The magpie wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times Baudelaire glared at it, or asked nicely. Baudelaire could only assume that it had found its way in by using the oak opposite her – the tree that had been old when Baudelaire had arrived was still living. Its branches arched over the entire forgotten courtyard and annually coated all in a shower: first of acorns, then fallen leaves. The snow would always follow, blanketing the paving stones, Baudelaire and bench in a stifling smother.
Baudelaire saw them sometimes, the mice and corvids alike, and preferred both over the magpie that had shown up in an ungainly flutter and refused to leave. Instead of being sensible, like a raven or crow, it just hopped closer and closer on the bench, trying to provoke a reaction.
Go on, I dare you. I dare you, little girl.
It wanted the coins in the bowl that it – or was it she – kept at her feet. That much was obvious; magpies were thieves, and her skin had long since tarnished to the point of no longer being attractive to pesky birds. A relief; it had taken ages to remove droppings from her head, shoulders, and arms. The only shiny things were the thirteen coins, glinting in the snow that had collected in her bowl. The coins had been a present from her last visitor; she wanted to treasure them for their full value. That magpie was getting none of them, no matter what it thought.
There hadn’t been many visitors lately; a shame, but not unexpected. In winter, her garden was too cold, too unwelcoming. Not many people knew of this place, and even fewer found the wherewithal to attempt entry through the twisted iron gate at the far end. She treasured every gift.
Baudelaire knew that one magpie meant incoming sorrow, but she didn’t want it to be hers.
One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for –
She didn’t know what three stood for; the inscription had become unreadable, and lowering her head to decipher the rest of it would take effort that she wanted to save, not to mention distract her from the one magpie that was sneaking closer and closer and closer. Clawed talons left twiggy imprints in the snow; in her peripheral vision, she saw the mist of displaced snowflakes drifting down between the bench slats.
You can’t prevent me from taking those coins. The snow’s slowed you, but I’m just fine. You couldn’t catch me if you tried. I dare you.
It was partially right, but she’d never admit that the arrival of winter had been to her detriment. The snow that had settled over her form would have been comforting in its softness, but this blanket sapped her latent strength and replaced it with an insidious lethargy that wound deep in her statuary, forcing her into slow slumber.
That blasted bird hopped yet closer and closer, cocking its head insolently, and jumped, flapping its sleek wings and swirling up a flurry of settled snow until it was perched on her frozen arm.
Not gonna stop me? Oh wait, you can’t. Or rather, you don’t dare.
With that, it slipped down to the book in her lap and strolled across the pages to squat on the far edge, ignoring the scratch of talons on sculpted brass. It waited there for a moment and Baudelaire fought to act now, through the seeping stillness, but –
Too slow! Ha, too slow!
It teetered and fell from the open book just in time, spiralling down like a sycamore leaf. She felt feathers brush against her shins and heard the infuriating scrape of claws against metal, the thump of snow falling onto more snow. It had reached the bowl, then.
A fresh bout of snow began to drift down from the grey skies above; adding another layer of down to her blanket, dusting the exposed rim of a newer coin with frosted, frozen white.
The bowl at her feet was half-hidden by the furthermost edge of her open tome, but she could still see some of what laid there.
The black beak poked and prodded at the gifts, impudently tossing the snow into puffs of frozen cloud. Two oak leaves, brown and long-dead, cracked and split under the talons, the fragments scattered, the mouse skeleton underneath gaining a new comforter of snowflakes. A warning and an offering wrapped up in one tiny, curled frame, ignored in favour of the closest coin.
An irritated chik-chik, a frustrated ruffle-snap of wings, and the magpie shuffled a bit to try again, yanking fruitlessly on the coin that had adhered to the brass when the ice had come. That beak was sharp enough to chip away the ice, but to Baudelaire’s delight, it instead leaped up her lap to screech in her face and stamp its stupid feet, opting to harangue and berate instead of persist with stealing the coin.
Unfair, girl! A dare’s a dare and you weren’t playing properly. Cheat –
The brass book slammed shut with a screech of metal. Cut off in the middle of a self-righteous, scurrilous stretch, a black-and-white flight feather drifted down from the dust of the magpie’s wing-tip to join the carcass and the coins.
Baudelaire did dare, magpie. She’d been trying to call your bluff the entire time you taunted her – you’d been too slow to spot her sanguinity.
Too slow. She creaked her book open again. The only sign of the magpie was a mound of crushed bone, quickly freezing in the spine of the book, and a third tally mark near where her right-hand thumb rested on the page.
One for sorrow, two for mirth, and the third made…
Well, the snow was falling thicker now. She had no hope of reading the rest, even if she hadn’t just spent her reserves on that magpie. Maybe another visitor would come along soon, and read the rest of the poem to her.
She was so very tired.
Hadassah Shiradski (she/her) is a bisexual horror writer from Hertfordshire, UK, who graduated in 2020 with a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and Philosophy. She has a love of gothic fantasy, quiet horror, and folklore, and tends to fixate on horror puzzle games. Her ramblings can be found on her twitter, @DassaWrites.
photo by Natasha Miller (via unsplash)