Corvus Rising – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Catching The Wind

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he do, Zazu?” JoEd asked.

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

Why did they do that, Zazu?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no sign of the young crow.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Try it!” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why did you stop hearing the wind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly!” Jena said, and both women laughed.

Jade laughed too, though nervously.

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

 

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

It is Charlotte …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo said, “My pleasure, Jade.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thank God for artists, eh?” Kate said.

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

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

Yes.”

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

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

And why do you want her released?”

Because she is not crazy.”

Then why is she there?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-but, how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light turned, and they stepped into the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte,” Alfredo said. “Charlotte Steele.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What art fair?” Henry growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfredo nodded. “That it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Eminent Domain

 

The River Queen will remain in permanent dry-dock here on the west side of the river,” Henry told the small group of Ledford city officials as he pointed to the lovely miniature riverboat. “You’ll be able to see it from Downtown and the Waterfront. There’ll be a ferry coming in from both sides of the city, docking on the rocky point below the old chapel ruins. We’ll have a marker there, commemorating Maxmillian Wilder’s life and legacy.”

Henry Braun stood while eight others sat in chairs around the architectural model of Ravenwood Resort. The mayor, his secretary, and six heads of city departments were there: Planning and Zoning, Environment, Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and Neighborhood Relations.

Of the group, Henry was sure he had four of them in his pocket: Tourism, Economic Development, Water, and the Mayor himself. They all saw the light, even if they might’ve needed a little shove in the right direction. That’s a majority! He chuckled to himself. I’ve got this in the bag!

The model around which they all were seated was huge. Complete with lights and running water, the miniature River Queen bobbed up and down in the current generated by her own paddlewheel. Gone were the overgrown forests of Wilder Island and the newly restored hermit’s chapel. Trees obediently lined the sidewalks and cobbled streets instead, and tidy green lawns of manicured grass bordered with flowers surrounded concrete-lined fountains sporting sculptures of leaping fish.

Henry turned a switch on a transformer, and a small scale-model train emerged from a tunnel. Eight pairs of eyes followed the tiny steam engine around the little island as it blew its whistle and flashed its lights. “What resort would be complete without a train?” Henry asked the smiling faces around the table. “Completely electric, so no smokestacks or smog—just a little steam puff every now and then.”

The tiny train rolled past groups of miniature people walking along the boardwalk next to the river and chugged past hotels, restaurants, and the amusement park, where the Ferris wheel spun like a hypnotic pinwheel of lights. “The train will shuttle people anywhere they want to go,” Henry said, pointing to the tiny track. “To the casinos, the shopping mall, restaurants, Kid Land. Anywhere they want to go. Free of charge. They just hop on and off as they wish!”

The officials watched the little train begin another loop; a tiny puff of steam erupted from its engine. The whole scene was rather enchanting. Henry saw the smiles, the relaxed shoulders. The officials were charmed, he thought with a smug smile. Who can resist a choo-choo? Just about time to move in for the kill.

Over here,” Henry said, “is Kid Land.” Colored lights adorned the miniature Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and water-park slides that presided over the amusement park. “Complete with day-care workers and lifeguards to look after the youngsters while Mommy and Daddy are at the gaming tables!”

Henry pushed another button on the control panel, and the River Queen sputtered to life. He steered the boat around the island, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a replica of the old River Queen paddleboat that traveled up and down the river in the last century. She’s been in dry dock, getting renovated into the first riverboat casino in the state. In Phase II, I’ll bring in her newly restored sister, the Delta Dawn.”

Yes, Henry,” the director of the Water Department said, “I’m sure she’s very pretty. But what’s the bottom line here? You ask us to condemn this property? What’s in it for Ledford?”

I am glad you asked that,” Henry said magnanimously. “Bottom line: Ravenwood Resort is Ledford’s cash cow. In perpetuity. Right now, Wilder Island is nothing but a mosquito-infested swamp, to say nothing of the unsustainable crow population, which has for decades been too large for the island to handle. I am talking about progress before crows.”

Henry was proud of the slogan he made up, “progress before crows.” He paused for a drink of water, looking around the room as he unscrewed the top of the bottle. Predictable scowls and smiles all around.

Ravenwood Resort is a recreational facility that the entire city can enjoy,” he continued. “But the greatest gift Ravenwood Resort will give the city of Ledford is to fill its coffers with tax revenue, as well as provide up to eleven hundred new jobs.”

No one stirred for a few moments, until finally the Mayor remembered his cue.

Very provocative, Henry,” he said. “Now let’s see some numbers.”

Of course,” Henry said. “That would be my pleasure. If I may direct your attention to the screen?”

A colorful pie chart sprang to life as Henry turned the data projector on. Circling the pie chart on the screen with a laser pointer, he began his speech. “We expect a gross revenue of fifty million dollars in the first year after Phase I completion. Triple that when Phase II is complete. We estimate city revenue from our operations to be in the neighborhood of eight million per year, once we get going. Maybe more.”

Henry heard a low whistle at the other end of the table. He nodded and said, “Exactly. Please note, ladies and gentlemen, that I have broken down our expected revenue from each of the operations. Casino income, that’s the biggest slice at 78 percent.” Henry zeroed in on each segment of the pie chart in their turn with the laser pointer. “Hotels and Restaurants, 13 percent; Amusement Park, 7 percent, Ferry, 2 percent.” He rattled off the numbers, his words falling like coins from his mouth.

The current level of gross receipts tax on all Ledford business transactions,” he said, advancing the slide on the screen to another pie chart, “is 7.38 percent. The state takes 5.2 percent, leaving 2.18 percent for the city of Ledford. Now, 2.18 percent of 50,000,000 is …” Henry stopped again to advance the slide, pausing an extra second or two for effect.

In the largest font possible, “$1,090,000.00” glittered and sparkled like a jackpot against a soft background photo of the future Ravenwood Resort.

Jade opened her eyes. Willow B’s face was not two inches from hers; his golden eyes seemed to have bored through her sleep. After scratching him behind the ear for a few minutes and listening to his raspy purr, she stretched and sat up. She could hear Russ in the shower.

We’re going to Wilder Island today, Willow B,” she said as she put her robe on. “Crow Island is more like it, though. We’re going to be in a land trust. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I guess we’ll find out.”

Crow Dreams. Crow Island. Crow Backyard. The little messengers from the beyond, trying to tell me something. Maybe someone is dead. Russ had rolled his eyes at that one. But he had not offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the frequency of crows in her life.

You live in a city that has a plethora of them,” Russ had said. “They’re freaking everywhere, hon. And besides, you’ve been painting them since your childhood, so this is evidently not a sudden phenomenon.”

I rest my case!” Jade cried. “Crows have haunted me my entire life!”

Curiosity overwhelmed her anxiety and fantasies in the end, and she was excited at the opportunity to see the famed island. Besides, Russ would be there. And the Jesuit—he would be there too. Probably the crows liked him, and she would be safe by association, so really there was nothing to worry about. Really.

Clear and blue, the river sparkled in the morning sun. Russ was driving, so Jade could unhook, admire, and even lose herself in the scenery. The newly restored chapel was especially beautiful in the morning shadows. Elegant and silent, its roof a bleached, gray-white tangle of dead branches cradled within the saturated greens of the dense forest under a clear blue sky. Like a painting. Jade smiled, thinking of the hundreds if not thousands of Wilder Island paintings flooding the Ledford art market.

Do you think the Jesuit says Mass for the crows?” she said. “Do they listen to his sermons, or ignore him and think about breakfast, like we do?” She visualized a flock of crows in the chapel.Do they eat the bread and drink the wine?”

The Jesuit’s name is Alfredo Manzi,” Russ said, looking at her sternly. “He is my colleague and my friend. Can you please show a little respect? Please?”

I promise,” Jade said, “I will be the perfect picture of the college professor’s elegant wife.”

In your dreams!” Russ said with a grin. “And what a bore! I’ll settle for the eccentric yet not totally bonkers wife of the college professor. Think you can manage that?”

I’ll do my best,” Jade said with a satyr-like grin.

I love you, babe,” Russ said, shaking his head. “God help me.”

He parked the car, and they walked down to the dock where a floating iron forest on pontoons glided soundlessly into one of the slots. “Yo, Russ!” the Captain called out as he tied off the boat. His hat in one hand, he extended the other and invited them to climb aboard and join the red-haired woman seated on one of the benches.

Hi, I’m Kate Herron,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m the attorney for the land trust.”

Nice to meet you,” Jade said. “I’m Jade Matthews, and this is my husband, Russ.”

And here comes Sam,” Kate said with a grin.

An old, beat up, flesh-colored pickup truck roared into the parking lot, spraying gravel as its driver slammed it to a halt. A window went down, and an arm appeared and opened the door from the outside. A sandy-haired man in tight blue jeans and a red plaid shirt jumped out and hollered, “Morning, Captain! Don’t be taking off without me, now!”

He leaped onto the boat, and Jade said, “Sam! I thought I recognized that old truck! You coming to Wilder Island too? For the land trust meeting?”

I am!” Sam said. “I guess you are too! That really rocks. Hey, Russ! Nice to have you aboard!”

Thanks,” Russ said, shaking Sam’s outstretched hand.

Sam put an arm around Kate and gave her a hug as the Captain pushed the boat away from the dock with his wooden oar. Jade admired the beautiful, honey brown wood, finely carved with waterfowl and fish leaping through foamy waves. With a start, she noticed that a crow perched on the railing next to the captain as he rowed. I guess that’s not too unusual in these waters, next to an island full of crows. But who has one as a pet?

Russ nudged her arm and pointed upward. Her amazement increased at the full grandeur of the Captain’s boat. Tree trunks of wrought iron and chased metal held up a canopy of branches and leaves over their heads, through which flew a few small birds, both real and crafted of metal.

The Captain steered the boat around the northernmost tip of the island and into the quiet waters of an inlet. Alfredo stood on the bank, waiting for the Captain to throw him the rope.

Thanks, Captain!” he called out after his guests stepped off the boat.

G’day, Padre.” He tipped his hat and shoved off.

Great day, is it not?” Alfredo reached to shake Russ’s hand.

Alfredo, this is my wife, Jade,” Russ said, his other hand on Jade’s back.

Russ has told me about you!” Alfredo said, his hands encasing hers. “You are an artist, a painter, he tells me.”

Yes,” Jade said, taken aback at his warmth and sincerity.

I presume you all met each other on the way over?” They all nodded, and he continued, “Good, good. Jade, I hope you find inspiration here.”

I’m already inspired,” Jade said, blushing, “just from the boat ride. The island is so beautiful!”

She’ll have a painting done by Sunday night,” Russ said with a grin. “It’ll be extraordinary. Tell them about your show, honey.”

Jade blushed again and said, “It’s a one-person show at Jena McRae’s gallery Downtown. I’ll send you an invitation to the opening reception. It’s next Friday.”

I will be there,” Alfredo said. “I know Jena’s gallery well.”

Send me one also,” Kate said. “I love art shows!”

Me too, Jade,” Sam said. “You know I’m a fan of your work.” He winked at her.

You two know each other then?” Alfredo said, pointing to Jade and Sam.

We do,” Jade said. “We worked on the Urban Art Project the city put on last year. Were you here then? People brought all their discarded metal and stuff, and a group of sculptors, Sam for one, made it into a big art piece for the park next to the Waterfront.”

Yeah,” Sam said. “Jade brought the most amazing stuff to the project. It was great fun!”

Then you are aware of Sam’s artistic talents,” Alfredo said. “You will be pleased to discover his latest work in the chapel garden!”

 

As they left the inlet, Jade looked back over her shoulder several times, half expecting to see a swarm of crows following her. She heard birdcalls everywhere but saw no crows. They walked up the embankment and onto a path. “My cottage is just over there,” Alfredo said, pointing, “but I will take you the long way around, through the chapel and the gardens.”

Where are all the crows? Jade looked all around her and into the tree branches overhead. She stumbled on a rock, and Russ grabbed her hand and directed her attention to the plethora of wildflowers all around them.

Aren’t they gorgeous?” he said. “You’ll have to come back with me sometime and paint while I find a whole new flower unknown to mankind.”

The chapel roof appeared through the trees, and a few minutes later they stepped into the garden. An assortment of pink-and-white water lilies and irises decorated the pond.

You must have a green thumb, Alfredo,” Russ said. “This is beautiful.”

Thank you,” Alfredo said. “I am but a humble gardener.”

Oh my God!” Jade said. “That’s incredible!” She turned to Alfredo. “This is what you were talking about! I’d recognize Sam’s work anywhere.”

A metal sculpture arose from the pond, an unexpected assemblage of the rusted remains of derelict automobiles juxtaposed against shapes cut from discarded stainless steel milk tankers. From any angle, the view was breathtaking, each component an integral part of the whole, in a mosaic of shadows and spaces that reflected in the polished surfaces of the stainless steel. Elegant upward motion suggested the reach for the heavens, brought gently back to Earth by the mundane decomposition of the rusting junk that once littered the urban landscape.

Yes,” Alfredo answered for Sam, smiling proudly. “This is a very recent addition to the garden. A Sam Howard original. Signed right there.” He pointed to the signature carved into the metal base. “I was lucky to find Sam. I hired him to help with the restoration of the chapel. The sculpture in the pond was his idea. It just appeared one day. As if it grew overnight.”

Alfredo looked admiringly at the sculpture. “Sam also built my cottage. But as you observe, his true calling is to art.”

I see a giant bird about to take off,” Kate said. “Or land—I can’t tell which. But I love how you pick up the rubbish of the industrial age and make us forget that it was once all just litter.”

One man’s junk,” Sam said with a grin, “is another man’s art. Modern American artifacts—that’s what I call this stuff. It’s all over the place. Good thing it’s mostly free.”

Sam,” Jade said as she walked around the pond, “this is your finest work ever!”

Sam squinted up at the sculpture. “I think so too. I had one of those rare moments we all pray for, when the thing you haven’t quite envisioned just rises up and seizes you.”

And you just let it come through,” Jade said, nodding. “It has a life of its own almost, and it pulls you along.”

Yep,” Sam said. “Like that.”

Two crows flew into the garden and perched in a tree near the pond and disappeared into its shadows. Four luminous blue eyes stared down at Jade. She returned to Russ’s side, grasped his hand and stole a glance back at the tree. The eyes were still there. Eyes without bodies, hanging like blue globes in the darkness.

What amazes me, Sam,” Russ said as his hand closed around hers, “is how you managed to evoke a green forest using rusty junk metal. It’s like portraying the miracle of life using what’s essentially road kill.”

Sam threw his head back and laughed. “That’s a good one, Russ! Urban Roadkill. I’ll have to create that one. But yes, that’s where I get a lot of my raw material—all along the highways. Car parts, pieces of buildings, farm equipment. Anything metal—gutters, pipes, corrugated siding, old furnaces, air-conditioners. Mufflers and license plates—those are everywhere—but occasionally I pick up something cool like a radiator or an engine fan.”

Very green,” Russ said. “I’m impressed, Sam!”

Jade tried desperately to not look at the two crows in the trees. Why am I so nervous? It’s not like they’re going to come down and attack me.

I’m the Queen of Recycling,” Kate said. “Anyone who picks up rubbish in the landscape is my hero. Especially if they make art with it.” She smiled coyly at Sam, who looked down at his feet.

The chapel is so lovely from the river,” Jade said suddenly, hoping Alfredo would get them out of there and away from those eyes. “I can’t wait to see it up close, Alfredo! Can we go in?”

But of course!” he said. “Sam? Would you mind heading over to my cottage and making the coffee? We will be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

Sure thing,” Sam said.

I’ll go with him,” Kate said. “I’ve gotten the tour already.”

Jade noticed the goofy look on Kate’s face when she looked at Sam, who blushed deep red and grinned stupidly at the ground. Hmmm. Love blossoms on Wilder Island. She turned back toward the tree where the two crows had been. They’re gone. Relieved, she turned to follow the others.

Shall we?” Alfredo said, indicating the direction they should take.

Greetings, Fair Lady!” a voice above them said.

At least that’s what Jade thought she heard. She slowed down and looked up into the tree under which they walked. A blue-eyed crow stared back. “I beg your pardon?” she said, glancing quickly toward Russ and the others. None of them noticed her or the crow. When she turned back, the crow still gazed down at her.

Alfredo,” Jade said, walking quickly to join him, “Russ told me you have deciphered some crow words, but do they also speak English? I think that crow just spoke to me! Or am I crazy?”

Careful how you answer that, Alfredo!” Russ said with a grin. “At least the crazy part!”

Alfredo smiled and said, “You are not crazy, Jade! It is possible that the crow spoke to you. They are very intelligent birds and have marvelous vocabularies. I have been able to teach them a few English words here and there as well. What did he say?”

“‘Greetings, Fair Lady,’” Jade said. “At least I think that’s what he said.”

Alfredo frowned and said, “Interesting. That is not one of the phrases I taught them.” He shrugged. “But crows are very magnanimous, and this one could have picked it up anywhere. Many of these crows fly across the water to the city.”

I didn’t know crows spoke English,” Russ said, one eyebrow raised. He turned to Jade and said, “Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t know you understood crow.”

Jade felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her, expecting an answer. “I—I don’t,” she stammered. “I just thought the crow said something. It sounded like English.”

They can be taught to speak a few words of most any language,” Alfredo replied. “Just like parrots, though I do believe both birds understand what they are saying.”

Jade looked back for the crow as they started along the path to the chapel. It was gone.

 

Henry smiled at the heads of the five city departments that formed the condemnation committee. “Just over one million dollars, folks. And we expect that to double in the first five years.” He circled the sparkly numbers with a red laser pointer. “Think about it. Over a million dollars for the city, and all you have to do is condemn Wilder Island and watch the money flow in.”

The Mayor started to clap, cutting off Henry’s conclusion. He was nodding and smiling as he looked around the table. No one else joined his applause.

Now just a damn minute,” the Planning and Zoning Department director said as he smacked the table suddenly with his palm. “Mr. Braun, you’ve yet to swing this casino park of yours through the permitting process.” He gestured toward the extravagant model of Ravenwood Resort. “This is adorable, but how do we know you’re not just blowing smoke? Let’s see some details. I for one am not going to vote until we see exactly what you plan to do.”

Henry watched the Mayor sink back into his chair. The coward!

The island won’t support a large human population,” Environment piped up. “It’s full of bogs and swamps and places where the water’s found its way down cracks and fractures. You’d have to bring in a mountain of dirt to fill all that in.”

Well,” Henry said amiably, “that’ll be my problem, now won’t it? It’s a matter of money and machine. I got both.”

Well, you don’t got a building permit,” Planning and Zoning said in a vaguely mocking tone.

Henry clamped back the anger that surged up from his gut. Stay calm! That’s what Jules had said. Think before you speak. Look out the window, get a drink of water, do something, anything, to keep your cool.

He reached for his water bottle, and as he took a sip, he noticed the two crows on the windowsill. He thought they looked familiar and then reminded himself that all crows look alike. But he didn’t like how they stared at him and wondered if they were bugged.

And until I see your plans for a sewage treatment facility, and a plan for maintaining safe drinking water and controlling run-off,” Environment was saying, “you won’t get one. And I suggest, Mr. Mayor, that Mr. Braun be so required to submit some details before we vote. Do you really want an environmental disaster on your hands?”

Henry pulled an exceedingly white handkerchief out of his pockets and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. The crows on the windowsill had not broken their gaze. He wished he could throw his shoe at them. Calm, stay calm.

Now, now,” the Mayor said soothingly, looking toward Henry. “There’s no need to come all unraveled here. Mr. Braun has already promised us complete compliance with everything. Isn’t that right, Henry?”

Absolutely!” Henry said, grateful the mayor had come to his aid, finally. “Ravenwood Resort will be eco-friendly. We’ll be helping save the environment by using as much timber as we can from the island’s own forests.”

Henry savored the appalled expression on Environment’s face. “And we’ll be using the island’s natural filtration system—its vast network of underground caves—to filter and process our wastewater. Through these natural wetlands, we’ll actually return cleaner water to the river than when we found it!” He smiled broadly all around the model.

Are you insane, Henry?” Environment said angrily. “You think you’re going to pump sewage underground and have it come out as spring water? You’ll never fly that by my department without precise and complete code-compliant engineering drawings and—”

A car alarm went off outside the building, its shrill, urgent tone screaming through the open window. Henry licked his lips, trying to stay composed. “Enough!” he wanted to shout. Careful! Stay calm. He took a deep breath. It was hard to remain calm, too hard almost, with these simpletons going on and on about such trivia. He clenched his mouth shut tightly.

The alarm suddenly stopped. Henry exhaled and took out his handkerchief again. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled broadly.

I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this one, Henry,” Planning and Zoning said. “This is sewage you’re talking about here. You can’t just pump it underground or into the river. We need to see how you plan to—”

Henry inhaled slowly and deeply as he counted to ten. Just like Jules had taught him. Exhale two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He wished he couldn’t hear his heart pounding in his ears.

Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, smiling with an overly robust pretense of camaraderie. He ignored the sour look on Neighborhood Relations’ face. “I intend to fully comply with all your rules, codes, and regs. Have no worries! Trust me! This is just an overview of Ravenwood Resort. I am merely submitting a proposal today.”

He turned to the Mayor and smiled. You were supposed to back me up on this one! “Surely I am not expected to pay the enormous expense of hiring engineers before I have your condemnation?”

Mr. Braun is correct,” the Mayor said, nervously shaking his head. “The entire set of engineering drawings isn’t required for us to condemn the island under eminent domain. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it! Meanwhile, Mr. Braun has shown us a reasonable proposal of what he intends to do with Wilder Island. Let’s continue with the condemnation proceedings, and if the committee so decides, we shall require Mr. Braun to submit the required documentation to build the resort.”

Mr. Mayor,” Environment said, “of what use is it to condemn and kick the Jesuits and the birds off the island if he can’t come up with a viable plan? Then what? How will you explain that to the people? Some of them, most of them I’ll warrant, love the island. You’d best tread carefully here, Mr. Mayor. Mr. Braun must show us he has a viable plan before we vote to condemn.”

Henry watched the Mayor start to cave, and he resisted the strong temptation to pick up his chair and heave it at the unctuous little weasel. Calm! Stay calm! He heard Jules’s voice. He looked out the window. Damn those crows! They’re like little spies, watching my every move.

Mr. Braun,” the Mayor said, licking his lips nervously. “You know I’m a supporter of Ravenwood Resort. But these gentlemen speak truthfully. The public is quite sensitive to environmental concerns—issues of water quality and the like. May I remind you, I’m an elected official, and the Mayor appoints all the department heads around this table. That is, me. We must tread very delicately here, or the public will flay us alive.”

I’ll flay you alive, you miserable pantywaist. The two crows on the windowsill smirked at him behind their beaks. He looked away. Inhale two, three, four …

His hand found the switch to the choo-choo, and he flipped it on. The tiny train steamed to life and began its winding way around the island. It calmed him, and he watched it for a few moments, feeling his anxiety diminish. “Folks,” he said after a few moments of watching. “Ravenwood Resort has something for everyone—jobs, fun, money. I promise to comply with all building codes and laws. I can say no more to convince you. I’m in your hands.”

Silence permeated the room for a few moments, except for the tiny sound of the little choo-choo, cheerfully chugging around the island. Tourism and Economic Development scowled at Planning and Zoning, who glared at Henry. Environment tapped irritably on the table with his pencil. Neighborhood Relations scribbled furiously while Water causally doodled upon their respective covers of their Ravenwood Resort proposals.

Finally the Mayor spoke. “Yes, well, thank you, Mr. Braun. Wonderful presentation, just wonderful. The ball is now in our court, my friends, and we’ll take this all under advisement. We’ll have a decision for you in a week or so, Mr. Braun.”

 

Alfredo opened the door to the chapel, and the roof seized his guests’ attention. They gazed upward through the white branches Bruthamax and Hozey wove together, to the blue sky beyond.

NoExit and his family peered down from their nest, and Alfredo nodded to them. He directed Russ and Jade’s attention to the singular bench and kneeler in front of the altar. “Marvelous, is it not? The old hermit hacked it from driftwood,” he said. “It is held together by railroad spikes. Brother Wilder must have salvaged them from that trestle bridge catastrophe.”

How’d he get the wood so smooth?” Russ said as he stroked the top of the kneeler. “It’s like polished stone.”

The river and the sandy beaches did most of it,” Alfredo said. “The sun and time did the rest. Evidently Brother Maxmillian picked up whatever lumber he needed from the riverbanks. The timber mill upstream loses a log now and then, and many end up here.”

Jade wandered to the place where Alfredo had found Brother Maxmillian’s remains. “Whatever happened to the old hermit?” she asked. “Did he die here on the island?”

Yes,” Alfredo answered. “His bones were in here the first time I visited, just about where you’re standing, Jade.”

She looked at him with a stricken expression and then down at the floor, as if she expected to see the old hermit’s bones.

They were picked clean and pure white,” Alfredo said as he walked over to where she stood. “I collected them all and gave him a proper funeral. His grave is outside.”

Jade shut her eyes tightly, shaking her head murmuring, “No, no, no.”

I am so sorry!” Alfredo said, taking her arm and moving her away from the spot. He handed her off to Russ. “I did not mean to upset you.” What a strange woman she is. And Russ is so straight-laced and down-to-earth.

You didn’t upset me,” Jade said weakly, sagging against Russ. “I just thought for a moment I saw his dead body, and several crows and ravens were eating him.” She shivered. “They all had these really cold blue eyes. I had a dream about one, and it—”

My wife has an extremely vivid imagination,” Russ said, interrupting her. “Sometimes it gets the better of her.”

Blue-eyed crows and ravens eating Brother Max’s flesh! That was not her imagination. How did she know? Is she clairvoyant? Though abashed that he, a scientist, would entertain such a thought, he couldn’t think how else she would know. He recalled her claim in the garden that a crow had said, “Greetings, fair lady!” He looked at her closely. I wonder, is she Patua’?

That is an interesting anomaly about the crows on the island, Jade,” he said. “Crows are born with blue eyes, like human babies. But in the vast majority of cases, their eyes turn black or brown as soon as they’re ready to leave the nest. Except for this island. For some reason, a lot of crows’ eyes stay blue all their lives.”

Really?” Russ said. “That’s interesting. But I suppose not entirely surprising that a genetic enclave exists here, considering the island is cut off from the mainland.”

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “While it is a short fly for these birds, and many leave for new territories elsewhere, evidently enough have stayed on the island to keep those blue eyes in the gene pool. I am quite charmed by them.”

Well I’m not,” Jade said. “I keep dreaming of crows. And they’re not very nice.”

Alfredo looked at Russ with raised eyebrows. Russ merely shrugged, shook his head, and rolled his eyes.

Alfredo,” Russ said, looking up at the roof, “it must get pretty wet in here when it rains.”

It does,” Alfredo said. “Sam and I wove a few more branches in, to keep it slightly drier in here than it was. I do not have to be here during increment weather, however. The Good Lord will accept our prayers anywhere.”

Do you say Mass here?” Jade said suddenly. “Does anyone come?”

Every Sunday,” the priest said, “at dawn. No humans, of course, but a few birds usually attend—crows mostly. Saying Mass in this chapel is more like a meditation. I do miss a congregation, I suppose. But you are welcome anytime if ever you wish to attend.”

Perhaps,” Russ said. “This place reminds me of my altar-boy days somehow. Don’t ask me why.”

As they left the chapel, Jade gasped. Dozens of black birds perched on the chapel roof, and many more were on the ground, walking or pecking. “Oh my God,” she said, “what are they doing here?”

Alfredo laughed and said, “They live here! They noticed I had visitors and are curious. They will not harm you.”

Jade skirted around the other side of her husband, avoiding even a glance at the crows hanging around the chapel.

 

Sam and Kate had coffee made and the table set with cups, plates, and a large platter of cookies when Alfredo arrived at the cottage with Russ and Jade. “Sit down, everyone,” Alfredo said, gesturing toward the small table. “It will be a bit tight, but we are all friends.”

After they were seated nearly elbow-to-elbow, Jade pointed to the fob on the end of the lamp chain and said to Russ in a whisper, “Look at that!”

Look at what?” Alfredo said, as he brought a carafe of coffee to the table. “Oh, yes, is it not marvelous? I found it in the chapel. I think it must have belonged to Brother Maxmillian.”

Jade has one almost exactly like it,” Russ said. Jade nudged him to be quiet. “Show it to him, honey!”

You have a similar piece?” Alfredo asked. “May I see it?”

He put his hand out, and his sudden interest made Jade recoil. Russ nudged and her said, “C’mon, honey, show it to him. No one’s going to take it from you.”

What is it?” Kate asked.

Reluctantly, Jade drew out her medallion on its leather cord and held it up to Alfredo without taking it off. “It was my mother’s,” she said, her hands shaking. “At least that’s what I’ve always believed. I never knew her, so I don’t really know.”

Alfredo held Jade’s medallion carefully. “They’re astonishingly similar,” he said, dropping both. “What a delightful mystery that we each have one!”

Jade dropped the medallion back under her shirt and blurted out, “I have dreams about crows all the time, mostly scary ones, but sometimes my mother is in them too. One time I thought the crows were trying to steal this, and I’ve been hiding it from them ever since.”

Interesting,” Alfredo said. He felt a certain kinship with her, but he wondered why she was so reluctant to show him her orb.

What is it?” Kate asked again, taking the fob at the end of the lamp chain into her hand. “It feels like stone, yet it’s so delicately carved.”

Sam took a turn examining the fob. He tapped it against his teeth and said, “It’s definitely wood. A very hard wood. Can’t tell what kind, though.”

You said you found it in the chapel?” Russ asked.

Yes,” Alfredo said. “Under the old hermit’s bones. Evidently he wore it around his neck.”

Jade made a distasteful face and looked out the window. Alfredo poured coffee into everyone’s cups. Was Jade’s mother Patua’? Why else would she have had an orb? If her mother was Patua’…

 

Jade reached for the cookie platter and took two. After a few bites, she said, “Alfredo! These are wonderful! Where did you get them?”

I baked them,” Alfredo said with a smile as he sat down, “in my easy-bake solar oven!”

The others laughed uproariously. “Seriously?” Jade asked. “You baked them? I had no idea you were so talented.” She bit into her second cookie.

I love to bake,” Alfredo said. “My grandmother taught me when I was a boy. I used to help her bake pies at Christmas, and dinner rolls every Sunday. I bake the Communion wafers for St. Sophia’s to supplement my generous stipend from the Jesuits.”

Truly a man of many talents,” Kate said. “Priest, scholar, baker. Who knew?”

She pulled her briefcase up to the table and opened it, saying, “All right then. Welcome, board of directors of the Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust! As you all know, the Padre and I hammered out the land trust in the last couple weeks. Here are the bylaws and the articles of incorporation.” She tossed several spiral-bound booklets onto the table.

First, a little history,” she said. “Henry Braun approached the Jesuits to buy the island, and we turned him down. But that hasn’t stopped him.”

What does he want to do with the island?” Jade asked.

He wants to turn it into a casino resort park,” Alfredo said. “Evidently he is not happy with his current wealth.”

Wow,” Sam said. “He lives in a freaking mansion, has a chauffeur drive him around in his Bentley, and he wants more. What a pig!”

Even as we speak,” Kate was saying, “he’s presenting a proposal to the Mayor and certain city department heads, asking them to condemn the island as a nuisance—what did he call it, Padre?”

Fallow,” Alfredo said. “And derelict.”

The fob on the lamp chain swayed slightly as if in protest. Jade finished her second cookie and grabbed another off the plate. She looked around the table. Everyone else was still working on cookie number one. She put the third cookie on her plate and put her hands in her lap, hoping the others had not noticed what a pig she was.

Russ shook his head, frowning. He reached across the table for a cookie. “But how can he do that? The Jesuits said they wouldn’t sell.”

He’s using the eminent domain laws,” Kate said, “to force us to sell the island to him. But, he won’t succeed, at least not this time. The land trust is a done deal, as of yesterday morning at 8:13 a.m., thanks to all of you for doing the electronic signature thing on the Internet.”

Jade took two quick bites from her cookie and put it back on her plate. She chewed slowly, trying to savor every bite. Trying to not think too much about the remaining cookies on the platter.

Thanks to you, Kate,” Alfred said. “I am impressed and amazed at how quickly you got the land trust drawn up and filed. I just hope it will be enough to stop Henry Braun.”

What’s eminent domain?” Sam asked, dunking his cookie into his coffee.

Two more cookies on the plate. Russ has had two now, Kate two, Sam two. Me three. She glanced at Alfredo’s plate. He had not finished his first.

It’s a right guaranteed to the government,” Kate said, waving her cookie as she spoke, “to condemn and sell private property to another individual for the purpose of development. Up until recently, it was only used to acquire property for roads and public buildings. But now, eminent domain is a tool to condemn private property for private commercial development, though this is flabbergasting to the vast majority of us.”

But what about the Jesuits?” Russ asked. “Will they let us make a land trust out of their island?”

Jade studied her cookie, resisting the urge to cram it into her mouth. One of the chocolate chips had melted in the oven and hardened into a shape that resembled a crow in flight. Oh God, stop it! She bit the crow off and ate it.

The Jesuits donated the island to the land trust,” Alfredo said. “It was the Father Provincial’s idea to do this. In fact, the whole land trust was his idea. Things might have turned out a lot differently had Henry Braun not been so annoying. It just really irked Majewski—the idea of anyone tearing down a consecrated Jesuit chapel to build a casino.”

Jade finished off her third cookie and drained her coffee cup. Sam took the second-to-last-cookie from the plate.

And even when I told him,” Kate said, laughing, “that the island would probably be assessed at upward of Henry’s original offer of five million dollars, his reply was something like: ‘Henry Braun could offer me the golden gates of hell, and I’d still rather see our chapel and nothing but several thousand crows on Wilder Island.’”

I thought heaven had the golden gates. Oh, wait. Pearly gates. Hell’s gates are more valuable than heaven’s?

Speaking of the chapel,” Jade said, “what will become of it?” She poured herself another cup of coffee from the carafe, wondering if someone was going to take that last cookie.

The Jesuits will keep ownership of the chapel and the small plot of land it sits on,” Alfredo said. “And I will say Mass every morning to my congregation of crows, same as I do now.”

But, Kate,” Russ said, looking up from the proposal, “wouldn’t it be easier to fight eminent domain if the Church still owns the whole island? Aren’t churches immune?”

Jade tried to ignore the last cookie. She looked out the window. A crow flew by, shrieking, “Give me a cookie!” Startled, she glanced at Alfredo. Did he hear it?

Legally,” Kate said, “nothing can stop it—not even the Catholic Church. A land trust can’t stop eminent domain either. We can only prescribe what will be done with our island if we’re forced to sell it.” She picked the last cookie off the platter, broke it in two, and returned one half to the plate.

So that’s how you do it! Just take half! Jade resisted pouncing on the other half.

But, how can this be?” Russ asked, aghast. “How can the city condemn private property, for God’s sake? For a gambling resort? That’s just wrong. And there’s nothing we can do?”

We’re not complete victims,” Kate said. “We can fight back.”

Russ reached past her, took the last half cookie off the platter, broke it, popped one piece in his mouth, and left the other on the plate.

Dang! I should’ve made my move. She wondered how many times the cookie could be broken in two.

We have some protections built into the land trust,” Kate said, “that’ll make it hard for him to build his casino. But if he wins the eminent domain battle, he’ll still fight us tooth and nail to thwart the intent of the land trust. And he’s got a lot more money than the five of us combined will ever see.”

Jade’s resistance broke down, and she snatched the last quarter of the last cookie and popped it into her mouth, all in one piece.

 

Alfredo went to the kitchen area and brought back a plastic container. He opened it and refilled the cookie platter. Jade reached over and took one, followed by Russ, Sam, and Kate.

Does anyone want more coffee?” he asked with an amused smile. Everyone shook their heads, and he sat back down.

What about endangered species?” Sam asked through a mouthful of cookie. “Or a wilderness designation? Can’t we go that route too?”

Alfredo shook his head, but before he could speak, Kate said, “First we would need to get a Wilder Island animal on the endangered species list.”

Aren’t the blue-eyed crows unusual?” Russ asked, turning to Alfredo. “Have you ever heard of a population of crows with blue eyes anywhere else?”

No,” Alfredo said. “But even so, it is difficult to imagine convincing anyone that crows of any eye color are an endangered species.”

Too bad crows can’t talk, eh?” Kate said. She winked at Alfredo. “That’d get us on the list pronto!”

Alfredo stared at the attorney. Does she know? He had met with Kate a few times since Majewski left and wondered if he had told her. Surely she would have let on by now.

They do talk, actually,” Russ said, waving a cookie at Kate. “Alfredo has discovered they have a rich and varied vocabulary.”

Do tell!” Kate said, a wicked smile on her face. “I have long thought that all the animals have some form of language. If only we could understand it.”

Jade nodded in agreement, and Sam stared at Alfredo with a fearful look.

The corvid have an extensive vocabulary,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a relaxed smile. “As richly varied as any human language, I think. They have a significantly more intricate language than we humans give them credit for. As do many other animal species.”

Sam visibly relaxed as Kate nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “We assume we’re alone at the top of the evolutionary heap, when in fact we have merely clawed our way to the top of the food chain. And we’re not alone there either.”

We’re our own predators,” Russ said. “What other species can make that claim?”

Black widow spiders can,” Sam said.

But they eat their prey, Sam!” Kate said with a grin. “Humans just kill each other.”

Speaking of predators,” Sam said, “this whole eminent domain thing seems like human preying on human to me. I mean, this is America, isn’t it? And we’re supposed to just roll over, let the government take away our private property, and hand it over to the highest bidder? I just can’t stomach it.”

Alfredo remembered his conversation with Charlie about property and ownership. “You cannot own anything you cannot carry …” Perhaps the corvids are right. All this fuss about ownership. In the end, the Earth owns itself. We borrow pieces of it and entertain greedy illusions that it is ours.

Hardly anyone can,” Kate said. “That’s the main advantage we have; public opinion on our side, whether or not people approve of the casino park. We need to rally the folks of Ledford to our cause.” Kate paused to take a bite of cookie and wash it down with a gulp of coffee. “So, we need a brand, a logo.” She turned to Jade. “You think you can come up with one for us?”

I can!” Jade said.

A brand?” Alfredo asked, blinking and frowning. “Why do we need a brand? We’re not selling anything.”

Indeed we are, Padre,” Kate said. “We’re selling an idea. We want to get the folks of Ledford stirred up and rally around a place they will never see, if we have our way.”

Never underestimate the power of the brand,” Sam said.

Right,” Kate said, throwing a quick grin at him, “Wilder Island is part of the history of this city, a legacy that’s owned by everyone. That’s the only way people, religious or otherwise, have beaten eminent domain condemnation.”

It’s true,” Jade said. “Ledford loves Wilder Island. People have developed a whole relationship to it, almost like a religion, or at least a mythology. I doubt many will want to see it paved over with slot machines and hotels.”

Alfredo looked out the window at his private Garden of Eden. He hoped that the people of Ledford would support the island remaining intact and not need to come see for themselves what they were protecting. I do not want to share it with anyone. He scolded himself for his selfishness. But it was the truth.

That’s our point,” Kate said, nodding. “That the island is neither fallow nor derelict. But beyond all that, Wilder Island represents the heart and history of Ledford. That’s how we fight Henry Braun’s eminent domain project.”

The Friends of Wilder Island Land Trust spent the rest of the afternoon discussing ways in which to engage the people of Ledford to rally to their cause. Just before sunset, they heard a bell ring from the direction of the inlet.

That is the Captain,” Alfredo said, “coming to take you home.”

 

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

Corvus Rising – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

The Keeper’s Trance

 

The fermented mildornia berries tasted bitter in his beak, and Charlie felt his stomach rebel, but he had long since learned to control the impulse to puke it all back up. All around him and the other Keepers, the Shanshus chanted the Starting Verse, the Calling of the Trance.

Shim shu vig zhi gimki cot
Za zho glik fa vesh ni bu
Och o mishka sen say vox
Min goy mob y fin ga sook

The words meant nothing in any language to anyone save the Archivists of the corvid databases. Carefully constructed of sounds in sequence, each tone and space conveyed a command, involuntarily understood by the specially trained Keepers.

Za zho glik fa vesh ni bu
Och o mishka sen say vox
Min goy mob y fin ga sook

Charlie felt his legs stiffen as the mildornia berries took effect. His vision blurred and his beak locked. Though he could blink his eyes, paralysis settled in his wings and feet. His awareness diffused, and he couldn’t distinguish himself from his surroundings. He was one with the rest of the Keepers, one with the Shanshus, one with the Archivists, and one with the great tree in which the Encoding Ritual took place.

As Charlie sank deeper into the trance, an image arose from his own memory lattice. He saw his younger self stumbling over his own feet, meeting Starfire for the first time. Regal and elegant, the old raven called out, “Grawky!” and flapped his wings in greeting. “Blue eyes?” he had said. “You are not yet old enough to be a Keeper.”

Yes, sir. Blue eyes, sir,” Charlie had stammered as he grazed wingtips with Starfire. “I’m three years old, sir. My family lives on Cadeña-l’jadia. We’ve all got the Hozey-blue eyes.”

He had been proud the day Starfire probed and measured his memory capacity, and chanted his archival lattice into place, even though he had a headache that lasted for several days afterward. It was worth it; he could hold an exceptionally large lattice, and that made him an especially valuable Keeper.

Charlie remembered well those early days of his training as a Keeper, where he learned all the verses to all the chants. He had spent months with the Shanshus, learning how to sing the verses that put the Keepers into a semiconscious paralysis. Soon my JoEd will report for his training.

The Shanshus’ chanting grew louder, more insistent, and irresistible:

Zhan gink voor man ink fan zhee
Klee zhor mel toc vix kin go klan
Vak jist rax vor gonz chi vang
Slix yor wa dot szi zho bak

The intonations shrank Charlie’s awareness of himself, collapsing his personal memories into a temporarily repressed state, so as not to bleed into the Keeper data he was about to receive. He lost all sensation in his body. He could not move, other than to blink his eyes.

The Shanshus’ verses cajoled Charlie into the Keeper’s Trance where he lost all awareness of past, present, and future. Time ceased; all that existed was the Shanshus’ chanting. Devoid of senses and memory, his awareness knew no bounds and began an expansion that if left unchecked would become indistinguishable from the universe. The crow who knew himself as Charlie would dissolve into the vast emptiness. The Shanshus chanted a boundary that surrounded his awareness and kept his own self—his memories and attachments—intact beneath the trance.

He could hear nothing but the Shanshus, see nothing but a vast darkness as they chanted the Opening Verse of the Emplacement Ritual.

Blik blak glok mok shoo
Zik zak clok bok voo sim coo

Charlie sensed a broadening of space, as if the universe had become instantaneously larger. The chanting slowed and faded into a low hum. The Archivist stepped forward and leaned over him, uttering the Unfolding Verse, a somewhat melodious conglomerate of syncopated sounds that awakened the archival lattice embedded in Charlie’s memory.

All other Keepers and Archivists had receded beyond Charlie’s consciousness; he was aware only of his own lattice unfolding and Starfire’s voice floating somewhere above it. The old raven chanted the Unfolding Verse until the lattice completely expanded into the void space.

Quo fol hozhu gak flo ming
Zinj vox von mi aoh zam
Plak egh zhi gum nond qua yi

The lattice filled Charlie’s awareness with a tree-like structure, comprising a trunk, several main limbs, hundreds of secondary branches with thousands of auxiliary branches that ended in fan-shaped arrays of twigs. Thousands of nodes, located on every branch and twig, were programmed to receive specific data packets.

Starfire intoned a cadenced phrase that opened a node on one of the branches, which glowed with a pale blue light. After a few moments, he chanted another sequence of alliterative verse that encoded genealogical data upon a ribbon that glowed with colored light.

Charlie watched the rainbow-colored ribbon vibrate as Starfire harmonically encoded it with data. The ribbon drifted through the branches of the lattice, seeking the unique node that would open as soon as it felt the specific vibrations intoned by Starfire’s chanting. A node opened, capturing the ribbon, then it closed, and its color changed to yellow. Charlie blinked twice, paused, and blinked two more times, signaling Starfire the data ribbon had been emplaced.

Starfire began another refrain, encoded another data ribbon, and again Charlie watched it laze through his lattice until the unique blue node opened, received, and turned yellow. Over and over again, Starfire repeated the sequence. All day and far into the night, he emplaced data into Charlie’s archival lattice. Finally, as the night sky gave way to a pale gray dawn, Starfire chanted the Resting Verse:

Coo shul ay maas vay wu oh
Bu ee ray shon boy on wee

Majewski awakened to the songs of birds. Nothing else—no train whistles, no car horns, no screeching tires, no sirens. Just birds, a great many of them all chattering at once. This island is a paradise. So far from Washington. Heaven should be this wonderful.

The gray sky spoke of the coming dawn. He sat up and stretched. He could hear Alfredo outside talking to the birds. A strange, guttural squawking sound. The language of the crows. He pushed Stella back into a corner of his memory and rose from his bed and dressed.

Good morning, Thomas,” Alfredo said, as he came through the door. “How did you sleep?”

Like a baby,” Majewski said. “I have not slept that well in weeks, if not years.” He sat down at the table and eyed the strange carved fob hanging from the lamp.

I am glad to hear that,” Alfredo said with a smile. “I was worried about you last night. I thought you had gone into some sort of trance.”

Just some jet lag,” Majewski said, waving his hand. “I felt a little dizzy, that’s all. Don’t give it another thought.”

He watched a hummingbird through the open window as it hovered above a honeysuckle vine and plunged its long beak into a flower. Such a simple life. Majewski was envious.

He took the cup of coffee Alfredo handed him and said, “You know, Alfredo, after teaching for three decades, I took a desk job at Jesuit headquarters in Washington. I thought I could make a difference.”

He watched the hummingbird outside the window poke its beak into another flower.

Got all the way to the inner sanctum, to the office of the North American operation. But what a hellhole it is, headquarters. You have no idea, Alfredo. The place where you’d think brotherhood and Christ-love reigned, you have to watch your back more than perhaps anywhere else on Earth.”

Unlike the shark-infested pools of academia,” Alfredo said. He put a plate of bacon, eggs, and toast in front of Majewski.

But academia does not pretend to be about brotherly love,” Majewski said. He picked up a piece of bacon and bit the end off.

I have been to Washington DC a few times,” Alfredo said. He sat down at the table with his plate. “I found the city itself to be loud and ugly. I have never had any use for such a place, and the political intrigues of the Jesuits, or academia for that matter, never interested me. I just want to be away from all that noise, free to discover the sacred secrets of creation.”

Majewski took a drink of coffee and leaned back, looking out the window. I never want to leave this place. “It’s noisy,” he said, nodding. “Constantly. It’s all a distraction. But I’d like to leave this Earth knowing I accomplished something, Alfredo. My oath as a Jesuit is the furthering of the human spirit in the glory of God. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything of the sort.”

He thought of the stack of letters on his desk, from attorneys suing the Order. And his job was to somehow turn them back, deny or at least delay.

I’m not furthering anyone’s spirit,” he said. “Or glorifying God at all. I don’t even say Mass anymore. I fear I’m nothing but a therapist with a lot of power, a large budget, and the thankless job of managing hundreds of insecure, arrogant, ambitious, ego-driven, so-called holy men with graduate degrees.”

Alfredo laughed and said, “That about nails us, does it not?”

Majewski waved his toast at Alfredo. “Present company excepted, of course. You are most humble and don’t seem to be arrogant or ego-driven. You are the icon of all I ever wanted to be, Alfredo. No, seriously.” He held a hand up and turned his head away as if not listening to any protests. “Your scholarship is excellent. Do not discount your contribution. Your postgraduate work on corvid behavior is still the authority on the subject. And I am envious of your freedom, your life here.”

Majewski watched a robin swoop down to the ground and hop around for a few seconds before pulling a fat worm out of the ground. The Law of the Food Chain. So simple. So easy to understand.

Have you thought about retiring, Thomas?” Alfredo said. He sipped his coffee. “You have served the Order for your whole life. Perhaps it is time to step off the merry-go-around and do something that replenishes your spirit.”

I’d love to retire,” Majewski said. “But what would I do? Come to Wilder Island and build myself a cabin? Watch birds all day?”

Research!” Alfredo said. “May I interest you, as a linguist, in the first study of the corvid-human dialect?”

A magpie flew to the windowsill and walked back and forth scolding, it seemed to Majewski.

Cre–ak cre–ak, sca–reee!” The long, blue-black tail whipped up and down, punctuating whatever it was saying.

Do you understand the speech of magpies also?” Majewski asked. “I know they are corvids, but that didn’t sound much like crow-speech.”

Very astute observation, Thomas,” Alfredo said, smiling. “The magpies and jays have thick accents—for lack of a better word. Just as we have many different speech patterns within our country—the Southern vernacular is different from the New England accent, yet both are American English and readily understood by English-speaking folks. But to answer your question, I can speak with all corvids, though crows and ravens are generally more interested in talking to me.”

The magpie pecked on the windowsill, screeching. “Ka-rawk! Ka-chek! Ska-wee!”

What did this magpie say?” Majewski asked.

She said, ‘More bacon next time, if you please!’”

All that?” Majewski said. “I only heard about three or four different sounds, less than ten syllables.” He mopped up the last of his eggs with a piece of toast, wondering if he should save it for the magpie.

Yes, Alfredo said. “I did hear all that. I hear more nuances within the corvid speech than you and most other humans do.” The magpie pecked impatiently on the windowsill, and he tossed her a bit of toast. “I think the same must be true for composers. They hear more in the music than we average folks do. They understand and can speak its language more fluently than the rest of us. I cannot help but wonder if this ability, whether in hearing music or the language of the corvid, may be inherited.”

The magpie turned her attention back to Majewski, croaking at him earnestly, her tail whipping up and down as she paced back and forth on the windowsill. “As in a Patua’ gene?” Majewski said, somewhat aghast. He put a corner of his toast on the windowsill, and she snapped it up. “While I want to say that’s preposterous, it’s certainly a scientific approach.”

The magpie pecked on the windowsill. “Cree-ak-ak-ak!”

What a little piggy you are!” Majewski said with a smile. He put a larger piece of toast on the windowsill.

The bird looked down at the bread, then at Majewski. “Cree-ak-ak-ak!” she said, and pecked the windowsill.

We’ve cracked the human genome,” he said, wondering what the magpie wanted, “this is true. But identifying a particular gene that causes a certain trait is not very straightforward, Alfredo. Frequently there is a pair or set of traits that occur together. Or a protein that switches a gene on or off. It’s quite complicated.”

I know that,” Alfredo replied. He put a bit of bacon on the windowsill; the magpie beaked it and flew away. “But there is some evidence that the trait runs in families, a bit more rare than twins, but we do see some continuity that does not appear random.”

Majewski frowned. “We? You’ve been talking about this corvid-human language with others?” Only yesterday he felt almost indignant disbelief at the very idea. And now he was intrigued, in spite of his doubts. And jealous.

Alfredo left the table and came back with a coffee carafe. He filled their cups and said, “We means me and the Great Corvid Council. Over the eons, they have constructed a huge database of genealogical information, such as all Patua’ births, deaths, marriages, etc., of all crows and ravens, since the beginning.”

Majewski’s mouth dropped open, and he shook his head in astonishment. He reached for the sugar bowl. “The Great Corvid Council? A governing body keeping track of the Patua’? And I thought merely talking to these creatures was incredible!” He stirred a teaspoon of sugar into his tea, watching the mini-maelstrom he created.

Indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am embarrassed at times at my own ego-centrism. The corvids have quite humbled me, yet I still sometimes catch myself being amazed. At what? That another species has evolved a highly sophisticated oral tradition that is excruciatingly detailed yet completely organized, accessible, and is thousands of years old? How dare I?”

Alfredo stood up and cleared the table. He filled the small sink, adding the leftover warm water from the teakettle. “The Captain will be here in an hour or so to take you to the mainland. What would you like to do in the meantime?”

Let me help you, Alfredo,” Majewski said. He grabbed a towel and dried as Alfredo washed their breakfast dishes. “I’d like to visit the chapel again before I leave,” Majewski said.

 

Charlie remained incapacitated even after the data ribbons of Patua’ births, deaths, and marriages had responded to Starfire’s Sorting Chant and had disappeared into the storage nodes. Though he had no ability to respond or even feel surprise, he heard Starfire chant a strange verse he had never heard before:

Aka-kaka-gak-a-zhak
Eeka-keeka-geeka-zheek
Uku-kuku-guku-zhuk

 

Charlie watched a single node suddenly glow purple and eject a small white fireball that flashed and glittered in the dim interior of the lattice. It was not a data packet; it did not unroll into the typical ribbon, but bounced through the lattice like a shiny rubber ball.

Charlie felt vaguely puzzled by the fireball ricocheting through his lattice. It seemed to be severing connections between the nodes, which gave up a puff of white light just before they went dark. He had no capacity to react, but he understood that something was terribly wrong, and he blinked rapidly until he heard Starfire reciting the Rescue Verse.

Zhoomoo weemwoo oomee moo
Oomoo weemoo shoomee woo

Moments before he lost consciousness, a cool breeze flowed through Charlie’s lattice, as it suddenly shut down.

 

Starfire chanted the new verse, designed to access the Keeper’s own lattice. “We are missing Patua’,” he had told Hookbeak. “I think I can locate them in the Keeper’s memories.”

Though Hookbeak had vehemently forbidden him to even think about it, Starfire nonetheless pursued his hypothesis. He had wandered through the lattices of several Keepers and had found nothing. “I know they are there,” he had insisted to Hookbeak. Charlie had volunteered for this search, having understood the importance of finding the missing Patua’.

When the strange fireball ejected from Charlie’s lattice, he made a quick copy of it and transferred it to his personal lattice for later analysis. Of course it would be like studying a snapshot of a multidimensional object, but it was the best he could do. If only I could dive down the node that ejected it; I could at least find where it came from.

Foamy spittle appeared on Charlie’s beak, and he began to shake. Starfire recited the Rescue Verse and watched Charlie’s eyes continue to blink rapidly. His breathing was labored. Great Orb! I cannot lose another one!

He chanted until he was hoarse, then exhaled in great relief when Charlie’s blinking finally slowed, then stopped. The crow’s chest rose and fell with the rhythm of a deep healing sleep. Starfire posted a novice to watch over him while he slept and wrapped himself in his own thoughts, contemplating the fireball in Charlie’s lattice.

Never had he seen such a phenomenon. Clearly it had come through the Archival Lattice into Charlie’s personal memory. That was not supposed to happen, and he wondered if the sphere was a sign that the lattice had suffered some structural damage during the ritual. Perhaps I need to run a diagnostic on the Archival Lattice.

Starfire glanced at Charlie, who remained deep in a near-comatose state. He was grateful the crow had volunteered for a personal lattice search. Jayzu’s sudden appearance had invigorated Starfire’s cherished hypothesis of a secret underground into which the Patua’ had disappeared centuries ago. The idea had enchanted the raven for years; he was an historian after all. He had spent much time searching the archival lattice for clues to their whereabouts, and then Jayzu suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

We didn’t know about him,” Starfire had told Hookbeak. “Jayzu is not in our database.”

When Starfire heard the rumor that Floyd and Willy had found a genuine Patua’, he summoned them both for questioning, releasing them several hours later, wrung dry of every piece of information they knew about the new Patua’.

He recalled the day the two brothers told him how they liked to perch in the tree at the edge of the duck pond on the campus of the university in Ledford. It was a popular place for students, occasional faculty, ducks, geese, and crows to eat lunch.

A man strolled by,” Floyd said, “a man with a white streak in his hair.”

And when he threw chunks of bread into the water for the ducks, I said to Floyd, ‘I like a man who feeds the animals. It shows true character and compassion.’”

And then he sat down on the bench below us,” Floyd said, “and took out his lunch.”

A ham sandwich from the look of it,” Willy said. The two brothers nodded at each other, remembering.

And potato chips,” Floyd said. “He had potato chips.”

So I said I loved potato chips,” Willy said. “And he looked up and saw us.”

And then,” Floyd said, “he put two potato chips on the bench next to him, and he said in a loud voice, ‘I like a crow who joins me in conversation befitting an educated mind.’”

Floyd and Willy cracked up and high-fived each other. Starfire rebuked them and said, “And then what happened?

We, uh,” Willy said, “dropped down and introduced ourselves.” He turned to Floyd and reenacted the scene for Starfire. “Grawky, Mr., uh—”

Grawky, fellas,” Floyd said, taking the man’s part. “I am Father Alfredomanzi.”

Father? I asked him,” Willy said, his head cocked to one side. “Father of whom?”

And he said, ‘Father of no one,’ Floyd said. “And then he told us he is a Jayzooit priest.” He turned to his brother. “Isn’t that right, Willy?”

Yah!” Willy said, nodding. “A Jayzooit priest and a perfessor.”

Starfire had presumed that all Patua’, living or dead, resided in the vast, interconnected corvid database. Ever since Bruthamax, who had provided a huge repertoire of names, dates, and locations of the descendants of the lost tribes of the Patua’ living in America, they had kept track. The question continued to haunt him. “Why was Jayzu not in our database?”

 

Charlie awoke at dawn; the effects of the mildornia berries had not completely worn off. Generally the Keepers needed three full days to recover, and he had had but one night, after undergoing a particularly rigorous ritual. He perched dizzily on his branch and watched ghost images of memory nodes opening, while colorful ribbons of memories leaped forth for a few moments before diving back into the closing node.

Forgive me, Charlie,” Starfire rumbled, as he struggled to pay attention, “for putting you through such a lengthy ritual. We had an enormous volume of data to emplace. I hope you are not too fatigued.”

No problem,” Charlie said, trying to discern the raven amid the memory streams. “I could use a bite to eat, though. And some water.”

A strange thing happened during our, uh, experiment,” Starfire said. “Something ejected from your lattice, something I have never seen before. At that moment in your trance, you began blinking quite rapidly, signaling that something was amiss. That is why I brought you out.” He looked intently at Charlie.

Charlie swayed a bit on his branch, and Starfire put out a wing to steady him. “Forgive me. I should not burden you so soon after your ritual.”

The other Keepers were already awake and devouring a carp that the novices had brought to the tree. The raven motioned them to bring some food to Charlie. Famished yet stiff from the effects of the mildornia berries, Charlie gulped down all he could eat within minutes. “I feel almost corvid again,” he said, picking a bit of fish gut from his breast feathers.

There is more,” Starfire said, “on yonder branch where the rest of the Keepers are feeding.”

Charlie managed to half walk, half fly the short distance to the group of Keepers. There was still plenty of fish.

Nice that we get fed so well,” a fellow Keeper said to Charlie, “doncha think? Right after we wake up and all? That is true civilization at its finest, if you ask me. I’d go through the Keeper’s Trance every day if I could eat like this the next.”

Several Keepers flapped their wings and croaked their agreement. “It really rocks not to have to find your own food in the morning,” one of them said.

Unfortunately,” another said, “the mildornia berries can only be eaten once every full moon. Eat the berries too often, and they’re poison. You’d keel over dead by morning.”

They say if you stay in trance too long,” someone else said, “you’ll never come out of it. And then you spend your whole life being a zombie Keeper. You’re just a data repository. No flying, no mating, no anything but mildornia berries and carp. ‘Course they have to force feed you ’cause you can’t do anything for yourself, being in permanent trance and all.”

Charlie wondered if that was how the world seemed to Charlotte, those years she spent in the Graying. How different was that from the trance? Where the surrounding world fades and all that remains are one’s oldest memories in the darkness?

 

Alfredo and Majewski walked toward the chapel with the morning in full swing. Majewski saw more birds of all kinds than he ever imagined—crows, blue jays, mockingbirds, sparrows, finches, orioles—in the trees, on the ground, flying, on the chapel roof. And they seemed to be all talking at once.

Thomas,” Alfredo said as they walked, “are we safe from Henry Braun? I had assumed that was the purpose of your visit, to talk about how to fight him off.”

The purpose of my visit,” Majewski said as they arrived, “was to see for myself this wondrous place. And to hear from you that our Brother Maxmillian was insane because he talked to crows, and they didn’t talk back.”

Alfredo laughed. “Sorry I could not deliver, Thomas!”

Oh, you delivered all right. Have no fear!”

They entered the chapel. Majewski went to the kneeler and said a silent morning prayer. When he finished, they left the chapel, and Alfredo indicated they should turn down the path toward the rocky point. “I like to sit down here watching the river flow. It is quite a lovely view,” he said as they walked.

To answer your question, Alfredo,” Majewski said as he followed Alfredo, “I do not intend to allow Henry Braun to get his greedy little hands on this island, if for no other reason than he’s an unctuous, self-serving slime-ball. Forgive me, Father.” He blessed himself as he looked upward.

What if someone in the Order hears about it?” Alfredo asked. “I mean, can you just turn down five million dollars like that? The chapel is not exactly the Notre Dame Cathedral, however sacred and charming you and I find it to be.”

He stopped and pointed to a log. “The view is pretty fabulous from here.”

The riverfront down in MacKenzie isn’t this nice,” Majewski said. “There’s a lot of activity out there! Barges, boats, water skiers.”

A barge blew its horn, warning a couple of speedboats that had crossed right in front of it. Majewski turned toward Alfredo and said, “The matter of whether we sell the island is completely up to me. But, we are going to be proactive and turn this island into a conservation easement, which is a legal instrument that is frequently used to preserve and protect a wetland or a wildlife area from development, both of which we have here.” He gestured all around them.

I see,” Alfredo said. “What would that look like? Who would own the island? What about the chapel? Would it be torn down?”

I wouldn’t think so,” Majewski said. “I envision that the trust will own the island, thanks to a generous donation from the Jesuits. The chapel will remain Jesuit property, and you will continue on as its pastor. The Order can take a tax write-off, you remain on the payroll. No one will bat an eye.”

Excellent, Thomas!” Alfredo said, laughing. “That is excellent. Very poetic.”

I thought so,” Majewski said with a twinkle in his eye. “I got the idea when you told me you wanted to build the bird sanctuary. I’ve got an attorney working on conservation easement documents as we speak. I’ll have her call you. Kate Herron is her name. She probated Brother Maxmillian’s estate for us. And she lives in Ledford, so she has some knowledge of the island. Get together with Kate and figure out how to set it up. I’ll pay her fees and will back whatever you come up with.”

Several crows flew over their heads and landed at the river’s edge where they plucked a meal from the rocks. “Tell me, Alfredo,” Majewski said as he watched, “did you know there was something special about the island before you came?”

I had heard of the island,” Alfredo answered, “when I was a graduate student. I came across some strange stories of talking crows on Wilder Island, and the name sat in my memory all these years. Then one day, I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check, and I made my way here.”

People need spiritual guidance, and we need to eat,” Majewski said. “I don’t care for the money-grubbing we have to do either. But it is necessary.”

A necessary evil it seems,” Alfredo said with a sigh.

Evil?” Majewski said, almost angrily. “Evil is the sex-abuse the church has been kicking under the rug for centuries.” He sighed wearily. “I’m sorry, Alfredo. I’m just so tired of it all.”

He picked a small yellow flower growing out from under the rock he was sitting on and sniffed it. He twirled the stem between his thumb and forefinger and watched the petals blur into one.

The Jesuits do much that is good, Alfredo,” he said. “Our universities and schools all over the world have helped lift the veil of ignorance from the human race for more than five hundred years.”

A bell sounded from the direction of the dock. “That is the Captain telling us he is here to take you to the mainland,” Alfredo said as he stood up. “We will go by my cottage on the way, and you can grab your suitcase.”

I envy you this life you have made for yourself,” Majewski said as they walked. “You could have a department chair somewhere, but you choose instead to live here among the crows. You are a brave soul, my friend. I envy you. May God bless you.”

 

Tell me, Alfredo,” Majewski asked after they left the cottage for the inlet, “do you think that at one time all humans could speak to the corvids?” He could hardly hear himself with the racket in the forest. There must be hundreds of birds up there, all chattering at once. “That would certainly have been a helpful trait.”

True,” Alfredo said loudly. “I suppose the entire race could at one time, but one must wonder then, why would such a useful trait die out? It seems more likely the Patua’ were a race of humans, with genes similar enough to interbreed with the other races. In any case, according to the corvid histories, there were many more Patua’ in times past than now, before the Protestant Reformation and counter-reformation.”

Those were volatile times in Christendom,” Majewski said, wrinkling his brow. “Our Order had just been born. Surely if the Patua’ were of sufficient numbers to be persecuted, the Jesuits must have known of them, wouldn’t you think?”

He followed Alfredo across the small stream that gurgled softly through its rocky course. “Fare thee well!” it seemed to whisper. Majewski stopped and picked a yellow flower growing along the water’s edge. He pulled a small bible out of his briefcase and carefully put the flower between its pages.

I would think the Patua’ must have been known to the Order,” Alfredo said as they started to walk again. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast. That alone would have been highly appreciated.”

They arrived at the inlet where the Captain was waiting. A crow perched on the rail, seemingly chatting away, Majewski noticed. But there were no other crows around. Is it talking to the Captain? Is he Patua’ too?

The two priests embraced. “You have given me much to think about,” Majewski said, “and I am deeply grateful. My life in Washington DC has isolated me from the grand mysteries of the universe, both scientific and spiritual. I have missed both.”

You are welcome here any time, Thomas,” Alfredo said. “And I hope you will consider a Patua’ research project.”

Oh, I am interested,” Majewski said, a broad grin streaking across his face. “You can count on that. I just don’t know how long it will take me to divest myself of my duties.”

He sailed away on the Captain’s boat, looking back at Alfredo waving to him from the banks. He imagined Stella living on Wilder Island, happily gabbing with the crows. He shook his head at his own fantasy. If she even lives.

He took one last look at the island. Dear Lord, grant me this kind of peace someday.

 

 

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