Heart of a Magpie
Marion leaned closer to the white picket fence around her new backyard at ul. Towarnickiego 27. Finally she'd found a magpie that would consider eating bread out of her hand. Just six feet away, the magpie cocked its head, its black eyes fixed on the treat in her outstretched hand.
Slowly, slowly, she tried to relax every line in her body, to make herself welcoming and non-threatening. With the bird in front of her, and the sun hard on her shoulders, she could almost believe she was back in Colorado with Rich teasing her about feeding magpies from their deck. Only the mountains were missing.
"Jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery . . ." Her daughter, Emma, practiced Polish by counting the slats in the fence. Her ash-blonde ponytail bobbed as she pressed a chubby finger against the wood.
Really, Marion should be practicing, too. But it was so nice to be outside after days of rain, and she wanted a few moments where she could zone out her mind. A few moments where she didn't have to flounder in a foreign language or remember Rich's betrayal, which had sent her running halfway around the planet.
The bird took two quick steps along the fence and stopped, eyeing the sky.
Had it spotted a hawk? Marion glanced up to rustling leaves and puffy clouds.
The bird inched forward, its feathers pulled tight to its body, its neck stretched to peck at the bread.
Marion held her breath. She felt the slight tremor along the bread at the magpie's touch. She could almost see herself mirrored, small and anxious, in one black eye.
Then Emma shrieked. "Mom!"
Marion jumped just as the magpie startled. It vaulted into the air with a flash of wings. Then a shadow blocked out the sun, and a hawk plummeted from the sky, pinning the magpie to the fence.
The hawk stood on one foot, the other bracing the struggling magpie against the top of a slat.
"Hey!" Marion yelled. She threw the crusty bread at the hawk as the magpie beat its one free wing against the wood. "Leave us alone!"
The hawk raised its head. It had a sharp curved beak and black feathers that ran from its eyes like tears. Marion froze, her hand raised to drive it off.
This was no hawk, but a falcon.
Then, impossibly, its face changed. The black falcon eyes grew, turning long and narrow with a slit pupil as no bird's eyes had. The feathers around its beak opened, forming lips with a beak in the center, the lips stretching into a grin that was horrible to see.
Whatever this was, it was no falcon.
The bird-thing's head darted out and bit her still-outstretched hand, tearing deep into the flesh between thumb and forefinger.
She cried out, a sound echoed by Emma across the yard, but her other hand came up and hit the bird-thing between its eyes. It screamed--keeyeer!--then took off, huge wings pummeling the air, the magpie beating feebly at the thing's pale belly. As Marion watched, frozen, shaking, her bleeding hand pressed to her chest, the thing hovered and bent its head to tear at its prey. The magpie stopped moving. Then the thing looked at her and opened its beak. A mouthful of flesh and bloody feathers rained down.
She bolted out of the way.
Emma was crying. Marion ran to her and snatched her up from the grass. The bird-thing skimmed low over the trees, circling their house, the magpie still in its talons.
"You okay?" Marion's sister, Diane, asked her over the phone that evening. "You sound tired."
"Long day," Marion said as she scrubbed the kitchen sink, seeking comfort in the mindless rhythm and the smell of lavender soap. Even the sting in her hand didn't stop her. Emma was finally in bed after five stories, two glasses of water, a second bathroom trip, a demonstration that the window was closed, and an extra night light. "I still have to finish a couple of lesson plans for tomorrow."
"You still like your classes?"
Marion found herself smiling. "Yeah, the advanced class is great. The students really want to learn English. I can do all sorts of fun things with them."
"I'm glad, Mari. But you can still come home, you know. It's not too late."
"I made my choice. I'm going to make this work."
"I know, but . . . " Diane trailed off.
Marion wiped the counters, knowing from long experience that her sister would search for just the right words. A final wipe, and she moved on to the stovetop. Really, she would have to do a full cleaning of the house. Just the other day she'd found a half-eaten piece of bread behind the stove.
Diane cleared her throat. "I had lunch with Jack and Sandy yesterday."
Rich's parents. Marion's hand tightened around the sponge, sending a throb of pain between thumb and forefinger.
"They're worried about you and Emma."
"Let them worry."
"They'd like to talk with you."
"Good for them."
"They're Emma's grandparents. They deserve to know her."
"And Emma deserved to have her father."
Silence. Marion scrubbed a tomato sauce stain on the stove. Jack and Sandy had kept Rich's secret when he lost his job at the biomedical lab. Too devastated to tell her, he'd spent his days, and their savings, at the Black Hawk casinos outside Denver before stepping in front of a bus.
"They asked me if you're in Poland," Diane said.
"You didn't tell them!"
"Of course not. But they aren't stupid, and you'd talked enough about seeing where Grandma Marta grew up. They really are making an effort."
"Tell them I'm in Argentina."
"Or Peru or Indonesia. I don't care. Just don't tell them where we are."
"You can have lunch with them. Go hiking at Rocky Mountain, whatever. You're adults. I can't stop you. But I don't want to hear about it."
A pause. "Nothing?"
"Nothing. They didn't tell me Rich was gambling. I don't need to tell them where Emma is."
"You can't blame them for Rich's choices."
"I'm blaming them for their choices. Now, I really have to finish those lesson plans. Talk to you next week."
After she hung up, she stood at the sink, staring into the blackness out the window. All of a sudden, the hairs on her arms stood up. She felt as if, at any moment, something would launch itself against the window.
She yanked the lace curtains closed.
Damn it, Rich, why did you leave me?
The next morning, with Emma happily absorbed in Polish cartoons on TV, Marion took the field guide to Polish birds that Diane had given her and stepped out onto the back porch. With sunlight streaming through the branches, and the curtains over the kitchen sink swaying in the breeze, she wondered if she had overreacted. Bird faces didn't stretch. She'd seen an illusion caused by stress or a trick of the light.
The dew darkened the canvas of her sneakers. She tucked the field guide under her arm and picked her way through the grass. None of the birds in the guide had looked quite right. If she could find a feather, maybe she could use the computer at work to identify the bird. She missed having Internet at home, but after selling the house in Boulder to pay Rich's debts and selling her car to pay for the plane tickets, Internet was a luxury she couldn't afford. She'd been lucky to find a teaching position that provided housing.
She used the tip of her sneaker to search through the white and yellow flowers that grew along the fence. There were grasshoppers and fallen leaves, but no feathers.
Except, what was that? A bit of black in the grass. She poked further into the tangle of flowers. There, over where Emma had played, was the dead magpie. Its eyes had been torn out, and a big, ragged hole replaced its chest.
Marion looked away. She took one deep breath, two--
A cry rang out, a sharp keeyeer!
Marion went cold.
Sitting in the crook of a branch a little to her right was the bird. It hadn't been there a minute before. Her heart shriveled, but her brain clicked through field marks: breast and legs that were pure white, with no streaks.
"What are you?"
She whispered, but the bird's head cocked, its gaze zeroing in on her as if it had understood every word.
She swallowed, unnerved, and reached for her field guide.
The bird screamed and launched itself from the tree. Marion ducked, pressing her hands to her chest, but the beak didn't come. Instead, the bird's body stretched, elongating before her incredulous eyes just as its mouth had done before. It spiraled, feathers melding into skin, eyes disappearing into a face that swirled like the colors in a kaleidoscope. The body stretched impossibly long, until a spinning column of air twisted in its place.
A coincidence, Marion's brain tried to tell her as the whirlwind, six feet tall, touched down in the backyard, the leaves of the tree behind the fence snapping in the sudden gale. The bird didn't turn into a tornado. It just happened to get sucked up in a spontaneously generated twister.
A pebble zinged out, scraping her wrist. Something else banged her kneecap, sending pain down her leg.
She dashed towards the house, her knee hurting with each step. The twister howled behind her, flinging pebbles and twigs and a discarded pop bottle. A shard of glass grazed her shin, another scratched her elbow.
She dashed up the porch steps, fumbling at the door handle with shaking hands. Come on, come on. The door clicked open, and she stumbled inside, slamming the door against the wind.
Heavy thuds pounded on the door. The lace curtains snapped in the storm, sending a cup from the drying rack to shatter on the floor. Without a screen in the window, grass and twigs and garbage swirled into the kitchen. Marion grabbed the metal handle and cranked the window closed.
The wind stopped. The curtains sagged against the window frame. Outside, bits of grass and leaves settled on the porch as if there had been nothing but a sudden breeze.
Emma hugged the kitchen doorway, her eyes huge in her face.
"It's okay," Marion whispered, almost to herself. "We're okay."
There was no sign of the bird.
No, not a bird. A bird-thing that could turn into a tornado.
"I wanna stay with you!" Emma wailed.
"I know, Emma," Marion said. She grabbed her purse and work bag while Emma clung to her leg like a brace. "But you like staying with Mrs., I mean, Pani Jablonska."
"Don't wanna go!"
Marion knelt and rocked Emma in her arms. "Sssh, it's okay." Could she call in sick? She'd only been on the job for two weeks.
Rich, hon, why aren't you here to help me? What did I do to make you leave us?
"I don't want to go, either," she said against Emma's hair, "but I kind of have to. How about we just go out to the front porch, see what happens?"
There was a pause, during which Marion felt like the embodiment of bad parenting. Then Emma sniffled something that sounded like an okay. So, armed with Emma's Mr. Teddy for protection, they opened the front door. Marion's mouth was dry, and she found herself with a sudden urge to pee. Across the street and one house over, Pani Jablonska sat on her front steps, watching her granddaughter Edyta skip rope on the brick sidewalk.
The sky was clear, only a few clouds lingering on the mountainless horizon. A pigeon cooed on the telephone wire. Edyta chanted some rhythmic skipping song. Marion stroked Emma's cold hand with her thumb. "Do you want to go over, say hi?"
After a moment, Emma nodded.
Step by step, they made their way across the tree-lined street. Pani Jablonska met them on the sidewalk. She wore what seemed to be the national uniform of Polish grandmothers: a faded knee-length dress, lightweight sweater, and thick-soled shoes.
"Dzien dobry," Pani Jablonska greeted them. "Wszystko dobrego?" Is everything all right?
No, Marion had to answer in the halting, baby Polish she'd picked up from Grandma Marta. Everything was not okay. Emma wasn't sick, but she'd had a scare.
"Biedne dziecko," Pani Jablonska clucked. Poor child.
Edyta bounced over to give Emma a grin. Emma blinked then ventured a small smile back.
Haltingly, Marion asked if Emma and Edyta could play in the house that afternoon, instead of outside.
"Tak," Pani Jablonska said. "Oczywiscie." Of course.
"Bardzo dziekuje," Marion said with relief. Thank you. She bent and hugged Emma. "You'll be fine. I'll see you later for supper, okay?"
"Okay. Can I try the jump rope?"
Thank goodness for childhood resiliency. "If Pani Jablonska says it's okay."
She shouldered her bag. She'd have to run to catch the bus. But she couldn't help asking Pani Jablonska if she'd seen anything strange in the neighborhood. A strange ptak, bird, or sokol, falcon. She didn't know the word for tornado.
Pani Jablonska gave her the small, closed-lipped smile she'd come to expect, the one that said it was best to humor the poor widowed American. "Nie, nie," she said, with a shake of her head. "Nie mamy tych rzeczy." We don't have such things.
Marion sat at the kitchen table strewn with printouts from work and the cybercafé in town. The windows were closed, the curtains, too, trapping inside the lunchtime smell of hotdogs and apple juice.
Emma climbed up on a chair. "Can I go over to Pani Jablonska's?"
"No, sweetie. Not now." Marion flipped through a pile of papers, searching for the final page of an article on Polish mythology.
"But Edyta said she'd bring me a jump rope."
"On Monday. We're not going outside today." The last two mornings, she'd woken to find dead magpies, torn in horrible ways, on the front and back porches. She'd put some chicken, laced with rat poison, out in the backyard. The chicken hadn't been touched, but that morning the wood around the front door handle had been splintered and chewed, as if by a giant beak. "Why don't you look at one of the books she lent you?"
"Well, what's on TV?"
"How about you pick up the pieces of the puzzle you left in the living room?"
"Ewww. I guess I'll go get the book." She slumped out of the chair and stomped down the hallway.
"In the living room. Where I can see you." Marion regretted it as soon as the words were out of her mouth. No use scaring Emma. But the hair along her arms stiffened again. She glanced outside, to the overhanging trees. Something was out there, watching her, something not found in any field guide.
She'd tried asking some of the Polish teachers at the school about the bird-tornado-thing, but most of them gave her that closed-lipped smile.
"There is the firebird. Very noble, helpful," Kasia had said. "But that's more Russian than Polish."
"My grandma used to tell me about a bird, a wicked little thing," Michal told her while they took turns at the photocopier. "It used to play tricks on pregnant women." He raised a thick eyebrow. "I don't suppose . . . ?"
"Definitely not," Marion said.
Marion ran her hands through her hair. There wasn't much to read. Most of the English-language websites dedicated to Polish mythology talked about harvest spirits that watched over the fields or house spirits that helped with the cleaning and mending. Other websites mentioned creatures that were labeled merely as Slavic. Did that mean mostly Russian, like the firebird? If only Grandma Marta were still alive, with her stories of growing up outside of Krakow.
Except Grandma Marta had told more stories about making blueberry pierogi than about the dragon under Wawel castle. And weren't fairy creatures just personifications of humanity's most primal fears--nature, sexuality, old age? Marion remembered reading about that in college. Fairy tales then were meant as guides on how to live in society: how to choose a mate, how to treat your elders, how to forgive those who wronged you.
Forgive someone! Ha.
She chewed the end of her highlighter. Where was the story that described how to get rid of a nasty bird-thing by guessing its true name or chopping down its beanstalk? She wasn't going to go slinking back to Diane after only three weeks in Poland. Diane had gotten her back on her feet after Rich; it was time to show she could stand tall.
Something thumped against the front door.
Marion's heart lurched.
In the living room, Emma said, very small, "What was that?"
"I don't know."
The sound of shuffling, near the door.
Marion shot to her feet. From the drawer by the stove, she grabbed a steak knife.
Emma was on her stomach, a picture book open in front of her. She craned her neck to see through the closed lace curtains. "Oh! It's the mailman! It must be Aunt Diane's box!"
Marion breathed out. She'd been waiting for that box, filled with all sorts of Americana. Still, she kept hold of the knife when she opened the door. The mailman had gone, but a headless magpie lay on the bottom porch step, half hidden by the front bushes.
"Here," she told Emma, "take the letters while I get the box." Anything to distract Emma from that sight. Goodness only knew what the mailman thought, not to mention the neighbors.
The kitchen table was covered with her printouts, so she carried the box back to her bedroom. She cut through the packing tape with her sewing scissors.
"Peanut butter!" Emma's eyes gleamed. "Oreo cookies! Can I have one?"
"Just one." Marion pulled out the rest of the goodies, finishing with the canned pumpkin. On the bottom, under a week's worth of the Boulder Daily Camera and that month's Birds and Blooms were three hardback picture books: an introduction to Polish history, a child's life of Pope John Paul II, and a treasury of Slavic folklore.
"Thanks, sis," Marion whispered, flipping through the lavish illustrations in the history book.
"Can I see?" Black crumbs ringed Emma's mouth, and a few littered the quilt.
Marion handed over the history book and picked up the pope one. A slip of paper fluttered out from under the cover. She plucked it off the carpet.
Jack and Sandy thought Emma might enjoy these. There are more, if you want them.
"Emma." The sharpness of her voice made Emma look up. "Give me the book."
"But I'm looking at it."
"These aren't for us." How dare they try to get to her through Emma?
"What do you mean? Can't I finish it?"
"No." Why did she seem to be saying that to Emma so much? No, no, no.
Wordlessly, Emma tipped the book closed and handed it over.
"Go on and finish Pani Jablonska's book. I'll put this stuff away."
Once Emma was gone, she wrapped the books in plastic bags and dumped them in the trash.
Late the next week, as Marion came out of the classroom, wiping chalk from her hands, she found the school secretary Barbara waiting for her.
"Your sitter, Pani Jablonska, called."
Marion's heart rose in her throat. "Emma?"
"She's all right. Something bit her. But she's quite upset."
Pani Jablonska flung her front door open before Marion even knocked. Emma shot up from the sofa. "Mom!"
Marion crossed to the sofa and hugged her close. "Oh, Emmie, what happened?" But she could guess. Scratches covered half of Emma's face and hands. Band-aids marched down her left ear. She smelled of disinfectant.
Pani Jablonska hovered by the sofa, saying something too quickly about walking back from the park, a bird, and Marion's house.
"Thank you," Marion said over the older woman's recitation. "I'm going to take her home now." She couldn't seem to find the Polish for this, but Pani Jablonska nodded. Still talking, she pushed into Marion's hand half a loaf of dark bread that had been lying on an end table. She said something that ended with, "Dla twojego domu." For your house.
Marion blinked. "Oh, ah, thank you." Was this some obscure Polish get-well custom she didn't know about?
She shoved the bread into her bag, beside an uneaten apple. "Ready, Emmie bean?"
Emma sniffled and grabbed her hand. She held tight the whole way across the street and up the front porch. Marion turned her slightly to shield her from the eviscerated magpie draped over the bush and fumbled one-handed with the key in the lock. The sky was clear, the sun dropping behind the trees.
Once inside, she turned the deadbolt and made sure the windows were locked before asking Emma, "Let's get you out of those clothes and cleaned up, hmmm? Then we'll have spaghetti for supper? With meatballs?" Her voice was a little too high. She wondered how much local hotel rooms cost, and if she could remember the words to make a reservation for a few nights.
"What if it's in my room?" Emma had her thumb in her mouth.
Marion's heart twisted. Emma hadn't sucked her thumb in over a year. "I locked the window, remember? It can't get in."
"What if it can open the lock?"
"It can't, sweetie. Come on."
"Can I sleep in your room tonight?"
That decided it. They were going to a hotel. Then she'd talk to the school's director about renting another house. "Sure."
She turned on every light in the house on the way from the living room, back to the hallway, to Emma's room. Polish houses put their light switches outside the door instead of inside, and she was glad.
She stepped into Emma's room and something plopped on her foot. She froze. Lying half on her ballet flat was a dead magpie. A small circle of feathers was missing from the center of its chest, right over its heart.
She gasped. Another bird materialized over her head only to smack onto the carpet beside her shoe. A third followed, and a fourth, thudding heavily onto Emma's pink comforter. At the foot of the bed, the window was shattered, glass fanned out across the carpet.
Keeyeer! The bird-thing launched itself from the broken window, flying straight at her with talons extended.
Marion slammed the door.
"Was that bird dead?" Emma whispered around the thumb in her mouth.
From the other side of the door came scratching, splintering noises. The door handle jiggled.
"In here." Marion pulled Emma into the master bedroom. She slammed the door and slid her desk chair against it. The window was closed.
"I want to go home," Emma whispered.
"I know. We'll go somewhere safe." How could she barricade the window? The room held only a bed, nightstand, bookshelf, and desk, arranged around an empty swath of dull beige carpet. Could she move the bookcase by herself?
"I want Daddy!"
"Oh, Emmie." She wrapped her arms around Emma, but Emma stood stiff.
Rich, help. I don't know what to do.
What if she was fooling herself? What if a hotel or a new house in town wasn't safe? If the bird-thing came after her or Emma, she'd have to retreat to Diane's house again.
The ripping, tearing noises from the other room grew louder.
"Okay. I want you to get in the closet. Get in, and stay quiet, okay?"
"I want to stay with you."
"No, that's not--" Marion stopped short.
No, no, no.
She remembered something, a story she'd read about a house spirit that kept watch over the family.
"Emma, where are my printouts? From the computer?"
Emma looked at her, lost.
Marion shoved over the empty tissue box on her nightstand. Where had she put those printouts? She dashed to the bookcase. Her Polish-English dictionary stared up. Where were they?
She thought sinkingly of the kitchen table.
The door handle rattled. Emma sobbed and wrapped an arm around Marion's leg.
"You have to let go, Emmie. I have to move this bookcase."
Emma nodded and held on tight.
Think, what could be a weapon? She scoured the bookcase and grabbed a pen. Not enough. Then she grabbed the trashcan and dumped out the hardback books. The can would make a nice shield, or--
The books. The one on folklore.
She pawed through the pages. Yes, there was a story about the guardian house spirit, and there were the words to invite the spirit in to protect the house. She'd just say the words and put bread out every night to keep the spirit happy.
Bread? Had Pani Jablonska been trying to warn her?
Oh, the words had to be said outside. She would have to open the window.
Keeyeer! Wood splintered.
Marion's hands turned to ice. She gripped Emma by the shoulders.
"You have to keep on being brave, okay?" Her voice trembled, but she got the words out. "We're going to do a kind of welcome home party. So the house spirit will come and make the bad bird go away."
It sounded unbelievable when she said it, but Emma nodded.
"So go turn on the light beside my bed." The lampshade had roses on it, which looked sort of festive. And all the book said was that the spirit needed to be shown that it was welcome.
Emma looked doubtful, but she trotted over to the lamp. Marion took two of her hair scrunchies and wrapped them around the bedposts. That was as close to streamers as she could get.
"Welcome home," she said, her voice shaking.
Emma stared at her.
"Say it with me, Emma." That was to distract Emma while she opened the window to invite in the spirit, the domowoj. "Say 'welcome home.'"
"Welcome home," Emma whispered.
Marion cranked open the window to the twilight and the wooden fence of their backyard. She scrambled over the windowsill, the healing bite on her hand pricking as she went.
Emma cried, "Mom!"
Marion hoisted Emma in her arms. Together they stood outside on the grass. Immediately the wind picked up. The cranked-open window banged against Marion's shoulder. Twigs and grass and leaves lashed her face. She stooped, shielding Emma from the onslaught. The wind became a gale, filling her ears, and the twilight disappeared.
She screamed into the storm. "Grandfather Domowoj, please come into my house and care for the flocks!"
The wind howled. She had to lean against the house to stand. Inside, her lamp crashed to the floor.
I got it wrong, she thought wildly. It's going to kill Emma, and then me.
Then came the sound of laughter, a raucous belly laugh, as Rich used to make. It rose over the howling of the wind.
A little bearded man, no bigger than her hand, stood in the backyard, between her and the spinning, gray-black whirlwind. In one hand it held a sword or lance, raised over its shoulder like a javelin. It took one step towards the whirlwind, then a second, and third, faster, faster, until with a huge leap forward, it hurled the lance. The lance was so small, like a chopstick, and the gale buffeted the trees and the grass. But that lance flew true, as if it sailed on a calm day. It struck the twister dead center. There was a crack, like a clap of thunder, then the wind stopped. The sudden quiet rang in Marion's ears. Emma twisted, peeking out between her fingers. A shower of white feathers settled on the grass.
Then a magpie croaked, two or three yards away. A second answered, closer, and soon a jubilation of magpies filled the night. The little man nodded his head once, as if at a job well done. Marion nodded back. Then the man slipped under the back porch door.
"I'm sorry about the books," Diane said the next afternoon. "But I'd already mailed the box, and--"
"It's okay," Marion interrupted. She pulled Pani Jablonska's bread from the fridge. "The books were . . . useful."
A pause. "You liked them?"
"They grew on me." She peeked over to where Emma lay on the carpet in the living room, flipping through the folktale book in the light of the open window. The scratches and bites had started to heal cleanly. "Emma likes them."
"Oh. Good. There are more."
Marion opened her mouth to reject the books. She took a deep breath instead. After the bird-thing, it couldn't be that hard to figure out her in-laws. "Go ahead and put them in the next box. And . . . it's okay if you give Jack and Sandy my address."
"Really? That'd mean so much to them. They could have a letter in the mail this week."
"Okay, yeah, a letter." Her voice grew more sure as she spoke. Not a phone call. That was too much right now. But she could handle a letter.
After she hung up, she set a slice of bread on a plate by the stove. Then she gathered up the crumbs in an empty butter tub. "Emma, ready to feed the birds?"
They walked into the warmth of the afternoon sun, greeted by a chorus of magpies.