Conspiracy on the Fly
Alfredo put away the last of his nagging voices that made him hesitate. He loved Charlotte; there was no way he was going to leave her to languish among a wasteland of vacant stares. Or disappear forever within an ultra-secure state mental hospital. Sometimes one must do what is needed, he told his inner voices, though he felt like he was about to step off a cliff.
“We have no more time,” he said to Charlie. “All the inmates are moving in two days. We cannot wait any longer. We must prepare Charlotte.”
Alfredo drove to Rosencranz, and after he scribbled an illegible signature with his left hand on the gate-keeper’s log, he parked and entered the lobby. He introduced himself to Dora Lyn’s weekend replacement, and asked to see Charlotte. The receptionist did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log nor the release form to take her out of the building.
Sometimes the Lord speaks more softly than a burning bush.
As soon as Charlotte came through the patio doors, he whisked her off to the gazebo where Charlie was waiting. They ate lunch together at the wrought-iron table, from a picnic basket Alfredo had packed with cheese and bread that he had baked in his solar oven, a thermos of iced tea, and the cookies that Jade loved so much. Charlotte ate them as greedily as her daughter had, wondering how in the world food could taste so good.
After they finished eating, Alfredo took a pad of paper from his briefcase and made a sketch of the plan of the Rosencranz campus—the building, landscaping, driveway, the gazebo, and the fence. “Tomorrow,” he said to Charlotte, “we will come here like we have been doing. But instead of going back to the hospital, Charlie and I are taking you away, to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“Tomorrow?” Charlotte’s face broke into a smile and her gray eyes opened wide with excitement. “Really, Jayzu? Zero more days here?”
Alfredo nodded. Charlotte clasped her hands gently around Charlie and stood up. She held him above her head and danced around the gazebo singing, “Cadeña-l’jadia! Take me home! Cadeña-l’jadia!”
“I think she’s ready,” Charlie called out to Alfredo.
“Yes, she is.” And so am I. Though he had never danced in his entire life, he wanted to take Charlotte in his arms and dance with her all around the gazebo.
Charlotte sat back down at the table and tucked the hairs that had escaped her braid behind her ears. “How far away is Cadeña-l’jadia, Jayzu?”
“Not too far,” he said. “You’ll walk a short way to the river, then travel by boat for a while, which will take you to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“And when we get there,” Charlie said, “I’ll take you to the Treehouse.”
“Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, “we will come here to the gazebo like we have been doing. But we will not stay here.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Come. I will show you.”
He led her out the back side of the gazebo all the way to the fence that surrounded the property. He dropped to the ground and motioned Charlotte to follow him. Without a moment hesitation, she flopped down on her stomach and shimmied along the grass after him.
Alfredo kept them low to the ground until they came to a right-angle turn in the fence. After he stopped, Charlotte crawled up next to him and he said, “Tomorrow, you will wiggle under the fence right here and come out into the woods on the other side. Charlie will be waiting for you and will escort you to the river.”
“But, Jayzu,” she said, smiling happily, “you will be there with me, too!”
“No, Charlotte,” he replied. “If I do not return, someone may notice we are both gone, and they will come looking for us.”
“Oh,” Charlotte said, and her smile vanished. She looked fearfully at the fence and the dark forest beyond and frowned.
“I’ll be with you, Charlotte,” Charlie said from his perch atop the fence above them. He dropped to the grass and put his wing on her arm. “It’ll be like the old times, when we spent our days in the woods behind your childhood home.”
Charlotte tilted her head slightly and her face broke into a smile as a happy memory seemed to dawn and her smile returned.
“I will meet you later, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “At the Treehouse.”
They crawled back to the gazebo on their stomachs, getting to their feet at the steps. They sat back down at the table and Charlie took his perch on the back of Charlotte’s chair. Alfredo took her hands in his and said, “We have to get you out of here in broad daylight, Charlotte. So we need to be very careful. We have to trick them into thinking you are still here.”
“Trick them,” Charlotte said. The corners of her mouth turned up, and her eyes sparkled. “That is easy, Jayzu. They never pay any attention to me. They never hear a thing I tell them.”
Alfredo recalled Dora Lyn’s words during one of his earlier visits. “Charlotte don’t give any trouble anymore. She fought like a wild cat when they first brought her in, but they broke her down. Anymore, she comes and goes as she pleases. Wherever inmates are allowed to go, of course.”
“No one will notice your absence right away,” Alfredo said to Charlotte. “While you and I are here in the gazebo” —she laughed as he mimed drinking tea— “a few crows will be creating a ruckus on the patio, to divert attention away from us as we slither away along the fence.”
Charlotte giggled behind her hands. “Let us do it now, Jayzu!” she said. “I am ready!”
“Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, patting her hand. “We are not ready today.” He turned to Charlie. “Security is pretty lax, thank God.” God’s hand, or habitual inattention? “There is a guard in the lobby occasionally, when he is not on the patio or making sure no one drives down the service road. And there’s one at the guard house.” He pointed up the road toward the gates. “There are three, maybe four, security cameras all around the building.” He glanced up at Charlie. “Can we disable them somehow?”
“But of course,” Charlie said. “My zhekkies will have them out of commission just before they throw a party on the patio, corvid style!”
Charlotte and Charlie said good-bye to each other, and the crow flew home to Cadeña-l’jadia. Alfredo escorted Charlotte back to the building and up to her room. She chatted happily all the way. “I cannot wait until tomorrow, Jayzu!”
“You must,” he said, putting a forefinger to his lips. “And you must keep it a secret, Charlotte. You cannot tell anyone about our plan.”
She nodded vigorously, her eyes shining with excitement. “Yes,” she said as she solemnly put a finger to her lips. “I can keep a secret.”
Her smile charmed him, the way the corners of her mouth turned up. And those gray eyes, completely without guile, yet somehow wickedly endearing.
“And who would hear me if I told?” she asked.
Alfredo drove back to Ledford, going over the details of Charlotte’s escape in his mind. He had shut down the opposition, the voices that bullied him about laws and jail and reason. She needs to leave Rosencranz. Who will get her out of there if I don’t?
The Treehouse was ready. He had cleaned it as well as any man could, but thanks to Rika and Minnie Braun, Charlotte would have a few more comforts. The Treehouse was stocked with some simple cookware, including a tea kettle, an abundance of nonperishable foods—rice, pasta, canned goods—and tea and coffee, a variety of utensils, including a can opener. There were curtains and bedclothes and towels, a rocking chair, a wood stove, two tea cups—“You’ll be drinking tea with the lady, I reckon,” Rika had said to him. Two of everything in fact—plates, bowls, spoons, forks.
“Today is the day, Captain,” Alfredo said, as he stepped aboard the Captain’s ferry at the inlet.
“Aye, Jayzu,” the Captain said, turning his craft around to ferry them across the river to the boat landing. “I’ll be waiting upriver for Miss Charlotte and Charlie. No need to worry none.” He tipped his hat and pushed his boat back into the current.
Sam jumped out of his flesh-colored pick-up as the Captain pulled into the dock. “Does Kate know what we are doing?” Alfredo asked after he got in the passenger side.
Sam shrugged. “I told her I was driving you to Rosencranz to see Charlotte. Which is true.”
Alfredo knew Kate wanted nothing to do with Charlotte’s rescue. “I don’t even want to know about it,” she had said more than once. “And for the record, I strongly advise you against it.”
“You don’t have to do this, Sam,” Alfredo said.
“Yes I do, Padre,” Sam said and looked away for a few moments. “For my sister.”
On the way to the asylum, Charlie flew above Sam’s truck, followed by about sixty or so young crows, including JoEd, JohnHenry, Floyd and Willy. Near the entrance to the asylum, Sam pulled his truck off the road and behind a small group of trees.
“You guys ready for this?” Alfredo asked after the crows landed in the grass next to Sam’s truck.
“We are,” Charlie said. “I’ve been waiting for this day for twenty-five years, Jayzu. My zhekkies here,” he gestured with his beak, “know the plan backward and forward.”
“Pandemonium!” JohnHenry yelled.
“We are ready, Jayzu,” JoEd cried out. “You can count on us!”
“All right then,” Alfredo said. “Everyone knows what he has to do. Make it loud, zhekkies!”
“You betcha!” said Floyd as he stepped forward.
“Pandemonium, ho-o!” Willy shouted.
The crows flew into the nearby trees, and after Alfredo and Sam scrawled unreadable names on the weekend guard’s log, Sam parked the truck in front of the building and cut the engine. Alfredo walked up the granite steps and into the lobby. He smiled broadly at the weekend receptionist, who again did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log. Thank you, Lord.
He strode purposefully through the doors to the patio, sat down at a table near the rosebush hedge. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop and waited nervously for Charlotte. Lord, stay with me now. Protect us and guide us safely back to the island.
He looked up at the sound of Charlotte’s happy voice, and rose from his chair as she approached. “Hello, Charlotte!” His anxiety dissipated, replaced by the certainty that he and Charlie were about to right a wrong.
“Jayzu,” she said, putting her hands in his. “Is Charlie here?”
Alfredo nodded and said, “He is waiting for us at the gazebo. Now let us pretend we are coming back here. We do not want to attract any attention.”
Charlotte held her finger to her lips and softly said, “Shhhh. Our secret.”
He tucked her hand under his arm, and they left the patio through the lobby. “We will return in an hour or so,” Alfredo said as they strolled past the receptionist desk and out the doors.
The sky had clouded over, and Alfredo frowned. Please do not rain. Charlotte skipped across the grass, after he told her to pretend it was the first day they had gone to the gazebo together. They sat down inside; Charlotte chattered while Alfredo looked nervously at his watch and then toward the building. A cloud of black smoke seemed to emerge from the trees beyond the hospital’s excruciatingly manicured lawn. “The pandemonium has begun,” he said quietly.
“And there is Charlie!” Charlotte cried, pointing to the crow on the fence.
“It is time, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Let us go!”
From the trees outside the hospital grounds, JoEd watched Charlotte and Jayzu leave the patio and walk down the sidewalk toward the gazebo. About twenty people sat at the other tables. It was time.
“Nothing scary,” JoEd told the young crows as they waited in the trees. “We don’t want to reinforce their stereotypes about us. Just be silly. Act up. We’re all experts at that!”
Alfredo and Charlotte walked up the step to the gazebo, and Charlie cried out, “Let ’er rip!” as he leaped from his branch into the sky.
From out of nowhere sixty-three crows suddenly burst into the grounds of the asylum, heading for the patio. The brigade of dozing patients in wheelchairs happened to face the stone wall encircling the patio. Old Rosie stood up and screamed something quite unintelligible as she pointed at the approaching black cloud. The old fellow shuffling behind his empty wheelchair turned his whole body sideways trying to look up.
The crows descended on the patio. Screaming visitors, mobile patients, and doctors headed frantically for the doors. But the doors never came open, held shut by many bodies pressed up against them. The pile-up of flailing bodies fell back onto the patio. A few struggled to their feet and hopped over the stone wall encircling the patio and ran for the parking lot.
Crows were everywhere—on the tables, the chairs, the walls, the rosebushes, the trashcans, and the flagstone pavement. Hopping up onto tables and chairs, they made a great show of knocking over plastic water pitchers and creating a scene of utter chaos.
JoEd flew above the pandemonium barking out orders. “Disable the cameras! Sky Team, dive!”
Floyd, Willy, and JohnHenry took their positions at the three video cameras on the roof overlooking the patio and the hospital grounds. Floyd hopped onto one and looked straight into the lens, giving anyone monitoring it an enlarged view of an upside-down crow head. “Smile!” He waved his wings and plastered his eye against the camera lens. “I’m on Candid Camera!”
Willy grasped the wire that connected the camera to its power source, gave a firm tug, and ripped it from its connection. “Camera two down!” he called out as he headed to the video camera at the kitchen. Fledging at a drive-in movie theater had taught him many things about electricity and cameras.
JohnHenry perched with his tail feather fanned open and covering the lens. “Curtain’s closed on camera three!” he shouted.
“Well done, dudes!” JoEd called out to the camera crows. He saw a white coat head for the door to the lobby. “Yo! Hosiah! Jedediah! Guard the doors!”
The pandemonium proceeded splendidly, and JoEd looked around for an opportunity to generate a little disorder of his own. “Mind if I join you, miss?” he asked a stupefied visitor frozen to her chair. “Thank you, don’t mind if I do. The name’s JoEd, what’s yours?” He took a few sips of water from the pitcher on the table as she leaped out of her seat, and ran screaming into the pile of bodies trying to get through the doors.
“Pretty birdies!” the patient she had abandoned said happily. She picked up the cup of water JoEd had just dipped his beak in and took a sip. “Share?” she said to no one in particular.
The crows made an absolute mess of the patio within minutes; overturned tables and chairs co-mingled with emptied plastic cups and pitchers of water and ice, a few books, sweaters, and baseball hats. The white coats screamed for help, and security guards yelled into their walkie-talkies for backup. A few patients continuously howled in terror, while others laughed with grotesque pleasure or cried like babies. Someone pulled the fire alarm, adding the appropriate harmony to the sound and fury on the patio.
Alfredo and Charlotte stepped out of the gazebo and onto the grass. Hand-in-hand, they walked the few steps to the fence and Alfredo dropped to the grass. With Charlotte behind him, they crawled in single file on their bellies until they came to the corner of the fence.
“Now under the fence, Charlotte!” Charlie called down.
“All the way through, Charlotte,” Alfredo said as she shimmied under the fence. “Good! Now stand up and run!”
She dove under the fence, wriggling all the way through and popped to her feet on the other side. The front of her Rosencranz coveralls was covered in black soil.
The fire alarms went off at the building across the grass. Charlotte looked back toward Alfredo. “Jayzu?” she said.
“Go, Charlotte!” he said from the ground. “Go with Charlie! I will see you at the Treehouse! I promise. Now, go! Run like the wind.”
“Come on, Charlotte!” Charlie called down to her as he took to the air. “Follow me, Charlotte!” He flew low enough in front of her that she could reach out and touch him.
Alfredo watched Charlotte run into the woods with Charlie flying overhead until she disappeared. He waited at the fence for a few moments, listening to her laugh fade into the trees. If all goes according to the plan, the Captain will be waiting for them at the river to take Charlotte home. To Cadeña-l’jadia.
And if it does not…
He shimmied back to the gazebo, walked up the steps and out the other side, back toward the building. Cars screeched out of the parking and sped down the curvy driveway, past the guard shack and onwards to the highway. Good, people are leaving. In all the chaos, who will miss Charlotte? He heard sirens in the distance and quickened his pace. Undoubtedly, someone had called 911.
“What the devil is going on out there?” he said to the receptionist as he gestured with his head toward the mess on the patio. “Are we being invaded by crows?” He waved at the crow perched on the windowsill to the lobby, awaiting that signal.
“Oh, Dr. Robbins!” the receptionist cried out. “All of a sudden, a hundred crows dive-bombed everyone on the patio. They were all cawing and carrying on to beat the band. And then they started trying to drink the water from the cups on the table.”
The pandemonium on the patio suddenly ended. En masse, the crows took flight and left. Through the windows, Alfredo saw a few inmates wave and Miss Rosie weeping into her hands as the aides firmly escorted her into the patients’ wing of the building.
The weekend receptionist giggled behind her hand. “People and crows were running everywhere, patients and visitors and people were leaving, and these crows were flying all around. You should’ve seen it a while ago, with all everyone screaming and trying to get off the patio! Absolutely hilarious!”
Alfredo forced himself to smile. “Well, I hope you get everything under control soon. Thank goodness my patient is safely back in her room.”
“Well,” she said, nodding, “things would’ve been a whole lot worse if I hadn’t jumped up and locked the doors to the patio.” She nodded toward the door. “Otherwise they would’ve all come in here! But they’ll get everyone sorted out, though I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a few patients left in cars.”
Charlotte wanted to kick off her shoes and skip through the forest barefoot, but Charlie kept urging her on. She had not run through the woods in so long, and her escape from Rosencranz took every drop of energy she had. There was no time to languish and marvel at the scenery flying by. She would sooner drop dead from running than go back.
She followed him through the woods, leaving the hospital far behind. Charlie let her rest briefly now and then, and drink from the tiny streams that crossed their path. Finally they came to a flowing river, and Charlie dropped down onto the grass into a small cove of fragrant trees. “We will wait here until the Captain comes with his boat,” he said to Charlotte as she sat down on a fallen tree. “He’ll take us all the way to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
Charlotte leaned back against the tree trunk, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The aromas of the deep forest awakened memories of gathering leaves in the sun-dappled days with Charlie. She opened her eyes. “Have I ever been here, Charlie?”
“I don’t know, Charlotte,” he said. “I’ve never been here with you, if that’s what you’re asking. But you and I, we spent a lot of time in woods like this. You used to gather herbs and flowers, and I’d fly overhead scouting them for you.”
Charlotte stood up and pinched a leaf off a low-hanging branch on the tree she had been sitting under. She crushed it in her palm and sniffed it. “Balsam poplar,” she said, though she did not know where the words came from, or what they meant.
A gray-haired woman with red cheeks flashed through her thoughts and was gone. Charlotte had seen her many times since the Graying ended, in other memories, and in her dreams. “I wish I could remember,” she murmured, holding the crushed leaf up to her nose and breathing in its scent.
“You knew all the names of all the trees and flowers,” Charlie said, “and you gathered baskets full.”
“Why did I do that, Charlie?”
“You gave them all to your Mimi,” he said. “You helped her make tea and other medicinal potions from them.”
“Mimi?” Red cheeks, gray hair. A sad smile and blue eyes filled with tears flashed through her thoughts. “Mimi.”
A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie said, “There’s the Captain, Charlotte.” He rose up and unfolded his wings. “We’re going home!”
A silvery forest with beautiful carved oars floated toward them and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. “Let’s go,” Charlie said. He flapped his wings a few times, lifting himself off the ground, and flew to the Captain’s boat. He perched on the railing next to another crow and shouted out to Charlotte, “Come on! Follow me!”
She came out of the shadows of the trees, took the Captain’s outstretched hand, and stepped aboard his marvelous boat—it seemed more like a tree with many birds flying through its tangled branches of wood and iron. Charlie introduced her to the Captain and to a young crow perched on his shoulder.
“We been waitin’ a long time to meet ya, lass!” Sugarbabe hollered. “Ain’t we, Cap’n?”
He grinned and winked at Charlotte. “That we have, Sugarbabe. Pleasure to have you aboard, Miss Charlotte.”
She nodded and smiled at the crow, speechless with surprise. “Grawky!” she managed to say as she brushed her hand across Sugarbabe’s outstretched wing. She turned to the Captain and studied him carefully; his great tattoo-covered arms seemed both flesh and wood as he powered his carved oar through the water. She felt the rhythm of the river through the Captain’s motion and thought perhaps he had been wrought from both river and forest.
They traveled throughout the afternoon on the river, and Charlotte stared in astonishment at the sights and sounds of the world she had not seen in over two decades. She gasped at the huge city on either side of the river as the Captain rowed past the Waterfront.
“Look, Charlotte! Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie cried out.
“Is that the Treehouse?” she asked, pointing toward a white dome. She smiled wildly, hoping that it was.
“Yoomuns call it the hermit’s chapel,” Charlie said. “It is very old, and when Jayzu came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he fixed it all up like it was new.”
“It’s so beautiful, Charlie,” she murmured.
The Captain steered the boat into a wide, shallow pool and brought them gently to a stop at the edge of the water. Charlotte laughed in delight at all the birds in the water, the air, on the cliffs at the edge of the pool, and in the branches of the trees that grew along the water’s edge. A flock of loons screeched by over her head and landed out in the more open water, making waves and splashing each other.
The Captain helped Charlotte out of the boat, and she stepped onto Cadeña-l’jadia.
“Mighty obliged, Captain, my man,” Charlie said as he lifted a wing in salute.
The Captain nodded and said, “I’ll be going for Jayzu now.” He pushed his boat back into the water and waved an oar as he rowed away.
Charlie stretched his wings, and Charlotte stretched her arms, reaching to the sky. “The Treehouse is this way,” he said, pointing with a wing toward the island’s interior.
Charlotte followed Charlie into the dense forest. The trees seemed to raise their overhanging branches, allowing them through what otherwise seemed to be an impenetrable wall of leaf and trunk. They stopped at an apple tree, whose fruit was dragging its branches nearly to the ground. “Bruthamax planted this tree,” he said.
Charlotte picked two apples off the tree and gave one to Charlie. She laughed in sheer delight as she bit into it, and sweet juice gushed out all around, spraying her face.
After drinking from the small stream nearby, they continued on their way to the Treehouse. Charlotte picked her way among the marshes and bogs as if she could sense solid ground among the rocks and water amid sedges and rushes. Vaguely familiar odors tantalized her memory.
At last they stopped in a small clearing underneath a gigantic tree. “Is that your nest, Charlie?” she asked, pointing to the Treehouse roof.
“Yes, that’s the Treehouse, your new home,” Charlie said. “The nest is up above, in the branches, but we only use it when we have kreegans. Otherwise we hang out in the branches.”
As she looked closer, more Treehouse features appeared—walls, windows, a door. There was even a spiral staircase leading up to the deck. Charlotte darted up the steps, laughing like a child, and as she poked her head through to the deck, a friendly voice called out, “Welcome home, Charlotte!”
A crow dropped to the deck from the branches above, followed by four young fledglings.
“Charlotte,” Charlie said, opening a wing toward them, “this is my wife, Rika, and our children, Alfie and Rufie. They’re twins. And Coal, and Lexy, and this is Buzzy, and over there is Burkie.”
“Where is JoEd?” Rika asked. “Didn’t he come back with you?”
“No,” Charlie said. “But he’ll be along shortly, I’m sure.”
Charlotte dropped down to her knees, and the young crows all crowded in her lap. She laughed as they nibbled her fingers, her chin, her ears, her hair. After a few moments, they all ran to the other side of the deck, engaged in an instant game.
“And here is JoEd!” Charlie said as the young crow landed on the deck. “Many crows helped us get you out of Rosencranz, Charlotte, but it was JoEd who led the pandemonium on the patio!”
“Greetings, Fair Lady!” JoEd said, with a bow so low, his beak touched the deck.
Charlotte giggled as JoEd swished his feathers across her hand. “Grawky, JoEd!” she said. “Thank you!”
“No greater pleasure shall I ever dream to have,” the young crow said, “than to assist in the freeing of a lady so fair, with a heart so brave, from the cruel confines of so unjust an imprisonment.”
Charlotte melted on the spot and took JoEd into her lap. Charlie and Rika looked at each other in complete shock at the eloquent speech coming from JoEd’s beak. “I had no idea my son was such a romantic fellow!” Charlie said.
“There are many things you don’t know about me,” JoEd said from Charlotte’s lap. “Many things.”
“Jayzu!” Charlotte cried out as the priest poked his head through the hole in the deck. JoEd flew from her lap to the railing next to his parents.
Jayzu stepped onto the deck, and she leaped up and threw her arms around his neck. He hugged her warmly and said, “I see you made it safe and sound!”
He greeted Rika and Charlie and the kreegans, who all flocked around his feet, squawking and squeaking for his attention.
“Jayzu!” Charlotte said, “I rode on a boat that looked like a forest!”
“I have been on that boat many times,” he said with a smile.
She took his hand and pulled him over to the bench at the edge of the deck. “And I ate a big golden apple off of a tree that Charlie said Bruthamax planted.”
“An apple at this time of year?” Alfredo looked over at Charlie. “I thought we could only get apples in the fall.”
“Bruthamax’s apples don’t know that,” Charlie said.
Jayzu laughed again. Charlotte laughed too, at the sheer joy of being alive in this Treehouse with everything she needed and loved all around her.She followed Jayzu back down the spiral steps to the ground below.
Jayzu showed her the cistern nearby and how to get water from it. “I will keep the water jar in the Treehouse filled,” he said. “But in case you run out while I am away, I want you to know how to get your own water.”
Charlotte nodded and followed Jayzu in the other direction, downhill from the Treehouse. They came to a tiny rustic shack, and Jayzu said, “This is your toilet, Charlotte.” He opened the door. “I am sorry I cannot provide you with more proper facilities, Charlotte, but–”
“Jayzu!” Charlotte said and put a finger over his lips. “This is good enough. I have been trapped in a stinky old building for a very long time, and I had to share the toilets with everyone else, and walk down two hallways just to pee. The floor was always wet, so I had to put shoes on. And there were cameras.”
He stared at her for a few moments and then laughed. She loved it when he laughed, the way his eyes crinkled up and his whole face seem to explode with mirth.
“Jayzu, I am very happy to be here with Charlie, and you, and Rika. And I can pee outside with no one watching!”
He laughed again and took her hand. “Let us go back and cook some supper,” he said. “Shall we, Charlotte?” He tucked her hand under his arm, and they started back to the Treehouse.
“I do not know how to cook!” she said anxiously.
“But I do!” Jayzu said with a smile. “Let me teach you.”
Charlie, Rika, and all the kreegans perched on the chairs and bed, the shelves, and the windowsills and watched as Jayzu and Charlotte cooked dinner together. Jayzu took the loaf of bread he had baked out of his pack, a few onions and garlic, and a fish he had caught from the river. He filleted it, putting the guts onto a small plate. “This we shall save for the kreegans,” he said. He built a fire in the small wood stove and cooked the fish in a cast-iron frying pan.
Charlotte boiled some water and cooked the rice, according to Jayzu’s instructions. She sliced the fresh tomato he had brought and prepared their plates−one for her, one for Jayzu, and a bowl for the crows.
They ate on the deck, sharing their meal with Charlie and his family, as well as a few birds that had flown by and detected the aroma of frying fish. “Delicious!” JoEd said after gobbling down a beak full of fish guts.
After Charlotte and Jayzu washed and dried the dishes, humans and crows sat or perched on the deck under the stars. It had been many years since Charlotte had been outside at night.
“So many stars,” she murmured, looking up at the night sky. “I remember stars. Before the Graying.”
“There is Corvus, the constellation of the raven,” Jayzu said as he pointed toward the southern sky. “Just four stars, see?”
Charlotte nodded and leaned against him. He was so warm and the stars so beautiful. It was hard to imagine that one day ago, she stared at the ceiling alone in her tiny room in a dark, cold building.
“Time for sleep, everyone!” Rika announced. “Come, Charlotte, it is time to dress for bed.”
“Goodnight, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. He held her hands and looked into her eyes, and then pulled her into his chest and hugged her.
“Goodnight, Jayzu,” she said, snuggling into his chest. She loved the way he smelled. She wanted to stay there in his arms forever.
“I will be right out here on the deck,” he said as he held her and stroked her hair. “If you wake up in the night and are scared, just call my name.”
Charlie took the little ones up to the nest as Rika took Charlotte into the cabin and helped her find a nightgown in the box of clothes Jayzu brought. Charlotte brushed her teeth in the small basin next to the stove and said goodnight to Rika. She got under the soft covers and slipped into sleep.
An unfamiliar darkness invaded Charlotte’s sleep, and she awakened completely disoriented. There were no lights, no sound. She sat up and peered into the darkness. Where am I? Opening all her senses, she tried to instill in herself a sense of attachment; that was how she found her balance as the Graying ended.
She focused awareness on her body, concentrating on sensation, any sensation. First, the feet. She could not detect her weight bearing down on her feet. I am sitting. She moved her hands around, palms down, feeling soft, smooth fabric. I am in a bed. But it is not my bed.
A rectangular patch of dark gray—or was it light black?—hovered above the floor. A cool breeze blew across her face. Where am I? She heard faint sounds coming from the gray rectangle—it seemed a lighter gray than before.
A black bird appeared in the window, silhouetted against the pale gray. “Good morning, Charlotte!” the bird said and flapped to the edge of the bed. “I hope you slept peacefully.”
“Charlie!” Charlotte cried, suddenly flooded with the memory of the day before. I am in the Treehouse! “I am really here! I am not dreaming!”
Rika flew through the window, scolding Charlie. “For pity sakes, husband! Can you not let a lady even dress for the day before you barge in on her? Now shoo! Scoot! Go talk to Jayzu while I get Charlotte dressed.”
Charlie obediently flew out the window, and Rika said, “He is just thrilled you are here, dearie! He just couldn’t wait until you’ve done your ablutions. You know, your face, your hair. That’s what my lady called it. Her morning ablutions.”
“I am in a Treehouse!” Charlotte said, leaping out of bed gleefully. She looked out the window.
“On Cadeña-l’jadia, dearie!” Rika said.
“Welcome to Cadeña-l’jadia!” That is what Charlie had said when the Captain let them off his boat. Charlotte did not know where Cadeña-l’jadia was, and she had not asked. What did it matter? She was grateful to be away from the asylum and to be here in a tree house with her old friend Charlie. And Jayzu! What could be more perfect?
She remembered everything about her escape from Rosencranz—the run through the woods to the river, the almost unbearable noise and spectacle of the city they floated through, the heavenly smells and sounds of the forest, the water. And then Charlie took her from the river to the Treehouse, along a path in a forest so green and full of flowers, she could hardly believe it. “Oh, the colors! Charlie! So beautiful!”
“Where is Jayzu?” she asked.
“He’s outside, dearie,” Rika said. She hopped over to the bench against the wall. “Charlie and Jayzu are both outside. You must dress now, dearie. Here are some nice clothes you can change into. You’ll be wanting long pants and sleeves for life here on the island.”
Charlotte dressed herself from the box of clothes Jayzu had brought, delighted at the bright colors. “We all wore gray at the asylum,” she said. “Everything was gray. And now the world is full of color! And music! So many birds singing so sweetly!” She closed her eyes, listening.
She splashed water on her face and undid her braid. After brushing it vigorously, she re-braided it. She opened the door and walked out onto the deck, where dozens of crows, magpies, jays, larks, and thrushes all chattered and screeched their versions of “Good morning, Charlotte!”
“Where is Jayzu?” she asked, looking all around the deck.
“I am here!” his voice said as he appeared through the hole in the deck. He leaped onto the deck, and took Charlotte’s hands into his. He looked into her eyes and asked, “Did you sleep well?”
“Like I was a rock,” she said.
Jayzu laughed and bent down to greet the kreegans that had accumulated around his feet.
“A cup of tea, dearie?” Rika asked Charlotte. “Do you like tea?”
Charlotte nodded and said, “They gave me tea every morning.”
“I will have a cup, please,” Jayzu said as he stood up.
“Then let’s make some tea, dearie,” Rika said. “A cup for you, one for Jayzu, one for me.” Charlotte followed her into the cabin. “Now take the kettle, dearie, and put some water in it.”
Charlie appeared suddenly in the doorway, with Buzzy in tow. “I found him down by the sand bar. Hello, Charlotte!”
Charlotte spun around and reached out to touch his wing feathers. “Charlie!” she cried. “I am going to make tea with Rika!”
“Splendid!” Charlie said.
“You three wait out on the deck,” Rika said, shooing Jayzu, Charlie, and Buzzy out the doorway. “Charlotte, that kettle won’t boil on its own! You need to build a fire!”
Rika pointed to a box of matches on the shelf with her wing. “Now fetch the matches over to the stove. “That’s good, now take some of these small pieces of wood and some paper and stuff it into the stove.”
Charlotte followed Rika’s instructions obediently, paper in the bottom, wood shavings on the top. She held the match to the paper. “Now feed the fire, dearie!” Rika instructed. “You want it to burn and not smother itself. That’s good. Now shut that door, there, yes, dearie.”
She stood up, and Rika pointed to the shelf above the table. “Get that tea down, will you please?”
Charlotte looked at the many cans of vegetables, beans and soup, boxes of rice and pasta, a bottle of cooking oil, and a jar of what she suspected might be peanut butter.
“Tea is in that blue can with all the flowers, right there,” Rika said.
Charlotte opened the tin, and the aroma that emanated from it stirred a vague memory within her of forests, flowers, and sunshine. And the gray-haired woman with the red cheeks. Charlie said that is Mimi. But who is Mimi? So familiar, yet without attached memories.
“Oh! Hoy! The water is boiling, dearie!” Rika startled her back to the present. “Pick up the kettle and pour some water in the teapot, yes, just like that. A little sugar?” she pointed to a ceramic jar on the shelf. “Best to keep the top on that. No need to spill it, you know. None for me, though.”
Jayzu appeared at the door, and Rika said, “Good on you, dearie. We’re just needing another hand in here! Take the cups and what-not out to the bench, please. Charlotte, you take the teapot on out.”
Charlotte picked up the kettle handle with a piece of quilted fabric and followed Jayzu whose hands were full of cups and the sugar.
“Ah!” Rika said after they’d all sat down to tea. She dipped her beak in the cup she shared with Charlie and took a sip, tilting her head back to swallow. “I used to sit with my lady on her balcony Downtown. We’d sip tea, just the two of us, and we’d watch the world go by.”
“This is lovely, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. “Thank you for the tea.”
Charlotte and Jayzu ate the leftovers from the dinner they had cooked the night before. “I must go to my cottage,” he said when they finished eating. “I have some visitors coming, and I must be there.” She frowned, and he continued. “I will be back before dinner. Do not worry!”
Jayzu kissed her on the cheek and disappeared down the hole in the deck. Charlotte tidied up the tree house; she folded her nightgown and made up her bed, washed and dried the tea cups and put them back up on the shelf.
Rika was gone when she went back outside to the deck, and so was Charlie. She reveled in the sunshine and the quiet loveliness of her surroundings. No bells, no one screaming. How exquisite to be alone with just the sounds of the cool, green forest.
It beckoned her, and she rose from the bench and went down the spiral steps to the ground. She looked toward the woods beyond the tree house, just across that little meadow. So close! And there was no fence to crawl under.
I am free.