Ógán is a magpie, but he wasn’t always a bird.
An Interrupted Beginning
Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.
Guide To Pronunciation and Meaning
Ógán (pronounced OH gawn) means youth.
Niamh (pronounced NEE uv) means brightness, radiance.
Malachy (pronounced MA la kee) means messenger of God.
The Real Beginning
Ógán loses Niamh to his best friend Malachy. Ógán and Niamh had been high school sweethearts, and the three of them had been inseparable—the “Three Blind Mice.”
Ógán stumbled onto this scene: the affair in full swing, the pair of them at it like otters in his best friend’s bed (he’d seen a documentary about how otters held hands when they slept—but this right now was absolutely not cute). Ógán had been let inside by a still-stoned flatmate, the squawking pair growing louder as he raced down the long, cement hallway toward that familiar sound—knowing it was Niamh behind the locked bedroom door, his teeth zinging like when foil shorts out your fillings.
Some things can never be unseen.
Thinking back on it now, he often wonders if maybe he should have just gone home instead of shouldering the door open. He often thinks of how he stood there like a gormless gobshite, ogling the romping quislings.
He expected Niamh to blurt out it was a mistake, that this had never happened before. But it wasn’t. And it had.
Now to cause an immense uproar, chew the scenery like Al Pacino! But no words would come. Instead, he went for Malachy but that buck-naked eejit punched him hard. Weepily trudging back to his dorm, Ógán dumped Niamh’s stuff out the third-floor window. He never saw either of them again. Last he heard, they’d taken the trip to Indonesia.
That summer passed in a violet daze, to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell in Love.” That spiteful song followed him everywhere: laptops, car radios, ringtones. On the solstice he broke into his old high school and entered the history classroom where he’d first met Niamh. There, he downed a pint of whiskey and a packet of his father’s blood-thinning medication.
Some Common Misperceptions
The nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” is about three bishops burned at the stake by Queen Mary I of England. Bloody Mary liked burning people, and 280 other religious dissenters met the same fate during her five-year reign. Many nursery rhymes are based on horrible real-life events. “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” is about the plague. “London Bridge Is Falling Down” is about child sacrifice. “Jack and Jill” were two young lovers thrown to their deaths. Ógán has confirmed the validity of these statements in conversations with the dead.
The End Is a Beginning
Ógán is a magpie. He has black and white plumage and a sleek elegant tail. Up close, his black plumage has an iridescent violet sheen on the wings but it turns glossy green on the tail.
He coasted the thermals over Slieve Gullion Mountain, a half-mile high, as effortless as standing still. His new form had taken a bit of getting used to; the ruffle of his feathers, how he sensed minute changes in air current through his entire body. He swooped like black lightning, landing in the back garden of his family home on top of the small granite gravestone for Buster, his Jack Russell.
The back door of the house opened and a tiny wrinkled woman with glasses half the size of her face threw the heel of a batch loaf onto the paved walkway. Ógán flapped over, pecked some, then cawed at his mother.
“Every day you eat all my bread,” she said, “and never get no fatter. Just like Ógán used to.” Her shoulders hunched and she took the Padre Pio medal from beneath her blouse and kissed it.
A sharp whistle pierced the air. Since becoming a magpie, Ógán had heard that whistle several times; it was warning him about a trapped soul. A violent soul. He had to deal with it: this was part of his job.
He flew south, following the whistle thirty-five miles to a ghost estate outside Drogheda, spotting from a mile off the violet shimmer of the haunted house. The neighborhood was recovering well from the housing crash, and half of the houses that had lain vacant for nearly a decade were occupied. One of them, a detached two-story redbrick, was occupied by a man conducting a one-sided argument.
Ógán perched on the windowsill. The man (mid-twenties) jabbed his index finger towards the corner of the living room wall, then struck, punching yet another hole in the plasterboard that bore a dozen already, his knuckles the color of a Bloody Mary. A baby screamed upstairs.
Ógán found the newborn writhing in his cot, and from the smell the nappy hadn’t been changed all day. A woman shrieked. In the kitchen he found her listening intently to the extractor fan. She was begging for a voice to stop, pleading, but then climbed onto the counter and slammed her head into the stove’s aluminium hood, streaking the metal surface bloody red. There were other holes smashed into the walls, these with a sledgehammer. The couple had been working over the entire house, searching for something. Ógán knew a wronged soul often manifested like this, driving the inhabitants to self-harm or murder/suicide. He didn’t have much time to intervene. Ógán had seen how quickly people could kill each other just to stop the voices.
He circled the building, paying particular attention to the structure. Nothing untoward. Sometimes it was a body nearby in a shallow grave, but the yard was well-maintained, flowerbeds blooming with the first flush of summer, grass clipped. There was a scarcity of furniture within, almost Spartan décor. Perhaps this family had just moved in and, without signs of a recent grave, he could discount them as murderers. Something much older and malevolent was present.
And then he saw it.
Glistening within the crewcut lawn, pink and pulsing. He swooped down to beak the worm and swallowed it, whole and wriggling. It was delicious, reminding him of ham, mixed with a little dirt. The dirt was the best bit. Kept him regular.
From the lawn, he saw a row of bricks along the base of the house that appeared newer than the rest. A section of those bricks had also been removed and replaced, the mortar different. Concentrating, Ógán visualized the empty space beyond the bricks and his body dissolved, re-materializing on the other side. It always felt like plunging into a swimming pool, ears popping followed by a weird chlorine odor, but it was a neat trick.
Within the shallow cavity beneath the house there was a bundle wrapped in plastic, the scent of death masked with quicklime. Inside were two bodies: husband and wife. This close to the body, Ógán knew the tragic story:
She killed him and he deserved it. The bastard had a nasty gambling habit before the housing crash put him crazy; he attacked her, almost killed her. She stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Self-defense. Right now the bastard was already in The Dark Place, flayed by a demon that looked like his wife. The end.
But the woman remained to poison the building. There were gashes on her wrists, proof she had turned the knife on herself after the murder. Who had put the bodies here? That was the real reason she hadn’t departed this plane.
He summoned the woman’s trapped soul to its body. The woman, Aoife, hovered over her corpse, before Ógán guided her out of the building, upwards.
The young couple in the house had returned to normalcy. The woman rushed into the living room, her husband staring wide-eyed at the holes he’d punched in the walls. They hugged each other and kissed, relieved it was finally over.
Ógán guided the dead woman towards the light, moving from the dark to gray.
“You’ve been dead eight years, Aoife.”
“But I only killed him yesterday…”
Dead Time always moved faster.
“I’m not being punished for killing him?”
“Self-defense,” he replied. “But suicide is a 500-year sentence.”
She lurched to flee, but here he was all-powerful. Nobody escaped.
“I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. We all follow them.”
She struggled, trying to fight him off, pulling toward the house and her decaying body. Still, they continued onward into the grey. Directions were meaningless; only Ógán knew the way out.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “But we’ll get to The Grey Place soon. It’s not so bad, you’ll see.”
“Why do I care what some dumb bird says?”
“Did you know, magpies are the only non-mammals to recognize our own reflections.”
“Why are you a magpie, and not a raven or a crow?”
“Crows are criminals,” he replied. “It’s the punishment for being a low-level criminal, sentenced to be a crow.”
“But magpies are thieves.”
Where the Rumor Began
Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has a servant girl sentenced to death for stealing silver even though the magpie did it. It’s a common misperception that magpies are thieves and that we steal shiny objects. In fact, shiny objects are extremely annoying. The glare hurts my eyes.
“What about my body?” Aoife asked.
“Somebody will find it, eventually.”
“You bastard, you’re just leaving me there to rot? No burial?”
“Your suicide sentence isn’t your worst problem,” he explained. “The haunting and torture of that family … that’s a millennium right there. A thousand years in The Grey Place.”
With Ógán concentrating, they dissolved and rematerialized in The Grey Place. Globules of prismatic light—souls—wandered chaotically, zigzagging and colliding like excited particles. Others adopted mournful poses and wandered, moaning. They didn’t have to, they were free to do whatever they wanted, but many elected to remain penitent and dour, even though it had no outcome on their sentence. The Grey Place wasn’t a punishment, it was more of a holding area; a place where souls contemplated their earthly behavior before being allowed into The Big House. They could form a jazz club for all The Boss cared. But they continued moaning, rattling chains, posing like that Scream painting.
“How did you transport us here?”
“I can transport anywhere in the universe, but it’s quite impossible to breathe on Mars, so I’m mostly on Earth.”
“Then you can get inside the foundations of my house, get my body out?”
As much as he wanted to make whoever had hidden two corpses beneath that house pay, it wasn’t his job.
A Visit To the Big House
A hard-faced, soft-bellied man in a toga was standing on a wooden crate on a street corner, orating to no one in particular. “Can one believe there exists presently a brand of condom entitled Trojan?” Homer said. “Alas, it should evidently be noted that the Trojan Horse, after infiltrating the outer defences, forthwith, in a clandestine attack, ejected hundreds of soldiers. Is this truly not an unfortunate implication for a prophylactic?”
Homer regarded his audience, which was much smaller than he usually got at the Greek theater for his evening performance. Two people were present: Dali twisted the waxy tip of his drooping mustache, and Picasso was dressed like a matador. Neither of them applauded.
Ógán swooped down and dropped a silver drachma in the pileus cap at Homer’s feet. Happily, Homer cleared his throat to continue; the others groaned.
Ógán flapped alone toward The Big House. The light was diffuse, like being inside mist; the buildings, cobblestone streets, and people emitted luminosity. Sitting on a nearby bench, a man wearing a black three-piece suit was sheltering beneath a black umbrella. Edgar Allan Poe adjusted his sunglasses and scratched in his notebook with a quill.
“You should really have chosen the form of a raven,” Poe said. “Magpies have too much white.”
Ógán landed on the bench. Poe dipped his quill in the ink bottle, but it was empty. He glanced pleadingly at the bird. Ógán concentrated, and a bottle of the blackest Indian Ink materialized.
“Has thou ever read Jonathan Livingston Seagull?”
“That seagull’s such a poser,” Ógán replied. Then: “Because I’m a bird I’m only supposed to read books about birds?”
“Which postures an interesting conundrum, my half-raven friend. Exactly how doth one, being a bird that is, and thusly lacking thumbs, read a book?”
“I can still peck the buttons on my Kindle,” he replied. “Quoth the magpie, nevermore!”
Ógán flapped off to find The Boss. Although finding him wasn’t exactly how it worked. The Big House took whatever form you desired, and while this usually involved soft white clouds and angels with harps, for Ógán it was the flat-share where Malachy lived, where he had found him with his fiancée Niamh.
The walls were translucent as jellyfish, and Ógán glided down the hallway to enter the bedroom, which looked exactly as it had that day; the bed sheets tousled, dirty jeans and socks piled in the corner. Malachy hadn’t even cleaned up before Niamh arrived—that’s how routine their tryst had been. Ógán landed on the desk, and a snap of his wing cascaded a laptop and geography textbooks onto the crusty floor.
“I’m not picking those up again,” The Boss said.
His voice reverberated from everywhere. He had no face, no body. He was everything and nothing.
Ógán squawked and got to the floor, lifted everything back onto the desk. “You see everything,” he said. “So, when do they die?”
The Boss had promised Ógán that he’d be allowed to decide a punishment for Niamh and Malachy. He’d get to reap their souls and ferry them to The Dark Place. Let them suffer for a few millennia. That should be payback for how they’d destroyed everything he cared about.
“You’ve got work to do,” The Boss said. “Time to take another one back.”
The room dissolved like sugar in water and Ógán rematerialized on the tiled floor of a diner. His feathers spasmed and he staggered a couple of steps. He hated it when The Boss did that.
Two men were arguing in a corner booth. Ógán took flight and landed on the shoulder of the larger man, who had coiffed black hair and huge mutton chops. A half-eaten cheeseburger was oozing oil on his plate. Elvis jabbed his finger at Jim Morrison’s shirtless chest.
“You can’t keep being the same person throughout history,” Elvis said. “I mean, Michael Hutchence? Seriously? That’s what you wasted your reincarnation on?”
Jim brushed his mane of hair out of his face and took a swig of whiskey. “Being Plato with a guitar worked for you last time round, fatboy. But this isn’t the seventies anymore. They have cell phones, but they don’t use them to speak to each other on—they use them to write shit on the internet.”
Frizzy-haired Janis Joplin, in the next booth over, strummed her guitar. “Don’t just be one of the regular weird people this time,” she said.
Ógán guided Elvis to the jump point, a swirling portal that appeared in the diner’s entranceway. Elvis was squeezed into the sequined jumpsuit he had barely fit into before his Las Vegas blowout, rolls of fat bunching the seams. He turned to Ógán and said, “What’s an internet?”
The Residue of Life and Death
The piercing whistle led Ógán to an industrial garment laundering facility outside Belfast. He’d been to the city many times, watching Niamh and Malachy grow their family. Waiting.
The facility was empty because it was still a couple of hours until sunrise. Yet Ógán went around to the walled-off yard and found workers sheltering beneath a rusty piece of corrugated steel, smoking. Raindrops daggered down like shiny coins. He made his way inside, industrial presses squeezing out white bed sheets and towels for the hospitality industry. The windows toward the front had been sealed with cardboard, giving the appearance that the factory wasn’t in use. This was an unscheduled nightshift.
Eimear was reaching with her red raw hands into the mangle, a huge, gaping black crusher of a thing that gripped the sheets and pressed them between solid rollers, wringing moisture out. The whistle ceased, the rollers stopped, but the mangle still pulsed with violet light. Life was sticky and didn’t want to leave. Ógán had learned death always leaves a residue.
Eimear tugged at a knotted sheet caught on the inner mechanism. The mangle cranked forward, trapping the woman’s hand before it whirred into life, dragging her towards the crushing rollers. Ógán swooped down and pecked the off button but the mangle was not deterred. The woman screamed but her co-workers did not hear her above the growling machine.
Ógán drove his beak into the power cable. Electricity sparked like fireworks, a wallop to his kidney that threw him off his feet. The whole facility went dark as Ógán stumbled onto his feet, beak scorched and sore.
Workers rushed to Eimear’s assistance—she was alive and uninjured, but as the power came back on, so too did the mangle. It had maimed countless people over the past two years, because, Ógán saw, there was a trapped soul within its machinery.
Ógán materialized inside the mangle, where the trapped soul was wedded to the mechanism. He gripped the soul in his beak and ripped. The soul split apart, most of its essence escaping into the ether. “You’ve been dead two years,” Ógán told the remains of the man.
“But just yesterday, I fell into that mangle.”
“Take me to your body,” Ógán commanded.
The mauled soul swept a hundred yards east to the Lagan River. There, weighted with rocks, his body lay hidden in the silt.
Ógán knifed the water and torpedoed the corpse, raising it to the surface. Somebody would find it. Somebody would bring the facility manager to justice. It was not his job to intervene and, taking to the sky corkscrewing with joy, he knew he had done the right thing.
But then, his wings seized and his wishbone froze in his chest. Ógán plummeted like a dead thing.
The Beak of Things To Come
A child’s hands cup him gently and he’s being lifted off the pavement. The world snaps into focus and the woman staring at him is Niamh. Her son, Riley, found Ógán’s twisted body on the pavement next to the Lagan while they were walking to school. She takes him into her hands and he meets her eyes. His heart quickens. He wants to kiss her, but he has witnessed the way she looks at Malachy, at their son—it was love.
Now her green eyes widen in fear.
The boy is strangely silent, when moments ago he chattered about how they needed to save wild animals. He’d been humming a magpie rhyme about a single magpie being bad luck.
Magpies are symbols of happiness in Chinese culture. Koreans believe they deliver good news. In the myths of Native Americans (Navajo, Blackfoot, Cheyenne), we’re their faithful allies.
A Particularly Difficult Death
Car tires screech. A horn blares.
Niamh sprints onto the road, her boy having taken the crossing without waiting for the traffic signal to change. He’s directly in the path of an oncoming car. She throws herself at Riley, shoving him aside so the car crushes into her. Ógán is still in her hand, both of them thrown forward, tumbling along the road. She’s staring at him, pleading with her eyes as her nose runs bloody. A wound at the back of her skull gapes. Niamh dies. Her soul separates from her body. Riley is running to her.
Ógán loves her too much to let her die. He summons his energy into her and before he blinks out of existence, Niamh sits up, uninjured.
An Interrupted Ending
There are no ends, just new beginnings. That’s how it works, according to The Boss.
He said something about giving everybody a choice but not everybody recognized an opportunity.
“In fact, most people believe there are strict rules forbidding them from intervening.” Funny the things people cling to. Misguided, obviously.
It was difficult for Ógán to grasp because he was still re-forming, but he knew the drill: once as a dead human, and now as a dead bird. He was laid out on a black leather couch, the walls lined with books. He tucked his wings behind his head, crossed his legs and stared at the white ceiling.
“Did you know I was going to do that?”
Freud removed his glasses and fogged the lens, cleaned them on his lapel, and said, “The question is would you have still done it had you known you would?”
“He makes a fair point,” The Boss said. “I guess it’s time you took him back, Ógán.”
Freud stood straight now, his body rigid. He muttered under his breath, hands held in a shooing off gesture, but by then Ógán was ushering him to the jump point.
“Why did I lose flight,” Ógán asked, “if I hadn’t done anything wrong?”
“Unresolved issues,” he replied. “We can get to the root of it with free association. I say a word and you say whatever comes into your mind.”
“You know I’m Irish, right? Those tricks don’t work on us.”
“But, your dreams, I can analyse your dreams. Do you dream of big black dogs?”
“Every magpie does.”
Freud pushed back, trying to escape. Just like they always did, terrified of making a mistake.
Ógán took him gently by the shoulder and shoved him through the portal.
Michael McGlade is an Irish writer with almost sixty short stories in journals such as Dark Moon Digest, Perihelion, Voluted Tales, SQ Mag, and the forthcoming Night Lights anthology by Geminid Publishing. He holds a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland. Represented by Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. Find out the latest news and views from him on McGladeWriting.com.
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