Queen of the Night
“Oh my God!” Jade said. She stood at the sliding glass door in their living room, shaking her head and pointing to something in the backyard. Her hand covered her mouth in shock. “They know.”
“Who knows?” Russ asked. “And what do they know?” He looked over the newspaper at her from the couch.
“Oh my God,” she said again, shaking her head. “They found me.”
“Who found you?” Russ put the newspaper down, got up, and joined her at the window. “What is it, honey?”
Dozens of crows perched on their back wall, the little fence around the garden, and the backs of the chairs on the patio. Five dipped their beaks in the birdbath. Many more flew back and forth among the trees in the woods behind the house.
“Wow!” Russ said. “There must be a hundred of them! I wonder what’s so interesting about our yard.”
“They know,” Jade said.
“They know I have this.” She patted the medallion through her shirt. “They know it’s in here.” Her voice rose slightly with each word. “It’s a token of some weird brotherhood of crows and humans! That’s why they broke in and tried to steal it! They came back for it. They know where it is.”
“Oh, please, Jade,” Russ said, rolling his eyes. “How would these crows know what’s under your shirt? I didn’t tell them. That only leaves Willow B.”
The cat looked up from his favorite chair. “Mrrr?” He blinked sleepily, licked his left paw twice, and put his head back down.
“And he says he didn’t tell anyone anything,” Russ said with a big grin. “They know nothing about you, Jade. They’re crows. They’re just looking for food, probably.”
The crows stared directly at her. “Right,” she said, backing away from the window. “Where’s the food? We don’t even keep a garbage can out there. They’ve never come into our yard before, not like this. And standing around the birdbath? Hmmm?”
“Hmmm, what?” Russ said irritably. He turned away from the window and looked at her with a frown. “They’re birds, Jade. Birds go to birdbaths to drink and bathe. That’s why we put it there.”
“Don’t you get it?” she said, her eyebrows crunched together. “I dreamed that a birdbath sailed through our window, and crows flew inside, and now they’re standing on our birdbath.”
“And you think they somehow picked it up and heaved it through our window?” Russ said. He looked heavenward with his arms outstretched and shook his head. “It was a dream, Jade! Must you let it rule your life? And mine?”
“Okay, fine,” she said with a long-suffering sigh. “You don’t get it. Follow me.”
She led him down the hall to her studio, stopping and turning toward a painting on the wall. “This was my first official painting. That is, the first one that ever got a frame. I called it High Five.”
Five crows danced around the top of a birdbath, beaks open, laughing and brushing one another’s wingtips above their heads. The blue-black feathers flashed iridescent red, green, and yellow, like tiny lights that appeared for a moment and quickly winked out, only to wink back on in another location.
“I’ve always loved this painting,” Russ said. “You have so much talent. How old were you when you painted this? Before or after you dreamed they broke into your bedroom?”
“I was in fifth grade,” Jade said. “Ten, I guess. These five crows came every day to the birdbath in Chloe and Smitty’s yard. They had a very playful and silly side to them.”
She remembered having fun with crows once. Before the nightmares started. Then it was crows on the road in front of Chloe and Smitty’s house, pecking at something. They looked up occasionally, pieces of white fur dropping from bloody beaks. Her cat, Blitzen.
She shivered. “But they eat dead things.”
“We eat dead things,” Russ said. He raised his eyebrows.
“Not off the road!” Jade said, wrinkling her nose.
“What difference does that make?” he asked. “Other than Miss Manners advises against it and we don’t need small rocks in our stomachs to digest our food?” He put his arm around her. “It’s only the food chain, dear. Crows eat road kill. They eat French fries and doughnuts and everything edible that we drop into the landscape. They ate a good many of the corpses during the bubonic plagues. The world would be a stinkier place indeed without our corvid friends.”
“That’s supposed to make me like them more?” Jade asked, frowning. “I wish they would go roost in someone else’s yard.”
Russ held up the painting of the five crows. “But you liked them once. And there they were, in your yard. Like they were your friends.”
“I didn’t have any friends,” Jade insisted. “Just Abby. Chloe and Smitty lived out in the country. But there were always a bunch of crows everywhere.” She shrugged. “I guess I played with them some. Once.”
Russ placed the painting back down on the chair. He looked at his watch and said, “I gotta go, hon. Field trip this afternoon. I’m going to Wilder Island!”
“Lucky you!” Jade said. “I think.”
She accompanied him down the hall and into the kitchen. Glancing out the sliding glass door to the backyard, she was surprised that the crows were gone. But a single black feather lay on the step. She opened the sliding door, reached down, and picked it up.
“Look at this,” she said as she handed it to Russ.
“Looks like a tail feather,” Russ said matter-of-factly and handed it back. He slung his pack over his shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be home by six-thirty.”
Jade took the feather to the studio and wondered how Russ knew so much. His family moved frequently, he had told her once. And he dealt with the constant uprooting and having to leave friends by burying himself in books. He read everything, he said.
He still does. That’s why he’s such a Mr. Know-It-All.
Jade had the same best friend, Abby Mahoney, from first grade all the way through high school. She wondered how Russ survived his childhood without a best friend. How did he learn to be so warm and affectionate? He was very fun to be with and as gentle a soul as she’d ever met, other than her foster father, Smitty, maybe.
Russ was different from all the boys she knew in high school and college. He never came on to her. Not until that night in the Arizona desert when he completely swept her off her feet. She fell into a safety net of mutual affection he had built with his gentlemanly ways. Such a sweet courtship! Jade smiled at the memory. And their honeymoon the cave paintings in southern France could not have been more fabulous.
She sighed, remembering how it was Russ who’d convinced her to start painting again, and helped her turn their spare bedroom into a studio. Now she had a one-woman show coming up in Ledford’s only avant-garde gallery. And she needed more paintings. She flopped down into a chair and examined the crow feather. “For something that seems so black, there are sure a lot of colors,” she said as Willow B jumped into her lap. He sniffed the feather delicately before settling down for a nap.
The afternoon flowed by unnoticed as Jade meticulously painted the feather from the vantage point of a tiny creature walking up its central spine. A fabric of pigmented threads and gossamer film formed an oblique grid of tiny prisms that filtered and split light into transparent layers of color. Close up, thousands of tiny windows scattered the colors of the rainbow into a mosaic pattern of rectangles. From across the room, a black feather arced gracefully upward in a motion suggesting imminent flight.
Russ sat at his desk in the biology department, re-examining the tiny blue flower from Wilder Island that Alfredo had given him. It was an orchid, he thought, but it was hard to tell in its dried, squished state. And part of it had crumbled away. He was eager to find one living and undamaged. As soon as Alfredo’s Avian Anatomy class was over, they were heading to Wilder Island for an afternoon of scientific discovery. He had been looking forward to this day for weeks.
He put the dried flower back in a small plastic box and closed the lid. He walked over to his window and gazed out, his hands in his pockets. Bright and beckoning in the morning sun, Wilder Island called out to him, promising riches beyond his imagination.
I just know I’m going to discover a new orchid there. Jadum wilderii. He had always known that one day he would find a new and exotically beautiful flower and name it after his beloved yet eccentric wife. Jadum wilderii.
The white roof of the little chapel on Wilder Island glowed bright white and stark against the dark greens and shadows in which the chapel nestled. Russ fantasized it was a gigantic white flower—the Selenicereus grandiflorus. More beautiful than any flower, my Queen of the Night. I fell in love with her the day I met her.
Jade was a freshman, and he was a senior. From the first moment, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was so beautiful, though a bit thin—she got carried away with painting sometimes and forgot to eat. He took advantage of her need and happily took her out for a bite whenever he could. She was kind of spacey sometimes but always full of fun and very, very sweet. She never gave him any sign that she would welcome a romantic advance from him, so he never made one. He spent his last year in college secretly in love with her.
When he told her he had gotten into grad school in Arizona, he thought she seemed happy for him, but there were no long, lingering looks when he left. They parted, and he wondered ever after what would’ve happened if he had taken her in his arms and kissed her passionately. “Spilled milk under the bridge,” he had told himself. “Let it go. She’s married to some lucky guy by now.” But he could not forget her.
Out of the blue and in a weak moment of nostalgia, he sent Jade a postcard from Tucson. Joy of all joys, she called him a few days later. “As luck would have it,” she said, “I’ll be in Tucson in a couple weeks. Chloe and Smitty bought me a place in a workshop there. It’s about making paint from the colored rocks in the landscape. Pretty cool, no? I’ll be there for a few days. Want to get together?”
As luck would have it.
But was it luck? Was it just fate that brought him and Jade together finally? What is fate or simple obedience to the laws of the universe amid an infinite sea of variables? Opportunity. That’s all it is. There is no Almighty Oz that controls our lives. No horoscope, no tea leaves. It’s all about luck and opportunity. You seize it or you don’t. Still, he felt that somehow in the grand order of the universe, he and Jade were meant to be.
He remembered the day like it was yesterday. He had driven to the airport and waited for her outside the gate. He recognized her instantly as she walked through the turnstile; she looked just the way he had remembered. Blonde, beautiful, and green eyes, really green eyes. He stepped forward, and she smiled. Oh, those eyes he had lost himself in years before just about devoured him again. They embraced quickly; she looked up at him, and he was history.
“What are you doing in southern Arizona, Russ?” she had asked him later, when they were seated in the dining room of her hotel. “Forgive me, but isn’t this a desert? Seems like an odd place for a botanist. There’s more dirt here than plants!”
“Au contraire, Mademoiselle,” Russ said, waving his margarita at her. “Yonder desert teems with life. Granted, there’s less of it here than in the Midwest, due to the scarcity of water, but the desert is surprisingly diverse in its flora.”
Their food arrived, and Russ waited to continue while the waiter served them and bustled around filling water glasses. He hurried away only after he was satisfied their needs were filled.
“But really,” he continued, “I’m here in Tucson because of its proximity to an area where the Selenicereus grandiflorus grows, the subject of my ridiculously intricate, yet fascinating, doctorate. Commonly known as the ‘Queen of the Night,’ the Selenicereus grandiflorus is a night-blooming cactus. Its flower is large and gorgeous, so someone started calling it an orchid a long time ago. But really, it’s a cactus.”
Russ stopped, blushed, and said, “Sorry for the diatribe. I can get pretty carried away sometimes.” He attacked his steak.
“No. Really, Russ,” Jade said, “I’m interested. Especially in a man who loves flowers! I like hearing about the scientific aspects of Mother Nature’s jewels.”
No wonder he was crazy about her. “Well, thanks,” he said. “Most people find it boring. But the Selenicereus grandiflorus flower is incredible. It blooms only once a year—at night. And it only lasts for just that one night.”
“Very romantic!” Jade said. “I’d love to see it, the Selenicus grandiflorius, in bloom.”
He smiled at her attempt to pronounce the Selenicereus grandiflorus.
Cute and beautiful!
After dinner, they sipped coffee outside on a wood deck cantilevered over a rock garden. The view was spectacular. The multi-story office buildings of downtown Tucson cast an impressive silhouette against the setting sun. The mountains to the east reflected the day’s end in shades of watermelon and indigo in air so clear, you could almost see forever.
He took her for a ride in the desert, silently thanking the fates for arranging a full moon and a clear night. He stopped the car, cut the engine, and got out. He walked around to her side and opened the door. “At your request, my lady, right this way to the Selenicereus grandiflorus in bloom. It’s not far.”
They walked a short distance and stopped. He waited till she saw it—a large white flower, reflecting the silvery light of the moon and stars. Jade took a few steps and gasped.
And then he kissed her.
After that weekend, Russ spent a small fortune flying them both back and forth for visits, but he considered the money well spent, and their time together precious. He loved her paintings and was wildly enthusiastic about her talent. “You should paint some more,” he kept telling her.
“I know,” she almost always said. “I want to, but somehow I can’t.” She looked so sad, and he didn’t know what else to do, so he just took her in his arms and hugged her.
On his last visit, he took her out for dinner. Afterward, they went for a walk, and he asked her to marry him. “I love you, Jade. I’ve never loved anyone but you. And I want to stop this flying back and forth all the time. I hate it when you’re not with me. Marry me?”
And she did! Life is strange.
Alfredo stuck his head into Russ’s office and said, “You ready?”
Russ nodded and grabbed his backpack before heading out the door. They left the Biology Department together and walked to the parking lot behind the building. Russ drove them to the city boat landing, where a strange boat seemed to be waiting for them. He followed Alfredo aboard, admiring the artistry of the wrought-iron work.
“This is my friend Russ, the Captain,” Alfredo said.
“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Russ said, shaking the man’s hand. He looked up at the branches and leaves that formed a canopy over the boat. “Nice work.”
“Thank’ee,” the Captain said with a nod.
He pushed off with a long oar, the tattoos on his arm coming to life as fish leaped over roiling waves, and birds flew in and out of the trees overhead. A large crow sat perched on the railing next to the captain, gazing across the water as he rowed.
“You heard someone has offered to buy Wilder Island?” Alfredo said. “Henry Braun is his name.”
“Yes,” Russ said. “It’s been in the papers. He wants to build some kind of casino resort. You Jesuits will turn him down, right?”
“I think so,” Alfredo said. “In any case, I plan to do everything I can to convince my Order that the island is worth keeping.”
“Be a cold day in hell,” the Captain grunted as he steered, “before the crows’ll let that happen.”
The crow perched on the railing looked up at the captain, squawking loudly as if it had an opinion to share. The Captain nodded and said, “No way, Jose!”
A barge blew its whistle as it took the right-of-way, and the shrill noise temporarily drowned out any conversation.
Russ gazed ahead at the mysterious island, inhaling deeply, filling his senses with the cool, moist river breeze. The island held his destiny, he was sure of it, beckoning and compelling him forward. Jadum wilderii. I know you are there.
“I’d give my left nu—” he said, turning to Alfredo, “ah, that is my left foot to discover a new flower, say an orchid. The papers I could write! Tenure for sure!”
“I suspect so!” Alfredo said, grinning. “That is why I want to show you the island, Russ. I am also hopeful we can turn it into a research station, where we can study the native birds and plants.”
The Captain rowed into the inlet, and Russ looked up at several black birds circling above. “Crows or ravens?”
Alfredo looked up and said, “Ravens. You can tell by the wedge-shaped tail.”
The Captain left the two men on the bank. “Back at sunset,” he said and shoved his boat back into the river.
Alfredo pointed toward a vague path. “This way, Russ.”
Immediately lost to its many wonders, Russ darted off the path and into the forest, calling out the names of plants and trees as if greeting old friends. “Ah, my lovely myrtle!” he said, plucking a leaf and holding it to his nose.
He stopped at a group of black ash trees. “Forgive me,” he said sheepishly as Alfredo caught up with him. “But these ash trees—at least I think they’re ash—are very unusual, to say the least. Look at the leaf! It’s the right shape, but it’s sure an odd color.” He pulled a leaf off and examined it closely. “Almost blue-green.” He put the leaf carefully in his notebook.
Alfredo conducted Russ through the forest, through stands of black spruce and white cedar, as well as balsam fir, dwarf alder, dogwood, and willow. Hundreds of birds flew among the trees, all calling out at once.
“It’s hard to imagine a big city not a mile away,” Russ said. “I can’t hear it at all.”
“Nor can you hear our feet crunching through the undergrowth,” Alfredo said, “with all that racket up there!”
“I’m sorry.” Russ cupped a hand behind his ear. “I didn’t catch that.”
“If you think this is loud,” Alfredo raised his voice, above the din, “you must come and hear them in the spring. You cannot hear yourself think.”
“Wouldn’t you love to live here?” Russ said loudly. “I’d listen to this noise all day long, as opposed to the sounds of tires screeching, sirens, and planes landing and taking off.”
I pray to the Almighty daily,” Alfredo said, “that one day I will make this island my home.”
Russ stopped to admire a cluster of willows growing along a tiny stream with a variety of different species of rushes lining the edges. “Wow!” he said, dropping to his knees. “Will ya look at that? I believe it’s white Lady’s Slipper, a rare find indeed.”
“As I have been telling you,” Alfredo said, “the island flora is extraordinary, Russ. There are many unusual plants, especially on the lower island, though I have not had the time to compare them to known species. Not exactly my expertise. But that is why I asked you here.”
Russ took his camera out of his pack and took several pictures before making a quick sketch of the flower. After writing a few notes he snapped his notebook shut and stood up.
A noisy group of crows flew overhead, and the two men looked up. “One of the crow families that live on the island,” Alfredo said. “Mother and father, three young ones, out for a fly.”
“They do that?” Russ asked. “Take the kids out? They don’t just toss them from the nest as soon as they have feathers and can fly?”
“Heavens, no!” Alfredo said. “Quite the opposite. The fledglings stay in the nest until they are several months old. The older brothers and sisters often hang around even longer and help care for the new generation of fledglings.”
“Seriously?” Russ asked. “Extended crow families?”
“Yes,” Alfredo replied. “The corvid even take care of their old ones, bringing them food when they cannot get it for themselves.”
“Very kind,” Russ said. “I had no idea. I guess I should read your papers.”
“No worries!” Alfredo said with a grin. “I have not read any of yours either!” Both men laughed. “But perhaps we should, Russ. If we are going to be doing research on the same island.”
They continued to walk, and Alfredo watched Russ’s excitement grew. “There’s years worth of research here! Things I’ve never seen before, not even in botany books. I’m completely awe-smacked, to use my wife’s favorite term.”
“To my knowledge, there is no where on Earth like this island,” Alfredo said. “But wait until you see the orchids! The lower half of the island is very boggy with many springs that disappear underground and reappear elsewhere. Orchids evidently love that climate. Next time, we will go down there, though we will need to start earlier and pack lunch. And mosquito repellent!”
“I can’t wait!” Russ said. “There are a few rare orchids in this state; it’s a good bet one or two may be on this island. I’d love to find out what lives in these mosquito-infested bogs!”
“Perhaps even discover a new species, eh?” Alfredo said with a wink. “But yes, swampy and mosquito-infested, this island is all that. All yours, this mighty yet miniature kingdom.”
“A research area in my own backyard,” Russ said. “What a score! I was getting nervous about my tenure review next year, and about having the requisite number of publications. Imagine if I discover a new species!”
A group of crows swooped in low over the two men, cawing loudly. Much to Russ’s surprise, Alfredo raised an arm and called out a greeting, and the crows returned the salutation.
“Nice!” Russ said. “I’ve never known anyone who learned crow calls. You’re quite good! If I wasn’t standing here watching, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between you and them.”
Alfredo smiled and said, “That was not really a call, per se. We tend to think of birdcalls as mating calls, but really most are not.”
“So then,” Russ said, stopping and turning his head toward Alfredo. “What was it?”
Alfredo shrugged and said, “Hello.” He watched Russ’s reaction carefully. No astonishment, just curiosity.
“Say it again, this hello,” Russ said, looking at Alfredo intently.
“Grawky!” Alfredo said. “Grawky. The ‘gr’ sound begins in the throat. A guttural sort of growl almost as if you’re clearing your throat and hacking up a feather. Grawky!”
Russ laughed and said “Grawky!” a few times until Alfredo nodded and said, “You got it! Grawky!”
“Thanks, man!” Russ said. “Grawky! I love it. It sounds so crow-ish! Grawky!”
“Grawky!” A call came down from the trees overhead. Russ laughed like a child and said, “Was that a crow or a raven? Or can you tell?”
“That was a crow,” Alfredo said. “Ravens make much deeper, more guttural sounds.” He looked up at the sky. “We should head back to the inlet. The Captain will be arriving soon.”
“So,” Russ said, as they backtracked through the forest, “how many other words do you know?”
Alfredo walked a few steps before answering. How much should I tell him? He seems eager to know and not at all put off. He took a deep breath and said, “The corvid language is composed of sentences, or phrases, rather than words. I used to think their language in terms of sounds is less varied than ours, due to anatomical differences, but that is not so. Corvid language is no less intricate than ours.”
Russ stopped and took a bottle of water from the side pocket of his pack. Alfredo waited while he took a long drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Well, then I guess my question should have been: how many sentences do you know?”
“That is hard to answer as well,” said Alfredo as he propped a boot up on a rock and retied the lace. “As I said, the corvid language is quite complex. I have only a rudimentary understanding of it.”
He flinched a little at his lie. I have as great an understanding of the corvid language as I do of English. But he was not yet ready for Russ to find out about the secret he had guarded so carefully since he was a child. Not yet.
“This is great stuff, Alfredo!” Russ said. “You are writing a paper, aren’t you? I bet the department would find you a full-time faculty position.”
“I have only just begun to scratch the surface,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. “And I do not want a full-time faculty position. I am happy with my life the way it is.”
“For God’s sake, man!” Russ said, stopping and staring at Alfredo. “You need to publish! You’d have instant tenure at any university in the world. You’d be famous for-freaking-ever!”
“I do not want to be famous,” Alfredo said, staring back. “My life is perfect. I am connected to a scholarly institution and the most marvelous field laboratory—this island. I have a cathedral when I desire human companionship. One day perhaps I will write about the corvid language. But not yet.”
The birds were far less noisy than they had been earlier; the leaves and twigs crackled under their feet. Leaves fluttered on their branches, adding a soft percussive rhythm to the song of the wind. The captain was waiting as they arrived at the inlet, and as they pulled away from the island, Russ said, “Thanks, Alfredo. This was fantastic! I can’t wait to come back!”
“He does what?” Jade asked, her eyebrows arched in shocked suspicion. “Alfredo Manzi talks to crows?”
Russ shoveled a forkful of pasta into his mouth, dripping spaghetti sauce onto the table. “Um, hmm,” he said. “I’m serious. He’s translated some of their calls into English.”
Jade speared a chunk of avocado and said, “You actually heard him talking to crows? You didn’t perchance accidentally eat some loco weed on the island, did you?”
“No!” Russ laughed. “There are plenty of crazy-looking plants, though. But I did hear him speak to a small group of crows.”
Jade giggled behind her napkin. “Did they answer?”
Russ popped a piece of garlic bread into his mouth. After chewing it, he said, “Yes. They did. I was pretty shocked at first, but there’s no reason why we can’t learn the language of other species. He taught me how to say hello.” Russ put his fork down and drank a sip of water. “Grawky!” he said. “Grawky!”
Jade tried to repeat the crow’s greeting, much to Russ’s amusement. “The sound comes from down in the throat,” he explained. “Alfredo says the crows have vocal chords of sorts way down deep in their throats. He says the crow’s language is quite complex and may have as many words as any human language.”
Jade shook her head and waved her fork at him. “That’s just too hard to believe, Russ. How can crows talk to humans?” She rose from the table, took their plates to the sink, and returned with an apple pie.
He shrugged. “I can’t explain the anatomy and physiology of it. I’m a plant man.” He drank the last sip of his water and put the glass on the table, centered it precisely within one of the circle patterns on the tablecloth. He watched Jade cut the pie in half, quarters, eighths.
“But it’s not all that crazy,” he said. “Just because we can’t understand the other animals doesn’t mean they haven’t developed a complex language.”
Jade put a piece of pie in front of him. “Whip?” she asked, with the nozzle of the whipped cream can poised over his plate.
Russ nodded and said, “The unbelievable thing is that he won’t publish.”