The birdbath sails through the window, its trajectory a low-amplitude parabola accompanied by a sudden symphony of shattering glass and smacks the floor with a low-decibel endnote. The last slivers of glass fall to the floor, glittering like shooting stars in the midnight sky. The room lay buried in silence, under sparkling shards of glass. An army of black birds explodes through the broken window, screeching and beating the air with enormous wings.
The birds converge into a whirlwind of feather and beak, bringing the cold, dead fragments of glass to life. Swaying and undulating to the rhythm of the beating wings overhead, the dancing shards rip through the fluffy white comforter. Black feathers ooze like blood from gaping fabric wounds.
A single bird falls out of formation and perches on the edge of my slightly open dresser drawer. After staring down upon me with cold blue eyes for a few seconds, the black bird turns its attention to the open drawer and rummages through it with its beak.
Jade bolted out of bed, screaming, “No! Stop! Get out! It’s mine! You can’t have it!” Eyes wide open, heart racing in the darkness of her dream, she charged across her husband’s sleeping body. Knees and elbows flailing as she made her way out from under the covers, she launched herself from the bed and tore open a dresser drawer.
“No, no, no!” she intoned, flinging its contents out into the room. “You can’t have it! She gave it to me!” She jerked open another drawer and pawed through its contents, muttering, “Where is it? Where is it? They didn’t get it, did they? Oh, please be here!”
The harsh sound of her name made her look up. The bedside lamp came on. Her husband, Russ, stared at her from the bed. She said nothing as she attacked another drawer, scooping out handfuls of socks and underwear. “Oh, thank God,” she gasped. “Here it is.” She closed her eyes and clutched a small wooden box to her chest.
Her eyes suddenly focused on Russ, who had appeared beside her, and she grabbed his forearm in panic. “They know where it is now! I’ve hidden it from them since I was little, but now they broke the window again and came in and tried to take it!” She broke down sobbing. “They know where it is!”
Russ pulled Jade to his chest and held her close. “It’s okay,” he said, stroking her hair. “Just a dream, hon. Just wake up, and it’ll be gone.”
She shuddered, clutching him tightly. “It wasn’t a dream,” she said into his chest. She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. “It really happened. They crashed through the window and—”
“You were dreaming, babe,” Russ said, tenderly pushing a lock of hair out of her face. “Just like before. The window isn’t broken, and there’s no one here but you and me and our fat old cat, Willow B.”
It was true. There was no glass. No feathers. Just her and Russ and the pile of clothes she had dumped onto the floor. She dropped her head on his chest. His arms felt so warm and strong around her, and she relaxed slightly. The sound of his heartbeat dissolved her panic, and she gave in to the strong, steady love that bathed her in warmth and safety.
“C’mon,” Russ said. He pulled her to her feet. “Here’s your robe. I’ll make us some hot chocolate, and you can tell me all about your dream.”
While Russ banged pots and pans around in the kitchen, Jade sat on the sofa. Willow B aligned himself along her thigh, and she stroked him absentmindedly as she stared into the darkness beyond the picture window.
The half-moon in the clear night sky dimly illuminated dark creatures as they flitted among the shadows in the small, undeveloped wooded area behind the house. A murder of crows, perhaps? Were they watching her now? Cloaked in feathers black as night, they waited, their black eyes always open, staring into her darkness. Would they come back next time she slept? Would they get it from her then?
She looked down at the small box in her lap and opened it. A strange nostalgia stabbed at her as she gazed upon the spherical object on a leather cord. Black as the shadows in the woods, yet somehow translucent, the medallion had been elegantly crafted. She took it from the box and touched its surface with a finger, feeling its pattern of grooves.
She imagined the unknown artist hunched over a tiny canvas, with a few quick strokes of a sharp blade, evoking a swirling pattern of lines that coalesced somehow into a human hand, from whose palm a fan of feathers emerged. He tossed it aside and began carving another. Then another, throwing each into a growing pile as he carved.
“And here you are, my love,” Russ said, his voice bringing her back into the living room. “I took the liberty of adding a dash of chocolate vodka to help you sleep.”
Jade took the mug and said, “I don’t want to go back to sleep.” The dark woods beyond the house gaped ominously, just waiting till she fell asleep. She closed her fingers tightly around the medallion. You’ll never get it.
Russ sat down and switched the table lamp on. He nudged her with his elbow. “Okay, now tell me again about this dream that really happened.”
The shadows vanished behind the light’s reflection in the window. Jade saw herself holding a white cup, a large cat sprawled on her one side, and Russ in his natty old robe on the other.
“The first time when I was about ten, I was asleep in my bed,” She set the mug on the table. “Suddenly the window in my room just explodes.” She threw her arms up, demonstrating. “And there’s glass everywhere,” she said, eyes wide in the memory of her fear. “All over my bed, and me, and all over the floor. Except that time, there really was glass everywhere after I woke up.”
“Wow!” Russ said, taking her hand and kissing it. “You must have been terrified!” He put his arm around her shoulders. “Did they figure out who or what broke the window?”
She toyed with the collar on his robe. “They didn’t believe me about the birds. But I wasn’t dreaming. There were crows, Russ.” She looked at him earnestly. He nodded, and she fell back against the couch. “I don’t know how to explain that night. There was glass everywhere. Smitty thought there must have already been a crack in the window, and when it got really windy that night, a gust just blew it out. Chloe had to help me change my nightie, and then I slept in her and Smitty’s room the rest of the night. She had to sing to me so I could fall asleep.”
“Well, whatever happened or didn’t happen,” Russ said, “it must have been really frightening. That dream would give anyone nightmares.”
“I was afraid to go to sleep for months,” Jade said, oblivious to Russ’s pun. “Chloe had to sing to me so I could fall asleep.” She let out a long sigh and then sang softly, “All around the purple heather won’t you go, Lassie, go?” She reached over Willow B for her mug of hot chocolate. “I’ve always loved that song. Chloe said my mother sang it to me before she went away.”
She gave herself over to childhood memories and her lost mother. “Won’t you go, Lassie, go?” she whispered. Willow B purred softly by her side. “But I knew what they wanted that night,” she said harshly. “They didn’t get it. I hid it after that.”
“Hid what?” Russ asked.
“This,” Jade said, handing him the medallion on its leather cord. “I’ve had this my whole life. It’s my most treasured possession. Chloe said my mother had made her promise to give it to me when they took her away.” She sipped the hot chocolate, feeling its warmth down to her core.
“Pretty cool,” Russ said as he scrutinized the medallion. “Fingers and feathers, that’s interesting.” He tapped it against his teeth. “I wonder what it’s made of. Seems really hard, like stone almost, though it isn’t heavy enough.”
“My mother didn’t want to leave me,” she said, as if she had not heard him. “And she left me this to remember her.”
Russ held the medallion out to her. “I think it’s some kind of wood.”
She watched it sway back and forth for a few moments. “I used to play with it all the time,” she said, taking it into her hand. “But I stopped after that night. I put it in this box and hid it so they’d never find it. It was the only thing I ever had that she touched.” She closed her fingers around the medallion and held it tightly in her hand. “I’ve always been afraid they would come for it someday.”
Russ put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Well, it’s pretty bizarre that a flock of birds would come through your bedroom window at night and try to steal it. I’ve heard stories of crows stealing things, but I’m pretty sure they’re not out and about at night. I’m curious about why you keep having this dream.”
She shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Maybe the crows think it’s theirs, and they’re trying to find it, and somehow they found me in my dreams.” She put the cord around her neck and dropped the medallion beneath her nightgown. “It’s been hidden in that box for years, buried in my dresser drawer. I haven’t even taken it out of the box since before we were married. I don’t know how they found it.”
Russ twirled a strand of Jade’s hair around his finger. She absently stroked the cat. Willow B purred, his eyes like slits.
“Here’s what I think,” Russ said. “You’ve had your mother on your mind a lot lately, you know? You’re working on a painting of her, and we were talking about it just before we went to bed. Remember? You were complaining about not being able to see her in your mind, and how you always see your paintings in your head before you can paint them.”
Jade nodded slowly. A vague image of her unknown mother appeared in the twilight of her perception—a pale face with long black hair, gray eyes the color of dawn.
She touched the medallion on its cord, imagining a dark-haired woman bending over a crib, carefully tucking the medallion under the blankets. Does she even remember me? How would I know her? How would she know me?
“I really feel like my mother is out there,” Jade said. “Maybe she’s trying to tell me something. Maybe she’s trying to contact me.”
“Honey,” Russ said, “it was just a dream. It came from your imagination. It wasn’t real. People don’t contact people in dreams. That just doesn’t happen—except on television.”
A sudden fear gripped her. “That’s what happened before,” she said anxiously. “My paintings invaded my dreams, and my dreams invaded my paintings, and after a while, I couldn’t tell which was which, and then I forgot to eat and go to class, and then I got lost, and—”
“Jade,” Russ said sharply. “Stop! That’s not happening now. It will never happen again. I won’t let it. You’re right here beside me, and I’m not lost. Willow B is on your other side. He’s not lost either.”
At the mention of his name, the cat looked up and said, “Mrrrr?”
“Exactly,” Russ said. “Even Willow B knows where you are.”
Jade stroked the cat and smiled. Really, what am I afraid of? She stared into her cup. From the dregs of chocolate at the bottom, the image of a crow slowly took shape—first a wing, then a beak, and then a cold blue eye. Just as it was about to fly out at her, she shut her eyes and said, “Why am I seeing crows everywhere all of a sudden?”
“Probably because I told you about Alfredo Manzi and his plans to make Wilder Island a bird sanctuary,” Russ said.
She nodded, remembering. “Seems like the island is already a crow sanctuary; hardly anything else lives there. Maybe this is just a ruse. Maybe this Professor Manzi is there to breed crows.”
Russ rolled his eyes. “I would think a Jesuit priest and professor of ornithology would have something more interesting to do than breed crows—especially crows that steal.” He tilted his head back, drained his cup, and put it on the coffee table. “In fact, the island is populated by a number of other birds—jays, doves, mockingbirds—the same ones you’d find just about anywhere in the Midwest. And a variety of small mammals—squirrels, rabbits, and the like—live there too.”
The island fascinated Jade, as it did everyone in Ledford. The million shades of the mythical green forest beckoned her like sirens. Strange, fantastic creatures lurked among its shadows. And the crows. She was both attracted and repelled.
“The island was named after Maxmillian Wilder, you know,” she said, banishing the crows flapping at the edge of her imagination. “The folk hero of Ledford—I’ve heard he was a Jesuit too, just like your Alfredo Manzi. Another coincidence, I suppose?” She arched a suspicious eyebrow.
“What, that Alfredo is a Jesuit or that the island is named after Maxmillian Wilder?” Russ asked. “Which part is the coincidence?”
“And,” she said, “how’d this Alfredo Manzi, if that’s his real name, find you?”
“Oh, stop it!” Russ said. “For God’s sake, Jade. There is no plot here, nothing fantastic, no intrigue. He and I work in the same department at MU, remember? He likes birds, I like plants. Manzi’s just an ordinary college professor who happens to be a priest.”
Jade looked at her husband with raised eyebrows. “Oh, all right, Dr. Matthews,” she said, yawning. “Alfredo Manzi is a straight-up guy, even though he’s a priest. And nothing sinister is happening on that island of his.”
Russ stretched and said, “C’mon, hon,” through a yawn. “Let’s go back to sleep.”
Jade nodded and let him lead her back to their bed. Within moments of his head touching the pillow, Russ was snoring, but for her, sleep lurked far away. She stared at the ceiling, trying to empty her mind.
I wonder if she thinks of me.
Sighing, she turned onto her side and took the black medallion out from under her nightgown. Even in darkness, it seemed to glow from deep within. She closed her fingers around it and shut her eyes.
But sleep would not come. She got up, quietly left the bedroom, and opened the door to her studio. The half-finished painting of her unknown mother rose up and confronted her, begging her for its face. She shook her head and put a blank canvas on her easel.
Father Provincial Thomas Majewski’s cat, Snowbell, knocked a book off the top of a huge bookcase that occupied an entire wall of his office. When it struck the floor with a very un-book-like sound, Majewski rose from his chair to investigate
“Treasure Island,” he said after picking it up and reading the front. It was not a book, but a metal box cleverly disguised as one. He took it back to his desk and sat down. After undoing the small latch, he opened the lid and pulled out a bundle of papers held together by a brittle leather cord, which broke into several pieces when he tried to untie it.
He pulled a folded paper out of the small envelope on the top of the bundle, addressed to a former Father Provincial for the North American Jesuits. “The legendary Antonio de la Torre, my Snowbell,” he said, as the pure white cat leaped into his lap. “He sat in this very chair over one hundred years ago.” Snowbell sniffed the edge of the letter gingerly. “Do you think he had a cat?”
A hand-colored print of a painting depicting the chapel of the Madonna della Strada at the Jesuit world headquarters in Rome fell out as he unfolded the letter. He read:
Greetings, My Dear Brother,
The chapel 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 also with the Madonna della Strada! 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, comprised of many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!
Wish you were here,
“Wish I was there too,” Majewski muttered as he glanced at the stack of work on his desk. But it would have to wait—the faux Treasure Island still held a few more papers.
He pulled another letter from the box. The wax seal was still attached to one side of the letter.
6 June 1852
Dear Uncle Antoni, Father in Christ–
Greetings from Cawdaynyalazhadia!
That is the name of this island, as near as I am able to spell it, according to the residents, which are a large family of crows. I have made friends with many of them, especially one named Hozey the Younger. He is a descendant of a very famous crow, Hozey the Great, known for his contributions to nest architecture. I would not have survived this past year without the good Lord Almighty sending these many-feathered companions.
It is my sincere hope that you have been in good health since last we visited. I arrived safely one year ago—how fast this year has gone by!—yet I am quite at home here. I say Mass every day in a humble little chapel, thanking the good Lord Almighty for his gracious providence. My friend Hozey, who helped me build the chapel, brings his wife and offspring, kreegans, as the crows say, who of course squirm and fidget just like human children do in church.
Hozey has shown me many wonders of the island, and he leads me through dense groves of trees so thick and dark I could scarcely manage without an overhead guide.
It is to my wonderful flying friend Hozey that I entrust this letter. He will take it to the Ledford post office across the river and drop it in the post box. Imagine that! A mail crow! I am indeed the most fortunate man on Earth, but for the grace of God and this family of crows.
As you can see, I am well and happy, living piously in God’s glory. May God bless you, dear Uncle.
I remain your humble nephew in Christ.
“The man’s delusional!” Majewski said, shaking his head. Snowbell cocked an ear at the emphatic tone in his voice. He stared at the spidery handwriting. “I would not have survived this past year without the good Lord Almighty sending these many-feathered companions.”
More than 150 years had passed since Maxmillian Wilder had written this preposterous letter to his uncle. “Why did de la Torre leave this evidence of his nephew’s madness in the Father Provincial’s office?”
The letter made Majewski extremely uncomfortable, though he tried to brush it off. The rantings of a madman, nothing more. But even in the bright morning light of his twenty-first-century office, he could not help but ask if Maxmillian Wilder shared his sister Stella’s bizarre sickness. If it was a sickness. “Of course it’s a sickness!” he heard his mother’s high-pitched voice say.
Memories of Stella surfaced from the depths of the past. It wasn’t as if he never thought of her; Stella’s face easily popped into his head. He sighed. I should have saved her from her fate. Or at least I shouldn’t have been the one who betrayed her.
His mother’s voice from the past complained inside his head: “The doctors say Stella has not spoken to anyone in weeks. She just sits there with a blank stare, as if she doesn’t notice anyone on the outside anymore. I visited her the other day, but it was as if I was not even there, her own mother. She gives me nothing but that horrible, empty stare.”
Despite the content of his letter, Maxmillian Wilder wrote lucidly and casually of his doings on the island. But … Majewski shook his head. I cannot believe he or Stella ever actually talked to crows.
He stood up and wrapped his cardigan close around his chest and stuck his hands in his armpits. The Father Superior’s office was notoriously cold, even in midsummer, and the fire his secretary had built in the small fireplace before he arrived had died down. He put another log on the embers and warmed his hands for a few moments as yellow flames rose up and curled around the fresh wood.
He returned to his desk and picked Snowbell up off the pile of papers he had been reading and sat down, cat in lap. He pulled out a hand-drawn map from the box, depicting a small island in the middle of a large river that flowed through a town called Ledford.
“Well, now,” he said to Snowbell. “Isn’t that interesting? I grew up not twenty miles downriver from Ledford, in a little town called MacKenzie. Look, Snowbell, it’s even on this map!” He flipped the map over. “It’s an old land deed.”
It is hereby certified to the provisions of the act of Congress, approved May 20, 1862, entitled “An act to secure homesteads to actual settlers on public domain,” Maxmillian Wilder has made payment in full for—
“The Homestead Act of 1862,” he murmured. “Not bad for a babbling, crazy old hermit.” Majewski squinted at the legal description of the property, trying to decipher the hand-written document. “Like a chicken walked through an ink puddle,” he grumbled.
He took the last item out of the box—a will, dated May 21, 1862, signed and sworn by Maxmillian Wilder, bequeathing his only worldly possession, the island where he spent his life, to the Jesuit Order upon his death.
Majewski frowned. “Curiouser and curiouser, Could it be the same island?” He rifled through the mail papers on his desk now and pulled the letter out:
Dear Father Provincial Majewski,
My client, Henry Braun, president of Braun Enterprises, wishes to purchase the property known as Wilder Island, a small, uninhabitable, and otherwise useless island within the city limits of Ledford, MN, for the sum of five million dollars. Please see attached map and survey for the island’s location.
We understand the property is owned by your Order. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may discuss this offer.
Jules R. Sackman
Attorney at Law
“Hmmm,” Majewski murmured, as he stroked Snowbell’s belly. He put the two maps side by side and compared them. “It is indeed the same island. But why is this obscure island a thousand miles away so important that it attracts my attention twice in the same morning?”
Snowbell attacked his hand with her paws and bit down firmly. “And who is this Maxmillian Wilder, for whom this island is evidently named? Why did he leave his island to the Order?” He wrested his hand free from her fangs and claws. “And why would anyone want to pay five million dollars for a useless island?” He took his glasses off and chewed thoughtfully on the end of one of the temples.
The Father Provincial gave no credence to the superstitious. But when two seemingly unrelated events happened, such as a cat knocking a box of old papers off a shelf and the arrival of a letter from a stranger, each referring to the same tiny deserted island in the middle of one of America’s biggest rivers, Father Provincial Majewski detected the hand of the Almighty and the Supreme Order of the Universe.
He put his glasses back on and pushed the intercom button. He spoke into the speaker to his secretary, William Luther, who moments later opened the door and stepped in.
“Draft an answer to this letter, William,” Majewski said as he handed it him. “Say I have received his offer and am taking it under advisement. Fluff it up with some meaningless trivia—how grateful we are for his interests, etc., etc.”
“Yes, Father,” William said, and he closed the door behind him.
An hour later, a knock on the door interrupted Majewski’s thoughts and sent Snowbell to the floor under his desk. William Luther opened the door and entered. He handed the Father Provincial the letter he had drafted to Henry Braun.
“Fine,” Majewski said after reading it. He signed his name and handed the letter back.
“Oh—one more thing, William. Please check into our archives for a fellow named Maxmillian Wilder, around 1850 or so. And whatever you can find on this Wilder Island.”
The other business on Majewski’s desk needed his attention, mostly administrative actions requiring his signature. And of course, the matter of the reprobate priests demanded action. Even his beloved Jesuits had not been immune from the scandals plaguing the priesthood. One of these days I’m going to resign from this lofty hell. Maybe I’ll find an island of crows somewhere. No humans or their sordid problems.
William opened the door after knocking softly and said, “There is nothing in our archives about Maxmillian Wilder.”
Majewski frowned, and William continued, “But I did find a bit about two Henry Brauns and an island named Wilder that might be of interest.”
Snowbell jumped off Majewski’s lap and slithered under the desk. “And?” he said.
“Henry Braun, the fellow who wants to buy the island, is very rich,” William said, coming all the way into the room. “And he is the fourth Henry in a row in the Braun family. But it was his ancestor, Henry Braun the First, who is most interesting. Seems he lost the family fortune last century over a trestle bridge he tried to build across the river to Wilder Island, which was uninhabited but for a crazy old hermit.”
Majewski gestured for William to sit down. “Really? Wilder Island again. And that crazy old hermit again. Interesting. And what happened to the trestle bridge? Is it still there?”
Snowbell came out from under the desk and leaped into William’s lap. “No,” he said, pushing her tail away from his face. “It was mysteriously destroyed just before it reached the island.”
“Mysteriously, eh?” Majewski said, tapping a pencil on his desk. “As in sabotage or an act of God?”
“They never figured it out,” William said. “On the morning it was supposed to reach the island, Henry Braun the First’s trestle bridge was gone. Smashed to bits the night before. The thing was, there was no weather that night, and no one heard a thing.”
“Interesting,” Majewski said, rubbing his chin. “Perhaps this explains our current Mr. Braun’s interest.”
After a few moments, William stood up and said, “Will there be anything more, Father?”
“No, that will be all. Thank you, William.”
After his secretary left, Majewski rose from his desk and put another log on the fire. He sat down in the armchair in front of the hearth and stared into the fireplace. Henry Braun’s ancestor receded, and Maxmillian Wilder’s letter rose up to trouble him anew.
It just can’t be! He shook his head. An island of talking crows, for God’s sake. And the great Antoni de la Torre was in full knowledge?
He read the letter one more time. Leaning forward, he held it above the flames for a moment. Brother Maxmillian’s handwriting seemed to burn through the yellowed paper, searing an indelible imprint in the Father Provincial’s brain.
But for the grace of God and this family of crows …
Slowly withdrawing his hand, Majewski folded the letter and put it in his pocket. De la Torre deliberately hid these papers concerning his nephew and this island in plain sight. As if he wanted someone someday to find them. But why? Why did he want the truth about his nephew to be discovered?
He poked at the log in the fire, rolling it over and exposing its unburned side to the flames. He sat back with a long sigh. Was Brother Wilder mad? Why would de la Torre send his insane family member to live out his days alone on a deserted island? Or did he really talk to crows? The idea is nothing short of heresy—not only to the Vatican, but to the scientific world as well!
Majewski sighed at his dilemma. Everything in Maxmillian Wilder’s letter screamed its impossibility. Yet there it all was, left on a shelf in a fake book waiting for someone to come along and discover it. Why? What should I do with this island? Five million dollars is not exactly chump change. And if all it has is the remnants of a crazy old Jesuit hermit, why should we not just sell it? Guide me, oh Lord.
He watched the flames embrace the new wood, hissing, licking, and caressing it with scorching tongues of blue and yellow and orange. A pocket of sap blew up, sending sparks up the chimney and out in the room. Was that supposed to be an answer?
Sometimes trying to discern the Lord’s will is like trying to see through a brick wall.
The flames danced hypnotically over the wood, and Majewski’s eyes fluttered. A flock of black birds erupted from beneath the coals. Up the chimney, and out into the night, a spiral pattern of winged smoke disappeared into the darkness.
The Father Provincial’s eyes snapped open, his awareness suddenly focused on a graduate student he’d advised years ago. Alfredo Manzi. He hadn’t thought of Manzi in a long time. Bright fellow. Wrote a brilliant thesis on the behavior of crows and ravens. Rather disturbing to some, the birds seemed too … what was it? Too intelligent? Too sentient?
But the young priest’s dataset was robust, his adherence to the Scientific Method impeccable, and his arguments unassailable. Though Manzi’s graduate committee did their level best to roast him alive, Manzi prevailed, cool-headed and full of reason. Majewski chuckled at the memory.
He remembered their conversations fondly; Manzi had deciphered a few of their calls, and as a linguist, Majewski had been fascinated. But a few words don’t make a language. He wondered if Manzi had continued his research. Where is he these days? Teaching somewhere probably. What would he make of our Brother Maxmillian and this island of talking crows? Or my sister?
Majewski sighed. I’ll ask William to look up Manzi’s whereabouts tomorrow. He settled back into the comfort of his chair. Snowbell dozed on his lap as he scratched her gently behind the ears.