Corvus Rising – Chapter 20

Jadum Wilderii

 

Henry Braun became the laughing stock, not only of the investment community, but also of the Ledford community in general. Political cartoons in the Sentinel lampooned him; even his cronies couldn’t help but get in on the fun. When he stepped into the bar at his club, someone called out, “Duck!” and another shouted, “Don’t you mean, crow?” Everyone laughed. Henry’s face turned bright red, and he turned on his heel and left.

My hands were tied,” the Mayor sniveled when he demanded answers. “The people have spoken, Henry.”

It was not so much public opinion, Henry,” his pal at Economic Development told him. “The city attorney told us the terms of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust make it impossible for Braun Enterprises to carry out its proposed Ravenwood Resort casino park.”

Jules, you lying, incompetent, traitorous boob!

The investors all said no, too. “Wilder Island is for the birds,” Whitey McDurbin told Henry. “Move on. Take your River Queen elsewhere and then call me.” He hung up without even giving Henry the courtesy of a good-bye.

It was an omen, Henry,” Lloyd Roberts said. “Getting shit upon even before I see a prospectus speaks volumes. None for me, thanks.”

The others didn’t bother to return Henry’s phone calls. He was enraged. “What the hell is this?” he shouted and slammed his hand down on his desk. “Gutless windbags! Why am I surrounded by cowards?”

He glanced sidelong at the portraits of the Henrys on the wall. All four stared vacantly back. Were they disappointed? Had he failed them? Henry the First was especially aloof; his hard mouth drawn into a straight line. His eyes went straight through Henry, making him feel as if he weren’t even there.

Screw ’em!” he said and got up from this desk. “Screw you!” he shouted at the portraits. “Screw everyone. Screw the whole goddamned world!”

He opened the wine cabinet and pulled out a random bottle. He opened it carefully, took a long gulp straight from the bottle, and poured himself a glass. Then another. And another until the bottle was empty.

 

Minnie heard Henry shouting from time to time, and his stomping around his office. When he didn’t come down to the kitchen for breakfast, she brought a tray of food up to him.

Leave me the hell alone!” he yelled at her from the other side of the door.

I’ll leave your sandwich and cookies on the floor,” she said when he refused to let her in. When she brought dinner, the lunch tray had not moved. The bread on the ham sandwich had curled around the edges, and the lettuce was wilted.

Henry?” She knocked. “Henry?” No sound came from behind the door. She piled the uneaten lunch onto the dinner tray and returned to the kitchen.

 

Henry had refused food for three days when Floyd and Willy showed up at the patio table in the backyard where Minnie ate breakfast alone. Delighted to see them, she hugged their beaks close to her face.

Well, we’re right happy to see you too, ma’am,” Willy said.

Yep,” Floyd said. “Long time no see, Miss Minnie!”

The two brothers perched on a chair that had been pushed all the way into the table. “’At’s right,” Willy drawled. “We just thought we’d drop by for a little visit, on account of we haven’t been by since before the picnic. How’re things?”

Henry hasn’t been the same since the picnic,” Minnie said, looking fearfully up at his office window. “I’m afraid he’s gone off his rocker.” She removed her coffee cup from its saucer and put half a piece of French toast on it and pushed the plate toward the crows.

You mean, like off in la-la land?” Floyd asked. “Or like in ax-murderer land?”

Good Orb, Floyd,” Willy said, whacking his brother with a wingtip. “That’s just crude. Can’t you see the lady is in distress enough already?”

Sorry, Miss Minnie,” Floyd said, looking at the ground. “I just wanted to know—”

It’s okay, Floyd,” Minnie said, patting his back. “To tell the truth, I am afraid he’s heading toward the ax-murderer kind of crazy. Now please, help yourselves.”

Floyd and Willy each beaked a generous chunk of French toast. Following the sound of a loud crash and a string of unintelligible nonsense laced with profanity, both crows and Minnie looked up at the open window above them.

Sounds like he’s having a tantrum,” Willy said. “Like he’s breaking things.” He dipped his toast in the small pool of maple syrup on the saucer.

He’s been doing that all morning,” Minnie said. She poured herself another cup of coffee from a silver carafe. “He started three days ago. I guess there was one joke too many.”

They’re pretty funny,” Floyd said, snickering. “The jokes, I mean.”

Willy swatted Floyd again as the sounds of destruction continued to pour forth from the upstairs window. “None of this is probably funny to Miss Minnie, here,” he said. “So think before you speak, brother!”

Floyd looked down and muttered an apology. He pecked at the French toast and chopped off a small chunk. He flipped it into the air, catching it on its way down and swallowing it in one gulp.

Willy, you don’t need to protect my feelings,” Minnie said. “I’m not unhappy about the way things turned out. I mean that Henry didn’t get the island and all. And the jokes are funny. But I’m afraid of him. I’ve never seen him like this.”

She told the crows how the night before she had brought Henry a sandwich and some milk. “He hadn’t eaten since Tuesday,” she said. “So, when I knocked on the door and he didn’t answer, I just opened it and barged in.” She put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath.

The office was a mess—broken glass and paper strewn everywhere.” She shook her head, remembering. “Henry didn’t notice I came in the room, and I watched him take a poker from the fireplace and smash a big hole in his miniature Ravenwood Resort. And then he slammed the poker down on the pretty little River Queen, and it shattered into toothpicks. I was so shocked because he paid a fortune for it.”

Minnie folded her arms against her chest and shivered. “And then he screamed, like his own bones had broken. And he looked up at the portraits of his ancestors, which he had sliced to ribbons. “Happy now?” he yelled and he shook his fist. And he started swinging the poker again and smashing the rest of it, the little train he loved so much. It was just horrible to watch.” She buried her face in her hands.

That,” Floyd said, “sounds like a maniac.”

The man’s off his rocker!” Willy said.

Flipped his lid!” said Floyd.

Lost his marbles!”

Off the deep end!”

Got a screw loose!”

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Floyd said, turning himself around in circles.

He’s just crazy,” Minnie said, nodding. “I was so scared. I’ve never seen him so violent.” She glanced up at Henry’s office window again.

Miss Minnie,” Willy said, “you need to get out of here.”

That’s right,” agreed Floyd. “You should just go. There’s no telling what he might do.”

Minnie nodded and said, “I called Jules this morning. He’s Henry’s attorney and he took care of everything. I’ve got a bag packed inside. As soon as the ambulance gets here, I’m gone.”

The brothers looked at each other and then back at Minnie. “Ambulance? Have you been harmed?” Floyd asked.

Did that brute lay a hand on you?” Willy demanded.

Oh, no.” she shook her head adamantly. “Jules called an ambulance to come get Henry. Jules said Henry needs to dry out. I guess so—he’s been on a four-day drunk. And Jules said they’ll do a mental evaluation after he dries out to make sure he hasn’t lost his mind.”

She was grateful Jules had stepped in, his warm, calm voice telling her not to worry. “Just pack a bag and leave for a few days,” he had said. “I’ll get the house all cleaned up and Henry sorted out.”

Screw you!” Henry’s enraged voice blared out the window. “And you! And you! And you!”

The sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood flowed out of the upstairs window, followed by a wave of incoherent swearing.

He’s at it again,” Minnie sighed. “Beating things with the poker.” She smiled wanly and stood up.

Oh, Miss Minnie!” Floyd cried out. He walked across the table and put his wings around her waist. “I hope he doesn’t hurt you!”

You need to get out of here now,” Willy said, joining his brother. “Don’t wait for the ambulance.”

Minnie stroked their backs. “I’ll be gone soon, don’t worry. I’m not planning on being here when they take Henry away. Jules has a taxi coming for me, so I must bid you both adieu.”

But where will you go, Miss Minnie?” Floyd asked.

Will we ever see you again?” Willy asked.

Minnie was touched by their concern and affection. “Of course you’ll see me again, fellas!” She stroked each bird gently. “I’m just going to visit my sister. I’ll be back in a few days.” She blew them each a kiss as she went into the house and closed the door.

 

Floyd and Willy flew up to the windowsill of Henry’s office and peered in at the wild man inside. He had already ripped gaping holes into the portraits of his ancestors, and the crows watched him beat the canvasses off the wall. He looked up at the ceiling, screaming, “Are you happy now? Are you friggin’ happy now?”

I say,” Floyd said. “The old chap truly seems to have gone away with the fairies.”

Right-o,” agreed Willy. “Fully loaded and half-cocked.”

Oh, look,” Floyd said, pointing a wing toward the driveway. “There goes Miss Minnie.”

The two crows watched her run toward the gate, and the driver of the yellow cab get out and open the door for her. He put her bag in the trunk and sped off down the long driveway.

Poor Minnie,” Willy said. “Driven away. And not just by a taxi. Too bad.”

Floyd shook his head and clucked. “She’s such a charming woman. And always dressed to the nines.”

Damn you, friggin’ crows!” Henry shouted and threw an empty wine bottle at Floyd and Willy on the windowsill. “Damn you!”

I believe we are no longer needed here, brother,” Floyd said as they dodged the projectile and took to the air. “Let us depart, shall we?”

Let’s,” Willy said.

 

Alfredo met his friends at the inlet and escorted them up the path toward his cottage. “Majewski sends his regrets,” he told them. “He cannot make it.” Perhaps it is for the best, with Charlotte newly ensconced in the tree house. One day I will have to tell him about his sister. But not today.

Too bad!” Kate said. “It was Majewski who saved the island from Henry. Without him, we wouldn’t be here celebrating anything.”

Or the birds,” Jade said. The others looked at her in confusion. “The birds. Without them, we wouldn’t be here either.”

In other words, the least deserving of all in this affair,” Russ said with a laugh, “are those of us here partying?”

Is that not always the way?” Alfredo said. He leaped across the small stream and waited for the others before continuing along the path. “But truly, we all brought this about. Majewski, the five of us, the people of Ledford, and the birds. It gives me great hope for the planet.”

They arrived at Alfredo’s cottage, and he opened the door. “Sit down, everyone,” he said, gesturing toward the table. He looked at his watch. “We are officially celebrating.”

Wow!” Jade said as she slid into a chair next to the window. “You really put a feast together, Alfredo!”

The table was laden with food: sandwiches on three different types of bread, a large garden salad, and a bowl of fresh fruit. “Oh, just a few leftovers from the fridge,” he said, waving away her compliment.

The others laughed, and Kate said, “In a pig’s eye!”

You don’t have a fridge,” Sam said.

Alfredo slapped his forehead and said, “I knew there was something we forgot when we built this place!” He looked at his watch. “Please help yourselves, my friends.”

He sat down and stared out the window as his guests chatted happily while they piled food onto their plates. He felt anxious about Charlotte and her first day at the Treehouse. I should not have left her alone.

That was an incredible thing they pulled off,” Russ said. “How did all those birds know? Who told them to gang up on Henry like that? I mean, it’s a feat of communication and organization that I for one didn’t know birds were capable of. Were you involved, Alfredo?”

The sound of his name brought him back to the table. “They told themselves, actually,” he said. “Though I would have been proud and honored to have been involved, this was completely a bird job.” He glanced down at his watch.

Kind of scary when you think about it,” Jade said. “The way they all ganged up on Henry. “If all the animals could do that …”

It might give us pause,” Kate said, narrowing her eyes and waving a pumpernickel sandwich at the others.

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “They do not really need us.”

Speaking of birds doing extraordinary things,” Russ said, glancing casually at Alfredo. “There was an article in the paper this morning about a patient that went missing from the state mental hospital.”

Kate frowned. Alfredo exchanged nervous glances with Sam as Russ continued, “Yeah, she just vanished, they said. It was funny though. The article said on the day of her disappearance, this huge flock of crows came down on the place and tore it up. They scared the bejesus out of a few inmates and staff.”

Really?” Alfredo said, hoping to sound sincere and surprised at the news. “They destroyed things?”

From what the article said, they just kind of acted up,” Russ said with a grin. “They knocked the plastic water pitchers off the tables, overturned chairs, and got into the trash cans. Everyone was on the patio trying to keep control of the patients and keep the crows out of the building. And she just walked away, they said.”

Who was she?” Kate said, looking straight at Alfredo without smiling.

Alfredo looked down at his watch. He felt exhausted and anxious, wishing there was no party and he was with Charlotte at the Treehouse. His discomfort grew by the moment and he could hardly sit still on his chair.

They didn’t say,” Russ said. “All they said was she was not violent, and she couldn’t speak English.”

How could a patient just disappear like that?” Jade asked. “You would think their security would be better than that.”

Alfredo took a bite of the sandwich that had been sitting on his plate. He was relieved that the article had said she disappeared, as opposed to escaped. And that her name had not been published. Thanks to the weekend receptionist’s forgetfulness, the name Dr. Robbins had not been left behind on the visitor’s log.

It’s an old building,” Russ said, helping himself to another sandwich. “The paper said they’re moving to a new one next week. Security is one reason. But mostly, the building is just flat out too old. They couldn’t upgrade the plumbing or the electrical.”

Alfredo felt grateful to have gotten Charlotte out of the asylum before they moved her to the new facility. It had been laughably easy, and he wondered if he could have just walked out to the parking lot with her and driven her out. He looked at his watch. I wonder if she is all right. Of course she is! Charlie and Rika are with her.

Well, funny you should mention the asylum,” Kate said. “I heard that Henry Braun’s been committed.”

Now there’s some poetic justice,” Sam said.

No!” Jade said, her eyes opened wide. “Why?”

They say he just lost it after the poo-bath the birds gave him,” Kate said. “And he tore his house up.”

How’d you find that out?” Russ asked with a big grin. “Don’t tell me a little bird told you?”

Kate threw her head back and laughed. “No, though I have a vast network of spies and informants, they’re all humans, every one of them.”

Though he was relieved that Kate had steered the conversation away from Charlotte, Alfredo felt a new burden of guilt bear down on him. So that is why Minnie has been calling me. I should have returned her calls.

He stood up from the table and took each of their plates to the kitchen area and returned with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a carafe of coffee.

Oh, I was hoping you’d baked cookies!” Jade said as she took one. “You could market these, you know. They’re heavenly!”

Alfredo laughed and took a cookie off the plate. “Thanks, Jade! If I wash out as a priest—not at all a far-fetched scenario—and a college professor and scientist, I will consider that. Thanks for the testimonial!”

Once Majewski finds out I have his sister here, I will no doubt be cast out, perhaps arrested. If they can find me. Already the idea had germinated in his mind that he could disappear with Charlotte into the bogs and fens and forests of the island near the Treehouse.

I’m afraid the world will never see these cookies,” Russ said through a mouthful. “Alfredo’s in danger of being signed on as a full-time, tenure track professor!”

That’s fabulous!” Kate said. “Congrats, Padre!”

Alfredo waved his hand at Russ. “The university wants to be our partner in research here, which in the long run will help our efforts to keep the island intact.” His words slammed incongruously into his fantasy of vanishing in the wilderness with Charlotte. He felt confused, suddenly. And so very tired. He looked at his watch.

Hooray for the U of M,” Jade cried out, “and long live Wilder Island!”

Thanks to all of your efforts,” Alfredo said cheerfully, trying to shake off his weariness. He raised his coffee cup in salute.

Thanks to all of our efforts,” Kate said.

Five cups clanked together over the plate of cookies, and everyone cheered.

One more,” Sam said, turning to Kate. “Thanks to the Father Superior Majewski for bringing Kate to us, and most especially me.” He raised his cup reverently to her.

Aw, Sam,” Kate said, blushing.

She loves him. Alfredo could see it in her eyes. And in his. Jade and Russ looked at each other like that. The old, familiar fog of isolation began to envelop him. I wish I could love like that. Charlotte’s face appeared in his head, her gray eyes, so innocent and warm. A few strands of black hair blowing across her face. I love her. He felt his body respond suddenly, in a way he had not felt since graduate school. The tingling. The hardening he did not think himself capable of since then. He felt his face flush.

So,” Kate said with a grin, “when will you publish your research on the language of the crows?”

Not any time soon,” Alfredo laughed nervously. He moved his chair slightly. “I have only just begun to scratch the surface.”

Nonsense!” Russ said. “You’re too modest! You carried on entire conversations with those crows on our table at the fair! Publish, man!”

Why does he keep pressuring me? I have no ambitions as a scholar.

But he smiled graciously and said, “And you exaggerate, Russ! I am many months from a publication, if ever. But how about you? How is your tenure research coming?”

I’m doing some field work today after we finish here,” Russ said. “If that is all right?” He put a hand behind one ear. “I can’t resist the siren call of the orchids!”

And I’m going to sketch,” Jade said. “Wilder Island II coming up!”

Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research station and inspiration.” He felt some anxiety about Russ and Jade out wandering around, with Charlotte in the Treehouse. But she is far away from the bridge and the Boulders. There is no way she can find her way there without help.

Want to join us?” Jade asked. “Anyone?”

Sam shook his head. “I’ve got to get some work done in the studio. I got way behind because of the art fair. Not that I’m complaining!”

But another time, I’d love to,” Kate said. “I’ve got some work waiting for me also,”

Alfredo hesitated a moment. I really need to get back to the Treehouse. If I go with them, how will I gracefully excuse myself? But if I let them leave by themselves and they come back and I am not here …

You two go on,” he said. “I will catch up after I tidy up here.” He hoped they would not find Bruthamax’s bridge and cross the Boulders.

 

Russ and Jade left Alfredo’s cottage and made their way through the forest. The early afternoon sun infused the woods with crisp clarity, revealing the most intimate details of leaf, twig, and trunk. “Alfredo seemed really nervous,” Jade said as they walked. “Did you notice? He kept looking at his watch.”

When he wasn’t staring out the window,” Russ said. “Yeah, I did notice. Like he really wanted to be somewhere else.”

I wonder why?” Jade said. “He invited us; it’s not like we barged in on him or anything.”

Russ shrugged. “Who knows? He’s a strange man.”

Hand-in-hand they strolled through the woods, and from time to time, they stopped while Russ pointed out and named the familiar as well as unusual plants that crossed their path. Suddenly a rustic footbridge bridge appeared through the vines and shrubs. “Wow!” Jade said. “This is pretty cool! Did Alfredo build this? Is it safe?”

Yes it is safe,” Russ said. “And no Alfredo didn’t build it. But he told me about it. Brother Maxmillian Wilder did. Over a hundred years old, he said, and still sturdy.”

They walked to the middle and looked down at the tumble of huge rectangular slabs of rock below them. The sound of water falling wafted up to them and Jade said, as she peered down into the rocks and trees. “I hear a waterfall, but I don’t see any water.”

It flows under the rocks,” Russ said, “and comes out on the other side of the island, where we built the sanctuary.”

They crossed the bridge, holding on to ropes of twisted forest fibers. “Oh, look at that!” Jade cried out. She brushed past Russ to the platform where the bridge ended, down the rope ladder to the ground.

With Russ right behind her, she slipped between two trees, pushing the low-hanging branches aside. She stepped into a tiny clearing where the forest gave way to a pond surrounded by scores of tiny flowers. Jade skipped to the pond, dropped to her knees and brought handfuls of the cool water to her lips. “This is what heaven is,” she said and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Cool, sweet water.”

Russ drank from the pond and pointed to a tiny flower growing at the edge of the water. “It sure looks like a Cypripedium reginae, except for the color. I’ve never seen a blue one.”

Lovely!” Jade said after she flopped down on her stomach on the grass next to him. “What color are they usually?”

Pink and white,” he said. “You’ve seen ’em. They’re known as Lady’s Slippers, the state flower of Minnesota, though they’ve all but vanished from the face of the Earth. But I’ve never seen a blue one!”

Crow’s eye blue,” Jade said. “They’re the same blue as the crow’s eyes!”

Oh, look!” Russ said, grabbing her arm. “The Arethusa bulbosa, the Dragon’s Mouth orchid. Unbelievable! This little beauty is extremely rare. But look!” He gestured with his arms. “It’s everywhere!”

Oh,” Jade said, reluctantly pulling herself away from the Cypripedium reginae, “but the Lady’s Slipper is so much sweeter!” She examined the Arethusa bulbosa. “Dragon’s Mouth, eh? I never would have thought that, although I can see some resemblance to a tongue, and those little bitty yellow hairs must be the flames.”

Russ had moved on to another flower. “Wow. This is a total score. A Malaxis palodusa, aka the Bog Adders Mouth. It’s a high-latitude orchid, almost unheard of here in the States. But here it is, right in my own backyard, so to speak.”

It sure is an ugly little thing,” Jade said, bending down close to the wiry little plant with a thick stem. “I thought orchids were all beautiful. This one’s all stem! Where’s the flower?”

Ah, but it’s an exquisitely rare, ugly little thing,” Russ said. “Who needs beauty? So commonplace! Rare is better! But no, my sweet, not all orchids are beautiful; some are really nasty looking. There’s one that smells like rotten meat, in case you’re also thinking all flowers smell nice.”

I was,” Jade said with a shrug. “But I should have known.”

Russ stood up. “This is just gobsmacking unbelievable. First the Arethusa bulbosa, which was rare enough, and now the Malaxis palodusa!” All around the glade, multitudes of pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew in astonishing abundance. “I’ve never seen this many varieties of orchids in one place. I can’t say I’ve ever even read about a place like this.”

A spiky little plant with flowers of sticky, needle-shaped petals caught Jade’s eye. She moved closer and saw a drop of clear fluid hanging on the end of each petal. “What’s this one called, honey?”

That’s a Drosera rotundifolia,” Russ said after a quick look, “speaking of carnivorous plants. It traps insects with those little drops of stick-um.” He touched one of the drops, pushed it against his thumb, and pulled his fingers apart to demonstrate its glue-like qualities. “The plant digests the insect as it struggles to get free.”

Eeuw!” Jade wrinkled her nose. “I think I’d rather be looking at the lovely Lady’s Slipper—it’d make such a beautiful sketch. But maybe I’ll draw that ugly one over there. Just for contrast”

That’s fine, honey,” Russ said, and he disappeared from view among the flowers and long grasses. “Wait a minute!” she heard him exclaim. He fell to his belly and disappeared from her sight.

Not until he had examined whatever it was fully and described it in his field notebook in excruciating detail and taken several Polaroid photographs, as well as a gazillion digital pictures, would he allow the outside world to encroach upon his enchanted little world.

She took her sketchbook and a set of colored pencils out of her bag and sat down next to the Lady’s Slipper. With quick, light strokes of a pencil, she blocked in the flower, its stem and leaves, and a few rough details of the surrounding cove.

Russ could hardly believe his eyes. A blue Cypripedium reginae! But there was something else unusual about this flower. It has two seed stems. Impossible! Orchids are monocots!

But there it was. A blue non-monocot Cypripedium reginae. And it grew in abundance in this little cove! Russ felt his pulse quicken. Is this it? Have I found it? My Jadum wilderii?

He took a mechanical pencil out of his pocket and his field notebook out of his pack and opened it to the first blank page. After noting the date and his location, he described the flower in full detail, from the base of its stem to the tips of the petals. He made a few sketches of the leaves, stem, and flowers, annotating each carefully with notes and labels. He took numerous photographs until the Polaroid was out of film and the card in his digital camera was full.

He knew it would be illegal to dig up a Cypripedium reginae plant. But this isn’t a Cypripedium reginae, but he really wanted to see its root system. There seems to be a viable population here. I don’t think it would hurt anything. And I really need to get this into my lab.

He rummaged in his pack for a small spade and carefully dug up one of the smaller plants, put it into a plastic sample bag and stowed it in his pack.

 

Alfredo escorted Sam and Kate to the inlet and waited with them for the captain. After he saw them off, he returned to his cottage to change into clothes more suitable for a slog down to the Treehouse. As he opened the door, he saw his cell phone blinking, announcing a call had come in while he was gone. He listened to the incoming message:

Ah, hello,” Thomas Majewski’s voice said. “It’s Thomas. I, uh, I’ve received some very disturbing news concerning my sister. I’m catching a late afternoon flight out your way. I’ll call when I land. Cheers.”

Alfredo stood rooted to the floor for many moments, panicked thoughts racing through his head, the worst of which Charlotte would be returned to the brand-new, high-security state mental hospital. He saw himself alone in a prison cell.

Dear Lord, what have I wrought?

The orb swayed gently on the end of the lamp chain, attracting his attention and breaking his paralysis. He steadied it for a moment, then removed it and put it in his pocket. Just in case.

He tidied up the cottage as anxious thoughts gnawed at him. Majewski will expect me to be here with him tonight, but I cannot leave Charlotte alone so soon. He looked at his watch. 1:20. I have time to run down to the Treehouse and visit with Charlotte, fix her some dinner and be back in time to meet Majewski at the docks.

Or. His hands stopped drying the sandwich platter. If I do not answer my phone when he calls … he will no doubt get a hotel room in Ledford tonight, and I won’t have to deal with him until tomorrow.

He turned his phone off and put it on the table. After throwing a few items in his backpack—some fruit and cookies left over from the party—he wrote a quick note:

Russ and Jade-

My apologies, but I got called away. I have arranged for the Captain to pick you up at the inlet at 4:00.

AM

He stuck it to the door with a small tack and called out to a group of young crows in a nearby tree. “Yo! JohnHenry! I need a favor, please. Find the Captain and tell him that I need him to please meet my guests at the inlet at four o’clock. Can you do that for me?”

Yessir!” JohnHenry said and took to the air, his three brothers following close behind.

Jade finished her drawing of the blue Lady’s Slipper and stood up to stretch. Russ sat in the same spot where she had seen him go down, hunched over the notebook on his lap. She looked at her watch and estimated he’d be so engrossed for the next half-hour at least. Time enough for a short walk. The cove and pond were bathed in sunlight, but as soon as she stepped through the two sentinel trees where she and Russ had entered the cove, she was in a dark forest of tall trees, so completely unlike the little cove. She looked back through the sentinel trees at Russ, still bent over his work surrounded by sunlight flowers.

The sound of falling water captured her attention, and she thought the bridge was just ahead of her. She peered over the edge of the boulder ravine, through the willows and rocks; the waterfall sound seemed to come from directly below her. She couldn’t see water flowing, but supposed Russ had been right, as always. The water flowed under the rocks.

The boulder ravine cut the island in two, as if the river had chewed its way through from one side of the island to the other. There really is no way across that. All those scrubby trees growing between those huge rocks—I’d never get around them. She sat down in a sunny spot on a flat rock and admired the view with the music of the waterfall in her ears.

 

Charlotte walked through the forest on ground that was sometimes spongy and sometimes firm. Birds sang all around her, and she heard their many conversations. Her neck hurt from looking up, and her face ached from a permanent smile. A few crows called out her name from the branches and she waved and called out, “Grawky!”

I wonder where Jayzu’s cottage is?” she said out loud.

A young crow dropped out of the branches and landed at her feet. “That way, Miss Charlotte!” He pointed a wing. “By and by, you’ll come to a bridge. Jayzu’s cottage is on the other side.”

Thank you!” she said, stooping down to bird level. “And what is your name, little one?”

Zelda,” she said.

Grawky, Zelda,” Charlotte said and brushed her hand across the crow’s outstretched wing.

Zelda!” a voice shouted from the trees above. “Come on!”

Zelda flew off and Charlotte continued walking in the direction the little crow had pointed. She walked around black water ponds rimmed with sedges and rushes, and a marsh where a few ducks quacked their surprise at seeing her.

Charlotte drifted through a patchwork of different shades and hues of yellow, blue, red, orange, and green. Everywhere she looked, a new wonder revealed itself. A spider web stretched across a forked branch, drops of dew from the morning still clinging to its threads. Hundreds of birds flew in and out of the tree branches, weaving a trail of songs through the leaves.

The sights and smells of the forest triggered fragments of memory from her life before Rosencranz. She saw herself gathering leaves and flowers and putting them in a basket. The gray-haired woman with red cheeks smiled as she took the basket and dumped it on a table. She sang as she sorted and arranged the leaves and flowers into small piles:

Oh, the summer time is coming

And the trees are sweetly blooming

And the wild mountain thyme

Grows around the purple heather

Charlotte stopped walking and listened for a few moments to the woman singing in her memory. Mimi! A rush of images crowded her thoughts and she stopped walking. Mimi smiled and said, “Pick me some purple heather, lass?”

Charlotte’s voice sang out into the forest:

And we’ll all go together

To pick wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather,

Will ye go, Lassie, go?

And here it is, my love,” Russ said as he stood up. “Jadum wilderii. My ticket to tenure!

But she was nowhere in sight. “Jade?” he called out. “Jade!” He strained to hear something through the chatter of the birds and the cacophony of insects. “Jade!”

He walked through the sentinel trees and stopped. A faint path led to the bridge. Alfredo warned us about the swamps and bogs beyond the boulders. I hope she didn’t go that way. He took the path to the bridge, calling out her name every minute or so. “Jade!” But where else would she have gone?

The sound of the waterfall drew him away from the path, and he walked to the edge of the boulder-filled ravine. Jade’s bag with her sketchbook and pencils lay on a flat rock before him. “Jade!” he called.

He picked up her sketchbook, hoping she had not tried to find the waterfall. Jade’s not exactly the adventuresome type, he told himself. I’m surprised she got this far away from me. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “Jade!”

Nothing.

As if I could hear anything above the bird racket. He returned to the path, and when the old bridge appeared, he felt a strange certainty that she had crossed it and was on her way to Alfredo’s cottage.

He climbed the steps spiraling around the tree trunk to the platform and stepped onto the bridge.

 

Jade luxuriated in the sensation of warm sun on her back. This is why lizards like rocks. I could fall asleep here. She looked at her watch and shook her head. I’d better get back to Russ. She hopped off the rock and after getting her bearing from the footbridge to her left, she turned right. The little cove is just a few steps this way.

The path took a strange turn and the forest closed in around her. She turned around to make sure she could still see the old bridge. It was gone. She couldn’t hear the waterfall anymore either. And there was no sign of the sentinel trees or the sunny cove of flowers.

Everything looked the same, no matter which direction she looked. Nothing but leaf upon leaf, branch upon branch, like a kaleidoscope of green and brown all the way to eternity. She started to run back toward the bridge, but after a few steps the path disappeared, and she stopped. Nothing looked familiar. The ground was rocky in one place and slippery black mud in others.

She stopped and looked all around. “Where am I?”

Where am I?” She heard her cry echo through the forest.

She looked up through the trees, trying to get a sense of direction from the sun, but no sunlight filtered down to the forest floor. She could only see patches of blue here and there.

She froze at the sound of someone singing, a strangely familiar voice singing a melancholy tune. Who is that? The singing came closer—a thin and silvery voice sang:

All around the purple heather

Will you go, Lassie, go?

We’ll all go together,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

Chloe?”

How can she be here? Am I dreaming? Chloe died five years ago. She slapped her face a couple of times ordering herself to wake up. But the singing continued.

Will you go, Lassie, go?

And we’ll all go together

To pick wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

She rushed headlong into the thick forest toward the singing; the thorns and prickly branches of the undergrowth scratched her arms and face as she thrashed her way through. The singing compelled her forward, growing louder at each step.

All around the purple heather,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

Jade burst through the trees into a small sun-lit clearing. Right before her stood a tall, thin woman with a long black braid. But it was the eyes that arrested her. Eyes the color of the dawn.

 

Alfredo walked quickly toward the Boulders, hoping to see Jade and Russ coming back. The bridge rocked and rolled as he trotted across, and he twirled himself down the spiral steps to the ground using only the rope. He sped down the vague path and slowed to a halt as he noticed Jade through two tall trees that stood side-by-side.

He crept up closer, keeping himself concealed. Jade’s back was toward him, but he could see that she was sketching. And there is Russ. I guess he found the blue orchids. Jade looked back over her shoulder suddenly. He pulled himself into the shadow behind the tree.

When she turned back to her work, Alfredo snuck away, relieved that neither she nor Russ had seen him. They are busy about their own concerns. And I need to get to Charlotte. He felt a sudden urgency, almost panic to get to the Treehouse, though he knew Charlie and Rika were with her.

The panic remained as he sped through scrubby bog birch and fragrant myrtle, feeling the firm ground starting to go soft in places. He stepped in more than one black puddle or pond, cursing as he pulled his foot out of the muck. He tried to pay attention to the different greens and textures, but everything looked the same, yet unfamiliar. As if he had never come this way before.

He tripped on a tree root and slid face-first down a mud-covered slope into a pool of black water. He fished himself out, wiping black mud out of his eyes, and stumbled forward without being sure of where he was going. He stumbled over rock and sprawled onto his hands. Cursing, he picked himself up again and bushwhacked through the undergrowth, using his arms as scythes.

He arrived at the Treehouse, covered with black mud and blood, and he shot up the spiral steps onto the deck. “Where is Charlotte?” he asked, wildly looking around. “Where is she?”

Rika blinked at him. “She is gone, Jayzu. Gone for a walk in the woods, I reckon.” She gestured with her wing.

Why did you let her go?” he cried, his panic wilting into dread. He stared at her, wondering how she could remain so calm.

Rika blinked again and tilted her head to one side. “As if I could stop her, Jayzu. I had my wings full with the kreegans. I couldn’t watch her too.”

I’m sorry, Rika,” he said. His shoulders sagged, and he sat down on the bench with his head in his hands. How could I leave her alone with only crows to look after her?

After a few moments, he raked his hands through his hair and stood up. “I must find her.”

He jumped over the railing around the deck, landing in the grass below. “Charlotte!” he shouted as he sped off into the trees. “Charlotte!”

 

And so ends Corvus Rising. Book 2 coming ‘soon’ (hahahaha!) No, seriously. I am finally almost finished and expect to be publishing it by summer!  -mcs

 


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The Million Bird Stand

 

Grawky! JoEd,” Jayzu said, smiling at the stunned crow on his step. Alfredo looked up from the papers he was grading at his table, distracted by the loud thump he heard against the cottage wall. He out his pen down, went to the door, and opened it to find a motionless crow lying on this doorstep.

JoEd struggled to his feet. “Man, that was some jaloosie!” He smoothed his ruffled feathers back against his body. “It took me as soon as I left Downtown, Jayzu! It took me way up—higher than ever!”

Are you all right?” Alfredo stooped down to see if the bird was injured.

Oh, yeah! I’m fine.” JoEd looked up at the sky. “But I wasn’t even trying to ride a jaloosie. It just took me and dropped me here. I have come for the Million Bird Stand.”

As I suspected,” Alfredo said. “Birds have been flying in from all over for the past two days.”

He had watched a steady stream flying over the treetops all day. Many landed in the trees near the hermit’s chapel — corvids mostly, to admire Bruthamax’s worship nest. It was rather astonishing, that many birds. And how marvelous that so many different species came to gather in one place briefly, to make a stand against the destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia!

An island this small could not support such a huge number of birds, even for a few days. Alfredo noticed many of them flew off the island in the morning, presumably to feed in the city of Ledford, in the surrounding fields and pastures, and along the riverbanks.

I have been out spreading the word,” JoEd said. “It’s going everywhere, Jayzu, around and around, in wider circles all across the land.” He dipped his beak several times in a puddle on the stone step.

We cannot stop the Bunya without you,” Alfredo said. “I am grateful for your help.”

I would be nowhere else,” JoEd said. “We are small alone.”

Alfredo watched him disappear into the forest as he flew off in the direction of the tree house. For just this one day, I would like to be a crow. To be one of them when they take a stand against Henry Braun. The Bunya.

This is ours,” Charlie had said when Alfredo asked if he could help with the Million Bird Stand. “You’ve already raised your voice. You have done much, Jayzu, to keep Cadeña-l’jadia the way it is. We know you are with us in spirit. It’s our turn now.”

 

JoEd found his parents perched on the rail around the deck of Bruthamax’s tree house. As he approached, Rika nudged Charlie with her wing and said, “My Orbs! Husband! I think our son has come home!”

JoEd landed on the railing and put a wing out over his mother and said, “Hi ya, Weebs!” Rika pecked him lightly and spent a few moments grooming him until he squirmed away from her.

Aw, Weebs!” he said, flapping his wings. “I’m not a hatchling anymore. I can clean my own feathers!”

Your weebs is happy to see you,” Charlie said. “As am I.”

It’s good to be home, Zazu!” JoEd said. “I want to make a stand with you.”

Well, that is tomorrow,” Rika said, nudging her son. “First you must tell us where you have been and what have you seen since you flew the nest. You look a bit thin. Have you been eating enough? Have you found a mate?”

JoEd thought of Shannon, the pretty little crow he had met on the roof of the River Queen. She seemed to like me. He wondered if he could find her again.

I eat just fine, Weebs,” JoEd said. “There’s so much food in the city, it’d be hard not to eat well. And I’m still a bachelor.”

When it is time,” Rika said, nodding, “she will come.”

JoEd looked at his mother with great love. She is so wise, my weebs.

I am in Keeper training,” JoEd said. “Just like you, Zazu! I am a novice. Starfire says I take after you. ‘You’re a quick learner, just like your zazu’—that’s what he said!”

I’m proud of you, JoEd,” Charlie said. “You have done well.”

JoEd roosted for the night in his ancestral tree. He’d been all over since he left, intoxicated by the sight of the River Queen and Downtown. And the university! He thought he’d seen a huge chunk of the world after Antoine flew him around the university. But when he flew out to spread the word for the Million Bird Stand, he was staggered by the sheer size of it all. He flew for hours over strange landscapes without trees, huge lakes whose opposite shores he could not see, and off in the distance, mountains!

But it was good to be home.

 

Henry stood at the window of his office, scowling at the thousands of birds that swirled above Wilder Island. The picnic was tomorrow; everything was ready. “The last thing I need is a bunch of flying vermin in the air crapping all over the place,” he growled to Jules Sackman. He wanted to throw his shoe at those two smirking crows in the tree outside his window.

He closed the window shade and took a seat in the huge leather armchair behind his desk. He fidgeted with the stapler and then the pens in the leather holder that matched his chair. He leaned back, swiveling away from the windows and toward the portraits of his ancestors. Henry the First’s eyes bore down on him. What is it? Have I forgotten something?

I wonder why so many of them suddenly flocked to the island in the last few days,” Jules said, picking at a fingernail. “Almost like they knew something.”

You and my insane wife,” Henry said, waving away the attorney. “You think these stupid birdbrains are capable of thought? It’s just a coincidence—probably some dead animal on the island they all want a bite of. That’s all they know, Jules. They don’t have thoughts, just urges. Eating, shitting, and screwing.”

Henry the First nodded. “Don’t let them stop you, Henry. It was the crows that took down my bridge, you know. Just like now—thousands upon thousands of them flying in at night, so no one saw. The next day, the bridge was no more.”

No filthy crow is going to stop me again!” Henry nearly shouted at Jules.

But what were all these birds doing here? If crows destroyed the trestle bridge, he shuddered to think what they could do to his picnic. He engaged briefly in a dark fantasy of thousands of crows bringing the helicopter down, loaded with his investors. And him.

He shook his head quickly a few times to dispel the gruesome image of bodies floating in the water and the helicopter lying on its side like a dead insect. He tried to focus his attention on the ceremony in the morning. He had dreamed of this day for years. He’d have an official ribbon-cutting and flag-planting, right on the banks of the island. He’d even commissioned a special flag of his family crest, in honor of reuniting the Brauns with their lost ancestral homeland.

Tomorrow, the island will be mine!” Henry said, forcing a grand smile. “And I, Henry Braun the Fourth, shall turn it into a paradise. First I plant a flag, reclaiming the island for my family honor. Henry Braun Island—that’s the new name.”

Henry the First nodded and winked. “That’s the spirit, boy!”

Henry,” Jules said, “you can’t just summarily change the name like that. Wilder Island is on all the maps. And, the island isn’t yours yet.”

A technicality!” Henry said, waving his hand at Jules. “What’re they going to do, sue me?” He laughed bitterly. “And the name ‘Wilder Island’ was never official. It’s my island; that makes it private property, and I can call it whatever I want.”

Yet the private property rights of others,” Jules said, “doesn’t apparently stop you from taking their land.”

Henry the First frowned down upon Jules. “Whose side is he on? How is it you tolerate this insolence?”

This whole eminent domain thing was your idea, Jules,” Henry said, mopping sweat off his forehead.

Don’t whine, Henry.”

He looked up at Henry the First.

“Fire the leech.”

 

After breakfast on the day of Henry the Bunya’s picnic, all the birds on Cadeña-l’jadia, residents and visitors alike, convened at the edge of the forest near the tip of the island where he would land his helicopter. The noise was horrendous, as thousands and thousands of birds of all breeds and sizes flew in and found places to perch, sit, or stand. Every bush and rock held as many birds as could get a foothold. Younger trees bent to the ground under the weight of their bird load. Birds covered everything.

Charlie perched at the top of a dead tree whose leaves and smaller branches were long gone, a high point from which he would speak to the birds gathered below. He unfolded his wings and shouted, “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!” He made a complete rotation on his perch, his strong mature voice flying out over the crowd as he repeated his salutation. “Greetings, Birds of all Feathers!”

He waited until the birds had mostly quieted down to continue. “Thank you for coming to the Million Bird Stand. In a few short hours, a small yet deadly invasion of the Bunya will begin. If we cannot stop them now, it will mean the end of Cadeña-l’jadia.”

The birds squawked, hooted, cawed, honked, cheeped, quacked, trilled, and chirped their displeasure.

But we are not just here to save Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie shouted. “The Earth beyond this little island is also a beautiful place and home to many more birds and many other creatures of all kingdoms! All creatures seem to know how to live here more or less peacefully. All but one. Humans. And the Bunya is their king.”

The birds again voiced their disapproval, some standing up and flapping their wings, some stamping around indignantly—though there was not much room, and everyone chattered at once. Charlie’s voice somehow arched over the noise. “We can turn them back now, all of us. Though we are each small, together we form a multitude, a force to be reckoned with. We shall turn back this invasion, island by island, forest by forest, for however many tomorrows it shall take. Today, the multitude of us will just say no.”

What if they have guns?” a thrush asked in a reedy voice.

We do not need to fear guns from this crowd,” Charlie said. “They will not be armed with guns; they arm themselves with orbs. They think their orbs will protect them. But they are sorely mistaken. We will use the weapon of our guts, and our sheer multitudes to chase the Bunya off our island.”

Charlie flapped his wings and shouted, “It is time! Let us now assume the position. Follow me!”

He swooped off his perch and flew low to the ground, leading a parade of walking, flying, and hopping birds. He dropped to the sand at the edge of the forest and shouted, “It is here we make our stand!”

As the birds arrived, he directed them into position. “We will create a barrier of birds. Yes, a solid wall of birds staring the Bunya down.”

He knew most of the birds could not hear him, but those who did followed his instructions and began layering themselves into a solid wall of feathers, beaks, wings, and claws. “Larger birds on the bottom!” he shouted.

As the multitudes of birds arrived at the site, they followed the others, assuming their positions in the great wall. “One bird every half wingspan—in all directions,” Charlie directed. “Find a perch in the trees, on the ground, on rocks, each other.”

The wall of birds was enormous, comprising many species, many colors, many eyes. It was a marvelous spectacle. There were whole bevies of quail and dove, nides of pheasants, gaggles of geese, flushes of ducks, rafters of turkeys, sieges of herons, murders of crows, conspiracies of ravens, tidings of magpies, descents of woodpeckers, hosts of sparrows, charms of finches, exaltations of larks, wisps of snipes, kettles of hawks, parliaments of owls, and parties of jays. All within a wing’s reach of one another, they formed a barrier of birds from the forest floor to its treetops.

Hookbeak and Starfire perched in a tree near the great wall of birds as Charlie spoke. “At my signal, we all take to the air, and we dump on him from above. The Bunya is our main target, but do not go out of your way to avoid hitting the others. Some of them are as guilty as he and, given the inspiration, would do exactly what Bunya wants to do. So, let it fly. Get some on everyone.”

Some what?” Floyd asked Willy. “Toxic waste? Hot wax? Fliers?”

I believe he means excrement, brother,” Willy replied.

Ohhh,” Floyd said, nodding. “I see.” After a few seconds, he said, “Ours?”

Who else’s?” Willy said.

Oh, goody,” Floyd said gleefully. “I love a pasting!”

Henry Braun looked up at the clear blue sky from the deck of the River Queen. Not a bird in sight—a matter of great relief to him. No dull roar of bird noise came across the river. “Good riddance,” he said with a growl. “And stay off my island!”

The River Queen pulled away from the dock with its cargo of Ledford’s well-heeled elite, and headed across the river to the city boat landing where they would board the helicopter. Henry didn’t dare try and take his beautiful River Queen to the island—not after what happened to his great-grandfather’s trestle bridge. Thirty or so of Henry’s guests sipped champagne and filled their plates at a buffet brunch on the promenade. While the boat paddled slowly past Wilder Island, the passengers enjoyed a marvelous feast that included grilled salmon, a mountain of jumbo shrimp, prime rib, quiche, a vast array of colorful fruit, and an exotic juice bar.

Originally he had planned to serve the feast on the island, but Jules had talked him out of it. “Come on, Henry!” he had said. “Think about it! Most people would prefer to dine on the decks of the River Queen than on the sandy banks of a deserted island. Remember, the island is full of crows; you don’t want to create an attractive nuisance.”

Create an attractive nuisance?” Henry was sick of Jules. “Seems to me those blasted crows are the nuisance.”

It was not an affair for children or spouses. This was not entertainment; it was business. The guest list was restricted to investors and influential politicos, including Henry Braun’s long-time crony, the Mayor. They were wealthy, all of them—except the newspaper people—otherwise they would not have been invited. A reporter from the Sentinel and his cameraman had been hired to publicize the event for Henry, and he magnanimously allowed them to indulge in the food but not the champagne.

After brunch, everyone disembarked from the River Queen. Half, including Henry, boarded a large helicopter that waited in the parking lot. The helicopter took off almost immediately and bore down on the island like a dinosaur-size bird of prey. After disgorging its passengers, it returned to the dock for the second load.

Henry climbed out of the helicopter, strode up the bank, and stopped. The forest in front of him was dark and forbidding, and its stillness seemed uncanny. It unnerved him that he could not see very far into its shadows. This was his first time on Wilder Island, and he wanted to savor these first moments of almost owning it. But the forest repelled him. The profound silence bore down on him. He shook his fist and raged silently. The day is coming, I promise, when I burn you down!

Turning his back, Henry forced himself to override his fear. At least those damn birds aren’t still flying around overhead. He climbed up to an elevated position on a rock and watched his guests make their way toward him. By the time they all arrived, Jules had finished setting up an easel to hold a set of colorful charts illustrating impressive returns on investments in Ravenwood Resort.

My friends, at long last I fulfill a boyhood dream,” Henry addressed the carefully chosen faithful, arms outstretched. “I’ve asked each of you here to witness this momentous occasion where I bring this island back into the fold of my family where it rightly belongs.”

Henry gestured behind him as he spoke. “Many years ago, my ancestor Henry Braun the First was swindled out of his rightful ownership of this island by corrupt politicians and a railroad desperate to survive. Through the next three generations, each Henry Braun brought fortune and good times back into the family. But we have gnashed our teeth, waiting for the time to restore what is ours. This island. It is now that time. With great honor and pride, I plant my family flag on Henry Braun Island, as it shall be known from here onwards.”

Unfurling the flag with the Braun family crest emblazoned in gold, Henry stuck the flagpole into the sand. Jules handed him a small sledgehammer; he smacked the top of the pole a few times and handed it back. Turning again to his guests, he threw his arms out and said, “Welcome to Braun Island, my friends. Upon this island we will build Ravenwood Resort.”

The people before him remained silent. No applause, no cheering, no flag waving, no celebration. Henry’s smile vanished and his neck hairs stood erect suddenly. He glanced over his shoulder at the forest and saw nothing but dark shadows woven into a patchy fabric of leaf and branch. Still, there was something not quite right about the scene.

He turned back to the investors, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets and licked his lips nervously. “I ask each and every one of you to join me in prosperity. Invest in Ravenwood Resort on Braun Island. Each of you has a prospectus and—”

No one was paying him the least attention. The investors looked past him into the forest, eyebrows raised incredulously. Henry stopped talking and turned slowly toward the trees. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, but where a few minutes ago only a dark spooky forest stood, now thousands and thousands and thousands of eyes stared at him from within a great wall of feathers and beaks.

 

The birds remained motionless, but for the occasional blinking of an eye. Charlie suddenly flapped out to a rock adjacent to Henry Braun, fixing his blue eyes upon him.

Well met, Bunya,” Charlie greeted Henry politely, extending his wing in the traditional crow salutation.

Complete silence reigned over birds and humans. “In case you are wondering, Bunya, we are here to let you know that it is us, not your fellow humans that you will ultimately have to contend with. Your own species cannot stop you. We will.” The crow turned toward the investors and said, “Best you all leave now, lest you become soiled.”

No one moved. “Have it your way, then.” Charlie leaped into the air above Henry and shouted, “Let it fly, birds of all feathers! Let it fly!”

The wall seemed to dissolve suddenly into an astonishing cloud of birds of all shapes and sizes. They flew toward Henry, a tiny target for so many birds, but in this they were adept. They had been practicing since dawn—a simple drill Charlie had devised, where they all circled and dumped in an intricate yet simple pattern.

The birds orbited Henry, and each took their turn diving and letting it fly. A thunderous noise of beating wings and ridicule from the beaks of the multitude accompanied the mass dumping.

Your mother plucks your feathers!” yelled JoEd as he shat upon the Bunya’s bald spot.

You weren’t hatched, you were laid!” Willy hollered as his load struck Henry’s prominent nose.

I wouldn’t wear that suit to a dog fight!” a magpie yelled, her tuxedo markings clean and flawless as she dumped her load.

Not to be outdone, Floyd bombed Henry with his own repartee, “I’ve seen bigger peckers on chickadees!” Splat!

After whitewashing Henry’s head, the birds moved on to other challenging territory: his suit coat, his trousers, his shoes. It took a long time for a million birds to dump their loads, and they did not hurry. The Bunya huddled near the rock upon which moments ago he stood in triumph, blubbering like a baby.

Starfire and Hookbeak flew out of their tree and took hold of the Bunya flag and pulled it out of the sand. They flew out over the river and dropped it in the water. “So long, Charlie!” Starfire yelled over his wing. The two old ravens parted company, as each headed for his respective tree in their respective cemeteries on either side of the river.

Once Henry had been thoroughly encased from head to toe, Charlie gave the signal for the birds to desist. “Birds of All Feathers, land in the sand!” The bombing suddenly abated as the birds dropped out of the sky. The entire tip of the island was covered with birds. Not a grain of sand could be seen from the river to the forest. “We don’t want any of them to think about coming back,” Charlie said. “Make it so there is no room for a human to stand.”

The sudden shower of shit scattered Henry’s guests all over the riverbank. No one escaped getting hit, but Henry bore virtually the complete brunt of the birds’ fury. The investors had all abandoned him, clamoring over one another for a seat on the helicopter. The pilot jumped out and shoved half of them back, shouting, “I’ll be back. Just stay right here. I’ll be back.”

Only faithful Jules stayed with Henry, waiting patiently for the birds to finish, but far enough away to avoid getting too badly pasted himself. The pelting finally stopped, but the sudden noise of that many birds crowing, quacking, honking, whistling, chirping, tweeting, clicking, and clacking all at once was hardly less fearsome. Henry ventured a quick peek. “Jules, where are you?” he cried out, digging his fists into his eyes like a lost little boy, smearing and grinding bird doo into his eyesockets.

I’m right here, Henry. Come along now,” Jules said, flicking a bit of birdshit off his sleeve. He handed Henry his handkerchief to wipe his eyes and escorted him to the helicopter. The birds closed in behind them.

I can’t let you aboard my ’copter all covered in crap like that, Mr. Braun,” the pilot said, blocking Henry from climbing aboard. “You’ll ruin my upholstery. Take off the shirt and slacks. Clean him up as much as you can,” he said to Jules. “I’ll be back.”

The group of spattered yet well-heeled investors took off in the helicopter while Henry stripped down to his skivvies. The pilot returned for him and Jules after leaving the guests in the safe hands of their chauffeurs at the City Boat Landing. Henry climbed aboard and left Wilder Island forever.

Mission accomplished, a million birds headed home. All except for JoEd, who had promised his weebs he’d come back to the tree house for a few days. She had completely forgiven him, as mothers will do, for flying away to the River Queen and not coming home for days. But he wanted to spend a little time with her, before he left for good. And to say a proper good-bye.

 

Never Mind!” shouted the Sentinel headline the next morning, right above a photo of Henry Braun covered in bird droppings. The caption read: “Wilder Island birds just say no to Ravenwood Resort.”

The whole front page, filled with news about Henry’s precious island, made Minnie smile. She laughed at the pictures of Henry, remembering his cold rage when he came home from his picnic the previous day.

Changed Our Minds!” headlined the article where the city revoked its condemnation of the island. Oh, thank the Lord! She heard Henry coming down the stairs and flipped the paper back. As he entered the kitchen, she set his perfectly cooled coffee on the table.

Henry scowled, and without touching the newspaper, he picked his coffee cup off the table and climbed the stairs to his office.

Minnie smiled and reread the lead article in the Sentinel, a humorous account of Henry’s picnic, including photos of the birds in action. “As if they enjoyed it,” the reporter wrote of the birds. “As if they enjoyed pelting the wealthiest man in the city with their excrement.”

I enjoyed it too! Even if I did have to launder his stinky clothes afterward. It was worth it! Go, birds!

She wondered if Floyd and Willy had been there. Would that I could have been a crow for that day! She giggled into her coffee. Alfredo Manzi’s name leaped out of the article at her.

“‘Ganging up on and pelting,’ says Dr. Alfredo Manzi, noted professor of ornithology at the university and pastor of the old hermit’s chapel, “are not uncommon offensive tactics that many birds employ to drive off predators—the smaller birds, especially. I am most impressed at how this so-called attack harmed no one, yet completely conveyed the message, ‘Hands off our island!’ Everyone is washable. We humans should take lessons.”

Minnie laughed to herself. Oh, I love that man!

 

Kate Herron’s inside sources informed her that the Mayor’s office had been deluged with the Friends of Wilder Island postcards, with notes that read, “Save your job, Mr. Mayor! Save Wilder Island!” “No to Eminent Domain!” “Keep the island as is!” “No Casinos!”

The city website shut down briefly,” she told Alfredo on the phone. “Too many people tried to log on and voice an opinion. Three to one, the e-mails, faxes, phone calls, letters, and telegrams expressed support for keeping Wilder Island wild.”

God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.

Well,” Kate said, “we dodged a bullet, I think. If Henry had planned something other than a gambling casino, things may’ve turned out differently. Still, the birds had the final word. That should give the next guy pause.”

 

Russ finished reading the Sentinel article aloud to Jade, and the phone rang. “Good morning, Russ!” Alfredo’s warm voice said. “Have you two seen the morning paper?”

We have!” Russ said, pushing the speaker button so Jade could hear. “I keep wondering if I’m dreaming. Is it true? Wilder Island is still ours?”

Still ours,” Alfredo said with a chuckle, “thanks to thousands of birds, our land trust, and the people of Ledford. Is it not marvelous! I am thinking it is only appropriate that we celebrate our victory here on the island.”

I’ll second that thought!” Russ said. “The island is the only place to celebrate this. We deserve a party for all the work we did! This weekend? And maybe afterward I can show Jade around a bit? I want to get some more photos, and she’s dying to see more of the island.”

Yes I am!” Jade cried out. “I’ll paint while Russ hunts for the flower he’ll name after me!”

Of course,” Alfredo said. “The island is your research and painting area; come and go as you please, both of you. I will call Sam and Kate, and Thomas too—he will be glad to hear this news. If you do not hear otherwise, please meet the Captain at the loading dock at nine on Saturday. I hope that is not too early?”

Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 16

 

Unmentionables

 

Russ awoke suddenly to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Jade gently snored beside him in the dark room. He raised his head and looked at the clock on the bedside table. It’s freaking four in the morning. Who the hell is it? He got out of bed, grabbing his cell phone as he shoved his arms into his robe. He tripped over his slippers and stumbled into the wall.

Jade woke up and said, “What is it, honey?”

Someone rang the doorbell. It’s probably some neighborhood prankster, but I’m going to check it out.” He left the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.

Oh, Jesus!” he said, as he opened the door to flames on the porch. He quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen and sprayed the small fire till it went out. He shoved the cinders with his foot—a few pieces of painted canvas and burned fragments of the frame. “Sonofabitch!” he said angrily. “Who would do this?” He took his cell phone from his pocket. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” the voice on the phone said.

Someone started a fire on my front porch.”

Jade appeared in the doorway. She gasped and pointed to the blackened mess on the porch, crying out in wordless anguish at the smoldering ruins of The Wilder Side, the painting she had donated to the silent auction.

The cops are on their way,” Russ said, taking her into his arms.

She shook her head and leaned against him. He walked her to her studio and put her gently in the armchair. Willow B jumped into her lap. “I’ll take care of everything, honey. You just hang out in here, okay?”

 

The police officers left just as the treetops glowed with the first light of morning. Russ opened the door to the studio and said, “Well, that’s that, for whatever it’s worth. They pretty much said there’s no chance they’ll ever find out who did this.” He squatted next to her chair and took her hand. “You going to be all right, hon?”

She nodded and smiled weakly as he kissed her hand. “We have a breakfast date with Sam, Kate, and Alfredo this morning,” he said. “Remember? Are you all right to go? We can postpone it if you aren’t up to it. I know they’ll understand.”

Jade shook her head. “No,” she said through a sigh. “Let’s go. I don’t really want to be here right now.”

 

They met the other Friends of Wilder Island at a popular twenty-four-hour eating establishment near the university, the Komodo Dragon. “You know the students call this place The Commode,” Russ said to Alfredo as they slid into a huge booth upholstered in red lizard skin.

How very appetizing!” Alfredo said, chuckling.

A stuffed Komodo dragon hanging from the ceiling stared down at Jade. Grotesquely comical, the gigantic lizard swayed gently on its ropes, a giant claw raised in a friendly greeting, and his long tongue frozen in a permanent licking gesture. One eyeball glared down at Jade, and she squirmed under its unblinking scrutiny.

After ordering breakfast, Alfredo, Kate, and Sam listened in shock as Russ told them about the fire on their porch.

Oh, no!” Kate said, shaking her head. “Not Wilder Side!”

What kind of low-life bastard would do something like that?” Sam said. “I’d like to beat the crap out of him.” He balled up a fist and punched his other palm. He shook his head a few times and blew hard through his teeth. “I just can’t stomach it.”

I am distraught, Jade, that someone could destroy such a beautiful piece of art,” Alfredo said. “There is much evil in the world.”

The same evil that wants to destroy Wilder Island,” Jade said.

Alfredo nodded. “It is indeed, Jade. Our only hope is to stand together against it.”

They held each other’s glance for a few moments. Why is Alfredo looking at me like that? Ever since the night of her reception, whenever their eyes met, he wore the strangest expression. Like he’s seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I have mascara all over my nose.

I am amazed at you, Jade.” Alfredo smiled, and his expression changed to kind concern. “You are so composed after such a horrific attack.”

You didn’t see me when Russ opened the door,” Jade said with a smile as she rubbed her nose. “I try not to think about how hateful it was.” Russ put his arm around her as she choked up. She drew in a deep breath and sat up straight. “But I’ll paint another. I’ll paint a hundred more. I will not be beaten.”

Her friends burst into applause. Jade blushed deeply, but she kept her head up and smiled.

Well, whoever did it,” Sam said, “paid a lot of money to destroy it. Out of the $18,750.00 we made from the silent auction, Jade’s painting brought us $5,500.00.”

Jade gasped. Her hand flew up to her face to cover her open mouth.

Russ asked, “Who bought it?”

Someone named Gabrielle,” Sam answered.

Jade noticed Alfredo’s head turn suddenly toward Sam. Does he know her?

Gabrielle who?” asked Kate.

Just Gabrielle,” Sam said. “She didn’t leave a last name.”

Gabrielle,” Jade said. “I’ve met her. Short, thin, black hair wound up in a bun. Fifty, maybe sixty?”

That’s her,” Sam said with a nod. “Real nice lady. I asked her if she wanted to be on our mailing list, and she said no, she’d keep up with us in the news.”

She bought two paintings at my art show,” Jade said. Catching the Wind and Leave Me.

Well, she’s obviously your biggest fan, then,” Russ said. “You should send her a Christmas card.”

If I knew where she lived, I would,” Jade said. “She’s evidently the gallery’s best customer, but even Jenna doesn’t know who Gabrielle really is.”

Alfredo’s eyes dropped to the table in front of him, and Jade watched him frown. He knows who Gabrielle is. A church person, maybe?

Did you look at her check?” Kate asked.

She paid in cash,” said Sam
“Jenna said she always pays cash. And doesn’t want to be on the gallery mailing list either.” Jade said

Cash?” Russ raised his eyebrows. “Who goes around with almost six grand in their pocket?”

The waiter set a large tray loaded with their breakfast on an adjacent table. In rapid succession, he pulled each plate off and put it down in front of the appropriate recipient.

Jade looked up at the Komodo dragon, which stared balefully down at all the food on the table. The poor thing looks hungry. She was tempted to offer it a bite, until she thought she saw a small drop of saliva fall from its leathery lip.

Gabrielle! Alfredo felt his stomach turn over when he heard her name. He saw the whole scenario at once. aka Mrs. Henry Braun, bought Jade’s painting at the auction. Henry had it destroyed. Or more likely, one of his hired thugs did.

Surely,” Kate said, mopping up the egg yolk on her plate with her toast, “Gabrielle didn’t take the painting away herself? Was she alone? Who picked it up? Where’d the painting get delivered to?”

I should have returned her calls. The secretary at St. Sophia’s had forwarded several phone messages to Alfredo from Mrs Braun yesterday. But he had not answered. He tried to tell himself that he had not had time to call her, but the truth was, he felt that she had developed a fondness for him that made him uncomfortable.

Could I have prevented this destruction of Jade’s paintings had I called her back? Fear jabbed through his guilt. Has Henry harmed her too?

No,” Sam said. “She said a workman would come after it and take it to the library. She wanted it hung next to the Murder of Crows photo.”

That would have been the perfect place,” Alfredo said ruefully. “How very generous of her.” In contrast to her husband’s destructive greed.

Who came and got it?” Jade asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. Some guy picked it up Sunday night when we were taking everything down. He had the receipt, so we let him take it.”

The waiter cleared the table and refilled everyone’s coffee cups. He put the check on the table, and Kate pushed it toward Jade. “I believe you’re the treasurer for the trust?”

Does that mean I have to pay for breakfast?” Jade asked in cautious fear. “When does my term end? Can I resign right now?”

Kate laughed, as did the others. “No, you may not resign! No—seriously, Jade, the treasurer pays the bills. Your first act is to order up some checks. I’ll put this on my credit card, and you can reimburse me from the funds in the land trust.”

We have funds?” Jade asked with a grimace.

Uh, yeah,” Russ said. “We sold a few more things at the art auction—your painting and about ten grand more for a few other odds and ends. Remember?”

Jade slapped her forehead and giggled. “Sorry! I’m a dope.”

She’s certainly not a dope. Again, she reminded Alfredo so much of Charlotte, a vast innocence perhaps. Her mind freely wanders like her mother’s. Russ seems to keep her feet on the ground, though.

Sam,” Kate said, “tell everyone how much the Beg-a-thon brought us!” To Jade she said: “You’ll be taking over future reports from the Treasury.”
Jade’s eyes widened in horror. “Why me? I can’t balance my own checkbook!”
“‘Bout time you learned!” Kate said. “But not now. Sam?”

We pulled in almost a million and a half bucks,” Sam said. “Mostly twenty-dollar shares.” He took a small piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and read: “We also sold eleven shares at the hundred-dollar price, six at the thousand-dollar level, and one at the ten thousand.” He looked up with a grin.

Russ whistled.

Alfredo said, “Bravo!” clapping his hands.

Really?” Jade asked. “We got that much from the people of Ledford?”

Well, I haven’t gone through the names and addresses yet,” Sam said. “But I think they’re all from the Ledford area.”

Kate pulled a calculator from her purse and said, “The population of metropolitan Ledford is one point two million. At twenty bucks a pop—”

That’s seventy-five thousand people,” Russ said, frowning. “Not exactly a large segment of the voting public.”

Five percent,” Kate said, snapping her calculator shut.

That’s it?” Jade asked. “Just 5 percent gave that much?”

Yep,” Kate said. “And we’ve only just begun!”

Alfredo was impressed too. That means there is more to be had from the people of the city. And then his own words haunted him: “I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check.”

What are we offering the people of Ledford? A wilderness they will never see up close? He shrugged.

A necessary evil, it seems.

 

The five friends said good-bye to one another on the sidewalk outside The Commode. Sam jumped into his flesh-colored pickup. Screeching his tires, he peeled out.

Boys!” Kate shook her head at his taillights. “Need a ride to the docks, Padre?”

They walked a few blocks to her car, and she unlocked his door. “I found out some things about your friend in Rosencranz.” She pulled out of the parking lot. “As in why she was sent there in the first place.” She turned onto University Boulevard. “And I found out her real name.”

Alfredo stared at her, and adrenaline shot him up with jittery fear. “It is not Charlotte Steele?”

Charlotte is her real first name,” Kate said. “Her full name is Charlotte Estelle Majewski.”

Stella? Alfredo sat in stunned silence. Stella? He shook his head. No, it cannot be. It is a coincidence.

Majewski’s a pretty common name,” Kate said. She stopped at a red light and turned to Alfredo. “Tell me, is she related to Majewski?”

Alfredo shook his head dumbly. “I honestly do not know.” What are you, a lawyer? He mocked himself. Charlotte Steele. Charlotte Estelle. You know who she is—Majewski’s sister. He looked out the window at Wilder Island, green and beautiful, wishing he could vanish forever into its mists and shadows.

Well,” Kate continued, “it would certainly be easier if Majewski was her brother. If he is, he can get her out.”

Alfredo did not answer. Majewski is Charlotte’s brother. His mind reeled with the consequences of these facts. Majewski cares a great deal about his sister. Will you hide this information from him, knowing his anguish over her?

But neither he nor his family ever visits,” he said angrily, dismissing his own thoughts, as well as the compassion he had felt for his friend Thomas. He could have tried to find her. “No one does but me.”

Well, anyway,” Kate said, “Mr. Majewski died in 90s,  after which the family lawyer set up a permanent trust fund with Rosencranz as the beneficiary, for Charlotte’s upkeep until she dies.”

Alfredo felt as if he had been stabbed in the heart. Until she dies? He heard Charlotte’s voice in his memory. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu.”

They do not care about her!” Alfredo said tersely. “They changed her name and pretend they do not know her! Why can I not become her legal guardian?”

Kate turned into the parking lot at the Boat Landing. After she parked and cut the engine off, she turned to Alfredo and said firmly, “Majewski is probably her legal guardian, Alfredo. There is no way around that. Why not just ask him to get her out?”

No!” Alfredo said harshly, and then he quickly apologized. “Forgive me, Kate. I do not know what came over me.” He looked across the river at the island. Why not tell Majewski? Kate is right … if Charlotte is his sister, he could get her released from Rosencranz.

Why not?” Kate asked again. “Seems to me that would be the easiest way.”

Without looking at her, Alfredo shook his head.

What is it?” Kate asked. “What are you afraid of?”

What would he do with her?” Alfredo asked. “He does not speak the crow language.”

I see,” Kate said, nodding. “You want to bring her to the island.” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel for a few moments before turning to Alfredo and looking at him with a calm and reserved expression on her face.

Suddenly she shouted, “Are you nuts?”

 

Alfredo sat at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel, recalling how Kate had nearly flayed him alive with words. “You can’t bring an inmate from a mental hospital to the island!” she had said. “It’s a freaking primitive wilderness, remember? That’s what we’ve been fighting for! For God’s sake, Alfredo! Where would she live? Don’t tell me in your cottage!”

After he denied such intent, or at least claiming he had not gotten that far with his plans, she had backed down somewhat. “Good. Don’t even think about it,” she had said. “Find somewhere else for her. But don’t tell me, okay?”

But where could he take her that would be any different than Rosencranz?

Charlie flapped to a landing on the driftwood log next to him, interrupting his thoughts. He smiled at his friend and lifted a hand in greeting.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said, brushing a wing across Alfredo’s hand. He folded his wings and scraped his beak back and forth across the log several times. “What’s up, man? You look a little down in the dumps, as they say.”

Charlie,” Alfredo said, “in less than two weeks, Rosencranz is moving all their patients upstate. We must get Charlotte out of there before they move her. I must break a few laws to do that, and I risk jail if I am caught. But if I do not get Charlotte out of there, I am afraid she will be a prisoner at Rosencranz forever. My heart tells me one thing, my rational mind another.”

He picked up a stick from the ground and peeled away fronds of rotten bark. “I am an alleged man of God, I beg him for guidance. But for the splendor of nature, he does not speak to me. I do not know where to turn for answers.” He bent over and traced the outline of a crescent moon in the sand and erased it with his foot.

Deities can be spectacularly subtle,” Charlie said. “That’s been the corvid observation of human gods in general over the years.”

As well as spectacularly unhelpful,” Alfredo said as he drew the outline of the grounds of Rosencranz in the sand. “Sometimes God wants us to find our own way, I guess.”

Well, it might help if you ask a yes or no question,” Charlie said. “Then the deity could catch a bush on fire, which would be a yes answer I would think. However, silence could also be construed as consent, albeit far less dramatic.”

The Almighty has indeed forsaken me,” Alfredo said with a rueful laugh. “And in my own silent darkness, I must consider committing a crime that could imprison me and leave Charlotte in Rosencranz without anyone to visit her.” He drew a curved line in the sand. The driveway.

But is it not a crime to leave her there?” Charlie asked.

It is indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am on the horns of a dilemma.”

The Grandmothers have a proverb,” Charlie said. “The horns of all dilemmas grow from the head of the same beast.”

Alfredo laughed bitterly, remembering NoExit’s words: “Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma? When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”

The dilemma is indeed a beast,” he said with a sigh. “Obey the law and commit a crime. Disobey the law and commit a crime. Either way I am gored.”

He traced a circle in the sand. The gazebo.

We corvids have but one crime,” Charlie said. “That makes things a bit simpler.”

Alfredo traced two large rectangles near the gazebo. The building, the parking lot. He marked Charlotte’s tiny room with a rock. “One law? Just one?”

No stealing,” Charlie said. “That’s it, our one law. Though it constantly undergoes reinterpretation to fit the circumstance—that’s one of the Grandmother’s duties. It is very cumbersome, the Grandmother’s task, requiring both reason and compassion.”

It would be considered a form of stealing if I take her from there.” Alfredo sighed, sitting up straight. “But what would I do with her if I could? Where would I take her?”

There were some very kind folks at St. Sophia’s, he had reasoned many times. But they would not be any better at communicating with Charlotte. Chances are she would end up right back in Rosencranz.

I cannot house her in my cottage,” he said. “It is too small for two humans. And, it would be unseemly for a priest and a woman to co-habitate.” He heard Kate’s voice almost snarling at him, “Don’t even think about it!”

What about the Treehouse?” Charlie said. “You are nearby, more or less. And I would be there to look after her, and so would Rika. Charlotte would never be lonely again, nor suffer any lack of companions to talk to.”

Alfredo almost laughed out loud, imagining how Kate would take to that idea. “Perhaps I should live in the Treehouse. Charlotte would undoubtedly be more comfortable in my cottage, which has running water. It is more suited for a woman, I think.”

It is too exposed here, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “People would see her. And then they would talk. That could never be good for Charlotte, and perhaps people would try harder to come to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Alfredo nodded slowly as he pondered the crow’s words. He bent back down to the sand and drew a large rectangle around the building, the parking lot, and the gazebo. He added a small square, for the guardhouse. “It is true,” he said thoughtfully. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention to his crime. He placed small x’s all along the fence line. The concertina wire.

Word will get out very quickly that an inmate has escaped Rosencranz. We would not want people to see someone matching her description here on the island.” Oh, the rumors that would create!

Let’s bring her to the Treehouse,” Charlie said. “You could sleep on the deck for awhile, or underneath it, until she is accustomed to being away from Rosencranz. The three of us—you, me, and Rika—will teach her how to live there. Then you go home to your cottage, and Charlotte is safe from being seen. She would love living in the Treehouse. I know she would.”

Alfredo’s own happiest memories resided in a crude tree house that he had built himself. He had spent most of the daylight hours in the summer there, with his only friends, a few crows. “All right, Charlie,” he said. “Let me gather a few things. I reckon it will need a good cleaning, at least.”

Life in Bruthamax’s tree house with her old friend Charlie could not be worse than her life in Rosencranz. I can look after Charlotte until she can manage on her own.

 

Armed with candles, matches, and cleaning supplies, Alfredo followed Charlie to the Treehouse. He slogged through the bogs and fens below the Boulders, trying to recognize where a different texture of leaf and shade of green heralded solid ground. Though he had been to the Treehouse many times, he still could not find his way on his own. He had only recently discovered that Charlie had never taken him the same way twice.

Duck weed,” Charlie called down from above after he stepped into a hip-deep hole full of tea-colored water.

Oh, crap!” he swore, pulling himself out. He kept a closer eye on Charlie after that. Though he had a few close calls, he arrived at the Treehouse without further mishap.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Rika said, as he stepped onto the deck of the tree house. “Nice to see you again, dearie.”

Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, brushing his fingertips against her outstretched wing. “It has been a while—since just after I got to Cadeña-l’jadia. I thought I should tidy things up a bit, in case we bring Charlotte here. And I need to check out what is here in the way of kitchenware—you know, pots and pans, dishes and such?

Well, dearie,” Rika said, “you’ll be bringing some comforts for the lady, I reckon. A tea kettle, for sure. And a nice cup. And maybe a bowl. I reckon Bruthamax ate right out of the pot he cooked in. That will never do for a lady.” Although crow beaks cannot be wrinkled up in distaste the way in which the human nose can, her tone clearly expressed that image.

Yes,” Alfredo said, laughing. “I am sure you are right. Human males, when left on their own, can be quite, how shall I say—primitive—with respect to the aesthetics of the lady’s house. We priests are no different, I suspect.”

Nor are the corvid,” Rika said. “It’s the females that keep the nest tidy.”

Rika had told Alfredo about her early adulthood in companionship with a genteel Patua’ lady in the wealthy Victorian Heights neighborhood of Downtown Ledford. “Oh, I miss her, Jayzu! How we used to sip tea together.”

Well, perhaps one day you and Charlotte can drink tea together on the deck.”

Curtains,” Rika said, aiming a wing at the window. “She’ll need curtains, Jayzu. A lady likes her privacy, you know. And a rocking chair—a lady needs a rocking chair. And you must bring a stove, a cast-iron one. A lady can cook and keep herself warm with a cast-iron stove.”

Rika!” Alfredo said, laughing. “How will I haul a cast-iron stove here? They are quite heavy! I am not a muscle man!”

Oh, pshaw!” Rika said, pushing at Alfredo with her wing. “Bring a small one, dearie! My lady’s doorman took one up to her upstairs apartment with nothing but his two hands.”

Alfredo turned to the little cabin, jerked the door open and went inside. He took the bench and table out to the deck, but the box-bed could not be moved. “Bruthamax must have built the wall around it,” he said. “That takes some planning!”

Several pots and pans sat on the shelf on the wall above the table, among them a cast-iron frying pan. When he grabbed the handle and slid it off the shelf, a folded piece of paper dropped to the floor. He picked it up, hoping it was part of Bruthamax’s journal, and took it outside. He unfolded the paper; the disciplined penmanship bore no resemblance to Bruthamax’s scrawl.

 

October 31, 1898

My Dear Nephew-

It is with great delight that I read your letters, which make me laugh and wish I could live in such paradise! I am grateful to the Good Lord that you remain in good health and spirits.

I received the manuscript. Thank you again for your work on behalf of the project. Without your efforts, and a handful of others, much knowledge would otherwise be lost.

May God bless you, and the Hozey family,

-Antoni

A manuscript?

Alfredo’s reread the letter, shaking his head in amazement. He stared into his thoughts for a few moments before folding it and putting it in his shirt pocket. I cannot wait to call Thomas!

He swept and scrubbed the Treehouse floor, bed, and shelves. Not a square inch of the interior had been left untouched. Such had been Rika’s instructions, and not until he had scrubbed the bench and table would she allow him to put them back inside. All the while he cleaned, Alfredo could not get Antoni de la Torre’s letter or its contents off his mind. Did Bruthamax’s uncle, the Provincial Father Superior Antoni la Torre ever visit him here the island? Was he himself Patua’? It would explain a few things.

 

 

After the cleaning of the Treehouse was complete, Alfredo packed his cleaning equipment and sat down on the deck. “Now, Jayzu, dearie,” Rika said, joining him on the bench, “have you thought about Charlotte’s wardrobe? She’ll need clothing, you know.”

Charlotte’s Rosencranz garb seemed the perfect attire for the island and Treehouse, but she would only be coming with the clothes on her back. He had not given it a thought, actually, what she would otherwise need, living in a tree house in the middle of a wilderness forest.

Perhaps you will help me, Rika,” he said, feeling like a deer in the headlights. “I know nothing of women’s clothing.”

Indeed,” Rika said, nodding. “Indeed. We’ll make a list, Jayzu, you and I. Levis and sweaters should do. And shoes, and stockings. A nightie. And of course, unmentionables.”

Unmentionables?” Alfredo asked with raised eyebrows. “I am sure I do not know what that means, Rika.”

The crow gave Alfredo a curious look and said, “Undies, dearie. You know, things that go underneath the outer clothing—underpants, a brassiere, garter belt—well I’m sure she won’t be needing one of those!” Rika tittered behind her wing.

Alfredo blushed to his ear tips. The underneath of Charlotte’s outer clothing. Unmentionables. It had been decades since he had lived with females. An image of his grandmother’s enormous brassiere arose in his memory. He had taken it from the clothesline outside and was punished when his mother caught him firing melons over the fence with it.

But Charlotte was not shaped at all like his grandmother. She was thin and willowy and her breasts were not at all like melons. More like peaches. The thought of the body that lay underneath Charlotte’s Rosencranz coveralls stirred regions of his body that had been asleep for decades.

Uh, yes, unmentionables. I will give the list to one of the women parishioners at St. Sophia, to put together some clothes, including unmentionables.”

He spent days at a time preparing the Treehouse for Charlotte, and sleeping on the deck. There was much work to do and little time. He refurbished the ramshackle outhouse Bruthamax had built downstream from the Treehouse, installing a new wooden toilet seat and a small box to hold paper.

The cistern was full, underneath the new wooden cover he had made weeks before. After he installed a piston pump that operated off an RV battery in the tree house, he filled the ten-gallon ceramic water crock he had packed in and hauled up to the Treehouse. One day I will bring my lady a sink. And a bathtub.

He dragged a bale of hay up to the deck and stuffed all the holes between the branches and vines that formed the roof of the cabin. as well as the cracks between the tree trunks of the walls. He plastered the entire interior except the wood floor, using a mixture of clay and gypsum plaster he brought in from Ledford on the Captain’s boat. “It is good the Treehouse is small,” he said one exhausted evening to Rika and Charlie.

But the job was done. Everything was ready for Charlotte.

 

Father Provincial Thomas Majewski stared out his office window. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in paradise, and now I am in hell. My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Snowbell had abandoned him in her near coma on a pillow next to the fireplace.

The gray sky oppressed him. The rainy day oppressed him. Washington DC oppressed him. His job oppressed him. He daydreamed about the island, with himself as its lone inhabitant wandering its dark forests that hid astonishing secrets like talking birds and extinct magical plants. At night, he dreamed of Stella’s restless spirit haunting the labyrinths of his memories.

Stella’s eyes, her sad eyes. Like today’s weather—gray and full of tears. If only I had known. Majewski sighed and tried again to forgive himself for having tricked his sister so many years past. But what would have become of her if I had not? Even I could not have left her in the woods by herself with winter coming. If only I had known another Patua’ then. Like Alfredo—he could have talked to her, perhaps reasoned with her. He laughed at himself and his fantasies that events in the past could be changed.

If only I had known. The mantra of all the souls in hell.

Rain drizzled on the windowpane. But why didn’t we know? De la Torre knew a Patua’ and left us all sorts of evidence. He put another log on the fire, sat down in the armchair. Snowbell slept like the dead; not even a whisker moved. He took the faux Treasure Island from the end table and opened it. To review its inventory. Again.

The red sealing wax on Brother Maxmillian’s letter caught his eye, and he examined it closely for the first time. A human hand stood out distinctly. Good Lord! That fob on the lamp chain in Alfredo’s cottage! He imagined Brother Maxmillian pressing it into a blob of red wax, a crow standing nearby, waiting to post the letter. The idea of using crows as mail carriers amused him more now than it had before. I wonder if de la Torre ever wrote back?

A gust of wind rattled the window, and Majewski scowled at the endless storm. He picked up the folded letter from de la Torre’s sister, and the color print of the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada fell out. For a brief second, he saw the chapel on Wilder Island nestled amid the dark green forest.

He examined the postmark. September 27, 1893, forty years after Brother Wilder built his hermit’s chapel. He opened the letter and read the wispy script.

Greetings, My Dear Brother,

The Chapel of the Madonna della Strata is absolutely gorgeous! Our guide told us that most of the old Roman churches had secret entrances into the labyrinth of passages in which the Church hid the early Christians during times of persecution. And so it was with the Madonna della Strata! From within the sacristy, we entered the catacombs and went down a steep and dark stone staircase. It was like stepping into a subterranean city, comprising many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!

Wish you were here,

Conchetta

I was ordained at the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada in Rome,” Majewski said to Snowbell, who woke up with a start. She yawned and stretched and came down from her perch on the hearth and leaped into his lap. “Built by St. Ignatius Loyola, as the Order he founded responded to the Protestant Reformation.” Majewski stroked the cat in his lap, who attacked his hand. “Is that the connection, Your Highness? The reform of the Catholic Church, led by the Society of Jesus, and the large-scale disappearance of the Patua’?”

Snowbell turned an ear sideways and lowered her eyelids to half open. “So you really think the Order rounded up the Patua’ and delivered them to the Pope for excommunication and possible execution?” he asked in mock surprise. The cat licked her front paw twice, rolled over onto her back, and offered him her soft underbelly.

The Patua’ would have been considered heretics, you know,” Majewski said as he stroked her. “That’s worse than simple insanity. Perhaps they were even burned as witches. Do you suppose the Order was part of that?”

Miaw!” Snowbell protested and jumped off his lap.

Oh, I quite agree, my Queen.” Majewski leaned toward the fireplace, picked up the poker, and jabbed at the burning logs. “I was just playing the devil’s advocate. More likely, the Jesuits led them into the catacombs, along with the Catholics, to protect them from the bigotries of religion.”

He put another log on the fire and made himself a cup of tea. Hardly had he sat back into the armchair when Snowbell was back on his lap. He stared into the fire, sipping his tea. What did de la Torre know? Connect the dots. The letter, the deed, the map, the will, the letter from his sister, the Madonna della Strada Chapel. The hermit’s chapel.

De la Torre knew at least one Patua’,” Majewski said, scratching the cat behind her ears. “And he wanted someone in the future to know him too. And that would not make any sense at all if Maxmillian were merely insane.” Snowbell purred insistently. “But it would make sense that the Order had an interest in this peculiar race of humans. Perhaps even spiriting them off to a distant land for their own safety.”

William’s voice came through the intercom: “Alfredo Manzi, line one, Father.”

 

De la Torre wrote back!” Majewski exclaimed after Alfredo told him about the letter he found at the Treehouse. “That certainly suggests Brother Maxmillian wasn’t a complete hermit. He obviously had some human contact.”

And,” Alfredo had said, “de la Torre refers to a manuscript; no crow could carry something that heavy all the way to Washington. Someone had to get it off the island and into the mail.”

What do you think this manuscript is about?” Majewski said. “Memoirs, perhaps?”

At first, I had no idea,” Alfredo said. “But then I remembered the last few pages of Bruthamax’s journal. Have you read it yet? I e-mailed it to you right after you left.”

I did,” Majewski said. “It was fascinating!”

Look again at the pages at the very end,” Alfredo said.

Hang on a moment,” Majewski said, upsetting Snowbell. He sat down at his computer and opened the file Alfredo had sent. “Okay, I’m looking at some cartoons of alien plants.”

I thought it was just doodling at first too,” Alfredo said. “But now I am wondering if he was trying to write in Patua’.”

And you think the manuscript de la Torre is talking about is—” Majewski felt a rush of adrenaline.

Is written in Patua’,” Alfredo finished for him.

Majewski hung up the phone. A written language of the crows! Imagine that! Excitement kicked the weariness from his bones as he thought of the opportunity before him. To translate the language of the crows! To leave this urban nightmare of the human spirit!

Snowbell had taken up residence on her pillow on the hearth. With one last bored glance at him, she went to sleep. Majewski returned to the armchair and relaxed into the extra room left by his cat. Alfredo’s words drifted into his awareness. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast …”

Rain continued its relentless assault on the windows, amplifying the sensation of chill in the room. But in the armchair in front of the fire, the pleasantly rich hues of yellow and orange punctuated by an occasional flash of blue warmed him. His head nodded onto his chest.

Follow me!” Stella whispered with a huge conspiratorial grin. She led him down a spiraling series of staircases and passageways through a network of caves excavated from the solid rock. A variety of sights, noises, and odors tantalized or repulsed as they tunneled back through time. Suddenly Stella grabbed his arm and pulled him off the stone staircase and into a dimly lit, roughly circular cavern, like the hub of wheel, where an astonishing number of passages met.

Alfredo Manzi lay upon the stone floor, and he ordained his prostrate body, reading from a book of runes. Candle smoke and incense briefly filled the air as he looked up at the white basilica of the Madonna del Rio. Bleached by sun and time, the tangled branches and the blue sky beyond made a grid through which a constant stream of black birds flowed,

 

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