I know that when I was born the gods that purvey for such things had run out of all sorts and manners of clay, and so they had no choice but to shape me out of a magpie. At least that is what Auntie used to tell me – that, and that I had somehow turned out just like Nan.
– Why, was Nana made of magpie too?
– She too was fashioned out of a magpie, girl… Why, she is the original magpie! Next to her, all other magpies are but pale and hopeless reflections.
– Even me?
– Even you, girl. You’ve got a lot of bread to go through before you can fill her shoes, that’s for sure, but you’re sure giving it one hell of a good try! You show real promise. Like Nan, like child. Magpies, one and the other.
– And you, Tattie, weren’t you made of magpie too?
– Me, I’m the palest of them all. My magpie hasn’t got the time, and she’s seen so much treasure that all she sees now is fool’s gold… But you, you’re a proper little magpie in the making!
I was happy. At least I was something, which is always a useful thing to know when you have no idea who or what you really are, or indeed the whys and wherefores of anything. And magpies were strange enough creatures to be fascinating. Aaaaand just enough grey, just enough disreputable to be thrilling… Because, or so Nan granted with all seriousness and conviction and the tale I had read in the old book went, magpies not only collected shiny colourful things to decorate their nests with, they were thieving. They would actually, and quite brazenly, steal bright shiny things right from under people’s noses. Given the opportunity, some more disreputable ones would even go beyond collecting little rubbishy bits, and steal real diamond rings… How absolutely exciting! And now there I was, a magpie too, and showing the best promise!
I wondered whether Nan had ever stolen a diamond ring. Maybe she kept it in her big drawer on the corner table, the one that was pretty near bottomless and where Auntie said Nan crammed all her useless magpieish bits. I would have to take a good look one day, see what Nan’s trove would yield.
And so every night I’d empty my pockets and untie my hankie, and take stock of the treasures I had collected during the day. I’d make little groups: the ones found, the ones pilfered, the ones discarded by others and picked up by me… After a while I’d get confused: if Auntie or Nan threw something away, intending it to the rubbish tip, wasn’t I in fact stealing it as surely as if I had removed it from Nan’s magical drawer? Isn’t stealing rubbish stealing?
And then I’d think of the little coloured chalks I’d picked up as the plough had turned the earth. I’d got very good at spotting the little shards, and knowing just at a glance which were the right ones, the ones I’d be able to draw and colour with, and which ones were the lying chalks, the impostors, the ones that looked like the right ones, like real chalks, in colour and everything, but only scratched and screeched as I tried to draw with them on the stone of the water trough or on the slate of the kitchen floor, or on the cement of the pavement just outside the front door. And was I stealing from the soil, too, every time I picked one up? Because surely those little bits of chalky stone belonged to the earth, and my having picked them up must have yet again been an act of the most fiendish thievery… And what about the flowers and the grasses, and the little pieces of green and blue glass, and the white polished pebbles, and the pieces of quartz and mica? What about…
Auntie would come from somewhere beyond my drooping shoulders and nodding head, and
again take my treasure trove, like she did almost every night, rounding it all up with one scoop of her hand, and then wrapping it up in the hankie and tying the whole lot in a neat little bunch.
– C’mon, you little magpie, you’re falling asleep on your treasure; let’s get you to Bed Sheet Valley and on to Dreamland…
– My chalks… – I had feebly complained, half asleep, as she scooped me up in turn from my fireside stool and hurried me in her arms to the warm, waiting bed.
– Here they are… – And Auntie would place the little hankie parcel on the marble top of the bedside table. It looked like a plump white rabbit with long floppy ears that had been showered in tiny bright red flowers.
– There. Safely put away. You can have them back tomorrow, as soon as you wake up. Time to go to sleep, now, little magpie.
– Yes, darling? – She’d replied as she tucked me in under the woollen blankets, like a little egg in a well feathered nest.
– What is it now, little bird? Haven’t you had enough for the day yet…? – And she’d tucked a bit more, her huge spindly body and magpie face seemingly taking over the whole room. – Still fighting sleep, I see… Doesn’t your little magpie head ever stop? Always collecting treasure and chattering away…
– It’s just that… I need to know, Tattie… is it stealing too… to pick my little chalks out from the furrows of the plough?
Tattie smiled, and I saw her red Paris lipstick lips move, shaping the answer. I never heard the words. I remember that, right before I plunged into dreamland, I had yet another question for her: And would the magpies come and steal my dreams too, if they too are shiny and bright and full of colour? But I was gone.
© Nina Light 2013 CC-BY-NC-ND
image credit: painting of magpie on plum blossoms by Gong Wenzhen © Gong Wenzhen