The Million Bird Stand
“Grawky! JoEd,” Jayzu said, smiling at the stunned crow on his step. Alfredo looked up from the papers he was grading at his table, distracted by the loud thump he heard against the cottage wall. He out his pen down, went to the door, and opened it to find a motionless crow lying on this doorstep.
JoEd struggled to his feet. “Man, that was some jaloosie!” He smoothed his ruffled feathers back against his body. “It took me as soon as I left Downtown, Jayzu! It took me way up—higher than ever!”
“Are you all right?” Alfredo stooped down to see if the bird was injured.
“Oh, yeah! I’m fine.” JoEd looked up at the sky. “But I wasn’t even trying to ride a jaloosie. It just took me and dropped me here. I have come for the Million Bird Stand.”
“As I suspected,” Alfredo said. “Birds have been flying in from all over for the past two days.”
He had watched a steady stream flying over the treetops all day. Many landed in the trees near the hermit’s chapel — corvids mostly, to admire Bruthamax’s worship nest. It was rather astonishing, that many birds. And how marvelous that so many different species came to gather in one place briefly, to make a stand against the destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia!
An island this small could not support such a huge number of birds, even for a few days. Alfredo noticed many of them flew off the island in the morning, presumably to feed in the city of Ledford, in the surrounding fields and pastures, and along the riverbanks.
“I have been out spreading the word,” JoEd said. “It’s going everywhere, Jayzu, around and around, in wider circles all across the land.” He dipped his beak several times in a puddle on the stone step.
“We cannot stop the Bunya without you,” Alfredo said. “I am grateful for your help.”
“I would be nowhere else,” JoEd said. “We are small alone.”
Alfredo watched him disappear into the forest as he flew off in the direction of the tree house. For just this one day, I would like to be a crow. To be one of them when they take a stand against Henry Braun. The Bunya.
“This is ours,” Charlie had said when Alfredo asked if he could help with the Million Bird Stand. “You’ve already raised your voice. You have done much, Jayzu, to keep Cadeña-l’jadia the way it is. We know you are with us in spirit. It’s our turn now.”
JoEd found his parents perched on the rail around the deck of Bruthamax’s tree house. As he approached, Rika nudged Charlie with her wing and said, “My Orbs! Husband! I think our son has come home!”
JoEd landed on the railing and put a wing out over his mother and said, “Hi ya, Weebs!” Rika pecked him lightly and spent a few moments grooming him until he squirmed away from her.
“Aw, Weebs!” he said, flapping his wings. “I’m not a hatchling anymore. I can clean my own feathers!”
“Your weebs is happy to see you,” Charlie said. “As am I.”
“It’s good to be home, Zazu!” JoEd said. “I want to make a stand with you.”
“Well, that is tomorrow,” Rika said, nudging her son. “First you must tell us where you have been and what have you seen since you flew the nest. You look a bit thin. Have you been eating enough? Have you found a mate?”
JoEd thought of Shannon, the pretty little crow he had met on the roof of the River Queen. She seemed to like me. He wondered if he could find her again.
“I eat just fine, Weebs,” JoEd said. “There’s so much food in the city, it’d be hard not to eat well. And I’m still a bachelor.”
“When it is time,” Rika said, nodding, “she will come.”
JoEd looked at his mother with great love. She is so wise, my weebs.
“I am in Keeper training,” JoEd said. “Just like you, Zazu! I am a novice. Starfire says I take after you. ‘You’re a quick learner, just like your zazu’—that’s what he said!”
“I’m proud of you, JoEd,” Charlie said. “You have done well.”
JoEd roosted for the night in his ancestral tree. He’d been all over since he left, intoxicated by the sight of the River Queen and Downtown. And the university! He thought he’d seen a huge chunk of the world after Antoine flew him around the university. But when he flew out to spread the word for the Million Bird Stand, he was staggered by the sheer size of it all. He flew for hours over strange landscapes without trees, huge lakes whose opposite shores he could not see, and off in the distance, mountains!
But it was good to be home.
Henry stood at the window of his office, scowling at the thousands of birds that swirled above Wilder Island. The picnic was tomorrow; everything was ready. “The last thing I need is a bunch of flying vermin in the air crapping all over the place,” he growled to Jules Sackman. He wanted to throw his shoe at those two smirking crows in the tree outside his window.
He closed the window shade and took a seat in the huge leather armchair behind his desk. He fidgeted with the stapler and then the pens in the leather holder that matched his chair. He leaned back, swiveling away from the windows and toward the portraits of his ancestors. Henry the First’s eyes bore down on him. What is it? Have I forgotten something?
“I wonder why so many of them suddenly flocked to the island in the last few days,” Jules said, picking at a fingernail. “Almost like they knew something.”
“You and my insane wife,” Henry said, waving away the attorney. “You think these stupid birdbrains are capable of thought? It’s just a coincidence—probably some dead animal on the island they all want a bite of. That’s all they know, Jules. They don’t have thoughts, just urges. Eating, shitting, and screwing.”
Henry the First nodded. “Don’t let them stop you, Henry. It was the crows that took down my bridge, you know. Just like now—thousands upon thousands of them flying in at night, so no one saw. The next day, the bridge was no more.”
“No filthy crow is going to stop me again!” Henry nearly shouted at Jules.
But what were all these birds doing here? If crows destroyed the trestle bridge, he shuddered to think what they could do to his picnic. He engaged briefly in a dark fantasy of thousands of crows bringing the helicopter down, loaded with his investors. And him.
He shook his head quickly a few times to dispel the gruesome image of bodies floating in the water and the helicopter lying on its side like a dead insect. He tried to focus his attention on the ceremony in the morning. He had dreamed of this day for years. He’d have an official ribbon-cutting and flag-planting, right on the banks of the island. He’d even commissioned a special flag of his family crest, in honor of reuniting the Brauns with their lost ancestral homeland.
“Tomorrow, the island will be mine!” Henry said, forcing a grand smile. “And I, Henry Braun the Fourth, shall turn it into a paradise. First I plant a flag, reclaiming the island for my family honor. Henry Braun Island—that’s the new name.”
Henry the First nodded and winked. “That’s the spirit, boy!”
“Henry,” Jules said, “you can’t just summarily change the name like that. Wilder Island is on all the maps. And, the island isn’t yours yet.”
“A technicality!” Henry said, waving his hand at Jules. “What’re they going to do, sue me?” He laughed bitterly. “And the name ‘Wilder Island’ was never official. It’s my island; that makes it private property, and I can call it whatever I want.”
“Yet the private property rights of others,” Jules said, “doesn’t apparently stop you from taking their land.”
Henry the First frowned down upon Jules. “Whose side is he on? How is it you tolerate this insolence?”
“This whole eminent domain thing was your idea, Jules,” Henry said, mopping sweat off his forehead.
“Don’t whine, Henry.”
He looked up at Henry the First.
“Fire the leech.”
After breakfast on the day of Henry the Bunya’s picnic, all the birds on Cadeña-l’jadia, residents and visitors alike, convened at the edge of the forest near the tip of the island where he would land his helicopter. The noise was horrendous, as thousands and thousands of birds of all breeds and sizes flew in and found places to perch, sit, or stand. Every bush and rock held as many birds as could get a foothold. Younger trees bent to the ground under the weight of their bird load. Birds covered everything.
Charlie perched at the top of a dead tree whose leaves and smaller branches were long gone, a high point from which he would speak to the birds gathered below. He unfolded his wings and shouted, “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!” He made a complete rotation on his perch, his strong mature voice flying out over the crowd as he repeated his salutation. “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!”
He waited until the birds had mostly quieted down to continue. “Thank you for coming to the Million Bird Stand. In a few short hours, a small yet deadly invasion of the Bunya will begin. If we cannot stop them now, it will mean the end of Cadeña-l’jadia.”
The birds squawked, hooted, cawed, honked, cheeped, quacked, trilled, and chirped their displeasure.
“But we are not just here to save Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie shouted. “The Earth beyond this little island is also a beautiful place and home to many more birds and many other creatures of all kingdoms! All creatures seem to know how to live here more or less peacefully. All but one. Humans. And the Bunya is their king.”
The birds again voiced their disapproval, some standing up and flapping their wings, some stamping around indignantly—though there was not much room, and everyone chattered at once. Charlie’s voice somehow arched over the noise. “We can turn them back now, all of us. Though we are each small, together we form a multitude, a force to be reckoned with. We shall turn back this invasion, island by island, forest by forest, for however many tomorrows it shall take. Today, the multitude of us will just say no.”
“What if they have guns?” a thrush asked in a reedy voice.
“We do not need to fear guns from this crowd,” Charlie said. “They will not be armed with guns; they arm themselves with orbs. They think their orbs will protect them. But they are sorely mistaken. We will use the weapon of our guts, and our sheer multitudes to chase the Bunya off our island.”
Charlie flapped his wings and shouted, “It is time! Let us now assume the position. Follow me!”
He swooped off his perch and flew low to the ground, leading a parade of walking, flying, and hopping birds. He dropped to the sand at the edge of the forest and shouted, “It is here we make our stand!”
As the birds arrived, he directed them into position. “We will create a barrier of birds. Yes, a solid wall of birds staring the Bunya down.”
He knew most of the birds could not hear him, but those who did followed his instructions and began layering themselves into a solid wall of feathers, beaks, wings, and claws. “Larger birds on the bottom!” he shouted.
As the multitudes of birds arrived at the site, they followed the others, assuming their positions in the great wall. “One bird every half wingspan—in all directions,” Charlie directed. “Find a perch in the trees, on the ground, on rocks, each other.”
The wall of birds was enormous, comprising many species, many colors, many eyes. It was a marvelous spectacle. There were whole bevies of quail and dove, nides of pheasants, gaggles of geese, flushes of ducks, rafters of turkeys, sieges of herons, murders of crows, conspiracies of ravens, tidings of magpies, descents of woodpeckers, hosts of sparrows, charms of finches, exaltations of larks, wisps of snipes, kettles of hawks, parliaments of owls, and parties of jays. All within a wing’s reach of one another, they formed a barrier of birds from the forest floor to its treetops.
Hookbeak and Starfire perched in a tree near the great wall of birds as Charlie spoke. “At my signal, we all take to the air, and we dump on him from above. The Bunya is our main target, but do not go out of your way to avoid hitting the others. Some of them are as guilty as he and, given the inspiration, would do exactly what Bunya wants to do. So, let it fly. Get some on everyone.”
“Some what?” Floyd asked Willy. “Toxic waste? Hot wax? Fliers?”
“I believe he means excrement, brother,” Willy replied.
“Ohhh,” Floyd said, nodding. “I see.” After a few seconds, he said, “Ours?”
“Who else’s?” Willy said.
“Oh, goody,” Floyd said gleefully. “I love a pasting!”
Henry Braun looked up at the clear blue sky from the deck of the River Queen. Not a bird in sight—a matter of great relief to him. No dull roar of bird noise came across the river. “Good riddance,” he said with a growl. “And stay off my island!”
The River Queen pulled away from the dock with its cargo of Ledford’s well-heeled elite, and headed across the river to the city boat landing where they would board the helicopter. Henry didn’t dare try and take his beautiful River Queen to the island—not after what happened to his great-grandfather’s trestle bridge. Thirty or so of Henry’s guests sipped champagne and filled their plates at a buffet brunch on the promenade. While the boat paddled slowly past Wilder Island, the passengers enjoyed a marvelous feast that included grilled salmon, a mountain of jumbo shrimp, prime rib, quiche, a vast array of colorful fruit, and an exotic juice bar.
Originally he had planned to serve the feast on the island, but Jules had talked him out of it. “Come on, Henry!” he had said. “Think about it! Most people would prefer to dine on the decks of the River Queen than on the sandy banks of a deserted island. Remember, the island is full of crows; you don’t want to create an attractive nuisance.”
“Create an attractive nuisance?” Henry was sick of Jules. “Seems to me those blasted crows are the nuisance.”
It was not an affair for children or spouses. This was not entertainment; it was business. The guest list was restricted to investors and influential politicos, including Henry Braun’s long-time crony, the Mayor. They were wealthy, all of them—except the newspaper people—otherwise they would not have been invited. A reporter from the Sentinel and his cameraman had been hired to publicize the event for Henry, and he magnanimously allowed them to indulge in the food but not the champagne.
After brunch, everyone disembarked from the River Queen. Half, including Henry, boarded a large helicopter that waited in the parking lot. The helicopter took off almost immediately and bore down on the island like a dinosaur-size bird of prey. After disgorging its passengers, it returned to the dock for the second load.
Henry climbed out of the helicopter, strode up the bank, and stopped. The forest in front of him was dark and forbidding, and its stillness seemed uncanny. It unnerved him that he could not see very far into its shadows. This was his first time on Wilder Island, and he wanted to savor these first moments of almost owning it. But the forest repelled him. The profound silence bore down on him. He shook his fist and raged silently. The day is coming, I promise, when I burn you down!
Turning his back, Henry forced himself to override his fear. At least those damn birds aren’t still flying around overhead. He climbed up to an elevated position on a rock and watched his guests make their way toward him. By the time they all arrived, Jules had finished setting up an easel to hold a set of colorful charts illustrating impressive returns on investments in Ravenwood Resort.
“My friends, at long last I fulfill a boyhood dream,” Henry addressed the carefully chosen faithful, arms outstretched. “I’ve asked each of you here to witness this momentous occasion where I bring this island back into the fold of my family where it rightly belongs.”
Henry gestured behind him as he spoke. “Many years ago, my ancestor Henry Braun the First was swindled out of his rightful ownership of this island by corrupt politicians and a railroad desperate to survive. Through the next three generations, each Henry Braun brought fortune and good times back into the family. But we have gnashed our teeth, waiting for the time to restore what is ours. This island. It is now that time. With great honor and pride, I plant my family flag on Henry Braun Island, as it shall be known from here onwards.”
Unfurling the flag with the Braun family crest emblazoned in gold, Henry stuck the flagpole into the sand. Jules handed him a small sledgehammer; he smacked the top of the pole a few times and handed it back. Turning again to his guests, he threw his arms out and said, “Welcome to Braun Island, my friends. Upon this island we will build Ravenwood Resort.”
The people before him remained silent. No applause, no cheering, no flag waving, no celebration. Henry’s smile vanished and his neck hairs stood erect suddenly. He glanced over his shoulder at the forest and saw nothing but dark shadows woven into a patchy fabric of leaf and branch. Still, there was something not quite right about the scene.
He turned back to the investors, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets and licked his lips nervously. “I ask each and every one of you to join me in prosperity. Invest in Ravenwood Resort on Braun Island. Each of you has a prospectus and—”
No one was paying him the least attention. The investors looked past him into the forest, eyebrows raised incredulously. Henry stopped talking and turned slowly toward the trees. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, but where a few minutes ago only a dark spooky forest stood, now thousands and thousands and thousands of eyes stared at him from within a great wall of feathers and beaks.
The birds remained motionless, but for the occasional blinking of an eye. Charlie suddenly flapped out to a rock adjacent to Henry Braun, fixing his blue eyes upon him.
“Well met, Bunya,” Charlie greeted Henry politely, extending his wing in the traditional crow salutation.
Complete silence reigned over birds and humans. “In case you are wondering, Bunya, we are here to let you know that it is us, not your fellow humans that you will ultimately have to contend with. Your own species cannot stop you. We will.” The crow turned toward the investors and said, “Best you all leave now, lest you become soiled.”
No one moved. “Have it your way, then.” Charlie leaped into the air above Henry and shouted, “Let it fly, birds of all feathers! Let it fly!”
The wall seemed to dissolve suddenly into an astonishing cloud of birds of all shapes and sizes. They flew toward Henry, a tiny target for so many birds, but in this they were adept. They had been practicing since dawn—a simple drill Charlie had devised, where they all circled and dumped in an intricate yet simple pattern.
The birds orbited Henry, and each took their turn diving and letting it fly. A thunderous noise of beating wings and ridicule from the beaks of the multitude accompanied the mass dumping.
“Your mother plucks your feathers!” yelled JoEd as he shat upon the Bunya’s bald spot.
“You weren’t hatched, you were laid!” Willy hollered as his load struck Henry’s prominent nose.
“I wouldn’t wear that suit to a dog fight!” a magpie yelled, her tuxedo markings clean and flawless as she dumped her load.
Not to be outdone, Floyd bombed Henry with his own repartee, “I’ve seen bigger peckers on chickadees!” Splat!
After whitewashing Henry’s head, the birds moved on to other challenging territory: his suit coat, his trousers, his shoes. It took a long time for a million birds to dump their loads, and they did not hurry. The Bunya huddled near the rock upon which moments ago he stood in triumph, blubbering like a baby.
Starfire and Hookbeak flew out of their tree and took hold of the Bunya flag and pulled it out of the sand. They flew out over the river and dropped it in the water. “So long, Charlie!” Starfire yelled over his wing. The two old ravens parted company, as each headed for his respective tree in their respective cemeteries on either side of the river.
Once Henry had been thoroughly encased from head to toe, Charlie gave the signal for the birds to desist. “Birds of All Feathers, land in the sand!” The bombing suddenly abated as the birds dropped out of the sky. The entire tip of the island was covered with birds. Not a grain of sand could be seen from the river to the forest. “We don’t want any of them to think about coming back,” Charlie said. “Make it so there is no room for a human to stand.”
The sudden shower of shit scattered Henry’s guests all over the riverbank. No one escaped getting hit, but Henry bore virtually the complete brunt of the birds’ fury. The investors had all abandoned him, clamoring over one another for a seat on the helicopter. The pilot jumped out and shoved half of them back, shouting, “I’ll be back. Just stay right here. I’ll be back.”
Only faithful Jules stayed with Henry, waiting patiently for the birds to finish, but far enough away to avoid getting too badly pasted himself. The pelting finally stopped, but the sudden noise of that many birds crowing, quacking, honking, whistling, chirping, tweeting, clicking, and clacking all at once was hardly less fearsome. Henry ventured a quick peek. “Jules, where are you?” he cried out, digging his fists into his eyes like a lost little boy, smearing and grinding bird doo into his eyesockets.
“I’m right here, Henry. Come along now,” Jules said, flicking a bit of birdshit off his sleeve. He handed Henry his handkerchief to wipe his eyes and escorted him to the helicopter. The birds closed in behind them.
“I can’t let you aboard my ’copter all covered in crap like that, Mr. Braun,” the pilot said, blocking Henry from climbing aboard. “You’ll ruin my upholstery. Take off the shirt and slacks. Clean him up as much as you can,” he said to Jules. “I’ll be back.”
The group of spattered yet well-heeled investors took off in the helicopter while Henry stripped down to his skivvies. The pilot returned for him and Jules after leaving the guests in the safe hands of their chauffeurs at the City Boat Landing. Henry climbed aboard and left Wilder Island forever.
Mission accomplished, a million birds headed home. All except for JoEd, who had promised his weebs he’d come back to the tree house for a few days. She had completely forgiven him, as mothers will do, for flying away to the River Queen and not coming home for days. But he wanted to spend a little time with her, before he left for good. And to say a proper good-bye.
“Never Mind!” shouted the Sentinel headline the next morning, right above a photo of Henry Braun covered in bird droppings. The caption read: “Wilder Island birds just say no to Ravenwood Resort.”
The whole front page, filled with news about Henry’s precious island, made Minnie smile. She laughed at the pictures of Henry, remembering his cold rage when he came home from his picnic the previous day.
“Changed Our Minds!” headlined the article where the city revoked its condemnation of the island. Oh, thank the Lord! She heard Henry coming down the stairs and flipped the paper back. As he entered the kitchen, she set his perfectly cooled coffee on the table.
Henry scowled, and without touching the newspaper, he picked his coffee cup off the table and climbed the stairs to his office.
Minnie smiled and reread the lead article in the Sentinel, a humorous account of Henry’s picnic, including photos of the birds in action. “As if they enjoyed it,” the reporter wrote of the birds. “As if they enjoyed pelting the wealthiest man in the city with their excrement.”
I enjoyed it too! Even if I did have to launder his stinky clothes afterward. It was worth it! Go, birds!
She wondered if Floyd and Willy had been there. Would that I could have been a crow for that day! She giggled into her coffee. Alfredo Manzi’s name leaped out of the article at her.
“‘Ganging up on and pelting,’ says Dr. Alfredo Manzi, noted professor of ornithology at the university and pastor of the old hermit’s chapel, “are not uncommon offensive tactics that many birds employ to drive off predators—the smaller birds, especially. I am most impressed at how this so-called attack harmed no one, yet completely conveyed the message, ‘Hands off our island!’ Everyone is washable. We humans should take lessons.”
Minnie laughed to herself. Oh, I love that man!
Kate Herron’s inside sources informed her that the Mayor’s office had been deluged with the Friends of Wilder Island postcards, with notes that read, “Save your job, Mr. Mayor! Save Wilder Island!” “No to Eminent Domain!” “Keep the island as is!” “No Casinos!”
“The city website shut down briefly,” she told Alfredo on the phone. “Too many people tried to log on and voice an opinion. Three to one, the e-mails, faxes, phone calls, letters, and telegrams expressed support for keeping Wilder Island wild.”
“God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.
“Well,” Kate said, “we dodged a bullet, I think. If Henry had planned something other than a gambling casino, things may’ve turned out differently. Still, the birds had the final word. That should give the next guy pause.”
Russ finished reading the Sentinel article aloud to Jade, and the phone rang. “Good morning, Russ!” Alfredo’s warm voice said. “Have you two seen the morning paper?”
“We have!” Russ said, pushing the speaker button so Jade could hear. “I keep wondering if I’m dreaming. Is it true? Wilder Island is still ours?”
“Still ours,” Alfredo said with a chuckle, “thanks to thousands of birds, our land trust, and the people of Ledford. Is it not marvelous! I am thinking it is only appropriate that we celebrate our victory here on the island.”
“I’ll second that thought!” Russ said. “The island is the only place to celebrate this. We deserve a party for all the work we did! This weekend? And maybe afterward I can show Jade around a bit? I want to get some more photos, and she’s dying to see more of the island.”
“Yes I am!” Jade cried out. “I’ll paint while Russ hunts for the flower he’ll name after me!”
“Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research and painting area; come and go as you please, both of you. I will call Sam and Kate, and Thomas too—he will be glad to hear this news. If you do not hear otherwise, please meet the Captain at the loading dock at nine on Saturday. I hope that is not too early?”
“Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”