What is This Madness!
Father Provincial Thomas Majewski took a taxi from the Ledford airport and met Alfredo at the city boat landing. More than fifteen years had passed since he had last seen him. A few gray hairs made that white streak he had even as a young man a bit less noticeable, but he otherwise had not changed much. The same intense almost black eyes that seemed to see straight into your soul. And he had not lost the warm compassion that had made everyone want to turn him into a priest.
“Greetings, Father!” Alfredo said as he and the older priest embraced. “I trust you had a pleasant trip?”
“Alfredo, please,” Majewski said. “Call me Thomas. We are old friends, and I want to take a break from being the Father. I hope that is all right?”
“But of course, Thomas,” Alfredo said.
They embraced again and after a few comments about their age and well-preserved appearances, the Captain ferried the two Jesuits across the river in what seemed to Majewski more like a floating chunk of forest than a boat. A crow swooped in under the canopy and found a perch on the railing next to the Captain, brushing his outstretched hand with a wing.
A secret handshake among crows and humans? Majewski frowned and immediately banished the thought. “I grew up not too far from here,” he said as he looked downriver. “As the crow flies, probably fifty miles. A little town called MacKenzie.”
“I have been there!” Alfredo said. “Are you planning to visit your family while you are here?”
“Oh, no,” Majewski replied, shaking his head. “There’s no one to see. My parents are both gone. They sold the house after I moved to Washington, about twenty years ago. None of the rest of the family lives in MacKenzie anymore either.”
“There is the old chapel,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the island. “Or at least the roof, though it looks more like a tangle of dead branches from here.”
“That’s the miraculous chapel you told me about?” Majewski asked dubiously.
“Wait until you are standing inside,” Alfredo said with a smile.
The Captain steered the boat into the inlet and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. The two priests jumped out, and after saying good-bye to the Captain, Majewski followed Alfredo up a sketchy path into the forest. He breathed deeply, inhaling the odors of a living landscape. Big city life had deprived him of the luxurious scent of soil and decaying plant matter and the natural cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.
He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.
For God’s sake, get a grip, Thomas! They’re crows! They probably don’t even notice I’m here. He stopped to catch his breath.
“My cottage is just ahead,” Alfredo said. He waited while Majewski wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
The cottage blended in well with its natural surroundings; they were nearly to the front door before Majewski realized it was there. He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.
“My humble abode,” Alfredo said. “You can put your bags inside, and then we will go on to the chapel.”
“Incredible!” Majewski said. “Like it’s part of the forest. I didn’t even see it!”
“I wanted only the faintest human footprint here,” Alfredo said with a smile.
Inside, Majewski looked up at the roof, constructed of interwoven driftwood branches. “It really does look like a bird’s nest! Reminds me of the pictures of the chapel and Brother Wilder’s tree house. You didn’t build this all yourself, did you?”
“Heavens no!” Alfredo said. “I had a lot of help, from a local artisan as a matter of fact, Sam Howard. He helped me to restore the chapel as well.”
He took Majewski’s bags from him and set them in a corner next to a futon. “It doubles as my couch and your bed tonight.”
“Very nice!” Majewski said, looking all around. “So cozy—I’m envious! A one-room cabin, perfect for one, but not two. Don’t let me put you out, Alfredo. I can get a hotel in the city.”
“Nonsense!” Alfredo said. “You will sleep here tonight. You are not putting me out.” He raised a hand against Majewski’s objections. “I will sleep where I normally do in the summer—in a hammock outside.” He gestured toward the door. “Shall we go on to the chapel?”
Majewski felt the cares of his job in Washington DC recede as they walked through what seemed to him a primeval forest, unsullied by the artificial gods of commerce and greed, and the big business of religion. The utter joy of life abounded, in every leaf and stem, every feather and beak, every whisker and tail hidden in the bushes.
He stood in awed silence outside the little chapel for many moments. “It’s like a living entity, as if it just grew here, right out of the forest floor.”
“Much of it did!” Alfredo said. “Living trees hold up the roof, and several varieties of vine plants fill in the spaces between. Brother Maxmillian did a great job building it. All I had to do to restore it was clean it up and trim some of the vines. It was the inspiration for my cottage.”
“I can see that,” Majewski said as Alfredo pulled the door open.
They stepped inside. Sunlight infiltrated through the many open spaces in the roof, making a checkerboard pattern on the floor, giving the otherwise dark interior an almost cheery look.
“Reminds me of the basilica at our chapel in Rome,” Majewski said, looking up into the upside-down-bird’s-nest roof.
De la Torre’s sister wrote about the Madonna della Strada! Coincidence, or—? He dismissed the thought. Brother Maxmillian was a Jesuit. Why wouldn’t he pattern his chapel after the Jesuit Mother chapel in Rome?
“I thought so also,” Alfredo said. “I like to think this chapel is the little sister to the Madonna della Strada. I am thinking of naming it the Madonna del Rio.”
“Oh, that’s lovely!” Majewski said. “The Lady of the River. Perfect!”
“It will never stick, I am afraid,” Alfredo said. “The locals all call it the hermit’s chapel.”
“That works also,” Majewski said, nodding.
The little chapel seemed to vibrate with the very essence of the Holy Spirit, and the old priest felt as if he suddenly weighed less. Even the act of breathing seemed easier. His burdens of guilt and anxiety floated away like balloons. For the first time in his life, Father Provincial Majewski felt the blessings of the Almighty raining down upon him. He felt a sense of peaceful acceptance enfold him, and he reveled in the luxury of the moment.
A ray of sunlight illuminated the kneeler in the middle of the chapel, attracting Majewski’s attention. He ran his hand along the smooth armrest. “Brother Maxmillian prayed here,” he said in awed reverence.
“I found a journal under here,” Alfredo said and lifted the top of the armrest. “Brother Maxmillian’s first year on the island.”
“Really?” Majewski said, peering into the dark interior. “His own journal? Where is it now?”
“In my desk at the university. I found it before my cottage was finished, so I took it there to read and to keep it safe and dry. I looked at it under a microscope. Evidently Brother Max made his own paper and ink!”
“Fascinating!” Majewski said. “I’d love to read it sometime.”
“I scanned it all into my computer at the university. I will e-mail it to you.”
They made their way outside and down toward the rocky point. They stopped beside the hermit’s grave and Majewski prayed, “Lord Almighty, look with mercy upon your good son, Maxmillian, and keep his soul in the peace and comfort of your most heavenly arms forever.”
At that moment, a flock of crows burst from the trees and sailed overhead. Majewski was startled but not frightened by the intrusion—an unruly cacophony of raucous sounds from a noisy group of crows. “Strange coincidence,” he said. “Those crows, I mean. Flying over just now. Like they were putting their two cents in.” I wonder if Alfredo knows what they said.
“Many of them know me,” Alfredo said with a casual smile. “Crows are extremely intelligent, Thomas, and very observant. It is rather well known that crows can pick a human face out of a crowd. Some of them watched me bury Brother Maxmillian’s bones, and here we are standing on that very spot.”
Majewski studied Alfredo’s face for a sign. Does he know about Maxmillian’s sentient crows? Does he speak to crows himself? Majewski was almost sure that he did, though he felt foolish for thinking so.
“Come!” Alfredo said, extending his hand. “Let us go back this way.” He led Majewski back toward the chapel. He stopped and pointed to a pile of limestone blocks, bags of sand and a few tools. “Ultimately this will be a garden, but all I have complete is the pool.”
Majewski heard water dripping, and he turned his head toward it.
A narrow rivulet poured over a stack of limestone blocks into a small pool surrounded by wildflowers and grass. “The water comes from a spring right out of these rocks. Sam and I moved a few to catch it. Such springs are everywhere on the island. My water supply depends on one of them.”
Majewski cupped some water in his hands and drank. “Wonderful!” he said. “Nothing like water from a freshwater spring.”
“Let us sit down,” Alfredo said as he gestured toward a large gray slab of limestone. “This is a pleasant place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the universe!”
“Indeed it is!” Majewski agreed, grateful for the opportunity to rest. “The pond is exquisite!”
Several crows materialized in the trees above the pond and looked down at the two men. Each time Majewski happened to catch the eye of one of them, it turned away. Are they spying on me?
“Alfredo,” he started to speak. I was just wondering, do you talk to crows? He was dying to ask but immediately felt foolish for even thinking such a thought. Imagine, the Father Provincial of the North American Chapter of the Society of Jesus asking if a human could talk to a crow!
Brother Maxmillian’s letter seemed to shout from the interior of Majewski’s jacket pocket, “De la Torre knew that some of us can!”
Majewski took Brother Maxmillian’s letter out of his pocket and handed it to Alfredo. “Coincidentally,” he said, “I found this letter, quite by accident, the same day I received Henry Braun’s offer to buy the island. It was written in 1852, by Brother Wilder to his uncle, the Father Provincial at the time, Antoni de la Torre.”
“Really?” Alfredo said. “The Antoni de la Torre? Brother Wilder was his nephew?”
Majewski nodded and said, “You’ll be more amazed when you read it.”
Alfredo read the letter, feeling Majewski’s eyes boring into him. Does the Order know about the Patua’? Does Majewski? Is that why he’s here? He tried to keep his face expressionless as he flipped the page over and read it again. God Almighty!
“This is incredible,” he said, handing the letter back.
“What do you make of it?” Majewski asked. “This claim of Brother Maxmillian’s that he talked to the crows here? Is it not just the heretical babblings of a madman?”
Majewski has never heard of the Patua’ then. Will he think I am a madman?
“Well,” Alfredo said, “It could be that he was a madman and his uncle, the Father Provincial tried to hide his nephew’s whereabouts during his life.”
“But why?” Majewski asked. “Why would he do that? It’s almost as if he wanted someone to eventually discover the island, and his nephew. What did de la Torre find so special about this island? Other than a place to stash his nutcase nephew.”
Alfredo shrugged. “I do not know. There is really nothing here but trees and crows.” Did de la Torre know about the Patua’? “Maxmillian would be a freak even in our time. A good question, though—why the great Father Provincial Antoni de la Torre would want him remembered.” I should ask Charlie if there were Patua’ here before Bruthamax.
Five crows dropped out of the sky and landed on the rocks at the edge of the pond. After dipping their beaks in the water, two of them jumped in and splashed water up over their back with their wings.
Alfredo recognized them all. Cousins–Charlie’s nephew and nieces, Speedy, Blanche, and Zelda.
Speedy looked over at Majewski and said to his siblings, “That other one, he don’t speak the Patua’.”
“Nope. He’s just regular,” said Zelda. She and her sister Blanche flapped their wings over the water, splashing Speedy, perched on the edges of pond.
“Playful little fellows,” Majewski said as the crows flew up to the trees above the garden. He followed them with his eyes, until they blended in with the shadows among the leaves. But he could almost feel them staring down at him.
“They make me laugh every day with their silliness,” Alfredo said.
“Geronimo!” Speedy yelled as he tumbled out of the tree, beak-over-feathers into the pond. He disappeared for a couple of seconds before leaping out of the water and onto a rock above the pool. He shook himself soundly, flinging water drops all the way to the priests.
“So, do you think that Brother Maxmillian was insane?” Majewski asked. He turned his probing eyes on Alfredo
“I cannot know that,” he said slowly, his face expressionless. Well disciplined, like a corpse. Even before his training as a Jesuit priest, he had developed the ability to hide his feelings and thoughts behind an impassive face. “But communicating with the beasts is not necessarily a mark of insanity. Look at St. Francis of Assisi. People no doubt thought he was insane in his time, yet now he is the revered patron saint of animals. Perhaps that was de la Torre’s hope.”
“That his nephew would be given sainthood someday?” Majewski asked incredulously. “That is insane. Do you actually believe that Brother Maxmillian talked to crows?”
Fear crawled up out of Alfredo’s gut and into his mouth. His inner voices argued: Does Majewski know about me? Is that why he is here? Tricking me into admitting I am a freak? Why not just tell him? The truth shall set you free! Or imprison me. He could have me defrocked, banished, and tossed to the dogs. But why would he do that? Tell him!
The truth pushed against his teeth, and Alfredo locked his jaws, choking back words that could unleash an uncontrollable deluge in which he might drown. Betraying nothing of his inner turmoil, he stared back at Majewski and said, “The truth is, Thomas, I have never had the choice not to believe.”
The whole truth is …
“I have found,” Alfredo continued, hoping his voice did not betray the fear he felt, “that corvids and certain humans—Brother Maxmillian, for one—are able to understand and speak a sort of dialect that harmonically overlaps the language of both species.”
Why can I not just tell him! He already knows about Brother Maxmillian. What if he already knows about me?
“But that’s preposterous!” Majewski said, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. “Communication between the species! Impossible!”
The three crows stood at the edge of the pond facing the two priests. “Wonder what they’re arguing about,” Speedy said.
“He’s got cookies in his pocket,” Zelda said. “I can smell them from here.”
“Oh?” Speedy looked sharply at Alfredo. “Suppose he’ll give us some?”
“I’ll die of boredom waiting till they stop yakking,” said Blanche and took off for the sky.
“Is it?” Alfredo asked, raising his eyebrows as he watched Blanche fly away. “You did not think so at my PhD defense, Thomas, where you defended me against those very charges. And that was fifteen years ago!”
He stood up and walked over to the pond and reached absent-mindedly into his pocket. The two crows on the rocks looked first at his hand in his pocket, then up at him expectantly.
“Thomas,” he said, as he tossed a chunk of chocolate chip cookie into the air. Speedy snagged the tidbit before it had achieved its zenith. “There is no reason, scientific or otherwise, why we humans cannot communicate better with other species—especially with the corvids, intelligent as they are.”
Zelda waited patiently for her treat, but as soon as Alfredo lobbed it to her, Blanche flew in low and snapped it right out of her beak.
“I’m sorry, Alfredo,” Majewski said, shaking his head. “I remember your PhD, your fascinating experiments testing for corvid sentience with mirrors and complex pathways to food that required planning and tool making. And, you reported on some rudimentary sounds and correlated them to some pretty simple phrases. But it’s utterly preposterous to claim that is a language.” He shook his head in dismay. “How can you believe that and still call yourself a scientist?”
He will find out sooner or later. The longer I hold back the truth, the more it makes me look like a liar. Tell him!
Alfredo tossed a chunk of cookie to Zelda, who caught it deftly. “Thank you, Jayzu,” she said and flew after her brother and sister.
“My dilemma is whether or not I can still call myself a priest,” Alfredo said, quietly surrendering. “Thomas, I have this ability too. Preposterous or not, I, like Brother Wilder, understand and can speak the language of the corvid, fluently. I have had this ability as long as I can remember.”
“What is this madness?” Majewski cried out, shaking his head in bewilderment. “I came here prepared for Dr. Alfredo Manzi to debunk Maxmillian Wilder’s claim, to remind me that the Almighty made but one sentient creature, mankind.” He shut his eyes and his mind to the image of Stella, her hands reaching out to him, pleading. “Forgive me for being flabbergasted, but this is just too incredible.”
“I am sorry, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I wish I could relieve your distress. But you are a man of science yourself. Can the highly respected linguist Dr. Thomas Majewski see not madness and heresy, but the miracle of a complex language and culture of another sentient species that has been here on Earth longer than we have? Can you not behold this wonder of creation and rejoice?”
Silenced by his internal confusion, Majewski did not reply for several minutes. All around him, the visible and invisible natural world contradicted any need for such turmoil. The trickle of water into the pond seemed to repeat its cadence over and over again, “Why can’t you just be?”
At last he took a deep breath and said, “I’ve seen a lot in my time, Alfredo. I’ve been sore amazed more times than I can count at the wonders wrought by the Almighty. But discovering this letter and the hidden talent of our Brother Maxmillian several weeks ago—quite frankly, it’s kept me awake at night ever since. It’s not so much that I think speaking the language of the animals is so preposterous. It’s that, well, you see, my sister, Stella—”
Majewski squeezed his eyes shut with his thumb and forefinger, suddenly overcome with emotion. For a wild moment, he thought Alfredo might have known Stella, and he wished he could unburden himself of her tragedy. And his guilt. But the words would not come to his lips. From the well of his memory, the last image of Stella’s face emerged. The shock and betrayal on her face broke his heart. Her big brother sold her out. That’s what she thought. I never got to tell her the truth.
“Your sister?” Alfredo said. “Was she like me?”
“Yes,” Majewski said, trying to compose himself. The water dripping into the pond grew suddenly louder, crying out with watery voices, “Just like me, just let it be!” He focused on the sound of the tiny stream spiraling down to the pool in a continuous song that had no beginning, no end. No choice, no questions asked. Or answered.
Stella’s face in his memory was unbearable, but he could not banish her. “They thought she was handicapped when she was younger, because she didn’t speak to any of us until she was almost five. Before that, she’d babble away all day long. But only with crows.”
He paused, remembering Stella and her pet crow. What was his name? “And when she grew up, she walked and talked more among the crows than she did with humans, until finally she only talked to crows. That’s when they said she was insane. I helped them capture her and haul her off to the asylum.”
A tiny bird flew down to the pond and sipped a few beakfuls of water before taking off again. The stream continued to fall over the edges of the rocks and into the pool, oblivious of the bird, of Majewski’s sister or his guilt. It wore on him, this guilt, eroding his sense of worthiness, relentlessly pursuing him like a bloodhound. Ever since he had read that letter.
“I understand why people think we are insane,” Alfredo said. “The Patua’ does not resemble any human language, and it frightens people. I have managed to lead a relatively normal life—if you call the priesthood a normal life–in a safe place where I could speak in this tongue without persecution. I know others have ended up in insane asylums, just like your sister. Some take their own lives.”
“Suicide? Oh dear Lord!” Majewski said, horrified. His hand went to his breast.
“Forgive me, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I intended to offer you some comfort; instead, I burdened you. I am very sorry.”
Majewski nodded wearily and said, “I know that, Alfredo. It’s not like I haven’t had that thought myself. But until recently, I have kept her safely stuffed in some dark corner of my past. And then I found the letter. Since then I have had almost no peace. Stella’s face invades my thoughts during the day and haunts my dreams at night.”
“But why, Thomas?” Alfredo said. He reached out and put his hand on the older man’s knee. “What happened? Where is Stella now?”
Majewski watched the ripples that emanated from the water falling into the pond, large bubble floated outward, endlessly created, and endlessly destroyed against the rocks around the edges. Such was his torment. His shoulders sagged, and he hung his head, raking his hands through his hair. “For a long time,I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. But when Father died—he’d been paying the bills, I found out. Rosencranz Asylum. For the last 25 years—and in all that time, and I rarely gave her a thought. Now, I can’t get it out of my mind.”
“Thomas,” Alfredo said, reaching over and putting his hand on top of Majewski’s. “Forgive yourself. You did not know.”
Majewski nodded. The two men sat in silence for a several minutes. A lone cricket in the garden chirped out the late afternoon temperature. Water fell relentlessly into the dark pond, at the mercy of gravity and other forces far beyond its ability to avoid or control, in a continuous downward journey to merge at last with the sea. As we run down our own pathways to death …
Guilt and shame kept Majewski from telling Alfredo that after his parents’ deaths, he had hired an attorney to write the checks to the mental institution where Stella was. He didn’t want anything to do with Stella, didn’t even want to know where she was. There was plenty of money; she’d be taken care of for the rest of her life. He had relegated it all to a dim corner of his memory. Until that accursed letter.
A barge on the river blasted its horn, disturbing the peace in the garden and jolting Majewski out of his dark thoughts.
“I see the shadows are now long, Thomas,” Alfredo said. He stood up and offered a hand to Majewski. “The sun will set in a half hour or so. Let us go to my cottage, and I will fix us some tea.”
Majewski tore his eyes from the little waterfall and said, “Wonderful!” He took Alfredo’s hand and stood up. As they walked the short distance to the cottage, it seemed to Majewski that the entire forest had suddenly come alive with motion and sound. A few small animals scurried through the undergrowth, and hundreds of birds all called out at once. Crickets chirped in the grass, and buzzing insects flew past his face.
Majewski forgot Stella and his burdens of guilt in the wonder all around him, his senses sharpened. The forest seemed more colorful than living things ought to be. He felt lightheaded from the many fragrances of life and death co-mingling in his nose.
Once again, they were almost at the doorstep to the cottage before Majewski realized it. “Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Alfredo said after he opened the door.
Majewski sat down at the table in the corner, and Alfredo filled the kettle and put it on a small cast-iron stove. He tossed a few lengths of small branches into the stove and within a few moments, he had a small fire going.
“That was fast,” Majewski said. “I’d still be down there, blowing and praying.”
Alfredo laughed, pushing a small piece of wood into the stove. He closed the door and stood up. “I have gotten very good at building fires, living here. I otherwise would have starved by now. Or learned to love raw food.”
Majewski pulled the cord on the lamp over the table, and the light came on. “What’s this?” he said, looking down at the black fob in his palm. “Did you carve it?”
“No,” Alfredo said. He walked over to the table, wiping soot from the stove off his hands. “I found it beneath Brother Maxmillian’s bones in the chapel. I also found pieces of cord and a crucifix, which I buried with the rest of him.”
“I see a hand maybe,” Majewski said, looking through the bottom of his glasses. He squinted, leaning closer to the light. “Or is it a wing?”
“I thought I could see both,” Alfredo said. “A wing and a hand.”
“Interesting.” Majewski let go of the fob and watched it swing back and forth on its cord. He felt lightheaded and wanted to tear his eyes away, but could not. Back and forth, back and forth. Alfredo was talking, but he couldn’t hear him as the room dissolved into a shadowy twilight. Nothing remained but the aura of light from the lamp and the black orb swinging back and forth in front of his face.
His head swam in confusion. Where was Alfredo? He saw a withered old man kneeling at the prayer bench in the hermit’s chapel, his long white hair illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight. His lips were moving, but Majewski couldn’t understand what the man was saying. Was he praying? Suddenly the old man turned, and Stella’s face stared at him.
Disoriented, Majewski called out, “Alfredo! Where are you?” He squinted into the light. “Stella?”
“I am right here, Thomas,” a familiar voice said. His right arm was shaking involuntarily.
Majewski blinked. The vision evaporated, and Alfredo stood next to him shaking his arm. “Thomas! What is the matter? Are you all right? Thomas?”
Charlie flew over the river toward Ledford searching for his nephews, Floyd and Willy. After chatting with a few local crows, he found the two young brothers playing games in the park next to Ledford City Hospital. He landed on a bench and called out to them, “Over here, fellas. I’ve got a job for you two. Espionage.”
Floyd and Willy loved intrigue; they had watched many spy movies as fledges, from their nest at the drive-in movie theater.
“Oh, yeah!” Willy said and landed on the bench next to Charlie.
“Who, what, when, where, why?” Floyd asked, a second behind his brother.
“Follow me,” Charlie said as he took to the air. “This way.”
The three crows flew across the park and into the neighborhood beyond. The landscape below gradually changed from neat little rows of houses with adjoining yards to larger and larger estates behind huge stone walls and wrought-iron gates.
At 10 Woodland Drive, Charlie, Floyd, and Willy swooped down to the wall surrounding a sprawling mansion with many gables and chimneys and a satellite dish. The three crows looked down at the gray stone walls nearly covered with ivy and Virginia creeper. Huge windows in white frames stared out toward the horizon.
Charlie gestured with his beak toward the mansion and said, “The man of the house, Henry Braun, is among the richest in Ledford.”
“Pretty fancy digs,” Willy said approvingly. “We’ll be puttin’ on the ritz!”
“I just love big old houses,” Floyd said. “One day I want to live in a house with white curtains flapping in the breeze, and pies cooling on the windowsills.
“It’s a spy caper, boys,” Charlie said sternly. “Your primary job is to spy on Henry Braun. No looking for sparklys, and no stealing. You got that, Floyd? Willy?”
“Gotcha, Boss,” Willy said.
“You can count on us,” Floyd said.
“Do not let Henry Braun leave your sight,” Charlie said. “Perch on his windowsill and observe his every move. You’re going to need to pay a lot of attention, boys. I’m counting on you two.”
Charlie drilled them with his intense blue eyes. “Don’t let him notice you. He hates crows. He may even hate all birds, for all I know. But he particularly hates crows. A word to the wise, fellas.”
“Hates crows,” Floyd said. “Perhaps we should be incognito, eh?”
Willy smacked his brother with a wing.
“Now get to it,” Charlie said. “Let me know if you hear anything about Cadeña-l’jadia. I have a session with the Archivist the rest of today and tomorrow, but I’ll check on you the day after.”
Willy and Floyd nodded solemnly. “We’ll keep our ears and eyes open,” Willy said. “No worries, Boss.”
Floyd and Willy knew Ledford like the backs of each other’s wings. They’d flown virtually everywhere in the city since the day they fell off the roof of the projection booth at the Raven Wind drive-in theater, one of the last of its kind in the state.
They had spent little time in the rich folks’ neighborhoods, however. What was the point? Those humans never even left a covered trash can outside. They built special houses for their rubbish that were locked and emptied by authorized personnel once a week. Even their landscapes were kept impeccably free of everything edible. Not even a blade of grass was out of place, let alone a misplaced or lost sparkly.
Before they fledged, the two brothers, kreegans of Charlie’s sister, Eliza, watched a different movie every night from the nest at the drive-in theater. They loved to act out different scenes from their favorite movies. Floyd was fascinated with manners and food and loved movies that featured exotic, faraway places. Willy loved Westerns and science fiction. And they both loved movies about clandestine operations and spying.
Floyd and Willy liked to hang out in the blocks surrounding the university campus, on the windowsills and in the trees surrounding the student apartments. Much to their delight, every apartment had its own television–miniature movie theaters as Floyd called them. Every night they found a windowsill to perch on while they watched their favorite shows.
The two crows never went to roost hungry, thanks to the many dining establishments and fast-food joints located near the campus. Every night for weeks, they selected a new restaurant, raiding the trash containers in the alley after hours. Both crows cultivated a taste for international food.
Willy loved it all, spicy, not spicy, raw or cooked. Except for calamari. “Like trying to eat rubber bands,” he said.
Floyd embraced any flavor or dish, as long as it was presented with tasteful elegance. He was especially partial, however, to the English Tea Gardens, where ladies sat in elegant finery, sipping brown liquid from delicate white cups painted with exquisite artistry.
The two young crows stayed hidden way up in the big tree in Henry’s backyard, watching. Waiting to watch mostly, until Henry was in his office. They watched him smoke cigars, shout on the phone, and yell that he needed more coffee, or lunch, or his suit, or tie.
Henry’s little choo-choo train that went around and around a miniature island with a big boat moored at a little dock fascinated them. It was very beautiful; hundreds of little lights sparkled like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. At least once a day, Henry turned them all on, ran the choo-choo around its tracks, and sailed the boat out into the miniature river.
The first time they saw the little train blow its whistle, a small puff of steam issued from its smokestack, the crows were amazed. “Is that cool or what?” Floyd said to his brother. Willy nodded and replied, “Man, I’d love to have one of those. I’d ride that little train around all day long!”
“And I would preside over the lovely paddleboat,” Floyd said. One of his favorite movies featured a romance on a big riverboat, and he was dying to fall in love with a young lady crow on one. “I would serve exotic coffee and tea and delectable pastries on the deck every morning, and champagne with wild mushroom perogi in the evening!”
“Perogi?” Willy looked at Floyd in shock. “Are you nuts? No one serves champagne with perogi! Cognac, perhaps. But champagne? Ish!”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Floyd said with an air of superiority. “It’s quite scrumptious, actually. I wouldn’t serve cabbage perogi with champagne, however. Now, that would be disgusting.”
They watched from the windowsill: Henry sitting down in his armchair; Henry turning on the television; Henry flitting through the channels. He settled upon a conversation between several people sitting around a table. Within minutes, his head dropped to his chest.
“Gad!” Willy said after a few minutes. “How dreadfully dull! I’m falling asleep too. What say you, brother, that we flee to yonder tree whilst the object of our spying naps in front of the tellie?”
“Capital idea!” Floyd said. “It is half past time for tea, anyhoo.”
The two crows flapped to a different tree and perched on a branch where they could still see Henry, or at least his bald spot sticking up over the back of the armchair. “I say, old chap,” Willy said after Floyd passed him an imaginary cup of English Breakfast tea and a blueberry pastry, “I cannot fathom how you can sip a cup of tea, hold a crumpet, and keep purchase on this branch at the same time.”
Floyd looked at his brother with an air of superiority and said, “That is because I have the lithe soul of a dancer, my dear brother. While you, I fear, inherited the corpulent spirit of the bovine.”
A sliding door opened below the two crows, and a thin, petite woman with dark hair tied up in a bun stepped outside. She set a covered tray down softly and called out, “Grawky! Did I hear someone say it is tea time already?”
“I say, old chap,” Floyd leaned over to Willy, forgetting about the imaginary crumpet, which fell to the ground below. “What the bloody hell was that?”
“Why, I daresay someone is speaking in the Patua’,” Willy remarked. “Perhaps it is Henry Braun’s maid, or his spouse. Perhaps she wishes to attract our attention.”
Willy raised a claw up to his eye and peered down at the woman on the patio through an imaginary monocle. “Really! Another Patua’! What a lovely coincidence! Perhaps we should see if she knows anything important about Henry Braun,” Floyd said as he took one last sip of tea from an imaginary fine English bone china cup—white, upon which delicate pink flowers were painted.
“I say! ’Tis a capital plan, old boy!” Willy replied. “Let us fly down and greet her good morning.”
“Bloody grand idea, old chap!” Floyd put his teacup down carefully on the branch. Wiping his beak delicately with an imaginary polished cotton napkin, embroidered with pink flowers to match the teacup, he turned to his companion and said, “Shall we?”
The two crows flew down to the patio, landing at the woman’s feet. Willy bowed low and said, “Grawky, Madame! It is an honor and a pleasure to make morning salutations!” He could be very eloquent.
“Indeed, fair lady,” said Floyd, not to be outdone. He bowed so low his beak scraped the concrete. “My colleague and I beg for the occasion, nay, privilege, to make the acquaintance of such a lovely and gracious lady.”
“Well, for heaven’s sakes!” The woman blushed. “My darling kitty has maligned you! He told me there were, how did he say it, ‘crows masquerading as dandies drinking tea in the trees.’ Dandies indeed! Finely mannered gentlemen is more like it!”
She motioned for the crows to seat themselves and they nodded approvingly to each other. “Miss Fair Lady, ma’am,” Floyd said, as he surveyed the contents of the tray on the table. “I daresay you’ve exhausted yourself on our behalf this morning! And we have yet to be formally introduced. I am Floyd of the Drive-In, at your service, fair lady!”
Minnie bent over and giggled as she brushed her hand across Floyd’s outstretched wing. “My pleasure, I am sure!”
“Likewise,” Willy said, bowing and stretching out a wing. “I am Willy of the Drive-In.”
“My name is Minerva,” she said, brushing her hand through Willy’s feathers.
“Minerva,” Willy said, nodding approvingly. “A lovely nom de plume, wouldn’t you say, my brother?”
“Who could think otherwise?” Floyd said with a low bow. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Minerva.”
“Oh, please!” Minnie said, blushing. “No one calls me that except my husband. Call me Minnie.”
“But of course,” Willy said, “Miss Minnie.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Now, let’s have some tea and crumpets, shall we?”
She sat down on a chair, uncovered the tray and put three cups and three plates on the table. Two apple fritters peeked out from beneath a cloth napkin in a small basket. She took one, cut it in half, and put the pieces on the crows’ plates.
With unimpeachable manners, Floyd and Willy dipped their beaks into their tea and nibbled delectable pastry with Minnie Braun. After he finished his last crumb, Floyd wiped his beak on his napkin and said, “To what do such humble fellows as my brother and I owe this marvelous repast?”
“Oh, pshaw!” Minnie said, waving her hand at Floyd. “It’s just tea and some baked goods from the grocery store.”
“Nay,” Willy said, shaking his head. “No two crows were ever so less deserving of sweeter confections than the exquisite products of your culinary art, as well as and not less than, the delight of the company of a maid so fair.”
Minnie looked confused for a moment, then smiled and said, “As easily I could say, to what do I owe the occasion of such a delightful visit from two handsome, well-mannered, and dare I say, well-spoken crows?”
The crows looked at each other for a moment, and Floyd said nonchalantly, “Why, nothing other than our hope to share tea with a beautiful lady!”
“Oh, fiddle-dee-dee!” Minnie laughed, waving the hand at the two crows. “Enough of the honey-beaked speech! What are you fellows up to, really? Are you spying?”
The two crows looked at each other again, abashed. “She knows,” Floyd hissed through his beak.
“Well, Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “we did hope to acquire news or developments thereof that interest the master of the house, that is, about possible future plans he may or may not have concerning Cadeña-l’jadia, that is, Wilder Island to you folks.”
“I see,” Minnie said. She glanced over her shoulder and leaned toward the crows. Floyd and Willy leaned in toward her.
“He’s just crazy to get that island,” she whispered. “He keeps saying the same thing over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ I have no idea what that means. He’s not the least religious, so I don’t think he’s talking about heaven or hell. He just keeps repeating it, over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ And then he laughs.” She sat back and wrapped herself in her arms. “It is a not a happy sound.”
“Eminent domain,” Floyd said. “Izzat so?”
A door slammed in the house, and Minnie looked anxiously over her shoulder again. “Minerva!” a male voice boomed out the windows.
“Ta-ta for now, fellas!” Minnie said. She quickly put the cups and plates back on the tray and darted into the house, leaving the fritters on the table.
“What is eminent domain?” Willy asked, beaking a chunk of fritter and flying up to the tree.
“Beats me, old chap,” Floyd said, grabbing the other fritter and following his brother. “But isn’t Miss Minnie just the bomb?”