Corvus Rising – Chapter 5

 

The Great Corvid Council

Deep within the Ledford National Cemetery, Hookbeak, Aviar of the Great Corvid Council, emerged from sleep in an ancient white oak tree to contemplate the dawning of the day. The small hollow in the tree’s massive trunk and the wide branch at its opening provided him shelter from storms as well as a wide platform upon which he could stand and even walk around a bit. He stood as high as he could and flapped his wings in his ritual morning stretch. Across the river, Cadeña-l’jadia floated on a river of glass, still shrouded in blankets of mist.

The military cemetery in which Hookbeak’s tree grew formed the southwestern boundary of the city, on the outskirts of Downtown. Built in the early days of Ledford, its oldest gravestones bore dates from the early-1800s. The frequency of twenty-one-gun salutes had increased over the past decade, disturbing Hookbeak’s peace. He supposed the humans had engaged themselves in another war somewhere.

That is how they thin their populations,” his friend Starfire had said. “That and the automobile.”

Hookbeak endured the noise from the salutes without complaint. He had even stopped reacting, for the most part, to the sound of gunfire. Where humans gathered, noise ensued. But they always left food behind, which more than compensated him for a few seconds of annoyance.

He had hatched in the cemetery, and he had lived there his entire life. He built nest after nest in a new tree every year, and in nearly two entire decades, he and his lovely wife, Rosie, had hatched over one hundred chicks. Eighty-nine fledglings survived into adulthood—not a bad average. Not bad at all.

Hookbeak had quite lost count of how many grandchildren he had, or even how many generations he had spawned. Many of his children and their children flew in from time to time for a visit. He was always happy to see them, and grateful when they left.

He had lived alone in the old oak since his Rosie had fallen to the West Nile virus the year before. He missed her terribly, and he spoke to her frequently throughout his quiet solitude. Rosie, my heart. My work here will soon be finished, and I will join you. Together we will fly into the Great Orb of Time. Wait for me!

Today as Aviar, Hookbeak would preside over the Great Corvid Council, a thirteen-member body of crows and ravens whose objective was to keep the regional corvid population informed and healthy, as well as to keep historical and actuarial records. The Council would also discuss the sudden appearance of Jayzu, the newest Patua’ in the territory. He just showed up out of thin air. Starfire had been incensed at the very idea of an un-catalogued Patua’ right under his beak.

The end times are indeed near, my Rosie! Hookbeak gazed across the cemetery toward the island. I shall not see the new age. He sighed. But I do see it on the horizon. That will have to suffice.

Grawky, Starfire!” Hookbeak called out as his friend sailed into the tree and landed next to him.

Grawky, my friend!” Starfire said after he dropped a barbequed chicken leg at Hookbeak’s feet. “Breakfast for two!”

What a pleasant surprise!” Hookbeak pecked a big chunk of chicken off the bone and rolled it toward Starfire with his beak.

The Cub Scouts had a picnic at the park yesterday,” Starfire said after he swallowed a chunk. “I managed to pluck this from the trash just before a mob of crows descended on it.”

One must be quick,” Hookbeak said, “if crows are around.”

The two ravens took turns grasping the chicken leg in one claw and pulling off chunks of meat. Starfire stood on the chicken bone and pulled off the last bits of flesh before letting it drop to the ground. He cleaned his beak on a branch.

Very tasty,” Hookbeak said. “Thank you most kindly, my friend. That should do me until after the council meeting. “Where is Jayzu?”

Jayzu is waiting for us at the bench by the fish pond,” Starfire said, opening his wings. “He’s a short fly from the Council trees.”

The two ravens left Hookbeak’s tree and flew to a remote corner of the cemetery where the trees were tall and stood very close together. A man sat on a park bench near a pond, throwing bits of bread to a group of noisy ducks.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Hookbeak said heartily as he landed on the back of the bench. “We meet at last! I am Hookbeak.”

Starfire landed on the grass, folding his wings as he introduced himself. Jayzu brushed his hand across each of their outstretched wingtips. “I am pleased to make your acquaintances as well. I—”

The Aviar loomed over Jayzu and bore into him with his piercing black eyes. “The Council is quite curious about you,” he said. “Many thought Bruthamax was the last of your kind. There are those among us, however, that know otherwise.”

Starfire took a couple steps closer to Jayzu and said, “Indeed. And at least one among us who has predicted your coming.”

Jayzu shifted his weight on the bench. “I am curious about the Council as well,” he said. “But I have always thought that I am a freak of nature; I had no idea I had a ‘kind.’ I thought—”

We are all freaks of nature,” Hookbeak rumbled. “Are we not? What are any of us but miraculous answers to a unique set of utterly random circumstance?”

Well, I guess—” Jayzu said.

Starfire flapped his wings impatiently and said, “Who is to say circumstances are random? But there is a larger picture than our mutual curiosity, Jayzu. Much larger.” He hopped up onto the bench, eye-level with the human. “We believe your presence heralds a new age.”

Really?” Jayzu said. “A new age? Me? But I am just an ord—”

Yes, you!” Starfire said vehemently. “That is what all the signs say. Ever since the Patua’ mysteriously and suddenly disappeared some five hundred years ago, we have told our hatchlings stories of the return of a Great One, beloved by all. The Great One will bring the Patua’ back from whence they disappeared.”

Jayzu frowned and shook his head. “I am no messiah, Starfire. You have the wrong man. I am just an ordin—”

We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax,” Hookbeak interrupted. “But he did not bring the Patua’ back.”

And you believe I will?” Jayzu asked. “You had the wrong man once. You still do.”

So our previous interpretation was wrong,” Starfire said. He sharpened his beak on the edge of the park bench. “Not our stories. But here is an interesting fact: you and Bruthamax are of the same clan, the Jesuit Clan.”

The Jesuits are an order,” Jayzu said, “not a clan.”

Order, family, genus, species, clan,” Starfire said irritably. “Whatever you want to call it, you and Bruthamax are both Patua’, you both came to Cadeña-l’jadia, and you are both of the Jesuit kin. We think this is not a coincidence.”

Jayzu stood up and walked several steps away from the bench. He emptied his sack of breadcrumbs into the pond, and the ducks scrambled, dashing to snatch up the morsels before they sank. He turned back to the two ravens on the park bench and said, “Then you probably will think it is no coincidence that I have spent my life among the Jesuits. I was placed in a boarding school at an early age, due to my crow-speech, as they called it. After that Jesuit high school, then Jesuit college, Jesuit seminary school—”

Supporting my hypothesis,” Starfire said, “of a Patua’ Underground and the probable return of the Patua’. Right here, right now.”

Hookbeak hopped down onto the seat of the park bench and said, “That remains a hypothesis, Starfire. Two data points is not a trend. Bring me proof.” The Aviar turned his attention back to Jayzu. “Now we must go. Are you ready for the Council? These corvids can be rather formidable. We are not all of like mind, and no one is the least bashful.”

Nor are humans all of like mind,” Jayzu said, smiling. “I am ready, Aviar.”

Good,” Hookbeak said as he flapped his wings and jumped to the ground. “Excellent. Let us go. The meeting place is just over yonder.”

I will see you at the Council Tree,” said Starfire as he took to the air.

Jayzu and Hookbeak walked side by side toward a cove of oak trees a short distance from the pond. Most of the councilors had already arrived; Hookbeak could see many of them in the lower branches of the council trees at the edge of the cove. “Jayzu, please stay hidden back here,” he said, “until I call you out.”

Hookbeak walked into the clearing and flew up to the Aviar’s perch, a branch higher than the rest on the tallest tree. The last councilor arrived, and the Aviar rose up tall on his branch, flapped his wings, and called out, “The Great Corvid Council convenes! Izzy?”

Sound off, ravens!” Izzy, the Aviar’s page called out in his crackly, adolescent voice.

Each bird called out his name and his territory, in accordance with the time-honored tradition of the Council.

Hookbeak. Ledford National Cemetery,” the Aviar rumbled.

Starfire. Woodmen of the World Cemetery.”

Walldrug. The Boonies.”

Longshanks. The Timber Mill.”

Wingnut. Ledford Municipal Zoo.”

Fishgut. The Cannery.”

Restarea. Ledford Airport.”

All ravens present!” Iggy croaked. “Sound off, crows!”

Athanasius. The Brewery.”

DeeJay. Downtown.”

Boomer. The Waterfront.”

O’Malley. Southlands.”

Ziggy. Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Joshwa. Ledford Landfill.”

All crows present!” Izzy yelled.

Thank you, Izzy,” the Aviar said graciously, before turning to address the Council. The page disappeared into the upper branches of Hookbeak’s tree.

What news of the territories, corvids?” Hookbeak’s deep raven voice boomed through the branches.

Runway 218’s flooded again,” said Restarea. “They are diverting air traffic.”

So that’s why it’s been so dang noisy around the Cannery,” Fishgut said. “Like to shake the dang daylights out of a body.”

There’s a new law in Cavron County,” O’Malley called out. “All humans must carry an unconcealed gun in public at all times. Seriously. They’re insane down there, afraid of everything. My brother-in-law, he even saw one poor slob shooting at his own shadow.”

The councilors guffawed and flapped their wings in ridicule.

Let us get the word out,” Hookbeak said. “Cavron County is off-limits to all corvids. Any other news?” The Aviar looked around, and when no one spoke, he continued, “Very well. Most of you have heard the rumors that a Patua’ again lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

A hush fell at the mention of the lush green island of crows, uninhabited by humans for decades. The leaves quivered as the Council seemed to hold its breath.

Bruthamax has returned!” Boomer shouted, and some of the crows erupted into a fanfare of feathers and beak. “Bruthamax lives!” The entire tree shook as the councilors danced upon their branches.

Bruthamax is still dead, Boomer,” Hookbeak said. “This one is called Jayzu.”

The councilors settled back down, with a few last shout-outs, “Long live Bruthamax!”

I seen him once, this new Patua’, on the cathedral steps Downtown,” DeeJay said. “All dressed in black. Looked kind of like one of us, only bigger. He threw leftovers from the monsignor’s breakfast for us poor, hungry crows!”

The crows cackled and fanned their wings in approval. “I’ll be joining you for church, come Sunday!” Boomer said.

I heard Jayzu serves bacon,” Joshwa said as he flew from his branch up to one near Boomer. “I haven’t tasted bacon since the family moved out to the landfill.”

Councilors!” Hookbeak, the Aviar, spoke. “Please be serious. This is momentous. We have been waiting for this Patua’ since Bruthamax.””

I thought they all died out,” Longshanks said.

Bruthamax was the last of them,” Walldrug said.

We all thought that,” Hookbeak said. “But evidently that is not so.”

Not at all,” Starfire said, rising up on his perch. “There are a few in our area alone. But more importantly, we have expected the Patua’ to reemerge for centuries, heralded by the arrival of one from the Jesuit Clan. We thought this Patua’ was Bruthamax. We were wrong. It is this new Patua’. Jayzu.”

The councilors muttered under their beaks to one another, some in wonder, “At last, the Patua’ have returned!” some in doubt, “How do we know it is this Patua’ we’ve been waiting for?” and a couple who believed the news irrelevant, “It is ludicrous to wait and hope this extinct species will save us.” “What’s a Jezyooit?”

Hookbeak rose up on his branch, flapping his huge wings. “Please let us now adjourn downward to the ground and greet the Patua’.” He stepped off the Aviar’s perch and sailed down to the clearing below. The rest of the councilors followed, gasping in dismay and delight. “A Patua’? Here? Now?” “Where is the Patua’?” “Why were we not told a Patua’ would be here?”

I am telling you now,” the Aviar said. He paused a moment to allow the wave of wing shuffling and murmurings to cease. He turned toward the trees. “Jayzu! The Great Corvid Council awaits your arrival!”

 

Alfredo stepped out from behind the trees and walked into the very surprised group of corvids. “I am honored to be among you,” he said quietly to the hushed councilors.

Many of them nodded to one another, mumbling their approval. A few waved a wing at him, and others called out their greetings and comments. “Yo! Jayzu!” “That’s a Patua’?” “He looks just like a regular human!”

Hookbeak spoke. “And we are honored you came to us, Jayzu. Greetings!”

Alfredo held his hands out as a few of the councilors stepped forward to greet him.

We were gladdened by the news of a Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” a raven said cordially. “I am Longshanks. Welcome.” He brushed his wing across Alfredo’s hand.

Is it true, Jayzu,” a crow spoke out above the muttering, “you are building a bird sanctuary on Cadeña-l’jadia?”

Not yet,” Alfredo replied, “but someday I—”

Sanctuary? What kind of sanctuary?” one of the ravens interrupted in mild alarm. He wandered through the councilors on the grass as he spoke. “There are sanctuaries and then there are Sanctuaries, so we wonder exactly what you intend to do in this sanctuary. Some oddball sanctification ritual perhaps? Will you require feathers? Entrails?”

No,” Alfredo said, “I—”

Sanctuary?” a few of the councilors said as they looked at one another in apparent confusion.

What’s a sanctuary?” asked a crow.

It just means—” Alfredo started to say.

Sanctuary—the word comes from the root, to sanctify,” another crow replied sanctimoniously. “To mortify and cleanse the flesh.”

Alfredo felt exasperated with some of the councilors, but there was little he could do other than wait politely and grab what chance he could to speak. He glanced at Hookbeak, standing silently next to him on the grass. Will he not intervene and let me talk?

Ah,” the raven who had asked the original question said. “It is a bathing place then. In this case, for birds. That does not sound so bad.”

Unless the cleansing of the flesh is done with blood, Restarea,” a raven said. Hoots of denial circulated through the Council. “It has happened,” he continued. “Human use of animals as sacrificial offerings for ritual ceremonies to appease their gods is well known.”

There will be no sacri—” Alfredo said and glanced at Hookbeak standing silently next to him on the grass. When will he intervene and let me talk?

Will this Patua’, this Jayzu, be experimenting on birds in his sanctuary?” another raven asked. “Perhaps feather plucking for his rituals? Dissection?”

A sanctuary is a refuge, Walldrug,” Starfire said, impatiently waving a wing. “Safe haven. As in rest stop. Now please, let us remember that Jayzu is Patua’. I daresay he reveres the corvid as much as Bruthamax did.”

Charlie of the great Hozey Clan,” a crow said, “well, his wife told my wife that he told her that Jayzu knew nothing of Bruthamax.”

Gasps of incredulous dismay pulsed through the councilors, and they looked at one another and Alfredo in disbelief. “Never heard of Bruthamax? How can that be?” someone hissed. “He knows not his own kin!” whispered another. “How can we trust him?”

Bedlam broke out as factions lined up against other factions. “Interventionist!” one side cried out, while the other shouted “Isolationist!”

Are you all daft?” Starfire shouted, striding to the middle of the two groups. “Or just deaf? Did you not all just find it remarkable that there was a Patua’ among us? Remember thinking the Patua’ had completely vanished? Shocking as it is, Bruthamax is not known among humans outside of the city surrounding us.”

The councilors quieted down as Starfire spoke. By the time he finished, dignity had been restored. A few seconds of silence reigned, and Alfredo seized the moment.

That is true.” He paused, momentarily shocked that no one interrupted. “Human knowledge of the Patua’ is significantly less than yours. I am Patua’ yet knew not there were others of my kind.”

Thirteen pairs of eyes, some black, some blue, stared back in silence. “I did not know of Bruthamax until I came to Cadeña-l’jadia,” Alfredo continued, grateful for the opportunity to continue speaking. Since then, I have learned much, thanks to the corvids for keeping his stories and sharing them with me. I am proud to be counted among Bruthamax’s kin.”

Most of the councilors softened and some even had a few sympathetic words of comfort: “Any kin of Bruthamax is a friend of ours!” “Long live the Patua’!” “Long live Jayzu!”

An explosive sound nearby scattered the councilors, and someone shouted, “Meeting adjourned!”

Alfredo was suddenly alone with Hookbeak and Starfire in the small clearing, but for several feathers that lay twitching in the breeze. He waited for a few minutes for the Aviar to speak, but the old raven kept silent and still as stone, listening. Not a creature stirred. Even the insects had been silenced.

Thank the Great Orb for that explosion,” Starfire said at last. “Nothing scatters the corvids like the sound of gunfire. Otherwise we would be beaking this to death till sunset.”

I thought it was just a car backfire,” Alfredo said.

It was,” Hookbeak said. “But no matter, we accomplished what we wanted today.”

We did?” Alfredo said.

Yes,” the Aviar replied and leaped into the sky.

Indeed, Jayzu,” Starfire said. “Thank you.” He flapped his wings and took off after Hookbeak.

For what?” Alfredo called out after the ravens as they flew away. “What did we accomplish?”

He shrugged and walked back to the park bench where he had left his bicycle. Charlie flew out of the nearby trees.

Where were you?” Alfredo asked. “I could have used a friendly face.”

He got on the bike, and Charlie assumed his position on the handlebars. “You have many friends, Jayzu. Yes, I was there. In a tree on the edge of the clearing where you were. I heard everything.”

Alfredo rode his bike out of the National Cemetery and through the huge wrought-iron gates onto Alhambra Boulevard. As they rode through the neighborhoods on the way down to the Waterfront, people smiled and waved at the man and the crow on the bike.

Do you know how many Patua’ there are?” Alfredo said as he waved back to an elderly couple out for a stroll.

Where?” Charlie asked. “Here? Or in the world?”

Here, and the rest of the world.” Alfredo slowed down as he approached a four-way stop and sped up when he saw no cars coming.

Well, we’re working on that,” Charlie said. “Starfire has been doing weekly Extraction Rituals for some time now on all the Keepers. It’s a matter of coming up with the algorithms. And then there’s constructing the chants. It’s quite complex, and we’re only working on the local database. I don’t know if we could easily find out how many Patua’ there are in the entire world.”

I see,” Alfredo said. “Sounds like a computer program. Tell me more about this internal database.”

It’s a lattice, actually,” Charlie said. “The lattice has many branches, and each branch has many storage nodes where we implant data.”

Alfredo turned down Water Street. The river lay in front of him, with Cadeña-l’jadia basking in the midday sun. As they passed St. Sophia’s, the resident pigeons pecked at the sediments of earlier handouts left on the steps. “Am I in your database?” Alfredo asked. “Or do you know?”

I have no awareness of anything in the database,” Charlie said. “I don’t know if you are stored in my lattice. The archives were set up to restrict any bleed over into the Keeper’s memory, so as to not pollute the database.”

You never cease to amaze me, my friend,” Alfredo said. “I never imagined the corvid had devised such sophisticated methods of archiving data. And your dedication is commendable.”

We love lists,” Charlie said. He unfolded his wings to keep his balance as Alfredo rode over a rough patch of pavement. “We simply made them three-dimensional.”

Alfredo knew that corvids have powerful memories, and though he understood well that these birds were as gifted by the Creator with intelligence and sentience equal to humans, he marveled at their invention. “Long ago, humans used to rely on oral traditions to store and maintain family histories and cultural lore. In the modern world, we rely more on external storage for our memories.”

He stopped his bike at a red light, putting one foot on the curb and keeping the other on a pedal. A car pulled up next to him, a silver Bentley. The rear window went down, and a female voice said, “Good morning, Father Manzi!”

The woman in the backseat waved a hand out the window as Alfredo tried to see who had spoken. But the light changed, and the Bentley’s chauffeur sped through the intersection before he had his other foot on the pedal.

But our storage devices get full,” Alfredo continued. “Or obsolete, or they break.”

That is a problem with tools,” Charlie said. “But we too spend much time maintaining our database. Otherwise it too, would fall into decay.”

Water Street turned steep as he rode the last few blocks to the Waterfront, where the Captain waited. “How does he always know when I am coming?” Alfredo asked.

We tell him,” Charlie said. “That is, we crows, magpies, jays, and the like. You can’t go anywhere without being seen, and telling whoever cares about it.”

Alfredo looked up; there were no birds flying overhead. None in the trees. “Why am I being spied upon, Charlie? I would tell you anything you ask.”

As they arrived at the Waterfront, Alfredo slowed the bike to a halt and then hopped off.

No one is spying on you, Jayzu,” Charlie said as he leaped to a nearby bench and clutched the back with his feet. “At first, we did, till we knew what you are about. But now you’re famous; some think you’re the reincarnation of Bruthamax. You’re a celebrity!”

All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia!” Sugarbabe yelled.

They rode in silence all the way to Cadena-l’jadia; even Sugarbabe was uncharacteristically quiet. When the boat stopped at the inlet, Alfredo jumped onto the sandy bank and waved to the Captain as he pushed his boat back into the current.

 

Have you ever known another Patua’, Charlie?” Alfredo asked. “Other than me and the Captain?”

The crow stood, and the priest perched on a driftwood log at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel. It had been a long day. Alfredo hardly remembered getting off the Captain’s boat and walking the half mile to the rocky point. The Great Corvid Council was illuminating, yet he felt exhausted. He had not expected them to be so argumentative. He laughed at himself. Like our Congress, for instance? Somehow he had envisioned them to be more civilized—to him, and to one another.

One,” Charlie said, “I have known one other Patua’, for many years.”

Jealousy surged through Alfredo, surprising him. Am I envious that I might be sharing Charlie with another Patua’? He bent his head back and looked up through the leaves at the sky. Or am I jealous of Charlie?

Where is your friend now?” Alfredo asked. Oh, to have a friend!

Rosencranz,” Charlie said.

The old insane asylum?” He had seen photographs in the library Downtown of the old hospital an hour outside of Ledford–an anachronism from the last century, part of the curious cultural lore of the city.

Charlotte is not insane,” Charlie said flatly, looking up at him. “Her family chucked her in Rosencranz when she was a teenager because she is Patua’. She’s been there ever since. Twenty-five years.”

You have not seen her in twenty-five years?” Alfredo said to Charlie.

I saw her last ten days ago,” Charlie said. “But it’s been quite a bit longer than that, though, since we have spoken.”

Alfredo was aghast. “Just because she talked to crows? My mother was afraid people would think I was possessed by the devil. But no one ever thought I was insane. Our parish priest had me whisked me off to a Jesuit boarding school.” There but for the grace of God …

He had not thought of the family’s parish priest in years. “Try to keep this, uh, talent of yours hidden from everyone,” Father Mario had said to him before he left for boarding school. “Use it only for the continued glory of God’s creation. You must not let anyone else know. Make sure only God sees.”

Was Father Mario Patua’? Did he understand me better than I or my mother did?

Tell me about your friend, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I would like to know another Patua’.”

 

Charlotte disappeared one day when she was seventeen,” Charlie began his story. “I hadn’t seen her in a few months. Rika and I had our first clutch that year, and I was in Keeper training, and just couldn’t get away. But the magpies all said that men in white coats drove up in a big van and took her away. She was crying, they said, when the white coats put her in a tiny shirt with really long sleeves that they wound all around her.

She kept screaming. All the way down the road, they could hear her screaming. The white coats took her to Rosencranz. That’s what the magpies told me.

I winged it over to Rosencranz, but couldn’t get in, of course; what hospital would let a crow in, even during visiting hours? So I visited every windowsill, looking for her. I peeked and sometimes downright stared into every window, more than once. For two years, I came and pecked on her window nearly every day.”

I admire your devotion, Charlie,” Jayzu said. “I cannot imagine.

Then one day,” the crow continued, “there she was! Just on the other side of the glass, sitting in a wheelchair with her hands folded neatly in her lap. But she did not see me.

I pecked on the window, but she did not hear me. I called out her name. ‘Charlotte! Yo! Charlotte! It’s me! Charlie!’ But she didn’t look up. She just stared at her lap, and I wondered if she had gone deaf.

I kept yelling and dancing and pecking, anything to get her attention. She didn’t hear me, didn’t see me.

I didn’t give up, though. Day after day, I showed up on the windowsill at the same time, trying to get her attention. But day after day, she didn’t look up. Until she did! She finally noticed me through the glass! I nearly fell off the windowsill.

“‘Charlie!’ she said, with the big smile I remembered from long ago. Of course I couldn’t hear her; the window was closed. Then she ran across the room and pasted both hands on the glass, as if to embrace me. I flapped my wings and cried out, ‘Charlotte! Charlotte!’ Great Orb, that was a wonderful day!

Then a white coat came up to Charlotte and took her hands off the window, giving each one a little slap and then escorted her back to her wheelchair.

“‘Charlotte!’ I yelled as he wheeled her out of the room. I pecked on the glass. I shouted as loud as I could. Another white coat came to the window, opened it, and yelled ‘Darn crows!’ as she tried to smack me with a towel.

She missed. ‘Darn yoomans!’ I yelled back at her.

Though I waited at the window, Charlotte didn’t come back that day. Or the next. I hung around, waiting and hoping for some sign of her. Days went by. I visited all the other windowsills again and again. Just as I was about to give up, there she was!

I pecked at the glass, and when she looked up, I flapped my wings at her. But she didn’t get up, didn’t smile at me, or say my name. I thought maybe she hadn’t really seen me. But when no one was looking, she smiled at me. She wouldn’t come to the window, though. Probably she was afraid they would slap her hands again. She never took her eyes off me until someone came and took her out of the room.

That was eight years ago. I see her often, but through a closed window. I can’t talk to her or hear her voice. But at least I can see her.”

Charlie ended his story; crow and human sat without speaking for several minutes. The pulsating song of crickets emanated from hidden places in the grass. Several loons wandered along the bank below, pecking for tidbits between the rocks and grass. A few gulls orbited a fishing vessel on the river.

I do not know what to say, Charlie, my friend,” Jayzu said at last. “I am sad for your friend, being locked away like that. Surely her family visits?”

Charlotte is alone, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “No one visits. No one can understand her. But I am telling you, Jayzu, she is as sane as you or I.”

The sky had turned the color of late afternoon. “It is time I headed home to Rika and my kreegans, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “Before it gets too dark to fly.”

Charlie left the priest and flew out over the river. The sun hovered above the western horizon, sending shimmering hues of yellow and orange across the river. All the way home, he thought about Charlotte and her years of silence.

He had never given up hope. Charlotte came back out of the graying. And now an idea tantalized him. Jayzu could just walk in the front door of Rosencranz. And he could speak to Charlotte in the Patua’. What if … Charlie dared to hope … Jayzu could get her out of there? What if he could bring her here, to Cadeña-l’jadia?

From the past, Starfire’s voice boomed inside his head.

I have lived a long time and have seen many things, but never have I seen a Patua’ snatched back from the abyss, once he or she went into the Graying. But none may know the future. Always keep hope in your heart.”

 

Alfredo drew his mouth into a tight line as he watched Charlie take off and make a wide circle over the river. Twenty-five years in an insane asylum! Why was Charlotte forsaken in such a place while I am allowed to live in this paradise? Why was I rewarded, and she was punished for being Patua’?

His friend Charlie’s anguish bore down on him heavily. “It is so unfair,” Alfredo said aloud. “So unjust.”

A voice from above replied, “I quote: ‘There is no justice. There is only grace.’”

Alfredo looked up. A raven perched on the lower branch of a nearby basswood tree looked down at him. “And whom do you quote, NoExit?” he asked.

The Grandmother’s proverb,” NoExit said. “There is no such thing as justice. Random mercies, perhaps, but no justice. That is a good thing for most of us. Our lives would be truly impoverished if ever all we got was what we deserve.”

Do you think so?” Alfredo said. “My species is forever expecting justice.”

Yet who among you has ever found it?” The raven flapped down to the ground. Alfredo was nearly eye-to-eye with the elegant bird. NoExit wore his age with strength and dignity: his long, shaggy wreath of black feathers encircled his thick neck, draping over his breast and hanging nearly to his sturdy legs.

The sun touched the horizon, turning the river into liquid gold and bathing the island in stark, brilliant light. NoExit’s feathers blazed with hints of refracted sunset, giving him a regal air of great wisdom and clarity. He hopped up onto the log next to Alfredo and gazed out over the river. Alfredo felt young and small next to him.

Justice is a thing wholly imagined by humans,” NoExit said. “Yet you are not very good at it.”

Yet we try,” Alfredo said, feeling a bit defensive. He sat up a little straighter. “Humans abide by the rule of law; that is what civilizes us.”

The law is an ass,” NoExit said, “and an idiot.”

Alfredo turned toward the raven, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “So said Mr. Bumble. Are you telling me you have read Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist?”

Of course not,” NoExit said, sharpening his beak on the log. “The saying has been in corvid lore for centuries, at least. Perhaps you should inquire as to where Mr. Dickens got it.”

Are you saying Dickens was Patua’?” Alfredo asked incredulously. “And that he stole the saying from the corvid?” The priest started to laugh.

No idea,” NoExit said. He flapped his wings a few times and refolded them into his sleek profile. “But the concept is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. What is shocking is that it took your species until the nineteenth century for the very thought to even attain utterance.”

The last of the sun seemed to disappear into the river somewhere upstream, taking all color with it. Downtown lights flickered on. A late barge chugged upriver, all lit up and blowing diesel smoke from its stack. All around, Alfredo could hear the sounds of many creatures browsing or hunting for their evening meal. The law of the food chain governed. He felt envious of such simplicity.

We have a great many laws,” Alfredo said. “Too many perhaps. But without laws, how could we even approach justice?”

There is a vast difference between law and justice,” NoExit said. “Perhaps therein lies the problem. The natural laws—the law of gravity, for instance—are absolute. Yet human laws, and therefore justice, bend with circumstance.”

A multitude of young crows swirled above the trees, arguing over where they would roost for the night. Their noise seemed to irritate the raven, and he looked up at the ruckus.

To change is to endure,” NoExit said after the crows had passed. “That is what the Grandmothers say.”

You have mentioned the Grandmothers twice,” Alfredo said. “Who are they?”

Grandmothers are older female corvids with many generations of offspring,” he said. “Similar to the Council, but they provide a female perspective. They do not concern themselves with the illusion of justice. Instead they seek the paths of grace and elegance.”

Grace and elegance?” Alfredo said, frowning.

Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma?” NoExit said. “When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”

Alfredo nodded. “Many times.”

The Grandmothers will find a way through such times,” NoExit said, “illuminating the way toward doing what is needed, as opposed to parsing the meaning of justice and the intent of law.”

The Grandmothers are wise,” Alfredo said.

NoExit buried his beak in his wingpit and said in a muffled voice, “Mothers are inherently wise. Else they would fail as mothers, and their offspring would not thrive.” He pulled his head out and continued. “Grandmothers are grandly wise, having raised many young, but they also have seen many of their kreegans die. What justice is there in the death of the young? Justice does not exist in nature, I tell you. Do not seek it there.”

Twilight draped the island in shades of gray. City lights slowly twinkled on against the river’s canvass that reflected the fading light of day. Crickets kicked off the nightly jam session of music makers in the insect world. A bell rang from the direction of the inlet.

Alfredo did not remember telling the Captain to return for him at sunset and was grateful that he had come anyway. He always seems to know when I need him. “That is my ride back to the city,” he said. “I must say goodnight.”

Goodnight, my friend.” NoExit flapped his great wings a few times and disappeared into the chapel.


www.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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 3

The Treehouse

 

Imagine my surprise finding you in Ledford!” Father Provincial Thomas Majewski said to Alfredo over the phone. “It’s good to hear your voice after all these years!”

Alfredo was on duty at St. Sophia’s, preparing for his shift in the confessional. When the phone rang, he had assumed it would be one of the parishioners wanting absolution over the phone. Thank the Good Lord Almighty, it was the head of the entire Jesuit operation in North America instead!

Majewski’s voice took Alfredo back to his graduate school days and his unfriendly committee. Except for Dr. Thomas, as the students had called Majewski. He was always available and certainly had a more open mind than the other committee members.

Likewise, Thomas!” Alfredo agreed. “But I’m surprised to hear from you. To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?”

Well,” Majewski’s baritone voice boomed, “I don’t much believe in synchronicities, but it seems as if this Wilder Island has become the focus of all my attention lately!”

Alfredo looked out the window at the island in the afternoon sun, wishing he were there. He imagined even God would prefer the whispering breezes and his exuberant creation to the cold walls of the cathedral, and the laments of rich, lonely women.

Mine too!” Alfredo laughed. “I can see it out my window as we speak.”

Tell me about this island, Alfredo,” Majewski said. “We’ve gotten an offer from a gentleman named Henry Braun, right there in Ledford, for several million dollars.”

Alfredo’s blood went cold. No! You cannot sell it! “For what purpose?” he said, hoping his voice did not betray his fear. “There is nothing there, really. It is not considered habitable by humans.” Except by me.

The letter didn’t say what he wanted it for,” Majewski said. “Development, presumably.”

He cannot be serious!” Alfredo cried. He doodled on the pad in front of him, drawing the word “No!” in three-dimensional block letters.

He is,” Majewski said. “He calls my office daily, waiting for an answer. But calm down, Alfredo. He annoys the hell out of me. I’m inclined to turn him down for that alone.”

That is good to hear,” Alfredo said, drawing a dollar sign on the pad. “The island is quite small and very difficult to get to. Where the undergrowth is not completely impassable, it is very boggy and full of mosquitoes.”

So you’ve been there?” Majewski asked. “I was hoping to get you to do some investigating for us. Is it really haunted?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “No, not at all. There are many crows–an unusually large number, in fact. But nothing sinister, nothing magical. In fact, I am heading over there this morning, among other things to bury Maxmillian Wilder’s remains. He was an old hermit that lived on the island for many years and built a remarkable little chapel.”

What else do you know about Maxmillian Wilder?” Majewski asked. “He was one of ours, you know. A Jesuit.”

Was he?” Alfredo said. He drew a skull on the desk pad. “I assumed he had taken holy orders, but he was one of us?”

He frowned, wondering if Charlie knew that. He seemed to know everything else about Brother Maxmillian Wilder. Bruthamax.

Yes, he was a Jesuit, according to some letters and legal documents I accidentally found. But there’s no mention of a Maxmillian Wilder in our records anywhere.”

None?” Alfredo was taken aback. “Why would the Jesuits expunge one of their own?”

We don’t,” Majewski said. “We keep records on everyone, even the de-frocked.”

 

Alfredo finished hearing confession, and changed from priestly garb into jeans, a T-shirt, and hiking boots. He left his apartment at the rectory at St. Sophia’s and headed for the Waterfront. From the top of the stone steps, he saw the Captain and his floating forest of a boat seemingly waiting for him.

Here you are again, just when I need you,” he said as he climbed aboard. “Do you have a sixth sense, Captain? Or is it always a coincidence that you are here whenever I need you?”

I travel the river from sunup to sundown,” the Captain said, “looking for those who are looking for a ride.”

Hahaha!” Sugarbabe screeched and flapped her wings on her perch next to the Captain. “No way, Jayzu! A little birdie told him! Me! Me! Me!” She danced around on her perch.

The Captain grinned, and tried to cuff the crow with the back of his hand, but she leaped off her perch screeching with laughter.

Can’t get away with much with this old blabber-mouth around!” he said as he pushed his boat away from the dock.

But no one knew I wanted to go to the island today,” Alfredo said, thinking back on his morning. “Am I being spied upon?” he asked Sugarbabe.

I know nothing,” she said, burying her beak in her wingpit.

Now that’s a ding-dang lie, Sugarbabe!” the Captain said as he pushed the boat away from the dock. “You know everything that’s to know all up and down this river. And on Cadeña-l’jadia!” He turned to Alfredo, winked, and then looked back at the bird. “Nothing gets by you!”

Sugarbabe pulled her head out and preened her breast feathers flat. “I know nothing about no spying,” she insisted.

Alfredo laughed and said, “I suppose I do not mind being spied upon by crows, Sugarbabe. I had no idea I was that interesting.”

Oh,” Sugarbabe said, “you’re that interesting all right. You’re Bruthamax’s kin! That’s why Charlie sent the magpies to follow you around, so they could tell him—” She suddenly stopped and glanced at the Captain. “Oops,” she said. A moment later, she leaped into the sky and flew off.

The Captain threw his head back and laughed. “She never can keep a secret, that one!”

Alfredo smiled and then he frowned. “Why am I being spied upon by crows?”

The Captain shrugged. “They’ve got their reasons, I reckon.”

He looked away suddenly, and Alfredo wondered if the Captain knew more about him than he let on. He felt somewhat disappointed that his new friend Charlie had watched him through the eyes of magpies. Why did he not visit himself if I am that important?

But how did you know I would need a ride over to the island this morning?” Alfredo asked.

Coincidence,” the Captain shrugged, his eyes straight ahead. “I reckon.”

The island’s dark green forest loomed larger as they approached, and Alfredo felt his heart lighten. The Captain brought the boat to a halt on the shore at the inlet, and he leaped out. He offered to pay for the ride, but the Captain pushed his floating forest away from the dock tipping his hat saying, “G’day, Padre. Be back at sunset.”

After waving good-bye to the Captain, Alfredo made his way to the old chapel. He opened the door and entered the patchwork of sunshine and shadows. Illuminated by several shafts of sunlight through the bird’s-nest roof, Maxmillian’s bones gleamed garishly white in the dim interior.

The skeleton was remarkably intact, considering it had been stripped clean of all soft tissue long ago by both vertebrate and invertebrate creatures on the island. He picked up the skull, and something dropped to the dirt. He dusted it off on his shirt and peered curiously at it: a large wooden bead of some sort. Or perhaps stone; it was rather heavy for its size. But the light in the chapel was too dim to examine it further. He put it in his backpack and continued with his task.

He carefully placed each of Brother Maxmillian’s bones into a burlap sack and took it outside to a place just below the chapel, above the rocky point of the island’s headlands. After he dug a hole, he placed the sack of bones into it and filled it with dirt. He took the small white cross he had fashioned from wood in the handyman’s shop, upon which he had carved M. W., and pushed it into the dirt.

Charlie the blue-eyed crow flew in low and landed on a flat rock next to the grave.

Hello, my friend,” Alfredo greeted him, wondering again how much this crow knew about him. “I have buried Bruthamax’s bones.”

I can see that,” Charlie replied. “Why? They were not a health hazard, were they?”

No,” Alfredo said. “It is a human tradition to bury our dead. It honors them, we think.”

In that case,” Charlie said, “may I join you in honoring Bruthamax? He was held in high esteem among us crows, you know, and we take any opportunity we can to revere his memory.”

Of course,” Alfredo said.

Suddenly dozens of crows materialized from the trees around the chapel, startling Alfredo. The crows dropped to the ground, surrounded Brother Wilder’s grave, and bowed their heads. He was extremely touched by their reverence, and he bowed his head with them. In the language of the crows, he prayed, “Dear Lord Almighty, please receive our Brother Maxmillian Wilder, that is, Bruthamax, into your infinite peace. In his name, may you bless this island of crows and keep it safe from all harm.”

Amen,” Charlie said, flapping his wings.

The other crows all flapped wings and shouted elegies to their hero: “The memory of Bruthamax lives in our hearts forever!” “Bruthamax! Where for art thou?”

I had no idea,” Alfredo said, “that after all these years Bruthamax is held in such high regard by so many birds. He has been dead for decades.”

The birds wandered around murmuring more epitaphs to one another. A few picked flowers and laid them gently in front of the small cross.

Bruthamax is legendary to just about every corvid family in North America,” Charlie said. “Word flew out from Cadeña-l’jadia as soon as he died. Church bells everywhere rang out the news, even the bells at St. Sophia’s.”

The bell-ringers were all Patua’?” Alfredo asked.

Humans didn’t ring the bells,” Charlie said. “Crows did. They hung on the ropes by beak and claw until there were enough of them to pull it down. News of his passing spread by wing and beak after that. Thousands of ravens and crows, along with many jays and magpies from the entire river region, flew to the island for the Grand Funeral Roosting. Never in modern times has a human been so honored by us.”

One man meant so much to so many birds,” Alfredo said. “Yet he was unknown among humans.”

Yep,” Charlie said. “Sometimes that’s just the way it is.”

Gradually the crows dissolved back into the trees and sky, leaving Alfredo and Charlie standing next to the little wooden cross. “I brought lunch today, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I was hoping to bribe you into taking me down to Bruthamax’s tree house.”

I can definitely be bribed,” Charlie said.

The two walked side by side down to the flat gray rocks above the riverbank. Alfredo took a hero sandwich from his backpack, unwrapped it, cut it in half, and put one piece on a small flat rock for the crow. Charlie knocked the top bun off his sandwich and beaked a chunk of ham. He tossed it in the air, catching and swallowing it in one motion.

Within a few minutes, the sandwich was gone, both halves, though Charlie left most of the bun. “Someone’ll eat it,” he said, cleaning his beak in the sand.

The Jesuits have discovered they own the island,” Alfredo said as he stuffed the paper wrappings into his pack.

No one owns Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said sharply. “You can’t own anything you cannot carry in your two claws—or in your case, hands.”

Someone offered them a lot of money,” Alfredo said with some discomfort. No use mincing words. “They want me to provide them with more information so they can assess the island’s value.”

Val-yooo!” a mockingbird sang from the trees nearby. “Val-yoooo!” the call echoed through the trees.

Value,” Charlie said, his head tipped thoughtfully. “Now there’s a word that means something completely different to humans than it does to me.”

Or me,” Alfredo said. “But I worry that whoever made this offer wants to develop the island. They may want to cut the trees down and build houses. Or worse.”

Alfredo imagined the lush forest all around him gone, replaced by some human nonsense—a shopping center or amusement park, perhaps?

In that case,” Charlie said, “it only matters if you Jesuits aren’t planning the same thing.”

Probably not,” Alfredo said. He picked up a small smooth stone and tossed it back and forth between his hands. “The island has a Jesuit-built chapel on it. It is more likely the Order will want to preserve it than have it torn down. I will do whatever I can to discourage them from selling.”

Cadeña-l’jadia owns itself,” Charlie said. “Best you humans remember that.” He unfurled his wings as he hopped off the rock and into the sky. “Shall we head down to the Treehouse?”

 

They traveled through the dense forest toward the Treehouse, the human on foot, the crow by wing. Hundreds of birds whizzed by—crows, magpies, jays, mockingbirds, and an assortment of other birds too small to identify. Many of them called out as they passed: “Greetings, Jayzu!” “Yahoo, Jayz-ZOOO!” “Grawky, Jayzu!”

He greeted them all back with a wave of his hand. “Grawky! Grawky!”

They came to the precipice Alfredo had encountered on his first visit to the island. “I have been here before, Charlie. I do not think I can get across this,” Alfredo said as he looked over the edge at the sheer drop. “It is not too far down, but I am afraid I would either impale myself on the trees or smash up on the rocks.”

Follow me!” Charlie called out over his shoulder. “There’s a bridge over this way.”

Alfredo plowed his way through the thick undergrowth and found the crow perched atop a wooden post at the beginning of a swaying footbridge. “This bridge has been here over a hundred years,” Charlie said. “Bruthamax built it.”

The bridge seemed amazingly sturdy; though it had neither been used nor repaired in decades, it had not deteriorated. Charlie hopped down from his perch and started walking across the bridge. “Come on, Jayzu!” he said.

Do you think it will hold me?” Alfredo asked as he yanked hard on the thick vine ropes.

Charlie leaped off the bridge and said, “I don’t know, Jayzu, but it is the only way across the Boulders for the two-legged.”

Here I come,” Alfredo said as he stepped onto the bridge. “Lord, please keep me in one piece.” The old bridge swayed wildly from side to side as he crossed, but it held fast. He stepped onto a platform in the old tree on the other side of the boulder ravine and looked back at the bridge with admiration. “Bruthamax was quite the engineer.”

With a little help from his friends,” Charlie said. “My ancestor Hozey the Younger and many other crows.”

Alfredo imagined a scene of crows flying to and fro, carrying lengths of vine in their beaks across the Boulders to Bruthamax, who strung them through flat pieces of wood.

That is even more amazing, Charlie,” he said. “Humans and crows working together. Mighty impressive.” He stepped off the platform onto short stubby branches that spiraled down the trunk all the way to the ground.

This is marvelous!” Alfredo said on his way down. “A perfect natural spiral staircase—the steps grow right out of the trunk.” He looked upward and shook his head. “While the branches above the platform provide a canopy of shade.”

Bruthamax had a way with the trees,” Charlie said. “He had his own orchard near the tree house.”

Really?” Alfredo said, his dark eyebrows arching. “An orchard?”

That’s right,” Charlie said. “And a pond, and a smokehouse.”

He pointed a wing and said as he leapt into the air, “The Treehouse is this way! Follow me, Jayzu! And watch out. There are many wet places down there.”

Alfredo looked back. The bridge had completely disappeared, and the dense forest closed in all around. “Good thing I have you to guide me, Charlie,” he said. “I have no idea how to get back.”

For a while, the ground was firm and dry, and he walked easily through the forest. His path became more difficult as the ground grew soft and wet with spongy bogs and dark pools. He stumbled on tree roots and an occasional rock hidden in the undergrowth. Overhead, the trees were hung with moss and vines, and hundreds of birds of many colors flew through the trees, all singing out at once.

Surprised and delighted at the plethora of flowers and vines that decorated the trees, Alfredo walked in wonder through tiny glens of miniature blue and yellow flowers that peeked up through the grasses. Star-shaped lilies of bright pink sprang from clumps of green spears amid an abundance of red and orange fan-shaped flowers he could not identify.

Charlie glided easily through the branches and trunks, helping Alfredo pick his way along the ground below. “Jayzu!” he called out, “Stop! You’re heading into a bog. Go back!”

Alfredo tried to stop his forward momentum, but he tripped over a tree root and slid into a small pool of watery black mud. “Too late!” he said, pulling his mud-covered boot out of a shallow pool that he mistook for solid ground covered by tiny plants.

He tried to keep a better eye on Charlie after that, but the calls of many birds distracted his attention, and he found it difficult not to look up into the forest canopy. He was sure there was more than one birdcall he’d never heard before.

He waved at the swamp sparrows who trilled as he passed, and he called out a greeting to the chattering magpies. Underneath the birdcalls, crickets and other insects performed their own unique vignettes that somehow merged with all the other voices into an energetic song of life on a summer afternoon.

With so many birds flying among the trees, Alfredo lost track of which one was Charlie. He stopped and called out, “Where are you, Charlie? I cannot see you.”

Charlie?” a mockingbird mocked, “I cannot see you!”

Charlie!” a raven rasped, “where are you?”

Char-lee!” a red-winged blackbird trilled. “Char-lee, Charleee!”

Up here, Jayzu!” Charlie called, “Right above you. The Treehouse is straight ahead.”

As the crow flies,” grumbled Alfredo as he slogged through a shallow mud bog, trying to follow Charlie. He stopped next to an unexpected human-built structure, a hut constructed of small, rough-hewn wood planks. “What is this?” he asked.

Charlie landed on the roof. “Either Bruthamax’s smoke house or his crapper,” he said. “I could never tell which from which.”

Looks like the crapper,” Alfredo said, noting the wood box with a hole cut through the top. “He had a smoke house, too?”

Yep,” Charlie said. “It got struck by lightning a few years back and burnt to the ground. But I didn’t know it was the smokehouse, till now.”

They continued on their way, and within a few minutes, Alfredo stood before a towering, black gum tree. “Bruthamax’s Treehouse!” Charlie said.

Alfredo looked up, but saw nothing but a gnarly tangle of living and dead vines. “Where?” he asked, making his way around the massive, ivy-encased trunk. He craned his neck, squinting his eyes, hoping to discern a human-built structure.

Up here,” Charlie said, looking down at him. “The way up for the two-legged is around the other side.”

He disappeared into the leaves, and Alfredo walked around the tree whose huge trunk was nearly encased in a variety of vines. Charlie dropped to the ground at the base of a graceful spiral of ivy and Virginia creeper that disappeared above into the great tree’s interior. “Bruthamax climbed these stairs up to the Treehouse,” Charlie said, gesturing upward with his beak.

What stairs?” Alfredo wondered. He unshouldered his pack and pulled out a machete he had borrowed from the gardener’s shed at St. Sophia’s. Hacking through a hundred years of vinage was no small task, but the effort revealed a series of wooden steps, stacked one upon the next, winding around a central axis and disappearing into the darkness above.

He tested the bottom step. It seemed sturdy enough, and he wound his way up, hacking the thick growth of vines from the steps. He continued chopping away until his machete cut through to a wooden deck made of smooth, straight tree branches lashed together by living and dead vines. He cut away the last of the vines and heaved himself onto the deck.

A crude railing of smooth, undulating lengths of whitewashed branches attached to posts enclosed the small deck, evidently a favorite perch for a multitude of birds. “Bruthamax slept outside on this bench in the summertime,” Charlie said, pointing to a vine-encased bench.

That looks more like a sofa!” Alfredo said and sat down. Over the years, vines had poured over the railing and formed a back.

Vines hung down from the tree branches in a curtain of green leaves, through which Alfredo finally saw it: Bruthamax’s Treehouse. He pushed through the hanging vines and stood before a small edifice, encrusted with tendrils of ropey gray.

Leaves rustled slightly in the branches overhead, and a voice called out, “That’s too far, JoEd! Come back where I can see you!”

A crow dropped onto the deck, and Charlie said, “Jayzu, meet my wife, Rika.”

I am at my wit’s end with that son of yours,” Rika said irritably as she extended her wing in greeting. “Grawky, Jayzu! It is good to finally make your acquaintance. My husband speaks very highly of you.”

Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, blushing under her compliment as he brushed his hand across her outstretched wing.

Suddenly she whipped around and shouted, “JoEd! You come back here this instant!” But the little crow did not heed her. She turned around and said to Charlie, “Husband, please fetch back your son before he finds some breeze to blow away on!”

As Charlie took off, Rika said to Alfredo, “I swear by the Great Orb, Jayzu, it is harder with them out of the nest. They can do more, but at least when they were little, the nest kept them from wandering off or getting into trouble.”

As she spoke, four young crows tumbled down onto the deck. “Oh!” Rika said. “And here’s the rest of our family, Jayzu. Kreegans, say hello to Jayzu.”

Grawky, Jayzu,” the four little crows said in unison, bowing low with their wings straight out over the deck. Alfredo got down on his knees to crow level, grinning at their squeaky young voices. He brushed their little wingtips with his hand, greeting each one in turn.

Charlie came back with JoEd in tow, nudging him into compliance. Even as the two crows landed on the deck, JoEd tried to break free of his parents’ dominion, but Rika caught him by a tail feather and dragged him back. “JoEd, don’t make me clip your wings,” Rika scolded. Turning to Charlie, she said, “Husband, please try to talk some sense into your son!”

Aw, Weebs!” JoEd complained. “You never let me have any fun. There’s a whole world out there beyond this boring old tree.”

Listen to your mother, JoEd,” Charlie said. “And say grawky to Jayzu.”

Grawky, Jayzu!” JoEd said obediently and brushed his wing against Alfredo’s outstretched hand. “My zazu talks about you all the time.”

Well, JoEd,” Alfredo laughed, “my new friend Charlie, your zazu, has told me all about you! I understand you have already learned to fly.”

Yes, Jayzu,” JoEd said, puffing up with pride. “I’m an early bird, just like my zazu. And I am going to be a Keeper someday, too. I’ve already been chosen!”

Alfredo watched Rika jump up and dash off to keep JoEd’s siblings from falling off the deck; they were playing King on the Mountain on the deck railing.

Come, kreegans,” she said to the fledglings. “Back up to the nest!” She scooped them up with her wings and pushed them up into the branches. With a great deal of fluttering and flapping, the little ones made it back to the nest. “JoEd!” Rika called down. “Please come and look after the others.”

Ah, Weebs!” JoEd said, but obediently he flew up to the nest.

Alfredo turned toward the Treehouse. “A work of art,” he said. “Just like the chapel.”

Years of ivy-growth had almost completely covered the Treehouse, in an ordered chaos of interlocking branches that held one another in place

Where is the door?” he asked. “These vines have obliterated it. Do you mind if I cut away some of them?”

Be my guest,” Charlie said. “That stuff grows like weeds.”

Alfredo cut until he uncovered the wooden handle of the door and hacked at the vines until the door appeared.

That door has been shut for hundreds of corvid generations,” Charlie said. “Ever since our beloved Bruthamax moved up to the chapel in his last days.”

Alfredo yanked on the handle, and the door creaked opened on its wooden hinges. Darkness and scents of mold and dust greeted his senses. He fished a couple of candles from his pack, lit one, and stepped into the Treehouse, and held it up. The trunk of the huge gum tree rose up through the floor and disappeared in the tangled branches of the Hozey-style roof. The walls comprised a solid mass of branches and vines so thick no daylight could penetrate.

Decades of leaves, twigs, and dirt littered the floor and the sparse furnishings: a small rustic table and a bench under a broken window, and a long narrow bed. A stovepipe chimney had collapsed into a crude fireplace.

Charlie and Rika walked across the threshold and into the Treehouse. “Oh, Husband!” Rika said. “Is it not a privilege to stand in the domicile of the great Bruthamax? To think he sat on that bench! Ate at that table!”

Evidently Bruthamax constructed the walls in the Hozey way as well as the roof,” Alfredo said as he held his candle aloft. “And over the years, the spaces completely filled in with these vines.” He held his candle up as high as he could and gazed upward. Same as the roof.”

What’s good for the roof is good for the walls, I reckon,” Charlie said.

Alfredo melted the end of the other candle and stuck it to a table constructed of a single driftwood plank on three legs.

How did Bruthamax build this by himself, I wonder,” he said as he lit the candle from the one in his hand.

He didn’t,” Charlie said from the doorway. “Hozey the Younger and his family helped him. Just like the chapel and the bridge.”

They say Bruthamax slept right here,” Charlie said, walking over to a shallow box on legs constructed of split tree trunks.

Bruthamax’s bed had been built up against the wall of the Treehouse, following its contours. “Nothing beats leaves for warmth and cushioning, you know,” Rika said as she surveyed the bed full of tree debris and dirt. “Except perhaps feathers.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “Yes, feathers are best!”

As the family history goes,” Charlie said, “Bruthamax made a winter cloak out of bird feathers. Crows, mostly, as we are the largest bird family on Cadeña-l’jadia. We, that is my ancestors, they all donated feathers, and Bruthamax sewed them together into a giant cloak that covered him from head to foot. Slept under it too, as the account goes.”

That must be where the stories come from,” Alfredo said, imagining what the city folk saw. “They say a giant crow used to walk the shores of the island at night, fishing from the river.”

That would be Bruthamax,” Rika said, nodding. “In his crow feather cloak.”

It could be made quite livable,” Alfredo said, considering the possibility. “A bit of cleaning, really, is all the place needs.”

The glass is cracked,” Rika said, pointing a wing toward the broken window above the table.

And a little window repair,” Alfredo said. “I wonder where Bruthamax got the piece of glass? And that piece of stovepipe? Surely they did not float here on the river!”

They stepped back out onto the deck. Charlie and Rika’s kreegans perched on the railing, all eyes upon Jayzu. “JoEd!” Rika called up to the nest. “What are these kreegans doing down here?” She flew up into the branches. “Don’t tell me that little judavoid has flown off again!”

Charlie flew out of the tree after his son, and Alfredo sat down on the bench. The young crows jumped from the railing into his lap, onto his shoulders and his head where they played King on the Mountain. One fell off his lap and onto the deck, where he discovered Jayzu’s shoelaces. Another pecked at Jayzu’s watch, saying, “Sparkly!”

Alfredo laughed and captured the young crows in his hands, one at a time, put them on their backs, and tickled them under their wings as they laughed and kicked their little feet. “All right, kreegans!” he said after everyone had been tickled at least once. He stood up, scattering the crows to the bench and deck. “It is time for Uncle Jayzu to go home.”

King on the Mountain!” shouted one of the kreegans as he leapt up to the railing. His siblings flew to the challenge, ready to unseat him and claim the top rail.

Alfredo said good-bye to Rika and spiraled himself down to the ground on the Bruthamax’s stairway. As he walked below the Treehouse, he stumbled on a rock buried in dirt and leaves, and fell forward with a shout as he tumbled through rotten wooden planks into a shallow pit. Unharmed, he stood up and brushed the dirt from his hands.

He stood in a circular hole about five feet deep, lined with flat gray blocks of limestone. Near the top of the pit, a short length of a rusty steel pipe protruded through the stone. “A cistern!” Alfredo said in amazement.

Charlie looked down from the Treehouse railing. “What’s a cistern?”

Alfredo leaped out of the pit and started uncovering the ring of gray rocks at the top. “It is a place to gather and store water,” he said. “People collect rainwater in barrels and cisterns near their houses so they do not have to haul it. Water is quite heavy.”

He looked up at the underside of the Treehouse. “But this one did not collect rain water. I bet this pipes water from a stream or a spring nearby.” He kicked aside the dirt and leaves covering the pipe and followed it a short distance uphill, to a pond fed by a small, trickling stream.

This must’ve been Bruthamax’s water source,” Alfredo said, pointing to the other end of the pipe. “It must have gotten clogged up over the years.” He dropped to his knees and took a drink from the clear pool, sweet and cold.

He stood up, surveying the old hermit’s water works. It would not take much to get the cistern filled again. But not today. “I must head back,” he said to Charlie. “The Captain will be arriving at the inlet to pick me up shortly.”

Under Charlie’s winged guidance, he walked back to the inlet, where the Captain and Sugarbabe awaited him. The Captain rowed in silence, and Alfredo watched the green island recede, hoping one day he would never leave. He imagined sleeping on the deck of the Treehouse, with everything he needed at hand’s reach. Perhaps Charlie and Rika would not mind.

Alfredo could not stop thinking about the cistern underneath the tree house, wondering how Bruthamax could have built it by himself. He could imagine digging a hole that large, but with what? And the cement to grout in the limestone bricks? Where did that come from? Where did he get the iron pipe? Surely not from Hozey!

Clearly Bruthamax had a human helper, someone like the Captain perhaps? To bring him supplies and help with the heavy work … but then why do the crows say he never spoke to a human after he came to the island?

He returned to the Treehouse a few days later, with Charlie again leading him through the bogs and dark forest. He brought a small, plastic tarp, a shovel, and a bucket and cleaned the dirt and leaves out of the cistern. Even the bottom had been lined with limestone bricks, and grouted with cement.

After he unclogged the pipe at the small pool, it sucked water in with a loud slurping noise. He ran back, hearing the sound of water falling as a stream poured into the cistern.

This will take days to fill,” he said as he and Charlie watched. He pulled a few branches across the top of the cistern and covered them with the tarp. He placed a few large rocks around the edge of the tarp to hold it down. “That should keep dirt and animals out, until I can build a more permanent cover.”

He spent the night on the deck of the Treehouse, gazing at the stars up through the leaves. Corvus, the constellation of the raven, looked down upon him from high in the southern sky. He fell asleep long after midnight and slept soundly all through the night, until the kreegans dropped down on his chest just before dawn.

 

William Luther handed Father Superior Thomas Majewski a cup of coffee, saying, “The Times and the morning mail are on your desk, Father.”

Thank you, William,” Majewski said, and he strode into his office. Moments after he sat down, Snowbell leaped into his lap. He stroked her back and scowled in distaste at the letter from an attorney on the top of his mail pile.

He reached for the Times, spreading the newspaper open over the dreaded mail. He read every page, including the Fashion and Real Estate sections. The Travel section sang like a siren. New Zealand! Amsterdam! London! Even a trip to New Jersey would beat having to deal with the matter on the top of his mail.

Majewski folded the newspaper carefully when he finished and added it to the stack next to the fireplace. “All right, my Snowbell,” he said, “stop this procrastinating and get to work, you hear me?” He scratched the cat under her chin and then rifled through the mail.

The large envelope from Alfredo Manzi seized his attention. “That was quick—was it not, my queen?” he said as he tore it open. “I asked Manzi to send me a report on that island only a week ago.” He settled back into his chair and pulled out the report. “Did he discover the talking crows?”

He read the note from Alfredo, stuck on the first page:

Thomas-
Here is my report on Wilder Island as you requested, including photographs…..
AM

Majewski peeled the note off and scanned the report. Two miles long, one mile wide … mostly wetlands … dense swampy forest … not enough trees for commercial logging … no farming … no mining …

He leaned back in his chair, took his glasses off and chewed the end of one of the ear rails. No mention of talking crows. Of course not! They’re not real. They never were. He shamed himself for even thinking otherwise. They were always just a feature of Brother Maxmillian’s insanity.

The same feature of Stella’s insanity? Before her face materialized out of his memory, he leaned forward, put his glasses back on, and continued reading:

I have enclosed photos of the extraordinary little chapel that I told you about. There are no nails anywhere; everything was attached with living and dead vines that have since dried and hardened.

Majewski spread the photos on his desk and picked up the image of the chapel. “It looks like a bird’s nest!” he said to Snowbell, who woke up suddenly to clean a paw. “That’s at least interesting from an historical perspective, is it not? Perhaps the Order should restore that chapel. And the icons—our brother certainly had a gift—maybe I should take them to the Museum of Jesuit History.”

He read the last paragraph of Manzi’s report:

I have found Brother Wilder’s residence on the opposite end of the island as the chapel. He lived in a tree house of the same general construction as the old chapel, except a bit more weatherproof. Like the chapel, it is extraordinary. I have enclosed a couple of photographs.

Majewski smiled at the photograph of the tree house. Manzi was right. It’s absolutely enchanting, as if wood elves live inside. He rotated the photograph 180 degrees. Definitely a bird’s nest.

He pushed the intercom button on his phone.

Yes, Father.”

William, check my calendar and clear four days where I don’t have appointments that can’t be moved. Then book me a flight to Ledford. Yes, William. I’m going to Wilder Island.”

As you wish, Father.”

 


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