Corvus Rising – Chapter 20

Jadum Wilderii

 

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.

AM

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!”

Nothing.

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?

Chloe?”

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

 


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The Million Bird Stand

 

Grawky! JoEd,” Jayzu said, smiling at the stunned crow on his step. Alfredo looked up from the papers he was grading at his table, distracted by the loud thump he heard against the cottage wall. He out his pen down, went to the door, and opened it to find a motionless crow lying on this doorstep.

JoEd struggled to his feet. “Man, that was some jaloosie!” He smoothed his ruffled feathers back against his body. “It took me as soon as I left Downtown, Jayzu! It took me way up—higher than ever!”

Are you all right?” Alfredo stooped down to see if the bird was injured.

Oh, yeah! I’m fine.” JoEd looked up at the sky. “But I wasn’t even trying to ride a jaloosie. It just took me and dropped me here. I have come for the Million Bird Stand.”

As I suspected,” Alfredo said. “Birds have been flying in from all over for the past two days.”

He had watched a steady stream flying over the treetops all day. Many landed in the trees near the hermit’s chapel — corvids mostly, to admire Bruthamax’s worship nest. It was rather astonishing, that many birds. And how marvelous that so many different species came to gather in one place briefly, to make a stand against the destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia!

An island this small could not support such a huge number of birds, even for a few days. Alfredo noticed many of them flew off the island in the morning, presumably to feed in the city of Ledford, in the surrounding fields and pastures, and along the riverbanks.

I have been out spreading the word,” JoEd said. “It’s going everywhere, Jayzu, around and around, in wider circles all across the land.” He dipped his beak several times in a puddle on the stone step.

We cannot stop the Bunya without you,” Alfredo said. “I am grateful for your help.”

I would be nowhere else,” JoEd said. “We are small alone.”

Alfredo watched him disappear into the forest as he flew off in the direction of the tree house. For just this one day, I would like to be a crow. To be one of them when they take a stand against Henry Braun. The Bunya.

This is ours,” Charlie had said when Alfredo asked if he could help with the Million Bird Stand. “You’ve already raised your voice. You have done much, Jayzu, to keep Cadeña-l’jadia the way it is. We know you are with us in spirit. It’s our turn now.”

 

JoEd found his parents perched on the rail around the deck of Bruthamax’s tree house. As he approached, Rika nudged Charlie with her wing and said, “My Orbs! Husband! I think our son has come home!”

JoEd landed on the railing and put a wing out over his mother and said, “Hi ya, Weebs!” Rika pecked him lightly and spent a few moments grooming him until he squirmed away from her.

Aw, Weebs!” he said, flapping his wings. “I’m not a hatchling anymore. I can clean my own feathers!”

Your weebs is happy to see you,” Charlie said. “As am I.”

It’s good to be home, Zazu!” JoEd said. “I want to make a stand with you.”

Well, that is tomorrow,” Rika said, nudging her son. “First you must tell us where you have been and what have you seen since you flew the nest. You look a bit thin. Have you been eating enough? Have you found a mate?”

JoEd thought of Shannon, the pretty little crow he had met on the roof of the River Queen. She seemed to like me. He wondered if he could find her again.

I eat just fine, Weebs,” JoEd said. “There’s so much food in the city, it’d be hard not to eat well. And I’m still a bachelor.”

When it is time,” Rika said, nodding, “she will come.”

JoEd looked at his mother with great love. She is so wise, my weebs.

I am in Keeper training,” JoEd said. “Just like you, Zazu! I am a novice. Starfire says I take after you. ‘You’re a quick learner, just like your zazu’—that’s what he said!”

I’m proud of you, JoEd,” Charlie said. “You have done well.”

JoEd roosted for the night in his ancestral tree. He’d been all over since he left, intoxicated by the sight of the River Queen and Downtown. And the university! He thought he’d seen a huge chunk of the world after Antoine flew him around the university. But when he flew out to spread the word for the Million Bird Stand, he was staggered by the sheer size of it all. He flew for hours over strange landscapes without trees, huge lakes whose opposite shores he could not see, and off in the distance, mountains!

But it was good to be home.

 

Henry stood at the window of his office, scowling at the thousands of birds that swirled above Wilder Island. The picnic was tomorrow; everything was ready. “The last thing I need is a bunch of flying vermin in the air crapping all over the place,” he growled to Jules Sackman. He wanted to throw his shoe at those two smirking crows in the tree outside his window.

He closed the window shade and took a seat in the huge leather armchair behind his desk. He fidgeted with the stapler and then the pens in the leather holder that matched his chair. He leaned back, swiveling away from the windows and toward the portraits of his ancestors. Henry the First’s eyes bore down on him. What is it? Have I forgotten something?

I wonder why so many of them suddenly flocked to the island in the last few days,” Jules said, picking at a fingernail. “Almost like they knew something.”

You and my insane wife,” Henry said, waving away the attorney. “You think these stupid birdbrains are capable of thought? It’s just a coincidence—probably some dead animal on the island they all want a bite of. That’s all they know, Jules. They don’t have thoughts, just urges. Eating, shitting, and screwing.”

Henry the First nodded. “Don’t let them stop you, Henry. It was the crows that took down my bridge, you know. Just like now—thousands upon thousands of them flying in at night, so no one saw. The next day, the bridge was no more.”

No filthy crow is going to stop me again!” Henry nearly shouted at Jules.

But what were all these birds doing here? If crows destroyed the trestle bridge, he shuddered to think what they could do to his picnic. He engaged briefly in a dark fantasy of thousands of crows bringing the helicopter down, loaded with his investors. And him.

He shook his head quickly a few times to dispel the gruesome image of bodies floating in the water and the helicopter lying on its side like a dead insect. He tried to focus his attention on the ceremony in the morning. He had dreamed of this day for years. He’d have an official ribbon-cutting and flag-planting, right on the banks of the island. He’d even commissioned a special flag of his family crest, in honor of reuniting the Brauns with their lost ancestral homeland.

Tomorrow, the island will be mine!” Henry said, forcing a grand smile. “And I, Henry Braun the Fourth, shall turn it into a paradise. First I plant a flag, reclaiming the island for my family honor. Henry Braun Island—that’s the new name.”

Henry the First nodded and winked. “That’s the spirit, boy!”

Henry,” Jules said, “you can’t just summarily change the name like that. Wilder Island is on all the maps. And, the island isn’t yours yet.”

A technicality!” Henry said, waving his hand at Jules. “What’re they going to do, sue me?” He laughed bitterly. “And the name ‘Wilder Island’ was never official. It’s my island; that makes it private property, and I can call it whatever I want.”

Yet the private property rights of others,” Jules said, “doesn’t apparently stop you from taking their land.”

Henry the First frowned down upon Jules. “Whose side is he on? How is it you tolerate this insolence?”

This whole eminent domain thing was your idea, Jules,” Henry said, mopping sweat off his forehead.

Don’t whine, Henry.”

He looked up at Henry the First.

“Fire the leech.”

 

After breakfast on the day of Henry the Bunya’s picnic, all the birds on Cadeña-l’jadia, residents and visitors alike, convened at the edge of the forest near the tip of the island where he would land his helicopter. The noise was horrendous, as thousands and thousands of birds of all breeds and sizes flew in and found places to perch, sit, or stand. Every bush and rock held as many birds as could get a foothold. Younger trees bent to the ground under the weight of their bird load. Birds covered everything.

Charlie perched at the top of a dead tree whose leaves and smaller branches were long gone, a high point from which he would speak to the birds gathered below. He unfolded his wings and shouted, “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!” He made a complete rotation on his perch, his strong mature voice flying out over the crowd as he repeated his salutation. “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!”

He waited until the birds had mostly quieted down to continue. “Thank you for coming to the Million Bird Stand. In a few short hours, a small yet deadly invasion of the Bunya will begin. If we cannot stop them now, it will mean the end of Cadeña-l’jadia.”

The birds squawked, hooted, cawed, honked, cheeped, quacked, trilled, and chirped their displeasure.

But we are not just here to save Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie shouted. “The Earth beyond this little island is also a beautiful place and home to many more birds and many other creatures of all kingdoms! All creatures seem to know how to live here more or less peacefully. All but one. Humans. And the Bunya is their king.”

The birds again voiced their disapproval, some standing up and flapping their wings, some stamping around indignantly—though there was not much room, and everyone chattered at once. Charlie’s voice somehow arched over the noise. “We can turn them back now, all of us. Though we are each small, together we form a multitude, a force to be reckoned with. We shall turn back this invasion, island by island, forest by forest, for however many tomorrows it shall take. Today, the multitude of us will just say no.”

What if they have guns?” a thrush asked in a reedy voice.

We do not need to fear guns from this crowd,” Charlie said. “They will not be armed with guns; they arm themselves with orbs. They think their orbs will protect them. But they are sorely mistaken. We will use the weapon of our guts, and our sheer multitudes to chase the Bunya off our island.”

Charlie flapped his wings and shouted, “It is time! Let us now assume the position. Follow me!”

He swooped off his perch and flew low to the ground, leading a parade of walking, flying, and hopping birds. He dropped to the sand at the edge of the forest and shouted, “It is here we make our stand!”

As the birds arrived, he directed them into position. “We will create a barrier of birds. Yes, a solid wall of birds staring the Bunya down.”

He knew most of the birds could not hear him, but those who did followed his instructions and began layering themselves into a solid wall of feathers, beaks, wings, and claws. “Larger birds on the bottom!” he shouted.

As the multitudes of birds arrived at the site, they followed the others, assuming their positions in the great wall. “One bird every half wingspan—in all directions,” Charlie directed. “Find a perch in the trees, on the ground, on rocks, each other.”

The wall of birds was enormous, comprising many species, many colors, many eyes. It was a marvelous spectacle. There were whole bevies of quail and dove, nides of pheasants, gaggles of geese, flushes of ducks, rafters of turkeys, sieges of herons, murders of crows, conspiracies of ravens, tidings of magpies, descents of woodpeckers, hosts of sparrows, charms of finches, exaltations of larks, wisps of snipes, kettles of hawks, parliaments of owls, and parties of jays. All within a wing’s reach of one another, they formed a barrier of birds from the forest floor to its treetops.

Hookbeak and Starfire perched in a tree near the great wall of birds as Charlie spoke. “At my signal, we all take to the air, and we dump on him from above. The Bunya is our main target, but do not go out of your way to avoid hitting the others. Some of them are as guilty as he and, given the inspiration, would do exactly what Bunya wants to do. So, let it fly. Get some on everyone.”

Some what?” Floyd asked Willy. “Toxic waste? Hot wax? Fliers?”

I believe he means excrement, brother,” Willy replied.

Ohhh,” Floyd said, nodding. “I see.” After a few seconds, he said, “Ours?”

Who else’s?” Willy said.

Oh, goody,” Floyd said gleefully. “I love a pasting!”

Henry Braun looked up at the clear blue sky from the deck of the River Queen. Not a bird in sight—a matter of great relief to him. No dull roar of bird noise came across the river. “Good riddance,” he said with a growl. “And stay off my island!”

The River Queen pulled away from the dock with its cargo of Ledford’s well-heeled elite, and headed across the river to the city boat landing where they would board the helicopter. Henry didn’t dare try and take his beautiful River Queen to the island—not after what happened to his great-grandfather’s trestle bridge. Thirty or so of Henry’s guests sipped champagne and filled their plates at a buffet brunch on the promenade. While the boat paddled slowly past Wilder Island, the passengers enjoyed a marvelous feast that included grilled salmon, a mountain of jumbo shrimp, prime rib, quiche, a vast array of colorful fruit, and an exotic juice bar.

Originally he had planned to serve the feast on the island, but Jules had talked him out of it. “Come on, Henry!” he had said. “Think about it! Most people would prefer to dine on the decks of the River Queen than on the sandy banks of a deserted island. Remember, the island is full of crows; you don’t want to create an attractive nuisance.”

Create an attractive nuisance?” Henry was sick of Jules. “Seems to me those blasted crows are the nuisance.”

It was not an affair for children or spouses. This was not entertainment; it was business. The guest list was restricted to investors and influential politicos, including Henry Braun’s long-time crony, the Mayor. They were wealthy, all of them—except the newspaper people—otherwise they would not have been invited. A reporter from the Sentinel and his cameraman had been hired to publicize the event for Henry, and he magnanimously allowed them to indulge in the food but not the champagne.

After brunch, everyone disembarked from the River Queen. Half, including Henry, boarded a large helicopter that waited in the parking lot. The helicopter took off almost immediately and bore down on the island like a dinosaur-size bird of prey. After disgorging its passengers, it returned to the dock for the second load.

Henry climbed out of the helicopter, strode up the bank, and stopped. The forest in front of him was dark and forbidding, and its stillness seemed uncanny. It unnerved him that he could not see very far into its shadows. This was his first time on Wilder Island, and he wanted to savor these first moments of almost owning it. But the forest repelled him. The profound silence bore down on him. He shook his fist and raged silently. The day is coming, I promise, when I burn you down!

Turning his back, Henry forced himself to override his fear. At least those damn birds aren’t still flying around overhead. He climbed up to an elevated position on a rock and watched his guests make their way toward him. By the time they all arrived, Jules had finished setting up an easel to hold a set of colorful charts illustrating impressive returns on investments in Ravenwood Resort.

My friends, at long last I fulfill a boyhood dream,” Henry addressed the carefully chosen faithful, arms outstretched. “I’ve asked each of you here to witness this momentous occasion where I bring this island back into the fold of my family where it rightly belongs.”

Henry gestured behind him as he spoke. “Many years ago, my ancestor Henry Braun the First was swindled out of his rightful ownership of this island by corrupt politicians and a railroad desperate to survive. Through the next three generations, each Henry Braun brought fortune and good times back into the family. But we have gnashed our teeth, waiting for the time to restore what is ours. This island. It is now that time. With great honor and pride, I plant my family flag on Henry Braun Island, as it shall be known from here onwards.”

Unfurling the flag with the Braun family crest emblazoned in gold, Henry stuck the flagpole into the sand. Jules handed him a small sledgehammer; he smacked the top of the pole a few times and handed it back. Turning again to his guests, he threw his arms out and said, “Welcome to Braun Island, my friends. Upon this island we will build Ravenwood Resort.”

The people before him remained silent. No applause, no cheering, no flag waving, no celebration. Henry’s smile vanished and his neck hairs stood erect suddenly. He glanced over his shoulder at the forest and saw nothing but dark shadows woven into a patchy fabric of leaf and branch. Still, there was something not quite right about the scene.

He turned back to the investors, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets and licked his lips nervously. “I ask each and every one of you to join me in prosperity. Invest in Ravenwood Resort on Braun Island. Each of you has a prospectus and—”

No one was paying him the least attention. The investors looked past him into the forest, eyebrows raised incredulously. Henry stopped talking and turned slowly toward the trees. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, but where a few minutes ago only a dark spooky forest stood, now thousands and thousands and thousands of eyes stared at him from within a great wall of feathers and beaks.

 

The birds remained motionless, but for the occasional blinking of an eye. Charlie suddenly flapped out to a rock adjacent to Henry Braun, fixing his blue eyes upon him.

Well met, Bunya,” Charlie greeted Henry politely, extending his wing in the traditional crow salutation.

Complete silence reigned over birds and humans. “In case you are wondering, Bunya, we are here to let you know that it is us, not your fellow humans that you will ultimately have to contend with. Your own species cannot stop you. We will.” The crow turned toward the investors and said, “Best you all leave now, lest you become soiled.”

No one moved. “Have it your way, then.” Charlie leaped into the air above Henry and shouted, “Let it fly, birds of all feathers! Let it fly!”

The wall seemed to dissolve suddenly into an astonishing cloud of birds of all shapes and sizes. They flew toward Henry, a tiny target for so many birds, but in this they were adept. They had been practicing since dawn—a simple drill Charlie had devised, where they all circled and dumped in an intricate yet simple pattern.

The birds orbited Henry, and each took their turn diving and letting it fly. A thunderous noise of beating wings and ridicule from the beaks of the multitude accompanied the mass dumping.

Your mother plucks your feathers!” yelled JoEd as he shat upon the Bunya’s bald spot.

You weren’t hatched, you were laid!” Willy hollered as his load struck Henry’s prominent nose.

I wouldn’t wear that suit to a dog fight!” a magpie yelled, her tuxedo markings clean and flawless as she dumped her load.

Not to be outdone, Floyd bombed Henry with his own repartee, “I’ve seen bigger peckers on chickadees!” Splat!

After whitewashing Henry’s head, the birds moved on to other challenging territory: his suit coat, his trousers, his shoes. It took a long time for a million birds to dump their loads, and they did not hurry. The Bunya huddled near the rock upon which moments ago he stood in triumph, blubbering like a baby.

Starfire and Hookbeak flew out of their tree and took hold of the Bunya flag and pulled it out of the sand. They flew out over the river and dropped it in the water. “So long, Charlie!” Starfire yelled over his wing. The two old ravens parted company, as each headed for his respective tree in their respective cemeteries on either side of the river.

Once Henry had been thoroughly encased from head to toe, Charlie gave the signal for the birds to desist. “Birds of All Feathers, land in the sand!” The bombing suddenly abated as the birds dropped out of the sky. The entire tip of the island was covered with birds. Not a grain of sand could be seen from the river to the forest. “We don’t want any of them to think about coming back,” Charlie said. “Make it so there is no room for a human to stand.”

The sudden shower of shit scattered Henry’s guests all over the riverbank. No one escaped getting hit, but Henry bore virtually the complete brunt of the birds’ fury. The investors had all abandoned him, clamoring over one another for a seat on the helicopter. The pilot jumped out and shoved half of them back, shouting, “I’ll be back. Just stay right here. I’ll be back.”

Only faithful Jules stayed with Henry, waiting patiently for the birds to finish, but far enough away to avoid getting too badly pasted himself. The pelting finally stopped, but the sudden noise of that many birds crowing, quacking, honking, whistling, chirping, tweeting, clicking, and clacking all at once was hardly less fearsome. Henry ventured a quick peek. “Jules, where are you?” he cried out, digging his fists into his eyes like a lost little boy, smearing and grinding bird doo into his eyesockets.

I’m right here, Henry. Come along now,” Jules said, flicking a bit of birdshit off his sleeve. He handed Henry his handkerchief to wipe his eyes and escorted him to the helicopter. The birds closed in behind them.

I can’t let you aboard my ’copter all covered in crap like that, Mr. Braun,” the pilot said, blocking Henry from climbing aboard. “You’ll ruin my upholstery. Take off the shirt and slacks. Clean him up as much as you can,” he said to Jules. “I’ll be back.”

The group of spattered yet well-heeled investors took off in the helicopter while Henry stripped down to his skivvies. The pilot returned for him and Jules after leaving the guests in the safe hands of their chauffeurs at the City Boat Landing. Henry climbed aboard and left Wilder Island forever.

Mission accomplished, a million birds headed home. All except for JoEd, who had promised his weebs he’d come back to the tree house for a few days. She had completely forgiven him, as mothers will do, for flying away to the River Queen and not coming home for days. But he wanted to spend a little time with her, before he left for good. And to say a proper good-bye.

 

Never Mind!” shouted the Sentinel headline the next morning, right above a photo of Henry Braun covered in bird droppings. The caption read: “Wilder Island birds just say no to Ravenwood Resort.”

The whole front page, filled with news about Henry’s precious island, made Minnie smile. She laughed at the pictures of Henry, remembering his cold rage when he came home from his picnic the previous day.

Changed Our Minds!” headlined the article where the city revoked its condemnation of the island. Oh, thank the Lord! She heard Henry coming down the stairs and flipped the paper back. As he entered the kitchen, she set his perfectly cooled coffee on the table.

Henry scowled, and without touching the newspaper, he picked his coffee cup off the table and climbed the stairs to his office.

Minnie smiled and reread the lead article in the Sentinel, a humorous account of Henry’s picnic, including photos of the birds in action. “As if they enjoyed it,” the reporter wrote of the birds. “As if they enjoyed pelting the wealthiest man in the city with their excrement.”

I enjoyed it too! Even if I did have to launder his stinky clothes afterward. It was worth it! Go, birds!

She wondered if Floyd and Willy had been there. Would that I could have been a crow for that day! She giggled into her coffee. Alfredo Manzi’s name leaped out of the article at her.

“‘Ganging up on and pelting,’ says Dr. Alfredo Manzi, noted professor of ornithology at the university and pastor of the old hermit’s chapel, “are not uncommon offensive tactics that many birds employ to drive off predators—the smaller birds, especially. I am most impressed at how this so-called attack harmed no one, yet completely conveyed the message, ‘Hands off our island!’ Everyone is washable. We humans should take lessons.”

Minnie laughed to herself. Oh, I love that man!

 

Kate Herron’s inside sources informed her that the Mayor’s office had been deluged with the Friends of Wilder Island postcards, with notes that read, “Save your job, Mr. Mayor! Save Wilder Island!” “No to Eminent Domain!” “Keep the island as is!” “No Casinos!”

The city website shut down briefly,” she told Alfredo on the phone. “Too many people tried to log on and voice an opinion. Three to one, the e-mails, faxes, phone calls, letters, and telegrams expressed support for keeping Wilder Island wild.”

God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.

Well,” Kate said, “we dodged a bullet, I think. If Henry had planned something other than a gambling casino, things may’ve turned out differently. Still, the birds had the final word. That should give the next guy pause.”

 

Russ finished reading the Sentinel article aloud to Jade, and the phone rang. “Good morning, Russ!” Alfredo’s warm voice said. “Have you two seen the morning paper?”

We have!” Russ said, pushing the speaker button so Jade could hear. “I keep wondering if I’m dreaming. Is it true? Wilder Island is still ours?”

Still ours,” Alfredo said with a chuckle, “thanks to thousands of birds, our land trust, and the people of Ledford. Is it not marvelous! I am thinking it is only appropriate that we celebrate our victory here on the island.”

I’ll second that thought!” Russ said. “The island is the only place to celebrate this. We deserve a party for all the work we did! This weekend? And maybe afterward I can show Jade around a bit? I want to get some more photos, and she’s dying to see more of the island.”

Yes I am!” Jade cried out. “I’ll paint while Russ hunts for the flower he’ll name after me!”

Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research and painting area; come and go as you please, both of you. I will call Sam and Kate, and Thomas too—he will be glad to hear this news. If you do not hear otherwise, please meet the Captain at the loading dock at nine on Saturday. I hope that is not too early?”

Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 17

Lone Crow (2016) Pauline Teel Photography

We Are Small Alone

Minnie Braun watched the sky reflect the colors of the sunset from her balcony, after Henry took a butcher knife to the two paintings she had bought at Jade Matthews’s art show.

I’ll not have this woman’s work in my house!” he had raged, slicing through Leave Me as she watched, stone-faced. “She is my enemy! And as long as you’re married to me, she is your enemy too, understand?” Henry plunged the knife into Catching the Wind, and Minnie grabbed her midsection as if it had penetrated her own guts. She ran up the stairs sobbing and closed herself in her bedroom.

She had no idea what had happened to The Wilder Side, the beautiful painting of the island she had outbid everyone at the auction for—only that it had never made it to the library. She had tried to call Father Alfredo to tell him—he always made her feel better—but she could not reach him. She had called him twice. Three times. But he hadn’t returned her calls.

She gazed in despair out her window, at the dark trees of Wilder Island. Henry will destroy that too. Is nothing safe from him? When Floyd and Willy sailed down to her balcony, she cried out in happiness. “Oh, fellas, I’m so glad you’re here! I’m feeling pretty low this evening.” She looked over her shoulder, making sure her door was closed.

We cannot have that, Fair Lady!” Floyd said.

Indeed!” Willy agreed. “What makes you so blue, Miss Minnie?”

The two crows perched on the railing looked at her with such affection and sympathy, she nearly burst into tears. “Henry destroyed something I really loved,” she said, trying to hold back the tears stinging her eyes. “Right in front of me.” Minnie removed a hanky from her pocket and dabbed her tears.

What a beast!” Floyd said. He put a wing out and rested it on her shoulder. “He didn’t hurt you, did he, Miss Minnie? I’ll peck his eyes out if he so much as lays a finger on you, let alone an ax.”

Minnie laughed through her tears and said, “Thank you, Floyd! But it was a butcher knife. And Henry never touches me, so you need not worry about that. Which is not to say he hasn’t found other ways to hurt me.”

I’m afraid I have to agree with Floyd,” Willy said. “He is a beast.” The brothers nodded to each other then turned back to her.

He’s obsessed,” she said in a low voice. “He’s like a crazy man over that island. The city as much as gave it to him, he says, so he’s making all these plans to ‘christen Ravenwood Resort.’” Minnie looked over her shoulder, checking that the door to her bedroom was still closed.

Izzat so?” Floyd said. “The beast. What’s ‘christen mean?’ Where’s Ravenwood Resort?”

On Wilder Island,” Minnie said with a sigh. “Even though it isn’t his to build on—at least not yet. He wants to park that riverboat he’s been giving everyone rides on at the island, he says. And he’s going to build casinos and shopping malls and hotels and, well, everything that Wilder Island is not. That’s Ravenwood Resort.”

Yeah, yeah,” Floyd said, nodding. “I remember now. Flapjack tables, roulette, and bingo.”

That’s blackjack, Floyd,” Willy said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

Yes,” Minnie said. “Blackjack, slot machines, roulette—all of that. He said the city condemned the island because it’s a nuisance. ‘A sewer of crows.’ That’s what he calls it.”

How very uncouth,” Willy said. “In polite conversation, a gentleman should not invoke the sewer. Don’t you agree, my brother?”

The cad!” Floyd said as he gathered Minnie’s hand in his wing. “To speak so in front of a lady so fair, I am shocked, nay, outraged!” He laid his head sideways on her hand.

Thank you, Floyd,” Minnie said, gently stroking his cheek with her free hand. “But now, listen. Henry is planning this picnic on the island—”

Oh, goody!” Floyd said. He danced on the balcony railing and flapped his wings as he crowed, “We love a picnic! We a love picnic! When is it?”

Floyd,” Willy said, flapping his wings at his brother. “Please. Let Miss Minnie finish!”

We don’t love this picnic, Floyd,” Minnie said. “Henry plans to do some very bad things to the island. But he needs a lot of other people’s money to do it. That’s what the picnic is for, so he can squeeze it out of his rich friends.”

I didn’t know you could do that,” Floyd said, tilting his head.

Do what?” Minnie said, confused. She glanced back at her bedroom door.

Squeeze orbs out of humans,” Floyd said. “Where do they come out?”

Crimony, Floyd,” Willy said, cuffing his brother with a wing. “It’s a figure of speech. Forgive him, Miss Minnie, but Floyd tends to take things literally.”

Oh, that’s okay,” Minnie said, laughing. “It’s a pretty silly saying. Floyd, I meant that Henry will try very hard to convince people to give him money.”

Ohhhh,” Floyd said, nodding thoughtfully. “I get it now. I thought you meant—”

Floyd! Shush!” Willy said as he put a wing over his brother’s beak.

Minnie looked over her shoulder, making sure, again, that her door was closed. She leaned closer to the crow brothers. “Henry’s afraid to take the paddleboat to the island, so he invited his wealthy friends for a private ride on a helicopter for champagne breakfast.”

Champagne breakfast,” Floyd said. “Yum!”

A helicopter?” Willy asked. “You mean a whirly-bird? Them things are huge! Where will it land?”

At the opposite end from the hermit’s chapel,” Minnie said. “I don’t know where, other than he said they’ll land on a beach or a sand bar or something. He doesn’t want to run into Father Manzi, he said.” She looked over her shoulder.

He won’t want to run into Charlie either,” Floyd said to Willy.

Absolutely not!” Willy agreed.

Nosirreebob,” Floyd shook his head emphatically.

No way, Jose’!” Willy said.

Under no circumstances!”

He’d be real sorry.”

Might as well just throw himself off a cliff!”

Sooner he should cover himself with honey and sit naked on an ant hill!”

Better he should shoot himself at sunrise every day for a week!”

Or boil himself in oil!”

The two crows looked back at Minnie. “Nope, that’d be something he wouldn’t want to do. Run into Charlie!”

Minnie could hardly contain her laughter. She loved Floyd and Willy; they always cheered her up, no matter how terrible things seemed. But she felt nervous that Henry would hear them.

Shhh!” Minnie said, her forefinger across her lips.

Sorry!” Floyd whispered.

Both crows hunkered down on the balcony railing. “When is this shindig, Miss Minnie?” Willy asked in a low voice.

A week from yesterday,” she said. “Next Monday.”

Minerva!” Henry’s voice permeated the house, vibrating walls and windows.

What was that?” Floyd said.

Sounds like the man of the house has awakened,” Willy said.

Gotta go, gents,” she said and blew them each a kiss.

We ought not to miss this shindig, eh, brother?” Willy said with an air of great dignity and sarcasm as they leaped off the balcony.

 

In his ancient tupelo tree, high above the Woodman’s Cemetery, on the northern borders of the university, Starfire awaited his friend Hookbeak. Before retiring within its sprawling branches, Starfire and his wife had raised a large number of young ravens, every year building a new nest not far from this very tree. He knew precisely how many children he had sired, and grandchildren. He even knew how many generations of great-grandchildren he had. Seven. Of course he could not come up with all their names, just their numbers.

As Chief Archivist, Starfire dealt in corvid genealogical data on a daily basis. It was a simple task to access the archival lattice; he could do it in his sleep. But he was not concerned with the names of his many descendants at the moment. Another fireball had ejected during Charlie’s trance, and Starfire was flummoxed. He had created several Extermination Chants and went after the bugs that seemed to be eating the data. Charlie had struggled to speak as the lattice closed, and had said something that sounded like “ugs”. Did he mean to say “bugs”?

The roar of the lawnmower on the other side of the cemetery distracted his thoughts. In spite of the noise, he appreciated mowing days for the evening buffet of chopped lizards, toads, insects, and other creatures that couldn’t seem to get out of the way.

He watched his friend Hookbeak approach, admiring his wingspan and graceful glide down to the tupelo tree. The Aviar landed on the large branch near Starfire and folded his wings. The two old ravens greeted each other cordially.

To what do I owe the honor of a visit, my friend?” Starfire asked. He knew the Aviar preferred to stay on his side of the river.

There have been some complaints,” Hookbeak said vaguely. He sharpened his beak on the branch near his feet.

Complaints?” Who? Does the Aviar somehow know of the mishap with the Keeper last week?

Yes, my friend, complaints,” Hookbeak said. “But first, tell me about the damage to the lattice. Last time we talked, you suspected something was damaging it. ‘Bugs’, I believe was the term you used.”

The lawnmower droned closer. Starfire could smell the gasoline engine exhaust co-mingled with fresh-cut grass. He nodded. “Bugs ate many holes in the lattice—mostly in areas where we store Patua’ data. Bugs are why we did not find Jayzu in our database. I think.”

I see,” Hookbeak said. “That is problematic. But you have killed the bugs, you say? Have you fixed the holes?”

I thought the bugs were gone,” Starfire said. “I thought I killed them all and left a systemic poison in case they come back. But, alas, I believe I have missed one.”

It was no mean feat, killing the bugs. Starfire had been in a mildornia trance for an entire day with only a few novices to watch over him. Several times he had surfaced from the trance, gasping, “Not finished yet. Must go back.” He beaked more mildornia berries, and though he felt he was dying of thirst, he did not drink.

After the extermination, he had fallen over stiff as a board. The novices told him later that they had been frightened he had died. But he was not dead, and the bugs were gone. Until Charlie’s trance that ended with him struggling to say “bugs.”

I will run another Extermination Ritual,” Starfire said. “After I am sure they are gone, I will continue repairing the damage they have done. It is very time-consuming to search the Keeper’s memories for the Patua’ data, and then to extract it and patch the holes the bugs made. Sometimes I don’t find what I need very quickly, and the Keepers have to stay under longer.”

And is that dangerous?” Hookbeak asked.

Starfire looked deep into his friend’s opaque black eyes. Does he know? “Not usually. Some do not tolerate such high doses of mildornia berries, it is true. But it is the only way I know to patch the holes.”

He had screened the Keepers well, he had thought, experimenting with dosages of mildornia berries to filter out the Keepers for whom the deep trance might be fatal. How did Beatrice get through the screening? He had been grievously shocked when the young Keeper had fallen over stiff and dead as a doornail right at his feet. Before he had even searched her memories. Such a tragic loss.

The lawnmower droned nearby, like a giant cricket in the grass declaring the summertime temperature. “There are risks to the trance,” Hookbeak said, eyeing the mower and its two riders. “We know that.” He turned back to Starfire, his black eyes blazing in anger. “But to break into a corvid’s private memory, Starfire? That is akin to stealing, is it not? I am quite uncomfortable with that scenario. This is a serious covenant you have broken.”

Starfire sunk his head into a wing and pretended to scratch a sudden itch. How did the Aviar know he had wandered without permission through the Keeper’s memories? The Keepers themselves did not know. It was true he had been warned. Severely warned. And he agreed it was a sacred trust he had violated, an unequivocal promise to the Keepers that their personal memories would be left private while their minds were open and unprotected.

Starfire had neutralized his guilt by continually reminding himself that what he had found was worth his minor rule bending. Besides, while he was only fixing holes in the archival lattice, he had found a few more Orbs of the Patua’.

I am certain that the Keepers would all give permission for the searches,” Starfire said, “but it is so very cumbersome and time-consuming to get it.”

Yes, that is true, Starfire. The Council founders deliberately made it difficult to obtain such permission—to prevent such violations as this one. I insist that you follow protocol.”

I do not have the time!” Starfire protested vehemently. “There are much greater issues I am attending to.”

What could be a greater issue for the Chief Archivist than keeping the Keepers of the Archival Lattice in good health?” Hookbeak asked. “That is, alive.”

You do not understand!” Starfire said. He hopped back and forth between two branches, grasping one for a few seconds before leaping back to the other. “We are running out of mildornia berries. Even before the bugs ate our data, I had none to spare.”

Hookbeak blinked a few times and said, “What has that got to do with these invasions of yours, other than you’re using large amounts of berries and killing your Keepers?”

Starfire stopped, gripping a branch tightly and glaring at Hookbeak. He tried to control the angry impatience that surged upward from his breast. Calm yourself, raven. Anger kills reason. He focused on the sound of the lawnmower as it traversed back and forth across the cemetery. He tried to visualize the pattern the mower always left in the grass and the smorgasbord of delectable dinner entrees.

Quite by accident,” Starfire said after composing himself, “during my searches, I have finally discovered the legendary Orbs of the Patua’.”

The Orbs of the Patua’?” Hookbeak said. “And these orbs—what relation do they bear upon your sacred oath?”

Starfire told the Aviar about the orb Jayzu found under Bruthamax’s bones, describing in great detail the skilled craftsmanship of some unknown ancient Patua’. “And much to my surprise, another orb has turned up, nearly identical to Bruthamax’s. Right in Ledford.”

The lawnmower invaded the space in which Starfire’s tupelo tree grew, capturing the attention of both ravens. A crow perched on the gas tank in front of the mower, while the operator steered it deftly around trees and tombstones. The noise was loud enough to prevent conversation, and the two ravens perched quietly until the mower moved on.

And theses searches have revealed another potential Patua’,” Starfire said, when the noise had diminished somewhat “of whom we knew nothing.”

Hookbeak rose up on his thick legs and stretched, flapping his wings a few times before folding them back at his sides. His legs hurt. So did his wings. The lawnmower came into the small clearing underneath them. “Is the gardener Patua’?”

No,” Starfire said, “and he’s deaf as a post. Julie just likes to ride the mower with him. She said she likes the smell of fresh-cut grass.”

And what do you think they are?” Hookbeak asked. “These orbs you risk so much for?”

Seed pods,” Starfire said without hesitation. “Mildornia seed pods!” A gust of wind blew through the branches, revealing the white ruff around his neck.

Hookbeak refolded his wings and said, “And how did you come to that conclusion? Have you broken one open? Were there mildornia seeds inside?”

No,” Starfire said. “I personally have never actually seen one of these orbs. But my hunch is that—”

Your hunch?” Hookbeak shook his head in wonder. “You are risking lives for seeds? For ‘potential’ Patua’? My friend, what has happened to you?”

You don’t understand!” Starfire said impatiently. “We need mildornia berries!”

I do understand that,” the Aviar said calmly. “I know that the seeds are required for the trances. You have told me that more than once. And that the mildornia bushes used to thrive everywhere. And the last known bush, a hermaphrodite, grows on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

A sense of profound weariness permeated his being. Suddenly life seemed severely complicated. Ah, my Rosie, I shall leave all this soon and come join you, my love. “I am trying to understand,” Hookbeak continued, “why you have violated the sacred trust between the Council and the Keepers.”

Starfire did not speak for a few moments. Hookbeak had watched his friend struggle with his passionate ambitions their entire adult lives. But never had he transgressed from the ethical boundaries set by the Council.

Where is your conscience, Starfire?” he asked quietly. “You cannot continue this invasion of the Keepers’ memories for any reason, no matter how lofty it seems. It is simply wrong, even if we are in desperate need of these seeds. Or discovering more Patua’. The Council will not sanction this.”

Starfire shook his head as he strode back and forth on the branch. “The Council is myopic, Aviar! Can you not see what is at stake here? Our entire database, our entire history, our entire genealogy since the days of First Crow and First Raven will be lost—to say nothing of the Patua’ data. For the love of the Egg, Hookbeak, these are perilous times! We cannot afford to adhere to ideology when our very survival is at stake.”

Do not think that I am unaware, Starfire,” Hookbeak growled, “of what is at stake here. Am I not Aviar? It is my business to be aware, as I must make you aware of the dangerous winds you are flying in. Have you no regard for your Keepers?”

I am careful,” Starfire said sullenly.

Not careful enough,” Hookbeak said. He had been sorely disappointed in his friend, not so much that his experiment had been fatal to young Beatrice. But why did he cover it up? Why did he not come tell me? Have I not been his loyal friend all these years?

There is no proof!” Starfire protested. “Even the Emplacement Ritual is sometimes fatal.”

And you refuse any remorse for the death of this innocent Keeper?” Hookbeak hopped onto the branch near Starfire. “I cannot continue to shelter you, Starfire, or your activities. One more mishap among the Keepers,” he said, putting his beak into the other raven’s face, “and I am going to blow the lid off this. Do I need to explain what will happen in that event?”

Starfire stepped backward under the Aviar’s pressure but did not reply.

The Council will strip you of your position as Chief Archivist,” Hookbeak said, stepping toward Starfire and bearing down on him. “And your name will be blackened forever.”

Starfire growled and flapped his wings. The Aviar backed off, and the two ravens stood eye-to-eye, searing the air between them with the charged particles of their anger. The leaves on all the branches of the tupelo tree suddenly rattled and quivered.

Hookbeak broke his stance first, shaking his head. “Have you gone mad, my friend?” he said quietly. “Too many mildornia trances, perhaps?”

And if the database goes down,” Starfire said, as their tempers cooled, “what will it matter if I have a good or bad name? Aviar, please, I beseech you, hear me! I do not know how else to save our database. At the small expense of my position in the archives, and even my good name among the corvid, I am willing to make this sacrifice.”

Did you ask the Keepers if they were willing to sacrifice their lives to your vanity before you volunteered them?” Hookbeak asked.

This is not my vanity, Aviar,” Starfire growled. “There is much at stake here, the preservation of all of our knowledge, history, and genealogy. Which is the more valuable? The rights of the individual Keeper to maintain memory privacy, or the rights of the entire corvid species for the past seventeen or so million years?”

You call upon the dead?” Hookbeak asked incredulously, “to defend this mind invasion of yours? What rights do the dead have?”

They have the right to be remembered,” Starfire said. “Is not that why we ever constructed the archival lattice in the first place? To keep track of ourselves? Shall we allow millions of lives to be lost to this stubborn obedience to principles?”

Shall we lose our moral compass over a database?” Hookbeak flapped his wings several times.

 

Charlie left Charlotte’s windowsill at Rosencranz after their morning visit and flew across the river, across the university campus to Starfire’s tree in the old Woodmen’s Cemetery. Hookbeak was there with him, and the two old ravens seemed to be deep in a heated discussion—an argument from the looks of it. Starfire seems angry! I wonder what they are arguing about?

Charlie flew once around the tupelo tree, but as he started back toward Cadeña-l’jadia, Starfire called out, “Yo, Charlie!”

He turned around and sailed into the tree, settling on a branch near the two ravens. “Grawky! I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important.”

The two ravens looked at each other briefly. “Nothing that we have not been endlessly discussing,” Hookbeak said wearily. “Grawky, Charlie.”

Indeed,” Starfire said. “Perhaps we should thank you for the interruption. Otherwise the two of us could grow old and stiff and keel over right here in this tree, without solving a thing.”

The two ravens looked at each other gravely for a moment, then cackled with laughter as they flapped their wings. Once they settled back down, Charlie told them what he had learned from Floyd and Willy. “And they said Henry Braun plans to land a helicopter on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

That would be the only way he could get there,” Starfire said. “The river would never let him near.”

Charlie nodded. “Jayzu and his friends are fighting him, but he has many orbs and is very powerful.”

Starfire said, “That man is a menace, the very antithesis of the Patua’. We cannot allow him to gain control of Cadeña-l’jadia. We must stop him.”

But how?” Charlie asked. “We are just birds. Not even the humans seem to be able to stop him.”

We are small,” Hookbeak said, “each of us. But together we form a multitude. Tomorrow we shall assemble the Great Corvid Council. We shall take a stand on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

 

The Great Corvid convened on the roof of the hermit’s chapel as the mid-afternoon shadows began to lengthen. Many more crows and ravens than councilors attended, and they perched all around—in the trees, the garden, and all over the marvelously rusty, sparkly contraption Jayzu had planted next to the pond.

Greetings, Councilors!” the Aviar spoke from the apex of the chapel roof. “Greetings, corvids! Greetings, all birds of all feathers!” He turned slowly all the way around, his great wings unfurled as if to include everyone. “Thank you for flying in on such short notice. We face a grave threat.”

We?” Wingnut asked.

Charlie heard a wave of murmuring propagate through the trees all around him. “Who is that?” “That’s Wingnut. He thinks he’s going to be Aviar one day!”

Yes, we,” Hookbeak’s voice rumbled. “We do not exist independently of the human sphere.”

Wingnut folded his wings in displeasure but settled back on his branch. Charlie was glad he backed down. There was no time to argue.

We must open our eyes to the uncomfortable truth,” Hookbeak continued. “The events in the human world over the last century or two have encroached upon our otherwise idyllic existence, and we can no longer bury our heads under our wings and ignore the problem. We are losing our forests, our rivers, and streams to the inexorable march of human civilization across the landscape.”

Hookbeak signaled Charlie to take the high perch next to him. “Tell all our corvid brethren of the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said as the crow landed.

Charlie stood up as tall as he could, opened his wings, and called out as loudly: “Cadeña-l’jadia is under siege as we speak. There is a plan afoot by the human, Henry Braun, to remove its forests and birds, and replace them with a human-built landscape of concrete and buildings.”

Many of the birds gasped, and Fishgut called out, “Henry Braun?” The raven rose up on his roof branch near Charlie and shouted, “Henry Braun? You mean the Bunya? Have we such short memories, my corvids?” He unfolded his wings. “Is he not the same bunya who shaved the northern forests to nubbins?”

The birds snickered at the slur. “Bunya” meant “meat so rotten even a corvid would not eat it.”

Then he built the fish-canning factory,” Fishgut said, “and the place now reeks of rotting fish. While I feed off the largesse of the Cannery, it is too much, and the landscape is spoiled. And it stinks. I would much prefer that the forest, my ancestral territory, had remained.”

The older birds in the surrounding tree shouted angry epithets against the Bunya, recalling the destruction. The councilors maintained a slightly greater decorum, with only a few disapproving hisses.

It was the Bunya’s ancestor,” Starfire spoke out, “who tore the forests down for the Cannery. The living Henry Braun, known among some of us as the Bunya, plans the same fate for our Cadeña-l’jadia.”

First Henry Bunya will purchase the island,” Charlie continued, “and turn it into an amusement park for humans.”

Purchase?” asked Mikey. “As in purchase the branch?” He looked down at his feet.

I thought he said purchase the island,” Restarea said, blinking in confusion.

Purchase? What is purchase?” O’Malley asked.

Let us examine the word ‘purchase,’” said Athanasius. “Purchase is derived from the Middle English purchacen, or as the Anglo-French would have said, purchaser. To purchase means to get a better grip on an object, as in ‘grasp the branch with both claws for more purchase.’”

Oh, that branch,” Restarea said, nodding.

What about the island?” Joshwa asked. “I thought we were talking about an island.”

Walldrug said, “I thought purchase means, essentially, to own. In which case, I must ask: can anyone own that which he cannot carry off?”

Hookbeak motioned Charlie to continue. “Do not get sidetracked into these philosophical gopher holes, Charlie. Tell them about the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Charlie nodded gratefully. He remembered when the Council first met Jayzu. It’s a wonder they can get anything said and done. He hoped he was never called upon to be a councilor. “Henry the Bunya,” he addressed the Council again, “has millions of orbs that he wants to give the humans in the city in exchange for the island. That’s what I meant when I said he wants to purchase it.”

Taken aback, many birds spoke at once: “Exchange orbs for the island?” “I cannot imagine!” “That is what purchase means?” “Millions of orbs!” “How many is a million?” “Imagine how big the nest would be to hold a million orbs!”

What would anyone do with that many orbs?” Ziggy asked.

Buy an island?” Joshwa said.

The councilors laughed raucously, including the Aviar.

Seriously,” Starfire said when the laughter had died down, “even among humans, ownership is a fairly abstract concept. But if anyone owns Cadeña-l’jadia, it is Charlie. His family has lived there since before there were any humans at all in this part of the world. Even humans regard that sometimes as legal ownership.”

However,” Wingnut said, “humans do not consider that any other species has ownership over any fraction of the entire earth’s surface.”

True enough,” Hookbeak said. “But let us not exhaust ourselves trying to understand the human concepts of ownership. Let us return to the subject for which have convened. We all know that forest destruction hits us birds first, if not hardest. Remember when the Boonies were out in the middle of nowhere, Walldrug?”

How could I forget?” the raven councilor cried out. “I watched my entire ancestral homeland devoured. Thousands of trees were shaved off the land to build a gigantic parking lot and a corn chip factory. Where there were trees, there is now only burning asphalt. They killed it all.”

The birds in the trees surrounding the chapel had grown quiet. He knew some of the crows ate regularly at the corn chip factory. Can we rise above our stomachs?

And Cadeña-l’jadia is next,” the Aviar said, “unless we band together and stop the destruction. This is our sacred land, if not for the hundreds of corvid generations born here, but this was the home of the great Bruthamax, may his spirit forever walk this lonely isle. And Jayzu. Let us not forget Jayzu.”

All of the birds within earshot of Hookbeak showed their approval by screeching and flapping their wings. Some called out, “Long live Jayzu!” “Bruthamax forever!” “Bruthamax will never die!”

We have no more time,” Hookbeak’s strong voice cut through the noise. “We have waited long enough for the humans to come to their senses. We must stop talking and act. If we are going to prevent the Bunya’s destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia, we must be proactive. We must act.”

And do what?” Wingnut asked. “Throw ourselves in front of the saws?”

Hookbeak said. “Saws?” He shook his head. “I was thinking we throw ourselves in front of the humans.”

The councilors blinked in confusion and asked each other “What is he talking about?” “Is he serious?” “Throw ourselves in front of humans?”

Follow me!” Hookbeak’s voice rose above the private conversations, calling out to all the birds on the roof of the chapel as well as in the trees. He flapped his wings, lifting his great body above the trees. “Let us say no to the Bunya! A million birds taking a stand! We must all fly out and spread the word, starting today, to all birds in the land. We shall invite them all to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia. This land is ours. Now fly! Spread the word!”

Hookbeak led the way as he flew off shouting, “Calling all birds! All birds of all feathers! Picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Good eats! Take a stand against forest destruction! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

 

The councilors, Charlie, and a host of corvid volunteers flew far and wide, and they spoke to many birds across the land. Charlie sent off all the young crows on Cadeña-l’jadia to engage the birds beyond the timber mills, all the way to the northern border. He sent his sons JohnHenry and Edgar to carry the message Downtown, and to the Waterfront. More crows flew out across the river to the university, to the woods behind Russ and Jade’s house. The airport ravens carried the word to the surrounding towns and countryside.

As the corvids spread the word, other birds heard the call and carried it into the wind for miles and miles around Cadeña-l’jadia. “Come ye! All birds of beak and feather, come to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

Beak to beak, the word spread as the corvids raised the alarm from the cemetery to the timber mills, out east to the plains beyond Ledford, to the south all the way to MacKenzie. “Come all ye birds of all feathers! Join us and all our winged brethren for the Million Bird Stand on Cadeña-l’jadia!”

In a matter of one day, scores of birds over many hundreds of square miles took to the skies and headed to Cadeña-l’jadia. They arrived in multitudes, landing in trees, on the shorelines, and in the meadows, calling out, “Small alone, mighty together!”

The new bird sanctuary was jammed with birds, from the cliffs to the riverbanks. The sudden influx of such an enormous number of birds attracted the attention of the city as birds arrived continuously, hundreds and hundreds every hour. They assumed a swirling flight pattern above the treetops of the island as they searched for places to perch, stand, wade, or sit. The noise generated by many birds produced a low-decibel buzz that did not abate until nightfall, when the birds settled down in their roosts to sleep.

A reporter from the Sentinel ambushed Alfredo as he left his office in the Biology Department at the university. “Dr. Manzi,” the reporter asked, “how do you explain the sudden arrival on Wilder Island of so many birds? Has your bird sanctuary become a nuisance, attracting too many of our avian friends?”

A nuisance for whom?” Alfredo answered. “If you are asking is this odd, I would say it is very odd that so many birds of different species would suddenly show up in the same place. It is hard to know what to make of it, but I’m sure we will all find out soon enough.” He smiled, edged past the reporter, and left the building whistling a popular tune from 1960s, a song about a blackbird.

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