“Imagine my surprise finding you in Ledford!” Father Provincial Thomas Majewski said to Alfredo over the phone. “It’s good to hear your voice after all these years!”
Alfredo was on duty at St. Sophia’s, preparing for his shift in the confessional. When the phone rang, he had assumed it would be one of the parishioners wanting absolution over the phone. Thank the Good Lord Almighty, it was the head of the entire Jesuit operation in North America instead!
Majewski’s voice took Alfredo back to his graduate school days and his unfriendly committee. Except for Dr. Thomas, as the students had called Majewski. He was always available and certainly had a more open mind than the other committee members.
“Likewise, Thomas!” Alfredo agreed. “But I’m surprised to hear from you. To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?”
“Well,” Majewski’s baritone voice boomed, “I don’t much believe in synchronicities, but it seems as if this Wilder Island has become the focus of all my attention lately!”
Alfredo looked out the window at the island in the afternoon sun, wishing he were there. He imagined even God would prefer the whispering breezes and his exuberant creation to the cold walls of the cathedral, and the laments of rich, lonely women.
“Mine too!” Alfredo laughed. “I can see it out my window as we speak.”
“Tell me about this island, Alfredo,” Majewski said. “We’ve gotten an offer from a gentleman named Henry Braun, right there in Ledford, for several million dollars.”
Alfredo’s blood went cold. No! You cannot sell it! “For what purpose?” he said, hoping his voice did not betray his fear. “There is nothing there, really. It is not considered habitable by humans.” Except by me.
“The letter didn’t say what he wanted it for,” Majewski said. “Development, presumably.”
“He cannot be serious!” Alfredo cried. He doodled on the pad in front of him, drawing the word “No!” in three-dimensional block letters.
“He is,” Majewski said. “He calls my office daily, waiting for an answer. But calm down, Alfredo. He annoys the hell out of me. I’m inclined to turn him down for that alone.”
“That is good to hear,” Alfredo said, drawing a dollar sign on the pad. “The island is quite small and very difficult to get to. Where the undergrowth is not completely impassable, it is very boggy and full of mosquitoes.”
“So you’ve been there?” Majewski asked. “I was hoping to get you to do some investigating for us. Is it really haunted?”
Alfredo laughed and said, “No, not at all. There are many crows–an unusually large number, in fact. But nothing sinister, nothing magical. In fact, I am heading over there this morning, among other things to bury Maxmillian Wilder’s remains. He was an old hermit that lived on the island for many years and built a remarkable little chapel.”
“What else do you know about Maxmillian Wilder?” Majewski asked. “He was one of ours, you know. A Jesuit.”
“Was he?” Alfredo said. He drew a skull on the desk pad. “I assumed he had taken holy orders, but he was one of us?”
He frowned, wondering if Charlie knew that. He seemed to know everything else about Brother Maxmillian Wilder. Bruthamax.
“Yes, he was a Jesuit, according to some letters and legal documents I accidentally found. But there’s no mention of a Maxmillian Wilder in our records anywhere.”
“None?” Alfredo was taken aback. “Why would the Jesuits expunge one of their own?”
“We don’t,” Majewski said. “We keep records on everyone, even the de-frocked.”
Alfredo finished hearing confession, and changed from priestly garb into jeans, a T-shirt, and hiking boots. He left his apartment at the rectory at St. Sophia’s and headed for the Waterfront. From the top of the stone steps, he saw the Captain and his floating forest of a boat seemingly waiting for him.
“Here you are again, just when I need you,” he said as he climbed aboard. “Do you have a sixth sense, Captain? Or is it always a coincidence that you are here whenever I need you?”
“I travel the river from sunup to sundown,” the Captain said, “looking for those who are looking for a ride.”
“Hahaha!” Sugarbabe screeched and flapped her wings on her perch next to the Captain. “No way, Jayzu! A little birdie told him! Me! Me! Me!” She danced around on her perch.
The Captain grinned, and tried to cuff the crow with the back of his hand, but she leaped off her perch screeching with laughter.
“Can’t get away with much with this old blabber-mouth around!” he said as he pushed his boat away from the dock.
“But no one knew I wanted to go to the island today,” Alfredo said, thinking back on his morning. “Am I being spied upon?” he asked Sugarbabe.
“I know nothing,” she said, burying her beak in her wingpit.
“Now that’s a ding-dang lie, Sugarbabe!” the Captain said as he pushed the boat away from the dock. “You know everything that’s to know all up and down this river. And on Cadeña-l’jadia!” He turned to Alfredo, winked, and then looked back at the bird. “Nothing gets by you!”
Sugarbabe pulled her head out and preened her breast feathers flat. “I know nothing about no spying,” she insisted.
Alfredo laughed and said, “I suppose I do not mind being spied upon by crows, Sugarbabe. I had no idea I was that interesting.”
“Oh,” Sugarbabe said, “you’re that interesting all right. You’re Bruthamax’s kin! That’s why Charlie sent the magpies to follow you around, so they could tell him—” She suddenly stopped and glanced at the Captain. “Oops,” she said. A moment later, she leaped into the sky and flew off.
The Captain threw his head back and laughed. “She never can keep a secret, that one!”
Alfredo smiled and then he frowned. “Why am I being spied upon by crows?”
The Captain shrugged. “They’ve got their reasons, I reckon.”
He looked away suddenly, and Alfredo wondered if the Captain knew more about him than he let on. He felt somewhat disappointed that his new friend Charlie had watched him through the eyes of magpies. Why did he not visit himself if I am that important?
“But how did you know I would need a ride over to the island this morning?” Alfredo asked.
“Coincidence,” the Captain shrugged, his eyes straight ahead. “I reckon.”
The island’s dark green forest loomed larger as they approached, and Alfredo felt his heart lighten. The Captain brought the boat to a halt on the shore at the inlet, and he leaped out. He offered to pay for the ride, but the Captain pushed his floating forest away from the dock tipping his hat saying, “G’day, Padre. Be back at sunset.”
After waving good-bye to the Captain, Alfredo made his way to the old chapel. He opened the door and entered the patchwork of sunshine and shadows. Illuminated by several shafts of sunlight through the bird’s-nest roof, Maxmillian’s bones gleamed garishly white in the dim interior.
The skeleton was remarkably intact, considering it had been stripped clean of all soft tissue long ago by both vertebrate and invertebrate creatures on the island. He picked up the skull, and something dropped to the dirt. He dusted it off on his shirt and peered curiously at it: a large wooden bead of some sort. Or perhaps stone; it was rather heavy for its size. But the light in the chapel was too dim to examine it further. He put it in his backpack and continued with his task.
He carefully placed each of Brother Maxmillian’s bones into a burlap sack and took it outside to a place just below the chapel, above the rocky point of the island’s headlands. After he dug a hole, he placed the sack of bones into it and filled it with dirt. He took the small white cross he had fashioned from wood in the handyman’s shop, upon which he had carved M. W., and pushed it into the dirt.
Charlie the blue-eyed crow flew in low and landed on a flat rock next to the grave.
“Hello, my friend,” Alfredo greeted him, wondering again how much this crow knew about him. “I have buried Bruthamax’s bones.”
“I can see that,” Charlie replied. “Why? They were not a health hazard, were they?”
“No,” Alfredo said. “It is a human tradition to bury our dead. It honors them, we think.”
“In that case,” Charlie said, “may I join you in honoring Bruthamax? He was held in high esteem among us crows, you know, and we take any opportunity we can to revere his memory.”
“Of course,” Alfredo said.
Suddenly dozens of crows materialized from the trees around the chapel, startling Alfredo. The crows dropped to the ground, surrounded Brother Wilder’s grave, and bowed their heads. He was extremely touched by their reverence, and he bowed his head with them. In the language of the crows, he prayed, “Dear Lord Almighty, please receive our Brother Maxmillian Wilder, that is, Bruthamax, into your infinite peace. In his name, may you bless this island of crows and keep it safe from all harm.”
“Amen,” Charlie said, flapping his wings.
The other crows all flapped wings and shouted elegies to their hero: “The memory of Bruthamax lives in our hearts forever!” “Bruthamax! Where for art thou?”
“I had no idea,” Alfredo said, “that after all these years Bruthamax is held in such high regard by so many birds. He has been dead for decades.”
The birds wandered around murmuring more epitaphs to one another. A few picked flowers and laid them gently in front of the small cross.
“Bruthamax is legendary to just about every corvid family in North America,” Charlie said. “Word flew out from Cadeña-l’jadia as soon as he died. Church bells everywhere rang out the news, even the bells at St. Sophia’s.”
“The bell-ringers were all Patua’?” Alfredo asked.
“Humans didn’t ring the bells,” Charlie said. “Crows did. They hung on the ropes by beak and claw until there were enough of them to pull it down. News of his passing spread by wing and beak after that. Thousands of ravens and crows, along with many jays and magpies from the entire river region, flew to the island for the Grand Funeral Roosting. Never in modern times has a human been so honored by us.”
“One man meant so much to so many birds,” Alfredo said. “Yet he was unknown among humans.”
“Yep,” Charlie said. “Sometimes that’s just the way it is.”
Gradually the crows dissolved back into the trees and sky, leaving Alfredo and Charlie standing next to the little wooden cross. “I brought lunch today, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I was hoping to bribe you into taking me down to Bruthamax’s tree house.”
“I can definitely be bribed,” Charlie said.
The two walked side by side down to the flat gray rocks above the riverbank. Alfredo took a hero sandwich from his backpack, unwrapped it, cut it in half, and put one piece on a small flat rock for the crow. Charlie knocked the top bun off his sandwich and beaked a chunk of ham. He tossed it in the air, catching and swallowing it in one motion.
Within a few minutes, the sandwich was gone, both halves, though Charlie left most of the bun. “Someone’ll eat it,” he said, cleaning his beak in the sand.
“The Jesuits have discovered they own the island,” Alfredo said as he stuffed the paper wrappings into his pack.
“No one owns Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said sharply. “You can’t own anything you cannot carry in your two claws—or in your case, hands.”
“Someone offered them a lot of money,” Alfredo said with some discomfort. No use mincing words. “They want me to provide them with more information so they can assess the island’s value.”
“Val-yooo!” a mockingbird sang from the trees nearby. “Val-yoooo!” the call echoed through the trees.
“Value,” Charlie said, his head tipped thoughtfully. “Now there’s a word that means something completely different to humans than it does to me.”
“Or me,” Alfredo said. “But I worry that whoever made this offer wants to develop the island. They may want to cut the trees down and build houses. Or worse.”
Alfredo imagined the lush forest all around him gone, replaced by some human nonsense—a shopping center or amusement park, perhaps?
“In that case,” Charlie said, “it only matters if you Jesuits aren’t planning the same thing.”
“Probably not,” Alfredo said. He picked up a small smooth stone and tossed it back and forth between his hands. “The island has a Jesuit-built chapel on it. It is more likely the Order will want to preserve it than have it torn down. I will do whatever I can to discourage them from selling.”
“Cadeña-l’jadia owns itself,” Charlie said. “Best you humans remember that.” He unfurled his wings as he hopped off the rock and into the sky. “Shall we head down to the Treehouse?”
They traveled through the dense forest toward the Treehouse, the human on foot, the crow by wing. Hundreds of birds whizzed by—crows, magpies, jays, mockingbirds, and an assortment of other birds too small to identify. Many of them called out as they passed: “Greetings, Jayzu!” “Yahoo, Jayz-ZOOO!” “Grawky, Jayzu!”
He greeted them all back with a wave of his hand. “Grawky! Grawky!”
They came to the precipice Alfredo had encountered on his first visit to the island. “I have been here before, Charlie. I do not think I can get across this,” Alfredo said as he looked over the edge at the sheer drop. “It is not too far down, but I am afraid I would either impale myself on the trees or smash up on the rocks.”
“Follow me!” Charlie called out over his shoulder. “There’s a bridge over this way.”
Alfredo plowed his way through the thick undergrowth and found the crow perched atop a wooden post at the beginning of a swaying footbridge. “This bridge has been here over a hundred years,” Charlie said. “Bruthamax built it.”
The bridge seemed amazingly sturdy; though it had neither been used nor repaired in decades, it had not deteriorated. Charlie hopped down from his perch and started walking across the bridge. “Come on, Jayzu!” he said.
“Do you think it will hold me?” Alfredo asked as he yanked hard on the thick vine ropes.
Charlie leaped off the bridge and said, “I don’t know, Jayzu, but it is the only way across the Boulders for the two-legged.”
“Here I come,” Alfredo said as he stepped onto the bridge. “Lord, please keep me in one piece.” The old bridge swayed wildly from side to side as he crossed, but it held fast. He stepped onto a platform in the old tree on the other side of the boulder ravine and looked back at the bridge with admiration. “Bruthamax was quite the engineer.”
“With a little help from his friends,” Charlie said. “My ancestor Hozey the Younger and many other crows.”
Alfredo imagined a scene of crows flying to and fro, carrying lengths of vine in their beaks across the Boulders to Bruthamax, who strung them through flat pieces of wood.
“That is even more amazing, Charlie,” he said. “Humans and crows working together. Mighty impressive.” He stepped off the platform onto short stubby branches that spiraled down the trunk all the way to the ground.
“This is marvelous!” Alfredo said on his way down. “A perfect natural spiral staircase—the steps grow right out of the trunk.” He looked upward and shook his head. “While the branches above the platform provide a canopy of shade.”
“Bruthamax had a way with the trees,” Charlie said. “He had his own orchard near the tree house.”
“Really?” Alfredo said, his dark eyebrows arching. “An orchard?”
“That’s right,” Charlie said. “And a pond, and a smokehouse.”
He pointed a wing and said as he leapt into the air, “The Treehouse is this way! Follow me, Jayzu! And watch out. There are many wet places down there.”
Alfredo looked back. The bridge had completely disappeared, and the dense forest closed in all around. “Good thing I have you to guide me, Charlie,” he said. “I have no idea how to get back.”
For a while, the ground was firm and dry, and he walked easily through the forest. His path became more difficult as the ground grew soft and wet with spongy bogs and dark pools. He stumbled on tree roots and an occasional rock hidden in the undergrowth. Overhead, the trees were hung with moss and vines, and hundreds of birds of many colors flew through the trees, all singing out at once.
Surprised and delighted at the plethora of flowers and vines that decorated the trees, Alfredo walked in wonder through tiny glens of miniature blue and yellow flowers that peeked up through the grasses. Star-shaped lilies of bright pink sprang from clumps of green spears amid an abundance of red and orange fan-shaped flowers he could not identify.
Charlie glided easily through the branches and trunks, helping Alfredo pick his way along the ground below. “Jayzu!” he called out, “Stop! You’re heading into a bog. Go back!”
Alfredo tried to stop his forward momentum, but he tripped over a tree root and slid into a small pool of watery black mud. “Too late!” he said, pulling his mud-covered boot out of a shallow pool that he mistook for solid ground covered by tiny plants.
He tried to keep a better eye on Charlie after that, but the calls of many birds distracted his attention, and he found it difficult not to look up into the forest canopy. He was sure there was more than one birdcall he’d never heard before.
He waved at the swamp sparrows who trilled as he passed, and he called out a greeting to the chattering magpies. Underneath the birdcalls, crickets and other insects performed their own unique vignettes that somehow merged with all the other voices into an energetic song of life on a summer afternoon.
With so many birds flying among the trees, Alfredo lost track of which one was Charlie. He stopped and called out, “Where are you, Charlie? I cannot see you.”
“Charlie?” a mockingbird mocked, “I cannot see you!”
“Charlie!” a raven rasped, “where are you?”
“Char-lee!” a red-winged blackbird trilled. “Char-lee, Charleee!”
“Up here, Jayzu!” Charlie called, “Right above you. The Treehouse is straight ahead.”
“As the crow flies,” grumbled Alfredo as he slogged through a shallow mud bog, trying to follow Charlie. He stopped next to an unexpected human-built structure, a hut constructed of small, rough-hewn wood planks. “What is this?” he asked.
Charlie landed on the roof. “Either Bruthamax’s smoke house or his crapper,” he said. “I could never tell which from which.”
“Looks like the crapper,” Alfredo said, noting the wood box with a hole cut through the top. “He had a smoke house, too?”
“Yep,” Charlie said. “It got struck by lightning a few years back and burnt to the ground. But I didn’t know it was the smokehouse, till now.”
They continued on their way, and within a few minutes, Alfredo stood before a towering, black gum tree. “Bruthamax’s Treehouse!” Charlie said.
Alfredo looked up, but saw nothing but a gnarly tangle of living and dead vines. “Where?” he asked, making his way around the massive, ivy-encased trunk. He craned his neck, squinting his eyes, hoping to discern a human-built structure.
“Up here,” Charlie said, looking down at him. “The way up for the two-legged is around the other side.”
He disappeared into the leaves, and Alfredo walked around the tree whose huge trunk was nearly encased in a variety of vines. Charlie dropped to the ground at the base of a graceful spiral of ivy and Virginia creeper that disappeared above into the great tree’s interior. “Bruthamax climbed these stairs up to the Treehouse,” Charlie said, gesturing upward with his beak.
“What stairs?” Alfredo wondered. He unshouldered his pack and pulled out a machete he had borrowed from the gardener’s shed at St. Sophia’s. Hacking through a hundred years of vinage was no small task, but the effort revealed a series of wooden steps, stacked one upon the next, winding around a central axis and disappearing into the darkness above.
He tested the bottom step. It seemed sturdy enough, and he wound his way up, hacking the thick growth of vines from the steps. He continued chopping away until his machete cut through to a wooden deck made of smooth, straight tree branches lashed together by living and dead vines. He cut away the last of the vines and heaved himself onto the deck.
A crude railing of smooth, undulating lengths of whitewashed branches attached to posts enclosed the small deck, evidently a favorite perch for a multitude of birds. “Bruthamax slept outside on this bench in the summertime,” Charlie said, pointing to a vine-encased bench.
“That looks more like a sofa!” Alfredo said and sat down. Over the years, vines had poured over the railing and formed a back.
Vines hung down from the tree branches in a curtain of green leaves, through which Alfredo finally saw it: Bruthamax’s Treehouse. He pushed through the hanging vines and stood before a small edifice, encrusted with tendrils of ropey gray.
Leaves rustled slightly in the branches overhead, and a voice called out, “That’s too far, JoEd! Come back where I can see you!”
A crow dropped onto the deck, and Charlie said, “Jayzu, meet my wife, Rika.”
“I am at my wit’s end with that son of yours,” Rika said irritably as she extended her wing in greeting. “Grawky, Jayzu! It is good to finally make your acquaintance. My husband speaks very highly of you.”
“Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, blushing under her compliment as he brushed his hand across her outstretched wing.
Suddenly she whipped around and shouted, “JoEd! You come back here this instant!” But the little crow did not heed her. She turned around and said to Charlie, “Husband, please fetch back your son before he finds some breeze to blow away on!”
As Charlie took off, Rika said to Alfredo, “I swear by the Great Orb, Jayzu, it is harder with them out of the nest. They can do more, but at least when they were little, the nest kept them from wandering off or getting into trouble.”
As she spoke, four young crows tumbled down onto the deck. “Oh!” Rika said. “And here’s the rest of our family, Jayzu. Kreegans, say hello to Jayzu.”
“Grawky, Jayzu,” the four little crows said in unison, bowing low with their wings straight out over the deck. Alfredo got down on his knees to crow level, grinning at their squeaky young voices. He brushed their little wingtips with his hand, greeting each one in turn.
Charlie came back with JoEd in tow, nudging him into compliance. Even as the two crows landed on the deck, JoEd tried to break free of his parents’ dominion, but Rika caught him by a tail feather and dragged him back. “JoEd, don’t make me clip your wings,” Rika scolded. Turning to Charlie, she said, “Husband, please try to talk some sense into your son!”
“Aw, Weebs!” JoEd complained. “You never let me have any fun. There’s a whole world out there beyond this boring old tree.”
“Listen to your mother, JoEd,” Charlie said. “And say grawky to Jayzu.”
“Grawky, Jayzu!” JoEd said obediently and brushed his wing against Alfredo’s outstretched hand. “My zazu talks about you all the time.”
“Well, JoEd,” Alfredo laughed, “my new friend Charlie, your zazu, has told me all about you! I understand you have already learned to fly.”
“Yes, Jayzu,” JoEd said, puffing up with pride. “I’m an early bird, just like my zazu. And I am going to be a Keeper someday, too. I’ve already been chosen!”
Alfredo watched Rika jump up and dash off to keep JoEd’s siblings from falling off the deck; they were playing King on the Mountain on the deck railing.
“Come, kreegans,” she said to the fledglings. “Back up to the nest!” She scooped them up with her wings and pushed them up into the branches. With a great deal of fluttering and flapping, the little ones made it back to the nest. “JoEd!” Rika called down. “Please come and look after the others.”
“Ah, Weebs!” JoEd said, but obediently he flew up to the nest.
Alfredo turned toward the Treehouse. “A work of art,” he said. “Just like the chapel.”
Years of ivy-growth had almost completely covered the Treehouse, in an ordered chaos of interlocking branches that held one another in place
“Where is the door?” he asked. “These vines have obliterated it. Do you mind if I cut away some of them?”
“Be my guest,” Charlie said. “That stuff grows like weeds.”
Alfredo cut until he uncovered the wooden handle of the door and hacked at the vines until the door appeared.
“That door has been shut for hundreds of corvid generations,” Charlie said. “Ever since our beloved Bruthamax moved up to the chapel in his last days.”
Alfredo yanked on the handle, and the door creaked opened on its wooden hinges. Darkness and scents of mold and dust greeted his senses. He fished a couple of candles from his pack, lit one, and stepped into the Treehouse, and held it up. The trunk of the huge gum tree rose up through the floor and disappeared in the tangled branches of the Hozey-style roof. The walls comprised a solid mass of branches and vines so thick no daylight could penetrate.
Decades of leaves, twigs, and dirt littered the floor and the sparse furnishings: a small rustic table and a bench under a broken window, and a long narrow bed. A stovepipe chimney had collapsed into a crude fireplace.
Charlie and Rika walked across the threshold and into the Treehouse. “Oh, Husband!” Rika said. “Is it not a privilege to stand in the domicile of the great Bruthamax? To think he sat on that bench! Ate at that table!”
“Evidently Bruthamax constructed the walls in the Hozey way as well as the roof,” Alfredo said as he held his candle aloft. “And over the years, the spaces completely filled in with these vines.” He held his candle up as high as he could and gazed upward. Same as the roof.”
“What’s good for the roof is good for the walls, I reckon,” Charlie said.
Alfredo melted the end of the other candle and stuck it to a table constructed of a single driftwood plank on three legs.
“How did Bruthamax build this by himself, I wonder,” he said as he lit the candle from the one in his hand.
“He didn’t,” Charlie said from the doorway. “Hozey the Younger and his family helped him. Just like the chapel and the bridge.”
“They say Bruthamax slept right here,” Charlie said, walking over to a shallow box on legs constructed of split tree trunks.
Bruthamax’s bed had been built up against the wall of the Treehouse, following its contours. “Nothing beats leaves for warmth and cushioning, you know,” Rika said as she surveyed the bed full of tree debris and dirt. “Except perhaps feathers.”
Alfredo laughed and said, “Yes, feathers are best!”
“As the family history goes,” Charlie said, “Bruthamax made a winter cloak out of bird feathers. Crows, mostly, as we are the largest bird family on Cadeña-l’jadia. We, that is my ancestors, they all donated feathers, and Bruthamax sewed them together into a giant cloak that covered him from head to foot. Slept under it too, as the account goes.”
“That must be where the stories come from,” Alfredo said, imagining what the city folk saw. “They say a giant crow used to walk the shores of the island at night, fishing from the river.”
“That would be Bruthamax,” Rika said, nodding. “In his crow feather cloak.”
“It could be made quite livable,” Alfredo said, considering the possibility. “A bit of cleaning, really, is all the place needs.”
“The glass is cracked,” Rika said, pointing a wing toward the broken window above the table.
“And a little window repair,” Alfredo said. “I wonder where Bruthamax got the piece of glass? And that piece of stovepipe? Surely they did not float here on the river!”
They stepped back out onto the deck. Charlie and Rika’s kreegans perched on the railing, all eyes upon Jayzu. “JoEd!” Rika called up to the nest. “What are these kreegans doing down here?” She flew up into the branches. “Don’t tell me that little judavoid has flown off again!”
Charlie flew out of the tree after his son, and Alfredo sat down on the bench. The young crows jumped from the railing into his lap, onto his shoulders and his head where they played King on the Mountain. One fell off his lap and onto the deck, where he discovered Jayzu’s shoelaces. Another pecked at Jayzu’s watch, saying, “Sparkly!”
Alfredo laughed and captured the young crows in his hands, one at a time, put them on their backs, and tickled them under their wings as they laughed and kicked their little feet. “All right, kreegans!” he said after everyone had been tickled at least once. He stood up, scattering the crows to the bench and deck. “It is time for Uncle Jayzu to go home.”
“King on the Mountain!” shouted one of the kreegans as he leapt up to the railing. His siblings flew to the challenge, ready to unseat him and claim the top rail.
Alfredo said good-bye to Rika and spiraled himself down to the ground on the Bruthamax’s stairway. As he walked below the Treehouse, he stumbled on a rock buried in dirt and leaves, and fell forward with a shout as he tumbled through rotten wooden planks into a shallow pit. Unharmed, he stood up and brushed the dirt from his hands.
He stood in a circular hole about five feet deep, lined with flat gray blocks of limestone. Near the top of the pit, a short length of a rusty steel pipe protruded through the stone. “A cistern!” Alfredo said in amazement.
Charlie looked down from the Treehouse railing. “What’s a cistern?”
Alfredo leaped out of the pit and started uncovering the ring of gray rocks at the top. “It is a place to gather and store water,” he said. “People collect rainwater in barrels and cisterns near their houses so they do not have to haul it. Water is quite heavy.”
He looked up at the underside of the Treehouse. “But this one did not collect rain water. I bet this pipes water from a stream or a spring nearby.” He kicked aside the dirt and leaves covering the pipe and followed it a short distance uphill, to a pond fed by a small, trickling stream.
“This must’ve been Bruthamax’s water source,” Alfredo said, pointing to the other end of the pipe. “It must have gotten clogged up over the years.” He dropped to his knees and took a drink from the clear pool, sweet and cold.
He stood up, surveying the old hermit’s water works. It would not take much to get the cistern filled again. But not today. “I must head back,” he said to Charlie. “The Captain will be arriving at the inlet to pick me up shortly.”
Under Charlie’s winged guidance, he walked back to the inlet, where the Captain and Sugarbabe awaited him. The Captain rowed in silence, and Alfredo watched the green island recede, hoping one day he would never leave. He imagined sleeping on the deck of the Treehouse, with everything he needed at hand’s reach. Perhaps Charlie and Rika would not mind.
Alfredo could not stop thinking about the cistern underneath the tree house, wondering how Bruthamax could have built it by himself. He could imagine digging a hole that large, but with what? And the cement to grout in the limestone bricks? Where did that come from? Where did he get the iron pipe? Surely not from Hozey!
Clearly Bruthamax had a human helper, someone like the Captain perhaps? To bring him supplies and help with the heavy work … but then why do the crows say he never spoke to a human after he came to the island?
He returned to the Treehouse a few days later, with Charlie again leading him through the bogs and dark forest. He brought a small, plastic tarp, a shovel, and a bucket and cleaned the dirt and leaves out of the cistern. Even the bottom had been lined with limestone bricks, and grouted with cement.
After he unclogged the pipe at the small pool, it sucked water in with a loud slurping noise. He ran back, hearing the sound of water falling as a stream poured into the cistern.
“This will take days to fill,” he said as he and Charlie watched. He pulled a few branches across the top of the cistern and covered them with the tarp. He placed a few large rocks around the edge of the tarp to hold it down. “That should keep dirt and animals out, until I can build a more permanent cover.”
He spent the night on the deck of the Treehouse, gazing at the stars up through the leaves. Corvus, the constellation of the raven, looked down upon him from high in the southern sky. He fell asleep long after midnight and slept soundly all through the night, until the kreegans dropped down on his chest just before dawn.
William Luther handed Father Superior Thomas Majewski a cup of coffee, saying, “The Times and the morning mail are on your desk, Father.”
“Thank you, William,” Majewski said, and he strode into his office. Moments after he sat down, Snowbell leaped into his lap. He stroked her back and scowled in distaste at the letter from an attorney on the top of his mail pile.
He reached for the Times, spreading the newspaper open over the dreaded mail. He read every page, including the Fashion and Real Estate sections. The Travel section sang like a siren. New Zealand! Amsterdam! London! Even a trip to New Jersey would beat having to deal with the matter on the top of his mail.
Majewski folded the newspaper carefully when he finished and added it to the stack next to the fireplace. “All right, my Snowbell,” he said, “stop this procrastinating and get to work, you hear me?” He scratched the cat under her chin and then rifled through the mail.
The large envelope from Alfredo Manzi seized his attention. “That was quick—was it not, my queen?” he said as he tore it open. “I asked Manzi to send me a report on that island only a week ago.” He settled back into his chair and pulled out the report. “Did he discover the talking crows?”
He read the note from Alfredo, stuck on the first page:
Here is my report on Wilder Island as you requested, including photographs…..AM
Majewski peeled the note off and scanned the report. Two miles long, one mile wide … mostly wetlands … dense swampy forest … not enough trees for commercial logging … no farming … no mining …
He leaned back in his chair, took his glasses off and chewed the end of one of the ear rails. No mention of talking crows. Of course not! They’re not real. They never were. He shamed himself for even thinking otherwise. They were always just a feature of Brother Maxmillian’s insanity.
The same feature of Stella’s insanity? Before her face materialized out of his memory, he leaned forward, put his glasses back on, and continued reading:
I have enclosed photos of the extraordinary little chapel that I told you about. There are no nails anywhere; everything was attached with living and dead vines that have since dried and hardened.
Majewski spread the photos on his desk and picked up the image of the chapel. “It looks like a bird’s nest!” he said to Snowbell, who woke up suddenly to clean a paw. “That’s at least interesting from an historical perspective, is it not? Perhaps the Order should restore that chapel. And the icons—our brother certainly had a gift—maybe I should take them to the Museum of Jesuit History.”
He read the last paragraph of Manzi’s report:
I have found Brother Wilder’s residence on the opposite end of the island as the chapel. He lived in a tree house of the same general construction as the old chapel, except a bit more weatherproof. Like the chapel, it is extraordinary. I have enclosed a couple of photographs.
Majewski smiled at the photograph of the tree house. Manzi was right. It’s absolutely enchanting, as if wood elves live inside. He rotated the photograph 180 degrees. Definitely a bird’s nest.
He pushed the intercom button on his phone.
“William, check my calendar and clear four days where I don’t have appointments that can’t be moved. Then book me a flight to Ledford. Yes, William. I’m going to Wilder Island.”
“As you wish, Father.”