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A Possession of Magpies

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Catherine Linton has lived above the cemetery on Drakes Bay Lane for as long as anyone, even she, can remember. She was there when Drakes Bay Lane ended right at the graveyard gates. It had been full of bird song and the cooing of mourning doves then. The only harsh notes, struck by murders of crows and parliaments of magpies.

The road has been extended, widened and now connects directly to the state highway. It has become so crowded it is almost a highway itself, a teeming throughway between the living and the dead. But Catherine’s hearing is so dim, and her eyesight is so cloudy, she can barely make out the train of cars, or hear the cacophony of horns and brakes. Instead she imagines Drake’s Bay as it used to be, a small ribbon of pavement, an asphalt garden snake edging past silent tombs and mausoleums.

Catherine spends her days in a rocker, watching the magpies swoop down and gather up the ascending souls that rise up from the graves of the newly dead. She does not know if anyone else can see them, emerging out of the earth like small, transparent children. Nor does she know why the magpies are so eager for spirits. If she were a bird, she’d prefer fat juicy worms, or the remains of an abandoned picnic.

She thinks it odd, but many people do come to picnic on the graves, young lovers sharing bottles of cheap red wine, old widows, or widowers, eating sandwiches on the graves of their departed. She wonders if the dead appreciate these visits, if the smell of old grapes and fresh bread salted with tears and memories is food to their hungry souls.

Drake’s Bay is a beautiful old cemetery, edged by slender, pale poplars that turn golden or sprout green, depending on the season. The grass is clipped by small herds of whitetail deer that wander between graves, pruning the willows that wept over grey stone angels and licking the salty tops of white marble tombs.

Catherine imagines she will be buried there someday. She wonders if a magpie will claim her, and what the birds do with the souls they seem so eager to collect. Do they feed them to their young? Do they line their nest with them? Or do they fly them halfway to heaven, then set them free, a sort of taxi service to paradise?

Catherine wonders if a magpie grabbed her betrothed, Tommy, when he died many years ago, on a battlefield in France. Once, she had been bitter about the loss, but now she can barely remember his face. When she tries, she can only see a man so young, so distant from where she is now, that he might as well be a stranger.

Her eyes are milky with cataracts. It makes this world difficult to see. Sometimes it seems that the souls and the magpies are the only thing she can focus on. The magpies because they are so black and white, and the souls because she knows she’s close to joining them.

It has been a cold winter. She thinks it might be her last. Now that spring is here, she spends her time on the deck, swaying back and forth in the rocker as stiff and creaky as her bones.

As she sits there, swaying in afternoon sun, her eyes drift closed. Her breathing grows sonorous, and for the first time in forever, Catherine dreams of Tommy. It has been so long since she has seen him it is almost a visitation.

He stands before her, young and elegant in a black and white tuxedo. As he passes beneath a chandelier. The black tails of his jacket catch the light and shimmer with a hundred iridescence rainbows. Tommy opens his mouth, but instead of his melting baritone, out comes a harsh caw and a thud. She awakens with a start.

A young magpie has smashed into her window and is lying at her feet. A breeze ruffles its feathers, revealing a glittering kaleidoscope of iridescence rainbows in each black shaft.

Though she’s too old to fuss over anything and should just leave it to die, she cradles the fallen bird in her withered hand. It is breathing shallowly.

Once, in a past so distant it seems like fiction, she had rescued all manner of injured creatures; birds with broken wings, squirrels fallen from nests, and litters of kittens so naked and small they were not even recognizable as cats.

Tommy had called her, Florence Nightingale of the Animals. She smiles at the memory, cracking her face into a million wrinkled folds.

She wraps the bird in a blanket, sets him near a heater and searches for a place to house him in. Beneath her bed she discovers an old shoe box. The dust rises from it like fog off of distant mountains, like souls out of tombs. It is the perfect size for the bird, but it’s filled with old photos. She empties them onto her bed, not noticing that the only photo that falls image up is one of Tommy, staring up at her from the past.

She puts the bird in the now empty boy and searches for some ancient dry cat food, a relic from a forgotten feline. She soaks the food in water, placing it and some water in china saucers near the box.

When the bird wakes, he gobbles it eagerly, cocking his head and looking at her with one bright eye, much too knowingly for such a young bird. He is missing some tail feathers and his right wind is bent.

Catherine straightens the wing and binds it to his chest with an old ace bandage. It’s a miracle she can do such delicate work with her knobby arthritic fingers, almost like claws themselves, but it doesn’t move at all.

“Smart bird,” she says. “You know I’m trying to help you.”

She cares for the bird for a whole month, binding and rebinding the wing once a week to make certain it stays clean. It heals whole and strong, though still bent. She wonders if it will tilt to the left because of it, able to fly only in circles. She sighs, but she has done the best she can.

The bird hops off the table and soars to the old upright piano. He seems alright. It is time to let him go. She knows it is selfish, but she flinches at the thought. It seems like forever since she has felt anything. Now love and loss come crashing down on her like a sleeper wave.

Catherine looks at the piano, instead of the magpie’s dark feather’s glistening in the sunlight she sees Tommy in a shining black tailcoat. He is playing “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” just like he used to, but instead of Jeanie he sings “Cathy.”

He was a real musician. He would play and sing, and she would join in, harmonizing with his smooth baritone. She can hardly imagine it now. Her throat aches at the memory. She remembers everything she has forgotten; the way Tommy held her in his arms, the way it felt like flying when they danced, the feeling in her soul when he told her he would never leave her.

“But you did,” she whispers hoarsely. “You left me alone forever.”

And somehow, though she does not see how it can be possible, Tommy is both sitting at the piano and there beside her holding out open arms, it as it is as if having left her alone for most of her life, he has returned to surround her.

Catherine feels young and weightless. She does not care that it is impossible, she falls into his arms and they waltz round the room in sweeping circles. The magpie watches as Catherine wheels around, arms wide.

Then, she collapses. She lies on the floor gasping. The magpie hops over to investigate. When his feathers brush her face, Catherine thinks she feels Tommy’s black tail coat grazing her cheek. The magpie pecks her wrist. He jabs her chin. When she doesn’t respond, he flies out the open window. Despite the missing bent right wing, he catches an updraft and is gone.

Catherine isn’t found for a week.

The house has to be fumigated before it can be put up for sale.

There is a notice in the paper. Neighbors whisper. It’s a tragic reminder of what can happen when the old are allowed to live alone. Overnight the number of medical alert buttons in Drake’s Bay quadruples.

Catherine is buried in the cemetery below her house. Nobody can see her soul rising like a small, transparent child from her grave, only to be snatched up by a waiting magpie.

The magpie swallows her soul. For a moment all is darkness, a dark as long and silent as eternity.

So this is what happens,she thinks. A black emptiness, an endless void, a never-ending nothingness.

And then she is seeing through the eyes of the bird, flying above the earth, soaring above the world, circling the boneyard on rising currents of warm air. From out of the slender poplars another bird flies to meet her. It’s right wing is slightly bent. Despite the injury, it sweeps through the air as smoothly as a melody, black feathers catching the sunlight and shimmering with hundreds of iridescence rainbows.

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