The Great Corvid Council
Deep within the Ledford National Cemetery, Hookbeak, Aviar of the Great Corvid Council, emerged from sleep in an ancient white oak tree to contemplate the dawning of the day. The small hollow in the tree’s massive trunk and the wide branch at its opening provided him shelter from storms as well as a wide platform upon which he could stand and even walk around a bit. He stood as high as he could and flapped his wings in his ritual morning stretch. Across the river, Cadeña-l’jadia floated on a river of glass, still shrouded in blankets of mist.
The military cemetery in which Hookbeak’s tree grew formed the southwestern boundary of the city, on the outskirts of Downtown. Built in the early days of Ledford, its oldest gravestones bore dates from the early-1800s. The frequency of twenty-one-gun salutes had increased over the past decade, disturbing Hookbeak’s peace. He supposed the humans had engaged themselves in another war somewhere.
“That is how they thin their populations,” his friend Starfire had said. “That and the automobile.”
Hookbeak endured the noise from the salutes without complaint. He had even stopped reacting, for the most part, to the sound of gunfire. Where humans gathered, noise ensued. But they always left food behind, which more than compensated him for a few seconds of annoyance.
He had hatched in the cemetery, and he had lived there his entire life. He built nest after nest in a new tree every year, and in nearly two entire decades, he and his lovely wife, Rosie, had hatched over one hundred chicks. Eighty-nine fledglings survived into adulthood—not a bad average. Not bad at all.
Hookbeak had quite lost count of how many grandchildren he had, or even how many generations he had spawned. Many of his children and their children flew in from time to time for a visit. He was always happy to see them, and grateful when they left.
He had lived alone in the old oak since his Rosie had fallen to the West Nile virus the year before. He missed her terribly, and he spoke to her frequently throughout his quiet solitude. Rosie, my heart. My work here will soon be finished, and I will join you. Together we will fly into the Great Orb of Time. Wait for me!
Today as Aviar, Hookbeak would preside over the Great Corvid Council, a thirteen-member body of crows and ravens whose objective was to keep the regional corvid population informed and healthy, as well as to keep historical and actuarial records. The Council would also discuss the sudden appearance of Jayzu, the newest Patua’ in the territory. He just showed up out of thin air. Starfire had been incensed at the very idea of an un-catalogued Patua’ right under his beak.
The end times are indeed near, my Rosie! Hookbeak gazed across the cemetery toward the island. I shall not see the new age. He sighed. But I do see it on the horizon. That will have to suffice.
“Grawky, Starfire!” Hookbeak called out as his friend sailed into the tree and landed next to him.
“Grawky, my friend!” Starfire said after he dropped a barbequed chicken leg at Hookbeak’s feet. “Breakfast for two!”
“What a pleasant surprise!” Hookbeak pecked a big chunk of chicken off the bone and rolled it toward Starfire with his beak.
“The Cub Scouts had a picnic at the park yesterday,” Starfire said after he swallowed a chunk. “I managed to pluck this from the trash just before a mob of crows descended on it.”
“One must be quick,” Hookbeak said, “if crows are around.”
The two ravens took turns grasping the chicken leg in one claw and pulling off chunks of meat. Starfire stood on the chicken bone and pulled off the last bits of flesh before letting it drop to the ground. He cleaned his beak on a branch.
“Very tasty,” Hookbeak said. “Thank you most kindly, my friend. That should do me until after the council meeting. “Where is Jayzu?”
“Jayzu is waiting for us at the bench by the fish pond,” Starfire said, opening his wings. “He’s a short fly from the Council trees.”
The two ravens left Hookbeak’s tree and flew to a remote corner of the cemetery where the trees were tall and stood very close together. A man sat on a park bench near a pond, throwing bits of bread to a group of noisy ducks.
“Grawky, Jayzu!” Hookbeak said heartily as he landed on the back of the bench. “We meet at last! I am Hookbeak.”
Starfire landed on the grass, folding his wings as he introduced himself. Jayzu brushed his hand across each of their outstretched wingtips. “I am pleased to make your acquaintances as well. I—”
The Aviar loomed over Jayzu and bore into him with his piercing black eyes. “The Council is quite curious about you,” he said. “Many thought Bruthamax was the last of your kind. There are those among us, however, that know otherwise.”
Starfire took a couple steps closer to Jayzu and said, “Indeed. And at least one among us who has predicted your coming.”
Jayzu shifted his weight on the bench. “I am curious about the Council as well,” he said. “But I have always thought that I am a freak of nature; I had no idea I had a ‘kind.’ I thought—”
“We are all freaks of nature,” Hookbeak rumbled. “Are we not? What are any of us but miraculous answers to a unique set of utterly random circumstance?”
“Well, I guess—” Jayzu said.
Starfire flapped his wings impatiently and said, “Who is to say circumstances are random? But there is a larger picture than our mutual curiosity, Jayzu. Much larger.” He hopped up onto the bench, eye-level with the human. “We believe your presence heralds a new age.”
“Really?” Jayzu said. “A new age? Me? But I am just an ord—”
“Yes, you!” Starfire said vehemently. “That is what all the signs say. Ever since the Patua’ mysteriously and suddenly disappeared some five hundred years ago, we have told our hatchlings stories of the return of a Great One, beloved by all. The Great One will bring the Patua’ back from whence they disappeared.”
Jayzu frowned and shook his head. “I am no messiah, Starfire. You have the wrong man. I am just an ordin—”
“We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax,” Hookbeak interrupted. “But he did not bring the Patua’ back.”
“And you believe I will?” Jayzu asked. “You had the wrong man once. You still do.”
“So our previous interpretation was wrong,” Starfire said. He sharpened his beak on the edge of the park bench. “Not our stories. But here is an interesting fact: you and Bruthamax are of the same clan, the Jesuit Clan.”
“The Jesuits are an order,” Jayzu said, “not a clan.”
“Order, family, genus, species, clan,” Starfire said irritably. “Whatever you want to call it, you and Bruthamax are both Patua’, you both came to Cadeña-l’jadia, and you are both of the Jesuit kin. We think this is not a coincidence.”
Jayzu stood up and walked several steps away from the bench. He emptied his sack of breadcrumbs into the pond, and the ducks scrambled, dashing to snatch up the morsels before they sank. He turned back to the two ravens on the park bench and said, “Then you probably will think it is no coincidence that I have spent my life among the Jesuits. I was placed in a boarding school at an early age, due to my crow-speech, as they called it. After that Jesuit high school, then Jesuit college, Jesuit seminary school—”
“Supporting my hypothesis,” Starfire said, “of a Patua’ Underground and the probable return of the Patua’. Right here, right now.”
Hookbeak hopped down onto the seat of the park bench and said, “That remains a hypothesis, Starfire. Two data points is not a trend. Bring me proof.” The Aviar turned his attention back to Jayzu. “Now we must go. Are you ready for the Council? These corvids can be rather formidable. We are not all of like mind, and no one is the least bashful.”
“Nor are humans all of like mind,” Jayzu said, smiling. “I am ready, Aviar.”
“Good,” Hookbeak said as he flapped his wings and jumped to the ground. “Excellent. Let us go. The meeting place is just over yonder.”
“I will see you at the Council Tree,” said Starfire as he took to the air.
Jayzu and Hookbeak walked side by side toward a cove of oak trees a short distance from the pond. Most of the councilors had already arrived; Hookbeak could see many of them in the lower branches of the council trees at the edge of the cove. “Jayzu, please stay hidden back here,” he said, “until I call you out.”
Hookbeak walked into the clearing and flew up to the Aviar’s perch, a branch higher than the rest on the tallest tree. The last councilor arrived, and the Aviar rose up tall on his branch, flapped his wings, and called out, “The Great Corvid Council convenes! Izzy?”
“Sound off, ravens!” Izzy, the Aviar’s page called out in his crackly, adolescent voice.
Each bird called out his name and his territory, in accordance with the time-honored tradition of the Council.
“Hookbeak. Ledford National Cemetery,” the Aviar rumbled.
“Starfire. Woodmen of the World Cemetery.”
“Walldrug. The Boonies.”
“Longshanks. The Timber Mill.”
“Wingnut. Ledford Municipal Zoo.”
“Fishgut. The Cannery.”
“Restarea. Ledford Airport.”
“All ravens present!” Iggy croaked. “Sound off, crows!”
“Athanasius. The Brewery.”
“Boomer. The Waterfront.”
“Joshwa. Ledford Landfill.”
“All crows present!” Izzy yelled.
“Thank you, Izzy,” the Aviar said graciously, before turning to address the Council. The page disappeared into the upper branches of Hookbeak’s tree.
“What news of the territories, corvids?” Hookbeak’s deep raven voice boomed through the branches.
“Runway 218’s flooded again,” said Restarea. “They are diverting air traffic.”
“So that’s why it’s been so dang noisy around the Cannery,” Fishgut said. “Like to shake the dang daylights out of a body.”
“There’s a new law in Cavron County,” O’Malley called out. “All humans must carry an unconcealed gun in public at all times. Seriously. They’re insane down there, afraid of everything. My brother-in-law, he even saw one poor slob shooting at his own shadow.”
The councilors guffawed and flapped their wings in ridicule.
“Let us get the word out,” Hookbeak said. “Cavron County is off-limits to all corvids. Any other news?” The Aviar looked around, and when no one spoke, he continued, “Very well. Most of you have heard the rumors that a Patua’ again lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”
A hush fell at the mention of the lush green island of crows, uninhabited by humans for decades. The leaves quivered as the Council seemed to hold its breath.
“Bruthamax has returned!” Boomer shouted, and some of the crows erupted into a fanfare of feathers and beak. “Bruthamax lives!” The entire tree shook as the councilors danced upon their branches.
“Bruthamax is still dead, Boomer,” Hookbeak said. “This one is called Jayzu.”
The councilors settled back down, with a few last shout-outs, “Long live Bruthamax!”
“I seen him once, this new Patua’, on the cathedral steps Downtown,” DeeJay said. “All dressed in black. Looked kind of like one of us, only bigger. He threw leftovers from the monsignor’s breakfast for us poor, hungry crows!”
The crows cackled and fanned their wings in approval. “I’ll be joining you for church, come Sunday!” Boomer said.
“I heard Jayzu serves bacon,” Joshwa said as he flew from his branch up to one near Boomer. “I haven’t tasted bacon since the family moved out to the landfill.”
“Councilors!” Hookbeak, the Aviar, spoke. “Please be serious. This is momentous. We have been waiting for this Patua’ since Bruthamax.””
“I thought they all died out,” Longshanks said.
“Bruthamax was the last of them,” Walldrug said.
“We all thought that,” Hookbeak said. “But evidently that is not so.”
“Not at all,” Starfire said, rising up on his perch. “There are a few in our area alone. But more importantly, we have expected the Patua’ to reemerge for centuries, heralded by the arrival of one from the Jesuit Clan. We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax. We were wrong. It is this new Patua’. Jayzu.”
The councilors muttered under their beaks to one another, some in wonder, “At last, the Patua’ have returned!” some in doubt, “How do we know it is this Patua’ we’ve been waiting for?” and a couple who believed the news irrelevant, “It is ludicrous to wait and hope this extinct species will save us.” “What’s a Jezyooit?”
Hookbeak rose up on his branch, flapping his huge wings. “Please let us now adjourn downward to the ground and greet the Patua’.” He stepped off the Aviar’s perch and sailed down to the clearing below. The rest of the councilors followed, gasping in dismay and delight. “A Patua’? Here? Now?” “Where is the Patua’?” “Why were we not told a Patua’ would be here?”
“I am telling you now,” the Aviar said. He paused a moment to allow the wave of wing shuffling and murmurings to cease. He turned toward the trees. “Jayzu! The Great Corvid Council awaits your arrival!”
Alfredo stepped out from behind the trees and walked into the very surprised group of corvids. “I am honored to be among you,” he said quietly to the hushed councilors.
Many of them nodded to one another, mumbling their approval. A few waved a wing at him, and others called out their greetings and comments. “Yo! Jayzu!” “That’s a Patua’?” “He looks just like a regular human!”
Hookbeak spoke. “And we are honored you came to us, Jayzu. Greetings!”
Alfredo held his hands out as a few of the councilors stepped forward to greet him.
“We were gladdened by the news of a Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” a raven said cordially. “I am Longshanks. Welcome.” He brushed his wing across Alfredo’s hand.
“Is it true, Jayzu,” a crow spoke out above the muttering, “you are building a bird sanctuary on Cadeña-l’jadia?”
“Not yet,” Alfredo replied, “but someday I—”
“Sanctuary? What kind of sanctuary?” one of the ravens interrupted in mild alarm. He wandered through the councilors on the grass as he spoke. “There are sanctuaries and then there are Sanctuaries, so we wonder exactly what you intend to do in this sanctuary. Some oddball sanctification ritual perhaps? Will you require feathers? Entrails?”
“No,” Alfredo said, “I—”
“Sanctuary?” a few of the councilors said as they looked at one another in apparent confusion.
“What’s a sanctuary?” asked a crow.
“It just means—” Alfredo started to say.
“Sanctuary—the word comes from the root, to sanctify,” another crow replied sanctimoniously. “To mortify and cleanse the flesh.”
Alfredo felt exasperated with some of the councilors, but there was little he could do other than wait politely and grab what chance he could to speak. He glanced at Hookbeak, standing silently next to him on the grass. Will he not intervene and let me talk?
“Ah,” the raven who had asked the original question said. “It is a bathing place then. In this case, for birds. That does not sound so bad.”
“Unless the cleansing of the flesh is done with blood, Restarea,” a raven said. Hoots of denial circulated through the Council. “It has happened,” he continued. “Human use of animals as sacrificial offerings for ritual ceremonies to appease their gods is well known.”
“There will be no sacri—” Alfredo said and glanced at Hookbeak standing silently next to him on the grass. When will he intervene and let me talk?
“Will this Patua’, this Jayzu, be experimenting on birds in his sanctuary?” another raven asked. “Perhaps feather plucking for his rituals? Dissection?”
“A sanctuary is a refuge, Walldrug,” Starfire said, impatiently waving a wing. “Safe haven. As in rest stop. Now please, let us remember that Jayzu is Patua’. I daresay he reveres the corvid as much as Bruthamax did.”
“Charlie of the great Hozey Clan,” a crow said, “well, his wife told my wife that he told her that Jayzu knew nothing of Bruthamax.”
Gasps of incredulous dismay pulsed through the councilors, and they looked at one another and Alfredo in disbelief. “Never heard of Bruthamax? How can that be?” someone hissed. “He knows not his own kin!” whispered another. “How can we trust him?”
Bedlam broke out as factions lined up against other factions. “Interventionist!” one side cried out, while the other shouted “Isolationist!”
“Are you all daft?” Starfire shouted, striding to the middle of the two groups. “Or just deaf? Did you not all just find it remarkable that there was a Patua’ among us? Remember thinking the Patua’ had completely vanished? Shocking as it is, Bruthamax is not known among humans outside of the city surrounding us.”
The councilors quieted down as Starfire spoke. By the time he finished, dignity had been restored. A few seconds of silence reigned, and Alfredo seized the moment.
“That is true.” He paused, momentarily shocked that no one interrupted. “Human knowledge of the Patua’ is significantly less than yours. I am Patua’ yet knew not there were others of my kind.”
Thirteen pairs of eyes, some black, some blue, stared back in silence. “I did not know of Bruthamax until I came to Cadeña-l’jadia,” Alfredo continued, grateful for the opportunity to continue speaking. Since then, I have learned much, thanks to the corvids for keeping his stories and sharing them with me. I am proud to be counted among Bruthamax’s kin.”
Most of the councilors softened and some even had a few sympathetic words of comfort: “Any kin of Bruthamax is a friend of ours!” “Long live the Patua’!” “Long live Jayzu!”
An explosive sound nearby scattered the councilors, and someone shouted, “Meeting adjourned!”
Alfredo was suddenly alone with Hookbeak and Starfire in the small clearing, but for several feathers that lay twitching in the breeze. He waited for a few minutes for the Aviar to speak, but the old raven kept silent and still as stone, listening. Not a creature stirred. Even the insects had been silenced.
“Thank the Great Orb for that explosion,” Starfire said at last. “Nothing scatters the corvids like the sound of gunfire. Otherwise we would be beaking this to death till sunset.”
“I thought it was just a car backfire,” Alfredo said.
“It was,” Hookbeak said. “But no matter, we accomplished what we wanted today.”
“We did?” Alfredo said.
“Yes,” the Aviar replied and leaped into the sky.
“Indeed, Jayzu,” Starfire said. “Thank you.” He flapped his wings and took off after Hookbeak.
“For what?” Alfredo called out after the ravens as they flew away. “What did we accomplish?”
He shrugged and walked back to the park bench where he had left his bicycle. Charlie flew out of the nearby trees.
“Where were you?” Alfredo asked. “I could have used a friendly face.”
He got on the bike, and Charlie assumed his position on the handlebars. “You have many friends, Jayzu. Yes, I was there. In a tree on the edge of the clearing where you were. I heard everything.”
Alfredo rode his bike out of the National Cemetery and through the huge wrought-iron gates onto Alhambra Boulevard. As they rode through the neighborhoods on the way down to the Waterfront, people smiled and waved at the man and the crow on the bike.
“Do you know how many Patua’ there are?” Alfredo said as he waved back to an elderly couple out for a stroll.
“Where?” Charlie asked. “Here? Or in the world?”
“Here, and the rest of the world.” Alfredo slowed down as he approached a four-way stop and sped up when he saw no cars coming.
“Well, we’re working on that,” Charlie said. “Starfire has been doing weekly Extraction Rituals for some time now on all the Keepers. It’s a matter of coming up with the algorithms. And then there’s constructing the chants. It’s quite complex, and we’re only working on the local database. I don’t know if we could easily find out how many Patua’ there are in the entire world.”
“I see,” Alfredo said. “Sounds like a computer program. Tell me more about this internal database.”
“It’s a lattice, actually,” Charlie said. “The lattice has many branches, and each branch has many storage nodes where we implant data.”
Alfredo turned down Water Street. The river lay in front of him, with Cadeña-l’jadia basking in the midday sun. As they passed St. Sophia’s, the resident pigeons pecked at the sediments of earlier handouts left on the steps. “Am I in your database?” Alfredo asked. “Or do you know?”
“I have no awareness of anything in the database,” Charlie said. “I don’t know if you are stored in my lattice. The archives were set up to restrict any bleed over into the Keeper’s memory, so as to not pollute the database.”
“You never cease to amaze me, my friend,” Alfredo said. “I never imagined the corvid had devised such sophisticated methods of archiving data. And your dedication is commendable.”
“We love lists,” Charlie said. He unfolded his wings to keep his balance as Alfredo rode over a rough patch of pavement. “We simply made them three-dimensional.”
Alfredo knew that corvids have powerful memories, and though he understood well that these birds were as gifted by the Creator with intelligence and sentience equal to humans, he marveled at their invention. “Long ago, humans used to rely on oral traditions to store and maintain family histories and cultural lore. In the modern world, we rely more on external storage for our memories.”
He stopped his bike at a red light, putting one foot on the curb and keeping the other on a pedal. A car pulled up next to him, a silver Bentley. The rear window went down, and a female voice said, “Good morning, Father Manzi!”
The woman in the backseat waved a hand out the window as Alfredo tried to see who had spoken. But the light changed, and the Bentley’s chauffeur sped through the intersection before he had his other foot on the pedal.
“But our storage devices get full,” Alfredo continued. “Or obsolete, or they break.”
“That is a problem with tools,” Charlie said. “But we too spend much time maintaining our database. Otherwise it too, would fall into decay.”
Water Street turned steep as he rode the last few blocks to the Waterfront, where the Captain waited. “How does he always know when I am coming?” Alfredo asked.
“We tell him,” Charlie said. “That is, we crows, magpies, jays, and the like. You can’t go anywhere without being seen, and telling whoever cares about it.”
Alfredo looked up; there were no birds flying overhead. None in the trees. “Why am I being spied upon, Charlie? I would tell you anything you ask.”
As they arrived at the Waterfront, Alfredo slowed the bike to a halt and then hopped off.
“No one is spying on you, Jayzu,” Charlie said as he leaped to a nearby bench and clutched the back with his feet. “At first, we did, till we knew what you are about. But now you’re famous; some think you’re the reincarnation of Bruthamax. You’re a celebrity!”
“All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia!” Sugarbabe yelled.
They rode in silence all the way to Cadena-l’jadia; even Sugarbabe was uncharacteristically quiet. When the boat stopped at the inlet, Alfredo jumped onto the sandy bank and waved to the Captain as he pushed his boat back into the current.
“Have you ever known another Patua’, Charlie?” Alfredo asked. “Other than me and the Captain?”
The crow stood, and the priest perched on a driftwood log at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel. It had been a long day. Alfredo hardly remembered getting off the Captain’s boat and walking the half mile to the rocky point. The Great Corvid Council was illuminating, yet he felt exhausted. He had not expected them to be so argumentative. He laughed at himself. Like our Congress, for instance? Somehow he had envisioned them to be more civilized—to him, and to one another.
“One,” Charlie said, “I have known one other Patua’, for many years.”
Jealousy surged through Alfredo, surprising him. Am I envious that I might be sharing Charlie with another Patua’? He bent his head back and looked up through the leaves at the sky. Or am I jealous of Charlie?
“Where is your friend now?” Alfredo asked. Oh, to have a friend!
“Rosencranz,” Charlie said.
“The old insane asylum?” He had seen photographs in the library Downtown of the old hospital an hour outside of Ledford–an anachronism from the last century, part of the curious cultural lore of the city.
“Charlotte is not insane,” Charlie said flatly, looking up at him. “Her family chucked her in Rosencranz when she was a teenager because she is Patua’. She’s been there ever since. Twenty-five years.”
“You have not seen her in twenty-five years?” Alfredo said to Charlie.
“I saw her last ten days ago,” Charlie said. “But it’s been quite a bit longer than that, though, since we have spoken.”
Alfredo was aghast. “Just because she talked to crows? My mother was afraid people would think I was possessed by the devil. But no one ever thought I was insane. Our parish priest had me whisked me off to a Jesuit boarding school.” There but for the grace of God …
He had not thought of the family’s parish priest in years. “Try to keep this, uh, talent of yours hidden from everyone,” Father Mario had said to him before he left for boarding school. “Use it only for the continued glory of God’s creation. You must not let anyone else know. Make sure only God sees.”
Was Father Mario Patua’? Did he understand me better than I or my mother did?
“Tell me about your friend, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I would like to know another Patua’.”
“Charlotte disappeared one day when she was seventeen,” Charlie began his story. “I hadn’t seen her in a few months. Rika and I had our first clutch that year, and I was in Keeper training, and just couldn’t get away. But the magpies all said that men in white coats drove up in a big van and took her away. She was crying, they said, when the white coats put her in a tiny shirt with really long sleeves that they wound all around her.
“She kept screaming. All the way down the road, they could hear her screaming. The white coats took her to Rosencranz. That’s what the magpies told me.
“I winged it over to Rosencranz, but couldn’t get in, of course; what hospital would let a crow in, even during visiting hours? So I visited every windowsill, looking for her. I peeked and sometimes downright stared into every window, more than once. For two years, I came and pecked on her window nearly every day.”
“I admire your devotion, Charlie,” Jayzu said. “I cannot imagine.
“Then one day,” the crow continued, “there she was! Just on the other side of the glass, sitting in a wheelchair with her hands folded neatly in her lap. But she did not see me.
“I pecked on the window, but she did not hear me. I called out her name. ‘Charlotte! Yo! Charlotte! It’s me! Charlie!’ But she didn’t look up. She just stared at her lap, and I wondered if she had gone deaf.
“I kept yelling and dancing and pecking, anything to get her attention. She didn’t hear me, didn’t see me.
“I didn’t give up, though. Day after day, I showed up on the windowsill at the same time, trying to get her attention. But day after day, she didn’t look up. Until she did! She finally noticed me through the glass! I nearly fell off the windowsill.
“‘Charlie!’ she said, with the big smile I remembered from long ago. Of course I couldn’t hear her; the window was closed. Then she ran across the room and pasted both hands on the glass, as if to embrace me. I flapped my wings and cried out, ‘Charlotte! Charlotte!’ Great Orb, that was a wonderful day!
“Then a white coat came up to Charlotte and took her hands off the window, giving each one a little slap and then escorted her back to her wheelchair.
“‘Charlotte!’ I yelled as he wheeled her out of the room. I pecked on the glass. I shouted as loud as I could. Another white coat came to the window, opened it, and yelled ‘Darn crows!’ as she tried to smack me with a towel.
“She missed. ‘Darn yoomans!’ I yelled back at her.
“Though I waited at the window, Charlotte didn’t come back that day. Or the next. I hung around, waiting and hoping for some sign of her. Days went by. I visited all the other windowsills again and again. Just as I was about to give up, there she was!
“I pecked at the glass, and when she looked up, I flapped my wings at her. But she didn’t get up, didn’t smile at me, or say my name. I thought maybe she hadn’t really seen me. But when no one was looking, she smiled at me. She wouldn’t come to the window, though. Probably she was afraid they would slap her hands again. She never took her eyes off me until someone came and took her out of the room.
“That was eight years ago. I see her often, but through a closed window. I can’t talk to her or hear her voice. But at least I can see her.”
Charlie ended his story; crow and human sat without speaking for several minutes. The pulsating song of crickets emanated from hidden places in the grass. Several loons wandered along the bank below, pecking for tidbits between the rocks and grass. A few gulls orbited a fishing vessel on the river.
“I do not know what to say, Charlie, my friend,” Jayzu said at last. “I am sad for your friend, being locked away like that. Surely her family visits?”
“Charlotte is alone, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “No one visits. No one can understand her. But I am telling you, Jayzu, she is as sane as you or I.”
The sky had turned the color of late afternoon. “It is time I headed home to Rika and my kreegans, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “Before it gets too dark to fly.”
Charlie left the priest and flew out over the river. The sun hovered above the western horizon, sending shimmering hues of yellow and orange across the river. All the way home, he thought about Charlotte and her years of silence.
He had never given up hope. Charlotte came back out of the graying. And now an idea tantalized him. Jayzu could just walk in the front door of Rosencranz. And he could speak to Charlotte in the Patua’. What if … Charlie dared to hope … Jayzu could get her out of there? What if he could bring her here, to Cadeña-l’jadia?
From the past, Starfire’s voice boomed inside his head.
“I have lived a long time and have seen many things, but never have I seen a Patua’ snatched back from the abyss, once he or she went into the Graying. But none may know the future. Always keep hope in your heart.”
Alfredo drew his mouth into a tight line as he watched Charlie take off and make a wide circle over the river. Twenty-five years in an insane asylum! Why was Charlotte forsaken in such a place while I am allowed to live in this paradise? Why was I rewarded, and she was punished for being Patua’?
His friend Charlie’s anguish bore down on him heavily. “It is so unfair,” Alfredo said aloud. “So unjust.”
A voice from above replied, “I quote: ‘There is no justice. There is only grace.’”
Alfredo looked up. A raven perched on the lower branch of a nearby basswood tree looked down at him. “And whom do you quote, NoExit?” he asked.
“The Grandmother’s proverb,” NoExit said. “There is no such thing as justice. Random mercies, perhaps, but no justice. That is a good thing for most of us. Our lives would be truly impoverished if ever all we got was what we deserve.”
“Do you think so?” Alfredo said. “My species is forever expecting justice.”
“Yet who among you has ever found it?” The raven flapped down to the ground. Alfredo was nearly eye-to-eye with the elegant bird. NoExit wore his age with strength and dignity: his long, shaggy wreath of black feathers encircled his thick neck, draping over his breast and hanging nearly to his sturdy legs.
The sun touched the horizon, turning the river into liquid gold and bathing the island in stark, brilliant light. NoExit’s feathers blazed with hints of refracted sunset, giving him a regal air of great wisdom and clarity. He hopped up onto the log next to Alfredo and gazed out over the river. Alfredo felt young and small next to him.
“Justice is a thing wholly imagined by humans,” NoExit said. “Yet you are not very good at it.”
“Yet we try,” Alfredo said, feeling a bit defensive. He sat up a little straighter. “Humans abide by the rule of law; that is what civilizes us.”
“The law is an ass,” NoExit said, “and an idiot.”
Alfredo turned toward the raven, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “So said Mr. Bumble. Are you telling me you have read Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist?”
“Of course not,” NoExit said, sharpening his beak on the log. “The saying has been in corvid lore for centuries, at least. Perhaps you should inquire as to where Mr. Dickens got it.”
“Are you saying Dickens was Patua’?” Alfredo asked incredulously. “And that he stole the saying from the corvid?” The priest started to laugh.
“No idea,” NoExit said. He flapped his wings a few times and refolded them into his sleek profile. “But the concept is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. What is shocking is that it took your species until the nineteenth century for the very thought to even attain utterance.”
The last of the sun seemed to disappear into the river somewhere upstream, taking all color with it. Downtown lights flickered on. A late barge chugged upriver, all lit up and blowing diesel smoke from its stack. All around, Alfredo could hear the sounds of many creatures browsing or hunting for their evening meal. The law of the food chain governed. He felt envious of such simplicity.
“We have a great many laws,” Alfredo said. “Too many perhaps. But without laws, how could we even approach justice?”
“There is a vast difference between law and justice,” NoExit said. “Perhaps therein lies the problem. The natural laws—the law of gravity, for instance—are absolute. Yet human laws, and therefore justice, bend with circumstance.”
A multitude of young crows swirled above the trees, arguing over where they would roost for the night. Their noise seemed to irritate the raven, and he looked up at the ruckus.
“To change is to endure,” NoExit said after the crows had passed. “That is what the Grandmothers say.”
“You have mentioned the Grandmothers twice,” Alfredo said. “Who are they?”
“Grandmothers are older female corvids with many generations of offspring,” he said. “Similar to the Council, but they provide a female perspective. They do not concern themselves with the illusion of justice. Instead they seek the paths of grace and elegance.”
“Grace and elegance?” Alfredo said, frowning.
“Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma?” NoExit said. “When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”
Alfredo nodded. “Many times.”
“The Grandmothers will find a way through such times,” NoExit said, “illuminating the way toward doing what is needed, as opposed to parsing the meaning of justice and the intent of law.”
“The Grandmothers are wise,” Alfredo said.
NoExit buried his beak in his wingpit and said in a muffled voice, “Mothers are inherently wise. Else they would fail as mothers, and their offspring would not thrive.” He pulled his head out and continued. “Grandmothers are grandly wise, having raised many young, but they also have seen many of their kreegans die. What justice is there in the death of the young? Justice does not exist in nature, I tell you. Do not seek it there.”
Twilight draped the island in shades of gray. City lights slowly twinkled on against the river’s canvass that reflected the fading light of day. Crickets kicked off the nightly jam session of music makers in the insect world. A bell rang from the direction of the inlet.
Alfredo did not remember telling the Captain to return for him at sunset and was grateful that he had come anyway. He always seems to know when I need him. “That is my ride back to the city,” he said. “I must say goodnight.”
“Goodnight, my friend.” NoExit flapped his great wings a few times and disappeared into the chapel.