Corvus Rising – Chapter 13

Mirrors and Other Illusions

 

Starfire completed the last Keeper session and fell into a dreamless sleep, exhausted. He awoke suddenly, several hours before sunrise, his mind filled with a single thought. The fireball that streaked through Charlie’s lattice. What is it?

He had been busy with the Keepers for days, performing the monthly data emplacements, and whatever spare time he had was devoted to discovering the mysterious holes in the Lattice. There had been no time to examine the mysterious fiery object he had copied from Charlie’s lattice. Until now.

He summoned the fireball from his memory, and it appeared behind his eyes, flashing as it spun, just as he had seen it in Charlie’s lattice. He had not expected it to come over in multiple dimensions—highly polished, black as raven feathers. And he could wander all around it.

What is it? Where did it come from? What is it trying to tell me? Starfire was sure the fireball was a message of some sort, whether from the archive itself, warning of a possible data corruption, or a breach in the lattice, or—?

He recalled suddenly that Charlie had started blinking rapidly at the same moment the orb had been ejected. Did he see it? Even if he did, he would not have brought into consciousness any memory of the Emplacement Ritual, or even the experimental extraction ritual he was under when the fireball appeared.

Starfire opened the main Archival Lattice through a meditative state. The mildornia berry-induced trance was necessary only to introduce or extract large volumes of data into the Keeper lattices. Starfire only wanted the answer to one question: what is it?

He chanted up the vast body of historical data regarding the use and care of the Archival Lattice, a sort of trouble-shooting compendium of tricks, observations, and advice from countless chief Archivists over many millennia. But there was no mention of the Lattice suddenly spitting up fireballs. Or anything else for that matter.

The Lattice is but an archive of events already occurred, Starfire reasoned. It knows nothing of the present moment or the future. Is this sphere some sort of messenger, programmed to eject at a specific time?

What if—? What if the fireball is a secret archive that was placed into the lattice before the Patua’ went underground? A signal, perhaps? A signal to us, the future corvid, that the Patua’ have returned?

He felt sure the fireball was related to the Patua’, if only because it was the Patua’ Lattice in which it appeared. Determined to pry the secret from the lattice, he searched for the right question to ask. Dump fireball subset Patua’, he commanded the lattice. Nothing. He changed the chant: Dump fire orb subset Patua’. Several seconds went by before a node opened and spit out a data packet. Starfire watched it gracefully unfold into a ribbon of sound.

rb of ua’1405 CE atua’ ma e hun eds tre uryseed e rbs th 1586 E Pat ‘ man cr pt hi d n Gregor U y

The incomplete data stream annoyed Starfire, and he replayed the data ribbon. Such errors were not uncommon and usually were due to a glitch in the chant. The new data ribbon unfolded, and to Starfire’s chagrin, it was again incomplete.

The old raven was troubled, though he told himself it could be any number of things. He tried not to fear the worst—holes in the lattice. Trying to quell fear with reason, he reminded himself over and over again that the diagnostics he ran would have revealed such structural damage to the lattice.

The twenty-one-gun salute at a military funeral in the cemetery in which the tupelo tree grew catapulted Starfire out of his meditative state and into the bright, sunny morning. He stretched his wings and muttered an expletive. He never was able to shut out the sound of gunfire.

He perched within the murky shadows of the huge tree, pondering the fireball. What is it? Though he had worked for much of the night to find the answer, he had not even been able to discover what it was not. That maddening broken data stream could well be a sign of a far greater problem.

Starfire wondered how extensive the holes were and if Patua’ data was lost. And why were there holes in the Lattice at all? A stray chant gone awry within the Lattice?

The incomplete entries were over six hundred years old, he reasoned. Perhaps the holes were due to lack of maintenance, in which case a little housekeeping would take care of the problem. But the data was stored at the boundary of the Lattice, whose edges were ragged and frayed, as if part of the sector had been torn away. What could do that? he wondered. How much data have we lost?

Beyond the worrisome aspects of a possible systemic problem with the Lattice, Starfire felt sure the missing data would answer many questions, and he was certain this was not a solitary, random event without connection to anything. The fireball had ejected during an Emplacement Ritual; he had just finished inserting Jayzu into the Patua’ area of the archival lattice. Ever since, Starfire had harbored the feeling that Jayzu’s name appearing in the Lattice had triggered the fireball.

He stood up on his branch, flapped his wings several times, and took to the air. It was time for breakfast. He flew toward the river and spied Hookbeak on the ground near some poor creature a car had hit and flung well off the road.

May I join you, my friend?” Starfire asked as he landed next to the carcass.

Help yourself,” Hookbeak said through a beakfull. “There is plenty here.”

Starfire snagged a chunk of flesh and swallowed it. I love possum!” He pecked off another bite.

Grummrummrumm,” Hookbeak agreed. He swallowed the chunk of flesh in one gulp.

I have found some disturbing holes in the Lattice,” Starfire said. “I do not know as yet how large or how extensive.”

Holes?”

Yes,” Starfire said. “During a routine Keeper session, a strange fireball seem to pop out during Charlie’s Keeper session. I copied it to my own lattice and examined it later.”

What?” Hookbeak said sharply. “Why was there a bleed-over between the Keeper’s memory and the Archives at all? Was the Keeper not under trance deeply enough?”

No.” Starfire shook his head emphatically. “Nothing was amiss in the trance, or anywhere else. As yet, I do not know what it is or why it was ejected at the moment Jayzu had been added to the Archival Lattice. I queried the database, and I discovered the holes.”

Hookbeak stepped on the carcass and pulled off a chunk of meat. He gulped it down and helped himself to another. “So you think the fireball has something to do with the holes?”

Seems so,” Starfire said. “But I do not as yet know what the connection is.”

Has data been lost?” Hookbeak cleaned his beak on the grass.

Yes,” Starfire answered. “But I don’t know how much yet. The holes occur randomly in the Lattice, and we have lost some corvid historical data. But the greatest damage is to the Patua’ trees.”

He beaked another piece of the road kill and swallowed it. “I had hoped that this problem could be fixed by a defragmentation procedure, but no such luck. I must look to other causes.”

Such as?” Hookbeak asked. He thrust his thick beak into the possum carcass.

Bugs,” Starfire said. “That is my greatest fear.”

Bugs?” Hookbeak withdrew his head and stared at Starfire.

“Bugs eat things,” Starfire said. “They eat everything, from flesh to petroleum to data; they eat it all.”

 

Alfredo rented a car in Ledford and drove to Rosencranz. The day had dawned with cloudy skies and a cold drizzle, but by the time he was on the road, the rain had stopped and the clouds started to break up. He had looked forward to another visit with Charlotte. Other than Charlie, there was no one in the world he wanted to talk to more than Charlotte.

He wondered how many Patua’ languished in mental institutions. Like Charlotte. And Majewski’s sister, Stella. Not insane, just unable to communicate. I should tell Majewski about Charlotte.

He pulled onto the county road toward Rosencranz and left the urban realm of Ledford for the pastures and cornfields of the country. Charlotte may have a daughter! She had never mentioned she had a child. Did she forget? Or am I only imagining Jade is her daughter? There was no way he could ask Charlotte without upsetting her, he knew. I hope Dora Lyn has been able to find her file. That should tell us everything.

He signed in at the gate and entered the obedient landscape of Rosencranz Hospital for the Insane. He drove past the gazebo, but it was too dark inside for him to tell whether Charlie had arrived yet. He parked the car, donned his fake glasses, grabbed his briefcase, and entered the lobby through the heavy front doors. Dora Lyn wore her usual grimaced expression as he approached the reception desk, which changed the moment she saw him to one of giddy delight.

Dr. Robbins!” she gushed, looking him over from head to toe. “You look great! Have you been working out or something?”

Ah,” Alfredo said self-consciously, “no.” But he had been working on the Treehouse, and before that, his cottage.

Yard work,” he said. “I put in a pond in my backyard. I did a lot of digging.”

Really?” Dora Lyn said, putting her chin in her hand and leaning on her elbow. “It sure looks good on you, Doctor.”

He set his briefcase on the tall counter between them and opened it, hoping she did not see him blush. He withdrew a bouquet of flowers and handed it across the counter to her with a big smile.

Dora Lyn had warmed up to him on his first visit, but he still wanted to look at Charlotte’s file. “Bring her flowers,” Sam had told him. “Nothing special, just a little nosegay from the grocery store. Might help her remember where that file is.”

Alfredo had laughed. “I always thought men gave flowers to women to make them forget something!” But he had taken Sam’s advice and bought a small yet cheerful bouquet on his way to the asylum.

For me?” Dora Lyn giggled as she took the flowers. “You shouldn’t have, Dr. Robbins! They’re lovely.” She put the flowers in a small vase on her desk. “I’ll get these little beauties in water once I get you squared away with Miss Charlotte.”

Miss Charlotte! Much better than Scarecrow! Alfredo smiled, amazed at what a few flowers could do. “Did you ever locate Charlotte’s file?” he said. “Remember you could not find it last time I was here?”

I do remember, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, wrinkling her brow. “And yes, I did locate it, but there’s nothing in it. I’d say someone forgot to put its stuffings back, but no one has asked for it in the entire time she’s been here. I’m sorry, Doctor. I don’t know what to tell you. But I’ll keep looking.”

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said. “I am quite grateful for all of your help. What would I do without you?”

Dora Lyn blushed and smiled. “Just doing my job, Doctor.”

No, you do above and beyond,” Alfredo said, smiling warmly. “At least for me. I would hate to be here on your days off!”

I would hate that too, Dr. Robbins,” Dora Lyn said, smiling back. “I’m off on the weekends, same as you, probably.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “I try to leave my work at the office on the weekends, but there are times when I work all the way through.”

Dora Lyn nodded sympathetically. “Not me!” She giggled. “Really, Doctor, it’s just crazy here on the weekends. The girl who sits here on Saturday and Sunday? Dumb as a post. An inmate walked right past this desk and out the door last weekend, and she never even noticed.” Dora Lyn rolled her eyes.

What happened?” Alfredo asked. “Did he escape?”

Nope, but he would’ve gone clear to the highway if a visitor hadn’t reported an old guy in his pajamas wandering around in the parking lot.”

The phone on her desk rang, and she held up a forefinger as she answered it. Alfredo wandered to the windows opposite the patio and gazed across the lush carpet of grass to the gazebo. A black bird perched on the apex of the roof. There is Charlie!

He heard Dora Lyn hanging up the phone and returned to the desk. “It is a beautiful day,” he said. “Perhaps Charlotte would like to step out for a stroll, out to the gazebo and back. Is that permissible?”

Dora Lyn glanced toward the gazebo and then rolled her eyes as she said, “Yes, but surprise-surprise! First you have to sign a form.”

She fished a sheet of paper out of a compartment on her desk. “I trust you, Doctor, but you know, protocol and all. We have to keep track of the patients. And since that patient nearly escaped last week, well, you know.”

Of course,” Alfredo said.

Sign there,” she said as she put an X next to the signature line. “They didn’t have the money to hire enough security guards to watch the whole building, so they put video cameras everywhere.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Even in the restrooms!”

No kidding!” Alfredo shook his head as he scribbled his faux name illegibly on the form. “I will have her back within the hour.”

Take your time, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, waving him on with a smile. “Miss Charlotte’s on her way down. They’re taking her to the patio. It’ll just be a minute.”

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said.

I don’t know why they don’t let her come down by herself,” she said, smiling up at him. “She wanders the place on her own all day long.” She shrugged. “’Course they lock all the patients in their rooms at night. I guess someone still adheres to protocol in this Mickey Mouse outfit.”

Now, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo laughed.

I’m serious, Doctor,” she said. “This is not a mental institution! It’s a halfway house for the senile, a place for rich folks to stash and forget about their pesky old demented parents.” She giggled self-consciously into her hand. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t go on like that. But I’m sure glad we’re moving to a real hospital.”

Oh, no problem,” Alfredo said. He was grateful for the information, but was taken aback by her frankness. The building and its grounds had virtually no security. And that Miss Charlotte pretty well had the freedom to wander anywhere patients were allowed to be during the day. But at night she was locked in her room. That disturbed him. Charlotte’s tiny room was on the third floor. What if there is a fire?

He started toward the doors to the patio and was stopped short by a sign that he had not noticed when he walked in:

              We’re Moving!

Without reading the rest of the sign, he turned back to Dora Lyn and asked, “Really? The hospital is moving? When? Where are you going?”

That’s right, Doctor!” Dora Lyn said, giggling. “We’re moving, lock, stock, and barrel in about two weeks! A brand-new building over in the state capitol! It will be so nice to get out of this stinky old place. It was built more than 150 years ago, you know. And it wasn’t even a hospital! You can tell, can’t you?”

Oh, it is a bit old-fashioned perhaps,” Alfredo said. Moving! You cannot move now! Not yet!

Well,” Dora Lyn said, “it used to be a mansion that old man Rosencranz lived in till he died.” She looked over her shoulder as if checking to see if someone was listening. She lowered her voice. “He went out of his mind, and his spinster sister took care of him. But she ran out of money way before that, on account of Mr. Rosencranz lost his fanny in the crash of ’29. Some say that’s what made him lose his marbles too.”

She giggled behind her hand and looked over her shoulder again. “Anyhoo, so Rosencranz’s sister, she took in a few invalids, to help pay the bills. And after he died, she stayed on, and kept on, and by and by it became Rosencranz Hospital.”

I see,” Alfredo said.

But we don’t have really crazy people here,” Dora Lyn said, shaking her head as she looked out the windows at the patio. “Just folks who forgot themselves. Alzheimer’s, you know, that’s what most of them are here for.”

Alfredo looked through the windows at the people on the patio. Charlotte does not belong here.

The new building will have state-of-the-art security,” Dora Lyn said. “No more inmates just waltzing out of here in broad daylight. And I’m getting a brand-new computer!”

Sounds wonderful,” Alfredo said. He looked at his watch.

Oh!” Dora Lyn gushed. “I’m so sorry, Doctor! Prattling on like that when you have work to do!”

No problem.” Alfredo smiled. “But I do need to go.”

He left the lobby though the double doors to the patio, anxiety gnawing at his stomach. Moving in two weeks! The state capitol was more than a hundred miles farther away from Ledford.

Charlotte charged through the door on her own two feet, shouting over her shoulder at the aide, “I am not crippled! I do not need your damn wheelchair!”

Jayzu said something to the aide, and he let her go. “Jayzu!” Charlotte cried and flung her arms around Alfredo’s neck.

Hello, Charlotte,” he said, laughing as he peeled her arms away. She loved his laugh, so full of joy. She had missed him tremendously in the days since she had last seen him. But here he was! Smiling at her and holding her hands! He led her to a table on the patio, and they sat down.

So, how are you?” he asked, putting his briefcase on the empty chair beside him. “You are looking well.”

He looked at her so intently, she wondered if there was something the matter with her face. She brushed a few stray hairs from her eyes. “I am very happy to see you, Jayzu,” she said. “I have been counting the days. Six.”

Only six?” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. He reached into his briefcase, pulled out an object wrapped in purple tissue paper, and handed it to her. “I brought this for you, Charlotte.”

A present!” she said. “I never get presents, Jayzu! Is it my birthday?”

No,” he laughed. “It is just something I thought you needed to have.”

She peeled the paper away carefully. “A mirror!” She stared at her image in it for many moments. “That is me,” she murmured. She turned her head to each side, trying to see as much of herself as she could. She touched her face, her nose, her lips.

She gazed into her own eyes, gray like the clouds that roll through the sky. Scene after scene played in their depths—of wheeled chariots pulled along by great horses, of torches on cave walls painted with wooly mammoths, of dark passages filled with the dead. The sensation of falling flooded her with fear. She screamed and threw the mirror to the patio, shattering it.

Jayzu stared at her in shock. All of the patients on the patio, their doctors and visitors, stared at her. A custodian appeared with a broom and dustpan and swept the glass into a dustpan and took it away.

I am so sorry, Charlotte,” Jayzu said, ignoring the cleanup and the stares. He took her hands into his. “Forgive me, please?”

The warmth of his hands calmed her, and she stopped shaking. “I saw myself in the mirror,” she said, shuddering anew as she recalled the frightening image. Jayzu moved his chair closer to her. “I was in my room, and I was old and wrinkly all over.” She choked her fear back. “I was thirty-one thousand, six hundred and thirty-seven days old.”

Tears burned her eyes, but she didn’t want Jayzu to think she was a crybaby. She pulled her hands away and put them in her lap. She hung her head, squeezing her eyes closed and digging her fingernails into her palms. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu,” she said, her voice flat and final.

Alfredo had no idea the mirror would upset Charlotte so. She saw herself still at Rosencranz as an old woman. She could live another forty years; that is what I told her. But he had been trying to make her feel that her life was not over, not despair at four more decades in this place. But could he even suggest a different life?

He could not bear to see her in such anguish, and he wanted to take her in his arms and rock her gently, soothing away her fear. He checked his watch. Charlie is waiting at the gazebo. He stood up and put his folded arm out. “May I take you for a walk around the garden, Fair Lady?”

Charlotte opened her eyes. She stood up and giggled as she took his arm. “Oh, please! That would be so lovely!”

He led her through the lobby, past Dora Lyn, who smiled and waved. Out the front door and down the steps to the sidewalk. Alfredo did not see Charlie on the gazebo rooftop and hoped he was inside. They crossed the service road and stepped onto the lawn, and Charlotte immediately kicked off her shoes. She ran across the grass, laughing in sheer delight. She wiggled her toes in the soft, cool green grass, squealing with delight at the sun, the blue sky, and her unexpected freedom.

Charlotte’s face was paralyzed into a permanent smile as they walked across the grass. There was even a little color to her otherwise pale cheeks, and her gray eyes were alight with the simple joy of being alive. She seemed to inhale the entire landscape with each breath; Alfredo knew it had been many years since she had felt the bare Earth on her feet.

They climbed up the concrete steps to the gazebo. “I have always wondered what is in here!” she said, her eyes sparkling with the excitement. “I imagined I lived here, except it was far, far away from Rosencranz! On an island just like Charlie’s.”

They sat down in wrought-iron chairs around a small table, their backs to Rosencranz and facing the wild woods beyond the grounds. A black bird flew out of the forest and into the gazebo. After orbiting the table where Charlotte and Jayzu sat, it perched on the back of one of the empty chairs.

Grawky, Charlotte!” the blue-eyed crow said.

Charlie!” Charlotte cried out and opened her arms. Charlie hopped over to the arm of the chair, and the two nuzzled each other with wings and hands.

Charlotte’s laughter melted Alfredo’s heart, though he felt a little envious of their physical affection. He imagined her arms around him, and he nearly cried out as a strange energetic exhilaration rushed from his tailbone upward and outward, spreading tingling warmth all the way to his fingertips.

He wished he had Jade’s talent; he would paint Charlotte. Her smile as she gazed upon Charlie with such tender love, her hand gently touching his beak, her black hair and Charlie’s black feathers, flashing hues of red and blue. And her gray eyes, sparkling like crystals. God Almighty, she is beautiful.

The gazebo’s ivy-covered lattice walls faithfully blocked Charlotte and Charlie’s playful interactions from anyone who might happen to look out a window of the asylum. Alfredo glanced up the road toward the guardhouse at the driveway entrance, but he could not see it.

The gazebo would also conceal an escape over the fence. He turned and looked toward the forest beyond the gazebo. Barely visible, it was intergrown with trees and vines and topped with a coiling layer of concertina wire. Through it or under it, that is.

Cadeña-l’jadia is like the forests we used to play in,” Charlie was saying when Alfredo tuned back in to their conversation. “Many trees, large and small. And all the aromatic herbs you could ever want!”

Jayzu,” Charlotte said, turning suddenly toward him. “I want to go to Cadeña-l’jadia right now. Take me to Charlie’s Treehouse, please?”

He stared into her pale gray eyes, wondering if she had read his thoughts. “I would love to do that, Charlotte,” he said. You have no idea how much. “But it is very complicated, and I cannot just walk out the front door with you.”

Jayzu is right, Charlotte,” Charlie said. “We might have to trick them.”

Trick them?” Charlotte said, her eyes growing big with excitement.

Alfredo frowned at Charlie, wishing he had not made such an implicit promise to her. “We do not know how to get you out of here, Charlotte,” he said, “yet. But we, that is Charlie and I, are working on a plan.”

She clapped her hands and then pulled her arms in and covered her mouth as she drew in a great breath. Her eyes danced with delight, and Alfredo could not resist the smile that she brought to his lips.

Alfredo looked at his watch and said, “I must take you back now, Charlotte. It is just past an hour since we left the building.”

I do not want to go back,” she said, frowning. “I want to stay here with you and Charlie.”

Charlotte looked over her shoulder at the building. Her shoulders sagged as she turned back to face him. “When will you come back, Jayzu?”

Very soon, Charlotte,” he said. “In less than fourteen days.”

I will be patient,” Charlotte said, squaring her shoulders and folding her hands on the table. “Fourteen days is not very many.”

Charlie said good-bye, and Alfredo escorted her back to the building. She walked as slowly as she could without stopping, delaying the moment when they would have to part. She held her tears back when the elevator door closed, and he rode down to the lobby without her.

 

How’d Miss Charlotte like her walk?” Dora Lyn asked as Dr. Robbins signed out. What a hunk! He didn’t wear a wedding ring, which she hoped meant he wasn’t married. Or he’s gay. That’d be my luck. The handsomest sweetest men are always gay.

She did!” he said with an irresistible smile. “I think it was good for her to leave this building, even if it was just out on the lawn.” He reached for the log, and she handed him a pen.

Yeah,” Dora Lyn said. “I don’t know how she hasn’t just flipped out, ya know?” She looked out the window at the gray people in wheelchairs, all facing the other direction. “She’s not like the others.”

Oh?” Dr. Robbins said. “How so?”

His black eyes seemed to penetrate her very soul. “Well,” Dora Lyn said, “she babbles in this strange language no one can understand, like Miss Rosie out there.” She jerked her head toward the wheelchair brigade. “But ever since she sort of woke up from her sleepwalking, after she’d been here, oh jeez, twenty years maybe, and that’s when she started babbling, well, she didn’t seem crazy, just sort of, I don’t know, in the wrong place.”

That is interesting, Dora Lyn,” the handsome doctor said. “I have had that sense as well.”

She leaned forward toward him and whispered, “Do you think it was aliens?”

Aliens?”

Yeah, you know, like space aliens.” She glanced back out the window toward the gazebo. “They say she had disappeared for weeks before they brought her here. She was fine until then, but whatever happened to her, she couldn’t talk no more. Not a word.”

Really?” Dr. Robbins said. “Were you working here then?”

Dora Lyn was pleased that he was so interested in what she had to say. And that she knew things about Charlotte that he didn’t.

I was!” she said, beaming a smile at him. “They brought her in all tied up in a straitjacket. They sedated her, because she screamed so much, they said. And then after she got here, God knows what they did to her, but she was all docile like, until maybe seven or eight years ago, or so.”

Dora Lyn remembered her out there on the patio; among all the gray, faded people, Charlotte’s black hair had stuck out.

They shaved her hair all off,” Dora Lyn said, wondering why that made the doctor wince. “And they kept cutting until she started ‘talking’ again. Quote unquote.”

Does anyone know why she suddenly started talking?” the doctor said. “Quote unquote.”

Dora Lyn brushed a stray hair out of her face. “Nope. But she just up and got out of her wheelchair and started talking that alien language. She smiled a little, but she always looked so sad.” She looked out at the patio as the aide rotated the wheelchair people. “She’s just not like the others.”

 

Alfredo left Rosencranz and drove back to Ledford, thinking about what Dora Lyn had told him. They shaved her hair off? He had almost lost his temper when he heard that. Her long beautiful hair she kept in a thick braid down her back.

“They let her have long hair,” Dora Lyn had said, after she started taking care of herself. “You know, like brushing it and taking care of her own teeth and stuff.”

She does not belong there anymore. Even Dora Lyn sees that. I need to bring her home to Cadeña-l’jadia.

And the argument began.

Are you nuts? his voice of reason demanded. You want to take an inmate in the insane asylum where she has been her entire adult life to a deserted island?

But Charlotte is not insane, his compassion argued. How can I just leave her there?

The choice was clear: get this innocent woman out of this prison, or do nothing but conform to the madness that put her there in the first place. What would be gained by that? I would have bragging rights that I obeyed the law? The law that is an ass?

Just because the law is an ass does not mean you have to be one, his rational voice argued. Did you want to go to jail for kidnapping under “the law is an ass” defense?

The “We’re Moving” sign appeared in his thoughts, and he felt a surge of panic. He wanted to turn the car around and return to Rosencranz, go in and get her, and drive away.

The law is an ass, and I am insane.

 

Charlotte stayed in her room, refusing to go down to the dining hall for the evening meal. She sat at her window looking out over the forest on the other side of the fence. A tear rolled down her cheek. He is gone. Jayzu is gone. Fear billowed up in her chest. What if he never comes back?

A parade of nameless faces strolled through her head, faces she could not name, and they stabbed her with grief and loneliness. The gray-haired woman with the red cheeks and the warm smile. A young boy with black hair like hers. A young man playing a guitar, a cigarette stuck to his lip, dangling on the edge of a song.

A dark shadow flew to her window and landed on the sill. “Charlie!” she cried and put her hand on the glass, tears raining down her face.

 

Alfredo returned the rental car, and walked to the Waterfront where the Captain was waiting to take him home. The late afternoon sun felt hot and sticky, and he could not wait to be back on the cool island, away from all the noise and heat of the city. He jumped aboard, and the Captain pushed away from the dock. Sugarbabe clutched the railing and flapped her wings a few times before folding them neatly at her sides and settling down on her perch.

And how’s Miss Charlotte?” she asked Alfredo.

He was surprised Sugarbabe knew anything about Charlotte. “She is just fine, Sugarbabe. We went out for a walk today, which she enjoyed very much.”

Right kind of you to visit her,” the Captain said.

Do you know her also?” Alfredo asked in surprise.

The Captain gazed ahead for a minute or two, his brow knitting and unknitting as if he were in some mental anguish. “Once, long ago, I knew someone like her,” he said finally. “We were like peas in a pod, she and I. But her mother hated me, on account of me and her being too much like me, if you catch my drift.”

I do,” Alfredo said.

The Captain nodded. “Her daddy forbade us to see each other. We did anyway, on the sly, like. But he found out.”

The Captain’s jaw worked up and down, and his face bore such anguish, Alfredo wanted to comfort him, to lay his hands on the man.

Her daddy had a couple of thugs beat me near to death and toss me in the river. I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her. She just disappeared. I like to think someone like you maybe is visiting her somewhere.”

Sugarbabe leaped from her perch to the Captain’s shoulder and rubbed her head against his cheek. She remained there as he pushed his oar into the water again and again.

Sam never told him? Alfredo had no idea what to say. He had been consumed with self-pity lately over his loneliness, yet both Charlotte and the Captain had endured much greater suffering than he ever had. No one ever beat me. Though he could not leave the Jesuit boarding school his mother and her priest had sent him to, he did not really want to. And once he graduated high school, he was free to do anything he wanted.

University, seminary school. Now this. He watched the island come closer and closer, the gnarled white roof of the chapel nestled luminously in its aura of millions of shades of green.

Alfredo watched, almost hypnotized as the Captain, his oar, and the river became a single entity. The oar pushed its way through the water and then sailed overhead in a fluid circular motion that propelled the little boat toward the island. He wondered who else the captain boated around the river, without charge.

Captain, you have taken me back and forth between Cadeña-l’jadia and the city several times, yet you do not allow me to pay you. Surely you must need income?”

The Captain continued to row. After a few moments, he looked over at Alfredo and said, “I receive such payment as I need from them that I carry. Some pay in currency, others trade for the goods I need.” He looked out over the water. “Most folks are full of chatter. Their minds are running like rats on a wheel, and their mouths are running to escape their fear. They wear me out.”

The oar sliced through the water, parting the fishes and birds from air and foam. “You, Padre, are quiet inside. When I stand beside you, I am quiet inside.”

 

Charlie flew into Starfire’s tupelo tree in the old Woodmen’s Cemetery as the Chief Archivist was instructing a novice. “As every fledgling knows,” Starfire said, “First Crow and First Raven brought many great gifts to the skinny, pathetic humans shivering in their darkness, the greatest of which was agriculture. The Patua’ Clan, as this family would one day be called, took the instructions of First Crow and raised the arts of farming and animal husbandry to heights never achieved by humans since.”

The novice, a great-great-great-great-grandchild of Starfire’s, fidgeted on her branch, and the old raven stopped speaking, glaring at her until she settled down. Charlie was amused, recalling his own early days as a novice. The long stories of corvid interactions with the humans were only marginally interesting to him then, and he understood this one’s impatience to get on with her training.

For many thousands of years,” Starfire continued, “the Patua’ were renowned among humans for their expertise in botany and medicine. Their fields produced the most abundant grain, their trees the largest fruits. Some said they whispered to the plants to grow. They were the envy of the land for their farming methods. But, as the lust for power among the other humans grew, the Patua’ became targets of envy, fear, and hate. As we know, the Patua’, for all practical purposes, disappeared in the sixteenth century.”

Were they killed?” the novice asked.

Starfire stared coldly at her for a few moments, and Charlie feared for the youngster. A novice simply does not interrupt the Chief Archivist. He was relieved that Starfire did not strike her. “We have long thought they were,” the old raven said, “being that they essentially vanished during a time of great religious fanaticism among the rest of the human species. We now believe that they were not killed but disappeared among their own kind. Hiding in plain sight as it were.”

How did they do that?” the novice asked.

They stopped being Patua’,” Starfire said. “They stopped talking to the corvids and stopped farming. They went into other trades like carpentry and weaving and blacksmithing.”

The old raven paused to sip some water that had collected in a small aluminum tin he had long ago brought back to the tree—with remnants of chicken pot pie stuck to its sides and bottom. Whichever generation of his offspring happened to be in the nest enjoyed the largesse, picking it clean of even the burned-on grease spots. Over the years, the tin had become one with the tree, wedged into its very hide, and it collected enough water for Starfire to drink at will without leaving his tree.

The problem was and is,” Starfire resumed speaking, “that the Patua’ were so very good at hiding. Too good. They hid so well, they forgot who they were. And so began the self-persecution of the Patua’.”

The Patua’ killed each other?” the young novice asked in shock.

By no means!” Starfire’s deep raven voice nearly knocked her off the branch. “The Patua’ are quite gentle souls. No, the Patua’ disappeared from the corvid. They hid their ability to speak with us. They simply merged with the general population of humans, and as our current working hypothesis goes, the Patua’ trait became diluted in the human gene pool, so there are naturally fewer of them.”

What is a gene pool?” the novice asked.

Never mind that!” Starfire boomed. “The point is, the Patua’ were ultimately dissolved into the larger non-Patua’ human population. It is in this way that they disappeared. And because regular humans cannot speak to any of the animals, let alone us, they fear and revile those who can—the Patua’. Families hid their Patua’ offspring; often they never left their houses.”

Starfire moved to the hollow in the trunk of the tree saying, “But enough of this chatter. It is time to begin.” He reached in, pulled out a clawful of dark blue paste and dropped it at Charlie’s feet.

He motioned Charlie to ingest the fermented mildornia berries and continued speaking to the novice. “These are dire times. We must rouse the Patua’. But first we must discover where they are. The Archival Lattice contains scant few, yet I am certain there are many Patua’ hiding among the humans.”

Have the bugs been exterminated?” Charlie asked.

I think so,” Starfire said. “I have introduced several pest-control chants into the lattice and that should take care of it. If there are a few remaining, we have algorithms now to detect them and stop them in their tracks. But we have a formidable task ahead of us to repair the damage. Now eat!”

Charlie choked down the bitter mildornia paste. Within seconds, the effects began—the locking of his feet around the branch, the numbing sensation that traveled up his legs and all through his outer layers of flesh and feathers, leaving his vital organs intact and functioning. He began the syncopated breathing that helped facilitate the opening of his lattice.

As a Keeper, Charlie had participated in the emplacement and retrieval rituals many times, and even a few repair jobs to correct spoiled data. But this was the first time his own memories would be used to patch holes in the Lattice.

Starfire and the novice chanted the elementary verses with the Shanshus, and put Charlie into the first level of the Keeper’s Trance. He fell in, enjoying the familiar weightlessness of the mildornia paralysis, as it dampened all sensations of the body. He watched his memory Lattice snap open and expand outward in all directions. Many nodes glittered like multicolored stars that twinkled and blinked in the secret twilight.

Starfire chanted the verses he had devised for this ritual:

 

Vibzu bashki gax

Noxim ghazh blut a rek

Charlie had never heard that chant before and watched all but the purple nodes blink shut. After another series of unfamiliar chants, the purple nodes seemed to turn inside out, revealing layered filaments of the palest hues undulating in the Lattice energy field.

Starfire raised his voice as he chanted another verse, and one of the filament pods enlarged, engulfing Charlie into its glowing interior. He blinked his eyes once, paused, and blinked twice more, signaling that he was on the threshold of the mildornia trance.

Starfire chanted several more verses, encoded with commands and questions directed at the Charlotte entity in Charlie’s memory. “Where did you get the orb, Charlotte? Who gave it to you?”

Charlotte’s voice came through Charlie’s beak with a strange warbling sound. “‘Look at my birthday present, Charlie! My Mimi, she gave it to me! It is very old she said. She used to wear it all the time, and I always loved it, and now it is mine!’”

Who is Mimi?” Starfire’s chanting came again through the darkness, urgent and demanding. “Who is Mimi?”

Charlotte dances around; the orb hangs around her neck.” Charlie stopped talking for a few moments and then resumed. “She is babbling.” His head moved back and forth quickly. “The words come too quickly, faster and faster. I cannot understand; it is too fast.”

Charlie’s breathing became irregular and frantic. Starfire chanted softly, a verse that slowed the memory flow. Charlie’s head stopped moving back and forth, and his breathing resumed its half-trance rhythm.

Who is Mimi?” Starfire repeated the chant.

“‘Mimi!’” Charlie’s Charlotte voice cried out happily. Charlie swayed slightly on the branch.

Who is Mimi?” Starfire’s voice boomed through the lattice.

An old woman,” Charlie said. “Charlotte gives her a basket. She is crying, and the old woman grows smaller and smaller. She is gone.”

A crackling white fireball suddenly tore through the image, and Charlie watched Charlotte dissolve back into the data ribbon. But before the ribbon could return to its node, the fireball destroyed it. The ribbon wound through the Lattice aimlessly, with nowhere to go.

The Orb!” Starfire’s chant reverberated around the lattice. “Where is the Orb?”

The fireball bounced into the lattice, severing an entire section from the main trunk, and hundreds of nodes went dark. An automatic alarm went off, sending a preprogrammed command. He blinked rapidly, involuntarily responding, but struggling to speak. The Lattice collapsed, and the fireball disappeared.

Charlie felt Starfire’s wing steady him as he heard the Shutting Verse. Before the memory of the ritual had completely disappeared, he opened his eyes. He forced his beak open and croaked, “Ug,” and he fell into unconsciousness.


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

The Keeper’s Trance

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did this magpie say?” Majewski asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Zhoomoo weemwoo oomee moo
Oomoo weemoo shoomee woo

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

What is This Madness!

 

Father Provincial Thomas Majewski took a taxi from the Ledford airport and met Alfredo at the city boat landing. More than fifteen years had passed since he had last seen him. A few gray hairs made that white streak he had even as a young man a bit less noticeable, but he otherwise had not changed much. The same intense almost black eyes that seemed to see straight into your soul. And he had not lost the warm compassion that had made everyone want to turn him into a priest.

Greetings, Father!” Alfredo said as he and the older priest embraced. “I trust you had a pleasant trip?”

Alfredo, please,” Majewski said. “Call me Thomas. We are old friends, and I want to take a break from being the Father. I hope that is all right?”

But of course, Thomas,” Alfredo said.

They embraced again and after a few comments about their age and well-preserved appearances, the Captain ferried the two Jesuits across the river in what seemed to Majewski more like a floating chunk of forest than a boat. A crow swooped in under the canopy and found a perch on the railing next to the Captain, brushing his outstretched hand with a wing.

A secret handshake among crows and humans? Majewski frowned and immediately banished the thought. “I grew up not too far from here,” he said as he looked downriver. “As the crow flies, probably fifty miles. A little town called MacKenzie.”

I have been there!” Alfredo said. “Are you planning to visit your family while you are here?”

Oh, no,” Majewski replied, shaking his head. “There’s no one to see. My parents are both gone. They sold the house after I moved to Washington, about twenty years ago. None of the rest of the family lives in MacKenzie anymore either.”

There is the old chapel,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the island. “Or at least the roof, though it looks more like a tangle of dead branches from here.”

That’s the miraculous chapel you told me about?” Majewski asked dubiously.

Wait until you are standing inside,” Alfredo said with a smile.

The Captain steered the boat into the inlet and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. The two priests jumped out, and after saying good-bye to the Captain, Majewski followed Alfredo up a sketchy path into the forest. He breathed deeply, inhaling the odors of a living landscape. Big city life had deprived him of the luxurious scent of soil and decaying plant matter and the natural cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.

He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.

For God’s sake, get a grip, Thomas! They’re crows! They probably don’t even notice I’m here. He stopped to catch his breath.

My cottage is just ahead,” Alfredo said. He waited while Majewski wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.

The cottage blended in well with its natural surroundings; they were nearly to the front door before Majewski realized it was there. He looked up at the forest canopy and was astonished at the sheer number of black birds perched on branches and flying through the trees. He felt as if they were looking down upon him, making snide comments to one another, ridiculing him with their raspy caws.

My humble abode,” Alfredo said. “You can put your bags inside, and then we will go on to the chapel.”

Incredible!” Majewski said. “Like it’s part of the forest. I didn’t even see it!”

I wanted only the faintest human footprint here,” Alfredo said with a smile.

Inside, Majewski looked up at the roof, constructed of interwoven driftwood branches. “It really does look like a bird’s nest! Reminds me of the pictures of the chapel and Brother Wilder’s tree house. You didn’t build this all yourself, did you?”

Heavens no!” Alfredo said. “I had a lot of help, from a local artisan as a matter of fact, Sam Howard. He helped me to restore the chapel as well.”

He took Majewski’s bags from him and set them in a corner next to a futon. “It doubles as my couch and your bed tonight.”

Very nice!” Majewski said, looking all around. “So cozy—I’m envious! A one-room cabin, perfect for one, but not two. Don’t let me put you out, Alfredo. I can get a hotel in the city.”

Nonsense!” Alfredo said. “You will sleep here tonight. You are not putting me out.” He raised a hand against Majewski’s objections. “I will sleep where I normally do in the summer—in a hammock outside.” He gestured toward the door. “Shall we go on to the chapel?”

Majewski felt the cares of his job in Washington DC recede as they walked through what seemed to him a primeval forest, unsullied by the artificial gods of commerce and greed, and the big business of religion. The utter joy of life abounded, in every leaf and stem, every feather and beak, every whisker and tail hidden in the bushes.

He stood in awed silence outside the little chapel for many moments. “It’s like a living entity, as if it just grew here, right out of the forest floor.”

Much of it did!” Alfredo said. “Living trees hold up the roof, and several varieties of vine plants fill in the spaces between. Brother Maxmillian did a great job building it. All I had to do to restore it was clean it up and trim some of the vines. It was the inspiration for my cottage.”

I can see that,” Majewski said as Alfredo pulled the door open.

They stepped inside. Sunlight infiltrated through the many open spaces in the roof, making a checkerboard pattern on the floor, giving the otherwise dark interior an almost cheery look.

Reminds me of the basilica at our chapel in Rome,” Majewski said, looking up into the upside-down-bird’s-nest roof.

De la Torre’s sister wrote about the Madonna della Strada! Coincidence, or—? He dismissed the thought. Brother Maxmillian was a Jesuit. Why wouldn’t he pattern his chapel after the Jesuit Mother chapel in Rome?

I thought so also,” Alfredo said. “I like to think this chapel is the little sister to the Madonna della Strada. I am thinking of naming it the Madonna del Rio.”

Oh, that’s lovely!” Majewski said. “The Lady of the River. Perfect!”

It will never stick, I am afraid,” Alfredo said. “The locals all call it the hermit’s chapel.”

That works also,” Majewski said, nodding.

The little chapel seemed to vibrate with the very essence of the Holy Spirit, and the old priest felt as if he suddenly weighed less. Even the act of breathing seemed easier. His burdens of guilt and anxiety floated away like balloons. For the first time in his life, Father Provincial Majewski felt the blessings of the Almighty raining down upon him. He felt a sense of peaceful acceptance enfold him, and he reveled in the luxury of the moment.

A ray of sunlight illuminated the kneeler in the middle of the chapel, attracting Majewski’s attention. He ran his hand along the smooth armrest. “Brother Maxmillian prayed here,” he said in awed reverence.

I found a journal under here,” Alfredo said and lifted the top of the armrest. “Brother Maxmillian’s first year on the island.”

Really?” Majewski said, peering into the dark interior. “His own journal? Where is it now?”

In my desk at the university. I found it before my cottage was finished, so I took it there to read and to keep it safe and dry. I looked at it under a microscope. Evidently Brother Max made his own paper and ink!”

Fascinating!” Majewski said. “I’d love to read it sometime.”

I scanned it all into my computer at the university. I will e-mail it to you.”

They made their way outside and down toward the rocky point. They stopped beside the hermit’s grave and Majewski prayed, “Lord Almighty, look with mercy upon your good son, Maxmillian, and keep his soul in the peace and comfort of your most heavenly arms forever.”

At that moment, a flock of crows burst from the trees and sailed overhead. Majewski was startled but not frightened by the intrusion—an unruly cacophony of raucous sounds from a noisy group of crows. “Strange coincidence,” he said. “Those crows, I mean. Flying over just now. Like they were putting their two cents in.” I wonder if Alfredo knows what they said.

Many of them know me,” Alfredo said with a casual smile. “Crows are extremely intelligent, Thomas, and very observant. It is rather well known that crows can pick a human face out of a crowd. Some of them watched me bury Brother Maxmillian’s bones, and here we are standing on that very spot.”

Majewski studied Alfredo’s face for a sign. Does he know about Maxmillian’s sentient crows? Does he speak to crows himself? Majewski was almost sure that he did, though he felt foolish for thinking so.

Come!” Alfredo said, extending his hand. “Let us go back this way.” He led Majewski back toward the chapel. He stopped and pointed to a pile of limestone blocks, bags of sand and a few tools. “Ultimately this will be a garden, but all I have complete is the pool.”

Majewski heard water dripping, and he turned his head toward it.

A narrow rivulet poured over a stack of limestone blocks into a small pool surrounded by wildflowers and grass. “The water comes from a spring right out of these rocks. Sam and I moved a few to catch it. Such springs are everywhere on the island. My water supply depends on one of them.”

Majewski cupped some water in his hands and drank. “Wonderful!” he said. “Nothing like water from a freshwater spring.”

Let us sit down,” Alfredo said as he gestured toward a large gray slab of limestone. “This is a pleasant place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the universe!”

Indeed it is!” Majewski agreed, grateful for the opportunity to rest. “The pond is exquisite!”

Several crows materialized in the trees above the pond and looked down at the two men. Each time Majewski happened to catch the eye of one of them, it turned away. Are they spying on me?

Alfredo,” he started to speak. I was just wondering, do you talk to crows? He was dying to ask but immediately felt foolish for even thinking such a thought. Imagine, the Father Provincial of the North American Chapter of the Society of Jesus asking if a human could talk to a crow!

Brother Maxmillian’s letter seemed to shout from the interior of Majewski’s jacket pocket, “De la Torre knew that some of us can!”

Majewski took Brother Maxmillian’s letter out of his pocket and handed it to Alfredo. “Coincidentally,” he said, “I found this letter, quite by accident, the same day I received Henry Braun’s offer to buy the island. It was written in 1852, by Brother Wilder to his uncle, the Father Provincial at the time, Antoni de la Torre.”

Really?” Alfredo said. “The Antoni de la Torre? Brother Wilder was his nephew?”

Majewski nodded and said, “You’ll be more amazed when you read it.”

Alfredo read the letter, feeling Majewski’s eyes boring into him. Does the Order know about the Patua’? Does Majewski? Is that why he’s here? He tried to keep his face expressionless as he flipped the page over and read it again. God Almighty!

This is incredible,” he said, handing the letter back.

What do you make of it?” Majewski asked. “This claim of Brother Maxmillian’s that he talked to the crows here? Is it not just the heretical babblings of a madman?”

Majewski has never heard of the Patua’ then. Will he think I am a madman?

Well,” Alfredo said, “It could be that he was a madman and his uncle, the Father Provincial tried to hide his nephew’s whereabouts during his life.”

But why?” Majewski asked. “Why would he do that? It’s almost as if he wanted someone to eventually discover the island, and his nephew. What did de la Torre find so special about this island? Other than a place to stash his nutcase nephew.”

Alfredo shrugged. “I do not know. There is really nothing here but trees and crows.” Did de la Torre know about the Patua’? “Maxmillian would be a freak even in our time. A good question, though—why the great Father Provincial Antoni de la Torre would want him remembered.” I should ask Charlie if there were Patua’ here before Bruthamax.

Five crows dropped out of the sky and landed on the rocks at the edge of the pond. After dipping their beaks in the water, two of them jumped in and splashed water up over their back with their wings.

Alfredo recognized them all. Cousins–Charlie’s nephew and nieces, Speedy, Blanche, and Zelda.

Speedy looked over at Majewski and said to his siblings, “That other one, he don’t speak the Patua’.”

Nope. He’s just regular,” said Zelda. She and her sister Blanche flapped their wings over the water, splashing Speedy, perched on the edges of pond.

Playful little fellows,” Majewski said as the crows flew up to the trees above the garden. He followed them with his eyes, until they blended in with the shadows among the leaves. But he could almost feel them staring down at him.

They make me laugh every day with their silliness,” Alfredo said.

Geronimo!” Speedy yelled as he tumbled out of the tree, beak-over-feathers into the pond. He disappeared for a couple of seconds before leaping out of the water and onto a rock above the pool. He shook himself soundly, flinging water drops all the way to the priests.

So, do you think that Brother Maxmillian was insane?” Majewski asked. He turned his probing eyes on Alfredo

I cannot know that,” he said slowly, his face expressionless. Well disciplined, like a corpse. Even before his training as a Jesuit priest, he had developed the ability to hide his feelings and thoughts behind an impassive face. “But communicating with the beasts is not necessarily a mark of insanity. Look at St. Francis of Assisi. People no doubt thought he was insane in his time, yet now he is the revered patron saint of animals. Perhaps that was de la Torre’s hope.”

That his nephew would be given sainthood someday?” Majewski asked incredulously. “That is insane. Do you actually believe that Brother Maxmillian talked to crows?”

Fear crawled up out of Alfredo’s gut and into his mouth. His inner voices argued: Does Majewski know about me? Is that why he is here? Tricking me into admitting I am a freak? Why not just tell him? The truth shall set you free! Or imprison me. He could have me defrocked, banished, and tossed to the dogs. But why would he do that? Tell him!

The truth pushed against his teeth, and Alfredo locked his jaws, choking back words that could unleash an uncontrollable deluge in which he might drown. Betraying nothing of his inner turmoil, he stared back at Majewski and said, “The truth is, Thomas, I have never had the choice not to believe.”

The whole truth is …

I have found,” Alfredo continued, hoping his voice did not betray the fear he felt, “that corvids and certain humans—Brother Maxmillian, for one—are able to understand and speak a sort of dialect that harmonically overlaps the language of both species.”

Why can I not just tell him! He already knows about Brother Maxmillian. What if he already knows about me?

But that’s preposterous!” Majewski said, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. “Communication between the species! Impossible!”

The three crows stood at the edge of the pond facing the two priests. “Wonder what they’re arguing about,” Speedy said.

He’s got cookies in his pocket,” Zelda said. “I can smell them from here.”

Oh?” Speedy looked sharply at Alfredo. “Suppose he’ll give us some?”

I’ll die of boredom waiting till they stop yakking,” said Blanche and took off for the sky.

Is it?” Alfredo asked, raising his eyebrows as he watched Blanche fly away. “You did not think so at my PhD defense, Thomas, where you defended me against those very charges. And that was fifteen years ago!”

He stood up and walked over to the pond and reached absent-mindedly into his pocket. The two crows on the rocks looked first at his hand in his pocket, then up at him expectantly.

Thomas,” he said, as he tossed a chunk of chocolate chip cookie into the air. Speedy snagged the tidbit before it had achieved its zenith. “There is no reason, scientific or otherwise, why we humans cannot communicate better with other species—especially with the corvids, intelligent as they are.”

Zelda waited patiently for her treat, but as soon as Alfredo lobbed it to her, Blanche flew in low and snapped it right out of her beak.

I’m sorry, Alfredo,” Majewski said, shaking his head. “I remember your PhD, your fascinating experiments testing for corvid sentience with mirrors and complex pathways to food that required planning and tool making. And, you reported on some rudimentary sounds and correlated them to some pretty simple phrases. But it’s utterly preposterous to claim that is a language.” He shook his head in dismay. “How can you believe that and still call yourself a scientist?”

He will find out sooner or later. The longer I hold back the truth, the more it makes me look like a liar. Tell him!

Alfredo tossed a chunk of cookie to Zelda, who caught it deftly. “Thank you, Jayzu,” she said and flew after her brother and sister.

My dilemma is whether or not I can still call myself a priest,” Alfredo said, quietly surrendering. “Thomas, I have this ability too. Preposterous or not, I, like Brother Wilder, understand and can speak the language of the corvid, fluently. I have had this ability as long as I can remember.”

What is this madness?” Majewski cried out, shaking his head in bewilderment. “I came here prepared for Dr. Alfredo Manzi to debunk Maxmillian Wilder’s claim, to remind me that the Almighty made but one sentient creature, mankind.” He shut his eyes and his mind to the image of Stella, her hands reaching out to him, pleading. “Forgive me for being flabbergasted, but this is just too incredible.”

I am sorry, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I wish I could relieve your distress. But you are a man of science yourself. Can the highly respected linguist Dr. Thomas Majewski see not madness and heresy, but the miracle of a complex language and culture of another sentient species that has been here on Earth longer than we have? Can you not behold this wonder of creation and rejoice?”

Silenced by his internal confusion, Majewski did not reply for several minutes. All around him, the visible and invisible natural world contradicted any need for such turmoil. The trickle of water into the pond seemed to repeat its cadence over and over again, “Why can’t you just be?”

At last he took a deep breath and said, “I’ve seen a lot in my time, Alfredo. I’ve been sore amazed more times than I can count at the wonders wrought by the Almighty. But discovering this letter and the hidden talent of our Brother Maxmillian several weeks ago—quite frankly, it’s kept me awake at night ever since. It’s not so much that I think speaking the language of the animals is so preposterous. It’s that, well, you see, my sister, Stella—”

Majewski squeezed his eyes shut with his thumb and forefinger, suddenly overcome with emotion. For a wild moment, he thought Alfredo might have known Stella, and he wished he could unburden himself of her tragedy. And his guilt. But the words would not come to his lips. From the well of his memory, the last image of Stella’s face emerged. The shock and betrayal on her face broke his heart. Her big brother sold her out. That’s what she thought. I never got to tell her the truth.

Your sister?” Alfredo said. “Was she like me?”

Yes,” Majewski said, trying to compose himself. The water dripping into the pond grew suddenly louder, crying out with watery voices, “Just like me, just let it be!” He focused on the sound of the tiny stream spiraling down to the pool in a continuous song that had no beginning, no end. No choice, no questions asked. Or answered.

Stella’s face in his memory was unbearable, but he could not banish her. “They thought she was handicapped when she was younger, because she didn’t speak to any of us until she was almost five. Before that, she’d babble away all day long. But only with crows.”

He paused, remembering Stella and her pet crow. What was his name? “And when she grew up, she walked and talked more among the crows than she did with humans, until finally she only talked to crows. That’s when they said she was insane. I helped them capture her and haul her off to the asylum.”

A tiny bird flew down to the pond and sipped a few beakfuls of water before taking off again. The stream continued to fall over the edges of the rocks and into the pool, oblivious of the bird, of Majewski’s sister or his guilt. It wore on him, this guilt, eroding his sense of worthiness, relentlessly pursuing him like a bloodhound. Ever since he had read that letter.

I understand why people think we are insane,” Alfredo said. “The Patua’ does not resemble any human language, and it frightens people. I have managed to lead a relatively normal life—if you call the priesthood a normal life–in a safe place where I could speak in this tongue without persecution. I know others have ended up in insane asylums, just like your sister. Some take their own lives.”

Suicide? Oh dear Lord!” Majewski said, horrified. His hand went to his breast.

Forgive me, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “I intended to offer you some comfort; instead, I burdened you. I am very sorry.”

Majewski nodded wearily and said, “I know that, Alfredo. It’s not like I haven’t had that thought myself. But until recently, I have kept her safely stuffed in some dark corner of my past. And then I found the letter. Since then I have had almost no peace. Stella’s face invades my thoughts during the day and haunts my dreams at night.”

But why, Thomas?” Alfredo said. He reached out and put his hand on the older man’s knee. “What happened? Where is Stella now?”

Majewski watched the ripples that emanated from the water falling into the pond, large bubble floated outward, endlessly created, and endlessly destroyed against the rocks around the edges. Such was his torment. His shoulders sagged, and he hung his head, raking his hands through his hair. “For a long time,I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. But when Father died—he’d been paying the bills, I found out. Rosencranz Asylum. For the last 25 years—and in all that time, and I rarely gave her a thought. Now, I can’t get it out of my mind.”

Thomas,” Alfredo said, reaching over and putting his hand on top of Majewski’s. “Forgive yourself. You did not know.”

Majewski nodded. The two men sat in silence for a several minutes. A lone cricket in the garden chirped out the late afternoon temperature. Water fell relentlessly into the dark pond, at the mercy of gravity and other forces far beyond its ability to avoid or control, in a continuous downward journey to merge at last with the sea. As we run down our own pathways to death …

Guilt and shame kept Majewski from telling Alfredo that after his parents’ deaths, he had hired an attorney to write the checks to the mental institution where Stella was. He didn’t want anything to do with Stella, didn’t even want to know where she was. There was plenty of money; she’d be taken care of for the rest of her life. He had relegated it all to a dim corner of his memory. Until that accursed letter.

A barge on the river blasted its horn, disturbing the peace in the garden and jolting Majewski out of his dark thoughts.

I see the shadows are now long, Thomas,” Alfredo said. He stood up and offered a hand to Majewski. “The sun will set in a half hour or so. Let us go to my cottage, and I will fix us some tea.”

Majewski tore his eyes from the little waterfall and said, “Wonderful!” He took Alfredo’s hand and stood up. As they walked the short distance to the cottage, it seemed to Majewski that the entire forest had suddenly come alive with motion and sound. A few small animals scurried through the undergrowth, and hundreds of birds all called out at once. Crickets chirped in the grass, and buzzing insects flew past his face.

Majewski forgot Stella and his burdens of guilt in the wonder all around him, his senses sharpened. The forest seemed more colorful than living things ought to be. He felt lightheaded from the many fragrances of life and death co-mingling in his nose.

Once again, they were almost at the doorstep to the cottage before Majewski realized it. “Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Alfredo said after he opened the door.

Majewski sat down at the table in the corner, and Alfredo filled the kettle and put it on a small cast-iron stove. He tossed a few lengths of small branches into the stove and within a few moments, he had a small fire going.

That was fast,” Majewski said. “I’d still be down there, blowing and praying.”

Alfredo laughed, pushing a small piece of wood into the stove. He closed the door and stood up. “I have gotten very good at building fires, living here. I otherwise would have starved by now. Or learned to love raw food.”

Majewski pulled the cord on the lamp over the table, and the light came on. “What’s this?” he said, looking down at the black fob in his palm. “Did you carve it?”

No,” Alfredo said. He walked over to the table, wiping soot from the stove off his hands. “I found it beneath Brother Maxmillian’s bones in the chapel. I also found pieces of cord and a crucifix, which I buried with the rest of him.”

I see a hand maybe,” Majewski said, looking through the bottom of his glasses. He squinted, leaning closer to the light. “Or is it a wing?”

I thought I could see both,” Alfredo said. “A wing and a hand.”

Interesting.” Majewski let go of the fob and watched it swing back and forth on its cord. He felt lightheaded and wanted to tear his eyes away, but could not. Back and forth, back and forth. Alfredo was talking, but he couldn’t hear him as the room dissolved into a shadowy twilight. Nothing remained but the aura of light from the lamp and the black orb swinging back and forth in front of his face.

His head swam in confusion. Where was Alfredo? He saw a withered old man kneeling at the prayer bench in the hermit’s chapel, his long white hair illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight. His lips were moving, but Majewski couldn’t understand what the man was saying. Was he praying? Suddenly the old man turned, and Stella’s face stared at him.

Thomas?”

Disoriented, Majewski called out, “Alfredo! Where are you?” He squinted into the light. “Stella?”

I am right here, Thomas,” a familiar voice said. His right arm was shaking involuntarily.

Thomas!”

Majewski blinked. The vision evaporated, and Alfredo stood next to him shaking his arm. “Thomas! What is the matter? Are you all right? Thomas?”

 

Charlie flew over the river toward Ledford searching for his nephews, Floyd and Willy. After chatting with a few local crows, he found the two young brothers playing games in the park next to Ledford City Hospital. He landed on a bench and called out to them, “Over here, fellas. I’ve got a job for you two. Espionage.”

Floyd and Willy loved intrigue; they had watched many spy movies as fledges, from their nest at the drive-in movie theater.

Oh, yeah!” Willy said and landed on the bench next to Charlie.

Who, what, when, where, why?” Floyd asked, a second behind his brother.

Follow me,” Charlie said as he took to the air. “This way.”

The three crows flew across the park and into the neighborhood beyond. The landscape below gradually changed from neat little rows of houses with adjoining yards to larger and larger estates behind huge stone walls and wrought-iron gates.

At 10 Woodland Drive, Charlie, Floyd, and Willy swooped down to the wall surrounding a sprawling mansion with many gables and chimneys and a satellite dish. The three crows looked down at the gray stone walls nearly covered with ivy and Virginia creeper. Huge windows in white frames stared out toward the horizon.

Charlie gestured with his beak toward the mansion and said, “The man of the house, Henry Braun, is among the richest in Ledford.”

Pretty fancy digs,” Willy said approvingly. “We’ll be puttin’ on the ritz!”

I just love big old houses,” Floyd said. “One day I want to live in a house with white curtains flapping in the breeze, and pies cooling on the windowsills.

It’s a spy caper, boys,” Charlie said sternly. “Your primary job is to spy on Henry Braun. No looking for sparklys, and no stealing. You got that, Floyd? Willy?”

Gotcha, Boss,” Willy said.

You can count on us,” Floyd said.

Do not let Henry Braun leave your sight,” Charlie said. “Perch on his windowsill and observe his every move. You’re going to need to pay a lot of attention, boys. I’m counting on you two.”

Charlie drilled them with his intense blue eyes. “Don’t let him notice you. He hates crows. He may even hate all birds, for all I know. But he particularly hates crows. A word to the wise, fellas.”

Hates crows,” Floyd said. “Perhaps we should be incognito, eh?”

Willy smacked his brother with a wing.

Now get to it,” Charlie said. “Let me know if you hear anything about Cadeña-l’jadia. I have a session with the Archivist the rest of today and tomorrow, but I’ll check on you the day after.”

Willy and Floyd nodded solemnly. “We’ll keep our ears and eyes open,” Willy said. “No worries, Boss.”

 

Floyd and Willy knew Ledford like the backs of each other’s wings. They’d flown virtually everywhere in the city since the day they fell off the roof of the projection booth at the Raven Wind drive-in theater, one of the last of its kind in the state.

They had spent little time in the rich folks’ neighborhoods, however. What was the point? Those humans never even left a covered trash can outside. They built special houses for their rubbish that were locked and emptied by authorized personnel once a week. Even their landscapes were kept impeccably free of everything edible. Not even a blade of grass was out of place, let alone a misplaced or lost sparkly.

Before they fledged, the two brothers, kreegans of Charlie’s sister, Eliza, watched a different movie every night from the nest at the drive-in theater. They loved to act out different scenes from their favorite movies. Floyd was fascinated with manners and food and loved movies that featured exotic, faraway places. Willy loved Westerns and science fiction. And they both loved movies about clandestine operations and spying.

Floyd and Willy liked to hang out in the blocks surrounding the university campus, on the windowsills and in the trees surrounding the student apartments. Much to their delight, every apartment had its own television–miniature movie theaters as Floyd called them. Every night they found a windowsill to perch on while they watched their favorite shows.

The two crows never went to roost hungry, thanks to the many dining establishments and fast-food joints located near the campus. Every night for weeks, they selected a new restaurant, raiding the trash containers in the alley after hours. Both crows cultivated a taste for international food.

Willy loved it all, spicy, not spicy, raw or cooked. Except for calamari. “Like trying to eat rubber bands,” he said.

Floyd embraced any flavor or dish, as long as it was presented with tasteful elegance. He was especially partial, however, to the English Tea Gardens, where ladies sat in elegant finery, sipping brown liquid from delicate white cups painted with exquisite artistry.

The two young crows stayed hidden way up in the big tree in Henry’s backyard, watching. Waiting to watch mostly, until Henry was in his office. They watched him smoke cigars, shout on the phone, and yell that he needed more coffee, or lunch, or his suit, or tie.

Henry’s little choo-choo train that went around and around a miniature island with a big boat moored at a little dock fascinated them. It was very beautiful; hundreds of little lights sparkled like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. At least once a day, Henry turned them all on, ran the choo-choo around its tracks, and sailed the boat out into the miniature river.

The first time they saw the little train blow its whistle, a small puff of steam issued from its smokestack, the crows were amazed. “Is that cool or what?” Floyd said to his brother. Willy nodded and replied, “Man, I’d love to have one of those. I’d ride that little train around all day long!”

And I would preside over the lovely paddleboat,” Floyd said. One of his favorite movies featured a romance on a big riverboat, and he was dying to fall in love with a young lady crow on one. “I would serve exotic coffee and tea and delectable pastries on the deck every morning, and champagne with wild mushroom perogi in the evening!”

Perogi?” Willy looked at Floyd in shock. “Are you nuts? No one serves champagne with perogi! Cognac, perhaps. But champagne? Ish!”

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Floyd said with an air of superiority. “It’s quite scrumptious, actually. I wouldn’t serve cabbage perogi with champagne, however. Now, that would be disgusting.”

They watched from the windowsill: Henry sitting down in his armchair; Henry turning on the television; Henry flitting through the channels. He settled upon a conversation between several people sitting around a table. Within minutes, his head dropped to his chest.

Gad!” Willy said after a few minutes. “How dreadfully dull! I’m falling asleep too. What say you, brother, that we flee to yonder tree whilst the object of our spying naps in front of the tellie?”

Capital idea!” Floyd said. “It is half past time for tea, anyhoo.”

The two crows flapped to a different tree and perched on a branch where they could still see Henry, or at least his bald spot sticking up over the back of the armchair. “I say, old chap,” Willy said after Floyd passed him an imaginary cup of English Breakfast tea and a blueberry pastry, “I cannot fathom how you can sip a cup of tea, hold a crumpet, and keep purchase on this branch at the same time.”

Floyd looked at his brother with an air of superiority and said, “That is because I have the lithe soul of a dancer, my dear brother. While you, I fear, inherited the corpulent spirit of the bovine.”

A sliding door opened below the two crows, and a thin, petite woman with dark hair tied up in a bun stepped outside. She set a covered tray down softly and called out, “Grawky! Did I hear someone say it is tea time already?”

I say, old chap,” Floyd leaned over to Willy, forgetting about the imaginary crumpet, which fell to the ground below. “What the bloody hell was that?”

Why, I daresay someone is speaking in the Patua’,” Willy remarked. “Perhaps it is Henry Braun’s maid, or his spouse. Perhaps she wishes to attract our attention.”

Willy raised a claw up to his eye and peered down at the woman on the patio through an imaginary monocle. “Really! Another Patua’! What a lovely coincidence! Perhaps we should see if she knows anything important about Henry Braun,” Floyd said as he took one last sip of tea from an imaginary fine English bone china cup—white, upon which delicate pink flowers were painted.

I say! ’Tis a capital plan, old boy!” Willy replied. “Let us fly down and greet her good morning.”

Bloody grand idea, old chap!” Floyd put his teacup down carefully on the branch. Wiping his beak delicately with an imaginary polished cotton napkin, embroidered with pink flowers to match the teacup, he turned to his companion and said, “Shall we?”

The two crows flew down to the patio, landing at the woman’s feet. Willy bowed low and said, “Grawky, Madame! It is an honor and a pleasure to make morning salutations!” He could be very eloquent.

Indeed, fair lady,” said Floyd, not to be outdone. He bowed so low his beak scraped the concrete. “My colleague and I beg for the occasion, nay, privilege, to make the acquaintance of such a lovely and gracious lady.”

Well, for heaven’s sakes!” The woman blushed. “My darling kitty has maligned you! He told me there were, how did he say it, ‘crows masquerading as dandies drinking tea in the trees.’ Dandies indeed! Finely mannered gentlemen is more like it!”

She motioned for the crows to seat themselves and they nodded approvingly to each other. “Miss Fair Lady, ma’am,” Floyd said, as he surveyed the contents of the tray on the table. “I daresay you’ve exhausted yourself on our behalf this morning! And we have yet to be formally introduced. I am Floyd of the Drive-In, at your service, fair lady!”

Minnie bent over and giggled as she brushed her hand across Floyd’s outstretched wing. “My pleasure, I am sure!”

Likewise,” Willy said, bowing and stretching out a wing. “I am Willy of the Drive-In.”

My name is Minerva,” she said, brushing her hand through Willy’s feathers.

Minerva,” Willy said, nodding approvingly. “A lovely nom de plume, wouldn’t you say, my brother?”

Who could think otherwise?” Floyd said with a low bow. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Minerva.”

Oh, please!” Minnie said, blushing. “No one calls me that except my husband. Call me Minnie.”

But of course,” Willy said, “Miss Minnie.”

Thank you,” she said. “Now, let’s have some tea and crumpets, shall we?”

She sat down on a chair, uncovered the tray and put three cups and three plates on the table. Two apple fritters peeked out from beneath a cloth napkin in a small basket. She took one, cut it in half, and put the pieces on the crows’ plates.

With unimpeachable manners, Floyd and Willy dipped their beaks into their tea and nibbled delectable pastry with Minnie Braun. After he finished his last crumb, Floyd wiped his beak on his napkin and said, “To what do such humble fellows as my brother and I owe this marvelous repast?”

Oh, pshaw!” Minnie said, waving her hand at Floyd. “It’s just tea and some baked goods from the grocery store.”

Nay,” Willy said, shaking his head. “No two crows were ever so less deserving of sweeter confections than the exquisite products of your culinary art, as well as and not less than, the delight of the company of a maid so fair.”

Minnie looked confused for a moment, then smiled and said, “As easily I could say, to what do I owe the occasion of such a delightful visit from two handsome, well-mannered, and dare I say, well-spoken crows?”

The crows looked at each other for a moment, and Floyd said nonchalantly, “Why, nothing other than our hope to share tea with a beautiful lady!”

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee!” Minnie laughed, waving the hand at the two crows. “Enough of the honey-beaked speech! What are you fellows up to, really? Are you spying?”

The two crows looked at each other again, abashed. “She knows,” Floyd hissed through his beak.

Well, Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “we did hope to acquire news or developments thereof that interest the master of the house, that is, about possible future plans he may or may not have concerning Cadeña-l’jadia, that is, Wilder Island to you folks.”

I see,” Minnie said. She glanced over her shoulder and leaned toward the crows. Floyd and Willy leaned in toward her.

He’s just crazy to get that island,” she whispered. “He keeps saying the same thing over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ I have no idea what that means. He’s not the least religious, so I don’t think he’s talking about heaven or hell. He just keeps repeating it, over and over again. ‘Condemnation for the priest, eminent domain for Henry Braun.’ And then he laughs.” She sat back and wrapped herself in her arms. “It is a not a happy sound.”

Eminent domain,” Floyd said. “Izzat so?”

A door slammed in the house, and Minnie looked anxiously over her shoulder again. “Minerva!” a male voice boomed out the windows.

Ta-ta for now, fellas!” Minnie said. She quickly put the cups and plates back on the tray and darted into the house, leaving the fritters on the table.

What is eminent domain?” Willy asked, beaking a chunk of fritter and flying up to the tree.

Beats me, old chap,” Floyd said, grabbing the other fritter and following his brother. “But isn’t Miss Minnie just the bomb?”

 

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