Corvus Rising – Chapter 6

The Eyes Have It

 

The trail of footprints leads to the edge of a roaring river. A woman with black feathers for hair sings an unintelligible song as she pulls fish after fish out of the raging current. She removes the hooks from their mouths and drops them into a wooden box and throws the hook and line back into the water. She pulls another fish out of the river and throws it into the box. She stands up and takes a shiny object from her pocket and hands it to me. She disappears with the box of fish and I open my hand. A flock of crows emerge and fly noisily away.

 

Jade lay still for a few moments, watching the dream recede, its colors and sounds coalescing into a stream of multicolored layers before disappearing into the folds of her memory. But she could still hear the singing, a haunting voice, thin and far away, a maddeningly familiar melody she could not name.

She wondered if she was insane. Why else would her dreams be leaking into her waking hours? Go away! I know I’m awake. Go back into the night! She shivered; that was how it started, the descent. I couldn’t tell my life from dreaming.

Russ mumbled in his sleep, and the singing stopped. Jade got up quietly. After a trip to the bathroom, she went to her studio, closed the door, and flopped into the armchair.

Framed perfectly by the window, the full moon’s face stared coldly down on her. Like the face of the dead. She took the black medallion on the leather cord out from under her nightgown. Moonlight flowed over the worn carvings on its dark surface. She turned it over in her hand a few times, tracing the silvery lines with her finger. A hand intertwined with a crow wing.

She leaned back against the chair. The window frame slashed the moon’s face into two unequal pieces; one eye looked down upon her with a certain disdain, while the other hid behind the sash. Absentmindedly, she rubbed the medallion back and forth gently across her front teeth. A shadow passed over the moon.

She leaped up and turned the light on. She attached a canvas to her easel, picked up a brush and a palette. Black paint flowed onto the canvas in broad, sweeping strokes that gave way to thin, curling tendrils. A face appeared out of the darkness.

 

Russ woke up to any empty bed. He got up, showered and shaved, and started down the hall. A sliver of light shone under the door to Jade’s studio. He turned the doorknob and opened the door slowly, expecting to see her painting with enraptured attention.

Instead, he found her curled up asleep with Willow B in the overstuffed armchair. He almost bent down to wake her gently, but the painting on the easel arrested his attention.

A portrait, more or less, of a woman. Long black hair swayed in turbulent currents full of stardust and tiny creatures of the deep. But it was the eyes that took him. The full moon reflected in pale gray eyes as it bathed the woman’s face in silvery light. He felt as if she knew his every dream, every desire.

Jade materialized at his side and yawned, “Do you like it?”

I love it,” Russ said. “Those eyes! They just suck me in! They’re like gateways into another dimension. I don’t know how you do that! I swear to God, I can see forests and rivers and mountains—all in her eyes!”

Really?” she said, frowning at the canvas. “You see all that?”

He gazed intently at the painting, shifting his weight to one foot as he tipped his head to the side. “Oh, I don’t know if I actually see all that. But the way you painted it makes me imagine I did.” He turned and faced her. “You’re extremely talented, Jade. I don’t know anyone else that can make me see a whole landscape in someone’s eyes.”

I didn’t mean to paint a landscape,” she said. “I finally got an image of her. It’s my mother.”

Oh,” Russ said. “I see. You dreamed her, finally?”

No,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming.”

Really!” Russ said. Oh God. Please don’t go there again. “Let’s talk about it over breakfast, shall we? I’ll go start the coffee.” He planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek as he went to the kitchen, relieved that he had escaped her morning madness.

 

Henry Braun frowned as he looked out his office window at his large estate. Over the years, he had spent a fortune on landscaping, a swimming pool, three gazebos, and his own private fishing hole. But it wasn’t enough. Henry wanted more. More money and more fame. He loved being rich, and he wanted to be revered for the successful businessman he obviously was.

Those damn Jesuits,” he growled to his attorney, Jules Sackman. “It’s just stall, stall, stall with them, and then without even the courtesy of a conversation, they turn me down. Worthless bunch of freeloaders never worked an honest day in their lives.”

Henry the First’s portrait stared disapprovingly down at him. I’m sorry, Great-Grandfather! They just wouldn’t listen to reason!

He went to his desk, opened a rosewood humidor, and removed two cigars. After handing one to Jules, he peeled the wrapper of the other and licked it all over. He cut off the end with an ivory-handled cutter and lit it.

Stop worrying about minutiae, Henry,” Jules said, sitting up in the red leather chair and sucking on his cigar as Henry held the lighter to the other end. “We’ll just bypass the Jesuits. Make them irrelevant. We’ll go around them.”

How?” Henry said as he sat down in the armchair next to Jules. “They own the dang island, for God’s sake. How do we get around that?”

Eminent domain,” Jules said, blowing a series of smoke rings toward the ceiling. “That’s how.” He crossed one leg over the other, revealing milk-white legs devoid of hair.

Eminent what?” Henry said, turning away from the sight.

Eminent domain,” Jules said. “That’s when the government—let’s say the city of Ledford—condemns a property. That is, they take it, and in this case, sell it to someone who will develop it. Someone like you for instance. Someone who can promise what all politicians love to hear. Tax revenue and jobs.”

Are you serious?” Henry said, flabbergasted. “The city can do that? Just take over someone’s private property like that? And sell it?” He didn’t like the idea that the government could take a man’s property, but if it would make Wilder Island his … He licked his lips and glanced up at the portraits. Henry the First nodded.

Yes,” Jules said. He took a long drag from his cigar. “We just have to show the city government that developing the island with your casinos, hotels, restaurants, shopping mall, and amusement park will bring in some major cash and a significant number of jobs, without raising taxes on the citizenry. Whereas, the Jesuits pay no taxes on the island, provide no jobs, and are now shutting the island off to anyone but this Father Manzi and his birds. The politicians, who will be making the decision, will fall all over themselves to condemn Wilder Island.”

Henry stared at Jules. “And these Jesus people are just going to roll over and let us do this? What about the chapel? Won’t they claim it’s a church and get out of this eminent domain thing?”

The Jesuits will fight us perhaps, as other churches have fought condemnation suits,” Jules said, flicking a cigar ash into a carved serpentine ashtray on Henry’s desk. “But they will lose. They have no legal grounds; churches are not immune from eminent domain. Nothing is. We have a Supreme Court ruling on our side. But first you have to convince the city to condemn the property.”

Oh, I can do that,” Henry said gleefully. He sucked on his cigar. “I have the city in my back pocket.”

Yes, Henry,” Jules said, exhaling a long plume of blue smoke. “That’s what you said about the Catholics, after you uselessly bribed the monsignor’s know-nothing flunky at St. Sophia’s. Do I need to inform you, as your attorney, that bribery is illegal?”

Who said anything about bribery?” Henry asked innocently. “I’m not going to bribe anyone.” He glanced up at the portraits. Henry the First frowned down at Jules. I’m not!

I am glad to hear that, Henry,” Jules said, smiling as he puffed on his cigar. “Bribery is illegal, you know.” He blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling.

Henry wanted to smack the sanctimonious face that sucked on one of his expensive cigars. How many cops and judges have you bought off to keep your wife out of jail? Henry knew all about Mrs. Sackman’s gambling addiction—and how much Jules needed the money Henry paid him to keep her ass out of jail. One of these days, you’ll outlive your usefulness to me.

Once the city condemns the island,” Jules said, the end of his cigar glowed as he paused to inhale, “they’ll have it appraised for fair market value. Mind you, that’ll probably mean a bit more than we offered the Jesuits, maybe twice. But you’ll be happy to pony up ten million, won’t you, Henry?” Jules exhaled a voluminous billow of smoke.

Whatever it takes, Jules,” Henry said. You’re mighty free with my money, lawyer. But he was nervous. He hardly ever had to wait this long to get what he wanted.

The clock over the fireplace chimed the hour. Three o’clock. The big hand on the twelve, the little hand on the three. Like an L. For loser. He scowled at the clock and leaned toward Jules.

Make no mistake, Jules. I’m going to have that island. Nothing is going to stop me. Not priests, not money, nothing.” He ashed his cigar and leaned back in his leather chair. “And once it’s mine, I’m going to blow that so-called chapel into the river. And then I’ll scrape it clean of that overgrown, vermin-infested forest.”

Henry Braun the First stared down from his gilded frame on the wall and whispered, “You have the advantage. Go for it!”

What did you call this thing?” Henry asked Jules. “Imminent something?”

Eminent domain,” Jules said. “We didn’t have a chance with the Jesuits, Henry, but with eminent domain, we do. Now, here’s what you’ll have to do while I file the appropriate papers. You will prepare a formal presentation to the city, with a fantastically beautiful, miniature Ravenwood Resort. Spare no expense, Henry. Never underestimate the power of eyewash, you know? Really glitz it up.”

Henry had envisioned Ravenwood Resort many times, complete with two famous steam paddleboats from the last century. And a choo-choo! He had loved model trains when he was a kid and had spent many an hour building the little towns and landscapes for his trains to chug through. Who can resist a choo-choo!

You’ll also have to hammer home how much money Ravenwood Resort will bring to the city, Henry. And jobs. Don’t forget the jobs. Emphasize how the chapel and the Jesuits have contributed neither money nor jobs, but don’t bash the church. Do you catch my drift, Henry?”

Yes,” Henry said. “I know exactly what to say. And I’ll build a model that’ll knock their teeth out.”

Jules stood up, straightened his sweater, and said, “Good, that is good, Henry. Now I’m afraid I need to head home. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

After Jules left, Henry finished his cigar alone in his office, enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir. Silly priests. Shrewd businessmen they are not.

He swiveled his chair around to face the portraits on the wall. Henry II and III gazed down at him with glassy stares. But Henry the First’s eyes sparkled. “You get it, don’t you?” He raised his glass to his ancestor. “To us, Great-Grandfather!” Henry the First winked and nodded as Henry swallowed the last of his wine.

 

A black bird picks me up out of bed. I hold on to his tail feathers as he flies into the horizon, his feathers and my hair streaming together like iridescent ribbons of light. Above a great rushing river, the bird’s tail feathers come out in my hand, and I drop like a rock to the roaring waters below. Falling, falling, I finally splash down, down, down into a deep pool of water, cool and clear. Concentric ripples move outward from my point of entry, bubbling upward as I sink into a dark abyss.

Jade’s eyes snapped open, and she gulped air as if she had been underwater too long. Feeling the solid bed underneath and hearing Russ’s gentle snoring beside her, she tried to relax and breathe normally. But the images from the dream persisted, the feeling of falling made her dizzy, and she was unable to go back to sleep.

She rolled over and stared out the big bay window of their bedroom. She liked the curtains open at night, when all the house lights were off. The moon illuminated the woods beyond their yard with veiled light, and the shadows took shape, whispering seductively, beckoning her to enter. Wordless, insistent, breezy voices sought her out, hooked their tangled currents through the very fabric of her being, tantalizing her, tickling her with tales of wonder.

Russ snorted and flung an arm across her. The voices suddenly stopped, and the dark green and black shapes of the nighttime forest beyond the window disappeared. She patted Russ’s hand, and soon he was snoring again.

She unwound herself carefully from his embrace and arose quietly. She made a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and Willow B followed her into the studio. She closed the door quietly behind him and sat at her easel for a few minutes, sipping coffee. Willow B jumped up to the armchair he liked to sleep in while she painted. Away off in the distance, she heard a siren.

The night sky was more gray than black, and she couldn’t see any stars. Empty. Like a canvas. She turned on the lights. A blank canvas stared back at her from the easel to which it was attached, its flat white face momentarily blinding her with its brilliance. The dream that had awakened her cast an image upon the emptiness. She uncovered her paints and picked up a brush.

The underwater world of the dream flowed down her arm to the paintbrush in her hand, and onto the canvas in front of her. She applied layer after layer of paint, color upon color as she worked to evoke a sense of being tugged down into the underworld realm of memory and dream, where sunshine, flowers, and birds recede into the upper-world of awakening.

Through a watery primeval forest stuffed with trees and leaves, sprinkled with occasional patches of flowery color, bubbles sprang merrily up and away to the interface of sky and pond, sparkling in the sun briefly before bursting. The painting’s voice came from the vast darkness of underwater currents, filled with strange creatures that do not walk Earth’s surface.

They dragged at her, those voices, pulling her deeper and deeper into the mysteries of her solitary universe. The canvas seemed but a thin, permeable membrane, pulling her into the underworld of her imagination. This painting told the story of the descent. It was breathtaking, exhilarating. And it scared her.

She put her brush down and turned her back on the painting. The sky beyond the window had turned pale gray; dawn was imminent. She picked Willow B up out of the armchair and sat down in the warm spot where he had been sleeping. He arranged himself on her lap, and she held fast to his solid warmth, trying to keep connected to the present.

Willow B had kept her from disappearing completely into her dreams once before. A vision of herself in her apartment during her last year in college leaped out of her memory, beckoning her into the past.

She saw herself painting, frantically painting. The madness in her younger self’s eyes brought it all back—the entire descent, from the very first day she had given in to the irresistible harmonies of her imagination, to the very last, when they found her completely spent on the kitchen floor in her apartment.

She had shut everything out but the voices that told her to paint. The entire contents of her psyche begged for life, and she painted to its relentless pleas. For days, she had no memory of anything but painting, endlessly painting. One canvas would fall away, and another would appear, haunting her for its face. Irresistible, insistent, she was powerless against its demand.

It ate her alive.

Russ opened the door, poked his head into the studio and said, “You’ve been painting all night again?”

Uh, no,” Jade said, his voice shaking her out of the past. “Just part of it. Good morning, honey! I didn’t hear you get up. What time is it?” She squinted at the clock on the wall.

Time for coffee,” he said as he bent down and kissed her good morning. “Want to keep painting? I can get my own breakfast.”

No,” she said, getting up from the chair. “I was just daydreaming.” She frowned at the painting on the easel.

Looking good, babe,” Russ said, putting his arm across her shoulders. “What will you call it? Will it be in the art show?”

Falling Backward,” Jade said. Icy tongues of anxiety licked away at her sense of worthiness. “But I’m not sure it will be ready for prime time by then. It’s so rough still, so crude. In a bourgeois sort of way.”

The opening reception for her upcoming art show at Jena McCrae’s gallery was less than a week away—her first show since she had started painting again. She wasn’t worried about having enough paintings; her concern was how they would be received.

Russ made coffee while she scrambled eggs and made toast. “What if people hate my work?” she said after they sat down. “What if they think my paintings are bourgeois?”

Russ stared at her. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Bourgeois?” He shook his head. “Hardly, hon. Bourgeois means ‘middle-class values.’” He made little quote marks in the air. “Really, hon, your paintings aren’t about class values, so I wouldn’t fret about it.”

Jade blew across her coffee, watching the little bubbles roll along the surface and crash into the other side of the cup.

But to regular people,” she said, “bourgeois means ‘tasteless’ or ‘boring.’” She made little quote marks in the air. “Like white bread—you know, the icon of the consumer. Or refrigerator magnets. Sofa-sized paintings.”

She wondered why people who bought paintings or sofas were called consumers. It’s not like they eat this stuff.

Jade,” Russ said, putting his coffee down. “Listen to me. Your paintings are weird maybe, strange, enchanted, dark, disturbing, playful, mysterious. All that. Bourgeois, no. Where’d this bourgeois fetish come from, anyway?”

She remembered the moment, right down to the smallest detail. “Oh, a painting professor I had in college—Bill Williams—he used that word to describe my paintings at a final critique. I know it was a long time ago and in a different life. But it was such a stinging insult. It’s clung to me like a tick ever since.”

Well, pull it out, hon,” Russ said. “He was a jerk, probably jealous of your enormous talent and intricate imagination. Don’t let it suck the life out of you. Let it go, okay? It wasn’t about you or your paintings.”

He got up from the table and put his plate and cup in the sink. “I’ve got to get to school,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I’ll be in MacKenzie most of the day. The state science fair is down there this year, and I’m judging all the juniors and seniors. I won’t be home till late tonight, so don’t wait up.”

 

Jade watched Russ back out of the driveway through her studio window and peel out, leaving behind a smoking layer of rubber on the road. She shook her head. “What is it with boys and hot rods?” she asked Willow B, who had taken up residence in the armchair.

The new painting on the easel called out to her, wanting completion. But it needed some time to dry before she could continue. “I don’t know if I have enough time to finish you before my show,” she said.

Not that she needed any more. She had completed ten new paintings, but Jena McCrae, the art gallery owner, wanted more. “I want you to bring some of your earlier work too,” Jena had said. “Think of your show as a retrospective from today. Where you were then, where you are now.”

Where I was then. Which then?

She stood before the closet where her older paintings were stored and said, “Well, then. Enough procrastinating. I am quite out of time.”

She put her hand on the doorknob and hesitated. They were all there inside, the paintings that chronicled the details of her breakdown. Fear crawled up to her throat and squeezed. The memory of that time bore down on her with all its dread intact. What if they suck me back down?

Her hand closed around the doorknob, and she gasped for air. Anxiety threatened her resolve, and she almost let go. Get a grip. They’re just paintings. They can’t kill you. She jerked open the closet door. Before allowing her fear to stop her, she reached in and pulled out a painting and ripped the brown paper off.

Her face broke into a smile. “It’s Queen of the Night, Willow B!” she cried. She set the painting on the arms of the chair above Willow B and stood back, savoring the memory of painting it in those early days of her romance with Russ. “I fell in love with him under this flower. God, who wouldn’t have? A gorgeous flower that blooms but once, at night, under a full moon in the desert …”

Pale and luminous, the white flower took the entire canvas. Spear-shaped petals of opalescent white enclosed dozens of delicate, pale yellow stamens swayed and undulated around the solitary pistil. Layer upon layer of sinuous shapes of translucent hues awakened memories of love lost and found.

I love this painting,” she murmured.

A sudden clap of thunder ended her reverie, and she frowned out the window. “Where did that come from?” she said. In reply, big fat raindrops pelted the window and streaked down the slippery glass. Lightning flashed as she reached for another painting.

Frowning at her own handwriting, “12:01” scrawled across the paper wrapper, she tore it open and propped the painting across the arms of Willow B’s chair.

Black birds clung to the brittle branches of bare winter trees against a cold, gray sky. A distant clock tower haunted the scene, its hands frozen at 12:01. “Remember that clock, Mr. B?” Jade said to the cat sleeping on the cushion underneath the painting. “It haunted me for weeks. Always stuck on the same time. One minute after twelve. Pretty well says it all.”

Time runs through your life like water to the sea.

The memory of her apartment when she was in college enveloped her, with the clock centered in the window where she couldn’t miss its reproachful face. Day after day, it had rebuked her, “You’re late! You’re late!” mocking her every moment. She had tried closing the blinds to shut it out, but it haunted her dreams every night, taunting her with the eternally missed deadline. Always running, forever late, never arriving.

Night after the night, the same dream had played over and over again: millions of clocks in many colors, all showing the same time—12:01. The clocks started out randomly and then each slowed or quickened their minute hands until they all ticked and tocked in unison. Tick, the clocks scolded her. Tock, they upbraided her. But the time never changed. 12:01. She buried her head in pillows, but the relentless tick-tock only grew louder.

 

You did hear it, didn’t you?” Jade whispered. “It drove me insane, the tick-tock-tick-tock.” Willow B turned an ear sideways. “Remember how I opened the blinds, and the ticking and tocking stopped? And when I closed them, it began again?” She glanced nervously at the window as the tempo and rhythm of the rain changed. Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…

 

Damn you!” she had screamed as the clock smirked coldly at her across the treetops, its face split in two by the hands stuck at 12:01.

She dragged her easel across the room and positioned it in front of the window. She attached a canvas to it, just large enough to block out that hateful face. “Ha!” she had said and stuck her tongue out at the clock she could no longer see.

But the white canvass tortured her with its blankness and commanded her to pick up a brush. She painted feverishly all day and all night. Exhausted, she flung herself on the couch and slept. When she awoke, the sun had gone down, and she flicked on a light. Winged shadows swirled around the room until one by one, they dove into the painting in front of the window, flying around the clock tower until at last they found places to roost in the gray branches of the winter trees. The clock condemned her with lidless eyes, its hands pointing to her doom. 12:01.

Thunder rumbled across the sky and the rain picked up its tempo as it beat upon the window. She dropped to the floor on her knees and stroked Willow B, asleep in the armchair. “That clock started it all. Like a big eye that never blinked and never stopped staring at me.” She felt a distant purr deep within his sleeping bulk. “I’m sorry I neglected you.”

 

In a frenzy, she had painted every waking moment and dreamed about painting when she slept. The imaginary boundary frayed between physical reality and the realm from which her paintings sprang. The completed canvasses morphed to life around her, and painted images became companions and critics that paced the room with her, argued with her, cried with her, laughed at her, comforted her.

The entire population of her psyche clamored for immediate voice and she gave in to the irresistible siren song. For days she had done nothing but paint, stopping only to stuff her mouth with crackers and wash them down with honeyed tea. When she slept, the beings that populated her paintings lived again in her dreams. There was no escaping them. Waking or sleeping, the voices owned her life.

And then I crashed,” Jade murmured. Willow B woke up and yawned. She scratched him under his chin. “You were there, Willow B. You saw it all. I lost track of everything—when to eat, when to sleep, when to go to class, my friends, time. I was alone in another world until the real one finally banged its way in.”

God, it was loud.

When they found her in her apartment, she was thin, malnourished and speaking to no one but Willow B and the voices in her paintings. Her foster mother, Chloe, took her home and nursed her back to health. “It’s as important to eat as it is to paint,” Chloe had said as she poked another spoonful of food into Jade’s mouth.

She wanted to paint sometimes but couldn’t bring herself to actually pick up a brush. Fear stopped her; painting had opened the door to a terrifying descent. Just after Thanksgiving had passed that year, she took a brush in her hand and stared at a blank canvas. Nothing. Deader than a doornail, that place inside her that once demanded her to paint. Half dismayed, half relieved, she worried. What if it never comes back … what if it does?

She shook the memory out of her head. “But it did come back, didn’t it, Willow B?” She stood up and stuffed 12:01 into its quilted pocket.

The late afternoon sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the cat, sleeping in the chair.

 

Henry Braun sat back in his leather chair, his feet on his desk. “Eminent domain.” He rolled the words around in his mouth again and again. He savored those majestic, beautiful words, caressing the sound with his lips. “Eminent domain.”

They became his mantra, his obsession. They defined him, his life, his mission. He thought even the dictionary definition of “eminent” described him, Henry Braun, to a tee.

 

em·i·nent

1. High in station, rank, or repute; prominent; distinguished.

2. Conspicuous, signal, or noteworthy.

3. Lofty; high.

4. Prominent; projecting; protruding.

 

That’s me, eminent all the way down to the nose!” Henry chuckled, stroking the iconic family proboscis he had inherited from the ancestral Brauns.

He flipped the pages of the dictionary until he found the definition for domain: “a territory over which rule or control is exercised.” He reread it several more times, memorizing it, before snapping the dictionary shut.

Eminent domain!” he toasted the Henry portraits. “Wilder Island is our due and proper domain,” he assured them.

He swiveled his chair around and faced the window. His own reflection stared back. The Braun Legacy shall be legendary because of me, Henry Braun IV. My fame and fortune shall be greater than Henry I, II, and III combined. He dared not say that out loud in front of their portraits. He didn’t believe in ghosts, per se, but he always felt the ancestral Henrys were watching him, listening to every word he said.

Henry the First’s trestle bridge disaster ruined him and darn near sank the family into the oblivion of poverty forever. It was an act of God, they said. Act of God! Henry smirked. I’ll show them all an act of God! He turned back to the portraits.

I will redeem you, Great-Grandfather,” he whispered. “I will get Wilder Island back, make no mistake.”

Never had the slightest shred of doubt cast a shadow on his vision of one day owning Wilder Island for himself and for his family honor. At last he had a found a way to get it.

My Savior. Eminent Domain.” Henry chuckled. The very act of saying the words pleasured him, tickling his tongue, his lips, his teeth. The words orchestrated his fate, trumpeted his desires. “Eminent Domain!” He sang it out like an opera singer, “E–e–e–e–e–e–min–ent Do–oh–oh–ohoh–main,” in a crescendo from the upper registers of his rich and mellow baritone voice that cascaded all the way down to bass tones almost undetectable to the human ear.

Henry sang his tune over and over again. He postured with one foot up on a chair, a wine glass raised up high, as if he were lord of his domain. He watched himself in the mirror, singing, “E–e–e–e–e–e–min–ent Do–oh–oh–ohoh–main. E–e–e–e–e–e–min–ent Do–oh–oh–ohoh–main. “E–e–e–e–e–e–min–ent Do–oh–oh–ohoh–main.”

When he tired of singing, he hummed the tune of his eminent domain soliloquy. With pencils and pens, he drummed out the rhythm. It became the background chatter in Henry’s brain. He fell asleep in his chair, smiling like a child on Christmas night.


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 5

 

The Great Corvid Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I guess—” Jayzu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hookbeak. Ledford National Cemetery,” the Aviar rumbled.

Starfire. Woodmen of the World Cemetery.”

Walldrug. The Boonies.”

Longshanks. The Timber Mill.”

Wingnut. Ledford Municipal Zoo.”

Fishgut. The Cannery.”

Restarea. Ledford Airport.”

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

Athanasius. The Brewery.”

DeeJay. Downtown.”

Boomer. The Waterfront.”

O’Malley. Southlands.”

Ziggy. Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Joshwa. Ledford Landfill.”

All crows present!” Izzy yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

The councilors guffawed and flapped their wings in ridicule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought they all died out,” Longshanks said.

Bruthamax was the last of them,” Walldrug said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No,” Alfredo said, “I—”

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

What’s a sanctuary?” asked a crow.

It just means—” Alfredo started to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did?” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Rosencranz,” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and elegance?” Alfredo said, frowning.

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

Alfredo nodded. “Many times.”

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

The Grandmothers are wise,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 4

Queen of the Night

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

They know,” Jade said.

Know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shivered. “But they eat dead things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you!” Jade said. “I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

As luck would have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled at her attempt to pronounce the Selenicereus grandiflorus.

Cute and beautiful!

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

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

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

And then he kissed her.

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

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

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

And she did! Life is strange.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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