Auspicious Pudding, Part I

Pianos. Penguins. Pandas. Ty rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Oh my God.”

Jasper wormed around in his sleeping bag. “What’s up?” he said muzzily.

“If a flock of crows is a murder,” Ty said quietly, “And a flock of rooks is a parliament, what’s a flock of magpies?”

“A tidings. Or a charm.” Jasper fumbled about in the grass next to his head, located his wire-rim glasses, and hooked them over his ears. “Or sometimes, also a murder.” He looked up. “Holy God.”

“That’s what I said,” muttered Ty. The trees circling their campsite were covered in a flock of black and white birds. Branches swayed and sagged beneath their weight as they quorked and shat and preened. Endless pairs of dark eyes stared down and through him.

“There must be at least a hundred of them.” He looked more closely. Most of the birds were clutching green sprigs in their talons or beaks, maybe for their nests?

“An auspex would count them, and tell us the future.”

Ty glanced at Jasper, who was fastidiously settling his deerstalker on his bald head, his long fingers quivering. Jasper hoarded obscurities like they were two-for-one coupons. Was he taking the piss, as Effie would say?

“Don’t need an ‘auspex’ to tell us that,” said Ty, thinking of the twisted mass growing in his gut. In the movies, an alien would just hatch and burst out of your chest. Over quick. Industrial light and magic.

“I could do it, I think. There are several instructive folk rhymes to that purpose. Presuming the total number of birds divided cleanly into a number between one and ten. The real question is; what are they doing here?”

“Creeping me out?”

“Magpies are not indigenous to the area. They’ve come from somewhere else.”

Jasper unzipped his bag and stood. The magpies launched into the sky, a swirling flock, buzzing the old man like a swarm of bees.

Ty reached up and tugged Jasper to his knees. “Mistook you for a scarecrow,” he half-yelled over the burr of wings, “They’ll be gone in a minute.” He watched the birds circling directly overhead, wincing, then punched himself twice on the arm, trying to shake off the dread infusing his bones. That’s two for flinching.

“I should have counted them,” Jasper said, distraught.

“Call it a hundred. Ten by ten, nice and round. What’s ten?”

“Gold. Or a time of joyous bliss. Or, the Devil himself.”

Ty shook his head. Never one answer when three would do. Something plopped on his shoulder: a leafy sprig. More bits fell in a sudden pelting storm.

“Oh what the hell,” Ty shouted in exasperation. Both men ducked under the barrage. The rain of greenery was gentle, almost like a blessing. Ty found himself thinking distractedly of rice thrown at weddings. And then it was done.

Jasper picked up a bent blade adorned with small circular leaves. “Pennyroyal. Pudding grass if you want to get colloquial. I don’t know what they’d want with it; certainly not to eat.”

“Just saving it to heckle—” Ty exhaled as his stomach cramped tight. He rode out each pulsation of pain, biting the side of his tongue and clenching his fists. Jasper watched him worriedly, the unasked question plain in his pursed lips and half-raised eyebrows.

“Fine,” he managed, straightening. “No problem.” His eyes widened. “I take that back. Big problem.”

The unimpressive stand of birches they’d camped in had transformed into a hardwood forest, ancient trees rising forbiddingly tall, bedecked in verdant lichen and moss. The light overhead had taken on a cool quality, filtered through the layers of canopy.

“It’s a weald. Well, now we know from whence the magpies came.”

“Which is?”

To be continued on Wednesday….

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