Russ awoke suddenly to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Jade gently snored beside him in the dark room. He raised his head and looked at the clock on the bedside table. It’s freaking four in the morning. Who the hell is it? He got out of bed, grabbing his cell phone as he shoved his arms into his robe. He tripped over his slippers and stumbled into the wall.
Jade woke up and said, “What is it, honey?”
“Someone rang the doorbell. It’s probably some neighborhood prankster, but I’m going to check it out.” He left the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.
“Oh, Jesus!” he said, as he opened the door to flames on the porch. He quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen and sprayed the small fire till it went out. He shoved the cinders with his foot—a few pieces of painted canvas and burned fragments of the frame. “Sonofabitch!” he said angrily. “Who would do this?” He took his cell phone from his pocket. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” the voice on the phone said.
“Someone started a fire on my front porch.”
Jade appeared in the doorway. She gasped and pointed to the blackened mess on the porch, crying out in wordless anguish at the smoldering ruins of The Wilder Side, the painting she had donated to the silent auction.
“The cops are on their way,” Russ said, taking her into his arms.
She shook her head and leaned against him. He walked her to her studio and put her gently in the armchair. Willow B jumped into her lap. “I’ll take care of everything, honey. You just hang out in here, okay?”
The police officers left just as the treetops glowed with the first light of morning. Russ opened the door to the studio and said, “Well, that’s that, for whatever it’s worth. They pretty much said there’s no chance they’ll ever find out who did this.” He squatted next to her chair and took her hand. “You going to be all right, hon?”
She nodded and smiled weakly as he kissed her hand. “We have a breakfast date with Sam, Kate, and Alfredo this morning,” he said. “Remember? Are you all right to go? We can postpone it if you aren’t up to it. I know they’ll understand.”
Jade shook her head. “No,” she said through a sigh. “Let’s go. I don’t really want to be here right now.”
They met the other Friends of Wilder Island at a popular twenty-four-hour eating establishment near the university, the Komodo Dragon. “You know the students call this place The Commode,” Russ said to Alfredo as they slid into a huge booth upholstered in red lizard skin.
“How very appetizing!” Alfredo said, chuckling.
A stuffed Komodo dragon hanging from the ceiling stared down at Jade. Grotesquely comical, the gigantic lizard swayed gently on its ropes, a giant claw raised in a friendly greeting, and his long tongue frozen in a permanent licking gesture. One eyeball glared down at Jade, and she squirmed under its unblinking scrutiny.
After ordering breakfast, Alfredo, Kate, and Sam listened in shock as Russ told them about the fire on their porch.
“Oh, no!” Kate said, shaking her head. “Not Wilder Side!”
“What kind of low-life bastard would do something like that?” Sam said. “I’d like to beat the crap out of him.” He balled up a fist and punched his other palm. He shook his head a few times and blew hard through his teeth. “I just can’t stomach it.”
“I am distraught, Jade, that someone could destroy such a beautiful piece of art,” Alfredo said. “There is much evil in the world.”
“The same evil that wants to destroy Wilder Island,” Jade said.
Alfredo nodded. “It is indeed, Jade. Our only hope is to stand together against it.”
They held each other’s glance for a few moments. Why is Alfredo looking at me like that? Ever since the night of her reception, whenever their eyes met, he wore the strangest expression. Like he’s seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I have mascara all over my nose.
“I am amazed at you, Jade.” Alfredo smiled, and his expression changed to kind concern. “You are so composed after such a horrific attack.”
“You didn’t see me when Russ opened the door,” Jade said with a smile as she rubbed her nose. “I try not to think about how hateful it was.” Russ put his arm around her as she choked up. She drew in a deep breath and sat up straight. “But I’ll paint another. I’ll paint a hundred more. I will not be beaten.”
Her friends burst into applause. Jade blushed deeply, but she kept her head up and smiled.
“Well, whoever did it,” Sam said, “paid a lot of money to destroy it. Out of the $18,750.00 we made from the silent auction, Jade’s painting brought us $5,500.00.”
Jade gasped. Her hand flew up to her face to cover her open mouth.
Russ asked, “Who bought it?”
“Someone named Gabrielle,” Sam answered.
Jade noticed Alfredo’s head turn suddenly toward Sam. Does he know her?
“Gabrielle who?” asked Kate.
“Just Gabrielle,” Sam said. “She didn’t leave a last name.”
“Gabrielle,” Jade said. “I’ve met her. Short, thin, black hair wound up in a bun. Fifty, maybe sixty?”
“That’s her,” Sam said with a nod. “Real nice lady. I asked her if she wanted to be on our mailing list, and she said no, she’d keep up with us in the news.”
“She bought two paintings at my art show,” Jade said. Catching the Wind and Leave Me.
“Well, she’s obviously your biggest fan, then,” Russ said. “You should send her a Christmas card.”
“If I knew where she lived, I would,” Jade said. “She’s evidently the gallery’s best customer, but even Jenna doesn’t know who Gabrielle really is.”
Alfredo’s eyes dropped to the table in front of him, and Jade watched him frown. He knows who Gabrielle is. A church person, maybe?
“Did you look at her check?” Kate asked.
“She paid in cash,” said Sam
“Jenna said she always pays cash. And doesn’t want to be on the gallery mailing list either.” Jade said
“Cash?” Russ raised his eyebrows. “Who goes around with almost six grand in their pocket?”
The waiter set a large tray loaded with their breakfast on an adjacent table. In rapid succession, he pulled each plate off and put it down in front of the appropriate recipient.
Jade looked up at the Komodo dragon, which stared balefully down at all the food on the table. The poor thing looks hungry. She was tempted to offer it a bite, until she thought she saw a small drop of saliva fall from its leathery lip.
Gabrielle! Alfredo felt his stomach turn over when he heard her name. He saw the whole scenario at once. aka Mrs. Henry Braun, bought Jade’s painting at the auction. Henry had it destroyed. Or more likely, one of his hired thugs did.
“Surely,” Kate said, mopping up the egg yolk on her plate with her toast, “Gabrielle didn’t take the painting away herself? Was she alone? Who picked it up? Where’d the painting get delivered to?”
I should have returned her calls. The secretary at St. Sophia’s had forwarded several phone messages to Alfredo from Mrs Braun yesterday. But he had not answered. He tried to tell himself that he had not had time to call her, but the truth was, he felt that she had developed a fondness for him that made him uncomfortable.
Could I have prevented this destruction of Jade’s paintings had I called her back? Fear jabbed through his guilt. Has Henry harmed her too?
“No,” Sam said. “She said a workman would come after it and take it to the library. She wanted it hung next to the Murder of Crows photo.”
“That would have been the perfect place,” Alfredo said ruefully. “How very generous of her.” In contrast to her husband’s destructive greed.
“Who came and got it?” Jade asked.
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. Some guy picked it up Sunday night when we were taking everything down. He had the receipt, so we let him take it.”
The waiter cleared the table and refilled everyone’s coffee cups. He put the check on the table, and Kate pushed it toward Jade. “I believe you’re the treasurer for the trust?”
“Does that mean I have to pay for breakfast?” Jade asked in cautious fear. “When does my term end? Can I resign right now?”
Kate laughed, as did the others. “No, you may not resign! No—seriously, Jade, the treasurer pays the bills. Your first act is to order up some checks. I’ll put this on my credit card, and you can reimburse me from the funds in the land trust.”
“We have funds?” Jade asked with a grimace.
“Uh, yeah,” Russ said. “We sold a few more things at the art auction—your painting and about ten grand more for a few other odds and ends. Remember?”
Jade slapped her forehead and giggled. “Sorry! I’m a dope.”
She’s certainly not a dope. Again, she reminded Alfredo so much of Charlotte, a vast innocence perhaps. Her mind freely wanders like her mother’s. Russ seems to keep her feet on the ground, though.
“Sam,” Kate said, “tell everyone how much the Beg-a-thon brought us!” To Jade she said: “You’ll be taking over future reports from the Treasury.”
Jade’s eyes widened in horror. “Why me? I can’t balance my own checkbook!”
“‘Bout time you learned!” Kate said. “But not now. Sam?”
“We pulled in almost a million and a half bucks,” Sam said. “Mostly twenty-dollar shares.” He took a small piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and read: “We also sold eleven shares at the hundred-dollar price, six at the thousand-dollar level, and one at the ten thousand.” He looked up with a grin.
Alfredo said, “Bravo!” clapping his hands.
“Really?” Jade asked. “We got that much from the people of Ledford?”
“Well, I haven’t gone through the names and addresses yet,” Sam said. “But I think they’re all from the Ledford area.”
Kate pulled a calculator from her purse and said, “The population of metropolitan Ledford is one point two million. At twenty bucks a pop—”
“That’s seventy-five thousand people,” Russ said, frowning. “Not exactly a large segment of the voting public.”
“Five percent,” Kate said, snapping her calculator shut.
“That’s it?” Jade asked. “Just 5 percent gave that much?”
“Yep,” Kate said. “And we’ve only just begun!”
Alfredo was impressed too. That means there is more to be had from the people of the city. And then his own words haunted him: “I had gotten tired of promising little old ladies that Jesus will receive them in heaven if they would only hand me a check.”
What are we offering the people of Ledford? A wilderness they will never see up close? He shrugged.
A necessary evil, it seems.
The five friends said good-bye to one another on the sidewalk outside The Commode. Sam jumped into his flesh-colored pickup. Screeching his tires, he peeled out.
“Boys!” Kate shook her head at his taillights. “Need a ride to the docks, Padre?”
They walked a few blocks to her car, and she unlocked his door. “I found out some things about your friend in Rosencranz.” She pulled out of the parking lot. “As in why she was sent there in the first place.” She turned onto University Boulevard. “And I found out her real name.”
Alfredo stared at her, and adrenaline shot him up with jittery fear. “It is not Charlotte Steele?”
“Charlotte is her real first name,” Kate said. “Her full name is Charlotte Estelle Majewski.”
Stella? Alfredo sat in stunned silence. Stella? He shook his head. No, it cannot be. It is a coincidence.
“Majewski’s a pretty common name,” Kate said. She stopped at a red light and turned to Alfredo. “Tell me, is she related to Majewski?”
Alfredo shook his head dumbly. “I honestly do not know.” What are you, a lawyer? He mocked himself. Charlotte Steele. Charlotte Estelle. You know who she is—Majewski’s sister. He looked out the window at Wilder Island, green and beautiful, wishing he could vanish forever into its mists and shadows.
“Well,” Kate continued, “it would certainly be easier if Majewski was her brother. If he is, he can get her out.”
Alfredo did not answer. Majewski is Charlotte’s brother. His mind reeled with the consequences of these facts. Majewski cares a great deal about his sister. Will you hide this information from him, knowing his anguish over her?
“But neither he nor his family ever visits,” he said angrily, dismissing his own thoughts, as well as the compassion he had felt for his friend Thomas. He could have tried to find her. “No one does but me.”
“Well, anyway,” Kate said, “Mr. Majewski died in 90s, after which the family lawyer set up a permanent trust fund with Rosencranz as the beneficiary, for Charlotte’s upkeep until she dies.”
Alfredo felt as if he had been stabbed in the heart. Until she dies? He heard Charlotte’s voice in his memory. “I do not want to live that long, Jayzu.”
“They do not care about her!” Alfredo said tersely. “They changed her name and pretend they do not know her! Why can I not become her legal guardian?”
Kate turned into the parking lot at the Boat Landing. After she parked and cut the engine off, she turned to Alfredo and said firmly, “Majewski is probably her legal guardian, Alfredo. There is no way around that. Why not just ask him to get her out?”
“No!” Alfredo said harshly, and then he quickly apologized. “Forgive me, Kate. I do not know what came over me.” He looked across the river at the island. Why not tell Majewski? Kate is right … if Charlotte is his sister, he could get her released from Rosencranz.
“Why not?” Kate asked again. “Seems to me that would be the easiest way.”
Without looking at her, Alfredo shook his head.
“What is it?” Kate asked. “What are you afraid of?”
“What would he do with her?” Alfredo asked. “He does not speak the crow language.”
“I see,” Kate said, nodding. “You want to bring her to the island.” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel for a few moments before turning to Alfredo and looking at him with a calm and reserved expression on her face.
Suddenly she shouted, “Are you nuts?”
Alfredo sat at the rocky point below the hermit’s chapel, recalling how Kate had nearly flayed him alive with words. “You can’t bring an inmate from a mental hospital to the island!” she had said. “It’s a freaking primitive wilderness, remember? That’s what we’ve been fighting for! For God’s sake, Alfredo! Where would she live? Don’t tell me in your cottage!”
After he denied such intent, or at least claiming he had not gotten that far with his plans, she had backed down somewhat. “Good. Don’t even think about it,” she had said. “Find somewhere else for her. But don’t tell me, okay?”
But where could he take her that would be any different than Rosencranz?
Charlie flapped to a landing on the driftwood log next to him, interrupting his thoughts. He smiled at his friend and lifted a hand in greeting.
“Grawky, Jayzu!” Charlie said, brushing a wing across Alfredo’s hand. He folded his wings and scraped his beak back and forth across the log several times. “What’s up, man? You look a little down in the dumps, as they say.”
“Charlie,” Alfredo said, “in less than two weeks, Rosencranz is moving all their patients upstate. We must get Charlotte out of there before they move her. I must break a few laws to do that, and I risk jail if I am caught. But if I do not get Charlotte out of there, I am afraid she will be a prisoner at Rosencranz forever. My heart tells me one thing, my rational mind another.”
He picked up a stick from the ground and peeled away fronds of rotten bark. “I am an alleged man of God, I beg him for guidance. But for the splendor of nature, he does not speak to me. I do not know where to turn for answers.” He bent over and traced the outline of a crescent moon in the sand and erased it with his foot.
“Deities can be spectacularly subtle,” Charlie said. “That’s been the corvid observation of human gods in general over the years.”
“As well as spectacularly unhelpful,” Alfredo said as he drew the outline of the grounds of Rosencranz in the sand. “Sometimes God wants us to find our own way, I guess.”
“Well, it might help if you ask a yes or no question,” Charlie said. “Then the deity could catch a bush on fire, which would be a yes answer I would think. However, silence could also be construed as consent, albeit far less dramatic.”
“The Almighty has indeed forsaken me,” Alfredo said with a rueful laugh. “And in my own silent darkness, I must consider committing a crime that could imprison me and leave Charlotte in Rosencranz without anyone to visit her.” He drew a curved line in the sand. The driveway.
“But is it not a crime to leave her there?” Charlie asked.
“It is indeed,” Alfredo said. “I am on the horns of a dilemma.”
“The Grandmothers have a proverb,” Charlie said. “The horns of all dilemmas grow from the head of the same beast.”
Alfredo laughed bitterly, remembering NoExit’s words: “Have you ever found yourself on the horns of a dilemma? When adhering to the law produces more damage than breaking it?”
“The dilemma is indeed a beast,” he said with a sigh. “Obey the law and commit a crime. Disobey the law and commit a crime. Either way I am gored.”
He traced a circle in the sand. The gazebo.
“We corvids have but one crime,” Charlie said. “That makes things a bit simpler.”
Alfredo traced two large rectangles near the gazebo. The building, the parking lot. He marked Charlotte’s tiny room with a rock. “One law? Just one?”
“No stealing,” Charlie said. “That’s it, our one law. Though it constantly undergoes reinterpretation to fit the circumstance—that’s one of the Grandmother’s duties. It is very cumbersome, the Grandmother’s task, requiring both reason and compassion.”
“It would be considered a form of stealing if I take her from there.” Alfredo sighed, sitting up straight. “But what would I do with her if I could? Where would I take her?”
There were some very kind folks at St. Sophia’s, he had reasoned many times. But they would not be any better at communicating with Charlotte. Chances are she would end up right back in Rosencranz.
“I cannot house her in my cottage,” he said. “It is too small for two humans. And, it would be unseemly for a priest and a woman to co-habitate.” He heard Kate’s voice almost snarling at him, “Don’t even think about it!”
“What about the Treehouse?” Charlie said. “You are nearby, more or less. And I would be there to look after her, and so would Rika. Charlotte would never be lonely again, nor suffer any lack of companions to talk to.”
Alfredo almost laughed out loud, imagining how Kate would take to that idea. “Perhaps I should live in the Treehouse. Charlotte would undoubtedly be more comfortable in my cottage, which has running water. It is more suited for a woman, I think.”
“It is too exposed here, Jayzu,” Charlie said. “People would see her. And then they would talk. That could never be good for Charlotte, and perhaps people would try harder to come to Cadeña-l’jadia.”
Alfredo nodded slowly as he pondered the crow’s words. He bent back down to the sand and drew a large rectangle around the building, the parking lot, and the gazebo. He added a small square, for the guardhouse. “It is true,” he said thoughtfully. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention to his crime. He placed small x’s all along the fence line. The concertina wire.
“Word will get out very quickly that an inmate has escaped Rosencranz. We would not want people to see someone matching her description here on the island.” Oh, the rumors that would create!
“Let’s bring her to the Treehouse,” Charlie said. “You could sleep on the deck for awhile, or underneath it, until she is accustomed to being away from Rosencranz. The three of us—you, me, and Rika—will teach her how to live there. Then you go home to your cottage, and Charlotte is safe from being seen. She would love living in the Treehouse. I know she would.”
Alfredo’s own happiest memories resided in a crude tree house that he had built himself. He had spent most of the daylight hours in the summer there, with his only friends, a few crows. “All right, Charlie,” he said. “Let me gather a few things. I reckon it will need a good cleaning, at least.”
Life in Bruthamax’s tree house with her old friend Charlie could not be worse than her life in Rosencranz. I can look after Charlotte until she can manage on her own.
Armed with candles, matches, and cleaning supplies, Alfredo followed Charlie to the Treehouse. He slogged through the bogs and fens below the Boulders, trying to recognize where a different texture of leaf and shade of green heralded solid ground. Though he had been to the Treehouse many times, he still could not find his way on his own. He had only recently discovered that Charlie had never taken him the same way twice.
“Duck weed,” Charlie called down from above after he stepped into a hip-deep hole full of tea-colored water.
“Oh, crap!” he swore, pulling himself out. He kept a closer eye on Charlie after that. Though he had a few close calls, he arrived at the Treehouse without further mishap.
“Grawky, Jayzu!” Rika said, as he stepped onto the deck of the tree house. “Nice to see you again, dearie.”
“Grawky, Rika!” Alfredo said, brushing his fingertips against her outstretched wing. “It has been a while—since just after I got to Cadeña-l’jadia. I thought I should tidy things up a bit, in case we bring Charlotte here. And I need to check out what is here in the way of kitchenware—you know, pots and pans, dishes and such?
“Well, dearie,” Rika said, “you’ll be bringing some comforts for the lady, I reckon. A tea kettle, for sure. And a nice cup. And maybe a bowl. I reckon Bruthamax ate right out of the pot he cooked in. That will never do for a lady.” Although crow beaks cannot be wrinkled up in distaste the way in which the human nose can, her tone clearly expressed that image.
“Yes,” Alfredo said, laughing. “I am sure you are right. Human males, when left on their own, can be quite, how shall I say—primitive—with respect to the aesthetics of the lady’s house. We priests are no different, I suspect.”
“Nor are the corvid,” Rika said. “It’s the females that keep the nest tidy.”
Rika had told Alfredo about her early adulthood in companionship with a genteel Patua’ lady in the wealthy Victorian Heights neighborhood of Downtown Ledford. “Oh, I miss her, Jayzu! How we used to sip tea together.”
“Well, perhaps one day you and Charlotte can drink tea together on the deck.”
“Curtains,” Rika said, aiming a wing at the window. “She’ll need curtains, Jayzu. A lady likes her privacy, you know. And a rocking chair—a lady needs a rocking chair. And you must bring a stove, a cast-iron one. A lady can cook and keep herself warm with a cast-iron stove.”
“Rika!” Alfredo said, laughing. “How will I haul a cast-iron stove here? They are quite heavy! I am not a muscle man!”
“Oh, pshaw!” Rika said, pushing at Alfredo with her wing. “Bring a small one, dearie! My lady’s doorman took one up to her upstairs apartment with nothing but his two hands.”
Alfredo turned to the little cabin, jerked the door open and went inside. He took the bench and table out to the deck, but the box-bed could not be moved. “Bruthamax must have built the wall around it,” he said. “That takes some planning!”
Several pots and pans sat on the shelf on the wall above the table, among them a cast-iron frying pan. When he grabbed the handle and slid it off the shelf, a folded piece of paper dropped to the floor. He picked it up, hoping it was part of Bruthamax’s journal, and took it outside. He unfolded the paper; the disciplined penmanship bore no resemblance to Bruthamax’s scrawl.
October 31, 1898
My Dear Nephew-
It is with great delight that I read your letters, which make me laugh and wish I could live in such paradise! I am grateful to the Good Lord that you remain in good health and spirits.
I received the manuscript. Thank you again for your work on behalf of the project. Without your efforts, and a handful of others, much knowledge would otherwise be lost.
May God bless you, and the Hozey family,
Alfredo’s reread the letter, shaking his head in amazement. He stared into his thoughts for a few moments before folding it and putting it in his shirt pocket. I cannot wait to call Thomas!
He swept and scrubbed the Treehouse floor, bed, and shelves. Not a square inch of the interior had been left untouched. Such had been Rika’s instructions, and not until he had scrubbed the bench and table would she allow him to put them back inside. All the while he cleaned, Alfredo could not get Antoni de la Torre’s letter or its contents off his mind. Did Bruthamax’s uncle, the Provincial Father Superior Antoni la Torre ever visit him here the island? Was he himself Patua’? It would explain a few things.
After the cleaning of the Treehouse was complete, Alfredo packed his cleaning equipment and sat down on the deck. “Now, Jayzu, dearie,” Rika said, joining him on the bench, “have you thought about Charlotte’s wardrobe? She’ll need clothing, you know.”
Charlotte’s Rosencranz garb seemed the perfect attire for the island and Treehouse, but she would only be coming with the clothes on her back. He had not given it a thought, actually, what she would otherwise need, living in a tree house in the middle of a wilderness forest.
“Perhaps you will help me, Rika,” he said, feeling like a deer in the headlights. “I know nothing of women’s clothing.”
“Indeed,” Rika said, nodding. “Indeed. We’ll make a list, Jayzu, you and I. Levis and sweaters should do. And shoes, and stockings. A nightie. And of course, unmentionables.”
“Unmentionables?” Alfredo asked with raised eyebrows. “I am sure I do not know what that means, Rika.”
The crow gave Alfredo a curious look and said, “Undies, dearie. You know, things that go underneath the outer clothing—underpants, a brassiere, garter belt—well I’m sure she won’t be needing one of those!” Rika tittered behind her wing.
Alfredo blushed to his ear tips. The underneath of Charlotte’s outer clothing. Unmentionables. It had been decades since he had lived with females. An image of his grandmother’s enormous brassiere arose in his memory. He had taken it from the clothesline outside and was punished when his mother caught him firing melons over the fence with it.
But Charlotte was not shaped at all like his grandmother. She was thin and willowy and her breasts were not at all like melons. More like peaches. The thought of the body that lay underneath Charlotte’s Rosencranz coveralls stirred regions of his body that had been asleep for decades.
“Uh, yes, unmentionables. I will give the list to one of the women parishioners at St. Sophia, to put together some clothes, including unmentionables.”
He spent days at a time preparing the Treehouse for Charlotte, and sleeping on the deck. There was much work to do and little time. He refurbished the ramshackle outhouse Bruthamax had built downstream from the Treehouse, installing a new wooden toilet seat and a small box to hold paper.
The cistern was full, underneath the new wooden cover he had made weeks before. After he installed a piston pump that operated off an RV battery in the tree house, he filled the ten-gallon ceramic water crock he had packed in and hauled up to the Treehouse. One day I will bring my lady a sink. And a bathtub.
He dragged a bale of hay up to the deck and stuffed all the holes between the branches and vines that formed the roof of the cabin. as well as the cracks between the tree trunks of the walls. He plastered the entire interior except the wood floor, using a mixture of clay and gypsum plaster he brought in from Ledford on the Captain’s boat. “It is good the Treehouse is small,” he said one exhausted evening to Rika and Charlie.
But the job was done. Everything was ready for Charlotte.
Father Provincial Thomas Majewski stared out his office window. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in paradise, and now I am in hell. My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Snowbell had abandoned him in her near coma on a pillow next to the fireplace.
The gray sky oppressed him. The rainy day oppressed him. Washington DC oppressed him. His job oppressed him. He daydreamed about the island, with himself as its lone inhabitant wandering its dark forests that hid astonishing secrets like talking birds and extinct magical plants. At night, he dreamed of Stella’s restless spirit haunting the labyrinths of his memories.
Stella’s eyes, her sad eyes. Like today’s weather—gray and full of tears. If only I had known. Majewski sighed and tried again to forgive himself for having tricked his sister so many years past. But what would have become of her if I had not? Even I could not have left her in the woods by herself with winter coming. If only I had known another Patua’ then. Like Alfredo—he could have talked to her, perhaps reasoned with her. He laughed at himself and his fantasies that events in the past could be changed.
If only I had known. The mantra of all the souls in hell.
Rain drizzled on the windowpane. But why didn’t we know? De la Torre knew a Patua’ and left us all sorts of evidence. He put another log on the fire, sat down in the armchair. Snowbell slept like the dead; not even a whisker moved. He took the faux Treasure Island from the end table and opened it. To review its inventory. Again.
The red sealing wax on Brother Maxmillian’s letter caught his eye, and he examined it closely for the first time. A human hand stood out distinctly. Good Lord! That fob on the lamp chain in Alfredo’s cottage! He imagined Brother Maxmillian pressing it into a blob of red wax, a crow standing nearby, waiting to post the letter. The idea of using crows as mail carriers amused him more now than it had before. I wonder if de la Torre ever wrote back?
A gust of wind rattled the window, and Majewski scowled at the endless storm. He picked up the folded letter from de la Torre’s sister, and the color print of the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada fell out. For a brief second, he saw the chapel on Wilder Island nestled amid the dark green forest.
He examined the postmark. September 27, 1893, forty years after Brother Wilder built his hermit’s chapel. He opened the letter and read the wispy script.
Greetings, My Dear Brother,
The Chapel of the Madonna della Strata is absolutely gorgeous! Our guide told us that most of the old Roman churches had secret entrances into the labyrinth of passages in which the Church hid the early Christians during times of persecution. And so it was with the Madonna della Strata! From within the sacristy, we entered the catacombs and went down a steep and dark stone staircase. It was like stepping into a subterranean city, comprising many streets and alleys that went off this way and that. We could hardly contain your grandnephew!
Wish you were here,
“I was ordained at the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada in Rome,” Majewski said to Snowbell, who woke up with a start. She yawned and stretched and came down from her perch on the hearth and leaped into his lap. “Built by St. Ignatius Loyola, as the Order he founded responded to the Protestant Reformation.” Majewski stroked the cat in his lap, who attacked his hand. “Is that the connection, Your Highness? The reform of the Catholic Church, led by the Society of Jesus, and the large-scale disappearance of the Patua’?”
Snowbell turned an ear sideways and lowered her eyelids to half open. “So you really think the Order rounded up the Patua’ and delivered them to the Pope for excommunication and possible execution?” he asked in mock surprise. The cat licked her front paw twice, rolled over onto her back, and offered him her soft underbelly.
“The Patua’ would have been considered heretics, you know,” Majewski said as he stroked her. “That’s worse than simple insanity. Perhaps they were even burned as witches. Do you suppose the Order was part of that?”
“Miaw!” Snowbell protested and jumped off his lap.
“Oh, I quite agree, my Queen.” Majewski leaned toward the fireplace, picked up the poker, and jabbed at the burning logs. “I was just playing the devil’s advocate. More likely, the Jesuits led them into the catacombs, along with the Catholics, to protect them from the bigotries of religion.”
He put another log on the fire and made himself a cup of tea. Hardly had he sat back into the armchair when Snowbell was back on his lap. He stared into the fire, sipping his tea. What did de la Torre know? Connect the dots. The letter, the deed, the map, the will, the letter from his sister, the Madonna della Strada Chapel. The hermit’s chapel.
“De la Torre knew at least one Patua’,” Majewski said, scratching the cat behind her ears. “And he wanted someone in the future to know him too. And that would not make any sense at all if Maxmillian were merely insane.” Snowbell purred insistently. “But it would make sense that the Order had an interest in this peculiar race of humans. Perhaps even spiriting them off to a distant land for their own safety.”
William’s voice came through the intercom: “Alfredo Manzi, line one, Father.”
“De la Torre wrote back!” Majewski exclaimed after Alfredo told him about the letter he found at the Treehouse. “That certainly suggests Brother Maxmillian wasn’t a complete hermit. He obviously had some human contact.”
“And,” Alfredo had said, “de la Torre refers to a manuscript; no crow could carry something that heavy all the way to Washington. Someone had to get it off the island and into the mail.”
“What do you think this manuscript is about?” Majewski said. “Memoirs, perhaps?”
“At first, I had no idea,” Alfredo said. “But then I remembered the last few pages of Bruthamax’s journal. Have you read it yet? I e-mailed it to you right after you left.”
“I did,” Majewski said. “It was fascinating!”
“Look again at the pages at the very end,” Alfredo said.
“Hang on a moment,” Majewski said, upsetting Snowbell. He sat down at his computer and opened the file Alfredo had sent. “Okay, I’m looking at some cartoons of alien plants.”
“I thought it was just doodling at first too,” Alfredo said. “But now I am wondering if he was trying to write in Patua’.”
“And you think the manuscript de la Torre is talking about is—” Majewski felt a rush of adrenaline.
“Is written in Patua’,” Alfredo finished for him.
Majewski hung up the phone. A written language of the crows! Imagine that! Excitement kicked the weariness from his bones as he thought of the opportunity before him. To translate the language of the crows! To leave this urban nightmare of the human spirit!
Snowbell had taken up residence on her pillow on the hearth. With one last bored glance at him, she went to sleep. Majewski returned to the armchair and relaxed into the extra room left by his cat. Alfredo’s words drifted into his awareness. “The botanical lore of the Patua’ is said to have been vast …”
Rain continued its relentless assault on the windows, amplifying the sensation of chill in the room. But in the armchair in front of the fire, the pleasantly rich hues of yellow and orange punctuated by an occasional flash of blue warmed him. His head nodded onto his chest.
“Follow me!” Stella whispered with a huge conspiratorial grin. She led him down a spiraling series of staircases and passageways through a network of caves excavated from the solid rock. A variety of sights, noises, and odors tantalized or repulsed as they tunneled back through time. Suddenly Stella grabbed his arm and pulled him off the stone staircase and into a dimly lit, roughly circular cavern, like the hub of wheel, where an astonishing number of passages met.
Alfredo Manzi lay upon the stone floor, and he ordained his prostrate body, reading from a book of runes. Candle smoke and incense briefly filled the air as he looked up at the white basilica of the Madonna del Rio. Bleached by sun and time, the tangled branches and the blue sky beyond made a grid through which a constant stream of black birds flowed,
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