Corvus Rising – Chapter 13

Mirrors and Other Illusions

 

Starfire completed the last Keeper session and fell into a dreamless sleep, exhausted. He awoke suddenly, several hours before sunrise, his mind filled with a single thought. The fireball that streaked through Charlie’s lattice. What is it?

He had been busy with the Keepers for days, performing the monthly data emplacements, and whatever spare time he had was devoted to discovering the mysterious holes in the Lattice. There had been no time to examine the mysterious fiery object he had copied from Charlie’s lattice. Until now.

He summoned the fireball from his memory, and it appeared behind his eyes, flashing as it spun, just as he had seen it in Charlie’s lattice. He had not expected it to come over in multiple dimensions—highly polished, black as raven feathers. And he could wander all around it.

What is it? Where did it come from? What is it trying to tell me? Starfire was sure the fireball was a message of some sort, whether from the archive itself, warning of a possible data corruption, or a breach in the lattice, or—?

He recalled suddenly that Charlie had started blinking rapidly at the same moment the orb had been ejected. Did he see it? Even if he did, he would not have brought into consciousness any memory of the Emplacement Ritual, or even the experimental extraction ritual he was under when the fireball appeared.

Starfire opened the main Archival Lattice through a meditative state. The mildornia berry-induced trance was necessary only to introduce or extract large volumes of data into the Keeper lattices. Starfire only wanted the answer to one question: what is it?

He chanted up the vast body of historical data regarding the use and care of the Archival Lattice, a sort of trouble-shooting compendium of tricks, observations, and advice from countless chief Archivists over many millennia. But there was no mention of the Lattice suddenly spitting up fireballs. Or anything else for that matter.

The Lattice is but an archive of events already occurred, Starfire reasoned. It knows nothing of the present moment or the future. Is this sphere some sort of messenger, programmed to eject at a specific time?

What if—? What if the fireball is a secret archive that was placed into the lattice before the Patua’ went underground? A signal, perhaps? A signal to us, the future corvid, that the Patua’ have returned?

He felt sure the fireball was related to the Patua’, if only because it was the Patua’ Lattice in which it appeared. Determined to pry the secret from the lattice, he searched for the right question to ask. Dump fireball subset Patua’, he commanded the lattice. Nothing. He changed the chant: Dump fire orb subset Patua’. Several seconds went by before a node opened and spit out a data packet. Starfire watched it gracefully unfold into a ribbon of sound.

rb of ua’1405 CE atua’ ma e hun eds tre uryseed e rbs th 1586 E Pat ‘ man cr pt hi d n Gregor U y

The incomplete data stream annoyed Starfire, and he replayed the data ribbon. Such errors were not uncommon and usually were due to a glitch in the chant. The new data ribbon unfolded, and to Starfire’s chagrin, it was again incomplete.

The old raven was troubled, though he told himself it could be any number of things. He tried not to fear the worst—holes in the lattice. Trying to quell fear with reason, he reminded himself over and over again that the diagnostics he ran would have revealed such structural damage to the lattice.

The twenty-one-gun salute at a military funeral in the cemetery in which the tupelo tree grew catapulted Starfire out of his meditative state and into the bright, sunny morning. He stretched his wings and muttered an expletive. He never was able to shut out the sound of gunfire.

He perched within the murky shadows of the huge tree, pondering the fireball. What is it? Though he had worked for much of the night to find the answer, he had not even been able to discover what it was not. That maddening broken data stream could well be a sign of a far greater problem.

Starfire wondered how extensive the holes were and if Patua’ data was lost. And why were there holes in the Lattice at all? A stray chant gone awry within the Lattice?

The incomplete entries were over six hundred years old, he reasoned. Perhaps the holes were due to lack of maintenance, in which case a little housekeeping would take care of the problem. But the data was stored at the boundary of the Lattice, whose edges were ragged and frayed, as if part of the sector had been torn away. What could do that? he wondered. How much data have we lost?

Beyond the worrisome aspects of a possible systemic problem with the Lattice, Starfire felt sure the missing data would answer many questions, and he was certain this was not a solitary, random event without connection to anything. The fireball had ejected during an Emplacement Ritual; he had just finished inserting Jayzu into the Patua’ area of the archival lattice. Ever since, Starfire had harbored the feeling that Jayzu’s name appearing in the Lattice had triggered the fireball.

He stood up on his branch, flapped his wings several times, and took to the air. It was time for breakfast. He flew toward the river and spied Hookbeak on the ground near some poor creature a car had hit and flung well off the road.

May I join you, my friend?” Starfire asked as he landed next to the carcass.

Help yourself,” Hookbeak said through a beakfull. “There is plenty here.”

Starfire snagged a chunk of flesh and swallowed it. I love possum!” He pecked off another bite.

Grummrummrumm,” Hookbeak agreed. He swallowed the chunk of flesh in one gulp.

I have found some disturbing holes in the Lattice,” Starfire said. “I do not know as yet how large or how extensive.”

Holes?”

Yes,” Starfire said. “During a routine Keeper session, a strange fireball seem to pop out during Charlie’s Keeper session. I copied it to my own lattice and examined it later.”

What?” Hookbeak said sharply. “Why was there a bleed-over between the Keeper’s memory and the Archives at all? Was the Keeper not under trance deeply enough?”

No.” Starfire shook his head emphatically. “Nothing was amiss in the trance, or anywhere else. As yet, I do not know what it is or why it was ejected at the moment Jayzu had been added to the Archival Lattice. I queried the database, and I discovered the holes.”

Hookbeak stepped on the carcass and pulled off a chunk of meat. He gulped it down and helped himself to another. “So you think the fireball has something to do with the holes?”

Seems so,” Starfire said. “But I do not as yet know what the connection is.”

Has data been lost?” Hookbeak cleaned his beak on the grass.

Yes,” Starfire answered. “But I don’t know how much yet. The holes occur randomly in the Lattice, and we have lost some corvid historical data. But the greatest damage is to the Patua’ trees.”

He beaked another piece of the road kill and swallowed it. “I had hoped that this problem could be fixed by a defragmentation procedure, but no such luck. I must look to other causes.”

Such as?” Hookbeak asked. He thrust his thick beak into the possum carcass.

Bugs,” Starfire said. “That is my greatest fear.”

Bugs?” Hookbeak withdrew his head and stared at Starfire.

“Bugs eat things,” Starfire said. “They eat everything, from flesh to petroleum to data; they eat it all.”

 

Alfredo rented a car in Ledford and drove to Rosencranz. The day had dawned with cloudy skies and a cold drizzle, but by the time he was on the road, the rain had stopped and the clouds started to break up. He had looked forward to another visit with Charlotte. Other than Charlie, there was no one in the world he wanted to talk to more than Charlotte.

He wondered how many Patua’ languished in mental institutions. Like Charlotte. And Majewski’s sister, Stella. Not insane, just unable to communicate. I should tell Majewski about Charlotte.

He pulled onto the county road toward Rosencranz and left the urban realm of Ledford for the pastures and cornfields of the country. Charlotte may have a daughter! She had never mentioned she had a child. Did she forget? Or am I only imagining Jade is her daughter? There was no way he could ask Charlotte without upsetting her, he knew. I hope Dora Lyn has been able to find her file. That should tell us everything.

He signed in at the gate and entered the obedient landscape of Rosencranz Hospital for the Insane. He drove past the gazebo, but it was too dark inside for him to tell whether Charlie had arrived yet. He parked the car, donned his fake glasses, grabbed his briefcase, and entered the lobby through the heavy front doors. Dora Lyn wore her usual grimaced expression as he approached the reception desk, which changed the moment she saw him to one of giddy delight.

Dr. Robbins!” she gushed, looking him over from head to toe. “You look great! Have you been working out or something?”

Ah,” Alfredo said self-consciously, “no.” But he had been working on the Treehouse, and before that, his cottage.

Yard work,” he said. “I put in a pond in my backyard. I did a lot of digging.”

Really?” Dora Lyn said, putting her chin in her hand and leaning on her elbow. “It sure looks good on you, Doctor.”

He set his briefcase on the tall counter between them and opened it, hoping she did not see him blush. He withdrew a bouquet of flowers and handed it across the counter to her with a big smile.

Dora Lyn had warmed up to him on his first visit, but he still wanted to look at Charlotte’s file. “Bring her flowers,” Sam had told him. “Nothing special, just a little nosegay from the grocery store. Might help her remember where that file is.”

Alfredo had laughed. “I always thought men gave flowers to women to make them forget something!” But he had taken Sam’s advice and bought a small yet cheerful bouquet on his way to the asylum.

For me?” Dora Lyn giggled as she took the flowers. “You shouldn’t have, Dr. Robbins! They’re lovely.” She put the flowers in a small vase on her desk. “I’ll get these little beauties in water once I get you squared away with Miss Charlotte.”

Miss Charlotte! Much better than Scarecrow! Alfredo smiled, amazed at what a few flowers could do. “Did you ever locate Charlotte’s file?” he said. “Remember you could not find it last time I was here?”

I do remember, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, wrinkling her brow. “And yes, I did locate it, but there’s nothing in it. I’d say someone forgot to put its stuffings back, but no one has asked for it in the entire time she’s been here. I’m sorry, Doctor. I don’t know what to tell you. But I’ll keep looking.”

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said. “I am quite grateful for all of your help. What would I do without you?”

Dora Lyn blushed and smiled. “Just doing my job, Doctor.”

No, you do above and beyond,” Alfredo said, smiling warmly. “At least for me. I would hate to be here on your days off!”

I would hate that too, Dr. Robbins,” Dora Lyn said, smiling back. “I’m off on the weekends, same as you, probably.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “I try to leave my work at the office on the weekends, but there are times when I work all the way through.”

Dora Lyn nodded sympathetically. “Not me!” She giggled. “Really, Doctor, it’s just crazy here on the weekends. The girl who sits here on Saturday and Sunday? Dumb as a post. An inmate walked right past this desk and out the door last weekend, and she never even noticed.” Dora Lyn rolled her eyes.

What happened?” Alfredo asked. “Did he escape?”

Nope, but he would’ve gone clear to the highway if a visitor hadn’t reported an old guy in his pajamas wandering around in the parking lot.”

The phone on her desk rang, and she held up a forefinger as she answered it. Alfredo wandered to the windows opposite the patio and gazed across the lush carpet of grass to the gazebo. A black bird perched on the apex of the roof. There is Charlie!

He heard Dora Lyn hanging up the phone and returned to the desk. “It is a beautiful day,” he said. “Perhaps Charlotte would like to step out for a stroll, out to the gazebo and back. Is that permissible?”

Dora Lyn glanced toward the gazebo and then rolled her eyes as she said, “Yes, but surprise-surprise! First you have to sign a form.”

She fished a sheet of paper out of a compartment on her desk. “I trust you, Doctor, but you know, protocol and all. We have to keep track of the patients. And since that patient nearly escaped last week, well, you know.”

Of course,” Alfredo said.

Sign there,” she said as she put an X next to the signature line. “They didn’t have the money to hire enough security guards to watch the whole building, so they put video cameras everywhere.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Even in the restrooms!”

No kidding!” Alfredo shook his head as he scribbled his faux name illegibly on the form. “I will have her back within the hour.”

Take your time, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, waving him on with a smile. “Miss Charlotte’s on her way down. They’re taking her to the patio. It’ll just be a minute.”

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said.

I don’t know why they don’t let her come down by herself,” she said, smiling up at him. “She wanders the place on her own all day long.” She shrugged. “’Course they lock all the patients in their rooms at night. I guess someone still adheres to protocol in this Mickey Mouse outfit.”

Now, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo laughed.

I’m serious, Doctor,” she said. “This is not a mental institution! It’s a halfway house for the senile, a place for rich folks to stash and forget about their pesky old demented parents.” She giggled self-consciously into her hand. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t go on like that. But I’m sure glad we’re moving to a real hospital.”

Oh, no problem,” Alfredo said. He was grateful for the information, but was taken aback by her frankness. The building and its grounds had virtually no security. And that Miss Charlotte pretty well had the freedom to wander anywhere patients were allowed to be during the day. But at night she was locked in her room. That disturbed him. Charlotte’s tiny room was on the third floor. What if there is a fire?

He started toward the doors to the patio and was stopped short by a sign that he had not noticed when he walked in:

              We’re Moving!

Without reading the rest of the sign, he turned back to Dora Lyn and asked, “Really? The hospital is moving? When? Where are you going?”

That’s right, Doctor!” Dora Lyn said, giggling. “We’re moving, lock, stock, and barrel in about two weeks! A brand-new building over in the state capitol! It will be so nice to get out of this stinky old place. It was built more than 150 years ago, you know. And it wasn’t even a hospital! You can tell, can’t you?”

Oh, it is a bit old-fashioned perhaps,” Alfredo said. Moving! You cannot move now! Not yet!

Well,” Dora Lyn said, “it used to be a mansion that old man Rosencranz lived in till he died.” She looked over her shoulder as if checking to see if someone was listening. She lowered her voice. “He went out of his mind, and his spinster sister took care of him. But she ran out of money way before that, on account of Mr. Rosencranz lost his fanny in the crash of ’29. Some say that’s what made him lose his marbles too.”

She giggled behind her hand and looked over her shoulder again. “Anyhoo, so Rosencranz’s sister, she took in a few invalids, to help pay the bills. And after he died, she stayed on, and kept on, and by and by it became Rosencranz Hospital.”

I see,” Alfredo said.

But we don’t have really crazy people here,” Dora Lyn said, shaking her head as she looked out the windows at the patio. “Just folks who forgot themselves. Alzheimer’s, you know, that’s what most of them are here for.”

Alfredo looked through the windows at the people on the patio. Charlotte does not belong here.

The new building will have state-of-the-art security,” Dora Lyn said. “No more inmates just waltzing out of here in broad daylight. And I’m getting a brand-new computer!”

Sounds wonderful,” Alfredo said. He looked at his watch.

Oh!” Dora Lyn gushed. “I’m so sorry, Doctor! Prattling on like that when you have work to do!”

No problem.” Alfredo smiled. “But I do need to go.”

He left the lobby though the double doors to the patio, anxiety gnawing at his stomach. Moving in two weeks! The state capitol was more than a hundred miles farther away from Ledford.

Charlotte charged through the door on her own two feet, shouting over her shoulder at the aide, “I am not crippled! I do not need your damn wheelchair!”

Jayzu said something to the aide, and he let her go. “Jayzu!” Charlotte cried and flung her arms around Alfredo’s neck.

Hello, Charlotte,” he said, laughing as he peeled her arms away. She loved his laugh, so full of joy. She had missed him tremendously in the days since she had last seen him. But here he was! Smiling at her and holding her hands! He led her to a table on the patio, and they sat down.

So, how are you?” he asked, putting his briefcase on the empty chair beside him. “You are looking well.”

He looked at her so intently, she wondered if there was something the matter with her face. She brushed a few stray hairs from her eyes. “I am very happy to see you, Jayzu,” she said. “I have been counting the days. Six.”

Only six?” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. He reached into his briefcase, pulled out an object wrapped in purple tissue paper, and handed it to her. “I brought this for you, Charlotte.”

A present!” she said. “I never get presents, Jayzu! Is it my birthday?”

No,” he laughed. “It is just something I thought you needed to have.”

She peeled the paper away carefully. “A mirror!” She stared at her image in it for many moments. “That is me,” she murmured. She turned her head to each side, trying to see as much of herself as she could. She touched her face, her nose, her lips.

She gazed into her own eyes, gray like the clouds that roll through the sky. Scene after scene played in their depths—of wheeled chariots pulled along by great horses, of torches on cave walls painted with wooly mammoths, of dark passages filled with the dead. The sensation of falling flooded her with fear. She screamed and threw the mirror to the patio, shattering it.

Jayzu stared at her in shock. All of the patients on the patio, their doctors and visitors, stared at her. A custodian appeared with a broom and dustpan and swept the glass into a dustpan and took it away.

I am so sorry, Charlotte,” Jayzu said, ignoring the cleanup and the stares. He took her hands into his. “Forgive me, please?”

The warmth of his hands calmed her, and she stopped shaking. “I saw myself in the mirror,” she said, shuddering anew as she recalled the frightening image. Jayzu moved his chair closer to her. “I was in my room, and I was old and wrinkly all over.” She choked her fear back. “I was thirty-one thousand, six hundred and thirty-seven days old.”

Tears burned her eyes, but she didn’t want Jayzu to think she was a crybaby. She pulled her hands away and put them in her lap. She hung her head, squeezing her eyes closed and digging her fingernails into her palms. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu,” she said, her voice flat and final.

Alfredo had no idea the mirror would upset Charlotte so. She saw herself still at Rosencranz as an old woman. She could live another forty years; that is what I told her. But he had been trying to make her feel that her life was not over, not despair at four more decades in this place. But could he even suggest a different life?

He could not bear to see her in such anguish, and he wanted to take her in his arms and rock her gently, soothing away her fear. He checked his watch. Charlie is waiting at the gazebo. He stood up and put his folded arm out. “May I take you for a walk around the garden, Fair Lady?”

Charlotte opened her eyes. She stood up and giggled as she took his arm. “Oh, please! That would be so lovely!”

He led her through the lobby, past Dora Lyn, who smiled and waved. Out the front door and down the steps to the sidewalk. Alfredo did not see Charlie on the gazebo rooftop and hoped he was inside. They crossed the service road and stepped onto the lawn, and Charlotte immediately kicked off her shoes. She ran across the grass, laughing in sheer delight. She wiggled her toes in the soft, cool green grass, squealing with delight at the sun, the blue sky, and her unexpected freedom.

Charlotte’s face was paralyzed into a permanent smile as they walked across the grass. There was even a little color to her otherwise pale cheeks, and her gray eyes were alight with the simple joy of being alive. She seemed to inhale the entire landscape with each breath; Alfredo knew it had been many years since she had felt the bare Earth on her feet.

They climbed up the concrete steps to the gazebo. “I have always wondered what is in here!” she said, her eyes sparkling with the excitement. “I imagined I lived here, except it was far, far away from Rosencranz! On an island just like Charlie’s.”

They sat down in wrought-iron chairs around a small table, their backs to Rosencranz and facing the wild woods beyond the grounds. A black bird flew out of the forest and into the gazebo. After orbiting the table where Charlotte and Jayzu sat, it perched on the back of one of the empty chairs.

Grawky, Charlotte!” the blue-eyed crow said.

Charlie!” Charlotte cried out and opened her arms. Charlie hopped over to the arm of the chair, and the two nuzzled each other with wings and hands.

Charlotte’s laughter melted Alfredo’s heart, though he felt a little envious of their physical affection. He imagined her arms around him, and he nearly cried out as a strange energetic exhilaration rushed from his tailbone upward and outward, spreading tingling warmth all the way to his fingertips.

He wished he had Jade’s talent; he would paint Charlotte. Her smile as she gazed upon Charlie with such tender love, her hand gently touching his beak, her black hair and Charlie’s black feathers, flashing hues of red and blue. And her gray eyes, sparkling like crystals. God Almighty, she is beautiful.

The gazebo’s ivy-covered lattice walls faithfully blocked Charlotte and Charlie’s playful interactions from anyone who might happen to look out a window of the asylum. Alfredo glanced up the road toward the guardhouse at the driveway entrance, but he could not see it.

The gazebo would also conceal an escape over the fence. He turned and looked toward the forest beyond the gazebo. Barely visible, it was intergrown with trees and vines and topped with a coiling layer of concertina wire. Through it or under it, that is.

Cadeña-l’jadia is like the forests we used to play in,” Charlie was saying when Alfredo tuned back in to their conversation. “Many trees, large and small. And all the aromatic herbs you could ever want!”

Jayzu,” Charlotte said, turning suddenly toward him. “I want to go to Cadeña-l’jadia right now. Take me to Charlie’s Treehouse, please?”

He stared into her pale gray eyes, wondering if she had read his thoughts. “I would love to do that, Charlotte,” he said. You have no idea how much. “But it is very complicated, and I cannot just walk out the front door with you.”

Jayzu is right, Charlotte,” Charlie said. “We might have to trick them.”

Trick them?” Charlotte said, her eyes growing big with excitement.

Alfredo frowned at Charlie, wishing he had not made such an implicit promise to her. “We do not know how to get you out of here, Charlotte,” he said, “yet. But we, that is Charlie and I, are working on a plan.”

She clapped her hands and then pulled her arms in and covered her mouth as she drew in a great breath. Her eyes danced with delight, and Alfredo could not resist the smile that she brought to his lips.

Alfredo looked at his watch and said, “I must take you back now, Charlotte. It is just past an hour since we left the building.”

I do not want to go back,” she said, frowning. “I want to stay here with you and Charlie.”

Charlotte looked over her shoulder at the building. Her shoulders sagged as she turned back to face him. “When will you come back, Jayzu?”

Very soon, Charlotte,” he said. “In less than fourteen days.”

I will be patient,” Charlotte said, squaring her shoulders and folding her hands on the table. “Fourteen days is not very many.”

Charlie said good-bye, and Alfredo escorted her back to the building. She walked as slowly as she could without stopping, delaying the moment when they would have to part. She held her tears back when the elevator door closed, and he rode down to the lobby without her.

 

How’d Miss Charlotte like her walk?” Dora Lyn asked as Dr. Robbins signed out. What a hunk! He didn’t wear a wedding ring, which she hoped meant he wasn’t married. Or he’s gay. That’d be my luck. The handsomest sweetest men are always gay.

She did!” he said with an irresistible smile. “I think it was good for her to leave this building, even if it was just out on the lawn.” He reached for the log, and she handed him a pen.

Yeah,” Dora Lyn said. “I don’t know how she hasn’t just flipped out, ya know?” She looked out the window at the gray people in wheelchairs, all facing the other direction. “She’s not like the others.”

Oh?” Dr. Robbins said. “How so?”

His black eyes seemed to penetrate her very soul. “Well,” Dora Lyn said, “she babbles in this strange language no one can understand, like Miss Rosie out there.” She jerked her head toward the wheelchair brigade. “But ever since she sort of woke up from her sleepwalking, after she’d been here, oh jeez, twenty years maybe, and that’s when she started babbling, well, she didn’t seem crazy, just sort of, I don’t know, in the wrong place.”

That is interesting, Dora Lyn,” the handsome doctor said. “I have had that sense as well.”

She leaned forward toward him and whispered, “Do you think it was aliens?”

Aliens?”

Yeah, you know, like space aliens.” She glanced back out the window toward the gazebo. “They say she had disappeared for weeks before they brought her here. She was fine until then, but whatever happened to her, she couldn’t talk no more. Not a word.”

Really?” Dr. Robbins said. “Were you working here then?”

Dora Lyn was pleased that he was so interested in what she had to say. And that she knew things about Charlotte that he didn’t.

I was!” she said, beaming a smile at him. “They brought her in all tied up in a straitjacket. They sedated her, because she screamed so much, they said. And then after she got here, God knows what they did to her, but she was all docile like, until maybe seven or eight years ago, or so.”

Dora Lyn remembered her out there on the patio; among all the gray, faded people, Charlotte’s black hair had stuck out.

They shaved her hair all off,” Dora Lyn said, wondering why that made the doctor wince. “And they kept cutting until she started ‘talking’ again. Quote unquote.”

Does anyone know why she suddenly started talking?” the doctor said. “Quote unquote.”

Dora Lyn brushed a stray hair out of her face. “Nope. But she just up and got out of her wheelchair and started talking that alien language. She smiled a little, but she always looked so sad.” She looked out at the patio as the aide rotated the wheelchair people. “She’s just not like the others.”

 

Alfredo left Rosencranz and drove back to Ledford, thinking about what Dora Lyn had told him. They shaved her hair off? He had almost lost his temper when he heard that. Her long beautiful hair she kept in a thick braid down her back.

“They let her have long hair,” Dora Lyn had said, after she started taking care of herself. “You know, like brushing it and taking care of her own teeth and stuff.”

She does not belong there anymore. Even Dora Lyn sees that. I need to bring her home to Cadeña-l’jadia.

And the argument began.

Are you nuts? his voice of reason demanded. You want to take an inmate in the insane asylum where she has been her entire adult life to a deserted island?

But Charlotte is not insane, his compassion argued. How can I just leave her there?

The choice was clear: get this innocent woman out of this prison, or do nothing but conform to the madness that put her there in the first place. What would be gained by that? I would have bragging rights that I obeyed the law? The law that is an ass?

Just because the law is an ass does not mean you have to be one, his rational voice argued. Did you want to go to jail for kidnapping under “the law is an ass” defense?

The “We’re Moving” sign appeared in his thoughts, and he felt a surge of panic. He wanted to turn the car around and return to Rosencranz, go in and get her, and drive away.

The law is an ass, and I am insane.

 

Charlotte stayed in her room, refusing to go down to the dining hall for the evening meal. She sat at her window looking out over the forest on the other side of the fence. A tear rolled down her cheek. He is gone. Jayzu is gone. Fear billowed up in her chest. What if he never comes back?

A parade of nameless faces strolled through her head, faces she could not name, and they stabbed her with grief and loneliness. The gray-haired woman with the red cheeks and the warm smile. A young boy with black hair like hers. A young man playing a guitar, a cigarette stuck to his lip, dangling on the edge of a song.

A dark shadow flew to her window and landed on the sill. “Charlie!” she cried and put her hand on the glass, tears raining down her face.

 

Alfredo returned the rental car, and walked to the Waterfront where the Captain was waiting to take him home. The late afternoon sun felt hot and sticky, and he could not wait to be back on the cool island, away from all the noise and heat of the city. He jumped aboard, and the Captain pushed away from the dock. Sugarbabe clutched the railing and flapped her wings a few times before folding them neatly at her sides and settling down on her perch.

And how’s Miss Charlotte?” she asked Alfredo.

He was surprised Sugarbabe knew anything about Charlotte. “She is just fine, Sugarbabe. We went out for a walk today, which she enjoyed very much.”

Right kind of you to visit her,” the Captain said.

Do you know her also?” Alfredo asked in surprise.

The Captain gazed ahead for a minute or two, his brow knitting and unknitting as if he were in some mental anguish. “Once, long ago, I knew someone like her,” he said finally. “We were like peas in a pod, she and I. But her mother hated me, on account of me and her being too much like me, if you catch my drift.”

I do,” Alfredo said.

The Captain nodded. “Her daddy forbade us to see each other. We did anyway, on the sly, like. But he found out.”

The Captain’s jaw worked up and down, and his face bore such anguish, Alfredo wanted to comfort him, to lay his hands on the man.

Her daddy had a couple of thugs beat me near to death and toss me in the river. I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her. She just disappeared. I like to think someone like you maybe is visiting her somewhere.”

Sugarbabe leaped from her perch to the Captain’s shoulder and rubbed her head against his cheek. She remained there as he pushed his oar into the water again and again.

Sam never told him? Alfredo had no idea what to say. He had been consumed with self-pity lately over his loneliness, yet both Charlotte and the Captain had endured much greater suffering than he ever had. No one ever beat me. Though he could not leave the Jesuit boarding school his mother and her priest had sent him to, he did not really want to. And once he graduated high school, he was free to do anything he wanted.

University, seminary school. Now this. He watched the island come closer and closer, the gnarled white roof of the chapel nestled luminously in its aura of millions of shades of green.

Alfredo watched, almost hypnotized as the Captain, his oar, and the river became a single entity. The oar pushed its way through the water and then sailed overhead in a fluid circular motion that propelled the little boat toward the island. He wondered who else the captain boated around the river, without charge.

Captain, you have taken me back and forth between Cadeña-l’jadia and the city several times, yet you do not allow me to pay you. Surely you must need income?”

The Captain continued to row. After a few moments, he looked over at Alfredo and said, “I receive such payment as I need from them that I carry. Some pay in currency, others trade for the goods I need.” He looked out over the water. “Most folks are full of chatter. Their minds are running like rats on a wheel, and their mouths are running to escape their fear. They wear me out.”

The oar sliced through the water, parting the fishes and birds from air and foam. “You, Padre, are quiet inside. When I stand beside you, I am quiet inside.”

 

Charlie flew into Starfire’s tupelo tree in the old Woodmen’s Cemetery as the Chief Archivist was instructing a novice. “As every fledgling knows,” Starfire said, “First Crow and First Raven brought many great gifts to the skinny, pathetic humans shivering in their darkness, the greatest of which was agriculture. The Patua’ Clan, as this family would one day be called, took the instructions of First Crow and raised the arts of farming and animal husbandry to heights never achieved by humans since.”

The novice, a great-great-great-great-grandchild of Starfire’s, fidgeted on her branch, and the old raven stopped speaking, glaring at her until she settled down. Charlie was amused, recalling his own early days as a novice. The long stories of corvid interactions with the humans were only marginally interesting to him then, and he understood this one’s impatience to get on with her training.

For many thousands of years,” Starfire continued, “the Patua’ were renowned among humans for their expertise in botany and medicine. Their fields produced the most abundant grain, their trees the largest fruits. Some said they whispered to the plants to grow. They were the envy of the land for their farming methods. But, as the lust for power among the other humans grew, the Patua’ became targets of envy, fear, and hate. As we know, the Patua’, for all practical purposes, disappeared in the sixteenth century.”

Were they killed?” the novice asked.

Starfire stared coldly at her for a few moments, and Charlie feared for the youngster. A novice simply does not interrupt the Chief Archivist. He was relieved that Starfire did not strike her. “We have long thought they were,” the old raven said, “being that they essentially vanished during a time of great religious fanaticism among the rest of the human species. We now believe that they were not killed but disappeared among their own kind. Hiding in plain sight as it were.”

How did they do that?” the novice asked.

They stopped being Patua’,” Starfire said. “They stopped talking to the corvids and stopped farming. They went into other trades like carpentry and weaving and blacksmithing.”

The old raven paused to sip some water that had collected in a small aluminum tin he had long ago brought back to the tree—with remnants of chicken pot pie stuck to its sides and bottom. Whichever generation of his offspring happened to be in the nest enjoyed the largesse, picking it clean of even the burned-on grease spots. Over the years, the tin had become one with the tree, wedged into its very hide, and it collected enough water for Starfire to drink at will without leaving his tree.

The problem was and is,” Starfire resumed speaking, “that the Patua’ were so very good at hiding. Too good. They hid so well, they forgot who they were. And so began the self-persecution of the Patua’.”

The Patua’ killed each other?” the young novice asked in shock.

By no means!” Starfire’s deep raven voice nearly knocked her off the branch. “The Patua’ are quite gentle souls. No, the Patua’ disappeared from the corvid. They hid their ability to speak with us. They simply merged with the general population of humans, and as our current working hypothesis goes, the Patua’ trait became diluted in the human gene pool, so there are naturally fewer of them.”

What is a gene pool?” the novice asked.

Never mind that!” Starfire boomed. “The point is, the Patua’ were ultimately dissolved into the larger non-Patua’ human population. It is in this way that they disappeared. And because regular humans cannot speak to any of the animals, let alone us, they fear and revile those who can—the Patua’. Families hid their Patua’ offspring; often they never left their houses.”

Starfire moved to the hollow in the trunk of the tree saying, “But enough of this chatter. It is time to begin.” He reached in, pulled out a clawful of dark blue paste and dropped it at Charlie’s feet.

He motioned Charlie to ingest the fermented mildornia berries and continued speaking to the novice. “These are dire times. We must rouse the Patua’. But first we must discover where they are. The Archival Lattice contains scant few, yet I am certain there are many Patua’ hiding among the humans.”

Have the bugs been exterminated?” Charlie asked.

I think so,” Starfire said. “I have introduced several pest-control chants into the lattice and that should take care of it. If there are a few remaining, we have algorithms now to detect them and stop them in their tracks. But we have a formidable task ahead of us to repair the damage. Now eat!”

Charlie choked down the bitter mildornia paste. Within seconds, the effects began—the locking of his feet around the branch, the numbing sensation that traveled up his legs and all through his outer layers of flesh and feathers, leaving his vital organs intact and functioning. He began the syncopated breathing that helped facilitate the opening of his lattice.

As a Keeper, Charlie had participated in the emplacement and retrieval rituals many times, and even a few repair jobs to correct spoiled data. But this was the first time his own memories would be used to patch holes in the Lattice.

Starfire and the novice chanted the elementary verses with the Shanshus, and put Charlie into the first level of the Keeper’s Trance. He fell in, enjoying the familiar weightlessness of the mildornia paralysis, as it dampened all sensations of the body. He watched his memory Lattice snap open and expand outward in all directions. Many nodes glittered like multicolored stars that twinkled and blinked in the secret twilight.

Starfire chanted the verses he had devised for this ritual:

 

Vibzu bashki gax

Noxim ghazh blut a rek

Charlie had never heard that chant before and watched all but the purple nodes blink shut. After another series of unfamiliar chants, the purple nodes seemed to turn inside out, revealing layered filaments of the palest hues undulating in the Lattice energy field.

Starfire raised his voice as he chanted another verse, and one of the filament pods enlarged, engulfing Charlie into its glowing interior. He blinked his eyes once, paused, and blinked twice more, signaling that he was on the threshold of the mildornia trance.

Starfire chanted several more verses, encoded with commands and questions directed at the Charlotte entity in Charlie’s memory. “Where did you get the orb, Charlotte? Who gave it to you?”

Charlotte’s voice came through Charlie’s beak with a strange warbling sound. “‘Look at my birthday present, Charlie! My Mimi, she gave it to me! It is very old she said. She used to wear it all the time, and I always loved it, and now it is mine!’”

Who is Mimi?” Starfire’s chanting came again through the darkness, urgent and demanding. “Who is Mimi?”

Charlotte dances around; the orb hangs around her neck.” Charlie stopped talking for a few moments and then resumed. “She is babbling.” His head moved back and forth quickly. “The words come too quickly, faster and faster. I cannot understand; it is too fast.”

Charlie’s breathing became irregular and frantic. Starfire chanted softly, a verse that slowed the memory flow. Charlie’s head stopped moving back and forth, and his breathing resumed its half-trance rhythm.

Who is Mimi?” Starfire repeated the chant.

“‘Mimi!’” Charlie’s Charlotte voice cried out happily. Charlie swayed slightly on the branch.

Who is Mimi?” Starfire’s voice boomed through the lattice.

An old woman,” Charlie said. “Charlotte gives her a basket. She is crying, and the old woman grows smaller and smaller. She is gone.”

A crackling white fireball suddenly tore through the image, and Charlie watched Charlotte dissolve back into the data ribbon. But before the ribbon could return to its node, the fireball destroyed it. The ribbon wound through the Lattice aimlessly, with nowhere to go.

The Orb!” Starfire’s chant reverberated around the lattice. “Where is the Orb?”

The fireball bounced into the lattice, severing an entire section from the main trunk, and hundreds of nodes went dark. An automatic alarm went off, sending a preprogrammed command. He blinked rapidly, involuntarily responding, but struggling to speak. The Lattice collapsed, and the fireball disappeared.

Charlie felt Starfire’s wing steady him as he heard the Shutting Verse. Before the memory of the ritual had completely disappeared, he opened his eyes. He forced his beak open and croaked, “Ug,” and he fell into unconsciousness.


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Eminent Domain

 

The River Queen will remain in permanent dry-dock here on the west side of the river,” Henry told the small group of Ledford city officials as he pointed to the lovely miniature riverboat. “You’ll be able to see it from Downtown and the Waterfront. There’ll be a ferry coming in from both sides of the city, docking on the rocky point below the old chapel ruins. We’ll have a marker there, commemorating Maxmillian Wilder’s life and legacy.”

Henry Braun stood while eight others sat in chairs around the architectural model of Ravenwood Resort. The mayor, his secretary, and six heads of city departments were there: Planning and Zoning, Environment, Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and Neighborhood Relations.

Of the group, Henry was sure he had four of them in his pocket: Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and the Mayor himself. They all saw the light, even if they might’ve needed a little shove in the right direction. That’s a majority! He chuckled to himself. I’ve got this in the bag!

The model around which they all were seated was huge. Complete with lights and running water, the miniature River Queen bobbed up and down in the current generated by her own paddlewheel. Gone were the overgrown forests of Wilder Island and the newly restored hermit’s chapel. Trees obediently lined the sidewalks and cobbled streets instead, and tidy green lawns of manicured grass bordered with flowers surrounded concrete-lined fountains sporting sculptures of leaping fish.

Henry turned a switch on a transformer, and a small scale-model train emerged from a tunnel. Eight pairs of eyes followed the tiny steam engine around the little island as it blew its whistle and flashed its lights. “What resort would be complete without a train?” Henry asked the smiling faces around the table. “Completely electric, so no smokestacks or smog—just a little steam puff every now and then.”

The tiny train rolled past groups of miniature people walking along the boardwalk next to the river and chugged past hotels, restaurants, and the amusement park, where the Ferris wheel spun like a hypnotic pinwheel of lights. “The train will shuttle people anywhere they want to go,” Henry said, pointing to the tiny track. “To the casinos, the shopping mall, restaurants, Kid Land. Anywhere they want to go. Free of charge. They just hop on and off as they wish!”

The officials watched the little train begin another loop; a tiny puff of steam erupted from its engine. The whole scene was rather enchanting. Henry saw the smiles, the relaxed shoulders. The officials were charmed, he thought with a smug smile. Who can resist a choo-choo? Just about time to move in for the kill.

Over here,” Henry said, “is Kid Land.” Colored lights adorned the miniature Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and water-park slides that presided over the amusement park. “Complete with day-care workers and lifeguards to look after the youngsters while Mommy and Daddy are at the gaming tables!”

Henry pushed another button on the control panel, and the River Queen sputtered to life. He steered the boat around the island, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a replica of the old River Queen paddleboat that traveled up and down the river in the last century. She’s been in dry dock, getting renovated into the first riverboat casino in the state. In Phase II, I’ll bring in her newly restored sister, the Delta Dawn.”

Yes, Henry,” the director of the Water Department said, “I’m sure she’s very pretty. But what’s the bottom line here? You ask us to condemn this property? What’s in it for Ledford?”

I am glad you asked that,” Henry said magnanimously. “Bottom line: Ravenwood Resort is Ledford’s cash cow. In perpetuity. Right now, Wilder Island is nothing but a mosquito-infested swamp, to say nothing of the unsustainable crow population, which has for decades been too large for the island to handle. I am talking about progress before crows.”

Henry was proud of the slogan he made up, “progress before crows.” He paused for a drink of water, looking around the room as he unscrewed the top of the bottle. Predictable scowls and smiles all around.

Ravenwood Resort is a recreational facility that the entire city can enjoy,” he continued. “But the greatest gift Ravenwood Resort will give the city of Ledford is to fill its coffers with tax revenue, as well as provide up to eleven hundred new jobs.”

No one stirred for a few moments, until finally the Mayor remembered his cue.

Very provocative, Henry,” he said. “Now let’s see some numbers.”

Of course,” Henry said. “That would be my pleasure. If I may direct your attention to the screen?”

A colorful pie chart sprang to life as Henry turned the data projector on. Circling the pie chart on the screen with a laser pointer, he began his speech. “We expect a gross revenue of fifty million dollars in the first year after Phase I completion. Triple that when Phase II is complete. We estimate city revenue from our operations to be in the neighborhood of eight million per year, once we get going. Maybe more.”

Henry heard a low whistle at the other end of the table. He nodded and said, “Exactly. Please note, ladies and gentlemen, that I have broken down our expected revenue from each of the operations. Casino income, that’s the biggest slice at 78 percent.” Henry zeroed in on each segment of the pie chart in their turn with the laser pointer. “Hotels and Restaurants, 13 percent; Amusement Park, 7 percent, Ferry, 2 percent.” He rattled off the numbers, his words falling like coins from his mouth.

The current level of gross receipts tax on all Ledford business transactions,” he said, advancing the slide on the screen to another pie chart, “is 7.38 percent. The state takes 5.2 percent, leaving 2.18 percent for the city of Ledford. Now, 2.18 percent of 50,000,000 is …” Henry stopped again to advance the slide, pausing an extra second or two for effect.

In the largest font possible, “$1,090,000.00” glittered and sparkled like a jackpot against a soft background photo of the future Ravenwood Resort.

Jade opened her eyes. Willow B’s face was not two inches from hers; his golden eyes seemed to have bored through her sleep. After scratching him behind the ear for a few minutes and listening to his raspy purr, she stretched and sat up. She could hear Russ in the shower.

We’re going to Wilder Island today, Willow B,” she said as she put her robe on. “Crow Island is more like it, though. We’re going to be in a land trust. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I guess we’ll find out.”

Crow Dreams. Crow Island. Crow Backyard. The little messengers from the beyond, trying to tell me something. Maybe someone is dead. Russ had rolled his eyes at that one. But he had not offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the frequency of crows in her life.

You live in a city that has a plethora of them,” Russ had said. “They’re freaking everywhere, hon. And besides, you’ve been painting them since your childhood, so this is evidently not a sudden phenomenon.”

I rest my case!” Jade cried. “Crows have haunted me my entire life!”

Curiosity overwhelmed her anxiety and fantasies in the end, and she was excited at the opportunity to see the famed island. Besides, Russ would be there. And the Jesuit—he would be there too. Probably the crows liked him, and she would be safe by association, so really there was nothing to worry about. Really.

Clear and blue, the river sparkled in the morning sun. Russ was driving, so Jade could unhook, admire, and even lose herself in the scenery. The newly restored chapel was especially beautiful in the morning shadows. Elegant and silent, its roof a bleached, gray-white tangle of dead branches cradled within the saturated greens of the dense forest under a clear blue sky. Like a painting. Jade smiled, thinking of the hundreds if not thousands of Wilder Island paintings flooding the Ledford art market.

Do you think the Jesuit says Mass for the crows?” she said. “Do they listen to his sermons, or ignore him and think about breakfast, like we do?” She visualized a flock of crows in the chapel.Do they eat the bread and drink the wine?”

The Jesuit’s name is Alfredo Manzi,” Russ said, looking at her sternly. “He is my colleague and my friend. Can you please show a little respect? Please?”

I promise,” Jade said, “I will be the perfect picture of the college professor’s elegant wife.”

In your dreams!” Russ said with a grin. “And what a bore! I’ll settle for the eccentric yet not totally bonkers wife of the college professor. Think you can manage that?”

I’ll do my best,” Jade said with a satyr-like grin.

I love you, babe,” Russ said, shaking his head. “God help me.”

He parked the car, and they walked down to the dock where a floating iron forest on pontoons glided soundlessly into one of the slots. “Yo, Russ!” the Captain called out as he tied off the boat. His hat in one hand, he extended the other and invited them to climb aboard and join the red-haired woman seated on one of the benches.

Hi, I’m Kate Herron,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m the attorney for the land trust.”

Nice to meet you,” Jade said. “I’m Jade Matthews, and this is my husband, Russ.”

And here comes Sam,” Kate said with a grin.

An old, beat up, flesh-colored pickup truck roared into the parking lot, spraying gravel as its driver slammed it to a halt. A window went down, and an arm appeared and opened the door from the outside. A sandy-haired man in tight blue jeans and a red plaid shirt jumped out and hollered, “Morning, Captain! Don’t be taking off without me, now!”

He leaped onto the boat, and Jade said, “Sam! I thought I recognized that old truck! You coming to Wilder Island too? For the land trust meeting?”

I am!” Sam said. “I guess you are too! That really rocks. Hey, Russ! Nice to have you aboard!”

Thanks,” Russ said, shaking Sam’s outstretched hand.

Sam put an arm around Kate and gave her a hug as the Captain pushed the boat away from the dock with his wooden oar. Jade admired the beautiful, honey brown wood, finely carved with waterfowl and fish leaping through foamy waves. With a start, she noticed that a crow perched on the railing next to the captain as he rowed. I guess that’s not too unusual in these waters, next to an island full of crows. But who has one as a pet?

Russ nudged her arm and pointed upward. Her amazement increased at the full grandeur of the Captain’s boat. Tree trunks of wrought iron and chased metal held up a canopy of branches and leaves over their heads, through which flew a few small birds, both real and crafted of metal.

The Captain steered the boat around the northernmost tip of the island and into the quiet waters of an inlet. Alfredo stood on the bank, waiting for the Captain to throw him the rope.

Thanks, Captain!” he called out after his guests stepped off the boat.

G’day, Padre.” He tipped his hat and shoved off.

Great day, is it not?” Alfredo reached to shake Russ’s hand.

Alfredo, this is my wife, Jade,” Russ said, his other hand on Jade’s back.

Russ has told me about you!” Alfredo said, his hands encasing hers. “You are an artist, a painter, he tells me.”

Yes,” Jade said, taken aback at his warmth and sincerity.

I presume you all met each other on the way over?” They all nodded, and he continued, “Good, good. Jade, I hope you find inspiration here.”

I’m already inspired,” Jade said, blushing, “just from the boat ride. The island is so beautiful!”

She’ll have a painting done by Sunday night,” Russ said with a grin. “It’ll be extraordinary. Tell them about your show, honey.”

Jade blushed again and said, “It’s a one-person show at Jena McRae’s gallery Downtown. I’ll send you an invitation to the opening reception. It’s next Friday.”

I will be there,” Alfredo said. “I know Jena’s gallery well.”

Send me one also,” Kate said. “I love art shows!”

Me too, Jade,” Sam said. “You know I’m a fan of your work.” He winked at her.

You two know each other then?” Alfredo said, pointing to Jade and Sam.

We do,” Jade said. “We worked on the Urban Art Project the city put on last year. Were you here then? People brought all their discarded metal and stuff, and a group of sculptors, Sam for one, made it into a big art piece for the park next to the Waterfront.”

Yeah,” Sam said. “Jade brought the most amazing stuff to the project. It was great fun!”

Then you are aware of Sam’s artistic talents,” Alfredo said. “You will be pleased to discover his latest work in the chapel garden!”

 

As they left the inlet, Jade looked back over her shoulder several times, half expecting to see a swarm of crows following her. She heard birdcalls everywhere but saw no crows. They walked up the embankment and onto a path. “My cottage is just over there,” Alfredo said, pointing, “but I will take you the long way around, through the chapel and the gardens.”

Where are all the crows? Jade looked all around her and into the tree branches overhead. She stumbled on a rock, and Russ grabbed her hand and directed her attention to the plethora of wildflowers all around them.

Aren’t they gorgeous?” he said. “You’ll have to come back with me sometime and paint while I find a whole new flower unknown to mankind.”

The chapel roof appeared through the trees, and a few minutes later they stepped into the garden. An assortment of pink-and-white water lilies and irises decorated the pond.

You must have a green thumb, Alfredo,” Russ said. “This is beautiful.”

Thank you,” Alfredo said. “I am but a humble gardener.”

Oh my God!” Jade said. “That’s incredible!” She turned to Alfredo. “This is what you were talking about! I’d recognize Sam’s work anywhere.”

A metal sculpture arose from the pond, an unexpected assemblage of the rusted remains of derelict automobiles juxtaposed against shapes cut from discarded stainless steel milk tankers. From any angle, the view was breathtaking, each component an integral part of the whole, in a mosaic of shadows and spaces that reflected in the polished surfaces of the stainless steel. Elegant upward motion suggested the reach for the heavens, brought gently back to Earth by the mundane decomposition of the rusting junk that once littered the urban landscape.

Yes,” Alfredo answered for Sam, smiling proudly. “This is a very recent addition to the garden. A Sam Howard original. Signed right there.” He pointed to the signature carved into the metal base. “I was lucky to find Sam. I hired him to help with the restoration of the chapel. The sculpture in the pond was his idea. It just appeared one day. As if it grew overnight.”

Alfredo looked admiringly at the sculpture. “Sam also built my cottage. But as you observe, his true calling is to art.”

I see a giant bird about to take off,” Kate said. “Or land—I can’t tell which. But I love how you pick up the rubbish of the industrial age and make us forget that it was once all just litter.”

One man’s junk,” Sam said with a grin, “is another man’s art. Modern American artifacts—that’s what I call this stuff. It’s all over the place. Good thing it’s mostly free.”

Sam,” Jade said as she walked around the pond, “this is your finest work ever!”

Sam squinted up at the sculpture. “I think so too. I had one of those rare moments we all pray for, when the thing you haven’t quite envisioned just rises up and seizes you.”

And you just let it come through,” Jade said, nodding. “It has a life of its own almost, and it pulls you along.”

Yep,” Sam said. “Like that.”

Two crows flew into the garden and perched in a tree near the pond and disappeared into its shadows. Four luminous blue eyes stared down at Jade. She returned to Russ’s side, grasped his hand and stole a glance back at the tree. The eyes were still there. Eyes without bodies, hanging like blue globes in the darkness.

What amazes me, Sam,” Russ said as his hand closed around hers, “is how you managed to evoke a green forest using rusty junk metal. It’s like portraying the miracle of life using what’s essentially road kill.”

Sam threw his head back and laughed. “That’s a good one, Russ! Urban Roadkill. I’ll have to create that one. But yes, that’s where I get a lot of my raw material—all along the highways. Car parts, pieces of buildings, farm equipment. Anything metal—gutters, pipes, corrugated siding, old furnaces, air-conditioners. Mufflers and license plates—those are everywhere—but occasionally I pick up something cool like a radiator or an engine fan.”

Very green,” Russ said. “I’m impressed, Sam!”

Jade tried desperately to not look at the two crows in the trees. Why am I so nervous? It’s not like they’re going to come down and attack me.

I’m the Queen of Recycling,” Kate said. “Anyone who picks up rubbish in the landscape is my hero. Especially if they make art with it.” She smiled coyly at Sam, who looked down at his feet.

The chapel is so lovely from the river,” Jade said suddenly, hoping Alfredo would get them out of there and away from those eyes. “I can’t wait to see it up close, Alfredo! Can we go in?”

But of course!” he said. “Sam? Would you mind heading over to my cottage and making the coffee? We will be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

Sure thing,” Sam said.

I’ll go with him,” Kate said. “I’ve gotten the tour already.”

Jade noticed the goofy look on Kate’s face when she looked at Sam, who blushed deep red and grinned stupidly at the ground. Hmmm. Love blossoms on Wilder Island. She turned back toward the tree where the two crows had been. They’re gone. Relieved, she turned to follow the others.

Shall we?” Alfredo said, indicating the direction they should take.

Greetings, Fair Lady!” a voice above them said.

At least that’s what Jade thought she heard. She slowed down and looked up into the tree under which they walked. A blue-eyed crow stared back. “I beg your pardon?” she said, glancing quickly toward Russ and the others. None of them noticed her or the crow. When she turned back, the crow still gazed down at her.

Alfredo,” Jade said, walking quickly to join him, “Russ told me you have deciphered some crow words, but do they also speak English? I think that crow just spoke to me! Or am I crazy?”

Careful how you answer that, Alfredo!” Russ said with a grin. “At least the crazy part!”

Alfredo smiled and said, “You are not crazy, Jade! It is possible that the crow spoke to you. They are very intelligent birds and have marvelous vocabularies. I have been able to teach them a few English words here and there as well. What did he say?”

“‘Greetings, Fair Lady,’” Jade said. “At least I think that’s what he said.”

Alfredo frowned and said, “Interesting. That is not one of the phrases I taught them.” He shrugged. “But crows are very magnanimous, and this one could have picked it up anywhere. Many of these crows fly across the water to the city.”

I didn’t know crows spoke English,” Russ said, one eyebrow raised. He turned to Jade and said, “Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t know you understood crow.”

Jade felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her, expecting an answer. “I—I don’t,” she stammered. “I just thought the crow said something. It sounded like English.”

They can be taught to speak a few words of most any language,” Alfredo replied. “Just like parrots, though I do believe both birds understand what they are saying.”

Jade looked back for the crow as they started along the path to the chapel. It was gone.

 

Henry smiled at the heads of the five city departments that formed the condemnation committee. “Just over one million dollars, folks. And we expect that to double in the first five years.” He circled the sparkly numbers with a red laser pointer. “Think about it. Over a million dollars for the city, and all you have to do is condemn Wilder Island and watch the money flow in.”

The Mayor started to clap, cutting off Henry’s conclusion. He was nodding and smiling as he looked around the table. No one else joined his applause.

Now just a damn minute,” the Planning and Zoning Department director said as he smacked the table suddenly with his palm. “Mr. Braun, you’ve yet to swing this casino park of yours through the permitting process.” He gestured toward the extravagant model of Ravenwood Resort. “This is adorable, but how do we know you’re not just blowing smoke? Let’s see some details. I for one am not going to vote until we see exactly what you plan to do.”

Henry watched the Mayor sink back into his chair. The coward!

The island won’t support a large human population,” Environment piped up. “It’s full of bogs and swamps and places where the water’s found its way down cracks and fractures. You’d have to bring in a mountain of dirt to fill all that in.”

Well,” Henry said amiably, “that’ll be my problem, now won’t it? It’s a matter of money and machine. I got both.”

Well, you don’t got a building permit,” Planning and Zoning said in a vaguely mocking tone.

Henry clamped back the anger that surged up from his gut. Stay calm! That’s what Jules had said. Think before you speak. Look out the window, get a drink of water, do something, anything, to keep your cool.

He reached for his water bottle, and as he took a sip, he noticed the two crows on the windowsill. He thought they looked familiar and then reminded himself that all crows look alike. But he didn’t like how they stared at him and wondered if they were bugged.

And until I see your plans for a sewage treatment facility, and a plan for maintaining safe drinking water and controlling run-off,” Environment was saying, “you won’t get one. And I suggest, Mr. Mayor, that Mr. Braun be so required to submit some details before we vote. Do you really want an environmental disaster on your hands?”

Henry pulled an exceedingly white handkerchief out of his pockets and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. The crows on the windowsill had not broken their gaze. He wished he could throw his shoe at them. Calm, stay calm.

Now, now,” the Mayor said soothingly, looking toward Henry. “There’s no need to come all unraveled here. Mr. Braun has already promised us complete compliance with everything. Isn’t that right, Henry?”

Absolutely!” Henry said, grateful the mayor had come to his aid, finally. “Ravenwood Resort will be eco-friendly. We’ll be helping save the environment by using as much timber as we can from the island’s own forests.”

Henry savored the appalled expression on Environment’s face. “And we’ll be using the island’s natural filtration system—its vast network of underground caves—to filter and process our wastewater. Through these natural wetlands, we’ll actually return cleaner water to the river than when we found it!” He smiled broadly all around the model.

Are you insane, Henry?” Environment said angrily. “You think you’re going to pump sewage underground and have it come out as spring water? You’ll never fly that by my department without precise and complete code-compliant engineering drawings and—”

A car alarm went off outside the building, its shrill, urgent tone screaming through the open window. Henry licked his lips, trying to stay composed. “Enough!” he wanted to shout. Careful! Stay calm. He took a deep breath. It was hard to remain calm, too hard almost, with these simpletons going on and on about such trivia. He clenched his mouth shut tightly.

The alarm suddenly stopped. Henry exhaled and took out his handkerchief again. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled broadly.

I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this one, Henry,” Planning and Zoning said. “This is sewage you’re talking about here. You can’t just pump it underground or into the river. We need to see how you plan to—”

Henry inhaled slowly and deeply as he counted to ten. Just like Jules had taught him. Exhale two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He wished he couldn’t hear his heart pounding in his ears.

Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, smiling with an overly robust pretense of camaraderie. He ignored the sour look on Neighborhood Relations’ face. “I intend to fully comply with all your rules, codes, and regs. Have no worries! Trust me! This is just an overview of Ravenwood Resort. I am merely submitting a proposal today.”

He turned to the Mayor and smiled. You were supposed to back me up on this one! “Surely I am not expected to pay the enormous expense of hiring engineers before I have your condemnation?”

Mr. Braun is correct,” the Mayor said, nervously shaking his head. “The entire set of engineering drawings isn’t required for us to condemn the island under eminent domain. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it! Meanwhile, Mr. Braun has shown us a reasonable proposal of what he intends to do with Wilder Island. Let’s continue with the condemnation proceedings, and if the committee so decides, we shall require Mr. Braun to submit the required documentation to build the resort.”

Mr. Mayor,” Environment said, “of what use is it to condemn and kick the Jesuits and the birds off the island if he can’t come up with a viable plan? Then what? How will you explain that to the people? Some of them, most of them I’ll warrant, love the island. You’d best tread carefully here, Mr. Mayor. Mr. Braun must show us he has a viable plan before we vote to condemn.”

Henry watched the Mayor start to cave, and he resisted the strong temptation to pick up his chair and heave it at the unctuous little weasel. Calm! Stay calm! He heard Jules’s voice. He looked out the window. Damn those crows! They’re like little spies, watching my every move.

Mr. Braun,” the Mayor said, licking his lips nervously. “You know I’m a supporter of Ravenwood Resort. But these gentlemen speak truthfully. The public is quite sensitive to environmental concerns—issues of water quality and the like. May I remind you, I’m an elected official, and the Mayor appoints all the department heads around this table. That is, me. We must tread very delicately here, or the public will flay us alive.”

I’ll flay you alive, you miserable pantywaist. The two crows on the windowsill smirked at him behind their beaks. He looked away. Inhale two, three, four …

His hand found the switch to the choo-choo, and he flipped it on. The tiny train steamed to life and began its winding way around the island. It calmed him, and he watched it for a few moments, feeling his anxiety diminish. “Folks,” he said after a few moments of watching. “Ravenwood Resort has something for everyone—jobs, fun, money. I promise to comply with all building codes and laws. I can say no more to convince you. I’m in your hands.”

Silence permeated the room for a few moments, except for the tiny sound of the little choo-choo, cheerfully chugging around the island. Tourism and Economic Development scowled at Planning and Zoning, who glared at Henry. Environment tapped irritably on the table with his pencil. Neighborhood Relations scribbled furiously while Water causally doodled upon their respective covers of their Ravenwood Resort proposals.

Finally the Mayor spoke. “Yes, well, thank you, Mr. Braun. Wonderful presentation, just wonderful. The ball is now in our court, my friends, and we’ll take this all under advisement. We’ll have a decision for you in a week or so, Mr. Braun.”

 

Alfredo opened the door to the chapel, and the roof seized his guests’ attention. They gazed upward through the white branches Bruthamax and Hozey wove together, to the blue sky beyond.

NoExit and his family peered down from their nest, and Alfredo nodded to them. He directed Russ and Jade’s attention to the singular bench and kneeler in front of the altar. “Marvelous, is it not? The old hermit hacked it from driftwood,” he said. “It is held together by railroad spikes. Brother Wilder must have salvaged them from that trestle bridge catastrophe.”

How’d he get the wood so smooth?” Russ said as he stroked the top of the kneeler. “It’s like polished stone.”

The river and the sandy beaches did most of it,” Alfredo said. “The sun and time did the rest. Evidently Brother Maxmillian picked up whatever lumber he needed from the riverbanks. The timber mill upstream loses a log now and then, and many end up here.”

Jade wandered to the place where Alfredo had found Brother Maxmillian’s remains. “Whatever happened to the old hermit?” she asked. “Did he die here on the island?”

Yes,” Alfredo answered. “His bones were in here the first time I visited, just about where you’re standing, Jade.”

She looked at him with a stricken expression and then down at the floor, as if she expected to see the old hermit’s bones.

They were picked clean and pure white,” Alfredo said as he walked over to where she stood. “I collected them all and gave him a proper funeral. His grave is outside.”

Jade shut her eyes tightly, shaking her head murmuring, “No, no, no.”

I am so sorry!” Alfredo said, taking her arm and moving her away from the spot. He handed her off to Russ. “I did not mean to upset you.” What a strange woman she is. And Russ is so straight-laced and down-to-earth.

You didn’t upset me,” Jade said weakly, sagging against Russ. “I just thought for a moment I saw his dead body, and several crows and ravens were eating him.” She shivered. “They all had these really cold blue eyes. I had a dream about one, and it—”

My wife has an extremely vivid imagination,” Russ said, interrupting her. “Sometimes it gets the better of her.”

Blue-eyed crows and ravens eating Brother Max’s flesh! That was not her imagination. How did she know? Is she clairvoyant? Though abashed that he, a scientist, would entertain such a thought, he couldn’t think how else she would know. He recalled her claim in the garden that a crow had said, “Greetings, fair lady!” He looked at her closely. I wonder, is she Patua’?

That is an interesting anomaly about the crows on the island, Jade,” he said. “Crows are born with blue eyes, like human babies. But in the vast majority of cases, their eyes turn black or brown as soon as they’re ready to leave the nest. Except for this island. For some reason, a lot of crows’ eyes stay blue all their lives.”

Really?” Russ said. “That’s interesting. But I suppose not entirely surprising that a genetic enclave exists here, considering the island is cut off from the mainland.”

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “While it is a short fly for these birds, and many leave for new territories elsewhere, evidently enough have stayed on the island to keep those blue eyes in the gene pool. I am quite charmed by them.”

Well I’m not,” Jade said. “I keep dreaming of crows. And they’re not very nice.”

Alfredo looked at Russ with raised eyebrows. Russ merely shrugged, shook his head, and rolled his eyes.

Alfredo,” Russ said, looking up at the roof, “it must get pretty wet in here when it rains.”

It does,” Alfredo said. “Sam and I wove a few more branches in, to keep it slightly drier in here than it was. I do not have to be here during increment weather, however. The Good Lord will accept our prayers anywhere.”

Do you say Mass here?” Jade said suddenly. “Does anyone come?”

Every Sunday,” the priest said, “at dawn. No humans, of course, but a few birds usually attend—crows mostly. Saying Mass in this chapel is more like a meditation. I do miss a congregation, I suppose. But you are welcome anytime if ever you wish to attend.”

Perhaps,” Russ said. “This place reminds me of my altar-boy days somehow. Don’t ask me why.”

As they left the chapel, Jade gasped. Dozens of black birds perched on the chapel roof, and many more were on the ground, walking or pecking. “Oh my God,” she said, “what are they doing here?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “They live here! They noticed I had visitors and are curious. They will not harm you.”

Jade skirted around the other side of her husband, avoiding even a glance at the crows hanging around the chapel.

 

Sam and Kate had coffee made and the table set with cups, plates, and a large platter of cookies when Alfredo arrived at the cottage with Russ and Jade. “Sit down, everyone,” Alfredo said, gesturing toward the small table. “It will be a bit tight, but we are all friends.”

After they were seated nearly elbow-to-elbow, Jade pointed to the fob on the end of the lamp chain and said to Russ in a whisper, “Look at that!”

Look at what?” Alfredo said, as he brought a carafe of coffee to the table. “Oh, yes, is it not marvelous? I found it in the chapel. I think it must have belonged to Brother Maxmillian.”

Jade has one almost exactly like it,” Russ said. Jade nudged him to be quiet. “Show it to him, honey!”

You have a similar piece?” Alfredo asked. “May I see it?”

He put his hand out, and his sudden interest made Jade recoil. Russ nudged and her said, “C’mon, honey, show it to him. No one’s going to take it from you.”

What is it?” Kate asked.

Reluctantly, Jade drew out her medallion on its leather cord and held it up to Alfredo without taking it off. “It was my mother’s,” she said, her hands shaking. “At least that’s what I’ve always believed. I never knew her, so I don’t really know.”

Alfredo held Jade’s medallion carefully. “They’re astonishingly similar,” he said, dropping both. “What a delightful mystery that we each have one!”

Jade dropped the medallion back under her shirt and blurted out, “I have dreams about crows all the time, mostly scary ones, but sometimes my mother is in them too. One time I thought the crows were trying to steal this, and I’ve been hiding it from them ever since.”

Interesting,” Alfredo said. He felt a certain kinship with her, but he wondered why she was so reluctant to show him her orb.

What is it?” Kate asked again, taking the fob at the end of the lamp chain into her hand. “It feels like stone, yet it’s so delicately carved.”

Sam took a turn examining the fob. He tapped it against his teeth and said, “It’s definitely wood. A very hard wood. Can’t tell what kind, though.”

You said you found it in the chapel?” Russ asked.

Yes,” Alfredo said. “Under the old hermit’s bones. Evidently he wore it around his neck.”

Jade made a distasteful face and looked out the window. Alfredo poured coffee into everyone’s cups. Was Jade’s mother Patua’? Why else would she have had an orb? If her mother was Patua’…

 

Jade reached for the cookie platter and took two. After a few bites, she said, “Alfredo! These are wonderful! Where did you get them?”

I baked them,” Alfredo said with a smile as he sat down, “in my easy-bake solar oven!”

The others laughed uproariously. “Seriously?” Jade asked. “You baked them? I had no idea you were so talented.” She bit into her second cookie.

I love to bake,” Alfredo said. “My grandmother taught me when I was a boy. I used to help her bake pies at Christmas, and dinner rolls every Sunday. I bake the Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s to supplement my generous stipend from the Jesuits.”

Truly a man of many talents,” Kate said. “Priest, scholar, baker. Who knew?”

She pulled her briefcase up to the table and opened it, saying, “All right then. Welcome, board of directors of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust! As you all know, the Padre and I hammered out the land trust in the last couple weeks. Here are the bylaws and the articles of incorporation.” She tossed several spiral-bound booklets onto the table.

First, a little history,” she said. “Henry Braun approached the Jesuits to buy the island, and we turned him down. But that hasn’t stopped him.”

What does he want to do with the island?” Jade asked.

He wants to turn it into a casino resort park,” Alfredo said. “Evidently he is not happy with his current wealth.”

Wow,” Sam said. “He lives in a freaking mansion, has a chauffeur drive him around in his Bentley, and he wants more. What a pig!”

Even as we speak,” Kate was saying, “he’s presenting a proposal to the Mayor and certain city department heads, asking them to condemn the island as a nuisance—what did he call it, Padre?”

Fallow,” Alfredo said. “And derelict.”

The fob on the lamp chain swayed slightly as if in protest. Jade finished her second cookie and grabbed another off the plate. She looked around the table. Everyone else was still working on cookie number one. She put the third cookie on her plate and put her hands in her lap, hoping the others had not noticed what a pig she was.

Russ shook his head, frowning. He reached across the table for a cookie. “But how can he do that? The Jesuits said they wouldn’t sell.”

He’s using the eminent domain laws,” Kate said, “to force us to sell the island to him. But, he won’t succeed, at least not this time. The land trust is a done deal, as of yesterday morning at 8:13 a.m., thanks to all of you for doing the electronic signature thing on the Internet.”

Jade took two quick bites from her cookie and put it back on her plate. She chewed slowly, trying to savor every bite. Trying to not think too much about the remaining cookies on the platter.

Thanks to you, Kate,” Alfred said. “I am impressed and amazed at how quickly you got the land trust drawn up and filed. I just hope it will be enough to stop Henry Braun.”

What’s eminent domain?” Sam asked, dunking his cookie into his coffee.

Two more cookies on the plate. Russ has had two now, Kate two, Sam two. Me three. She glanced at Alfredo’s plate. He had not finished his first.

It’s a right guaranteed to the government,” Kate said, waving her cookie as she spoke, “to condemn and sell private property to another individual for the purpose of development. Up until recently, it was only used to acquire property for roads and public buildings. But now, eminent domain is a tool to condemn private property for private commercial development, though this is flabbergasting to the vast majority of us.”

But what about the Jesuits?” Russ asked. “Will they let us make a land trust out of their island?”

Jade studied her cookie, resisting the urge to cram it into her mouth. One of the chocolate chips had melted in the oven and hardened into a shape that resembled a crow in flight. Oh God, stop it! She bit the crow off and ate it.

The Jesuits donated the island to the land trust,” Alfredo said. “It was the Father Provincial’s idea to do this. In fact, the whole land trust was his idea. Things might have turned out a lot differently had Henry Braun not been so annoying. It just really irked Majewski—the idea of anyone tearing down a consecrated Jesuit chapel to build a casino.”

Jade finished off her third cookie and drained her coffee cup. Sam took the second-to-last-cookie from the plate.

And even when I told him,” Kate said, laughing, “that the island would probably be assessed at upward of Henry’s original offer of five million dollars, his reply was something like: ‘Henry Braun could offer me the golden gates of hell, and I’d still rather see our chapel and nothing but several thousand crows on Wilder Island.’”

I thought heaven had the golden gates. Oh, wait. Pearly gates. Hell’s gates are more valuable than heaven’s?

Speaking of the chapel,” Jade said, “what will become of it?” She poured herself another cup of coffee from the carafe, wondering if someone was going to take that last cookie.

The Jesuits will keep ownership of the chapel and the small plot of land it sits on,” Alfredo said. “And I will say Mass every morning to my congregation of crows, same as I do now.”

But, Kate,” Russ said, looking up from the proposal, “wouldn’t it be easier to fight eminent domain if the Church still owns the whole island? Aren’t churches immune?”

Jade tried to ignore the last cookie. She looked out the window. A crow flew by, shrieking, “Give me a cookie!” Startled, she glanced at Alfredo. Did he hear it?

Legally,” Kate said, “nothing can stop it—not even the Catholic Church. A land trust can’t stop eminent domain either. We can only prescribe what will be done with our island if we’re forced to sell it.” She picked the last cookie off the platter, broke it in two, and returned one half to the plate.

So that’s how you do it! Just take half! Jade resisted pouncing on the other half.

But, how can this be?” Russ asked, aghast. “How can the city condemn private property, for God’s sake? For a gambling resort? That’s just wrong. And there’s nothing we can do?”

We’re not complete victims,” Kate said. “We can fight back.”

Russ reached past her, took the last half cookie off the platter, broke it, popped one piece in his mouth, and left the other on the plate.

Dang! I should’ve made my move. She wondered how many times the cookie could be broken in two.

We have some protections built into the land trust,” Kate said, “that’ll make it hard for him to build his casino. But if he wins the eminent domain battle, he’ll still fight us tooth and nail to thwart the intent of the land trust. And he’s got a lot more money than the five of us combined will ever see.”

Jade’s resistance broke down, and she snatched the last quarter of the last cookie and popped it into her mouth, all in one piece.

 

Alfredo went to the kitchen area and brought back a plastic container. He opened it and refilled the cookie platter. Jade reached over and took one, followed by Russ, Sam, and Kate.

Does anyone want more coffee?” he asked with an amused smile. Everyone shook their heads, and he sat back down.

What about endangered species?” Sam asked through a mouthful of cookie. “Or a wilderness designation? Can’t we go that route too?”

Alfredo shook his head, but before he could speak, Kate said, “First we would need to get a Wilder Island animal on the endangered species list.”

Aren’t the blue-eyed crows unusual?” Russ asked, turning to Alfredo. “Have you ever heard of a population of crows with blue eyes anywhere else?”

No,” Alfredo said. “But even so, it is difficult to imagine convincing anyone that crows of any eye color are an endangered species.”

Too bad crows can’t talk, eh?” Kate said. She winked at Alfredo. “That’d get us on the list pronto!”

Alfredo stared at the attorney. Does she know? He had met with Kate a few times since Majewski left and wondered if he had told her. Surely she would have let on by now.

They do talk, actually,” Russ said, waving a cookie at Kate. “Alfredo has discovered they have a rich and varied vocabulary.”

Do tell!” Kate said, a wicked smile on her face. “I have long thought that all the animals have some form of language. If only we could understand it.”

Jade nodded in agreement, and Sam stared at Alfredo with a fearful look.

The corvid have an extensive vocabulary,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a relaxed smile. “As richly varied as any human language, I think. They have a significantly more intricate language than we humans give them credit for. As do many other animal species.”

Sam visibly relaxed as Kate nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “We assume we’re alone at the top of the evolutionary heap, when in fact we have merely clawed our way to the top of the food chain. And we’re not alone there either.”

We’re our own predators,” Russ said. “What other species can make that claim?”

Black widow spiders can,” Sam said.

But they eat their prey, Sam!” Kate said with a grin. “Humans just kill each other.”

Speaking of predators,” Sam said, “this whole eminent domain thing seems like human preying on human to me. I mean, this is America, isn’t it? And we’re supposed to just roll over, let the government take away our private property, and hand it over to the highest bidder? I just can’t stomach it.”

Alfredo remembered his conversation with Charlie about property and ownership. “You cannot own anything you cannot carry …” Perhaps the corvids are right. All this fuss about ownership. In the end, the Earth owns itself. We borrow pieces of it and entertain greedy illusions that it is ours.

Hardly anyone can,” Kate said. “That’s the main advantage we have; public opinion on our side, whether or not people approve of the casino park. We need to rally the folks of Ledford to our cause.” Kate paused to take a bite of cookie and wash it down with a gulp of coffee. “So, we need a brand, a logo.” She turned to Jade. “You think you can come up with one for us?”

I can!” Jade said.

A brand?” Alfredo asked, blinking and frowning. “Why do we need a brand? We’re not selling anything.”

Indeed we are, Padre,” Kate said. “We’re selling an idea. We want to get the folks of Ledford stirred up and rally around a place they will never see, if we have our way.”

Never underestimate the power of the brand,” Sam said.

Right,” Kate said, throwing a quick grin at him, “Wilder Island is part of the history of this city, a legacy that’s owned by everyone. That’s the only way people, religious or otherwise, have beaten eminent domain condemnation.”

It’s true,” Jade said. “Ledford loves Wilder Island. People have developed a whole relationship to it, almost like a religion, or at least a mythology. I doubt many will want to see it paved over with slot machines and hotels.”

Alfredo looked out the window at his private Garden of Eden. He hoped that the people of Ledford would support the island remaining intact and not need to come see for themselves what they were protecting. I do not want to share it with anyone. He scolded himself for his selfishness. But it was the truth.

That’s our point,” Kate said, nodding. “That the island is neither fallow nor derelict. But beyond all that, Wilder Island represents the heart and history of Ledford. That’s how we fight Henry Braun’s eminent domain project.”

The Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust spent the rest of the afternoon discussing ways in which to engage the people of Ledford to rally to their cause. Just before sunset, they heard a bell ring from the direction of the inlet.

That is the Captain,” Alfredo said, “coming to take you home.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

The Keeper’s Trance

 

The fermented mildornia berries tasted bitter in his beak, and Charlie felt his stomach rebel, but he had long since learned to control the impulse to puke it all back up. All around him and the other Keepers, the Shanshus chanted the Starting Verse, the Calling of the Trance.

Shim shu vig zhi gimki cot
Za zho glik fa vesh ni bu
Och o mishka sen say vox
Min goy mob y fin ga sook

The words meant nothing in any language to anyone save the Archivists of the corvid databases. Carefully constructed of sounds in sequence, each tone and space conveyed a command, involuntarily understood by the specially trained Keepers.

Za zho glik fa vesh ni bu
Och o mishka sen say vox
Min goy mob y fin ga sook

Charlie felt his legs stiffen as the mildornia berries took effect. His vision blurred and his beak locked. Though he could blink his eyes, paralysis settled in his wings and feet. His awareness diffused, and he couldn’t distinguish himself from his surroundings. He was one with the rest of the Keepers, one with the Shanshus, one with the Archivists, and one with the great tree in which the Encoding Ritual took place.

As Charlie sank deeper into the trance, an image arose from his own memory lattice. He saw his younger self stumbling over his own feet, meeting Starfire for the first time. Regal and elegant, the old raven called out, “Grawky!” and flapped his wings in greeting. “Blue eyes?” he had said. “You are not yet old enough to be a Keeper.”

Yes, sir. Blue eyes, sir,” Charlie had stammered as he grazed wingtips with Starfire. “I’m three years old, sir. My family lives on Cadeña-l’jadia. We’ve all got the Hozey-blue eyes.”

He had been proud the day Starfire probed and measured his memory capacity, and chanted his archival lattice into place, even though he had a headache that lasted for several days afterward. It was worth it; he could hold an exceptionally large lattice, and that made him an especially valuable Keeper.

Charlie remembered well those early days of his training as a Keeper, where he learned all the verses to all the chants. He had spent months with the Shanshus, learning how to sing the verses that put the Keepers into a semiconscious paralysis. Soon my JoEd will report for his training.

The Shanshus’ chanting grew louder, more insistent, and irresistible:

Zhan gink voor man ink fan zhee
Klee zhor mel toc vix kin go klan
Vak jist rax vor gonz chi vang
Slix yor wa dot szi zho bak

The intonations shrank Charlie’s awareness of himself, collapsing his personal memories into a temporarily repressed state, so as not to bleed into the Keeper data he was about to receive. He lost all sensation in his body. He could not move, other than to blink his eyes.

The Shanshus’ verses cajoled Charlie into the Keeper’s Trance where he lost all awareness of past, present, and future. Time ceased; all that existed was the Shanshus’ chanting. Devoid of senses and memory, his awareness knew no bounds and began an expansion that if left unchecked would become indistinguishable from the universe. The crow who knew himself as Charlie would dissolve into the vast emptiness. The Shanshus chanted a boundary that surrounded his awareness and kept his own self—his memories and attachments—intact beneath the trance.

He could hear nothing but the Shanshus, see nothing but a vast darkness as they chanted the Opening Verse of the Emplacement Ritual.

Blik blak glok mok shoo
Zik zak clok bok voo sim coo

Charlie sensed a broadening of space, as if the universe had become instantaneously larger. The chanting slowed and faded into a low hum. The Archivist stepped forward and leaned over him, uttering the Unfolding Verse, a somewhat melodious conglomerate of syncopated sounds that awakened the archival lattice embedded in Charlie’s memory.

All other Keepers and Archivists had receded beyond Charlie’s consciousness; he was aware only of his own lattice unfolding and Starfire’s voice floating somewhere above it. The old raven chanted the Unfolding Verse until the lattice completely expanded into the void space.

Quo fol hozhu gak flo ming
Zinj vox von mi aoh zam
Plak egh zhi gum nond qua yi

The lattice filled Charlie’s awareness with a tree-like structure, comprising a trunk, several main limbs, hundreds of secondary branches with thousands of auxiliary branches that ended in fan-shaped arrays of twigs. Thousands of nodes, located on every branch and twig, were programmed to receive specific data packets.

Starfire intoned a cadenced phrase that opened a node on one of the branches, which glowed with a pale blue light. After a few moments, he chanted another sequence of alliterative verse that encoded genealogical data upon a ribbon that glowed with colored light.

Charlie watched the rainbow-colored ribbon vibrate as Starfire harmonically encoded it with data. The ribbon drifted through the branches of the lattice, seeking the unique node that would open as soon as it felt the specific vibrations intoned by Starfire’s chanting. A node opened, capturing the ribbon, then it closed, and its color changed to yellow. Charlie blinked twice, paused, and blinked two more times, signaling Starfire the data ribbon had been emplaced.

Starfire began another refrain, encoded another data ribbon, and again Charlie watched it laze through his lattice until the unique blue node opened, received, and turned yellow. Over and over again, Starfire repeated the sequence. All day and far into the night, he emplaced data into Charlie’s archival lattice. Finally, as the night sky gave way to a pale gray dawn, Starfire chanted the Resting Verse:

Coo shul ay maas vay wu oh
Bu ee ray shon boy on wee

Majewski awakened to the songs of birds. Nothing else—no train whistles, no car horns, no screeching tires, no sirens. Just birds, a great many of them all chattering at once. This island is a paradise. So far from Washington. Heaven should be this wonderful.

The gray sky spoke of the coming dawn. He sat up and stretched. He could hear Alfredo outside talking to the birds. A strange, guttural squawking sound. The language of the crows. He pushed Stella back into a corner of his memory and rose from his bed and dressed.

Good morning, Thomas,” Alfredo said, as he came through the door. “How did you sleep?”

Like a baby,” Majewski said. “I have not slept that well in weeks, if not years.” He sat down at the table and eyed the strange carved fob hanging from the lamp.

I am glad to hear that,” Alfredo said with a smile. “I was worried about you last night. I thought you had gone into some sort of trance.”

Just some jet lag,” Majewski said, waving his hand. “I felt a little dizzy, that’s all. Don’t give it another thought.”

He watched a hummingbird through the open window as it hovered above a honeysuckle vine and plunged its long beak into a flower. Such a simple life. Majewski was envious.

He took the cup of coffee Alfredo handed him and said, “You know, Alfredo, after teaching for three decades, I took a desk job at Jesuit headquarters in Washington. I thought I could make a difference.”

He watched the hummingbird outside the window poke its beak into another flower.

Got all the way to the inner sanctum, to the office of the North American operation. But what a hellhole it is, headquarters. You have no idea, Alfredo. The place where you’d think brotherhood and Christ-love reigned, you have to watch your back more than perhaps anywhere else on Earth.”

Unlike the shark-infested pools of academia,” Alfredo said. He put a plate of bacon, eggs, and toast in front of Majewski.

But academia does not pretend to be about brotherly love,” Majewski said. He picked up a piece of bacon and bit the end off.

I have been to Washington DC a few times,” Alfredo said. He sat down at the table with his plate. “I found the city itself to be loud and ugly. I have never had any use for such a place, and the political intrigues of the Jesuits, or academia for that matter, never interested me. I just want to be away from all that noise, free to discover the sacred secrets of creation.”

Majewski took a drink of coffee and leaned back, looking out the window. I never want to leave this place. “It’s noisy,” he said, nodding. “Constantly. It’s all a distraction. But I’d like to leave this Earth knowing I accomplished something, Alfredo. My oath as a Jesuit is the furthering of the human spirit in the glory of God. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything of the sort.”

He thought of the stack of letters on his desk, from attorneys suing the Order. And his job was to somehow turn them back, deny or at least delay.

I’m not furthering anyone’s spirit,” he said. “Or glorifying God at all. I don’t even say Mass anymore. I fear I’m nothing but a therapist with a lot of power, a large budget, and the thankless job of managing hundreds of insecure, arrogant, ambitious, ego-driven, so-called holy men with graduate degrees.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “That about nails us, does it not?”

Majewski waved his toast at Alfredo. “Present company excepted, of course. You are most humble and don’t seem to be arrogant or ego-driven. You are the icon of all I ever wanted to be, Alfredo. No, seriously.” He held a hand up and turned his head away as if not listening to any protests. “Your scholarship is excellent. Do not discount your contribution. Your postgraduate work on corvid behavior is still the authority on the subject. And I am envious of your freedom, your life here.”

Majewski watched a robin swoop down to the ground and hop around for a few seconds before pulling a fat worm out of the ground. The Law of the Food Chain. So simple. So easy to understand.

Have you thought about retiring, Thomas?” Alfredo said. He sipped his coffee. “You have served the Order for your whole life. Perhaps it is time to step off the merry-go-around and do something that replenishes your spirit.”

I’d love to retire,” Majewski said. “But what would I do? Come to Wilder Island and build myself a cabin? Watch birds all day?”

Research!” Alfredo said. “May I interest you, as a linguist, in the first study of the corvid-human dialect?”

A magpie flew to the windowsill and walked back and forth scolding, it seemed to Majewski.

Cre–ak cre–ak, sca–reee!” The long, blue-black tail whipped up and down, punctuating whatever it was saying.

Do you understand the speech of magpies also?” Majewski asked. “I know they are corvids, but that didn’t sound much like crow-speech.”

Very astute observation, Thomas,” Alfredo said, smiling. “The magpies and jays have thick accents—for lack of a better word. Just as we have many different speech patterns within our country—the Southern vernacular is different from the New England accent, yet both are American English and readily understood by English-speaking folks. But to answer your question, I can speak with all corvids, though crows and ravens are generally more interested in talking to me.”

The magpie pecked on the windowsill, screeching. “Ka-rawk! Ka-chek! Ska-wee!”

What did this magpie say?” Majewski asked.

She said, ‘More bacon next time, if you please!’”

All that?” Majewski said. “I only heard about three or four different sounds, less than ten syllables.” He mopped up the last of his eggs with a piece of toast, wondering if he should save it for the magpie.

Yes, Alfredo said. “I did hear all that. I hear more nuances within the corvid speech than you and most other humans do.” The magpie pecked impatiently on the windowsill, and he tossed her a bit of toast. “I think the same must be true for composers. They hear more in the music than we average folks do. They understand and can speak its language more fluently than the rest of us. I cannot help but wonder if this ability, whether in hearing music or the language of the corvid, may be inherited.”

The magpie turned her attention back to Majewski, croaking at him earnestly, her tail whipping up and down as she paced back and forth on the windowsill. “As in a Patua’ gene?” Majewski said, somewhat aghast. He put a corner of his toast on the windowsill, and she snapped it up. “While I want to say that’s preposterous, it’s certainly a scientific approach.”

The magpie pecked on the windowsill. “Cree-ak-ak-ak!”

What a little piggy you are!” Majewski said with a smile. He put a larger piece of toast on the windowsill.

The bird looked down at the bread, then at Majewski. “Cree-ak-ak-ak!” she said, and pecked the windowsill.

We’ve cracked the human genome,” he said, wondering what the magpie wanted, “this is true. But identifying a particular gene that causes a certain trait is not very straightforward, Alfredo. Frequently there is a pair or set of traits that occur together. Or a protein that switches a gene on or off. It’s quite complicated.”

I know that,” Alfredo replied. He put a bit of bacon on the windowsill; the magpie beaked it and flew away. “But there is some evidence that the trait runs in families, a bit more rare than twins, but we do see some continuity that does not appear random.”

Majewski frowned. “We? You’ve been talking about this corvid-human language with others?” Only yesterday he felt almost indignant disbelief at the very idea. And now he was intrigued, in spite of his doubts. And jealous.

Alfredo left the table and came back with a coffee carafe. He filled their cups and said, “We means me and the Great Corvid Council. Over the eons, they have constructed a huge database of genealogical information, such as all Patua’ births, deaths, marriages, etc., of all crows and ravens, since the beginning.”

Majewski’s mouth dropped open, and he shook his head in astonishment. He reached for the sugar bowl. “The Great Corvid Council? A governing body keeping track of the Patua’? And I thought merely talking to these creatures was incredible!” He stirred a teaspoon of sugar into his tea, watching the mini-maelstrom he created.

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am embarrassed at times at my own ego-centrism. The corvids have quite humbled me, yet I still sometimes catch myself being amazed. At what? That another species has evolved a highly sophisticated oral tradition that is excruciatingly detailed yet completely organized, accessible, and is thousands of years old? How dare I?”

Alfredo stood up and cleared the table. He filled the small sink, adding the leftover warm water from the teakettle. “The Captain will be here in an hour or so to take you to the mainland. What would you like to do in the meantime?”

Let me help you, Alfredo,” Majewski said. He grabbed a towel and dried as Alfredo washed their breakfast dishes. “I’d like to visit the chapel again before I leave,” Majewski said.

 

Charlie remained incapacitated even after the data ribbons of Patua’ births, deaths, and marriages had responded to Starfire’s Sorting Chant and had disappeared into the storage nodes. Though he had no ability to respond or even feel surprise, he heard Starfire chant a strange verse he had never heard before:

Aka-kaka-gak-a-zhak
Eeka-keeka-geeka-zheek
Uku-kuku-guku-zhuk

 

Charlie watched a single node suddenly glow purple and eject a small white fireball that flashed and glittered in the dim interior of the lattice. It was not a data packet; it did not unroll into the typical ribbon, but bounced through the lattice like a shiny rubber ball.

Charlie felt vaguely puzzled by the fireball ricocheting through his lattice. It seemed to be severing connections between the nodes, which gave up a puff of white light just before they went dark. He had no capacity to react, but he understood that something was terribly wrong, and he blinked rapidly until he heard Starfire reciting the Rescue Verse.

Zhoomoo weemwoo oomee moo
Oomoo weemoo shoomee woo

Moments before he lost consciousness, a cool breeze flowed through Charlie’s lattice, as it suddenly shut down.

 

Starfire chanted the new verse, designed to access the Keeper’s own lattice. “We are missing Patua’,” he had told Hookbeak. “I think I can locate them in the Keeper’s memories.”

Though Hookbeak had vehemently forbidden him to even think about it, Starfire nonetheless pursued his hypothesis. He had wandered through the lattices of several Keepers and had found nothing. “I know they are there,” he had insisted to Hookbeak. Charlie had volunteered for this search, having understood the importance of finding the missing Patua’.

When the strange fireball ejected from Charlie’s lattice, he made a quick copy of it and transferred it to his personal lattice for later analysis. Of course it would be like studying a snapshot of a multidimensional object, but it was the best he could do. If only I could dive down the node that ejected it; I could at least find where it came from.

Foamy spittle appeared on Charlie’s beak, and he began to shake. Starfire recited the Rescue Verse and watched Charlie’s eyes continue to blink rapidly. His breathing was labored. Great Orb! I cannot lose another one!

He chanted until he was hoarse, then exhaled in great relief when Charlie’s blinking finally slowed, then stopped. The crow’s chest rose and fell with the rhythm of a deep healing sleep. Starfire posted a novice to watch over him while he slept and wrapped himself in his own thoughts, contemplating the fireball in Charlie’s lattice.

Never had he seen such a phenomenon. Clearly it had come through the Archival Lattice into Charlie’s personal memory. That was not supposed to happen, and he wondered if the sphere was a sign that the lattice had suffered some structural damage during the ritual. Perhaps I need to run a diagnostic on the Archival Lattice.

Starfire glanced at Charlie, who remained deep in a near-comatose state. He was grateful the crow had volunteered for a personal lattice search. Jayzu’s sudden appearance had invigorated Starfire’s cherished hypothesis of a secret underground into which the Patua’ had disappeared centuries ago. The idea had enchanted the raven for years; he was an historian after all. He had spent much time searching the archival lattice for clues to their whereabouts, and then Jayzu suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

We didn’t know about him,” Starfire had told Hookbeak. “Jayzu is not in our database.”

When Starfire heard the rumor that Floyd and Willy had found a genuine Patua’, he summoned them both for questioning, releasing them several hours later, wrung dry of every piece of information they knew about the new Patua’.

He recalled the day the two brothers told him how they liked to perch in the tree at the edge of the duck pond on the campus of the university in Ledford. It was a popular place for students, occasional faculty, ducks, geese, and crows to eat lunch.

A man strolled by,” Floyd said, “a man with a white streak in his hair.”

And when he threw chunks of bread into the water for the ducks, I said to Floyd, ‘I like a man who feeds the animals. It shows true character and compassion.’”

And then he sat down on the bench below us,” Floyd said, “and took out his lunch.”

A ham sandwich from the look of it,” Willy said. The two brothers nodded at each other, remembering.

And potato chips,” Floyd said. “He had potato chips.”

So I said I loved potato chips,” Willy said. “And he looked up and saw us.”

And then,” Floyd said, “he put two potato chips on the bench next to him, and he said in a loud voice, ‘I like a crow who joins me in conversation befitting an educated mind.’”

Floyd and Willy cracked up and high-fived each other. Starfire rebuked them and said, “And then what happened?

We, uh,” Willy said, “dropped down and introduced ourselves.” He turned to Floyd and reenacted the scene for Starfire. “Grawky, Mr., uh—”

Grawky, fellas,” Floyd said, taking the man’s part. “I am Father Alfredomanzi.”

Father? I asked him,” Willy said, his head cocked to one side. “Father of whom?”

And he said, ‘Father of no one,’ Floyd said. “And then he told us he is a Jayzooit priest.” He turned to his brother. “Isn’t that right, Willy?”

Yah!” Willy said, nodding. “A Jayzooit priest and a perfessor.”

Starfire had presumed that all Patua’, living or dead, resided in the vast, interconnected corvid database. Ever since Bruthamax, who had provided a huge repertoire of names, dates, and locations of the descendants of the lost tribes of the Patua’ living in America, they had kept track. The question continued to haunt him. “Why was Jayzu not in our database?”

 

Charlie awoke at dawn; the effects of the mildornia berries had not completely worn off. Generally the Keepers needed three full days to recover, and he had had but one night, after undergoing a particularly rigorous ritual. He perched dizzily on his branch and watched ghost images of memory nodes opening, while colorful ribbons of memories leaped forth for a few moments before diving back into the closing node.

Forgive me, Charlie,” Starfire rumbled, as he struggled to pay attention, “for putting you through such a lengthy ritual. We had an enormous volume of data to emplace. I hope you are not too fatigued.”

No problem,” Charlie said, trying to discern the raven amid the memory streams. “I could use a bite to eat, though. And some water.”

A strange thing happened during our, uh, experiment,” Starfire said. “Something ejected from your lattice, something I have never seen before. At that moment in your trance, you began blinking quite rapidly, signaling that something was amiss. That is why I brought you out.” He looked intently at Charlie.

Charlie swayed a bit on his branch, and Starfire put out a wing to steady him. “Forgive me. I should not burden you so soon after your ritual.”

The other Keepers were already awake and devouring a carp that the novices had brought to the tree. The raven motioned them to bring some food to Charlie. Famished yet stiff from the effects of the mildornia berries, Charlie gulped down all he could eat within minutes. “I feel almost corvid again,” he said, picking a bit of fish gut from his breast feathers.

There is more,” Starfire said, “on yonder branch where the rest of the Keepers are feeding.”

Charlie managed to half walk, half fly the short distance to the group of Keepers. There was still plenty of fish.

Nice that we get fed so well,” a fellow Keeper said to Charlie, “doncha think? Right after we wake up and all? That is true civilization at its finest, if you ask me. I’d go through the Keeper’s Trance every day if I could eat like this the next.”

Several Keepers flapped their wings and croaked their agreement. “It really rocks not to have to find your own food in the morning,” one of them said.

Unfortunately,” another said, “the mildornia berries can only be eaten once every full moon. Eat the berries too often, and they’re poison. You’d keel over dead by morning.”

They say if you stay in trance too long,” someone else said, “you’ll never come out of it. And then you spend your whole life being a zombie Keeper. You’re just a data repository. No flying, no mating, no anything but mildornia berries and carp. ‘Course they have to force feed you ’cause you can’t do anything for yourself, being in permanent trance and all.”

Charlie wondered if that was how the world seemed to Charlotte, those years she spent in the Graying. How different was that from the trance? Where the surrounding world fades and all that remains are one’s oldest memories in the darkness?

 

Alfredo and Majewski walked toward the chapel with the morning in full swing. Majewski saw more birds of all kinds than he ever imagined—crows, blue jays, mockingbirds, sparrows, finches, orioles—in the trees, on the ground, flying, on the chapel roof. And they seemed to be all talking at once.

Thomas,” Alfredo said as they walked, “are we safe from Henry Braun? I had assumed that was the purpose of your visit, to talk about how to fight him off.”

The purpose of my visit,” Majewski said as they arrived, “was to see for myself this wondrous place. And to hear from you that our Brother Maxmillian was insane because he talked to crows, and they didn’t talk back.”

Alfredo laughed. “Sorry I could not deliver, Thomas!”

Oh, you delivered all right. Have no fear!”

They entered the chapel. Majewski went to the kneeler and said a silent morning prayer. When he finished, they left the chapel, and Alfredo indicated they should turn down the path toward the rocky point. “I like to sit down here watching the river flow. It is quite a lovely view,” he said as they walked.

To answer your question, Alfredo,” Majewski said as he followed Alfredo, “I do not intend to allow Henry Braun to get his greedy little hands on this island, if for no other reason than he’s an unctuous, self-serving slime-ball. Forgive me, Father.” He blessed himself as he looked upward.

What if someone in the Order hears about it?” Alfredo asked. “I mean, can you just turn down five million dollars like that? The chapel is not exactly the Notre Dame Cathedral, however sacred and charming you and I find it to be.”

He stopped and pointed to a log. “The view is pretty fabulous from here.”

The riverfront down in MacKenzie isn’t this nice,” Majewski said. “There’s a lot of activity out there! Barges, boats, water skiers.”

A barge blew its horn, warning a couple of speedboats that had crossed right in front of it. Majewski turned toward Alfredo and said, “The matter of whether we sell the island is completely up to me. But, we are going to be proactive and turn this island into a conservation easement, which is a legal instrument that is frequently used to preserve and protect a wetland or a wildlife area from development, both of which we have here.” He gestured all around them.

I see,” Alfredo said. “What would that look like? Who would own the island? What about the chapel? Would it be torn down?”

I wouldn’t think so,” Majewski said. “I envision that the trust will own the island, thanks to a generous donation from the Jesuits. The chapel will remain Jesuit property, and you will continue on as its pastor. The Order can take a tax write-off, you remain on the payroll. No one will bat an eye.”

Excellent, Thomas!” Alfredo said, laughing. “That is excellent. Very poetic.”

I thought so,” Majewski said with a twinkle in his eye. “I got the idea when you told me you wanted to build the bird sanctuary. I’ve got an attorney working on conservation easement documents as we speak. I’ll have her call you. Kate Herron is her name. She probated Brother Maxmillian’s estate for us. And she lives in Ledford, so she has some knowledge of the island. Get together with Kate and figure out how to set it up. I’ll pay her fees and will back whatever you come up with.”

Several crows flew over their heads and landed at the river’s edge where they plucked a meal from the rocks. “Tell me, Alfredo,” Majewski said as he watched, “did you know there was something special about the island before you came?”

I had heard of the island,” Alfredo answered, “when I was a graduate student. I came across some strange stories of talking crows on Wilder Island, and the name sat in my memory all these years. Then one day, I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check, and I made my way here.”

People need spiritual guidance, and we need to eat,” Majewski said. “I don’t care for the money-grubbing we have to do either. But it is necessary.”

A necessary evil it seems,” Alfredo said with a sigh.

Evil?” Majewski said, almost angrily. “Evil is the sex-abuse the church has been kicking under the rug for centuries.” He sighed wearily. “I’m sorry, Alfredo. I’m just so tired of it all.”

He picked a small yellow flower growing out from under the rock he was sitting on and sniffed it. He twirled the stem between his thumb and forefinger and watched the petals blur into one.

The Jesuits do much that is good, Alfredo,” he said. “Our universities and schools all over the world have helped lift the veil of ignorance from the human race for more than five hundred years.”

A bell sounded from the direction of the dock. “That is the Captain telling us he is here to take you to the mainland,” Alfredo said as he stood up. “We will go by my cottage on the way, and you can grab your suitcase.”

I envy you this life you have made for yourself,” Majewski said as they walked. “You could have a department chair somewhere, but you choose instead to live here among the crows. You are a brave soul, my friend. I envy you. May God bless you.”

 

Tell me, Alfredo,” Majewski asked after they left the cottage for the inlet, “do you think that at one time all humans could speak to the corvids?” He could hardly hear himself with the racket in the forest. There must be hundreds of birds up there, all chattering at once. “That would certainly have been a helpful trait.”

True,” Alfredo said loudly. “I suppose the entire race could at one time, but one must wonder then, why would such a useful trait die out? It seems more likely the Patua’ were a race of humans, with genes similar enough to interbreed with the other races. In any case, according to the corvid histories, there were many more Patua’ in times past than now, before the Protestant Reformation and counter-reformation.”

Those were volatile times in Christendom,” Majewski said, wrinkling his brow. “Our Order had just been born. Surely if the Patua’ were of sufficient numbers to be persecuted, the Jesuits must have known of them, wouldn’t you think?”

He followed Alfredo across the small stream that gurgled softly through its rocky course. “Fare thee well!” it seemed to whisper. Majewski stopped and picked a yellow flower growing along the water’s edge. He pulled a small bible out of his briefcase and carefully put the flower between its pages.

I would think the Patua’ must have been known to the Order,” Alfredo said as they started to walk again. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast. That alone would have been highly appreciated.”

They arrived at the inlet where the Captain was waiting. A crow perched on the rail, seemingly chatting away, Majewski noticed. But there were no other crows around. Is it talking to the Captain? Is he Patua’ too?

The two priests embraced. “You have given me much to think about,” Majewski said, “and I am deeply grateful. My life in Washington DC has isolated me from the grand mysteries of the universe, both scientific and spiritual. I have missed both.”

You are welcome here any time, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “And I hope you will consider a Patua’ research project.”

Oh, I am interested,” Majewski said, a broad grin streaking across his face. “You can count on that. I just don’t know how long it will take me to divest myself of my duties.”

He sailed away on the Captain’s boat, looking back at Alfredo waving to him from the banks. He imagined Stella living on Wilder Island, happily gabbing with the crows. He shook his head at his own fantasy. If she even lives.

He took one last look at the island. Dear Lord, grant me this kind of peace someday.

 

 

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