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.”
“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:
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?”
“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.
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