We were walking in the park when we saw the birds. They were gathered up in a tree ahead of us, shrieking loudly and hopping from branch to branch. Quite often one of them would swoop down, circle around, and then land again at the top of the tree. As we got closer, we saw that they were magpies. Loads of them. I tried to count as you said the rhyme.
One for sorrow,
two for joy.
Three for a girl,
four for a boy.
It was easy to see that there were more than four, but that many of them were flocking away from the tree and then returning that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t counted the same one twice.
Five for silver,
six for gold.
Seven for a secret
never to be told.
You paused then and asked me if I knew where the rhyme came from. I said I didn’t know but that I had never liked it. You carried on chanting.
Eight for a wish,
nine for a kiss.
Ten for a bird
you must not miss.
Ahead of us on the path, closer to the tree, a family were stood watching. A man, a woman, and a girl aged around nine or ten. The woman was pointing and the man was bending a little to speak to the girl.
Eleven is worse.
Twelve for a dastardly curse.
As you finished the rhyme I was pretty sure I had counted them properly. Eleven magpies, all rasping and hopping and flying in distress. We drew closer and the reason became clearer. In the centre of the tree, deep within the branches, was a raven.
We were level with the family then and overheard the man explaining that sometimes birds fought, just like people, and that it was all part of nature. I looked up to see the raven pecking at a magpie, the twelfth magpie, which lay tangled in a mesh of smaller branches, and was shrieking wildly. The other magpies were trying to scare the raven off, I figured, but it wasn’t working. The raven would look at them and then peck, then look at them again, and then peck. His sharp beak was like a dagger among the feathers. One time I thought that the raven looked at me before it pecked the magpie, but who could really tell at that distance?
‘Should we do something?’ you asked.
‘Like what?’ I said.
‘I don’t know. Something to stop them?’
I bent and picked up a stone. It had rough, sharp edges, and left my palm smeared with dirt. I hefted it up into the tree but it rattled off one of the branches a way below the birds. The magpies kept stirring but the raven persisted. Peck, look, peck, look.
I picked up another stone and so did you. The family looked at us, concern in their faces, before moving off further down the path. The dad’s words about how things like this were part of nature stayed with me for a while. We threw stones and sticks and I even tried my shoe, which reached nowhere near. Nothing seemed to scare the raven, which continued its rhythm with an upsetting calmness.
It was as I was hoisting myself up through the lower limbs of the tree that I noticed that the magpies had stopped. I called down to you and you told me that the raven had gone. The magpies were quiet on their perches, just the songs of smaller birds in other parts of the park filling the air now. I climbed back down and scratched my hand on a piece of bark.
Walking back over to you, I knew what I was going to see. Something in my chest told me and the expression on your face confirmed it. You had that look that said you were going to try and shield me from it. Just like the man had done to his little girl. Explain it away as something normal, regular, and not the cruelty it was.
Before you could do anything though, I turned back to the tree and looked up among the branches. The sun was coming out from the clouds now so I had to squint but I could still see it there, right in the middle of the tree. The raven had left the magpie draped like a ruby necklace, each broken feather either side of the body a delicate link in the chain glinting in the sunlight.
Ahead of us, further into the trees, I saw the raven fly down to sit on a branch. It called into the air, this awful triumphant sound, and snapped its beak like scissor blades.
Samuel Best’s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded the literary magazines Octavius and Aloe. You can find him on Twitter @storiesbysamuel.