HORLA FICTION (January 2019)

MAGPIES  

By FRANCES HOLLAND

NOBODY expected Bishop William Linton to marry at his advanced stage in life.

He was, after all, forty-eight years old, at that age when a man ought to have given up on romantic notions of a beautiful young woman swooning away in his arms, telling him that she loved him, and that she would surely die without him.

But then Miss Grace Cavendish had arrived at the grammar school to replace Monsieur Heger, and the Bishop’s fate had been sealed. Her timidity disguised a fierceness which unnerved the boys she taught, her sharp tongue and all-seeing eye transforming them, in little over a month, into the most diligent students of French that St John’s Grammar School had ever produced.

As for the swooning, she had gone up to the roof one dreary November night, when an unnatural commotion between some birds had caused some of the younger boys to scream and cry for someone, anyone to come. She usually didn’t venture outside – a slight, frail thing, with a delicate constitution and feathery blonde curls, she gave one a strong impression of a dandelion clock.

A magpie’s nest had been attacked. The chicks had been pecked to death by some other birds, and had fallen, bloodied, to the feet of those little children whose socks still fell down around their ankles to show their scuffed knees. Even the older boys were nauseated, though they refused to show it.

Grace had flown to the roof, which she didn’t know was rotten, and had been followed swiftly by the Bishop, who was visiting that day. For a man of his age, he was fast on his feet. His instincts had been honed in Burma, Egypt, Japan. His senses remained, six years on, preternaturally alert to danger. Some nights, he still woke in a cold sweat. But there was no barbed wire tangled round his leg. No bullets shot past his ear.

He found her bent over the nest. One magpie chick remained with its mother, and Grace was beating their assailant off with her bare hands. As far as Bishop Linton could tell, it was a swallow. It screeched and dived at her, its claws slashing at her hands as she struggled desperately both to shield the chick and free the mother, whose leg had become entangled in a string of bunting left over from the Coronation celebrations.

She was standing directly over the weakest part of the roof. If she wasn’t so slender and fragile, she’d have gone right through it.

‘Miss Cavendish,’ he started, ‘I don’t wish to alarm you, but you should move to your left very carefully.’

Her blonde head whipped up and she stared hard. She almost looked angry.

‘Give me your hand,’ he said, edging closer. ‘The roof is rotten there; I don’t want you to lose your footing.’

The mother magpie squawked desperately. Her chick huddled closer as their attacker circled them overhead. Miss Cavendish returned to the string on the wounded animal’s leg.

‘I can’t leave them,’ she shivered. Bishop Linton looked at her hands in the harsh moonlight. They were cut and slashed, and only the biting cold was keeping them from bleeding.

The swallow dived again, narrowly missing the young woman. She gasped in shock, and accidentally pulled at the string. The helpless mother-bird cried out in pain.

Bishop Linton remembered the pocket knife inside his jacket. He’d been carrying it around with him for thirty years, and even during the war, he’d never had cause to need it. He flicked the blade out and approached Miss Cavendish’s forbidding stare. He didn’t know if he was more wary of the birds or of her.

‘May I see the leg?’ She paused, then nodded.

In less than a second, he’d cut through the string holding the bird fast. Miss Cavendish gathered the little family into the sack she’d brought onto the roof as the swallow began its descent. Bishop Linton managed to usher her through the roof door just before the frenzied animal flew at them again.

Grace and the Bishop had been welcomed back down as heroes. The magpies had been cared for by the soft-hearted fifth formers, and Grace had allowed the Bishop to inspect the cuts on her hand and arms. Impressed by his courage on the roof and his tenderness towards her, a new arrival in the north from London with no family and no friends, she soon found herself looking forward to his visits to the school.

Bishop Linton, for his part, had approached Grace with the same wariness with which he had approached the captured bird. She was twenty-three years younger than him, and looked like every painting of every Madonna he’d ever seen. When he heard the young male teachers – or even some of the students – talk about her, he felt embarrassed to even think about her in that way.

But none of it mattered. Not his age, nor his taciturnity, nor the retreat of his hairline from his stern, patrician features. Grace and William fell in love, and within three months of their first meeting, they were engaged.

***

Bishop Linton’s housekeeper was less than impressed with the woman who was to become mistress of the house. She was too young, too showy, too blonde, too everything, in Mrs Hunt’s opinion. Not that the Bishop was going to listen to Mrs Hunt’s opinion, not while the little tart was whispering in his ear.

‘Darling, does she have to stay on?’ Grace wheedled her fiancé the week before the wedding. ‘She doesn’t even like me.’

‘She doesn’t have to like you, my dear, she simply has to respect you,’ he replied. He was folding his Lenten vestments away into the packing trunk in the vestry of the cathedral. Grace had wanted to wait until after Easter for them to marry. Probably so she could have flowers in the church, William had reasoned. Women liked that sort of thing.

Grace huffed and flopped into a battered leather armchair. She was so attractive when she sulked, it only made him want to say “yes” to her even more.

But Mrs Hunt was a non-negotiable.

‘Darling,’ he said, taking her white, fragile hand in his strong, weathered ones, ‘I can’t dismiss her. But I can perhaps reduce her hours. I won’t do it straight away; that wouldn’t be fair.’

Grace’s eyes lit up. ‘Oh, William, do you promise?’

She wrapped her arms around his neck and he tried very hard to concentrate on what he’d been firmly resolved on only a few minutes earlier.

‘If I can find employment for her elsewhere, then yes, I promise. But I can’t just turn her out with no means of supporting herself.’

‘Thank you, William,’ Grace smiled. She leaned in and kissed him softly. William knew they shouldn’t – not here, it was late, someone might walk in – but he pulled her closer and kissed her back.

To his surprise, she pulled away. ‘I have to go,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a fitting with Mrs Wilcox for my dress tonight.’

He watched, confused, as she swept out of the vestry, her high heels echoing on the stone floor.

*

Mrs Hunt had called in at Grace’s cottage on Friday, the night before the wedding. The Bishop had asked her to take a present to Grace, and, as she had to pass the house on her way home, she’d grudgingly complied.

She bustled disdainfully past the small herb garden Grace had plated at the front of the house, noting with satisfaction how inferior it was to the one at the Bishop’s house; then remembering that after tomorrow, Grace would be mistress of that house. Mrs Hunt had already found another situation, but she would wait until after the wedding to inform the bishop.

She raised her hand to knock upon the door, but was distracted by the sound of laughter from within the cottage. Grace had said she’d be alone tonight; her sister was arriving tomorrow. Her natural housekeeper’s sense of ownership won out, and she crept around the back of the house to peer in the kitchen window.

A shabby net curtain was drawn over the grubby panes, obscuring, but not hiding, the slender form of Miss Cavendish. She was bending over something on the kitchen table and cooing softly. Irritation – whether at her own absurdity or at Grace’s contentment, she didn’t know – raged up inside Mrs Hunt, and she rapped loudly on the back door. She could see Grace freeze through the grimy window, then walk calmly to the door.

‘Mrs Hunt! Is William alright?’

The housekeeper stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak. Grace’s nightgown was smeared with blood.

‘I was feeding the magpies,’ Grace said by way of explanation. ‘There’s nobody at the school to look after them now it’s the holidays. They need sustenance. Please, is something the matter with William?’

Recovering her composure, Mrs Hunt shook her head stiffly. ‘No. His Grace simply wanted you to have this for tomorrow.’ She handed the girl a neatly-wrapped parcel. The paper was a soft cream, flecked with gold. The ribbon was baby blue. The smile it brought to Miss Cavendish’s face was nauseating, and Mrs Hunt bade her a brisk, ‘Goodnight’, hurrying towards her own quiet cottage in the village.

That night, the bishop slept soundly, dreaming of his future happiness.

Mrs Hunt tossed agitatedly in her sleep, the streaks of blood on Grace’s nightgown growing into ever larger pools which lapped at the feet of the wedding guests.

The magpies feasted on the innards of mice and rabbits.

Grace arranged her wedding clothes carefully for the long day ahead of her.

***

It was unnaturally dark on the day of the wedding, with snow clouds lowering from early morning, hiding the sun from view. But when Grace had walked through the doors of the cathedral to the strains of Mendelssohn, William had thought his heart would burst for love of her.

Her golden hair was modestly covered with a veil, her grey eyes downcast except when she looked up at him through her long, dark lashes. She wasn’t wearing the gold cross he’d delivered to her house the night before, though.

All through the service and the wedding breakfast, William thought and thought about what the night would bring. She was so young, so modest, so beautiful. He’d been engaged several years earlier – Grace would not be his first, but she would be the sweetest, that he knew.

He drank a little more than he usually would to steady his nerves, and was glad when the guests started to make their way home at dusk. He and Grace would finally be alone. He longed for it, and yet, he feared it.

Mrs Hunt was waiting for her brother-in-law to pick her up. She watched Grace and William go into the house together; he like a dog on the scent of a fox; she resplendent in her white lace. Grace had been obliged to stay under an umbrella every time she went outside on account of the snow. Mrs Hunt noticed, for the first time, several peacock feathers in Grace’s wedding flowers, and frowned.

‘An ill-omen for an ill-matched pair,’ she muttered as Fred, her sister’s husband, pulled up. As she was getting into the car, a bird flew, screeching, at her. Its sharp talons knocked the pillbox hat from her head and its wings boxed her ears. Screaming, she lost her footing, and fell over out of the car and onto the gravel, her gloved hands clutching at her head. There was blood on the ground.

Mrs Hunt felt with trembling hands for its source, and found that the bird had gashed her scalp.

‘Bloody hell, Eileen!’ cried Fred, rushing to her aid. ‘What’s gotten into that magpie?’

***

‘Do you want me to take it off?’ Grace whispered as her new husband fumbled at the back of her dress. He nodded. It had a high lace collar, with one of those hook-and-eye fastenings. His trembling, eager fingers couldn’t work it from the front.

Grace snapped it open with one hand and slid the fabric down over her shoulders, stopping just below her collarbones. She, pulled her arms loose, and wrapped them around William’s neck again, kissing him softly on his cheek, his jawbone, until William could stand it no longer and kissed his bride full on the mouth.

His hands moved over the tiny waist of his bride and up her delicate ribcage.

‘Why didn’t you wear the necklace I gave you?’

‘Oh,’ Grace smiled, ‘it kept snagging on my dress.’

William’s hands slid into the fabric of Grace’s dress at the sides, but he found he could not move it down. ‘Please,’ he gasped.

She smiled slyly. ‘You want me to take the whole thing off?’

‘Yes,’ came his guttural reply.

‘Alright.’ Grace placed her fragile white hands on her husband’s chest, on the purple bishop’s shirt he had worn for their marriage, and pushed him back onto the bed. She climbed on top of him, feeling sure of herself now the ring was on her finger. The man was mad with love for her. She could feel it; she could almost hear both their hearts pounding – his with lust and hers with excitement. Almost.

She unzipped the dress at the back and revealed herself to her husband. His mouth gaped in admiration for her…but then, he became aware of something flickering behind her.

Without any warning, an enormous pair of soot-black wings appeared behind Grace. William stupidly wondered if they were a wedding present meant as a joke from someone, before realising that they were attached to her. The wings were Grace’s.

William fainted. He fell back against the pillows and Grace calmly climbed off him, removing the dress completely. She rolled her shoulders to relieve the stiffness in her wings, which she beat and flexed gently.

A tapping at the window startled her, but when she realised it was only the magpies, she sighed with relief, opened the window, and let the birds in.

On entering the room, they transformed into human-shaped females, naked, winged, with soot about their eyes.

‘Sister, you have done well! A holy man for a husband? I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself!’ said the first, eldest, bird-woman, who had long black hair that fell straight and glossy to her waist.

‘He is handsome, isn’t he? And I do love him so,’ said Grace truthfully.

The younger bird-woman, who had been the chick, now appeared with red hair, falling in ringlets to her shoulders. ‘Do we get to share him?’

‘No!’ snapped Grace, pulling her sister away from William, who remained unconscious. ‘He is mine now, nobody else’s.’

‘I am unhappy to hear you have grown selfish,’ pouted the elder sister. She was equally as beautiful as Grace, yet more alluring still, for her features burned with inhibition, and she stroked the bishop’s sleeping face.

‘You can be as displeased as you like,’ hissed Grace, wrenching her sibling away. ‘You two take possession of men’s souls all the time, and think nothing of it, but I love this mortal.’

The sisters laughed at Grace. ‘If you had any true concept of what humans call “love”, you wouldn’t have married him,’ cackled the red-haired sister.

Grace felt her head throb with anger. She knew it was impossible for her to love any man, and yet she loved William.

And to show him how much she loved him, she sank her fangs into his warm neck, and made him hers forever and ever.

Frances Holland is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, England. She has previously had work published in Mslexia, and online at The Library of Rejected Beauty and the former Book & Brew. She provided the sleeve notes for the reissue of  I Am Kloot’s album, Natural History. 

Her blog can be found here: magpiesnest3018.wordpress.com