A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
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.”
“The weald,” answered Jasper. He turned to Ty, a little exasperated. “Has the stomach rot gotten to your ears? I just said that.”
Ty’s stomach flipped at the mention of it. The pain didn’t last long as his attention quickly focused on the trees. The trees that shouldn’t be. That couldn’t be there.
They most certainly were there.
Ty watched as Jasper sniffed the moss, nodded to himself ,and proceeded to smash the clump in his gnarled hands.
“What are you doing?”
Jasper just hummed to himself. The cuffing of his hands pounding the moss punctuated his song. The tune was only vaguely familiar to Ty. Just when he thought he could place it, Jasper stopped, picked up a sprig of pennyroyal and pressed it between moss-mushed hands. He gave it a good squish and then presented it to Ty.
“Nice. I’m impressed. No, really,” the sarcasm was like a candy coating over each word. “I just feel bad for leaving the Forestry Craft Badge at home. You so earned it.”
Ty went on to say more, but Jasper shoved the sprig in Ty’s mouth. Before he could spit it out, the old man had one hand on the back of Ty’s neck and the other covering his mouth.
“You can thank me later,” offered Jasper.
The grime on Jasper’s hand felt slick and coarse like wet sand paper on the back of his neck. His thoughts whirred from his now grim-streaked neck, to wondering how hands so old and knobby could still be so strong, to the horrible thing in his mouth. To say it tasted like minty dirt would be like calling the moon a rock. It combined the flavor of fresh lawn clippings with the grit of under-stirred hot cocoa. Sure there was an underlying hint of mint, but that silver lining was too thin encompass this gray cloud.
“Now would you stop struggling so I can talk to ya’ proper?”
Ty hadn’t realized he was jerking about, and when he did, he felt wholly justified. He kept it up for just a second longer as to not let Jasper think it was him telling him to that he stopped.
“That should settle your stomach for a bit. Yes, I know. Kinda’ feels like it’s going to do the opposite. It won’t though. Just chew a bit.”
Jasper’s grip loosen, but didn’t let go. He waited to see Ty’s jaw work the mush before going on.
“Good. Good. Now mind you don’t eat it. In small doses it’ll calm the rot. Swallow the whole of it, and we’ll be stopping at every other tree with a soft leaf.”
Ty didn’t want to admit it, but he could feel the knot untie itself in his gut. He didn’t fool himself. It was still there, only loosened.
“I can see it in your eye. It’s working.”
Jasper let go, leaving a mossy hand print in his place. He wiped the remainder on his pants and started rolling his sleeping bag and stowing his gear.
“How… Where did you… I mean,” Ty couldn’t get the words out. He didn’t even know where to begin. The trees? Magpies? The minty grit in his mouth?
“Can your auspex do that, too?” He finally asked.
Ty’s tone said jest, but his eyes begged for something to hold on to.
“Not just any auspex, that’s for sure. Now stop gawpping and roll up your bag. We got things to do and no telling how long to do them in. Move it now. Move.”
Whether by Jasper’s design or not, Ty was grateful for the busy work, moving in the familiar motions of breaking camp, rolling this, packing that. He didn’t know how longer Jasper had been talking before he started listening.
“—to see this. It’s good though. Very good. Maybe lucky even.”
“Son, if I told it all now, how am I to enjoy the look on your face when we get there?”
His smile was as much sincere as it was concealing.
Ty followed Jasper’s steps over the rocks and tree trunks. Placed his feet where Jasper’s had been. They soon fell into a rhythm–one two, one two–and Ty filled in the third beat in his head. Three’s a better number than two.
He’d given up talking. Each time he’d opened his mouth, Jasper would tell him to hush it. He’d wanted to talk about the birds. To ask again about the trees. See if Jasper knew why the branches moved when there was no breeze. Most of all, though, Ty wanted to ask about his belly. About the mass growing up and down and out.
Jasper hopped onto a log, took a deep breath and let out a yell that stopped Ty in his tracks. Sent a shudder through him that about knocked him to his knees. He wiped a hand over the sweat on his face.
“What you go and do that for?”
Jasper said nothing. Just watched the trees before continuing on his way.
Ty didn’t like this anymore. Jasper had said this trip was for fun, but all it’d been was weird. Birds and bellyaches and–
The ground shivered. Jasper dropped his pack and turned in a circle, his arms out at his sides.
“Jasper?” Ty eyed the trees above. Felt the knot in his middle twist. “Why–”
“Shhhh.” Jasper held a finger to his lips. “Listen.”
Ty held his breath and listened beyond the beating of his heart. “I don’t–”
Jasper held up a hand and raised an eyebrow. He stood so close, Ty could smell his musky breath. The ground shivered once more, and with it the coil in Ty’s belly. When Jasper spoke, his voice hissed like water. “The king is in his counting house, counting his…”
Ty wiped away a fleck of Jasper’s spit that had landed below his eye.
“Counting his what, Ty?” Jasper leaned in even closer. “What does the king count?”
Ty turned, catching his foot on a rock, and he fell. He spine cracked against the rocky ground, shattering the silence not with the thud of flesh but the sharp jangle of metal. He tried to reach down, to touch the jagged mound stretching the skin of his belly toward the sky. He gasped. “Can’t move my arms, Jasper.”
And then, “Jasper?”
His friend stood just out of sight. But Ty knew he was there from the laughter. Low like a growl, but building like thunder.
“Gold.” Jasper’s feet stomped the ground–one two, one two–raising a cloud of dust Ty could see from the corner of his eye. One two, one two, Jasper’s feet danced. He added a clap in for the third beat. Three’s better than two.
The branches shook and the sky turned inky black. Hundreds of magpies filled the trees. In quorky voices they repeated the answer to Jasper’s riddle.
He leaned over, blocking Ty’s view of the murder in the trees. “Does it hurt now?” he asked. “In your belly?”
Ty shook his head. He felt nothing beyond his shoulders.
Jasper nodded and rubbed his chin. “What was it you said was the number ten? Gold, a time of joyous bliss and what?” He leaned in, his face twisting to grotesque. “The devil himself?”
Ty screamed. Jasper clapped his hands twice and the forest went silent. “Traveled so far, haven’t you?” he called out to the birds. “Ain’t you feeling peckish?”
Gold gold gold, the hungry birds answered.
With a flourish of his hands, he stood aside and the magpies rained down, pelting the taut skin until it broke forth. Ty felt nothing–a small mercy–as he gaped in horror, watching each bird carry away a shining coin.