“The River Queen will remain in permanent dry-dock here on the west side of the river,” Henry told the small group of Ledford city officials as he pointed to the lovely miniature riverboat. “You’ll be able to see it from Downtown and the Waterfront. There’ll be a ferry coming in from both sides of the city, docking on the rocky point below the old chapel ruins. We’ll have a marker there, commemorating Maxmillian Wilder’s life and legacy.”
Henry Braun stood while eight others sat in chairs around the architectural model of Ravenwood Resort. The mayor, his secretary, and six heads of city departments were there: Planning and Zoning, Environment, Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and Neighborhood Relations.
Of the group, Henry was sure he had four of them in his pocket: Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and the Mayor himself. They all saw the light, even if they might’ve needed a little shove in the right direction. That’s a majority! He chuckled to himself. I’ve got this in the bag!
The model around which they all were seated was huge. Complete with lights and running water, the miniature River Queen bobbed up and down in the current generated by her own paddlewheel. Gone were the overgrown forests of Wilder Island and the newly restored hermit’s chapel. Trees obediently lined the sidewalks and cobbled streets instead, and tidy green lawns of manicured grass bordered with flowers surrounded concrete-lined fountains sporting sculptures of leaping fish.
Henry turned a switch on a transformer, and a small scale-model train emerged from a tunnel. Eight pairs of eyes followed the tiny steam engine around the little island as it blew its whistle and flashed its lights. “What resort would be complete without a train?” Henry asked the smiling faces around the table. “Completely electric, so no smokestacks or smog—just a little steam puff every now and then.”
The tiny train rolled past groups of miniature people walking along the boardwalk next to the river and chugged past hotels, restaurants, and the amusement park, where the Ferris wheel spun like a hypnotic pinwheel of lights. “The train will shuttle people anywhere they want to go,” Henry said, pointing to the tiny track. “To the casinos, the shopping mall, restaurants, Kid Land. Anywhere they want to go. Free of charge. They just hop on and off as they wish!”
The officials watched the little train begin another loop; a tiny puff of steam erupted from its engine. The whole scene was rather enchanting. Henry saw the smiles, the relaxed shoulders. The officials were charmed, he thought with a smug smile. Who can resist a choo-choo? Just about time to move in for the kill.
“Over here,” Henry said, “is Kid Land.” Colored lights adorned the miniature Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and water-park slides that presided over the amusement park. “Complete with day-care workers and lifeguards to look after the youngsters while Mommy and Daddy are at the gaming tables!”
Henry pushed another button on the control panel, and the River Queen sputtered to life. He steered the boat around the island, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a replica of the old River Queen paddleboat that traveled up and down the river in the last century. She’s been in dry dock, getting renovated into the first riverboat casino in the state. In Phase II, I’ll bring in her newly restored sister, the Delta Dawn.”
“Yes, Henry,” the director of the Water Department said, “I’m sure she’s very pretty. But what’s the bottom line here? You ask us to condemn this property? What’s in it for Ledford?”
“I am glad you asked that,” Henry said magnanimously. “Bottom line: Ravenwood Resort is Ledford’s cash cow. In perpetuity. Right now, Wilder Island is nothing but a mosquito-infested swamp, to say nothing of the unsustainable crow population, which has for decades been too large for the island to handle. I am talking about progress before crows.”
Henry was proud of the slogan he made up, “progress before crows.” He paused for a drink of water, looking around the room as he unscrewed the top of the bottle. Predictable scowls and smiles all around.
“Ravenwood Resort is a recreational facility that the entire city can enjoy,” he continued. “But the greatest gift Ravenwood Resort will give the city of Ledford is to fill its coffers with tax revenue, as well as provide up to eleven hundred new jobs.”
No one stirred for a few moments, until finally the Mayor remembered his cue.
“Very provocative, Henry,” he said. “Now let’s see some numbers.”
“Of course,” Henry said. “That would be my pleasure. If I may direct your attention to the screen?”
A colorful pie chart sprang to life as Henry turned the data projector on. Circling the pie chart on the screen with a laser pointer, he began his speech. “We expect a gross revenue of fifty million dollars in the first year after Phase I completion. Triple that when Phase II is complete. We estimate city revenue from our operations to be in the neighborhood of eight million per year, once we get going. Maybe more.”
Henry heard a low whistle at the other end of the table. He nodded and said, “Exactly. Please note, ladies and gentlemen, that I have broken down our expected revenue from each of the operations. Casino income, that’s the biggest slice at 78 percent.” Henry zeroed in on each segment of the pie chart in their turn with the laser pointer. “Hotels and Restaurants, 13 percent; Amusement Park, 7 percent, Ferry, 2 percent.” He rattled off the numbers, his words falling like coins from his mouth.
“The current level of gross receipts tax on all Ledford business transactions,” he said, advancing the slide on the screen to another pie chart, “is 7.38 percent. The state takes 5.2 percent, leaving 2.18 percent for the city of Ledford. Now, 2.18 percent of 50,000,000 is …” Henry stopped again to advance the slide, pausing an extra second or two for effect.
In the largest font possible, “$1,090,000.00” glittered and sparkled like a jackpot against a soft background photo of the future Ravenwood Resort.
Jade opened her eyes. Willow B’s face was not two inches from hers; his golden eyes seemed to have bored through her sleep. After scratching him behind the ear for a few minutes and listening to his raspy purr, she stretched and sat up. She could hear Russ in the shower.
“We’re going to Wilder Island today, Willow B,” she said as she put her robe on. “Crow Island is more like it, though. We’re going to be in a land trust. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I guess we’ll find out.”
Crow Dreams. Crow Island. Crow Backyard. The little messengers from the beyond, trying to tell me something. Maybe someone is dead. Russ had rolled his eyes at that one. But he had not offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the frequency of crows in her life.
“You live in a city that has a plethora of them,” Russ had said. “They’re freaking everywhere, hon. And besides, you’ve been painting them since your childhood, so this is evidently not a sudden phenomenon.”
“I rest my case!” Jade cried. “Crows have haunted me my entire life!”
Curiosity overwhelmed her anxiety and fantasies in the end, and she was excited at the opportunity to see the famed island. Besides, Russ would be there. And the Jesuit—he would be there too. Probably the crows liked him, and she would be safe by association, so really there was nothing to worry about. Really.
Clear and blue, the river sparkled in the morning sun. Russ was driving, so Jade could unhook, admire, and even lose herself in the scenery. The newly restored chapel was especially beautiful in the morning shadows. Elegant and silent, its roof a bleached, gray-white tangle of dead branches cradled within the saturated greens of the dense forest under a clear blue sky. Like a painting. Jade smiled, thinking of the hundreds if not thousands of Wilder Island paintings flooding the Ledford art market.
“Do you think the Jesuit says Mass for the crows?” she said. “Do they listen to his sermons, or ignore him and think about breakfast, like we do?” She visualized a flock of crows in the chapel. “Do they eat the bread and drink the wine?”
“The Jesuit’s name is Alfredo Manzi,” Russ said, looking at her sternly. “He is my colleague and my friend. Can you please show a little respect? Please?”
“I promise,” Jade said, “I will be the perfect picture of the college professor’s elegant wife.”
“In your dreams!” Russ said with a grin. “And what a bore! I’ll settle for the eccentric yet not totally bonkers wife of the college professor. Think you can manage that?”
“I’ll do my best,” Jade said with a satyr-like grin.
“I love you, babe,” Russ said, shaking his head. “God help me.”
He parked the car, and they walked down to the dock where a floating iron forest on pontoons glided soundlessly into one of the slots. “Yo, Russ!” the Captain called out as he tied off the boat. His hat in one hand, he extended the other and invited them to climb aboard and join the red-haired woman seated on one of the benches.
“Hi, I’m Kate Herron,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m the attorney for the land trust.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jade said. “I’m Jade Matthews, and this is my husband, Russ.”
“And here comes Sam,” Kate said with a grin.
An old, beat up, flesh-colored pickup truck roared into the parking lot, spraying gravel as its driver slammed it to a halt. A window went down, and an arm appeared and opened the door from the outside. A sandy-haired man in tight blue jeans and a red plaid shirt jumped out and hollered, “Morning, Captain! Don’t be taking off without me, now!”
He leaped onto the boat, and Jade said, “Sam! I thought I recognized that old truck! You coming to Wilder Island too? For the land trust meeting?”
“I am!” Sam said. “I guess you are too! That really rocks. Hey, Russ! Nice to have you aboard!”
“Thanks,” Russ said, shaking Sam’s outstretched hand.
Sam put an arm around Kate and gave her a hug as the Captain pushed the boat away from the dock with his wooden oar. Jade admired the beautiful, honey brown wood, finely carved with waterfowl and fish leaping through foamy waves. With a start, she noticed that a crow perched on the railing next to the captain as he rowed. I guess that’s not too unusual in these waters, next to an island full of crows. But who has one as a pet?
Russ nudged her arm and pointed upward. Her amazement increased at the full grandeur of the Captain’s boat. Tree trunks of wrought iron and chased metal held up a canopy of branches and leaves over their heads, through which flew a few small birds, both real and crafted of metal.
The Captain steered the boat around the northernmost tip of the island and into the quiet waters of an inlet. Alfredo stood on the bank, waiting for the Captain to throw him the rope.
“Thanks, Captain!” he called out after his guests stepped off the boat.
“G’day, Padre.” He tipped his hat and shoved off.
“Great day, is it not?” Alfredo reached to shake Russ’s hand.
“Alfredo, this is my wife, Jade,” Russ said, his other hand on Jade’s back.
“Russ has told me about you!” Alfredo said, his hands encasing hers. “You are an artist, a painter, he tells me.”
“Yes,” Jade said, taken aback at his warmth and sincerity.
“I presume you all met each other on the way over?” They all nodded, and he continued, “Good, good. Jade, I hope you find inspiration here.”
“I’m already inspired,” Jade said, blushing, “just from the boat ride. The island is so beautiful!”
“She’ll have a painting done by Sunday night,” Russ said with a grin. “It’ll be extraordinary. Tell them about your show, honey.”
Jade blushed again and said, “It’s a one-person show at Jena McRae’s gallery Downtown. I’ll send you an invitation to the opening reception. It’s next Friday.”
“I will be there,” Alfredo said. “I know Jena’s gallery well.”
“Send me one also,” Kate said. “I love art shows!”
“Me too, Jade,” Sam said. “You know I’m a fan of your work.” He winked at her.
“You two know each other then?” Alfredo said, pointing to Jade and Sam.
“We do,” Jade said. “We worked on the Urban Art Project the city put on last year. Were you here then? People brought all their discarded metal and stuff, and a group of sculptors, Sam for one, made it into a big art piece for the park next to the Waterfront.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “Jade brought the most amazing stuff to the project. It was great fun!”
“Then you are aware of Sam’s artistic talents,” Alfredo said. “You will be pleased to discover his latest work in the chapel garden!”
As they left the inlet, Jade looked back over her shoulder several times, half expecting to see a swarm of crows following her. She heard birdcalls everywhere but saw no crows. They walked up the embankment and onto a path. “My cottage is just over there,” Alfredo said, pointing, “but I will take you the long way around, through the chapel and the gardens.”
Where are all the crows? Jade looked all around her and into the tree branches overhead. She stumbled on a rock, and Russ grabbed her hand and directed her attention to the plethora of wildflowers all around them.
“Aren’t they gorgeous?” he said. “You’ll have to come back with me sometime and paint while I find a whole new flower unknown to mankind.”
The chapel roof appeared through the trees, and a few minutes later they stepped into the garden. An assortment of pink-and-white water lilies and irises decorated the pond.
“You must have a green thumb, Alfredo,” Russ said. “This is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Alfredo said. “I am but a humble gardener.”
“Oh my God!” Jade said. “That’s incredible!” She turned to Alfredo. “This is what you were talking about! I’d recognize Sam’s work anywhere.”
A metal sculpture arose from the pond, an unexpected assemblage of the rusted remains of derelict automobiles juxtaposed against shapes cut from discarded stainless steel milk tankers. From any angle, the view was breathtaking, each component an integral part of the whole, in a mosaic of shadows and spaces that reflected in the polished surfaces of the stainless steel. Elegant upward motion suggested the reach for the heavens, brought gently back to Earth by the mundane decomposition of the rusting junk that once littered the urban landscape.
“Yes,” Alfredo answered for Sam, smiling proudly. “This is a very recent addition to the garden. A Sam Howard original. Signed right there.” He pointed to the signature carved into the metal base. “I was lucky to find Sam. I hired him to help with the restoration of the chapel. The sculpture in the pond was his idea. It just appeared one day. As if it grew overnight.”
Alfredo looked admiringly at the sculpture. “Sam also built my cottage. But as you observe, his true calling is to art.”
“I see a giant bird about to take off,” Kate said. “Or land—I can’t tell which. But I love how you pick up the rubbish of the industrial age and make us forget that it was once all just litter.”
“One man’s junk,” Sam said with a grin, “is another man’s art. Modern American artifacts—that’s what I call this stuff. It’s all over the place. Good thing it’s mostly free.”
“Sam,” Jade said as she walked around the pond, “this is your finest work ever!”
Sam squinted up at the sculpture. “I think so too. I had one of those rare moments we all pray for, when the thing you haven’t quite envisioned just rises up and seizes you.”
“And you just let it come through,” Jade said, nodding. “It has a life of its own almost, and it pulls you along.”
“Yep,” Sam said. “Like that.”
Two crows flew into the garden and perched in a tree near the pond and disappeared into its shadows. Four luminous blue eyes stared down at Jade. She returned to Russ’s side, grasped his hand and stole a glance back at the tree. The eyes were still there. Eyes without bodies, hanging like blue globes in the darkness.
“What amazes me, Sam,” Russ said as his hand closed around hers, “is how you managed to evoke a green forest using rusty junk metal. It’s like portraying the miracle of life using what’s essentially road kill.”
Sam threw his head back and laughed. “That’s a good one, Russ! Urban Roadkill. I’ll have to create that one. But yes, that’s where I get a lot of my raw material—all along the highways. Car parts, pieces of buildings, farm equipment. Anything metal—gutters, pipes, corrugated siding, old furnaces, air-conditioners. Mufflers and license plates—those are everywhere—but occasionally I pick up something cool like a radiator or an engine fan.”
“Very green,” Russ said. “I’m impressed, Sam!”
Jade tried desperately to not look at the two crows in the trees. Why am I so nervous? It’s not like they’re going to come down and attack me.
“I’m the Queen of Recycling,” Kate said. “Anyone who picks up rubbish in the landscape is my hero. Especially if they make art with it.” She smiled coyly at Sam, who looked down at his feet.
“The chapel is so lovely from the river,” Jade said suddenly, hoping Alfredo would get them out of there and away from those eyes. “I can’t wait to see it up close, Alfredo! Can we go in?”
“But of course!” he said. “Sam? Would you mind heading over to my cottage and making the coffee? We will be there in fifteen minutes or so.”
“Sure thing,” Sam said.
“I’ll go with him,” Kate said. “I’ve gotten the tour already.”
Jade noticed the goofy look on Kate’s face when she looked at Sam, who blushed deep red and grinned stupidly at the ground. Hmmm. Love blossoms on Wilder Island. She turned back toward the tree where the two crows had been. They’re gone. Relieved, she turned to follow the others.
“Shall we?” Alfredo said, indicating the direction they should take.
“Greetings, Fair Lady!” a voice above them said.
At least that’s what Jade thought she heard. She slowed down and looked up into the tree under which they walked. A blue-eyed crow stared back. “I beg your pardon?” she said, glancing quickly toward Russ and the others. None of them noticed her or the crow. When she turned back, the crow still gazed down at her.
“Alfredo,” Jade said, walking quickly to join him, “Russ told me you have deciphered some crow words, but do they also speak English? I think that crow just spoke to me! Or am I crazy?”
“Careful how you answer that, Alfredo!” Russ said with a grin. “At least the crazy part!”
Alfredo smiled and said, “You are not crazy, Jade! It is possible that the crow spoke to you. They are very intelligent birds and have marvelous vocabularies. I have been able to teach them a few English words here and there as well. What did he say?”
“‘Greetings, Fair Lady,’” Jade said. “At least I think that’s what he said.”
Alfredo frowned and said, “Interesting. That is not one of the phrases I taught them.” He shrugged. “But crows are very magnanimous, and this one could have picked it up anywhere. Many of these crows fly across the water to the city.”
“I didn’t know crows spoke English,” Russ said, one eyebrow raised. He turned to Jade and said, “Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t know you understood crow.”
Jade felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her, expecting an answer. “I—I don’t,” she stammered. “I just thought the crow said something. It sounded like English.”
“They can be taught to speak a few words of most any language,” Alfredo replied. “Just like parrots, though I do believe both birds understand what they are saying.”
Jade looked back for the crow as they started along the path to the chapel. It was gone.
Henry smiled at the heads of the five city departments that formed the condemnation committee. “Just over one million dollars, folks. And we expect that to double in the first five years.” He circled the sparkly numbers with a red laser pointer. “Think about it. Over a million dollars for the city, and all you have to do is condemn Wilder Island and watch the money flow in.”
The Mayor started to clap, cutting off Henry’s conclusion. He was nodding and smiling as he looked around the table. No one else joined his applause.
“Now just a damn minute,” the Planning and Zoning Department director said as he smacked the table suddenly with his palm. “Mr. Braun, you’ve yet to swing this casino park of yours through the permitting process.” He gestured toward the extravagant model of Ravenwood Resort. “This is adorable, but how do we know you’re not just blowing smoke? Let’s see some details. I for one am not going to vote until we see exactly what you plan to do.”
Henry watched the Mayor sink back into his chair. The coward!
“The island won’t support a large human population,” Environment piped up. “It’s full of bogs and swamps and places where the water’s found its way down cracks and fractures. You’d have to bring in a mountain of dirt to fill all that in.”
“Well,” Henry said amiably, “that’ll be my problem, now won’t it? It’s a matter of money and machine. I got both.”
“Well, you don’t got a building permit,” Planning and Zoning said in a vaguely mocking tone.
Henry clamped back the anger that surged up from his gut. Stay calm! That’s what Jules had said. Think before you speak. Look out the window, get a drink of water, do something, anything, to keep your cool.
He reached for his water bottle, and as he took a sip, he noticed the two crows on the windowsill. He thought they looked familiar and then reminded himself that all crows look alike. But he didn’t like how they stared at him and wondered if they were bugged.
“And until I see your plans for a sewage treatment facility, and a plan for maintaining safe drinking water and controlling run-off,” Environment was saying, “you won’t get one. And I suggest, Mr. Mayor, that Mr. Braun be so required to submit some details before we vote. Do you really want an environmental disaster on your hands?”
Henry pulled an exceedingly white handkerchief out of his pockets and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. The crows on the windowsill had not broken their gaze. He wished he could throw his shoe at them. Calm, stay calm.
“Now, now,” the Mayor said soothingly, looking toward Henry. “There’s no need to come all unraveled here. Mr. Braun has already promised us complete compliance with everything. Isn’t that right, Henry?”
“Absolutely!” Henry said, grateful the mayor had come to his aid, finally. “Ravenwood Resort will be eco-friendly. We’ll be helping save the environment by using as much timber as we can from the island’s own forests.”
Henry savored the appalled expression on Environment’s face. “And we’ll be using the island’s natural filtration system—its vast network of underground caves—to filter and process our wastewater. Through these natural wetlands, we’ll actually return cleaner water to the river than when we found it!” He smiled broadly all around the model.
“Are you insane, Henry?” Environment said angrily. “You think you’re going to pump sewage underground and have it come out as spring water? You’ll never fly that by my department without precise and complete code-compliant engineering drawings and—”
A car alarm went off outside the building, its shrill, urgent tone screaming through the open window. Henry licked his lips, trying to stay composed. “Enough!” he wanted to shout. Careful! Stay calm. He took a deep breath. It was hard to remain calm, too hard almost, with these simpletons going on and on about such trivia. He clenched his mouth shut tightly.
The alarm suddenly stopped. Henry exhaled and took out his handkerchief again. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled broadly.
“I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this one, Henry,” Planning and Zoning said. “This is sewage you’re talking about here. You can’t just pump it underground or into the river. We need to see how you plan to—”
Henry inhaled slowly and deeply as he counted to ten. Just like Jules had taught him. Exhale two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He wished he couldn’t hear his heart pounding in his ears.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, smiling with an overly robust pretense of camaraderie. He ignored the sour look on Neighborhood Relations’ face. “I intend to fully comply with all your rules, codes, and regs. Have no worries! Trust me! This is just an overview of Ravenwood Resort. I am merely submitting a proposal today.”
He turned to the Mayor and smiled. You were supposed to back me up on this one! “Surely I am not expected to pay the enormous expense of hiring engineers before I have your condemnation?”
“Mr. Braun is correct,” the Mayor said, nervously shaking his head. “The entire set of engineering drawings isn’t required for us to condemn the island under eminent domain. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it! Meanwhile, Mr. Braun has shown us a reasonable proposal of what he intends to do with Wilder Island. Let’s continue with the condemnation proceedings, and if the committee so decides, we shall require Mr. Braun to submit the required documentation to build the resort.”
“Mr. Mayor,” Environment said, “of what use is it to condemn and kick the Jesuits and the birds off the island if he can’t come up with a viable plan? Then what? How will you explain that to the people? Some of them, most of them I’ll warrant, love the island. You’d best tread carefully here, Mr. Mayor. Mr. Braun must show us he has a viable plan before we vote to condemn.”
Henry watched the Mayor start to cave, and he resisted the strong temptation to pick up his chair and heave it at the unctuous little weasel. Calm! Stay calm! He heard Jules’s voice. He looked out the window. Damn those crows! They’re like little spies, watching my every move.
“Mr. Braun,” the Mayor said, licking his lips nervously. “You know I’m a supporter of Ravenwood Resort. But these gentlemen speak truthfully. The public is quite sensitive to environmental concerns—issues of water quality and the like. May I remind you, I’m an elected official, and the Mayor appoints all the department heads around this table. That is, me. We must tread very delicately here, or the public will flay us alive.”
I’ll flay you alive, you miserable pantywaist. The two crows on the windowsill smirked at him behind their beaks. He looked away. Inhale two, three, four …
His hand found the switch to the choo-choo, and he flipped it on. The tiny train steamed to life and began its winding way around the island. It calmed him, and he watched it for a few moments, feeling his anxiety diminish. “Folks,” he said after a few moments of watching. “Ravenwood Resort has something for everyone—jobs, fun, money. I promise to comply with all building codes and laws. I can say no more to convince you. I’m in your hands.”
Silence permeated the room for a few moments, except for the tiny sound of the little choo-choo, cheerfully chugging around the island. Tourism and Economic Development scowled at Planning and Zoning, who glared at Henry. Environment tapped irritably on the table with his pencil. Neighborhood Relations scribbled furiously while Water causally doodled upon their respective covers of their Ravenwood Resort proposals.
Finally the Mayor spoke. “Yes, well, thank you, Mr. Braun. Wonderful presentation, just wonderful. The ball is now in our court, my friends, and we’ll take this all under advisement. We’ll have a decision for you in a week or so, Mr. Braun.”
Alfredo opened the door to the chapel, and the roof seized his guests’ attention. They gazed upward through the white branches Bruthamax and Hozey wove together, to the blue sky beyond.
NoExit and his family peered down from their nest, and Alfredo nodded to them. He directed Russ and Jade’s attention to the singular bench and kneeler in front of the altar. “Marvelous, is it not? The old hermit hacked it from driftwood,” he said. “It is held together by railroad spikes. Brother Wilder must have salvaged them from that trestle bridge catastrophe.”
“How’d he get the wood so smooth?” Russ said as he stroked the top of the kneeler. “It’s like polished stone.”
“The river and the sandy beaches did most of it,” Alfredo said. “The sun and time did the rest. Evidently Brother Maxmillian picked up whatever lumber he needed from the riverbanks. The timber mill upstream loses a log now and then, and many end up here.”
Jade wandered to the place where Alfredo had found Brother Maxmillian’s remains. “Whatever happened to the old hermit?” she asked. “Did he die here on the island?”
“Yes,” Alfredo answered. “His bones were in here the first time I visited, just about where you’re standing, Jade.”
She looked at him with a stricken expression and then down at the floor, as if she expected to see the old hermit’s bones.
“They were picked clean and pure white,” Alfredo said as he walked over to where she stood. “I collected them all and gave him a proper funeral. His grave is outside.”
Jade shut her eyes tightly, shaking her head murmuring, “No, no, no.”
“I am so sorry!” Alfredo said, taking her arm and moving her away from the spot. He handed her off to Russ. “I did not mean to upset you.” What a strange woman she is. And Russ is so straight-laced and down-to-earth.
“You didn’t upset me,” Jade said weakly, sagging against Russ. “I just thought for a moment I saw his dead body, and several crows and ravens were eating him.” She shivered. “They all had these really cold blue eyes. I had a dream about one, and it—”
“My wife has an extremely vivid imagination,” Russ said, interrupting her. “Sometimes it gets the better of her.”
Blue-eyed crows and ravens eating Brother Max’s flesh! That was not her imagination. How did she know? Is she clairvoyant? Though abashed that he, a scientist, would entertain such a thought, he couldn’t think how else she would know. He recalled her claim in the garden that a crow had said, “Greetings, fair lady!” He looked at her closely. I wonder, is she Patua’?
“That is an interesting anomaly about the crows on the island, Jade,” he said. “Crows are born with blue eyes, like human babies. But in the vast majority of cases, their eyes turn black or brown as soon as they’re ready to leave the nest. Except for this island. For some reason, a lot of crows’ eyes stay blue all their lives.”
“Really?” Russ said. “That’s interesting. But I suppose not entirely surprising that a genetic enclave exists here, considering the island is cut off from the mainland.”
“Indeed,” Alfredo said. “While it is a short fly for these birds, and many leave for new territories elsewhere, evidently enough have stayed on the island to keep those blue eyes in the gene pool. I am quite charmed by them.”
“Well I’m not,” Jade said. “I keep dreaming of crows. And they’re not very nice.”
Alfredo looked at Russ with raised eyebrows. Russ merely shrugged, shook his head, and rolled his eyes.
“Alfredo,” Russ said, looking up at the roof, “it must get pretty wet in here when it rains.”
“It does,” Alfredo said. “Sam and I wove a few more branches in, to keep it slightly drier in here than it was. I do not have to be here during increment weather, however. The Good Lord will accept our prayers anywhere.”
“Do you say Mass here?” Jade said suddenly. “Does anyone come?”
“Every Sunday,” the priest said, “at dawn. No humans, of course, but a few birds usually attend—crows mostly. Saying Mass in this chapel is more like a meditation. I do miss a congregation, I suppose. But you are welcome anytime if ever you wish to attend.”
“Perhaps,” Russ said. “This place reminds me of my altar-boy days somehow. Don’t ask me why.”
As they left the chapel, Jade gasped. Dozens of black birds perched on the chapel roof, and many more were on the ground, walking or pecking. “Oh my God,” she said, “what are they doing here?”
Alfredo laughed and said, “They live here! They noticed I had visitors and are curious. They will not harm you.”
Jade skirted around the other side of her husband, avoiding even a glance at the crows hanging around the chapel.
Sam and Kate had coffee made and the table set with cups, plates, and a large platter of cookies when Alfredo arrived at the cottage with Russ and Jade. “Sit down, everyone,” Alfredo said, gesturing toward the small table. “It will be a bit tight, but we are all friends.”
After they were seated nearly elbow-to-elbow, Jade pointed to the fob on the end of the lamp chain and said to Russ in a whisper, “Look at that!”
“Look at what?” Alfredo said, as he brought a carafe of coffee to the table. “Oh, yes, is it not marvelous? I found it in the chapel. I think it must have belonged to Brother Maxmillian.”
“Jade has one almost exactly like it,” Russ said. Jade nudged him to be quiet. “Show it to him, honey!”
“You have a similar piece?” Alfredo asked. “May I see it?”
He put his hand out, and his sudden interest made Jade recoil. Russ nudged and her said, “C’mon, honey, show it to him. No one’s going to take it from you.”
“What is it?” Kate asked.
Reluctantly, Jade drew out her medallion on its leather cord and held it up to Alfredo without taking it off. “It was my mother’s,” she said, her hands shaking. “At least that’s what I’ve always believed. I never knew her, so I don’t really know.”
Alfredo held Jade’s medallion carefully. “They’re astonishingly similar,” he said, dropping both. “What a delightful mystery that we each have one!”
Jade dropped the medallion back under her shirt and blurted out, “I have dreams about crows all the time, mostly scary ones, but sometimes my mother is in them too. One time I thought the crows were trying to steal this, and I’ve been hiding it from them ever since.”
“Interesting,” Alfredo said. He felt a certain kinship with her, but he wondered why she was so reluctant to show him her orb.
“What is it?” Kate asked again, taking the fob at the end of the lamp chain into her hand. “It feels like stone, yet it’s so delicately carved.”
Sam took a turn examining the fob. He tapped it against his teeth and said, “It’s definitely wood. A very hard wood. Can’t tell what kind, though.”
“You said you found it in the chapel?” Russ asked.
“Yes,” Alfredo said. “Under the old hermit’s bones. Evidently he wore it around his neck.”
Jade made a distasteful face and looked out the window. Alfredo poured coffee into everyone’s cups. Was Jade’s mother Patua’? Why else would she have had an orb? If her mother was Patua’…
Jade reached for the cookie platter and took two. After a few bites, she said, “Alfredo! These are wonderful! Where did you get them?”
“I baked them,” Alfredo said with a smile as he sat down, “in my easy-bake solar oven!”
The others laughed uproariously. “Seriously?” Jade asked. “You baked them? I had no idea you were so talented.” She bit into her second cookie.
“I love to bake,” Alfredo said. “My grandmother taught me when I was a boy. I used to help her bake pies at Christmas, and dinner rolls every Sunday. I bake the Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s to supplement my generous stipend from the Jesuits.”
“Truly a man of many talents,” Kate said. “Priest, scholar, baker. Who knew?”
She pulled her briefcase up to the table and opened it, saying, “All right then. Welcome, board of directors of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust! As you all know, the Padre and I hammered out the land trust in the last couple weeks. Here are the bylaws and the articles of incorporation.” She tossed several spiral-bound booklets onto the table.
“First, a little history,” she said. “Henry Braun approached the Jesuits to buy the island, and we turned him down. But that hasn’t stopped him.”
“What does he want to do with the island?” Jade asked.
“He wants to turn it into a casino resort park,” Alfredo said. “Evidently he is not happy with his current wealth.”
“Wow,” Sam said. “He lives in a freaking mansion, has a chauffeur drive him around in his Bentley, and he wants more. What a pig!”
“Even as we speak,” Kate was saying, “he’s presenting a proposal to the Mayor and certain city department heads, asking them to condemn the island as a nuisance—what did he call it, Padre?”
“Fallow,” Alfredo said. “And derelict.”
The fob on the lamp chain swayed slightly as if in protest. Jade finished her second cookie and grabbed another off the plate. She looked around the table. Everyone else was still working on cookie number one. She put the third cookie on her plate and put her hands in her lap, hoping the others had not noticed what a pig she was.
Russ shook his head, frowning. He reached across the table for a cookie. “But how can he do that? The Jesuits said they wouldn’t sell.”
“He’s using the eminent domain laws,” Kate said, “to force us to sell the island to him. But, he won’t succeed, at least not this time. The land trust is a done deal, as of yesterday morning at 8:13 a.m., thanks to all of you for doing the electronic signature thing on the Internet.”
Jade took two quick bites from her cookie and put it back on her plate. She chewed slowly, trying to savor every bite. Trying to not think too much about the remaining cookies on the platter.
“Thanks to you, Kate,” Alfred said. “I am impressed and amazed at how quickly you got the land trust drawn up and filed. I just hope it will be enough to stop Henry Braun.”
“What’s eminent domain?” Sam asked, dunking his cookie into his coffee.
Two more cookies on the plate. Russ has had two now, Kate two, Sam two. Me three. She glanced at Alfredo’s plate. He had not finished his first.
“It’s a right guaranteed to the government,” Kate said, waving her cookie as she spoke, “to condemn and sell private property to another individual for the purpose of development. Up until recently, it was only used to acquire property for roads and public buildings. But now, eminent domain is a tool to condemn private property for private commercial development, though this is flabbergasting to the vast majority of us.”
“But what about the Jesuits?” Russ asked. “Will they let us make a land trust out of their island?”
Jade studied her cookie, resisting the urge to cram it into her mouth. One of the chocolate chips had melted in the oven and hardened into a shape that resembled a crow in flight. Oh God, stop it! She bit the crow off and ate it.
“The Jesuits donated the island to the land trust,” Alfredo said. “It was the Father Provincial’s idea to do this. In fact, the whole land trust was his idea. Things might have turned out a lot differently had Henry Braun not been so annoying. It just really irked Majewski—the idea of anyone tearing down a consecrated Jesuit chapel to build a casino.”
Jade finished off her third cookie and drained her coffee cup. Sam took the second-to-last-cookie from the plate.
“And even when I told him,” Kate said, laughing, “that the island would probably be assessed at upward of Henry’s original offer of five million dollars, his reply was something like: ‘Henry Braun could offer me the golden gates of hell, and I’d still rather see our chapel and nothing but several thousand crows on Wilder Island.’”
I thought heaven had the golden gates. Oh, wait. Pearly gates. Hell’s gates are more valuable than heaven’s?
“Speaking of the chapel,” Jade said, “what will become of it?” She poured herself another cup of coffee from the carafe, wondering if someone was going to take that last cookie.
“The Jesuits will keep ownership of the chapel and the small plot of land it sits on,” Alfredo said. “And I will say Mass every morning to my congregation of crows, same as I do now.”
“But, Kate,” Russ said, looking up from the proposal, “wouldn’t it be easier to fight eminent domain if the Church still owns the whole island? Aren’t churches immune?”
Jade tried to ignore the last cookie. She looked out the window. A crow flew by, shrieking, “Give me a cookie!” Startled, she glanced at Alfredo. Did he hear it?
“Legally,” Kate said, “nothing can stop it—not even the Catholic Church. A land trust can’t stop eminent domain either. We can only prescribe what will be done with our island if we’re forced to sell it.” She picked the last cookie off the platter, broke it in two, and returned one half to the plate.
So that’s how you do it! Just take half! Jade resisted pouncing on the other half.
“But, how can this be?” Russ asked, aghast. “How can the city condemn private property, for God’s sake? For a gambling resort? That’s just wrong. And there’s nothing we can do?”
“We’re not complete victims,” Kate said. “We can fight back.”
Russ reached past her, took the last half cookie off the platter, broke it, popped one piece in his mouth, and left the other on the plate.
Dang! I should’ve made my move. She wondered how many times the cookie could be broken in two.
“We have some protections built into the land trust,” Kate said, “that’ll make it hard for him to build his casino. But if he wins the eminent domain battle, he’ll still fight us tooth and nail to thwart the intent of the land trust. And he’s got a lot more money than the five of us combined will ever see.”
Jade’s resistance broke down, and she snatched the last quarter of the last cookie and popped it into her mouth, all in one piece.
Alfredo went to the kitchen area and brought back a plastic container. He opened it and refilled the cookie platter. Jade reached over and took one, followed by Russ, Sam, and Kate.
“Does anyone want more coffee?” he asked with an amused smile. Everyone shook their heads, and he sat back down.
“What about endangered species?” Sam asked through a mouthful of cookie. “Or a wilderness designation? Can’t we go that route too?”
Alfredo shook his head, but before he could speak, Kate said, “First we would need to get a Wilder Island animal on the endangered species list.”
“Aren’t the blue-eyed crows unusual?” Russ asked, turning to Alfredo. “Have you ever heard of a population of crows with blue eyes anywhere else?”
“No,” Alfredo said. “But even so, it is difficult to imagine convincing anyone that crows of any eye color are an endangered species.”
“Too bad crows can’t talk, eh?” Kate said. She winked at Alfredo. “That’d get us on the list pronto!”
Alfredo stared at the attorney. Does she know? He had met with Kate a few times since Majewski left and wondered if he had told her. Surely she would have let on by now.
“They do talk, actually,” Russ said, waving a cookie at Kate. “Alfredo has discovered they have a rich and varied vocabulary.”
“Do tell!” Kate said, a wicked smile on her face. “I have long thought that all the animals have some form of language. If only we could understand it.”
Jade nodded in agreement, and Sam stared at Alfredo with a fearful look.
“The corvid have an extensive vocabulary,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a relaxed smile. “As richly varied as any human language, I think. They have a significantly more intricate language than we humans give them credit for. As do many other animal species.”
Sam visibly relaxed as Kate nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “We assume we’re alone at the top of the evolutionary heap, when in fact we have merely clawed our way to the top of the food chain. And we’re not alone there either.”
“We’re our own predators,” Russ said. “What other species can make that claim?”
“Black widow spiders can,” Sam said.
“But they eat their prey, Sam!” Kate said with a grin. “Humans just kill each other.”
“Speaking of predators,” Sam said, “this whole eminent domain thing seems like human preying on human to me. I mean, this is America, isn’t it? And we’re supposed to just roll over, let the government take away our private property, and hand it over to the highest bidder? I just can’t stomach it.”
Alfredo remembered his conversation with Charlie about property and ownership. “You cannot own anything you cannot carry …” Perhaps the corvids are right. All this fuss about ownership. In the end, the Earth owns itself. We borrow pieces of it and entertain greedy illusions that it is ours.
“Hardly anyone can,” Kate said. “That’s the main advantage we have; public opinion on our side, whether or not people approve of the casino park. We need to rally the folks of Ledford to our cause.” Kate paused to take a bite of cookie and wash it down with a gulp of coffee. “So, we need a brand, a logo.” She turned to Jade. “You think you can come up with one for us?”
“I can!” Jade said.
“A brand?” Alfredo asked, blinking and frowning. “Why do we need a brand? We’re not selling anything.”
“Indeed we are, Padre,” Kate said. “We’re selling an idea. We want to get the folks of Ledford stirred up and rally around a place they will never see, if we have our way.”
“Never underestimate the power of the brand,” Sam said.
“Right,” Kate said, throwing a quick grin at him, “Wilder Island is part of the history of this city, a legacy that’s owned by everyone. That’s the only way people, religious or otherwise, have beaten eminent domain condemnation.”
“It’s true,” Jade said. “Ledford loves Wilder Island. People have developed a whole relationship to it, almost like a religion, or at least a mythology. I doubt many will want to see it paved over with slot machines and hotels.”
Alfredo looked out the window at his private Garden of Eden. He hoped that the people of Ledford would support the island remaining intact and not need to come see for themselves what they were protecting. I do not want to share it with anyone. He scolded himself for his selfishness. But it was the truth.
“That’s our point,” Kate said, nodding. “That the island is neither fallow nor derelict. But beyond all that, Wilder Island represents the heart and history of Ledford. That’s how we fight Henry Braun’s eminent domain project.”
The Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust spent the rest of the afternoon discussing ways in which to engage the people of Ledford to rally to their cause. Just before sunset, they heard a bell ring from the direction of the inlet.
“That is the Captain,” Alfredo said, “coming to take you home.”