Henry Braun became the laughing stock, not only of the investment community, but also of the Ledford community in general. Political cartoons in the Sentinel lampooned him; even his cronies couldn’t help but get in on the fun. When he stepped into the bar at his club, someone called out, “Duck!” and another shouted, “Don’t you mean, crow?” Everyone laughed. Henry’s face turned bright red, and he turned on his heel and left.
“My hands were tied,” the Mayor sniveled when he demanded answers. “The people have spoken, Henry.”
“It was not so much public opinion, Henry,” his pal at Economic Development told him. “The city attorney told us the terms of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust make it impossible for Braun Enterprises to carry out its proposed Ravenwood Resort casino park.”
Jules, you lying, incompetent, traitorous boob!
The investors all said no, too. “Wilder Island is for the birds,” Whitey McDurbin told Henry. “Move on. Take your River Queen elsewhere and then call me.” He hung up without even giving Henry the courtesy of a good-bye.
“It was an omen, Henry,” Lloyd Roberts said. “Getting shit upon even before I see a prospectus speaks volumes. None for me, thanks.”
The others didn’t bother to return Henry’s phone calls. He was enraged. “What the hell is this?” he shouted and slammed his hand down on his desk. “Gutless windbags! Why am I surrounded by cowards?”
He glanced sidelong at the portraits of the Henrys on the wall. All four stared vacantly back. Were they disappointed? Had he failed them? Henry the First was especially aloof; his hard mouth drawn into a straight line. His eyes went straight through Henry, making him feel as if he weren’t even there.
“Screw ’em!” he said and got up from this desk. “Screw you!” he shouted at the portraits. “Screw everyone. Screw the whole goddamned world!”
He opened the wine cabinet and pulled out a random bottle. He opened it carefully, took a long gulp straight from the bottle, and poured himself a glass. Then another. And another until the bottle was empty.
Minnie heard Henry shouting from time to time, and his stomping around his office. When he didn’t come down to the kitchen for breakfast, she brought a tray of food up to him.
“Leave me the hell alone!” he yelled at her from the other side of the door.
“I’ll leave your sandwich and cookies on the floor,” she said when he refused to let her in. When she brought dinner, the lunch tray had not moved. The bread on the ham sandwich had curled around the edges, and the lettuce was wilted.
“Henry?” She knocked. “Henry?” No sound came from behind the door. She piled the uneaten lunch onto the dinner tray and returned to the kitchen.
Henry had refused food for three days when Floyd and Willy showed up at the patio table in the backyard where Minnie ate breakfast alone. Delighted to see them, she hugged their beaks close to her face.
“Well, we’re right happy to see you too, ma’am,” Willy said.
“Yep,” Floyd said. “Long time no see, Miss Minnie!”
The two brothers perched on a chair that had been pushed all the way into the table. “’At’s right,” Willy drawled. “We just thought we’d drop by for a little visit, on account of we haven’t been by since before the picnic. How’re things?”
“Henry hasn’t been the same since the picnic,” Minnie said, looking fearfully up at his office window. “I’m afraid he’s gone off his rocker.” She removed her coffee cup from its saucer and put half a piece of French toast on it and pushed the plate toward the crows.
“You mean, like off in la-la land?” Floyd asked. “Or like in ax-murderer land?”
“Good Orb, Floyd,” Willy said, whacking his brother with a wingtip. “That’s just crude. Can’t you see the lady is in distress enough already?”
“Sorry, Miss Minnie,” Floyd said, looking at the ground. “I just wanted to know—”
“It’s okay, Floyd,” Minnie said, patting his back. “To tell the truth, I am afraid he’s heading toward the ax-murderer kind of crazy. Now please, help yourselves.”
Floyd and Willy each beaked a generous chunk of French toast. Following the sound of a loud crash and a string of unintelligible nonsense laced with profanity, both crows and Minnie looked up at the open window above them.
“Sounds like he’s having a tantrum,” Willy said. “Like he’s breaking things.” He dipped his toast in the small pool of maple syrup on the saucer.
“He’s been doing that all morning,” Minnie said. She poured herself another cup of coffee from a silver carafe. “He started three days ago. I guess there was one joke too many.”
“They’re pretty funny,” Floyd said, snickering. “The jokes, I mean.”
Willy swatted Floyd again as the sounds of destruction continued to pour forth from the upstairs window. “None of this is probably funny to Miss Minnie, here,” he said. “So think before you speak, brother!”
Floyd looked down and muttered an apology. He pecked at the French toast and chopped off a small chunk. He flipped it into the air, catching it on its way down and swallowing it in one gulp.
“Willy, you don’t need to protect my feelings,” Minnie said. “I’m not unhappy about the way things turned out. I mean that Henry didn’t get the island and all. And the jokes are funny. But I’m afraid of him. I’ve never seen him like this.”
She told the crows how the night before she had brought Henry a sandwich and some milk. “He hadn’t eaten since Tuesday,” she said. “So, when I knocked on the door and he didn’t answer, I just opened it and barged in.” She put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath.
“The office was a mess—broken glass and paper strewn everywhere.” She shook her head, remembering. “Henry didn’t notice I came in the room, and I watched him take a poker from the fireplace and smash a big hole in his miniature Ravenwood Resort. And then he slammed the poker down on the pretty little River Queen, and it shattered into toothpicks. I was so shocked because he paid a fortune for it.”
Minnie folded her arms against her chest and shivered. “And then he screamed, like his own bones had broken. And he looked up at the portraits of his ancestors, which he had sliced to ribbons. “Happy now?” he yelled and he shook his fist. And he started swinging the poker again and smashing the rest of it, the little train he loved so much. It was just horrible to watch.” She buried her face in her hands.
“That,” Floyd said, “sounds like a maniac.”
“The man’s off his rocker!” Willy said.
“Flipped his lid!” said Floyd.
“Lost his marbles!”
“Off the deep end!”
“Got a screw loose!”
“Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Floyd said, turning himself around in circles.
“He’s just crazy,” Minnie said, nodding. “I was so scared. I’ve never seen him so violent.” She glanced up at Henry’s office window again.
“Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “you need to get out of here.”
“That’s right,” agreed Floyd. “You should just go. There’s no telling what he might do.”
Minnie nodded and said, “I called Jules this morning. He’s Henry’s attorney and he took care of everything. I’ve got a bag packed inside. As soon as the ambulance gets here, I’m gone.”
The brothers looked at each other and then back at Minnie. “Ambulance? Have you been harmed?” Floyd asked.
“Did that brute lay a hand on you?” Willy demanded.
“Oh, no.” she shook her head adamantly. “Jules called an ambulance to come get Henry. Jules said Henry needs to dry out. I guess so—he’s been on a four-day drunk. And Jules said they’ll do a mental evaluation after he dries out to make sure he hasn’t lost his mind.”
She was grateful Jules had stepped in, his warm, calm voice telling her not to worry. “Just pack a bag and leave for a few days,” he had said. “I’ll get the house all cleaned up and Henry sorted out.”
“Screw you!” Henry’s enraged voice blared out the window. “And you! And you! And you!”
The sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood flowed out of the upstairs window, followed by a wave of incoherent swearing.
“He’s at it again,” Minnie sighed. “Beating things with the poker.” She smiled wanly and stood up.
“Oh, Miss Minnie!” Floyd cried out. He walked across the table and put his wings around her waist. “I hope he doesn’t hurt you!”
“You need to get out of here now,” Willy said, joining his brother. “Don’t wait for the ambulance.”
Minnie stroked their backs. “I’ll be gone soon, don’t worry. I’m not planning on being here when they take Henry away. Jules has a taxi coming for me, so I must bid you both adieu.”
“But where will you go, Miss Minnie?” Floyd asked.
“Will we ever see you again?” Willy asked.
Minnie was touched by their concern and affection. “Of course you’ll see me again, fellas!” She stroked each bird gently. “I’m just going to visit my sister. I’ll be back in a few days.” She blew them each a kiss as she went into the house and closed the door.
Floyd and Willy flew up to the windowsill of Henry’s office and peered in at the wild man inside. He had already ripped gaping holes into the portraits of his ancestors, and the crows watched him beat the canvasses off the wall. He looked up at the ceiling, screaming, “Are you happy now? Are you friggin’ happy now?”
“I say,” Floyd said. “The old chap truly seems to have gone away with the fairies.”
“Right-o,” agreed Willy. “Fully loaded and half-cocked.”
“Oh, look,” Floyd said, pointing a wing toward the driveway. “There goes Miss Minnie.”
The two crows watched her run toward the gate, and the driver of the yellow cab get out and open the door for her. He put her bag in the trunk and sped off down the long driveway.
“Poor Minnie,” Willy said. “Driven away. And not just by a taxi. Too bad.”
Floyd shook his head and clucked. “She’s such a charming woman. And always dressed to the nines.”
“Damn you, friggin’ crows!” Henry shouted and threw an empty wine bottle at Floyd and Willy on the windowsill. “Damn you!”
“I believe we are no longer needed here, brother,” Floyd said as they dodged the projectile and took to the air. “Let us depart, shall we?”
“Let’s,” Willy said.
Alfredo met his friends at the inlet and escorted them up the path toward his cottage. “Majewski sends his regrets,” he told them. “He cannot make it.” Perhaps it is for the best, with Charlotte newly ensconced in the tree house. One day I will have to tell him about his sister. But not today.
“Too bad!” Kate said. “It was Majewski who saved the island from Henry. Without him, we wouldn’t be here celebrating anything.”
“Or the birds,” Jade said. The others looked at her in confusion. “The birds. Without them, we wouldn’t be here either.”
“In other words, the least deserving of all in this affair,” Russ said with a laugh, “are those of us here partying?”
“Is that not always the way?” Alfredo said. He leaped across the small stream and waited for the others before continuing along the path. “But truly, we all brought this about. Majewski, the five of us, the people of Ledford, and the birds. It gives me great hope for the planet.”
They arrived at Alfredo’s cottage, and he opened the door. “Sit down, everyone,” he said, gesturing toward the table. He looked at his watch. “We are officially celebrating.”
“Wow!” Jade said as she slid into a chair next to the window. “You really put a feast together, Alfredo!”
The table was laden with food: sandwiches on three different types of bread, a large garden salad, and a bowl of fresh fruit. “Oh, just a few leftovers from the fridge,” he said, waving away her compliment.
The others laughed, and Kate said, “In a pig’s eye!”
“You don’t have a fridge,” Sam said.
Alfredo slapped his forehead and said, “I knew there was something we forgot when we built this place!” He looked at his watch. “Please help yourselves, my friends.”
He sat down and stared out the window as his guests chatted happily while they piled food onto their plates. He felt anxious about Charlotte and her first day at the Treehouse. I should not have left her alone.
“That was an incredible thing they pulled off,” Russ said. “How did all those birds know? Who told them to gang up on Henry like that? I mean, it’s a feat of communication and organization that I for one didn’t know birds were capable of. Were you involved, Alfredo?”
The sound of his name brought him back to the table. “They told themselves, actually,” he said. “Though I would have been proud and honored to have been involved, this was completely a bird job.” He glanced down at his watch.
“Kind of scary when you think about it,” Jade said. “The way they all ganged up on Henry. “If all the animals could do that …”
“It might give us pause,” Kate said, narrowing her eyes and waving a pumpernickel sandwich at the others.
“Indeed,” Alfredo said. “They do not really need us.”
“Speaking of birds doing extraordinary things,” Russ said, glancing casually at Alfredo. “There was an article in the paper this morning about a patient that went missing from the state mental hospital.”
Kate frowned. Alfredo exchanged nervous glances with Sam as Russ continued, “Yeah, she just vanished, they said. It was funny though. The article said on the day of her disappearance, this huge flock of crows came down on the place and tore it up. They scared the bejesus out of a few inmates and staff.”
“Really?” Alfredo said, hoping to sound sincere and surprised at the news. “They destroyed things?”
“From what the article said, they just kind of acted up,” Russ said with a grin. “They knocked the plastic water pitchers off the tables, overturned chairs, and got into the trash cans. Everyone was on the patio trying to keep control of the patients and keep the crows out of the building. And she just walked away, they said.”
“Who was she?” Kate said, looking straight at Alfredo without smiling.
Alfredo looked down at his watch. He felt exhausted and anxious, wishing there was no party and he was with Charlotte at the Treehouse. His discomfort grew by the moment and he could hardly sit still on his chair.
“They didn’t say,” Russ said. “All they said was she was not violent, and she couldn’t speak English.”
“How could a patient just disappear like that?” Jade asked. “You would think their security would be better than that.”
Alfredo took a bite of the sandwich that had been sitting on his plate. He was relieved that the article had said she disappeared, as opposed to escaped. And that her name had not been published. Thanks to the weekend receptionist’s forgetfulness, the name Dr. Robbins had not been left behind on the visitor’s log.
“It’s an old building,” Russ said, helping himself to another sandwich. “The paper said they’re moving to a new one next week. Security is one reason. But mostly, the building is just flat out too old. They couldn’t upgrade the plumbing or the electrical.”
Alfredo felt grateful to have gotten Charlotte out of the asylum before they moved her to the new facility. It had been laughably easy, and he wondered if he could have just walked out to the parking lot with her and driven her out. He looked at his watch. I wonder if she is all right. Of course she is! Charlie and Rika are with her.
“Well, funny you should mention the asylum,” Kate said. “I heard that Henry Braun’s been committed.”
“Now there’s some poetic justice,” Sam said.
“No!” Jade said, her eyes opened wide. “Why?”
“They say he just lost it after the poo-bath the birds gave him,” Kate said. “And he tore his house up.”
“How’d you find that out?” Russ asked with a big grin. “Don’t tell me a little bird told you?”
Kate threw her head back and laughed. “No, though I have a vast network of spies and informants, they’re all humans, every one of them.”
Though he was relieved that Kate had steered the conversation away from Charlotte, Alfredo felt a new burden of guilt bear down on him. So that is why Minnie has been calling me. I should have returned her calls.
He stood up from the table and took each of their plates to the kitchen area and returned with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a carafe of coffee.
“Oh, I was hoping you’d baked cookies!” Jade said as she took one. “You could market these, you know. They’re heavenly!”
Alfredo laughed and took a cookie off the plate. “Thanks, Jade! If I wash out as a priest—not at all a far-fetched scenario—and a college professor and scientist, I will consider that. Thanks for the testimonial!”
Once Majewski finds out I have his sister here, I will no doubt be cast out, perhaps arrested. If they can find me. Already the idea had germinated in his mind that he could disappear with Charlotte into the bogs and fens and forests of the island near the Treehouse.
“I’m afraid the world will never see these cookies,” Russ said through a mouthful. “Alfredo’s in danger of being signed on as a full-time, tenure track professor!”
“That’s fabulous!” Kate said. “Congrats, Padre!”
Alfredo waved his hand at Russ. “The university wants to be our partner in research here, which in the long run will help our efforts to keep the island intact.” His words slammed incongruously into his fantasy of vanishing in the wilderness with Charlotte. He felt confused, suddenly. And so very tired. He looked at his watch.
“Hooray for the U of M,” Jade cried out, “and long live Wilder Island!”
“Thanks to all of your efforts,” Alfredo said cheerfully, trying to shake off his weariness. He raised his coffee cup in salute.
“Thanks to all of our efforts,” Kate said.
Five cups clanked together over the plate of cookies, and everyone cheered.
“One more,” Sam said, turning to Kate. “Thanks to the Father Superior Majewski for bringing Kate to us, and most especially me.” He raised his cup reverently to her.
“Aw, Sam,” Kate said, blushing.
She loves him. Alfredo could see it in her eyes. And in his. Jade and Russ looked at each other like that. The old, familiar fog of isolation began to envelop him. I wish I could love like that. Charlotte’s face appeared in his head, her gray eyes, so innocent and warm. A few strands of black hair blowing across her face. I love her. He felt his body respond suddenly, in a way he had not felt since graduate school. The tingling. The hardening he did not think himself capable of since then. He felt his face flush.
“So,” Kate said with a grin, “when will you publish your research on the language of the crows?”
“Not any time soon,” Alfredo laughed nervously. He moved his chair slightly. “I have only just begun to scratch the surface.”
“Nonsense!” Russ said. “You’re too modest! You carried on entire conversations with those crows on our table at the fair! Publish, man!”
Why does he keep pressuring me? I have no ambitions as a scholar.
But he smiled graciously and said, “And you exaggerate, Russ! I am many months from a publication, if ever. But how about you? How is your tenure research coming?”
“I’m doing some field work today after we finish here,” Russ said. “If that is all right?” He put a hand behind one ear. “I can’t resist the siren call of the orchids!”
“And I’m going to sketch,” Jade said. “Wilder Island II coming up!”
“Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research station and inspiration.” He felt some anxiety about Russ and Jade out wandering around, with Charlotte in the Treehouse. But she is far away from the bridge and the Boulders. There is no way she can find her way there without help.
“Want to join us?” Jade asked. “Anyone?”
Sam shook his head. “I’ve got to get some work done in the studio. I got way behind because of the art fair. Not that I’m complaining!”
“But another time, I’d love to,” Kate said. “I’ve got some work waiting for me also,”
Alfredo hesitated a moment. I really need to get back to the Treehouse. If I go with them, how will I gracefully excuse myself? But if I let them leave by themselves and they come back and I am not here …
“You two go on,” he said. “I will catch up after I tidy up here.” He hoped they would not find Bruthamax’s bridge and cross the Boulders.
Russ and Jade left Alfredo’s cottage and made their way through the forest. The early afternoon sun infused the woods with crisp clarity, revealing the most intimate details of leaf, twig, and trunk. “Alfredo seemed really nervous,” Jade said as they walked. “Did you notice? He kept looking at his watch.”
“When he wasn’t staring out the window,” Russ said. “Yeah, I did notice. Like he really wanted to be somewhere else.”
“I wonder why?” Jade said. “He invited us; it’s not like we barged in on him or anything.”
Russ shrugged. “Who knows? He’s a strange man.”
Hand-in-hand they strolled through the woods, and from time to time, they stopped while Russ pointed out and named the familiar as well as unusual plants that crossed their path. Suddenly a rustic footbridge bridge appeared through the vines and shrubs. “Wow!” Jade said. “This is pretty cool! Did Alfredo build this? Is it safe?”
“Yes it is safe,” Russ said. “And no Alfredo didn’t build it. But he told me about it. Brother Maxmillian Wilder did. Over a hundred years old, he said, and still sturdy.”
They walked to the middle and looked down at the tumble of huge rectangular slabs of rock below them. The sound of water falling wafted up to them and Jade said, as she peered down into the rocks and trees. “I hear a waterfall, but I don’t see any water.”
“It flows under the rocks,” Russ said, “and comes out on the other side of the island, where we built the sanctuary.”
They crossed the bridge, holding on to ropes of twisted forest fibers. “Oh, look at that!” Jade cried out. She brushed past Russ to the platform where the bridge ended, down the rope ladder to the ground.
With Russ right behind her, she slipped between two trees, pushing the low-hanging branches aside. She stepped into a tiny clearing where the forest gave way to a pond surrounded by scores of tiny flowers. Jade skipped to the pond, dropped to her knees and brought handfuls of the cool water to her lips. “This is what heaven is,” she said and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Cool, sweet water.”
Russ drank from the pond and pointed to a tiny flower growing at the edge of the water. “It sure looks like a Cypripedium reginae, except for the color. I’ve never seen a blue one.”
“Lovely!” Jade said after she flopped down on her stomach on the grass next to him. “What color are they usually?”
“Pink and white,” he said. “You’ve seen ’em. They’re known as Lady’s Slippers, the state flower of Minnesota, though they’ve all but vanished from the face of the Earth. But I’ve never seen a blue one!”
“Crow’s eye blue,” Jade said. “They’re the same blue as the crow’s eyes!”
“Oh, look!” Russ said, grabbing her arm. “The Arethusa bulbosa, the Dragon’s Mouth orchid. Unbelievable! This little beauty is extremely rare. But look!” He gestured with his arms. “It’s everywhere!”
“Oh,” Jade said, reluctantly pulling herself away from the Cypripedium reginae, “but the Lady’s Slipper is so much sweeter!” She examined the Arethusa bulbosa. “Dragon’s Mouth, eh? I never would have thought that, although I can see some resemblance to a tongue, and those little bitty yellow hairs must be the flames.”
Russ had moved on to another flower. “Wow. This is a total score. A Malaxis palodusa, aka the Bog Adders Mouth. It’s a high-latitude orchid, almost unheard of here in the States. But here it is, right in my own backyard, so to speak.”
“It sure is an ugly little thing,” Jade said, bending down close to the wiry little plant with a thick stem. “I thought orchids were all beautiful. This one’s all stem! Where’s the flower?”
“Ah, but it’s an exquisitely rare, ugly little thing,” Russ said. “Who needs beauty? So commonplace! Rare is better! But no, my sweet, not all orchids are beautiful; some are really nasty looking. There’s one that smells like rotten meat, in case you’re also thinking all flowers smell nice.”
“I was,” Jade said with a shrug. “But I should have known.”
Russ stood up. “This is just gobsmacking unbelievable. First the Arethusa bulbosa, which was rare enough, and now the Malaxis palodusa!” All around the glade, multitudes of pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew in astonishing abundance. “I’ve never seen this many varieties of orchids in one place. I can’t say I’ve ever even read about a place like this.”
A spiky little plant with flowers of sticky, needle-shaped petals caught Jade’s eye. She moved closer and saw a drop of clear fluid hanging on the end of each petal. “What’s this one called, honey?”
“That’s a Drosera rotundifolia,” Russ said after a quick look, “speaking of carnivorous plants. It traps insects with those little drops of stick-um.” He touched one of the drops, pushed it against his thumb, and pulled his fingers apart to demonstrate its glue-like qualities. “The plant digests the insect as it struggles to get free.”
“Eeuw!” Jade wrinkled her nose. “I think I’d rather be looking at the lovely Lady’s Slipper—it’d make such a beautiful sketch. But maybe I’ll draw that ugly one over there. Just for contrast”
“That’s fine, honey,” Russ said, and he disappeared from view among the flowers and long grasses. “Wait a minute!” she heard him exclaim. He fell to his belly and disappeared from her sight.
Not until he had examined whatever it was fully and described it in his field notebook in excruciating detail and taken several Polaroid photographs, as well as a gazillion digital pictures, would he allow the outside world to encroach upon his enchanted little world.
She took her sketchbook and a set of colored pencils out of her bag and sat down next to the Lady’s Slipper. With quick, light strokes of a pencil, she blocked in the flower, its stem and leaves, and a few rough details of the surrounding cove.
Russ could hardly believe his eyes. A blue Cypripedium reginae! But there was something else unusual about this flower. It has two seed stems. Impossible! Orchids are monocots!
But there it was. A blue non-monocot Cypripedium reginae. And it grew in abundance in this little cove! Russ felt his pulse quicken. Is this it? Have I found it? My Jadum wilderii?
He took a mechanical pencil out of his pocket and his field notebook out of his pack and opened it to the first blank page. After noting the date and his location, he described the flower in full detail, from the base of its stem to the tips of the petals. He made a few sketches of the leaves, stem, and flowers, annotating each carefully with notes and labels. He took numerous photographs until the Polaroid was out of film and the card in his digital camera was full.
He knew it would be illegal to dig up a Cypripedium reginae plant. But this isn’t a Cypripedium reginae, but he really wanted to see its root system. There seems to be a viable population here. I don’t think it would hurt anything. And I really need to get this into my lab.
He rummaged in his pack for a small spade and carefully dug up one of the smaller plants, put it into a plastic sample bag and stowed it in his pack.
Alfredo escorted Sam and Kate to the inlet and waited with them for the captain. After he saw them off, he returned to his cottage to change into clothes more suitable for a slog down to the Treehouse. As he opened the door, he saw his cell phone blinking, announcing a call had come in while he was gone. He listened to the incoming message:
“Ah, hello,” Thomas Majewski’s voice said. “It’s Thomas. I, uh, I’ve received some very disturbing news concerning my sister. I’m catching a late afternoon flight out your way. I’ll call when I land. Cheers.”
Alfredo stood rooted to the floor for many moments, panicked thoughts racing through his head, the worst of which Charlotte would be returned to the brand-new, high-security state mental hospital. He saw himself alone in a prison cell.
Dear Lord, what have I wrought?
The orb swayed gently on the end of the lamp chain, attracting his attention and breaking his paralysis. He steadied it for a moment, then removed it and put it in his pocket. Just in case.
He tidied up the cottage as anxious thoughts gnawed at him. Majewski will expect me to be here with him tonight, but I cannot leave Charlotte alone so soon. He looked at his watch. 1:20. I have time to run down to the Treehouse and visit with Charlotte, fix her some dinner and be back in time to meet Majewski at the docks.
Or. His hands stopped drying the sandwich platter. If I do not answer my phone when he calls … he will no doubt get a hotel room in Ledford tonight, and I won’t have to deal with him until tomorrow.
He turned his phone off and put it on the table. After throwing a few items in his backpack—some fruit and cookies left over from the party—he wrote a quick note:
Russ and Jade-
My apologies, but I got called away. I have arranged for the Captain to pick you up at the inlet at 4:00.
He stuck it to the door with a small tack and called out to a group of young crows in a nearby tree. “Yo! JohnHenry! I need a favor, please. Find the Captain and tell him that I need him to please meet my guests at the inlet at four o’clock. Can you do that for me?”
“Yessir!” JohnHenry said and took to the air, his three brothers following close behind.
Jade finished her drawing of the blue Lady’s Slipper and stood up to stretch. Russ sat in the same spot where she had seen him go down, hunched over the notebook on his lap. She looked at her watch and estimated he’d be so engrossed for the next half-hour at least. Time enough for a short walk. The cove and pond were bathed in sunlight, but as soon as she stepped through the two sentinel trees where she and Russ had entered the cove, she was in a dark forest of tall trees, so completely unlike the little cove. She looked back through the sentinel trees at Russ, still bent over his work surrounded by sunlight flowers.
The sound of falling water captured her attention, and she thought the bridge was just ahead of her. She peered over the edge of the boulder ravine, through the willows and rocks; the waterfall sound seemed to come from directly below her. She couldn’t see water flowing, but supposed Russ had been right, as always. The water flowed under the rocks.
The boulder ravine cut the island in two, as if the river had chewed its way through from one side of the island to the other. There really is no way across that. All those scrubby trees growing between those huge rocks—I’d never get around them. She sat down in a sunny spot on a flat rock and admired the view with the music of the waterfall in her ears.
Charlotte walked through the forest on ground that was sometimes spongy and sometimes firm. Birds sang all around her, and she heard their many conversations. Her neck hurt from looking up, and her face ached from a permanent smile. A few crows called out her name from the branches and she waved and called out, “Grawky!”
“I wonder where Jayzu’s cottage is?” she said out loud.
A young crow dropped out of the branches and landed at her feet. “That way, Miss Charlotte!” He pointed a wing. “By and by, you’ll come to a bridge. Jayzu’s cottage is on the other side.”
“Thank you!” she said, stooping down to bird level. “And what is your name, little one?”
“Zelda,” she said.
“Grawky, Zelda,” Charlotte said and brushed her hand across the crow’s outstretched wing.
“Zelda!” a voice shouted from the trees above. “Come on!”
Zelda flew off and Charlotte continued walking in the direction the little crow had pointed. She walked around black water ponds rimmed with sedges and rushes, and a marsh where a few ducks quacked their surprise at seeing her.
Charlotte drifted through a patchwork of different shades and hues of yellow, blue, red, orange, and green. Everywhere she looked, a new wonder revealed itself. A spider web stretched across a forked branch, drops of dew from the morning still clinging to its threads. Hundreds of birds flew in and out of the tree branches, weaving a trail of songs through the leaves.
The sights and smells of the forest triggered fragments of memory from her life before Rosencranz. She saw herself gathering leaves and flowers and putting them in a basket. The gray-haired woman with red cheeks smiled as she took the basket and dumped it on a table. She sang as she sorted and arranged the leaves and flowers into small piles:
Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather
Charlotte stopped walking and listened for a few moments to the woman singing in her memory. Mimi! A rush of images crowded her thoughts and she stopped walking. Mimi smiled and said, “Pick me some purple heather, lass?”
Charlotte’s voice sang out into the forest:
And we’ll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will ye go, Lassie, go?
“And here it is, my love,” Russ said as he stood up. “Jadum wilderii. My ticket to tenure!”
But she was nowhere in sight. “Jade?” he called out. “Jade!” He strained to hear something through the chatter of the birds and the cacophony of insects. “Jade!”
He walked through the sentinel trees and stopped. A faint path led to the bridge. Alfredo warned us about the swamps and bogs beyond the boulders. I hope she didn’t go that way. He took the path to the bridge, calling out her name every minute or so. “Jade!” But where else would she have gone?
The sound of the waterfall drew him away from the path, and he walked to the edge of the boulder-filled ravine. Jade’s bag with her sketchbook and pencils lay on a flat rock before him. “Jade!” he called.
He picked up her sketchbook, hoping she had not tried to find the waterfall. Jade’s not exactly the adventuresome type, he told himself. I’m surprised she got this far away from me. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “Jade!”
As if I could hear anything above the bird racket. He returned to the path, and when the old bridge appeared, he felt a strange certainty that she had crossed it and was on her way to Alfredo’s cottage.
He climbed the steps spiraling around the tree trunk to the platform and stepped onto the bridge.
Jade luxuriated in the sensation of warm sun on her back. This is why lizards like rocks. I could fall asleep here. She looked at her watch and shook her head. I’d better get back to Russ. She hopped off the rock and after getting her bearing from the footbridge to her left, she turned right. The little cove is just a few steps this way.
The path took a strange turn and the forest closed in around her. She turned around to make sure she could still see the old bridge. It was gone. She couldn’t hear the waterfall anymore either. And there was no sign of the sentinel trees or the sunny cove of flowers.
Everything looked the same, no matter which direction she looked. Nothing but leaf upon leaf, branch upon branch, like a kaleidoscope of green and brown all the way to eternity. She started to run back toward the bridge, but after a few steps the path disappeared, and she stopped. Nothing looked familiar. The ground was rocky in one place and slippery black mud in others.
She stopped and looked all around. “Where am I?”
“Where am I?” She heard her cry echo through the forest.
She looked up through the trees, trying to get a sense of direction from the sun, but no sunlight filtered down to the forest floor. She could only see patches of blue here and there.
She froze at the sound of someone singing, a strangely familiar voice singing a melancholy tune. Who is that? The singing came closer—a thin and silvery voice sang:
All around the purple heather
Will you go, Lassie, go?
We’ll all go together,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
How can she be here? Am I dreaming? Chloe died five years ago. She slapped her face a couple of times ordering herself to wake up. But the singing continued.
Will you go, Lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
She rushed headlong into the thick forest toward the singing; the thorns and prickly branches of the undergrowth scratched her arms and face as she thrashed her way through. The singing compelled her forward, growing louder at each step.
All around the purple heather,
Will you go, Lassie, go?
Jade burst through the trees into a small sun-lit clearing. Right before her stood a tall, thin woman with a long black braid. But it was the eyes that arrested her. Eyes the color of the dawn.
Alfredo walked quickly toward the Boulders, hoping to see Jade and Russ coming back. The bridge rocked and rolled as he trotted across, and he twirled himself down the spiral steps to the ground using only the rope. He sped down the vague path and slowed to a halt as he noticed Jade through two tall trees that stood side-by-side.
He crept up closer, keeping himself concealed. Jade’s back was toward him, but he could see that she was sketching. And there is Russ. I guess he found the blue orchids. Jade looked back over her shoulder suddenly. He pulled himself into the shadow behind the tree.
When she turned back to her work, Alfredo snuck away, relieved that neither she nor Russ had seen him. They are busy about their own concerns. And I need to get to Charlotte. He felt a sudden urgency, almost panic to get to the Treehouse, though he knew Charlie and Rika were with her.
The panic remained as he sped through scrubby bog birch and fragrant myrtle, feeling the firm ground starting to go soft in places. He stepped in more than one black puddle or pond, cursing as he pulled his foot out of the muck. He tried to pay attention to the different greens and textures, but everything looked the same, yet unfamiliar. As if he had never come this way before.
He tripped on a tree root and slid face-first down a mud-covered slope into a pool of black water. He fished himself out, wiping black mud out of his eyes, and stumbled forward without being sure of where he was going. He stumbled over rock and sprawled onto his hands. Cursing, he picked himself up again and bushwhacked through the undergrowth, using his arms as scythes.
He arrived at the Treehouse, covered with black mud and blood, and he shot up the spiral steps onto the deck. “Where is Charlotte?” he asked, wildly looking around. “Where is she?”
Rika blinked at him. “She is gone, Jayzu. Gone for a walk in the woods, I reckon.” She gestured with her wing.
“Why did you let her go?” he cried, his panic wilting into dread. He stared at her, wondering how she could remain so calm.
Rika blinked again and tilted her head to one side. “As if I could stop her, Jayzu. I had my wings full with the kreegans. I couldn’t watch her too.”
“I’m sorry, Rika,” he said. His shoulders sagged, and he sat down on the bench with his head in his hands. How could I leave her alone with only crows to look after her?
After a few moments, he raked his hands through his hair and stood up. “I must find her.”
He jumped over the railing around the deck, landing in the grass below. “Charlotte!” he shouted as he sped off into the trees. “Charlotte!”
And so ends Corvus Rising. Book 2 coming ‘soon’ (hahahaha!) No, seriously. I am finally almost finished and expect to be publishing it by summer! -mcs