Corvus Rising – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The Million Bird Stand

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was good to be home.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t whine, Henry.”

He looked up at Henry the First.

“Fire the leech.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else’s?” Willy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

God bless the people of Ledford!” Alfredo said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope,” Russ said. “We’ll be there.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 16

 

Unmentionables

 

Russ awoke suddenly to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Jade gently snored beside him in the dark room. He raised his head and looked at the clock on the bedside table. It’s freaking four in the morning. Who the hell is it? He got out of bed, grabbing his cell phone as he shoved his arms into his robe. He tripped over his slippers and stumbled into the wall.

Jade woke up and said, “What is it, honey?”

Someone rang the doorbell. It’s probably some neighborhood prankster, but I’m going to check it out.” He left the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.

Oh, Jesus!” he said, as he opened the door to flames on the porch. He quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen and sprayed the small fire till it went out. He shoved the cinders with his foot—a few pieces of painted canvas and burned fragments of the frame. “Sonofabitch!” he said angrily. “Who would do this?” He took his cell phone from his pocket. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” the voice on the phone said.

Someone started a fire on my front porch.”

Jade appeared in the doorway. She gasped and pointed to the blackened mess on the porch, crying out in wordless anguish at the smoldering ruins of The Wilder Side, the painting she had donated to the silent auction.

The cops are on their way,” Russ said, taking her into his arms.

She shook her head and leaned against him. He walked her to her studio and put her gently in the armchair. Willow B jumped into her lap. “I’ll take care of everything, honey. You just hang out in here, okay?”

 

The police officers left just as the treetops glowed with the first light of morning. Russ opened the door to the studio and said, “Well, that’s that, for whatever it’s worth. They pretty much said there’s no chance they’ll ever find out who did this.” He squatted next to her chair and took her hand. “You going to be all right, hon?”

She nodded and smiled weakly as he kissed her hand. “We have a breakfast date with Sam, Kate, and Alfredo this morning,” he said. “Remember? Are you all right to go? We can postpone it if you aren’t up to it. I know they’ll understand.”

Jade shook her head. “No,” she said through a sigh. “Let’s go. I don’t really want to be here right now.”

 

They met the other Friends of Wilder Island at a popular twenty-four-hour eating establishment near the university, the Komodo Dragon. “You know the students call this place The Commode,” Russ said to Alfredo as they slid into a huge booth upholstered in red lizard skin.

How very appetizing!” Alfredo said, chuckling.

A stuffed Komodo dragon hanging from the ceiling stared down at Jade. Grotesquely comical, the gigantic lizard swayed gently on its ropes, a giant claw raised in a friendly greeting, and his long tongue frozen in a permanent licking gesture. One eyeball glared down at Jade, and she squirmed under its unblinking scrutiny.

After ordering breakfast, Alfredo, Kate, and Sam listened in shock as Russ told them about the fire on their porch.

Oh, no!” Kate said, shaking her head. “Not Wilder Side!”

What kind of low-life bastard would do something like that?” Sam said. “I’d like to beat the crap out of him.” He balled up a fist and punched his other palm. He shook his head a few times and blew hard through his teeth. “I just can’t stomach it.”

I am distraught, Jade, that someone could destroy such a beautiful piece of art,” Alfredo said. “There is much evil in the world.”

The same evil that wants to destroy Wilder Island,” Jade said.

Alfredo nodded. “It is indeed, Jade. Our only hope is to stand together against it.”

They held each other’s glance for a few moments. Why is Alfredo looking at me like that? Ever since the night of her reception, whenever their eyes met, he wore the strangest expression. Like he’s seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I have mascara all over my nose.

I am amazed at you, Jade.” Alfredo smiled, and his expression changed to kind concern. “You are so composed after such a horrific attack.”

You didn’t see me when Russ opened the door,” Jade said with a smile as she rubbed her nose. “I try not to think about how hateful it was.” Russ put his arm around her as she choked up. She drew in a deep breath and sat up straight. “But I’ll paint another. I’ll paint a hundred more. I will not be beaten.”

Her friends burst into applause. Jade blushed deeply, but she kept her head up and smiled.

Well, whoever did it,” Sam said, “paid a lot of money to destroy it. Out of the $18,750.00 we made from the silent auction, Jade’s painting brought us $5,500.00.”

Jade gasped. Her hand flew up to her face to cover her open mouth.

Russ asked, “Who bought it?”

Someone named Gabrielle,” Sam answered.

Jade noticed Alfredo’s head turn suddenly toward Sam. Does he know her?

Gabrielle who?” asked Kate.

Just Gabrielle,” Sam said. “She didn’t leave a last name.”

Gabrielle,” Jade said. “I’ve met her. Short, thin, black hair wound up in a bun. Fifty, maybe sixty?”

That’s her,” Sam said with a nod. “Real nice lady. I asked her if she wanted to be on our mailing list, and she said no, she’d keep up with us in the news.”

She bought two paintings at my art show,” Jade said. Catching the Wind and Leave Me.

Well, she’s obviously your biggest fan, then,” Russ said. “You should send her a Christmas card.”

If I knew where she lived, I would,” Jade said. “She’s evidently the gallery’s best customer, but even Jenna doesn’t know who Gabrielle really is.”

Alfredo’s eyes dropped to the table in front of him, and Jade watched him frown. He knows who Gabrielle is. A church person, maybe?

Did you look at her check?” Kate asked.

She paid in cash,” said Sam
“Jenna said she always pays cash. And doesn’t want to be on the gallery mailing list either.” Jade said

Cash?” Russ raised his eyebrows. “Who goes around with almost six grand in their pocket?”

The waiter set a large tray loaded with their breakfast on an adjacent table. In rapid succession, he pulled each plate off and put it down in front of the appropriate recipient.

Jade looked up at the Komodo dragon, which stared balefully down at all the food on the table. The poor thing looks hungry. She was tempted to offer it a bite, until she thought she saw a small drop of saliva fall from its leathery lip.

Gabrielle! Alfredo felt his stomach turn over when he heard her name. He saw the whole scenario at once. aka Mrs. Henry Braun, bought Jade’s painting at the auction. Henry had it destroyed. Or more likely, one of his hired thugs did.

Surely,” Kate said, mopping up the egg yolk on her plate with her toast, “Gabrielle didn’t take the painting away herself? Was she alone? Who picked it up? Where’d the painting get delivered to?”

I should have returned her calls. The secretary at St. Sophia’s had forwarded several phone messages to Alfredo from Mrs Braun yesterday. But he had not answered. He tried to tell himself that he had not had time to call her, but the truth was, he felt that she had developed a fondness for him that made him uncomfortable.

Could I have prevented this destruction of Jade’s paintings had I called her back? Fear jabbed through his guilt. Has Henry harmed her too?

No,” Sam said. “She said a workman would come after it and take it to the library. She wanted it hung next to the Murder of Crows photo.”

That would have been the perfect place,” Alfredo said ruefully. “How very generous of her.” In contrast to her husband’s destructive greed.

Who came and got it?” Jade asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. Some guy picked it up Sunday night when we were taking everything down. He had the receipt, so we let him take it.”

The waiter cleared the table and refilled everyone’s coffee cups. He put the check on the table, and Kate pushed it toward Jade. “I believe you’re the treasurer for the trust?”

Does that mean I have to pay for breakfast?” Jade asked in cautious fear. “When does my term end? Can I resign right now?”

Kate laughed, as did the others. “No, you may not resign! No—seriously, Jade, the treasurer pays the bills. Your first act is to order up some checks. I’ll put this on my credit card, and you can reimburse me from the funds in the land trust.”

We have funds?” Jade asked with a grimace.

Uh, yeah,” Russ said. “We sold a few more things at the art auction—your painting and about ten grand more for a few other odds and ends. Remember?”

Jade slapped her forehead and giggled. “Sorry! I’m a dope.”

She’s certainly not a dope. Again, she reminded Alfredo so much of Charlotte, a vast innocence perhaps. Her mind freely wanders like her mother’s. Russ seems to keep her feet on the ground, though.

Sam,” Kate said, “tell everyone how much the Beg-a-thon brought us!” To Jade she said: “You’ll be taking over future reports from the Treasury.”
Jade’s eyes widened in horror. “Why me? I can’t balance my own checkbook!”
“‘Bout time you learned!” Kate said. “But not now. Sam?”

We pulled in almost a million and a half bucks,” Sam said. “Mostly twenty-dollar shares.” He took a small piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and read: “We also sold eleven shares at the hundred-dollar price, six at the thousand-dollar level, and one at the ten thousand.” He looked up with a grin.

Russ whistled.

Alfredo said, “Bravo!” clapping his hands.

Really?” Jade asked. “We got that much from the people of Ledford?”

Well, I haven’t gone through the names and addresses yet,” Sam said. “But I think they’re all from the Ledford area.”

Kate pulled a calculator from her purse and said, “The population of metropolitan Ledford is one point two million. At twenty bucks a pop—”

That’s seventy-five thousand people,” Russ said, frowning. “Not exactly a large segment of the voting public.”

Five percent,” Kate said, snapping her calculator shut.

That’s it?” Jade asked. “Just 5 percent gave that much?”

Yep,” Kate said. “And we’ve only just begun!”

Alfredo was impressed too. That means there is more to be had from the people of the city. And then his own words haunted him: “I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check.”

What are we offering the people of Ledford? A wilderness they will never see up close? He shrugged.

A necessary evil, it seems.

 

The five friends said good-bye to one another on the sidewalk outside The Commode. Sam jumped into his flesh-colored pickup. Screeching his tires, he peeled out.

Boys!” Kate shook her head at his taillights. “Need a ride to the docks, Padre?”

They walked a few blocks to her car, and she unlocked his door. “I found out some things about your friend in Rosencranz.” She pulled out of the parking lot. “As in why she was sent there in the first place.” She turned onto University Boulevard. “And I found out her real name.”

Alfredo stared at her, and adrenaline shot him up with jittery fear. “It is not Charlotte Steele?”

Charlotte is her real first name,” Kate said. “Her full name is Charlotte Estelle Majewski.”

Stella? Alfredo sat in stunned silence. Stella? He shook his head. No, it cannot be. It is a coincidence.

Majewski’s a pretty common name,” Kate said. She stopped at a red light and turned to Alfredo. “Tell me, is she related to Majewski?”

Alfredo shook his head dumbly. “I honestly do not know.” What are you, a lawyer? He mocked himself. Charlotte Steele. Charlotte Estelle. You know who she is—Majewski’s sister. He looked out the window at Wilder Island, green and beautiful, wishing he could vanish forever into its mists and shadows.

Well,” Kate continued, “it would certainly be easier if Majewski was her brother. If he is, he can get her out.”

Alfredo did not answer. Majewski is Charlotte’s brother. His mind reeled with the consequences of these facts. Majewski cares a great deal about his sister. Will you hide this information from him, knowing his anguish over her?

But neither he nor his family ever visits,” he said angrily, dismissing his own thoughts, as well as the compassion he had felt for his friend Thomas. He could have tried to find her. “No one does but me.”

Well, anyway,” Kate said, “Mr. Majewski died in 90s,  after which the family lawyer set up a permanent trust fund with Rosencranz as the beneficiary, for Charlotte’s upkeep until she dies.”

Alfredo felt as if he had been stabbed in the heart. Until she dies? He heard Charlotte’s voice in his memory. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu.”

They do not care about her!” Alfredo said tersely. “They changed her name and pretend they do not know her! Why can I not become her legal guardian?”

Kate turned into the parking lot at the Boat Landing. After she parked and cut the engine off, she turned to Alfredo and said firmly, “Majewski is probably her legal guardian, Alfredo. There is no way around that. Why not just ask him to get her out?”

No!” Alfredo said harshly, and then he quickly apologized. “Forgive me, Kate. I do not know what came over me.” He looked across the river at the island. Why not tell Majewski? Kate is right … if Charlotte is his sister, he could get her released from Rosencranz.

Why not?” Kate asked again. “Seems to me that would be the easiest way.”

Without looking at her, Alfredo shook his head.

What is it?” Kate asked. “What are you afraid of?”

What would he do with her?” Alfredo asked. “He does not speak the crow language.”

I see,” Kate said, nodding. “You want to bring her to the island.” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel for a few moments before turning to Alfredo and looking at him with a calm and reserved expression on her face.

Suddenly she shouted, “Are you nuts?”

 

Alfredo sat at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel, recalling how Kate had nearly flayed him alive with words. “You can’t bring an inmate from a mental hospital to the island!” she had said. “It’s a freaking primitive wilderness, remember? That’s what we’ve been fighting for! For God’s sake, Alfredo! Where would she live? Don’t tell me in your cottage!”

After he denied such intent, or at least claiming he had not gotten that far with his plans, she had backed down somewhat. “Good. Don’t even think about it,” she had said. “Find somewhere else for her. But don’t tell me, okay?”

But where could he take her that would be any different than Rosencranz?

Charlie flapped to a landing on the driftwood log next to him, interrupting his thoughts. He smiled at his friend and lifted a hand in greeting.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said, brushing a wing across Alfredo’s hand. He folded his wings and scraped his beak back and forth across the log several times. “What’s up, man? You look a little down in the dumps, as they say.”

Charlie,” Alfredo said, “in less than two weeks, Rosencranz is moving all their patients upstate. We must get Charlotte out of there before they move her. I must break a few laws to do that, and I risk jail if I am caught. But if I do not get Charlotte out of there, I am afraid she will be a prisoner at Rosencranz forever. My heart tells me one thing, my rational mind another.”

He picked up a stick from the ground and peeled away fronds of rotten bark. “I am an alleged man of God, I beg him for guidance. But for the splendor of nature, he does not speak to me. I do not know where to turn for answers.” He bent over and traced the outline of a crescent moon in the sand and erased it with his foot.

Deities can be spectacularly subtle,” Charlie said. “That’s been the corvid observation of human gods in general over the years.”

As well as spectacularly unhelpful,” Alfredo said as he drew the outline of the grounds of Rosencranz in the sand. “Sometimes God wants us to find our own way, I guess.”

Well, it might help if you ask a yes or no question,” Charlie said. “Then the deity could catch a bush on fire, which would be a yes answer I would think. However, silence could also be construed as consent, albeit far less dramatic.”

The Almighty has indeed forsaken me,” Alfredo said with a rueful laugh. “And in my own silent darkness, I must consider committing a crime that could imprison me and leave Charlotte in Rosencranz without anyone to visit her.” He drew a curved line in the sand. The driveway.

But is it not a crime to leave her there?” Charlie asked.

It is indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am on the horns of a dilemma.”

The Grandmothers have a proverb,” Charlie said. “The horns of all dilemmas grow from the head of the same beast.”

Alfredo laughed bitterly, remembering NoExit’s words: “Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma? When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”

The dilemma is indeed a beast,” he said with a sigh. “Obey the law and commit a crime. Disobey the law and commit a crime. Either way I am gored.”

He traced a circle in the sand. The gazebo.

We corvids have but one crime,” Charlie said. “That makes things a bit simpler.”

Alfredo traced two large rectangles near the gazebo. The building, the parking lot. He marked Charlotte’s tiny room with a rock. “One law? Just one?”

No stealing,” Charlie said. “That’s it, our one law. Though it constantly undergoes reinterpretation to fit the circumstance—that’s one of the Grandmother’s duties. It is very cumbersome, the Grandmother’s task, requiring both reason and compassion.”

It would be considered a form of stealing if I take her from there.” Alfredo sighed, sitting up straight. “But what would I do with her if I could? Where would I take her?”

There were some very kind folks at St. Sophia’s, he had reasoned many times. But they would not be any better at communicating with Charlotte. Chances are she would end up right back in Rosencranz.

I cannot house her in my cottage,” he said. “It is too small for two humans. And, it would be unseemly for a priest and a woman to co-habitate.” He heard Kate’s voice almost snarling at him, “Don’t even think about it!”

What about the Treehouse?” Charlie said. “You are nearby, more or less. And I would be there to look after her, and so would Rika. Charlotte would never be lonely again, nor suffer any lack of companions to talk to.”

Alfredo almost laughed out loud, imagining how Kate would take to that idea. “Perhaps I should live in the Treehouse. Charlotte would undoubtedly be more comfortable in my cottage, which has running water. It is more suited for a woman, I think.”

It is too exposed here, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “People would see her. And then they would talk. That could never be good for Charlotte, and perhaps people would try harder to come to Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Alfredo nodded slowly as he pondered the crow’s words. He bent back down to the sand and drew a large rectangle around the building, the parking lot, and the gazebo. He added a small square, for the guardhouse. “It is true,” he said thoughtfully. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention to his crime. He placed small x’s all along the fence line. The concertina wire.

Word will get out very quickly that an inmate has escaped Rosencranz. We would not want people to see someone matching her description here on the island.” Oh, the rumors that would create!

Let’s bring her to the Treehouse,” Charlie said. “You could sleep on the deck for awhile, or underneath it, until she is accustomed to being away from Rosencranz. The three of us—you, me, and Rika—will teach her how to live there. Then you go home to your cottage, and Charlotte is safe from being seen. She would love living in the Treehouse. I know she would.”

Alfredo’s own happiest memories resided in a crude tree house that he had built himself. He had spent most of the daylight hours in the summer there, with his only friends, a few crows. “All right, Charlie,” he said. “Let me gather a few things. I reckon it will need a good cleaning, at least.”

Life in Bruthamax’s tree house with her old friend Charlie could not be worse than her life in Rosencranz. I can look after Charlotte until she can manage on her own.

 

Armed with candles, matches, and cleaning supplies, Alfredo followed Charlie to the Treehouse. He slogged through the bogs and fens below the Boulders, trying to recognize where a different texture of leaf and shade of green heralded solid ground. Though he had been to the Treehouse many times, he still could not find his way on his own. He had only recently discovered that Charlie had never taken him the same way twice.

Duck weed,” Charlie called down from above after he stepped into a hip-deep hole full of tea-colored water.

Oh, crap!” he swore, pulling himself out. He kept a closer eye on Charlie after that. Though he had a few close calls, he arrived at the Treehouse without further mishap.

Grawky, Jayzu!” Rika said, as he stepped onto the deck of the tree house. “Nice to see you again, dearie.”

Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, brushing his fingertips against her outstretched wing. “It has been a while—since just after I got to Cadeña-l’jadia. I thought I should tidy things up a bit, in case we bring Charlotte here. And I need to check out what is here in the way of kitchenware—you know, pots and pans, dishes and such?

Well, dearie,” Rika said, “you’ll be bringing some comforts for the lady, I reckon. A tea kettle, for sure. And a nice cup. And maybe a bowl. I reckon Bruthamax ate right out of the pot he cooked in. That will never do for a lady.” Although crow beaks cannot be wrinkled up in distaste the way in which the human nose can, her tone clearly expressed that image.

Yes,” Alfredo said, laughing. “I am sure you are right. Human males, when left on their own, can be quite, how shall I say—primitive—with respect to the aesthetics of the lady’s house. We priests are no different, I suspect.”

Nor are the corvid,” Rika said. “It’s the females that keep the nest tidy.”

Rika had told Alfredo about her early adulthood in companionship with a genteel Patua’ lady in the wealthy Victorian Heights neighborhood of Downtown Ledford. “Oh, I miss her, Jayzu! How we used to sip tea together.”

Well, perhaps one day you and Charlotte can drink tea together on the deck.”

Curtains,” Rika said, aiming a wing at the window. “She’ll need curtains, Jayzu. A lady likes her privacy, you know. And a rocking chair—a lady needs a rocking chair. And you must bring a stove, a cast-iron one. A lady can cook and keep herself warm with a cast-iron stove.”

Rika!” Alfredo said, laughing. “How will I haul a cast-iron stove here? They are quite heavy! I am not a muscle man!”

Oh, pshaw!” Rika said, pushing at Alfredo with her wing. “Bring a small one, dearie! My lady’s doorman took one up to her upstairs apartment with nothing but his two hands.”

Alfredo turned to the little cabin, jerked the door open and went inside. He took the bench and table out to the deck, but the box-bed could not be moved. “Bruthamax must have built the wall around it,” he said. “That takes some planning!”

Several pots and pans sat on the shelf on the wall above the table, among them a cast-iron frying pan. When he grabbed the handle and slid it off the shelf, a folded piece of paper dropped to the floor. He picked it up, hoping it was part of Bruthamax’s journal, and took it outside. He unfolded the paper; the disciplined penmanship bore no resemblance to Bruthamax’s scrawl.

 

October 31, 1898

My Dear Nephew-

It is with great delight that I read your letters, which make me laugh and wish I could live in such paradise! I am grateful to the Good Lord that you remain in good health and spirits.

I received the manuscript. Thank you again for your work on behalf of the project. Without your efforts, and a handful of others, much knowledge would otherwise be lost.

May God bless you, and the Hozey family,

-Antoni

A manuscript?

Alfredo’s reread the letter, shaking his head in amazement. He stared into his thoughts for a few moments before folding it and putting it in his shirt pocket. I cannot wait to call Thomas!

He swept and scrubbed the Treehouse floor, bed, and shelves. Not a square inch of the interior had been left untouched. Such had been Rika’s instructions, and not until he had scrubbed the bench and table would she allow him to put them back inside. All the while he cleaned, Alfredo could not get Antoni de la Torre’s letter or its contents off his mind. Did Bruthamax’s uncle, the Provincial Father Superior Antoni la Torre ever visit him here the island? Was he himself Patua’? It would explain a few things.

 

 

After the cleaning of the Treehouse was complete, Alfredo packed his cleaning equipment and sat down on the deck. “Now, Jayzu, dearie,” Rika said, joining him on the bench, “have you thought about Charlotte’s wardrobe? She’ll need clothing, you know.”

Charlotte’s Rosencranz garb seemed the perfect attire for the island and Treehouse, but she would only be coming with the clothes on her back. He had not given it a thought, actually, what she would otherwise need, living in a tree house in the middle of a wilderness forest.

Perhaps you will help me, Rika,” he said, feeling like a deer in the headlights. “I know nothing of women’s clothing.”

Indeed,” Rika said, nodding. “Indeed. We’ll make a list, Jayzu, you and I. Levis and sweaters should do. And shoes, and stockings. A nightie. And of course, unmentionables.”

Unmentionables?” Alfredo asked with raised eyebrows. “I am sure I do not know what that means, Rika.”

The crow gave Alfredo a curious look and said, “Undies, dearie. You know, things that go underneath the outer clothing—underpants, a brassiere, garter belt—well I’m sure she won’t be needing one of those!” Rika tittered behind her wing.

Alfredo blushed to his ear tips. The underneath of Charlotte’s outer clothing. Unmentionables. It had been decades since he had lived with females. An image of his grandmother’s enormous brassiere arose in his memory. He had taken it from the clothesline outside and was punished when his mother caught him firing melons over the fence with it.

But Charlotte was not shaped at all like his grandmother. She was thin and willowy and her breasts were not at all like melons. More like peaches. The thought of the body that lay underneath Charlotte’s Rosencranz coveralls stirred regions of his body that had been asleep for decades.

Uh, yes, unmentionables. I will give the list to one of the women parishioners at St. Sophia, to put together some clothes, including unmentionables.”

He spent days at a time preparing the Treehouse for Charlotte, and sleeping on the deck. There was much work to do and little time. He refurbished the ramshackle outhouse Bruthamax had built downstream from the Treehouse, installing a new wooden toilet seat and a small box to hold paper.

The cistern was full, underneath the new wooden cover he had made weeks before. After he installed a piston pump that operated off an RV battery in the tree house, he filled the ten-gallon ceramic water crock he had packed in and hauled up to the Treehouse. One day I will bring my lady a sink. And a bathtub.

He dragged a bale of hay up to the deck and stuffed all the holes between the branches and vines that formed the roof of the cabin. as well as the cracks between the tree trunks of the walls. He plastered the entire interior except the wood floor, using a mixture of clay and gypsum plaster he brought in from Ledford on the Captain’s boat. “It is good the Treehouse is small,” he said one exhausted evening to Rika and Charlie.

But the job was done. Everything was ready for Charlotte.

 

Father Provincial Thomas Majewski stared out his office window. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in paradise, and now I am in hell. My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Snowbell had abandoned him in her near coma on a pillow next to the fireplace.

The gray sky oppressed him. The rainy day oppressed him. Washington DC oppressed him. His job oppressed him. He daydreamed about the island, with himself as its lone inhabitant wandering its dark forests that hid astonishing secrets like talking birds and extinct magical plants. At night, he dreamed of Stella’s restless spirit haunting the labyrinths of his memories.

Stella’s eyes, her sad eyes. Like today’s weather—gray and full of tears. If only I had known. Majewski sighed and tried again to forgive himself for having tricked his sister so many years past. But what would have become of her if I had not? Even I could not have left her in the woods by herself with winter coming. If only I had known another Patua’ then. Like Alfredo—he could have talked to her, perhaps reasoned with her. He laughed at himself and his fantasies that events in the past could be changed.

If only I had known. The mantra of all the souls in hell.

Rain drizzled on the windowpane. But why didn’t we know? De la Torre knew a Patua’ and left us all sorts of evidence. He put another log on the fire, sat down in the armchair. Snowbell slept like the dead; not even a whisker moved. He took the faux Treasure Island from the end table and opened it. To review its inventory. Again.

The red sealing wax on Brother Maxmillian’s letter caught his eye, and he examined it closely for the first time. A human hand stood out distinctly. Good Lord! That fob on the lamp chain in Alfredo’s cottage! He imagined Brother Maxmillian pressing it into a blob of red wax, a crow standing nearby, waiting to post the letter. The idea of using crows as mail carriers amused him more now than it had before. I wonder if de la Torre ever wrote back?

A gust of wind rattled the window, and Majewski scowled at the endless storm. He picked up the folded letter from de la Torre’s sister, and the color print of the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada fell out. For a brief second, he saw the chapel on Wilder Island nestled amid the dark green forest.

He examined the postmark. September 27, 1893, forty years after Brother Wilder built his hermit’s chapel. He opened the letter and read the wispy script.

Greetings, My Dear Brother,

The Chapel of the Madonna della Strata 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 with the Madonna della Strata! 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, comprising many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!

Wish you were here,

Conchetta

I was ordained at the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada in Rome,” Majewski said to Snowbell, who woke up with a start. She yawned and stretched and came down from her perch on the hearth and leaped into his lap. “Built by St. Ignatius Loyola, as the Order he founded responded to the Protestant Reformation.” Majewski stroked the cat in his lap, who attacked his hand. “Is that the connection, Your Highness? The reform of the Catholic Church, led by the Society of Jesus, and the large-scale disappearance of the Patua’?”

Snowbell turned an ear sideways and lowered her eyelids to half open. “So you really think the Order rounded up the Patua’ and delivered them to the Pope for excommunication and possible execution?” he asked in mock surprise. The cat licked her front paw twice, rolled over onto her back, and offered him her soft underbelly.

The Patua’ would have been considered heretics, you know,” Majewski said as he stroked her. “That’s worse than simple insanity. Perhaps they were even burned as witches. Do you suppose the Order was part of that?”

Miaw!” Snowbell protested and jumped off his lap.

Oh, I quite agree, my Queen.” Majewski leaned toward the fireplace, picked up the poker, and jabbed at the burning logs. “I was just playing the devil’s advocate. More likely, the Jesuits led them into the catacombs, along with the Catholics, to protect them from the bigotries of religion.”

He put another log on the fire and made himself a cup of tea. Hardly had he sat back into the armchair when Snowbell was back on his lap. He stared into the fire, sipping his tea. What did de la Torre know? Connect the dots. The letter, the deed, the map, the will, the letter from his sister, the Madonna della Strada Chapel. The hermit’s chapel.

De la Torre knew at least one Patua’,” Majewski said, scratching the cat behind her ears. “And he wanted someone in the future to know him too. And that would not make any sense at all if Maxmillian were merely insane.” Snowbell purred insistently. “But it would make sense that the Order had an interest in this peculiar race of humans. Perhaps even spiriting them off to a distant land for their own safety.”

William’s voice came through the intercom: “Alfredo Manzi, line one, Father.”

 

De la Torre wrote back!” Majewski exclaimed after Alfredo told him about the letter he found at the Treehouse. “That certainly suggests Brother Maxmillian wasn’t a complete hermit. He obviously had some human contact.”

And,” Alfredo had said, “de la Torre refers to a manuscript; no crow could carry something that heavy all the way to Washington. Someone had to get it off the island and into the mail.”

What do you think this manuscript is about?” Majewski said. “Memoirs, perhaps?”

At first, I had no idea,” Alfredo said. “But then I remembered the last few pages of Bruthamax’s journal. Have you read it yet? I e-mailed it to you right after you left.”

I did,” Majewski said. “It was fascinating!”

Look again at the pages at the very end,” Alfredo said.

Hang on a moment,” Majewski said, upsetting Snowbell. He sat down at his computer and opened the file Alfredo had sent. “Okay, I’m looking at some cartoons of alien plants.”

I thought it was just doodling at first too,” Alfredo said. “But now I am wondering if he was trying to write in Patua’.”

And you think the manuscript de la Torre is talking about is—” Majewski felt a rush of adrenaline.

Is written in Patua’,” Alfredo finished for him.

Majewski hung up the phone. A written language of the crows! Imagine that! Excitement kicked the weariness from his bones as he thought of the opportunity before him. To translate the language of the crows! To leave this urban nightmare of the human spirit!

Snowbell had taken up residence on her pillow on the hearth. With one last bored glance at him, she went to sleep. Majewski returned to the armchair and relaxed into the extra room left by his cat. Alfredo’s words drifted into his awareness. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast …”

Rain continued its relentless assault on the windows, amplifying the sensation of chill in the room. But in the armchair in front of the fire, the pleasantly rich hues of yellow and orange punctuated by an occasional flash of blue warmed him. His head nodded onto his chest.

Follow me!” Stella whispered with a huge conspiratorial grin. She led him down a spiraling series of staircases and passageways through a network of caves excavated from the solid rock. A variety of sights, noises, and odors tantalized or repulsed as they tunneled back through time. Suddenly Stella grabbed his arm and pulled him off the stone staircase and into a dimly lit, roughly circular cavern, like the hub of wheel, where an astonishing number of passages met.

Alfredo Manzi lay upon the stone floor, and he ordained his prostrate body, reading from a book of runes. Candle smoke and incense briefly filled the air as he looked up at the white basilica of the Madonna del Rio. Bleached by sun and time, the tangled branches and the blue sky beyond made a grid through which a constant stream of black birds flowed,

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

The River Queen

 

Henry Braun awaited the Mayor’s press conference with Jules. The sun came in through a tall window, casting a swath of light across the Persian rug. Two crows stared in the window at him; he got up from his chair, walked over to the window and drew the curtains closed.

Why can’t I keep those foul birds off my windowsill,” he growled. The darkened room oppressed him, but that was preferable to having those damn crows watching his every move.

Jules laughed at Henry’s unintended pun. “They’re probably spies,” he joked. “Sent over by the good Father Manzi.”

But Henry was in no mood for jokes. He switched a lamp on and sat down in his chair. Henry the First smiled down on him from the paneled wall above. “No worries, Henry!” he said. “The island is as good as yours!”

Of course it is! Thank you Great-Grandfather! Somewhat relieved of his anxiety, Henry pushed a button on a remote control device, which opened a cabinet on an adjacent wall, revealing a large flat-screen television. He pushed another button, and the screen came to life.

Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, Henry,” Jules said. “Think about it, Henry! You’ve won!”

Henry glanced nervously at the soundless screen, wishing Jules would shut up. “Yeah, but what if someone steps up and outbids me?”

Step up from where, Henry?” Jules offered him one of his own cigars from the humidor on his desk. “The Vatican? Relax. Seven more days and the island is yours.”

Don’t jinx it!” Henry snapped, nervous that Jules had used the number seven. My unluckiest number. He bit off the end of his cigar and bathed it thoroughly with his saliva before letting Jules light the end.

That would require someone with a greater passion than you to own the island, Henry.” Jules leaned back in his chair. “Don’t you think we would know by now if there was another interested party?”

Henry shrugged. Logic was no comfort at a time like this. The Mayor’s face appeared on the screen, and he turned up the volume.

Good citizens of Ledford,” the Mayor’s flabby mouth said. He licked his lips and smiled into the camera. “It is my great pleasure to announce that, after a two-week period in which you the public has a right to comment, the city of Ledford hopes to condemn Wilder Island as a nuisance under the country’s eminent domain laws. I am certain that the good people of this city will agree that we should move forward and develop the island into a resort park, as Mr. Henry Braun has proposed. Or perhaps a shopping mall, or a business park, all of which would bring money and jobs to our city.”

In great relief, Henry wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. He relaxed into his chair and inhaled deeply on his cigar. Henry the First smiled warmly down upon him. He exhaled gratefully.

Once the island has been properly developed,” the Mayor said, his head bobbing like a large bird, “the revenue from the island will be such that we can do away with property taxes altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice? Perhaps the city could end the gross receipts tax on all goods. How about them apples? More money to spend, more jobs. Folks, we are on the threshold of a new future for our fair city. A whole new day of prosperity.”

A gaggle of reporters crowded around the Mayor’s podium, and all shouted their questions at once. “Will the people have a say who buys the island?” a reporter managed to shout above the rest. “Or is Henry Braun a shoo-in?”

Wilder Island will be sold to the highest bidder,” the mayor said. “Seven days after the commentary period is over.”

Seven again. Henry’s sense of well-being breached, and a shroud of catastrophe loomed suddenly over him. What if the investors double-cross me? He had invited his wealthiest friends in the business community to a picnic on the island, where he would plant his own flag, claiming the island as his. What if … his shoulders slumped, and he raised his suffering eyes up to the portraits of his ancestors.

Be a man!” Henry the First said, his stern face whipping Henry into an upright position. “Only women whine about what will be. Seize today, and tomorrow is yours!”

Dr. Russ Matthews, board member of the recently established Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust, happened to be in his office when the TV station called him for comment on the city’s eminent domain ruling.

I’m disappointed,” he told the reporter. “We will rally the people to say no to developing the island. Wilder Island is a landmark in this city. The very identity of Ledford is tied up in this island. Commercial development will destroy it, whether it’s Henry Braun building a casino resort, or Joe Schmoe building a mall or a motor speedway. It’s a matter of who we want to be, who we want to project to the outside world.”

How do you intend to stop it?” the reporter asked.

With a grassroots uprising,” Russ answered. “We need to stand up, all of us, and just say no to destroying this jewel in our midst. Some things money can buy. Our Wilder Island heritage isn’t one of them.”

The phone rang again as soon as Russ hung up with the reporter. “Pull the trigger!” Kate said on the other end of the line. “Launch the Beg-a-thon!”

Henry and Jules convened back in his office after another superbly cooked dinner. Whatever Minnie’s faults were, Henry always appreciated his wife’s culinary talents, though he hardly ever told her so. Why should he? Did she ever thank him for providing her with such a luxurious and opulent mansion?

The six o’clock news replayed the Mayor’s afternoon announcement and showcased the spectacular model of Ravenwood Resort as an example of what could be done with the island. The camera zoomed in on the adorable little River Queen and its tiny lights.

Everyone in Ledford is invited!” Henry’s smiling and somewhat giddy face said as the camera panned slowly over the paddleboat. “Come on down to the city dock on Saturday or Sunday for a free ride around Wilder Island on my beautiful River Queen!”

Several local radio stations broadcast a Public Service Announcement on behalf of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. The student-run station at the university broadcast a panel discussion with Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi on the condemnation ruling.

Help us save Wilder Island from the bulldozers!” a woman’s voice came over the airwaves. “Come on out to the arts and crafts fair this weekend at the Waterfront. We’ve got over two hundred artists featuring all things Wilder, and a silent auction to help keep our island wild. Stop by the Friends of Wilder Island booth and buy a share in the island, get a free flag with the Wilder Island logo, and become part of the land trust. We need your help!”

Henry reached over to the radio and shut it off with an angry twist of his wrist. “Who the hell do they think they are anyway?” he growled. “The freaking Public Broadcasting Service? For crying out loud, are they trying to dupe the public into buying into their land trust scheme?”

As a matter of fact,” Jules said blandly, “some of these stations subscribe to much of the programming from PBS. Your tax dollars at work, Henry.”

Henry scowled at Jules, wondering why his attorney seemed to enjoy toying with him. “I’m not talking about the university’s commie student radio station,” he ranted. “I’ve had just about enough of this sham outfit, this so-called land trust. I want you to do something about it, Jules.”

Like what, Henry?” Jules swirled the wine in his glass.

Discredit them,” Henry said. “Find something wrong with these troublemakers—the Matthews, for instance. Dr. Smarty-Pants college professor and his so-called artist wife. Find out why Manzi showed up here all of a sudden. Who can trust a Catholic priest these days? Find out who else is involved in this scam to cheat me out of my rightful inheritance.”

His hands shook as he poured himself a glass of wine, slopping a few drops onto the floor. He moved his shoe back and forth across the wet spot, disbursing it over a wider area.

And then what, Henry?” Jules said. “Beatings with a rubber hose? Cement overshoes? You won, for God’s sake! The city condemned the island.”

The wine Henry spilled had disobediently beaded up on the waxed hardwood floor. He scowled at the red raindrops and patted his pocket for a handkerchief.

Look, Henry,” Jules said, “you’re taking the whole town for a ride on the River Queen. You think they’ve got something better? An arts and crafts fair? Selling worthless shares in a land trust? Don’t make me laugh!”

Jules laughed, and Henry tried to calm his anxiety. The drops of spilled wine on the floor reminded him of blood. His blood. My blood, sweat, and tears have all gone into this island!

While you’re at it,” Jules continued, “give ’em all five bucks and let ’em waste it in the casino. You’ll hook ’em all, and they’ll stop thinking about their beloved island. Let this commie rabble, as you call them, rattle their chains till the crows come home, for all the good it’ll do them.”

Henry dropped the hanky to the floor and moved it around with his foot, staining its pure white perfection.

The art fair celebrating the wildness of Wilder Island opened on Friday evening, the day after the Mayor’s press conference. Both sides of the river swarmed with humans; at the Waterfront for the fair, and the City Docks to catch a ride on the River Queen. Jade and Russ met Alfredo at the Waterfront boat landing and walked up the stone steps to Riverside Drive, which had been closed to vehicle traffic for the fair.

The wind picked up and carried lighthearted music that bubbled forth from a calliope on board the River Queen across the river. “I feel like thumbing my nose at it,” Jade said. “Except it’s quite lovely. Too bad Henry Braun owns her.”

Jeez,” Russ said as he looked across the river, “look at the size of that crowd!”

Hopefully most of them are coming over here,” Jade said, grasping his hand and leaning into him. “The boat landing is right there too, next to the River Queen.”

So ironic,” Alfredo said, shaking his head. “Henry on one side, us on the other. Wilder Island in the middle.”

A small crowd had assembled around the KMUS student radio station booth where Alfredo, Russ, and Kate would participate in a live discussion regarding the future of Wilder Island. A television news station’s cameraman panned around the fair-going crowd as the reporter blathered something about the Mayor declining his invitation to attend.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” the disc jockey began. “This is KMUS, streaming live from the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts Fair at the Waterfront here in Downtown Ledford. We are here tonight to discuss the fate of our island in light of the Mayor’s announcement today that the city has condemned the island under eminent domain laws.”

A few people stopped to listen. Jade and one of Russ’s students handed them flags bearing the Friends of Wilder Island logo—the skyline of Wilder Island in front of a huge full moon. Jade had taken particular delight in modeling a subtle image of a crow into the moon.

Our guests this evening are MU biology professors Dr. Russ Matthews and Dr. Alfredo Manzi, both board members of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust. Manzi, we should note, is also the pastor of the old hermit’s chapel on the island. And lastly we have Ms. Kate Herron, attorney for the land trust.”

The DJ’s voice boomed out over the loudspeakers, attracting more people to the live broadcast. Flags waved, and a few people called out, “Save Wilder Island!” The music from the calliope swelled for a moment before disappearing on a downriver breeze.

Before we get into the ramifications of condemnation,” The DJ said, “let’s start with the basics. Ms. Herron, can you tell us exactly what does condemnation under eminent domain laws mean?”

It means the government can steal your property!” a man shouted.

The small crowd waved flags amid catcalls and shouts of disapproval: “They can do that?” “Down with Braun!” “Preserve the wilderness!” “Wilder Island!”

It means ‘compulsory purchase,’” Kate replied, after the noise had abated somewhat. “The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution grants the right to local, state, and federal governments to condemn and confiscate private property, so long as it’s subsequently used for the public good, and the owner is paid a fair price. But the property owner has no choice. He must sell.”

A man in the back yelled out, “Get the government’s hands off my property!”

Flags waved wildly, and the crowd shouted, “No! No! No!”

The government can just sell your property to a private developer?” the DJ asked, turning the mic up. “I thought they could only do that, take your land, for roads, bridges, schools maybe—things like that.”

That’s been the traditional use of the eminent domain clause,” Kate said, nodding. She looked over her mic at the crowd. “But a couple years ago, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of public good to include creating jobs and increasing revenues to the government. That automatically expanded the permissible land uses under which government bodies may exercise eminent domain. Prior to that, it was used, as you said, for schools, hospitals, roads, et cetera.”

But, why?” the DJ asked. “It seems so un-American.”

The people in the crowd nodded, and the man in the back hollered, “It is un-American!” He led another chant of “No! No! No!”

The television station’s cameraman panned around the rowdy crowd again, and Jade wished momentarily that the guy in the back would be quiet. But she quickly changed her mind, realizing that was what the land trust was trying to do—stir the people up. I hope this makes it to the evening news.

What about the hermit’s chapel?” the DJ asked. “Aren’t churches protected from eminent domain?”

No,” Kate said. “Nothing is protected. Not even churches.”

They’re going to tear down the hermit’s chapel?” a woman shouted out from the crowd. The crowd blew up again, waving flags and yelling, “No! No! No!”

Is Wilder Island doomed then?” the DJ asked, turning his mic up again. “Is this a done deal? Is there nothing we can do?”

We’ve got two weeks,” Kate said. “And we plan to be heard.”

As the Friends of Wilder Island prepared the arts and crafts fair for opening night at the Waterfront, the River Queen was released from her moorings at the timber mill, and by late Friday afternoon, she had docked at the City Boat Landing. Like a siren song, the calliope aboard the beautiful paddleboat beckoned Ledford residents to come aboard for a free tour. Complete with two restaurants, a pub, and a daycare center, the River Queen also offered slot machines, bingo, and blackjack.

Henry had never had children of his own, but somehow he knew what kids liked. He spared no expense on the childcare center, with video games, jungle gyms, playhouses with miniature functioning appliances, and a plethora of building blocks, erector sets, and Lincoln logs. Big floppy pillows and blow-up furniture gave the childcare center a cartoonish aura. Plus a number of part-time extremely sweet-tempered high school girls to look after them with a licensed Day Care Operator to supervise the whole shebang.

While the folks of Ledford crowded the decks of the River Queen and stood in line to play the slots, Henry sat glued to the television in his penthouse apartment on the roof of the boat. The live KMUS broadcast, televised from the arts and crafts fair at the Waterfront really irritated him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shut it off.

So, if the city condemns the island,” the DJ said, “the trust will be forced to sell it to the highest bidder?”

The camera panned to the flag-waving crowd shouting, “No! No! No!”

Dammit! I should have had flags made. Henry’s stomach hurt. The relentless calliope down on the deck had given him a headache. He wished he could turn it all off, the TV, the calliope, everything, and just have some peace and quiet.

Yes,” the attorney Kate Herron said, tossing her red hair back over her shoulder. “But the land trust has two protective overlays, which ensure that while we can’t stop eminent domain, we can force whoever buys the island to conform to our restrictions on what may and what must be done with it. We’ve restricted the land use to a bird sanctuary and botanical research station. And we’ve got a ninety-nine year lease with the Jesuits on the chapel, which they still own.”

The crowd cheered, and Henry picked up the remote and muted the sound with an angry flick of his wrist. “What the hell, Jules? Is she blowing smoke, or does that commie land trust think they can tell me what to do with my island?” He peeled his eyes away from the television and looked at Jules. “Can they?”

Relax, Henry,” Jules said, waving his hand at the image of Kate Herron on the TV. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as telling someone what they can and can’t do with their private property. It’s quite un-American, don’t you think?”

Damn right.” Henry said. Don’t play with me, you overpaid land shark. One of these days …

But if it’ll make you feel better,” Jules said, “I’ll file an injunction against this land trust having any legal status to demand anything.”

The television had taken Henry’s attention, and he made no reply.

While we can’t protect ourselves from eminent domain in the court of law,” Kate Herron said into the camera, “the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust has the legal standing to represent the interests of the island in court. And, we can catalyze public sentiment to save it from development. Which we fully intend to do.”

Henry glared at Jules. “She’s full of crap, Henry,” Jules said. “There is no stopping eminent domain.”

I understand we can all become members of the land trust,” the DJ said. “Is that correct?”

Yes,” Alfredo Manzi replied, “anyone may purchase shares in the land trust. We invite the entire city out to the arts and crafts fair, where we have a booth staffed with volunteers to sell shares in the island.”

Henry snorted. “My arse! Soaking the public for worthless shares in a bird swamp, you swindling hypocrite!” He threw a pillow at Alfredo Manzi’s image on the TV.

Oh, they’re not entirely worthless, Henry,” Jules said. “People can line their birdcages with them.”

Both men laughed. Henry opened the humidor on the end table next to him, took out two cigars, and handed one to Jules.

We do not advocate saving Wilder Island for nostalgic reasons only,” Russ Matthews was saying as the two men lit their cigars, “though people do have a right to their lore, their stories, the connection to their past. But look at the revenue this island generates by its very solitary existence in our midst.”

Henry burst out laughing. Shaking his head, he looked in amazement at the TV. “Oh, that’s a good one! Revenue from the bird swamp!” He slapped his knees, laughing. “They can’t be serious!”

The city logo features the Wilder Island skyline,” Russ Matthews said, as if listing the glorious money-making opportunities the island was engaged in. “The tourist industry relies heavily on the island, as do many businesses for their brands—the Cold Raven Brewery, the Crow’s Nest, for example.”

Correct,” Kate Herron said. “Wilder Island is by no means derelict, so the assertion that the island produces nothing is just flat wrong.”

I’ll flat wrong you, you miserable tree-hugger. Henry shook his fist at the TV. He hated attorneys, all of them. Up to and including his own. Slimy bastards! But he retained Jules. As he had told his wife, Minnie, “I need a lawyer to keep me out of the trouble that I wouldn’t get into if there weren’t any lawyers.”

We must all rise up and say no to condemnation,” Kate Herron said. “The only weapon we have is public sentiment; that’s the only thing that will save Wilder Island.”

Public sentiment? We’ll see, my pretty, where public sentiment lies after they ride on my River Queen!

We are not opposed to development or entertainment,” Russ Matthews said. “But we ask: can this Ravenwood Resort not be built somewhere else?”

Good question, Dr. Matthews,” the DJ said. “Perhaps Mr. Braun could answer that, but he elected to not be with us tonight.”

Bastards never invited me,” Henry growled as he muted the sound. He leaned back into the couch, puffing out seven smoke rings as he exhaled.

Oh, but they did, Henry,” Jules said. “You turned them down, remember? We decided you wouldn’t engage with them at all because it doesn’t serve our interests to debate them. Remember?”

Henry grumbled into his chest. It was true; he didn’t want to be their straw man. He had dignity.

Forget about them!” Jules said, waving his cigar in the air. “Fight fire with water! Convince the people of Ledford that your resort has something wonderful for everyone in the family, while this land trust has a dark, spooky island that no one other than the priest is allowed to step foot on.”

Henry nodded dully and stared at the soundless TV. He wished Jules would shut up. He got up and left his penthouse and scowled when Jules joined him at the railing.

You did a great job refurbishing this old bitch, Henry,” Jules said as they looked down on the deck below. He took a long drag from his cigar. “When I first saw her, I didn’t think you’d be able to clean her up. But she’s a classy lady now.”

She’s a beauty, Mr. Braun!” someone yelled from the deck.

Henry waved and yelled down to the man, “Come back tomorrow, you hear? Catch a ride on the Queen!”

 

Charlie and his young son JoEd perched in the branches of a basswood tree, listening to strains of music that wafted across the river from the calliope on the promenade deck of the River Queen. JoEd gazed in fascination at the beautiful paddleboat. Elegant yet perky, the River Queen charmed him with her bright red paint, white trim, and golden railings. Oh! And the big red paddlewheel! He had never seen anything so amazing.

JoEd had spent his entire fledgehood deep in the swamps and forests of Cadeña-l’jadia and in the branches above the tree house. Ever since that day his zazu had taken him around the periphery of the island and he’d beheld his weebs’s homeland across the river, buildings mesmerized him. When his zazu told him the River Queen was a building that floated on water, he could hardly believe it.

But believe it he did as he watched her float slowly across the river to the City Docks. Speechless with awe, JoEd couldn’t take his eyes off the magnificent River Queen.

Zazu,” he said as he turned toward his father.

Go!” Charlie said, without waiting for his son to ask. “Fly on over and check it out. But be home by sunset; you know how your weebs worries.”

Without a word, JoEd took to the air and flew across the river toward the River Queen. The music got louder as he approached, and he realized the bugs crawling all over the boat were actually humans. He looked back toward Cadeña-l’jadia. It seemed so far away in its brooding green solitude. But the colorful riverboat and the teeming life it hosted were irresistible to JoEd. Though his heart was beating very fast, and he was a little scared, he bravely flew right to the roof of the River Queen and grasped the golden railing that wound all the way around the topmost layer of the boat.

JoEd had only ever seen one human up close—Jayzu. He looked down upon the humans milling around and said out loud, “How do they tell each other apart? They all look the same!”

Not really,” a voice said. JoEd turned to see another crow standing on the roof.

The differences are subtle,” an older crow said, “but after a while, you can see them. Some you can even pick out of crowds, but those are special humans.”

Like Jayzu?” JoEd asked. “He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia.”

Everyone knows Jayzu,” the crow said. “He is Patua’, like Bruthamax. But you can tell even the regular humans apart if you live around them long enough. You get to know who is naughty and who is nice.”

Oh,” JoEd said. “What do the naughty ones look like?”

It’s not what they look like,” the crow said. “They’re all butt-ugly if you ask me. But there among the masses are those who distinguish themselves by their actions, be they good or evil. Those humans we know. The others, well, they’re a bit like cattle, don’t you think?” He peered over the edge at the people milling around the docks.

Before JoEd could ask what cattle meant, another crow joined them on the roof.

Hey there, Antoine,” the new arrival said. “How’re things?”

Oh, not bad, Tobias,” Antoine said, “not bad at all. Thanks for asking. Say, young fella,” he turned to JoEd, “you got a name?”

JoEd,” he croaked, wishing he sounded more grown-up.

Well, grawky there, JoEd,” Tobias said.

First time he’s seen so many humans, that’s what he said,” Antoine told Tobias. The two crows nodded knowingly.

Must not be from the city then,” Tobias said. “Place is crawling with ’em.”

He just flew in from Cadeña-l’jadia for the festivities,” said Antoine. “There’s but one human there.”

Ah,” said Tobias, cocking his head to one side. “He’s a friend of Jayzu then.”

The sights and sounds of the paddleboat astonished JoEd. There was so much to see! So many humans! More crows landed on the railing, and he scooted over to make room. Three more crows came in for a landing on the roof and cackled their greetings to Antoine, Tobias.

I’m JoEd,” he said, putting a wing out to the young female crow next to him. “Are you from around here?”

She brushed her wing across his and said, “I’m Shannon. I was hatched and fledged Downtown. That’s the best place for festivities!”

My weebs came from Downtown too!” JoEd said. “I’ve never been there though.” He looked across the river toward his mother’s homeland. So beautiful, how it sparkled like water almost.

Are you here for the festivities?” Shannon asked.

He didn’t know what festivities meant, but so far it seemed to be a good thing. Lots of noise and excitement, and there were delicious odors in the air, all new and enticing.

I didn’t know about the festivities,” JoEd said. “I came to see the paddleboat. That’s what my zazu said this is.”

Oh, I didn’t know that!” Shannon said. “I watched it float in like a great big duck, kind of, except it looks more like a house.”

A couple of humans came out onto the deck below them and leaned against the railing. They waved their arms and shouted some things JoEd couldn’t understand.

Do they have festivities often?” JoEd asked Shannon. “I’m from Cadeña-l’jadia, and this is the first time I have been to any festivities.”

All the time,” she said. “But this one looks like it’s going to be a doozy!”

Many dozens of crows arrived on the rooftop over the next half hour, and it seemed to JoEd that they all knew each other. There were a great many crows on Cadeña-l’jadia, and he knew them all, but here were so many new beaks! He walked through the growing crowd of crows, introducing himself. He tucked every one of their names into the lattice of his memory.

And the names of the new food.

Man,” Antoine said, “I love hot dogs. One of the human’s greatest inventions, if you ask me.”

Nah,” Tobias said, “it’s the French fry. Oh! Glorious fries! I could live off them, I tell you what.”

JoEd had never seen a hot dog or a French fry and had no idea what they were, but they sounded exotic and tasty. “Is that what I smell?” he asked. “Hot dogs and French fries?”

And hamburgers,” said Antoine, “which also means pickles and onions.”

Thank the Orb humans are so clumsy,” Tobias said, “else we wouldn’t eat so well.”

Yes,” Antoine agreed, “they are quite wasteful too, bless their hearts. And come morning, we, the mighty volunteers, shall clean the docks of burgers, fries, and whatnot for our human brethren.”

Tobias chuckled and said, “Indeed. Though it is a thankless job, we are dedicated.”

Dedicated to gluttony,” a new arrival said.

May we never have less!” Antoine shouted.

Gluttony! Gluttony!” the crows all cried out to the humans below and to the skies above. “Gluttony!”

Good thing we came early,” Antoine said to JoEd. “You just stay put right here. We got good roosting and front-row seats to the banquet. There won’t be any roosting spots, good or bad, come sundown. You just wait; there’ll be food everywhere, come morning. All over the decks, all over the riverbank, the docks. Everywhere.”

The world beyond the island captivated JoEd. Paddleboats! Festivities! Food everywhere! And a doozy!

The Beg-a-thon ended, and Alfredo, Russ, and Kate found Sam and Jade were mobbed by people at the land trust booth. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a share in the future of Wilder Island. They jumped in, and the five of them sold shares until the crowd dwindled enough that they could leave the booth in the hands of the volunteers.

The fair occupied two city blocks along the Waterfront, two double rows of booths, one on each side of Riverside Drive. The mysterious Wilder Island forest had long attracted many artists, who generated a multitude of art from all its seasons. The variety of ways in which people used the black birds and tree line silhouette of Wilder Island as art motifs was astonishing, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

This is how the people of Ledford show their love for their island,” Alfredo said as the friends strolled past the booths at the arts and crafts fair.

Paintings of all genres depicted the island’s many moods: The Cliffs of Wilder Island; Wilder Island in the Mist; Storm on Wilder Island; Wilder Island at Dawn; Sunset; On a Lazy Afternoon; In the Snow; In a Thunderstorm; Wilder Island under the Full Moon; New Moon; Quarter Moon; and Dark Nights of no moon.

Many artists painted the seasons of Wilder Island Forest: in the fall as the deciduous trees said good-bye to summer in a spectacular rain of colors; the bare winter grays and browns against pale skies; and the blessed relief of spring, expressed by the subtle colors of the flowering trees.

There were literally hundreds of photographs of trees and crows and of the wild river thrashing the shores of the island. The hermit’s chapel appeared in many, sometimes as a holy shrine, sometimes as a dark, enigmatic witness to the island’s solitude. Whether singular or in flocks, on the wing or perch, crows and ravens rose to the unusual occasion of stardom at the fair, as icons of the wild mystery of the island.

The love for Wilder Island appeared in the more mundane objects as well. Crows, ravens, and island silhouettes appeared in T-shirts, key chains, hats, candles, coffee mugs, handbags, and backpacks.

Limited only by the boundaries of the human imagination,” Alfredo said, “gifted to certain individuals more than others. Like Jade and Sam.”

Jade blushed and waved him away, saying, “In some circles, it’s considered madness.”

In others,” Sam said with a grin, “it’s considered a vow of poverty.”

Let’s count how many famous artists died in the poor house!” Kate said cheerfully. “There’s Vincent van Gogh, Beethoven—can we include musicians too?”

Oh, shut up!” Sam said, giving Kate an affectionate shove.

They wandered past a booth of wrought-iron work featuring a coat rack, constructed such that when coats were hung upon it, the crows appeared to be flying off with them. “That would be perfect for your cottage,” Jade said. “Don’t you think, Alfredo?”

I’m hungry,” Kate said. “Can we stop and eat some of this fine food that has been tantalizing my nose and stomach since we got here?”

I too am hungry,” Alfredo said. “I had breakfast once, long ago. On a distant island.” He smiled wanly at the laughter from his friends. “What? Priests cannot be hungry?”

Oh, no,” Jade said through her chuckles. “The thing is, we’re just not used to the idea that priests can have a sense of humor.”

Am I not still human? He laughed to himself. Priest, Patua’–what did it matter? I am still an outcast.

Some of us don’t think of you as a priest,” Kate said with an impish smile. “You’re incognito tonight, though, aren’t you? Without your little white collar?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “Oh, I never wear those! I have a hard enough time with laundry issues on the island without having to care for priestly fashion accessories. Besides, I do not think that God requires my throat to be chafed with stiff, scratchy collars to serve him.” Not that I am much of a priest.

Can’t you just be ‘off duty’?” Russ asked, making little quote marks in the air with his fingers.

Well, yes,” Alfredo replied. “Except I’m never really on duty. I have no congregation that needs my ministrations. Other than baking pre-consecrated Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s, I’m just an ordinary Joe. Part-time priest, part-time professor, full-time human.”

Right,” Kate said, looking at Alfredo through squinted eyes. “You’re an ordinary Joe, Padre. And I’m the tooth fairy! Now, where shall we eat?”

The delightful flavors of many cuisines wafted all around the fair, tantalizing even the most resolute. “There’s tons of food,” Sam said. “We’ll eat well, real cheap, whatever we do. I’ve spent just about every waking hour in the last month planning and arranging this shindig.”

And,” Kate said as she linked her arm into his, “he subjected the food and beverage purveyors to more scrutiny than the artists and craftspeople.”

Jade laughed and said, “That’s true! He was like a rabid dog with the Burger Shack guy.”

No franchises,” Sam said, laughing. “That was the number-one rule. We want local people and local establishments only; that’s what I told ’em. Same as the artists.”

Sam!” Jade said, sniffing the air. “Do I smell Thai?”

Yes, ma’am,” Sam said, tipping his baseball cap. “I tried to represent all the flavors the people of this city like. We’ve got India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand. And of course all the usual American, Mexican, and European suspects—corn dogs, burgers, tacos, corn-on-the-cob, croissants, perogi, brats. You name it, we got it.”

The numerous microbreweries of Ledford were well represented also, thanks to Sam’s rule against franchises. Colorful labels sported such names as Two Crow Brew, Red Raven Ale, Bog Birch Beer, and Crow’s Eye Wild Lager. Wilder Island Brewery, the city’s oldest and finest, committed all profits from their number-one selling beer, Crow Wing Ale, over the weekend of the arts and crafts fair to the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust.

The friends found a table and sat down with their food and beer, laying out a smorgasbord of international cuisine. They ate till they could hold no more.

The sun set gorgeously, reflecting brilliant red, yellow, pink, and orange hues off the fluffy clouds that floated on the horizon. A large flock of crows appeared above the treetops on Wilder Island. Coalescing into a swirling spectacle of black wings, the crows flew a great circular flight pattern against the last colors of the sunset.

Reminiscent of the famed photograph in the city library, Murder of Crows, the crowds at the fair and milling around the River Queen gasped in delight. A roar of approval and applause erupted from both sides of the island, and for a few moments, a pervasive sense of community overtook human and crow, and the spirits of both species soared.

 

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