Corvus Rising – Chapter 4

Queen of the Night

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

They know,” Jade said.

Know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shivered. “But they eat dead things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you!” Jade said. “I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

As luck would have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled at her attempt to pronounce the Selenicereus grandiflorus.

Cute and beautiful!

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

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

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

And then he kissed her.

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

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

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

And she did! Life is strange.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 3

The Treehouse

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course,” Alfredo said.

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

Amen,” Charlie said, flapping his wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can definitely be bribed,” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He read the last paragraph of Manzi’s report:

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

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

He pushed the intercom button on his phone.

Yes, Father.”

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

As you wish, Father.”

 


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 2

 

The Priest and the Crow


The Jesuit scholar Alfredo Manzi stood at the window in his office at the Department of Biology at Midwestern University. Wilder Island stood dark and secretive in the morning shadows, beckoning him. He could hardly resist the urge to disappear into its dark forests and its unusually large population of corvids. He had spent his life studying them—crows and ravens in particular.

Six months ago, he had discovered Wilder Island, just after arriving in Ledford. An advertisement for an ornithology professor at the university had brought him, and after a brief round of interviews, he landed the job. He started teaching immediately, taking over mid-semester for a professor who had taken family leave due to his wife’s illness.

Alfredo was nothing less than grateful for his position at the university as adjunct professor, however temporary it might be. No tenure possibilities, but no pressure to publish either.

The Order had granted his subsequent request to be assigned to St. Sophia cathedral in Downtown Ledford as its assistant pastor. Between the two part-time jobs, he made a completely adequate income for himself, a man with no obligations—no family, no car, no mortgage.

And there was Wilder Island and its thousands of corvids, right across the river. What incredible luck! In his first few weeks as a Ledford resident, Alfredo had learned everything he could about the island and its namesake, Maxmillian Wilder, the legendary hermit of the last century.

He found an old postcard in a used bookshop Downtown—a great many black birds flying above the silhouettes of treetops against a backdrop of a garish sunset. Turning it over, Alfredo read:

Murder of Crows, 1937
Wilder Island, Halloween Night
Frederick T. Nelson

Later, he had discovered that the original photograph hung in the Ledford city library. “Was this photo really taken on Halloween night?” he asked the librarian.

Yes, indeedy,” the librarian had said, peering over her glasses at Alfredo. “The whole town saw it. There were thousands of them, right at sunset. They started swirling around like a black cyclone, my mother said.” The librarian swayed back and forth in her chair with her arms raised high above her head. “They flew around like that till the sun went down, in honor of the old hermit. They say he had died earlier that very day.”

The librarian’s story had excited him. And then he had met the two brothers, Floyd and Willy, at the duck pond on campus. They weren’t from Cadeña-l’jadia, they said.

Cadeña-l’jadia. The corvid name for Wilder Island. Alfredo had not spoken to a crow in years, out of fear his professional life would be ruined if anyone found out. His graduate committee had very nearly failed him at his PhD defense.

He missed them, the friendly and quite talkative crows of his youth. Floyd and Willy had reminded him of his old friends in the forest behind his boyhood home, but he dared not be seen talking to them on campus. Perhaps I can sneak off to Cadeña-l’jadia and make a few friends.

He remembered his first visit to the island, when he walked down the stone steps to the public docks at the Waterfront, and a single outlandish-looking boat that looked like a small island of trees was moored at the for-hire dock.

Can you take me to Wilder Island, sir?” he asked the captain, who stood on the dock next to his boat, his great tattooed arms folded across his chest.

The captain gestured to him. “All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Startled that the captain used the crow-speech name for Wilder Island, Alfredo stepped onto the boat and immediately forgot his surprise as he marveled at the overhead canopy of exquisitely crafted wrought-iron trees. “Thank you, Captain,” he said and put out his hand. “Alfredo Manzi. I am a Jesuit and professor at the university.”

The captain nodded and shook his hand. “Pleasure’s mine, Padre. Folks just call me the Captain, though my mother named me Andrew.”

A crow perched on the railing that went all the way around the boat. She studied Alfredo curiously for a few moments, looking at him as if she knew who he was. “Me mum named me Dolores, but folks call me Sugarbabe,” she said to Alfredo and stretched out a wing.
“I am happy to meet both of you,” he said as he swished his palm across her wing.

Alfredo watched the Captain push the boat off from the dock. His arms were covered in scenes of a rushing river, with fish leaping through its foamy current. He inhaled deeply of the water-scented air, grateful for a day of blue sky and sunshine for his first trip to the island.

I have heard the river is treacherous between the mainland and the island. I was worried about finding a ride,” he said.

The river seemed to rise up at his words and lob a small spray of water, carefully aimed at the Captain’s face. But she was not fast enough; the Captain ducked sway, laughing.

Treacherous she is,” the Captain said as he resumed rowing, “for those who don’t know her ways. Me, I’ve been on this river since I was a wee lad. The river, we’re friends all these years. She don’t give me trouble.”

And that is my good fortune!” Alfredo said. “Not many have made it to the island, they say.”

The river,” the Captain said. “She decides who goes and who stays. Few are called.”

Called?” Alfredo asked. “I was not called. I am just curious about the island and its crows.”

Right,” the Captain said with a nod, keeping his gaze on the water ahead.

In truth, however, for the entire six months Alfredo had resided in Ledford, he had felt the island pulling him, cajoling him to renounce his life on the mainland and come live among the forests and its crows.

Yonder’s the old hermit’s chapel,” the Captain said as Wilder Island loomed closer.

Alfredo looked toward the direction where the Captain had pointed. “I see only a tangle of dead branches and vines in the treetops. Where is the chapel?”

That is the chapel, Padre,” the Captain said. “The roof, it looks more like a dead tree than anything, what you can see of it through the green. It was pretty fine in its day, I reckon. People forgot it, though, soon as the old hermit died. But the birds, they don’t forget. Ravens took it over. They like to build nests and raise their young up in the roof.”

Alfredo gazed at the chapel, imagining it full of ravens. “Have you been to the island?” he asked. It had not occurred to him that anyone had visited the island other than the legendary hermit.

The Captain nodded and said, “Yes, sir. I spent some time there, coupla months maybe. The land is too hard. It hurts my feet. This river, she’s my home.”

The Captain pushed his oar deeper into the water, steering the small boat toward the island. The closer they got, the more turbulent and ill-behaved the river became, though the Captain’s boat seemed to float in steady, calm water.

The island was so close Alfredo could see the leaves on the trees that grew near the river’s edge. The Captain guided the boat into a small inlet without even a ripple of consternation from the river. When they ground to a stop on the sandy bank, Alfredo leaped off and turned to pay the captain for the ride, but the man had already shoved back into the current.

G’day.” The Captain tipped his hat. “I’ll come back for you at sunset.”

Alfredo hoisted his small backpack onto his shoulders, excitement surging through him at the prospect of the unexplored.
An island of crows!
He left the inlet and walked into the dense forest, pushing aside bushes and branches, toward the old chapel he had seen from the river. It seemed as if twilight had fallen, so thick was the tree canopy overhead.

Water dripped from the grayish-white rock layers that poked up occasionally through the vegetation. The geologists at the university had told him about the limestone rock that comprised the island. “It’s everywhere around here,” he remembered one of them saying. “Underground, too.”

He stopped frequently to look up into the leaves and branches overhead. Many birds flew through the treetops; he could hear mockingbirds and cardinals, blue jays, robins, finches, sparrows, and an occasional mourning dove. Everything but crows, it seemed.

Are they hiding from me?

He stopped at a small pool fed by a curtain of water beads that dripped from between two moss-bedecked layers of gray rock. He squatted next to the pool, filled his cupped hands with water, and drank. He wiped his mouth after he had quenched his thirst with the cool, tasteless water, and took out his water bottles. He emptied them on the ground and refilled them with water from the pool.

He stood back up and stepped across the stream that fed the pond. He could see the gray-and-white chapel roof through the green trees. And what marvelous trees! He recognized only a few—basswood, willow, dogwood, and black spruce. Flowering bushes grew between the tall trees, whose exotic scents seemed familiar to Alfredo, but he could not name them. Wildflowers grew everywhere in reckless profusion among the infinite shades of green. He thought of his new colleague at the biology department, Russ Matthews. He was a botanist; this would be his paradise!

Alfredo stepped into a small clearing and beheld the small chapel nestled within a circle of trees. The remains of a door lay intact on the ground; its vine hinges had long ago rotted away. He tore away some vines that had grown across the space between the two trees from which the door had hung and stepped inside. It was quite dark; the old and new vines that covered the roof allowed little light through.

He looked up at the mosaic of blue sky and fluffy white clouds though the interwoven branches and vines of the roof. It seemed for a moment like the stained glass ceiling of the Jesuit chapel in Rome.

Except this one looks like an upside down bird’s nest!” he said. He gaped in wonder for a few moments before noticing two pairs of eyes staring coldly down at him from a nest within the roof. Ravens. He could hear faint cheeping sounds from above.

Greetings,” he said, and the eyes vanished. Moments later a large black shape whooshed down from the roof and out the door.

Sunlight filtered through the roof, casting a dappled pattern of light and shadow on a dirt floor littered with forest matter. A crude kneeler hewn from some unknown wood, bleached white by time and weather arose from the center of the roughly circular space.

Illuminated by a patch of sunshine, a human skull on the dirt floor opposite him caught his eye, and with a few steps, he was looking down at a completely picked-over human skeleton. This must be Brother Wilder’s remains. No doubt the island’s crows and ravens ate all the flesh off.

Alfredo could not think of a more wonderful way to decompose—giving up one’s mortal remains as food for the living. I will bring a shovel next time and bury his bones. And a marker for his grave.

 

The Patua’ has arrived,” NoExit said to Charlie. The two birds perched on the railing around the deck at Bruthamax’s tree house.

NoExit had flown from the chapel to the Treehouse where Charlie lived, clear on the other end of the island. Though it was an inconvenience, it was really not so far, only a mile or so by wing. And Charlie had asked him to keep an eye out for this Patua’.

When?” Charlie asked. “Where is he? How long has he been there? Did you talk to him?”

About a half hour or so,” NoExit said, irritated at being peppered with so many questions. “He is poking around the chapel. And no, I did not talk to him.”

We could use another Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said.

Perhaps,” NoExit said with a shrug of his wings. “But if he stays on, I reckon we will be moving out of Bruthamax’s chapel—soon as the kreegans fledge. We like our privacy.”

 

Alfredo swept the dust off the armrest of the kneeler in the center of the chapel. He knelt on its hard wood, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands together. A withered old man with long gray hair shuffled across the backs of his eyelids. A sudden wind blew a flurry of leaves into a spiral dance all around the kneeler, spoiling his concentration and coating him with dirt. He stood up and brushed the debris from his clothes and hair and left the dark chapel. 

Grawky, Jayzu!” a voice said.

He blinked in the bright sunlight and found a blue-eyed crow looking up at him with a wing outstretched. “Name’s Charlie. To what do we owe the honor of a Patua’ visit?”

Delighted to find a talkative crow on Wilder Island right away, Alfredo grazed the crow’s outstretched wing with his open palm. “Grawky, Charlie!” he said with a big smile. “The honor and pleasure is mine!”

Charlie folded his wing against his side. “Pleasure and honor all around, then. It’s not every day we have a Patua’ in our midst. But Floyd and Willy told me they had met you. They too were surprised to meet an actual Patua’.”

But I am not a Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I am a Jesuit.” He stood on one leg, took off a boot and turned it upside down. A pebble fell to the ground. “My name is Alfredo Manzi,” he continued, hopping around on one foot as he put his boot back on. “Some call me Father Manzi. At the university, where I am the entire ornithology department, they call me Dr. Manzi. But I prefer Alfredo.”

Yes,” Charlie said. “But you are Jayzu to us.”

A good a name as any, I suppose,” Alfredo said. He sat down on a log and tied the laces of his boot. “Jayzu it is. But what does Patua’ mean? I have heard you use it twice, but otherwise have never heard the word before.”

Charlie sprang up to an adjacent rock and sharpened his beak on it. “A Patua’ is a yooman such as yourself,” he said, as if the priest should know that. “Perhaps it has come to your attention that not all yoomans have conversations with crows? Those of you who can are the Patua’.”

The Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I had no idea there were others like me. I have always thought I am just a freak.”

A magpie flew overhead, crying out “Free-eek! Fre-eek!” before disappearing into the branches of a tall basswood tree.

You are not a freak,” Charlie said, shaking his head. “You are Patua’. Back in the day, a millennia or so ago, there were millions of Patua’.”

Millions?” Alfredo could hardly believe it. “I have never heard of them. What happened to them?”

Hard to say. Extermination by other yoomans did in a great number of Patua’.” Charlie hopped off the rock and beaked a beetle out of the dirt and swallowed it. “Same as what happened to the Neanderthals. But there are other factors and causes. We don’t know really.”

Alfredo sighed, looking away. An old childhood fantasy surfaced, of living alone on an island with a crow. He smiled sadly at the memory. That was after he had been severely punished by his mother, for “talking like those horrible crows.”

Bruthamax was the most famous Patua’ that ever came to the island,” Charlie said. “Or anywhere else for that matter. He lived here among the crows, my ancestors, for almost a hundred years.”

Bruthamax?” Alfredo said. “Do you mean Brother Maxmillian Wilder? The old hermit the island was named after?” He leaned down and overturned a rectangular gray rock. A furry brown spider scurried away, leaving behind an egg sac. Alfredo put the rock gently back into place.

One and the same,” Charlie replied. “Though we don’t call this place Wilder Island. To us it is Cadeña-l’jadia—‘the land of swampy waters amid green forests and mists.’ But we don’t mind that yoomans named it after one of yours we actually admire. In fact”—Charlie shrugged his wings—“we tend to think of Bruthamax as one of ours.”

Alfredo felt another pang of homesickness for the crow companions of his boyhood. He saw a younger version of himself playing hide-and-seek with them. Charlie reminded him of his best friend in all the world, a crow named Caleb.

Much that is written about Bruthamax seems to be folklore and fantasy,” Alfredo said, still caught up in memories of his younger self. He was happy to run in the woods with crows, but it was deeply troubling to his family.

My mother sent me to the Jesuits when I was a boy. And within this Order I have disappeared. Like a spider under a rock.

We have kept many stories about Bruthamax,” Charlie said. “He came because he was Patua’, just like you did. My ancestor Hozey the Younger helped him build this chapel, and a house up in a tree down yonder.” Charlie gestured with a wing toward the downriver end of the island. “My nest and my wife, Rika, are there in the branches above Bruthamax’s tree house. Hozey the Younger lived there too. It’s a family tradition.”

A tree house!” Alfredo said. “I had assumed Bruthamax lived here in the chapel.”

Not until his last year,” Charlie said. “Bruthamax lived in the Treehouse until then, when he got too old to climb up and down the tree and navigate the way. After that, Hozey and his family took care of him in the chapel until he died.”

I would love to see Bruthamax’s Treehouse sometime,” Alfredo said, “if that would not be too much of an intrusion.”

Charlie unfolded his wings and flapped a few times, scattering a small pile of leaves. “I will take you there some time, after our kreegans have fledged. You’d be a tremendous distraction, and Rika is already worrying they won’t ever leave the nest. All but JoEd, that is. He’s an early bird, that one—started trying to fly before he had all his feathers.”

Alfredo stood up, brushed the dirt off his pants, and picked up his backpack. “I have been scolded and pecked at enough times by an angry mother bird,” he said with a laugh. “The young ones are quite vulnerable during fledging, and I do not wish to interfere. I shall see the Treehouse another day. Today I will explore the island, with your permission of course.”

Be my guest,” Charlie said.

Crow and priest parted, and Alfredo spent the rest of the day wandering through the forest, astounded by the unsullied and abundant growth. He walked, oblivious to the passage of time, gazing in almost stupefied delight at the abundance of creation all around him. Different species of trees each sported their own combinations of gray, brown, or black bark, and the leaves split the color green into a million different shades and hues. Wildflowers grew everywhere grass or shrubs did not, and he felt as if he were walking in the Garden of Eden, wondering if there were snakes on the island.

The scent of flowers, bark, rotten leaves, and mold permeated the air, and he inhaled its fertile essence as a starving man might fill his empty, aching stomach with food. He had spent his boyhood wandering through another forest, and the memory of those happy times infused the present with faith and affirmation.

Springs and tiny streams crisscrossed his path, and he leaped across those he could see. He sloshed through the invisible streams, giving up any hope that he could keep his feet dry. “Perhaps I will come next time with waders,” he grumbled.

He picked his way slowly through the dense undergrowth, carefully avoiding what he thought might be poison ivy, though the berries were purple, and not the typical green he was familiar with. As he looked around him, everything seemed a bit off. The trees were too tall, or the flowers a strange color.

I do not think bougainvillea should be growing here,” he said, pausing to admire a bush bursting with yellow and apricot-colored blossoms. “If this is indeed bougainvillea.”

He stooped down low to study a tiny blue flower with a spotted yellow tongue he had seen growing in profusion along his way. “Now that has to be an orchid.”

He picked one and carefully put it in his field notebook to show to his colleague Russ Matthews. “I need to get him out here.”

He continued his slow pace though the thick undergrowth until he came to an obstacle he could not pass—a ravine full of gigantic rectangular boulders. The drop was not far, but the landing spot below was a jumbled pile of up-turned, sharp edged rocks. Willow and hawthorn grew in thickets between the rocks, making passage between them impossible. Alfredo decided to not attempt to cross.

I would be ground meat before I could ever get to the other side.

He felt a rain drop on his arm. Then two, three, four. He looked up. The blue sky was gone, replaced by dark gray clouds streaking hurriedly eastward. Lightning seemed to dart through the trees to his left, and the thunderclap that followed sent him to the ground. The rain started, a sudden downpour, and he was back on his feet scrambling for shelter as he struggled to open his backpack.

He dove beneath the sprawling branches and wide leaves of a catalpa tree and pulled his rain jacket from his pack. After quickly putting it on, he leaned against the trunk and dug again in his pack for his lunch.

The rain stopped as he finished eating, and he looked up at wispy clouds interspersed with blue sky. He glanced at his watch. It’s time to return to the inlet. The Captain will be along soon. He stuffed his rain jacket into his pack and retraced his steps as best as he could remember. When he stepped out of the forest at the inlet, the Captain and the crow were waiting.

Greetings, Jayzu!” the crow called out. “All aboard for the Waterfront!”

Alfredo stopped and stared, wondering if he should greet the crow. But right in front of the Captain? Wouldn’t he take me for a babbling fool?

Don’t just stand there with your mouth hangin’ open!” the crow hollered. “Climb aboard!”

Ease up, Sugarbabe,” the Captain said, winking at Alfredo. “Go lightly, remember?”

Sugarbabe looked for a moment at the captain, tilting her head to one side. “Next time. Maybe.” She laughed raucously and held out her wing to Alfredo.

In complete astonishment, Alfredo brushed his fingertips across her wing and stammered, “I uh, that is, my name is Alfredo. At least that is what my mother named me, but—”

The Captain talks to crows?

And me mum named me Judith,” she said. “But everyone around here calls me Sugarbabe. Fits me better than Judith, don’t you think?”

Alfredo nodded speechlessly.

Just like we call you Jayzu,” she said. “Much better, don’t you think? You don’t look like no Alfredo.”

Perhaps not,” Alfredo said, laughing at the crow’s familiar humor.

So the Captain is “Patua’”! Surely Charlie knows. Why did he not tell me? It was hard to get used to the idea of others like him, much as he desired companionship.

He wanted to start a conversation with the Captain, but how to start? The Captain’s craggy face was hard to read. Alfredo could not guess how old the man was.

But how do you know anything about me?”

My beak is sealed,” Sugarbabe said, turning her beak toward the direction the Captain rowed.

Alfredo watched the Captain’s huge tattooed arms push the oar deep into the water, his muscles flexing into fish leaping through curling waves. “Captain,” he said after they had passed the rocky point and headed toward the city dock. “I guess you know more about me than I know about you.”

How so?” the Captain said, keeping his eyes on the water. “I know you are a priest, and you know I am a boatman. We both keep company with black birds who talk too much.” He winked at Sugarbabe. “What else is there to know?”

Alfredo laughed, his discomfort slipping away with the Captain’s humor. A fish leaped out of the water. Or was that the Captain’s tattoo? “I was unaware there were others like me until today. I have kept my secret hidden my entire life.”

The Captain squinted at him for a moment. “As we all have, Padre.”

As we all have?” Alfredo asked. “Do you know of other Patua’ around here, other than you and me?”

The Captain did not reply for a few moments. “A few,” he said gruffly, “here and there.”

The Captain pulled his boat into one of the docks at the Waterfront. Alfredo tried to pay him, but he just tipped his hat, saying, “G’day, Padre,” and shoved his boat back into the current.

Alfredo walked to the rectory at St. Sophia’s, reflecting again on the idea that there were others like him. Shocking, yet fascinating! He almost longed for what he had never known: close human companionship. At the same time, he had been relieved when Charlie had said there were no other Patua’ on Wilder Island. He wanted to be the only one.

Henry Braun poured two glasses of champagne and offered one to his attorney, Jules Sackman, who waved a hand in refusal. “Too early for me, Henry,” he said. “But you go ahead.”

Even by Henry’s standards, champagne before noon was a bit early, but he was in a fabulous mood. He had just closed on a lucrative deal in which he made a healthy profit on a building he had bought for a song. It would provide the seed money he needed for his latest and most grandiose project of them all: Ravenwood Resort.

Henry sat behind his gargantuan desk in his opulent office, which occupied the majority of the second floor of his mansion on a large estate overlooking the river. Ravenwood Resort was destined to be the pièce de résistance of Henry Braun’s empire, as well as his personal cash cow. Built on and around the island soon to be formerly known as Wilder Island, the resort would ultimately feature two riverboat casinos, an amusement park, a concert hall, and a shopping mall.

Ravenwood Resort. The irony of the name his marketing agency recommended had amused him. There wouldn’t be any ravens left on that island when he was finished, of course. Nor would there be any woods. But the market research people told him the public would spend more money because of the Ravenwood logo, so he went with it. Henry chortled into his glass. He absolutely loved the way the bubbly tickled his nose.

Life was good.

Ravenwood Resort is going to be fantastic,” Henry said after swallowing the fizzy golden liquid. “I’m ready to roll with everything—the architects, engineers—just waiting for the word. Just waiting to sign the check. When will we hear from His Holy Eminence—what’s his name again? Majorski?”

I don’t know,” Jules said with a shrug. “His name is Majewski, Father Superior Thomas Majewski.”

What do you mean you don’t know?” Henry said somewhat irritably as he twirled his glass of champagne.

It means I don’t know,” Jules said. “The most recent letter we got from the Father Provincial’s office said they’ve tabled the discussion of a possible sale of Wilder Island until next month.”

Next month?” Henry said with a long-suffering sigh. “What for? What’s to discuss? Five million not enough?”

He glanced up at the portraits of his three ancestors, his namesakes, on the wood-paneled walls. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. “Time is money!” he could almost hear Henry the First say as he looked sternly down.

It’s the Catholic Church we’re dealing with here, remember?” Jules said. “They’re not as lithe and efficient as Braun Enterprises. They probably have to convene a council of cardinals or something to talk about it. I’m surprised it’ll only be a month. But relax, Henry. We’re offering them a ridiculous price for a swampy bog. I’m sure they’ll come around. Just be patient.”

He who hesitates is last!” Henry the First warned.

Patience is for saints!” Henry said irritably. He got up and strode to the window. Wilder Island, shrouded in a thunderstorm, seemed dark and forbidding. Soon I’ll drain that stinking swamp. There’ll be lights everywhere. It’ll be a sparkling gem. He turned back toward his attorney and glared at him.

Here’s what I’m afraid of, Jules,” he said as he sat back down at his desk. “I’m afraid our offer will make them wonder what’s so special about this island, and they’ll send someone out to look at it. Then they’ll want to do an environmental impact study. Then the tree huggers will get involved, and we’ll have to worry they’ll find some ugly little plant, or a worm, that only lives on this island, and the whole world has to grind to a halt.”

Henry,” Jules said, “now you’re going off the deep end. Come back. None of that is going to happen. It’s just a big bureaucracy, that’s all. No need to be paranoid.”

I am not paranoid!” Henry shouted. He glanced up at Henry the First shaking his head.

I’m worried, Jules,” he said, controlling his anger and dropping his voice. “I worry that while you sit on your thumbs, Wilder Island slips through my fingers. I’ve worked too long and too hard to let that happen. I swear by the blood of my ancestors—” he raised his glass to the portraits on the wall. “I swear that Wilder Island will once again belong to a Braun. As God is my witness.”

Henry the First nodded approvingly, with just a hint of a smile curling the edges of his mouth.

 


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