Corvus Rising – Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Eminent Domain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep,” Sam said. “Like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure thing,” Sam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallow,” Alfredo said. “And derelict.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black widow spiders can,” Sam said.

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

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

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

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

I can!” Jade said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

The Keeper’s Trance

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did this magpie say?” Majewski asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Zhoomoo weemwoo oomee moo
Oomoo weemoo shoomee woo

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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?”

 

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