The River Queen
Henry Braun awaited the Mayor’s press conference with Jules. The sun came in through a tall window, casting a swath of light across the Persian rug. Two crows stared in the window at him; he got up from his chair, walked over to the window and drew the curtains closed.
“Why can’t I keep those foul birds off my windowsill,” he growled. The darkened room oppressed him, but that was preferable to having those damn crows watching his every move.
Jules laughed at Henry’s unintended pun. “They’re probably spies,” he joked. “Sent over by the good Father Manzi.”
But Henry was in no mood for jokes. He switched a lamp on and sat down in his chair. Henry the First smiled down on him from the paneled wall above. “No worries, Henry!” he said. “The island is as good as yours!”
Of course it is! Thank you Great-Grandfather! Somewhat relieved of his anxiety, Henry pushed a button on a remote control device, which opened a cabinet on an adjacent wall, revealing a large flat-screen television. He pushed another button, and the screen came to life.
“Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, Henry,” Jules said. “Think about it, Henry! You’ve won!”
Henry glanced nervously at the soundless screen, wishing Jules would shut up. “Yeah, but what if someone steps up and outbids me?”
“Step up from where, Henry?” Jules offered him one of his own cigars from the humidor on his desk. “The Vatican? Relax. Seven more days and the island is yours.”
“Don’t jinx it!” Henry snapped, nervous that Jules had used the number seven. My unluckiest number. He bit off the end of his cigar and bathed it thoroughly with his saliva before letting Jules light the end.
“That would require someone with a greater passion than you to own the island, Henry.” Jules leaned back in his chair. “Don’t you think we would know by now if there was another interested party?”
Henry shrugged. Logic was no comfort at a time like this. The Mayor’s face appeared on the screen, and he turned up the volume.
“Good citizens of Ledford,” the Mayor’s flabby mouth said. He licked his lips and smiled into the camera. “It is my great pleasure to announce that, after a two-week period in which you the public has a right to comment, the city of Ledford hopes to condemn Wilder Island as a nuisance under the country’s eminent domain laws. I am certain that the good people of this city will agree that we should move forward and develop the island into a resort park, as Mr. Henry Braun has proposed. Or perhaps a shopping mall, or a business park, all of which would bring money and jobs to our city.”
In great relief, Henry wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. He relaxed into his chair and inhaled deeply on his cigar. Henry the First smiled warmly down upon him. He exhaled gratefully.
“Once the island has been properly developed,” the Mayor said, his head bobbing like a large bird, “the revenue from the island will be such that we can do away with property taxes altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice? Perhaps the city could end the gross receipts tax on all goods. How about them apples? More money to spend, more jobs. Folks, we are on the threshold of a new future for our fair city. A whole new day of prosperity.”
A gaggle of reporters crowded around the Mayor’s podium, and all shouted their questions at once. “Will the people have a say who buys the island?” a reporter managed to shout above the rest. “Or is Henry Braun a shoo-in?”
“Wilder Island will be sold to the highest bidder,” the mayor said. “Seven days after the commentary period is over.”
Seven again. Henry’s sense of well-being breached, and a shroud of catastrophe loomed suddenly over him. What if the investors double-cross me? He had invited his wealthiest friends in the business community to a picnic on the island, where he would plant his own flag, claiming the island as his. What if … his shoulders slumped, and he raised his suffering eyes up to the portraits of his ancestors.
“Be a man!” Henry the First said, his stern face whipping Henry into an upright position. “Only women whine about what will be. Seize today, and tomorrow is yours!”
Dr. Russ Matthews, board member of the recently established Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust, happened to be in his office when the TV station called him for comment on the city’s eminent domain ruling.
“I’m disappointed,” he told the reporter. “We will rally the people to say no to developing the island. Wilder Island is a landmark in this city. The very identity of Ledford is tied up in this island. Commercial development will destroy it, whether it’s Henry Braun building a casino resort, or Joe Schmoe building a mall or a motor speedway. It’s a matter of who we want to be, who we want to project to the outside world.”
“How do you intend to stop it?” the reporter asked.
“With a grassroots uprising,” Russ answered. “We need to stand up, all of us, and just say no to destroying this jewel in our midst. Some things money can buy. Our Wilder Island heritage isn’t one of them.”
The phone rang again as soon as Russ hung up with the reporter. “Pull the trigger!” Kate said on the other end of the line. “Launch the Beg-a-thon!”
Henry and Jules convened back in his office after another superbly cooked dinner. Whatever Minnie’s faults were, Henry always appreciated his wife’s culinary talents, though he hardly ever told her so. Why should he? Did she ever thank him for providing her with such a luxurious and opulent mansion?
The six o’clock news replayed the Mayor’s afternoon announcement and showcased the spectacular model of Ravenwood Resort as an example of what could be done with the island. The camera zoomed in on the adorable little River Queen and its tiny lights.
“Everyone in Ledford is invited!” Henry’s smiling and somewhat giddy face said as the camera panned slowly over the paddleboat. “Come on down to the city dock on Saturday or Sunday for a free ride around Wilder Island on my beautiful River Queen!”
Several local radio stations broadcast a Public Service Announcement on behalf of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. The student-run station at the university broadcast a panel discussion with Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi on the condemnation ruling.
“Help us save Wilder Island from the bulldozers!” a woman’s voice came over the airwaves. “Come on out to the arts and crafts fair this weekend at the Waterfront. We’ve got over two hundred artists featuring all things Wilder, and a silent auction to help keep our island wild. Stop by the Friends of Wilder Island booth and buy a share in the island, get a free flag with the Wilder Island logo, and become part of the land trust. We need your help!”
Henry reached over to the radio and shut it off with an angry twist of his wrist. “Who the hell do they think they are anyway?” he growled. “The freaking Public Broadcasting Service? For crying out loud, are they trying to dupe the public into buying into their land trust scheme?”
“As a matter of fact,” Jules said blandly, “some of these stations subscribe to much of the programming from PBS. Your tax dollars at work, Henry.”
Henry scowled at Jules, wondering why his attorney seemed to enjoy toying with him. “I’m not talking about the university’s commie student radio station,” he ranted. “I’ve had just about enough of this sham outfit, this so-called land trust. I want you to do something about it, Jules.”
“Like what, Henry?” Jules swirled the wine in his glass.
“Discredit them,” Henry said. “Find something wrong with these troublemakers—the Matthews, for instance. Dr. Smarty-Pants college professor and his so-called artist wife. Find out why Manzi showed up here all of a sudden. Who can trust a Catholic priest these days? Find out who else is involved in this scam to cheat me out of my rightful inheritance.”
His hands shook as he poured himself a glass of wine, slopping a few drops onto the floor. He moved his shoe back and forth across the wet spot, disbursing it over a wider area.
“And then what, Henry?” Jules said. “Beatings with a rubber hose? Cement overshoes? You won, for God’s sake! The city condemned the island.”
The wine Henry spilled had disobediently beaded up on the waxed hardwood floor. He scowled at the red raindrops and patted his pocket for a handkerchief.
“Look, Henry,” Jules said, “you’re taking the whole town for a ride on the River Queen. You think they’ve got something better? An arts and crafts fair? Selling worthless shares in a land trust? Don’t make me laugh!”
Jules laughed, and Henry tried to calm his anxiety. The drops of spilled wine on the floor reminded him of blood. His blood. My blood, sweat, and tears have all gone into this island!
“While you’re at it,” Jules continued, “give ’em all five bucks and let ’em waste it in the casino. You’ll hook ’em all, and they’ll stop thinking about their beloved island. Let this commie rabble, as you call them, rattle their chains till the crows come home, for all the good it’ll do them.”
Henry dropped the hanky to the floor and moved it around with his foot, staining its pure white perfection.
The art fair celebrating the wildness of Wilder Island opened on Friday evening, the day after the Mayor’s press conference. Both sides of the river swarmed with humans; at the Waterfront for the fair, and the City Docks to catch a ride on the River Queen. Jade and Russ met Alfredo at the Waterfront boat landing and walked up the stone steps to Riverside Drive, which had been closed to vehicle traffic for the fair.
The wind picked up and carried lighthearted music that bubbled forth from a calliope on board the River Queen across the river. “I feel like thumbing my nose at it,” Jade said. “Except it’s quite lovely. Too bad Henry Braun owns her.”
“Jeez,” Russ said as he looked across the river, “look at the size of that crowd!”
“Hopefully most of them are coming over here,” Jade said, grasping his hand and leaning into him. “The boat landing is right there too, next to the River Queen.”
“So ironic,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. “Henry on one side, us on the other. Wilder Island in the middle.”
A small crowd had assembled around the KMUS student radio station booth where Alfredo, Russ, and Kate would participate in a live discussion regarding the future of Wilder Island. A television news station’s cameraman panned around the fair-going crowd as the reporter blathered something about the Mayor declining his invitation to attend.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” the disc jockey began. “This is KMUS, streaming live from the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts Fair at the Waterfront here in Downtown Ledford. We are here tonight to discuss the fate of our island in light of the Mayor’s announcement today that the city has condemned the island under eminent domain laws.”
A few people stopped to listen. Jade and one of Russ’s students handed them flags bearing the Friends of Wilder Island logo—the skyline of Wilder Island in front of a huge full moon. Jade had taken particular delight in modeling a subtle image of a crow into the moon.
“Our guests this evening are MU biology professors Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi, both board members of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. Manzi, we should note, is also the pastor of the old hermit’s chapel on the island. And lastly we have Ms. Kate Herron, attorney for the land trust.”
The DJ’s voice boomed out over the loudspeakers, attracting more people to the live broadcast. Flags waved, and a few people called out, “Save Wilder Island!” The music from the calliope swelled for a moment before disappearing on a downriver breeze.
“Before we get into the ramifications of condemnation,” The DJ said, “let’s start with the basics. Ms. Herron, can you tell us exactly what does condemnation under eminent domain laws mean?”
“It means the government can steal your property!” a man shouted.
The small crowd waved flags amid catcalls and shouts of disapproval: “They can do that?” “Down with Braun!” “Preserve the wilderness!” “Wilder Island!”
“It means ‘compulsory purchase,’” Kate replied, after the noise had abated somewhat. “The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution grants the right to local, state, and federal governments to condemn and confiscate private property, so long as it’s subsequently used for the public good, and the owner is paid a fair price. But the property owner has no choice. He must sell.”
A man in the back yelled out, “Get the government’s hands off my property!”
Flags waved wildly, and the crowd shouted, “No! No! No!”
“The government can just sell your property to a private developer?” the DJ asked, turning the mic up. “I thought they could only do that, take your land, for roads, bridges, schools maybe—things like that.”
“That’s been the traditional use of the eminent domain clause,” Kate said, nodding. She looked over her mic at the crowd. “But a couple years ago, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of public good to include creating jobs and increasing revenues to the government. That automatically expanded the permissible land uses under which government bodies may exercise eminent domain. Prior to that, it was used, as you said, for schools, hospitals, roads, et cetera.”
“But, why?” the DJ asked. “It seems so un-American.”
The people in the crowd nodded, and the man in the back hollered, “It is un-American!” He led another chant of “No! No! No!”
The television station’s cameraman panned around the rowdy crowd again, and Jade wished momentarily that the guy in the back would be quiet. But she quickly changed her mind, realizing that was what the land trust was trying to do—stir the people up. I hope this makes it to the evening news.
“What about the hermit’s chapel?” the DJ asked. “Aren’t churches protected from eminent domain?”
“No,” Kate said. “Nothing is protected. Not even churches.”
“They’re going to tear down the hermit’s chapel?” a woman shouted out from the crowd. The crowd blew up again, waving flags and yelling, “No! No! No!”
“Is Wilder Island doomed then?” the DJ asked, turning his mic up again. “Is this a done deal? Is there nothing we can do?”
“We’ve got two weeks,” Kate said. “And we plan to be heard.”
As the Friends of Wilder Island prepared the arts and crafts fair for opening night at the Waterfront, the River Queen was released from her moorings at the timber mill, and by late Friday afternoon, she had docked at the City Boat Landing. Like a siren song, the calliope aboard the beautiful paddleboat beckoned Ledford residents to come aboard for a free tour. Complete with two restaurants, a pub, and a daycare center, the River Queen also offered slot machines, bingo, and blackjack.
Henry had never had children of his own, but somehow he knew what kids liked. He spared no expense on the childcare center, with video games, jungle gyms, playhouses with miniature functioning appliances, and a plethora of building blocks, erector sets, and Lincoln logs. Big floppy pillows and blow-up furniture gave the childcare center a cartoonish aura. Plus a number of part-time extremely sweet-tempered high school girls to look after them with a licensed Day Care Operator to supervise the whole shebang.
While the folks of Ledford crowded the decks of the River Queen and stood in line to play the slots, Henry sat glued to the television in his penthouse apartment on the roof of the boat. The live KMUS broadcast, televised from the arts and crafts fair at the Waterfront really irritated him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shut it off.
“So, if the city condemns the island,” the DJ said, “the trust will be forced to sell it to the highest bidder?”
The camera panned to the flag-waving crowd shouting, “No! No! No!”
Dammit! I should have had flags made. Henry’s stomach hurt. The relentless calliope down on the deck had given him a headache. He wished he could turn it all off, the TV, the calliope, everything, and just have some peace and quiet.
“Yes,” the attorney Kate Herron said, tossing her red hair back over her shoulder. “But the land trust has two protective overlays, which ensure that while we can’t stop eminent domain, we can force whoever buys the island to conform to our restrictions on what may and what must be done with it. We’ve restricted the land use to a bird sanctuary and botanical research station. And we’ve got a ninety-nine year lease with the Jesuits on the chapel, which they still own.”
The crowd cheered, and Henry picked up the remote and muted the sound with an angry flick of his wrist. “What the hell, Jules? Is she blowing smoke, or does that commie land trust think they can tell me what to do with my island?” He peeled his eyes away from the television and looked at Jules. “Can they?”
“Relax, Henry,” Jules said, waving his hand at the image of Kate Herron on the TV. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as telling someone what they can and can’t do with their private property. It’s quite un-American, don’t you think?”
“Damn right.” Henry said. Don’t play with me, you overpaid land shark. One of these days …
“But if it’ll make you feel better,” Jules said, “I’ll file an injunction against this land trust having any legal status to demand anything.”
The television had taken Henry’s attention, and he made no reply.
“While we can’t protect ourselves from eminent domain in the court of law,” Kate Herron said into the camera, “the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust has the legal standing to represent the interests of the island in court. And, we can catalyze public sentiment to save it from development. Which we fully intend to do.”
Henry glared at Jules. “She’s full of crap, Henry,” Jules said. “There is no stopping eminent domain.”
“I understand we can all become members of the land trust,” the DJ said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Alfredo Manzi replied, “anyone may purchase shares in the land trust. We invite the entire city out to the arts and crafts fair, where we have a booth staffed with volunteers to sell shares in the island.”
Henry snorted. “My arse! Soaking the public for worthless shares in a bird swamp, you swindling hypocrite!” He threw a pillow at Alfredo Manzi’s image on the TV.
“Oh, they’re not entirely worthless, Henry,” Jules said. “People can line their birdcages with them.”
Both men laughed. Henry opened the humidor on the end table next to him, took out two cigars, and handed one to Jules.
“We do not advocate saving Wilder Island for nostalgic reasons only,” Russ Matthews was saying as the two men lit their cigars, “though people do have a right to their lore, their stories, the connection to their past. But look at the revenue this island generates by its very solitary existence in our midst.”
Henry burst out laughing. Shaking his head, he looked in amazement at the TV. “Oh, that’s a good one! Revenue from the bird swamp!” He slapped his knees, laughing. “They can’t be serious!”
“The city logo features the Wilder Island skyline,” Russ Matthews said, as if listing the glorious money-making opportunities the island was engaged in. “The tourist industry relies heavily on the island, as do many businesses for their brands—the Cold Raven Brewery, the Crow’s Nest, for example.”
“Correct,” Kate Herron said. “Wilder Island is by no means derelict, so the assertion that the island produces nothing is just flat wrong.”
I’ll flat wrong you, you miserable tree-hugger. Henry shook his fist at the TV. He hated attorneys, all of them. Up to and including his own. Slimy bastards! But he retained Jules. As he had told his wife, Minnie, “I need a lawyer to keep me out of the trouble that I wouldn’t get into if there weren’t any lawyers.”
“We must all rise up and say no to condemnation,” Kate Herron said. “The only weapon we have is public sentiment; that’s the only thing that will save Wilder Island.”
Public sentiment? We’ll see, my pretty, where public sentiment lies after they ride on my River Queen!
“We are not opposed to development or entertainment,” Russ Matthews said. “But we ask: can this Ravenwood Resort not be built somewhere else?”
“Good question, Dr. Matthews,” the DJ said. “Perhaps Mr. Braun could answer that, but he elected to not be with us tonight.”
“Bastards never invited me,” Henry growled as he muted the sound. He leaned back into the couch, puffing out seven smoke rings as he exhaled.
“Oh, but they did, Henry,” Jules said. “You turned them down, remember? We decided you wouldn’t engage with them at all because it doesn’t serve our interests to debate them. Remember?”
Henry grumbled into his chest. It was true; he didn’t want to be their straw man. He had dignity.
“Forget about them!” Jules said, waving his cigar in the air. “Fight fire with water! Convince the people of Ledford that your resort has something wonderful for everyone in the family, while this land trust has a dark, spooky island that no one other than the priest is allowed to step foot on.”
Henry nodded dully and stared at the soundless TV. He wished Jules would shut up. He got up and left his penthouse and scowled when Jules joined him at the railing.
“You did a great job refurbishing this old bitch, Henry,” Jules said as they looked down on the deck below. He took a long drag from his cigar. “When I first saw her, I didn’t think you’d be able to clean her up. But she’s a classy lady now.”
“She’s a beauty, Mr. Braun!” someone yelled from the deck.
Henry waved and yelled down to the man, “Come back tomorrow, you hear? Catch a ride on the Queen!”
Charlie and his young son JoEd perched in the branches of a basswood tree, listening to strains of music that wafted across the river from the calliope on the promenade deck of the River Queen. JoEd gazed in fascination at the beautiful paddleboat. Elegant yet perky, the River Queen charmed him with her bright red paint, white trim, and golden railings. Oh! And the big red paddlewheel! He had never seen anything so amazing.
JoEd had spent his entire fledgehood deep in the swamps and forests of Cadeña-l’jadia and in the branches above the tree house. Ever since that day his zazu had taken him around the periphery of the island and he’d beheld his weebs’s homeland across the river, buildings mesmerized him. When his zazu told him the River Queen was a building that floated on water, he could hardly believe it.
But believe it he did as he watched her float slowly across the river to the City Docks. Speechless with awe, JoEd couldn’t take his eyes off the magnificent River Queen.
“Zazu,” he said as he turned toward his father.
“Go!” Charlie said, without waiting for his son to ask. “Fly on over and check it out. But be home by sunset; you know how your weebs worries.”
Without a word, JoEd took to the air and flew across the river toward the River Queen. The music got louder as he approached, and he realized the bugs crawling all over the boat were actually humans. He looked back toward Cadeña-l’jadia. It seemed so far away in its brooding green solitude. But the colorful riverboat and the teeming life it hosted were irresistible to JoEd. Though his heart was beating very fast, and he was a little scared, he bravely flew right to the roof of the River Queen and grasped the golden railing that wound all the way around the topmost layer of the boat.
JoEd had only ever seen one human up close—Jayzu. He looked down upon the humans milling around and said out loud, “How do they tell each other apart? They all look the same!”
“Not really,” a voice said. JoEd turned to see another crow standing on the roof.
“The differences are subtle,” an older crow said, “but after a while, you can see them. Some you can even pick out of crowds, but those are special humans.”
“Like Jayzu?” JoEd asked. “He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“Everyone knows Jayzu,” the crow said. “He is Patua’, like Bruthamax. But you can tell even the regular humans apart if you live around them long enough. You get to know who is naughty and who is nice.”
“Oh,” JoEd said. “What do the naughty ones look like?”
“It’s not what they look like,” the crow said. “They’re all butt-ugly if you ask me. But there among the masses are those who distinguish themselves by their actions, be they good or evil. Those humans we know. The others, well, they’re a bit like cattle, don’t you think?” He peered over the edge at the people milling around the docks.
Before JoEd could ask what cattle meant, another crow joined them on the roof.
“Hey there, Antoine,” the new arrival said. “How’re things?”
“Oh, not bad, Tobias,” Antoine said, “not bad at all. Thanks for asking. Say, young fella,” he turned to JoEd, “you got a name?”
“JoEd,” he croaked, wishing he sounded more grown-up.
“Well, grawky there, JoEd,” Tobias said.
“First time he’s seen so many humans, that’s what he said,” Antoine told Tobias. The two crows nodded knowingly.
“Must not be from the city then,” Tobias said. “Place is crawling with ’em.”
“He just flew in from Cadeña-l’jadia for the festivities,” said Antoine. “There’s but one human there.”
“Ah,” said Tobias, cocking his head to one side. “He’s a friend of Jayzu then.”
The sights and sounds of the paddleboat astonished JoEd. There was so much to see! So many humans! More crows landed on the railing, and he scooted over to make room. Three more crows came in for a landing on the roof and cackled their greetings to Antoine, Tobias.
“I’m JoEd,” he said, putting a wing out to the young female crow next to him. “Are you from around here?”
She brushed her wing across his and said, “I’m Shannon. I was hatched and fledged Downtown. That’s the best place for festivities!”
“My weebs came from Downtown too!” JoEd said. “I’ve never been there though.” He looked across the river toward his mother’s homeland. So beautiful, how it sparkled like water almost.
“Are you here for the festivities?” Shannon asked.
He didn’t know what festivities meant, but so far it seemed to be a good thing. Lots of noise and excitement, and there were delicious odors in the air, all new and enticing.
“I didn’t know about the festivities,” JoEd said. “I came to see the paddleboat. That’s what my zazu said this is.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that!” Shannon said. “I watched it float in like a great big duck, kind of, except it looks more like a house.”
A couple of humans came out onto the deck below them and leaned against the railing. They waved their arms and shouted some things JoEd couldn’t understand.
“Do they have festivities often?” JoEd asked Shannon. “I’m from Cadeña-l’jadia, and this is the first time I have been to any festivities.”
“All the time,” she said. “But this one looks like it’s going to be a doozy!”
Many dozens of crows arrived on the rooftop over the next half hour, and it seemed to JoEd that they all knew each other. There were a great many crows on Cadeña-l’jadia, and he knew them all, but here were so many new beaks! He walked through the growing crowd of crows, introducing himself. He tucked every one of their names into the lattice of his memory.
And the names of the new food.
“Man,” Antoine said, “I love hot dogs. One of the human’s greatest inventions, if you ask me.”
“Nah,” Tobias said, “it’s the French fry. Oh! Glorious fries! I could live off them, I tell you what.”
JoEd had never seen a hot dog or a French fry and had no idea what they were, but they sounded exotic and tasty. “Is that what I smell?” he asked. “Hot dogs and French fries?”
“And hamburgers,” said Antoine, “which also means pickles and onions.”
“Thank the Orb humans are so clumsy,” Tobias said, “else we wouldn’t eat so well.”
“Yes,” Antoine agreed, “they are quite wasteful too, bless their hearts. And come morning, we, the mighty volunteers, shall clean the docks of burgers, fries, and whatnot for our human brethren.”
Tobias chuckled and said, “Indeed. Though it is a thankless job, we are dedicated.”
“Dedicated to gluttony,” a new arrival said.
“May we never have less!” Antoine shouted.
“Gluttony! Gluttony!” the crows all cried out to the humans below and to the skies above. “Gluttony!”
“Good thing we came early,” Antoine said to JoEd. “You just stay put right here. We got good roosting and front-row seats to the banquet. There won’t be any roosting spots, good or bad, come sundown. You just wait; there’ll be food everywhere, come morning. All over the decks, all over the riverbank, the docks. Everywhere.”
The world beyond the island captivated JoEd. Paddleboats! Festivities! Food everywhere! And a doozy!
The Beg-a-thon ended, and Alfredo, Russ, and Kate found Sam and Jade were mobbed by people at the land trust booth. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a share in the future of Wilder Island. They jumped in, and the five of them sold shares until the crowd dwindled enough that they could leave the booth in the hands of the volunteers.
The fair occupied two city blocks along the Waterfront, two double rows of booths, one on each side of Riverside Drive. The mysterious Wilder Island forest had long attracted many artists, who generated a multitude of art from all its seasons. The variety of ways in which people used the black birds and tree line silhouette of Wilder Island as art motifs was astonishing, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
“This is how the people of Ledford show their love for their island,” Alfredo said as the friends strolled past the booths at the arts and crafts fair.
Paintings of all genres depicted the island’s many moods: The Cliffs of Wilder Island; Wilder Island in the Mist; Storm on Wilder Island; Wilder Island at Dawn; Sunset; On a Lazy Afternoon; In the Snow; In a Thunderstorm; Wilder Island under the Full Moon; New Moon; Quarter Moon; and Dark Nights of no moon.
Many artists painted the seasons of Wilder Island Forest: in the fall as the deciduous trees said good-bye to summer in a spectacular rain of colors; the bare winter grays and browns against pale skies; and the blessed relief of spring, expressed by the subtle colors of the flowering trees.
There were literally hundreds of photographs of trees and crows and of the wild river thrashing the shores of the island. The hermit’s chapel appeared in many, sometimes as a holy shrine, sometimes as a dark, enigmatic witness to the island’s solitude. Whether singular or in flocks, on the wing or perch, crows and ravens rose to the unusual occasion of stardom at the fair, as icons of the wild mystery of the island.
The love for Wilder Island appeared in the more mundane objects as well. Crows, ravens, and island silhouettes appeared in T-shirts, key chains, hats, candles, coffee mugs, handbags, and backpacks.
“Limited only by the boundaries of the human imagination,” Alfredo said, “gifted to certain individuals more than others. Like Jade and Sam.”
Jade blushed and waved him away, saying, “In some circles, it’s considered madness.”
“In others,” Sam said with a grin, “it’s considered a vow of poverty.”
“Let’s count how many famous artists died in the poor house!” Kate said cheerfully. “There’s Vincent van Gogh, Beethoven—can we include musicians too?”
“Oh, shut up!” Sam said, giving Kate an affectionate shove.
They wandered past a booth of wrought-iron work featuring a coat rack, constructed such that when coats were hung upon it, the crows appeared to be flying off with them. “That would be perfect for your cottage,” Jade said. “Don’t you think, Alfredo?”
“I’m hungry,” Kate said. “Can we stop and eat some of this fine food that has been tantalizing my nose and stomach since we got here?”
“I too am hungry,” Alfredo said. “I had breakfast once, long ago. On a distant island.” He smiled wanly at the laughter from his friends. “What? Priests cannot be hungry?”
“Oh, no,” Jade said through her chuckles. “The thing is, we’re just not used to the idea that priests can have a sense of humor.”
Am I not still human? He laughed to himself. Priest, Patua’–what did it matter? I am still an outcast.
“Some of us don’t think of you as a priest,” Kate said with an impish smile. “You’re incognito tonight, though, aren’t you? Without your little white collar?”
Alfredo laughed and said, “Oh, I never wear those! I have a hard enough time with laundry issues on the island without having to care for priestly fashion accessories. Besides, I do not think that God requires my throat to be chafed with stiff, scratchy collars to serve him.” Not that I am much of a priest.
“Can’t you just be ‘off duty’?” Russ asked, making little quote marks in the air with his fingers.
“Well, yes,” Alfredo replied. “Except I’m never really on duty. I have no congregation that needs my ministrations. Other than baking pre-consecrated Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s, I’m just an ordinary Joe. Part-time priest, part-time professor, full-time human.”
“Right,” Kate said, looking at Alfredo through squinted eyes. “You’re an ordinary Joe, Padre. And I’m the tooth fairy! Now, where shall we eat?”
The delightful flavors of many cuisines wafted all around the fair, tantalizing even the most resolute. “There’s tons of food,” Sam said. “We’ll eat well, real cheap, whatever we do. I’ve spent just about every waking hour in the last month planning and arranging this shindig.”
“And,” Kate said as she linked her arm into his, “he subjected the food and beverage purveyors to more scrutiny than the artists and craftspeople.”
Jade laughed and said, “That’s true! He was like a rabid dog with the Burger Shack guy.”
“No franchises,” Sam said, laughing. “That was the number-one rule. We want local people and local establishments only; that’s what I told ’em. Same as the artists.”
“Sam!” Jade said, sniffing the air. “Do I smell Thai?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said, tipping his baseball cap. “I tried to represent all the flavors the people of this city like. We’ve got India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand. And of course all the usual American, Mexican, and European suspects—corn dogs, burgers, tacos, corn-on-the-cob, croissants, perogi, brats. You name it, we got it.”
The numerous microbreweries of Ledford were well represented also, thanks to Sam’s rule against franchises. Colorful labels sported such names as Two Crow Brew, Red Raven Ale, Bog Birch Beer, and Crow’s Eye Wild Lager. Wilder Island Brewery, the city’s oldest and finest, committed all profits from their number-one selling beer, Crow Wing Ale, over the weekend of the arts and crafts fair to the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust.
The friends found a table and sat down with their food and beer, laying out a smorgasbord of international cuisine. They ate till they could hold no more.
The sun set gorgeously, reflecting brilliant red, yellow, pink, and orange hues off the fluffy clouds that floated on the horizon. A large flock of crows appeared above the treetops on Wilder Island. Coalescing into a swirling spectacle of black wings, the crows flew a great circular flight pattern against the last colors of the sunset.
Reminiscent of the famed photograph in the city library, Murder of Crows, the crowds at the fair and milling around the River Queen gasped in delight. A roar of approval and applause erupted from both sides of the island, and for a few moments, a pervasive sense of community overtook human and crow, and the spirits of both species soared.