JoEd Blows His Mind
Henry slept on his riverboat, but he did not sleep well. All night long, he was plagued by dreams of an angry River inciting the wind to blow, battering his beautiful River Queen to smithereens. While clouds poured down rain, the River Queen capsized. Alone, he bailed bucket after bucket of water, but the more he bailed, the more it rained. Just before she rolled over and sank, Henry woke up, drenched in sweat.
At dawn, he got up, showered, and shaved, and slammed down a shot of bourbon to stop his hands from shaking. He strode purposefully down to his usual breakfast—bacon and eggs over-easy, a slice of burnt toast, no butter, and a cup of black coffee. He read the Wall Street Journal as he ate, ignoring the bustle of the workers around him as they prepared for the city folk of Ledford to come aboard for their free ride.
Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful; the decks and docks had been picked clean of food by the crows. The crew cleaned up the rest of the trash, and the River Queen was ready to roll. Henry abandoned the idea of circling Wilder Island—his dreams the night before of an angry river destroying his beautiful lady quite convinced him. “We’ll go up the river to the mills,” Henry told the captain and crew, “and down to the old stone bridge.”
The people of Ledford flocked to the docks to wait their turn for a ride on the lovely River Queen. An endless stream of ice-cream sodas and hot dogs flowed while Henry handed out baseball caps and T-shirts displaying the Ravenwood Resort logo, and free tokens for the casino. Television and newspaper reporters circulated among the crowd, filming the revelry and occasionally interviewing a citizen.
“Tell us how it feels to be waiting for a ride on the historic River Queen,” the television reporter asked as he stuck his mic into the face of a carefully coifed, middle-aged woman.
“I’m ecstatic,” she gushed. “Is this gorgeous or what? Can you imagine? A ride on the glorious River Queen? Oh, be still my beating heart!” Putting her hand to her bosom, the woman closed her eyes as if taking a moment to regain her composure.
“So,” the reporter said, winking at the camera, “I take it you’d like to see the River Queen permanently parked at Braun Enterprise’s proposed resort on Wilder Island?”
“Oh my God!” The woman went into another round of passionate yet ambiguous exclamations. “Can you imagine? Oh! Right across the river! In our own backyard! Can you imagine?”
As the River Queen paddled upriver, the reporter sidled up to a small group of people leaning on the handrails. “Tell the folks out there in TV land how it feels to sail on one of America’s historic paddleboats!”
“Oh, we love it!” a woman said. “I’ve always wanted to ride on a paddleboat, you know. I’m so happy I got to experience this!”
“Truly,” a man said. “This is a wondrous experience! My great-granddaddy was the captain of the Delta Queen, back in the day. That was a sad day, when the paddleboats stopped running the Mississip, I’ll tell you what. I’m just downright grateful to Henry Braun for bringing this piece of American history back to us.”
The ride on the River Queen was a big hit. Though the paddleboat stayed well in the middle of the deepest part of the channel, most people had never been that close to the mysterious island, and the opportunity to observe its secrets was tantalizing. Nor had they ever been on a riverboat.
“Take some pictures of people having a good time,” Henry said to the television reporter he had invited. “I want their smiles all over the evening news, you understand?”
The River Queen made quite a spectacle indeed, cruising up and down the east side of the river. A contingent of crows clutching the golden railing atop Henry Braun’s apartment added to the people’s amusement, but not to Henry’s.
“Damn crows,” he growled at them, waving his arms, trying to scare them off. The crows cackled back in laughter—at least that’s what Henry heard. “I’ll have the little bastards shot if they don’t get off my boat.”
“Don’t do it,” Jules had told him the evening before when the crows began to arrive. “It’s illegal to discharge a firearm in the city limits. And don’t shoot the crows, it’s a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Remember you’re on a mission here. You want people on your side. You want to appear reasonable, not like a hot head with a gun. Put it away, Henry.”
At first light, JoEd opened one eye. After a few seconds of bewilderment, he remembered where he was and opened the other eye. A momentary wave of guilt washed over him for breaking his promise to his zazu that he would be home by sunset that day before. He would go home today, explain to his weebs how fabulous and wonderful the River Queen was, that he was simply unable to tear himself away. JoEd hoped she would understand.
Many crows still snoozed on their roosts all around him, including Antoine. JoEd waited quietly, surveying the scene below. Antoine was not kidding; there was food everywhere. Maybe I will find a hot dog. He leaped off the railing and down to the deck. Before him lay a veritable feast, and he picked at a morsel. “Is it a hot dog, I wonder?” he said out loud. “Or is it a doozy?”
“That,” Antoine said as he came in for a landing next to JoEd, “is a French fry.”
“It’s incredible,” JoEd said through a beakful of the most delectable food he had ever tasted.
“This is a hot dog,” Antoine said, pushing a piece of reddish something or other at JoEd.
“Wow!” JoEd said after a few pecks at it. “Better than the French fry! These humans know how to eat!”
He and Antoine wandered through the rubbish, picking at a burger here, a piece of caramel apple there. The sun rose to hundreds of crows feasting on the largesse left by the crowds the night before.
“Had enough, kid?” asked Antoine.
JoEd nodded. He was stuffed. The two crows flew back up to the railing above Henry’s apartment and watched a dozen or so humans issue forth and fruitlessly attempt to chase the crows off the decks.
“The only thing’s going to get rid of them boys,” Antoine said, shaking his head, “is the hot dogs and burgers and fries getting all eaten up or tossed into the river. You’d think they could figure that out.”
“Good for us they can’t,” JoEd said. “That was some pretty easy pickings. I usually have to work harder than this to get food on Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“That’s why we like to live among humans,” said Antoine. “Great food and lots of it. Leaves more time for riding the jaloosies.”
JoEd gazed across the river at the dark green shadows of Cadeña-l’jadia. He really should be getting home, he knew. But there was just too much excitement. Too much food!
“And there’s even more food across the river,” Antoine said. “Big crowds at the Waterfront yesterday. They dropped tidbits everywhere, and not just hot dogs. Everything! You ever had Thai, JoEd?”
The young crow shook his head. “Come on, son,” Antoine said as he leaped into the sky. “This is going to blow your mind!”
The two crows flew together across the sparkling river toward the Waterfront. When they arrived on the scene of the arts and crafts fair, JoEd saw that many crows and other scavengers had already arrived. But no humans. He followed Antoine as he swooped up and down, and in between the colorful art fair booths. They passed up many delectable tidbits on the street, and he wondered if they would ever find any Thai. Not that he knew what Thai meant, but the last two days with Antoine had considerably broadened JoEd’s world view, and he supposed that eating Thai would too.
Finally Antoine dropped to the street and pecked at a chunk of food. “Nope,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t Thai.” He pecked at it a few more times. “It’s good, though!”
“Better even than a hot dog!” JoEd said with his beak crammed with whatever it was. “Is it a doozy?”
“Nah,” Antoine said. “Wait’ll you taste Thai; that’ll be your doozy, I reckon.” He lifted his beak into the air. “I know it’s here somewhere. I can smell it.”
The two crows took off again, and JoEd followed Antoine back through the streets. “Ah!” Antoine said. “There it is!” He swooped down to a trashcan next to a tent, picked out a small container, and dropped it to the ground. “Yep, Pad Thai. Long, flat noodles, a few peanuts and some stir-fried veggies.” Antoine said triumphantly. He hopped down to the pavement and pecked at the Pad Thai. “Oh, yeah!” he said after he swallowed a bite. “Pad Thai! You gotta try this, JoEd! It’s just out of this world!”
JoEd picked a piece off the street and dropped it immediately. “Whoa! That has got some kick to it!”
“That’s how we like it,” Antoine said, chuckling. “You get used to the heat after a while.”
JoEd ate very well on Cadeña-l’jadia—plenty of fish guts, small rodents, even an occasional egg. But he’d never even heard of spice, let alone imagined what it did to food; he pecked at the Thai food, though it burned his eyes even to get near it.
“After a while,” Antoine said, “you crave it hot.”
JoEd could not imagine craving the burning sensation in his beak and all the way down his throat. He slurped some water from an abandoned cup.
“Here,” Antoine said, tossing JoEd a piece of a honeybun he dug out of the trash. “Eat this. It’ll take some of the sting away.”
The honeybun soothed JoEd’s burning beak, and he returned to the feast before him. Perusing the food choices strewn about the streets and sidewalks, he sampled a croissant with cream cheese and orange marmalade from the French Riviera Bakery and declared that it was his favorite food of all time. When he tasted the souvlaki from the Greek Cafe, he changed his mind—until he discovered the amazing flavors of Japan.
“Teriyaki!” JoEd said to Antoine. “That’s my favorite!”
“Have you tried the calzone?” Antoine pointed a wing toward the Little Italy trashcans. “Tobias found a mushroom-broccoli-mozzarella over there. Sweet!”
“Oh, yeah!” JoEd said, amazed again at the world of flavors that had visited his beak. “The absolute best!”
Stuffed beyond belief, JoEd couldn’t take another bite. Antoine motioned him up to the lower branches of a tree. He wondered if he could even fly. “Hey!” JoEd called out after he had hauled himself up to the branch next to Antoine. “Isn’t that Jayzu down there?”
Thanks to the efforts of a multitude of crows and a few humans who ate and cleaned up all the rubbish that had been dropped by the crowds the evening before, the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts Fair opened on Sunday morning with clean sidewalks and streets. The doors of the local Downtown churches flew open and disgorged the early worshippers, who came in long lines down the sidewalks to the fair on the Waterfront.
The evening news the night before had showcased some of the art donated to the silent auction, to be held at noon. People rushed to the Friends of Wilder Island booth to put in last-minute bids, and while they waited, volunteers sold them shares in the land trust and gave them free colorful brochures cleverly disguised as calendars. They explained the mission of the land trust and how support from Ledford residents would be the only way to save it from development.
Everyone who entered the booth received a free lapel pin that said “Friend of Wilder Island”, and a raffle ticket for a free T-shirt or baseball cap with the land trust logo, a blue-eyed crow against the silhouette of the island at sunset.
“Just send this postcard to the Mayor,” Kate said as she handed one to a passerby on the street in front of the booth. “Tell him how you feel about our island. They’re pre-addressed and pre-stamped for your convenience! Just sign it and send it!” she said, pointing to a nearby US mailbox.
The postcard featured the painting Jade had donated to the art auction, The Wilder Side, on the front, with the text “Save Wilder Island!”
The Wilder Side was a raucous carnival of trees and flowers, birds, butterflies, and bees that beckoned the viewer to step forth into its unknowable secrets. Buried in the familiar, the untamable still maintained a fragile presence woven into the varied assemblage of plant, bird, and insect. Hinting at deeper mysteries more ancient than ours, layer upon layer of paint created a sense of another dimension. The painting enchanted, whether one chose to contemplate its greater secrets or to just luxuriate in the rich surface textures and color.
The Wilder Side was among the larger donations at the silent auction, as was Sam’s sculpture, Roadkill. Comprised of rusted metal objects cast off by motor vehicles along the interstate, the sculpture featured a large raven picking at the wreckage of a shiny red convertible, the victim of an inelastic collision with a sparkling blue sedan. From a short distance, the raven appeared to be perched amid a sea of brightly colored red, blue, and silvery flowers.
Russ chuckled as he stood before Roadkill, remembering the first day he’d met Sam at the quiet pool in the garden of the hermit’s chapel. Sam materialized at Russ’s elbow and stood for a moment looking at his own piece.
“Thanks, man,” Sam said, clapping Russ on the back. “Thanks for the idea. I’m going to give you and Jade the model—it’s a miniature replica of the big one, about yay big by yay.” Sam mimed the approximate size with his arms. “It’ll go right into your garden in the backyard, next to the fountain.”
“What fountain?” Jade asked, laughing. “I mean, thanks, Sam!” she turned to Russ and said, “Honey, can we build a fountain in the backyard?”
“Absolutely,” Russ said, also laughing as he hugged his wife’s shoulders. “But seriously, Sam. Thanks. I mean that. I love it, really. And I’m honored that you were inspired by my offhand remark.”
Alfredo looked at his watch and then up at the bandstand and said, “We need to go, Russ. The open-mic discussion starts in about five minutes.”
“Later, hon,” Russ said and gave Jade a quick peck on the cheek.
During breaks from the live music—by a local band called Hermit Crow—Russ and Alfredo facilitated live televised discussions about issues surrounding the Wilder Island controversy, if Ravenwood Resort became a reality. People strolled through the bandstand area, stopping to listen for a few minutes or longer, and anyone who so desired could step up to the mic and make a comment or ask a question.
Russ and Alfredo took their seats at a folding table on the bandstand. “Greetings, folks!” Russ said, his voice strong and clear. “Welcome to the Friends of Wilder Island lunch-hour discussion. First on the agenda is lunch.”
A few people chuckled as Russ turned to the priest and said, “I’ve got brats and kraut from the German-American kitchen. What’s on your plate, Dr. Manzi?”
“Oh, I’ve got a sampling of everything from the Taste of Thai booth, including dessert,” Alfredo said.
“Smells great,” Russ said. He turned toward the crowd. “So, folks, while Dr. Manzi has a few bites of his lunch, let’s get things rolling.”
He stood up, mic in hand, and strolled to the edge of the bandstand. “It’s a lovely day for a fair.” He smiled at the people below. “And doesn’t Wilder Island look gorgeous in the morning sun?”
“Like a jewel!” a woman near the bandstand said.
“An emerald isle in the river!” her companion said.
“Our island is indeed a precious jewel,” Russ said. “But some think it has greater value as an urban playground of greed and waste. That is the choice before us, folks, whether to turn Wilder Island into an urban playground, or to preserve it as a lone sliver of wilderness within urban Ledford.”
“Wilderness!” a man shouted.
More people wandered into the bandstand area, most of them bearing hats, flags, and lapel pins bearing the land trust logo.
“But if it’s declared a wilderness, will we ever get to see it up close?” another man asked in a loud voice. “Or will we just continue to see this jewel, as you call it, from across the river?”
“Yah!” his female companion yelled out. “We want to visit our island.”
“Virtually no one has set foot on the island,” Russ said to the crowd, “ourselves excepted, and the fact is, if we are successful in our fight, very few will ever step onto its banks.”
A few people booed and hissed. “Everyone is invited to Ravenwood Resort!” a voice from the back shouted.
“On the other hand,” Russ continued, trying to see who had spoken. One of Henry’s shills, no doubt. “If Ravenwood Resort replaces the island as we know it, a great many people will visit, but everything we love about it, the wilderness, the crows, will be gone.”
“What’s the diff?” the same voice shouted. “Either way, we don’t have to see no crows!” A handful of people around the man laughed and clapped and patted him on the back.
“But you bring up a valid point,” Russ said. “So, why do we need wilderness if no one can see it? Would we rather have an urban playground open to everyone?”
Alfredo stood up, leaving his partially eaten lunch on the table. “I can take it from here, Russ.” The crows moved in on his lunch as he spoke to the crowd. “Why do we need wilderness at all? I would like to answer that with a quote from Edward Abbey, noted author and outspoken defender of wilderness.”
He pulled a small notebook out of his shirt pocket and opened it. “‘The love of wilderness,’” he read, “‘is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the Earth, the Earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.’”
A few people laughed and clapped. Alfredo smiled as he closed the notebook and put it back in his pocket.
“Too bad most of us will never see it!” the man in the back shouted.
“Somewhere along the way,” Alfredo said, ignoring the heckler, “we gave ourselves the illusion of dominion over the Earth, which has all but severed our connection to the web of life. We built great cities, where we concentrated power and wealth, while we impoverished our spirits and our wild lands in the search for more money.”
The crowd had grown, but was still smaller and quieter than Friday evening. A few people waved flags; most just nodded and seemed to be listening intently. Perhaps it is because they have just come from a blistering sermon. A few crows had collected in the trees surrounding the bandstand, staring down at him. Or was it his lunch?
“Often we lose ourselves in these artificial landscapes,” he continued. “Cities weigh heavily on the hearts of men and women, and we must be able to escape them, even if it is just in our imaginations. In wilderness, we find ourselves. As we cherish one of our last wild places, let us become aware of our connection to it and impose surrender upon ourselves.”
“Surrender?” the man at the back of the crowd shouted. “Never!”
The calliope on the River Queen suddenly started up, and Alfredo glanced across the river. A line of cars had formed at the road leading to the parking lot at the boat ramp, and a crowd had gathered at the paddleboat.
”Yes,” Alfredo said. “Surrender, as the old hermit, Brother Wilder, surrendered to this wilderness we are now trying to preserve. He chose this wild island as a refuge from the world of cities and men, where he spent his life in solitary contemplation of the glory of creation.”
“Who has time for that?” the man in the back shouted. “Some of us have to actually work for a living!”
Alfredo’s face did not betray the anger he felt surging in his chest, and he continued without reaction to the heckler. “While most people do not desire such lengthy solitude, it is through these pristine and unaltered wild lands that our spirits connect us to the Earth. As we gaze upon our island from across the river, its wilderness lives within us all; let us not now throw it away for a few pieces of silver.”
The crowd cheered and many clapped. Before Alfredo could continue, a small crow dropped from the sky onto the table, and beaked a noodle from Alfredo’s plate. The crowd laughed, and Russ said, “It must be about time for open mic. Does he want to make a comment?”
Alfredo turned off his mic and said to the crow, “Well, hello little fella!”
“Don’t you know me, Jayzu?” the crow said, looking up.
“Of course I know you!” Alfredo said in a very low voice. “Grawky, JoEd!” He smiled as he put out his hand, and JoEd brushed it with his wingtip.
“Grawky!” Russ said as he offered his hand and giggled like a schoolboy when he felt JoEd’s feathers grazing his skin.
Nine more crows dropped down to the table, all talking at once. Russ’s mic amplified their caws and squawks over the loudspeakers. The crowd laughed and cheered at the show on the bandstand. The crows seemed to have the upper hand, helping themselves to the lunch plates of the two professors.
“Is he talking to those crows?” a woman standing close to the bandstand said.
“Nah! He’s just pretending he’s talking to them!” a man next to her shouted. “Fake!”
“Looks like they’re shaking hands,” her companion said, “—that is, wings. Hand and wing.”
“Is that real, Mommy?” a young boy on his father’s shoulders asked. “Is that man really talking to those crows?”
“Sounds just like a bunch a crows to me,” the woman next to him said.
“If he’s talking, them crows sure aren’t listening,” the little boy’s daddy said.
“If that’s talking,” the man next to him said, “I can talk crow too!” He put his fists in his armpits and did a funny dance while shouting, “Caw-caw! Caw caw caw-caw!”
The little boy laughed and called out, “Caw! Caw!” as he flapped his arms up and down.
“Antoine,” JoEd called out from the table to his new friend, “come say hey to Jayzu.”
“Hey,” Antoine said, bowing low to the table, with wings extended outward. “The pleasure is mine.” He straightened up and brushed a wingtip against Alfredo’s outstretched hand. “I am honored, finally, to meet the great Jayzu.”
“I am honored as well, Antoine,” Alfredo said, glancing sidelong at the crowd. A few people were frowning and shaking their heads, but others seemed entertained more than shocked. “A friend of JoEd’s is a friend of mine!” He held out his hand.
“I smell Thai!” Antoine said, raising his head.
“Right here,” JoEd said, pointing with his beak toward Alfredo’s plate.
Antoine beaked a fat noodle and swallowed it. “Ah!” he said raising his head. “Extra spicy! That’s how we like it!”
Alfredo watched in stunned silence as the crows wandered back and forth across the table, noisily pecking at the luncheon entrees. Within a few minutes, the table was a complete mess, with food strewn all over. Anxiety and fear gnawed at him, but the people below the bandstand seemed to enjoy the fiasco on the table. They laughed and clapped and cheered for the birds. A few called out: “You go, crows!” “They’re really eating his lunch!” “Do you think they planned this?”
“Now that’s some class-A brat,” Tobias said, finishing off the last bit of Russ’s sandwich. “Still don’t care for the kraut, though!”
Russ grinned at the crow eating his sandwich, as if he was enjoying himself. Everyone seemed to be at least amused, Alfredo noticed. Except me.
A man took the mic, turned his back on the bandstand, and said to the people, “This is not real, folks. Just a publicity stunt with a bunch of trained birds.” He turned to Russ and Alfredo and said, “You expect us to believe you’re actually talking to crows?”
The crowd fell silent. The crows looked up momentarily and returned to their luncheon on the table. Russ glanced at Alfredo. “We are definitely for real,” he said.
He stood up, mic in hand. “This is not a stunt, folks. We’re as surprised as any of you that these crows showed up at our discussion today. And happy to share our lunch, as if we had any choice!”
He looked at the crows with an expression of feigned exasperation. The crowd roared as one of the crows flipped Russ’s abandoned plate over, scattering sauerkraut and crumbs.
Alfredo admired the way Russ’s humor had gotten the crowd laughing again. His knees were shaking, and he wished he could sit down, but a crow stood in his chair, pecking at the last remnants of Pad Thai on his plate.
“My colleague,” Russ said, his arm extended toward Alfredo, “Dr. Alfredo Manzi, well-known and respected scientist, has studied crows for his entire life, including their language.”
Alfredo had been uneasy since the crows first landed on the table. He felt like Russ was dragging him over a precipice he had feared his entire life.
“We humans are not the only creatures on Earth that speak a bona fide language,” Russ was saying. “So do whales and dolphins. Almost everyone has even heard recordings of their sounds, right?”
The majority of the heads in the crowd nodded amid a swell of murmuring.
“Well,” Russ continued, “so do the corvids, as Dr. Manzi has learned in his research.”
Alfredo felt the tingling needles of adrenaline preparing him for…what–? He saw no fear on the faces in the crowd. It is not as if Russ is lying to them, his rational voice said. There is nothing uncanny here, really.
Russ stopped and turned to Alfredo. “Tell them about your research, Dr. Manzi.”
Alfredo frowned and said through clenched teeth, “What the hell are you doing, Russ?”
“I’m telling you to stop being such a weenie,” Russ said, through his smiling teeth with his mic behind his back. “You’re a scientist, man! Now stand up. Talk science to them. Don’t let them go away thinking any of this is fake. Or supernatural.”
The people waited for Alfredo to speak. A breeze came through the bandstand, carrying the calliope’s ridiculously merry tune. He glared at Russ. His legs felt like rubber, and his stomach jumped into his throat. But he turned his mic on and faced the crowd. “It is true,” he said.
“Smile!” Russ hissed through smiling teeth.
Alfredo looked out over the small crowd for a few moments. They are my students, and I am in a classroom. He moved out from behind the mess and the crows on the table, brushing the bits of food off his clothing. Russ smiled approvingly, and the crows continued to scavenge for every last morsel on the bandstand.
“Crows and their raven cousins are extremely intelligent birds,” Alfredo said, his voice sounding stronger than he felt, “with an extensive intercultural language that I have studied for many years.”
You are a scientist, man! Russ had reminded him of that one critical weapon he had against fear: reason.
“In that time, I have managed to learn a few of their words, phrases actually, such as how to say ‘hello,’ which is what you were seeing here today.” That was an under-exaggeration, he knew. Sometimes it is best to deliver the truth in small bundles.
“Riiight!” the heckler from the back shouted. “You expect us to believe that!”
“Does he think we are fools?” the man next to him shouted. “Crows don’t talk!”
“Teach us how to say hello to the crows!” the little boy on his father’s shoulders yelled, and the crowd cheered.
Alfredo explained in great detail the guttural sounds and within minutes, the people were yelling, “Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” Their noise attracted other fair goers, and soon the crowd had grown to several hundred, all shouting, “Grawky!” and waving their arms and flags.
“Grawky!” JoEd called out, though the crowd did not hear him over their own noise. “Grawky!”
Several more crows flew down to the table, chowing down while the others flapped their wings and called out, “Grawky! Grawky!”
“We love our crows!” a woman shouted from the crowd. “Long live Wilder Island!”
The people cheered, waving their flags, hats, and arms.
“Wilder Island!” they shouted. “Wilder! Wilder! Wilder!”
“What’re they saying?” Antoine asked Alfredo.
“They love you,” he said. “And they are all friends of Cadeña-l’jadia.”
“Well, by golly, so are we!” Antoine shouted. “Right, JoEd?”
“That’s right!” yelled little JoEd. “Cadeña-l’jadia forever!”
Antoine led the others upward into an ever-expanding spiral as they all shouted out, “Cadeña-l’jadia forever!” He turned them all back, and they flew a last low circle over the crowd and headed toward the river.
“Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” the people shouted and waved until the crows had vanished from sight.
The airwaves and the newspaper came alive with opinions, viewpoints, sales pitches, and pleas, as the media captured the weekend’s events on both sides of the river in the struggle for the body, soul, and future of Wilder Island. From the Waterfront and the Friends of Wilder Island Arts and Crafts fair, to Henry Braun and his River Queen parading back and forth in front of the city dock, the citizens of Ledford indulged themselves in food, drink, and merriment as they considered the choice before them.
The Sunday evening news featured the crowd at the bandstand shouting “Grawky! Grawky! Grawky!” while Russ and Alfredo looked on haplessly behind a table full of crows eating their lunch. All of Ledford watched continuous reruns of a video of Alfredo and Antoine greeting each other, wing to hand. By the time the ten-o’clock news had ended, the majority of Ledford residents had learned how to say hello in crow.
“Dr. Manzi brought a trained troupe of talking crows to the table this afternoon,” a reporter said with vague tones of dread in her voice. “He claimed he has decoded their language, and taught the small gathering what he says is the crow word for hello.” She rolled her eyes as the camera showed the crows eating right off the table.
Jade laughed and said, “Oh, look at you two with all those crows! They look like lawyers pacing back and forth as they argue. That’s hilarious!”
“And completely eclipsing an historic event of our two species greeting one another!” Russ said, shaking his head. “Leave it to the media to spew innuendo, half-truths, and outright lies, and call it news. I wonder how much Henry Braun paid them to say that.”
“Total propaganda!” Henry Braun’s television face said. “This is just a flimsy cover for the utter nonsense this land trust outfit is trying to perpetrate on us. This is nothing but a joke, folks! These phonies want to prioritize crows over people! Why can’t they share the island with the city of Ledford?” he asked innocently as a scene of crows feeding at a dumpster filled the screen.
“My Ravenwood Resort will be completely environmentally friendly,” he crooned as the black birds picked at the garbage, “and open to the many, while this, this bird park is open only to crows. We leave it to the good people of Ledford to decide.”
The station broadcast its reporter’s footage of Henry giving balloons and candy to children, roses to their mothers, and prospectuses to their fathers. Henry’s voice played continuously in the background, basted in heartfelt concern for his fellow man, appealing to the very freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution.
“And what do you think of the planned Ravenwood Resort?” the reporter asked, sticking his microphone into the face of a woman with frothy blue hair.
“Oh, I just love to play slot machines!” a woman said. “So much fun! And on the historic River Queen!”
“I hope he builds it,” a man said. “The sooner the better! Ledford could use some entertainment. For the love of mike, how many tractor pulls can a person go to?”
“Even if it means destruction of the crow population on the island?” the reporter asked.
“When did flying rats become a protected species?” demanded a man with an ugly sneer. “They’re vermin, that’s all. Braun Enterprises is going to drain that swamp and bring us a new, beautiful, and clean resort for our families.”
“They say after Henry Braun does that, we won’t have any more mosquitoes,” another man said. “I’d be in favor of that.”
“Don’t know why it’s taken so long to drain that swamp,” his wife said. “It’s a health hazard, I tell you.”
The camera cut to a smiling, magnanimous Henry Braun striking a pose in front of the beautiful River Queen. “Other than for nostalgic reasons,” Henry asked, “why should we save Wilder Island? Why not turn this otherwise derelict land into a resort we can all enjoy?”
Dora Lyn put her knitting down and stared at the man on the TV. The announcer had said the man’s name was—what was it? Dr. Alfred Manzer? She was sure she’d never seen him before, a man with a thick streak of white through his black hair. But it was his voice that had attracted her attention and made her look up from her knitting.
He was awfully handsome and she listened for a few minutes to him read from a small notebook and then plead to keep Wilder Island wild. “Who is he?” she said to her mother, who was deaf as stone. “I know that voice from somewhere.”