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The Magpie

~ a short story by Carmilla Voiez.


Mum knelt before a flowerbed, wrist-deep in dirt, her wide-brimmed sunhat casting shadows across her shoulders. A discordant dirge filled the garden. The music, if it deserved that title, originated from a battered CD player squatting on a rusting table in need of a fresh coat of paint. She had co-opted this anachronistic stereo as a paperweight, and the exposed corner of an envelope fluttered in the breeze. Beside it, a jug of green liquid, full of shredded mint leaves and drowning flies, and an empty glass waited patiently.


A flash of black and white attracted my attention as a magpie landed on the upper branches of an old apple tree that no longer bore fruit. Mum might not have noticed my arrival, but the bird did. It blinked enviously at the sparkling rock on my left hand. Rotating my wrist, I meditated on a myriad of rainbows painted across my fingers by the refracted sunlight - traditional symbols of hope and second chances.


I removed the ring and hid it in the pocket of my jeans before speaking. ‘Hi, Mum!’


She spun round on her bare feet. Her painted lips widened as she attempted to rub soil off her fingers. ‘Lily! Home already? Would you like some lime juice?’


I recoiled. ‘No, thank you.’


Mum’s smile dropped. ‘How was your day?’


I avoided the question, unable to offer any amusing anecdotes. I worked in a clearing bank, counting out their money. Was she worried I might follow in my father’s footsteps and put my hand in the till?


‘What are you planting?’ I nodded towards a cardboard crate full of bulbs.


‘Lilies.’


I focused, beyond her, on the thorns of climbing roses encroached upon by ropes of ivy. The small courtyard garden with its barren tree was Mum’s sanctuary. The music, which grated my nerves, gave Mum a sense of tranquillity that I found hard to comprehend.


Love’s umbilical cord tugged me out of the doorway. The makeshift breezeblock step, pitted and ugly, shifted under my weight. I made a mental note to replace it, imagining my future daughter or son scraping knees and shedding blood on its rough surface as they crawled. Children? Dare I? The diamond ring filled my pocket: a life sentence.


The magpie rose from the tree. It soared overhead and settled on a low wall beside the freshly dug hole, looking for insects probably, but it felt like an omen.


Mum poured herself a drink, seemingly unaware of the dead things tumbling into her glass. Repulsed, I watched the magpie pull a wriggling beetle from the disturbed earth. Registering the noise of the music system being moved, I glanced back and saw Mum straightening her shirt. The envelope was gone. Had she stuffed it in her bra, next to her heart?


I saw him, simultaneously at the garden table and on a filthy mattress in his prison cell, scribbling a love letter. His black hair was white at one temple. Older than Mum, but handsome. His eyes held no warmth, and his smile was cunning. It had taken years to recover from the chaos he created. We stayed, Mum and I, after our house was emptied by police. Mum created a home inside the shell, working double shifts so I could stay at school then college, while quelling her rage with antidepressants to keep her compliant enough to hold down a job. When I protested, haunted by the dark shadows of exhaustion beneath her dull eyes, I would hear the same response.


‘I’ll be damned before I let your father ruin both our futures.’


I knew the letter was from him. What I didn’t know was why Mum hadn’t torn it to shreds and made compost with his lies. The only thing that kept me going after his betrayal was knowing he was out of our lives. It was why I didn’t know how to tell Mum about my engagement. Men couldn’t be trusted. I could tell her that Tom was a good guy, that I could rely on him, and maybe Mum would believe me if she didn’t stare into my eyes and see the doubt I harboured there.


‘Who’s the letter from?’


Mum licked her lips. Her fingers twitched, still rubbing at the soil. The glass of lime and insects was back on the table. Had she noticed the menace or taken a sip and swallowed the corruption?


‘Is it from Stefan?’ I asked.


She nodded. Colour bloomed beneath Mum’s pale foundation. Her kohl-rimmed eyes stared at the chipped flagstones, avoiding my gaze. ‘Your father’s getting out next month. He doesn’t have anywhere to stay.’


‘Well, he can’t stay here!’ I ground my teeth. A vein pulsed in my temple. My hands became fists that twitched to strike Mum’s gullible face. ‘Do you still love him?’


‘It’s complicated.’


‘I’d say it’s pretty simple. He took everything from us.’


‘He gave me you, and he’s not a bad man.’


‘He gets to leave his prison, but I’ll be trapped forever, never daring to trust again.’


‘You can trust me,’ she said.


‘Not if you think you can invite him to live with us.’


I reached into my pocket and pulled out the engagement ring. I waved it in front of Mum’s downcast face. ‘Tom asked me to marry him.’


I’d expected Mum’s response to be tainted with worry, but her face glowed and her wide smile seemed to make two halves of her head. ‘Congratulations, darling. That’s wonderful news.’


I grunted, not willing to surrender my anger. ‘Yeah, and we won’t share a bank account; I won’t give up work, and I can’t sign for a joint mortgage. We’ll have to rent.’


All these things, which had once served as protective amulets, became cause for complaint, ammunition I hurled at my mother.


She didn’t return my volley. Tears smudged her make-up. I peered at the breezeblock step and doubted I would ever have children who might scrape their knees on its surface. Even as I pushed the ring onto my left hand, I imagined pulling it off again to throw in Tom’s face, enraged at the slightest provocation and running, running, and never stopping.


Mum’s eyes met mine.


My skull tightened like a brace around my thoughts. ‘You can’t trust him. You can’t be that naïve.’


‘He’s my weakness. Your father can charm the birds from the trees.’


‘So can worms.’

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