seven for a secret never to be toldIt was the magpies who noticed first. It’s always the magpies.
They didn’t try anything at first; what could they do until they were certain? They simply kept their distance and they watched and they waited. I didn’t think anything of it at first. No one thought anything of it. Why would they? So we saw them, and we pointed them out to her and we laughed. We saw the birds and we taught her the rhyme:
“One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy”
That’s the only part that most people can remember. After all, how often do you see more than a pair of magpies? But there’s another part to that rhyme:
“Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.”
There’s another verse too, though you seldom hear it:
“One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven's the Devil his own sel'”
The first few years of that child’s life were accompanied by the words to that rhyme. It’s just a rhyme though, isn’t it? It’s just a harmless old rhyme. That child grew used to hearing it, and no one paid it - or the magpies - any mind at all.
The mobbings came later.
The circumstances of her arrival in the village had been unusual, but foundlings have been left on doorsteps before now, and questions could wait until the poor thing was fed and warmed. But the questions never really came. I took the child in, and before long life went back to normal and the girl became a part of the fabric of our daily lives.
Nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing out of the ordinary for anyone to see.
But the magpies saw it.
I don’t think they were certain until she was about twelve years old (we never knew her real age for certain). She looked like any other girl in the village to my eyes, but they saw the change and they began to gather. Ones became twos became threes became fours, and still they gathered. Where once they had been content to keep their distance and to watch, now they moved closer. They crowded her. Everywhere she went she was followed by the flap of black and white feathers and raucous warning calls.
She seemed not to notice, but people began to talk.
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven’s the Devil his own sel.
At first it was only talk, but soon people began to avoid her and her sinister flock of watchers. She wasn’t an outcast, not yet, but it was easier to look away and to seek comfort and conversation elsewhere.
And so no one saw the first attack.
Perhaps emboldened by their swelling numbers, the magpies must have moved closer and closer until they swarmed about her. We heard the scream when the first bird struck, but before we realised what was happening, the girl was surrounded by a blur of feathers and cruel beaks. We drove the birds back as best we could, but the damage had been done. The girl was bleeding from many wounds, and the birds watched us from a safe distance, waiting for their next chance.
We carried the girl inside my house and dressed her wounds, but we could all hear the tap, tap, tap of the birds beaks against the window pane; feel those beady black eyes looking past us to the girl.
The girl said nothing, but she never went outside in daylight again. After a few weeks, she was bold enough to go outside after dark. She would rise from her bed and go out into the dark forest. Where she went and what she did, I never knew, but she would always be back before the dawn and throughout the day we would hear the tap-tap-tap of the magpies at the window.
And so it went on.
Time passed, seasons changed and the girl grew older and paler. Her skin faded to such a translucent snowy white that she almost disappeared from sight. Often the only things to be seen of her were her amber eyes that would blink at me from within that darkened room, curtains drawn against both the magpies and the sun. I do not know how she survived: she refused any food during those long days, and must have fed on her mysterious night trips into the forest. On what, I know not. Sometimes I would hear blood-curdling shrieks from within the forest, and I would pray for the safe return of my strange girl.
One night, after the girl had left for the forest, there was a knock at the door. Standing outside was a man with his hood pulled so low that all I could see of his face were his shining eyes. He asked me for the girl. I feigned ignorance, but the same question came again. Where is the girl? Transfixed by those eyes, I could only gesture helplessly into the forest. The stranger turned on his heel and went into the forest.
I half-expected that the girl would not return to me that night, but she came back with the dawn. I asked her about the man, but she would not speak to me and went to her room without a word.
The next night she went out again, and the same stranger came to my house and asked for the girl. Three times he came in all, night after night, and each time he came I could only point him helplessly into the forest. Each time the man would leave without another word.
On the fourth night the man did not come and my girl did not return. There were no magpies at my window that day. Not one. Not for sorrow, not for joy. Not for a girl, not for a boy. Not for heaven, not for hell. Not for the devil his own sel.