They came, at first, to be fed, and Marek was glad of the company. To be home all day with the baby – as he had been for months now – was more difficult than he’d ever imagined, so on the morning he looked out to see these five beautiful birds, all with their heads cocked, all staring up at him from the yard with their glassy black eyes, he welcomed both the novelty and the attention.
He opened the window and threw them the remains of his breakfast – some crusts, an apple core, a small sliver of ham – and they jostled and pulled at each other to get the best of what he’d given. Everyone knows, of course, that magpies can make the most awful sounds of any bird, but all that was to be heard that morning was the skitter and scratch of their claws on the frosted yard. Once the food had gone they took to the air, disappearing into the grey of the January sky as quickly as they’d arrived.
Marek, left alone with the baby once again, sensed the emptiness of the shack, the absence at the heart of his day. Everything was the baby, and the baby was everything.
It was the way things had to be.
Marek slept badly that night as usual. Each time he managed to close his eyes, the baby began to gurgle and giggle, and these sounds soon turned to shrieks and wails if Marek failed to show his face over the rail of the crib.
But as the new day’s sun sketched its light-lines onto thehard floor of the shack, Marek was thinking only of the magpies. The previous morning had been such a welcome change to his routine! Those birds had taken over his thoughts.
He stood from the bed and looked out over the frosted yard.
All five were back again.
This time, though, the birds did not seem as desperate. They stood in a line, heads cocked, eyes black, and Marek heard in his head a chorus of beautiful female voices, entirely in time with one another.
“Let us in,” the voices said, “where it’s warm and we can be with you.”
In a daze, Marek lifted the latch, and the magpies leapt onto the sill as one. He pulled the window towards him, and all five birds flew into room, brushing past Marek, their wings soft against his cheek.
The baby was lying in its blanket in the crib, but the birds ignored it, hopping instead onto the table, where they pecked and poked at some old tin cutlery, and onto the shelves, where they stuck their beaks into the box where Marek kept his dead wife’s necklaces and rings.
They were the only things of any worth that Marek had left.
The voices in his head spoke again, and this time they carried a little more force.
“Marek, we love nothing more than things which glisten, things which shine. Let us take them. Let us keep them. You are lonely, Marek, but we will be your friends.”
Marek had become so used to only hearing the baby’s cries that the words of the magpies were full of wonder and grace. He smiled and nodded at the birds. What use did he have for polished tin? And what was jewellery without a wife to wear it? Better by far to have friends with feathers! Better by far to never be lonely again!
And it were as if the birds had heard his thoughts, for immediately two of them took the rings and the necklaces in their beaks, and the other three a knife, a fork and a spoon. They were up and out through the open window before Marek realised what exactly they’d done, and it was only once they’d disappeared into the grey sky that he noticed the baby, still wrapped its blanket in the crib, crying hard.
That day was the worst which Marek could remember since his wife’s death, because the child could not seem to stop its tears. All the usual tricks which Marek had learnt had no effect, and it was only when the baby tired itself out with its frustrations and fell asleep that Marek was able to get some rest himself.
His dreams, when they came, were fitful and full of feathers.
The next morning brought the birds with it, and this time, they were sitting on the sill. Marek pulled up the latch, and they pushed against the glass, almost toppling him over in their rush to be inside. They found their perches on the table and the shelves, but there was nothing left to take.
The baby had been sleeping in its blanket in the crib, but now it began to cry. With a sigh, Marek went to pick it up, but one of the birds – the biggest – flew up quickly from its spot on the table and Marek was forced backwards into the chair. He could hear only one voice now, softer this time, seductive, full of honey, full of flame. “I know how tired you are, Marek. I know how lonely. Let me help.”
The bird was standing on Marek’s thighs, looking up at him, its beak so close to his face that he could see the shine of its porcelain surface. The bird lifted its wings, and the feathers stroked Marek’s cheeks, reached higher, smoothed his hair. The voice said, “Marek, let us relieve you of your burden, just for today. We live in the forest, but the baby will be safe with us. Our nests are in the highest trees where no harm can reach.”
The touch of the feathers was like the whispered breath of a woman, and Marek felt his eyes closing. He thought he heard the baby’s cries, but they sounded far away. The magpies could take the baby. One day was no time at all. Sleep would come. Peace, at last. And tomorrow, the birds would be back, and the forest air would have done the baby some good. It would be a brighter, happier little thing, and surely less full of tears.
The last thing Marek felt as he drifted into sleep was the loosening grip of the magpie’s claws on his thighs.
He was awoken by the cold. The window was wide, and darkness had fallen. There was no candle in the room, and it took him a moment to come fully to his senses.
When he did, what he noticed was the silence.
He jumped out of the chair. The magpies! How could he have let them take the baby? What had he been thinking? It had been those terrible voices in his head!
But there! The dark shape of the baby was lying still in its crib, and when Marek leaned in to pick it up, he saw that the magpies had been lying after all.
Because magpies don’t take babies; they only take their eyes.
Jason Jackson writes short fiction and poetry. He also takes photographs. In a busy life he hopes to get better at all three. Jason tweets @jj_fiction