Corvus Rising – Chapter 2


The Priest and the Crow

The Jesuit scholar Alfredo Manzi stood at the window in his office at the Department of Biology at Midwestern University. Wilder Island stood dark and secretive in the morning shadows, beckoning him. He could hardly resist the urge to disappear into its dark forests and its unusually large population of corvids. He had spent his life studying them—crows and ravens in particular.

Six months ago, he had discovered Wilder Island, just after arriving in Ledford. An advertisement for an ornithology professor at the university had brought him, and after a brief round of interviews, he landed the job. He started teaching immediately, taking over mid-semester for a professor who had taken family leave due to his wife’s illness.

Alfredo was nothing less than grateful for his position at the university as adjunct professor, however temporary it might be. No tenure possibilities, but no pressure to publish either.

The Order had granted his subsequent request to be assigned to St. Sophia cathedral in Downtown Ledford as its assistant pastor. Between the two part-time jobs, he made a completely adequate income for himself, a man with no obligations—no family, no car, no mortgage.

And there was Wilder Island and its thousands of corvids, right across the river. What incredible luck! In his first few weeks as a Ledford resident, Alfredo had learned everything he could about the island and its namesake, Maxmillian Wilder, the legendary hermit of the last century.

He found an old postcard in a used bookshop Downtown—a great many black birds flying above the silhouettes of treetops against a backdrop of a garish sunset. Turning it over, Alfredo read:

Murder of Crows, 1937
Wilder Island, Halloween Night
Frederick T. Nelson

Later, he had discovered that the original photograph hung in the Ledford city library. “Was this photo really taken on Halloween night?” he asked the librarian.

Yes, indeedy,” the librarian had said, peering over her glasses at Alfredo. “The whole town saw it. There were thousands of them, right at sunset. They started swirling around like a black cyclone, my mother said.” The librarian swayed back and forth in her chair with her arms raised high above her head. “They flew around like that till the sun went down, in honor of the old hermit. They say he had died earlier that very day.”

The librarian’s story had excited him. And then he had met the two brothers, Floyd and Willy, at the duck pond on campus. They weren’t from Cadeña-l’jadia, they said.

Cadeña-l’jadia. The corvid name for Wilder Island. Alfredo had not spoken to a crow in years, out of fear his professional life would be ruined if anyone found out. His graduate committee had very nearly failed him at his PhD defense.

He missed them, the friendly and quite talkative crows of his youth. Floyd and Willy had reminded him of his old friends in the forest behind his boyhood home, but he dared not be seen talking to them on campus. Perhaps I can sneak off to Cadeña-l’jadia and make a few friends.

He remembered his first visit to the island, when he walked down the stone steps to the public docks at the Waterfront, and a single outlandish-looking boat that looked like a small island of trees was moored at the for-hire dock.

Can you take me to Wilder Island, sir?” he asked the captain, who stood on the dock next to his boat, his great tattooed arms folded across his chest.

The captain gestured to him. “All aboard for Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Startled that the captain used the crow-speech name for Wilder Island, Alfredo stepped onto the boat and immediately forgot his surprise as he marveled at the overhead canopy of exquisitely crafted wrought-iron trees. “Thank you, Captain,” he said and put out his hand. “Alfredo Manzi. I am a Jesuit and professor at the university.”

The captain nodded and shook his hand. “Pleasure’s mine, Padre. Folks just call me the Captain, though my mother named me Andrew.”

A crow perched on the railing that went all the way around the boat. She studied Alfredo curiously for a few moments, looking at him as if she knew who he was. “Me mum named me Dolores, but folks call me Sugarbabe,” she said to Alfredo and stretched out a wing.
“I am happy to meet both of you,” he said as he swished his palm across her wing.

Alfredo watched the Captain push the boat off from the dock. His arms were covered in scenes of a rushing river, with fish leaping through its foamy current. He inhaled deeply of the water-scented air, grateful for a day of blue sky and sunshine for his first trip to the island.

I have heard the river is treacherous between the mainland and the island. I was worried about finding a ride,” he said.

The river seemed to rise up at his words and lob a small spray of water, carefully aimed at the Captain’s face. But she was not fast enough; the Captain ducked sway, laughing.

Treacherous she is,” the Captain said as he resumed rowing, “for those who don’t know her ways. Me, I’ve been on this river since I was a wee lad. The river, we’re friends all these years. She don’t give me trouble.”

And that is my good fortune!” Alfredo said. “Not many have made it to the island, they say.”

The river,” the Captain said. “She decides who goes and who stays. Few are called.”

Called?” Alfredo asked. “I was not called. I am just curious about the island and its crows.”

Right,” the Captain said with a nod, keeping his gaze on the water ahead.

In truth, however, for the entire six months Alfredo had resided in Ledford, he had felt the island pulling him, cajoling him to renounce his life on the mainland and come live among the forests and its crows.

Yonder’s the old hermit’s chapel,” the Captain said as Wilder Island loomed closer.

Alfredo looked toward the direction where the Captain had pointed. “I see only a tangle of dead branches and vines in the treetops. Where is the chapel?”

That is the chapel, Padre,” the Captain said. “The roof, it looks more like a dead tree than anything, what you can see of it through the green. It was pretty fine in its day, I reckon. People forgot it, though, soon as the old hermit died. But the birds, they don’t forget. Ravens took it over. They like to build nests and raise their young up in the roof.”

Alfredo gazed at the chapel, imagining it full of ravens. “Have you been to the island?” he asked. It had not occurred to him that anyone had visited the island other than the legendary hermit.

The Captain nodded and said, “Yes, sir. I spent some time there, coupla months maybe. The land is too hard. It hurts my feet. This river, she’s my home.”

The Captain pushed his oar deeper into the water, steering the small boat toward the island. The closer they got, the more turbulent and ill-behaved the river became, though the Captain’s boat seemed to float in steady, calm water.

The island was so close Alfredo could see the leaves on the trees that grew near the river’s edge. The Captain guided the boat into a small inlet without even a ripple of consternation from the river. When they ground to a stop on the sandy bank, Alfredo leaped off and turned to pay the captain for the ride, but the man had already shoved back into the current.

G’day.” The Captain tipped his hat. “I’ll come back for you at sunset.”

Alfredo hoisted his small backpack onto his shoulders, excitement surging through him at the prospect of the unexplored.
An island of crows!
He left the inlet and walked into the dense forest, pushing aside bushes and branches, toward the old chapel he had seen from the river. It seemed as if twilight had fallen, so thick was the tree canopy overhead.

Water dripped from the grayish-white rock layers that poked up occasionally through the vegetation. The geologists at the university had told him about the limestone rock that comprised the island. “It’s everywhere around here,” he remembered one of them saying. “Underground, too.”

He stopped frequently to look up into the leaves and branches overhead. Many birds flew through the treetops; he could hear mockingbirds and cardinals, blue jays, robins, finches, sparrows, and an occasional mourning dove. Everything but crows, it seemed.

Are they hiding from me?

He stopped at a small pool fed by a curtain of water beads that dripped from between two moss-bedecked layers of gray rock. He squatted next to the pool, filled his cupped hands with water, and drank. He wiped his mouth after he had quenched his thirst with the cool, tasteless water, and took out his water bottles. He emptied them on the ground and refilled them with water from the pool.

He stood back up and stepped across the stream that fed the pond. He could see the gray-and-white chapel roof through the green trees. And what marvelous trees! He recognized only a few—basswood, willow, dogwood, and black spruce. Flowering bushes grew between the tall trees, whose exotic scents seemed familiar to Alfredo, but he could not name them. Wildflowers grew everywhere in reckless profusion among the infinite shades of green. He thought of his new colleague at the biology department, Russ Matthews. He was a botanist; this would be his paradise!

Alfredo stepped into a small clearing and beheld the small chapel nestled within a circle of trees. The remains of a door lay intact on the ground; its vine hinges had long ago rotted away. He tore away some vines that had grown across the space between the two trees from which the door had hung and stepped inside. It was quite dark; the old and new vines that covered the roof allowed little light through.

He looked up at the mosaic of blue sky and fluffy white clouds though the interwoven branches and vines of the roof. It seemed for a moment like the stained glass ceiling of the Jesuit chapel in Rome.

Except this one looks like an upside down bird’s nest!” he said. He gaped in wonder for a few moments before noticing two pairs of eyes staring coldly down at him from a nest within the roof. Ravens. He could hear faint cheeping sounds from above.

Greetings,” he said, and the eyes vanished. Moments later a large black shape whooshed down from the roof and out the door.

Sunlight filtered through the roof, casting a dappled pattern of light and shadow on a dirt floor littered with forest matter. A crude kneeler hewn from some unknown wood, bleached white by time and weather arose from the center of the roughly circular space.

Illuminated by a patch of sunshine, a human skull on the dirt floor opposite him caught his eye, and with a few steps, he was looking down at a completely picked-over human skeleton. This must be Brother Wilder’s remains. No doubt the island’s crows and ravens ate all the flesh off.

Alfredo could not think of a more wonderful way to decompose—giving up one’s mortal remains as food for the living. I will bring a shovel next time and bury his bones. And a marker for his grave.


The Patua’ has arrived,” NoExit said to Charlie. The two birds perched on the railing around the deck at Bruthamax’s tree house.

NoExit had flown from the chapel to the Treehouse where Charlie lived, clear on the other end of the island. Though it was an inconvenience, it was really not so far, only a mile or so by wing. And Charlie had asked him to keep an eye out for this Patua’.

When?” Charlie asked. “Where is he? How long has he been there? Did you talk to him?”

About a half hour or so,” NoExit said, irritated at being peppered with so many questions. “He is poking around the chapel. And no, I did not talk to him.”

We could use another Patua’ on Cadeña-l’jadia,” Charlie said.

Perhaps,” NoExit said with a shrug of his wings. “But if he stays on, I reckon we will be moving out of Bruthamax’s chapel—soon as the kreegans fledge. We like our privacy.”


Alfredo swept the dust off the armrest of the kneeler in the center of the chapel. He knelt on its hard wood, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands together. A withered old man with long gray hair shuffled across the backs of his eyelids. A sudden wind blew a flurry of leaves into a spiral dance all around the kneeler, spoiling his concentration and coating him with dirt. He stood up and brushed the debris from his clothes and hair and left the dark chapel. 

Grawky, Jayzu!” a voice said.

He blinked in the bright sunlight and found a blue-eyed crow looking up at him with a wing outstretched. “Name’s Charlie. To what do we owe the honor of a Patua’ visit?”

Delighted to find a talkative crow on Wilder Island right away, Alfredo grazed the crow’s outstretched wing with his open palm. “Grawky, Charlie!” he said with a big smile. “The honor and pleasure is mine!”

Charlie folded his wing against his side. “Pleasure and honor all around, then. It’s not every day we have a Patua’ in our midst. But Floyd and Willy told me they had met you. They too were surprised to meet an actual Patua’.”

But I am not a Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I am a Jesuit.” He stood on one leg, took off a boot and turned it upside down. A pebble fell to the ground. “My name is Alfredo Manzi,” he continued, hopping around on one foot as he put his boot back on. “Some call me Father Manzi. At the university, where I am the entire ornithology department, they call me Dr. Manzi. But I prefer Alfredo.”

Yes,” Charlie said. “But you are Jayzu to us.”

A good a name as any, I suppose,” Alfredo said. He sat down on a log and tied the laces of his boot. “Jayzu it is. But what does Patua’ mean? I have heard you use it twice, but otherwise have never heard the word before.”

Charlie sprang up to an adjacent rock and sharpened his beak on it. “A Patua’ is a yooman such as yourself,” he said, as if the priest should know that. “Perhaps it has come to your attention that not all yoomans have conversations with crows? Those of you who can are the Patua’.”

The Patua’,” Alfredo said. “I had no idea there were others like me. I have always thought I am just a freak.”

A magpie flew overhead, crying out “Free-eek! Fre-eek!” before disappearing into the branches of a tall basswood tree.

You are not a freak,” Charlie said, shaking his head. “You are Patua’. Back in the day, a millennia or so ago, there were millions of Patua’.”

Millions?” Alfredo could hardly believe it. “I have never heard of them. What happened to them?”

Hard to say. Extermination by other yoomans did in a great number of Patua’.” Charlie hopped off the rock and beaked a beetle out of the dirt and swallowed it. “Same as what happened to the Neanderthals. But there are other factors and causes. We don’t know really.”

Alfredo sighed, looking away. An old childhood fantasy surfaced, of living alone on an island with a crow. He smiled sadly at the memory. That was after he had been severely punished by his mother, for “talking like those horrible crows.”

Bruthamax was the most famous Patua’ that ever came to the island,” Charlie said. “Or anywhere else for that matter. He lived here among the crows, my ancestors, for almost a hundred years.”

Bruthamax?” Alfredo said. “Do you mean Brother Maxmillian Wilder? The old hermit the island was named after?” He leaned down and overturned a rectangular gray rock. A furry brown spider scurried away, leaving behind an egg sac. Alfredo put the rock gently back into place.

One and the same,” Charlie replied. “Though we don’t call this place Wilder Island. To us it is Cadeña-l’jadia—‘the land of swampy waters amid green forests and mists.’ But we don’t mind that yoomans named it after one of yours we actually admire. In fact”—Charlie shrugged his wings—“we tend to think of Bruthamax as one of ours.”

Alfredo felt another pang of homesickness for the crow companions of his boyhood. He saw a younger version of himself playing hide-and-seek with them. Charlie reminded him of his best friend in all the world, a crow named Caleb.

Much that is written about Bruthamax seems to be folklore and fantasy,” Alfredo said, still caught up in memories of his younger self. He was happy to run in the woods with crows, but it was deeply troubling to his family.

My mother sent me to the Jesuits when I was a boy. And within this Order I have disappeared. Like a spider under a rock.

We have kept many stories about Bruthamax,” Charlie said. “He came because he was Patua’, just like you did. My ancestor Hozey the Younger helped him build this chapel, and a house up in a tree down yonder.” Charlie gestured with a wing toward the downriver end of the island. “My nest and my wife, Rika, are there in the branches above Bruthamax’s tree house. Hozey the Younger lived there too. It’s a family tradition.”

A tree house!” Alfredo said. “I had assumed Bruthamax lived here in the chapel.”

Not until his last year,” Charlie said. “Bruthamax lived in the Treehouse until then, when he got too old to climb up and down the tree and navigate the way. After that, Hozey and his family took care of him in the chapel until he died.”

I would love to see Bruthamax’s Treehouse sometime,” Alfredo said, “if that would not be too much of an intrusion.”

Charlie unfolded his wings and flapped a few times, scattering a small pile of leaves. “I will take you there some time, after our kreegans have fledged. You’d be a tremendous distraction, and Rika is already worrying they won’t ever leave the nest. All but JoEd, that is. He’s an early bird, that one—started trying to fly before he had all his feathers.”

Alfredo stood up, brushed the dirt off his pants, and picked up his backpack. “I have been scolded and pecked at enough times by an angry mother bird,” he said with a laugh. “The young ones are quite vulnerable during fledging, and I do not wish to interfere. I shall see the Treehouse another day. Today I will explore the island, with your permission of course.”

Be my guest,” Charlie said.

Crow and priest parted, and Alfredo spent the rest of the day wandering through the forest, astounded by the unsullied and abundant growth. He walked, oblivious to the passage of time, gazing in almost stupefied delight at the abundance of creation all around him. Different species of trees each sported their own combinations of gray, brown, or black bark, and the leaves split the color green into a million different shades and hues. Wildflowers grew everywhere grass or shrubs did not, and he felt as if he were walking in the Garden of Eden, wondering if there were snakes on the island.

The scent of flowers, bark, rotten leaves, and mold permeated the air, and he inhaled its fertile essence as a starving man might fill his empty, aching stomach with food. He had spent his boyhood wandering through another forest, and the memory of those happy times infused the present with faith and affirmation.

Springs and tiny streams crisscrossed his path, and he leaped across those he could see. He sloshed through the invisible streams, giving up any hope that he could keep his feet dry. “Perhaps I will come next time with waders,” he grumbled.

He picked his way slowly through the dense undergrowth, carefully avoiding what he thought might be poison ivy, though the berries were purple, and not the typical green he was familiar with. As he looked around him, everything seemed a bit off. The trees were too tall, or the flowers a strange color.

I do not think bougainvillea should be growing here,” he said, pausing to admire a bush bursting with yellow and apricot-colored blossoms. “If this is indeed bougainvillea.”

He stooped down low to study a tiny blue flower with a spotted yellow tongue he had seen growing in profusion along his way. “Now that has to be an orchid.”

He picked one and carefully put it in his field notebook to show to his colleague Russ Matthews. “I need to get him out here.”

He continued his slow pace though the thick undergrowth until he came to an obstacle he could not pass—a ravine full of gigantic rectangular boulders. The drop was not far, but the landing spot below was a jumbled pile of up-turned, sharp edged rocks. Willow and hawthorn grew in thickets between the rocks, making passage between them impossible. Alfredo decided to not attempt to cross.

I would be ground meat before I could ever get to the other side.

He felt a rain drop on his arm. Then two, three, four. He looked up. The blue sky was gone, replaced by dark gray clouds streaking hurriedly eastward. Lightning seemed to dart through the trees to his left, and the thunderclap that followed sent him to the ground. The rain started, a sudden downpour, and he was back on his feet scrambling for shelter as he struggled to open his backpack.

He dove beneath the sprawling branches and wide leaves of a catalpa tree and pulled his rain jacket from his pack. After quickly putting it on, he leaned against the trunk and dug again in his pack for his lunch.

The rain stopped as he finished eating, and he looked up at wispy clouds interspersed with blue sky. He glanced at his watch. It’s time to return to the inlet. The Captain will be along soon. He stuffed his rain jacket into his pack and retraced his steps as best as he could remember. When he stepped out of the forest at the inlet, the Captain and the crow were waiting.

Greetings, Jayzu!” the crow called out. “All aboard for the Waterfront!”

Alfredo stopped and stared, wondering if he should greet the crow. But right in front of the Captain? Wouldn’t he take me for a babbling fool?

Don’t just stand there with your mouth hangin’ open!” the crow hollered. “Climb aboard!”

Ease up, Sugarbabe,” the Captain said, winking at Alfredo. “Go lightly, remember?”

Sugarbabe looked for a moment at the captain, tilting her head to one side. “Next time. Maybe.” She laughed raucously and held out her wing to Alfredo.

In complete astonishment, Alfredo brushed his fingertips across her wing and stammered, “I uh, that is, my name is Alfredo. At least that is what my mother named me, but—”

The Captain talks to crows?

And me mum named me Judith,” she said. “But everyone around here calls me Sugarbabe. Fits me better than Judith, don’t you think?”

Alfredo nodded speechlessly.

Just like we call you Jayzu,” she said. “Much better, don’t you think? You don’t look like no Alfredo.”

Perhaps not,” Alfredo said, laughing at the crow’s familiar humor.

So the Captain is “Patua’”! Surely Charlie knows. Why did he not tell me? It was hard to get used to the idea of others like him, much as he desired companionship.

He wanted to start a conversation with the Captain, but how to start? The Captain’s craggy face was hard to read. Alfredo could not guess how old the man was.

But how do you know anything about me?”

My beak is sealed,” Sugarbabe said, turning her beak toward the direction the Captain rowed.

Alfredo watched the Captain’s huge tattooed arms push the oar deep into the water, his muscles flexing into fish leaping through curling waves. “Captain,” he said after they had passed the rocky point and headed toward the city dock. “I guess you know more about me than I know about you.”

How so?” the Captain said, keeping his eyes on the water. “I know you are a priest, and you know I am a boatman. We both keep company with black birds who talk too much.” He winked at Sugarbabe. “What else is there to know?”

Alfredo laughed, his discomfort slipping away with the Captain’s humor. A fish leaped out of the water. Or was that the Captain’s tattoo? “I was unaware there were others like me until today. I have kept my secret hidden my entire life.”

The Captain squinted at him for a moment. “As we all have, Padre.”

As we all have?” Alfredo asked. “Do you know of other Patua’ around here, other than you and me?”

The Captain did not reply for a few moments. “A few,” he said gruffly, “here and there.”

The Captain pulled his boat into one of the docks at the Waterfront. Alfredo tried to pay him, but he just tipped his hat, saying, “G’day, Padre,” and shoved his boat back into the current.

Alfredo walked to the rectory at St. Sophia’s, reflecting again on the idea that there were others like him. Shocking, yet fascinating! He almost longed for what he had never known: close human companionship. At the same time, he had been relieved when Charlie had said there were no other Patua’ on Wilder Island. He wanted to be the only one.

Henry Braun poured two glasses of champagne and offered one to his attorney, Jules Sackman, who waved a hand in refusal. “Too early for me, Henry,” he said. “But you go ahead.”

Even by Henry’s standards, champagne before noon was a bit early, but he was in a fabulous mood. He had just closed on a lucrative deal in which he made a healthy profit on a building he had bought for a song. It would provide the seed money he needed for his latest and most grandiose project of them all: Ravenwood Resort.

Henry sat behind his gargantuan desk in his opulent office, which occupied the majority of the second floor of his mansion on a large estate overlooking the river. Ravenwood Resort was destined to be the pièce de résistance of Henry Braun’s empire, as well as his personal cash cow. Built on and around the island soon to be formerly known as Wilder Island, the resort would ultimately feature two riverboat casinos, an amusement park, a concert hall, and a shopping mall.

Ravenwood Resort. The irony of the name his marketing agency recommended had amused him. There wouldn’t be any ravens left on that island when he was finished, of course. Nor would there be any woods. But the market research people told him the public would spend more money because of the Ravenwood logo, so he went with it. Henry chortled into his glass. He absolutely loved the way the bubbly tickled his nose.

Life was good.

Ravenwood Resort is going to be fantastic,” Henry said after swallowing the fizzy golden liquid. “I’m ready to roll with everything—the architects, engineers—just waiting for the word. Just waiting to sign the check. When will we hear from His Holy Eminence—what’s his name again? Majorski?”

I don’t know,” Jules said with a shrug. “His name is Majewski, Father Superior Thomas Majewski.”

What do you mean you don’t know?” Henry said somewhat irritably as he twirled his glass of champagne.

It means I don’t know,” Jules said. “The most recent letter we got from the Father Provincial’s office said they’ve tabled the discussion of a possible sale of Wilder Island until next month.”

Next month?” Henry said with a long-suffering sigh. “What for? What’s to discuss? Five million not enough?”

He glanced up at the portraits of his three ancestors, his namesakes, on the wood-paneled walls. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. “Time is money!” he could almost hear Henry the First say as he looked sternly down.

It’s the Catholic Church we’re dealing with here, remember?” Jules said. “They’re not as lithe and efficient as Braun Enterprises. They probably have to convene a council of cardinals or something to talk about it. I’m surprised it’ll only be a month. But relax, Henry. We’re offering them a ridiculous price for a swampy bog. I’m sure they’ll come around. Just be patient.”

He who hesitates is last!” Henry the First warned.

Patience is for saints!” Henry said irritably. He got up and strode to the window. Wilder Island, shrouded in a thunderstorm, seemed dark and forbidding. Soon I’ll drain that stinking swamp. There’ll be lights everywhere. It’ll be a sparkling gem. He turned back toward his attorney and glared at him.

Here’s what I’m afraid of, Jules,” he said as he sat back down at his desk. “I’m afraid our offer will make them wonder what’s so special about this island, and they’ll send someone out to look at it. Then they’ll want to do an environmental impact study. Then the tree huggers will get involved, and we’ll have to worry they’ll find some ugly little plant, or a worm, that only lives on this island, and the whole world has to grind to a halt.”

Henry,” Jules said, “now you’re going off the deep end. Come back. None of that is going to happen. It’s just a big bureaucracy, that’s all. No need to be paranoid.”

I am not paranoid!” Henry shouted. He glanced up at Henry the First shaking his head.

I’m worried, Jules,” he said, controlling his anger and dropping his voice. “I worry that while you sit on your thumbs, Wilder Island slips through my fingers. I’ve worked too long and too hard to let that happen. I swear by the blood of my ancestors—” he raised his glass to the portraits on the wall. “I swear that Wilder Island will once again belong to a Braun. As God is my witness.”

Henry the First nodded approvingly, with just a hint of a smile curling the edges of his mouth.


Corvus Rising – Chapter 1

Treasure Island

The birdbath sails through the window, its trajectory a low-amplitude parabola accompanied by a sudden symphony of shattering glass and smacks the floor with a low-decibel endnote. The last slivers of glass fall to the floor, glittering like shooting stars in the midnight sky. The room lay buried in silence, under sparkling shards of glass. An army of black birds explodes through the broken window, screeching and beating the air with enormous wings.

The birds converge into a whirlwind of feather and beak, bringing the cold, dead fragments of glass to life. Swaying and undulating to the rhythm of the beating wings overhead, the dancing shards rip through the fluffy white comforter. Black feathers ooze like blood from gaping fabric wounds.

A single bird falls out of formation and perches on the edge of my slightly open dresser drawer. After staring down upon me with cold blue eyes for a few seconds, the black bird turns its attention to the open drawer and rummages through it with its beak.


Jade bolted out of bed, screaming, “No! Stop! Get out! It’s mine! You can’t have it!” Eyes wide open, heart racing in the darkness of her dream, she charged across her husband’s sleeping body. Knees and elbows flailing as she made her way out from under the covers, she launched herself from the bed and tore open a dresser drawer.

No, no, no!” she intoned, flinging its contents out into the room. “You can’t have it! She gave it to me!” She jerked open another drawer and pawed through its contents, muttering, “Where is it? Where is it? They didn’t get it, did they? Oh, please be here!”


The harsh sound of her name made her look up. The bedside lamp came on. Her husband, Russ, stared at her from the bed. She said nothing as she attacked another drawer, scooping out handfuls of socks and underwear. “Oh, thank God,” she gasped. “Here it is.” She closed her eyes and clutched a small wooden box to her chest.

Her eyes suddenly focused on Russ, who had appeared beside her, and she grabbed his forearm in panic. “They know where it is now! I’ve hidden it from them since I was little, but now they broke the window again and came in and tried to take it!” She broke down sobbing. “They know where it is!”

Russ pulled Jade to his chest and held her close. “It’s okay,” he said, stroking her hair. “Just a dream, hon. Just wake up, and it’ll be gone.”

She shuddered, clutching him tightly. “It wasn’t a dream,” she said into his chest. She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. “It really happened. They crashed through the window and—”

You were dreaming, babe,” Russ said, tenderly pushing a lock of hair out of her face. “Just like before. The window isn’t broken, and there’s no one here but you and me and our fat old cat, Willow B.”

It was true. There was no glass. No feathers. Just her and Russ and the pile of clothes she had dumped onto the floor. She dropped her head on his chest. His arms felt so warm and strong around her, and she relaxed slightly. The sound of his heartbeat dissolved her panic, and she gave in to the strong, steady love that bathed her in warmth and safety.

C’mon,” Russ said. He pulled her to her feet. “Here’s your robe. I’ll make us some hot chocolate, and you can tell me all about your dream.”

While Russ banged pots and pans around in the kitchen, Jade sat on the sofa. Willow B aligned himself along her thigh, and she stroked him absentmindedly as she stared into the darkness beyond the picture window.

The half-moon in the clear night sky dimly illuminated dark creatures as they flitted among the shadows in the small, undeveloped wooded area behind the house. A murder of crows, perhaps? Were they watching her now? Cloaked in feathers black as night, they waited, their black eyes always open, staring into her darkness. Would they come back next time she slept? Would they get it from her then?

She looked down at the small box in her lap and opened it. A strange nostalgia stabbed at her as she gazed upon the spherical object on a leather cord. Black as the shadows in the woods, yet somehow translucent, the medallion had been elegantly crafted. She took it from the box and touched its surface with a finger, feeling its pattern of grooves.

She imagined the unknown artist hunched over a tiny canvas, with a few quick strokes of a sharp blade, evoking a swirling pattern of lines that coalesced somehow into a human hand, from whose palm a fan of feathers emerged. He tossed it aside and began carving another. Then another, throwing each into a growing pile as he carved.

And here you are, my love,” Russ said, his voice bringing her back into the living room. “I took the liberty of adding a dash of chocolate vodka to help you sleep.”

Jade took the mug and said, “I don’t want to go back to sleep.” The dark woods beyond the house gaped ominously, just waiting till she fell asleep. She closed her fingers tightly around the medallion. You’ll never get it.

Russ sat down and switched the table lamp on. He nudged her with his elbow. “Okay, now tell me again about this dream that really happened.”

The shadows vanished behind the light’s reflection in the window. Jade saw herself holding a white cup, a large cat sprawled on her one side, and Russ in his natty old robe on the other.

The first time when I was about ten, I was asleep in my bed,” She set the mug on the table. “Suddenly the window in my room just explodes.” She threw her arms up, demonstrating. “And there’s glass everywhere,” she said, eyes wide in the memory of her fear. “All over my bed, and me, and all over the floor. Except that time, there really was glass everywhere after I woke up.”

Wow!” Russ said, taking her hand and kissing it. “You must have been terrified!” He put his arm around her shoulders. “Did they figure out who or what broke the window?”

She toyed with the collar on his robe. “They didn’t believe me about the birds. But I wasn’t dreaming. There were crows, Russ.” She looked at him earnestly. He nodded, and she fell back against the couch. “I don’t know how to explain that night. There was glass everywhere. Smitty thought there must have already been a crack in the window, and when it got really windy that night, a gust just blew it out. Chloe had to help me change my nightie, and then I slept in her and Smitty’s room the rest of the night. She had to sing to me so I could fall asleep.”

Well, whatever happened or didn’t happen,” Russ said, “it must have been really frightening. That dream would give anyone nightmares.”

I was afraid to go to sleep for months,” Jade said, oblivious to Russ’s pun. “Chloe had to sing to me so I could fall asleep.” She let out a long sigh and then sang softly, “All around the purple heather won’t you go, Lassie, go?” She reached over Willow B for her mug of hot chocolate. “I’ve always loved that song. Chloe said my mother sang it to me before she went away.”

She gave herself over to childhood memories and her lost mother. “Won’t you go, Lassie, go?” she whispered. Willow B purred softly by her side. “But I knew what they wanted that night,” she said harshly. “They didn’t get it. I hid it after that.”

Hid what?” Russ asked.

This,” Jade said, handing him the medallion on its leather cord. “I’ve had this my whole life. It’s my most treasured possession. Chloe said my mother had made her promise to give it to me when they took her away.” She sipped the hot chocolate, feeling its warmth down to her core.

Pretty cool,” Russ said as he scrutinized the medallion. “Fingers and feathers, that’s interesting.” He tapped it against his teeth. “I wonder what it’s made of. Seems really hard, like stone almost, though it isn’t heavy enough.”

My mother didn’t want to leave me,” she said, as if she had not heard him. “And she left me this to remember her.”

Russ held the medallion out to her. “I think it’s some kind of wood.”

She watched it sway back and forth for a few moments. “I used to play with it all the time,” she said, taking it into her hand. “But I stopped after that night. I put it in this box and hid it so they’d never find it. It was the only thing I ever had that she touched.” She closed her fingers around the medallion and held it tightly in her hand. “I’ve always been afraid they would come for it someday.”

Russ put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Well, it’s pretty bizarre that a flock of birds would come through your bedroom window at night and try to steal it. I’ve heard stories of crows stealing things, but I’m pretty sure they’re not out and about at night. I’m curious about why you keep having this dream.”

She shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Maybe the crows think it’s theirs, and they’re trying to find it, and somehow they found me in my dreams.” She put the cord around her neck and dropped the medallion beneath her nightgown. “It’s been hidden in that box for years, buried in my dresser drawer. I haven’t even taken it out of the box since before we were married. I don’t know how they found it.”

Russ twirled a strand of Jade’s hair around his finger. She absently stroked the cat. Willow B purred, his eyes like slits.

Here’s what I think,” Russ said. “You’ve had your mother on your mind a lot lately, you know? You’re working on a painting of her, and we were talking about it just before we went to bed. Remember? You were complaining about not being able to see her in your mind, and how you always see your paintings in your head before you can paint them.”

Jade nodded slowly. A vague image of her unknown mother appeared in the twilight of her perception—a pale face with long black hair, gray eyes the color of dawn.

She touched the medallion on its cord, imagining a dark-haired woman bending over a crib, carefully tucking the medallion under the blankets. Does she even remember me? How would I know her? How would she know me?

I really feel like my mother is out there,” Jade said. “Maybe she’s trying to tell me something. Maybe she’s trying to contact me.”

Honey,” Russ said, “it was just a dream. It came from your imagination. It wasn’t real. People don’t contact people in dreams. That just doesn’t happen—except on television.”

A sudden fear gripped her. “That’s what happened before,” she said anxiously. “My paintings invaded my dreams, and my dreams invaded my paintings, and after a while, I couldn’t tell which was which, and then I forgot to eat and go to class, and then I got lost, and—”

Jade,” Russ said sharply. “Stop! That’s not happening now. It will never happen again. I won’t let it. You’re right here beside me, and I’m not lost. Willow B is on your other side. He’s not lost either.”

At the mention of his name, the cat looked up and said, “Mrrrr?”

Exactly,” Russ said. “Even Willow B knows where you are.”

Jade stroked the cat and smiled. Really, what am I afraid of? She stared into her cup. From the dregs of chocolate at the bottom, the image of a crow slowly took shape—first a wing, then a beak, and then a cold blue eye. Just as it was about to fly out at her, she shut her eyes and said, “Why am I seeing crows everywhere all of a sudden?”

Probably because I told you about Alfredo Manzi and his plans to make Wilder Island a bird sanctuary,” Russ said.

She nodded, remembering. “Seems like the island is already a crow sanctuary; hardly anything else lives there. Maybe this is just a ruse. Maybe this Professor Manzi is there to breed crows.”

Russ rolled his eyes. “I would think a Jesuit priest and professor of ornithology would have something more interesting to do than breed crows—especially crows that steal.” He tilted his head back, drained his cup, and put it on the coffee table. “In fact, the island is populated by a number of other birds—jays, doves, mockingbirds—the same ones you’d find just about anywhere in the Midwest. And a variety of small mammals—squirrels, rabbits, and the like—live there too.”

The island fascinated Jade, as it did everyone in Ledford. The million shades of the mythical green forest beckoned her like sirens. Strange, fantastic creatures lurked among its shadows. And the crows. She was both attracted and repelled.

The island was named after Maxmillian Wilder, you know,” she said, banishing the crows flapping at the edge of her imagination. “The folk hero of Ledford—I’ve heard he was a Jesuit too, just like your Alfredo Manzi. Another coincidence, I suppose?” She arched a suspicious eyebrow.

What, that Alfredo is a Jesuit or that the island is named after Maxmillian Wilder?” Russ asked. “Which part is the coincidence?”

And,” she said, “how’d this Alfredo Manzi, if that’s his real name, find you?”

Oh, stop it!” Russ said. “For God’s sake, Jade. There is no plot here, nothing fantastic, no intrigue. He and I work in the same department at MU, remember? He likes birds, I like plants. Manzi’s just an ordinary college professor who happens to be a priest.”

Jade looked at her husband with raised eyebrows. “Oh, all right, Dr. Matthews,” she said, yawning. “Alfredo Manzi is a straight-up guy, even though he’s a priest. And nothing sinister is happening on that island of his.”

Russ stretched and said, “C’mon, hon,” through a yawn. “Let’s go back to sleep.”

Jade nodded and let him lead her back to their bed. Within moments of his head touching the pillow, Russ was snoring, but for her, sleep lurked far away. She stared at the ceiling, trying to empty her mind.

I wonder if she thinks of me.

Sighing, she turned onto her side and took the black medallion out from under her nightgown. Even in darkness, it seemed to glow from deep within. She closed her fingers around it and shut her eyes.

But sleep would not come. She got up, quietly left the bedroom, and opened the door to her studio. The half-finished painting of her unknown mother rose up and confronted her, begging her for its face. She shook her head and put a blank canvas on her easel.



Father Provincial Thomas Majewski’s cat, Snowbell, knocked a book off the top of a huge bookcase that occupied an entire wall of his office. When it struck the floor with a very un-book-like sound, Majewski rose from his chair to investigate

Click on map for enlarged view

Treasure Island,” he said after picking it up and reading the front. It was not a book, but a metal box cleverly disguised as one. He took it back to his desk and sat down. After undoing the small latch, he opened the lid and pulled out a bundle of papers held together by a brittle leather cord, which broke into several pieces when he tried to untie it.

He pulled a folded paper out of the small envelope on the top of the bundle, addressed to a former Father Provincial for the North American Jesuits. “The legendary Antonio de la Torre, my Snowbell,” he said, as the pure white cat leaped into his lap. “He sat in this very chair over one hundred years ago.” Snowbell sniffed the edge of the letter gingerly. “Do you think he had a cat?”

A hand-colored print of a painting depicting the chapel of the Madonna della Strada at the Jesuit world headquarters in Rome fell out as he unfolded the letter. He read:


Greetings, My Dear Brother,

The chapel is absolutely gorgeous! Our guide told us that most of the old Roman churches had secret entrances into the labyrinth of passages in which the Church hid the early Christians during times of persecution. And so it was also with the Madonna della Strada! From within the sacristy, we entered the catacombs and went down a steep and dark stone staircase. It was like stepping into a subterranean city, comprised of many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!

Wish you were here,



Wish I was there too,” Majewski muttered as he glanced at the stack of work on his desk. But it would have to wait—the faux Treasure Island still held a few more papers.

He pulled another letter from the box. The wax seal was still attached to one side of the letter.


6 June 1852

Dear Uncle Antoni, Father in Christ–

Greetings from Cawdaynyalazhadia!

That is the name of this island, as near as I am able to spell it, according to the residents, which are a large family of crows. I have made friends with many of them, especially one named Hozey the Younger. He is a descendant of a very famous crow, Hozey the Great, known for his contributions to nest architecture. I would not have survived this past year without the good Lord Almighty sending these many-feathered companions.

It is my sincere hope that you have been in good health since last we visited. I arrived safely one year ago—how fast this year has gone by!—yet I am quite at home here. I say Mass every day in a humble little chapel, thanking the good Lord Almighty for his gracious providence. My friend Hozey, who helped me build the chapel, brings his wife and offspring, kreegans, as the crows say, who of course squirm and fidget just like human children do in church.

Hozey has shown me many wonders of the island, and he leads me through dense groves of trees so thick and dark I could scarcely manage without an overhead guide.

It is to my wonderful flying friend Hozey that I entrust this letter. He will take it to the Ledford post office across the river and drop it in the post box. Imagine that! A mail crow! I am indeed the most fortunate man on Earth, but for the grace of God and this family of crows.

As you can see, I am well and happy, living piously in God’s glory. May God bless you, dear Uncle.

I remain your humble nephew in Christ.

Maxmillian Wilder


The man’s delusional!” Majewski said, shaking his head. Snowbell cocked an ear at the emphatic tone in his voice. He stared at the spidery handwriting. “I would not have survived this past year without the good Lord Almighty sending these many-feathered companions.”

More than 150 years had passed since Maxmillian Wilder had written this preposterous letter to his uncle. “Why did de la Torre leave this evidence of his nephew’s madness in the Father Provincial’s office?”

The letter made Majewski extremely uncomfortable, though he tried to brush it off. The rantings of a madman, nothing more. But even in the bright morning light of his twenty-first-century office, he could not help but ask if Maxmillian Wilder shared his sister Stella’s bizarre sickness. If it was a sickness. “Of course it’s a sickness!” he heard his mother’s high-pitched voice say.

Memories of Stella surfaced from the depths of the past. It wasn’t as if he never thought of her; Stella’s face easily popped into his head. He sighed. I should have saved her from her fate. Or at least I shouldn’t have been the one who betrayed her.

His mother’s voice from the past complained inside his head: “The doctors say Stella has not spoken to anyone in weeks. She just sits there with a blank stare, as if she doesn’t notice anyone on the outside anymore. I visited her the other day, but it was as if I was not even there, her own mother. She gives me nothing but that horrible, empty stare.”

Despite the content of his letter, Maxmillian Wilder wrote lucidly and casually of his doings on the island. But … Majewski shook his head. I cannot believe he or Stella ever actually talked to crows.

He stood up and wrapped his cardigan close around his chest and stuck his hands in his armpits. The Father Superior’s office was notoriously cold, even in midsummer, and the fire his secretary had built in the small fireplace before he arrived had died down. He put another log on the embers and warmed his hands for a few moments as yellow flames rose up and curled around the fresh wood.

He returned to his desk and picked Snowbell up off the pile of papers he had been reading and sat down, cat in lap. He pulled out a hand-drawn map from the box, depicting a small island in the middle of a large river that flowed through a town called Ledford.

Well, now,” he said to Snowbell. “Isn’t that interesting? I grew up not twenty miles downriver from Ledford, in a little town called MacKenzie. Look, Snowbell, it’s even on this map!” He flipped the map over. “It’s an old land deed.”

It is hereby certified to the provisions of the act of Congress, approved May 20, 1862, entitled “An act to secure homesteads to actual settlers on public domain,” Maxmillian Wilder has made payment in full for—


The Homestead Act of 1862,” he murmured. “Not bad for a babbling, crazy old hermit.” Majewski squinted at the legal description of the property, trying to decipher the hand-written document. “Like a chicken walked through an ink puddle,” he grumbled.

He took the last item out of the box—a will, dated May 21, 1862, signed and sworn by Maxmillian Wilder, bequeathing his only worldly possession, the island where he spent his life, to the Jesuit Order upon his death.

Majewski frowned. “Curiouser and curiouser, Could it be the same island?” He rifled through the mail papers on his desk now and pulled the letter out:


Dear Father Provincial Majewski,

My client, Henry Braun, president of Braun Enterprises, wishes to purchase the property known as Wilder Island, a small, uninhabitable, and otherwise useless island within the city limits of Ledford, MN, for the sum of five million dollars. Please see attached map and survey for the island’s location.

We understand the property is owned by your Order. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may discuss this offer.


Jules R. Sackman

Attorney at Law


Hmmm,” Majewski murmured, as he stroked Snowbell’s belly. He put the two maps side by side and compared them. “It is indeed the same island. But why is this obscure island a thousand miles away so important that it attracts my attention twice in the same morning?”

Snowbell attacked his hand with her paws and bit down firmly. “And who is this Maxmillian Wilder, for whom this island is evidently named? Why did he leave his island to the Order?” He wrested his hand free from her fangs and claws. “And why would anyone want to pay five million dollars for a useless island?” He took his glasses off and chewed thoughtfully on the end of one of the temples.

The Father Provincial gave no credence to the superstitious. But when two seemingly unrelated events happened, such as a cat knocking a box of old papers off a shelf and the arrival of a letter from a stranger, each referring to the same tiny deserted island in the middle of one of America’s biggest rivers, Father Provincial Majewski detected the hand of the Almighty and the Supreme Order of the Universe.

He put his glasses back on and pushed the intercom button. He spoke into the speaker to his secretary, William Luther, who moments later opened the door and stepped in.

Draft an answer to this letter, William,” Majewski said as he handed it him. “Say I have received his offer and am taking it under advisement. Fluff it up with some meaningless trivia—how grateful we are for his interests, etc., etc.”

Yes, Father,” William said, and he closed the door behind him.

An hour later, a knock on the door interrupted Majewski’s thoughts and sent Snowbell to the floor under his desk. William Luther opened the door and entered. He handed the Father Provincial the letter he had drafted to Henry Braun.

Fine,” Majewski said after reading it. He signed his name and handed the letter back.

Oh—one more thing, William. Please check into our archives for a fellow named Maxmillian Wilder, around 1850 or so. And whatever you can find on this Wilder Island.”

The other business on Majewski’s desk needed his attention, mostly administrative actions requiring his signature. And of course, the matter of the reprobate priests demanded action. Even his beloved Jesuits had not been immune from the scandals plaguing the priesthood. One of these days I’m going to resign from this lofty hell. Maybe I’ll find an island of crows somewhere. No humans or their sordid problems.

William opened the door after knocking softly and said, “There is nothing in our archives about Maxmillian Wilder.”

Majewski frowned, and William continued, “But I did find a bit about two Henry Brauns and an island named Wilder that might be of interest.”

Snowbell jumped off Majewski’s lap and slithered under the desk. “And?” he said.

Henry Braun, the fellow who wants to buy the island, is very rich,” William said, coming all the way into the room. “And he is the fourth Henry in a row in the Braun family. But it was his ancestor, Henry Braun the First, who is most interesting. Seems he lost the family fortune last century over a trestle bridge he tried to build across the river to Wilder Island, which was uninhabited but for a crazy old hermit.”

Majewski gestured for William to sit down. “Really? Wilder Island again. And that crazy old hermit again. Interesting. And what happened to the trestle bridge? Is it still there?”

Snowbell came out from under the desk and leaped into William’s lap. “No,” he said, pushing her tail away from his face. “It was mysteriously destroyed just before it reached the island.”

Mysteriously, eh?” Majewski said, tapping a pencil on his desk. “As in sabotage or an act of God?”

They never figured it out,” William said. “On the morning it was supposed to reach the island, Henry Braun the First’s trestle bridge was gone. Smashed to bits the night before. The thing was, there was no weather that night, and no one heard a thing.”

Interesting,” Majewski said, rubbing his chin. “Perhaps this explains our current Mr. Braun’s interest.”

After a few moments, William stood up and said, “Will there be anything more, Father?”

No, that will be all. Thank you, William.”

After his secretary left, Majewski rose from his desk and put another log on the fire. He sat down in the armchair in front of the hearth and stared into the fireplace. Henry Braun’s ancestor receded, and Maxmillian Wilder’s letter rose up to trouble him anew.

It just can’t be! He shook his head. An island of talking crows, for God’s sake. And the great Antoni de la Torre was in full knowledge?

He read the letter one more time. Leaning forward, he held it above the flames for a moment. Brother Maxmillian’s handwriting seemed to burn through the yellowed paper, searing an indelible imprint in the Father Provincial’s brain.

But for the grace of God and this family of crows …

Slowly withdrawing his hand, Majewski folded the letter and put it in his pocket. De la Torre deliberately hid these papers concerning his nephew and this island in plain sight. As if he wanted someone someday to find them. But why? Why did he want the truth about his nephew to be discovered?

He poked at the log in the fire, rolling it over and exposing its unburned side to the flames. He sat back with a long sigh. Was Brother Wilder mad? Why would de la Torre send his insane family member to live out his days alone on a deserted island? Or did he really talk to crows? The idea is nothing short of heresy—not only to the Vatican, but to the scientific world as well!

Majewski sighed at his dilemma. Everything in Maxmillian Wilder’s letter screamed its impossibility. Yet there it all was, left on a shelf in a fake book waiting for someone to come along and discover it. Why? What should I do with this island? Five million dollars is not exactly chump change. And if all it has is the remnants of a crazy old Jesuit hermit, why should we not just sell it? Guide me, oh Lord.

He watched the flames embrace the new wood, hissing, licking, and caressing it with scorching tongues of blue and yellow and orange. A pocket of sap blew up, sending sparks up the chimney and out in the room. Was that supposed to be an answer?

Sometimes trying to discern the Lord’s will is like trying to see through a brick wall.

The flames danced hypnotically over the wood, and Majewski’s eyes fluttered. A flock of black birds erupted from beneath the coals. Up the chimney, and out into the night, a spiral pattern of winged smoke disappeared into the darkness.

The Father Provincial’s eyes snapped open, his awareness suddenly focused on a graduate student he’d advised years ago. Alfredo Manzi. He hadn’t thought of Manzi in a long time. Bright fellow. Wrote a brilliant thesis on the behavior of crows and ravens. Rather disturbing to some, the birds seemed too … what was it? Too intelligent? Too sentient?

But the young priest’s dataset was robust, his adherence to the Scientific Method impeccable, and his arguments unassailable. Though Manzi’s graduate committee did their level best to roast him alive, Manzi prevailed, cool-headed and full of reason. Majewski chuckled at the memory.

He remembered their conversations fondly; Manzi had deciphered a few of their calls, and as a linguist, Majewski had been fascinated. But a few words don’t make a language. He wondered if Manzi had continued his research. Where is he these days? Teaching somewhere probably. What would he make of our Brother Maxmillian and this island of talking crows? Or my sister?

Majewski sighed. I’ll ask William to look up Manzi’s whereabouts tomorrow. He settled back into the comfort of his chair. Snowbell dozed on his lap as he scratched her gently behind the ears.

First Crow, First Raven, First Human…the Stories


Lascaux-BrokenFirst Crow, First Raven, First Human, the stories…

First Campfire   The sound of the humans teeth chattering on the ground below irritated Raven, and he couldn’t sleep…

Tan Me Hide and Teach Me to Sew  …well before the first human took a bite of the first apple from the Tree of Knowledge

The Still  Driven to drink from the Garden of Eden….

Let Them Eat Corn
…..humans grew smarter and smarter, while Crow and Raven grew wiser and wiser…