The Priest and the Crow
The Jesuit scholar Alfredo Manzi stood at the window in his office at the Department of Biology at Midwestern University. Wilder Island stood dark and secretive in the morning shadows, beckoning him. He could hardly resist the urge to disappear into its dark forests and its unusually large population of corvids. He had spent his life studying them—crows and ravens in particular.
Six months ago, he had discovered Wilder Island, just after arriving in Ledford. An advertisement for an ornithology professor at the university had brought him, and after a brief round of interviews, he landed the job. He started teaching immediately, taking over mid-semester for a professor who had taken family leave due to his wife’s illness.
Alfredo was nothing less than grateful for his position at the university as adjunct professor, however temporary it might be. No tenure possibilities, but no pressure to publish either.
The Order had granted his subsequent request to be assigned to St. Sophia cathedral in Downtown Ledford as its assistant pastor. Between the two part-time jobs, he made a completely adequate income for himself, a man with no obligations—no family, no car, no mortgage.
And there was Wilder Island and its thousands of corvids, right across the river. What incredible luck! In his first few weeks as a Ledford resident, Alfredo had learned everything he could about the island and its namesake, Maxmillian Wilder, the legendary hermit of the last century.
He found an old postcard in a used bookshop Downtown—a great many black birds flying above the silhouettes of treetops against a backdrop of a garish sunset. Turning it over, Alfredo read:
Murder of Crows, 1937
Wilder Island, Halloween Night
Frederick T. Nelson
Later, he had discovered that the original photograph hung in the Ledford city library. “Was this photo really taken on Halloween night?” he asked the librarian.
“Yes, indeedy,” the librarian had said, peering over her glasses at Alfredo. “The whole town saw it. There were thousands of them, right at sunset. They started swirling around like a black cyclone, my mother said.” The librarian swayed back and forth in her chair with her arms raised high above her head. “They flew around like that till the sun went down, in honor of the old hermit. They say he had died earlier that very day.”
The librarian’s story had excited him. And then he had met the two brothers, Floyd and Willy, at the duck pond on campus. They weren’t from Cadeña-l’jadia, they said.
Cadeña-l’jadia. The corvid name for Wilder Island. Alfredo had not spoken to a crow in years, out of fear his professional life would be ruined if anyone found out. His graduate committee had very nearly failed him at his PhD defense.
He missed them, the friendly and quite talkative crows of his youth. Floyd and Willy had reminded him of his old friends in the forest behind his boyhood home, but he dared not be seen talking to them on campus. Perhaps I can sneak off to Cadeña-l’jadia and make a few friends.
He remembered his first visit to the island, when he walked down the stone steps to the public docks at the Waterfront, and a single outlandish-looking boat that looked like a small island of trees was moored at the for-hire dock.
“Can you take me to Wilder Island, sir?” he asked the captain, who stood on the dock next to his boat, his great tattooed arms folded across his chest.
The captain gestured to him. “All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia.”
Startled that the captain used the crow-speech name for Wilder Island, Alfredo stepped onto the boat and immediately forgot his surprise as he marveled at the overhead canopy of exquisitely crafted wrought-iron trees. “Thank you, Captain,” he said and put out his hand. “Alfredo Manzi. I am a Jesuit and professor at the university.”
The captain nodded and shook his hand. “Pleasure’s mine, Padre. Folks just call me the Captain, though my mother named me Andrew.”
A crow perched on the railing that went all the way around the boat. She studied Alfredo curiously for a few moments, looking at him as if she knew who he was. “Me mum named me Dolores, but folks call me Sugarbabe,” she said to Alfredo and stretched out a wing.
“I am happy to meet both of you,” he said as he swished his palm across her wing.
Alfredo watched the Captain push the boat off from the dock. His arms were covered in scenes of a rushing river, with fish leaping through its foamy current. He inhaled deeply of the water-scented air, grateful for a day of blue sky and sunshine for his first trip to the island.
“I have heard the river is treacherous between the mainland and the island. I was worried about finding a ride,” he said.
The river seemed to rise up at his words and lob a small spray of water, carefully aimed at the Captain’s face. But she was not fast enough; the Captain ducked sway, laughing.
“Treacherous she is,” the Captain said as he resumed rowing, “for those who don’t know her ways. Me, I’ve been on this river since I was a wee lad. The river, we’re friends all these years. She don’t give me trouble.”
“And that is my good fortune!” Alfredo said. “Not many have made it to the island, they say.”
“The river,” the Captain said. “She decides who goes and who stays. Few are called.”
“Called?” Alfredo asked. “I was not called. I am just curious about the island and its crows.”
“Right,” the Captain said with a nod, keeping his gaze on the water ahead.
In truth, however, for the entire six months Alfredo had resided in Ledford, he had felt the island pulling him, cajoling him to renounce his life on the mainland and come live among the forests and its crows.
“Yonder’s the old hermit’s chapel,” the Captain said as Wilder Island loomed closer.
Alfredo looked toward the direction where the Captain had pointed. “I see only a tangle of dead branches and vines in the treetops. Where is the chapel?”
“That is the chapel, Padre,” the Captain said. “The roof, it looks more like a dead tree than anything, what you can see of it through the green. It was pretty fine in its day, I reckon. People forgot it, though, soon as the old hermit died. But the birds, they don’t forget. Ravens took it over. They like to build nests and raise their young up in the roof.”
Alfredo gazed at the chapel, imagining it full of ravens. “Have you been to the island?” he asked. It had not occurred to him that anyone had visited the island other than the legendary hermit.
The Captain nodded and said, “Yes, sir. I spent some time there, coupla months maybe. The land is too hard. It hurts my feet. This river, she’s my home.”
The Captain pushed his oar deeper into the water, steering the small boat toward the island. The closer they got, the more turbulent and ill-behaved the river became, though the Captain’s boat seemed to float in steady, calm water.
The island was so close Alfredo could see the leaves on the trees that grew near the river’s edge. The Captain guided the boat into a small inlet without even a ripple of consternation from the river. When they ground to a stop on the sandy bank, Alfredo leaped off and turned to pay the captain for the ride, but the man had already shoved back into the current.
“G’day.” The Captain tipped his hat. “I’ll come back for you at sunset.”
Alfredo hoisted his small backpack onto his shoulders, excitement surging through him at the prospect of the unexplored.
An island of crows!
He left the inlet and walked into the dense forest, pushing aside bushes and branches, toward the old chapel he had seen from the river. It seemed as if twilight had fallen, so thick was the tree canopy overhead.
Water dripped from the grayish-white rock layers that poked up occasionally through the vegetation. The geologists at the university had told him about the limestone rock that comprised the island. “It’s everywhere around here,” he remembered one of them saying. “Underground, too.”
He stopped frequently to look up into the leaves and branches overhead. Many birds flew through the treetops; he could hear mockingbirds and cardinals, blue jays, robins, finches, sparrows, and an occasional mourning dove. Everything but crows, it seemed.
Are they hiding from me?
He stopped at a small pool fed by a curtain of water beads that dripped from between two moss-bedecked layers of gray rock. He squatted next to the pool, filled his cupped hands with water, and drank. He wiped his mouth after he had quenched his thirst with the cool, tasteless water, and took out his water bottles. He emptied them on the ground and refilled them with water from the pool.
He stood back up and stepped across the stream that fed the pond. He could see the gray-and-white chapel roof through the green trees. And what marvelous trees! He recognized only a few—basswood, willow, dogwood, and black spruce. Flowering bushes grew between the tall trees, whose exotic scents seemed familiar to Alfredo, but he could not name them. Wildflowers grew everywhere in reckless profusion among the infinite shades of green. He thought of his new colleague at the biology department, Russ Matthews. He was a botanist; this would be his paradise!
Alfredo stepped into a small clearing and beheld the small chapel nestled within a circle of trees. The remains of a door lay intact on the ground; its vine hinges had long ago rotted away. He tore away some vines that had grown across the space between the two trees from which the door had hung and stepped inside. It was quite dark; the old and new vines that covered the roof allowed little light through.
He looked up at the mosaic of blue sky and fluffy white clouds though the interwoven branches and vines of the roof. It seemed for a moment like the stained glass ceiling of the Jesuit chapel in Rome.
“Except this one looks like an upside down bird’s nest!” he said. He gaped in wonder for a few moments before noticing two pairs of eyes staring coldly down at him from a nest within the roof. Ravens. He could hear faint cheeping sounds from above.
“Greetings,” he said, and the eyes vanished. Moments later a large black shape whooshed down from the roof and out the door.
Sunlight filtered through the roof, casting a dappled pattern of light and shadow on a dirt floor littered with forest matter. A crude kneeler hewn from some unknown wood, bleached white by time and weather arose from the center of the roughly circular space.
Illuminated by a patch of sunshine, a human skull on the dirt floor opposite him caught his eye, and with a few steps, he was looking down at a completely picked-over human skeleton. This must be Brother Wilder’s remains. No doubt the island’s crows and ravens ate all the flesh off.
Alfredo could not think of a more wonderful way to decompose—giving up one’s mortal remains as food for the living. I will bring a shovel next time and bury his bones. And a marker for his grave.
“The Patua’ has arrived,” NoExit said to Charlie. The two birds perched on the railing around the deck at Bruthamax’s tree house.
NoExit had flown from the chapel to the Treehouse where Charlie lived, clear on the other end of the island. Though it was an inconvenience, it was really not so far, only a mile or so by wing. And Charlie had asked him to keep an eye out for this Patua’.
“When?” Charlie asked. “Where is he? How long has he been there? Did you talk to him?”
“About a half hour or so,” NoExit said, irritated at being peppered with so many questions. “He is poking around the chapel. And no, I did not talk to him.”
“We could use another Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said.
“Perhaps,” NoExit said with a shrug of his wings. “But if he stays on, I reckon we will be moving out of Bruthamax’s chapel—soon as the kreegans fledge. We like our privacy.”
Alfredo swept the dust off the armrest of the kneeler in the center of the chapel. He knelt on its hard wood, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands together. A withered old man with long gray hair shuffled across the backs of his eyelids. A sudden wind blew a flurry of leaves into a spiral dance all around the kneeler, spoiling his concentration and coating him with dirt. He stood up and brushed the debris from his clothes and hair and left the dark chapel.
“Grawky, Jayzu!” a voice said.
He blinked in the bright sunlight and found a blue-eyed crow looking up at him with a wing outstretched. “Name’s Charlie. To what do we owe the honor of a Patua’ visit?”
Delighted to find a talkative crow on Wilder Island right away, Alfredo grazed the crow’s outstretched wing with his open palm. “Grawky, Charlie!” he said with a big smile. “The honor and pleasure is mine!”
Charlie folded his wing against his side. “Pleasure and honor all around, then. It’s not every day we have a Patua’ in our midst. But Floyd and Willy told me they had met you. They too were surprised to meet an actual Patua’.”
“But I am not a Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I am a Jesuit.” He stood on one leg, took off a boot and turned it upside down. A pebble fell to the ground. “My name is Alfredo Manzi,” he continued, hopping around on one foot as he put his boot back on. “Some call me Father Manzi. At the university, where I am the entire ornithology department, they call me Dr. Manzi. But I prefer Alfredo.”
“Yes,” Charlie said. “But you are Jayzu to us.”
“A good a name as any, I suppose,” Alfredo said. He sat down on a log and tied the laces of his boot. “Jayzu it is. But what does Patua’ mean? I have heard you use it twice, but otherwise have never heard the word before.”
Charlie sprang up to an adjacent rock and sharpened his beak on it. “A Patua’ is a yooman such as yourself,” he said, as if the priest should know that. “Perhaps it has come to your attention that not all yoomans have conversations with crows? Those of you who can are the Patua’.”
“The Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I had no idea there were others like me. I have always thought I am just a freak.”
A magpie flew overhead, crying out “Free-eek! Fre-eek!” before disappearing into the branches of a tall basswood tree.
“You are not a freak,” Charlie said, shaking his head. “You are Patua’. Back in the day, a millennia or so ago, there were millions of Patua’.”
“Millions?” Alfredo could hardly believe it. “I have never heard of them. What happened to them?”
“Hard to say. Extermination by other yoomans did in a great number of Patua’.” Charlie hopped off the rock and beaked a beetle out of the dirt and swallowed it. “Same as what happened to the Neanderthals. But there are other factors and causes. We don’t know really.”
Alfredo sighed, looking away. An old childhood fantasy surfaced, of living alone on an island with a crow. He smiled sadly at the memory. That was after he had been severely punished by his mother, for “talking like those horrible crows.”
“Bruthamax was the most famous Patua’ that ever came to the island,” Charlie said. “Or anywhere else for that matter. He lived here among the crows, my ancestors, for almost a hundred years.”
“Bruthamax?” Alfredo said. “Do you mean Brother Maxmillian Wilder? The old hermit the island was named after?” He leaned down and overturned a rectangular gray rock. A furry brown spider scurried away, leaving behind an egg sac. Alfredo put the rock gently back into place.
“One and the same,” Charlie replied. “Though we don’t call this place Wilder Island. To us it is Cadeña-l’jadia—‘the land of swampy waters amid green forests and mists.’ But we don’t mind that yoomans named it after one of yours we actually admire. In fact”—Charlie shrugged his wings—“we tend to think of Bruthamax as one of ours.”
Alfredo felt another pang of homesickness for the crow companions of his boyhood. He saw a younger version of himself playing hide-and-seek with them. Charlie reminded him of his best friend in all the world, a crow named Caleb.
“Much that is written about Bruthamax seems to be folklore and fantasy,” Alfredo said, still caught up in memories of his younger self. He was happy to run in the woods with crows, but it was deeply troubling to his family.
My mother sent me to the Jesuits when I was a boy. And within this Order I have disappeared. Like a spider under a rock.
“We have kept many stories about Bruthamax,” Charlie said. “He came because he was Patua’, just like you did. My ancestor Hozey the Younger helped him build this chapel, and a house up in a tree down yonder.” Charlie gestured with a wing toward the downriver end of the island. “My nest and my wife, Rika, are there in the branches above Bruthamax’s tree house. Hozey the Younger lived there too. It’s a family tradition.”
“A tree house!” Alfredo said. “I had assumed Bruthamax lived here in the chapel.”
“Not until his last year,” Charlie said. “Bruthamax lived in the Treehouse until then, when he got too old to climb up and down the tree and navigate the way. After that, Hozey and his family took care of him in the chapel until he died.”
“I would love to see Bruthamax’s Treehouse sometime,” Alfredo said, “if that would not be too much of an intrusion.”
Charlie unfolded his wings and flapped a few times, scattering a small pile of leaves. “I will take you there some time, after our kreegans have fledged. You’d be a tremendous distraction, and Rika is already worrying they won’t ever leave the nest. All but JoEd, that is. He’s an early bird, that one—started trying to fly before he had all his feathers.”
Alfredo stood up, brushed the dirt off his pants, and picked up his backpack. “I have been scolded and pecked at enough times by an angry mother bird,” he said with a laugh. “The young ones are quite vulnerable during fledging, and I do not wish to interfere. I shall see the Treehouse another day. Today I will explore the island, with your permission of course.”
“Be my guest,” Charlie said.
Crow and priest parted, and Alfredo spent the rest of the day wandering through the forest, astounded by the unsullied and abundant growth. He walked, oblivious to the passage of time, gazing in almost stupefied delight at the abundance of creation all around him. Different species of trees each sported their own combinations of gray, brown, or black bark, and the leaves split the color green into a million different shades and hues. Wildflowers grew everywhere grass or shrubs did not, and he felt as if he were walking in the Garden of Eden, wondering if there were snakes on the island.
The scent of flowers, bark, rotten leaves, and mold permeated the air, and he inhaled its fertile essence as a starving man might fill his empty, aching stomach with food. He had spent his boyhood wandering through another forest, and the memory of those happy times infused the present with faith and affirmation.
Springs and tiny streams crisscrossed his path, and he leaped across those he could see. He sloshed through the invisible streams, giving up any hope that he could keep his feet dry. “Perhaps I will come next time with waders,” he grumbled.
He picked his way slowly through the dense undergrowth, carefully avoiding what he thought might be poison ivy, though the berries were purple, and not the typical green he was familiar with. As he looked around him, everything seemed a bit off. The trees were too tall, or the flowers a strange color.
“I do not think bougainvillea should be growing here,” he said, pausing to admire a bush bursting with yellow and apricot-colored blossoms. “If this is indeed bougainvillea.”
He stooped down low to study a tiny blue flower with a spotted yellow tongue he had seen growing in profusion along his way. “Now that has to be an orchid.”
He picked one and carefully put it in his field notebook to show to his colleague Russ Matthews. “I need to get him out here.”
He continued his slow pace though the thick undergrowth until he came to an obstacle he could not pass—a ravine full of gigantic rectangular boulders. The drop was not far, but the landing spot below was a jumbled pile of up-turned, sharp edged rocks. Willow and hawthorn grew in thickets between the rocks, making passage between them impossible. Alfredo decided to not attempt to cross.
I would be ground meat before I could ever get to the other side.
He felt a rain drop on his arm. Then two, three, four. He looked up. The blue sky was gone, replaced by dark gray clouds streaking hurriedly eastward. Lightning seemed to dart through the trees to his left, and the thunderclap that followed sent him to the ground. The rain started, a sudden downpour, and he was back on his feet scrambling for shelter as he struggled to open his backpack.
He dove beneath the sprawling branches and wide leaves of a catalpa tree and pulled his rain jacket from his pack. After quickly putting it on, he leaned against the trunk and dug again in his pack for his lunch.
The rain stopped as he finished eating, and he looked up at wispy clouds interspersed with blue sky. He glanced at his watch. It’s time to return to the inlet. The Captain will be along soon. He stuffed his rain jacket into his pack and retraced his steps as best as he could remember. When he stepped out of the forest at the inlet, the Captain and the crow were waiting.
“Greetings, Jayzu!” the crow called out. “All aboard for the Waterfront!”
Alfredo stopped and stared, wondering if he should greet the crow. But right in front of the Captain? Wouldn’t he take me for a babbling fool?
“Don’t just stand there with your mouth hangin’ open!” the crow hollered. “Climb aboard!”
“Ease up, Sugarbabe,” the Captain said, winking at Alfredo. “Go lightly, remember?”
Sugarbabe looked for a moment at the captain, tilting her head to one side. “Next time. Maybe.” She laughed raucously and held out her wing to Alfredo.
In complete astonishment, Alfredo brushed his fingertips across her wing and stammered, “I uh, that is, my name is Alfredo. At least that is what my mother named me, but—”
The Captain talks to crows?
“And me mum named me Judith,” she said. “But everyone around here calls me Sugarbabe. Fits me better than Judith, don’t you think?”
Alfredo nodded speechlessly.
“Just like we call you Jayzu,” she said. “Much better, don’t you think? You don’t look like no Alfredo.”
“Perhaps not,” Alfredo said, laughing at the crow’s familiar humor.
So the Captain is “Patua’”! Surely Charlie knows. Why did he not tell me? It was hard to get used to the idea of others like him, much as he desired companionship.
He wanted to start a conversation with the Captain, but how to start? The Captain’s craggy face was hard to read. Alfredo could not guess how old the man was.
“But how do you know anything about me?”
“My beak is sealed,” Sugarbabe said, turning her beak toward the direction the Captain rowed.
Alfredo watched the Captain’s huge tattooed arms push the oar deep into the water, his muscles flexing into fish leaping through curling waves. “Captain,” he said after they had passed the rocky point and headed toward the city dock. “I guess you know more about me than I know about you.”
“How so?” the Captain said, keeping his eyes on the water. “I know you are a priest, and you know I am a boatman. We both keep company with black birds who talk too much.” He winked at Sugarbabe. “What else is there to know?”
Alfredo laughed, his discomfort slipping away with the Captain’s humor. A fish leaped out of the water. Or was that the Captain’s tattoo? “I was unaware there were others like me until today. I have kept my secret hidden my entire life.”
The Captain squinted at him for a moment. “As we all have, Padre.”
“As we all have?” Alfredo asked. “Do you know of other Patua’ around here, other than you and me?”
The Captain did not reply for a few moments. “A few,” he said gruffly, “here and there.”
The Captain pulled his boat into one of the docks at the Waterfront. Alfredo tried to pay him, but he just tipped his hat, saying, “G’day, Padre,” and shoved his boat back into the current.
Alfredo walked to the rectory at St. Sophia’s, reflecting again on the idea that there were others like him. Shocking, yet fascinating! He almost longed for what he had never known: close human companionship. At the same time, he had been relieved when Charlie had said there were no other Patua’ on Wilder Island. He wanted to be the only one.
Henry Braun poured two glasses of champagne and offered one to his attorney, Jules Sackman, who waved a hand in refusal. “Too early for me, Henry,” he said. “But you go ahead.”
Even by Henry’s standards, champagne before noon was a bit early, but he was in a fabulous mood. He had just closed on a lucrative deal in which he made a healthy profit on a building he had bought for a song. It would provide the seed money he needed for his latest and most grandiose project of them all: Ravenwood Resort.
Henry sat behind his gargantuan desk in his opulent office, which occupied the majority of the second floor of his mansion on a large estate overlooking the river. Ravenwood Resort was destined to be the pièce de résistance of Henry Braun’s empire, as well as his personal cash cow. Built on and around the island soon to be formerly known as Wilder Island, the resort would ultimately feature two riverboat casinos, an amusement park, a concert hall, and a shopping mall.
Ravenwood Resort. The irony of the name his marketing agency recommended had amused him. There wouldn’t be any ravens left on that island when he was finished, of course. Nor would there be any woods. But the market research people told him the public would spend more money because of the Ravenwood logo, so he went with it. Henry chortled into his glass. He absolutely loved the way the bubbly tickled his nose.
Life was good.
“Ravenwood Resort is going to be fantastic,” Henry said after swallowing the fizzy golden liquid. “I’m ready to roll with everything—the architects, engineers—just waiting for the word. Just waiting to sign the check. When will we hear from His Holy Eminence—what’s his name again? Majorski?”
“I don’t know,” Jules said with a shrug. “His name is Majewski, Father Superior Thomas Majewski.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Henry said somewhat irritably as he twirled his glass of champagne.
“It means I don’t know,” Jules said. “The most recent letter we got from the Father Provincial’s office said they’ve tabled the discussion of a possible sale of Wilder Island until next month.”
“Next month?” Henry said with a long-suffering sigh. “What for? What’s to discuss? Five million not enough?”
He glanced up at the portraits of his three ancestors, his namesakes, on the wood-paneled walls. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. “Time is money!” he could almost hear Henry the First say as he looked sternly down.
“It’s the Catholic Church we’re dealing with here, remember?” Jules said. “They’re not as lithe and efficient as Braun Enterprises. They probably have to convene a council of cardinals or something to talk about it. I’m surprised it’ll only be a month. But relax, Henry. We’re offering them a ridiculous price for a swampy bog. I’m sure they’ll come around. Just be patient.”
“He who hesitates is last!” Henry the First warned.
“Patience is for saints!” Henry said irritably. He got up and strode to the window. Wilder Island, shrouded in a thunderstorm, seemed dark and forbidding. Soon I’ll drain that stinking swamp. There’ll be lights everywhere. It’ll be a sparkling gem. He turned back toward his attorney and glared at him.
“Here’s what I’m afraid of, Jules,” he said as he sat back down at his desk. “I’m afraid our offer will make them wonder what’s so special about this island, and they’ll send someone out to look at it. Then they’ll want to do an environmental impact study. Then the tree huggers will get involved, and we’ll have to worry they’ll find some ugly little plant, or a worm, that only lives on this island, and the whole world has to grind to a halt.”
“Henry,” Jules said, “now you’re going off the deep end. Come back. None of that is going to happen. It’s just a big bureaucracy, that’s all. No need to be paranoid.”
“I am not paranoid!” Henry shouted. He glanced up at Henry the First shaking his head.
“I’m worried, Jules,” he said, controlling his anger and dropping his voice. “I worry that while you sit on your thumbs, Wilder Island slips through my fingers. I’ve worked too long and too hard to let that happen. I swear by the blood of my ancestors—” he raised his glass to the portraits on the wall. “I swear that Wilder Island will once again belong to a Braun. As God is my witness.”
Henry the First nodded approvingly, with just a hint of a smile curling the edges of his mouth.