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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 5

 

The Great Corvid Council

Deep within the Ledford National Cemetery, Hookbeak, Aviar of the Great Corvid Council, emerged from sleep in an ancient white oak tree to contemplate the dawning of the day. The small hollow in the tree’s massive trunk and the wide branch at its opening provided him shelter from storms as well as a wide platform upon which he could stand and even walk around a bit. He stood as high as he could and flapped his wings in his ritual morning stretch. Across the river, Cadeña-l’jadia floated on a river of glass, still shrouded in blankets of mist.

The military cemetery in which Hookbeak’s tree grew formed the southwestern boundary of the city, on the outskirts of Downtown. Built in the early days of Ledford, its oldest gravestones bore dates from the early-1800s. The frequency of twenty-one-gun salutes had increased over the past decade, disturbing Hookbeak’s peace. He supposed the humans had engaged themselves in another war somewhere.

That is how they thin their populations,” his friend Starfire had said. “That and the automobile.”

Hookbeak endured the noise from the salutes without complaint. He had even stopped reacting, for the most part, to the sound of gunfire. Where humans gathered, noise ensued. But they always left food behind, which more than compensated him for a few seconds of annoyance.

He had hatched in the cemetery, and he had lived there his entire life. He built nest after nest in a new tree every year, and in nearly two entire decades, he and his lovely wife, Rosie, had hatched over one hundred chicks. Eighty-nine fledglings survived into adulthood—not a bad average. Not bad at all.

Hookbeak had quite lost count of how many grandchildren he had, or even how many generations he had spawned. Many of his children and their children flew in from time to time for a visit. He was always happy to see them, and grateful when they left.

He had lived alone in the old oak since his Rosie had fallen to the West Nile virus the year before. He missed her terribly, and he spoke to her frequently throughout his quiet solitude. Rosie, my heart. My work here will soon be finished, and I will join you. Together we will fly into the Great Orb of Time. Wait for me!

Today as Aviar, Hookbeak would preside over the Great Corvid Council, a thirteen-member body of crows and ravens whose objective was to keep the regional corvid population informed and healthy, as well as to keep historical and actuarial records. The Council would also discuss the sudden appearance of Jayzu, the newest Patua’ in the territory. He just showed up out of thin air. Starfire had been incensed at the very idea of an un-catalogued Patua’ right under his beak.

The end times are indeed near, my Rosie! Hookbeak gazed across the cemetery toward the island. I shall not see the new age. He sighed. But I do see it on the horizon. That will have to suffice.

Grawky, Starfire!” Hookbeak called out as his friend sailed into the tree and landed next to him.

Grawky, my friend!” Starfire said after he dropped a barbequed chicken leg at Hookbeak’s feet. “Breakfast for two!”

What a pleasant surprise!” Hookbeak pecked a big chunk of chicken off the bone and rolled it toward Starfire with his beak.

The Cub Scouts had a picnic at the park yesterday,” Starfire said after he swallowed a chunk. “I managed to pluck this from the trash just before a mob of crows descended on it.”

One must be quick,” Hookbeak said, “if crows are around.”

The two ravens took turns grasping the chicken leg in one claw and pulling off chunks of meat. Starfire stood on the chicken bone and pulled off the last bits of flesh before letting it drop to the ground. He cleaned his beak on a branch.

Very tasty,” Hookbeak said. “Thank you most kindly, my friend. That should do me until after the council meeting. “Where is Jayzu?”

Jayzu is waiting for us at the bench by the fish pond,” Starfire said, opening his wings. “He’s a short fly from the Council trees.”

The two ravens left Hookbeak’s tree and flew to a remote corner of the cemetery where the trees were tall and stood very close together. A man sat on a park bench near a pond, throwing bits of bread to a group of noisy ducks.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Hookbeak said heartily as he landed on the back of the bench. “We meet at last! I am Hookbeak.”

Starfire landed on the grass, folding his wings as he introduced himself. Jayzu brushed his hand across each of their outstretched wingtips. “I am pleased to make your acquaintances as well. I—”

The Aviar loomed over Jayzu and bore into him with his piercing black eyes. “The Council is quite curious about you,” he said. “Many thought Bruthamax was the last of your kind. There are those among us, however, that know otherwise.”

Starfire took a couple steps closer to Jayzu and said, “Indeed. And at least one among us who has predicted your coming.”

Jayzu shifted his weight on the bench. “I am curious about the Council as well,” he said. “But I have always thought that I am a freak of nature; I had no idea I had a ‘kind.’ I thought—”

We are all freaks of nature,” Hookbeak rumbled. “Are we not? What are any of us but miraculous answers to a unique set of utterly random circumstance?”

Well, I guess—” Jayzu said.

Starfire flapped his wings impatiently and said, “Who is to say circumstances are random? But there is a larger picture than our mutual curiosity, Jayzu. Much larger.” He hopped up onto the bench, eye-level with the human. “We believe your presence heralds a new age.”

Really?” Jayzu said. “A new age? Me? But I am just an ord—”

Yes, you!” Starfire said vehemently. “That is what all the signs say. Ever since the Patua’ mysteriously and suddenly disappeared some five hundred years ago, we have told our hatchlings stories of the return of a Great One, beloved by all. The Great One will bring the Patua’ back from whence they disappeared.”

Jayzu frowned and shook his head. “I am no messiah, Starfire. You have the wrong man. I am just an ordin—”

We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax,” Hookbeak interrupted. “But he did not bring the Patua’ back.”

And you believe I will?” Jayzu asked. “You had the wrong man once. You still do.”

So our previous interpretation was wrong,” Starfire said. He sharpened his beak on the edge of the park bench. “Not our stories. But here is an interesting fact: you and Bruthamax are of the same clan, the Jesuit Clan.”

The Jesuits are an order,” Jayzu said, “not a clan.”

Order, family, genus, species, clan,” Starfire said irritably. “Whatever you want to call it, you and Bruthamax are both Patua’, you both came to Cadeña-l’jadia, and you are both of the Jesuit kin. We think this is not a coincidence.”

Jayzu stood up and walked several steps away from the bench. He emptied his sack of breadcrumbs into the pond, and the ducks scrambled, dashing to snatch up the morsels before they sank. He turned back to the two ravens on the park bench and said, “Then you probably will think it is no coincidence that I have spent my life among the Jesuits. I was placed in a boarding school at an early age, due to my crow-speech, as they called it. After that Jesuit high school, then Jesuit college, Jesuit seminary school—”

Supporting my hypothesis,” Starfire said, “of a Patua’ Underground and the probable return of the Patua’. Right here, right now.”

Hookbeak hopped down onto the seat of the park bench and said, “That remains a hypothesis, Starfire. Two data points is not a trend. Bring me proof.” The Aviar turned his attention back to Jayzu. “Now we must go. Are you ready for the Council? These corvids can be rather formidable. We are not all of like mind, and no one is the least bashful.”

Nor are humans all of like mind,” Jayzu said, smiling. “I am ready, Aviar.”

Good,” Hookbeak said as he flapped his wings and jumped to the ground. “Excellent. Let us go. The meeting place is just over yonder.”

I will see you at the Council Tree,” said Starfire as he took to the air.

Jayzu and Hookbeak walked side by side toward a cove of oak trees a short distance from the pond. Most of the councilors had already arrived; Hookbeak could see many of them in the lower branches of the council trees at the edge of the cove. “Jayzu, please stay hidden back here,” he said, “until I call you out.”

Hookbeak walked into the clearing and flew up to the Aviar’s perch, a branch higher than the rest on the tallest tree. The last councilor arrived, and the Aviar rose up tall on his branch, flapped his wings, and called out, “The Great Corvid Council convenes! Izzy?”

Sound off, ravens!” Izzy, the Aviar’s page called out in his crackly, adolescent voice.

Each bird called out his name and his territory, in accordance with the time-honored tradition of the Council.

Hookbeak. Ledford National Cemetery,” the Aviar rumbled.

Starfire. Woodmen of the World Cemetery.”

Walldrug. The Boonies.”

Longshanks. The Timber Mill.”

Wingnut. Ledford Municipal Zoo.”

Fishgut. The Cannery.”

Restarea. Ledford Airport.”

All ravens present!” Iggy croaked. “Sound off, crows!”

Athanasius. The Brewery.”

DeeJay. Downtown.”

Boomer. The Waterfront.”

O’Malley. Southlands.”

Ziggy. Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Joshwa. Ledford Landfill.”

All crows present!” Izzy yelled.

Thank you, Izzy,” the Aviar said graciously, before turning to address the Council. The page disappeared into the upper branches of Hookbeak’s tree.

What news of the territories, corvids?” Hookbeak’s deep raven voice boomed through the branches.

Runway 218’s flooded again,” said Restarea. “They are diverting air traffic.”

So that’s why it’s been so dang noisy around the Cannery,” Fishgut said. “Like to shake the dang daylights out of a body.”

There’s a new law in Cavron County,” O’Malley called out. “All humans must carry an unconcealed gun in public at all times. Seriously. They’re insane down there, afraid of everything. My brother-in-law, he even saw one poor slob shooting at his own shadow.”

The councilors guffawed and flapped their wings in ridicule.

Let us get the word out,” Hookbeak said. “Cavron County is off-limits to all corvids. Any other news?” The Aviar looked around, and when no one spoke, he continued, “Very well. Most of you have heard the rumors that a Patua’ again lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

A hush fell at the mention of the lush green island of crows, uninhabited by humans for decades. The leaves quivered as the Council seemed to hold its breath.

Bruthamax has returned!” Boomer shouted, and some of the crows erupted into a fanfare of feathers and beak. “Bruthamax lives!” The entire tree shook as the councilors danced upon their branches.

Bruthamax is still dead, Boomer,” Hookbeak said. “This one is called Jayzu.”

The councilors settled back down, with a few last shout-outs, “Long live Bruthamax!”

I seen him once, this new Patua’, on the cathedral steps Downtown,” DeeJay said. “All dressed in black. Looked kind of like one of us, only bigger. He threw leftovers from the monsignor’s breakfast for us poor, hungry crows!”

The crows cackled and fanned their wings in approval. “I’ll be joining you for church, come Sunday!” Boomer said.

I heard Jayzu serves bacon,” Joshwa said as he flew from his branch up to one near Boomer. “I haven’t tasted bacon since the family moved out to the landfill.”

Councilors!” Hookbeak, the Aviar, spoke. “Please be serious. This is momentous. We have been waiting for this Patua’ since Bruthamax.””

I thought they all died out,” Longshanks said.

Bruthamax was the last of them,” Walldrug said.

We all thought that,” Hookbeak said. “But evidently that is not so.”

Not at all,” Starfire said, rising up on his perch. “There are a few in our area alone. But more importantly, we have expected the Patua’ to reemerge for centuries, heralded by the arrival of one from the Jesuit Clan. We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax. We were wrong. It is this new Patua’. Jayzu.”

The councilors muttered under their beaks to one another, some in wonder, “At last, the Patua’ have returned!” some in doubt, “How do we know it is this Patua’ we’ve been waiting for?” and a couple who believed the news irrelevant, “It is ludicrous to wait and hope this extinct species will save us.” “What’s a Jezyooit?”

Hookbeak rose up on his branch, flapping his huge wings. “Please let us now adjourn downward to the ground and greet the Patua’.” He stepped off the Aviar’s perch and sailed down to the clearing below. The rest of the councilors followed, gasping in dismay and delight. “A Patua’? Here? Now?” “Where is the Patua’?” “Why were we not told a Patua’ would be here?”

I am telling you now,” the Aviar said. He paused a moment to allow the wave of wing shuffling and murmurings to cease. He turned toward the trees. “Jayzu! The Great Corvid Council awaits your arrival!”

 

Alfredo stepped out from behind the trees and walked into the very surprised group of corvids. “I am honored to be among you,” he said quietly to the hushed councilors.

Many of them nodded to one another, mumbling their approval. A few waved a wing at him, and others called out their greetings and comments. “Yo! Jayzu!” “That’s a Patua’?” “He looks just like a regular human!”

Hookbeak spoke. “And we are honored you came to us, Jayzu. Greetings!”

Alfredo held his hands out as a few of the councilors stepped forward to greet him.

We were gladdened by the news of a Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” a raven said cordially. “I am Longshanks. Welcome.” He brushed his wing across Alfredo’s hand.

Is it true, Jayzu,” a crow spoke out above the muttering, “you are building a bird sanctuary on Cadeña-l’jadia?”

Not yet,” Alfredo replied, “but someday I—”

Sanctuary? What kind of sanctuary?” one of the ravens interrupted in mild alarm. He wandered through the councilors on the grass as he spoke. “There are sanctuaries and then there are Sanctuaries, so we wonder exactly what you intend to do in this sanctuary. Some oddball sanctification ritual perhaps? Will you require feathers? Entrails?”

No,” Alfredo said, “I—”

Sanctuary?” a few of the councilors said as they looked at one another in apparent confusion.

What’s a sanctuary?” asked a crow.

It just means—” Alfredo started to say.

Sanctuary—the word comes from the root, to sanctify,” another crow replied sanctimoniously. “To mortify and cleanse the flesh.”

Alfredo felt exasperated with some of the councilors, but there was little he could do other than wait politely and grab what chance he could to speak. He glanced at Hookbeak, standing silently next to him on the grass. Will he not intervene and let me talk?

Ah,” the raven who had asked the original question said. “It is a bathing place then. In this case, for birds. That does not sound so bad.”

Unless the cleansing of the flesh is done with blood, Restarea,” a raven said. Hoots of denial circulated through the Council. “It has happened,” he continued. “Human use of animals as sacrificial offerings for ritual ceremonies to appease their gods is well known.”

There will be no sacri—” Alfredo said and glanced at Hookbeak standing silently next to him on the grass. When will he intervene and let me talk?

Will this Patua’, this Jayzu, be experimenting on birds in his sanctuary?” another raven asked. “Perhaps feather plucking for his rituals? Dissection?”

A sanctuary is a refuge, Walldrug,” Starfire said, impatiently waving a wing. “Safe haven. As in rest stop. Now please, let us remember that Jayzu is Patua’. I daresay he reveres the corvid as much as Bruthamax did.”

Charlie of the great Hozey Clan,” a crow said, “well, his wife told my wife that he told her that Jayzu knew nothing of Bruthamax.”

Gasps of incredulous dismay pulsed through the councilors, and they looked at one another and Alfredo in disbelief. “Never heard of Bruthamax? How can that be?” someone hissed. “He knows not his own kin!” whispered another. “How can we trust him?”

Bedlam broke out as factions lined up against other factions. “Interventionist!” one side cried out, while the other shouted “Isolationist!”

Are you all daft?” Starfire shouted, striding to the middle of the two groups. “Or just deaf? Did you not all just find it remarkable that there was a Patua’ among us? Remember thinking the Patua’ had completely vanished? Shocking as it is, Bruthamax is not known among humans outside of the city surrounding us.”

The councilors quieted down as Starfire spoke. By the time he finished, dignity had been restored. A few seconds of silence reigned, and Alfredo seized the moment.

That is true.” He paused, momentarily shocked that no one interrupted. “Human knowledge of the Patua’ is significantly less than yours. I am Patua’ yet knew not there were others of my kind.”

Thirteen pairs of eyes, some black, some blue, stared back in silence. “I did not know of Bruthamax until I came to Cadeña-l’jadia,” Alfredo continued, grateful for the opportunity to continue speaking. Since then, I have learned much, thanks to the corvids for keeping his stories and sharing them with me. I am proud to be counted among Bruthamax’s kin.”

Most of the councilors softened and some even had a few sympathetic words of comfort: “Any kin of Bruthamax is a friend of ours!” “Long live the Patua’!” “Long live Jayzu!”

An explosive sound nearby scattered the councilors, and someone shouted, “Meeting adjourned!”

Alfredo was suddenly alone with Hookbeak and Starfire in the small clearing, but for several feathers that lay twitching in the breeze. He waited for a few minutes for the Aviar to speak, but the old raven kept silent and still as stone, listening. Not a creature stirred. Even the insects had been silenced.

Thank the Great Orb for that explosion,” Starfire said at last. “Nothing scatters the corvids like the sound of gunfire. Otherwise we would be beaking this to death till sunset.”

I thought it was just a car backfire,” Alfredo said.

It was,” Hookbeak said. “But no matter, we accomplished what we wanted today.”

We did?” Alfredo said.

Yes,” the Aviar replied and leaped into the sky.

Indeed, Jayzu,” Starfire said. “Thank you.” He flapped his wings and took off after Hookbeak.

For what?” Alfredo called out after the ravens as they flew away. “What did we accomplish?”

He shrugged and walked back to the park bench where he had left his bicycle. Charlie flew out of the nearby trees.

Where were you?” Alfredo asked. “I could have used a friendly face.”

He got on the bike, and Charlie assumed his position on the handlebars. “You have many friends, Jayzu. Yes, I was there. In a tree on the edge of the clearing where you were. I heard everything.”

Alfredo rode his bike out of the National Cemetery and through the huge wrought-iron gates onto Alhambra Boulevard. As they rode through the neighborhoods on the way down to the Waterfront, people smiled and waved at the man and the crow on the bike.

Do you know how many Patua’ there are?” Alfredo said as he waved back to an elderly couple out for a stroll.

Where?” Charlie asked. “Here? Or in the world?”

Here, and the rest of the world.” Alfredo slowed down as he approached a four-way stop and sped up when he saw no cars coming.

Well, we’re working on that,” Charlie said. “Starfire has been doing weekly Extraction Rituals for some time now on all the Keepers. It’s a matter of coming up with the algorithms. And then there’s constructing the chants. It’s quite complex, and we’re only working on the local database. I don’t know if we could easily find out how many Patua’ there are in the entire world.”

I see,” Alfredo said. “Sounds like a computer program. Tell me more about this internal database.”

It’s a lattice, actually,” Charlie said. “The lattice has many branches, and each branch has many storage nodes where we implant data.”

Alfredo turned down Water Street. The river lay in front of him, with Cadeña-l’jadia basking in the midday sun. As they passed St. Sophia’s, the resident pigeons pecked at the sediments of earlier handouts left on the steps. “Am I in your database?” Alfredo asked. “Or do you know?”

I have no awareness of anything in the database,” Charlie said. “I don’t know if you are stored in my lattice. The archives were set up to restrict any bleed over into the Keeper’s memory, so as to not pollute the database.”

You never cease to amaze me, my friend,” Alfredo said. “I never imagined the corvid had devised such sophisticated methods of archiving data. And your dedication is commendable.”

We love lists,” Charlie said. He unfolded his wings to keep his balance as Alfredo rode over a rough patch of pavement. “We simply made them three-dimensional.”

Alfredo knew that corvids have powerful memories, and though he understood well that these birds were as gifted by the Creator with intelligence and sentience equal to humans, he marveled at their invention. “Long ago, humans used to rely on oral traditions to store and maintain family histories and cultural lore. In the modern world, we rely more on external storage for our memories.”

He stopped his bike at a red light, putting one foot on the curb and keeping the other on a pedal. A car pulled up next to him, a silver Bentley. The rear window went down, and a female voice said, “Good morning, Father Manzi!”

The woman in the backseat waved a hand out the window as Alfredo tried to see who had spoken. But the light changed, and the Bentley’s chauffeur sped through the intersection before he had his other foot on the pedal.

But our storage devices get full,” Alfredo continued. “Or obsolete, or they break.”

That is a problem with tools,” Charlie said. “But we too spend much time maintaining our database. Otherwise it too, would fall into decay.”

Water Street turned steep as he rode the last few blocks to the Waterfront, where the Captain waited. “How does he always know when I am coming?” Alfredo asked.

We tell him,” Charlie said. “That is, we crows, magpies, jays, and the like. You can’t go anywhere without being seen, and telling whoever cares about it.”

Alfredo looked up; there were no birds flying overhead. None in the trees. “Why am I being spied upon, Charlie? I would tell you anything you ask.”

As they arrived at the Waterfront, Alfredo slowed the bike to a halt and then hopped off.

No one is spying on you, Jayzu,” Charlie said as he leaped to a nearby bench and clutched the back with his feet. “At first, we did, till we knew what you are about. But now you’re famous; some think you’re the reincarnation of Bruthamax. You’re a celebrity!”

All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia!” Sugarbabe yelled.

They rode in silence all the way to Cadena-l’jadia; even Sugarbabe was uncharacteristically quiet. When the boat stopped at the inlet, Alfredo jumped onto the sandy bank and waved to the Captain as he pushed his boat back into the current.

 

Have you ever known another Patua’, Charlie?” Alfredo asked. “Other than me and the Captain?”

The crow stood, and the priest perched on a driftwood log at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel. It had been a long day. Alfredo hardly remembered getting off the Captain’s boat and walking the half mile to the rocky point. The Great Corvid Council was illuminating, yet he felt exhausted. He had not expected them to be so argumentative. He laughed at himself. Like our Congress, for instance? Somehow he had envisioned them to be more civilized—to him, and to one another.

One,” Charlie said, “I have known one other Patua’, for many years.”

Jealousy surged through Alfredo, surprising him. Am I envious that I might be sharing Charlie with another Patua’? He bent his head back and looked up through the leaves at the sky. Or am I jealous of Charlie?

Where is your friend now?” Alfredo asked. Oh, to have a friend!

Rosencranz,” Charlie said.

The old insane asylum?” He had seen photographs in the library Downtown of the old hospital an hour outside of Ledford–an anachronism from the last century, part of the curious cultural lore of the city.

Charlotte is not insane,” Charlie said flatly, looking up at him. “Her family chucked her in Rosencranz when she was a teenager because she is Patua’. She’s been there ever since. Twenty-five years.”

You have not seen her in twenty-five years?” Alfredo said to Charlie.

I saw her last ten days ago,” Charlie said. “But it’s been quite a bit longer than that, though, since we have spoken.”

Alfredo was aghast. “Just because she talked to crows? My mother was afraid people would think I was possessed by the devil. But no one ever thought I was insane. Our parish priest had me whisked me off to a Jesuit boarding school.” There but for the grace of God …

He had not thought of the family’s parish priest in years. “Try to keep this, uh, talent of yours hidden from everyone,” Father Mario had said to him before he left for boarding school. “Use it only for the continued glory of God’s creation. You must not let anyone else know. Make sure only God sees.”

Was Father Mario Patua’? Did he understand me better than I or my mother did?

Tell me about your friend, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I would like to know another Patua’.”

 

Charlotte disappeared one day when she was seventeen,” Charlie began his story. “I hadn’t seen her in a few months. Rika and I had our first clutch that year, and I was in Keeper training, and just couldn’t get away. But the magpies all said that men in white coats drove up in a big van and took her away. She was crying, they said, when the white coats put her in a tiny shirt with really long sleeves that they wound all around her.

She kept screaming. All the way down the road, they could hear her screaming. The white coats took her to Rosencranz. That’s what the magpies told me.

I winged it over to Rosencranz, but couldn’t get in, of course; what hospital would let a crow in, even during visiting hours? So I visited every windowsill, looking for her. I peeked and sometimes downright stared into every window, more than once. For two years, I came and pecked on her window nearly every day.”

I admire your devotion, Charlie,” Jayzu said. “I cannot imagine.

Then one day,” the crow continued, “there she was! Just on the other side of the glass, sitting in a wheelchair with her hands folded neatly in her lap. But she did not see me.

I pecked on the window, but she did not hear me. I called out her name. ‘Charlotte! Yo! Charlotte! It’s me! Charlie!’ But she didn’t look up. She just stared at her lap, and I wondered if she had gone deaf.

I kept yelling and dancing and pecking, anything to get her attention. She didn’t hear me, didn’t see me.

I didn’t give up, though. Day after day, I showed up on the windowsill at the same time, trying to get her attention. But day after day, she didn’t look up. Until she did! She finally noticed me through the glass! I nearly fell off the windowsill.

“‘Charlie!’ she said, with the big smile I remembered from long ago. Of course I couldn’t hear her; the window was closed. Then she ran across the room and pasted both hands on the glass, as if to embrace me. I flapped my wings and cried out, ‘Charlotte! Charlotte!’ Great Orb, that was a wonderful day!

Then a white coat came up to Charlotte and took her hands off the window, giving each one a little slap and then escorted her back to her wheelchair.

“‘Charlotte!’ I yelled as he wheeled her out of the room. I pecked on the glass. I shouted as loud as I could. Another white coat came to the window, opened it, and yelled ‘Darn crows!’ as she tried to smack me with a towel.

She missed. ‘Darn yoomans!’ I yelled back at her.

Though I waited at the window, Charlotte didn’t come back that day. Or the next. I hung around, waiting and hoping for some sign of her. Days went by. I visited all the other windowsills again and again. Just as I was about to give up, there she was!

I pecked at the glass, and when she looked up, I flapped my wings at her. But she didn’t get up, didn’t smile at me, or say my name. I thought maybe she hadn’t really seen me. But when no one was looking, she smiled at me. She wouldn’t come to the window, though. Probably she was afraid they would slap her hands again. She never took her eyes off me until someone came and took her out of the room.

That was eight years ago. I see her often, but through a closed window. I can’t talk to her or hear her voice. But at least I can see her.”

Charlie ended his story; crow and human sat without speaking for several minutes. The pulsating song of crickets emanated from hidden places in the grass. Several loons wandered along the bank below, pecking for tidbits between the rocks and grass. A few gulls orbited a fishing vessel on the river.

I do not know what to say, Charlie, my friend,” Jayzu said at last. “I am sad for your friend, being locked away like that. Surely her family visits?”

Charlotte is alone, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “No one visits. No one can understand her. But I am telling you, Jayzu, she is as sane as you or I.”

The sky had turned the color of late afternoon. “It is time I headed home to Rika and my kreegans, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “Before it gets too dark to fly.”

Charlie left the priest and flew out over the river. The sun hovered above the western horizon, sending shimmering hues of yellow and orange across the river. All the way home, he thought about Charlotte and her years of silence.

He had never given up hope. Charlotte came back out of the graying. And now an idea tantalized him. Jayzu could just walk in the front door of Rosencranz. And he could speak to Charlotte in the Patua’. What if … Charlie dared to hope … Jayzu could get her out of there? What if he could bring her here, to Cadeña-l’jadia?

From the past, Starfire’s voice boomed inside his head.

I have lived a long time and have seen many things, but never have I seen a Patua’ snatched back from the abyss, once he or she went into the Graying. But none may know the future. Always keep hope in your heart.”

 

Alfredo drew his mouth into a tight line as he watched Charlie take off and make a wide circle over the river. Twenty-five years in an insane asylum! Why was Charlotte forsaken in such a place while I am allowed to live in this paradise? Why was I rewarded, and she was punished for being Patua’?

His friend Charlie’s anguish bore down on him heavily. “It is so unfair,” Alfredo said aloud. “So unjust.”

A voice from above replied, “I quote: ‘There is no justice. There is only grace.’”

Alfredo looked up. A raven perched on the lower branch of a nearby basswood tree looked down at him. “And whom do you quote, NoExit?” he asked.

The Grandmother’s proverb,” NoExit said. “There is no such thing as justice. Random mercies, perhaps, but no justice. That is a good thing for most of us. Our lives would be truly impoverished if ever all we got was what we deserve.”

Do you think so?” Alfredo said. “My species is forever expecting justice.”

Yet who among you has ever found it?” The raven flapped down to the ground. Alfredo was nearly eye-to-eye with the elegant bird. NoExit wore his age with strength and dignity: his long, shaggy wreath of black feathers encircled his thick neck, draping over his breast and hanging nearly to his sturdy legs.

The sun touched the horizon, turning the river into liquid gold and bathing the island in stark, brilliant light. NoExit’s feathers blazed with hints of refracted sunset, giving him a regal air of great wisdom and clarity. He hopped up onto the log next to Alfredo and gazed out over the river. Alfredo felt young and small next to him.

Justice is a thing wholly imagined by humans,” NoExit said. “Yet you are not very good at it.”

Yet we try,” Alfredo said, feeling a bit defensive. He sat up a little straighter. “Humans abide by the rule of law; that is what civilizes us.”

The law is an ass,” NoExit said, “and an idiot.”

Alfredo turned toward the raven, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “So said Mr. Bumble. Are you telling me you have read Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist?”

Of course not,” NoExit said, sharpening his beak on the log. “The saying has been in corvid lore for centuries, at least. Perhaps you should inquire as to where Mr. Dickens got it.”

Are you saying Dickens was Patua’?” Alfredo asked incredulously. “And that he stole the saying from the corvid?” The priest started to laugh.

No idea,” NoExit said. He flapped his wings a few times and refolded them into his sleek profile. “But the concept is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. What is shocking is that it took your species until the nineteenth century for the very thought to even attain utterance.”

The last of the sun seemed to disappear into the river somewhere upstream, taking all color with it. Downtown lights flickered on. A late barge chugged upriver, all lit up and blowing diesel smoke from its stack. All around, Alfredo could hear the sounds of many creatures browsing or hunting for their evening meal. The law of the food chain governed. He felt envious of such simplicity.

We have a great many laws,” Alfredo said. “Too many perhaps. But without laws, how could we even approach justice?”

There is a vast difference between law and justice,” NoExit said. “Perhaps therein lies the problem. The natural laws—the law of gravity, for instance—are absolute. Yet human laws, and therefore justice, bend with circumstance.”

A multitude of young crows swirled above the trees, arguing over where they would roost for the night. Their noise seemed to irritate the raven, and he looked up at the ruckus.

To change is to endure,” NoExit said after the crows had passed. “That is what the Grandmothers say.”

You have mentioned the Grandmothers twice,” Alfredo said. “Who are they?”

Grandmothers are older female corvids with many generations of offspring,” he said. “Similar to the Council, but they provide a female perspective. They do not concern themselves with the illusion of justice. Instead they seek the paths of grace and elegance.”

Grace and elegance?” Alfredo said, frowning.

Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma?” NoExit said. “When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”

Alfredo nodded. “Many times.”

The Grandmothers will find a way through such times,” NoExit said, “illuminating the way toward doing what is needed, as opposed to parsing the meaning of justice and the intent of law.”

The Grandmothers are wise,” Alfredo said.

NoExit buried his beak in his wingpit and said in a muffled voice, “Mothers are inherently wise. Else they would fail as mothers, and their offspring would not thrive.” He pulled his head out and continued. “Grandmothers are grandly wise, having raised many young, but they also have seen many of their kreegans die. What justice is there in the death of the young? Justice does not exist in nature, I tell you. Do not seek it there.”

Twilight draped the island in shades of gray. City lights slowly twinkled on against the river’s canvass that reflected the fading light of day. Crickets kicked off the nightly jam session of music makers in the insect world. A bell rang from the direction of the inlet.

Alfredo did not remember telling the Captain to return for him at sunset and was grateful that he had come anyway. He always seems to know when I need him. “That is my ride back to the city,” he said. “I must say goodnight.”

Goodnight, my friend.” NoExit flapped his great wings a few times and disappeared into the chapel.


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