Corvus Rising – Chapter 13

Mirrors and Other Illusions

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

Thank you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said.

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

Now, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo laughed.

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

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

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

              We’re Moving!

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

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

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

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

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

I see,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Oh?” Dr. Robbins said. “How so?”

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

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

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

Aliens?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And the argument began.

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

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

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

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

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

The law is an ass, and I am insane.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do,” Alfredo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Were they killed?” the novice asked.

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

How did they do that?” the novice asked.

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

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

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

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

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

What is a gene pool?” the novice asked.

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

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

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

Have the bugs been exterminated?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

Starfire chanted the verses he had devised for this ritual:

 

Vibzu bashki gax

Noxim ghazh blut a rek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Mimi?” Starfire repeated the chant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

Husband!” Rika shrieked as she dropped to the tree house deck. “JoEd’s flown off again! I just don’t know what to do with him! He won’t mind, he won’t listen.” She paced back and forth, flapping her wings. “Every single time I turn my back, he’s gone. I cannot keep my eyes upon him every second! He’s not the only fledgling I have to look after!”

He’s a chip off the old block, my love,” Charlie said, following her around the deck. “My mother pulled her feathers out over me, too. The nest has gotten too small for him, I reckon. But let me take him off your wings for the rest of the day. I’ll show him a bit of the outside world.”

Charlie flew off looking for his errant son and found him on the riverbank. Though a plethora of dead fish and other delectables littered the river’s edge, JoEd was not interested. His eyes were upon the city across the river. Charlie knew that look; he’d had it himself. Our JoEd will be leaving us soon. I must prepare Rika.

Zazu!” JoEd cried when he saw Charlie. “I wanted to see what was beyond the nest, and I flapped my wings one or two times, and here I am! Look at that!” He pointed a wing toward Downtown. “Someday I want to go there, Zazu!”

Charlie grinned at little JoEd and said, “And someday you will. But today, let’s fly all the way around Cadeña-l’jadia.”

As father and son flew off together, Charlie remembered how his curiosity had nibbled away at his common sense when he was JoEd’s age. Thank the Orb his mother sent him to Starfire when she did. JoEd should begin his training soon; no use letting all that energy go to waste.

This is Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie told JoEd as they rose above the treetops of the island. “Your homeland and your heritage.”

They flew around the southern tip of the island and headed upriver toward the bird sanctuary, a very popular place for not only migratory birds, but island and city birds as well. Charlie and JoEd landed in a tree and watched the panorama in front of them.

Shorebirds of all sizes littered the shallow quiet water; waders, fishers, skimmers, and a dozen or so white pelicans fished from the bank. Rowdy groups of crows and magpies flew in and out of the trees that lined the banks, swooping down from time to time to catch a mouthful of fish the pelicans inadvertently let fall out of their beaks. A group of loons played a noisy game of splash-tag, beating the placid water into a tempest as they belted out insults to each other in melancholy voices. Waves fanned out in all directions and struck the shorelines with a slurping sound.

Nice job Jayzu did, eh, JoEd?” Charlie said to his son.

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

Well, he and his friends moved some boulders around a bit so that this large pool would form, and all these birds would have a place to feed and hang out.”

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

Jayzu loves birds,” Charlie said. “He is Patua’, like Bruthamax was. He knows this island belongs to birds.”

Father and son flapped their way to the edge of the pool, where they both found more than enough morsels of fish to fill their stomachs. “Shall we?” Charlie said, gesturing toward the sky with his head.

Let’s!” JoEd jumped into flight, following Charlie as he flapped up to the limestone cliffs. Vertical and horizontal fractures split the cliff face, creating rectangular patterns of rock and shadows. They came to a landing on a ledge near a great fissure in the cliff wall. “I can feel air coming out!” he said, his beak turned toward the dark cleft in the rock.

There are many caves in these cliffs, JoEd,” Charlie said. “They go way back underneath the island—and some are joined together by tunnels. Bruthamax lived in these caves during the cold time of year. But he used them year-round to travel back and forth between his tree house and his other house on the other end of the island.”

They watched a raven glide into an upside-down V-shaped crack in the cliff. “Is there a nest in there?” JoEd asked.

Probably not this time of year,” Charlie said. “Though the ravens roost in these cliffs year-round. But don’t go looking for them! They like their privacy and won’t take kindly to a young crow sticking his beak where it doesn’t belong.”

Charlie leaped off the cliff flapping his wings, and JoEd followed. As they flew out over the river, the sight of Downtown in the morning sunlight captured JoEd’s attention, and he could not take his eyes off it.

That is where your mother hatched, fledged, and lived until I brought her to Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said, dipping a wing toward Downtown. “See those green trees over there, next to that really tall building? That’s where your weebs and I met.”

He remembered how Rika had knocked him beak-over-feathers the first time he had ever laid eyes on her. She was a beauty. Fredrika Eliza Katarzyna Antonina Stump was her given name, but she was known to everyone simply as Rika. It was love at first sight. When Rika called his tune, he came dancing.

JoEd could hardly take his eyes off the sparkling jewel across the water as they continued their journey upriver. On and on, flying close to the sheer limestone cliffs that rose right up out of water. Father and son played in the gentle, capricious winds that blew constantly downriver from the north.

Watch me, Zazu!” JoEd said as he caught an updraft.

Charlie shouted, “No! JoEd! No!” But it was too late.

Whooooaaaaa!” JoEd cried out as he shot upward like a rock from a slingshot.

JoEd!” Charlie shouted, looking all around for his wayward son. “JoEd!”

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

JoEd struggled for consciousness. A large black figure hovered over him, but he just couldn’t focus on it. That’s one big raven. Struggling to his feet, still woozy from having the wind knocked out of him, JoEd realized this was no raven, but a human all dressed in black, except for the streak of white hair on his head. He must have some corvid in him. He looks like Starfire.

He cast a blue eye upward at the beakless black bird above him. JoEd’s head cleared, and he leaped to his feet as he cried out, “Jayzu! It’s me, JoEd!” He put out a wing in greeting.

JoEd!” Jayzu said as he brushed his hand across JoEd’s feathers. “Grawky! You are a long way from the Treehouse.”

I am!” JoEd said, puffing up his chest. “My zazu and I flew all the way here!” He stopped for a moment and shook his head. “Wait a minute! Where’s my zazu? We were just looking at the raven cliffs! Where did he go? How did I get here?”

Well, I do not know, JoEd,” Jayzu said. “You just fell out of the sky.”

JoEd looked confused for a few moments. “Ohhh,” he said, nodding his head. “I remember now. I was riding a jaloosie. Which way are the cliffs, Jayzu? I need to find my zazu!”

That way,” Jayzu pointed. “It is not far.”

JoEd flew up over the trees. The river shimmered blue and white in the afternoon sun and in the distance, he saw a single black speck flying back and forth. “Zazu!” he shouted and flapped his wings as hard as he could.

Zazu!” he called out as he flew until Charlie was close enough to hear him.

 

JoEd!” Charlie said angrily as they met in the sky. He smacked his son with a wing, nearly knocking him out of the sky. “You scared the beezle out of me! Where in the Orb have you been?”

I’m sorry, Zazu,” JoEd said. “The jaloosie flung me all the way to Jayzu’s house!”

Jaloosies can turn you into jelly,” Charlie said sternly. “Especially the ones along the raven cliffs—they’re killers, and you should stay away from them. Let me show you a couple of tricks, but let’s get away from the cliffs.”

JoEd and Charlie continued flying upriver, following the riverbank. They cut across the little inlet and rounded it. “The jaloosies here are not as wild,” Charlie said as he caught one and whooshed upward. He flipped himself out of the thermal and returned to JoEd’s side.

Now you try it,” Charlie said. “Jump in like normal, but don’t let the jaloosie grab you! Get right back out. Like this!” He jumped into another jaloosie and somersaulted out of it in a mass of feather and beak that somehow righted itself into JoEd’s otherwise unruffleable zazu.

Try it!” Charlie said.

JoEd leaped into the jaloosie and felt it tumble him backward, but he did not let it take hold of him. He darted sideways, shrieking as he tumbled tail over beak.

After you practice awhile,” Charlie said, “you can do more than one flip-out. Watch this!” He rolled into the jaloosie, which spun him around like a top before releasing him.

I want to do that!” JoEd cried out. He jumped in the way Charlie had and laughed all the way through four revolutions. “Wow! Zazu!”

Hey there, Flyboy,” Charlie called out after a few more spins in the jaloosies. “Let’s go home! Your mother is probably imagining us both dead somewhere.”

Okay, Zazu,” JoEd said. The young crow looked down at the island as they winged homeward. “Look! There’s the Treehouse, Zazu! It is so small!”

 

Catching the Wind opened with eighteen of Jade Matthews’ paintings at Jena McCray’s eclectic gallery in Downtown Ledford. Jena’s place attracted a broad range of buying clientele. The reception she put together was incredible—simple and elegant, with enough wine to get people talking and loosen their checkbooks, but not so much as to promote accidental drunkenness.

Russ was enormously handsome in his tux, and Jade was touched that he was so willing to put on the dog for her night. Nibbling nervously on one of the exquisite canapés Jena had provided, she could hardly catch her breath. So many people wanted to talk to her, tell her how much they loved her work, how it spoke to them in ways that art never had before. And here I thought this would be my final, solitary journey into the bourgeois.

Jade, dahling, it’s so mah-velous to see you. Mwa. Mwa.” A woman with penciled-in eyebrows and flaming red hair had appeared, kissing the air in front of each of Jade’s ears.

Hello, Twyla,” Jade said, smiling as cordially as she could. Twyla Spitzwater was the art critic for the Sentinel, well known for her scathingly sarcastic articles.

She likes being known as eccentric,” Jena had told her before the reception, “without actually being so. In her youth, she was very attractive, but alas, Twyla is a woman who cannot bear to age gracefully. She’s going kicking and screaming.”

Speaking of bourgeois,” Russ said into his wine glass. Jade jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

I’m so glad you could make it to my opening,” Jade said.

She tried not to stare at Twyla’s outlandish appearance. Her overly dyed hair had taken on the texture of a bird’s nest, and a layer of powdery makeup caked heavily on her cheeks only called more attention to her undulating wrinkles. Impossibly thick false eyelashes looked like caterpillars above her eyelids. Her lips were painted a brick-red color, outlined in black.

Tell me about Catching the Wind,” Twyla said as she sipped her wine and looked at Jane over tinted glasses shaped like cat’s eyes. “Why that title?”

I took a hiatus from painting for several years,” Jade said. “Most of the paintings in this show are the first gust, so to speak, since I’ve returned to painting. The wind that used to drive me still blows. I’m trying to catch it.”

Interesting,” Twyla said. She pinched a morsel off her plate between long, spiky fingernails painted to match her lips and plopped it quickly into her mouth. “Would you hold this a moment, dear?” She handed Jade her canapé plate and wine glass as she scribbled a few notes in a small pad. She looked back up at Jade over her glasses. “And why had you stopped painting?”

Jade felt like she was being probed for a soft spot, a sign of weakness. She didn’t want to tell Twyla that she had been in a state most of the world would call temporary insanity. Or that she had quit eating and sleeping, and had wandered nomadically through foggy memories and dreams.

I stopped hearing the wind.” Jade hoped that would be enough. Twyla nodded and scribbled some more in her pad.

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

Isn’t Jade the most exciting artist we’ve seen in a long time?” Jena said as she put her face in between Jade and Twyla. “It is so unusual,” she continued, “to sell half the show at the artist’s reception. Especially a new artist on the scene. Don’t you agree, Twyla?”

Indeed,” Twyla said as if she thought the opposite. “I always love to introduce new talent to the community.”

That was the purpose of having her show at my gallery,” Jena said sweetly. “I hope you’ll give Jade a nice write-up in your column on Sunday. Meanwhile, forgive me for interrupting, but several of my customers want to meet Jade. I am afraid, Twyla, that I must steal her from you.”

Jade handed the wine glass and canapé plate back to Twyla, and Jena whisked her away. “You are a smash hit, my dear!” Jena said as they left Twyla scowling. “She likes your work, I can tell that. And you too. It’ll be interesting to see what she writes in her column on Sunday. But promise me you will not take anything negative she might have to say personally, okay? She’ll throw some darts at me, but I don’t care what she thinks. It’s my gallery. And I’m ecstatic.”

Jade nodded, wondering why anyone would not like Jena. Her gallery was fabulous, and she was very successful.

A wealthy client of Jena’s, a woman in her fifties, stood before Catching the Wind, the title painting of the show. “Gabrielle, let me introduce Jade Matthews, the artist,” Jena said.

The woman turned and gushed enthusiastically as she took Jade’s hand. “I’m so pleased to meet you! I just love your paintings, Ms. Matthews. The colors and the richness! I can just feel the crisp air in this one.” She gestured toward Catching the Wind. “I can almost hear the wind blowing those leaves along the pavement! I don’t know how you do it!”

Thank you,” Jade said. “I heard it too—the wind. I’m glad to know it comes through.”

Oh,” Gabrielle said, “it does. I’ve never experienced anything like it from a painting. You are uniquely talented, Ms. Matthews.”

Perhaps you should hang it next to this one,” Jena said, directing the woman’s attention to Leave Me. “The two together would be lovely, don’t you think?”

Leave Me, a playful celebration of leaves falling from trees, leaves blowing around, and leaves collecting on doorsteps, captured the vivid reds and yellows of the summer sun. Leaves fell from their trees, playfully riding the winds of fall, oblivious to the coming winter’s death.

But that means I must buy two!” the woman said.

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

Well,” Gabrielle said, “they do look lovely together. All right! You talked me into it, Jena! I was going to buy another one anyway—that sweet little one of the crows dancing around the birdbath—but my husband absolutely loathes crows, and I’m afraid I would never get it into the house. How much do I owe you?”

 

Alfredo walked from the docks at the Waterfront where the Captain had left him to Jena’s gallery on Pomegranate Street. When he arrived, several dozen people chatted while helping themselves to the food and drink. He walked in and stopped dead in his tracks, chilled to the bone by the face in the painting across the room.

It is Charlotte …

The eyes dragged him forward until he stood before her, enthralled and astonished. Painted with the palest hues of pink, blue, and green, those eyes pulled him into the patterns and promises of another world on the other side. He wanted to get closer and closer, dive into them, bask in days of warm sunshine and nights of star-sprinkled heaven.

He looked at the title of the painting. Ave, Madre.

Hail, Mother. Jade’s mother, Charlotte. Of course. Though she doesn’t look anything like her. He turned and scanned the crowd, trying to find Jade.

Father Manzi!” Jena cried out, waving as she approached with Jade. “What a pleasure to see you!” She gave the priest a quick hug and said, “Please let me introduce the artist, Jade Matthews.”

Alfredo!” Jade said and took his hand. “I’m so happy that you came! Russ is here somewhere, as are Sam and Kate.”

Here I am!” Sam said. “And here’s Kate!” Jade greeted Kate with a hug and Sam with a playful punch to the shoulder.

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

I see you all know each other,” Jena said.

Yes, I know Sam from way back,” Jade said. “But Alfredo and I have only recently met. He’s a colleague of my husband’s in the biology department at the university. But I had no idea he’s an art collector!”

And I had no idea Charlotte is your mother. Alfredo felt suddenly lightheaded and inhaled slowly, trying to keep his thoughts from running away. And you are Patua’, of course! The crow spoke to you in the chapel garden, not in English, but Patua’!

One of my gallery’s best clients!” Jena said.

When St. Sophia’s was remodeled,” Alfredo said, “they needed new paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Jena helped me find interested artists. I simply recommended them to the monsignor.”

Oh, you’re too modest!” Jena said, giving Alfredo a gentle shove. “That was quite the largesse for a number of our local artists. But aren’t Jade’s paintings just fabulous?” She turned and gazed at Ave, Madre. “I feel like I’m gazing into my own mother’s eyes.”

Alfredo looked again at Ave, Madre and then back at Jade. Her blonde, curly hair and green eyes did not remind him in the least of Charlotte’s pale gray eyes and long, straight black hair. But there was something about her face that did.

This one’s my favorite,” Sam said, gesturing toward the painting next to Ave, Madre. “Winter Wonderland. You got amazing depth in just two dimensions, Jade. Incredible.”

A sunbeam coming through a window illuminated the particulate matter floating in the air. The rich, exquisite surface of many brush strokes pulled the viewer into the warm light, where images of flowers and dragonflies floated on warm, lazy breezes.

That’s what the world outside my studio looked like one day last winter,” Jade said. “There was this amazing sunbeam. The contrast was exquisite—the sparkling clear landscape covered with snow outside, and a mosaic of color in the dust particles of the sunbeam inside. I couldn’t resist.”

Truly superb, Jade,” Alfredo said. “I feel like I am gently falling through stardust. You manage to evoke many senses beyond the visual.”

Willow B,” Kate said, pointing across the gallery to the painting of a gray cat. “That’s my fave. It’s like you can almost walk into it; the mounds of fur seem like trees. Oh! And the little critters running around everywhere. I just love them!”

Jena excused herself to attend to a refreshment issue. Sam and Kate wandered off toward Willow B, leaving Alfredo and Jade alone.

You truly have a gift,” Alfredo said to Jade. “Your paintings are simply magnificent.” He turned toward Ave, Madre. “She is your mother?”

I don’t know who my mother was,” Jade said with a shrug, facing her painting. “This woman is from my imagination. Or perhaps one of my dreams. I was an orphan, and you know what they say about us—always looking for our quote-unquote real parents.”

I am sorry, Jade. Losing your mother must have been difficult,” Alfredo said. “We all long for the Holy Mother who nurtures us all. Perhaps orphans feel her presence more acutely than the mothered.”

Jade shrugged again. “I never knew her. I was a foundling, as they say. She’s my fantasy mother.” She pointed at her painting. “My real mother left me in the woods in a basket with nothing but a blanket. And that strange medallion like the one you have.” She smiled without joy. “To haunt me.”

Alfredo touched her arm sympathetically. Yes, Jade, your mother had one of the orbs. And she is Patua’. As you are.

Fortunately, there was a happy ending,” Jade said with a smile as she patted his hand on her arm. “I was raised by foster parents whose love and nurturing are one reason I’m here today in this gallery full of my paintings. And Russ is the other.”

Other what?” Russ said, suddenly appearing by Jade’s side.

My other husband,” Jade said with a wicked smile. “I was just confessing my bigamy to Father Alfredo.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “Jade was telling me how grateful she was to have such a supportive and nurturing husband.”

Jena McCrae strode toward them and pulled Jade away. Without apology, she said over her shoulder, “Sorry, gents. Another sale on the horizon!”

 

Russ wandered off toward the refreshment tables, leaving Alfredo to stroll alone through the gallery, admiring Jade’s paintings and mentally arranging his finances in consideration of purchasing Ave, Madre. He spotted Kate by herself in front of a large painting and walked over to her.

Jade’s so talented,” Kate said as they stood together in front of Falling Backward. “She said this came from a dream she had about falling from the sky into a pool of water.”

Yes, she is,” Alfredo agreed. “She is gifted with a sight most of us do not have.”

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

Indeed.” He looked over his shoulder, making sure no one approached. “Kate, I need some lawyerly advice. How would one go about getting someone released from Rosencranz?”

The mental hospital?” Kate asked, raising her eyebrows.

Yes.”

Okay,” she said slowly. “And who may I ask wants whom released?”

I do,” Alfredo said. “She is a friend of mine.”

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

As far as I can tell,” Alfredo said, hesitating before replying, “it is just a language issue. She cannot speak English.”

Kate looked at him intently. “Can we go outside and chat, Padre? I’m in sudden need of fresh air.”

Alfredo followed her out the door and onto the sidewalk. “Truth time, Padre,” she said. “What exactly is this language issue?” When he didn’t answer, she bit her lower lip and nodded slowly. “I see. It’s the language of the crows, isn’t it?”

He stared at her in shock. Did Majewski show her Bruthamax’s letter? Did Sam tell her?

For God’s sake,” Kate said, “I’m not an idiot. Do you think I can’t put two and two together? ‘The corvid have an extensive vocabulary’—your own words, no?”

Several people came out the door of the gallery. Kate started walking down the street, pulling on Alfredo’s sleeve. “Padre,” she said. “I know. I know about you. I know about Sam. And I know about the Captain. So, drop this charade, okay?”

B-but, how?”

I suspected as much,” she said. “But Sam told me.”

Sam told you?” Alfredo felt deflated, his façade breached.

Yes,” she said. “I forced it out of him. First I tricked him into telling me about you.” She laughed at Alfredo’s shocked expression. “Oh, stop! I’m a lawyer; that’s what we do!”

Kate took his arm, and they walked slowly back to the gallery. “And then he let it slip that he’d been to the island once before you hired him.”

Alfredo nodded. “He mentioned that to me too, but he did not seem to want to talk about it.”

They stopped at a traffic light and waited for the pedestrian light. A paper cup flew out of a passing car, striking a vehicle parked next to the curb. “Got one!” a voice yelled as the brown liquid dripped off the hood.

People!” Kate said shaking her head. “No freaking manners.”

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

Sam brought his twin sister’s boyfriend Andy, whom we know as the Captain, to the island a few years ago,” she said after they had crossed. “Sam’s father had beat him nearly to death before throwing him in the river to drown.”

Alfredo stopped and stared at Kate. “Oh, dear Lord!” he gasped. “The captain? But why?”

Kate nodded. “Sam’s sister was pregnant with his child. She hung herself, thinking Andy was dead.”

Alfredo gritted his teeth against the surge of anger in his chest, and his eyes burned with hot, stinging tears he would not let fall. He cried out in anguish, “God Almighty, can there be no end to the suffering of your innocent children?”

I know,” Kate said as she looked up at him. She took his hand and led him to a bench on the sidewalk. They sat side by side in silence while Alfredo struggled to compose himself. His heart ached for Sam, for the Captain, for Sam’s sister, and her neverborn child.

He saw Charlotte wandering alone within the silent stone walls of Rosencranz. Dear Lord, please look after her until I can.

I want to help you, Alfredo,” Kate said. Her voice brought him back to the Downtown sidewalk. “And I want to help your friend. But you have to trust me. Does she speak the language of the crows? And is that really why she’s in a mental institution?”

Yes,” Alfredo said, without hesitation. There was nothing to hide. Kate knew it all, apparently. He stood up and offered Kate his hand, and they resumed walking back to the gallery.

Apparently about twenty five years ago,” he said as they walked, “she lost the ability to understand human language. She is otherwise a very intelligent, lucid woman who has endured years of confinement and the abandonment by her family with amazing grace.”

They stopped outside the gallery. “I have to get her out of there, Kate. It is unbearable for her.” And me.

They sat down on a planter next to the door. Kate looked at him intently and said, “As your attorney, I must ask you this: are you in love with her?”

Alfredo frowned. “I do not know what that means, exactly. I feel great affection and attachment for her. I admire her and worry about her. I want her life to be better. I enjoy her company. Is that what ‘in’ love means?”

If we’re lucky,” Kate said, smiling. “But what about romance? Have you two kissed or anything?”

Alfredo laughed. “No. The thought has never occurred to me. Nor to her, that I can tell.”

Like you would know,” Kate said with a grin.

Alfredo frowned again. “I do not think I have romantic thoughts.”

He had thought he was in love once, before seminary school. She was another graduate student in the department. Beth. But when she discovered his so-called gift, she freaked out and broke up with him. He had been crushed, though grateful she never told anyone about his crow-speech. But he had vowed never to let anyone know again. He buried himself in his dissertation, and after he was awarded a PhD, he immediately entered the priesthood.

Friendship can be very romantic,” Kate said. “But I had to check, you know, if anything else was going on. People do crazy things for sex.”

A car drove by slowly. Music boomed out its open windows; a female voice screamed out the lyrics, something about love and pain.

I have never participated in the sex act,” Alfredo said, stiffly, feeling his face redden.

Kate cracked up laughing and hugged him. “Oh, Padre! That is what we hoped to hear from all our priests! But seriously, sex is wonderful! It’s like a glue that holds two unrelated people together.”

The door to the gallery opened, and several people walked out, discussing where to go for a drink. “How about the Saddle?” a man said. “No!” the woman on his arm said. “No sports bars!”

So, where will you take her,” Kate asked, after the group had passed, “assuming you can get her out of there?”

I have not yet decided,” Alfredo said. “But before I imagine myself and her at a bridge we may never cross, I want to find out if I can get her out of there at all. If so, I will find her a safe place where she will be happy. But not at my cottage, if that is what you are thinking.”

I was,” said Kate. “What is her name, by the way?”

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

After the last guest left the gallery, Jade and Russ stayed to help Jena tidy up while Sam, Kate, and Alfredo drove to the Double Elbow, a popular Downtown pub known for good beer, buffalo wings, and whose relatively quiet atmosphere made conversation possible. A few tables against the windows surrounded an interior dominated by two L-shaped bars with stools.

By the time Russ and Jade arrived, the others were already seated in a booth in the far corner. Sam poured them a beer from the pitcher on the table.

I need man food,” Russ said after he slid into place. “I must’ve eaten a hundred of those delicate little tea cakes or whatever the hell they served at the reception. Like eating air. A man needs meat.”

Sam laughed and clapped his hands. Alfredo regarded Sam with a new sense of tenderness. He has endured much suffering. Grant him happiness now, Lord, with this loving woman, Kate.

I hear ya,” Kate said, giggling, “but we’ve ordered wings. Do real men eat chicken?”

Whenever possible,” Russ said with absolutely no expression on his face.

That seemed hilariously funny to everyone, except Alfredo. He smiled anyway, though he could not fathom what the joke was. His conversation with Kate had illuminated his alienation from his fellow humans, and he was envious of his friends’ banter and easy enjoyment of each other.

The wings arrived, and for a few moments, everyone had their mouths full and their fingers covered in reddish-orange spicy sauce. “Ya know,” Jade said between bites, waving a wing bone at her companions. “I only realized last year why they call these buffalo wings. I wondered for a long time how buffalos and wings could wind up being the same food. I just thought it was one of those things frat boys come up with, you know, for their keg parties—because it’s more manly to eat buffalo than chicken.”

Everyone chuckled, shaking their heads. Alfredo furrowed his brow and said, “I always thought they were wings of chickens from upstate New York. And I wondered what was so special about that. And how would we ever know if they did not come from Buffalo?”

Thanks, Padre,” Jade said as the rest of the group erupted in laughter. “I’m glad to know I’m not such a black sheep, that others think like I do.”

Not very damn many,” Russ said with an affectionate nudge.

Your husband speaks the truth, Jade,” Alfredo said. “But in the end, we are all just strangers in a strange land, are we not?” We are Patua’ in a strange land, you and I.

Hear! Hear!” Kate said with mock sternness. “Let’s not have such lonesome talk when there are friends all around. How about a tribute to Jade for a fantastic art show!”

They toasted Jade and each painting that sold. Alfredo had arranged with Jena to purchase Ave, Madre, but he did not tell Jade. She will see it hanging in my cottage. Or the chapel.

The waitperson brought a new pitcher of beer, and Alfredo filled everyone’s glass. “Speaking of art and artists,” he said when he finished, “I have been seeing flyers up around Downtown. Seems the Friends of Wilder Island are having an arts and crafts fair and art auction next weekend at the Waterfront.”

That’s right!” Jade said. “Sam and I put a proposal in to Parks and Rec, and we got the permit that same day! The city loves people to come Downtown on the weekends—that’s what they told us. They’re trying to promote the Waterfront too. Sam and I are both contributing work to the art auction, and we have at least half of the artists saying they’ll put stuff in too!”

Alfredo observed Jade intently as she spoke. Her eyes sparkled with excitement, and every once in a while he thought he caught a glimpse of her mother. He squinted his eyes and listened to the lilting quality in Jade’s voice, so like Charlotte’s.

Perfect timing!” Kate said. “The city’s going to announce their decision to condemn Wilder Island on Thursday.”

How do you know that?” Jade asked, tilting her head to one side and wrinkling her brow.

Alfredo almost laughed out loud. I have seen that exact expression on Charlotte!

My vast network of spies,” Kate said with a wink. “Seriously, there are no secrets among lawyers and politicians.” She turned to Russ. “But we gotta be ready. You have things set up with KMUS, Russ?”

Yes,” he said. “The students at the university radio station are ready to roll on Friday night. They’ll broadcast us live from the Waterfront. After we explain the issues—condemnation, eminent domain, and why we might want to keep the island the way it is—there’ll be time for people to call in and comment or ask questions.”

Their server came by the table and dropped off another pitcher of beer. He picked up the empty plates and napkins and left the check and several individually wrapped hand wipes.

Hey,” Sam said as he cleaned the red hot sauce from his fingers. “As long as we’re on KMUS, how about we put on a beg-a-thon? Like they do on public radio, you know? I mean, we need to raise some bucks, don’t we? We’ve made some money selling booths for the fair, and we’ll make a little more from the silent auction. But we could rake in some serious money if we put on a beg-a-thon.”

What the devil is a beg-a-thon?” Alfredo asked.

Henry Braun applied for a parade permit, not coincidentally, for the same weekend as the Friends of Wilder Island Art Fair. Just as Kate Herron had her network of informants, so did Henry. He too knew exactly when the Mayor’s announcement to condemn Wilder Island would occur. He planned to fire up the River Queen and start parading her past the city boat docks on both sides of the river for the entire weekend. There would be free food and drink for the crowds he hoped would gather on the docks to ogle his beautiful River Queen.

You can’t have the docks at the Waterfront,” the city clerk said. “On account of the art fair. You can have the city boat landing on the other side, though.”

What art fair?” Henry growled.

I just stamped their permit,” the clerk said, rifling through the previous day’s paperwork. “An outfit called the Friends of Wilder Island.”

Who the bloody hell are the Friends of Wilder Island? They’d better not get in my way!

Oh? Whose name is on the permit?” Henry said magnanimously as he pushed a five-dollar bill across the counter at the clerk.

Let’s see,” he said, looking through the bottom half of his bifocals at the permit. He carefully ignored the bill on the counter. “Here it is. There were two applicants, Jade Matthews and Sam Howard.” He scribbled the names on a scrap of paper and pushed it and the money toward Henry. “There is no charge for this information, Mr. Braun.” The clerk looked over his shoulder and smiled at the video cameras behind him.

Thank you,” Henry said cordially as he pocketed the bill.

He walked out of City Hall and stepped through the open door of his Bentley and into the backseat. Jules Sackman sat waiting for Henry, sipping a latte and reading the newspaper.

Who the hell are these people?” Henry Braun growled to Jules as the car pulled away from the curb. “Friends of Wilder Island?”

Everything is named after the island in this city, Henry,” Jules said, sipping his latte. “Don’t let that make you paranoid. Probably just a band of dilettantes and their gigolos.”

I don’t want probably, Jules. I want facts. I want answers,” Henry growled. “Who the hell are Jade Matthews and Sam Howard? And who’s behind them? A bunch of bleeding-heart, liberal tree-huggers, I bet.”

Alfredo spent the night at St. Sophia’s, as it was too dark to return to the island after he left his friends at the Double Elbow. He tossed and turned, unable to find sleep. He missed the sounds of the night on the island, and the evening’s revelation kept his mind running. Charlotte is Jade’s mother! The knowledge filled him with a strange mixture of dread and excitement.

How old is Jade? Early twenties, I would guess. Was Charlotte pregnant when she was taken away? Did she give birth at Rosencranz? Dora Lyn had not been able to find Charlotte’s file at his last visit, which he thought would tell him everything he needed to know about Charlotte’s arrival, treatment, and residence at Rosencranz.

The headlights from a passing car infiltrated the gap between the curtains, sending a geometrical pattern of light and shadow darting across the ceiling.

Charlotte never mentioned a daughter. He frowned in the darkness. Maybe she’s not Jade’s mother after all. He turned over in bed again, his back to the window.

He slept fitfully, disturbed by vague dreams of a blindfolded Charlotte with arms tied behind her back, and a baby in a basket crying faintly. He woke up feeling as if he had not slept at all.

He left the rectory at St. Sophia’s as soon as the sun came up and found the Captain and Sugarbabe docked at the Waterfront. Funny how they always know when to pick me up.

It ain’t rocket science,” Sugarbabe squawked. “We left you here yest’aday. You didn’t g’home last night. Where else would y’be at this hour, than here wantin’ for a ride?”

The Captain chuckled and gave his crow a treat from his shirt pocket. He pushed the boat out into the river. Alfredo wondered again how old the Captain was; his craggy and sun-wrinkled face somehow defied age. How many years ago was he left for dead in the river? Sam was in his mid-thirties, he knew. But the Captain seemed far older. “How long have you been running the river, Captain?”

The Captain looked up at the sky for a moment and then at Alfredo. “Many years. I forget.” His face seemed to cloud over, and he turned his eyes back to the river.

Alfredo left the Captain in peace and inhaled the cool, clear morning, reviving his sleep-deprived body. The river’s flat and calm surface reflected the forest and sacred chapel of Cadeña-l’jadia like a mirror.

Ah, Bruthamax’s Roost,” Sugarbabe said. “’Tis always a beautiful sight.”

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

He bid farewell to the Captain and Sugarbabe, and entered the thick forest. He smiled up at the birds flying through the branches of the trees and walked the path to his cottage. It was good to be home. He opened the doors and windows to the fresh air and then left to find Charlie.

He walked past the chapel and down to the point where Charlie pecked at his lunch from the cracks and crannies of rocks and driftwood.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said. He cleaned his beak in the sand and hopped up onto the driftwood log where Alfredo had seated himself.

Charlie, I have reason to believe Charlotte has a daughter!”

The crow shook his head. “How do you know this?”

Alfredo told him about Jade’s painting of her unknown mother that bore an uncanny resemblance to Charlotte. “And she has that orb.”

Charlie paced back and forth across the log. “Well, I guess it’s possible. In the half a year before they took her away, I was in Keeper training then and couldn’t visit her.” He stopped and looked at Alfredo. “But Charlotte has never mentioned a child?”

No, but she seems to have forgotten a great deal of her life.” Alfredo gazed across the river for a few moments. “I wonder … could the stress of a difficult childbirth have caused her to forget her native human language?”

I don’t know,” Charlie said. “I have an archive session with Starfire tomorrow. Perhaps he will know the answer to that. He has known of a few Patua’ who faded into the Graying. At the very least, he will be very interested in adding a new Patua’ to the database. And that she has one of the orbs.”

Charlie flew off, leaving Alfredo alone on the log. He watched a few crows flipping themselves through the jaloosies out over the river. Sometimes I wish I were one of them. So free of the madnesses we humans have created.

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Eminent Domain

 

The River Queen will remain in permanent dry-dock here on the west side of the river,” Henry told the small group of Ledford city officials as he pointed to the lovely miniature riverboat. “You’ll be able to see it from Downtown and the Waterfront. There’ll be a ferry coming in from both sides of the city, docking on the rocky point below the old chapel ruins. We’ll have a marker there, commemorating Maxmillian Wilder’s life and legacy.”

Henry Braun stood while eight others sat in chairs around the architectural model of Ravenwood Resort. The mayor, his secretary, and six heads of city departments were there: Planning and Zoning, Environment, Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and Neighborhood Relations.

Of the group, Henry was sure he had four of them in his pocket: Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and the Mayor himself. They all saw the light, even if they might’ve needed a little shove in the right direction. That’s a majority! He chuckled to himself. I’ve got this in the bag!

The model around which they all were seated was huge. Complete with lights and running water, the miniature River Queen bobbed up and down in the current generated by her own paddlewheel. Gone were the overgrown forests of Wilder Island and the newly restored hermit’s chapel. Trees obediently lined the sidewalks and cobbled streets instead, and tidy green lawns of manicured grass bordered with flowers surrounded concrete-lined fountains sporting sculptures of leaping fish.

Henry turned a switch on a transformer, and a small scale-model train emerged from a tunnel. Eight pairs of eyes followed the tiny steam engine around the little island as it blew its whistle and flashed its lights. “What resort would be complete without a train?” Henry asked the smiling faces around the table. “Completely electric, so no smokestacks or smog—just a little steam puff every now and then.”

The tiny train rolled past groups of miniature people walking along the boardwalk next to the river and chugged past hotels, restaurants, and the amusement park, where the Ferris wheel spun like a hypnotic pinwheel of lights. “The train will shuttle people anywhere they want to go,” Henry said, pointing to the tiny track. “To the casinos, the shopping mall, restaurants, Kid Land. Anywhere they want to go. Free of charge. They just hop on and off as they wish!”

The officials watched the little train begin another loop; a tiny puff of steam erupted from its engine. The whole scene was rather enchanting. Henry saw the smiles, the relaxed shoulders. The officials were charmed, he thought with a smug smile. Who can resist a choo-choo? Just about time to move in for the kill.

Over here,” Henry said, “is Kid Land.” Colored lights adorned the miniature Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and water-park slides that presided over the amusement park. “Complete with day-care workers and lifeguards to look after the youngsters while Mommy and Daddy are at the gaming tables!”

Henry pushed another button on the control panel, and the River Queen sputtered to life. He steered the boat around the island, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a replica of the old River Queen paddleboat that traveled up and down the river in the last century. She’s been in dry dock, getting renovated into the first riverboat casino in the state. In Phase II, I’ll bring in her newly restored sister, the Delta Dawn.”

Yes, Henry,” the director of the Water Department said, “I’m sure she’s very pretty. But what’s the bottom line here? You ask us to condemn this property? What’s in it for Ledford?”

I am glad you asked that,” Henry said magnanimously. “Bottom line: Ravenwood Resort is Ledford’s cash cow. In perpetuity. Right now, Wilder Island is nothing but a mosquito-infested swamp, to say nothing of the unsustainable crow population, which has for decades been too large for the island to handle. I am talking about progress before crows.”

Henry was proud of the slogan he made up, “progress before crows.” He paused for a drink of water, looking around the room as he unscrewed the top of the bottle. Predictable scowls and smiles all around.

Ravenwood Resort is a recreational facility that the entire city can enjoy,” he continued. “But the greatest gift Ravenwood Resort will give the city of Ledford is to fill its coffers with tax revenue, as well as provide up to eleven hundred new jobs.”

No one stirred for a few moments, until finally the Mayor remembered his cue.

Very provocative, Henry,” he said. “Now let’s see some numbers.”

Of course,” Henry said. “That would be my pleasure. If I may direct your attention to the screen?”

A colorful pie chart sprang to life as Henry turned the data projector on. Circling the pie chart on the screen with a laser pointer, he began his speech. “We expect a gross revenue of fifty million dollars in the first year after Phase I completion. Triple that when Phase II is complete. We estimate city revenue from our operations to be in the neighborhood of eight million per year, once we get going. Maybe more.”

Henry heard a low whistle at the other end of the table. He nodded and said, “Exactly. Please note, ladies and gentlemen, that I have broken down our expected revenue from each of the operations. Casino income, that’s the biggest slice at 78 percent.” Henry zeroed in on each segment of the pie chart in their turn with the laser pointer. “Hotels and Restaurants, 13 percent; Amusement Park, 7 percent, Ferry, 2 percent.” He rattled off the numbers, his words falling like coins from his mouth.

The current level of gross receipts tax on all Ledford business transactions,” he said, advancing the slide on the screen to another pie chart, “is 7.38 percent. The state takes 5.2 percent, leaving 2.18 percent for the city of Ledford. Now, 2.18 percent of 50,000,000 is …” Henry stopped again to advance the slide, pausing an extra second or two for effect.

In the largest font possible, “$1,090,000.00” glittered and sparkled like a jackpot against a soft background photo of the future Ravenwood Resort.

Jade opened her eyes. Willow B’s face was not two inches from hers; his golden eyes seemed to have bored through her sleep. After scratching him behind the ear for a few minutes and listening to his raspy purr, she stretched and sat up. She could hear Russ in the shower.

We’re going to Wilder Island today, Willow B,” she said as she put her robe on. “Crow Island is more like it, though. We’re going to be in a land trust. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I guess we’ll find out.”

Crow Dreams. Crow Island. Crow Backyard. The little messengers from the beyond, trying to tell me something. Maybe someone is dead. Russ had rolled his eyes at that one. But he had not offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the frequency of crows in her life.

You live in a city that has a plethora of them,” Russ had said. “They’re freaking everywhere, hon. And besides, you’ve been painting them since your childhood, so this is evidently not a sudden phenomenon.”

I rest my case!” Jade cried. “Crows have haunted me my entire life!”

Curiosity overwhelmed her anxiety and fantasies in the end, and she was excited at the opportunity to see the famed island. Besides, Russ would be there. And the Jesuit—he would be there too. Probably the crows liked him, and she would be safe by association, so really there was nothing to worry about. Really.

Clear and blue, the river sparkled in the morning sun. Russ was driving, so Jade could unhook, admire, and even lose herself in the scenery. The newly restored chapel was especially beautiful in the morning shadows. Elegant and silent, its roof a bleached, gray-white tangle of dead branches cradled within the saturated greens of the dense forest under a clear blue sky. Like a painting. Jade smiled, thinking of the hundreds if not thousands of Wilder Island paintings flooding the Ledford art market.

Do you think the Jesuit says Mass for the crows?” she said. “Do they listen to his sermons, or ignore him and think about breakfast, like we do?” She visualized a flock of crows in the chapel.Do they eat the bread and drink the wine?”

The Jesuit’s name is Alfredo Manzi,” Russ said, looking at her sternly. “He is my colleague and my friend. Can you please show a little respect? Please?”

I promise,” Jade said, “I will be the perfect picture of the college professor’s elegant wife.”

In your dreams!” Russ said with a grin. “And what a bore! I’ll settle for the eccentric yet not totally bonkers wife of the college professor. Think you can manage that?”

I’ll do my best,” Jade said with a satyr-like grin.

I love you, babe,” Russ said, shaking his head. “God help me.”

He parked the car, and they walked down to the dock where a floating iron forest on pontoons glided soundlessly into one of the slots. “Yo, Russ!” the Captain called out as he tied off the boat. His hat in one hand, he extended the other and invited them to climb aboard and join the red-haired woman seated on one of the benches.

Hi, I’m Kate Herron,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m the attorney for the land trust.”

Nice to meet you,” Jade said. “I’m Jade Matthews, and this is my husband, Russ.”

And here comes Sam,” Kate said with a grin.

An old, beat up, flesh-colored pickup truck roared into the parking lot, spraying gravel as its driver slammed it to a halt. A window went down, and an arm appeared and opened the door from the outside. A sandy-haired man in tight blue jeans and a red plaid shirt jumped out and hollered, “Morning, Captain! Don’t be taking off without me, now!”

He leaped onto the boat, and Jade said, “Sam! I thought I recognized that old truck! You coming to Wilder Island too? For the land trust meeting?”

I am!” Sam said. “I guess you are too! That really rocks. Hey, Russ! Nice to have you aboard!”

Thanks,” Russ said, shaking Sam’s outstretched hand.

Sam put an arm around Kate and gave her a hug as the Captain pushed the boat away from the dock with his wooden oar. Jade admired the beautiful, honey brown wood, finely carved with waterfowl and fish leaping through foamy waves. With a start, she noticed that a crow perched on the railing next to the captain as he rowed. I guess that’s not too unusual in these waters, next to an island full of crows. But who has one as a pet?

Russ nudged her arm and pointed upward. Her amazement increased at the full grandeur of the Captain’s boat. Tree trunks of wrought iron and chased metal held up a canopy of branches and leaves over their heads, through which flew a few small birds, both real and crafted of metal.

The Captain steered the boat around the northernmost tip of the island and into the quiet waters of an inlet. Alfredo stood on the bank, waiting for the Captain to throw him the rope.

Thanks, Captain!” he called out after his guests stepped off the boat.

G’day, Padre.” He tipped his hat and shoved off.

Great day, is it not?” Alfredo reached to shake Russ’s hand.

Alfredo, this is my wife, Jade,” Russ said, his other hand on Jade’s back.

Russ has told me about you!” Alfredo said, his hands encasing hers. “You are an artist, a painter, he tells me.”

Yes,” Jade said, taken aback at his warmth and sincerity.

I presume you all met each other on the way over?” They all nodded, and he continued, “Good, good. Jade, I hope you find inspiration here.”

I’m already inspired,” Jade said, blushing, “just from the boat ride. The island is so beautiful!”

She’ll have a painting done by Sunday night,” Russ said with a grin. “It’ll be extraordinary. Tell them about your show, honey.”

Jade blushed again and said, “It’s a one-person show at Jena McRae’s gallery Downtown. I’ll send you an invitation to the opening reception. It’s next Friday.”

I will be there,” Alfredo said. “I know Jena’s gallery well.”

Send me one also,” Kate said. “I love art shows!”

Me too, Jade,” Sam said. “You know I’m a fan of your work.” He winked at her.

You two know each other then?” Alfredo said, pointing to Jade and Sam.

We do,” Jade said. “We worked on the Urban Art Project the city put on last year. Were you here then? People brought all their discarded metal and stuff, and a group of sculptors, Sam for one, made it into a big art piece for the park next to the Waterfront.”

Yeah,” Sam said. “Jade brought the most amazing stuff to the project. It was great fun!”

Then you are aware of Sam’s artistic talents,” Alfredo said. “You will be pleased to discover his latest work in the chapel garden!”

 

As they left the inlet, Jade looked back over her shoulder several times, half expecting to see a swarm of crows following her. She heard birdcalls everywhere but saw no crows. They walked up the embankment and onto a path. “My cottage is just over there,” Alfredo said, pointing, “but I will take you the long way around, through the chapel and the gardens.”

Where are all the crows? Jade looked all around her and into the tree branches overhead. She stumbled on a rock, and Russ grabbed her hand and directed her attention to the plethora of wildflowers all around them.

Aren’t they gorgeous?” he said. “You’ll have to come back with me sometime and paint while I find a whole new flower unknown to mankind.”

The chapel roof appeared through the trees, and a few minutes later they stepped into the garden. An assortment of pink-and-white water lilies and irises decorated the pond.

You must have a green thumb, Alfredo,” Russ said. “This is beautiful.”

Thank you,” Alfredo said. “I am but a humble gardener.”

Oh my God!” Jade said. “That’s incredible!” She turned to Alfredo. “This is what you were talking about! I’d recognize Sam’s work anywhere.”

A metal sculpture arose from the pond, an unexpected assemblage of the rusted remains of derelict automobiles juxtaposed against shapes cut from discarded stainless steel milk tankers. From any angle, the view was breathtaking, each component an integral part of the whole, in a mosaic of shadows and spaces that reflected in the polished surfaces of the stainless steel. Elegant upward motion suggested the reach for the heavens, brought gently back to Earth by the mundane decomposition of the rusting junk that once littered the urban landscape.

Yes,” Alfredo answered for Sam, smiling proudly. “This is a very recent addition to the garden. A Sam Howard original. Signed right there.” He pointed to the signature carved into the metal base. “I was lucky to find Sam. I hired him to help with the restoration of the chapel. The sculpture in the pond was his idea. It just appeared one day. As if it grew overnight.”

Alfredo looked admiringly at the sculpture. “Sam also built my cottage. But as you observe, his true calling is to art.”

I see a giant bird about to take off,” Kate said. “Or land—I can’t tell which. But I love how you pick up the rubbish of the industrial age and make us forget that it was once all just litter.”

One man’s junk,” Sam said with a grin, “is another man’s art. Modern American artifacts—that’s what I call this stuff. It’s all over the place. Good thing it’s mostly free.”

Sam,” Jade said as she walked around the pond, “this is your finest work ever!”

Sam squinted up at the sculpture. “I think so too. I had one of those rare moments we all pray for, when the thing you haven’t quite envisioned just rises up and seizes you.”

And you just let it come through,” Jade said, nodding. “It has a life of its own almost, and it pulls you along.”

Yep,” Sam said. “Like that.”

Two crows flew into the garden and perched in a tree near the pond and disappeared into its shadows. Four luminous blue eyes stared down at Jade. She returned to Russ’s side, grasped his hand and stole a glance back at the tree. The eyes were still there. Eyes without bodies, hanging like blue globes in the darkness.

What amazes me, Sam,” Russ said as his hand closed around hers, “is how you managed to evoke a green forest using rusty junk metal. It’s like portraying the miracle of life using what’s essentially road kill.”

Sam threw his head back and laughed. “That’s a good one, Russ! Urban Roadkill. I’ll have to create that one. But yes, that’s where I get a lot of my raw material—all along the highways. Car parts, pieces of buildings, farm equipment. Anything metal—gutters, pipes, corrugated siding, old furnaces, air-conditioners. Mufflers and license plates—those are everywhere—but occasionally I pick up something cool like a radiator or an engine fan.”

Very green,” Russ said. “I’m impressed, Sam!”

Jade tried desperately to not look at the two crows in the trees. Why am I so nervous? It’s not like they’re going to come down and attack me.

I’m the Queen of Recycling,” Kate said. “Anyone who picks up rubbish in the landscape is my hero. Especially if they make art with it.” She smiled coyly at Sam, who looked down at his feet.

The chapel is so lovely from the river,” Jade said suddenly, hoping Alfredo would get them out of there and away from those eyes. “I can’t wait to see it up close, Alfredo! Can we go in?”

But of course!” he said. “Sam? Would you mind heading over to my cottage and making the coffee? We will be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

Sure thing,” Sam said.

I’ll go with him,” Kate said. “I’ve gotten the tour already.”

Jade noticed the goofy look on Kate’s face when she looked at Sam, who blushed deep red and grinned stupidly at the ground. Hmmm. Love blossoms on Wilder Island. She turned back toward the tree where the two crows had been. They’re gone. Relieved, she turned to follow the others.

Shall we?” Alfredo said, indicating the direction they should take.

Greetings, Fair Lady!” a voice above them said.

At least that’s what Jade thought she heard. She slowed down and looked up into the tree under which they walked. A blue-eyed crow stared back. “I beg your pardon?” she said, glancing quickly toward Russ and the others. None of them noticed her or the crow. When she turned back, the crow still gazed down at her.

Alfredo,” Jade said, walking quickly to join him, “Russ told me you have deciphered some crow words, but do they also speak English? I think that crow just spoke to me! Or am I crazy?”

Careful how you answer that, Alfredo!” Russ said with a grin. “At least the crazy part!”

Alfredo smiled and said, “You are not crazy, Jade! It is possible that the crow spoke to you. They are very intelligent birds and have marvelous vocabularies. I have been able to teach them a few English words here and there as well. What did he say?”

“‘Greetings, Fair Lady,’” Jade said. “At least I think that’s what he said.”

Alfredo frowned and said, “Interesting. That is not one of the phrases I taught them.” He shrugged. “But crows are very magnanimous, and this one could have picked it up anywhere. Many of these crows fly across the water to the city.”

I didn’t know crows spoke English,” Russ said, one eyebrow raised. He turned to Jade and said, “Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t know you understood crow.”

Jade felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her, expecting an answer. “I—I don’t,” she stammered. “I just thought the crow said something. It sounded like English.”

They can be taught to speak a few words of most any language,” Alfredo replied. “Just like parrots, though I do believe both birds understand what they are saying.”

Jade looked back for the crow as they started along the path to the chapel. It was gone.

 

Henry smiled at the heads of the five city departments that formed the condemnation committee. “Just over one million dollars, folks. And we expect that to double in the first five years.” He circled the sparkly numbers with a red laser pointer. “Think about it. Over a million dollars for the city, and all you have to do is condemn Wilder Island and watch the money flow in.”

The Mayor started to clap, cutting off Henry’s conclusion. He was nodding and smiling as he looked around the table. No one else joined his applause.

Now just a damn minute,” the Planning and Zoning Department director said as he smacked the table suddenly with his palm. “Mr. Braun, you’ve yet to swing this casino park of yours through the permitting process.” He gestured toward the extravagant model of Ravenwood Resort. “This is adorable, but how do we know you’re not just blowing smoke? Let’s see some details. I for one am not going to vote until we see exactly what you plan to do.”

Henry watched the Mayor sink back into his chair. The coward!

The island won’t support a large human population,” Environment piped up. “It’s full of bogs and swamps and places where the water’s found its way down cracks and fractures. You’d have to bring in a mountain of dirt to fill all that in.”

Well,” Henry said amiably, “that’ll be my problem, now won’t it? It’s a matter of money and machine. I got both.”

Well, you don’t got a building permit,” Planning and Zoning said in a vaguely mocking tone.

Henry clamped back the anger that surged up from his gut. Stay calm! That’s what Jules had said. Think before you speak. Look out the window, get a drink of water, do something, anything, to keep your cool.

He reached for his water bottle, and as he took a sip, he noticed the two crows on the windowsill. He thought they looked familiar and then reminded himself that all crows look alike. But he didn’t like how they stared at him and wondered if they were bugged.

And until I see your plans for a sewage treatment facility, and a plan for maintaining safe drinking water and controlling run-off,” Environment was saying, “you won’t get one. And I suggest, Mr. Mayor, that Mr. Braun be so required to submit some details before we vote. Do you really want an environmental disaster on your hands?”

Henry pulled an exceedingly white handkerchief out of his pockets and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. The crows on the windowsill had not broken their gaze. He wished he could throw his shoe at them. Calm, stay calm.

Now, now,” the Mayor said soothingly, looking toward Henry. “There’s no need to come all unraveled here. Mr. Braun has already promised us complete compliance with everything. Isn’t that right, Henry?”

Absolutely!” Henry said, grateful the mayor had come to his aid, finally. “Ravenwood Resort will be eco-friendly. We’ll be helping save the environment by using as much timber as we can from the island’s own forests.”

Henry savored the appalled expression on Environment’s face. “And we’ll be using the island’s natural filtration system—its vast network of underground caves—to filter and process our wastewater. Through these natural wetlands, we’ll actually return cleaner water to the river than when we found it!” He smiled broadly all around the model.

Are you insane, Henry?” Environment said angrily. “You think you’re going to pump sewage underground and have it come out as spring water? You’ll never fly that by my department without precise and complete code-compliant engineering drawings and—”

A car alarm went off outside the building, its shrill, urgent tone screaming through the open window. Henry licked his lips, trying to stay composed. “Enough!” he wanted to shout. Careful! Stay calm. He took a deep breath. It was hard to remain calm, too hard almost, with these simpletons going on and on about such trivia. He clenched his mouth shut tightly.

The alarm suddenly stopped. Henry exhaled and took out his handkerchief again. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled broadly.

I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this one, Henry,” Planning and Zoning said. “This is sewage you’re talking about here. You can’t just pump it underground or into the river. We need to see how you plan to—”

Henry inhaled slowly and deeply as he counted to ten. Just like Jules had taught him. Exhale two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He wished he couldn’t hear his heart pounding in his ears.

Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, smiling with an overly robust pretense of camaraderie. He ignored the sour look on Neighborhood Relations’ face. “I intend to fully comply with all your rules, codes, and regs. Have no worries! Trust me! This is just an overview of Ravenwood Resort. I am merely submitting a proposal today.”

He turned to the Mayor and smiled. You were supposed to back me up on this one! “Surely I am not expected to pay the enormous expense of hiring engineers before I have your condemnation?”

Mr. Braun is correct,” the Mayor said, nervously shaking his head. “The entire set of engineering drawings isn’t required for us to condemn the island under eminent domain. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it! Meanwhile, Mr. Braun has shown us a reasonable proposal of what he intends to do with Wilder Island. Let’s continue with the condemnation proceedings, and if the committee so decides, we shall require Mr. Braun to submit the required documentation to build the resort.”

Mr. Mayor,” Environment said, “of what use is it to condemn and kick the Jesuits and the birds off the island if he can’t come up with a viable plan? Then what? How will you explain that to the people? Some of them, most of them I’ll warrant, love the island. You’d best tread carefully here, Mr. Mayor. Mr. Braun must show us he has a viable plan before we vote to condemn.”

Henry watched the Mayor start to cave, and he resisted the strong temptation to pick up his chair and heave it at the unctuous little weasel. Calm! Stay calm! He heard Jules’s voice. He looked out the window. Damn those crows! They’re like little spies, watching my every move.

Mr. Braun,” the Mayor said, licking his lips nervously. “You know I’m a supporter of Ravenwood Resort. But these gentlemen speak truthfully. The public is quite sensitive to environmental concerns—issues of water quality and the like. May I remind you, I’m an elected official, and the Mayor appoints all the department heads around this table. That is, me. We must tread very delicately here, or the public will flay us alive.”

I’ll flay you alive, you miserable pantywaist. The two crows on the windowsill smirked at him behind their beaks. He looked away. Inhale two, three, four …

His hand found the switch to the choo-choo, and he flipped it on. The tiny train steamed to life and began its winding way around the island. It calmed him, and he watched it for a few moments, feeling his anxiety diminish. “Folks,” he said after a few moments of watching. “Ravenwood Resort has something for everyone—jobs, fun, money. I promise to comply with all building codes and laws. I can say no more to convince you. I’m in your hands.”

Silence permeated the room for a few moments, except for the tiny sound of the little choo-choo, cheerfully chugging around the island. Tourism and Economic Development scowled at Planning and Zoning, who glared at Henry. Environment tapped irritably on the table with his pencil. Neighborhood Relations scribbled furiously while Water causally doodled upon their respective covers of their Ravenwood Resort proposals.

Finally the Mayor spoke. “Yes, well, thank you, Mr. Braun. Wonderful presentation, just wonderful. The ball is now in our court, my friends, and we’ll take this all under advisement. We’ll have a decision for you in a week or so, Mr. Braun.”

 

Alfredo opened the door to the chapel, and the roof seized his guests’ attention. They gazed upward through the white branches Bruthamax and Hozey wove together, to the blue sky beyond.

NoExit and his family peered down from their nest, and Alfredo nodded to them. He directed Russ and Jade’s attention to the singular bench and kneeler in front of the altar. “Marvelous, is it not? The old hermit hacked it from driftwood,” he said. “It is held together by railroad spikes. Brother Wilder must have salvaged them from that trestle bridge catastrophe.”

How’d he get the wood so smooth?” Russ said as he stroked the top of the kneeler. “It’s like polished stone.”

The river and the sandy beaches did most of it,” Alfredo said. “The sun and time did the rest. Evidently Brother Maxmillian picked up whatever lumber he needed from the riverbanks. The timber mill upstream loses a log now and then, and many end up here.”

Jade wandered to the place where Alfredo had found Brother Maxmillian’s remains. “Whatever happened to the old hermit?” she asked. “Did he die here on the island?”

Yes,” Alfredo answered. “His bones were in here the first time I visited, just about where you’re standing, Jade.”

She looked at him with a stricken expression and then down at the floor, as if she expected to see the old hermit’s bones.

They were picked clean and pure white,” Alfredo said as he walked over to where she stood. “I collected them all and gave him a proper funeral. His grave is outside.”

Jade shut her eyes tightly, shaking her head murmuring, “No, no, no.”

I am so sorry!” Alfredo said, taking her arm and moving her away from the spot. He handed her off to Russ. “I did not mean to upset you.” What a strange woman she is. And Russ is so straight-laced and down-to-earth.

You didn’t upset me,” Jade said weakly, sagging against Russ. “I just thought for a moment I saw his dead body, and several crows and ravens were eating him.” She shivered. “They all had these really cold blue eyes. I had a dream about one, and it—”

My wife has an extremely vivid imagination,” Russ said, interrupting her. “Sometimes it gets the better of her.”

Blue-eyed crows and ravens eating Brother Max’s flesh! That was not her imagination. How did she know? Is she clairvoyant? Though abashed that he, a scientist, would entertain such a thought, he couldn’t think how else she would know. He recalled her claim in the garden that a crow had said, “Greetings, fair lady!” He looked at her closely. I wonder, is she Patua’?

That is an interesting anomaly about the crows on the island, Jade,” he said. “Crows are born with blue eyes, like human babies. But in the vast majority of cases, their eyes turn black or brown as soon as they’re ready to leave the nest. Except for this island. For some reason, a lot of crows’ eyes stay blue all their lives.”

Really?” Russ said. “That’s interesting. But I suppose not entirely surprising that a genetic enclave exists here, considering the island is cut off from the mainland.”

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “While it is a short fly for these birds, and many leave for new territories elsewhere, evidently enough have stayed on the island to keep those blue eyes in the gene pool. I am quite charmed by them.”

Well I’m not,” Jade said. “I keep dreaming of crows. And they’re not very nice.”

Alfredo looked at Russ with raised eyebrows. Russ merely shrugged, shook his head, and rolled his eyes.

Alfredo,” Russ said, looking up at the roof, “it must get pretty wet in here when it rains.”

It does,” Alfredo said. “Sam and I wove a few more branches in, to keep it slightly drier in here than it was. I do not have to be here during increment weather, however. The Good Lord will accept our prayers anywhere.”

Do you say Mass here?” Jade said suddenly. “Does anyone come?”

Every Sunday,” the priest said, “at dawn. No humans, of course, but a few birds usually attend—crows mostly. Saying Mass in this chapel is more like a meditation. I do miss a congregation, I suppose. But you are welcome anytime if ever you wish to attend.”

Perhaps,” Russ said. “This place reminds me of my altar-boy days somehow. Don’t ask me why.”

As they left the chapel, Jade gasped. Dozens of black birds perched on the chapel roof, and many more were on the ground, walking or pecking. “Oh my God,” she said, “what are they doing here?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “They live here! They noticed I had visitors and are curious. They will not harm you.”

Jade skirted around the other side of her husband, avoiding even a glance at the crows hanging around the chapel.

 

Sam and Kate had coffee made and the table set with cups, plates, and a large platter of cookies when Alfredo arrived at the cottage with Russ and Jade. “Sit down, everyone,” Alfredo said, gesturing toward the small table. “It will be a bit tight, but we are all friends.”

After they were seated nearly elbow-to-elbow, Jade pointed to the fob on the end of the lamp chain and said to Russ in a whisper, “Look at that!”

Look at what?” Alfredo said, as he brought a carafe of coffee to the table. “Oh, yes, is it not marvelous? I found it in the chapel. I think it must have belonged to Brother Maxmillian.”

Jade has one almost exactly like it,” Russ said. Jade nudged him to be quiet. “Show it to him, honey!”

You have a similar piece?” Alfredo asked. “May I see it?”

He put his hand out, and his sudden interest made Jade recoil. Russ nudged and her said, “C’mon, honey, show it to him. No one’s going to take it from you.”

What is it?” Kate asked.

Reluctantly, Jade drew out her medallion on its leather cord and held it up to Alfredo without taking it off. “It was my mother’s,” she said, her hands shaking. “At least that’s what I’ve always believed. I never knew her, so I don’t really know.”

Alfredo held Jade’s medallion carefully. “They’re astonishingly similar,” he said, dropping both. “What a delightful mystery that we each have one!”

Jade dropped the medallion back under her shirt and blurted out, “I have dreams about crows all the time, mostly scary ones, but sometimes my mother is in them too. One time I thought the crows were trying to steal this, and I’ve been hiding it from them ever since.”

Interesting,” Alfredo said. He felt a certain kinship with her, but he wondered why she was so reluctant to show him her orb.

What is it?” Kate asked again, taking the fob at the end of the lamp chain into her hand. “It feels like stone, yet it’s so delicately carved.”

Sam took a turn examining the fob. He tapped it against his teeth and said, “It’s definitely wood. A very hard wood. Can’t tell what kind, though.”

You said you found it in the chapel?” Russ asked.

Yes,” Alfredo said. “Under the old hermit’s bones. Evidently he wore it around his neck.”

Jade made a distasteful face and looked out the window. Alfredo poured coffee into everyone’s cups. Was Jade’s mother Patua’? Why else would she have had an orb? If her mother was Patua’…

 

Jade reached for the cookie platter and took two. After a few bites, she said, “Alfredo! These are wonderful! Where did you get them?”

I baked them,” Alfredo said with a smile as he sat down, “in my easy-bake solar oven!”

The others laughed uproariously. “Seriously?” Jade asked. “You baked them? I had no idea you were so talented.” She bit into her second cookie.

I love to bake,” Alfredo said. “My grandmother taught me when I was a boy. I used to help her bake pies at Christmas, and dinner rolls every Sunday. I bake the Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s to supplement my generous stipend from the Jesuits.”

Truly a man of many talents,” Kate said. “Priest, scholar, baker. Who knew?”

She pulled her briefcase up to the table and opened it, saying, “All right then. Welcome, board of directors of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust! As you all know, the Padre and I hammered out the land trust in the last couple weeks. Here are the bylaws and the articles of incorporation.” She tossed several spiral-bound booklets onto the table.

First, a little history,” she said. “Henry Braun approached the Jesuits to buy the island, and we turned him down. But that hasn’t stopped him.”

What does he want to do with the island?” Jade asked.

He wants to turn it into a casino resort park,” Alfredo said. “Evidently he is not happy with his current wealth.”

Wow,” Sam said. “He lives in a freaking mansion, has a chauffeur drive him around in his Bentley, and he wants more. What a pig!”

Even as we speak,” Kate was saying, “he’s presenting a proposal to the Mayor and certain city department heads, asking them to condemn the island as a nuisance—what did he call it, Padre?”

Fallow,” Alfredo said. “And derelict.”

The fob on the lamp chain swayed slightly as if in protest. Jade finished her second cookie and grabbed another off the plate. She looked around the table. Everyone else was still working on cookie number one. She put the third cookie on her plate and put her hands in her lap, hoping the others had not noticed what a pig she was.

Russ shook his head, frowning. He reached across the table for a cookie. “But how can he do that? The Jesuits said they wouldn’t sell.”

He’s using the eminent domain laws,” Kate said, “to force us to sell the island to him. But, he won’t succeed, at least not this time. The land trust is a done deal, as of yesterday morning at 8:13 a.m., thanks to all of you for doing the electronic signature thing on the Internet.”

Jade took two quick bites from her cookie and put it back on her plate. She chewed slowly, trying to savor every bite. Trying to not think too much about the remaining cookies on the platter.

Thanks to you, Kate,” Alfred said. “I am impressed and amazed at how quickly you got the land trust drawn up and filed. I just hope it will be enough to stop Henry Braun.”

What’s eminent domain?” Sam asked, dunking his cookie into his coffee.

Two more cookies on the plate. Russ has had two now, Kate two, Sam two. Me three. She glanced at Alfredo’s plate. He had not finished his first.

It’s a right guaranteed to the government,” Kate said, waving her cookie as she spoke, “to condemn and sell private property to another individual for the purpose of development. Up until recently, it was only used to acquire property for roads and public buildings. But now, eminent domain is a tool to condemn private property for private commercial development, though this is flabbergasting to the vast majority of us.”

But what about the Jesuits?” Russ asked. “Will they let us make a land trust out of their island?”

Jade studied her cookie, resisting the urge to cram it into her mouth. One of the chocolate chips had melted in the oven and hardened into a shape that resembled a crow in flight. Oh God, stop it! She bit the crow off and ate it.

The Jesuits donated the island to the land trust,” Alfredo said. “It was the Father Provincial’s idea to do this. In fact, the whole land trust was his idea. Things might have turned out a lot differently had Henry Braun not been so annoying. It just really irked Majewski—the idea of anyone tearing down a consecrated Jesuit chapel to build a casino.”

Jade finished off her third cookie and drained her coffee cup. Sam took the second-to-last-cookie from the plate.

And even when I told him,” Kate said, laughing, “that the island would probably be assessed at upward of Henry’s original offer of five million dollars, his reply was something like: ‘Henry Braun could offer me the golden gates of hell, and I’d still rather see our chapel and nothing but several thousand crows on Wilder Island.’”

I thought heaven had the golden gates. Oh, wait. Pearly gates. Hell’s gates are more valuable than heaven’s?

Speaking of the chapel,” Jade said, “what will become of it?” She poured herself another cup of coffee from the carafe, wondering if someone was going to take that last cookie.

The Jesuits will keep ownership of the chapel and the small plot of land it sits on,” Alfredo said. “And I will say Mass every morning to my congregation of crows, same as I do now.”

But, Kate,” Russ said, looking up from the proposal, “wouldn’t it be easier to fight eminent domain if the Church still owns the whole island? Aren’t churches immune?”

Jade tried to ignore the last cookie. She looked out the window. A crow flew by, shrieking, “Give me a cookie!” Startled, she glanced at Alfredo. Did he hear it?

Legally,” Kate said, “nothing can stop it—not even the Catholic Church. A land trust can’t stop eminent domain either. We can only prescribe what will be done with our island if we’re forced to sell it.” She picked the last cookie off the platter, broke it in two, and returned one half to the plate.

So that’s how you do it! Just take half! Jade resisted pouncing on the other half.

But, how can this be?” Russ asked, aghast. “How can the city condemn private property, for God’s sake? For a gambling resort? That’s just wrong. And there’s nothing we can do?”

We’re not complete victims,” Kate said. “We can fight back.”

Russ reached past her, took the last half cookie off the platter, broke it, popped one piece in his mouth, and left the other on the plate.

Dang! I should’ve made my move. She wondered how many times the cookie could be broken in two.

We have some protections built into the land trust,” Kate said, “that’ll make it hard for him to build his casino. But if he wins the eminent domain battle, he’ll still fight us tooth and nail to thwart the intent of the land trust. And he’s got a lot more money than the five of us combined will ever see.”

Jade’s resistance broke down, and she snatched the last quarter of the last cookie and popped it into her mouth, all in one piece.

 

Alfredo went to the kitchen area and brought back a plastic container. He opened it and refilled the cookie platter. Jade reached over and took one, followed by Russ, Sam, and Kate.

Does anyone want more coffee?” he asked with an amused smile. Everyone shook their heads, and he sat back down.

What about endangered species?” Sam asked through a mouthful of cookie. “Or a wilderness designation? Can’t we go that route too?”

Alfredo shook his head, but before he could speak, Kate said, “First we would need to get a Wilder Island animal on the endangered species list.”

Aren’t the blue-eyed crows unusual?” Russ asked, turning to Alfredo. “Have you ever heard of a population of crows with blue eyes anywhere else?”

No,” Alfredo said. “But even so, it is difficult to imagine convincing anyone that crows of any eye color are an endangered species.”

Too bad crows can’t talk, eh?” Kate said. She winked at Alfredo. “That’d get us on the list pronto!”

Alfredo stared at the attorney. Does she know? He had met with Kate a few times since Majewski left and wondered if he had told her. Surely she would have let on by now.

They do talk, actually,” Russ said, waving a cookie at Kate. “Alfredo has discovered they have a rich and varied vocabulary.”

Do tell!” Kate said, a wicked smile on her face. “I have long thought that all the animals have some form of language. If only we could understand it.”

Jade nodded in agreement, and Sam stared at Alfredo with a fearful look.

The corvid have an extensive vocabulary,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a relaxed smile. “As richly varied as any human language, I think. They have a significantly more intricate language than we humans give them credit for. As do many other animal species.”

Sam visibly relaxed as Kate nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “We assume we’re alone at the top of the evolutionary heap, when in fact we have merely clawed our way to the top of the food chain. And we’re not alone there either.”

We’re our own predators,” Russ said. “What other species can make that claim?”

Black widow spiders can,” Sam said.

But they eat their prey, Sam!” Kate said with a grin. “Humans just kill each other.”

Speaking of predators,” Sam said, “this whole eminent domain thing seems like human preying on human to me. I mean, this is America, isn’t it? And we’re supposed to just roll over, let the government take away our private property, and hand it over to the highest bidder? I just can’t stomach it.”

Alfredo remembered his conversation with Charlie about property and ownership. “You cannot own anything you cannot carry …” Perhaps the corvids are right. All this fuss about ownership. In the end, the Earth owns itself. We borrow pieces of it and entertain greedy illusions that it is ours.

Hardly anyone can,” Kate said. “That’s the main advantage we have; public opinion on our side, whether or not people approve of the casino park. We need to rally the folks of Ledford to our cause.” Kate paused to take a bite of cookie and wash it down with a gulp of coffee. “So, we need a brand, a logo.” She turned to Jade. “You think you can come up with one for us?”

I can!” Jade said.

A brand?” Alfredo asked, blinking and frowning. “Why do we need a brand? We’re not selling anything.”

Indeed we are, Padre,” Kate said. “We’re selling an idea. We want to get the folks of Ledford stirred up and rally around a place they will never see, if we have our way.”

Never underestimate the power of the brand,” Sam said.

Right,” Kate said, throwing a quick grin at him, “Wilder Island is part of the history of this city, a legacy that’s owned by everyone. That’s the only way people, religious or otherwise, have beaten eminent domain condemnation.”

It’s true,” Jade said. “Ledford loves Wilder Island. People have developed a whole relationship to it, almost like a religion, or at least a mythology. I doubt many will want to see it paved over with slot machines and hotels.”

Alfredo looked out the window at his private Garden of Eden. He hoped that the people of Ledford would support the island remaining intact and not need to come see for themselves what they were protecting. I do not want to share it with anyone. He scolded himself for his selfishness. But it was the truth.

That’s our point,” Kate said, nodding. “That the island is neither fallow nor derelict. But beyond all that, Wilder Island represents the heart and history of Ledford. That’s how we fight Henry Braun’s eminent domain project.”

The Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust spent the rest of the afternoon discussing ways in which to engage the people of Ledford to rally to their cause. Just before sunset, they heard a bell ring from the direction of the inlet.

That is the Captain,” Alfredo said, “coming to take you home.”

 

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