Corvus Rising – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

The River Queen

 

Henry Braun awaited the Mayor’s press conference with Jules. The sun came in through a tall window, casting a swath of light across the Persian rug. Two crows stared in the window at him; he got up from his chair, walked over to the window and drew the curtains closed.

Why can’t I keep those foul birds off my windowsill,” he growled. The darkened room oppressed him, but that was preferable to having those damn crows watching his every move.

Jules laughed at Henry’s unintended pun. “They’re probably spies,” he joked. “Sent over by the good Father Manzi.”

But Henry was in no mood for jokes. He switched a lamp on and sat down in his chair. Henry the First smiled down on him from the paneled wall above. “No worries, Henry!” he said. “The island is as good as yours!”

Of course it is! Thank you Great-Grandfather! Somewhat relieved of his anxiety, Henry pushed a button on a remote control device, which opened a cabinet on an adjacent wall, revealing a large flat-screen television. He pushed another button, and the screen came to life.

Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, Henry,” Jules said. “Think about it, Henry! You’ve won!”

Henry glanced nervously at the soundless screen, wishing Jules would shut up. “Yeah, but what if someone steps up and outbids me?”

Step up from where, Henry?” Jules offered him one of his own cigars from the humidor on his desk. “The Vatican? Relax. Seven more days and the island is yours.”

Don’t jinx it!” Henry snapped, nervous that Jules had used the number seven. My unluckiest number. He bit off the end of his cigar and bathed it thoroughly with his saliva before letting Jules light the end.

That would require someone with a greater passion than you to own the island, Henry.” Jules leaned back in his chair. “Don’t you think we would know by now if there was another interested party?”

Henry shrugged. Logic was no comfort at a time like this. The Mayor’s face appeared on the screen, and he turned up the volume.

Good citizens of Ledford,” the Mayor’s flabby mouth said. He licked his lips and smiled into the camera. “It is my great pleasure to announce that, after a two-week period in which you the public has a right to comment, the city of Ledford hopes to condemn Wilder Island as a nuisance under the country’s eminent domain laws. I am certain that the good people of this city will agree that we should move forward and develop the island into a resort park, as Mr. Henry Braun has proposed. Or perhaps a shopping mall, or a business park, all of which would bring money and jobs to our city.”

In great relief, Henry wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. He relaxed into his chair and inhaled deeply on his cigar. Henry the First smiled warmly down upon him. He exhaled gratefully.

Once the island has been properly developed,” the Mayor said, his head bobbing like a large bird, “the revenue from the island will be such that we can do away with property taxes altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice? Perhaps the city could end the gross receipts tax on all goods. How about them apples? More money to spend, more jobs. Folks, we are on the threshold of a new future for our fair city. A whole new day of prosperity.”

A gaggle of reporters crowded around the Mayor’s podium, and all shouted their questions at once. “Will the people have a say who buys the island?” a reporter managed to shout above the rest. “Or is Henry Braun a shoo-in?”

Wilder Island will be sold to the highest bidder,” the mayor said. “Seven days after the commentary period is over.”

Seven again. Henry’s sense of well-being breached, and a shroud of catastrophe loomed suddenly over him. What if the investors double-cross me? He had invited his wealthiest friends in the business community to a picnic on the island, where he would plant his own flag, claiming the island as his. What if … his shoulders slumped, and he raised his suffering eyes up to the portraits of his ancestors.

Be a man!” Henry the First said, his stern face whipping Henry into an upright position. “Only women whine about what will be. Seize today, and tomorrow is yours!”

Dr. Russ Matthews, board member of the recently established Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust, happened to be in his office when the TV station called him for comment on the city’s eminent domain ruling.

I’m disappointed,” he told the reporter. “We will rally the people to say no to developing the island. Wilder Island is a landmark in this city. The very identity of Ledford is tied up in this island. Commercial development will destroy it, whether it’s Henry Braun building a casino resort, or Joe Schmoe building a mall or a motor speedway. It’s a matter of who we want to be, who we want to project to the outside world.”

How do you intend to stop it?” the reporter asked.

With a grassroots uprising,” Russ answered. “We need to stand up, all of us, and just say no to destroying this jewel in our midst. Some things money can buy. Our Wilder Island heritage isn’t one of them.”

The phone rang again as soon as Russ hung up with the reporter. “Pull the trigger!” Kate said on the other end of the line. “Launch the Beg-a-thon!”

Henry and Jules convened back in his office after another superbly cooked dinner. Whatever Minnie’s faults were, Henry always appreciated his wife’s culinary talents, though he hardly ever told her so. Why should he? Did she ever thank him for providing her with such a luxurious and opulent mansion?

The six o’clock news replayed the Mayor’s afternoon announcement and showcased the spectacular model of Ravenwood Resort as an example of what could be done with the island. The camera zoomed in on the adorable little River Queen and its tiny lights.

Everyone in Ledford is invited!” Henry’s smiling and somewhat giddy face said as the camera panned slowly over the paddleboat. “Come on down to the city dock on Saturday or Sunday for a free ride around Wilder Island on my beautiful River Queen!”

Several local radio stations broadcast a Public Service Announcement on behalf of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. The student-run station at the university broadcast a panel discussion with Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi on the condemnation ruling.

Help us save Wilder Island from the bulldozers!” a woman’s voice came over the airwaves. “Come on out to the arts and crafts fair this weekend at the Waterfront. We’ve got over two hundred artists featuring all things Wilder, and a silent auction to help keep our island wild. Stop by the Friends of Wilder Island booth and buy a share in the island, get a free flag with the Wilder Island logo, and become part of the land trust. We need your help!”

Henry reached over to the radio and shut it off with an angry twist of his wrist. “Who the hell do they think they are anyway?” he growled. “The freaking Public Broadcasting Service? For crying out loud, are they trying to dupe the public into buying into their land trust scheme?”

As a matter of fact,” Jules said blandly, “some of these stations subscribe to much of the programming from PBS. Your tax dollars at work, Henry.”

Henry scowled at Jules, wondering why his attorney seemed to enjoy toying with him. “I’m not talking about the university’s commie student radio station,” he ranted. “I’ve had just about enough of this sham outfit, this so-called land trust. I want you to do something about it, Jules.”

Like what, Henry?” Jules swirled the wine in his glass.

Discredit them,” Henry said. “Find something wrong with these troublemakers—the Matthews, for instance. Dr. Smarty-Pants college professor and his so-called artist wife. Find out why Manzi showed up here all of a sudden. Who can trust a Catholic priest these days? Find out who else is involved in this scam to cheat me out of my rightful inheritance.”

His hands shook as he poured himself a glass of wine, slopping a few drops onto the floor. He moved his shoe back and forth across the wet spot, disbursing it over a wider area.

And then what, Henry?” Jules said. “Beatings with a rubber hose? Cement overshoes? You won, for God’s sake! The city condemned the island.”

The wine Henry spilled had disobediently beaded up on the waxed hardwood floor. He scowled at the red raindrops and patted his pocket for a handkerchief.

Look, Henry,” Jules said, “you’re taking the whole town for a ride on the River Queen. You think they’ve got something better? An arts and crafts fair? Selling worthless shares in a land trust? Don’t make me laugh!”

Jules laughed, and Henry tried to calm his anxiety. The drops of spilled wine on the floor reminded him of blood. His blood. My blood, sweat, and tears have all gone into this island!

While you’re at it,” Jules continued, “give ’em all five bucks and let ’em waste it in the casino. You’ll hook ’em all, and they’ll stop thinking about their beloved island. Let this commie rabble, as you call them, rattle their chains till the crows come home, for all the good it’ll do them.”

Henry dropped the hanky to the floor and moved it around with his foot, staining its pure white perfection.

The art fair celebrating the wildness of Wilder Island opened on Friday evening, the day after the Mayor’s press conference. Both sides of the river swarmed with humans; at the Waterfront for the fair, and the City Docks to catch a ride on the River Queen. Jade and Russ met Alfredo at the Waterfront boat landing and walked up the stone steps to Riverside Drive, which had been closed to vehicle traffic for the fair.

The wind picked up and carried lighthearted music that bubbled forth from a calliope on board the River Queen across the river. “I feel like thumbing my nose at it,” Jade said. “Except it’s quite lovely. Too bad Henry Braun owns her.”

Jeez,” Russ said as he looked across the river, “look at the size of that crowd!”

Hopefully most of them are coming over here,” Jade said, grasping his hand and leaning into him. “The boat landing is right there too, next to the River Queen.”

So ironic,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. “Henry on one side, us on the other. Wilder Island in the middle.”

A small crowd had assembled around the KMUS student radio station booth where Alfredo, Russ, and Kate would participate in a live discussion regarding the future of Wilder Island. A television news station’s cameraman panned around the fair-going crowd as the reporter blathered something about the Mayor declining his invitation to attend.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” the disc jockey began. “This is KMUS, streaming live from the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts Fair at the Waterfront here in Downtown Ledford. We are here tonight to discuss the fate of our island in light of the Mayor’s announcement today that the city has condemned the island under eminent domain laws.”

A few people stopped to listen. Jade and one of Russ’s students handed them flags bearing the Friends of Wilder Island logo—the skyline of Wilder Island in front of a huge full moon. Jade had taken particular delight in modeling a subtle image of a crow into the moon.

Our guests this evening are MU biology professors Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi, both board members of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. Manzi, we should note, is also the pastor of the old hermit’s chapel on the island. And lastly we have Ms. Kate Herron, attorney for the land trust.”

The DJ’s voice boomed out over the loudspeakers, attracting more people to the live broadcast. Flags waved, and a few people called out, “Save Wilder Island!” The music from the calliope swelled for a moment before disappearing on a downriver breeze.

Before we get into the ramifications of condemnation,” The DJ said, “let’s start with the basics. Ms. Herron, can you tell us exactly what does condemnation under eminent domain laws mean?”

It means the government can steal your property!” a man shouted.

The small crowd waved flags amid catcalls and shouts of disapproval: “They can do that?” “Down with Braun!” “Preserve the wilderness!” “Wilder Island!”

It means ‘compulsory purchase,’” Kate replied, after the noise had abated somewhat. “The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution grants the right to local, state, and federal governments to condemn and confiscate private property, so long as it’s subsequently used for the public good, and the owner is paid a fair price. But the property owner has no choice. He must sell.”

A man in the back yelled out, “Get the government’s hands off my property!”

Flags waved wildly, and the crowd shouted, “No! No! No!”

The government can just sell your property to a private developer?” the DJ asked, turning the mic up. “I thought they could only do that, take your land, for roads, bridges, schools maybe—things like that.”

That’s been the traditional use of the eminent domain clause,” Kate said, nodding. She looked over her mic at the crowd. “But a couple years ago, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of public good to include creating jobs and increasing revenues to the government. That automatically expanded the permissible land uses under which government bodies may exercise eminent domain. Prior to that, it was used, as you said, for schools, hospitals, roads, et cetera.”

But, why?” the DJ asked. “It seems so un-American.”

The people in the crowd nodded, and the man in the back hollered, “It is un-American!” He led another chant of “No! No! No!”

The television station’s cameraman panned around the rowdy crowd again, and Jade wished momentarily that the guy in the back would be quiet. But she quickly changed her mind, realizing that was what the land trust was trying to do—stir the people up. I hope this makes it to the evening news.

What about the hermit’s chapel?” the DJ asked. “Aren’t churches protected from eminent domain?”

No,” Kate said. “Nothing is protected. Not even churches.”

They’re going to tear down the hermit’s chapel?” a woman shouted out from the crowd. The crowd blew up again, waving flags and yelling, “No! No! No!”

Is Wilder Island doomed then?” the DJ asked, turning his mic up again. “Is this a done deal? Is there nothing we can do?”

We’ve got two weeks,” Kate said. “And we plan to be heard.”

As the Friends of Wilder Island prepared the arts and crafts fair for opening night at the Waterfront, the River Queen was released from her moorings at the timber mill, and by late Friday afternoon, she had docked at the City Boat Landing. Like a siren song, the calliope aboard the beautiful paddleboat beckoned Ledford residents to come aboard for a free tour. Complete with two restaurants, a pub, and a daycare center, the River Queen also offered slot machines, bingo, and blackjack.

Henry had never had children of his own, but somehow he knew what kids liked. He spared no expense on the childcare center, with video games, jungle gyms, playhouses with miniature functioning appliances, and a plethora of building blocks, erector sets, and Lincoln logs. Big floppy pillows and blow-up furniture gave the childcare center a cartoonish aura. Plus a number of part-time extremely sweet-tempered high school girls to look after them with a licensed Day Care Operator to supervise the whole shebang.

While the folks of Ledford crowded the decks of the River Queen and stood in line to play the slots, Henry sat glued to the television in his penthouse apartment on the roof of the boat. The live KMUS broadcast, televised from the arts and crafts fair at the Waterfront really irritated him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shut it off.

So, if the city condemns the island,” the DJ said, “the trust will be forced to sell it to the highest bidder?”

The camera panned to the flag-waving crowd shouting, “No! No! No!”

Dammit! I should have had flags made. Henry’s stomach hurt. The relentless calliope down on the deck had given him a headache. He wished he could turn it all off, the TV, the calliope, everything, and just have some peace and quiet.

Yes,” the attorney Kate Herron said, tossing her red hair back over her shoulder. “But the land trust has two protective overlays, which ensure that while we can’t stop eminent domain, we can force whoever buys the island to conform to our restrictions on what may and what must be done with it. We’ve restricted the land use to a bird sanctuary and botanical research station. And we’ve got a ninety-nine year lease with the Jesuits on the chapel, which they still own.”

The crowd cheered, and Henry picked up the remote and muted the sound with an angry flick of his wrist. “What the hell, Jules? Is she blowing smoke, or does that commie land trust think they can tell me what to do with my island?” He peeled his eyes away from the television and looked at Jules. “Can they?”

Relax, Henry,” Jules said, waving his hand at the image of Kate Herron on the TV. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as telling someone what they can and can’t do with their private property. It’s quite un-American, don’t you think?”

Damn right.” Henry said. Don’t play with me, you overpaid land shark. One of these days …

But if it’ll make you feel better,” Jules said, “I’ll file an injunction against this land trust having any legal status to demand anything.”

The television had taken Henry’s attention, and he made no reply.

While we can’t protect ourselves from eminent domain in the court of law,” Kate Herron said into the camera, “the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust has the legal standing to represent the interests of the island in court. And, we can catalyze public sentiment to save it from development. Which we fully intend to do.”

Henry glared at Jules. “She’s full of crap, Henry,” Jules said. “There is no stopping eminent domain.”

I understand we can all become members of the land trust,” the DJ said. “Is that correct?”

Yes,” Alfredo Manzi replied, “anyone may purchase shares in the land trust. We invite the entire city out to the arts and crafts fair, where we have a booth staffed with volunteers to sell shares in the island.”

Henry snorted. “My arse! Soaking the public for worthless shares in a bird swamp, you swindling hypocrite!” He threw a pillow at Alfredo Manzi’s image on the TV.

Oh, they’re not entirely worthless, Henry,” Jules said. “People can line their birdcages with them.”

Both men laughed. Henry opened the humidor on the end table next to him, took out two cigars, and handed one to Jules.

We do not advocate saving Wilder Island for nostalgic reasons only,” Russ Matthews was saying as the two men lit their cigars, “though people do have a right to their lore, their stories, the connection to their past. But look at the revenue this island generates by its very solitary existence in our midst.”

Henry burst out laughing. Shaking his head, he looked in amazement at the TV. “Oh, that’s a good one! Revenue from the bird swamp!” He slapped his knees, laughing. “They can’t be serious!”

The city logo features the Wilder Island skyline,” Russ Matthews said, as if listing the glorious money-making opportunities the island was engaged in. “The tourist industry relies heavily on the island, as do many businesses for their brands—the Cold Raven Brewery, the Crow’s Nest, for example.”

Correct,” Kate Herron said. “Wilder Island is by no means derelict, so the assertion that the island produces nothing is just flat wrong.”

I’ll flat wrong you, you miserable tree-hugger. Henry shook his fist at the TV. He hated attorneys, all of them. Up to and including his own. Slimy bastards! But he retained Jules. As he had told his wife, Minnie, “I need a lawyer to keep me out of the trouble that I wouldn’t get into if there weren’t any lawyers.”

We must all rise up and say no to condemnation,” Kate Herron said. “The only weapon we have is public sentiment; that’s the only thing that will save Wilder Island.”

Public sentiment? We’ll see, my pretty, where public sentiment lies after they ride on my River Queen!

We are not opposed to development or entertainment,” Russ Matthews said. “But we ask: can this Ravenwood Resort not be built somewhere else?”

Good question, Dr. Matthews,” the DJ said. “Perhaps Mr. Braun could answer that, but he elected to not be with us tonight.”

Bastards never invited me,” Henry growled as he muted the sound. He leaned back into the couch, puffing out seven smoke rings as he exhaled.

Oh, but they did, Henry,” Jules said. “You turned them down, remember? We decided you wouldn’t engage with them at all because it doesn’t serve our interests to debate them. Remember?”

Henry grumbled into his chest. It was true; he didn’t want to be their straw man. He had dignity.

Forget about them!” Jules said, waving his cigar in the air. “Fight fire with water! Convince the people of Ledford that your resort has something wonderful for everyone in the family, while this land trust has a dark, spooky island that no one other than the priest is allowed to step foot on.”

Henry nodded dully and stared at the soundless TV. He wished Jules would shut up. He got up and left his penthouse and scowled when Jules joined him at the railing.

You did a great job refurbishing this old bitch, Henry,” Jules said as they looked down on the deck below. He took a long drag from his cigar. “When I first saw her, I didn’t think you’d be able to clean her up. But she’s a classy lady now.”

She’s a beauty, Mr. Braun!” someone yelled from the deck.

Henry waved and yelled down to the man, “Come back tomorrow, you hear? Catch a ride on the Queen!”

 

Charlie and his young son JoEd perched in the branches of a basswood tree, listening to strains of music that wafted across the river from the calliope on the promenade deck of the River Queen. JoEd gazed in fascination at the beautiful paddleboat. Elegant yet perky, the River Queen charmed him with her bright red paint, white trim, and golden railings. Oh! And the big red paddlewheel! He had never seen anything so amazing.

JoEd had spent his entire fledgehood deep in the swamps and forests of Cadeña-l’jadia and in the branches above the tree house. Ever since that day his zazu had taken him around the periphery of the island and he’d beheld his weebs’s homeland across the river, buildings mesmerized him. When his zazu told him the River Queen was a building that floated on water, he could hardly believe it.

But believe it he did as he watched her float slowly across the river to the City Docks. Speechless with awe, JoEd couldn’t take his eyes off the magnificent River Queen.

Zazu,” he said as he turned toward his father.

Go!” Charlie said, without waiting for his son to ask. “Fly on over and check it out. But be home by sunset; you know how your weebs worries.”

Without a word, JoEd took to the air and flew across the river toward the River Queen. The music got louder as he approached, and he realized the bugs crawling all over the boat were actually humans. He looked back toward Cadeña-l’jadia. It seemed so far away in its brooding green solitude. But the colorful riverboat and the teeming life it hosted were irresistible to JoEd. Though his heart was beating very fast, and he was a little scared, he bravely flew right to the roof of the River Queen and grasped the golden railing that wound all the way around the topmost layer of the boat.

JoEd had only ever seen one human up close—Jayzu. He looked down upon the humans milling around and said out loud, “How do they tell each other apart? They all look the same!”

Not really,” a voice said. JoEd turned to see another crow standing on the roof.

The differences are subtle,” an older crow said, “but after a while, you can see them. Some you can even pick out of crowds, but those are special humans.”

Like Jayzu?” JoEd asked. “He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Everyone knows Jayzu,” the crow said. “He is Patua’, like Bruthamax. But you can tell even the regular humans apart if you live around them long enough. You get to know who is naughty and who is nice.”

Oh,” JoEd said. “What do the naughty ones look like?”

It’s not what they look like,” the crow said. “They’re all butt-ugly if you ask me. But there among the masses are those who distinguish themselves by their actions, be they good or evil. Those humans we know. The others, well, they’re a bit like cattle, don’t you think?” He peered over the edge at the people milling around the docks.

Before JoEd could ask what cattle meant, another crow joined them on the roof.

Hey there, Antoine,” the new arrival said. “How’re things?”

Oh, not bad, Tobias,” Antoine said, “not bad at all. Thanks for asking. Say, young fella,” he turned to JoEd, “you got a name?”

JoEd,” he croaked, wishing he sounded more grown-up.

Well, grawky there, JoEd,” Tobias said.

First time he’s seen so many humans, that’s what he said,” Antoine told Tobias. The two crows nodded knowingly.

Must not be from the city then,” Tobias said. “Place is crawling with ’em.”

He just flew in from Cadeña-l’jadia for the festivities,” said Antoine. “There’s but one human there.”

Ah,” said Tobias, cocking his head to one side. “He’s a friend of Jayzu then.”

The sights and sounds of the paddleboat astonished JoEd. There was so much to see! So many humans! More crows landed on the railing, and he scooted over to make room. Three more crows came in for a landing on the roof and cackled their greetings to Antoine, Tobias.

I’m JoEd,” he said, putting a wing out to the young female crow next to him. “Are you from around here?”

She brushed her wing across his and said, “I’m Shannon. I was hatched and fledged Downtown. That’s the best place for festivities!”

My weebs came from Downtown too!” JoEd said. “I’ve never been there though.” He looked across the river toward his mother’s homeland. So beautiful, how it sparkled like water almost.

Are you here for the festivities?” Shannon asked.

He didn’t know what festivities meant, but so far it seemed to be a good thing. Lots of noise and excitement, and there were delicious odors in the air, all new and enticing.

I didn’t know about the festivities,” JoEd said. “I came to see the paddleboat. That’s what my zazu said this is.”

Oh, I didn’t know that!” Shannon said. “I watched it float in like a great big duck, kind of, except it looks more like a house.”

A couple of humans came out onto the deck below them and leaned against the railing. They waved their arms and shouted some things JoEd couldn’t understand.

Do they have festivities often?” JoEd asked Shannon. “I’m from Cadeña-l’jadia, and this is the first time I have been to any festivities.”

All the time,” she said. “But this one looks like it’s going to be a doozy!”

Many dozens of crows arrived on the rooftop over the next half hour, and it seemed to JoEd that they all knew each other. There were a great many crows on Cadeña-l’jadia, and he knew them all, but here were so many new beaks! He walked through the growing crowd of crows, introducing himself. He tucked every one of their names into the lattice of his memory.

And the names of the new food.

Man,” Antoine said, “I love hot dogs. One of the human’s greatest inventions, if you ask me.”

Nah,” Tobias said, “it’s the French fry. Oh! Glorious fries! I could live off them, I tell you what.”

JoEd had never seen a hot dog or a French fry and had no idea what they were, but they sounded exotic and tasty. “Is that what I smell?” he asked. “Hot dogs and French fries?”

And hamburgers,” said Antoine, “which also means pickles and onions.”

Thank the Orb humans are so clumsy,” Tobias said, “else we wouldn’t eat so well.”

Yes,” Antoine agreed, “they are quite wasteful too, bless their hearts. And come morning, we, the mighty volunteers, shall clean the docks of burgers, fries, and whatnot for our human brethren.”

Tobias chuckled and said, “Indeed. Though it is a thankless job, we are dedicated.”

Dedicated to gluttony,” a new arrival said.

May we never have less!” Antoine shouted.

Gluttony! Gluttony!” the crows all cried out to the humans below and to the skies above. “Gluttony!”

Good thing we came early,” Antoine said to JoEd. “You just stay put right here. We got good roosting and front-row seats to the banquet. There won’t be any roosting spots, good or bad, come sundown. You just wait; there’ll be food everywhere, come morning. All over the decks, all over the riverbank, the docks. Everywhere.”

The world beyond the island captivated JoEd. Paddleboats! Festivities! Food everywhere! And a doozy!

The Beg-a-thon ended, and Alfredo, Russ, and Kate found Sam and Jade were mobbed by people at the land trust booth. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a share in the future of Wilder Island. They jumped in, and the five of them sold shares until the crowd dwindled enough that they could leave the booth in the hands of the volunteers.

The fair occupied two city blocks along the Waterfront, two double rows of booths, one on each side of Riverside Drive. The mysterious Wilder Island forest had long attracted many artists, who generated a multitude of art from all its seasons. The variety of ways in which people used the black birds and tree line silhouette of Wilder Island as art motifs was astonishing, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

This is how the people of Ledford show their love for their island,” Alfredo said as the friends strolled past the booths at the arts and crafts fair.

Paintings of all genres depicted the island’s many moods: The Cliffs of Wilder Island; Wilder Island in the Mist; Storm on Wilder Island; Wilder Island at Dawn; Sunset; On a Lazy Afternoon; In the Snow; In a Thunderstorm; Wilder Island under the Full Moon; New Moon; Quarter Moon; and Dark Nights of no moon.

Many artists painted the seasons of Wilder Island Forest: in the fall as the deciduous trees said good-bye to summer in a spectacular rain of colors; the bare winter grays and browns against pale skies; and the blessed relief of spring, expressed by the subtle colors of the flowering trees.

There were literally hundreds of photographs of trees and crows and of the wild river thrashing the shores of the island. The hermit’s chapel appeared in many, sometimes as a holy shrine, sometimes as a dark, enigmatic witness to the island’s solitude. Whether singular or in flocks, on the wing or perch, crows and ravens rose to the unusual occasion of stardom at the fair, as icons of the wild mystery of the island.

The love for Wilder Island appeared in the more mundane objects as well. Crows, ravens, and island silhouettes appeared in T-shirts, key chains, hats, candles, coffee mugs, handbags, and backpacks.

Limited only by the boundaries of the human imagination,” Alfredo said, “gifted to certain individuals more than others. Like Jade and Sam.”

Jade blushed and waved him away, saying, “In some circles, it’s considered madness.”

In others,” Sam said with a grin, “it’s considered a vow of poverty.”

Let’s count how many famous artists died in the poor house!” Kate said cheerfully. “There’s Vincent van Gogh, Beethoven—can we include musicians too?”

Oh, shut up!” Sam said, giving Kate an affectionate shove.

They wandered past a booth of wrought-iron work featuring a coat rack, constructed such that when coats were hung upon it, the crows appeared to be flying off with them. “That would be perfect for your cottage,” Jade said. “Don’t you think, Alfredo?”

I’m hungry,” Kate said. “Can we stop and eat some of this fine food that has been tantalizing my nose and stomach since we got here?”

I too am hungry,” Alfredo said. “I had breakfast once, long ago. On a distant island.” He smiled wanly at the laughter from his friends. “What? Priests cannot be hungry?”

Oh, no,” Jade said through her chuckles. “The thing is, we’re just not used to the idea that priests can have a sense of humor.”

Am I not still human? He laughed to himself. Priest, Patua’–what did it matter? I am still an outcast.

Some of us don’t think of you as a priest,” Kate said with an impish smile. “You’re incognito tonight, though, aren’t you? Without your little white collar?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “Oh, I never wear those! I have a hard enough time with laundry issues on the island without having to care for priestly fashion accessories. Besides, I do not think that God requires my throat to be chafed with stiff, scratchy collars to serve him.” Not that I am much of a priest.

Can’t you just be ‘off duty’?” Russ asked, making little quote marks in the air with his fingers.

Well, yes,” Alfredo replied. “Except I’m never really on duty. I have no congregation that needs my ministrations. Other than baking pre-consecrated Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s, I’m just an ordinary Joe. Part-time priest, part-time professor, full-time human.”

Right,” Kate said, looking at Alfredo through squinted eyes. “You’re an ordinary Joe, Padre. And I’m the tooth fairy! Now, where shall we eat?”

The delightful flavors of many cuisines wafted all around the fair, tantalizing even the most resolute. “There’s tons of food,” Sam said. “We’ll eat well, real cheap, whatever we do. I’ve spent just about every waking hour in the last month planning and arranging this shindig.”

And,” Kate said as she linked her arm into his, “he subjected the food and beverage purveyors to more scrutiny than the artists and craftspeople.”

Jade laughed and said, “That’s true! He was like a rabid dog with the Burger Shack guy.”

No franchises,” Sam said, laughing. “That was the number-one rule. We want local people and local establishments only; that’s what I told ’em. Same as the artists.”

Sam!” Jade said, sniffing the air. “Do I smell Thai?”

Yes, ma’am,” Sam said, tipping his baseball cap. “I tried to represent all the flavors the people of this city like. We’ve got India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand. And of course all the usual American, Mexican, and European suspects—corn dogs, burgers, tacos, corn-on-the-cob, croissants, perogi, brats. You name it, we got it.”

The numerous microbreweries of Ledford were well represented also, thanks to Sam’s rule against franchises. Colorful labels sported such names as Two Crow Brew, Red Raven Ale, Bog Birch Beer, and Crow’s Eye Wild Lager. Wilder Island Brewery, the city’s oldest and finest, committed all profits from their number-one selling beer, Crow Wing Ale, over the weekend of the arts and crafts fair to the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust.

The friends found a table and sat down with their food and beer, laying out a smorgasbord of international cuisine. They ate till they could hold no more.

The sun set gorgeously, reflecting brilliant red, yellow, pink, and orange hues off the fluffy clouds that floated on the horizon. A large flock of crows appeared above the treetops on Wilder Island. Coalescing into a swirling spectacle of black wings, the crows flew a great circular flight pattern against the last colors of the sunset.

Reminiscent of the famed photograph in the city library, Murder of Crows, the crowds at the fair and milling around the River Queen gasped in delight. A roar of approval and applause erupted from both sides of the island, and for a few moments, a pervasive sense of community overtook human and crow, and the spirits of both species soared.

 

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

Illustrations for Chapter 12 – Corvus Rising

The illustrations for my webpage posting of my previously published novel Corvus Rising began with my mother (didn’t everything?). Rita M Simmons left behind a ~50 years of framed paintings, a pile of unframed yet finished watercolors, and a stack of what were probably demos of sky, water, clouds, landscapes, etc…for the painting classes she taught.

To ‘simulate’ Jade’s paintings in this chapter (“Catching the Wind”, and “Leave Me”), I scanned two of Rita’s demos and altered them like all get-out in Photoshop. With a little help from Clip Art.
😁

Rita M Simmons Demo

Illustration for Chapter 12

Rita M Simmons Original Demo

 

Illustration for Chapter 12

Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

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

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Try it!” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

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

 

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

It is Charlotte …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

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

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

Yes.”

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

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

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-but, how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What art fair?” Henry growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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