Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

Husband!” Rika shrieked as she dropped to the tree house deck. “JoEd’s flown off again! I just don’t know what to do with him! He won’t mind, he won’t listen.” She paced back and forth, flapping her wings. “Every single time I turn my back, he’s gone. I cannot keep my eyes upon him every second! He’s not the only fledgling I have to look after!”

He’s a chip off the old block, my love,” Charlie said, following her around the deck. “My mother pulled her feathers out over me, too. The nest has gotten too small for him, I reckon. But let me take him off your wings for the rest of the day. I’ll show him a bit of the outside world.”

Charlie flew off looking for his errant son and found him on the riverbank. Though a plethora of dead fish and other delectables littered the river’s edge, JoEd was not interested. His eyes were upon the city across the river. Charlie knew that look; he’d had it himself. Our JoEd will be leaving us soon. I must prepare Rika.

Zazu!” JoEd cried when he saw Charlie. “I wanted to see what was beyond the nest, and I flapped my wings one or two times, and here I am! Look at that!” He pointed a wing toward Downtown. “Someday I want to go there, Zazu!”

Charlie grinned at little JoEd and said, “And someday you will. But today, let’s fly all the way around Cadeña-l’jadia.”

As father and son flew off together, Charlie remembered how his curiosity had nibbled away at his common sense when he was JoEd’s age. Thank the Orb his mother sent him to Starfire when she did. JoEd should begin his training soon; no use letting all that energy go to waste.

This is Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie told JoEd as they rose above the treetops of the island. “Your homeland and your heritage.”

They flew around the southern tip of the island and headed upriver toward the bird sanctuary, a very popular place for not only migratory birds, but island and city birds as well. Charlie and JoEd landed in a tree and watched the panorama in front of them.

Shorebirds of all sizes littered the shallow quiet water; waders, fishers, skimmers, and a dozen or so white pelicans fished from the bank. Rowdy groups of crows and magpies flew in and out of the trees that lined the banks, swooping down from time to time to catch a mouthful of fish the pelicans inadvertently let fall out of their beaks. A group of loons played a noisy game of splash-tag, beating the placid water into a tempest as they belted out insults to each other in melancholy voices. Waves fanned out in all directions and struck the shorelines with a slurping sound.

Nice job Jayzu did, eh, JoEd?” Charlie said to his son.

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

Well, he and his friends moved some boulders around a bit so that this large pool would form, and all these birds would have a place to feed and hang out.”

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

Jayzu loves birds,” Charlie said. “He is Patua’, like Bruthamax was. He knows this island belongs to birds.”

Father and son flapped their way to the edge of the pool, where they both found more than enough morsels of fish to fill their stomachs. “Shall we?” Charlie said, gesturing toward the sky with his head.

Let’s!” JoEd jumped into flight, following Charlie as he flapped up to the limestone cliffs. Vertical and horizontal fractures split the cliff face, creating rectangular patterns of rock and shadows. They came to a landing on a ledge near a great fissure in the cliff wall. “I can feel air coming out!” he said, his beak turned toward the dark cleft in the rock.

There are many caves in these cliffs, JoEd,” Charlie said. “They go way back underneath the island—and some are joined together by tunnels. Bruthamax lived in these caves during the cold time of year. But he used them year-round to travel back and forth between his tree house and his other house on the other end of the island.”

They watched a raven glide into an upside-down V-shaped crack in the cliff. “Is there a nest in there?” JoEd asked.

Probably not this time of year,” Charlie said. “Though the ravens roost in these cliffs year-round. But don’t go looking for them! They like their privacy and won’t take kindly to a young crow sticking his beak where it doesn’t belong.”

Charlie leaped off the cliff flapping his wings, and JoEd followed. As they flew out over the river, the sight of Downtown in the morning sunlight captured JoEd’s attention, and he could not take his eyes off it.

That is where your mother hatched, fledged, and lived until I brought her to Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said, dipping a wing toward Downtown. “See those green trees over there, next to that really tall building? That’s where your weebs and I met.”

He remembered how Rika had knocked him beak-over-feathers the first time he had ever laid eyes on her. She was a beauty. Fredrika Eliza Katarzyna Antonina Stump was her given name, but she was known to everyone simply as Rika. It was love at first sight. When Rika called his tune, he came dancing.

JoEd could hardly take his eyes off the sparkling jewel across the water as they continued their journey upriver. On and on, flying close to the sheer limestone cliffs that rose right up out of water. Father and son played in the gentle, capricious winds that blew constantly downriver from the north.

Watch me, Zazu!” JoEd said as he caught an updraft.

Charlie shouted, “No! JoEd! No!” But it was too late.

Whooooaaaaa!” JoEd cried out as he shot upward like a rock from a slingshot.

JoEd!” Charlie shouted, looking all around for his wayward son. “JoEd!”

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

JoEd struggled for consciousness. A large black figure hovered over him, but he just couldn’t focus on it. That’s one big raven. Struggling to his feet, still woozy from having the wind knocked out of him, JoEd realized this was no raven, but a human all dressed in black, except for the streak of white hair on his head. He must have some corvid in him. He looks like Starfire.

He cast a blue eye upward at the beakless black bird above him. JoEd’s head cleared, and he leaped to his feet as he cried out, “Jayzu! It’s me, JoEd!” He put out a wing in greeting.

JoEd!” Jayzu said as he brushed his hand across JoEd’s feathers. “Grawky! You are a long way from the Treehouse.”

I am!” JoEd said, puffing up his chest. “My zazu and I flew all the way here!” He stopped for a moment and shook his head. “Wait a minute! Where’s my zazu? We were just looking at the raven cliffs! Where did he go? How did I get here?”

Well, I do not know, JoEd,” Jayzu said. “You just fell out of the sky.”

JoEd looked confused for a few moments. “Ohhh,” he said, nodding his head. “I remember now. I was riding a jaloosie. Which way are the cliffs, Jayzu? I need to find my zazu!”

That way,” Jayzu pointed. “It is not far.”

JoEd flew up over the trees. The river shimmered blue and white in the afternoon sun and in the distance, he saw a single black speck flying back and forth. “Zazu!” he shouted and flapped his wings as hard as he could.

Zazu!” he called out as he flew until Charlie was close enough to hear him.

 

JoEd!” Charlie said angrily as they met in the sky. He smacked his son with a wing, nearly knocking him out of the sky. “You scared the beezle out of me! Where in the Orb have you been?”

I’m sorry, Zazu,” JoEd said. “The jaloosie flung me all the way to Jayzu’s house!”

Jaloosies can turn you into jelly,” Charlie said sternly. “Especially the ones along the raven cliffs—they’re killers, and you should stay away from them. Let me show you a couple of tricks, but let’s get away from the cliffs.”

JoEd and Charlie continued flying upriver, following the riverbank. They cut across the little inlet and rounded it. “The jaloosies here are not as wild,” Charlie said as he caught one and whooshed upward. He flipped himself out of the thermal and returned to JoEd’s side.

Now you try it,” Charlie said. “Jump in like normal, but don’t let the jaloosie grab you! Get right back out. Like this!” He jumped into another jaloosie and somersaulted out of it in a mass of feather and beak that somehow righted itself into JoEd’s otherwise unruffleable zazu.

Try it!” Charlie said.

JoEd leaped into the jaloosie and felt it tumble him backward, but he did not let it take hold of him. He darted sideways, shrieking as he tumbled tail over beak.

After you practice awhile,” Charlie said, “you can do more than one flip-out. Watch this!” He rolled into the jaloosie, which spun him around like a top before releasing him.

I want to do that!” JoEd cried out. He jumped in the way Charlie had and laughed all the way through four revolutions. “Wow! Zazu!”

Hey there, Flyboy,” Charlie called out after a few more spins in the jaloosies. “Let’s go home! Your mother is probably imagining us both dead somewhere.”

Okay, Zazu,” JoEd said. The young crow looked down at the island as they winged homeward. “Look! There’s the Treehouse, Zazu! It is so small!”

 

Catching the Wind opened with eighteen of Jade Matthews’ paintings at Jena McCray’s eclectic gallery in Downtown Ledford. Jena’s place attracted a broad range of buying clientele. The reception she put together was incredible—simple and elegant, with enough wine to get people talking and loosen their checkbooks, but not so much as to promote accidental drunkenness.

Russ was enormously handsome in his tux, and Jade was touched that he was so willing to put on the dog for her night. Nibbling nervously on one of the exquisite canapés Jena had provided, she could hardly catch her breath. So many people wanted to talk to her, tell her how much they loved her work, how it spoke to them in ways that art never had before. And here I thought this would be my final, solitary journey into the bourgeois.

Jade, dahling, it’s so mah-velous to see you. Mwa. Mwa.” A woman with penciled-in eyebrows and flaming red hair had appeared, kissing the air in front of each of Jade’s ears.

Hello, Twyla,” Jade said, smiling as cordially as she could. Twyla Spitzwater was the art critic for the Sentinel, well known for her scathingly sarcastic articles.

She likes being known as eccentric,” Jena had told her before the reception, “without actually being so. In her youth, she was very attractive, but alas, Twyla is a woman who cannot bear to age gracefully. She’s going kicking and screaming.”

Speaking of bourgeois,” Russ said into his wine glass. Jade jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

I’m so glad you could make it to my opening,” Jade said.

She tried not to stare at Twyla’s outlandish appearance. Her overly dyed hair had taken on the texture of a bird’s nest, and a layer of powdery makeup caked heavily on her cheeks only called more attention to her undulating wrinkles. Impossibly thick false eyelashes looked like caterpillars above her eyelids. Her lips were painted a brick-red color, outlined in black.

Tell me about Catching the Wind,” Twyla said as she sipped her wine and looked at Jane over tinted glasses shaped like cat’s eyes. “Why that title?”

I took a hiatus from painting for several years,” Jade said. “Most of the paintings in this show are the first gust, so to speak, since I’ve returned to painting. The wind that used to drive me still blows. I’m trying to catch it.”

Interesting,” Twyla said. She pinched a morsel off her plate between long, spiky fingernails painted to match her lips and plopped it quickly into her mouth. “Would you hold this a moment, dear?” She handed Jade her canapé plate and wine glass as she scribbled a few notes in a small pad. She looked back up at Jade over her glasses. “And why had you stopped painting?”

Jade felt like she was being probed for a soft spot, a sign of weakness. She didn’t want to tell Twyla that she had been in a state most of the world would call temporary insanity. Or that she had quit eating and sleeping, and had wandered nomadically through foggy memories and dreams.

I stopped hearing the wind.” Jade hoped that would be enough. Twyla nodded and scribbled some more in her pad.

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

Isn’t Jade the most exciting artist we’ve seen in a long time?” Jena said as she put her face in between Jade and Twyla. “It is so unusual,” she continued, “to sell half the show at the artist’s reception. Especially a new artist on the scene. Don’t you agree, Twyla?”

Indeed,” Twyla said as if she thought the opposite. “I always love to introduce new talent to the community.”

That was the purpose of having her show at my gallery,” Jena said sweetly. “I hope you’ll give Jade a nice write-up in your column on Sunday. Meanwhile, forgive me for interrupting, but several of my customers want to meet Jade. I am afraid, Twyla, that I must steal her from you.”

Jade handed the wine glass and canapé plate back to Twyla, and Jena whisked her away. “You are a smash hit, my dear!” Jena said as they left Twyla scowling. “She likes your work, I can tell that. And you too. It’ll be interesting to see what she writes in her column on Sunday. But promise me you will not take anything negative she might have to say personally, okay? She’ll throw some darts at me, but I don’t care what she thinks. It’s my gallery. And I’m ecstatic.”

Jade nodded, wondering why anyone would not like Jena. Her gallery was fabulous, and she was very successful.

A wealthy client of Jena’s, a woman in her fifties, stood before Catching the Wind, the title painting of the show. “Gabrielle, let me introduce Jade Matthews, the artist,” Jena said.

The woman turned and gushed enthusiastically as she took Jade’s hand. “I’m so pleased to meet you! I just love your paintings, Ms. Matthews. The colors and the richness! I can just feel the crisp air in this one.” She gestured toward Catching the Wind. “I can almost hear the wind blowing those leaves along the pavement! I don’t know how you do it!”

Thank you,” Jade said. “I heard it too—the wind. I’m glad to know it comes through.”

Oh,” Gabrielle said, “it does. I’ve never experienced anything like it from a painting. You are uniquely talented, Ms. Matthews.”

Perhaps you should hang it next to this one,” Jena said, directing the woman’s attention to Leave Me. “The two together would be lovely, don’t you think?”

Leave Me, a playful celebration of leaves falling from trees, leaves blowing around, and leaves collecting on doorsteps, captured the vivid reds and yellows of the summer sun. Leaves fell from their trees, playfully riding the winds of fall, oblivious to the coming winter’s death.

But that means I must buy two!” the woman said.

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

Well,” Gabrielle said, “they do look lovely together. All right! You talked me into it, Jena! I was going to buy another one anyway—that sweet little one of the crows dancing around the birdbath—but my husband absolutely loathes crows, and I’m afraid I would never get it into the house. How much do I owe you?”

 

Alfredo walked from the docks at the Waterfront where the Captain had left him to Jena’s gallery on Pomegranate Street. When he arrived, several dozen people chatted while helping themselves to the food and drink. He walked in and stopped dead in his tracks, chilled to the bone by the face in the painting across the room.

It is Charlotte …

The eyes dragged him forward until he stood before her, enthralled and astonished. Painted with the palest hues of pink, blue, and green, those eyes pulled him into the patterns and promises of another world on the other side. He wanted to get closer and closer, dive into them, bask in days of warm sunshine and nights of star-sprinkled heaven.

He looked at the title of the painting. Ave, Madre.

Hail, Mother. Jade’s mother, Charlotte. Of course. Though she doesn’t look anything like her. He turned and scanned the crowd, trying to find Jade.

Father Manzi!” Jena cried out, waving as she approached with Jade. “What a pleasure to see you!” She gave the priest a quick hug and said, “Please let me introduce the artist, Jade Matthews.”

Alfredo!” Jade said and took his hand. “I’m so happy that you came! Russ is here somewhere, as are Sam and Kate.”

Here I am!” Sam said. “And here’s Kate!” Jade greeted Kate with a hug and Sam with a playful punch to the shoulder.

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

I see you all know each other,” Jena said.

Yes, I know Sam from way back,” Jade said. “But Alfredo and I have only recently met. He’s a colleague of my husband’s in the biology department at the university. But I had no idea he’s an art collector!”

And I had no idea Charlotte is your mother. Alfredo felt suddenly lightheaded and inhaled slowly, trying to keep his thoughts from running away. And you are Patua’, of course! The crow spoke to you in the chapel garden, not in English, but Patua’!

One of my gallery’s best clients!” Jena said.

When St. Sophia’s was remodeled,” Alfredo said, “they needed new paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Jena helped me find interested artists. I simply recommended them to the monsignor.”

Oh, you’re too modest!” Jena said, giving Alfredo a gentle shove. “That was quite the largesse for a number of our local artists. But aren’t Jade’s paintings just fabulous?” She turned and gazed at Ave, Madre. “I feel like I’m gazing into my own mother’s eyes.”

Alfredo looked again at Ave, Madre and then back at Jade. Her blonde, curly hair and green eyes did not remind him in the least of Charlotte’s pale gray eyes and long, straight black hair. But there was something about her face that did.

This one’s my favorite,” Sam said, gesturing toward the painting next to Ave, Madre. “Winter Wonderland. You got amazing depth in just two dimensions, Jade. Incredible.”

A sunbeam coming through a window illuminated the particulate matter floating in the air. The rich, exquisite surface of many brush strokes pulled the viewer into the warm light, where images of flowers and dragonflies floated on warm, lazy breezes.

That’s what the world outside my studio looked like one day last winter,” Jade said. “There was this amazing sunbeam. The contrast was exquisite—the sparkling clear landscape covered with snow outside, and a mosaic of color in the dust particles of the sunbeam inside. I couldn’t resist.”

Truly superb, Jade,” Alfredo said. “I feel like I am gently falling through stardust. You manage to evoke many senses beyond the visual.”

Willow B,” Kate said, pointing across the gallery to the painting of a gray cat. “That’s my fave. It’s like you can almost walk into it; the mounds of fur seem like trees. Oh! And the little critters running around everywhere. I just love them!”

Jena excused herself to attend to a refreshment issue. Sam and Kate wandered off toward Willow B, leaving Alfredo and Jade alone.

You truly have a gift,” Alfredo said to Jade. “Your paintings are simply magnificent.” He turned toward Ave, Madre. “She is your mother?”

I don’t know who my mother was,” Jade said with a shrug, facing her painting. “This woman is from my imagination. Or perhaps one of my dreams. I was an orphan, and you know what they say about us—always looking for our quote-unquote real parents.”

I am sorry, Jade. Losing your mother must have been difficult,” Alfredo said. “We all long for the Holy Mother who nurtures us all. Perhaps orphans feel her presence more acutely than the mothered.”

Jade shrugged again. “I never knew her. I was a foundling, as they say. She’s my fantasy mother.” She pointed at her painting. “My real mother left me in the woods in a basket with nothing but a blanket. And that strange medallion like the one you have.” She smiled without joy. “To haunt me.”

Alfredo touched her arm sympathetically. Yes, Jade, your mother had one of the orbs. And she is Patua’. As you are.

Fortunately, there was a happy ending,” Jade said with a smile as she patted his hand on her arm. “I was raised by foster parents whose love and nurturing are one reason I’m here today in this gallery full of my paintings. And Russ is the other.”

Other what?” Russ said, suddenly appearing by Jade’s side.

My other husband,” Jade said with a wicked smile. “I was just confessing my bigamy to Father Alfredo.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “Jade was telling me how grateful she was to have such a supportive and nurturing husband.”

Jena McCrae strode toward them and pulled Jade away. Without apology, she said over her shoulder, “Sorry, gents. Another sale on the horizon!”

 

Russ wandered off toward the refreshment tables, leaving Alfredo to stroll alone through the gallery, admiring Jade’s paintings and mentally arranging his finances in consideration of purchasing Ave, Madre. He spotted Kate by herself in front of a large painting and walked over to her.

Jade’s so talented,” Kate said as they stood together in front of Falling Backward. “She said this came from a dream she had about falling from the sky into a pool of water.”

Yes, she is,” Alfredo agreed. “She is gifted with a sight most of us do not have.”

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

Indeed.” He looked over his shoulder, making sure no one approached. “Kate, I need some lawyerly advice. How would one go about getting someone released from Rosencranz?”

The mental hospital?” Kate asked, raising her eyebrows.

Yes.”

Okay,” she said slowly. “And who may I ask wants whom released?”

I do,” Alfredo said. “She is a friend of mine.”

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

As far as I can tell,” Alfredo said, hesitating before replying, “it is just a language issue. She cannot speak English.”

Kate looked at him intently. “Can we go outside and chat, Padre? I’m in sudden need of fresh air.”

Alfredo followed her out the door and onto the sidewalk. “Truth time, Padre,” she said. “What exactly is this language issue?” When he didn’t answer, she bit her lower lip and nodded slowly. “I see. It’s the language of the crows, isn’t it?”

He stared at her in shock. Did Majewski show her Bruthamax’s letter? Did Sam tell her?

For God’s sake,” Kate said, “I’m not an idiot. Do you think I can’t put two and two together? ‘The corvid have an extensive vocabulary’—your own words, no?”

Several people came out the door of the gallery. Kate started walking down the street, pulling on Alfredo’s sleeve. “Padre,” she said. “I know. I know about you. I know about Sam. And I know about the Captain. So, drop this charade, okay?”

B-but, how?”

I suspected as much,” she said. “But Sam told me.”

Sam told you?” Alfredo felt deflated, his façade breached.

Yes,” she said. “I forced it out of him. First I tricked him into telling me about you.” She laughed at Alfredo’s shocked expression. “Oh, stop! I’m a lawyer; that’s what we do!”

Kate took his arm, and they walked slowly back to the gallery. “And then he let it slip that he’d been to the island once before you hired him.”

Alfredo nodded. “He mentioned that to me too, but he did not seem to want to talk about it.”

They stopped at a traffic light and waited for the pedestrian light. A paper cup flew out of a passing car, striking a vehicle parked next to the curb. “Got one!” a voice yelled as the brown liquid dripped off the hood.

People!” Kate said shaking her head. “No freaking manners.”

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

Sam brought his twin sister’s boyfriend Andy, whom we know as the Captain, to the island a few years ago,” she said after they had crossed. “Sam’s father had beat him nearly to death before throwing him in the river to drown.”

Alfredo stopped and stared at Kate. “Oh, dear Lord!” he gasped. “The captain? But why?”

Kate nodded. “Sam’s sister was pregnant with his child. She hung herself, thinking Andy was dead.”

Alfredo gritted his teeth against the surge of anger in his chest, and his eyes burned with hot, stinging tears he would not let fall. He cried out in anguish, “God Almighty, can there be no end to the suffering of your innocent children?”

I know,” Kate said as she looked up at him. She took his hand and led him to a bench on the sidewalk. They sat side by side in silence while Alfredo struggled to compose himself. His heart ached for Sam, for the Captain, for Sam’s sister, and her neverborn child.

He saw Charlotte wandering alone within the silent stone walls of Rosencranz. Dear Lord, please look after her until I can.

I want to help you, Alfredo,” Kate said. Her voice brought him back to the Downtown sidewalk. “And I want to help your friend. But you have to trust me. Does she speak the language of the crows? And is that really why she’s in a mental institution?”

Yes,” Alfredo said, without hesitation. There was nothing to hide. Kate knew it all, apparently. He stood up and offered Kate his hand, and they resumed walking back to the gallery.

Apparently about twenty five years ago,” he said as they walked, “she lost the ability to understand human language. She is otherwise a very intelligent, lucid woman who has endured years of confinement and the abandonment by her family with amazing grace.”

They stopped outside the gallery. “I have to get her out of there, Kate. It is unbearable for her.” And me.

They sat down on a planter next to the door. Kate looked at him intently and said, “As your attorney, I must ask you this: are you in love with her?”

Alfredo frowned. “I do not know what that means, exactly. I feel great affection and attachment for her. I admire her and worry about her. I want her life to be better. I enjoy her company. Is that what ‘in’ love means?”

If we’re lucky,” Kate said, smiling. “But what about romance? Have you two kissed or anything?”

Alfredo laughed. “No. The thought has never occurred to me. Nor to her, that I can tell.”

Like you would know,” Kate said with a grin.

Alfredo frowned again. “I do not think I have romantic thoughts.”

He had thought he was in love once, before seminary school. She was another graduate student in the department. Beth. But when she discovered his so-called gift, she freaked out and broke up with him. He had been crushed, though grateful she never told anyone about his crow-speech. But he had vowed never to let anyone know again. He buried himself in his dissertation, and after he was awarded a PhD, he immediately entered the priesthood.

Friendship can be very romantic,” Kate said. “But I had to check, you know, if anything else was going on. People do crazy things for sex.”

A car drove by slowly. Music boomed out its open windows; a female voice screamed out the lyrics, something about love and pain.

I have never participated in the sex act,” Alfredo said, stiffly, feeling his face redden.

Kate cracked up laughing and hugged him. “Oh, Padre! That is what we hoped to hear from all our priests! But seriously, sex is wonderful! It’s like a glue that holds two unrelated people together.”

The door to the gallery opened, and several people walked out, discussing where to go for a drink. “How about the Saddle?” a man said. “No!” the woman on his arm said. “No sports bars!”

So, where will you take her,” Kate asked, after the group had passed, “assuming you can get her out of there?”

I have not yet decided,” Alfredo said. “But before I imagine myself and her at a bridge we may never cross, I want to find out if I can get her out of there at all. If so, I will find her a safe place where she will be happy. But not at my cottage, if that is what you are thinking.”

I was,” said Kate. “What is her name, by the way?”

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

After the last guest left the gallery, Jade and Russ stayed to help Jena tidy up while Sam, Kate, and Alfredo drove to the Double Elbow, a popular Downtown pub known for good beer, buffalo wings, and whose relatively quiet atmosphere made conversation possible. A few tables against the windows surrounded an interior dominated by two L-shaped bars with stools.

By the time Russ and Jade arrived, the others were already seated in a booth in the far corner. Sam poured them a beer from the pitcher on the table.

I need man food,” Russ said after he slid into place. “I must’ve eaten a hundred of those delicate little tea cakes or whatever the hell they served at the reception. Like eating air. A man needs meat.”

Sam laughed and clapped his hands. Alfredo regarded Sam with a new sense of tenderness. He has endured much suffering. Grant him happiness now, Lord, with this loving woman, Kate.

I hear ya,” Kate said, giggling, “but we’ve ordered wings. Do real men eat chicken?”

Whenever possible,” Russ said with absolutely no expression on his face.

That seemed hilariously funny to everyone, except Alfredo. He smiled anyway, though he could not fathom what the joke was. His conversation with Kate had illuminated his alienation from his fellow humans, and he was envious of his friends’ banter and easy enjoyment of each other.

The wings arrived, and for a few moments, everyone had their mouths full and their fingers covered in reddish-orange spicy sauce. “Ya know,” Jade said between bites, waving a wing bone at her companions. “I only realized last year why they call these buffalo wings. I wondered for a long time how buffalos and wings could wind up being the same food. I just thought it was one of those things frat boys come up with, you know, for their keg parties—because it’s more manly to eat buffalo than chicken.”

Everyone chuckled, shaking their heads. Alfredo furrowed his brow and said, “I always thought they were wings of chickens from upstate New York. And I wondered what was so special about that. And how would we ever know if they did not come from Buffalo?”

Thanks, Padre,” Jade said as the rest of the group erupted in laughter. “I’m glad to know I’m not such a black sheep, that others think like I do.”

Not very damn many,” Russ said with an affectionate nudge.

Your husband speaks the truth, Jade,” Alfredo said. “But in the end, we are all just strangers in a strange land, are we not?” We are Patua’ in a strange land, you and I.

Hear! Hear!” Kate said with mock sternness. “Let’s not have such lonesome talk when there are friends all around. How about a tribute to Jade for a fantastic art show!”

They toasted Jade and each painting that sold. Alfredo had arranged with Jena to purchase Ave, Madre, but he did not tell Jade. She will see it hanging in my cottage. Or the chapel.

The waitperson brought a new pitcher of beer, and Alfredo filled everyone’s glass. “Speaking of art and artists,” he said when he finished, “I have been seeing flyers up around Downtown. Seems the Friends of Wilder Island are having an arts and crafts fair and art auction next weekend at the Waterfront.”

That’s right!” Jade said. “Sam and I put a proposal in to Parks and Rec, and we got the permit that same day! The city loves people to come Downtown on the weekends—that’s what they told us. They’re trying to promote the Waterfront too. Sam and I are both contributing work to the art auction, and we have at least half of the artists saying they’ll put stuff in too!”

Alfredo observed Jade intently as she spoke. Her eyes sparkled with excitement, and every once in a while he thought he caught a glimpse of her mother. He squinted his eyes and listened to the lilting quality in Jade’s voice, so like Charlotte’s.

Perfect timing!” Kate said. “The city’s going to announce their decision to condemn Wilder Island on Thursday.”

How do you know that?” Jade asked, tilting her head to one side and wrinkling her brow.

Alfredo almost laughed out loud. I have seen that exact expression on Charlotte!

My vast network of spies,” Kate said with a wink. “Seriously, there are no secrets among lawyers and politicians.” She turned to Russ. “But we gotta be ready. You have things set up with KMUS, Russ?”

Yes,” he said. “The students at the university radio station are ready to roll on Friday night. They’ll broadcast us live from the Waterfront. After we explain the issues—condemnation, eminent domain, and why we might want to keep the island the way it is—there’ll be time for people to call in and comment or ask questions.”

Their server came by the table and dropped off another pitcher of beer. He picked up the empty plates and napkins and left the check and several individually wrapped hand wipes.

Hey,” Sam said as he cleaned the red hot sauce from his fingers. “As long as we’re on KMUS, how about we put on a beg-a-thon? Like they do on public radio, you know? I mean, we need to raise some bucks, don’t we? We’ve made some money selling booths for the fair, and we’ll make a little more from the silent auction. But we could rake in some serious money if we put on a beg-a-thon.”

What the devil is a beg-a-thon?” Alfredo asked.

Henry Braun applied for a parade permit, not coincidentally, for the same weekend as the Friends of Wilder Island Art Fair. Just as Kate Herron had her network of informants, so did Henry. He too knew exactly when the Mayor’s announcement to condemn Wilder Island would occur. He planned to fire up the River Queen and start parading her past the city boat docks on both sides of the river for the entire weekend. There would be free food and drink for the crowds he hoped would gather on the docks to ogle his beautiful River Queen.

You can’t have the docks at the Waterfront,” the city clerk said. “On account of the art fair. You can have the city boat landing on the other side, though.”

What art fair?” Henry growled.

I just stamped their permit,” the clerk said, rifling through the previous day’s paperwork. “An outfit called the Friends of Wilder Island.”

Who the bloody hell are the Friends of Wilder Island? They’d better not get in my way!

Oh? Whose name is on the permit?” Henry said magnanimously as he pushed a five-dollar bill across the counter at the clerk.

Let’s see,” he said, looking through the bottom half of his bifocals at the permit. He carefully ignored the bill on the counter. “Here it is. There were two applicants, Jade Matthews and Sam Howard.” He scribbled the names on a scrap of paper and pushed it and the money toward Henry. “There is no charge for this information, Mr. Braun.” The clerk looked over his shoulder and smiled at the video cameras behind him.

Thank you,” Henry said cordially as he pocketed the bill.

He walked out of City Hall and stepped through the open door of his Bentley and into the backseat. Jules Sackman sat waiting for Henry, sipping a latte and reading the newspaper.

Who the hell are these people?” Henry Braun growled to Jules as the car pulled away from the curb. “Friends of Wilder Island?”

Everything is named after the island in this city, Henry,” Jules said, sipping his latte. “Don’t let that make you paranoid. Probably just a band of dilettantes and their gigolos.”

I don’t want probably, Jules. I want facts. I want answers,” Henry growled. “Who the hell are Jade Matthews and Sam Howard? And who’s behind them? A bunch of bleeding-heart, liberal tree-huggers, I bet.”

Alfredo spent the night at St. Sophia’s, as it was too dark to return to the island after he left his friends at the Double Elbow. He tossed and turned, unable to find sleep. He missed the sounds of the night on the island, and the evening’s revelation kept his mind running. Charlotte is Jade’s mother! The knowledge filled him with a strange mixture of dread and excitement.

How old is Jade? Early twenties, I would guess. Was Charlotte pregnant when she was taken away? Did she give birth at Rosencranz? Dora Lyn had not been able to find Charlotte’s file at his last visit, which he thought would tell him everything he needed to know about Charlotte’s arrival, treatment, and residence at Rosencranz.

The headlights from a passing car infiltrated the gap between the curtains, sending a geometrical pattern of light and shadow darting across the ceiling.

Charlotte never mentioned a daughter. He frowned in the darkness. Maybe she’s not Jade’s mother after all. He turned over in bed again, his back to the window.

He slept fitfully, disturbed by vague dreams of a blindfolded Charlotte with arms tied behind her back, and a baby in a basket crying faintly. He woke up feeling as if he had not slept at all.

He left the rectory at St. Sophia’s as soon as the sun came up and found the Captain and Sugarbabe docked at the Waterfront. Funny how they always know when to pick me up.

It ain’t rocket science,” Sugarbabe squawked. “We left you here yest’aday. You didn’t g’home last night. Where else would y’be at this hour, than here wantin’ for a ride?”

The Captain chuckled and gave his crow a treat from his shirt pocket. He pushed the boat out into the river. Alfredo wondered again how old the Captain was; his craggy and sun-wrinkled face somehow defied age. How many years ago was he left for dead in the river? Sam was in his mid-thirties, he knew. But the Captain seemed far older. “How long have you been running the river, Captain?”

The Captain looked up at the sky for a moment and then at Alfredo. “Many years. I forget.” His face seemed to cloud over, and he turned his eyes back to the river.

Alfredo left the Captain in peace and inhaled the cool, clear morning, reviving his sleep-deprived body. The river’s flat and calm surface reflected the forest and sacred chapel of Cadeña-l’jadia like a mirror.

Ah, Bruthamax’s Roost,” Sugarbabe said. “’Tis always a beautiful sight.”

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

He bid farewell to the Captain and Sugarbabe, and entered the thick forest. He smiled up at the birds flying through the branches of the trees and walked the path to his cottage. It was good to be home. He opened the doors and windows to the fresh air and then left to find Charlie.

He walked past the chapel and down to the point where Charlie pecked at his lunch from the cracks and crannies of rocks and driftwood.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said. He cleaned his beak in the sand and hopped up onto the driftwood log where Alfredo had seated himself.

Charlie, I have reason to believe Charlotte has a daughter!”

The crow shook his head. “How do you know this?”

Alfredo told him about Jade’s painting of her unknown mother that bore an uncanny resemblance to Charlotte. “And she has that orb.”

Charlie paced back and forth across the log. “Well, I guess it’s possible. In the half a year before they took her away, I was in Keeper training then and couldn’t visit her.” He stopped and looked at Alfredo. “But Charlotte has never mentioned a child?”

No, but she seems to have forgotten a great deal of her life.” Alfredo gazed across the river for a few moments. “I wonder … could the stress of a difficult childbirth have caused her to forget her native human language?”

I don’t know,” Charlie said. “I have an archive session with Starfire tomorrow. Perhaps he will know the answer to that. He has known of a few Patua’ who faded into the Graying. At the very least, he will be very interested in adding a new Patua’ to the database. And that she has one of the orbs.”

Charlie flew off, leaving Alfredo alone on the log. He watched a few crows flipping themselves through the jaloosies out over the river. Sometimes I wish I were one of them. So free of the madnesses we humans have created.

ww.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515

Corvus Rising – Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

Sanctuary

Perfect,” Charlie said. “If you ask me.”

I did ask you,” Alfredo said.

Crow and priest surveyed a possible site for the bird sanctuary Alfredo had dreamed about for months. Years, really, but until he came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he never imagined its reality. But here it was. The perfect place for a bird sanctuary.

On the west side of the island below the Boulders, the stream that flowed beneath them resurfaced and wound down a lazy path through a wide floodplain to the river. During dry seasons, the stream slowed to a tiny trickle; in wet years, the river inundated the entire area. Tall trees and brushy undergrowth lined the many small channels lined with rushes and grasses and flowers.

I’m not a migrator,” Charlie said. “Nor in need of rescue. My opinion may not be worth much.”

Alfredo stood next to him, one foot on the ground and one foot on the log. He balanced a sketchbook across his knee and made a few broad strokes with a large, flat-edged carpenter’s pencil Sam had left at the cottage. “But you are a bird; that is the perspective I do not have.”

He looked up from his sketch to the scene before him and shook his head, frowning. “If only I had Jade’s talent.”

Charlie hopped up to Alfredo’s shoulder and peered down at the sketchbook. “Oh, it’ll do, I reckon. You’ve got the basic elements. Cliffs, rocks, water, a few trees.”

A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie jumped back down to the log. “Sounds like the Captain.”

Yes,” Alfredo said. He put the pencil in his pocket and shut the sketchbook. “He is bringing Sam and Russ to help me move a few rocks and plants around.”

No business for a crow,” Charlie said and took off toward the tree house. “I’ll see you later, Jayzu.”

A small forest seemed to float into the broad inlet, and after finding a suitable landing spot, the Captain leaped off and tied the boat to a tree. Sam and Russ disembarked with shovels and a pickax.

Be back at sunset,” the Captain said as he leapt back aboard.

Don’t work too hard!” Sugarbabe yelled from her perch.

Thanks, Captain!” Alfredo said. He turned and gestured toward the future bird sanctuary. “This is it, gentlemen.”

Perfect!” Russ said as he surveyed the landscape. “The river will replenish the soil with nutrients and keep the plant populations healthy, which will provide a food supply for the birds.”

And the cliffs will shelter the cove from the cold winter winds,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the limestone edifice. “Many of the island’s ravens and raptors nest or roost in caves along that cliff face.”

The three men spent the day moving and placing rocks across the main stream channel to create a wide, shallow pool. Russ moved some of the water plants that grew along the banks of the small stream to the edges of the new pool. “In time,” he said, “this should all fill in with the other island flora—whatever the wind blows in and birds poop out. In a few years, this will be as lush and green as the rest of the island.”

At the end of the day, they admired their work. “It doesn’t look much different than when we started,” Sam said, leaning on his shovel.

That was the whole idea,” Alfredo said, smiling. “It looks great. By the time the migrations start in the Fall, there will be plenty to eat.”

The Captain pulled into the sanctuary under the late afternoon shadows. “Yo, Captain!” Russ called out. “Perfect timing! We just finished!”

The Captain grinned and waved, then picked up a large canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. He jumped off his boat, walked over to the other men and put the canvas bag on the ground. Without speaking, he opened the flap.

Beer!” Sam cried out as he leaned in to pull one from the ice.

You are an angel of mercy, Captain,” Russ said.

Just the delivery boy,” the Captain said. “You need to thank the Padre.” He handed Alfredo a beer.

Thanks, gentlemen!” Alfredo said, raising his bottle. “Thanks for your help, all of you.”

After a brief celebration, they hopped aboard the Captain’s boat. Alfredo got off at the inlet, waving as the Captain left with Russ and Sam for the City Docks.

 

Henry Braun took a gulp of his perfectly cooled coffee as he opened the Sunday Ledford Sentinel. An architectural rendering of the new Wilder Island Bird Sanctuary and Botanical Gardens was splashed across the front page. In shock, Henry spewed his coffee across the table, spraying his wife. Minnie said nothing as she wiped off her face and arms.

Son-of-a—” Henry swore, over and over again as he read the accompanying article. He read it twice, a third time. “What the hell? A bird sanctuary?” He glowered at Minnie across the table. “Isn’t the whole damn island a sanctuary?”

He stood up, shaking his head. “Those bastards.” He picked up the newspaper and left the kitchen, scowling terribly all the way to his office.

Henry kicked his office door shut behind him and tossed the offending newspaper onto his desk. He picked up the phone and punched a few numbers, seething with impatience as he waited for his attorney to answer. “Dammit, Jules, what the hell do I pay you for?” he shouted into the phone. “Why didn’t I know about this damn bird swamp before it hit the papers? I don’t like being blindsided.”

Calm down, Henry,” Jules said. “It changes nothing. They can build Notre Dame on the island, and it changes nothing. Churches are not exempt from eminent domain, as I told you; bird sanctuary is certainly not going to change anything. Just cool your jets. Is your presentation to the city ready? What about the model of Ravenwood Resort? These are the things you need to be worrying about, Henry.”

Henry slammed down the phone. He strode to the window and jammed his hands in his pockets as he looked out over his estate. Two crows in the tree outside his office window mocked him, their sly smiles ridiculing his plans, his dreams. He shook his fist at them and spent the rest of the day moping, muttering vague threats, and punching the air with balled up fists. He phoned his attorney several times, relentlessly pestering him until finally Jules promised to come over for a nightcap.

Minnie Braun calmly ate her Eggs Benedict alone. She wondered for the millionth time why God had forsaken her so, and then she scolded herself. Jesus never said, ‘Take up your cushion and follow me.’ Life is hard, and I have it so easy. Easy, if all she considered was the comfort of the body. Her soul she had dedicated to Jesus, but who was there on Earth to hold her heart?

For years, she had listened to Henry talk about Wilder Island—owning it, subjugating it, and turning it into a money machine. His long-winded diatribes became a staple at the breakfast table, lunch table, and dinner table. Minnie never saw Henry in between meals, a scenario that was perfectly fine for both of them.

Priests, for God’s sake! That’s what Henry roared when he found out who owned the island. Minnie smiled to herself at the memory. Oh, how he pouted and bellowed, threatening everyone clear up to God! The next day she wrote a big check to the orphanage run by the Sisters of St. Anne down in MacKenzie.

She was a devout Catholic and hoped to think of herself as a good Christian as well. She had a comfortable life in Henry’s big house where she lacked nothing. She was never hungry, never cold. But she felt enormous guilt at being financially supported by Henry; his most lucrative business deals often left someone else impoverished.

It’s business,” he had said to her the first and only time she had mentioned that fact.

Minnie Braun’s husband was a respected paragon of the business community. But she wished she could undo some of the damage he had done, though in most cases, she was incapable of remedying anything. Trying to warm the icebox in her heart, she bought coats and gloves for the poor children, and she arranged for groceries to be delivered to the soup kitchens. She constantly looked for widows whose rent needed paying, and poor children whose parents could not afford Christmas presents.

Over the years, Minnie had devised intricate ways to squirrel away money, a few dollars here, a few hundred there from her household budget. She shrewdly invested that money, Henry’s money, and funneled the profits into her heart-warming projects. Frequently Minnie begged the Good Lord’s forgiveness for what her husband would surely have called theft—just in case it was.

Minnie kept her charitable contributions secret from Henry. He would never approve of any of the places she gave his money to—that little Jesuit chapel on Wilder Island, for instance. She was charmed by the legend of Brother Maxmillian, and the restoration of his chapel had captured her imagination. While her husband fiddled with lawyers in his relentless pursuit of Wilder Island, Minnie funneled his money to Father Alfredo Manzi, whom she saw every Friday when he delivered Communion wafers to St. Sophia’s.

Oh, the look of surprise on Father Manzi’s face when I handed him twenty-five hundred dollars in cash! But she was grateful as well. The Bible said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.

That’s what she had said to Father Alfredo when he gasped at the size of her gift. Of course he knew she was the wife of perhaps the city’s wealthiest man. But to everyone else at the church, as well as everyone except her husband and his attorney, she was known as Gabrielle. No last name, just Gabrielle. No one knew anything about her but her name and that she always dealt in cash.

Minnie needed a place to unload her guilt, lest it keep her from heaven. She unburdened herself in the confessional, but her real salvation came through her enormous gifts to the orphanage, and now to the hermit’s chapel. She hoped to see it someday.

But her contributions did little to placate the gnawing guilt that chewed at the edges of her conscience. And when the cold reality of her loveless marriage bore down heavily on her, she found some comfort in escaping into fantasy, where she and Father Alfredo fed orphans on the steps of the hermit’s chapel on Wilder Island. Of course she knew there were no orphans on the island, but the image comforted her.

 

Alfredo borrowed the monsignor’s car after Mass and drove to Rosencranz Hospital for the Insane. The hundred-year-old building was nestled in the woods about an hour’s drive from Ledford and about twenty minutes as the crow flies. Concertina wire atop the chain-link fence around the property discouraged trespassers as well as escape, should an inmate be capable of devising such a plan. The fence divided the tamed acreage of the asylum grounds from the thick, wild forest that forever threatened to encroach upon it.

He turned onto the long driveway that connected the rural highway to the Victorian-style building and its meticulously manicured grounds. A guard stopped him at the gate, pushing a clipboard at him, and he scribbled the name, Dr. Martin Robbins, onto the daily visitor’s log.

Follow this road around and you’ll drive right into the parking lot,” the guard said as he pointed toward the building.

Alfredo drove through the set of heavy-duty chain link gates crowned by the same concertina wire as the fence. Inside, a few neatly trimmed trees grew alongside the curvy asphalt drive. The old stone hospital building suddenly appeared in his view. A gazebo stood alone on the treeless lawn, encircled by a well-ordered flowerbed of mixed colors.

Originally Rosencranz was some rich guy’s mansion,” Sam had told him. “He’d made a fortune in China in the opium wars, or so they say. And when he came back filthy rich, he built this huge house for himself and his twenty-three cats.”

Twenty-three cats?” Alfredo had said dubiously.

That’s what they say,” Sam had said with a shrug. “Anyway, the mansion was supposedly the most expensive house in the US of A at the time. And Mr. Rosencranz, he threw legendary parties. Before he went nuts.”

A guard motioned Alfredo straight ahead to the parking lot, blocking him from entering the service road that branched off the driveway. He parked the car and walked up the imposing granite steps, and through the heavy, metal-clad wood front doors. He stepped into the lobby, astonished at its opulence.

He stood upon a floor of huge slabs of polished white marble with streaks of black and gray. Polished wood and sparkling clean windows adorned the walls, evidently the original living room of the mansion. The pressed metal ceiling high above dwarfed the sparse furnishings—a receptionist desk, a few chairs and end tables huddled together near the front entry. The odor of institutional disinfectant permeated the air.

A sour-faced, middle-aged woman sat behind a plastic-laminate desk and credenza, which formed an unbreachable barrier between the outside world and the hinterlands of the institution. Behind her stood a row of offices, partitioned off from the lobby with wood-paneled walls with closed doors and curtained windows. She put down the book she was reading and greeted Alfredo with a frown. “Can I help you?” Her voice echoed coldly around the lobby.

Sound confident. That’s what one of St. Sophia’s young parishioners told him. The youngster was a master shoplifter who had rarely been caught because, as he said, “I just acted like I owned the place, so no one paid me any mind.”

Good morning, Miss,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a charismatic smile. “I am Dr. Robbins from Catholic Social Services, and I have an appointment with one of the patients.”

You got any ID?” she asked, her eyebrows arched suspiciously.

Yes, ma’am,” Alfredo said, withdrawing from his wallet the fake ID Sam Howard had made for him.

Truly, Sam is a jack-of-all-trades! Lucky for me, his skills go beyond cottage building!

The priest was uncomfortable with the deception, and he knew he was breaking at least one law. But there was no other way he could get access to Charlotte or her file other than to be a psychiatrist or medical doctor. Charlotte has no family, Someone needs to look in on her. Forgive me, Father. I need to find out why she is here.

NoExit’s voice rang in his ears. “There is a vast difference between law and justice.”

The sour-faced woman scrutinized his ID carefully, looking first at the photo, then up at him. Alfredo had taken great care to look the part of a shrink—that’s what Sam had called him. He had donned a pair of plain-lens glasses and erased his iconic streak of white hair using small amounts of black dye. A gray sport coat over a blue button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and loafers finished out the ensemble of the handsome psychiatrist.

Evidently satisfied, the receptionist licked her lips and copied his name and address from his ID onto the guest register. She handed it back. “Who you want to see?” she asked indifferently, her hands poised over the computer keyboard.

Charlotte Steele,” Alfredo said. Charlie had told him that was the name on the smock she always wore when he saw her. He memorized the shapes of the letters and picked them from an alphabet Alfredo showed him: C. Steele.

She typed a few characters into her computer, and without looking up, she picked up the phone. “Yeah, Patrick,” she said. “Bring Inmate 456191 to the patio. Yeah, Ms. Steele, that’s the one. Yeah, there’s someone here to see her.” The sour-faced woman listened for a few moments and then laughed as she said, “I hear ya, pal. But whaddya gonna do? Right, okay, hon, thanks.”

Sign here,” she said, pushing the register toward Alfredo. “They’ll take her to the patio.” She jerked her head toward the windows. “You can wait for her out there.”

Of course,” Alfredo said pleasantly as he signed his fake name. “May I please have her file?”

She got up as if it might be her last act on Earth and walked the two or three steps to a file cabinet. She opened a drawer, rifled through its contents, and then another.

I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said, returning to her desk. “I can’t find her file. All I can say is it must be in the archives. I’ll send someone down for it and have it brought out to you.”

Alfredo frowned, hoping to look like an irritated doctor. “That will be fine, Miss. Thank you,” he said curtly. He turned toward the doors and stopped. “What is your name? I hate to keep calling you ‘miss.’”

The sour-faced woman smiled. She is actually rather pleasant looking. “Dora Lyn, Doctor,” she said. “One n, no e.”

Pleased to meet you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said, smiling back.

He left the lobby through double glass doors and stepped out onto the patio. Several wheelchairs had been parked amid the few empty tables whose occupants were either asleep, with their mouths hanging open and their heads flung back, or they were staring blankly ahead. A tiny old lady babbled incoherently into her lap, shaking her head. An elderly stoop-shouldered man walked his wheelchair along the low stone wall encircling the patio, his slippers shuffling along the flagstone.

Alfredo was aghast. This is where Charlotte lives? Among elderly dementia patients?

Charlotte Steele for Dr. Martin Robbins!” a loud voice shouted.

Alfredo waved, and said, “Over here, please.” As the aide wheeled Charlotte over to meet him, she cried out and pointed to a flock of birds gliding by overhead. “Oh, look! The loons are flying to the river!”

She wore a blue denim jumpsuit that zipped up the front, the same as the patients in the wheelchair. A tag above her left breast read, “C.STEELE.” A thick black braid fell down her back, almost to her waist. Her eyes arrested him for a moment, eyes the color of rain.

She don’t talk, Doctor,” the aide said somewhat apologetically as he delivered Charlotte into “Doctor Robbins’” temporary custody.

Alfredo thanked him and wheeled Charlotte to a table in the far corner of the patio next to the stone wall that bordered the patio. A rose bush hedge so thick he could not see the ground through it grew up against the wall, closing in the two sides of the patio. A most effective barrier. Beyond the hedge stretched the impeccably manicured and treeless grounds of the asylum.

He came around to the front of her wheelchair so she could see him. “Would you like to sit in a regular chair, Charlotte?”

She squinted into the sun and held one hand up to her forehead like a visor. “Who is it?” she asked. “Who are you? You hear me? No one hears me.”

My name is Jayzu,” Alfredo said. “And I hear you. Would you like to join me at this table?”

She nodded, ignored his outstretched hand, and stood up from the wheelchair. She sat down at the table, and Alfredo pushed the wheelchair up against the stone wall. He took a chair opposite her, with his back to the people on the patio—most importantly, the guards and orderlies. “Good morning, Charlotte.”

Charlotte looked bewildered. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously, her expression darkening again. “How do you know my name? Why are you here?”

I am a friend of Charlie’s,” Alfredo said. “He asked me to come see you.”

Charlotte’s face lit up, and she cried out, “My Charlie? Where is he?” She looked out across the grounds toward the woods. “Is he here?”

No,” Alfredo said. “He is not here. But I am. Will you talk to me today? I will tell you all about Charlie.”

He looked over his shoulder. The aide who had brought Charlotte to him was staring at them, but looked away as soon as Alfredo caught his eye. He turned back to Charlotte, who was placidly looking at him. “Charlie is well. He has a wife and a lot of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Where is Charlie?” she asked. “Where does he live?” Her pale blue, almost gray eyes sparkled with lively interest.

He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia, as do I, “Alfredo said. “It is a beautiful island in the river.”

Where is Cadeña-l’jadia?” Charlotte asked. “Is it that way?” She pointed toward the direction the loons had flown. “Or that way?”

Oh, let me see,” Alfredo said, and he looked around to gain his bearing. “North is that way, right?”

Charlotte nodded, “Yes, that is north, Jayzu. Is that the way to Cadeña-l’jadia?”

No, it is toward the southeast,” he said, pointing.

She nodded and looked, her hand shading her eyes from the sun. After several moments, she turned her eyes back upon him. “I want to go to Cadeña-l’jadia. I want to see Charlie. Will you take me there, Jayzu?”

Nonplussed, he held his breath for a few moments and then sighed. “Perhaps, Charlotte,” he said. “Perhaps someday I can. You have been here a very long time, I know.”

Three thousand and eleven days. Counting today,” she said. “But not counting the days in the Graying.”

He mentally calculated the number of days. Eight years ago. That is about when Charlie said he got her to look up at him. “The graying?” he asked. Was she in a coma?

Charlotte glanced beyond his shoulder toward the building and frowned. He turned around and saw an aide rotating each of the wheelchairs one-quarter turn until they all faced the building, away from the table where they sat. “We turn ’em every fifteen minutes, Doctor,” the aide explained to Alfredo. “So they won’t burn on one side.”

Two of the tables were now occupied by elderly patients and their visitors. Alfredo wondered if they were doctors, or if these people had family that visited upon occasion. He turned back to Charlotte, who had gotten up from the table. He joined her at the stone wall as she leaned over and touched a red rose on the other side. “Oh!” she cried out suddenly. She withdrew her hand, revealing a spot of blood on the end of her finger.

He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the drop of blood from her finger. “What about the graying, Charlotte,” he said as he guided her back into her chair. Obviously not a coma. Severe depression, perhaps? “How long were you in the graying?”

I do not know.” She shrugged. She sucked on her injured finger for a few seconds. “I did not count the days during the Graying, because there was no night to separate the gray into days. But it was a long time, I think. Many years.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you know how many, Jayzu? How many days have I been here?”

About twen—” Alfredo started to say before stopping himself to listen to the argument in his head. Should I tell her? Yes, she asked. She deserves an answer. The truth shall set you free. But what if it devastates her?

You counted about eight years and three months’ worth of days,” he said after a few moments. “Charlie told me he found you eight years ago.”

Yes, Jayzu,” she said. “But how many days was I in the Graying?” Her eyes forced the truth from him.

Twenty three years,” he said, hoping his words would not crush her. “I do not know how many days that is.”

She stared at him for a few seconds. “eight thousand three hundred and ninety five days in the Graying, plus two thousand nine hundred twenty days since the Graying is—” She choked on the words and looked away from Alfredo as she brushed the back of her hand across her cheek. “Twenty five years.”

Glory be to God! She is as lucid as I am, although I cannot do math that fast. But should I have told her? It seems to have made her very sad. Seeing her gray eyes full of tears made his heart ache.

Charlotte exhaled a long sigh and looked at Jayzu with great weariness. “I have been here longer than I thought.”

Jayzu looked so distressed, she reached across the table and patted his hand. “Better to know than not know,” she said. “In the Graying, I did not know anything. I saw nothing, and I heard nothing, except once in a while, I heard screaming.”

She shivered; the vastness of the Graying billowed up at the edges of her consciousness.Emptiness, Jayzu. Everywhere emptiness. No days, no nights. Only grayness.” It called to her. Still. Fall! Just fall in! “It was very quiet in the Graying, but sometimes I heard voices. Fall! Just let go! Fall!

Do you remember when you came here?” Jayzu asked, his voice pulling her back. “Or why they brought you here?”

Charlotte put her hands over her ears, shut her eyes tightly, and shook her head back and forth. Needles and lightning bolts poked her, and she recoiled in a stiff paralysis that left her gasping in pain.

Are you all right, Charlotte?” Jayzu’s voice .

She looked at him, suddenly startled. Where am I? Who are you? The Graying thinned, and a strange man was staring at her. The scent of the rose hedge brought her back to the patio. She pulled her braid to her front, unwound it and rebraided it. The grayness dissolved, and she sat in the sun at a table with a dark-haired man who said his name was Jayzu.

They tricked me,” she said. She frowned and her face darkened with an old memory. She was in the woods. They came out of nowhere!

Who tricked you?” Jayzu asked. “Who were they? Where did they come from?”

Jayzu,” Charlotte said reproachfully. “I cannot answer a million questions all at once!”

Forgive me, Charlotte,” he said, smiling. “That was too many questions. Tell me who they were.”

Her eyes darted back and forth as she searched for an answer deep within the wells of her memory. Finally her eyes focused again on Jayzu, and she said, “The foreign people.”

Don’t kill me!” someone shouted from the patio.

Charlotte and Jayzu looked toward the direction of the noise. A patient was being escorted off the patio, yelling and waving his arms. “They’re trying to kill me!” he shouted, hanging on to the doorframe as the aides tried to take him into the building. “Help me! Someone! I’m innocent!”

A couple left as soon as the patient disappeared into the hospital. The man put his arm around the sobbing woman and escorted her gently through the doors to the reception area.

He is a foreign person,” Charlotte said. “These people are all foreigners.” She gestured around the patio to include everyone. “All foreigners, except you.”

She felt the warm sun on her back and the solid chair beneath her. A few birds in the rosebushes fluttered and flapped. The man across the table was looking at her intently. He seemed concerned, but he did not make any move toward her.

I do not know how I got here, Jayzu.” She pushed a stray hair out of her eyes. “I was in my hidden place, where the little creek split in two and made an island. They found me, and I was very scared. They took everything from me. And then they took me.” There was nothing more to tell or remember.

Charlotte looked up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds floated toward the west. After a few moments, it seemed to her that tiny multicolored drops of light fell from the blue onto her face. She shook her head back and forth quickly, her black hair catching its share of the light and twinkling with tiny flashes of shimmering color.

Then the Graying started.” Her calm gray eyes focused on Jayzu. “I kept telling them it was coming, and they kept not understanding. Why could they not just speak English? They just kept yammering in their foreign language and sticking me and shooting lightning through me and—”

She gripped the arms of her chair and held her breath. A few moments passed, and she exhaled. “After a while, I could not hear them anymore at all, but they kept sticking me, and their mouths moved up and down like this.” Charlotte stared myopically while opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water.

Jayzu laughed, attracting the attention of the aide at the desk next to the doors. He frowned for a moment, and Charlotte was afraid he would make Jayzu leave. But the aide went back to the book he was reading.

I do not remember anything after that,” Charlotte continued. “It was mostly gray, for a very long time. I lost track of the days.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair and looking toward the woods. “Eighteen years.”

And when the graying ended?” Jayzu said.

Charlotte nodded. “When Charlie first came to the windowsill. But I am not in the Graying anymore. I am seeing and hearing even if no one can hear me. Why can you hear me, Jayzu, and the others can not?” She gestured vaguely toward the patio.

An old woman in one of the wheelchairs suddenly erupted a string of nonsense in a singsong voice. No one paid her the slightest attention except for Charlotte. “What did she say, Jayzu?”

I do not know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

He looked at her with a strange expression on his face. “Charlotte, what language are we speaking right now, you and I?”

Well, English!” She frowned in confusion at his question.

Maybe I am silly,” he said with a foolish grin that made Charlotte laugh. “But, you and I are not speaking English. They are,” he gestured toward the others on the patio. “But we are not. And the old woman was not. I think she really might be mentally incapacitated, but you are not.”

But, Jayzu, how am I different from her?” She pointed at the old woman. “No can understand me either. Why is she crazy,” she drilled him with steel gray eyes, “and I am not?”

Jayzu stared at her strangely without speaking for a few moments. “I do not know the answers.” He shrugged. “But I know you are not crazy.”

If I am not crazy, then why am I here?” Charlotte angrily waved at the bank of wheelchairs.

Because to them,” Jayzu said, “you sound like that old lady.”

She considered Jayzu’s words, her forehead wrinkled as she tried to fathom the idea that she was the foreigner. “There is no difference between her and me, then?” she said, her voice distraught.

Jayzu reached across the table and took her hand in his. “If anyone knew the answer to that, Charlotte, neither you nor that old woman would be here. But you are not crazy, and she is—dementia is what they call it. People’s brains wear out when they get old.”

I do not want dementia,” Charlotte said, looking past Alfredo at the old woman and watching her head bob back and forth. “Am I old, Jayzu?”

No,” he laughed, “you are not old; you are what is known as middle-aged. Like me. You and I are the same age. You have many years left. Probably forty, at least.”

How old are you, Jayzu?”

He looked at her with a strange expression of fear and sympathy, and he hesitated before he said, “You are forty-two, as I am.”

Forty-two. Charlotte mouthed the words soundlessly. Forty-two. Fifteen thousand, three hundred and thirty days. She shook her head in disbelief.

You do not look old,” Charlotte said. “Then I am not so old either! I was afraid I had become an old lady and spent my whole life here in this stupid place!”

She looked down in her lap as her eyes stung with tears. And Jayzu says I will live another forty years? Till I am eighty-two. Like the old lady in the wheelchair. She forced her tears back and shut her mind to that thought.

What do I look like, Jayzu?” she said. She tried to smile, but it felt gritty and tense.

He seemed surprised at her question and said, “Do you not have a mirror in your room?” Charlotte shook her head, and he continued, “Well, your eyes are sometimes very light blue and sometimes gray, like the dawn sky before the sun rises. Your eyebrows match your hair—black as Charlie’s feathers. Your nose is straight and fits your face perfectly. You are a beautiful woman, Charlotte. You do not look old.”

She blushed behind her hand. I am beautiful? “Oh, Jayzu! I wish I could see my face!”

A loud buzzer sounded, an ugly noise that made Charlotte cover her ears. A voice spoke over the loudspeaker.

What did she say?” Charlotte asked. “They yell like that all the time, and I never know what they are saying.”

She said visiting hours are over,” Jayzu answered. “But we do not have to pay any attention to that. I need to leave soon, but before I go, show me where your room is. I will tell Charlie, and he can visit your windowsill there every morning, before anyone gets up.”

Charlotte’s frown immediately vanished, and she lit up. “Oh, my Charlie! Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” She clapped her hands and laughed. She rose from the table to dance around the patio, dodging the wheelchair people, singing in her strange babble that no one else understood.

The aide grabbed Charlotte and steered her back to Alfredo, who had gotten up from the table to follow her. “Thank you,” he said as he took Charlotte’s arm. After the young man was out of earshot, he said to Charlotte, “You will see Charlie soon, Charlotte. But come, let me escort you to your room.”

She nodded, and the two walked arm-in-arm through the patients’ lobby. At one end, a gigantic flat-screen television blared a popular soap opera to one very attentive woman amid a sea of snoring white-haired people in bathrobes.

Charlotte led him down a hall and into an elevator. “Third floor,” she said, punching the button. “I am on the third floor.”

When the doors opened, she nudged Alfredo to the right, keeping a strong hold on his arm. She opened the unlocked door to her room, a small cell that had space only for a single bed and a small dresser. He looked around the room, frowning. It is so small!

Jayzu,” Charlotte said. “Do not be sad for me. I love my little room. It is quiet and holds me comfortably. Much better than when I had a bed in the great room. It was so noisy all the time, all that yammering!” She put her hands over her ears and shook her head, her eyes large and glassy.

Alfredo laughed, and she took her hands from her ears. He felt humbled by her strength of spirit, her peace and humor with a life he would find unendurable.

This is my sanctuary, Jayzu,” she said, her gray eyes full of the moment, of him. “I do not need any more.”

 

The elevator doors opened and Dr. Robbins stepped out into the lobby. Dora Lyn put her book down and looked at him curiously as he approached the desk to sign out. “I hope you had a pleasant visit, Doctor?” she asked as she pushed the visitor’s log toward him. He had such a wonderful smile. It had been years since anyone had smiled at her with such … what was it? —Attentiveness? That was it. As if he had actually noticed her as a person.

I did, thank you,” he said as he scribbled his name. “Did you ever find Miss Steele’s file?”

No, I am so sorry, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, blushing. “But I’m sure it is here somewhere.”

I shall return in a week or so for a follow up,” he said with a warm smile. “Perhaps you will have located it by then.”

Sure, Doctor,” she said.

He started to leave, and she said, “Uh, Doctor?”

Yes?” he said, turning back around.

Were you really talking to her?” Dora Lyn asked. “I mean, it’s none of my business I know, but, well, I saw you two out on the patio, and it seemed like you were actually talking!”

He looked at her with a surprised expression on his face, and she continued, “I mean, she doesn’t talk to anyone, that Charlotte. She hardly ever says anything. And when she does, it’s just this squawking kind of noise. Do you understand her?”

Dr. Robbins did not reply, and she wondered if she was completely out of line for saying anything. “I’m sorry, Doctor, it’s none of my business.”

No,” he said, finally. “It is all right, Dora Lyn. We are trying a new therapy on patients such as Charlotte. By mimicking their quote-unquote language, we hope to establish a connection with them, some of whom, like Charlotte, have not spoken an intelligible language in many years. It has shown great promise.”

I always thought she was in there, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, nodding her head knowingly. ”You can tell by the eyes.”

The windows of the soul,” he said and walked toward the door. As he reached for the handle, he turned and said, “God bless you, Dora Lyn.”

Thanks, Doctor,” she murmured to his back. “God bless you, too.”

www.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515

Corvus Rising – Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

Homecoming

Charlie watched Jayzu string a rope between two trees and tie the ends to the trunks. He unfolded and shook out a large plastic sheet and draped it over the rope and hammered some sticks into the edges, pinning it to the ground.

Jayzu stood up and said, “That will keep the rain off me while I build myself a more permanent structure.” He took a bedroll out of his pack and threw it under his tent. After he set up a small stove on one of the nearly flat rocks strewn about, he put a pot on it and filled it with water. Charlie swooped down from the trees above, landing deftly on a flat rock near Alfredo’s chair.

Tea time?” he asked.

Jayzu laughed. “No. I just like to get everything set up.”

Charlie looked around the camp, at the tent, the bag of water hanging in the tree. “For what?”

For later, I guess. This evening maybe. Or tomorrow.”

I see,” Charlie said. “So you are moving in, or just staying the night?”

At least the night,” Jayzu said as he sat back in his chair. “I want to clean out the chapel and after that, maybe find a place to build myself a home.”

Charlie had been delighted when Jayzu asked permission to establish his residence on the island. He and the priest had become fast friends, and he missed him when he was gone.

Jayzu reached into his backpack and pulled out a small bundle. “I found this under Bruthamax’s bones when I moved them,” he said. “It was too dark in the chapel to look at it, so I stuffed it in here. I forgot about it until today.”

He unwrapped the bundle, and a small black orb tumbled out. He placed it in a sunny spot on a rock near Charlie’s feet. “It seems to be some sort of trinket, carved from a very dense black wood, as far as I can tell. It was all caked with dirt when I found it, and I did not see the carving until I cleaned it. To me, it looks like a hand clasping a wing.”

Charlie leaned down and took a closer look. “Charlotte had something very similar,” he said.

Really?” Jayzu said. “Charlotte had one of these?”

She did,” Charlie said. “She wore it all the time before they took her away. I’ve wondered where it went ever since.”

Guilt stabbed Charlie from the depths of his memory … he had tried to get it once, Charlotte’s orb, in violation of the one corvid law against stealing. He broke into a house to get this orb, but he had not expected the little girl to be there. He had no idea who she was, but her terror still haunted his dreams from time to time.

Jayzu held the orb up. The sun reflected off the glossy black surface. “Does it have something to do with the Patua’, I wonder.”

Yes,” Charlie said. “The orbs are apparently ceremonial devices made by the Patua’ long ago, but we do not know what they used them for.”

A few young crows suddenly materialized in Jayzu’s camp. They snooped around his tent and food box until Charlie shouted, “Hey! Gertrude! Ethel! JohnLeo! All of you! Be off!”

The crows reluctantly flew away, and Charlie said, “We have no laws against stealing food out in the countryside, Jayzu. A word to the wise.”

 

Alfredo woke up under his tent and smiled at the racket from the forest outside. The din of hundreds of birds greeting each other had been building since the stars had winked out in the pale dawn sky. Ah, Cadeña-l’jadia! May I never leave you.

After a quick breakfast and a cup of instant coffee, he grabbed the tools he had brought with him and headed for the chapel. The Captain had raised an amused eyebrow as he approached the boat the day before, armed with a rake, a shovel, and his camping gear.

It’s a losing battle you’ll be fightin’ there, Padre,” he had said, “trying to tame that forest.”

Just cleaning out the chapel,” Alfredo had grunted a reply as he heaved his burdens onto the boat.

He left his tools outside and went into the chapel and said a brief prayer. Bless my efforts in this humble chapel, oh Lord. And bless Minnie Braun, that is, Gabriella, for her generous contribution. She did not want anyone to know she was Henry Braun’s wife, she had told him. “Everyone and their dog will be after me for money.”

She had floored him, handing him a thick stack of twenty-dollar bills. “For the chapel,” she had said.

He cut away some of the green vines that had nearly enveloped the chapel and raked all the dead leaves, twigs, and branches from the interior to the outside. With a wet rag, he cleaned over a hundred years of dirt off the kneeler in the middle of the floor.

His fingers found a small hasp on the edge of the armrest. He pulled it, and the top of the armrest flipped open. “Well, what is this?” he said. A thin volume, a prayer book perhaps, lay inside the compartment. He removed it and opened the cracked leather cover, revealing a handwritten script scrawled upon a coarse paper.

He gingerly leafed through a few pages, but it was too dark to read the spidery handwriting. He wrapped the booklet in his shirt, left the chapel and went back to his camp. He sat in one of his chairs and unwrapped it carefully. The cover was not of leather as he had earlier thought, but bark that had been hammered flat and sanded smooth. The cracks were filled with some sort of resin. Was it sap? Fascinated by the age and author of the small journal, Alfredo’s hands shook as he gently turned the page.

 

Maxmillian Wilder, Cadeña-l’jadia, 1863

The swim from Ledford to this island nearly ended my life. Though I had studied all the maps, and I knew where the deepest parts of the channel were located, I had gained not even a hint at the treachery below the surface. I am a strong swimmer, yet I was unprepared for the unpredictable and deadly undercurrents that lurked below this otherwise placid river.

As soon as I approached within a hundred yards of the island, the river sucked me below the surface and whipped me around like a rag. I was tossed and rolled every which way, and each time my head rose above the water, I gasped for air in the spray, coughing as the river dunked me again and again. Just as I was about to expire from lack of oxygen, the river released me. I sprang to the surface amid a rush of bubbles into a patch of miraculously calm water, where I floated on my back and rested while my lungs gratefully filled with air.

After catching my breath, I swam toward the island again. And again. Though maddeningly close, it remained inaccessible; the river made sure of that. Time after time, I tried to swim to the bank, but the river flung me back to the same pool of calm water. I exhausted myself trying to power my way through the obstreperous river until I finally gave up fighting. I rolled over on my back, put my machete on my chest and pointed my feet downstream. I turned myself over to the river’s flow. Sooner or later, I would either land on the island’s banks or drown.

I floated on my back with my eyes closed, and I lost all sense of time and direction. I was quite unaware when the river gently dumped me on the island’s bank, face up. When I finally opened my eyes, a very large blue-eyed crow stood over me in the sand, beholding me with great concern.

You live and breathe!” the crow said. “Grawky, Wayfarer! The name is Hozey–after my grandpappy, Hozey the Great. He was an Architect, you know–revolutionized the nest as we know it, he did. Great crow, Old Hozey. Proud to bear his name, I am.”

The bird stretched a wing toward me, as if to shake my hand. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps even dead. But I held my hand up in greeting, and the bird brushed his feather tips against my fingertips.

That is certainly good news, Hozey,” I said. “Though I reckon I feel half dead.” I sat up and felt as if I had been beaten in a boxing match. “The river was not gentle with me.”

The river is not gentle,” Hozey said. “Still, you made it. That certainly speaks for itself. The river spat you upon the bank days ago. Looked like dead meat, you did. It was all we could do to keep the buzzards off you. Creepy, that circling thing they do.” Hozey shivered, looking up as if he expected to see a vulture overhead.

How long have I been here?” I asked. “It seemed only a few moments ago I was floating on the river.” The memory of nearly drowning was strangely close, and though I was sure I had made landfall only minutes ago, my skin and hair were completely dry. I was also thirsty and very hungry.

Nope. Three days,” Hozey said, holding up a wing with three feathers protruding past the rest. “Three. You slept right here under the sun and stars. We kept you alive, we did. We dribbled water into your mouth from the river so you did not die of dehydration or get chapped lips. We shaded you from the sun so your skin would not get burnt to a crisp. One of us stayed right here with you, watching over you the whole time.”

Thank you very much,” I said. “And thank heavens I was not eaten by a buzzard, though I imagine there are worse ways to decompose. I am Brother Maxmillian Wilder, by the way, but I do not know who I am named after. Perhaps no one. I am just a simple Jesuit monk looking for solitude.”

We know who you are, Bruthamax,” Hozey said. “And, just so you know, you are not alone here, no sirreebob. No other humans, mind you, the river sees to that. But there are a few hundred crows, my family mostly. And a few ravens, they really like it here—no humans.”

That is why I came here,” I said.

Not that you will be lacking a body to talk to,” Hozey said. “We crows will yack your ears off if you let us. But not the ravens, no sirreebob. Like pulling teeth to get them to talk.”

Hozey led me into the forest to a spring where I drank until I thought my belly would burst. But it made my hunger pangs recede for a while.

Hozey took me all over the island, to places I would not have been able to go unguided. There is a great boulder chasm, beyond which is a landscape so pitted and pockmarked, it is nearly uninhabitable. One day Hozey and I will build a bridge across it.

I stayed on the solid ground on the upriver end of the island for my first year, living on nuts and berries and the abundant fish from the river. And I prayed—my whole life comprises one continuous prayer to the glory of God.

I have spent many hours talking with Hozey, and we have become close friends. He and his family helped me build a chapel above the rocky point at the island’s upper end.

A few people have tried to reach the island, either by boat or by swimming, but none has been successful. Sometimes they ride by in boats, and I shout “Glory to God Almighty!” to them. A few wave back, but most just stare as if I am a madman. I must appear that way to them with my unshaven head, bark clothing, and crow-feather cloak.

But there were too many eyes trying to peer into my solitude, and Hozey told me the lower end of the island is much more secluded. He guided me there, far from the riverbanks through the most hostile lands full of dark pools, over which clouds of mosquitoes reign, and dense foliage that is near impossible to navigate through. Every other step, I sank knee-deep into sticky black mud.

Deep within the interior of this small island lies a paradise, where I have built a proper home in a giant black gum tree.

Excellent, Bruthamax,” Hozey said at my choice of tree. “Nice big branches. You can build yourself a platform right across those bottom ones–in the Hozey way of course. ‘Only three bearing points,’ that is what Hozey the Great would say. ‘Four is unstable,’ he always said. ‘You will get unwanted rocking in the nest.’ That crow really knew how to build. It was just in his bones, I reckon.”

We spent about two months working from dawn till twilight, with Hozey’s help, to build my one-room house up in this tree. It has all that I need, although I have wished somehow a stove would wash up on the shore! Every day after breakfast, I walk through the forest to the chapel. Every morning, I pray and give thanks to the Almighty for the incredible bounty of this island, and especially for my friend Hozey.


Alfredo turned the page, but the story did not continue. The next few pages were filled with doodles—outlandish plants with labels written in a fanciful text he could not decipher.
He closed the journal and ran his hand across the cracked cover. Brother Maxmillian’s first year. I wonder if there is another journal somewhere.

 

The chapel restoration involved cleaning and removing dead vines from the roof; Alfredo wanted to keep it as simple as it was when Bruthamax built it. “The chapel managed to survive over a hundred years of weathering,” he had said to Charlie when finished. “There is nothing more I need to do.”

With the chapel restoration complete, Alfredo turned his attention to building a small cottage for himself. He found a perfect site near the chapel, downhill from one of the island’s many springs. “I want to build a cistern,” he said to Charlie, “like the one Bruthamax built.”

He hired a helper through an ad in the local free newspaper, The Crow. There was only one response, Sam Howard, who hailed himself as a sculptor as well as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician.

What a stroke of luck to find Sam! A jack-of-all-trades, and he’s Patua’! Alfredo found out from Sugarbabe, who whispered, “He’s one of y’all, y’know,” when he had escorted Sam to the island for the first time. Sam blushed to his ear tips.

No worries, Sam!” Alfredo assured him. “You are among friends here.”

The Captain glared at his crow and said, “Sugarbabe, you are a blabbermouth for sure.”

Alfredo and Sam hopped off the Captain’s boat, and as they walked through the forest toward the site he had chosen to build his cottage, he greeted the corvids, returning their calls and encouraged Sam to do likewise.

You are among friends here, Sam,” he said. “Especially with me.”

Sam nodded and waved as the crows and magpies yelled, but he did not utter a sound.

The chapel is this way,” Alfredo said, and he gestured with his head.

Sam nodded again and plodded along next to Alfredo. They walked in silence until they arrived at the chapel. Alfredo opened the door, and they stepped inside. “I want my cottage to look like this,” he said. “More or less. Closed to the elements, except for light.”

Wow!” Sam said, as he grinned and looked around. “You really cleaned this place up!”

Alfredo’s eyebrows rose up into his forehead and he said, “You have been here before?”

Sam’s smile vanished. He wandered over to the kneeler and ran his hand along the smooth wood. “Once,” he said. “Years ago.”

Really?” Alfredo said. “You and the Captain both.” So, that is three of us since Maxmillian. Why do the corvids insist I am the first?

Sam scavenged as much of the construction materials as he could from landfills, roadside debris, and junkyards. Whatever couldn’t be had from his various recycling sources, Alfredo purchased with the cash Minnie Braun, aka Gabriella, had given him to restore the chapel. She would not object, he was certain. But he never told her.

Alfredo purchased several RV batteries to provide what little power he needed. When one battery was spent, he would hook up a spare and take the dead one in to Ledford and have it charged.

Sam constructed a composting toilet out of materials he found or traded, and enclosed it within a small structure a short way downhill from the cottage, matching the upside-down bird’s nest construction. He installed a narrow wooden door with a moon-shaped hole that opened to a scenic landscape of tall trees, medium-sized trees, bushes, flowers, and a few gray rocks poking through the tall green grass that grew wherever it could.

Well, it ain’t the toidy at the Waldorf,” Sam had said, grinning. “But the view is better.”

One of the ladies at St. Sophia’s had recently remodeled her kitchen and gave Alfredo a used but still functional stainless-steel sink. “Boy, howdy,” Sam said, pushing his hat back and scratching his head. “It’s hard to not covet that sink, Padre. I’m doing a piece called ‘Everything but the kitchen sink,’ though in truth, it oughta be called ‘Nothing but the kitchen sink.’ This one’s a beauty. I must have it!”

Take it!” Alfredo said with a chuckle. “It is too large for my tiny kitchen.”

Thanks,” Sam said. “I’ll find you another one.”

Alfredo made a sketch of the gravity-fed water system at the Treehouse, and said, “I have modeled it after the one Bruthamax, that is, Maxmillian Wilder built.. One day perhaps I can take you to see it.”

Sam understood the sketches well enough and built a similar arrangement that captured and moved spring water into a small cistern buried upslope from the cottage. A hand pump delivered water to the sink. “You can let your kitchen and bath water drain out into your, uh, yard,” he said. “That is, out into the forest. It won’t hurt the trees or plants.”

 

Alfredo collected his sparse possessions from the rectory at St Sophia’s and moved into his new cottage on Cadeña-l’jadia. He felt at home for the first time in his life. He loved waking up to the sound of the birds and stepping outside into a forest. Every morning, he walked to the old chapel for the Liturgy of the Hours, and on Saturday evenings, he said the Mass. Without a human congregation, he found it difficult to stay within the confines of the traditional celebrant/respondent verbiage set forth by the Second Vatican Council.

Whenever he needed to leave, one of the island’s hundreds of friendly crows flew out over the river and summoned the Captain. Mondays and Wednesdays, the Captain took him to the boat landing on the east side of the river; from there, he pedaled his bike to the university. On Fridays and Sundays, the Captain ferried him to the other side of the river and let him off at the Waterfront; from there, Alfredo walked to St. Sophia’s.

Life is good,” he said to the Captain as he ferried him back to the island, so beautiful in the late afternoon. The hermit’s chapel glowed warmly amid the sun-drenched tops of the tallest trees and seemed to float above shades of green leaves and shadows.

He loved coming home most of all. He loved cooking in his tiny kitchen, at the small but completely adequate wood stove. He loved dining at the small table Sam had scavenged at a thrift store. And he loved looking out upon the sensuous lushness all around him.

Alfredo ate a quick supper at his cottage and strode up the path to the chapel. He clasped his hands at the kneeler, and said a prayer thanking the Almighty for his life, for his good friends, and for the abundance of Cadeña-l’jadia. Even after praying, he felt impoverished; his gratitude could not fill the growing hole in his heart. Ever since Charlie had told him about his Patua’ friend Charlotte who lived in such unspeakable solitude, he felt a strange sense of shame at his good fortune.

He re-assumed the praying position, bowed his head, and shut his eyes. I am fine, Lord, thanks to the bounty you shower upon me. But I have much, while Charlotte suffers and is in need of your care. Please, Lord, may you rain your glory down upon her and ease her burden of loneliness.

He left the chapel and spotted Charlie at the rocky point below, picking apart the carcass of some poor creature that had washed up on the rocks. He walked down to the customary place where he and the crow often sat and talked.

Charlie looked up and called out, “Jayzu!” and flapped up to the rock next to him.

Everyone’s talking about the new sanctuary,” he said and cleaned his beak on the rock.

Alfredo’s eyebrows went up. “Already? How? We haven’t even started it yet.”

The news beaked out pretty fast after the Council meeting,” Charlie said.

I guess so!” Alfredo said, laughing. “So what is the general opinion?”

Oh, generally positive, I reckon. But a few negative nellies claim it’ll bring in a whole influx of foreigners wanting to immigrate here. But that’s ridiculous.”

Alfredo picked a blade of long grass growing out of the sand at the base of the log he sat on. “I just hope it is enough,” He wove the blade through his fingers.

Enough for what?” Charlie asked. “You can’t please everyone, Jayzu.”

He tore the grass into several pieces, letting them fall to the ground at his feet.

Enough to keep Cadeña-l’jadia out of Henry Braun’s hands.”

And if it isn’t?” Charlie asked.

I do not know,” Alfredo sighed. “Then it is in God’s hands, perhaps.”

As Charlotte has been in your deity’s hands all these years?” Charlie asked.

Shocked at the crow’s blunt statement, Alfredo started to protest. But he is right. Are my prayers merely a statement of my passing the buck on to God?

Yes,” he said with a sigh. “Just like that, I am afraid.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, put his fingertips together and stared at the ground. An ant struggled with a pebble ten times its size. He felt suddenly tired.

Though the Order turned his offer down, Henry still plots against Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said, gazing out over the water. “I do not know how he will strike, but strike he will.”

 

The gleaming white roof of the newly restored chapel, visible from both sides of the city, stirred up some new stories about the old ghost of the island’s legendary hermit. “Brother Maxmillian has been reincarnated!” some people cried, until it became known that another Jesuit, Father Alfredo Manzi, had taken up residence on Wilder Island, and it was he who roamed its banks.

When Alfredo arrived at St. Sophia’s with the week’s supply of Communion wafers, people who used to just wave and smile at him, if anything, now wanted to touch his jacket or his shoe. His fall courses at the university had already filled up. “And it is only May!” he complained to Russ in his office before his Avian Biology class. “The last thing I want is to be a celebrity,” he said.

Oh well.” Russ poured Alfredo a cup of coffee from his thermos and handed it across the desk to him. “That is the unintended consequence of your semi-hermitage on a island famous for hermits. People will make you into a legend before you know it, and you can go about your business again.”

Alfredo took the coffee and wandered toward the window. “I don’t want to be a legend. I just want to be a simple priest and scientist.” He leaned against the wall and took a sip of coffee.

Russ looked skeptically at him. “That’s the thing about legends, Alfredo. You don’t really get that choice. You’re either a legend in your own mind or in everyone else’s.”

Alfredo laughed. “But there is the third option. No legend.”

Real legends don’t have that choice.” Russ sat back in his swivel chair and put one foot up on his desk. “But look at it this way. It’s job security, man! The university hired you as an adjunct, meaning they can jettison you anytime they want. But they won’t if your classes are popular. As they obviously are, if the crowds are ‘flocking’ to you already.” He grinned devilishly. “Instant tenure, maybe. And you wouldn’t have to publish! I know you don’t like writing papers.”

Alfredo looked out the window. “I do like writing papers, Russ. I am just not ready to write up anything on the corvid language. And I love teaching. I enjoy the rare opportunity to interact on a meaningful level with people and maybe teach them a little science at the same time.” He looked back at Russ. “I have no human companionship on the island. Nor at St. Sophia’s, really. People do not look at me as a friend but as some kind of spiritual leader or therapist.”

Russ’s chair squeaked as he pulled his foot off his desk and crossed his legs. He poured himself another cup of coffee and offered the thermos to Alfredo.

Why did you become a priest?”

Alfredo declined with a wave of one hand. “My mother sent me to a Jesuit boarding school when I was a young lad. And I guess I never left.” He looked at his watch. “Speaking of my classes, it is time for me to go teach one.”

Russ shook his head as Alfredo left his office, wondering what motivated the man. He complains about his success and won’t write up what will make him famous. What does he want?

 

 

http://www.amazon.com/Corvus-Rising-Book-Patua-Heresy/dp/0991224515