Corvus Rising – Chapter 19

Conspiracy on the Fly

Alfredo put away the last of his nagging voices that made him hesitate. He loved Charlotte; there was no way he was going to leave her to languish among a wasteland of vacant stares. Or disappear forever within an ultra-secure state mental hospital. Sometimes one must do what is needed, he told his inner voices, though he felt like he was about to step off a cliff.

We have no more time,” he said to Charlie. “All the inmates are moving in two days. We cannot wait any longer. We must prepare Charlotte.”

Alfredo drove to Rosencranz, and after he scribbled an illegible signature with his left hand on the gate-keeper’s log, he parked and entered the lobby. He introduced himself to Dora Lyn’s weekend replacement, and asked to see Charlotte. The receptionist did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log nor the release form to take her out of the building.

Sometimes the Lord speaks more softly than a burning bush.

As soon as Charlotte came through the patio doors, he whisked her off to the gazebo where Charlie was waiting. They ate lunch together at the wrought-iron table, from a picnic basket Alfredo had packed with cheese and bread that he had baked in his solar oven, a thermos of iced tea, and the cookies that Jade loved so much. Charlotte ate them as greedily as her daughter had, wondering how in the world food could taste so good.

After they finished eating, Alfredo took a pad of paper from his briefcase and made a sketch of the plan of the Rosencranz campus—the building, landscaping, driveway, the gazebo, and the fence. “Tomorrow,” he said to Charlotte, “we will come here like we have been doing. But instead of going back to the hospital, Charlie and I are taking you away, to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Tomorrow?” Charlotte’s face broke into a smile and her gray eyes opened wide with excitement. “Really, Jayzu? Zero more days here?”

Alfredo nodded. Charlotte clasped her hands gently around Charlie and stood up. She held him above her head and danced around the gazebo singing, “Cadeña-l’jadia! Take me home! Cadeña-l’jadia!”

I think she’s ready,” Charlie called out to Alfredo.

Yes, she is.” And so am I. Though he had never danced in his entire life, he wanted to take Charlotte in his arms and dance with her all around the gazebo.

Charlotte sat back down at the table and tucked the hairs that had escaped her braid behind her ears. “How far away is Cadeña-l’jadia, Jayzu?”

Not too far,” he said. “You’ll walk a short way to the river, then travel by boat for a while, which will take you to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

And when we get there,” Charlie said, “I’ll take you to the Treehouse.”

Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, “we will come here to the gazebo like we have been doing. But we will not stay here.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Come. I will show you.”

He led her out the back side of the gazebo all the way to the fence that surrounded the property. He dropped to the ground and motioned Charlotte to follow him. Without a moment hesitation, she flopped down on her stomach and shimmied along the grass after him.

Alfredo kept them low to the ground until they came to a right-angle turn in the fence. After he stopped, Charlotte crawled up next to him and he said, “Tomorrow, you will wiggle under the fence right here and come out into the woods on the other side. Charlie will be waiting for you and will escort you to the river.”

But, Jayzu,” she said, smiling happily, “you will be there with me, too!”

No, Charlotte,” he replied. “If I do not return, someone may notice we are both gone, and they will come looking for us.”

Oh,” Charlotte said, and her smile vanished. She looked fearfully at the fence and the dark forest beyond and frowned.

I’ll be with you, Charlotte,” Charlie said from his perch atop the fence above them. He dropped to the grass and put his wing on her arm. “It’ll be like the old times, when we spent our days in the woods behind your childhood home.”

Charlotte tilted her head slightly and her face broke into a smile as a happy memory seemed to dawn and her smile returned.

I will meet you later, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “At the Treehouse.”

They crawled back to the gazebo on their stomachs, getting to their feet at the steps. They sat back down at the table and Charlie took his perch on the back of Charlotte’s chair. Alfredo took her hands in his and said, “We have to get you out of here in broad daylight, Charlotte. So we need to be very careful. We have to trick them into thinking you are still here.”

Trick them,” Charlotte said. The corners of her mouth turned up, and her eyes sparkled. “That is easy, Jayzu. They never pay any attention to me. They never hear a thing I tell them.”

Alfredo recalled Dora Lyn’s words during one of his earlier visits. “Charlotte don’t give any trouble anymore. She fought like a wild cat when they first brought her in, but they broke her down. Anymore, she comes and goes as she pleases. Wherever inmates are allowed to go, of course.”

No one will notice your absence right away,” Alfredo said to Charlotte. “While you and I are here in the gazebo” —she laughed as he mimed drinking tea— “a few crows will be creating a ruckus on the patio, to divert attention away from us as we slither away along the fence.”

Charlotte giggled behind her hands. “Let us do it now, Jayzu!” she said. “I am ready!”

Tomorrow,” Alfredo said, patting her hand. “We are not ready today.” He turned to Charlie. “Security is pretty lax, thank God.” God’s hand, or habitual inattention? “There is a guard in the lobby occasionally, when he is not on the patio or making sure no one drives down the service road. And there’s one at the guard house.” He pointed up the road toward the gates. “There are three, maybe four, security cameras all around the building.” He glanced up at Charlie. “Can we disable them somehow?”

But of course,” Charlie said. “My zhekkies will have them out of commission just before they throw a party on the patio, corvid style!”

Charlotte and Charlie said good-bye to each other, and the crow flew home to Cadeña-l’jadia. Alfredo escorted Charlotte back to the building and up to her room. She chatted happily all the way. “I cannot wait until tomorrow, Jayzu!”

You must,” he said, putting a forefinger to his lips. “And you must keep it a secret, Charlotte. You cannot tell anyone about our plan.”

She nodded vigorously, her eyes shining with excitement. “Yes,” she said as she solemnly put a finger to her lips. “I can keep a secret.”

Her smile charmed him, the way the corners of her mouth turned up. And those gray eyes, completely without guile, yet somehow wickedly endearing.

And who would hear me if I told?” she asked.

Alfredo drove back to Ledford, going over the details of Charlotte’s escape in his mind. He had shut down the opposition, the voices that bullied him about laws and jail and reason. She needs to leave Rosencranz. Who will get her out of there if I don’t?

The Treehouse was ready. He had cleaned it as well as any man could, but thanks to Rika and Minnie Braun, Charlotte would have a few more comforts. The Treehouse was stocked with some simple cookware, including a tea kettle, an abundance of nonperishable foods—rice, pasta, canned goods—and tea and coffee, a variety of utensils, including a can opener. There were curtains and bedclothes and towels, a rocking chair, a wood stove, two tea cups—“You’ll be drinking tea with the lady, I reckon,” Rika had said to him. Two of everything in fact—plates, bowls, spoons, forks.

Today is the day, Captain,” Alfredo said, as he stepped aboard the Captain’s ferry at the inlet.

Aye, Jayzu,” the Captain said, turning his craft around to ferry them across the river to the boat landing. “I’ll be waiting upriver for Miss Charlotte and Charlie. No need to worry none.” He tipped his hat and pushed his boat back into the current.

Sam jumped out of his flesh-colored pick-up as the Captain pulled into the dock. “Does Kate know what we are doing?” Alfredo asked after he got in the passenger side.

Sam shrugged. “I told her I was driving you to Rosencranz to see Charlotte. Which is true.”

Alfredo knew Kate wanted nothing to do with Charlotte’s rescue. “I don’t even want to know about it,” she had said more than once. “And for the record, I strongly advise you against it.”

You don’t have to do this, Sam,” Alfredo said.

Yes I do, Padre,” Sam said and looked away for a few moments. “For my sister.”

On the way to the asylum, Charlie flew above Sam’s truck, followed by about sixty or so young crows, including JoEd, JohnHenry, Floyd and Willy. Near the entrance to the asylum, Sam pulled his truck off the road and behind a small group of trees.

You guys ready for this?” Alfredo asked after the crows landed in the grass next to Sam’s truck.

We are,” Charlie said. “I’ve been waiting for this day for twenty-five years, Jayzu. My zhekkies here,” he gestured with his beak, “know the plan backward and forward.”

Pandemonium!” JohnHenry yelled.

We are ready, Jayzu,” JoEd cried out. “You can count on us!”

All right then,” Alfredo said. “Everyone knows what he has to do. Make it loud, zhekkies!”

You betcha!” said Floyd as he stepped forward.

Pandemonium, ho-o!” Willy shouted.

The crows flew into the nearby trees, and after Alfredo and Sam scrawled unreadable names on the weekend guard’s log, Sam parked the truck in front of the building and cut the engine. Alfredo walked up the granite steps and into the lobby. He smiled broadly at the weekend receptionist, who again did not ask him to sign the visitor’s log. Thank you, Lord.

He strode purposefully through the doors to the patio, sat down at a table near the rosebush hedge. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop and waited nervously for Charlotte. Lord, stay with me now. Protect us and guide us safely back to the island.

Jayzu!”

He looked up at the sound of Charlotte’s happy voice, and rose from his chair as she approached. “Hello, Charlotte!” His anxiety dissipated, replaced by the certainty that he and Charlie were about to right a wrong.

Jayzu,” she said, putting her hands in his. “Is Charlie here?”

Alfredo nodded and said, “He is waiting for us at the gazebo. Now let us pretend we are coming back here. We do not want to attract any attention.”

Charlotte held her finger to her lips and softly said, “Shhhh. Our secret.”

He tucked her hand under his arm, and they left the patio through the lobby. “We will return in an hour or so,” Alfredo said as they strolled past the receptionist desk and out the doors.

The sky had clouded over, and Alfredo frowned. Please do not rain. Charlotte skipped across the grass, after he told her to pretend it was the first day they had gone to the gazebo together. They sat down inside; Charlotte chattered while Alfredo looked nervously at his watch and then toward the building. A cloud of black smoke seemed to emerge from the trees beyond the hospital’s excruciatingly manicured lawn. “The pandemonium has begun,” he said quietly.

And there is Charlie!” Charlotte cried, pointing to the crow on the fence.

It is time, Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Let us go!”

From the trees outside the hospital grounds, JoEd watched Charlotte and Jayzu leave the patio and walk down the sidewalk toward the gazebo. About twenty people sat at the other tables. It was time.

Nothing scary,” JoEd told the young crows as they waited in the trees. “We don’t want to reinforce their stereotypes about us. Just be silly. Act up. We’re all experts at that!”

Alfredo and Charlotte walked up the step to the gazebo, and Charlie cried out, “Let ’er rip!” as he leaped from his branch into the sky.

From out of nowhere sixty-three crows suddenly burst into the grounds of the asylum, heading for the patio. The brigade of dozing patients in wheelchairs happened to face the stone wall encircling the patio. Old Rosie stood up and screamed something quite unintelligible as she pointed at the approaching black cloud. The old fellow shuffling behind his empty wheelchair turned his whole body sideways trying to look up.

The crows descended on the patio. Screaming visitors, mobile patients, and doctors headed frantically for the doors. But the doors never came open, held shut by many bodies pressed up against them. The pile-up of flailing bodies fell back onto the patio. A few struggled to their feet and hopped over the stone wall encircling the patio and ran for the parking lot.

Crows were everywhere—on the tables, the chairs, the walls, the rosebushes, the trashcans, and the flagstone pavement. Hopping up onto tables and chairs, they made a great show of knocking over plastic water pitchers and creating a scene of utter chaos.

JoEd flew above the pandemonium barking out orders. “Disable the cameras! Sky Team, dive!”

Floyd, Willy, and JohnHenry took their positions at the three video cameras on the roof overlooking the patio and the hospital grounds. Floyd hopped onto one and looked straight into the lens, giving anyone monitoring it an enlarged view of an upside-down crow head. “Smile!” He waved his wings and plastered his eye against the camera lens. “I’m on Candid Camera!”

Willy grasped the wire that connected the camera to its power source, gave a firm tug, and ripped it from its connection. “Camera two down!” he called out as he headed to the video camera at the kitchen. Fledging at a drive-in movie theater had taught him many things about electricity and cameras.

JohnHenry perched with his tail feather fanned open and covering the lens. “Curtain’s closed on camera three!” he shouted.

Well done, dudes!” JoEd called out to the camera crows. He saw a white coat head for the door to the lobby. “Yo! Hosiah! Jedediah! Guard the doors!”

The pandemonium proceeded splendidly, and JoEd looked around for an opportunity to generate a little disorder of his own. “Mind if I join you, miss?” he asked a stupefied visitor frozen to her chair. “Thank you, don’t mind if I do. The name’s JoEd, what’s yours?” He took a few sips of water from the pitcher on the table as she leaped out of her seat, and ran screaming into the pile of bodies trying to get through the doors.

Pretty birdies!” the patient she had abandoned said happily. She picked up the cup of water JoEd had just dipped his beak in and took a sip. “Share?” she said to no one in particular.

The crows made an absolute mess of the patio within minutes; overturned tables and chairs co-mingled with emptied plastic cups and pitchers of water and ice, a few books, sweaters, and baseball hats. The white coats screamed for help, and security guards yelled into their walkie-talkies for backup. A few patients continuously howled in terror, while others laughed with grotesque pleasure or cried like babies. Someone pulled the fire alarm, adding the appropriate harmony to the sound and fury on the patio.

Alfredo and Charlotte stepped out of the gazebo and onto the grass. Hand-in-hand, they walked the few steps to the fence and Alfredo dropped to the grass. With Charlotte behind him, they crawled in single file on their bellies until they came to the corner of the fence.

Now under the fence, Charlotte!” Charlie called down.

All the way through, Charlotte,” Alfredo said as she shimmied under the fence. “Good! Now stand up and run!”

She dove under the fence, wriggling all the way through and popped to her feet on the other side. The front of her Rosencranz coveralls was covered in black soil.

The fire alarms went off at the building across the grass. Charlotte looked back toward Alfredo. “Jayzu?” she said.

Go, Charlotte!” he said from the ground. “Go with Charlie! I will see you at the Treehouse! I promise. Now, go! Run like the wind.”

Come on, Charlotte!” Charlie called down to her as he took to the air. “Follow me, Charlotte!” He flew low enough in front of her that she could reach out and touch him.

Alfredo watched Charlotte run into the woods with Charlie flying overhead until she disappeared. He waited at the fence for a few moments, listening to her laugh fade into the trees. If all goes according to the plan, the Captain will be waiting for them at the river to take Charlotte home. To Cadeña-l’jadia.

And if it does not…

He shimmied back to the gazebo, walked up the steps and out the other side, back toward the building. Cars screeched out of the parking and sped down the curvy driveway, past the guard shack and onwards to the highway. Good, people are leaving. In all the chaos, who will miss Charlotte? He heard sirens in the distance and quickened his pace. Undoubtedly, someone had called 911.

What the devil is going on out there?” he said to the receptionist as he gestured with his head toward the mess on the patio. “Are we being invaded by crows?” He waved at the crow perched on the windowsill to the lobby, awaiting that signal.

Oh, Dr. Robbins!” the receptionist cried out. “All of a sudden, a hundred crows dive-bombed everyone on the patio. They were all cawing and carrying on to beat the band. And then they started trying to drink the water from the cups on the table.”

The pandemonium on the patio suddenly ended. En masse, the crows took flight and left. Through the windows, Alfredo saw a few inmates wave and Miss Rosie weeping into her hands as the aides firmly escorted her into the patients’ wing of the building.

The weekend receptionist giggled behind her hand. “People and crows were running everywhere, patients and visitors and people were leaving, and these crows were flying all around. You should’ve seen it a while ago, with all everyone screaming and trying to get off the patio! Absolutely hilarious!”

Alfredo forced himself to smile. “Well, I hope you get everything under control soon. Thank goodness my patient is safely back in her room.”

Well,” she said, nodding, “things would’ve been a whole lot worse if I hadn’t jumped up and locked the doors to the patio.” She nodded toward the door. “Otherwise they would’ve all come in here! But they’ll get everyone sorted out, though I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a few patients left in cars.”

Charlotte wanted to kick off her shoes and skip through the forest barefoot, but Charlie kept urging her on. She had not run through the woods in so long, and her escape from Rosencranz took every drop of energy she had. There was no time to languish and marvel at the scenery flying by. She would sooner drop dead from running than go back.

She followed him through the woods, leaving the hospital far behind. Charlie let her rest briefly now and then, and drink from the tiny streams that crossed their path. Finally they came to a flowing river, and Charlie dropped down onto the grass into a small cove of fragrant trees. “We will wait here until the Captain comes with his boat,” he said to Charlotte as she sat down on a fallen tree. “He’ll take us all the way to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Charlotte leaned back against the tree trunk, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The aromas of the deep forest awakened memories of gathering leaves in the sun-dappled days with Charlie. She opened her eyes. “Have I ever been here, Charlie?”

I don’t know, Charlotte,” he said. “I’ve never been here with you, if that’s what you’re asking. But you and I, we spent a lot of time in woods like this. You used to gather herbs and flowers, and I’d fly overhead scouting them for you.”

Charlotte stood up and pinched a leaf off a low-hanging branch on the tree she had been sitting under. She crushed it in her palm and sniffed it. “Balsam poplar,” she said, though she did not know where the words came from, or what they meant.

A gray-haired woman with red cheeks flashed through her thoughts and was gone. Charlotte had seen her many times since the Graying ended, in other memories, and in her dreams. “I wish I could remember,” she murmured, holding the crushed leaf up to her nose and breathing in its scent.

You knew all the names of all the trees and flowers,” Charlie said, “and you gathered baskets full.”

Why did I do that, Charlie?”

You gave them all to your Mimi,” he said. “You helped her make tea and other medicinal potions from them.”

Mimi?” Red cheeks, gray hair. A sad smile and blue eyes filled with tears flashed through her thoughts. “Mimi.”

A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie said, “There’s the Captain, Charlotte.” He rose up and unfolded his wings. “We’re going home!”

A silvery forest with beautiful carved oars floated toward them and ground to a halt on the sandy bank. “Let’s go,” Charlie said. He flapped his wings a few times, lifting himself off the ground, and flew to the Captain’s boat. He perched on the railing next to another crow and shouted out to Charlotte, “Come on! Follow me!”

She came out of the shadows of the trees, took the Captain’s outstretched hand, and stepped aboard his marvelous boat—it seemed more like a tree with many birds flying through its tangled branches of wood and iron. Charlie introduced her to the Captain and to a young crow perched on his shoulder.

We been waitin’ a long time to meet ya, lass!” Sugarbabe hollered. “Ain’t we, Cap’n?”

He grinned and winked at Charlotte. “That we have, Sugarbabe. Pleasure to have you aboard, Miss Charlotte.”

She nodded and smiled at the crow, speechless with surprise. “Grawky!” she managed to say as she brushed her hand across Sugarbabe’s outstretched wing. She turned to the Captain and studied him carefully; his great tattoo-covered arms seemed both flesh and wood as he powered his carved oar through the water. She felt the rhythm of the river through the Captain’s motion and thought perhaps he had been wrought from both river and forest.

They traveled throughout the afternoon on the river, and Charlotte stared in astonishment at the sights and sounds of the world she had not seen in over two decades. She gasped at the huge city on either side of the river as the Captain rowed past the Waterfront.

Look, Charlotte! Cadeña-l’jadia!” Charlie cried out.

Is that the Treehouse?” she asked, pointing toward a white dome. She smiled wildly, hoping that it was.

Yoomuns call it the hermit’s chapel,” Charlie said. “It is very old, and when Jayzu came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he fixed it all up like it was new.”

It’s so beautiful, Charlie,” she murmured.

The Captain steered the boat into a wide, shallow pool and brought them gently to a stop at the edge of the water. Charlotte laughed in delight at all the birds in the water, the air, on the cliffs at the edge of the pool, and in the branches of the trees that grew along the water’s edge. A flock of loons screeched by over her head and landed out in the more open water, making waves and splashing each other.

The Captain helped Charlotte out of the boat, and she stepped onto Cadeña-l’jadia.

Mighty obliged, Captain, my man,” Charlie said as he lifted a wing in salute.

The Captain nodded and said, “I’ll be going for Jayzu now.” He pushed his boat back into the water and waved an oar as he rowed away.

Charlie stretched his wings, and Charlotte stretched her arms, reaching to the sky. “The Treehouse is this way,” he said, pointing with a wing toward the island’s interior.

Charlotte followed Charlie into the dense forest. The trees seemed to raise their overhanging branches, allowing them through what otherwise seemed to be an impenetrable wall of leaf and trunk. They stopped at an apple tree, whose fruit was dragging its branches nearly to the ground. “Bruthamax planted this tree,” he said.

Charlotte picked two apples off the tree and gave one to Charlie. She laughed in sheer delight as she bit into it, and sweet juice gushed out all around, spraying her face.

After drinking from the small stream nearby, they continued on their way to the Treehouse. Charlotte picked her way among the marshes and bogs as if she could sense solid ground among the rocks and water amid sedges and rushes. Vaguely familiar odors tantalized her memory.

At last they stopped in a small clearing underneath a gigantic tree. “Is that your nest, Charlie?” she asked, pointing to the Treehouse roof.

Yes, that’s the Treehouse, your new home,” Charlie said. “The nest is up above, in the branches, but we only use it when we have kreegans. Otherwise we hang out in the branches.”

As she looked closer, more Treehouse features appeared—walls, windows, a door. There was even a spiral staircase leading up to the deck. Charlotte darted up the steps, laughing like a child, and as she poked her head through to the deck, a friendly voice called out, “Welcome home, Charlotte!”

A crow dropped to the deck from the branches above, followed by four young fledglings.

Charlotte,” Charlie said, opening a wing toward them, “this is my wife, Rika, and our children, Alfie and Rufie. They’re twins. And Coal, and Lexy, and this is Buzzy, and over there is Burkie.”

Where is JoEd?” Rika asked. “Didn’t he come back with you?”

No,” Charlie said. “But he’ll be along shortly, I’m sure.”

Charlotte dropped down to her knees, and the young crows all crowded in her lap. She laughed as they nibbled her fingers, her chin, her ears, her hair. After a few moments, they all ran to the other side of the deck, engaged in an instant game.

And here is JoEd!” Charlie said as the young crow landed on the deck. “Many crows helped us get you out of Rosencranz, Charlotte, but it was JoEd who led the pandemonium on the patio!”

Greetings, Fair Lady!” JoEd said, with a bow so low, his beak touched the deck.

Charlotte giggled as JoEd swished his feathers across her hand. “Grawky, JoEd!” she said. “Thank you!”

No greater pleasure shall I ever dream to have,” the young crow said, “than to assist in the freeing of a lady so fair, with a heart so brave, from the cruel confines of so unjust an imprisonment.”

Charlotte melted on the spot and took JoEd into her lap. Charlie and Rika looked at each other in complete shock at the eloquent speech coming from JoEd’s beak. “I had no idea my son was such a romantic fellow!” Charlie said.

There are many things you don’t know about me,” JoEd said from Charlotte’s lap. “Many things.”

Jayzu!” Charlotte cried out as the priest poked his head through the hole in the deck. JoEd flew from her lap to the railing next to his parents.

Jayzu stepped onto the deck, and she leaped up and threw her arms around his neck. He hugged her warmly and said, “I see you made it safe and sound!”

He greeted Rika and Charlie and the kreegans, who all flocked around his feet, squawking and squeaking for his attention.

Jayzu!” Charlotte said, “I rode on a boat that looked like a forest!”

I have been on that boat many times,” he said with a smile.

She took his hand and pulled him over to the bench at the edge of the deck. “And I ate a big golden apple off of a tree that Charlie said Bruthamax planted.”

An apple at this time of year?” Alfredo looked over at Charlie. “I thought we could only get apples in the fall.”

Bruthamax’s apples don’t know that,” Charlie said.

Jayzu laughed again. Charlotte laughed too, at the sheer joy of being alive in this Treehouse with everything she needed and loved all around her.She followed Jayzu back down the spiral steps to the ground below.

Jayzu showed her the cistern nearby and how to get water from it. “I will keep the water jar in the Treehouse filled,” he said. “But in case you run out while I am away, I want you to know how to get your own water.”

Charlotte nodded and followed Jayzu in the other direction, downhill from the Treehouse. They came to a tiny rustic shack, and Jayzu said, “This is your toilet, Charlotte.” He opened the door. “I am sorry I cannot provide you with more proper facilities, Charlotte, but–”

Jayzu!” Charlotte said and put a finger over his lips. “This is good enough. I have been trapped in a stinky old building for a very long time, and I had to share the toilets with everyone else, and walk down two hallways just to pee. The floor was always wet, so I had to put shoes on. And there were cameras.”

He stared at her for a few moments and then laughed. She loved it when he laughed, the way his eyes crinkled up and his whole face seem to explode with mirth.

Jayzu, I am very happy to be here with Charlie, and you, and Rika. And I can pee outside with no one watching!”

He laughed again and took her hand. “Let us go back and cook some supper,” he said. “Shall we, Charlotte?” He tucked her hand under his arm, and they started back to the Treehouse.

I do not know how to cook!” she said anxiously.

But I do!” Jayzu said with a smile. “Let me teach you.”

Charlie, Rika, and all the kreegans perched on the chairs and bed, the shelves, and the windowsills and watched as Jayzu and Charlotte cooked dinner together. Jayzu took the loaf of bread he had baked out of his pack, a few onions and garlic, and a fish he had caught from the river. He filleted it, putting the guts onto a small plate. “This we shall save for the kreegans,” he said. He built a fire in the small wood stove and cooked the fish in a cast-iron frying pan.

Charlotte boiled some water and cooked the rice, according to Jayzu’s instructions. She sliced the fresh tomato he had brought and prepared their plates−one for her, one for Jayzu, and a bowl for the crows.

They ate on the deck, sharing their meal with Charlie and his family, as well as a few birds that had flown by and detected the aroma of frying fish. “Delicious!” JoEd said after gobbling down a beak full of fish guts.

After Charlotte and Jayzu washed and dried the dishes, humans and crows sat or perched on the deck under the stars. It had been many years since Charlotte had been outside at night.

So many stars,” she murmured, looking up at the night sky. “I remember stars. Before the Graying.”

There is Corvus, the constellation of the raven,” Jayzu said as he pointed toward the southern sky. “Just four stars, see?”

Charlotte nodded and leaned against him. He was so warm and the stars so beautiful. It was hard to imagine that one day ago, she stared at the ceiling alone in her tiny room in a dark, cold building.

Time for sleep, everyone!” Rika announced. “Come, Charlotte, it is time to dress for bed.”

Goodnight, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. He held her hands and looked into her eyes, and then pulled her into his chest and hugged her.

Goodnight, Jayzu,” she said, snuggling into his chest. She loved the way he smelled. She wanted to stay there in his arms forever.

I will be right out here on the deck,” he said as he held her and stroked her hair. “If you wake up in the night and are scared, just call my name.”

Charlie took the little ones up to the nest as Rika took Charlotte into the cabin and helped her find a nightgown in the box of clothes Jayzu brought. Charlotte brushed her teeth in the small basin next to the stove and said goodnight to Rika. She got under the soft covers and slipped into sleep.

An unfamiliar darkness invaded Charlotte’s sleep, and she awakened completely disoriented. There were no lights, no sound. She sat up and peered into the darkness. Where am I? Opening all her senses, she tried to instill in herself a sense of attachment; that was how she found her balance as the Graying ended.

She focused awareness on her body, concentrating on sensation, any sensation. First, the feet. She could not detect her weight bearing down on her feet. I am sitting. She moved her hands around, palms down, feeling soft, smooth fabric. I am in a bed. But it is not my bed.

A rectangular patch of dark gray—or was it light black?—hovered above the floor. A cool breeze blew across her face. Where am I? She heard faint sounds coming from the gray rectangle—it seemed a lighter gray than before.

A black bird appeared in the window, silhouetted against the pale gray. “Good morning, Charlotte!” the bird said and flapped to the edge of the bed. “I hope you slept peacefully.”

Charlie!” Charlotte cried, suddenly flooded with the memory of the day before. I am in the Treehouse! “I am really here! I am not dreaming!”

Rika flew through the window, scolding Charlie. “For pity sakes, husband! Can you not let a lady even dress for the day before you barge in on her? Now shoo! Scoot! Go talk to Jayzu while I get Charlotte dressed.”

Charlie obediently flew out the window, and Rika said, “He is just thrilled you are here, dearie! He just couldn’t wait until you’ve done your ablutions. You know, your face, your hair. That’s what my lady called it. Her morning ablutions.”

I am in a Treehouse!” Charlotte said, leaping out of bed gleefully. She looked out the window.

On Cadeña-l’jadia, dearie!” Rika said.

Welcome to Cadeña-l’jadia!” That is what Charlie had said when the Captain let them off his boat. Charlotte did not know where Cadeña-l’jadia was, and she had not asked. What did it matter? She was grateful to be away from the asylum and to be here in a tree house with her old friend Charlie. And Jayzu! What could be more perfect?

She remembered everything about her escape from Rosencranz—the run through the woods to the river, the almost unbearable noise and spectacle of the city they floated through, the heavenly smells and sounds of the forest, the water. And then Charlie took her from the river to the Treehouse, along a path in a forest so green and full of flowers, she could hardly believe it. “Oh, the colors! Charlie! So beautiful!”

Where is Jayzu?” she asked.

He’s outside, dearie,” Rika said. She hopped over to the bench against the wall. “Charlie and Jayzu are both outside. You must dress now, dearie. Here are some nice clothes you can change into. You’ll be wanting long pants and sleeves for life here on the island.”

Charlotte dressed herself from the box of clothes Jayzu had brought, delighted at the bright colors. “We all wore gray at the asylum,” she said. “Everything was gray. And now the world is full of color! And music! So many birds singing so sweetly!” She closed her eyes, listening.

She splashed water on her face and undid her braid. After brushing it vigorously, she re-braided it. She opened the door and walked out onto the deck, where dozens of crows, magpies, jays, larks, and thrushes all chattered and screeched their versions of “Good morning, Charlotte!”

Where is Jayzu?” she asked, looking all around the deck.

I am here!” his voice said as he appeared through the hole in the deck. He leaped onto the deck, and took Charlotte’s hands into his. He looked into her eyes and asked, “Did you sleep well?”

Like I was a rock,” she said.

Jayzu laughed and bent down to greet the kreegans that had accumulated around his feet.

A cup of tea, dearie?” Rika asked Charlotte. “Do you like tea?”

Charlotte nodded and said, “They gave me tea every morning.”

I will have a cup, please,” Jayzu said as he stood up.

Then let’s make some tea, dearie,” Rika said. “A cup for you, one for Jayzu, one for me.” Charlotte followed her into the cabin. “Now take the kettle, dearie, and put some water in it.”

Charlie appeared suddenly in the doorway, with Buzzy in tow. “I found him down by the sand bar. Hello, Charlotte!”

Charlotte spun around and reached out to touch his wing feathers. “Charlie!” she cried. “I am going to make tea with Rika!”

Splendid!” Charlie said.

You three wait out on the deck,” Rika said, shooing Jayzu, Charlie, and Buzzy out the doorway. “Charlotte, that kettle won’t boil on its own! You need to build a fire!”

Rika pointed to a box of matches on the shelf with her wing. “Now fetch the matches over to the stove. “That’s good, now take some of these small pieces of wood and some paper and stuff it into the stove.”

Charlotte followed Rika’s instructions obediently, paper in the bottom, wood shavings on the top. She held the match to the paper. “Now feed the fire, dearie!” Rika instructed. “You want it to burn and not smother itself. That’s good. Now shut that door, there, yes, dearie.”

She stood up, and Rika pointed to the shelf above the table. “Get that tea down, will you please?”

Charlotte looked at the many cans of vegetables, beans and soup, boxes of rice and pasta, a bottle of cooking oil, and a jar of what she suspected might be peanut butter.

Tea is in that blue can with all the flowers, right there,” Rika said.

Charlotte opened the tin, and the aroma that emanated from it stirred a vague memory within her of forests, flowers, and sunshine. And the gray-haired woman with the red cheeks. Charlie said that is Mimi. But who is Mimi? So familiar, yet without attached memories.

Oh! Hoy! The water is boiling, dearie!” Rika startled her back to the present. “Pick up the kettle and pour some water in the teapot, yes, just like that. A little sugar?” she pointed to a ceramic jar on the shelf. “Best to keep the top on that. No need to spill it, you know. None for me, though.”

Jayzu appeared at the door, and Rika said, “Good on you, dearie. We’re just needing another hand in here! Take the cups and what-not out to the bench, please. Charlotte, you take the teapot on out.”

Charlotte picked up the kettle handle with a piece of quilted fabric and followed Jayzu whose hands were full of cups and the sugar.

Ah!” Rika said after they’d all sat down to tea. She dipped her beak in the cup she shared with Charlie and took a sip, tilting her head back to swallow. “I used to sit with my lady on her balcony Downtown. We’d sip tea, just the two of us, and we’d watch the world go by.”

This is lovely, Charlotte,” Jayzu said. “Thank you for the tea.”

Charlotte and Jayzu ate the leftovers from the dinner they had cooked the night before. “I must go to my cottage,” he said when they finished eating. “I have some visitors coming, and I must be there.” She frowned, and he continued. “I will be back before dinner. Do not worry!”

Jayzu kissed her on the cheek and disappeared down the hole in the deck. Charlotte tidied up the Treehouse; she folded her nightgown and made up her bed, washed and dried the tea cups and put them back up on the shelf.

Rika was gone when she went back outside to the deck, and so was Charlie. She reveled in the sunshine and the quiet loveliness of her surroundings. No bells, no one screaming. How exquisite to be alone with just the sounds of the cool, green forest.

It beckoned her, and she rose from the bench and went down the spiral steps to the ground. She looked toward the woods beyond the tree house, just across that little meadow. So close! And there was no fence to crawl under.

I am free.

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The Million Bird Stand

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was good to be home.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t whine, Henry.”

He looked up at Henry the First.

“Fire the leech.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else’s?” Willy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 17

Lone Crow (2016) Pauline Teel Photography

We Are Small Alone

Minnie Braun watched the sky reflect the colors of the sunset from her balcony, after Henry took a butcher knife to the two paintings she had bought at Jade Matthews’s art show.

I’ll not have this woman’s work in my house!” he had raged, slicing through Leave Me as she watched, stone-faced. “She is my enemy! And as long as you’re married to me, she is your enemy too, understand?” Henry plunged the knife into Catching the Wind, and Minnie grabbed her midsection as if it had penetrated her own guts. She ran up the stairs sobbing and closed herself in her bedroom.

She had no idea what had happened to The Wilder Side, the beautiful painting of the island she had outbid everyone at the auction for—only that it had never made it to the library. She had tried to call Father Alfredo to tell him—he always made her feel better—but she could not reach him. She had called him twice. Three times. But he hadn’t returned her calls.

She gazed in despair out her window, at the dark trees of Wilder Island. Henry will destroy that too. Is nothing safe from him? When Floyd and Willy sailed down to her balcony, she cried out in happiness. “Oh, fellas, I’m so glad you’re here! I’m feeling pretty low this evening.” She looked over her shoulder, making sure her door was closed.

We cannot have that, Fair Lady!” Floyd said.

Indeed!” Willy agreed. “What makes you so blue, Miss Minnie?”

The two crows perched on the railing looked at her with such affection and sympathy, she nearly burst into tears. “Henry destroyed something I really loved,” she said, trying to hold back the tears stinging her eyes. “Right in front of me.” Minnie removed a hanky from her pocket and dabbed her tears.

What a beast!” Floyd said. He put a wing out and rested it on her shoulder. “He didn’t hurt you, did he, Miss Minnie? I’ll peck his eyes out if he so much as lays a finger on you, let alone an ax.”

Minnie laughed through her tears and said, “Thank you, Floyd! But it was a butcher knife. And Henry never touches me, so you need not worry about that. Which is not to say he hasn’t found other ways to hurt me.”

I’m afraid I have to agree with Floyd,” Willy said. “He is a beast.” The brothers nodded to each other then turned back to her.

He’s obsessed,” she said in a low voice. “He’s like a crazy man over that island. The city as much as gave it to him, he says, so he’s making all these plans to ‘christen Ravenwood Resort.’” Minnie looked over her shoulder, checking that the door to her bedroom was still closed.

Izzat so?” Floyd said. “The beast. What’s ‘christen mean?’ Where’s Ravenwood Resort?”

On Wilder Island,” Minnie said with a sigh. “Even though it isn’t his to build on—at least not yet. He wants to park that riverboat he’s been giving everyone rides on at the island, he says. And he’s going to build casinos and shopping malls and hotels and, well, everything that Wilder Island is not. That’s Ravenwood Resort.”

Yeah, yeah,” Floyd said, nodding. “I remember now. Flapjack tables, roulette, and bingo.”

That’s blackjack, Floyd,” Willy said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

Yes,” Minnie said. “Blackjack, slot machines, roulette—all of that. He said the city condemned the island because it’s a nuisance. ‘A sewer of crows.’ That’s what he calls it.”

How very uncouth,” Willy said. “In polite conversation, a gentleman should not invoke the sewer. Don’t you agree, my brother?”

The cad!” Floyd said as he gathered Minnie’s hand in his wing. “To speak so in front of a lady so fair, I am shocked, nay, outraged!” He laid his head sideways on her hand.

Thank you, Floyd,” Minnie said, gently stroking his cheek with her free hand. “But now, listen. Henry is planning this picnic on the island—”

Oh, goody!” Floyd said. He danced on the balcony railing and flapped his wings as he crowed, “We love a picnic! We a love picnic! When is it?”

Floyd,” Willy said, flapping his wings at his brother. “Please. Let Miss Minnie finish!”

We don’t love this picnic, Floyd,” Minnie said. “Henry plans to do some very bad things to the island. But he needs a lot of other people’s money to do it. That’s what the picnic is for, so he can squeeze it out of his rich friends.”

I didn’t know you could do that,” Floyd said, tilting his head.

Do what?” Minnie said, confused. She glanced back at her bedroom door.

Squeeze orbs out of humans,” Floyd said. “Where do they come out?”

Crimony, Floyd,” Willy said, cuffing his brother with a wing. “It’s a figure of speech. Forgive him, Miss Minnie, but Floyd tends to take things literally.”

Oh, that’s okay,” Minnie said, laughing. “It’s a pretty silly saying. Floyd, I meant that Henry will try very hard to convince people to give him money.”

Ohhhh,” Floyd said, nodding thoughtfully. “I get it now. I thought you meant—”

Floyd! Shush!” Willy said as he put a wing over his brother’s beak.

Minnie looked over her shoulder, making sure, again, that her door was closed. She leaned closer to the crow brothers. “Henry’s afraid to take the paddleboat to the island, so he invited his wealthy friends for a private ride on a helicopter for champagne breakfast.”

Champagne breakfast,” Floyd said. “Yum!”

A helicopter?” Willy asked. “You mean a whirly-bird? Them things are huge! Where will it land?”

At the opposite end from the hermit’s chapel,” Minnie said. “I don’t know where, other than he said they’ll land on a beach or a sand bar or something. He doesn’t want to run into Father Manzi, he said.” She looked over her shoulder.

He won’t want to run into Charlie either,” Floyd said to Willy.

Absolutely not!” Willy agreed.

Nosirreebob,” Floyd shook his head emphatically.

No way, Jose’!” Willy said.

Under no circumstances!”

He’d be real sorry.”

Might as well just throw himself off a cliff!”

Sooner he should cover himself with honey and sit naked on an ant hill!”

Better he should shoot himself at sunrise every day for a week!”

Or boil himself in oil!”

The two crows looked back at Minnie. “Nope, that’d be something he wouldn’t want to do. Run into Charlie!”

Minnie could hardly contain her laughter. She loved Floyd and Willy; they always cheered her up, no matter how terrible things seemed. But she felt nervous that Henry would hear them.

Shhh!” Minnie said, her forefinger across her lips.

Sorry!” Floyd whispered.

Both crows hunkered down on the balcony railing. “When is this shindig, Miss Minnie?” Willy asked in a low voice.

A week from yesterday,” she said. “Next Monday.”

Minerva!” Henry’s voice permeated the house, vibrating walls and windows.

What was that?” Floyd said.

Sounds like the man of the house has awakened,” Willy said.

Gotta go, gents,” she said and blew them each a kiss.

We ought not to miss this shindig, eh, brother?” Willy said with an air of great dignity and sarcasm as they leaped off the balcony.

 

In his ancient tupelo tree, high above the Woodman’s Cemetery, on the northern borders of the university, Starfire awaited his friend Hookbeak. Before retiring within its sprawling branches, Starfire and his wife had raised a large number of young ravens, every year building a new nest not far from this very tree. He knew precisely how many children he had sired, and grandchildren. He even knew how many generations of great-grandchildren he had. Seven. Of course he could not come up with all their names, just their numbers.

As Chief Archivist, Starfire dealt in corvid genealogical data on a daily basis. It was a simple task to access the archival lattice; he could do it in his sleep. But he was not concerned with the names of his many descendants at the moment. Another fireball had ejected during Charlie’s trance, and Starfire was flummoxed. He had created several Extermination Chants and went after the bugs that seemed to be eating the data. Charlie had struggled to speak as the lattice closed, and had said something that sounded like “ugs”. Did he mean to say “bugs”?

The roar of the lawnmower on the other side of the cemetery distracted his thoughts. In spite of the noise, he appreciated mowing days for the evening buffet of chopped lizards, toads, insects, and other creatures that couldn’t seem to get out of the way.

He watched his friend Hookbeak approach, admiring his wingspan and graceful glide down to the tupelo tree. The Aviar landed on the large branch near Starfire and folded his wings. The two old ravens greeted each other cordially.

To what do I owe the honor of a visit, my friend?” Starfire asked. He knew the Aviar preferred to stay on his side of the river.

There have been some complaints,” Hookbeak said vaguely. He sharpened his beak on the branch near his feet.

Complaints?” Who? Does the Aviar somehow know of the mishap with the Keeper last week?

Yes, my friend, complaints,” Hookbeak said. “But first, tell me about the damage to the lattice. Last time we talked, you suspected something was damaging it. ‘Bugs’, I believe was the term you used.”

The lawnmower droned closer. Starfire could smell the gasoline engine exhaust co-mingled with fresh-cut grass. He nodded. “Bugs ate many holes in the lattice—mostly in areas where we store Patua’ data. Bugs are why we did not find Jayzu in our database. I think.”

I see,” Hookbeak said. “That is problematic. But you have killed the bugs, you say? Have you fixed the holes?”

I thought the bugs were gone,” Starfire said. “I thought I killed them all and left a systemic poison in case they come back. But, alas, I believe I have missed one.”

It was no mean feat, killing the bugs. Starfire had been in a mildornia trance for an entire day with only a few novices to watch over him. Several times he had surfaced from the trance, gasping, “Not finished yet. Must go back.” He beaked more mildornia berries, and though he felt he was dying of thirst, he did not drink.

After the extermination, he had fallen over stiff as a board. The novices told him later that they had been frightened he had died. But he was not dead, and the bugs were gone. Until Charlie’s trance that ended with him struggling to say “bugs.”

I will run another Extermination Ritual,” Starfire said. “After I am sure they are gone, I will continue repairing the damage they have done. It is very time-consuming to search the Keeper’s memories for the Patua’ data, and then to extract it and patch the holes the bugs made. Sometimes I don’t find what I need very quickly, and the Keepers have to stay under longer.”

And is that dangerous?” Hookbeak asked.

Starfire looked deep into his friend’s opaque black eyes. Does he know? “Not usually. Some do not tolerate such high doses of mildornia berries, it is true. But it is the only way I know to patch the holes.”

He had screened the Keepers well, he had thought, experimenting with dosages of mildornia berries to filter out the Keepers for whom the deep trance might be fatal. How did Beatrice get through the screening? He had been grievously shocked when the young Keeper had fallen over stiff and dead as a doornail right at his feet. Before he had even searched her memories. Such a tragic loss.

The lawnmower droned nearby, like a giant cricket in the grass declaring the summertime temperature. “There are risks to the trance,” Hookbeak said, eyeing the mower and its two riders. “We know that.” He turned back to Starfire, his black eyes blazing in anger. “But to break into a corvid’s private memory, Starfire? That is akin to stealing, is it not? I am quite uncomfortable with that scenario. This is a serious covenant you have broken.”

Starfire sunk his head into a wing and pretended to scratch a sudden itch. How did the Aviar know he had wandered without permission through the Keeper’s memories? The Keepers themselves did not know. It was true he had been warned. Severely warned. And he agreed it was a sacred trust he had violated, an unequivocal promise to the Keepers that their personal memories would be left private while their minds were open and unprotected.

Starfire had neutralized his guilt by continually reminding himself that what he had found was worth his minor rule bending. Besides, while he was only fixing holes in the archival lattice, he had found a few more Orbs of the Patua’.

I am certain that the Keepers would all give permission for the searches,” Starfire said, “but it is so very cumbersome and time-consuming to get it.”

Yes, that is true, Starfire. The Council founders deliberately made it difficult to obtain such permission—to prevent such violations as this one. I insist that you follow protocol.”

I do not have the time!” Starfire protested vehemently. “There are much greater issues I am attending to.”

What could be a greater issue for the Chief Archivist than keeping the Keepers of the Archival Lattice in good health?” Hookbeak asked. “That is, alive.”

You do not understand!” Starfire said. He hopped back and forth between two branches, grasping one for a few seconds before leaping back to the other. “We are running out of mildornia berries. Even before the bugs ate our data, I had none to spare.”

Hookbeak blinked a few times and said, “What has that got to do with these invasions of yours, other than you’re using large amounts of berries and killing your Keepers?”

Starfire stopped, gripping a branch tightly and glaring at Hookbeak. He tried to control the angry impatience that surged upward from his breast. Calm yourself, raven. Anger kills reason. He focused on the sound of the lawnmower as it traversed back and forth across the cemetery. He tried to visualize the pattern the mower always left in the grass and the smorgasbord of delectable dinner entrees.

Quite by accident,” Starfire said after composing himself, “during my searches, I have finally discovered the legendary Orbs of the Patua’.”

The Orbs of the Patua’?” Hookbeak said. “And these orbs—what relation do they bear upon your sacred oath?”

Starfire told the Aviar about the orb Jayzu found under Bruthamax’s bones, describing in great detail the skilled craftsmanship of some unknown ancient Patua’. “And much to my surprise, another orb has turned up, nearly identical to Bruthamax’s. Right in Ledford.”

The lawnmower invaded the space in which Starfire’s tupelo tree grew, capturing the attention of both ravens. A crow perched on the gas tank in front of the mower, while the operator steered it deftly around trees and tombstones. The noise was loud enough to prevent conversation, and the two ravens perched quietly until the mower moved on.

And theses searches have revealed another potential Patua’,” Starfire said, when the noise had diminished somewhat “of whom we knew nothing.”

Hookbeak rose up on his thick legs and stretched, flapping his wings a few times before folding them back at his sides. His legs hurt. So did his wings. The lawnmower came into the small clearing underneath them. “Is the gardener Patua’?”

No,” Starfire said, “and he’s deaf as a post. Julie just likes to ride the mower with him. She said she likes the smell of fresh-cut grass.”

And what do you think they are?” Hookbeak asked. “These orbs you risk so much for?”

Seed pods,” Starfire said without hesitation. “Mildornia seed pods!” A gust of wind blew through the branches, revealing the white ruff around his neck.

Hookbeak refolded his wings and said, “And how did you come to that conclusion? Have you broken one open? Were there mildornia seeds inside?”

No,” Starfire said. “I personally have never actually seen one of these orbs. But my hunch is that—”

Your hunch?” Hookbeak shook his head in wonder. “You are risking lives for seeds? For ‘potential’ Patua’? My friend, what has happened to you?”

You don’t understand!” Starfire said impatiently. “We need mildornia berries!”

I do understand that,” the Aviar said calmly. “I know that the seeds are required for the trances. You have told me that more than once. And that the mildornia bushes used to thrive everywhere. And the last known bush, a hermaphrodite, grows on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

A sense of profound weariness permeated his being. Suddenly life seemed severely complicated. Ah, my Rosie, I shall leave all this soon and come join you, my love. “I am trying to understand,” Hookbeak continued, “why you have violated the sacred trust between the Council and the Keepers.”

Starfire did not speak for a few moments. Hookbeak had watched his friend struggle with his passionate ambitions their entire adult lives. But never had he transgressed from the ethical boundaries set by the Council.

Where is your conscience, Starfire?” he asked quietly. “You cannot continue this invasion of the Keepers’ memories for any reason, no matter how lofty it seems. It is simply wrong, even if we are in desperate need of these seeds. Or discovering more Patua’. The Council will not sanction this.”

Starfire shook his head as he strode back and forth on the branch. “The Council is myopic, Aviar! Can you not see what is at stake here? Our entire database, our entire history, our entire genealogy since the days of First Crow and First Raven will be lost—to say nothing of the Patua’ data. For the love of the Egg, Hookbeak, these are perilous times! We cannot afford to adhere to ideology when our very survival is at stake.”

Do not think that I am unaware, Starfire,” Hookbeak growled, “of what is at stake here. Am I not Aviar? It is my business to be aware, as I must make you aware of the dangerous winds you are flying in. Have you no regard for your Keepers?”

I am careful,” Starfire said sullenly.

Not careful enough,” Hookbeak said. He had been sorely disappointed in his friend, not so much that his experiment had been fatal to young Beatrice. But why did he cover it up? Why did he not come tell me? Have I not been his loyal friend all these years?

There is no proof!” Starfire protested. “Even the Emplacement Ritual is sometimes fatal.”

And you refuse any remorse for the death of this innocent Keeper?” Hookbeak hopped onto the branch near Starfire. “I cannot continue to shelter you, Starfire, or your activities. One more mishap among the Keepers,” he said, putting his beak into the other raven’s face, “and I am going to blow the lid off this. Do I need to explain what will happen in that event?”

Starfire stepped backward under the Aviar’s pressure but did not reply.

The Council will strip you of your position as Chief Archivist,” Hookbeak said, stepping toward Starfire and bearing down on him. “And your name will be blackened forever.”

Starfire growled and flapped his wings. The Aviar backed off, and the two ravens stood eye-to-eye, searing the air between them with the charged particles of their anger. The leaves on all the branches of the tupelo tree suddenly rattled and quivered.

Hookbeak broke his stance first, shaking his head. “Have you gone mad, my friend?” he said quietly. “Too many mildornia trances, perhaps?”

And if the database goes down,” Starfire said, as their tempers cooled, “what will it matter if I have a good or bad name? Aviar, please, I beseech you, hear me! I do not know how else to save our database. At the small expense of my position in the archives, and even my good name among the corvid, I am willing to make this sacrifice.”

Did you ask the Keepers if they were willing to sacrifice their lives to your vanity before you volunteered them?” Hookbeak asked.

This is not my vanity, Aviar,” Starfire growled. “There is much at stake here, the preservation of all of our knowledge, history, and genealogy. Which is the more valuable? The rights of the individual Keeper to maintain memory privacy, or the rights of the entire corvid species for the past seventeen or so million years?”

You call upon the dead?” Hookbeak asked incredulously, “to defend this mind invasion of yours? What rights do the dead have?”

They have the right to be remembered,” Starfire said. “Is not that why we ever constructed the archival lattice in the first place? To keep track of ourselves? Shall we allow millions of lives to be lost to this stubborn obedience to principles?”

Shall we lose our moral compass over a database?” Hookbeak flapped his wings several times.

 

Charlie left Charlotte’s windowsill at Rosencranz after their morning visit and flew across the river, across the university campus to Starfire’s tree in the old Woodmen’s Cemetery. Hookbeak was there with him, and the two old ravens seemed to be deep in a heated discussion—an argument from the looks of it. Starfire seems angry! I wonder what they are arguing about?

Charlie flew once around the tupelo tree, but as he started back toward Cadeña-l’jadia, Starfire called out, “Yo, Charlie!”

He turned around and sailed into the tree, settling on a branch near the two ravens. “Grawky! I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important.”

The two ravens looked at each other briefly. “Nothing that we have not been endlessly discussing,” Hookbeak said wearily. “Grawky, Charlie.”

Indeed,” Starfire said. “Perhaps we should thank you for the interruption. Otherwise the two of us could grow old and stiff and keel over right here in this tree, without solving a thing.”

The two ravens looked at each other gravely for a moment, then cackled with laughter as they flapped their wings. Once they settled back down, Charlie told them what he had learned from Floyd and Willy. “And they said Henry Braun plans to land a helicopter on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

That would be the only way he could get there,” Starfire said. “The river would never let him near.”

Charlie nodded. “Jayzu and his friends are fighting him, but he has many orbs and is very powerful.”

Starfire said, “That man is a menace, the very antithesis of the Patua’. We cannot allow him to gain control of Cadeña-l’jadia. We must stop him.”

But how?” Charlie asked. “We are just birds. Not even the humans seem to be able to stop him.”

We are small,” Hookbeak said, “each of us. But together we form a multitude. Tomorrow we shall assemble the Great Corvid Council. We shall take a stand on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

 

The Great Corvid convened on the roof of the hermit’s chapel as the mid-afternoon shadows began to lengthen. Many more crows and ravens than councilors attended, and they perched all around—in the trees, the garden, and all over the marvelously rusty, sparkly contraption Jayzu had planted next to the pond.

Greetings, Councilors!” the Aviar spoke from the apex of the chapel roof. “Greetings, corvids! Greetings, all birds of all feathers!” He turned slowly all the way around, his great wings unfurled as if to include everyone. “Thank you for flying in on such short notice. We face a grave threat.”

We?” Wingnut asked.

Charlie heard a wave of murmuring propagate through the trees all around him. “Who is that?” “That’s Wingnut. He thinks he’s going to be Aviar one day!”

Yes, we,” Hookbeak’s voice rumbled. “We do not exist independently of the human sphere.”

Wingnut folded his wings in displeasure but settled back on his branch. Charlie was glad he backed down. There was no time to argue.

We must open our eyes to the uncomfortable truth,” Hookbeak continued. “The events in the human world over the last century or two have encroached upon our otherwise idyllic existence, and we can no longer bury our heads under our wings and ignore the problem. We are losing our forests, our rivers, and streams to the inexorable march of human civilization across the landscape.”

Hookbeak signaled Charlie to take the high perch next to him. “Tell all our corvid brethren of the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia,” he said as the crow landed.

Charlie stood up as tall as he could, opened his wings, and called out as loudly: “Cadeña-l’jadia is under siege as we speak. There is a plan afoot by the human, Henry Braun, to remove its forests and birds, and replace them with a human-built landscape of concrete and buildings.”

Many of the birds gasped, and Fishgut called out, “Henry Braun?” The raven rose up on his roof branch near Charlie and shouted, “Henry Braun? You mean the Bunya? Have we such short memories, my corvids?” He unfolded his wings. “Is he not the same bunya who shaved the northern forests to nubbins?”

The birds snickered at the slur. “Bunya” meant “meat so rotten even a corvid would not eat it.”

Then he built the fish-canning factory,” Fishgut said, “and the place now reeks of rotting fish. While I feed off the largesse of the Cannery, it is too much, and the landscape is spoiled. And it stinks. I would much prefer that the forest, my ancestral territory, had remained.”

The older birds in the surrounding tree shouted angry epithets against the Bunya, recalling the destruction. The councilors maintained a slightly greater decorum, with only a few disapproving hisses.

It was the Bunya’s ancestor,” Starfire spoke out, “who tore the forests down for the Cannery. The living Henry Braun, known among some of us as the Bunya, plans the same fate for our Cadeña-l’jadia.”

First Henry Bunya will purchase the island,” Charlie continued, “and turn it into an amusement park for humans.”

Purchase?” asked Mikey. “As in purchase the branch?” He looked down at his feet.

I thought he said purchase the island,” Restarea said, blinking in confusion.

Purchase? What is purchase?” O’Malley asked.

Let us examine the word ‘purchase,’” said Athanasius. “Purchase is derived from the Middle English purchacen, or as the Anglo-French would have said, purchaser. To purchase means to get a better grip on an object, as in ‘grasp the branch with both claws for more purchase.’”

Oh, that branch,” Restarea said, nodding.

What about the island?” Joshwa asked. “I thought we were talking about an island.”

Walldrug said, “I thought purchase means, essentially, to own. In which case, I must ask: can anyone own that which he cannot carry off?”

Hookbeak motioned Charlie to continue. “Do not get sidetracked into these philosophical gopher holes, Charlie. Tell them about the threat to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Charlie nodded gratefully. He remembered when the Council first met Jayzu. It’s a wonder they can get anything said and done. He hoped he was never called upon to be a councilor. “Henry the Bunya,” he addressed the Council again, “has millions of orbs that he wants to give the humans in the city in exchange for the island. That’s what I meant when I said he wants to purchase it.”

Taken aback, many birds spoke at once: “Exchange orbs for the island?” “I cannot imagine!” “That is what purchase means?” “Millions of orbs!” “How many is a million?” “Imagine how big the nest would be to hold a million orbs!”

What would anyone do with that many orbs?” Ziggy asked.

Buy an island?” Joshwa said.

The councilors laughed raucously, including the Aviar.

Seriously,” Starfire said when the laughter had died down, “even among humans, ownership is a fairly abstract concept. But if anyone owns Cadeña-l’jadia, it is Charlie. His family has lived there since before there were any humans at all in this part of the world. Even humans regard that sometimes as legal ownership.”

However,” Wingnut said, “humans do not consider that any other species has ownership over any fraction of the entire earth’s surface.”

True enough,” Hookbeak said. “But let us not exhaust ourselves trying to understand the human concepts of ownership. Let us return to the subject for which have convened. We all know that forest destruction hits us birds first, if not hardest. Remember when the Boonies were out in the middle of nowhere, Walldrug?”

How could I forget?” the raven councilor cried out. “I watched my entire ancestral homeland devoured. Thousands of trees were shaved off the land to build a gigantic parking lot and a corn chip factory. Where there were trees, there is now only burning asphalt. They killed it all.”

The birds in the trees surrounding the chapel had grown quiet. He knew some of the crows ate regularly at the corn chip factory. Can we rise above our stomachs?

And Cadeña-l’jadia is next,” the Aviar said, “unless we band together and stop the destruction. This is our sacred land, if not for the hundreds of corvid generations born here, but this was the home of the great Bruthamax, may his spirit forever walk this lonely isle. And Jayzu. Let us not forget Jayzu.”

All of the birds within earshot of Hookbeak showed their approval by screeching and flapping their wings. Some called out, “Long live Jayzu!” “Bruthamax forever!” “Bruthamax will never die!”

We have no more time,” Hookbeak’s strong voice cut through the noise. “We have waited long enough for the humans to come to their senses. We must stop talking and act. If we are going to prevent the Bunya’s destruction of Cadeña-l’jadia, we must be proactive. We must act.”

And do what?” Wingnut asked. “Throw ourselves in front of the saws?”

Hookbeak said. “Saws?” He shook his head. “I was thinking we throw ourselves in front of the humans.”

The councilors blinked in confusion and asked each other “What is he talking about?” “Is he serious?” “Throw ourselves in front of humans?”

Follow me!” Hookbeak’s voice rose above the private conversations, calling out to all the birds on the roof of the chapel as well as in the trees. He flapped his wings, lifting his great body above the trees. “Let us say no to the Bunya! A million birds taking a stand! We must all fly out and spread the word, starting today, to all birds in the land. We shall invite them all to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia. This land is ours. Now fly! Spread the word!”

Hookbeak led the way as he flew off shouting, “Calling all birds! All birds of all feathers! Picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Good eats! Take a stand against forest destruction! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

 

The councilors, Charlie, and a host of corvid volunteers flew far and wide, and they spoke to many birds across the land. Charlie sent off all the young crows on Cadeña-l’jadia to engage the birds beyond the timber mills, all the way to the northern border. He sent his sons JohnHenry and Edgar to carry the message Downtown, and to the Waterfront. More crows flew out across the river to the university, to the woods behind Russ and Jade’s house. The airport ravens carried the word to the surrounding towns and countryside.

As the corvids spread the word, other birds heard the call and carried it into the wind for miles and miles around Cadeña-l’jadia. “Come ye! All birds of beak and feather, come to the picnic on Cadeña-l’jadia! Take a stand against the Bunya!”

Beak to beak, the word spread as the corvids raised the alarm from the cemetery to the timber mills, out east to the plains beyond Ledford, to the south all the way to MacKenzie. “Come all ye birds of all feathers! Join us and all our winged brethren for the Million Bird Stand on Cadeña-l’jadia!”

In a matter of one day, scores of birds over many hundreds of square miles took to the skies and headed to Cadeña-l’jadia. They arrived in multitudes, landing in trees, on the shorelines, and in the meadows, calling out, “Small alone, mighty together!”

The new bird sanctuary was jammed with birds, from the cliffs to the riverbanks. The sudden influx of such an enormous number of birds attracted the attention of the city as birds arrived continuously, hundreds and hundreds every hour. They assumed a swirling flight pattern above the treetops of the island as they searched for places to perch, stand, wade, or sit. The noise generated by many birds produced a low-decibel buzz that did not abate until nightfall, when the birds settled down in their roosts to sleep.

A reporter from the Sentinel ambushed Alfredo as he left his office in the Biology Department at the university. “Dr. Manzi,” the reporter asked, “how do you explain the sudden arrival on Wilder Island of so many birds? Has your bird sanctuary become a nuisance, attracting too many of our avian friends?”

A nuisance for whom?” Alfredo answered. “If you are asking is this odd, I would say it is very odd that so many birds of different species would suddenly show up in the same place. It is hard to know what to make of it, but I’m sure we will all find out soon enough.” He smiled, edged past the reporter, and left the building whistling a popular tune from 1960s, a song about a blackbird.

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