Corvus Rising – Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

Sanctuary

Perfect,” Charlie said. “If you ask me.”

I did ask you,” Alfredo said.

Crow and priest surveyed a possible site for the bird sanctuary Alfredo had dreamed about for months. Years, really, but until he came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he never imagined its reality. But here it was. The perfect place for a bird sanctuary.

On the west side of the island below the Boulders, the stream that flowed beneath them resurfaced and wound down a lazy path through a wide floodplain to the river. During dry seasons, the stream slowed to a tiny trickle; in wet years, the river inundated the entire area. Tall trees and brushy undergrowth lined the many small channels lined with rushes and grasses and flowers.

I’m not a migrator,” Charlie said. “Nor in need of rescue. My opinion may not be worth much.”

Alfredo stood next to him, one foot on the ground and one foot on the log. He balanced a sketchbook across his knee and made a few broad strokes with a large, flat-edged carpenter’s pencil Sam had left at the cottage. “But you are a bird; that is the perspective I do not have.”

He looked up from his sketch to the scene before him and shook his head, frowning. “If only I had Jade’s talent.”

Charlie hopped up to Alfredo’s shoulder and peered down at the sketchbook. “Oh, it’ll do, I reckon. You’ve got the basic elements. Cliffs, rocks, water, a few trees.”

A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie jumped back down to the log. “Sounds like the Captain.”

Yes,” Alfredo said. He put the pencil in his pocket and shut the sketchbook. “He is bringing Sam and Russ to help me move a few rocks and plants around.”

No business for a crow,” Charlie said and took off toward the tree house. “I’ll see you later, Jayzu.”

A small forest seemed to float into the broad inlet, and after finding a suitable landing spot, the Captain leaped off and tied the boat to a tree. Sam and Russ disembarked with shovels and a pickax.

Be back at sunset,” the Captain said as he leapt back aboard.

Don’t work too hard!” Sugarbabe yelled from her perch.

Thanks, Captain!” Alfredo said. He turned and gestured toward the future bird sanctuary. “This is it, gentlemen.”

Perfect!” Russ said as he surveyed the landscape. “The river will replenish the soil with nutrients and keep the plant populations healthy, which will provide a food supply for the birds.”

And the cliffs will shelter the cove from the cold winter winds,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the limestone edifice. “Many of the island’s ravens and raptors nest or roost in caves along that cliff face.”

The three men spent the day moving and placing rocks across the main stream channel to create a wide, shallow pool. Russ moved some of the water plants that grew along the banks of the small stream to the edges of the new pool. “In time,” he said, “this should all fill in with the other island flora—whatever the wind blows in and birds poop out. In a few years, this will be as lush and green as the rest of the island.”

At the end of the day, they admired their work. “It doesn’t look much different than when we started,” Sam said, leaning on his shovel.

That was the whole idea,” Alfredo said, smiling. “It looks great. By the time the migrations start in the Fall, there will be plenty to eat.”

The Captain pulled into the sanctuary under the late afternoon shadows. “Yo, Captain!” Russ called out. “Perfect timing! We just finished!”

The Captain grinned and waved, then picked up a large canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. He jumped off his boat, walked over to the other men and put the canvas bag on the ground. Without speaking, he opened the flap.

Beer!” Sam cried out as he leaned in to pull one from the ice.

You are an angel of mercy, Captain,” Russ said.

Just the delivery boy,” the Captain said. “You need to thank the Padre.” He handed Alfredo a beer.

Thanks, gentlemen!” Alfredo said, raising his bottle. “Thanks for your help, all of you.”

After a brief celebration, they hopped aboard the Captain’s boat. Alfredo got off at the inlet, waving as the Captain left with Russ and Sam for the City Docks.

 

Henry Braun took a gulp of his perfectly cooled coffee as he opened the Sunday Ledford Sentinel. An architectural rendering of the new Wilder Island Bird Sanctuary and Botanical Gardens was splashed across the front page. In shock, Henry spewed his coffee across the table, spraying his wife. Minnie said nothing as she wiped off her face and arms.

Son-of-a—” Henry swore, over and over again as he read the accompanying article. He read it twice, a third time. “What the hell? A bird sanctuary?” He glowered at Minnie across the table. “Isn’t the whole damn island a sanctuary?”

He stood up, shaking his head. “Those bastards.” He picked up the newspaper and left the kitchen, scowling terribly all the way to his office.

Henry kicked his office door shut behind him and tossed the offending newspaper onto his desk. He picked up the phone and punched a few numbers, seething with impatience as he waited for his attorney to answer. “Dammit, Jules, what the hell do I pay you for?” he shouted into the phone. “Why didn’t I know about this damn bird swamp before it hit the papers? I don’t like being blindsided.”

Calm down, Henry,” Jules said. “It changes nothing. They can build Notre Dame on the island, and it changes nothing. Churches are not exempt from eminent domain, as I told you; bird sanctuary is certainly not going to change anything. Just cool your jets. Is your presentation to the city ready? What about the model of Ravenwood Resort? These are the things you need to be worrying about, Henry.”

Henry slammed down the phone. He strode to the window and jammed his hands in his pockets as he looked out over his estate. Two crows in the tree outside his office window mocked him, their sly smiles ridiculing his plans, his dreams. He shook his fist at them and spent the rest of the day moping, muttering vague threats, and punching the air with balled up fists. He phoned his attorney several times, relentlessly pestering him until finally Jules promised to come over for a nightcap.

Minnie Braun calmly ate her Eggs Benedict alone. She wondered for the millionth time why God had forsaken her so, and then she scolded herself. Jesus never said, ‘Take up your cushion and follow me.’ Life is hard, and I have it so easy. Easy, if all she considered was the comfort of the body. Her soul she had dedicated to Jesus, but who was there on Earth to hold her heart?

For years, she had listened to Henry talk about Wilder Island—owning it, subjugating it, and turning it into a money machine. His long-winded diatribes became a staple at the breakfast table, lunch table, and dinner table. Minnie never saw Henry in between meals, a scenario that was perfectly fine for both of them.

Priests, for God’s sake! That’s what Henry roared when he found out who owned the island. Minnie smiled to herself at the memory. Oh, how he pouted and bellowed, threatening everyone clear up to God! The next day she wrote a big check to the orphanage run by the Sisters of St. Anne down in MacKenzie.

She was a devout Catholic and hoped to think of herself as a good Christian as well. She had a comfortable life in Henry’s big house where she lacked nothing. She was never hungry, never cold. But she felt enormous guilt at being financially supported by Henry; his most lucrative business deals often left someone else impoverished.

It’s business,” he had said to her the first and only time she had mentioned that fact.

Minnie Braun’s husband was a respected paragon of the business community. But she wished she could undo some of the damage he had done, though in most cases, she was incapable of remedying anything. Trying to warm the icebox in her heart, she bought coats and gloves for the poor children, and she arranged for groceries to be delivered to the soup kitchens. She constantly looked for widows whose rent needed paying, and poor children whose parents could not afford Christmas presents.

Over the years, Minnie had devised intricate ways to squirrel away money, a few dollars here, a few hundred there from her household budget. She shrewdly invested that money, Henry’s money, and funneled the profits into her heart-warming projects. Frequently Minnie begged the Good Lord’s forgiveness for what her husband would surely have called theft—just in case it was.

Minnie kept her charitable contributions secret from Henry. He would never approve of any of the places she gave his money to—that little Jesuit chapel on Wilder Island, for instance. She was charmed by the legend of Brother Maxmillian, and the restoration of his chapel had captured her imagination. While her husband fiddled with lawyers in his relentless pursuit of Wilder Island, Minnie funneled his money to Father Alfredo Manzi, whom she saw every Friday when he delivered Communion wafers to St. Sophia’s.

Oh, the look of surprise on Father Manzi’s face when I handed him twenty-five hundred dollars in cash! But she was grateful as well. The Bible said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.

That’s what she had said to Father Alfredo when he gasped at the size of her gift. Of course he knew she was the wife of perhaps the city’s wealthiest man. But to everyone else at the church, as well as everyone except her husband and his attorney, she was known as Gabrielle. No last name, just Gabrielle. No one knew anything about her but her name and that she always dealt in cash.

Minnie needed a place to unload her guilt, lest it keep her from heaven. She unburdened herself in the confessional, but her real salvation came through her enormous gifts to the orphanage, and now to the hermit’s chapel. She hoped to see it someday.

But her contributions did little to placate the gnawing guilt that chewed at the edges of her conscience. And when the cold reality of her loveless marriage bore down heavily on her, she found some comfort in escaping into fantasy, where she and Father Alfredo fed orphans on the steps of the hermit’s chapel on Wilder Island. Of course she knew there were no orphans on the island, but the image comforted her.

 

Alfredo borrowed the monsignor’s car after Mass and drove to Rosencranz Hospital for the Insane. The hundred-year-old building was nestled in the woods about an hour’s drive from Ledford and about twenty minutes as the crow flies. Concertina wire atop the chain-link fence around the property discouraged trespassers as well as escape, should an inmate be capable of devising such a plan. The fence divided the tamed acreage of the asylum grounds from the thick, wild forest that forever threatened to encroach upon it.

He turned onto the long driveway that connected the rural highway to the Victorian-style building and its meticulously manicured grounds. A guard stopped him at the gate, pushing a clipboard at him, and he scribbled the name, Dr. Martin Robbins, onto the daily visitor’s log.

Follow this road around and you’ll drive right into the parking lot,” the guard said as he pointed toward the building.

Alfredo drove through the set of heavy-duty chain link gates crowned by the same concertina wire as the fence. Inside, a few neatly trimmed trees grew alongside the curvy asphalt drive. The old stone hospital building suddenly appeared in his view. A gazebo stood alone on the treeless lawn, encircled by a well-ordered flowerbed of mixed colors.

Originally Rosencranz was some rich guy’s mansion,” Sam had told him. “He’d made a fortune in China in the opium wars, or so they say. And when he came back filthy rich, he built this huge house for himself and his twenty-three cats.”

Twenty-three cats?” Alfredo had said dubiously.

That’s what they say,” Sam had said with a shrug. “Anyway, the mansion was supposedly the most expensive house in the US of A at the time. And Mr. Rosencranz, he threw legendary parties. Before he went nuts.”

A guard motioned Alfredo straight ahead to the parking lot, blocking him from entering the service road that branched off the driveway. He parked the car and walked up the imposing granite steps, and through the heavy, metal-clad wood front doors. He stepped into the lobby, astonished at its opulence.

He stood upon a floor of huge slabs of polished white marble with streaks of black and gray. Polished wood and sparkling clean windows adorned the walls, evidently the original living room of the mansion. The pressed metal ceiling high above dwarfed the sparse furnishings—a receptionist desk, a few chairs and end tables huddled together near the front entry. The odor of institutional disinfectant permeated the air.

A sour-faced, middle-aged woman sat behind a plastic-laminate desk and credenza, which formed an unbreachable barrier between the outside world and the hinterlands of the institution. Behind her stood a row of offices, partitioned off from the lobby with wood-paneled walls with closed doors and curtained windows. She put down the book she was reading and greeted Alfredo with a frown. “Can I help you?” Her voice echoed coldly around the lobby.

Sound confident. That’s what one of St. Sophia’s young parishioners told him. The youngster was a master shoplifter who had rarely been caught because, as he said, “I just acted like I owned the place, so no one paid me any mind.”

Good morning, Miss,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a charismatic smile. “I am Dr. Robbins from Catholic Social Services, and I have an appointment with one of the patients.”

You got any ID?” she asked, her eyebrows arched suspiciously.

Yes, ma’am,” Alfredo said, withdrawing from his wallet the fake ID Sam Howard had made for him.

Truly, Sam is a jack-of-all-trades! Lucky for me, his skills go beyond cottage building!

The priest was uncomfortable with the deception, and he knew he was breaking at least one law. But there was no other way he could get access to Charlotte or her file other than to be a psychiatrist or medical doctor. Charlotte has no family, Someone needs to look in on her. Forgive me, Father. I need to find out why she is here.

NoExit’s voice rang in his ears. “There is a vast difference between law and justice.”

The sour-faced woman scrutinized his ID carefully, looking first at the photo, then up at him. Alfredo had taken great care to look the part of a shrink—that’s what Sam had called him. He had donned a pair of plain-lens glasses and erased his iconic streak of white hair using small amounts of black dye. A gray sport coat over a blue button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and loafers finished out the ensemble of the handsome psychiatrist.

Evidently satisfied, the receptionist licked her lips and copied his name and address from his ID onto the guest register. She handed it back. “Who you want to see?” she asked indifferently, her hands poised over the computer keyboard.

Charlotte Steele,” Alfredo said. Charlie had told him that was the name on the smock she always wore when he saw her. He memorized the shapes of the letters and picked them from an alphabet Alfredo showed him: C. Steele.

She typed a few characters into her computer, and without looking up, she picked up the phone. “Yeah, Patrick,” she said. “Bring Inmate 456191 to the patio. Yeah, Ms. Steele, that’s the one. Yeah, there’s someone here to see her.” The sour-faced woman listened for a few moments and then laughed as she said, “I hear ya, pal. But whaddya gonna do? Right, okay, hon, thanks.”

Sign here,” she said, pushing the register toward Alfredo. “They’ll take her to the patio.” She jerked her head toward the windows. “You can wait for her out there.”

Of course,” Alfredo said pleasantly as he signed his fake name. “May I please have her file?”

She got up as if it might be her last act on Earth and walked the two or three steps to a file cabinet. She opened a drawer, rifled through its contents, and then another.

I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said, returning to her desk. “I can’t find her file. All I can say is it must be in the archives. I’ll send someone down for it and have it brought out to you.”

Alfredo frowned, hoping to look like an irritated doctor. “That will be fine, Miss. Thank you,” he said curtly. He turned toward the doors and stopped. “What is your name? I hate to keep calling you ‘miss.’”

The sour-faced woman smiled. She is actually rather pleasant looking. “Dora Lyn, Doctor,” she said. “One n, no e.”

Pleased to meet you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said, smiling back.

He left the lobby through double glass doors and stepped out onto the patio. Several wheelchairs had been parked amid the few empty tables whose occupants were either asleep, with their mouths hanging open and their heads flung back, or they were staring blankly ahead. A tiny old lady babbled incoherently into her lap, shaking her head. An elderly stoop-shouldered man walked his wheelchair along the low stone wall encircling the patio, his slippers shuffling along the flagstone.

Alfredo was aghast. This is where Charlotte lives? Among elderly dementia patients?

Charlotte Steele for Dr. Martin Robbins!” a loud voice shouted.

Alfredo waved, and said, “Over here, please.” As the aide wheeled Charlotte over to meet him, she cried out and pointed to a flock of birds gliding by overhead. “Oh, look! The loons are flying to the river!”

She wore a blue denim jumpsuit that zipped up the front, the same as the patients in the wheelchair. A tag above her left breast read, “C.STEELE.” A thick black braid fell down her back, almost to her waist. Her eyes arrested him for a moment, eyes the color of rain.

She don’t talk, Doctor,” the aide said somewhat apologetically as he delivered Charlotte into “Doctor Robbins’” temporary custody.

Alfredo thanked him and wheeled Charlotte to a table in the far corner of the patio next to the stone wall that bordered the patio. A rose bush hedge so thick he could not see the ground through it grew up against the wall, closing in the two sides of the patio. A most effective barrier. Beyond the hedge stretched the impeccably manicured and treeless grounds of the asylum.

He came around to the front of her wheelchair so she could see him. “Would you like to sit in a regular chair, Charlotte?”

She squinted into the sun and held one hand up to her forehead like a visor. “Who is it?” she asked. “Who are you? You hear me? No one hears me.”

My name is Jayzu,” Alfredo said. “And I hear you. Would you like to join me at this table?”

She nodded, ignored his outstretched hand, and stood up from the wheelchair. She sat down at the table, and Alfredo pushed the wheelchair up against the stone wall. He took a chair opposite her, with his back to the people on the patio—most importantly, the guards and orderlies. “Good morning, Charlotte.”

Charlotte looked bewildered. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously, her expression darkening again. “How do you know my name? Why are you here?”

I am a friend of Charlie’s,” Alfredo said. “He asked me to come see you.”

Charlotte’s face lit up, and she cried out, “My Charlie? Where is he?” She looked out across the grounds toward the woods. “Is he here?”

No,” Alfredo said. “He is not here. But I am. Will you talk to me today? I will tell you all about Charlie.”

He looked over his shoulder. The aide who had brought Charlotte to him was staring at them, but looked away as soon as Alfredo caught his eye. He turned back to Charlotte, who was placidly looking at him. “Charlie is well. He has a wife and a lot of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Where is Charlie?” she asked. “Where does he live?” Her pale blue, almost gray eyes sparkled with lively interest.

He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia, as do I, “Alfredo said. “It is a beautiful island in the river.”

Where is Cadeña-l’jadia?” Charlotte asked. “Is it that way?” She pointed toward the direction the loons had flown. “Or that way?”

Oh, let me see,” Alfredo said, and he looked around to gain his bearing. “North is that way, right?”

Charlotte nodded, “Yes, that is north, Jayzu. Is that the way to Cadeña-l’jadia?”

No, it is toward the southeast,” he said, pointing.

She nodded and looked, her hand shading her eyes from the sun. After several moments, she turned her eyes back upon him. “I want to go to Cadeña-l’jadia. I want to see Charlie. Will you take me there, Jayzu?”

Nonplussed, he held his breath for a few moments and then sighed. “Perhaps, Charlotte,” he said. “Perhaps someday I can. You have been here a very long time, I know.”

Three thousand and eleven days. Counting today,” she said. “But not counting the days in the Graying.”

He mentally calculated the number of days. Eight years ago. That is about when Charlie said he got her to look up at him. “The graying?” he asked. Was she in a coma?

Charlotte glanced beyond his shoulder toward the building and frowned. He turned around and saw an aide rotating each of the wheelchairs one-quarter turn until they all faced the building, away from the table where they sat. “We turn ’em every fifteen minutes, Doctor,” the aide explained to Alfredo. “So they won’t burn on one side.”

Two of the tables were now occupied by elderly patients and their visitors. Alfredo wondered if they were doctors, or if these people had family that visited upon occasion. He turned back to Charlotte, who had gotten up from the table. He joined her at the stone wall as she leaned over and touched a red rose on the other side. “Oh!” she cried out suddenly. She withdrew her hand, revealing a spot of blood on the end of her finger.

He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the drop of blood from her finger. “What about the graying, Charlotte,” he said as he guided her back into her chair. Obviously not a coma. Severe depression, perhaps? “How long were you in the graying?”

I do not know.” She shrugged. She sucked on her injured finger for a few seconds. “I did not count the days during the Graying, because there was no night to separate the gray into days. But it was a long time, I think. Many years.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you know how many, Jayzu? How many days have I been here?”

About twen—” Alfredo started to say before stopping himself to listen to the argument in his head. Should I tell her? Yes, she asked. She deserves an answer. The truth shall set you free. But what if it devastates her?

You counted about eight years and three months’ worth of days,” he said after a few moments. “Charlie told me he found you eight years ago.”

Yes, Jayzu,” she said. “But how many days was I in the Graying?” Her eyes forced the truth from him.

Twenty three years,” he said, hoping his words would not crush her. “I do not know how many days that is.”

She stared at him for a few seconds. “eight thousand three hundred and ninety five days in the Graying, plus two thousand nine hundred twenty days since the Graying is—” She choked on the words and looked away from Alfredo as she brushed the back of her hand across her cheek. “Twenty five years.”

Glory be to God! She is as lucid as I am, although I cannot do math that fast. But should I have told her? It seems to have made her very sad. Seeing her gray eyes full of tears made his heart ache.

Charlotte exhaled a long sigh and looked at Jayzu with great weariness. “I have been here longer than I thought.”

Jayzu looked so distressed, she reached across the table and patted his hand. “Better to know than not know,” she said. “In the Graying, I did not know anything. I saw nothing, and I heard nothing, except once in a while, I heard screaming.”

She shivered; the vastness of the Graying billowed up at the edges of her consciousness.Emptiness, Jayzu. Everywhere emptiness. No days, no nights. Only grayness.” It called to her. Still. Fall! Just fall in! “It was very quiet in the Graying, but sometimes I heard voices. Fall! Just let go! Fall!

Do you remember when you came here?” Jayzu asked, his voice pulling her back. “Or why they brought you here?”

Charlotte put her hands over her ears, shut her eyes tightly, and shook her head back and forth. Needles and lightning bolts poked her, and she recoiled in a stiff paralysis that left her gasping in pain.

Are you all right, Charlotte?” Jayzu’s voice .

She looked at him, suddenly startled. Where am I? Who are you? The Graying thinned, and a strange man was staring at her. The scent of the rose hedge brought her back to the patio. She pulled her braid to her front, unwound it and rebraided it. The grayness dissolved, and she sat in the sun at a table with a dark-haired man who said his name was Jayzu.

They tricked me,” she said. She frowned and her face darkened with an old memory. She was in the woods. They came out of nowhere!

Who tricked you?” Jayzu asked. “Who were they? Where did they come from?”

Jayzu,” Charlotte said reproachfully. “I cannot answer a million questions all at once!”

Forgive me, Charlotte,” he said, smiling. “That was too many questions. Tell me who they were.”

Her eyes darted back and forth as she searched for an answer deep within the wells of her memory. Finally her eyes focused again on Jayzu, and she said, “The foreign people.”

Don’t kill me!” someone shouted from the patio.

Charlotte and Jayzu looked toward the direction of the noise. A patient was being escorted off the patio, yelling and waving his arms. “They’re trying to kill me!” he shouted, hanging on to the doorframe as the aides tried to take him into the building. “Help me! Someone! I’m innocent!”

A couple left as soon as the patient disappeared into the hospital. The man put his arm around the sobbing woman and escorted her gently through the doors to the reception area.

He is a foreign person,” Charlotte said. “These people are all foreigners.” She gestured around the patio to include everyone. “All foreigners, except you.”

She felt the warm sun on her back and the solid chair beneath her. A few birds in the rosebushes fluttered and flapped. The man across the table was looking at her intently. He seemed concerned, but he did not make any move toward her.

I do not know how I got here, Jayzu.” She pushed a stray hair out of her eyes. “I was in my hidden place, where the little creek split in two and made an island. They found me, and I was very scared. They took everything from me. And then they took me.” There was nothing more to tell or remember.

Charlotte looked up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds floated toward the west. After a few moments, it seemed to her that tiny multicolored drops of light fell from the blue onto her face. She shook her head back and forth quickly, her black hair catching its share of the light and twinkling with tiny flashes of shimmering color.

Then the Graying started.” Her calm gray eyes focused on Jayzu. “I kept telling them it was coming, and they kept not understanding. Why could they not just speak English? They just kept yammering in their foreign language and sticking me and shooting lightning through me and—”

She gripped the arms of her chair and held her breath. A few moments passed, and she exhaled. “After a while, I could not hear them anymore at all, but they kept sticking me, and their mouths moved up and down like this.” Charlotte stared myopically while opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water.

Jayzu laughed, attracting the attention of the aide at the desk next to the doors. He frowned for a moment, and Charlotte was afraid he would make Jayzu leave. But the aide went back to the book he was reading.

I do not remember anything after that,” Charlotte continued. “It was mostly gray, for a very long time. I lost track of the days.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair and looking toward the woods. “Eighteen years.”

And when the graying ended?” Jayzu said.

Charlotte nodded. “When Charlie first came to the windowsill. But I am not in the Graying anymore. I am seeing and hearing even if no one can hear me. Why can you hear me, Jayzu, and the others can not?” She gestured vaguely toward the patio.

An old woman in one of the wheelchairs suddenly erupted a string of nonsense in a singsong voice. No one paid her the slightest attention except for Charlotte. “What did she say, Jayzu?”

I do not know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

He looked at her with a strange expression on his face. “Charlotte, what language are we speaking right now, you and I?”

Well, English!” She frowned in confusion at his question.

Maybe I am silly,” he said with a foolish grin that made Charlotte laugh. “But, you and I are not speaking English. They are,” he gestured toward the others on the patio. “But we are not. And the old woman was not. I think she really might be mentally incapacitated, but you are not.”

But, Jayzu, how am I different from her?” She pointed at the old woman. “No can understand me either. Why is she crazy,” she drilled him with steel gray eyes, “and I am not?”

Jayzu stared at her strangely without speaking for a few moments. “I do not know the answers.” He shrugged. “But I know you are not crazy.”

If I am not crazy, then why am I here?” Charlotte angrily waved at the bank of wheelchairs.

Because to them,” Jayzu said, “you sound like that old lady.”

She considered Jayzu’s words, her forehead wrinkled as she tried to fathom the idea that she was the foreigner. “There is no difference between her and me, then?” she said, her voice distraught.

Jayzu reached across the table and took her hand in his. “If anyone knew the answer to that, Charlotte, neither you nor that old woman would be here. But you are not crazy, and she is—dementia is what they call it. People’s brains wear out when they get old.”

I do not want dementia,” Charlotte said, looking past Alfredo at the old woman and watching her head bob back and forth. “Am I old, Jayzu?”

No,” he laughed, “you are not old; you are what is known as middle-aged. Like me. You and I are the same age. You have many years left. Probably forty, at least.”

How old are you, Jayzu?”

He looked at her with a strange expression of fear and sympathy, and he hesitated before he said, “You are forty-two, as I am.”

Forty-two. Charlotte mouthed the words soundlessly. Forty-two. Fifteen thousand, three hundred and thirty days. She shook her head in disbelief.

You do not look old,” Charlotte said. “Then I am not so old either! I was afraid I had become an old lady and spent my whole life here in this stupid place!”

She looked down in her lap as her eyes stung with tears. And Jayzu says I will live another forty years? Till I am eighty-two. Like the old lady in the wheelchair. She forced her tears back and shut her mind to that thought.

What do I look like, Jayzu?” she said. She tried to smile, but it felt gritty and tense.

He seemed surprised at her question and said, “Do you not have a mirror in your room?” Charlotte shook her head, and he continued, “Well, your eyes are sometimes very light blue and sometimes gray, like the dawn sky before the sun rises. Your eyebrows match your hair—black as Charlie’s feathers. Your nose is straight and fits your face perfectly. You are a beautiful woman, Charlotte. You do not look old.”

She blushed behind her hand. I am beautiful? “Oh, Jayzu! I wish I could see my face!”

A loud buzzer sounded, an ugly noise that made Charlotte cover her ears. A voice spoke over the loudspeaker.

What did she say?” Charlotte asked. “They yell like that all the time, and I never know what they are saying.”

She said visiting hours are over,” Jayzu answered. “But we do not have to pay any attention to that. I need to leave soon, but before I go, show me where your room is. I will tell Charlie, and he can visit your windowsill there every morning, before anyone gets up.”

Charlotte’s frown immediately vanished, and she lit up. “Oh, my Charlie! Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” She clapped her hands and laughed. She rose from the table to dance around the patio, dodging the wheelchair people, singing in her strange babble that no one else understood.

The aide grabbed Charlotte and steered her back to Alfredo, who had gotten up from the table to follow her. “Thank you,” he said as he took Charlotte’s arm. After the young man was out of earshot, he said to Charlotte, “You will see Charlie soon, Charlotte. But come, let me escort you to your room.”

She nodded, and the two walked arm-in-arm through the patients’ lobby. At one end, a gigantic flat-screen television blared a popular soap opera to one very attentive woman amid a sea of snoring white-haired people in bathrobes.

Charlotte led him down a hall and into an elevator. “Third floor,” she said, punching the button. “I am on the third floor.”

When the doors opened, she nudged Alfredo to the right, keeping a strong hold on his arm. She opened the unlocked door to her room, a small cell that had space only for a single bed and a small dresser. He looked around the room, frowning. It is so small!

Jayzu,” Charlotte said. “Do not be sad for me. I love my little room. It is quiet and holds me comfortably. Much better than when I had a bed in the great room. It was so noisy all the time, all that yammering!” She put her hands over her ears and shook her head, her eyes large and glassy.

Alfredo laughed, and she took her hands from her ears. He felt humbled by her strength of spirit, her peace and humor with a life he would find unendurable.

This is my sanctuary, Jayzu,” she said, her gray eyes full of the moment, of him. “I do not need any more.”

 

The elevator doors opened and Dr. Robbins stepped out into the lobby. Dora Lyn put her book down and looked at him curiously as he approached the desk to sign out. “I hope you had a pleasant visit, Doctor?” she asked as she pushed the visitor’s log toward him. He had such a wonderful smile. It had been years since anyone had smiled at her with such … what was it? —Attentiveness? That was it. As if he had actually noticed her as a person.

I did, thank you,” he said as he scribbled his name. “Did you ever find Miss Steele’s file?”

No, I am so sorry, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, blushing. “But I’m sure it is here somewhere.”

I shall return in a week or so for a follow up,” he said with a warm smile. “Perhaps you will have located it by then.”

Sure, Doctor,” she said.

He started to leave, and she said, “Uh, Doctor?”

Yes?” he said, turning back around.

Were you really talking to her?” Dora Lyn asked. “I mean, it’s none of my business I know, but, well, I saw you two out on the patio, and it seemed like you were actually talking!”

He looked at her with a surprised expression on his face, and she continued, “I mean, she doesn’t talk to anyone, that Charlotte. She hardly ever says anything. And when she does, it’s just this squawking kind of noise. Do you understand her?”

Dr. Robbins did not reply, and she wondered if she was completely out of line for saying anything. “I’m sorry, Doctor, it’s none of my business.”

No,” he said, finally. “It is all right, Dora Lyn. We are trying a new therapy on patients such as Charlotte. By mimicking their quote-unquote language, we hope to establish a connection with them, some of whom, like Charlotte, have not spoken an intelligible language in many years. It has shown great promise.”

I always thought she was in there, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, nodding her head knowingly. ”You can tell by the eyes.”

The windows of the soul,” he said and walked toward the door. As he reached for the handle, he turned and said, “God bless you, Dora Lyn.”

Thanks, Doctor,” she murmured to his back. “God bless you, too.”

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

Homecoming

Charlie watched Jayzu string a rope between two trees and tie the ends to the trunks. He unfolded and shook out a large plastic sheet and draped it over the rope and hammered some sticks into the edges, pinning it to the ground.

Jayzu stood up and said, “That will keep the rain off me while I build myself a more permanent structure.” He took a bedroll out of his pack and threw it under his tent. After he set up a small stove on one of the nearly flat rocks strewn about, he put a pot on it and filled it with water. Charlie swooped down from the trees above, landing deftly on a flat rock near Alfredo’s chair.

Tea time?” he asked.

Jayzu laughed. “No. I just like to get everything set up.”

Charlie looked around the camp, at the tent, the bag of water hanging in the tree. “For what?”

For later, I guess. This evening maybe. Or tomorrow.”

I see,” Charlie said. “So you are moving in, or just staying the night?”

At least the night,” Jayzu said as he sat back in his chair. “I want to clean out the chapel and after that, maybe find a place to build myself a home.”

Charlie had been delighted when Jayzu asked permission to establish his residence on the island. He and the priest had become fast friends, and he missed him when he was gone.

Jayzu reached into his backpack and pulled out a small bundle. “I found this under Bruthamax’s bones when I moved them,” he said. “It was too dark in the chapel to look at it, so I stuffed it in here. I forgot about it until today.”

He unwrapped the bundle, and a small black orb tumbled out. He placed it in a sunny spot on a rock near Charlie’s feet. “It seems to be some sort of trinket, carved from a very dense black wood, as far as I can tell. It was all caked with dirt when I found it, and I did not see the carving until I cleaned it. To me, it looks like a hand clasping a wing.”

Charlie leaned down and took a closer look. “Charlotte had something very similar,” he said.

Really?” Jayzu said. “Charlotte had one of these?”

She did,” Charlie said. “She wore it all the time before they took her away. I’ve wondered where it went ever since.”

Guilt stabbed Charlie from the depths of his memory … he had tried to get it once, Charlotte’s orb, in violation of the one corvid law against stealing. He broke into a house to get this orb, but he had not expected the little girl to be there. He had no idea who she was, but her terror still haunted his dreams from time to time.

Jayzu held the orb up. The sun reflected off the glossy black surface. “Does it have something to do with the Patua’, I wonder.”

Yes,” Charlie said. “The orbs are apparently ceremonial devices made by the Patua’ long ago, but we do not know what they used them for.”

A few young crows suddenly materialized in Jayzu’s camp. They snooped around his tent and food box until Charlie shouted, “Hey! Gertrude! Ethel! JohnLeo! All of you! Be off!”

The crows reluctantly flew away, and Charlie said, “We have no laws against stealing food out in the countryside, Jayzu. A word to the wise.”

 

Alfredo woke up under his tent and smiled at the racket from the forest outside. The din of hundreds of birds greeting each other had been building since the stars had winked out in the pale dawn sky. Ah, Cadeña-l’jadia! May I never leave you.

After a quick breakfast and a cup of instant coffee, he grabbed the tools he had brought with him and headed for the chapel. The Captain had raised an amused eyebrow as he approached the boat the day before, armed with a rake, a shovel, and his camping gear.

It’s a losing battle you’ll be fightin’ there, Padre,” he had said, “trying to tame that forest.”

Just cleaning out the chapel,” Alfredo had grunted a reply as he heaved his burdens onto the boat.

He left his tools outside and went into the chapel and said a brief prayer. Bless my efforts in this humble chapel, oh Lord. And bless Minnie Braun, that is, Gabriella, for her generous contribution. She did not want anyone to know she was Henry Braun’s wife, she had told him. “Everyone and their dog will be after me for money.”

She had floored him, handing him a thick stack of twenty-dollar bills. “For the chapel,” she had said.

He cut away some of the green vines that had nearly enveloped the chapel and raked all the dead leaves, twigs, and branches from the interior to the outside. With a wet rag, he cleaned over a hundred years of dirt off the kneeler in the middle of the floor.

His fingers found a small hasp on the edge of the armrest. He pulled it, and the top of the armrest flipped open. “Well, what is this?” he said. A thin volume, a prayer book perhaps, lay inside the compartment. He removed it and opened the cracked leather cover, revealing a handwritten script scrawled upon a coarse paper.

He gingerly leafed through a few pages, but it was too dark to read the spidery handwriting. He wrapped the booklet in his shirt, left the chapel and went back to his camp. He sat in one of his chairs and unwrapped it carefully. The cover was not of leather as he had earlier thought, but bark that had been hammered flat and sanded smooth. The cracks were filled with some sort of resin. Was it sap? Fascinated by the age and author of the small journal, Alfredo’s hands shook as he gently turned the page.

 

Maxmillian Wilder, Cadeña-l’jadia, 1863

The swim from Ledford to this island nearly ended my life. Though I had studied all the maps, and I knew where the deepest parts of the channel were located, I had gained not even a hint at the treachery below the surface. I am a strong swimmer, yet I was unprepared for the unpredictable and deadly undercurrents that lurked below this otherwise placid river.

As soon as I approached within a hundred yards of the island, the river sucked me below the surface and whipped me around like a rag. I was tossed and rolled every which way, and each time my head rose above the water, I gasped for air in the spray, coughing as the river dunked me again and again. Just as I was about to expire from lack of oxygen, the river released me. I sprang to the surface amid a rush of bubbles into a patch of miraculously calm water, where I floated on my back and rested while my lungs gratefully filled with air.

After catching my breath, I swam toward the island again. And again. Though maddeningly close, it remained inaccessible; the river made sure of that. Time after time, I tried to swim to the bank, but the river flung me back to the same pool of calm water. I exhausted myself trying to power my way through the obstreperous river until I finally gave up fighting. I rolled over on my back, put my machete on my chest and pointed my feet downstream. I turned myself over to the river’s flow. Sooner or later, I would either land on the island’s banks or drown.

I floated on my back with my eyes closed, and I lost all sense of time and direction. I was quite unaware when the river gently dumped me on the island’s bank, face up. When I finally opened my eyes, a very large blue-eyed crow stood over me in the sand, beholding me with great concern.

You live and breathe!” the crow said. “Grawky, Wayfarer! The name is Hozey–after my grandpappy, Hozey the Great. He was an Architect, you know–revolutionized the nest as we know it, he did. Great crow, Old Hozey. Proud to bear his name, I am.”

The bird stretched a wing toward me, as if to shake my hand. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps even dead. But I held my hand up in greeting, and the bird brushed his feather tips against my fingertips.

That is certainly good news, Hozey,” I said. “Though I reckon I feel half dead.” I sat up and felt as if I had been beaten in a boxing match. “The river was not gentle with me.”

The river is not gentle,” Hozey said. “Still, you made it. That certainly speaks for itself. The river spat you upon the bank days ago. Looked like dead meat, you did. It was all we could do to keep the buzzards off you. Creepy, that circling thing they do.” Hozey shivered, looking up as if he expected to see a vulture overhead.

How long have I been here?” I asked. “It seemed only a few moments ago I was floating on the river.” The memory of nearly drowning was strangely close, and though I was sure I had made landfall only minutes ago, my skin and hair were completely dry. I was also thirsty and very hungry.

Nope. Three days,” Hozey said, holding up a wing with three feathers protruding past the rest. “Three. You slept right here under the sun and stars. We kept you alive, we did. We dribbled water into your mouth from the river so you did not die of dehydration or get chapped lips. We shaded you from the sun so your skin would not get burnt to a crisp. One of us stayed right here with you, watching over you the whole time.”

Thank you very much,” I said. “And thank heavens I was not eaten by a buzzard, though I imagine there are worse ways to decompose. I am Brother Maxmillian Wilder, by the way, but I do not know who I am named after. Perhaps no one. I am just a simple Jesuit monk looking for solitude.”

We know who you are, Bruthamax,” Hozey said. “And, just so you know, you are not alone here, no sirreebob. No other humans, mind you, the river sees to that. But there are a few hundred crows, my family mostly. And a few ravens, they really like it here—no humans.”

That is why I came here,” I said.

Not that you will be lacking a body to talk to,” Hozey said. “We crows will yack your ears off if you let us. But not the ravens, no sirreebob. Like pulling teeth to get them to talk.”

Hozey led me into the forest to a spring where I drank until I thought my belly would burst. But it made my hunger pangs recede for a while.

Hozey took me all over the island, to places I would not have been able to go unguided. There is a great boulder chasm, beyond which is a landscape so pitted and pockmarked, it is nearly uninhabitable. One day Hozey and I will build a bridge across it.

I stayed on the solid ground on the upriver end of the island for my first year, living on nuts and berries and the abundant fish from the river. And I prayed—my whole life comprises one continuous prayer to the glory of God.

I have spent many hours talking with Hozey, and we have become close friends. He and his family helped me build a chapel above the rocky point at the island’s upper end.

A few people have tried to reach the island, either by boat or by swimming, but none has been successful. Sometimes they ride by in boats, and I shout “Glory to God Almighty!” to them. A few wave back, but most just stare as if I am a madman. I must appear that way to them with my unshaven head, bark clothing, and crow-feather cloak.

But there were too many eyes trying to peer into my solitude, and Hozey told me the lower end of the island is much more secluded. He guided me there, far from the riverbanks through the most hostile lands full of dark pools, over which clouds of mosquitoes reign, and dense foliage that is near impossible to navigate through. Every other step, I sank knee-deep into sticky black mud.

Deep within the interior of this small island lies a paradise, where I have built a proper home in a giant black gum tree.

Excellent, Bruthamax,” Hozey said at my choice of tree. “Nice big branches. You can build yourself a platform right across those bottom ones–in the Hozey way of course. ‘Only three bearing points,’ that is what Hozey the Great would say. ‘Four is unstable,’ he always said. ‘You will get unwanted rocking in the nest.’ That crow really knew how to build. It was just in his bones, I reckon.”

We spent about two months working from dawn till twilight, with Hozey’s help, to build my one-room house up in this tree. It has all that I need, although I have wished somehow a stove would wash up on the shore! Every day after breakfast, I walk through the forest to the chapel. Every morning, I pray and give thanks to the Almighty for the incredible bounty of this island, and especially for my friend Hozey.


Alfredo turned the page, but the story did not continue. The next few pages were filled with doodles—outlandish plants with labels written in a fanciful text he could not decipher.
He closed the journal and ran his hand across the cracked cover. Brother Maxmillian’s first year. I wonder if there is another journal somewhere.

 

The chapel restoration involved cleaning and removing dead vines from the roof; Alfredo wanted to keep it as simple as it was when Bruthamax built it. “The chapel managed to survive over a hundred years of weathering,” he had said to Charlie when finished. “There is nothing more I need to do.”

With the chapel restoration complete, Alfredo turned his attention to building a small cottage for himself. He found a perfect site near the chapel, downhill from one of the island’s many springs. “I want to build a cistern,” he said to Charlie, “like the one Bruthamax built.”

He hired a helper through an ad in the local free newspaper, The Crow. There was only one response, Sam Howard, who hailed himself as a sculptor as well as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician.

What a stroke of luck to find Sam! A jack-of-all-trades, and he’s Patua’! Alfredo found out from Sugarbabe, who whispered, “He’s one of y’all, y’know,” when he had escorted Sam to the island for the first time. Sam blushed to his ear tips.

No worries, Sam!” Alfredo assured him. “You are among friends here.”

The Captain glared at his crow and said, “Sugarbabe, you are a blabbermouth for sure.”

Alfredo and Sam hopped off the Captain’s boat, and as they walked through the forest toward the site he had chosen to build his cottage, he greeted the corvids, returning their calls and encouraged Sam to do likewise.

You are among friends here, Sam,” he said. “Especially with me.”

Sam nodded and waved as the crows and magpies yelled, but he did not utter a sound.

The chapel is this way,” Alfredo said, and he gestured with his head.

Sam nodded again and plodded along next to Alfredo. They walked in silence until they arrived at the chapel. Alfredo opened the door, and they stepped inside. “I want my cottage to look like this,” he said. “More or less. Closed to the elements, except for light.”

Wow!” Sam said, as he grinned and looked around. “You really cleaned this place up!”

Alfredo’s eyebrows rose up into his forehead and he said, “You have been here before?”

Sam’s smile vanished. He wandered over to the kneeler and ran his hand along the smooth wood. “Once,” he said. “Years ago.”

Really?” Alfredo said. “You and the Captain both.” So, that is three of us since Maxmillian. Why do the corvids insist I am the first?

Sam scavenged as much of the construction materials as he could from landfills, roadside debris, and junkyards. Whatever couldn’t be had from his various recycling sources, Alfredo purchased with the cash Minnie Braun, aka Gabriella, had given him to restore the chapel. She would not object, he was certain. But he never told her.

Alfredo purchased several RV batteries to provide what little power he needed. When one battery was spent, he would hook up a spare and take the dead one in to Ledford and have it charged.

Sam constructed a composting toilet out of materials he found or traded, and enclosed it within a small structure a short way downhill from the cottage, matching the upside-down bird’s nest construction. He installed a narrow wooden door with a moon-shaped hole that opened to a scenic landscape of tall trees, medium-sized trees, bushes, flowers, and a few gray rocks poking through the tall green grass that grew wherever it could.

Well, it ain’t the toidy at the Waldorf,” Sam had said, grinning. “But the view is better.”

One of the ladies at St. Sophia’s had recently remodeled her kitchen and gave Alfredo a used but still functional stainless-steel sink. “Boy, howdy,” Sam said, pushing his hat back and scratching his head. “It’s hard to not covet that sink, Padre. I’m doing a piece called ‘Everything but the kitchen sink,’ though in truth, it oughta be called ‘Nothing but the kitchen sink.’ This one’s a beauty. I must have it!”

Take it!” Alfredo said with a chuckle. “It is too large for my tiny kitchen.”

Thanks,” Sam said. “I’ll find you another one.”

Alfredo made a sketch of the gravity-fed water system at the Treehouse, and said, “I have modeled it after the one Bruthamax, that is, Maxmillian Wilder built.. One day perhaps I can take you to see it.”

Sam understood the sketches well enough and built a similar arrangement that captured and moved spring water into a small cistern buried upslope from the cottage. A hand pump delivered water to the sink. “You can let your kitchen and bath water drain out into your, uh, yard,” he said. “That is, out into the forest. It won’t hurt the trees or plants.”

 

Alfredo collected his sparse possessions from the rectory at St Sophia’s and moved into his new cottage on Cadeña-l’jadia. He felt at home for the first time in his life. He loved waking up to the sound of the birds and stepping outside into a forest. Every morning, he walked to the old chapel for the Liturgy of the Hours, and on Saturday evenings, he said the Mass. Without a human congregation, he found it difficult to stay within the confines of the traditional celebrant/respondent verbiage set forth by the Second Vatican Council.

Whenever he needed to leave, one of the island’s hundreds of friendly crows flew out over the river and summoned the Captain. Mondays and Wednesdays, the Captain took him to the boat landing on the east side of the river; from there, he pedaled his bike to the university. On Fridays and Sundays, the Captain ferried him to the other side of the river and let him off at the Waterfront; from there, Alfredo walked to St. Sophia’s.

Life is good,” he said to the Captain as he ferried him back to the island, so beautiful in the late afternoon. The hermit’s chapel glowed warmly amid the sun-drenched tops of the tallest trees and seemed to float above shades of green leaves and shadows.

He loved coming home most of all. He loved cooking in his tiny kitchen, at the small but completely adequate wood stove. He loved dining at the small table Sam had scavenged at a thrift store. And he loved looking out upon the sensuous lushness all around him.

Alfredo ate a quick supper at his cottage and strode up the path to the chapel. He clasped his hands at the kneeler, and said a prayer thanking the Almighty for his life, for his good friends, and for the abundance of Cadeña-l’jadia. Even after praying, he felt impoverished; his gratitude could not fill the growing hole in his heart. Ever since Charlie had told him about his Patua’ friend Charlotte who lived in such unspeakable solitude, he felt a strange sense of shame at his good fortune.

He re-assumed the praying position, bowed his head, and shut his eyes. I am fine, Lord, thanks to the bounty you shower upon me. But I have much, while Charlotte suffers and is in need of your care. Please, Lord, may you rain your glory down upon her and ease her burden of loneliness.

He left the chapel and spotted Charlie at the rocky point below, picking apart the carcass of some poor creature that had washed up on the rocks. He walked down to the customary place where he and the crow often sat and talked.

Charlie looked up and called out, “Jayzu!” and flapped up to the rock next to him.

Everyone’s talking about the new sanctuary,” he said and cleaned his beak on the rock.

Alfredo’s eyebrows went up. “Already? How? We haven’t even started it yet.”

The news beaked out pretty fast after the Council meeting,” Charlie said.

I guess so!” Alfredo said, laughing. “So what is the general opinion?”

Oh, generally positive, I reckon. But a few negative nellies claim it’ll bring in a whole influx of foreigners wanting to immigrate here. But that’s ridiculous.”

Alfredo picked a blade of long grass growing out of the sand at the base of the log he sat on. “I just hope it is enough,” He wove the blade through his fingers.

Enough for what?” Charlie asked. “You can’t please everyone, Jayzu.”

He tore the grass into several pieces, letting them fall to the ground at his feet.

Enough to keep Cadeña-l’jadia out of Henry Braun’s hands.”

And if it isn’t?” Charlie asked.

I do not know,” Alfredo sighed. “Then it is in God’s hands, perhaps.”

As Charlotte has been in your deity’s hands all these years?” Charlie asked.

Shocked at the crow’s blunt statement, Alfredo started to protest. But he is right. Are my prayers merely a statement of my passing the buck on to God?

Yes,” he said with a sigh. “Just like that, I am afraid.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, put his fingertips together and stared at the ground. An ant struggled with a pebble ten times its size. He felt suddenly tired.

Though the Order turned his offer down, Henry still plots against Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said, gazing out over the water. “I do not know how he will strike, but strike he will.”

 

The gleaming white roof of the newly restored chapel, visible from both sides of the city, stirred up some new stories about the old ghost of the island’s legendary hermit. “Brother Maxmillian has been reincarnated!” some people cried, until it became known that another Jesuit, Father Alfredo Manzi, had taken up residence on Wilder Island, and it was he who roamed its banks.

When Alfredo arrived at St. Sophia’s with the week’s supply of Communion wafers, people who used to just wave and smile at him, if anything, now wanted to touch his jacket or his shoe. His fall courses at the university had already filled up. “And it is only May!” he complained to Russ in his office before his Avian Biology class. “The last thing I want is to be a celebrity,” he said.

Oh well.” Russ poured Alfredo a cup of coffee from his thermos and handed it across the desk to him. “That is the unintended consequence of your semi-hermitage on a island famous for hermits. People will make you into a legend before you know it, and you can go about your business again.”

Alfredo took the coffee and wandered toward the window. “I don’t want to be a legend. I just want to be a simple priest and scientist.” He leaned against the wall and took a sip of coffee.

Russ looked skeptically at him. “That’s the thing about legends, Alfredo. You don’t really get that choice. You’re either a legend in your own mind or in everyone else’s.”

Alfredo laughed. “But there is the third option. No legend.”

Real legends don’t have that choice.” Russ sat back in his swivel chair and put one foot up on his desk. “But look at it this way. It’s job security, man! The university hired you as an adjunct, meaning they can jettison you anytime they want. But they won’t if your classes are popular. As they obviously are, if the crowds are ‘flocking’ to you already.” He grinned devilishly. “Instant tenure, maybe. And you wouldn’t have to publish! I know you don’t like writing papers.”

Alfredo looked out the window. “I do like writing papers, Russ. I am just not ready to write up anything on the corvid language. And I love teaching. I enjoy the rare opportunity to interact on a meaningful level with people and maybe teach them a little science at the same time.” He looked back at Russ. “I have no human companionship on the island. Nor at St. Sophia’s, really. People do not look at me as a friend but as some kind of spiritual leader or therapist.”

Russ’s chair squeaked as he pulled his foot off his desk and crossed his legs. He poured himself another cup of coffee and offered the thermos to Alfredo.

Why did you become a priest?”

Alfredo declined with a wave of one hand. “My mother sent me to a Jesuit boarding school when I was a young lad. And I guess I never left.” He looked at his watch. “Speaking of my classes, it is time for me to go teach one.”

Russ shook his head as Alfredo left his office, wondering what motivated the man. He complains about his success and won’t write up what will make him famous. What does he want?

 

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 6

The Eyes Have It

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ate her alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Where I was then. Which then?

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

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

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

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

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

I love this painting,” she murmured.

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

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

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

Time runs through your life like water to the sea.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

God, it was loud.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

em·i·nent

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

2. Conspicuous, signal, or noteworthy.

3. Lofty; high.

4. Prominent; projecting; protruding.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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