Catherine Linton has lived above the cemetery on Drakes Bay Road as long as anyone, even she, can remember. Though surely, she must have been born elsewhere.
She spends her days in the creaking rocker, watching the magpies that roost in the old oaks swoop down and gather up the ascending souls rising from the graves of the newly dead.
She does not know if anyone else can see these souls, emerging out of the earth like small, transparent children. Nor does she know why the magpies are so eager for these spirits. If she were a bird, she imagines she’d prefer fat juicy worms, or the remains of an abandoned picnic.
She thinks it odd, but many people do come to picnic on the graves, young lovers sharing bottles of cheap red wine, old widows or widowers eating sandwiches on the graves of their departed. She wonders if the dead appreciate these visits, if the smell of fresh bread and tuna fish, salted with tears and memories, is food to their hungry souls.
Drake’s Bay is a beautiful old cemetery, edged by tall poplar trees that turn golden or sprout green, depending on the season. Small herds of whitetail deer wander the graves, clipping the grass, pruning the willows that wept over grey stone angels and licking the salty tops of white marble tombs.
Catherine imagines she will be buried there someday. She wonders if a magpie will claim her and what the birds do with the souls they seem so eager to collect. Do they feed them to their young? Do they line their nest with them? Or do they fly them halfway to heaven, then let them fly, a sort of taxi service to paradise?
Catherine wonders if a magpie grabbed her husband, Tommy, when he died many years ago, on a battlefield in France. Once, she had been bitter about the loss, but now she can barely remember his face. When she tries, she can only see a man so young, so distant from where she is now, that he might as well be a stranger.
Her eyes are cloudy with cataracts. It makes the world difficult to see. Sometimes it seems that the souls and magpies are the only thing she can focus on. The magpies because they are so black and white, and the souls because she knows she’s close to joining them.
It had been a cold winter. She thinks it might be her last. Now that spring is here she spends her time on the deck, rocking back and forth in a rocker as old and creaky as her bones.
Something flashes through the air, crashing into her window with a thud. A young magpies bird lies on her porch. A breeze ruffles its feathers, revealing iridescent rainbows in each black shaft.
Though she’s too old to fuss over anything and should just leave it to die, she cradles the fallen bird in her withered hand. The bird is breathing shallowly.
Once, in a past so distant it seems like fiction, she had rescued all manner of injured creatures; birds with broken wings, squirrels fallen from nests, and litters of kittens so naked and small they were not even recognizable as cats.
Tommy had called her, the Mother Teresa of the Animals. She smiles at the memory, cracking her face into a million wrinkled folds.
She wraps the bird in a blanket, places him near a heater and searches for a box to house him in. Beneath her bed she discovers an old shoe box. The dust rises from it like fog off of distant mountains, like souls out of tombs. It is the perfect size for the bird, but it’s filled with photos. She empties them onto her bed, not noticing that the only photo that falls image up is one of Tommy, staring up at her from the past.
She puts the bird the now empty box then searches for some syringes and some ancient dry cat food, a relic from a forgotten feline. She soaks the food in water, placing it with some water in china saucers near the box.
When the bird wakes, he gobbles it up eagerly, cocking his head and looks at her with one bright eye, much too knowingly for such a young bird. He is missing some tail feathers and his right wind is bent.
Catherine straighten the wing and binds it to his chest with an old ace bandage. It’s a miracle she can do such delicate work with her knobby arthritic fingers, almost like claws themselves, but the bird doesn’t move at all.
She cares for him for a whole month, binding and rebinding wing. It heals whole and strong, though still bent. She wonders if he will tilt to the left because of it, able to fly only in circles. She sighs, but she has done the best she can.
The bird hops off the table and soars to the old upright piano. He seems alright. It is time to let him go. She knows it is selfish but her heart breaks a little at the thought. This month has flown by on wings of caring. It seems forever sine she has felt anything. Now love and loss come crashing down on her like a sleeper wave.
The bird hops from black to white, jumping up and down the keyboard, stomping out a melody. It is “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” She has not heard that tune since she was young. Tommy had played it, only he always sang, “Cathy with the light brown hair,” while making moony eyes at her.
He was a real musician. He would play and sing, and she would join in, harmonizing with his rich bass voice. She can hardly imagine it now, her throat aches at the memory.
The bird continues jumping on the keys, claws scraping the ivories. The piano is badly out of tune.
Suddenly she remembers everything she had forgotten; the way Tommy held her in his arms, the way it felt like flying when they danced, the feeling in her soul when he told her he would never leave her.
“But you did,” she whispers hoarsely. “You left me alone forever.”
The magpie caws harshly and continues pecking out the melody. For a moment Catherine feels weightless and young. She waltzes around the room, arms encircling an imaginary Tommy. Boney fingers grab her chest and she crumples. The magpie hops over to investigate. He nibbles gently at her wrist and when she doesn’t respond, flies out the open window. Despite the bent right wing, he catches an updraft and is gone.
Catherine isn’t found for a week.
The house has to be fumigated before it can be put up for sale.
There is a notice in the paper. It’s tragic reminder of what can happen when the old are allowed to live alone. The number of medical alert buttons in Drake’s Bay quadruples overnight.
Catherine is buried in the cemetery below her house. Nobody can see her soul, rising like a small, transparent child from her grave only to be snatched up by a waiting magpie.
Finally, she will discover what the birds want with these departing spirits. The magpie swallows her soul, and then she is flying above the earth, circling the graves on rising currents of warm air. Another magpie joins her. It’s right wing is slightly bent. Despite its injury it sweeps through the air to meet her and together they fly off into the darkening night.
This story previously appeared in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.