Corvus Rising – Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

What is This Madness!

 

Father Provincial Thomas Majewski took a taxi from the Ledford airport and met Alfredo at the city boat landing. More than fifteen years had passed since he had last seen him. A few gray hairs made that white streak he had even as a young man a bit less noticeable, but he otherwise had not changed much. The same intense almost black eyes that seemed to see straight into your soul. And he had not lost the warm compassion that had made everyone want to turn him into a priest.

Greetings, Father!” Alfredo said as he and the older priest embraced. “I trust you had a pleasant trip?”

Alfredo, please,” Majewski said. “Call me Thomas. We are old friends, and I want to take a break from being the Father. I hope that is all right?”

But of course, Thomas,” Alfredo said.

They embraced again and after a few comments about their age and well-preserved appearances, the Captain ferried the two Jesuits across the river in what seemed to Majewski more like a floating chunk of forest than a boat. A crow swooped in under the canopy and found a perch on the railing next to the Captain, brushing his outstretched hand with a wing.

A secret handshake among crows and humans? Majewski frowned and immediately banished the thought. “I grew up not too far from here,” he said as he looked downriver. “As the crow flies, probably fifty miles. A little town called MacKenzie.”

I have been there!” Alfredo said. “Are you planning to visit your family while you are here?”

Oh, no,” Majewski replied, shaking his head. “There’s no one to see. My parents are both gone. They sold the house after I moved to Washington, about twenty years ago. None of the rest of the family lives in MacKenzie anymore either.”

There is the old chapel,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the island. “Or at least the roof, though it looks more like a tangle of dead branches from here.”

That’s the miraculous chapel you told me about?” Majewski asked dubiously.

Wait until you are standing inside,” Alfredo said with a smile.

The Captain steered the boat into the inlet and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. The two priests jumped out, and after saying good-bye to the Captain, Majewski followed Alfredo up a sketchy path into the forest. He breathed deeply, inhaling the odors of a living landscape. Big city life had deprived him of the luxurious scent of soil and decaying plant matter and the natural cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.

He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.

For God’s sake, get a grip, Thomas! They’re crows! They probably don’t even notice I’m here. He stopped to catch his breath.

My cottage is just ahead,” Alfredo said. He waited while Majewski wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.

The cottage blended in well with its natural surroundings; they were nearly to the front door before Majewski realized it was there. He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.

My humble abode,” Alfredo said. “You can put your bags inside, and then we will go on to the chapel.”

Incredible!” Majewski said. “Like it’s part of the forest. I didn’t even see it!”

I wanted only the faintest human footprint here,” Alfredo said with a smile.

Inside, Majewski looked up at the roof, constructed of interwoven driftwood branches. “It really does look like a bird’s nest! Reminds me of the pictures of the chapel and Brother Wilder’s tree house. You didn’t build this all yourself, did you?”

Heavens no!” Alfredo said. “I had a lot of help, from a local artisan as a matter of fact, Sam Howard. He helped me to restore the chapel as well.”

He took Majewski’s bags from him and set them in a corner next to a futon. “It doubles as my couch and your bed tonight.”

Very nice!” Majewski said, looking all around. “So cozy—I’m envious! A one-room cabin, perfect for one, but not two. Don’t let me put you out, Alfredo. I can get a hotel in the city.”

Nonsense!” Alfredo said. “You will sleep here tonight. You are not putting me out.” He raised a hand against Majewski’s objections. “I will sleep where I normally do in the summer—in a hammock outside.” He gestured toward the door. “Shall we go on to the chapel?”

Majewski felt the cares of his job in Washington DC recede as they walked through what seemed to him a primeval forest, unsullied by the artificial gods of commerce and greed, and the big business of religion. The utter joy of life abounded, in every leaf and stem, every feather and beak, every whisker and tail hidden in the bushes.

He stood in awed silence outside the little chapel for many moments. “It’s like a living entity, as if it just grew here, right out of the forest floor.”

Much of it did!” Alfredo said. “Living trees hold up the roof, and several varieties of vine plants fill in the spaces between. Brother Maxmillian did a great job building it. All I had to do to restore it was clean it up and trim some of the vines. It was the inspiration for my cottage.”

I can see that,” Majewski said as Alfredo pulled the door open.

They stepped inside. Sunlight infiltrated through the many open spaces in the roof, making a checkerboard pattern on the floor, giving the otherwise dark interior an almost cheery look.

Reminds me of the basilica at our chapel in Rome,” Majewski said, looking up into the upside-down-bird’s-nest roof.

De la Torre’s sister wrote about the Madonna della Strada! Coincidence, or—? He dismissed the thought. Brother Maxmillian was a Jesuit. Why wouldn’t he pattern his chapel after the Jesuit Mother chapel in Rome?

I thought so also,” Alfredo said. “I like to think this chapel is the little sister to the Madonna della Strada. I am thinking of naming it the Madonna del Rio.”

Oh, that’s lovely!” Majewski said. “The Lady of the River. Perfect!”

It will never stick, I am afraid,” Alfredo said. “The locals all call it the hermit’s chapel.”

That works also,” Majewski said, nodding.

The little chapel seemed to vibrate with the very essence of the Holy Spirit, and the old priest felt as if he suddenly weighed less. Even the act of breathing seemed easier. His burdens of guilt and anxiety floated away like balloons. For the first time in his life, Father Provincial Majewski felt the blessings of the Almighty raining down upon him. He felt a sense of peaceful acceptance enfold him, and he reveled in the luxury of the moment.

A ray of sunlight illuminated the kneeler in the middle of the chapel, attracting Majewski’s attention. He ran his hand along the smooth armrest. “Brother Maxmillian prayed here,” he said in awed reverence.

I found a journal under here,” Alfredo said and lifted the top of the armrest. “Brother Maxmillian’s first year on the island.”

Really?” Majewski said, peering into the dark interior. “His own journal? Where is it now?”

In my desk at the university. I found it before my cottage was finished, so I took it there to read and to keep it safe and dry. I looked at it under a microscope. Evidently Brother Max made his own paper and ink!”

Fascinating!” Majewski said. “I’d love to read it sometime.”

I scanned it all into my computer at the university. I will e-mail it to you.”

They made their way outside and down toward the rocky point. They stopped beside the hermit’s grave and Majewski prayed, “Lord Almighty, look with mercy upon your good son, Maxmillian, and keep his soul in the peace and comfort of your most heavenly arms forever.”

At that moment, a flock of crows burst from the trees and sailed overhead. Majewski was startled but not frightened by the intrusion—an unruly cacophony of raucous sounds from a noisy group of crows. “Strange coincidence,” he said. “Those crows, I mean. Flying over just now. Like they were putting their two cents in.” I wonder if Alfredo knows what they said.

Many of them know me,” Alfredo said with a casual smile. “Crows are extremely intelligent, Thomas, and very observant. It is rather well known that crows can pick a human face out of a crowd. Some of them watched me bury Brother Maxmillian’s bones, and here we are standing on that very spot.”

Majewski studied Alfredo’s face for a sign. Does he know about Maxmillian’s sentient crows? Does he speak to crows himself? Majewski was almost sure that he did, though he felt foolish for thinking so.

Come!” Alfredo said, extending his hand. “Let us go back this way.” He led Majewski back toward the chapel. He stopped and pointed to a pile of limestone blocks, bags of sand and a few tools. “Ultimately this will be a garden, but all I have complete is the pool.”

Majewski heard water dripping, and he turned his head toward it.

A narrow rivulet poured over a stack of limestone blocks into a small pool surrounded by wildflowers and grass. “The water comes from a spring right out of these rocks. Sam and I moved a few to catch it. Such springs are everywhere on the island. My water supply depends on one of them.”

Majewski cupped some water in his hands and drank. “Wonderful!” he said. “Nothing like water from a freshwater spring.”

Let us sit down,” Alfredo said as he gestured toward a large gray slab of limestone. “This is a pleasant place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the universe!”

Indeed it is!” Majewski agreed, grateful for the opportunity to rest. “The pond is exquisite!”

Several crows materialized in the trees above the pond and looked down at the two men. Each time Majewski happened to catch the eye of one of them, it turned away. Are they spying on me?

Alfredo,” he started to speak. I was just wondering, do you talk to crows? He was dying to ask but immediately felt foolish for even thinking such a thought. Imagine, the Father Provincial of the North American Chapter of the Society of Jesus asking if a human could talk to a crow!

Brother Maxmillian’s letter seemed to shout from the interior of Majewski’s jacket pocket, “De la Torre knew that some of us can!”

Majewski took Brother Maxmillian’s letter out of his pocket and handed it to Alfredo. “Coincidentally,” he said, “I found this letter, quite by accident, the same day I received Henry Braun’s offer to buy the island. It was written in 1852, by Brother Wilder to his uncle, the Father Provincial at the time, Antoni de la Torre.”

Really?” Alfredo said. “The Antoni de la Torre? Brother Wilder was his nephew?”

Majewski nodded and said, “You’ll be more amazed when you read it.”

Alfredo read the letter, feeling Majewski’s eyes boring into him. Does the Order know about the Patua’? Does Majewski? Is that why he’s here? He tried to keep his face expressionless as he flipped the page over and read it again. God Almighty!

This is incredible,” he said, handing the letter back.

What do you make of it?” Majewski asked. “This claim of Brother Maxmillian’s that he talked to the crows here? Is it not just the heretical babblings of a madman?”

Majewski has never heard of the Patua’ then. Will he think I am a madman?

Well,” Alfredo said, “It could be that he was a madman and his uncle, the Father Provincial tried to hide his nephew’s whereabouts during his life.”

But why?” Majewski asked. “Why would he do that? It’s almost as if he wanted someone to eventually discover the island, and his nephew. What did de la Torre find so special about this island? Other than a place to stash his nutcase nephew.”

Alfredo shrugged. “I do not know. There is really nothing here but trees and crows.” Did de la Torre know about the Patua’? “Maxmillian would be a freak even in our time. A good question, though—why the great Father Provincial Antoni de la Torre would want him remembered.” I should ask Charlie if there were Patua’ here before Bruthamax.

Five crows dropped out of the sky and landed on the rocks at the edge of the pond. After dipping their beaks in the water, two of them jumped in and splashed water up over their back with their wings.

Alfredo recognized them all. Cousins–Charlie’s nephew and nieces, Speedy, Blanche, and Zelda.

Speedy looked over at Majewski and said to his siblings, “That other one, he don’t speak the Patua’.”

Nope. He’s just regular,” said Zelda. She and her sister Blanche flapped their wings over the water, splashing Speedy, perched on the edges of pond.

Playful little fellows,” Majewski said as the crows flew up to the trees above the garden. He followed them with his eyes, until they blended in with the shadows among the leaves. But he could almost feel them staring down at him.

They make me laugh every day with their silliness,” Alfredo said.

Geronimo!” Speedy yelled as he tumbled out of the tree, beak-over-feathers into the pond. He disappeared for a couple of seconds before leaping out of the water and onto a rock above the pool. He shook himself soundly, flinging water drops all the way to the priests.

So, do you think that Brother Maxmillian was insane?” Majewski asked. He turned his probing eyes on Alfredo

I cannot know that,” he said slowly, his face expressionless. Well disciplined, like a corpse. Even before his training as a Jesuit priest, he had developed the ability to hide his feelings and thoughts behind an impassive face. “But communicating with the beasts is not necessarily a mark of insanity. Look at St. Francis of Assisi. People no doubt thought he was insane in his time, yet now he is the revered patron saint of animals. Perhaps that was de la Torre’s hope.”

That his nephew would be given sainthood someday?” Majewski asked incredulously. “That is insane. Do you actually believe that Brother Maxmillian talked to crows?”

Fear crawled up out of Alfredo’s gut and into his mouth. His inner voices argued: Does Majewski know about me? Is that why he is here? Tricking me into admitting I am a freak? Why not just tell him? The truth shall set you free! Or imprison me. He could have me defrocked, banished, and tossed to the dogs. But why would he do that? Tell him!

The truth pushed against his teeth, and Alfredo locked his jaws, choking back words that could unleash an uncontrollable deluge in which he might drown. Betraying nothing of his inner turmoil, he stared back at Majewski and said, “The truth is, Thomas, I have never had the choice not to believe.”

The whole truth is …

I have found,” Alfredo continued, hoping his voice did not betray the fear he felt, “that corvids and certain humans—Brother Maxmillian, for one—are able to understand and speak a sort of dialect that harmonically overlaps the language of both species.”

Why can I not just tell him! He already knows about Brother Maxmillian. What if he already knows about me?

But that’s preposterous!” Majewski said, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. “Communication between the species! Impossible!”

The three crows stood at the edge of the pond facing the two priests. “Wonder what they’re arguing about,” Speedy said.

He’s got cookies in his pocket,” Zelda said. “I can smell them from here.”

Oh?” Speedy looked sharply at Alfredo. “Suppose he’ll give us some?”

I’ll die of boredom waiting till they stop yakking,” said Blanche and took off for the sky.

Is it?” Alfredo asked, raising his eyebrows as he watched Blanche fly away. “You did not think so at my PhD defense, Thomas, where you defended me against those very charges. And that was fifteen years ago!”

He stood up and walked over to the pond and reached absent-mindedly into his pocket. The two crows on the rocks looked first at his hand in his pocket, then up at him expectantly.

Thomas,” he said, as he tossed a chunk of chocolate chip cookie into the air. Speedy snagged the tidbit before it had achieved its zenith. “There is no reason, scientific or otherwise, why we humans cannot communicate better with other species—especially with the corvids, intelligent as they are.”

Zelda waited patiently for her treat, but as soon as Alfredo lobbed it to her, Blanche flew in low and snapped it right out of her beak.

I’m sorry, Alfredo,” Majewski said, shaking his head. “I remember your PhD, your fascinating experiments testing for corvid sentience with mirrors and complex pathways to food that required planning and tool making. And, you reported on some rudimentary sounds and correlated them to some pretty simple phrases. But it’s utterly preposterous to claim that is a language.” He shook his head in dismay. “How can you believe that and still call yourself a scientist?”

He will find out sooner or later. The longer I hold back the truth, the more it makes me look like a liar. Tell him!

Alfredo tossed a chunk of cookie to Zelda, who caught it deftly. “Thank you, Jayzu,” she said and flew after her brother and sister.

My dilemma is whether or not I can still call myself a priest,” Alfredo said, quietly surrendering. “Thomas, I have this ability too. Preposterous or not, I, like Brother Wilder, understand and can speak the language of the corvid, fluently. I have had this ability as long as I can remember.”

What is this madness?” Majewski cried out, shaking his head in bewilderment. “I came here prepared for Dr. Alfredo Manzi to debunk Maxmillian Wilder’s claim, to remind me that the Almighty made but one sentient creature, mankind.” He shut his eyes and his mind to the image of Stella, her hands reaching out to him, pleading. “Forgive me for being flabbergasted, but this is just too incredible.”

I am sorry, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I wish I could relieve your distress. But you are a man of science yourself. Can the highly respected linguist Dr. Thomas Majewski see not madness and heresy, but the miracle of a complex language and culture of another sentient species that has been here on Earth longer than we have? Can you not behold this wonder of creation and rejoice?”

Silenced by his internal confusion, Majewski did not reply for several minutes. All around him, the visible and invisible natural world contradicted any need for such turmoil. The trickle of water into the pond seemed to repeat its cadence over and over again, “Why can’t you just be?”

At last he took a deep breath and said, “I’ve seen a lot in my time, Alfredo. I’ve been sore amazed more times than I can count at the wonders wrought by the Almighty. But discovering this letter and the hidden talent of our Brother Maxmillian several weeks ago—quite frankly, it’s kept me awake at night ever since. It’s not so much that I think speaking the language of the animals is so preposterous. It’s that, well, you see, my sister, Stella—”

Majewski squeezed his eyes shut with his thumb and forefinger, suddenly overcome with emotion. For a wild moment, he thought Alfredo might have known Stella, and he wished he could unburden himself of her tragedy. And his guilt. But the words would not come to his lips. From the well of his memory, the last image of Stella’s face emerged. The shock and betrayal on her face broke his heart. Her big brother sold her out. That’s what she thought. I never got to tell her the truth.

Your sister?” Alfredo said. “Was she like me?”

Yes,” Majewski said, trying to compose himself. The water dripping into the pond grew suddenly louder, crying out with watery voices, “Just like me, just let it be!” He focused on the sound of the tiny stream spiraling down to the pool in a continuous song that had no beginning, no end. No choice, no questions asked. Or answered.

Stella’s face in his memory was unbearable, but he could not banish her. “They thought she was handicapped when she was younger, because she didn’t speak to any of us until she was almost five. Before that, she’d babble away all day long. But only with crows.”

He paused, remembering Stella and her pet crow. What was his name? “And when she grew up, she walked and talked more among the crows than she did with humans, until finally she only talked to crows. That’s when they said she was insane. I helped them capture her and haul her off to the asylum.”

A tiny bird flew down to the pond and sipped a few beakfuls of water before taking off again. The stream continued to fall over the edges of the rocks and into the pool, oblivious of the bird, of Majewski’s sister or his guilt. It wore on him, this guilt, eroding his sense of worthiness, relentlessly pursuing him like a bloodhound. Ever since he had read that letter.

I understand why people think we are insane,” Alfredo said. “The Patua’ does not resemble any human language, and it frightens people. I have managed to lead a relatively normal life—if you call the priesthood a normal life–in a safe place where I could speak in this tongue without persecution. I know others have ended up in insane asylums, just like your sister. Some take their own lives.”

Suicide? Oh dear Lord!” Majewski said, horrified. His hand went to his breast.

Forgive me, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I intended to offer you some comfort; instead, I burdened you. I am very sorry.”

Majewski nodded wearily and said, “I know that, Alfredo. It’s not like I haven’t had that thought myself. But until recently, I have kept her safely stuffed in some dark corner of my past. And then I found the letter. Since then I have had almost no peace. Stella’s face invades my thoughts during the day and haunts my dreams at night.”

But why, Thomas?” Alfredo said. He reached out and put his hand on the older man’s knee. “What happened? Where is Stella now?”

Majewski watched the ripples that emanated from the water falling into the pond, large bubble floated outward, endlessly created, and endlessly destroyed against the rocks around the edges. Such was his torment. His shoulders sagged, and he hung his head, raking his hands through his hair. “For a long time,I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. But when Father died—he’d been paying the bills, I found out. Rosencranz Asylum. For the last 25 years—and in all that time, and I rarely gave her a thought. Now, I can’t get it out of my mind.”

Thomas,” Alfredo said, reaching over and putting his hand on top of Majewski’s. “Forgive yourself. You did not know.”

Majewski nodded. The two men sat in silence for a several minutes. A lone cricket in the garden chirped out the late afternoon temperature. Water fell relentlessly into the dark pond, at the mercy of gravity and other forces far beyond its ability to avoid or control, in a continuous downward journey to merge at last with the sea. As we run down our own pathways to death …

Guilt and shame kept Majewski from telling Alfredo that after his parents’ deaths, he had hired an attorney to write the checks to the mental institution where Stella was. He didn’t want anything to do with Stella, didn’t even want to know where she was. There was plenty of money; she’d be taken care of for the rest of her life. He had relegated it all to a dim corner of his memory. Until that accursed letter.

A barge on the river blasted its horn, disturbing the peace in the garden and jolting Majewski out of his dark thoughts.

I see the shadows are now long, Thomas,” Alfredo said. He stood up and offered a hand to Majewski. “The sun will set in a half hour or so. Let us go to my cottage, and I will fix us some tea.”

Majewski tore his eyes from the little waterfall and said, “Wonderful!” He took Alfredo’s hand and stood up. As they walked the short distance to the cottage, it seemed to Majewski that the entire forest had suddenly come alive with motion and sound. A few small animals scurried through the undergrowth, and hundreds of birds all called out at once. Crickets chirped in the grass, and buzzing insects flew past his face.

Majewski forgot Stella and his burdens of guilt in the wonder all around him, his senses sharpened. The forest seemed more colorful than living things ought to be. He felt lightheaded from the many fragrances of life and death co-mingling in his nose.

Once again, they were almost at the doorstep to the cottage before Majewski realized it. “Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Alfredo said after he opened the door.

Majewski sat down at the table in the corner, and Alfredo filled the kettle and put it on a small cast-iron stove. He tossed a few lengths of small branches into the stove and within a few moments, he had a small fire going.

That was fast,” Majewski said. “I’d still be down there, blowing and praying.”

Alfredo laughed, pushing a small piece of wood into the stove. He closed the door and stood up. “I have gotten very good at building fires, living here. I otherwise would have starved by now. Or learned to love raw food.”

Majewski pulled the cord on the lamp over the table, and the light came on. “What’s this?” he said, looking down at the black fob in his palm. “Did you carve it?”

No,” Alfredo said. He walked over to the table, wiping soot from the stove off his hands. “I found it beneath Brother Maxmillian’s bones in the chapel. I also found pieces of cord and a crucifix, which I buried with the rest of him.”

I see a hand maybe,” Majewski said, looking through the bottom of his glasses. He squinted, leaning closer to the light. “Or is it a wing?”

I thought I could see both,” Alfredo said. “A wing and a hand.”

Interesting.” Majewski let go of the fob and watched it swing back and forth on its cord. He felt lightheaded and wanted to tear his eyes away, but could not. Back and forth, back and forth. Alfredo was talking, but he couldn’t hear him as the room dissolved into a shadowy twilight. Nothing remained but the aura of light from the lamp and the black orb swinging back and forth in front of his face.

His head swam in confusion. Where was Alfredo? He saw a withered old man kneeling at the prayer bench in the hermit’s chapel, his long white hair illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight. His lips were moving, but Majewski couldn’t understand what the man was saying. Was he praying? Suddenly the old man turned, and Stella’s face stared at him.

Thomas?”

Disoriented, Majewski called out, “Alfredo! Where are you?” He squinted into the light. “Stella?”

I am right here, Thomas,” a familiar voice said. His right arm was shaking involuntarily.

Thomas!”

Majewski blinked. The vision evaporated, and Alfredo stood next to him shaking his arm. “Thomas! What is the matter? Are you all right? Thomas?”

 

Charlie flew over the river toward Ledford searching for his nephews, Floyd and Willy. After chatting with a few local crows, he found the two young brothers playing games in the park next to Ledford City Hospital. He landed on a bench and called out to them, “Over here, fellas. I’ve got a job for you two. Espionage.”

Floyd and Willy loved intrigue; they had watched many spy movies as fledges, from their nest at the drive-in movie theater.

Oh, yeah!” Willy said and landed on the bench next to Charlie.

Who, what, when, where, why?” Floyd asked, a second behind his brother.

Follow me,” Charlie said as he took to the air. “This way.”

The three crows flew across the park and into the neighborhood beyond. The landscape below gradually changed from neat little rows of houses with adjoining yards to larger and larger estates behind huge stone walls and wrought-iron gates.

At 10 Woodland Drive, Charlie, Floyd, and Willy swooped down to the wall surrounding a sprawling mansion with many gables and chimneys and a satellite dish. The three crows looked down at the gray stone walls nearly covered with ivy and Virginia creeper. Huge windows in white frames stared out toward the horizon.

Charlie gestured with his beak toward the mansion and said, “The man of the house, Henry Braun, is among the richest in Ledford.”

Pretty fancy digs,” Willy said approvingly. “We’ll be puttin’ on the ritz!”

I just love big old houses,” Floyd said. “One day I want to live in a house with white curtains flapping in the breeze, and pies cooling on the windowsills.

It’s a spy caper, boys,” Charlie said sternly. “Your primary job is to spy on Henry Braun. No looking for sparklys, and no stealing. You got that, Floyd? Willy?”

Gotcha, Boss,” Willy said.

You can count on us,” Floyd said.

Do not let Henry Braun leave your sight,” Charlie said. “Perch on his windowsill and observe his every move. You’re going to need to pay a lot of attention, boys. I’m counting on you two.”

Charlie drilled them with his intense blue eyes. “Don’t let him notice you. He hates crows. He may even hate all birds, for all I know. But he particularly hates crows. A word to the wise, fellas.”

Hates crows,” Floyd said. “Perhaps we should be incognito, eh?”

Willy smacked his brother with a wing.

Now get to it,” Charlie said. “Let me know if you hear anything about Cadeña-l’jadia. I have a session with the Archivist the rest of today and tomorrow, but I’ll check on you the day after.”

Willy and Floyd nodded solemnly. “We’ll keep our ears and eyes open,” Willy said. “No worries, Boss.”

 

Floyd and Willy knew Ledford like the backs of each other’s wings. They’d flown virtually everywhere in the city since the day they fell off the roof of the projection booth at the Raven Wind drive-in theater, one of the last of its kind in the state.

They had spent little time in the rich folks’ neighborhoods, however. What was the point? Those humans never even left a covered trash can outside. They built special houses for their rubbish that were locked and emptied by authorized personnel once a week. Even their landscapes were kept impeccably free of everything edible. Not even a blade of grass was out of place, let alone a misplaced or lost sparkly.

Before they fledged, the two brothers, kreegans of Charlie’s sister, Eliza, watched a different movie every night from the nest at the drive-in theater. They loved to act out different scenes from their favorite movies. Floyd was fascinated with manners and food and loved movies that featured exotic, faraway places. Willy loved Westerns and science fiction. And they both loved movies about clandestine operations and spying.

Floyd and Willy liked to hang out in the blocks surrounding the university campus, on the windowsills and in the trees surrounding the student apartments. Much to their delight, every apartment had its own television–miniature movie theaters as Floyd called them. Every night they found a windowsill to perch on while they watched their favorite shows.

The two crows never went to roost hungry, thanks to the many dining establishments and fast-food joints located near the campus. Every night for weeks, they selected a new restaurant, raiding the trash containers in the alley after hours. Both crows cultivated a taste for international food.

Willy loved it all, spicy, not spicy, raw or cooked. Except for calamari. “Like trying to eat rubber bands,” he said.

Floyd embraced any flavor or dish, as long as it was presented with tasteful elegance. He was especially partial, however, to the English Tea Gardens, where ladies sat in elegant finery, sipping brown liquid from delicate white cups painted with exquisite artistry.

The two young crows stayed hidden way up in the big tree in Henry’s backyard, watching. Waiting to watch mostly, until Henry was in his office. They watched him smoke cigars, shout on the phone, and yell that he needed more coffee, or lunch, or his suit, or tie.

Henry’s little choo-choo train that went around and around a miniature island with a big boat moored at a little dock fascinated them. It was very beautiful; hundreds of little lights sparkled like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. At least once a day, Henry turned them all on, ran the choo-choo around its tracks, and sailed the boat out into the miniature river.

The first time they saw the little train blow its whistle, a small puff of steam issued from its smokestack, the crows were amazed. “Is that cool or what?” Floyd said to his brother. Willy nodded and replied, “Man, I’d love to have one of those. I’d ride that little train around all day long!”

And I would preside over the lovely paddleboat,” Floyd said. One of his favorite movies featured a romance on a big riverboat, and he was dying to fall in love with a young lady crow on one. “I would serve exotic coffee and tea and delectable pastries on the deck every morning, and champagne with wild mushroom perogi in the evening!”

Perogi?” Willy looked at Floyd in shock. “Are you nuts? No one serves champagne with perogi! Cognac, perhaps. But champagne? Ish!”

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Floyd said with an air of superiority. “It’s quite scrumptious, actually. I wouldn’t serve cabbage perogi with champagne, however. Now, that would be disgusting.”

They watched from the windowsill: Henry sitting down in his armchair; Henry turning on the television; Henry flitting through the channels. He settled upon a conversation between several people sitting around a table. Within minutes, his head dropped to his chest.

Gad!” Willy said after a few minutes. “How dreadfully dull! I’m falling asleep too. What say you, brother, that we flee to yonder tree whilst the object of our spying naps in front of the tellie?”

Capital idea!” Floyd said. “It is half past time for tea, anyhoo.”

The two crows flapped to a different tree and perched on a branch where they could still see Henry, or at least his bald spot sticking up over the back of the armchair. “I say, old chap,” Willy said after Floyd passed him an imaginary cup of English Breakfast tea and a blueberry pastry, “I cannot fathom how you can sip a cup of tea, hold a crumpet, and keep purchase on this branch at the same time.”

Floyd looked at his brother with an air of superiority and said, “That is because I have the lithe soul of a dancer, my dear brother. While you, I fear, inherited the corpulent spirit of the bovine.”

A sliding door opened below the two crows, and a thin, petite woman with dark hair tied up in a bun stepped outside. She set a covered tray down softly and called out, “Grawky! Did I hear someone say it is tea time already?”

I say, old chap,” Floyd leaned over to Willy, forgetting about the imaginary crumpet, which fell to the ground below. “What the bloody hell was that?”

Why, I daresay someone is speaking in the Patua’,” Willy remarked. “Perhaps it is Henry Braun’s maid, or his spouse. Perhaps she wishes to attract our attention.”

Willy raised a claw up to his eye and peered down at the woman on the patio through an imaginary monocle. “Really! Another Patua’! What a lovely coincidence! Perhaps we should see if she knows anything important about Henry Braun,” Floyd said as he took one last sip of tea from an imaginary fine English bone china cup—white, upon which delicate pink flowers were painted.

I say! ’Tis a capital plan, old boy!” Willy replied. “Let us fly down and greet her good morning.”

Bloody grand idea, old chap!” Floyd put his teacup down carefully on the branch. Wiping his beak delicately with an imaginary polished cotton napkin, embroidered with pink flowers to match the teacup, he turned to his companion and said, “Shall we?”

The two crows flew down to the patio, landing at the woman’s feet. Willy bowed low and said, “Grawky, Madame! It is an honor and a pleasure to make morning salutations!” He could be very eloquent.

Indeed, fair lady,” said Floyd, not to be outdone. He bowed so low his beak scraped the concrete. “My colleague and I beg for the occasion, nay, privilege, to make the acquaintance of such a lovely and gracious lady.”

Well, for heaven’s sakes!” The woman blushed. “My darling kitty has maligned you! He told me there were, how did he say it, ‘crows masquerading as dandies drinking tea in the trees.’ Dandies indeed! Finely mannered gentlemen is more like it!”

She motioned for the crows to seat themselves and they nodded approvingly to each other. “Miss Fair Lady, ma’am,” Floyd said, as he surveyed the contents of the tray on the table. “I daresay you’ve exhausted yourself on our behalf this morning! And we have yet to be formally introduced. I am Floyd of the Drive-In, at your service, fair lady!”

Minnie bent over and giggled as she brushed her hand across Floyd’s outstretched wing. “My pleasure, I am sure!”

Likewise,” Willy said, bowing and stretching out a wing. “I am Willy of the Drive-In.”

My name is Minerva,” she said, brushing her hand through Willy’s feathers.

Minerva,” Willy said, nodding approvingly. “A lovely nom de plume, wouldn’t you say, my brother?”

Who could think otherwise?” Floyd said with a low bow. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Minerva.”

Oh, please!” Minnie said, blushing. “No one calls me that except my husband. Call me Minnie.”

But of course,” Willy said, “Miss Minnie.”

Thank you,” she said. “Now, let’s have some tea and crumpets, shall we?”

She sat down on a chair, uncovered the tray and put three cups and three plates on the table. Two apple fritters peeked out from beneath a cloth napkin in a small basket. She took one, cut it in half, and put the pieces on the crows’ plates.

With unimpeachable manners, Floyd and Willy dipped their beaks into their tea and nibbled delectable pastry with Minnie Braun. After he finished his last crumb, Floyd wiped his beak on his napkin and said, “To what do such humble fellows as my brother and I owe this marvelous repast?”

Oh, pshaw!” Minnie said, waving her hand at Floyd. “It’s just tea and some baked goods from the grocery store.”

Nay,” Willy said, shaking his head. “No two crows were ever so less deserving of sweeter confections than the exquisite products of your culinary art, as well as and not less than, the delight of the company of a maid so fair.”

Minnie looked confused for a moment, then smiled and said, “As easily I could say, to what do I owe the occasion of such a delightful visit from two handsome, well-mannered, and dare I say, well-spoken crows?”

The crows looked at each other for a moment, and Floyd said nonchalantly, “Why, nothing other than our hope to share tea with a beautiful lady!”

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee!” Minnie laughed, waving the hand at the two crows. “Enough of the honey-beaked speech! What are you fellows up to, really? Are you spying?”

The two crows looked at each other again, abashed. “She knows,” Floyd hissed through his beak.

Well, Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “we did hope to acquire news or developments thereof that interest the master of the house, that is, about possible future plans he may or may not have concerning Cadeña-l’jadia, that is, Wilder Island to you folks.”

I see,” Minnie said. She glanced over her shoulder and leaned toward the crows. Floyd and Willy leaned in toward her.

He’s just crazy to get that island,” she whispered. “He keeps saying the same thing over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ I have no idea what that means. He’s not the least religious, so I don’t think he’s talking about heaven or hell. He just keeps repeating it, over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ And then he laughs.” She sat back and wrapped herself in her arms. “It is a not a happy sound.”

Eminent domain,” Floyd said. “Izzat so?”

A door slammed in the house, and Minnie looked anxiously over her shoulder again. “Minerva!” a male voice boomed out the windows.

Ta-ta for now, fellas!” Minnie said. She quickly put the cups and plates back on the tray and darted into the house, leaving the fritters on the table.

What is eminent domain?” Willy asked, beaking a chunk of fritter and flying up to the tree.

Beats me, old chap,” Floyd said, grabbing the other fritter and following his brother. “But isn’t Miss Minnie just the bomb?”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

Sanctuary

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

I did ask you,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty-three cats?” Alfredo had said dubiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And when the graying ended?” Jayzu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old are you, Jayzu?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sure, Doctor,” she said.

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

Yes?” he said, turning back around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

Homecoming

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

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

Tea time?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maxmillian Wilder, Cadeña-l’jadia, 1863

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why I came here,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if it isn’t?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you become a priest?”

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

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

 

 

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