graceful glide down to the tupelo tree. The Aviar landed on the large branch near Starfire and folded his wings. The two old ravens greeted each other cordially.

To what do I owe the honor of a visit, my friend?” Starfire asked. He knew the Aviar preferred to stay on his side of the river.

There have been some complaints,” Hookbeak said vaguely. He sharpened his beak on the branch near his feet.

Complaints?” Who? Does the Aviar somehow know of the mishap with the Keeper last week?

Yes, my friend, complaints,” Hookbeak said. “But first, tell me about the damage to the lattice. Last time we talked, you suspected something was damaging it. ‘Bugs’, I believe was the term you used.”

The lawnmower droned closer. Starfire could smell the gasoline engine exhaust co-mingled with fresh-cut grass. He nodded. “Bugs ate many holes in the lattice—mostly in areas where we store Patua’ data. Bugs are why we did not find Jayzu in our database. I think.”

I see,” Hookbeak said. “That is problematic. But you have killed the bugs, you say? Have you fixed the holes?”

I thought the bugs were gone,” Starfire said. “I thought I killed them all and left a systemic poison in case they come back. But, alas, I believe I have missed one.”

It was no mean feat, killing the bugs. Starfire had been in a mildornia trance for an entire day with only a few novices to watch over him. Several times he had surfaced from the trance, gasping, “Not finished yet. Must go back.” He beaked more mildornia berries, and though he felt he was dying of thirst, he did not drink.

After the extermination, he had fallen over stiff as a board. The novices told him later that they had been frightened he had died. But he was not dead, and the bugs were gone. Until Charlie’s trance that ended with him struggling to say “bugs.”

I will run another Extermination Ritual,” Starfire said. “After I am sure they are gone, I will continue repairing the damage they have done. It is very time-consuming to search the Keeper’s memories for the Patua’ data, and then to extract it and patch the holes the bugs made. Sometimes I don’t find what I need very quickly, and the Keepers have to stay under longer.”

And is that dangerous?” Hookbeak asked.

Starfire looked deep into his friend’s opaque black eyes. Does he know? “Not usually. Some do not tolerate such high doses of mildornia berries, it is true. But it is the only way I know to patch the holes.”

He had screened the Keepers well, he had thought, experimenting with dosages of mildornia berries to filter out the Keepers for whom the deep trance might be fatal. How did Beatrice get through the screening? He had been grievously shocked when the young Keeper had fallen over stiff and dead as a doornail right at his feet. Before he had even searched her memories. Such a tragic loss.

The lawnmower droned nearby, like a giant cricket in the grass declaring the summertime temperature. “There are risks to the trance,” Hookbeak said, eyeing the mower and its two riders. “We know that.” He turned back to Starfire, his black eyes blazing in anger. “But to break into a corvid’s private memory, Starfire? That is akin to stealing, is it not? I am quite uncomfortable with that scenario. This is a serious covenant you have broken.”

Starfire sunk his head into a wing and pretended to scratch a sudden itch. How did the Aviar know he had wandered without permission through the Keeper’s memories? The Keepers themselves did not know. It was true he had been warned. Severely warned. And he agreed it was a sacred trust he had violated, an unequivocal promise to the Keepers that their personal memories would be left private while their minds were open and unprotected.

Starfire had neutralized his guilt by continually reminding himself that what he had found was worth his minor rule bending. Besides, while he was only fixing holes in the archival lattice, he had found a few more Orbs of the Patua’.

I am certain that the Keepers would all give permission for the searches,” Starfire said, “but it is so very cumbersome and time-consuming to get it.”

Yes, that is true, Starfire. The Council founders deliberately made it difficult to obtain such permission—to prevent such violations as this one. I insist that you follow protocol.”

I do not have the time!” Starfire protested vehemently. “There are much greater issues I am attending to.”

What could be a greater issue for the Chief Archivist than keeping the Keepers of the Archival Lattice in good health?” Hookbeak asked. “That is, alive.”

You do not understand!” Starfire said. He hopped back and forth between two branches, grasping one for a few seconds before leaping back to the other. “We are running out of mildornia berries. Even before the bugs ate our data, I had none to spare.”

Hookbeak blinked a few times and said, “What has that got to do with these invasions of yours, other than you’re using large amounts of berries and killing your Keepers?”

Starfire stopped, gripping a branch tightly and glaring at Hookbeak. He tried to control the angry impatience that surged upward from his breast. Calm yourself, raven. Anger kills reason. He focused on the sound of the lawnmower as it traversed back and forth across the cemetery. He tried to visualize the pattern the mower always left in the grass and the smorgasbord of delectable dinner entrees.

Quite by accident,” Starfire said after composing himself, “during my searches, I have finally discovered the legendary Orbs of the Patua’.”

The Orbs of the Patua’?” Hookbeak said. “And these orbs—what relation do they bear upon your sacred oath?”

Starfire told the Aviar about the orb Jayzu found under Bruthamax’s bones, describing in great detail the skilled craftsmanship of some unknown ancient Patua’. “And much to my surprise, another orb has turned up, nearly identical to Bruthamax’s. Right in Ledford.”

The lawnmower invaded the space in which Starfire’s tupelo tree grew, capturing the attention of both ravens. A crow perched on the gas tank in front of the mower, while the operator steered it deftly around trees and tombstones. The noise was loud enough to prevent conversation, and the two ravens perched quietly until the mower moved on.

And theses searches have revealed another potential Patua’,” Starfire said, when the noise had diminished somewhat “of whom we knew nothing.”

Hookbeak rose up on his thick legs and stretched, flapping his wings a few times before folding them back at his sides. His legs hurt. So did his wings. The lawnmower came into the small clearing underneath them. “Is the gardener Patua’?”

No,” Starfire said, “and he’s deaf as a post. Julie just likes to ride the mower with him. She said she likes the smell of fresh-cut grass.”

And what do you think they are?” Hookbeak asked. “These orbs you risk so much for?”

Seed pods,” Starfire said without hesitation. “Mildornia seed pods!” A gust of wind blew through the branches, revealing the white ruff around his neck.

Hookbeak refolded his wings and said, “And how did you come to that conclusion? Have you broken one open? Were there mildornia seeds inside?”

No,” Starfire said. “I personally have never actually seen one of these orbs. But my hunch is that—”

Your hunch?” Hookbeak shook his head in wonder. “You are risking lives for seeds? For ‘potential’ Patua’? My friend, what has happened to you?”

You don’t understand!” Starfire said impatiently. “We need mildornia berries!”

I do understand that,” the Aviar said calmly. “I know that the seeds are required for the trances. You have told me that more than once. And that the mildornia bushes used to thrive everywhere. And the last known bush, a hermaphrodite, grows on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

A sense of profound weariness permeated his being. Suddenly life seemed severely complicated. Ah, my Rosie, I shall leave all this soon and come join you, my love. “I am trying to understand,” Hookbeak continued, “why you have violated the sacred trust between the Council and the Keepers.”

Starfire did not speak for a few moments. Hookbeak had watched his friend struggle with his passionate ambitions their entire adult lives. But never had he transgressed from the ethical boundaries set by the Council.

Where is your conscience, Starfire?” he asked quietly. “You cannot continue this invasion of the Keepers’ memories for any reason, no matter how lofty it seems. It is simply wrong, even if we are in desperate need of these seeds. Or discovering more Patua’. The Council will not sanction this.”

Starfire shook his head as he strode back and forth on the branch. “The Council is myopic, Aviar! Can you not see what is at stake here? Our entire database, our entire history, our entire genealogy since the days of First Crow and First Raven will be lost—to say nothing of the Patua’ data. For the love of the Egg, Hookbeak, these are perilous times! We cannot afford to adhere to ideology when our very survival is at stake.”

Do not think that I am unaware, Starfire,” Hookbeak growled, “of what is at stake here. Am I not Aviar? It is my business to be aware, as I must make you aware of the dangerous winds you are flying in. Have you no regard for your Keepers?”

I am careful,” Starfire said sullenly.

Not careful enough,” Hookbeak said. He had been sorely disappointed in his friend, not so much that his experiment had been fatal to young Beatrice. But why did he cover it up? Why did he not come tell me? Have I not been his loyal friend all these years?

There is no proof!” Starfire protested. “Even the Emplacement Ritual is sometimes fatal.”

And you refuse any remorse for the death of this innocent Keeper?” Hookbeak hopped onto the branch near Starfire. “I cannot continue to shelter you, Starfire, or your activities. One more mishap among the Keepers,” he said, putting his beak into the other raven’s face, “and I am going to blow the lid off this. Do I need to explain what will happen in that event?”

Starfire stepped backward under the Aviar’s pressure but did not reply.

The Council will strip you of your position as Chief Archivist,” Hookbeak said, stepping toward Starfire and bearing down on him. “And your name will be blackened forever.”

Starfire growled and flapped his wings. The Aviar backed off, and the two ravens stood eye-to-eye, searing the air between them with the charged particles of their anger. The leaves on all the branches of the tupelo tree suddenly rattled and quivered.

Hookbeak broke his stance first, shaking his head. “Have you gone mad, my friend?” he said quietly. “Too many mildornia trances, perhaps?”

And if the database goes down,” Starfire said, as their tempers cooled, “what will it matter if I have a good or bad name? Aviar, please, I beseech you, hear me! I do not know how else to save our database. At the small expense of my position in the archives, and even my good name among the corvid, I am willing to make this sacrifice.”

Did you ask the Keepers if they were willing to sacrifice their lives to your vanity before you volunteered them?” Hookbeak asked.

This is not my vanity, Aviar,” Starfire growled. “There is much at stake here, the preservation of all of our knowledge, history, and genealogy. Which is the more valuable? The rights of the individual Keeper to maintain memory privacy, or the rights of the entire corvid species for the past seventeen or so million years?”

You call upon the dead?” Hookbeak asked incredulously, “to defend this mind invasion of yours? What rights do the dead have?”

They have the right to be remembered,” Starfire said. “Is not that why we ever constructed the archival lattice in the first place? To keep track of ourselves? Shall we allow millions of lives to be lost to this stubborn obedience to principles?”

Shall we lose our moral compass over a database?” Hookbeak flapped his wings several times.

 

Charlie left Charlotte’s windowsill at Rosencranz after their morning visit and flew across the river, across the university campus to Starfire’s tree in the old Woodmen’s Cemetery. Hookbeak was there with him, and the two old ravens seemed to be deep in a heated discussion—an argument from the looks of it. Starfire seems angry! I wonder what they are arguing about?

Charlie flew once around the tupelo tree, but as he started back toward Cadeña-l’jadia, Starfire called out, “Yo, Charlie!”

He turned around and sailed into the tree, settling on a branch near the two ravens. “Grawky! I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important.”

The two ravens looked at each other briefly. “Nothing that we have not been endlessly discussing,” Hookbeak said wearily. “Grawky, Charlie.”

Indeed,” Starfire said. “Perhaps we should thank you for the interruption. Otherwise the two of us could grow old and stiff and keel over right here in this tree, without solving a thing.”

The two ravens looked at each other gravely for a moment, then cackled with laughter as they flapped their wings. Once they settled back down, Charlie told them what he had learned from Floyd and Willy. “And they said Henry Braun plans to land a helicopter on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

That would be the only way he could get there,” Starfire said. “The river would never let him near.”

Charlie nodded. “Jayzu and his friends are fighting him, but he has many orbs and is very powerful.”

Starfire said, “That man is a menace, the very antithesis of the Patua’. We cannot allow him to gain control of Cadeña-l’jadia. We must stop him.”

But how?” Charlie asked. “We are just birds. Not even the humans seem to be able to stop him.”

We are small,” Hookbeak said, “each of us. But together we form a multitude. Tomorrow we shall assemble the Great Corvid Council. We shall take a stand on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

 

The Great Corvid convened on the roof of the hermit’s chapel as the mid-afternoon shadows began to lengthen. Many more crows and ravens than councilors attended, and they perched all around—in the trees, the garden, and all over the marvelously rusty, sparkly contraption Jayzu had planted next to the pond.

Greetings, Councilors!” the Aviar spoke from the apex of the chapel roof. “Greetings, corvids! Greetings, all birds of all feathers!” He turned slowly all the way around, his great wings unfurled as if to include everyone. “Thank you for flying in on such short notice. We face a grave threat.”

We?” Wingnut asked.

Charlie heard a wave of murmuring propagate through the trees all around him. “Who is that?” “That’s Wingnut. He thinks he’s going to be Aviar one day!”

Yes, we,” Hookbeak’s voice rumbled. “We do not exist independently of the human sphere.”

Wingnut folded his wings in displeasure but settled back on his branch. Charlie was glad he backed down. There was no time to argue.

We must open our eyes to the uncomfortable truth,” Hookbeak continued. “The events in the human world over the last century or two have encroached upon our otherwise idyllic existence, and we can no longer bury our heads under our wings and ignore the problem. We are losing our forests, our rivers, and streams to the inexorable march of human civilization across the landscape.”

Hookbeak signaled Charlie to take the high perch next to him. “Tell all our corvid brethren of the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said as the crow landed.

Charlie stood up as tall as he could, opened his wings, and called out as loudly: “Cadeña-l’jadia is under siege as we speak. There is a plan afoot by the human, Henry Braun, to remove its forests and birds, and replace them with a human-built landscape of concrete and buildings.”

Many of the birds gasped, and Fishgut called out, “Henry Braun?” The raven rose up on his roof branch near Charlie and shouted, “Henry Braun? You mean the Bunya? Have we such short memories, my corvids?” He unfolded his wings. “Is he not the same bunya who shaved the northern forests to nubbins?”

The birds snickered at the slur. “Bunya” meant “meat so rotten even a corvid would not eat it.”

Then he built the fish-canning factory,” Fishgut said, “and the place now reeks of rotting fish. While I feed off the largesse of the Cannery, it is too much, and the landscape is spoiled. And it stinks. I would much prefer that the forest, my ancestral territory, had remained.”

The older birds in the surrounding tree shouted angry epithets against the Bunya, recalling the destruction. The councilors maintained a slightly greater decorum, with only a few disapproving hisses.

It was the Bunya’s ancestor,” Starfire spoke out, “who tore the forests down for the Cannery. The living Henry Braun, known among some of us as the Bunya, plans the same fate for our Cadeña-l’jadia.”

First Henry Bunya will purchase the island,” Charlie continued, “and turn it into an amusement park for humans.”

Purchase?” asked Mikey. “As in purchase the branch?” He looked down at his feet.

I thought he said purchase the island,” Restarea said, blinking in confusion.

Purchase? What is purchase?” O’Malley asked.

Let us examine the word ‘purchase,’” said Athanasius. “Purchase is derived from the Middle English purchacen, or as the Anglo-French would have said, purchaser. To purchase means to get a better grip on an object, as in ‘grasp the branch with both claws for more purchase.’”

Oh, that branch,” Restarea said, nodding.

What about the island?” Joshwa asked. “I thought we were talking about an island.”

Walldrug said, “I thought purchase means, essentially, to own. In which case, I must ask: can anyone own that which he cannot carry off?”

Hookbeak motioned Charlie to continue. “Do not get sidetracked into these philosophical gopher holes, Charlie. Tell them about the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Charlie nodded gratefully. He remembered when the Council first met Jayzu. It’s a wonder they can get anything said and done. He hoped he was never called upon to be a councilor. “Henry the Bunya,” he addressed the Council again, “has millions of orbs that he wants to give the humans in the city in exchange for the island. That’s what I meant when I said he wants to purchase it.”

Taken aback, many birds spoke at once: “Exchange orbs for the island?” “I cannot imagine!” “That is what purchase means?” “Millions of orbs!” “How many is a million?” “Imagine how big the nest would be to hold a million orbs!”

What would anyone do with that many orbs?” Ziggy asked.

Buy an island?” Joshwa said.

The councilors laughed raucously, including the Aviar.

Seriously,” Starfire said when the laughter had died down, “even among humans, ownership is a fairly abstract concept. But if anyone owns Cadeña-l’jadia, it is Charlie. His family has lived there since before there were any humans at all in this part of the world. Even humans regard that sometimes as legal ownership.”

However,” Wingnut said, “humans do not consider that any other species has ownership over any fraction of the entire earth’s surface.”

True enough,” Hookbeak said. “But let us not exhaust ourselves trying to understand the human concepts of ownership. Let us return to the subject for which have convened. We all know that forest destruction hits us birds first, if not hardest. Remember when the Boonies were out in the middle of nowhere, Walldrug?”

How could I forget?” the raven councilor cried out. “I watched my entire ancestral homeland devoured. Thousands of trees were shaved off the land to build a gigantic parking lot and a corn chip factory. Where there were trees, there is now only burning asphalt. They killed it all.”

The birds in the trees surrounding the chapel had grown quiet. He knew some of the crows ate regularly at the corn chip factory. Can we rise above our stomachs?

And Cadeña-l’jadia is next,” the Aviar said, “unless we band together and stop the destruction. This is our sacred land, if not for the hundreds of corvid generations born here, but this was the home of the great Bruthamax, may his spirit forever walk this lonely isle. And Jayzu. Let us not forget Jayzu.”

All of the birds within earshot of Hookbeak showed their approval by screeching and flapping their wings. Some called out, “Long live Jayzu!” “Bruthamax forever!” “Bruthamax will never die!”

We have no more time,” Hookbeak’s strong voice cut through the noise. “We have waited long enough for the humans to come to their senses. We must stop talking and act. If we are going to prevent the Bunya’s destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia, we must be proactive. We must act.”

And do what?” Wingnut asked. “Throw ourselves in front of the saws?”

Hookbeak said. “Saws?” He shook his head. “I was thinking we throw ourselves in front of the humans.”

The councilors blinked in confusion and asked each other “What is he talking about?” “Is he serious?” “Throw ourselves in front of humans?”

Follow me!” Hookbeak’s voice rose above the private conversations, calling out to all the birds on the roof of the chapel as well as in the trees. He flapped his wings, lifting his great body above the trees. “Let us say no to the Bunya! A million birds taking a stand! We must all fly out and spread the word, starting today, to all birds in the land. We shall invite them all to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia. This land is ours. Now fly! Spread the word!”

Hookbeak led the way as he flew off shouting, “Calling all birds! All birds of all feathers! Picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Good eats! Take a stand against forest destruction! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

 

The councilors, Charlie, and a host of corvid volunteers flew far and wide, and they spoke to many birds across the land. Charlie sent off all the young crows on Cadeña-l’jadia to engage the birds beyond the timber mills, all the way to the northern border. He sent his sons JohnHenry and Edgar to carry the message Downtown, and to the Waterfront. More crows flew out across the river to the university, to the woods behind Russ and Jade’s house. The airport ravens carried the word to the surrounding towns and countryside.

As the corvids spread the word, other birds heard the call and carried it into the wind for miles and miles around Cadeña-l’jadia. “Come ye! All birds of beak and feather, come to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

Beak to beak, the word spread as the corvids raised the alarm from the cemetery to the timber mills, out east to the plains beyond Ledford, to the south all the way to MacKenzie. “Come all ye birds of all feathers! Join us and all our winged brethren for the Million Bird Stand on Cadeña-l’jadia!”

In a matter of one day, scores of birds over many hundreds of square miles took to the skies and headed to Cadeña-l’jadia. They arrived in multitudes, landing in trees, on the shorelines, and in the meadows, calling out, “Small alone, mighty together!”

The new bird sanctuary was jammed with birds, from the cliffs to the riverbanks. The sudden influx of such an enormous number of birds attracted the attention of the city as birds arrived continuously, hundreds and hundreds every hour. They assumed a swirling flight pattern above the treetops of the island as they searched for places to perch, stand, wade, or sit. The noise generated by many birds produced a low-decibel buzz that did not abate until nightfall, when the birds settled down in their roosts to sleep.

A reporter from the Sentinel ambushed Alfredo as he left his office in the Biology Department at the university. “Dr. Manzi,” the reporter asked, “how do you explain the sudden arrival on Wilder Island of so many birds? Has your bird sanctuary become a nuisance, attracting too many of our avian friends?”

A nuisance for whom?” Alfredo answered. “If you are asking is this odd, I would say it is very odd that so many birds of different species would suddenly show up in the same place. It is hard to know what to make of it, but I’m sure we will all find out soon enough.” He smiled, edged past the reporter, and left the building whistling a popular tune from 1960s, a song about a blackbird.

www.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515

Corvus Rising – Chapter 16

 

Unmentionables

 

Russ awoke suddenly to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Jade gently snored beside him in the dark room. He raised his head and looked at the clock on the bedside table. It’s freaking four in the morning. Who the hell is it? He got out of bed, grabbing his cell phone as he shoved his arms into his robe. He tripped over his slippers and stumbled into the wall.

Jade woke up and said, “What is it, honey?”

Someone rang the doorbell. It’s probably some neighborhood prankster, but I’m going to check it out.” He left the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.

Oh, Jesus!” he said, as he opened the door to flames on the porch. He quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen and sprayed the small fire till it went out. He shoved the cinders with his foot—a few pieces of painted canvas and burned fragments of the frame. “Sonofabitch!” he said angrily. “Who would do this?” He took his cell phone from his pocket. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” the voice on the phone said.

Someone started a fire on my front porch.”

Jade appeared in the doorway. She gasped and pointed to the blackened mess on the porch, crying out in wordless anguish at the smoldering ruins of The Wilder Side, the painting she had donated to the silent auction.

The cops are on their way,” Russ said, taking her into his arms.

She shook her head and leaned against him. He walked her to her studio and put her gently in the armchair. Willow B jumped into her lap. “I’ll take care of everything, honey. You just hang out in here, okay?”

 

The police officers left just as the treetops glowed with the first light of morning. Russ opened the door to the studio and said, “Well, that’s that, for whatever it’s worth. They pretty much said there’s no chance they’ll ever find out who did this.” He squatted next to her chair and took her hand. “You going to be all right, hon?”

She nodded and smiled weakly as he kissed her hand. “We have a breakfast date with Sam, Kate, and Alfredo this morning,” he said. “Remember? Are you all right to go? We can postpone it if you aren’t up to it. I know they’ll understand.”

Jade shook her head. “No,” she said through a sigh. “Let’s go. I don’t really want to be here right now.”

 

They met the other Friends of Wilder Island at a popular twenty-four-hour eating establishment near the university, the Komodo Dragon. “You know the students call this place The Commode,” Russ said to Alfredo as they slid into a huge booth upholstered in red lizard skin.

How very appetizing!” Alfredo said, chuckling.

A stuffed Komodo dragon hanging from the ceiling stared down at Jade. Grotesquely comical, the gigantic lizard swayed gently on its ropes, a giant claw raised in a friendly greeting, and his long tongue frozen in a permanent licking gesture. One eyeball glared down at Jade, and she squirmed under its unblinking scrutiny.

After ordering breakfast, Alfredo, Kate, and Sam listened in shock as Russ told them about the fire on their porch.

Oh, no!” Kate said, shaking her head. “Not Wilder Side!”

What kind of low-life bastard would do something like that?” Sam said. “I’d like to beat the crap out of him.” He balled up a fist and punched his other palm. He shook his head a few times and blew hard through his teeth. “I just can’t stomach it.”

I am distraught, Jade, that someone could destroy such a beautiful piece of art,” Alfredo said. “There is much evil in the world.”

The same evil that wants to destroy Wilder Island,” Jade said.

Alfredo nodded. “It is indeed, Jade. Our only hope is to stand together against it.”

They held each other’s glance for a few moments. Why is Alfredo looking at me like that? Ever since the night of her reception, whenever their eyes met, he wore the strangest expression. Like he’s seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I have mascara all over my nose.

I am amazed at you, Jade.” Alfredo smiled, and his expression changed to kind concern. “You are so composed after such a horrific attack.”

You didn’t see me when Russ opened the door,” Jade said with a smile as she rubbed her nose. “I try not to think about how hateful it was.” Russ put his arm around her as she choked up. She drew in a deep breath and sat up straight. “But I’ll paint another. I’ll paint a hundred more. I will not be beaten.”

Her friends burst into applause. Jade blushed deeply, but she kept her head up and smiled.

Well, whoever did it,” Sam said, “paid a lot of money to destroy it. Out of the $18,750.00 we made from the silent auction, Jade’s painting brought us $5,500.00.”

Jade gasped. Her hand flew up to her face to cover her open mouth.

Russ asked, “Who bought it?”

Someone named Gabrielle,” Sam answered.

Jade noticed Alfredo’s head turn suddenly toward Sam. Does he know her?

Gabrielle who?” asked Kate.

Just Gabrielle,” Sam said. “She didn’t leave a last name.”

Gabrielle,” Jade said. “I’ve met her. Short, thin, black hair wound up in a bun. Fifty, maybe sixty?”

That’s her,” Sam said with a nod. “Real nice lady. I asked her if she wanted to be on our mailing list, and she said no, she’d keep up with us in the news.”

She bought two paintings at my art show,” Jade said. Catching the Wind and Leave Me.

Well, she’s obviously your biggest fan, then,” Russ said. “You should send her a Christmas card.”

If I knew where she lived, I would,” Jade said. “She’s evidently the gallery’s best customer, but even Jenna doesn’t know who Gabrielle really is.”

Alfredo’s eyes dropped to the table in front of him, and Jade watched him frown. He knows who Gabrielle is. A church person, maybe?

Did you look at her check?” Kate asked.

She paid in cash,” said Sam
“Jenna said she always pays cash. And doesn’t want to be on the gallery mailing list either.” Jade said

Cash?” Russ raised his eyebrows. “Who goes around with almost six grand in their pocket?”

The waiter set a large tray loaded with their breakfast on an adjacent table. In rapid succession, he pulled each plate off and put it down in front of the appropriate recipient.

Jade looked up at the Komodo dragon, which stared balefully down at all the food on the table. The poor thing looks hungry. She was tempted to offer it a bite, until she thought she saw a small drop of saliva fall from its leathery lip.

Gabrielle! Alfredo felt his stomach turn over when he heard her name. He saw the whole scenario at once. aka Mrs. Henry Braun, bought Jade’s painting at the auction. Henry had it destroyed. Or more likely, one of his hired thugs did.

Surely,” Kate said, mopping up the egg yolk on her plate with her toast, “Gabrielle didn’t take the painting away herself? Was she alone? Who picked it up? Where’d the painting get delivered to?”

I should have returned her calls. The secretary at St. Sophia’s had forwarded several phone messages to Alfredo from Mrs Braun yesterday. But he had not answered. He tried to tell himself that he had not had time to call her, but the truth was, he felt that she had developed a fondness for him that made him uncomfortable.

Could I have prevented this destruction of Jade’s paintings had I called her back? Fear jabbed through his guilt. Has Henry harmed her too?

No,” Sam said. “She said a workman would come after it and take it to the library. She wanted it hung next to the Murder of Crows photo.”

That would have been the perfect place,” Alfredo said ruefully. “How very generous of her.” In contrast to her husband’s destructive greed.

Who came and got it?” Jade asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. Some guy picked it up Sunday night when we were taking everything down. He had the receipt, so we let him take it.”

The waiter cleared the table and refilled everyone’s coffee cups. He put the check on the table, and Kate pushed it toward Jade. “I believe you’re the treasurer for the trust?”

Does that mean I have to pay for breakfast?” Jade asked in cautious fear. “When does my term end? Can I resign right now?”

Kate laughed, as did the others. “No, you may not resign! No—seriously, Jade, the treasurer pays the bills. Your first act is to order up some checks. I’ll put this on my credit card, and you can reimburse me from the funds in the land trust.”

We have funds?” Jade asked with a grimace.

Uh, yeah,” Russ said. “We sold a few more things at the art auction—your painting and about ten grand more for a few other odds and ends. Remember?”

Jade slapped her forehead and giggled. “Sorry! I’m a dope.”

She’s certainly not a dope. Again, she reminded Alfredo so much of Charlotte, a vast innocence perhaps. Her mind freely wanders like her mother’s. Russ seems to keep her feet on the ground, though.

Sam,” Kate said, “tell everyone how much the Beg-a-thon brought us!” To Jade she said: “You’ll be taking over future reports from the Treasury.”
Jade’s eyes widened in horror. “Why me? I can’t balance my own checkbook!”
“‘Bout time you learned!” Kate said. “But not now. Sam?”

We pulled in almost a million and a half bucks,” Sam said. “Mostly twenty-dollar shares.” He took a small piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and read: “We also sold eleven shares at the hundred-dollar price, six at the thousand-dollar level, and one at the ten thousand.” He looked up with a grin.

Russ whistled.

Alfredo said, “Bravo!” clapping his hands.

Really?” Jade asked. “We got that much from the people of Ledford?”

Well, I haven’t gone through the names and addresses yet,” Sam said. “But I think they’re all from the Ledford area.”

Kate pulled a calculator from her purse and said, “The population of metropolitan Ledford is one point two million. At twenty bucks a pop—”

That’s seventy-five thousand people,” Russ said, frowning. “Not exactly a large segment of the voting public.”

Five percent,” Kate said, snapping her calculator shut.

That’s it?” Jade asked. “Just 5 percent gave that much?”

Yep,” Kate said. “And we’ve only just begun!”

Alfredo was impressed too. That means there is more to be had from the people of the city. And then his own words haunted him: “I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check.”

What are we offering the people of Ledford? A wilderness they will never see up close? He shrugged.

A necessary evil, it seems.

 

The five friends said good-bye to one another on the sidewalk outside The Commode. Sam jumped into his flesh-colored pickup. Screeching his tires, he peeled out.

Boys!” Kate shook her head at his taillights. “Need a ride to the docks, Padre?”

They walked a few blocks to her car, and she unlocked his door. “I found out some things about your friend in Rosencranz.” She pulled out of the parking lot. “As in why she was sent there in the first place.” She turned onto University Boulevard. “And I found out her real name.”

Alfredo stared at her, and adrenaline shot him up with jittery fear. “It is not Charlotte Steele?”

Charlotte is her real first name,” Kate said. “Her full name is Charlotte Estelle Majewski.”

Stella? Alfredo sat in stunned silence. Stella? He shook his head. No, it cannot be. It is a coincidence.

Majewski’s a pretty common name,” Kate said. She stopped at a red light and turned to Alfredo. “Tell me, is she related to Majewski?”

Alfredo shook his head dumbly. “I honestly do not know.” What are you, a lawyer? He mocked himself. Charlotte Steele. Charlotte Estelle. You know who she is—Majewski’s sister. He looked out the window at Wilder Island, green and beautiful, wishing he could vanish forever into its mists and shadows.

Well,” Kate continued, “it would certainly be easier if Majewski was her brother. If he is, he can get her out.”

Alfredo did not answer. Majewski is Charlotte’s brother. His mind reeled with the consequences of these facts. Majewski cares a great deal about his sister. Will you hide this information from him, knowing his anguish over her?

But neither he nor his family ever visits,” he said angrily, dismissing his own thoughts, as well as the compassion he had felt for his friend Thomas. He could have tried to find her. “No one does but me.”

Well, anyway,” Kate said, “Mr. Majewski died in 90s,  after which the family lawyer set up a permanent trust fund with Rosencranz as the beneficiary, for Charlotte’s upkeep until she dies.”

Alfredo felt as if he had been stabbed in the heart. Until she dies? He heard Charlotte’s voice in his memory. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu.”

They do not care about her!” Alfredo said tersely. “They changed her name and pretend they do not know her! Why can I not become her legal guardian?”

Kate turned into the parking lot at the Boat Landing. After she parked and cut the engine off, she turned to Alfredo and said firmly, “Majewski is probably her legal guardian, Alfredo. There is no way around that. Why not just ask him to get her out?”

No!” Alfredo said harshly, and then he quickly apologized. “Forgive me, Kate. I do not know what came over me.” He looked across the river at the island. Why not tell Majewski? Kate is right … if Charlotte is his sister, he could get her released from Rosencranz.

Why not?” Kate asked again. “Seems to me that would be the easiest way.”

Without looking at her, Alfredo shook his head.

What is it?” Kate asked. “What are you afraid of?”

What would he do with her?” Alfredo asked. “He does not speak the crow language.”

I see,” Kate said, nodding. “You want to bring her to the island.” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel for a few moments before turning to Alfredo and looking at him with a calm and reserved expression on her face.

Suddenly she shouted, “Are you nuts?”

 

Alfredo sat at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel, recalling how Kate had nearly flayed him alive with words. “You can’t bring an inmate from a mental hospital to the island!” she had said. “It’s a freaking primitive wilderness, remember? That’s what we’ve been fighting for! For God’s sake, Alfredo! Where would she live? Don’t tell me in your cottage!”

After he denied such intent, or at least claiming he had not gotten that far with his plans, she had backed down somewhat. “Good. Don’t even think about it,” she had said. “Find somewhere else for her. But don’t tell me, okay?”

But where could he take her that would be any different than Rosencranz?

Charlie flapped to a landing on the driftwood log next to him, interrupting his thoughts. He smiled at his friend and lifted a hand in greeting.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said, brushing a wing across Alfredo’s hand. He folded his wings and scraped his beak back and forth across the log several times. “What’s up, man? You look a little down in the dumps, as they say.”

Charlie,” Alfredo said, “in less than two weeks, Rosencranz is moving all their patients upstate. We must get Charlotte out of there before they move her. I must break a few laws to do that, and I risk jail if I am caught. But if I do not get Charlotte out of there, I am afraid she will be a prisoner at Rosencranz forever. My heart tells me one thing, my rational mind another.”

He picked up a stick from the ground and peeled away fronds of rotten bark. “I am an alleged man of God, I beg him for guidance. But for the splendor of nature, he does not speak to me. I do not know where to turn for answers.” He bent over and traced the outline of a crescent moon in the sand and erased it with his foot.

Deities can be spectacularly subtle,” Charlie said. “That’s been the corvid observation of human gods in general over the years.”

As well as spectacularly unhelpful,” Alfredo said as he drew the outline of the grounds of Rosencranz in the sand. “Sometimes God wants us to find our own way, I guess.”

Well, it might help if you ask a yes or no question,” Charlie said. “Then the deity could catch a bush on fire, which would be a yes answer I would think. However, silence could also be construed as consent, albeit far less dramatic.”

The Almighty has indeed forsaken me,” Alfredo said with a rueful laugh. “And in my own silent darkness, I must consider committing a crime that could imprison me and leave Charlotte in Rosencranz without anyone to visit her.” He drew a curved line in the sand. The driveway.

But is it not a crime to leave her there?” Charlie asked.

It is indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am on the horns of a dilemma.”

The Grandmothers have a proverb,” Charlie said. “The horns of all dilemmas grow from the head of the same beast.”

Alfredo laughed bitterly, remembering NoExit’s words: “Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma? When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”

The dilemma is indeed a beast,” he said with a sigh. “Obey the law and commit a crime. Disobey the law and commit a crime. Either way I am gored.”

He traced a circle in the sand. The gazebo.

We corvids have but one crime,” Charlie said. “That makes things a bit simpler.”

Alfredo traced two large rectangles near the gazebo. The building, the parking lot. He marked Charlotte’s tiny room with a rock. “One law? Just one?”

No stealing,” Charlie said. “That’s it, our one law. Though it constantly undergoes reinterpretation to fit the circumstance—that’s one of the Grandmother’s duties. It is very cumbersome, the Grandmother’s task, requiring both reason and compassion.”

It would be considered a form of stealing if I take her from there.” Alfredo sighed, sitting up straight. “But what would I do with her if I could? Where would I take her?”

There were some very kind folks at St. Sophia’s, he had reasoned many times. But they would not be any better at communicating with Charlotte. Chances are she would end up right back in Rosencranz.

I cannot house her in my cottage,” he said. “It is too small for two humans. And, it would be unseemly for a priest and a woman to co-habitate.” He heard Kate’s voice almost snarling at him, “Don’t even think about it!”

What about the Treehouse?” Charlie said. “You are nearby, more or less. And I would be there to look after her, and so would Rika. Charlotte would never be lonely again, nor suffer any lack of companions to talk to.”

Alfredo almost laughed out loud, imagining how Kate would take to that idea. “Perhaps I should live in the Treehouse. Charlotte would undoubtedly be more comfortable in my cottage, which has running water. It is more suited for a woman, I think.”

It is too exposed here, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “People would see her. And then they would talk. That could never be good for Charlotte, and perhaps people would try harder to come to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Alfredo nodded slowly as he pondered the crow’s words. He bent back down to the sand and drew a large rectangle around the building, the parking lot, and the gazebo. He added a small square, for the guardhouse. “It is true,” he said thoughtfully. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention to his crime. He placed small x’s all along the fence line. The concertina wire.

Word will get out very quickly that an inmate has escaped Rosencranz. We would not want people to see someone matching her description here on the island.” Oh, the rumors that would create!

Let’s bring her to the Treehouse,” Charlie said. “You could sleep on the deck for awhile, or underneath it, until she is accustomed to being away from Rosencranz. The three of us—you, me, and Rika—will teach her how to live there. Then you go home to your cottage, and Charlotte is safe from being seen. She would love living in the Treehouse. I know she would.”

Alfredo’s own happiest memories resided in a crude tree house that he had built himself. He had spent most of the daylight hours in the summer there, with his only friends, a few crows. “All right, Charlie,” he said. “Let me gather a few things. I reckon it will need a good cleaning, at least.”

Life in Bruthamax’s tree house with her old friend Charlie could not be worse than her life in Rosencranz. I can look after Charlotte until she can manage on her own.

 

Armed with candles, matches, and cleaning supplies, Alfredo followed Charlie to the Treehouse. He slogged through the bogs and fens below the Boulders, trying to recognize where a different texture of leaf and shade of green heralded solid ground. Though he had been to the Treehouse many times, he still could not find his way on his own. He had only recently discovered that Charlie had never taken him the same way twice.

Duck weed,” Charlie called down from above after he stepped into a hip-deep hole full of tea-colored water.

Oh, crap!” he swore, pulling himself out. He kept a closer eye on Charlie after that. Though he had a few close calls, he arrived at the Treehouse without further mishap.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Rika said, as he stepped onto the deck of the tree house. “Nice to see you again, dearie.”

Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, brushing his fingertips against her outstretched wing. “It has been a while—since just after I got to Cadeña-l’jadia. I thought I should tidy things up a bit, in case we bring Charlotte here. And I need to check out what is here in the way of kitchenware—you know, pots and pans, dishes and such?

Well, dearie,” Rika said, “you’ll be bringing some comforts for the lady, I reckon. A tea kettle, for sure. And a nice cup. And maybe a bowl. I reckon Bruthamax ate right out of the pot he cooked in. That will never do for a lady.” Although crow beaks cannot be wrinkled up in distaste the way in which the human nose can, her tone clearly expressed that image.

Yes,” Alfredo said, laughing. “I am sure you are right. Human males, when left on their own, can be quite, how shall I say—primitive—with respect to the aesthetics of the lady’s house. We priests are no different, I suspect.”

Nor are the corvid,” Rika said. “It’s the females that keep the nest tidy.”

Rika had told Alfredo about her early adulthood in companionship with a genteel Patua’ lady in the wealthy Victorian Heights neighborhood of Downtown Ledford. “Oh, I miss her, Jayzu! How we used to sip tea together.”

Well, perhaps one day you and Charlotte can drink tea together on the deck.”

Curtains,” Rika said, aiming a wing at the window. “She’ll need curtains, Jayzu. A lady likes her privacy, you know. And a rocking chair—a lady needs a rocking chair. And you must bring a stove, a cast-iron one. A lady can cook and keep herself warm with a cast-iron stove.”

Rika!” Alfredo said, laughing. “How will I haul a cast-iron stove here? They are quite heavy! I am not a muscle man!”

Oh, pshaw!” Rika said, pushing at Alfredo with her wing. “Bring a small one, dearie! My lady’s doorman took one up to her upstairs apartment with nothing but his two hands.”

Alfredo turned to the little cabin, jerked the door open and went inside. He took the bench and table out to the deck, but the box-bed could not be moved. “Bruthamax must have built the wall around it,” he said. “That takes some planning!”

Several pots and pans sat on the shelf on the wall above the table, among them a cast-iron frying pan. When he grabbed the handle and slid it off the shelf, a folded piece of paper dropped to the floor. He picked it up, hoping it was part of Bruthamax’s journal, and took it outside. He unfolded the paper; the disciplined penmanship bore no resemblance to Bruthamax’s scrawl.

 

October 31, 1898

My Dear Nephew-

It is with great delight that I read your letters, which make me laugh and wish I could live in such paradise! I am grateful to the Good Lord that you remain in good health and spirits.

I received the manuscript. Thank you again for your work on behalf of the project. Without your efforts, and a handful of others, much knowledge would otherwise be lost.

May God bless you, and the Hozey family,

-Antoni

A manuscript?

Alfredo’s reread the letter, shaking his head in amazement. He stared into his thoughts for a few moments before folding it and putting it in his shirt pocket. I cannot wait to call Thomas!

He swept and scrubbed the Treehouse floor, bed, and shelves. Not a square inch of the interior had been left untouched. Such had been Rika’s instructions, and not until he had scrubbed the bench and table would she allow him to put them back inside. All the while he cleaned, Alfredo could not get Antoni de la Torre’s letter or its contents off his mind. Did Bruthamax’s uncle, the Provincial Father Superior Antoni la Torre ever visit him here the island? Was he himself Patua’? It would explain a few things.

 

 

After the cleaning of the Treehouse was complete, Alfredo packed his cleaning equipment and sat down on the deck. “Now, Jayzu, dearie,” Rika said, joining him on the bench, “have you thought about Charlotte’s wardrobe? She’ll need clothing, you know.”

Charlotte’s Rosencranz garb seemed the perfect attire for the island and Treehouse, but she would only be coming with the clothes on her back. He had not given it a thought, actually, what she would otherwise need, living in a tree house in the middle of a wilderness forest.

Perhaps you will help me, Rika,” he said, feeling like a deer in the headlights. “I know nothing of women’s clothing.”

Indeed,” Rika said, nodding. “Indeed. We’ll make a list, Jayzu, you and I. Levis and sweaters should do. And shoes, and stockings. A nightie. And of course, unmentionables.”

Unmentionables?” Alfredo asked with raised eyebrows. “I am sure I do not know what that means, Rika.”

The crow gave Alfredo a curious look and said, “Undies, dearie. You know, things that go underneath the outer clothing—underpants, a brassiere, garter belt—well I’m sure she won’t be needing one of those!” Rika tittered behind her wing.

Alfredo blushed to his ear tips. The underneath of Charlotte’s outer clothing. Unmentionables. It had been decades since he had lived with females. An image of his grandmother’s enormous brassiere arose in his memory. He had taken it from the clothesline outside and was punished when his mother caught him firing melons over the fence with it.

But Charlotte was not shaped at all like his grandmother. She was thin and willowy and her breasts were not at all like melons. More like peaches. The thought of the body that lay underneath Charlotte’s Rosencranz coveralls stirred regions of his body that had been asleep for decades.

Uh, yes, unmentionables. I will give the list to one of the women parishioners at St. Sophia, to put together some clothes, including unmentionables.”

He spent days at a time preparing the Treehouse for Charlotte, and sleeping on the deck. There was much work to do and little time. He refurbished the ramshackle outhouse Bruthamax had built downstream from the Treehouse, installing a new wooden toilet seat and a small box to hold paper.

The cistern was full, underneath the new wooden cover he had made weeks before. After he installed a piston pump that operated off an RV battery in the tree house, he filled the ten-gallon ceramic water crock he had packed in and hauled up to the Treehouse. One day I will bring my lady a sink. And a bathtub.

He dragged a bale of hay up to the deck and stuffed all the holes between the branches and vines that formed the roof of the cabin. as well as the cracks between the tree trunks of the walls. He plastered the entire interior except the wood floor, using a mixture of clay and gypsum plaster he brought in from Ledford on the Captain’s boat. “It is good the Treehouse is small,” he said one exhausted evening to Rika and Charlie.

But the job was done. Everything was ready for Charlotte.

 

Father Provincial Thomas Majewski stared out his office window. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in paradise, and now I am in hell. My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Snowbell had abandoned him in her near coma on a pillow next to the fireplace.

The gray sky oppressed him. The rainy day oppressed him. Washington DC oppressed him. His job oppressed him. He daydreamed about the island, with himself as its lone inhabitant wandering its dark forests that hid astonishing secrets like talking birds and extinct magical plants. At night, he dreamed of Stella’s restless spirit haunting the labyrinths of his memories.

Stella’s eyes, her sad eyes. Like today’s weather—gray and full of tears. If only I had known. Majewski sighed and tried again to forgive himself for having tricked his sister so many years past. But what would have become of her if I had not? Even I could not have left her in the woods by herself with winter coming. If only I had known another Patua’ then. Like Alfredo—he could have talked to her, perhaps reasoned with her. He laughed at himself and his fantasies that events in the past could be changed.

If only I had known. The mantra of all the souls in hell.

Rain drizzled on the windowpane. But why didn’t we know? De la Torre knew a Patua’ and left us all sorts of evidence. He put another log on the fire, sat down in the armchair. Snowbell slept like the dead; not even a whisker moved. He took the faux Treasure Island from the end table and opened it. To review its inventory. Again.

The red sealing wax on Brother Maxmillian’s letter caught his eye, and he examined it closely for the first time. A human hand stood out distinctly. Good Lord! That fob on the lamp chain in Alfredo’s cottage! He imagined Brother Maxmillian pressing it into a blob of red wax, a crow standing nearby, waiting to post the letter. The idea of using crows as mail carriers amused him more now than it had before. I wonder if de la Torre ever wrote back?

A gust of wind rattled the window, and Majewski scowled at the endless storm. He picked up the folded letter from de la Torre’s sister, and the color print of the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada fell out. For a brief second, he saw the chapel on Wilder Island nestled amid the dark green forest.

He examined the postmark. September 27, 1893, forty years after Brother Wilder built his hermit’s chapel. He opened the letter and read the wispy script.

Greetings, My Dear Brother,

The Chapel of the Madonna della Strata is absolutely gorgeous! Our guide told us that most of the old Roman churches had secret entrances into the labyrinth of passages in which the Church hid the early Christians during times of persecution. And so it was with the Madonna della Strata! From within the sacristy, we entered the catacombs and went down a steep and dark stone staircase. It was like stepping into a subterranean city, comprising many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!

Wish you were here,

Conchetta

I was ordained at the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada in Rome,” Majewski said to Snowbell, who woke up with a start. She yawned and stretched and came down from her perch on the hearth and leaped into his lap. “Built by St. Ignatius Loyola, as the Order he founded responded to the Protestant Reformation.” Majewski stroked the cat in his lap, who attacked his hand. “Is that the connection, Your Highness? The reform of the Catholic Church, led by the Society of Jesus, and the large-scale disappearance of the Patua’?”

Snowbell turned an ear sideways and lowered her eyelids to half open. “So you really think the Order rounded up the Patua’ and delivered them to the Pope for excommunication and possible execution?” he asked in mock surprise. The cat licked her front paw twice, rolled over onto her back, and offered him her soft underbelly.

The Patua’ would have been considered heretics, you know,” Majewski said as he stroked her. “That’s worse than simple insanity. Perhaps they were even burned as witches. Do you suppose the Order was part of that?”

Miaw!” Snowbell protested and jumped off his lap.

Oh, I quite agree, my Queen.” Majewski leaned toward the fireplace, picked up the poker, and jabbed at the burning logs. “I was just playing the devil’s advocate. More likely, the Jesuits led them into the catacombs, along with the Catholics, to protect them from the bigotries of religion.”

He put another log on the fire and made himself a cup of tea. Hardly had he sat back into the armchair when Snowbell was back on his lap. He stared into the fire, sipping his tea. What did de la Torre know? Connect the dots. The letter, the deed, the map, the will, the letter from his sister, the Madonna della Strada Chapel. The hermit’s chapel.

De la Torre knew at least one Patua’,” Majewski said, scratching the cat behind her ears. “And he wanted someone in the future to know him too. And that would not make any sense at all if Maxmillian were merely insane.” Snowbell purred insistently. “But it would make sense that the Order had an interest in this peculiar race of humans. Perhaps even spiriting them off to a distant land for their own safety.”

William’s voice came through the intercom: “Alfredo Manzi, line one, Father.”

 

De la Torre wrote back!” Majewski exclaimed after Alfredo told him about the letter he found at the Treehouse. “That certainly suggests Brother Maxmillian wasn’t a complete hermit. He obviously had some human contact.”

And,” Alfredo had said, “de la Torre refers to a manuscript; no crow could carry something that heavy all the way to Washington. Someone had to get it off the island and into the mail.”

What do you think this manuscript is about?” Majewski said. “Memoirs, perhaps?”

At first, I had no idea,” Alfredo said. “But then I remembered the last few pages of Bruthamax’s journal. Have you read it yet? I e-mailed it to you right after you left.”

I did,” Majewski said. “It was fascinating!”

Look again at the pages at the very end,” Alfredo said.

Hang on a moment,” Majewski said, upsetting Snowbell. He sat down at his computer and opened the file Alfredo had sent. “Okay, I’m looking at some cartoons of alien plants.”

I thought it was just doodling at first too,” Alfredo said. “But now I am wondering if he was trying to write in Patua’.”

And you think the manuscript de la Torre is talking about is—” Majewski felt a rush of adrenaline.

Is written in Patua’,” Alfredo finished for him.

Majewski hung up the phone. A written language of the crows! Imagine that! Excitement kicked the weariness from his bones as he thought of the opportunity before him. To translate the language of the crows! To leave this urban nightmare of the human spirit!

Snowbell had taken up residence on her pillow on the hearth. With one last bored glance at him, she went to sleep. Majewski returned to the armchair and relaxed into the extra room left by his cat. Alfredo’s words drifted into his awareness. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast …”

Rain continued its relentless assault on the windows, amplifying the sensation of chill in the room. But in the armchair in front of the fire, the pleasantly rich hues of yellow and orange punctuated by an occasional flash of blue warmed him. His head nodded onto his chest.

Follow me!” Stella whispered with a huge conspiratorial grin. She led him down a spiraling series of staircases and passageways through a network of caves excavated from the solid rock. A variety of sights, noises, and odors tantalized or repulsed as they tunneled back through time. Suddenly Stella grabbed his arm and pulled him off the stone staircase and into a dimly lit, roughly circular cavern, like the hub of wheel, where an astonishing number of passages met.

Alfredo Manzi lay upon the stone floor, and he ordained his prostrate body, reading from a book of runes. Candle smoke and incense briefly filled the air as he looked up at the white basilica of the Madonna del Rio. Bleached by sun and time, the tangled branches and the blue sky beyond made a grid through which a constant stream of black birds flowed,

 

www.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515