A gory encounter with a magpie triggers a dark memory for Hayley Flynn
Before its cackle, it’s the flash of iridescent green on her tail I notice first. Down in the spinney between horse chestnut trees a magpie pecks a fat chick she’s thrown from a nest. She drags him toward the shelter of a leaning rhododendron.
His beak must have taken the impact of the fall – the upper mandible a bloody Jackson Pollock, and through his thin skin I make out blue and engorged organs, stumpy wings either side of his belly – hopelessly underdeveloped. As the fat baby lays supine, exposed to the sky, the heat evacuates from his body. He is not quite altricial; his eyes are formed and shiny and seem to fix mine, the beginnings of a feather stubble erupt violently in wild patches around his ribs. ‘I am trying to help’ I mouth, but I feel as paralysed as he. I shoo the magpie away and attempt to loom large as I pull myself over a perimeter wall.
I look back and forth between it and the magpie waiting on the limb of a horse chestnut, and doubt creeps in – could it be a magpie too? Is this a rescue attempt I’ve thwarted? But the magpie doesn’t caw or swoop no matter how close I get to the chick. She eyes me with curiosity and yields, for now, waiting to see if I’m there to steal her breakfast.
Transfixed by its plight, I stare dumbly at the bird whilst cooing lies of reassurance to my toddler on my hip, ‘What a cute baby bird resting on the ground’. Belly to the sky, I can only look it in the eye and hope to establish some fleeting connection, but I know I can’t help and I feel ashamed to meet his gaze. I know that feeling of exposure, I know that feeling of peril. Fight or flight? He doesn’t need to tell me the magpie is not his mother, he is mute and still and his slow sensory shutdown is the only chance he has at flying away from this.
I don’t know what to do but to step back over the wall and abandon the hopeless creature, and as I resign it to its fate I try not to falter as I tell my daughter ‘Let’s leave it to get some sleep’. I back away and break the backs of leaves beneath my feet, their fragile spines turn to dust, and momentarily the plump little bird seems grotesquely robust; his mother has fed and nurtured him so successfully that he can’t dare to claim such vulnerability amongst this fragile forest of ghosts, but the magpie’s beak is long and resolute. The baby’s swollen gut and darting eyes revisit me often and I cry for him. One day when I pass the spinney I realise I’m crying for myself.
Before I hear its high pitched signal, it’s the flash of the green man I notice first. I am in the city with the river behind me. The frantic beeping sends me across the zebra crossing. I step off the curb, take two steps into the road and immediately backtrack on to the pavement. As I ebb backwards I will the man behind me: please keep walking. Not quite in my peripheral, but undoubtedly still there, the man mirrors my movements. I know for certain now that he’s following me. I don’t see him, I will never see him in fact, but I feel the air between us as tangible as if it were magnetised. With my back exposed to the dark, to the river and to the man between me and it, my body seizes and shuts down. I am mute – I could have told someone ‘I do not know this man’, only I couldn’t open my mouth. My eyes looked only ahead, my arms were as useless as those pathetic wing stumps but my legs, thankfully my legs, they took flight. I cut through the night.
For a lifetime the dark side streets ran on. I raced fruitlessly as if making no progress, and on the treadmill-road I was thankful that at least I never wore heels. The man who chased me would not quit, blindsided by his desire to inflict pain, but he could never gain enough speed to drag me to him. I felt in slow motion the few seconds in which his fingers intertwined with my hair; as if watching from above I saw the sodium orange glow of the streetlight on wild strands of dark hair as they evaded his grip and whipped around his thumb and tips of his fingernails. There was a feeling I was sinking, falling behind, but then the treadmill I’d been pounding suddenly fell apart. Its parts cascaded around me as the screws came loose and I finally gained ground. As the cobbled road rose to meet me I fell into the door of my hostel and ran for the stairs. The front door swung open behind me. I kept running.
As the man on reception put himself in the path of the intruder I felt his shouts through my bones but all I heard was a fizz of white noise from within me – blood and oxygen pulsing, organs pushing at my flesh. Then all was quiet. Normal. Safe.
I got into bed on the top bunk of the dorm room my friends and I had booked and I waited for my senses to tune in. By the time my friends came back, I felt, more than anything, ashamed and utterly unable to put into words the absolute certainty that his intention wasn’t ‘just’ to rape me. Uninjured as I was, sat up in bed as if I’d been reading a book, the strength that got me there withered and all that came out was: ‘I was followed home’. It was sympathetically brushed off as a non-event by the group who were on a high from dancing and gin and I sensed them keen to change the subject, so for the next 16 years I put it in a box until I saw that flash of green in the coppice. I don’t know if the chick sensed death waiting in the tree the way I felt it lurking behind me at the zebra crossing, but I am lucky to have never seen my magpie.