The Other Magpie
One of two second place winners in Maisonneuve's 2013 genre fiction contest. This year's theme was fables and parables.
One for Sorrow
Two for Joy
Three for a Girl
Four for a Boy
Five for Silver
Six for Gold
Seven for a tale never to be told
Eight bring wishing
Nine bring kissing
Ten, the love my own heart’s missing!
* * *
In the heart of the northern kingdom, among the tall trees by the silver lake, there lived a young magpie. Though small, she was beautiful, with wings as black as obsidian and a breast as white as the moon.
The other birds looked down on the little magpie, as it was said that her father had abandoned her family. “Everyone knows magpies mate for life,” they said. “Perhaps her father wasn’t a magpie at all, but some common bird!” At this, her mother told her to ignore the sharp tongues of others, and the magpie grew up clever and full of grace.
While the other birds flocked in noisy gangs, the magpie spent many a solitary hour exploring the land near the castle. In those days the king and queen were heavy-hearted, as they had lost their only son to the Lady of the Woods. One afternoon the magpie alighted on the windowsill of the queen’s chambers and began to sing. But the queen let out a cry, having seen the bird’s reflection in her looking-glass. For the night the young prince had disappeared, there had been a magpie in that very window.
Spring came, and the air was alive with songs of courtship. The swallows chased each other in arcs over the furrows, the thrushes puffed out their little breasts and called out across the low marshes, and the magpies built beautiful nests to attract their mates.
The little magpie, meanwhile, had no suitors. Undeterred, she collected small glittering things for her nest: a blue-green marble found alongside the road; a shard of garnet discarded by the king’s jeweller.
When the other magpies saw this they fell into fits of laughter. “A girl making her own nest? How absurd!”
In the meantime, spring also arrived at the castle, where the prince had been missing for months. Each year, the queen threw a ball where the noblewomen competed for a dance with the prince. Now the woes of the castle were the sadness of all, for no one was as fine and generous as the queen’s son. In order to raise the spirits of the young people, the queen decided to host the dance regardless, and had the great hall elegantly decorated.
Soon after, the magpie noticed a strange young bird in the woods. While the magpies had black feathers, his were a faded colour like the riverbed in midsummer. Uninterested in the others’ chatter, it also appeared he had no nest.
“Maybe he’s not a magpie, or perhaps from a distant wood,” she thought.
She began to see the tawny bird here and there, even near the lakeshore, where the Lady of the Woods was rumoured to take her baths. However, since none of the birds spoke to him, he remained a mystery.
* * *
A week before the great ball, a tremendous storm ravaged the land, uprooting saplings and flooding the silver lake.
Wind tore through the houses of farmer and nobleman alike, and trinkets from the royal palace were lofted high by the gusts. Some landed, shimmering, in the branches of the trees.
The next morning, the magpie was surprised to see another nest in a tree just across the clearing. It had not been there before. She also noticed, startled, that the tawny bird was watching her from a nearby branch. Embarrassed, the little magpie flew off.
In the days that followed the little magpie busied herself with her nest, and all the while the tawny bird remained close by. Strangely, whenever she looked over at the neighbouring nest, it seemed to become more elaborate. Soon she thought that one of the other magpies was building it to taunt her: for no matter what dazzling jewel she added to the jumble of twigs and mud, the other magpie had another shinier stone, a more luminous piece of glass.
Finally she dared to fly near the other nest, where she caught a glimpse of the most beautiful bird she had ever seen. And then she saw something that made her heart stop. It was the tawny bird. He stood a little way behind the other magpie, and there was a keenness in his eyes she had not noticed before.
The eve of the queen’s grand ball, the little magpie rose early to improve her nest. Yet the beautiful bird’s nest seemed that much more perfect, her adornments just a touch more refined. Unable to restrain her curiosity, she flew over to land directly before the other magpie. But instead of skittering away, the bird met her gaze. With a start, she realized that perched on the side of the other magpie’s nest was the tawny bird. Impulsively, she lunged out at the beautiful one with a cry, her wings outstretched.
Sharp pain shot through her head, and for a moment her vision blurred. Suddenly, behind the beautiful bird, a shadowy figure seemed to appear. The little magpie wavered for a moment before plummeting through the branches, and with a flash of recognition, cried out: “But it’s me...it’s me...”
Before all turned dark, she saw the tawny bird looking down at her.
* * *
On the ground below the trees a young maiden lay outstretched. Her hair was black as midnight’s shadow and her face was pale like the opal stone. Another woman, with long fingers and a proud mouth, knelt down and placed her hand on the girl’s brow. It was the Lady of the Woods.
She addressed the maiden: “Do not be afraid. You know me as your mother, as you have ever since I found you, orphaned and left outside the castle walls. I brought you to the woods and raised you as a magpie, never revealing your real origins. But eventually, you were drawn to one like you — to the prince.”
Now a fine young man emerged from behind a tree. His skin was richly tanned, and his eyes flashed like the sky before a storm.
“The prince came to me, having grown tired of the competitive fuss of the court, and asked to live among the birds for a time. Finding a kindred soul in you, my little magpie, he was reminded of his old life. Your independence and spirit charmed him, and he wished to return with you to the palace. But you couldn’t take your true form until you realized the secret of your reflection.”
Smiling, the maiden thanked the lady, and turned to the prince with questioning eyes.
“I believe my mother will expect us at the ball, if you should care to join me,” he said. She nodded, and took his arm. In the fading light, they walked to the castle. The Lady of the Woods transformed back into a bird and soared overhead, singing.
To this day the magpie is the only bird that can recognise itself in a mirror.