“They’re mean,” said Bobby, as he took a cigarette and passed it down the line. “I hate the way they swoop. They’re scary.”
“Ooh, Bobby’s scared of birds,” said Kyle, receiving the pack and pulling out a cigarette. “Scared the little birds are gonna poke at his little head.”
“Stop it, Kyle.”
That was me. My name is Todd. Kyle picked on anyone he felt he could get away with, so I tried not to let him get away with it. Other kids picked on him, I knew, and I knew that was the reason he picked on others. Still.
I snagged a cigarette. I passed the pack to Susan. She smiled at me as she took it, perhaps because I was protecting Bobby. Susan liked Bobby.
I liked Susan.
The cigarette lighter followed the cigarette pack around the circle. A snick of the flint wheel and a flash of flame as each of us lit up, the small tame lick of fire brightening our faces. We sat hunched together in the basement of Magpie House in the dark, door closed and held shut by a heavy cinderblock. Not much was visible to us. Ancient, rusted tools hung on hooks and sat on dusty shelves. Nails and screws and nuts and bolts lay in coffee cans with brand names I’d never heard of. Chock Full O’ Nuts. Hills Brothers. Chase and Sanborn.
A functioning furnace hulked in the corner of the basement of the abandoned house, sheet metal ductwork stretching out from it like empty hallways.
A doorway lay hidden just beyond the furnace. We’d all checked out the room behind the door at one time or another and found nothing unusual, or even particularly interesting. Boxes sealed with yellowing tape. An old standing mirror. A mannequin.
Outside, the house was surrounded by squawking birds. Even in the basement, with the door closed, we could hear them.
“Those damn birds again,” said Tony. He took a hit from his cigarette and blew it out into the center of the circle. “I mean, why are they like that? Other birds aren’t like that.”
“Some of them are.”
That was Susan. She knew a lot about birds. She knew a lot about a lot of things.
“They’re magpies. They’re like crows. And jays. They’re really smart.” The rest of the circle turned to her. As they listened, small globes of light flared like fireflies as they puffed on the smokes.
“How do you know?” asked Kyle.
“My old neighborhood had a lot of magpies. Even a house like this one, an empty house where the magpies always hung out. Crows and jays protect their territory just like magpies. They swoop and dive too. Steal stuff. Kill other birds.”
Tony said, “They kill other birds? They’re like, murderers?”
“No more than crows. Or cats. Or humans.” She looked to me, maybe for confidence. She was new in the neighborhood and didn’t know the others that well.
Tony would not let it go. “Why do they swoop us? And why do they only swoop us when we’re hanging out here? They don’t do it anywhere else. Just this house. Go out and look. Just this one.”
Tony was right. Birds were common in the neighborhood: robins, cardinals, lots of crows and jays. Magpies were always part of the mix, so distinctive with the panda-like mix of black and white on the body, the peculiar otherworldly blue-green iridescence of the wing and tail feathers. They only gathered in numbers at one place. The abandoned suburban ranch-house at the end of the road. The Magpie House. Magpies flocked to this house. They perched single file along the crease of the roof. They took command of entire trees, scouts placed at the edges of each limb, squawking at potential interlopers. They patrolled the sparse lawn, pecking into the grass at regular intervals for bugs and worms. They stood on top of the fenceposts and the mailbox, at the edge of the rain gutters, along the slope of the guardrails of the front steps.
It had always looked to me as if they were guarding the house.
We only learned about their habit of swooping anyone who entered the house because it was the only place we felt safe smoking cigarettes. We’d been caught in our own backyards and garages and basements. We’d been caught in the woods, the school parking lot, even just walking down the street.
Only Magpie House afforded us the secrecy to smoke without getting caught.
So we put up with the magpies. Every time we snuck into the house, they reacted. As we approached the property, the chattering of the guard magpies would increase in proportion to how close we were so that by the time we reached the lawn their complaining was a continuing stream of angry noise. As we walked up the driveway to gain access to the back door, they’d begin to dive bomb us. Knowing the drill after our first few attempts, we’d run up the drive, laughing and yelling, trying to get to the relative safety of the overhang over the back cellar door. We always deferred to Tony, the only one of us who knew how to open the door with a quick kick to the doorjamb, right next to the lock.
We smoked the remainder of our cigarettes in silence. We listened to the commotion outside the house, the scratching of their talons against the shingles of the roof as they cried out to scare away passersby.
“Where’s Bobby?” asked Kyle.
“I’m right here,” replied Bobby, appearing from the door beyond the furnace. I hadn’t even noticed he was gone.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“Exploring,” he answered, taking his place in the circle as he lit up one last cigarette. I noticed his glasses were bent and crooked, to a point where I was surprised he could even see. Bobby had notoriously bad eyesight, and could not effectively function without them.
Susan reached out and straightened Bobby’s glasses. He seemed pleased that she had helped him. I had more difficulty reading Susan’s motives.
When we’d all snubbed out our cigarette butts, we gathered at the door. Tony flung it open and we all ran back outside, arms over our heads, as the magpies dived at us, our eyes blinking in the bright summer air, our laughter and cries echoing down the suburban streets like the siren’s bell of an ice cream truck.
“Here’s a story about magpies my Mom used to tell me,” began Susan. “She used to work as a motel maid. Someplace down the road, some tiny little motel in a tiny little town. She was in college, and she worked her way through as a hotel maid.
“There was this crow who used to follow her around.”
“You mean a magpie?” asked Kyle, with uncharacteristic politeness. We were again in the basement of Magpie House, sitting in a circle together in the dark basement on a bright and sunny summer afternoon, the occasional glow of a cigarette ask punctuating our conversation.
“Well, that’s the thing,” said Susan. “It was a crow that wasn’t a crow.”
“Huh?” Bobby took a puff.
“She thought it was a magpie. It used to steal stuff from the cart. Shiny stuff. Crinkly stuff that made a noise. It started with these little tin ashtrays. My Mom would go into a room to vacuum and make beds and stuff. And she’d leave her cart outside the door. And the crow would always steal the ashtrays. Like, one at a time. She didn’t even notice at first. But the little stack of ashtrays got smaller and smaller. She tried to keep an eye on the stack as she worked. Sure enough, within a day, she looked out as she was making a bed, and there was that crow with a single ashtray in his beak, looking into the room at her, sideways. She ran outside, the magpie flew off. But a couple rooms later it was back.
“My Mom started keeping the ashtrays in a pocket on the side of the cart, so the bird couldn’t get to them. She left a note on a bulletin board in the maid’s lounge, but learned the other maids didn’t have a problem with the bird. It only followed her around.
Kyle scoffed. Susie added, “They can tell one face from the other. They can tell folks apart.
“Anyway. The bird would let her get really close. It would stand on the cart, hold his ground, and squawk right in her face. She got close enough to notice the white markings on the bird were different than the other magpies that gathered in the trees and on the roof and parking lot. The white markings were not symmetrical, nor were they the pure white of the other birds. The beak was thicker, the body smaller.
“She got her answer in the maids’ lounge that afternoon. One of the other maids recognized the bird. She told my Mom that it was not a magpie but a crow, and it used to steal all the stuff from her cart. She scared it away.”
“All right!” exclaimed Kyle. “We can do the same thing! How did she scare them away?”
“Bleach,” she said. “The maid tried yelling and clapping. She even tried throwing lit matches at it. But the only thing that worked was bleach. The bottle was in her hand as she approached the cart, the bird wouldn’t stop complaining, so she just instinctively splashed a bunch at the bird.
“The crow went bonkers. Absolutely ape-shit. Screaming and squawking, flexing his wings and feathers, like testing to see if he could still fly. He shook as much of the bleach off as he could, and then he flew off and sat in a nearby tree, complaining from the branches until the maid finished her shift and was done for the day.
“So, the next day, my Mom goes to work. Sure enough, there’s the magpie on top of her cart, like always. And that is when she realized the maid was right, this wasn’t a magpie. The markings weren’t right. A magpie has a white breast, right at the center, like it’s wearing a tux or something. The rest of the body is black. But the white on this bird was all over the place, a big blotch on one side, small dots of white sprinkled along the wing feathers.
“This was no magpie. This was a crow. A fake magpie. A crow that had been turned into a magpie with a splash of bleach.”
“That’s dumb,” said Kyle. “No way.”
Susan ignored him. “It gave my Mom the key to getting rid of the crow. Bleach. She didn’t need to splash the bird with it. All she had to do was open the bleach bottle, and the bird could smell it, I guess. It would complain loudly, but always fly away. After a while, all she needed to do was show the bottle. Didn’t even need to open it.”
A frenetic scuffling came from the magpies on the roof, loud enough to interrupt Susan’s story. She stopped talking and listened along with the rest of us. We heard what could only be their beaks, tapping on the wood of the doors and the glass of the windows, louder and with increasing speed. It started from where the living room was, above us, at the front door and the picture window, but soon spread to every door and every window in the house.
“What’s going on?” asked Tony, not bothering to hide the fear in his voice.
“Are they doing that at us?” asked Kyle. “Are they trying to scare us?”
“Maybe they’re warning us,” I said. “Maybe that’s why they hang out here. To steer people away.” My statement drew a curious look from Susan, but no comment.
Bobby emerged from the door at the far corner of the basement. “Nothing much in there. Old boxes. A mannequin. What’s going on out here?”
The four of us reacted in unison. Had he not heard the commotion? Didn’t he hear it now?
He calmly replied, “I heard it. That’s why I came back out here.”
“Dude,” called out Tony. “Your glasses are on upside down. How does that even happen? How do you even do that?”
Bobby laughed easily. “Everything looks the same, upside down or not.”
We would have, no doubt, continued to give him his well-deserved ribbing if we weren’t so scared by the racket the magpies were making outside.
We all snubbed out our cigarettes on the cold cement of the basement floor and rushed up the stairs. The sound of the magpies tripled in volume as we cleared the top of the stairs and entered the main floor of the house. It sounded like a storm, and I expected wind and thunder and sheets of rain, but when we turned to the windows we saw not anvil clouds and lightning, but the furious beating of wings, talons scratching against wood and glass, beaks stabbing at the outside surface of the house like knives.
We ran out of the house, covering our faces and forearms with our hands.
The attack of the magpies ended abruptly, as soon as we left the property. We watched the house from the safety of the far side of the street.
Magpies covered every surface. The roof. The lawn. The electric and phone lines. The fenceposts and the trees. They no longer attacked. They watched us.
Bobby stumbled out the front door as the rest of us watched. He was nearly always the last one of us to leave a place, and the last to arrive. He was just slow, and always had been.
His glasses were no longer upside down. He must have adjusted them before he left the house.
The last time we went to Magpie House, Susan brought her lunch. She carried a Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox with her as we ran up the driveway, ducking and weaving to avoid the dive-bombing magpies, protecting her head with the metal box as she cowered and ran.
We arrived at the side door more or less in unison, Tony kicked at the door jamb while Kyle put his shoulder to the door and pushed hard. We were in. We made our way down the stairs into the dark of the basement and then took out places in a circle on the cold concrete floor, in the same order we always did.
The magpies outside seemed even more agitated than usual. Talons scratching at the roof, beaks pecking at the window glass and walls, and of course the incessant cawing and cackling echoing around the empty space of the basement like an approaching train.
“What the actual fuck?” said Tony. “They’re so much worse today!” He took a cigarette from the pack and once again rejoined our near-daily ritual, passing the pack around the circle, each of us solemnly taking a cigarette as if it were communion.
The pack reached a gap in the circle.
“Where the hell is Bobby?” asked Tony. I wanted him to quit swearing, for Susan’s sake, even though she gave no indication the swearing bothered her. She swore herself, and often.
“He’s always wandering off,” I said, and it was true. “Like every time.”
Susan added, “He usually waits until he gets his cigarette.” She pulled her lunchbox closer to her. The metal scraped against the concrete floor.
When Tony asked, “I wonder what he’s doing?” Kyle laughed and started to say something in response, but suddenly stole a look at Susan and quit talking. Susan noticed. An awkward pause followed. In an attempt to dispel the stilted moment, I leaned toward Susan and began, “He was gonna say Bobby’s off…”
“I know what he was gonna say,” mumbled Susan.
The silence returned and was fully consumed by the racket of the birds outside. The entire house appeared to be shaking over our heads. It sounded like a thunderstorm, but I looked to the indirect light coming from the slitted basement window and knew the sky to be a bright sunny blue. It felt like an earthquake, but I knew this area of the Midwest never experienced earthquakes.
Dust and cobwebs shook out from the ceiling above us. A coffee can dropped to the floor with a clang and nuts and bolts spilled across the floor in a commotion. The furnace in the corner moaned and creaked, the wood and brick over our heads squeaked unnaturally, as if a great hand had taken hold of the house and was now twisting it off its foundation.
I was scared.
I looked around the circle to see everyone else was scared too, bodies pressed close to the floor, arms protecting their heads, eyes squinted shut.
Everyone but Susan.
Her face was calm but intent, her eyes were wide, scanning the room. Her hands clasped her lunchbox, now open; I saw a sandwich and a thermos sitting inside.
“Hey guys,” said Bobby calmly, appearing from behind the furnace. He actually waved.
His glasses were on right-side-up, but crooked, the wire frame temples had missed his ears entirely, one above his ear, one below the other ear. He looked drunk.
“Jesus, dude, where have you been?” sputtered Tony.
“In the backroom, looking around.” He motioned to the door behind the furnace. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“What’s going on? Seriously? What’s going on?” Tony stood.
“I always wander around when we’re down here,” said Bobby. He wasn’t wrong. “I don’t understand why everyone is so upset.”
He smiled blandly and sat down in the circle with us, oblivious to the commotion swirling around him.
“Don’t you hear? Don’t you see?” Tony gestured to the basement around him. The tumult sounding from all sides nearly deafened me. The ceiling overhead shook; dust filtered down from between the boards.
“See what?” Bobby plucked a cigarette from the pack sitting in the center of our circle. The flame of the lighter painted his face with flickering shadows, the hollow of his eyes appearing unnaturally large, his mouth slack and unsure, open in incomprehension.
I looked to Susan as Kyle looked to Tony, exchanging questioning glances.
Susan quietly took the thermos from her lunchbox.
The house rumbled. The walls shook, motes of dust danced in the turbulent air.
“Oh there you are,” said Bobby, stumbling out from behind the furnace. “Hey, guys, what’s up?” He wore no glasses, his face was tight with concern. He blinked.
I looked across the circle of my friends to where Bobby sat, his face blank, his glasses ridiculously askew.
I looked to the furnace in the corner to standing Bobby, his face bright, his glasses missing.
There were two Bobbys in the room.
Susan was already standing, thermos in hand, opposite the Bobby who sat smoking with us in the circle. She slowly turned the lid of the thermos, opening it as she spoke.
“Bobby?” she asked.
“Yes?” said the Bobby in the circle.
“Huh?” said the Bobby near the furnace.
She looked down at the rest of us. “Guys, back away.” She said it quietly, a hint of a smile playing on her face. She locked her eyes on Bobby-in-the-circle as we scooted away on the cold smooth concrete.
Just then I smelled the pungent, irritating scent of bleach. Kyle and Tony’s eyes widened; they must have smelled it too.
The Bobby with glasses looked up at her from the floor, uncomprehending.
The Bobby without glasses blinked from the corner. Without glasses, I doubt he could see a thing.
“Only one of you can be Bobby.” She lifted the thermos over her head. “I don’t know what the other one is. But it lives in this house, and all those screaming magpies out there are trying to warn us.”
“A crow that’s not a crow, a Bobby that’s not a Bobby,” I mumbled mostly to myself, understanding beginning to dawn.
The Bobby with glasses began to understand as well. He rose up from his spot on the floor, seeming suddenly larger than he had before.
“I’m Bobby,” he said in a low, growling tone.
Susan responded by flinging the contents of the thermos straight at him. “Bleach!” she cried as the liquid leapt across the gap between them.
Both Bobbys screamed.
As the harsh, choking scent filled the room, we began to cough. The Bobby in the corner shrunk back into the shadows, trying to escape the stench.
The Bobby standing in the circle across from Susan began to burn. Wisps of smoke curled from his hair. Licking flames crawled up his arms and swirled from his blackening fingers.
His pupils turned black and round, dark fluid running down his dark cheeks. As his feet left the floor and he floated into the air, his mouth fell open to reveal a gaping black hole.
Several smoldering black feathers floated to the ground beneath his feet. Following their slow descent was a rain of small hard objects: cufflinks and paper clips, pennies and pushpins, triple A batteries and marbles and small metal toys. As his body floated higher into the air it began to turn, revealing a black skin, growing brittle and cracking in the heat, dark ichor pouring from the split.
Smoke and ask enveloped the figure floating in front of us. Soon the figure itself could not be seen, obscured by the roiling flames and fumes, and then the flames and fumes were gone as well, disappearing in tiny spirals and swirls.
All that remained was a pile of shiny objects on the floor, random items from dressers and desks, pockets and purses, garage shelves and cleaning carts, the horde of a crow’s plundered treasure. Black feathers mixed within the collection, poking out like flags of a conquering army.
The Bobby that remained ambled over from the corner of the room, staring down into the smoking pile of detritus.
“Whoa,” he said. He reached down into the pile of objects, plucked out his glasses, and put them on, right side up, level, end pieces hooked properly around the ears.
“Nice,” he said.
Tony wandered over to the edge of the pile. “My Dad’s Zippo! He lost this like a year ago.” Tony grabbed it, then bounced it from hand to hand like a hot potato.
“It’s cold,” he said.
“Hey, my grandma’s old comb,” said Kyle. “It has her initials on it. But she’s been dead for….” He did not finish the sentence, nor did he retrieve the comb.
I turned to Susan. “Bleach did that?”
She turned the thermos upside down. A trickle of chicken noodle soup poured onto the floor.
“That’s not bleach.”
“The Bobby-thing didn’t know that. I mentioned bleach the last time I was here. When I told that story about my Mom and the crow.” She knelt down, retrieved the lid for her thermos and began to screw it back on.
“So that was a crow? Pretending to be Bobby?”
“I don’t know what it was. Something pretending to be Bobby. We saw a crow because I was talking about crows. Other people might see something else. But it wasn’t Bobby.”
“How did you know?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t know. The magpies knew. That’s why they were warning us.”
“And how did you know that? How did you know about the birds?”
“I told you,” she said. “I used to live in a neighborhood with magpies.”
It didn’t explain much, but we were all too tired for explanations. We would piece something together eventually. For now, it was simply time to go home.
The birds had all gone silent. The house had stopped shaking. The five of us—me, Susan, Tony, Kyle, and Bobby—gathered our things and prepared to go outside. I took Susan’s hand. We slowly walked up the creaking basement stairs.
As we walked into the bright daylight, birds lined both sides of the driveway in single file. They stood along the crease of the roof, the rain gutters, the fence posts, the mailbox.
None of the birds made a sound. No squawking, no ruffled feathers.
We walked to the end of the driveway. From there, Bobby and Tony, and Kyle took one direction home, Susan and I took the other. When we got to the end of the street it was time for us to go our separate ways home as well. I let go of her hand. We stood at the intersection and looked back at Magpie House. The birds gathered at the house began to take flight, first singly and then in groups of two or three, finally filling the air with a flock of beating wings, forming great loops and whorls in the sky like a thing alive.
It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
We watched as the magpies lifted their wings to the wind, their bodies growing smaller in our eyesight as they flew higher and higher, their black and white plumage resolving into a uniform gray. Soon they were mere dots against a bright blue sky, and moments after that they were gone entirely.