Corvus Rising – Chapter 20

Jadum Wilderii

 

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

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

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

Jules, you lying, incompetent, traitorous boob!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flipped his lid!” said Floyd.

Lost his marbles!”

Off the deep end!”

Got a screw loose!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we ever see you again?” Willy asked.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s,” Willy said.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have a fridge,” Sam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to all of our efforts,” Kate said.

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

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

Aw, Sam,” Kate said, blushing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dear Lord, what have I wrought?

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

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

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

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

Russ and Jade-

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

AM

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Zelda,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the summer time is coming

And the trees are sweetly blooming

And the wild mountain thyme

Grows around the purple heather

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

Charlotte’s voice sang out into the forest:

And we’ll all go together

To pick wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather,

Will ye go, Lassie, go?

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All around the purple heather

Will you go, Lassie, go?

We’ll all go together,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

Chloe?”

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

Will you go, Lassie, go?

And we’ll all go together

To pick wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

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

All around the purple heather,

Will you go, Lassie, go?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

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

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Try it!” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

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

 

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

It is Charlotte …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

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

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

Yes.”

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

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

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-but, how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What art fair?” Henry growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charlie and Charlotte – Excerpt from Corvus Rising

 
fc5a3f4dd4439aa19a0f15b353773ddeCharlie the Blue-eyed Crow: the story of Charlotte…

 

Tell me about your friend, Charlie,” Alfredo said. “I would like to know another Patua’.”

 

Charlotte disappeared one day when she was seventeen,” Charlie began his story. “I hadn’t seen her in a few months. Rika and I had our first clutch that year, and I was in Keeper training, and just couldn’t get away. But the magpies all said that men in white coats drove up in a big van and took her away. She was crying, they said, when the white coats put her in a tiny shirt with really long sleeves that they wound all around her.

She kept screaming. All the way down the road, they could hear her screaming. The white coats took her to Rosencranz. That’s what the magpies told me.

I winged it over to Rosencranz, but couldn’t get in, of course; what hospital would let a crow in, even during visiting hours? So I visited every windowsill, looking for her. I peeked and sometimes downright stared into every window, more than once. For two years, I came and pecked on her window nearly every day.”

I admire your devotion, Charlie,” Jayzu said. “I cannot imagine.

Then one day,” the crow continued, “there she was! Just on the other side of the glass, sitting in a wheelchair with her hands folded neatly in her lap. But she did not see me.

I pecked on the window, but she did not hear me. I called out her name. ‘Charlotte! Yo! Charlotte! It’s me! Charlie!’ But she didn’t look up. She just stared at her lap, and I wondered if she had gone deaf.

I kept yelling and dancing and pecking, anything to get her attention. She didn’t hear me, didn’t see me.

I didn’t give up, though. Day after day, I showed up on the windowsill at the same time, trying to get her attention. But day after day, she didn’t look up. Until she did! She finally noticed me through the glass! I nearly fell off the windowsill.

“‘Charlie!’ she said, with the big smile I remembered from long ago. Of course I couldn’t hear her; the window was closed. Then she ran across the room and pasted both hands on the glass, as if to embrace me. I flapped my wings and cried out, ‘Charlotte! Charlotte!’ Great Orb, that was a wonderful day!

Then a white coat came up to Charlotte and took her hands off the window, giving each one a little slap and then escorted her back to her wheelchair.

“‘Charlotte!’ I yelled as he wheeled her out of the room. I pecked on the glass. I shouted as loud as I could. Another white coat came to the window, opened it, and yelled ‘Darn crows!’ as she tried to smack me with a towel.

She missed. ‘Darn humans!’ I yelled back at her.

Though I waited at the window, Charlotte didn’t come back that day. Or the next. I hung around, waiting and hoping for some sign of her. Days went by. I visited all the other windowsills again and again. Just as I was about to give up, there she was!

I pecked at the glass, and when she looked up, I flapped my wings at her. But she didn’t get up, didn’t smile at me, or say my name. I thought maybe she hadn’t really seen me. But when no one was looking, she smiled at me. She wouldn’t come to the window, though. Probably she was afraid they would slap her hands again. She never took her eyes off me until someone came and took her out of the room.

That was eight years ago. I see her often, but through a closed window. I can’t talk to her or hear her voice. But at least I can see her.”

Charlie ended his story; crow and human sat without speaking for several minutes. The pulsating song of crickets emanated from hidden places in the grass. Several loons wandered along the bank below, pecking for tidbits between the rocks and grass. A few gulls orbited a fishing vessel on the river.

I do not know what to say, Charlie, my friend,” Jayzu said at last. “I am sad for your friend, being locked away like that. Surely her family visits?”

Charlotte is alone, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “No one visits. No one can understand her. But I am telling you, Jayzu, she is as sane as you or I.”

 

CorvusRisingCover2

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