The Lorelei Signal
The Peculiarities of Magpies
Written by Carys Crossen / Artwork by Marge Simon
It was three magpies for a girl, the old rhyme said. The morning Heather went into labour three of the chiaroscuro birds were lined up like shooting targets on the garden fence. Her baby girl was born sixteen hours later, a black-haired, ruby red scrap.
Perhaps it was because the augury proved accurate that Heather began to take notice of the magpies that lingered on her roof and round the street. One for sorrow, two for joy… The rest of the rhyme was vague in her mind but snatches of it surfaced at strange moments. When pouring milk into her cereal, when feeding her daughter, when staring out of the window, brain-numb with exhaustion.
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss…
The morning there were nine magpies ranged along the gutter, Heather’s husband kissed her on the mouth for the first time since the baby was born.
The magpies, with their sequin-bright eyes, their slick feathers, their raucous laughs, were disconcerting to Heather. But she wasn’t frightened of them until the dreary, ash-tinted day that thirteen of them appeared on their garden.
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.
Heather, despite the auguries, might have dismissed it as childish nonsense. But that night the baby started crying, a low, hopeless grizzle, and as she walked her up and down the landing, she happened to glance out of the small window that peered onto the garden.
A figure with the crisp outlines of a silhouette cut from black card stood there. Though it stood on two legs, Heather knew it wasn’t human. She stared it down, eyes ablaze. Until it turned away and sauntered straight though the fence as if the wood were insubstantial as fog.
Heather crept into bed, cuddling her baby close, and stared wide-eyed at the dark until dawn grudgingly came.
As soon as opening hours and the baby permitted it, Heather put her daughter into her pram and pelted, faster than the sludgy commuter traffic, to the local library.
One of the librarians (who wore a lot of flowy skirts and turquoise jewellery) had established a quirky little folklore section in the small building. Happily, the librarian, Agnes, was more than willing to discuss the peculiarities of magpies.
“They’re linked with witchcraft in Yorkshire,” Agnes proclaimed cheerily. “And regarded as a bird of ill omen—associated with the Devil.”
“Course, you can always do the old greeting to fend off any bad luck,” Agnes continued. “See a lone magpie, you say good morning magpie, and how is your wife and family? I say partner, mind, cause it’s difficult to tell male from female.”
“Is that all that we can do to guard against them?” Heather asked, franticness in her voice, jiggling the pram as the baby began fussing. Agnes blinked, spoke more slowly.
“Well…an old folktale is that you thwart the bad luck by going devil, devil I defy thee and spitting at the bird. Not very clean, but it must have worked, or it wouldn’t have been passed down.”
The baby began wailing, so Heather bid Agnes a hasty thank you and retreated.
Heather didn’t go to bed. She laid her daughter down to sleep, sat by the crib and waited.
It was three in the morning, witching hour, when the magpie tapped at her window.
Heather stared it down. Lone, alone, lonely magpie, bird of ill omen. She might have felt compassion, but she saw its darkly spangled eye seeking out the crib, and her precious baby within. Why it wanted her child, Heather didn’t know, didn’t care. It would not win.
“Devil, devil, I defy thee,” she whispered. The magpie startled.
“Devil, devil, I defy thee!” Heather said, made bold by the bird’s shock. It cringed on the ledge, gazing up at her almost pleadingly.
She spat at it. A glob of mucus struck the windowpane, slid down it, leaving a snail trail. The bird fled in a flurrying flutter of wings.
Heather hurried to the window, just in time to see the dark figure vanish through the fence, hurrying, furtive.
Heather didn’t sleep well for a long time, even after her daughter began sleeping through the night. But the magpie and its master never returned. And no matter how she scrubbed the window, the trail of spit could never be cleaned off, but remained to warn all comers, that here was a woman who had faced down the Devil for her child’s sake and beaten him.
Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old and shows no signs of stopping. Her fiction has been published by Every Day Fiction, Foxglove Journal, Dear Damsels, FlashBack Fiction and others, and her monograph 'The Nature of the Beast' has been published by University of Wales Press. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband, their daughter and their beautiful, contrary cat.