The three of us balance on our bikes at the edge of the park. We watch as the man ― old and hunched ― emerges from the little green house, ice-cream bucket in hand. From the trees and the power poles high above, the magpies watch too.
When he dips his hand into the bucket, some of the birds stir. But it isn’t until he’s tossed the seed into the air that they all fly from their perches to feed. It’s a flurry of wings and beaks and black and white.
There aren’t many magpies where we live by the beach, and my heart is skipping really fast as we watch. My dad always says that if you see a magpie, you gotta run away fast, ’cause he knew a man whose eye got plucked out once.
I want to run from the ones in the Magpie Man’s yard too, but I can’t stop watching.
One time, Mum and Dad took us to the zoo. They bought bags of food for the kangaroos and showed us how to hold our hands flat so they didn’t bite off our fingers. The twins were too excited to crouch and wait until the kangaroo came over. They just flung their pellets onto the ground and cried when they ran out. I think if I was feeding the magpies, I’d be like my brothers; I’d empty the bucket straight away, scared they’d swoop down on me and peck out my eyes. I wouldn’t cry though.
‘Max, why does he do it?’ Tom asks while we watch from our perch across the road.
‘Dunno,’ I answer.
‘It’s gross,’ Ricky says. ‘Look at the footpath, it’s all pooey.’
‘Sick,’ we both groan at the same time, the way we always do.
We keep watching until Gran calls us back from the other side of the park. Tom and Ricky forget as soon as we leave. But for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about him and the hurricane of black and white in his front yard.
I ask Gran about the Magpie Man before bed. The look on her face is the same one she gave the twins when we got off the plane in Brisbane and they had identical chocolate smears around their identical faces.
‘That gammin old whitefulla; he shouldn’t be feeding them every day. What’ll those birds do when he’s gone? They won’t be able to find food for themselves.’
I don’t know what she means, but I don’t ask her to explain either.
The older boys chase me through the park on their big shiny mountain bikes. A rock pings against my helmet, then another, and another and my insides turn into jelly when I hear them scream out, ‘go home ya dirty abo’.
I want to call for Gran, but that’ll just make them yell louder so I pump my legs against the pedals as hard as I can to cross the park, check quickly that there’s no cars coming before I hurtle across the road and stop right in front of the little green house. The boys don’t follow me, but they huddle in the park, blocking my path back to Gran’s place. I look up and see birds lining the power poles above my head.
‘Come on into the yard,’ a voice says and I look up to see the Magpie Man watching me from up on his front porch. ‘You can wait here ‘til they’re gone.’
I glance back at the park where the boys are lighting cigarettes now and glancing over, as if they’re deciding whether to chase me here. He’s a grown up and I want to go in and have him protect me, but there are more magpies sitting on the fence, guarding the little house as though they’re dogs. My heart hammers and I imagine beaks poking into my eyeballs; I’d almost rather have the boys throw rocks at me than face the magpies. But, after a little while, I decide to be brave. I let my bike fall into the dry grass and open the rusty gate. My insides are wobbly as I circle the yard taking as wide a path as I can, avoiding the magpies’ stares. I keep my head lowered, certain the sight of my bright green eyes will make them attack. Once I’m safe at the front door, I ring the bell and wait.
‘You okay, lad?’ he says peering over the top of foggy glasses. With his long, grey tufts of eyebrows and wrinkled pink face, he’s a bit scarier up close.
I nod, and even though I’m still frightened, I grin at him. ‘My name’s Max,’ I say. My two front teeth fell out before Christmas and I know I look funny, but the Magpie Man doesn’t smile back.
‘I tried complaining about those racist little pricks, but no one cares what old people think, Max,’ he says, sounding a bit tired. ‘I hear them yellin’ at your gran sometimes. Little shits. Need a good belting.’
I don’t know what to say about that, so instead I say: ‘So, um…I was wondering. About the magpies?’
His eyebrows start unknitting until he almost smiles.
‘Well then. What d’you want to know?’ He pulls the door closed behind him and lowers himself onto a plastic chair on the step.
I glance at the fence where the birds are lined up, waiting. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but it seems like there’s more there now.
‘Why do you feed them every day?’ I ask.
He smiles a proper smile that makes him look less crabby.
‘Because they’re my friends.’
I don’t go inside the Magpie Man’s house and he doesn’t tell me his name. But the next time I visit, he tells me about his wife, Norma and how they’d been my age — eight —when they first met.
‘She was gap-toothed back then, just like you,’ he says. ‘She had a way about her, especially with birds. But the magpies were special to her mob, they had stories about them and she said they came to give her messages.’
Norma grew up in a place that’s called Nudgee, but that means nothing to me. I tell him my mob’s Bigambul and our country is Goondiwindi, which is on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, and he nods but doesn’t explain where Nudgee is or tell me who Norma’s mob was. He just keeps talking.
‘Her parents lived in an old brown Queenslander house that stood on stilts in the middle of a paddock,’ he says and I imagine it; the grass baked and dry, the house high up on stilts. I wonder how they got up inside.
He tells me how little Norma, with the gap between her teeth and pigtails in her black hair, would stand in the middle of the paddock with her arms outstretched and wait. She’d turn in slow circles, looking up at the trees and pursing her lips as though she was whistling, but not making a noise. After a minute, a bird would fly down and land on one of her outstretched arms. Sometimes, she’d be covered in them.
‘And then they’d talk,’ he says, and I stop trying to work out how they got into the house with the stilts. ‘They’d sing and chortle and she’d stand there until they left.’
The call of the magpie was the best sound in the world to Norma, and because she loved them, he loves them too.
The next time I visit the Magpie Man he asks if I want to feed them. I shake my head and feel my eyes fill up with tears.
He frowns, his bushy eyebrows knitting together. ‘Wait here.’
He goes inside and after a minute, comes out with the blue ice-cream bucket filled with seed. I start breathing heavily, feeling more tears prickling in my eyes. I back up against the wall of the garage, knowing what comes next. But instead of tossing it into the air, he squeezes a handful into his fist and holds it there. All the magpies — I’m sure there are at least a million of them — crowd at his feet.
‘Max, you come here and take this bucket.’ He glances at me over his shoulder.
I shake my head. No way am I going over while ravenous birds are waiting.
‘Now boy, come here. I need your help.’ He speaks with that special tone of voice adults use, the one that makes kids do whatever they say.
I creep over to him, holding my breath as though that’ll stop the magpies from swooping. On the ground, the birds don’t take their beady eyes off the Magpie Man. Even as I approach, they just shuffle out of the way like a black and white sea parting for me to cross.
Once I have the bucket in my hands, I want to run back to the safety of the garage. The Magpie Man reads my mind and shakes his head.
‘Go sit on the fence.’
As soon as I’m settled, he stretches out his arm and opens his hand, keeping the seed on his palm. He closes his eyes and purses his lips. I can hear a faint, airy whistle as he turns in a circle.
The magpies don’t move, not even for the feed trickling out between his fingers.
‘Why do they swoop?’ I call, and he opens his eyes.
‘They’re protecting their babies,’ he says.
‘But why do they peck out people’s eyeballs?’
‘They don’t. They swoop at the backs of people’s heads usually. And their necks.’
‘My dad knows a man who had his eyeballs pecked out by a magpie.’
‘Then your dad’s friend was telling fibs. And anyway, these ones here won’t hurt you, they just want their tucker.’
And then he releases the handful of seed, tossing it into the air. Some of the magpies lift off the ground and chase the seed as it falls like confetti. They squabble among themselves and walk in their funny, un-birdlike way over the Magpie Man’s brown slippers, but they never once peck or swoop him.
The Magpie Man tells me the birds are frightened of eyes and presents me with an empty blue ice cream bucket and a thick black marker. He shows me how to draw big, cartoon-like eyes all over the container. And every visit after, I wear the eye-covered bucket on my head; a helmet to protect me from sharp beaks.
‘Did Norma die?’ I ask. I’m sitting on his front steps wearing my helmet, drinking lemon cordial. It’s nearly the end of summer. I know we’ll going home soon, and there’ll be a new baby when we get there.
He’s quiet for a long time, much longer than usual, and I wonder if he’s going to cry. I hope he won’t.
‘Yes. Four years ago. She had cancer.’ He reaches out and pats me on the helmet.
‘My Grandpa had cancer. He died last year. We had to come up to Brisbane for the funeral. Gran says he’s with the ancestors now.’
‘I think she’s probably right,’ he says.
‘Is Norma with the ancestors too?’ I ask.
He goes quiet again, and I see him looking at the two magpies on the fence. He stretches his hand out towards them and rubs his fingers together the way people do when they want a cat to come over. The magpies stay on the fence.
‘It’s starting to cool down, you must be going home soon. Won’t school start in a couple of weeks?’
‘Yep. But Dad says we can’t go home ‘til Mum’s had the new baby. She’s been sick, that’s why we come to stay with Gran.’ I sip the last of my cordial and pull my helmet off. My hair’s damp and clings to my forehead in wet clumps. ‘Do you miss Norma?’ I ask.
‘Are they her birds?’
He just shakes his head.
The next time I go to visit Gran, I’m nine and a half. There are four of us now; me, the twins and our baby sister Georgie. The older boys aren’t in the park when I go to ride my bike, and Magpie Man doesn’t live in the little green house on Handford Road anymore. There are birds watching from the power lines above, but the fence is empty and someone’s cleaned up all the white poos from the driveway. When I knock at the door, a lady I don’t know tells me to go home.
I ask Gran where the Magpie Man’s gone, and she makes a sad face.
‘He couldn’t look after himself any more,’ she says. ‘His kids had him sent to an old people’s home. I didn’t know ‘til I met ‘em that his wife was mob, ay?’
‘But what about his birds?’
‘I suppose they’re going to have to feed themselves.’
I sneak out of bed and go back to the Magpie Man’s house very early the next morning. The sun has just risen and there isn’t anyone around. I stand on the nature strip and look over at the park. The magpies are sitting in the trees and along the power lines on the other side of the road. They guard the little green house and I know they’re waiting for someone to feed them.
I close my eyes and slowly, lift my arms out from my sides until I’m standing like a scarecrow. I make a little ‘o’ with my lips and breathe out, careful not to whistle, and start to turn.
The Magpies don’t come to me, but after a while, they start to sing.
Melanie Saward is a Meanjin-based writer and a proud descendent of the Bigambul and Wakka Wakka peoples. Her fiction novel Why Worry Now was shortlisted for the 2018 David Unaipon Award, and her essay ‘From Your Own Culture’ received highly commended in the 2019 Calibre Essay Prize. She’s a 2019 featured Indigenous writer at Djed Press, a fiction reader for Overland, and has published stories in journals and anthologies such as Swamp Journal, Corrupted Classics, and URL Love.