Charlie watched Jayzu string a rope between two trees and tie the ends to the trunks. He unfolded and shook out a large plastic sheet and draped it over the rope and hammered some sticks into the edges, pinning it to the ground.
Jayzu stood up and said, “That will keep the rain off me while I build myself a more permanent structure.” He took a bedroll out of his pack and threw it under his tent. After he set up a small stove on one of the nearly flat rocks strewn about, he put a pot on it and filled it with water. Charlie swooped down from the trees above, landing deftly on a flat rock near Alfredo’s chair.
“Tea time?” he asked.
Jayzu laughed. “No. I just like to get everything set up.”
Charlie looked around the camp, at the tent, the bag of water hanging in the tree. “For what?”
“For later, I guess. This evening maybe. Or tomorrow.”
“I see,” Charlie said. “So you are moving in, or just staying the night?”
“At least the night,” Jayzu said as he sat back in his chair. “I want to clean out the chapel and after that, maybe find a place to build myself a home.”
Charlie had been delighted when Jayzu asked permission to establish his residence on the island. He and the priest had become fast friends, and he missed him when he was gone.
Jayzu reached into his backpack and pulled out a small bundle. “I found this under Bruthamax’s bones when I moved them,” he said. “It was too dark in the chapel to look at it, so I stuffed it in here. I forgot about it until today.”
He unwrapped the bundle, and a small black orb tumbled out. He placed it in a sunny spot on a rock near Charlie’s feet. “It seems to be some sort of trinket, carved from a very dense black wood, as far as I can tell. It was all caked with dirt when I found it, and I did not see the carving until I cleaned it. To me, it looks like a hand clasping a wing.”
Charlie leaned down and took a closer look. “Charlotte had something very similar,” he said.
“Really?” Jayzu said. “Charlotte had one of these?”
“She did,” Charlie said. “She wore it all the time before they took her away. I’ve wondered where it went ever since.”
Guilt stabbed Charlie from the depths of his memory … he had tried to get it once, Charlotte’s orb, in violation of the one corvid law against stealing. He broke into a house to get this orb, but he had not expected the little girl to be there. He had no idea who she was, but her terror still haunted his dreams from time to time.
Jayzu held the orb up. The sun reflected off the glossy black surface. “Does it have something to do with the Patua’, I wonder.”
“Yes,” Charlie said. “The orbs are apparently ceremonial devices made by the Patua’ long ago, but we do not know what they used them for.”
A few young crows suddenly materialized in Jayzu’s camp. They snooped around his tent and food box until Charlie shouted, “Hey! Gertrude! Ethel! JohnLeo! All of you! Be off!”
The crows reluctantly flew away, and Charlie said, “We have no laws against stealing food out in the countryside, Jayzu. A word to the wise.”
Alfredo woke up under his tent and smiled at the racket from the forest outside. The din of hundreds of birds greeting each other had been building since the stars had winked out in the pale dawn sky. Ah, Cadeña-l’jadia! May I never leave you.
After a quick breakfast and a cup of instant coffee, he grabbed the tools he had brought with him and headed for the chapel. The Captain had raised an amused eyebrow as he approached the boat the day before, armed with a rake, a shovel, and his camping gear.
“It’s a losing battle you’ll be fightin’ there, Padre,” he had said, “trying to tame that forest.”
“Just cleaning out the chapel,” Alfredo had grunted a reply as he heaved his burdens onto the boat.
He left his tools outside and went into the chapel and said a brief prayer. Bless my efforts in this humble chapel, oh Lord. And bless Minnie Braun, that is, Gabriella, for her generous contribution. She did not want anyone to know she was Henry Braun’s wife, she had told him. “Everyone and their dog will be after me for money.”
She had floored him, handing him a thick stack of twenty-dollar bills. “For the chapel,” she had said.
He cut away some of the green vines that had nearly enveloped the chapel and raked all the dead leaves, twigs, and branches from the interior to the outside. With a wet rag, he cleaned over a hundred years of dirt off the kneeler in the middle of the floor.
His fingers found a small hasp on the edge of the armrest. He pulled it, and the top of the armrest flipped open. “Well, what is this?” he said. A thin volume, a prayer book perhaps, lay inside the compartment. He removed it and opened the cracked leather cover, revealing a handwritten script scrawled upon a coarse paper.
He gingerly leafed through a few pages, but it was too dark to read the spidery handwriting. He wrapped the booklet in his shirt, left the chapel and went back to his camp. He sat in one of his chairs and unwrapped it carefully. The cover was not of leather as he had earlier thought, but bark that had been hammered flat and sanded smooth. The cracks were filled with some sort of resin. Was it sap? Fascinated by the age and author of the small journal, Alfredo’s hands shook as he gently turned the page.
Maxmillian Wilder, Cadeña-l’jadia, 1863
The swim from Ledford to this island nearly ended my life. Though I had studied all the maps, and I knew where the deepest parts of the channel were located, I had gained not even a hint at the treachery below the surface. I am a strong swimmer, yet I was unprepared for the unpredictable and deadly undercurrents that lurked below this otherwise placid river.
As soon as I approached within a hundred yards of the island, the river sucked me below the surface and whipped me around like a rag. I was tossed and rolled every which way, and each time my head rose above the water, I gasped for air in the spray, coughing as the river dunked me again and again. Just as I was about to expire from lack of oxygen, the river released me. I sprang to the surface amid a rush of bubbles into a patch of miraculously calm water, where I floated on my back and rested while my lungs gratefully filled with air.
After catching my breath, I swam toward the island again. And again. Though maddeningly close, it remained inaccessible; the river made sure of that. Time after time, I tried to swim to the bank, but the river flung me back to the same pool of calm water. I exhausted myself trying to power my way through the obstreperous river until I finally gave up fighting. I rolled over on my back, put my machete on my chest and pointed my feet downstream. I turned myself over to the river’s flow. Sooner or later, I would either land on the island’s banks or drown.
I floated on my back with my eyes closed, and I lost all sense of time and direction. I was quite unaware when the river gently dumped me on the island’s bank, face up. When I finally opened my eyes, a very large blue-eyed crow stood over me in the sand, beholding me with great concern.
“You live and breathe!” the crow said. “Grawky, Wayfarer! The name is Hozey–after my grandpappy, Hozey the Great. He was an Architect, you know–revolutionized the nest as we know it, he did. Great crow, Old Hozey. Proud to bear his name, I am.”
The bird stretched a wing toward me, as if to shake my hand. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps even dead. But I held my hand up in greeting, and the bird brushed his feather tips against my fingertips.
“That is certainly good news, Hozey,” I said. “Though I reckon I feel half dead.” I sat up and felt as if I had been beaten in a boxing match. “The river was not gentle with me.”
“The river is not gentle,” Hozey said. “Still, you made it. That certainly speaks for itself. The river spat you upon the bank days ago. Looked like dead meat, you did. It was all we could do to keep the buzzards off you. Creepy, that circling thing they do.” Hozey shivered, looking up as if he expected to see a vulture overhead.
“How long have I been here?” I asked. “It seemed only a few moments ago I was floating on the river.” The memory of nearly drowning was strangely close, and though I was sure I had made landfall only minutes ago, my skin and hair were completely dry. I was also thirsty and very hungry.
“Nope. Three days,” Hozey said, holding up a wing with three feathers protruding past the rest. “Three. You slept right here under the sun and stars. We kept you alive, we did. We dribbled water into your mouth from the river so you did not die of dehydration or get chapped lips. We shaded you from the sun so your skin would not get burnt to a crisp. One of us stayed right here with you, watching over you the whole time.”
“Thank you very much,” I said. “And thank heavens I was not eaten by a buzzard, though I imagine there are worse ways to decompose. I am Brother Maxmillian Wilder, by the way, but I do not know who I am named after. Perhaps no one. I am just a simple Jesuit monk looking for solitude.”
“We know who you are, Bruthamax,” Hozey said. “And, just so you know, you are not alone here, no sirreebob. No other humans, mind you, the river sees to that. But there are a few hundred crows, my family mostly. And a few ravens, they really like it here—no humans.”
“That is why I came here,” I said.
“Not that you will be lacking a body to talk to,” Hozey said. “We crows will yack your ears off if you let us. But not the ravens, no sirreebob. Like pulling teeth to get them to talk.”
Hozey led me into the forest to a spring where I drank until I thought my belly would burst. But it made my hunger pangs recede for a while.
Hozey took me all over the island, to places I would not have been able to go unguided. There is a great boulder chasm, beyond which is a landscape so pitted and pockmarked, it is nearly uninhabitable. One day Hozey and I will build a bridge across it.
I stayed on the solid ground on the upriver end of the island for my first year, living on nuts and berries and the abundant fish from the river. And I prayed—my whole life comprises one continuous prayer to the glory of God.
I have spent many hours talking with Hozey, and we have become close friends. He and his family helped me build a chapel above the rocky point at the island’s upper end.
A few people have tried to reach the island, either by boat or by swimming, but none has been successful. Sometimes they ride by in boats, and I shout “Glory to God Almighty!” to them. A few wave back, but most just stare as if I am a madman. I must appear that way to them with my unshaven head, bark clothing, and crow-feather cloak.
But there were too many eyes trying to peer into my solitude, and Hozey told me the lower end of the island is much more secluded. He guided me there, far from the riverbanks through the most hostile lands full of dark pools, over which clouds of mosquitoes reign, and dense foliage that is near impossible to navigate through. Every other step, I sank knee-deep into sticky black mud.
Deep within the interior of this small island lies a paradise, where I have built a proper home in a giant black gum tree.
“Excellent, Bruthamax,” Hozey said at my choice of tree. “Nice big branches. You can build yourself a platform right across those bottom ones–in the Hozey way of course. ‘Only three bearing points,’ that is what Hozey the Great would say. ‘Four is unstable,’ he always said. ‘You will get unwanted rocking in the nest.’ That crow really knew how to build. It was just in his bones, I reckon.”
We spent about two months working from dawn till twilight, with Hozey’s help, to build my one-room house up in this tree. It has all that I need, although I have wished somehow a stove would wash up on the shore! Every day after breakfast, I walk through the forest to the chapel. Every morning, I pray and give thanks to the Almighty for the incredible bounty of this island, and especially for my friend Hozey.
Alfredo turned the page, but the story did not continue. The next few pages were filled with doodles—outlandish plants with labels written in a fanciful text he could not decipher. He closed the journal and ran his hand across the cracked cover. Brother Maxmillian’s first year. I wonder if there is another journal somewhere.
The chapel restoration involved cleaning and removing dead vines from the roof; Alfredo wanted to keep it as simple as it was when Bruthamax built it. “The chapel managed to survive over a hundred years of weathering,” he had said to Charlie when finished. “There is nothing more I need to do.”
With the chapel restoration complete, Alfredo turned his attention to building a small cottage for himself. He found a perfect site near the chapel, downhill from one of the island’s many springs. “I want to build a cistern,” he said to Charlie, “like the one Bruthamax built.”
He hired a helper through an ad in the local free newspaper, The Crow. There was only one response, Sam Howard, who hailed himself as a sculptor as well as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician.
What a stroke of luck to find Sam! A jack-of-all-trades, and he’s Patua’! Alfredo found out from Sugarbabe, who whispered, “He’s one of y’all, y’know,” when he had escorted Sam to the island for the first time. Sam blushed to his ear tips.
“No worries, Sam!” Alfredo assured him. “You are among friends here.”
The Captain glared at his crow and said, “Sugarbabe, you are a blabbermouth for sure.”
Alfredo and Sam hopped off the Captain’s boat, and as they walked through the forest toward the site he had chosen to build his cottage, he greeted the corvids, returning their calls and encouraged Sam to do likewise.
“You are among friends here, Sam,” he said. “Especially with me.”
Sam nodded and waved as the crows and magpies yelled, but he did not utter a sound.
“The chapel is this way,” Alfredo said, and he gestured with his head.
Sam nodded again and plodded along next to Alfredo. They walked in silence until they arrived at the chapel. Alfredo opened the door, and they stepped inside. “I want my cottage to look like this,” he said. “More or less. Closed to the elements, except for light.”
“Wow!” Sam said, as he grinned and looked around. “You really cleaned this place up!”
Alfredo’s eyebrows rose up into his forehead and he said, “You have been here before?”
Sam’s smile vanished. He wandered over to the kneeler and ran his hand along the smooth wood. “Once,” he said. “Years ago.”
“Really?” Alfredo said. “You and the Captain both.” So, that is three of us since Maxmillian. Why do the corvids insist I am the first?
Sam scavenged as much of the construction materials as he could from landfills, roadside debris, and junkyards. Whatever couldn’t be had from his various recycling sources, Alfredo purchased with the cash Minnie Braun, aka Gabriella, had given him to restore the chapel. She would not object, he was certain. But he never told her.
Alfredo purchased several RV batteries to provide what little power he needed. When one battery was spent, he would hook up a spare and take the dead one in to Ledford and have it charged.
Sam constructed a composting toilet out of materials he found or traded, and enclosed it within a small structure a short way downhill from the cottage, matching the upside-down bird’s nest construction. He installed a narrow wooden door with a moon-shaped hole that opened to a scenic landscape of tall trees, medium-sized trees, bushes, flowers, and a few gray rocks poking through the tall green grass that grew wherever it could.
“Well, it ain’t the toidy at the Waldorf,” Sam had said, grinning. “But the view is better.”
One of the ladies at St. Sophia’s had recently remodeled her kitchen and gave Alfredo a used but still functional stainless-steel sink. “Boy, howdy,” Sam said, pushing his hat back and scratching his head. “It’s hard to not covet that sink, Padre. I’m doing a piece called ‘Everything but the kitchen sink,’ though in truth, it oughta be called ‘Nothing but the kitchen sink.’ This one’s a beauty. I must have it!”
“Take it!” Alfredo said with a chuckle. “It is too large for my tiny kitchen.”
“Thanks,” Sam said. “I’ll find you another one.”
Alfredo made a sketch of the gravity-fed water system at the Treehouse, and said, “I have modeled it after the one Bruthamax, that is, Maxmillian Wilder built.. One day perhaps I can take you to see it.”
Sam understood the sketches well enough and built a similar arrangement that captured and moved spring water into a small cistern buried upslope from the cottage. A hand pump delivered water to the sink. “You can let your kitchen and bath water drain out into your, uh, yard,” he said. “That is, out into the forest. It won’t hurt the trees or plants.”
Alfredo collected his sparse possessions from the rectory at St Sophia’s and moved into his new cottage on Cadeña-l’jadia. He felt at home for the first time in his life. He loved waking up to the sound of the birds and stepping outside into a forest. Every morning, he walked to the old chapel for the Liturgy of the Hours, and on Saturday evenings, he said the Mass. Without a human congregation, he found it difficult to stay within the confines of the traditional celebrant/respondent verbiage set forth by the Second Vatican Council.
Whenever he needed to leave, one of the island’s hundreds of friendly crows flew out over the river and summoned the Captain. Mondays and Wednesdays, the Captain took him to the boat landing on the east side of the river; from there, he pedaled his bike to the university. On Fridays and Sundays, the Captain ferried him to the other side of the river and let him off at the Waterfront; from there, Alfredo walked to St. Sophia’s.
“Life is good,” he said to the Captain as he ferried him back to the island, so beautiful in the late afternoon. The hermit’s chapel glowed warmly amid the sun-drenched tops of the tallest trees and seemed to float above shades of green leaves and shadows.
He loved coming home most of all. He loved cooking in his tiny kitchen, at the small but completely adequate wood stove. He loved dining at the small table Sam had scavenged at a thrift store. And he loved looking out upon the sensuous lushness all around him.
Alfredo ate a quick supper at his cottage and strode up the path to the chapel. He clasped his hands at the kneeler, and said a prayer thanking the Almighty for his life, for his good friends, and for the abundance of Cadeña-l’jadia. Even after praying, he felt impoverished; his gratitude could not fill the growing hole in his heart. Ever since Charlie had told him about his Patua’ friend Charlotte who lived in such unspeakable solitude, he felt a strange sense of shame at his good fortune.
He re-assumed the praying position, bowed his head, and shut his eyes. I am fine, Lord, thanks to the bounty you shower upon me. But I have much, while Charlotte suffers and is in need of your care. Please, Lord, may you rain your glory down upon her and ease her burden of loneliness.
He left the chapel and spotted Charlie at the rocky point below, picking apart the carcass of some poor creature that had washed up on the rocks. He walked down to the customary place where he and the crow often sat and talked.
Charlie looked up and called out, “Jayzu!” and flapped up to the rock next to him.
“Everyone’s talking about the new sanctuary,” he said and cleaned his beak on the rock.
Alfredo’s eyebrows went up. “Already? How? We haven’t even started it yet.”
“The news beaked out pretty fast after the Council meeting,” Charlie said.
“I guess so!” Alfredo said, laughing. “So what is the general opinion?”
“Oh, generally positive, I reckon. But a few negative nellies claim it’ll bring in a whole influx of foreigners wanting to immigrate here. But that’s ridiculous.”
Alfredo picked a blade of long grass growing out of the sand at the base of the log he sat on. “I just hope it is enough,” He wove the blade through his fingers.
“Enough for what?” Charlie asked. “You can’t please everyone, Jayzu.”
He tore the grass into several pieces, letting them fall to the ground at his feet.
“Enough to keep Cadeña-l’jadia out of Henry Braun’s hands.”
“And if it isn’t?” Charlie asked.
“I do not know,” Alfredo sighed. “Then it is in God’s hands, perhaps.”
“As Charlotte has been in your deity’s hands all these years?” Charlie asked.
Shocked at the crow’s blunt statement, Alfredo started to protest. But he is right. Are my prayers merely a statement of my passing the buck on to God?
“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “Just like that, I am afraid.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, put his fingertips together and stared at the ground. An ant struggled with a pebble ten times its size. He felt suddenly tired.
“Though the Order turned his offer down, Henry still plots against Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said, gazing out over the water. “I do not know how he will strike, but strike he will.”
The gleaming white roof of the newly restored chapel, visible from both sides of the city, stirred up some new stories about the old ghost of the island’s legendary hermit. “Brother Maxmillian has been reincarnated!” some people cried, until it became known that another Jesuit, Father Alfredo Manzi, had taken up residence on Wilder Island, and it was he who roamed its banks.
When Alfredo arrived at St. Sophia’s with the week’s supply of Communion wafers, people who used to just wave and smile at him, if anything, now wanted to touch his jacket or his shoe. His fall courses at the university had already filled up. “And it is only May!” he complained to Russ in his office before his Avian Biology class. “The last thing I want is to be a celebrity,” he said.
“Oh well.” Russ poured Alfredo a cup of coffee from his thermos and handed it across the desk to him. “That is the unintended consequence of your semi-hermitage on a island famous for hermits. People will make you into a legend before you know it, and you can go about your business again.”
Alfredo took the coffee and wandered toward the window. “I don’t want to be a legend. I just want to be a simple priest and scientist.” He leaned against the wall and took a sip of coffee.
Russ looked skeptically at him. “That’s the thing about legends, Alfredo. You don’t really get that choice. You’re either a legend in your own mind or in everyone else’s.”
Alfredo laughed. “But there is the third option. No legend.”
“Real legends don’t have that choice.” Russ sat back in his swivel chair and put one foot up on his desk. “But look at it this way. It’s job security, man! The university hired you as an adjunct, meaning they can jettison you anytime they want. But they won’t if your classes are popular. As they obviously are, if the crowds are ‘flocking’ to you already.” He grinned devilishly. “Instant tenure, maybe. And you wouldn’t have to publish! I know you don’t like writing papers.”
Alfredo looked out the window. “I do like writing papers, Russ. I am just not ready to write up anything on the corvid language. And I love teaching. I enjoy the rare opportunity to interact on a meaningful level with people and maybe teach them a little science at the same time.” He looked back at Russ. “I have no human companionship on the island. Nor at St. Sophia’s, really. People do not look at me as a friend but as some kind of spiritual leader or therapist.”
Russ’s chair squeaked as he pulled his foot off his desk and crossed his legs. He poured himself another cup of coffee and offered the thermos to Alfredo.
“Why did you become a priest?”
Alfredo declined with a wave of one hand. “My mother sent me to a Jesuit boarding school when I was a young lad. And I guess I never left.” He looked at his watch. “Speaking of my classes, it is time for me to go teach one.”
Russ shook his head as Alfredo left his office, wondering what motivated the man. He complains about his success and won’t write up what will make him famous. What does he want?