Corvus Rising – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

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.

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 13

Mirrors and Other Illusions

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said.

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

Now, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo laughed.

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

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

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

              We’re Moving!

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

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

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

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

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

I see,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Oh?” Dr. Robbins said. “How so?”

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

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

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

Aliens?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And the argument began.

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

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

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

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

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

The law is an ass, and I am insane.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Were they killed?” the novice asked.

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

How did they do that?” the novice asked.

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

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

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

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

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

What is a gene pool?” the novice asked.

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

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

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

Have the bugs been exterminated?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

Starfire chanted the verses he had devised for this ritual:

 

Vibzu bashki gax

Noxim ghazh blut a rek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Mimi?” Starfire repeated the chant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

The Keeper’s Trance

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did this magpie say?” Majewski asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Zhoomoo weemwoo oomee moo
Oomoo weemoo shoomee woo

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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