by Tyler Wetherall
She didn’t know how long the bird had been with her. It must have started as an occasional thing: its black body, weightless yet solid, gliding in the air above her. She would see it out of the corner of her eye, a geometric stain in the blue sky, drawing her attention before it darted away again out of sight. At first, she assumed they were different birds each time, perhaps attracted by the path of the horse or its musty and rich silage smell. But she grew to learn its markings, and had decided it was just one bird, after all.
Now she looked for it each time she went for a ride, and faithfully it returned, sometimes disappearing into the bestial fir darkness of the trees around her or up away into the clouds as if enveloped by the sky’s infinite nature, to a place beyond her. But eventually it would return to its spot by her side. In the beginning, it flew just behind her, behind the rear of the horse, but now she acknowledged it every time with a nod, and, as if with pride in this human-bird cross-species friendship, it flew upfront, guiding her way.
One for sorrow. Two for joy. It went through her head every time, like it did when she was a little girl, desperately seeking out a second or third or best yet a fourth, which she always took to mean love rather than a baby boy, having no interest in babies back then.
She rode every day now. Before, when she could still work, she didn’t have time, guiltily trotting Morgan around the field in the grey light of dusk, loving him extra to compensate. At eight years old, he still had a lot of energy, a lot more than she did now. She could still ride though; and her mind shied away from what that statement implied, that there would be a time in the far too close future when she could no longer ride, when she could no longer do anything for herself at all.
She took him out every day before lunch. The rhythmic shift of his great hips between her legs with every step; the quick sharp tug on the reins each time he wanted to stretch his neck or reach for a bite of grass; the flick of just one ear back towards her when she spoke, his listening ear, she called it; these things brought her great comfort. And yet, she had to acknowledge, that she was tired. Occasionally, she would let her eyes shut, trusting in Morgan’s steady steps to lead the way, and her guardian bird flying ahead. She would feel the sharpness before the peaceful rest as her eyes adjusted to the red-tinted world behind her lids, and her mind would slip, sinking into that distracted daydream world, the one with only snippets of narrative in an otherwise impressionistic haze, and she felt safe there.
When she came home that day, Mark was waiting for her at the gates, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his cardigan, eyeing the woods anxiously. He raised a hand in greeting to her, as she emerged from the distance, at first just a flicker of movement between the firs, like a ghost passing.
His wave dropped to his side when she didn’t wave back. But they smiled sadly at each other, as they did now. He opened the gate and walked slowly, almost shyly towards her, looking down at his boots, and it reminded her of the younger man he once was, and that furtive passion she found so endearing. Their first date was to the chippie in town, and she noticed he’d changed out of his school uniform especially. Sat on the wall of the park on a grey day, waving her legs coquettishly, she had teased him for it as they threw soggy vinegar-soaked chips to the pigeons. Nonetheless he asked her out again the following week. That time she changed out of her uniform too, but he didn’t tease her. They laughed about it now, to think that was how it had all started all those years ago.
Mark took Morgan’s reins and patted his neck, greeting him gently, as she dismounted.
‘What you doing here?’ It was confrontational of her, but she couldn’t help the tone.
‘Well, I thought…’
‘What? That I’d collapsed somewhere on route…’ she said, resentfully, before he interrupted.
‘You took longer than usual.’
‘That’s because I’m going slow, like we said, take things slowly…’
‘Can’t a husband come greet his wife at the gate?’
He said with forced lightness, trying to make it playful, but failing.
‘You’ve never done it before.’
‘Hayley, I’m just worried. I’m just looking out for you.’
‘Well don’t. It makes me feel like I’m dying.’
He looked away, and she saw that tension in his jawbone, some sort of internal clenching that showed he was upset or angry, and she hated herself, and yet was unable to stop it.
The bird, which had been circling above, came to rest on the fence. Cautious in front of Mark, it kept its distance, hopping from foot to foot. The blue ink stain of its wing now visible in the light.
‘Good morning Your Majesty,’ Mark said, looking at the magpie. She had taught him the rhyme, years ago, astonished it wasn’t one of the things he knew, as if the cultural osmosis through which the rest of the world absorbs folk stories and nursery rhymes had passed him by completely. His ma didn’t do songs, he had said, plainly.
‘He’s my friend,’ Hayley said. She hadn’t wanted to tell Mark about the bird yet, because it meant more to her than he might understand, or he might tease her for her superstition, or she wasn’t sure quite what, maybe that if she spoke of it out loud, the magic she had invested in it would be broken, and it would be just a bird, or maybe even many different birds with no special connection to herself. But she wanted to reach out to him to make up for her short temper.
‘Your friend? What do you mean your friend?’
She might have quit there usually with a shake of her head, but she didn’t.
‘He flies with me everyday on my ride. It’s the strangest thing. At first I thought it must be different birds, but I recognise his markings now. I know him.’
‘He looked at her with his eyebrows raised and back at the bird, as if trying to get the joke when there was none.
‘I knew you’d go off with someone one day, but I didn’t expect it to be a bloody bird.’
She smiled at him, more broadly than usual and felt a little more at peace.
‘You should leave some food out for him. Bread or something.’
‘That’s a lovely idea.’
They both paused, caught on the moment, their eyes fixed on the bird, which took their gaze unabashedly.
‘You know what you could do for me, which would be a real help,’ she said, turning to him. ‘I’m feeling very tired all of a sudden. Could you take Morgan in for me? I hate to ask, but I just would like a little lie down before lunch.’
She looked at him imploringly. She didn’t feel so very bad, and she would never normally admit it if she did, but she knew he wanted to help and he felt helpless. He wanted some thing to do beyond driving her back and forth between sessions of chemo. He worked from home, and now they both rattled about the house together, she avoiding his compassion with all the venom of a bored lover.
Now in the mornings, Mark toasted an extra piece of bread, which he left crumbled on the gate posts for the magpie. The bird seemed to live nearby, and she would spot it in the orchard when she sat out in the garden for some fresh air, or see it in the distance in the farmer’s fields, sometimes with another magpie, and she would smile to herself, and mouth ‘joy’.
One day, she saddled up Morgan and mounted him, and they plodded slowly out the gate to the path that led to the dark fir woods, his pace particularly slow, as if he knew how tired she was. She pulled the reins gently halting him, because even the rocking was too much for her now, her stomach wretched and nauseous always. She had stopped to be sick a few times while riding, but she had always found the strength to continue. This time she stopped completely, and sat on Morgan for a long time, just looking ahead. Occasionally he would snort and shake his neck reaching for the ground, a little bored, but returning to his patient stand. She leant forward and rested her head on his neck, wrapping her arms around him like she used to do when she was a child between rounds of show jumping, exhausted.
The bird grew tired of circling, and flew to the ground, pecking at the dust around the horse’s feet. She looked at it below her, and she felt its sorrow. The bird was here to warn her. Warn her that she was dying, like a messenger from the other side, and to comfort her that it would be here to guide her, and all of a sudden the dark woods were not a place she could go, and she was sure when she died it would be there somehow, or it should be. Her mind skipped to images of walking out naked by moonlight into those woods and falling to her knees and giving in to the cold and exhaustion, and letting herself slip away and eventually the bird would peck out her eyes, and take them with him to her death so she could see the light. She began to cry, and then she was weeping, her tears wetting Morgan’s mottled grey hair, and the horse turned his one listening ear back to her as if he knew she was sad, and he wanted to make it better. She hadn’t cried since her diagnosis, but now it came and it came with such force she thought she might cry herself to death right there, and she began to shake, suddenly, violently cold. The horse stood still, patiently, and the bird watched, solemnly, the three of them in communion, a triad of mourning.
Mark must have seen from the kitchen window, because he was suddenly by her side, taking her feet from the stirrups one by one, so tenderly, like he had removed her shoes that time she was too drunk and giggly on champagne, the night they got engaged, and she couldn’t stop laughing long enough to get her own clothes off. Somehow he lifted her out of the saddle, and she didn’t know how, the horse being far taller than he was, and held her in his arms, the lightness of death approaching already making her a brittle weightless thing, her bones filled with air just like the bird. He carried her into the house, the magpie and the horse watching her go, away from their world of forest spirits and guides.
He took her up to bed and lay her down, all the time crying, again removing her shoes, and hat and gloves, unbuttoning her riding coat, until her hands stopped his.
He looked up at her.
‘Just lie here with me.’
He nodded, and she could see the tears in his eyes too.
And they lay down, noses not quite touching, so she could feel his warm breath on her face, the smell of his toast and marmalade breakfast like a memory of happier times. He wrapped his arms around her, such a familiar feeling, of being scooped up somewhere safe. They lay silently and breathed in time.
That night they decided she should have the operation, despite the risks and despite her fears. She wanted to fight, this thing called life too precious to let slip through her fingers, like the reins from her hands.
When he drove her to hospital, she asked that he keep feeding the bird, because she didn’t want it to feel abandoned. He agreed, but three weeks later when she came home, he told her in the car that the bird had stopped coming. At first, it had hopped about by the gate, head alert, but now he hadn’t seen it for a week or so.
Her first ride, when she was well enough to start up again, she kept her eyes on the sky, darting at the first sign of movement in the blue above her, but the bird never returned. Occasionally she’d look at a murder of magpies in the distance and wonder if one of them belonged to her, but she was sure it would make itself known. She hoped it could forgive her for turning away, and know she wasn’t ready to follow where it would lead.
Freelance writer and journalist Tyler Wetherall has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Times, the Guardian and Vice. She is currently working on a collection of short stories – one of which is due to appear in The Gettysburg Review Winter 2014 – as well as her debut novel with support of an Arts Council England Literature Award. She lives between London and New York.