Corvus Rising – Chapter 15

JoEd Blows His Mind

 

Henry slept on his riverboat, but he did not sleep well. All night long, he was plagued by dreams of an angry River inciting the wind to blow, battering his beautiful River Queen to smithereens. While clouds poured down rain, the River Queen capsized. Alone, he bailed bucket after bucket of water, but the more he bailed, the more it rained. Just before she rolled over and sank, Henry woke up, drenched in sweat.

At dawn, he got up, showered, and shaved, and slammed down a shot of bourbon to stop his hands from shaking. He strode purposefully down to his usual breakfast—bacon and eggs over-easy, a slice of burnt toast, no butter, and a cup of black coffee. He read the Wall Street Journal as he ate, ignoring the bustle of the workers around him as they prepared for the city folk of Ledford to come aboard for their free ride.

Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful; the decks and docks had been picked clean of food by the crows. The crew cleaned up the rest of the trash, and the River Queen was ready to roll. Henry abandoned the idea of circling Wilder Island—his dreams the night before of an angry river destroying his beautiful lady quite convinced him. “We’ll go up the river to the mills,” Henry told the captain and crew, “and down to the old stone bridge.”

The people of Ledford flocked to the docks to wait their turn for a ride on the lovely River Queen. An endless stream of ice-cream sodas and hot dogs flowed while Henry handed out baseball caps and T-shirts displaying the Ravenwood Resort logo, and free tokens for the casino. Television and newspaper reporters circulated among the crowd, filming the revelry and occasionally interviewing a citizen.

Tell us how it feels to be waiting for a ride on the historic River Queen,” the television reporter asked as he stuck his mic into the face of a carefully coifed, middle-aged woman.

I’m ecstatic,” she gushed. “Is this gorgeous or what? Can you imagine? A ride on the glorious River Queen? Oh, be still my beating heart!” Putting her hand to her bosom, the woman closed her eyes as if taking a moment to regain her composure.

So,” the reporter said, winking at the camera, “I take it you’d like to see the River Queen permanently parked at Braun Enterprise’s proposed resort on Wilder Island?”

Oh my God!” The woman went into another round of passionate yet ambiguous exclamations. “Can you imagine? Oh! Right across the river! In our own backyard! Can you imagine?”

As the River Queen paddled upriver, the reporter sidled up to a small group of people leaning on the handrails. “Tell the folks out there in TV land how it feels to sail on one of America’s historic paddleboats!”

Oh, we love it!” a woman said. “I’ve always wanted to ride on a paddleboat, you know. I’m so happy I got to experience this!”

Truly,” a man said. “This is a wondrous experience! My great-granddaddy was the captain of the Delta Queen, back in the day. That was a sad day, when the paddleboats stopped running the Mississip, I’ll tell you what. I’m just downright grateful to Henry Braun for bringing this piece of American history back to us.”

The ride on the River Queen was a big hit. Though the paddleboat stayed well in the middle of the deepest part of the channel, most people had never been that close to the mysterious island, and the opportunity to observe its secrets was tantalizing. Nor had they ever been on a riverboat.

Take some pictures of people having a good time,” Henry said to the television reporter he had invited. “I want their smiles all over the evening news, you understand?”

The River Queen made quite a spectacle indeed, cruising up and down the east side of the river. A contingent of crows clutching the golden railing atop Henry Braun’s apartment added to the people’s amusement, but not to Henry’s.

Damn crows,” he growled at them, waving his arms, trying to scare them off. The crows cackled back in laughter—at least that’s what Henry heard. “I’ll have the little bastards shot if they don’t get off my boat.”

Don’t do it,” Jules had told him the evening before when the crows began to arrive. “It’s illegal to discharge a firearm in the city limits. And don’t shoot the crows, it’s a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Remember you’re on a mission here. You want people on your side. You want to appear reasonable, not like a hot head with a gun. Put it away, Henry.”

At first light, JoEd opened one eye. After a few seconds of bewilderment, he remembered where he was and opened the other eye. A momentary wave of guilt washed over him for breaking his promise to his zazu that he would be home by sunset that day before. He would go home today, explain to his weebs how fabulous and wonderful the River Queen was, that he was simply unable to tear himself away. JoEd hoped she would understand.

Many crows still snoozed on their roosts all around him, including Antoine. JoEd waited quietly, surveying the scene below. Antoine was not kidding; there was food everywhere. Maybe I will find a hot dog. He leaped off the railing and down to the deck. Before him lay a veritable feast, and he picked at a morsel. “Is it a hot dog, I wonder?” he said out loud. “Or is it a doozy?”

That,” Antoine said as he came in for a landing next to JoEd, “is a French fry.”

It’s incredible,” JoEd said through a beakful of the most delectable food he had ever tasted.

This is a hot dog,” Antoine said, pushing a piece of reddish something or other at JoEd.

Wow!” JoEd said after a few pecks at it. “Better than the French fry! These humans know how to eat!”

He and Antoine wandered through the rubbish, picking at a burger here, a piece of caramel apple there. The sun rose to hundreds of crows feasting on the largesse left by the crowds the night before.

Had enough, kid?” asked Antoine.

JoEd nodded. He was stuffed. The two crows flew back up to the railing above Henry’s apartment and watched a dozen or so humans issue forth and fruitlessly attempt to chase the crows off the decks.

The only thing’s going to get rid of them boys,” Antoine said, shaking his head, “is the hot dogs and burgers and fries getting all eaten up or tossed into the river. You’d think they could figure that out.”

Good for us they can’t,” JoEd said. “That was some pretty easy pickings. I usually have to work harder than this to get food on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

That’s why we like to live among humans,” said Antoine. “Great food and lots of it. Leaves more time for riding the jaloosies.”

JoEd gazed across the river at the dark green shadows of Cadeña-l’jadia. He really should be getting home, he knew. But there was just too much excitement. Too much food!

And there’s even more food across the river,” Antoine said. “Big crowds at the Waterfront yesterday. They dropped tidbits everywhere, and not just hot dogs. Everything! You ever had Thai, JoEd?”

The young crow shook his head. “Come on, son,” Antoine said as he leaped into the sky. “This is going to blow your mind!”

The two crows flew together across the sparkling river toward the Waterfront. When they arrived on the scene of the arts and crafts fair, JoEd saw that many crows and other scavengers had already arrived. But no humans. He followed Antoine as he swooped up and down, and in between the colorful art fair booths. They passed up many delectable tidbits on the street, and he wondered if they would ever find any Thai. Not that he knew what Thai meant, but the last two days with Antoine had considerably broadened JoEd’s world view, and he supposed that eating Thai would too.

Finally Antoine dropped to the street and pecked at a chunk of food. “Nope,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t Thai.” He pecked at it a few more times. “It’s good, though!”

Better even than a hot dog!” JoEd said with his beak crammed with whatever it was. “Is it a doozy?”

Nah,” Antoine said. “Wait’ll you taste Thai; that’ll be your doozy, I reckon.” He lifted his beak into the air. “I know it’s here somewhere. I can smell it.”

The two crows took off again, and JoEd followed Antoine back through the streets. “Ah!” Antoine said. “There it is!” He swooped down to a trashcan next to a tent, picked out a small container, and dropped it to the ground. “Yep, Pad Thai. Long, flat noodles, a few peanuts and some stir-fried veggies.” Antoine said triumphantly. He hopped down to the pavement and pecked at the Pad Thai. “Oh, yeah!” he said after he swallowed a bite. “Pad Thai! You gotta try this, JoEd! It’s just out of this world!”

JoEd picked a piece off the street and dropped it immediately. “Whoa! That has got some kick to it!”

That’s how we like it,” Antoine said, chuckling. “You get used to the heat after a while.”

JoEd ate very well on Cadeña-l’jadia—plenty of fish guts, small rodents, even an occasional egg. But he’d never even heard of spice, let alone imagined what it did to food; he pecked at the Thai food, though it burned his eyes even to get near it.

After a while,” Antoine said, “you crave it hot.”

JoEd could not imagine craving the burning sensation in his beak and all the way down his throat. He slurped some water from an abandoned cup.

Here,” Antoine said, tossing JoEd a piece of a honeybun he dug out of the trash. “Eat this. It’ll take some of the sting away.”

The honeybun soothed JoEd’s burning beak, and he returned to the feast before him. Perusing the food choices strewn about the streets and sidewalks, he sampled a croissant with cream cheese and orange marmalade from the French Riviera Bakery and declared that it was his favorite food of all time. When he tasted the souvlaki from the Greek Cafe, he changed his mind—until he discovered the amazing flavors of Japan.

Teriyaki!” JoEd said to Antoine. “That’s my favorite!”

Have you tried the calzone?” Antoine pointed a wing toward the Little Italy trashcans. “Tobias found a mushroom-broccoli-mozzarella over there. Sweet!”

Oh, yeah!” JoEd said, amazed again at the world of flavors that had visited his beak. “The absolute best!”

Stuffed beyond belief, JoEd couldn’t take another bite. Antoine motioned him up to the lower branches of a tree. He wondered if he could even fly. “Hey!” JoEd called out after he had hauled himself up to the branch next to Antoine. “Isn’t that Jayzu down there?”

Thanks to the efforts of a multitude of crows and a few humans who ate and cleaned up all the rubbish that had been dropped by the crowds the evening before, the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts Fair opened on Sunday morning with clean sidewalks and streets. The doors of the local Downtown churches flew open and disgorged the early worshippers, who came in long lines down the sidewalks to the fair on the Waterfront.

The evening news the night before had showcased some of the art donated to the silent auction, to be held at noon. People rushed to the Friends of Wilder Island booth to put in last-minute bids, and while they waited, volunteers sold them shares in the land trust and gave them free colorful brochures cleverly disguised as calendars. They explained the mission of the land trust and how support from Ledford residents would be the only way to save it from development.

Everyone who entered the booth received a free lapel pin that said “Friend of Wilder Island”, and a raffle ticket for a free T-shirt or baseball cap with the land trust logo, a blue-eyed crow against the silhouette of the island at sunset.

Just send this postcard to the Mayor,” Kate said as she handed one to a passerby on the street in front of the booth. “Tell him how you feel about our island. They’re pre-addressed and pre-stamped for your convenience! Just sign it and send it!” she said, pointing to a nearby US mailbox.

The postcard featured the painting Jade had donated to the art auction, The Wilder Side, on the front, with the text “Save Wilder Island!”

The Wilder Side was a raucous carnival of trees and flowers, birds, butterflies, and bees that beckoned the viewer to step forth into its unknowable secrets. Buried in the familiar, the untamable still maintained a fragile presence woven into the varied assemblage of plant, bird, and insect. Hinting at deeper mysteries more ancient than ours, layer upon layer of paint created a sense of another dimension. The painting enchanted, whether one chose to contemplate its greater secrets or to just luxuriate in the rich surface textures and color.

The Wilder Side was among the larger donations at the silent auction, as was Sam’s sculpture, Roadkill. Comprised of rusted metal objects cast off by motor vehicles along the interstate, the sculpture featured a large raven picking at the wreckage of a shiny red convertible, the victim of an inelastic collision with a sparkling blue sedan. From a short distance, the raven appeared to be perched amid a sea of brightly colored red, blue, and silvery flowers.

Russ chuckled as he stood before Roadkill, remembering the first day he’d met Sam at the quiet pool in the garden of the hermit’s chapel. Sam materialized at Russ’s elbow and stood for a moment looking at his own piece.

Thanks, man,” Sam said, clapping Russ on the back. “Thanks for the idea. I’m going to give you and Jade the model—it’s a miniature replica of the big one, about yay big by yay.” Sam mimed the approximate size with his arms. “It’ll go right into your garden in the backyard, next to the fountain.”

What fountain?” Jade asked, laughing. “I mean, thanks, Sam!” she turned to Russ and said, “Honey, can we build a fountain in the backyard?”

Absolutely,” Russ said, also laughing as he hugged his wife’s shoulders. “But seriously, Sam. Thanks. I mean that. I love it, really. And I’m honored that you were inspired by my offhand remark.”

Alfredo looked at his watch and then up at the bandstand and said, “We need to go, Russ. The open-mic discussion starts in about five minutes.”

Later, hon,” Russ said and gave Jade a quick peck on the cheek.

 

During breaks from the live music—by a local band called Hermit Crow—Russ and Alfredo facilitated live televised discussions about issues surrounding the Wilder Island controversy, if Ravenwood Resort became a reality. People strolled through the bandstand area, stopping to listen for a few minutes or longer, and anyone who so desired could step up to the mic and make a comment or ask a question.

Russ and Alfredo took their seats at a folding table on the bandstand. “Greetings, folks!” Russ said, his voice strong and clear. “Welcome to the Friends of Wilder Island lunch-hour discussion. First on the agenda is lunch.”

A few people chuckled as Russ turned to the priest and said, “I’ve got brats and kraut from the German-American kitchen. What’s on your plate, Dr. Manzi?”

Oh, I’ve got a sampling of everything from the Taste of Thai booth, including dessert,” Alfredo said.

Smells great,” Russ said. He turned toward the crowd. “So, folks, while Dr. Manzi has a few bites of his lunch, let’s get things rolling.”

He stood up, mic in hand, and strolled to the edge of the bandstand. “It’s a lovely day for a fair.” He smiled at the people below. “And doesn’t Wilder Island look gorgeous in the morning sun?”

Like a jewel!” a woman near the bandstand said.

An emerald isle in the river!” her companion said.

Our island is indeed a precious jewel,” Russ said. “But some think it has greater value as an urban playground of greed and waste. That is the choice before us, folks, whether to turn Wilder Island into an urban playground, or to preserve it as a lone sliver of wilderness within urban Ledford.”

Wilderness!” a man shouted.

More people wandered into the bandstand area, most of them bearing hats, flags, and lapel pins bearing the land trust logo.

But if it’s declared a wilderness, will we ever get to see it up close?” another man asked in a loud voice. “Or will we just continue to see this jewel, as you call it, from across the river?”

Yah!” his female companion yelled out. “We want to visit our island.”

Virtually no one has set foot on the island,” Russ said to the crowd, “ourselves excepted, and the fact is, if we are successful in our fight, very few will ever step onto its banks.”

A few people booed and hissed. “Everyone is invited to Ravenwood Resort!” a voice from the back shouted.

On the other hand,” Russ continued, trying to see who had spoken. One of Henry’s shills, no doubt. “If Ravenwood Resort replaces the island as we know it, a great many people will visit, but everything we love about it, the wilderness, the crows, will be gone.”

What’s the diff?” the same voice shouted. “Either way, we don’t have to see no crows!” A handful of people around the man laughed and clapped and patted him on the back.

But you bring up a valid point,” Russ said. “So, why do we need wilderness if no one can see it? Would we rather have an urban playground open to everyone?”

Alfredo stood up, leaving his partially eaten lunch on the table. “I can take it from here, Russ.” The crows moved in on his lunch as he spoke to the crowd. “Why do we need wilderness at all? I would like to answer that with a quote from Edward Abbey, noted author and outspoken defender of wilderness.”

He pulled a small notebook out of his shirt pocket and opened it. “‘The love of wilderness,’” he read, “‘is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the Earth, the Earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.’”

A few people laughed and clapped. Alfredo smiled as he closed the notebook and put it back in his pocket.

Too bad most of us will never see it!” the man in the back shouted.

Somewhere along the way,” Alfredo said, ignoring the heckler, “we gave ourselves the illusion of dominion over the Earth, which has all but severed our connection to the web of life. We built great cities, where we concentrated power and wealth, while we impoverished our spirits and our wild lands in the search for more money.”

The crowd had grown, but was still smaller and quieter than Friday evening. A few people waved flags; most just nodded and seemed to be listening intently. Perhaps it is because they have just come from a blistering sermon. A few crows had collected in the trees surrounding the bandstand, staring down at him. Or was it his lunch?

Often we lose ourselves in these artificial landscapes,” he continued. “Cities weigh heavily on the hearts of men and women, and we must be able to escape them, even if it is just in our imaginations. In wilderness, we find ourselves. As we cherish one of our last wild places, let us become aware of our connection to it and impose surrender upon ourselves.”

Surrender?” the man at the back of the crowd shouted. “Never!”

The calliope on the River Queen suddenly started up, and Alfredo glanced across the river. A line of cars had formed at the road leading to the parking lot at the boat ramp, and a crowd had gathered at the paddleboat.

Yes,” Alfredo said. “Surrender, as the old hermit, Brother Wilder, surrendered to this wilderness we are now trying to preserve. He chose this wild island as a refuge from the world of cities and men, where he spent his life in solitary contemplation of the glory of creation.”

Who has time for that?” the man in the back shouted. “Some of us have to actually work for a living!”

Alfredo’s face did not betray the anger he felt surging in his chest, and he continued without reaction to the heckler. “While most people do not desire such lengthy solitude, it is through these pristine and unaltered wild lands that our spirits connect us to the Earth. As we gaze upon our island from across the river, its wilderness lives within us all; let us not now throw it away for a few pieces of silver.”

The crowd cheered and many clapped. Before Alfredo could continue, a small crow dropped from the sky onto the table, and beaked a noodle from Alfredo’s plate. The crowd laughed, and Russ said, “It must be about time for open mic. Does he want to make a comment?”

Alfredo turned off his mic and said to the crow, “Well, hello little fella!”

Don’t you know me, Jayzu?” the crow said, looking up.

Of course I know you!” Alfredo said in a very low voice. “Grawky, JoEd!” He smiled as he put out his hand, and JoEd brushed it with his wingtip.

Grawky, Jayzu!”

Grawky!” Russ said as he offered his hand and giggled like a schoolboy when he felt JoEd’s feathers grazing his skin.

Nine more crows dropped down to the table, all talking at once. Russ’s mic amplified their caws and squawks over the loudspeakers. The crowd laughed and cheered at the show on the bandstand. The crows seemed to have the upper hand, helping themselves to the lunch plates of the two professors.

Is he talking to those crows?” a woman standing close to the bandstand said.

Nah! He’s just pretending he’s talking to them!” a man next to her shouted. “Fake!”

Looks like they’re shaking hands,” her companion said, “—that is, wings. Hand and wing.”

Is that real, Mommy?” a young boy on his father’s shoulders asked. “Is that man really talking to those crows?”

Sounds just like a bunch a crows to me,” the woman next to him said.

If he’s talking, them crows sure aren’t listening,” the little boy’s daddy said.

If that’s talking,” the man next to him said, “I can talk crow too!” He put his fists in his armpits and did a funny dance while shouting, “Caw-caw! Caw caw caw-caw!”

The little boy laughed and called out, “Caw! Caw!” as he flapped his arms up and down.

Antoine,” JoEd called out from the table to his new friend, “come say hey to Jayzu.”

Hey,” Antoine said, bowing low to the table, with wings extended outward. “The pleasure is mine.” He straightened up and brushed a wingtip against Alfredo’s outstretched hand. “I am honored, finally, to meet the great Jayzu.”

I am honored as well, Antoine,” Alfredo said, glancing sidelong at the crowd. A few people were frowning and shaking their heads, but others seemed entertained more than shocked. “A friend of JoEd’s is a friend of mine!” He held out his hand.

I smell Thai!” Antoine said, raising his head.

Right here,” JoEd said, pointing with his beak toward Alfredo’s plate.

Antoine beaked a fat noodle and swallowed it. “Ah!” he said raising his head. “Extra spicy! That’s how we like it!”

Alfredo watched in stunned silence as the crows wandered back and forth across the table, noisily pecking at the luncheon entrees. Within a few minutes, the table was a complete mess, with food strewn all over. Anxiety and fear gnawed at him, but the people below the bandstand seemed to enjoy the fiasco on the table. They laughed and clapped and cheered for the birds. A few called out: “You go, crows!” “They’re really eating his lunch!” “Do you think they planned this?”

Now that’s some class-A brat,” Tobias said, finishing off the last bit of Russ’s sandwich. “Still don’t care for the kraut, though!”

Russ grinned at the crow eating his sandwich, as if he was enjoying himself. Everyone seemed to be at least amused, Alfredo noticed. Except me.

A man took the mic, turned his back on the bandstand, and said to the people, “This is not real, folks. Just a publicity stunt with a bunch of trained birds.” He turned to Russ and Alfredo and said, “You expect us to believe you’re actually talking to crows?”

The crowd fell silent. The crows looked up momentarily and returned to their luncheon on the table. Russ glanced at Alfredo. “We are definitely for real,” he said.

He stood up, mic in hand. “This is not a stunt, folks. We’re as surprised as any of you that these crows showed up at our discussion today. And happy to share our lunch, as if we had any choice!”

He looked at the crows with an expression of feigned exasperation. The crowd roared as one of the crows flipped Russ’s abandoned plate over, scattering sauerkraut and crumbs.

Alfredo admired the way Russ’s humor had gotten the crowd laughing again. His knees were shaking, and he wished he could sit down, but a crow stood in his chair, pecking at the last remnants of Pad Thai on his plate.

My colleague,” Russ said, his arm extended toward Alfredo, “Dr. Alfredo Manzi, well-known and respected scientist, has studied crows for his entire life, including their language.”

Alfredo had been uneasy since the crows first landed on the table. He felt like Russ was dragging him over a precipice he had feared his entire life.

We humans are not the only creatures on Earth that speak a bona fide language,” Russ was saying. “So do whales and dolphins. Almost everyone has even heard recordings of their sounds, right?”

The majority of the heads in the crowd nodded amid a swell of murmuring.

Well,” Russ continued, “so do the corvids, as Dr. Manzi has learned in his research.”

Alfredo felt the tingling needles of adrenaline preparing him for…what–? He saw no fear on the faces in the crowd. It is not as if Russ is lying to them, his rational voice said. There is nothing uncanny here, really.

Russ stopped and turned to Alfredo. “Tell them about your research, Dr. Manzi.”

Alfredo frowned and said through clenched teeth, “What the hell are you doing, Russ?”

I’m telling you to stop being such a weenie,” Russ said, through his smiling teeth with his mic behind his back. “You’re a scientist, man! Now stand up. Talk science to them. Don’t let them go away thinking any of this is fake. Or supernatural.”

The people waited for Alfredo to speak. A breeze came through the bandstand, carrying the calliope’s ridiculously merry tune. He glared at Russ. His legs felt like rubber, and his stomach jumped into his throat. But he turned his mic on and faced the crowd. “It is true,” he said.

Smile!” Russ hissed through smiling teeth.

Alfredo looked out over the small crowd for a few moments. They are my students, and I am in a classroom. He moved out from behind the mess and the crows on the table, brushing the bits of food off his clothing. Russ smiled approvingly, and the crows continued to scavenge for every last morsel on the bandstand.

Crows and their raven cousins are extremely intelligent birds,” Alfredo said, his voice sounding stronger than he felt, “with an extensive intercultural language that I have studied for many years.”

You are a scientist, man! Russ had reminded him of that one critical weapon he had against fear: reason.

In that time, I have managed to learn a few of their words, phrases actually, such as how to say ‘hello,’ which is what you were seeing here today.” That was an under-exaggeration, he knew. Sometimes it is best to deliver the truth in small bundles.

Riiight!” the heckler from the back shouted. “You expect us to believe that!”

Does he think we are fools?” the man next to him shouted. “Crows don’t talk!”

Teach us how to say hello to the crows!” the little boy on his father’s shoulders yelled, and the crowd cheered.

Alfredo explained in great detail the guttural sounds and within minutes, the people were yelling, “Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” Their noise attracted other fair goers, and soon the crowd had grown to several hundred, all shouting, “Grawky!” and waving their arms and flags.

Grawky!” JoEd called out, though the crowd did not hear him over their own noise. “Grawky!”

Several more crows flew down to the table, chowing down while the others flapped their wings and called out, “Grawky! Grawky!”

We love our crows!” a woman shouted from the crowd. “Long live Wilder Island!”

The people cheered, waving their flags, hats, and arms.

Wilder Island!” they shouted. “Wilder! Wilder! Wilder!”

What’re they saying?” Antoine asked Alfredo.

They love you,” he said. “And they are all friends of Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Well, by golly, so are we!” Antoine shouted. “Right, JoEd?”

That’s right!” yelled little JoEd. “Cadeña-l’jadia forever!”

Antoine led the others upward into an ever-expanding spiral as they all shouted out, “Cadeña-l’jadia forever!” He turned them all back, and they flew a last low circle over the crowd and headed toward the river.

Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” the people shouted and waved until the crows had vanished from sight.

 

The airwaves and the newspaper came alive with opinions, viewpoints, sales pitches, and pleas, as the media captured the weekend’s events on both sides of the river in the struggle for the body, soul, and future of Wilder Island. From the Waterfront and the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts fair, to Henry Braun and his River Queen parading back and forth in front of the city dock, the citizens of Ledford indulged themselves in food, drink, and merriment as they considered the choice before them.

The Sunday evening news featured the crowd at the bandstand shouting “Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” while Russ and Alfredo looked on haplessly behind a table full of crows eating their lunch. All of Ledford watched continuous reruns of a video of Alfredo and Antoine greeting each other, wing to hand. By the time the ten-o’clock news had ended, the majority of Ledford residents had learned how to say hello in crow.

Dr. Manzi brought a trained troupe of talking crows to the table this afternoon,” a reporter said with vague tones of dread in her voice. “He claimed he has decoded their language, and taught the small gathering what he says is the crow word for hello.” She rolled her eyes as the camera showed the crows eating right off the table.

 

Jade laughed and said, “Oh, look at you two with all those crows! They look like lawyers pacing back and forth as they argue. That’s hilarious!”

And completely eclipsing an historic event of our two species greeting one another!” Russ said, shaking his head. “Leave it to the media to spew innuendo, half-truths, and outright lies, and call it news. I wonder how much Henry Braun paid them to say that.”

Total propaganda!” Henry Braun’s television face said. “This is just a flimsy cover for the utter nonsense this land trust outfit is trying to perpetrate on us. This is nothing but a joke, folks! These phonies want to prioritize crows over people! Why can’t they share the island with the city of Ledford?” he asked innocently as a scene of crows feeding at a dumpster filled the screen.

My Ravenwood Resort will be completely environmentally friendly,” he crooned as the black birds picked at the garbage, “and open to the many, while this, this bird park is open only to crows. We leave it to the good people of Ledford to decide.”

The station broadcast its reporter’s footage of Henry giving balloons and candy to children, roses to their mothers, and prospectuses to their fathers. Henry’s voice played continuously in the background, basted in heartfelt concern for his fellow man, appealing to the very freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution.

And what do you think of the planned Ravenwood Resort?” the reporter asked, sticking his microphone into the face of a woman with frothy blue hair.

Oh, I just love to play slot machines!” a woman said. “So much fun! And on the historic River Queen!”

I hope he builds it,” a man said. “The sooner the better! Ledford could use some entertainment. For the love of mike, how many tractor pulls can a person go to?”

Even if it means destruction of the crow population on the island?” the reporter asked.

When did flying rats become a protected species?” demanded a man with an ugly sneer. “They’re vermin, that’s all. Braun Enterprises is going to drain that swamp and bring us a new, beautiful, and clean resort for our families.”

They say after Henry Braun does that, we won’t have any more mosquitoes,” another man said. “I’d be in favor of that.”

Don’t know why it’s taken so long to drain that swamp,” his wife said. “It’s a health hazard, I tell you.”

The camera cut to a smiling, magnanimous Henry Braun striking a pose in front of the beautiful River Queen. “Other than for nostalgic reasons,” Henry asked, “why should we save Wilder Island? Why not turn this otherwise derelict land into a resort we can all enjoy?”

 

Dora Lyn put her knitting down and stared at the man on the TV. The announcer had said the man’s name was—what was it? Dr. Alfred Manzer? She was sure she’d never seen him before, a man with a thick streak of white through his black hair. But it was his voice that had attracted her attention and made her look up from her knitting.

He was awfully handsome and she listened for a few minutes to him read from a small notebook and then plead to keep Wilder Island wild. “Who is he?” she said to her mother, who was deaf as stone. “I know that voice from somewhere.”

 

 


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

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

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Try it!” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

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

 

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

It is Charlotte …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

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

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

Yes.”

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

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

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-but, how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What art fair?” Henry growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 4

Queen of the Night

 

Oh my God!” Jade said. She stood at the sliding glass door in their living room, shaking her head and pointing to something in the backyard. Her hand covered her mouth in shock. “They know.”

Who knows?” Russ asked. “And what do they know?” He looked over the newspaper at her from the couch.

Oh my God,” she said again, shaking her head. “They found me.”

Who found you?” Russ put the newspaper down, got up, and joined her at the window. “What is it, honey?”

Dozens of crows perched on their back wall, the little fence around the garden, and the backs of the chairs on the patio. Five dipped their beaks in the birdbath. Many more flew back and forth among the trees in the woods behind the house.

Wow!” Russ said. “There must be a hundred of them! I wonder what’s so interesting about our yard.”

They know,” Jade said.

Know what?”

They know I have this.” She patted the medallion through her shirt. “They know it’s in here.” Her voice rose slightly with each word. “It’s a token of some weird brotherhood of crows and humans! That’s why they broke in and tried to steal it! They came back for it. They know where it is.”

Oh, please, Jade,” Russ said, rolling his eyes. “How would these crows know what’s under your shirt? I didn’t tell them. That only leaves Willow B.”

The cat looked up from his favorite chair. “Mrrr?” He blinked sleepily, licked his left paw twice, and put his head back down.

And he says he didn’t tell anyone anything,” Russ said with a big grin. “They know nothing about you, Jade. They’re crows. They’re just looking for food, probably.”

The crows stared directly at her. “Right,” she said, backing away from the window. “Where’s the food? We don’t even keep a garbage can out there. They’ve never come into our yard before, not like this. And standing around the birdbath? Hmmm?”

Hmmm, what?” Russ said irritably. He turned away from the window and looked at her with a frown. “They’re birds, Jade. Birds go to birdbaths to drink and bathe. That’s why we put it there.”

Don’t you get it?” she said, her eyebrows crunched together. “I dreamed that a birdbath sailed through our window, and crows flew inside, and now they’re standing on our birdbath.”

And you think they somehow picked it up and heaved it through our window?” Russ said. He looked heavenward with his arms outstretched and shook his head. “It was a dream, Jade! Must you let it rule your life? And mine?”

Okay, fine,” she said with a long-suffering sigh. “You don’t get it. Follow me.”

She led him down the hall to her studio, stopping and turning toward a painting on the wall. “This was my first official painting. That is, the first one that ever got a frame. I called it High Five.”

Five crows danced around the top of a birdbath, beaks open, laughing and brushing one another’s wingtips above their heads. The blue-black feathers flashed iridescent red, green, and yellow, like tiny lights that appeared for a moment and quickly winked out, only to wink back on in another location.

I’ve always loved this painting,” Russ said. “You have so much talent. How old were you when you painted this? Before or after you dreamed they broke into your bedroom?”

I was in fifth grade,” Jade said. “Ten, I guess. These five crows came every day to the birdbath in Chloe and Smitty’s yard. They had a very playful and silly side to them.”

She remembered having fun with crows once. Before the nightmares started. Then it was crows on the road in front of Chloe and Smitty’s house, pecking at something. They looked up occasionally, pieces of white fur dropping from bloody beaks. Her cat, Blitzen.

She shivered. “But they eat dead things.”

We eat dead things,” Russ said. He raised his eyebrows.

Not off the road!” Jade said, wrinkling her nose.

What difference does that make?” he asked. “Other than Miss Manners advises against it and we don’t need small rocks in our stomachs to digest our food?” He put his arm around her. “It’s only the food chain, dear. Crows eat road kill. They eat French fries and doughnuts and everything edible that we drop into the landscape. They ate a good many of the corpses during the bubonic plagues. The world would be a stinkier place indeed without our corvid friends.”

That’s supposed to make me like them more?” Jade asked, frowning. “I wish they would go roost in someone else’s yard.”

Russ held up the painting of the five crows. “But you liked them once. And there they were, in your yard. Like they were your friends.”

I didn’t have any friends,” Jade insisted. “Just Abby. Chloe and Smitty lived out in the country. But there were always a bunch of crows everywhere.” She shrugged. “I guess I played with them some. Once.”

Russ placed the painting back down on the chair. He looked at his watch and said, “I gotta go, hon. Field trip this afternoon. I’m going to Wilder Island!”

Lucky you!” Jade said. “I think.”

She accompanied him down the hall and into the kitchen. Glancing out the sliding glass door to the backyard, she was surprised that the crows were gone. But a single black feather lay on the step. She opened the sliding door, reached down, and picked it up.

Look at this,” she said as she handed it to Russ.

Looks like a tail feather,” Russ said matter-of-factly and handed it back. He slung his pack over his shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be home by six-thirty.”

Jade took the feather to the studio and wondered how Russ knew so much. His family moved frequently, he had told her once. And he dealt with the constant uprooting and having to leave friends by burying himself in books. He read everything, he said.

He still does. That’s why he’s such a Mr. Know-It-All.

Jade had the same best friend, Abby Mahoney, from first grade all the way through high school. She wondered how Russ survived his childhood without a best friend. How did he learn to be so warm and affectionate? He was very fun to be with and as gentle a soul as she’d ever met, other than her foster father, Smitty, maybe.

Russ was different from all the boys she knew in high school and college. He never came on to her. Not until that night in the Arizona desert when he completely swept her off her feet. She fell into a safety net of mutual affection he had built with his gentlemanly ways. Such a sweet courtship! Jade smiled at the memory. And their honeymoon the cave paintings in southern France could not have been more fabulous.

She sighed, remembering how it was Russ who’d convinced her to start painting again, and helped her turn their spare bedroom into a studio. Now she had a one-woman show coming up in Ledford’s only avant-garde gallery. And she needed more paintings. She flopped down into a chair and examined the crow feather. “For something that seems so black, there are sure a lot of colors,” she said as Willow B jumped into her lap. He sniffed the feather delicately before settling down for a nap.

The afternoon flowed by unnoticed as Jade meticulously painted the feather from the vantage point of a tiny creature walking up its central spine. A fabric of pigmented threads and gossamer film formed an oblique grid of tiny prisms that filtered and split light into transparent layers of color. Close up, thousands of tiny windows scattered the colors of the rainbow into a mosaic pattern of rectangles. From across the room, a black feather arced gracefully upward in a motion suggesting imminent flight.

 

Russ sat at his desk in the biology department, re-examining the tiny blue flower from Wilder Island that Alfredo had given him. It was an orchid, he thought, but it was hard to tell in its dried, squished state. And part of it had crumbled away. He was eager to find one living and undamaged. As soon as Alfredo’s Avian Anatomy class was over, they were heading to Wilder Island for an afternoon of scientific discovery. He had been looking forward to this day for weeks.

He put the dried flower back in a small plastic box and closed the lid. He walked over to his window and gazed out, his hands in his pockets. Bright and beckoning in the morning sun, Wilder Island called out to him, promising riches beyond his imagination.

I just know I’m going to discover a new orchid there. Jadum wilderii. He had always known that one day he would find a new and exotically beautiful flower and name it after his beloved yet eccentric wife. Jadum wilderii.

The white roof of the little chapel on Wilder Island glowed bright white and stark against the dark greens and shadows in which the chapel nestled. Russ fantasized it was a gigantic white flower—the Selenicereus grandiflorus. More beautiful than any flower, my Queen of the Night. I fell in love with her the day I met her.

 

Jade was a freshman, and he was a senior. From the first moment, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was so beautiful, though a bit thin—she got carried away with painting sometimes and forgot to eat. He took advantage of her need and happily took her out for a bite whenever he could. She was kind of spacey sometimes but always full of fun and very, very sweet. She never gave him any sign that she would welcome a romantic advance from him, so he never made one. He spent his last year in college secretly in love with her.

When he told her he had gotten into grad school in Arizona, he thought she seemed happy for him, but there were no long, lingering looks when he left. They parted, and he wondered ever after what would’ve happened if he had taken her in his arms and kissed her passionately. “Spilled milk under the bridge,” he had told himself. “Let it go. She’s married to some lucky guy by now.” But he could not forget her.

Out of the blue and in a weak moment of nostalgia, he sent Jade a postcard from Tucson. Joy of all joys, she called him a few days later. “As luck would have it,” she said, “I’ll be in Tucson in a couple weeks. Chloe and Smitty bought me a place in a workshop there. It’s about making paint from the colored rocks in the landscape. Pretty cool, no? I’ll be there for a few days. Want to get together?”

As luck would have it.

But was it luck? Was it just fate that brought him and Jade together finally? What is fate or simple obedience to the laws of the universe amid an infinite sea of variables? Opportunity. That’s all it is. There is no Almighty Oz that controls our lives. No horoscope, no tea leaves. It’s all about luck and opportunity. You seize it or you don’t. Still, he felt that somehow in the grand order of the universe, he and Jade were meant to be.

He remembered the day like it was yesterday. He had driven to the airport and waited for her outside the gate. He recognized her instantly as she walked through the turnstile; she looked just the way he had remembered. Blonde, beautiful, and green eyes, really green eyes. He stepped forward, and she smiled. Oh, those eyes he had lost himself in years before just about devoured him again. They embraced quickly; she looked up at him, and he was history.

What are you doing in southern Arizona, Russ?” she had asked him later, when they were seated in the dining room of her hotel. “Forgive me, but isn’t this a desert? Seems like an odd place for a botanist. There’s more dirt here than plants!”

Au contraire, Mademoiselle,” Russ said, waving his margarita at her. “Yonder desert teems with life. Granted, there’s less of it here than in the Midwest, due to the scarcity of water, but the desert is surprisingly diverse in its flora.”

Their food arrived, and Russ waited to continue while the waiter served them and bustled around filling water glasses. He hurried away only after he was satisfied their needs were filled.

But really,” he continued, “I’m here in Tucson because of its proximity to an area where the Selenicereus grandiflorus grows, the subject of my ridiculously intricate, yet fascinating, doctorate. Commonly known as the ‘Queen of the Night,’ the Selenicereus grandiflorus is a night-blooming cactus. Its flower is large and gorgeous, so someone started calling it an orchid a long time ago. But really, it’s a cactus.”

Russ stopped, blushed, and said, “Sorry for the diatribe. I can get pretty carried away sometimes.” He attacked his steak.

No. Really, Russ,” Jade said, “I’m interested. Especially in a man who loves flowers! I like hearing about the scientific aspects of Mother Nature’s jewels.”

No wonder he was crazy about her. “Well, thanks,” he said. “Most people find it boring. But the Selenicereus grandiflorus flower is incredible. It blooms only once a year—at night. And it only lasts for just that one night.”

Very romantic!” Jade said. “I’d love to see it, the Selenicus grandiflorius, in bloom.”

He smiled at her attempt to pronounce the Selenicereus grandiflorus.

Cute and beautiful!

After dinner, they sipped coffee outside on a wood deck cantilevered over a rock garden. The view was spectacular. The multi-story office buildings of downtown Tucson cast an impressive silhouette against the setting sun. The mountains to the east reflected the day’s end in shades of watermelon and indigo in air so clear, you could almost see forever.

He took her for a ride in the desert, silently thanking the fates for arranging a full moon and a clear night. He stopped the car, cut the engine, and got out. He walked around to her side and opened the door. “At your request, my lady, right this way to the Selenicereus grandiflorus in bloom. It’s not far.”

They walked a short distance and stopped. He waited till she saw it—a large white flower, reflecting the silvery light of the moon and stars. Jade took a few steps and gasped.

And then he kissed her.

After that weekend, Russ spent a small fortune flying them both back and forth for visits, but he considered the money well spent, and their time together precious. He loved her paintings and was wildly enthusiastic about her talent. “You should paint some more,” he kept telling her.

I know,” she almost always said. “I want to, but somehow I can’t.” She looked so sad, and he didn’t know what else to do, so he just took her in his arms and hugged her.

On his last visit, he took her out for dinner. Afterward, they went for a walk, and he asked her to marry him. “I love you, Jade. I’ve never loved anyone but you. And I want to stop this flying back and forth all the time. I hate it when you’re not with me. Marry me?”

And she did! Life is strange.

 

Alfredo stuck his head into Russ’s office and said, “You ready?”

Russ nodded and grabbed his backpack before heading out the door. They left the Biology Department together and walked to the parking lot behind the building. Russ drove them to the city boat landing, where a strange boat seemed to be waiting for them. He followed Alfredo aboard, admiring the artistry of the wrought-iron work.

This is my friend Russ, the Captain,” Alfredo said.

Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Russ said, shaking the man’s hand. He looked up at the branches and leaves that formed a canopy over the boat. “Nice work.”

Thank’ee,” the Captain said with a nod.

He pushed off with a long oar, the tattoos on his arm coming to life as fish leaped over roiling waves, and birds flew in and out of the trees overhead. A large crow sat perched on the railing next to the captain, gazing across the water as he rowed.

You heard someone has offered to buy Wilder Island?” Alfredo said. “Henry Braun is his name.”

Yes,” Russ said. “It’s been in the papers. He wants to build some kind of casino resort. You Jesuits will turn him down, right?”

I think so,” Alfredo said. “In any case, I plan to do everything I can to convince my Order that the island is worth keeping.”

Be a cold day in hell,” the Captain grunted as he steered, “before the crows’ll let that happen.”

The crow perched on the railing looked up at the captain, squawking loudly as if it had an opinion to share. The Captain nodded and said, “No way, Jose!”

A barge blew its whistle as it took the right-of-way, and the shrill noise temporarily drowned out any conversation.

Russ gazed ahead at the mysterious island, inhaling deeply, filling his senses with the cool, moist river breeze. The island held his destiny, he was sure of it, beckoning and compelling him forward. Jadum wilderii. I know you are there.

I’d give my left nu—” he said, turning to Alfredo, “ah, that is my left foot to discover a new flower, say an orchid. The papers I could write! Tenure for sure!”

I suspect so!” Alfredo said, grinning. “That is why I want to show you the island, Russ. I am also hopeful we can turn it into a research station, where we can study the native birds and plants.”

The Captain rowed into the inlet, and Russ looked up at several black birds circling above. “Crows or ravens?”

Alfredo looked up and said, “Ravens. You can tell by the wedge-shaped tail.”

The Captain left the two men on the bank. “Back at sunset,” he said and shoved his boat back into the river.

Alfredo pointed toward a vague path. “This way, Russ.”

Immediately lost to its many wonders, Russ darted off the path and into the forest, calling out the names of plants and trees as if greeting old friends. “Ah, my lovely myrtle!” he said, plucking a leaf and holding it to his nose.

He stopped at a group of black ash trees. “Forgive me,” he said sheepishly as Alfredo caught up with him. “But these ash trees—at least I think they’re ash—are very unusual, to say the least. Look at the leaf! It’s the right shape, but it’s sure an odd color.” He pulled a leaf off and examined it closely. “Almost blue-green.” He put the leaf carefully in his notebook.

Alfredo conducted Russ through the forest, through stands of black spruce and white cedar, as well as balsam fir, dwarf alder, dogwood, and willow. Hundreds of birds flew among the trees, all calling out at once.

It’s hard to imagine a big city not a mile away,” Russ said. “I can’t hear it at all.”

Nor can you hear our feet crunching through the undergrowth,” Alfredo said, “with all that racket up there!”

I’m sorry.” Russ cupped a hand behind his ear. “I didn’t catch that.”

If you think this is loud,” Alfredo raised his voice, above the din, “you must come and hear them in the spring. You cannot hear yourself think.”

Wouldn’t you love to live here?” Russ said loudly. “I’d listen to this noise all day long, as opposed to the sounds of tires screeching, sirens, and planes landing and taking off.”

I pray to the Almighty daily,” Alfredo said, “that one day I will make this island my home.”

Russ stopped to admire a cluster of willows growing along a tiny stream with a variety of different species of rushes lining the edges. “Wow!” he said, dropping to his knees. “Will ya look at that? I believe it’s white Lady’s Slipper, a rare find indeed.”

As I have been telling you,” Alfredo said, “the island flora is extraordinary, Russ. There are many unusual plants, especially on the lower island, though I have not had the time to compare them to known species. Not exactly my expertise. But that is why I asked you here.”

Russ took his camera out of his pack and took several pictures before making a quick sketch of the flower. After writing a few notes he snapped his notebook shut and stood up.

A noisy group of crows flew overhead, and the two men looked up. “One of the crow families that live on the island,” Alfredo said. “Mother and father, three young ones, out for a fly.”

They do that?” Russ asked. “Take the kids out? They don’t just toss them from the nest as soon as they have feathers and can fly?”

Heavens, no!” Alfredo said. “Quite the opposite. The fledglings stay in the nest until they are several months old. The older brothers and sisters often hang around even longer and help care for the new generation of fledglings.”

Seriously?” Russ asked. “Extended crow families?”

Yes,” Alfredo replied. “The corvid even take care of their old ones, bringing them food when they cannot get it for themselves.”

Very kind,” Russ said. “I had no idea. I guess I should read your papers.”

No worries!” Alfredo said with a grin. “I have not read any of yours either!” Both men laughed. “But perhaps we should, Russ. If we are going to be doing research on the same island.”

They continued to walk, and Alfredo watched Russ’s excitement grew. “There’s years worth of research here! Things I’ve never seen before, not even in botany books. I’m completely awe-smacked, to use my wife’s favorite term.”

To my knowledge, there is no where on Earth like this island,” Alfredo said. “But wait until you see the orchids! The lower half of the island is very boggy with many springs that disappear underground and reappear elsewhere. Orchids evidently love that climate. Next time, we will go down there, though we will need to start earlier and pack lunch. And mosquito repellent!”

I can’t wait!” Russ said. “There are a few rare orchids in this state; it’s a good bet one or two may be on this island. I’d love to find out what lives in these mosquito-infested bogs!”

Perhaps even discover a new species, eh?” Alfredo said with a wink. “But yes, swampy and mosquito-infested, this island is all that. All yours, this mighty yet miniature kingdom.”

A research area in my own backyard,” Russ said. “What a score! I was getting nervous about my tenure review next year, and about having the requisite number of publications. Imagine if I discover a new species!”

A group of crows swooped in low over the two men, cawing loudly. Much to Russ’s surprise, Alfredo raised an arm and called out a greeting, and the crows returned the salutation.

Nice!” Russ said. “I’ve never known anyone who learned crow calls. You’re quite good! If I wasn’t standing here watching, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between you and them.”

Alfredo smiled and said, “That was not really a call, per se. We tend to think of birdcalls as mating calls, but really most are not.”

So then,” Russ said, stopping and turning his head toward Alfredo. “What was it?”

Alfredo shrugged and said, “Hello.” He watched Russ’s reaction carefully. No astonishment, just curiosity.

Say it again, this hello,” Russ said, looking at Alfredo intently.

Grawky!” Alfredo said. “Grawky. The ‘gr’ sound begins in the throat. A guttural sort of growl almost as if you’re clearing your throat and hacking up a feather. Grawky!”

Russ laughed and said “Grawky!” a few times until Alfredo nodded and said, “You got it! Grawky!”

Thanks, man!” Russ said. “Grawky! I love it. It sounds so crow-ish! Grawky!”

Grawky!” A call came down from the trees overhead. Russ laughed like a child and said, “Was that a crow or a raven? Or can you tell?”

That was a crow,” Alfredo said. “Ravens make much deeper, more guttural sounds.” He looked up at the sky. “We should head back to the inlet. The Captain will be arriving soon.”

So,” Russ said, as they backtracked through the forest, “how many other words do you know?”

Alfredo walked a few steps before answering. How much should I tell him? He seems eager to know and not at all put off. He took a deep breath and said, “The corvid language is composed of sentences, or phrases, rather than words. I used to think their language in terms of sounds is less varied than ours, due to anatomical differences, but that is not so. Corvid language is no less intricate than ours.”

Russ stopped and took a bottle of water from the side pocket of his pack. Alfredo waited while he took a long drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Well, then I guess my question should have been: how many sentences do you know?”

That is hard to answer as well,” said Alfredo as he propped a boot up on a rock and retied the lace. “As I said, the corvid language is quite complex. I have only a rudimentary understanding of it.”

He flinched a little at his lie. I have as great an understanding of the corvid language as I do of English. But he was not yet ready for Russ to find out about the secret he had guarded so carefully since he was a child. Not yet.

This is great stuff, Alfredo!” Russ said. “You are writing a paper, aren’t you? I bet the department would find you a full-time faculty position.”

I have only just begun to scratch the surface,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. “And I do not want a full-time faculty position. I am happy with my life the way it is.”

For God’s sake, man!” Russ said, stopping and staring at Alfredo. “You need to publish! You’d have instant tenure at any university in the world. You’d be famous for-freaking-ever!”

I do not want to be famous,” Alfredo said, staring back. “My life is perfect. I am connected to a scholarly institution and the most marvelous field laboratory—this island. I have a cathedral when I desire human companionship. One day perhaps I will write about the corvid language. But not yet.”

The birds were far less noisy than they had been earlier; the leaves and twigs crackled under their feet. Leaves fluttered on their branches, adding a soft percussive rhythm to the song of the wind. The captain was waiting as they arrived at the inlet, and as they pulled away from the island, Russ said, “Thanks, Alfredo. This was fantastic! I can’t wait to come back!”

 

He does what?” Jade asked, her eyebrows arched in shocked suspicion. “Alfredo Manzi talks to crows?”

Russ shoveled a forkful of pasta into his mouth, dripping spaghetti sauce onto the table. “Um, hmm,” he said. “I’m serious. He’s translated some of their calls into English.”

Jade speared a chunk of avocado and said, “You actually heard him talking to crows? You didn’t perchance accidentally eat some loco weed on the island, did you?”

No!” Russ laughed. “There are plenty of crazy-looking plants, though. But I did hear him speak to a small group of crows.”

Jade giggled behind her napkin. “Did they answer?”

Russ popped a piece of garlic bread into his mouth. After chewing it, he said, “Yes. They did. I was pretty shocked at first, but there’s no reason why we can’t learn the language of other species. He taught me how to say hello.” Russ put his fork down and drank a sip of water. “Grawky!” he said. “Grawky!”

Jade tried to repeat the crow’s greeting, much to Russ’s amusement. “The sound comes from down in the throat,” he explained. “Alfredo says the crows have vocal chords of sorts way down deep in their throats. He says the crow’s language is quite complex and may have as many words as any human language.”

Jade shook her head and waved her fork at him. “That’s just too hard to believe, Russ. How can crows talk to humans?” She rose from the table, took their plates to the sink, and returned with an apple pie.

He shrugged. “I can’t explain the anatomy and physiology of it. I’m a plant man.” He drank the last sip of his water and put the glass on the table, centered it precisely within one of the circle patterns on the tablecloth. He watched Jade cut the pie in half, quarters, eighths.

But it’s not all that crazy,” he said. “Just because we can’t understand the other animals doesn’t mean they haven’t developed a complex language.”

Jade put a piece of pie in front of him. “Whip?” she asked, with the nozzle of the whipped cream can poised over his plate.

Russ nodded and said, “The unbelievable thing is that he won’t publish.”


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