Ian had visited his great uncle Sylvester many times as a young boy. His parents would make a day of it, driving their green Austin Ten along country lanes until they reached the old man’s home. The drive seemed forever in those days. Later, he realized that it took less than an hour.
Ian recalled his happy past with longing. His parents were young and spirited. The journeys to visit Uncle Sy were fun. They’d have sing-alongs in the car to pass the time. In the summer, they’d stop at a sea-side village on the way home for a dish of ice cream, which they would eat on a pebbly beach before wading into the chilly ocean up to their ankles. They seemed to laugh all the time on those journeys. Even odd Uncle Sy could not hamper their joy.
As his twelfth birthday approached, Ian was asked how he would like to celebrate. Without hesitation, he exclaimed that the best day would be a visit to Uncle Sy. When asked whether he wouldn’t prefer to have a party or take in a film, Ian shook his head and thanked his parents. He would rather visit Uncle Sy. His parents tried to explain that Ian’s birthday was in October and that both the weather and the lanes could make the drive unpleasant. Ian didn’t care and helped his parents understand that a visit to Uncle Sy’s was the only celebration that would make him happy.
“We haven’t been to visit Uncle Sy since spring,” Ian pleaded. “We missed the summer completely!”
Ian’s parents conceded, reminding him that a sea-side stop would not be possible, given the time of year.
His parents had been correct, of course. That October, the weather was particularly foul. As the family car jostled in the muddy ruts of the lanes, their heads bobbed constantly. Once, the car stuck fast in the mud and he and his father had to jump out and push while his mother took over the steering wheel and accelerated until the tires popped free of the muck. Afterwards, they laughed at the mud spatters on their faces and clothes and were glad that his mother had tossed in their Wellies at the last minute. Otherwise, their good shoes would have been ruined. When they arrived at Uncle Sy’s house, his father hosed down their rubber boots outside the woodshed, while his mother found some towels and cleaned up the mud spatters.
Uncle Sy had been in rare form for that day, telling them an assortment of colourful stories, most involving his neighbours, while they drank tea and ate birthday cake. To their surprise, right in the middle of the cake-eating, Uncle Sy walked over to the only window in his sitting room and opened it wide. Moments later, a great black bird with a white belly swooped into the window frame and perched on the ledge.
In response to the arrival of the lone magpie, Ian and his parents quickly saluted to show their respect, lest the bird bring them ill-will. She squawked loudly as if to taunt them. Then she did something amazing: she flitted across the sitting room and landed on Uncle Sy’s outstretched fist, her long tail feathers reaching the floor.
“This is Maggie,” Uncle Sy said. “She fell out of her nest – just over by the shed – when she was learning to fly. I was washing up and I heard such a great hullaballoo that I had to look into it. I imagine that a creature tried to get at her, and it likely ran when it heard my comin’.” He shook his head. “There was her poor mother all beaten up and dying. I had to wring her neck to put her out of her misery. Her father was no where’s to be seen, and the nest was empty. But, little Maggie here . . .” He stroked her breast. “Well, she was just fine, so I picked her up and brought her inside. She’s been with me ever since. Although, she does prefer the outdoors and only drops in for a visit if I leave a door or a window open. Unless she has something to say. Now that’s another story. She can be rather determined.”
“Hello!” Maggie said, as if on cue, her loud voice stunning the guests. “Hello, my darling!” she said again, gently nudging Uncle Sy’s hand with her beak, and rubbing her head against his chest. Uncle Sy stroked her crown with his knuckle. “Hello, my darling,” he whispered in return.
“Uncle,” Ian’s father said, “are you not concerned that she will bring you bad luck?”
“Nah,” Uncle Sy said. “Those superstitions are all stuff and nonsense. She’s just a clever bird and means harm to no one.”
Maggie fluttered her wings and hop-flew to the back of the chair on which Ian’s mother sat. She squawked, twisting her head left and right, her beady eyes focussed on the woman’s hat. Then she took the shimmering stone of the hat pin in her beak and tugged. It was Ian’s mother’s turn to squawk as she raised her hand to hold her hat fast.
“You’d best remove your hat,” Uncle Sy said, chuckling. “She wants your shiny hat pin.”
Ian’s mother quickly removed the hat and stuck the pin inside. When Maggie realized she couldn’t have the stone, she bobbed up and down, squawked at Ian’s mother, and flew out the window.
“You’re a braver man than me,” Ian’s father said. “I wouldn’t have a messenger of evil delivering omens to my home.”
“Tsk-tsk,” Uncle Sy said. “She’s been a true friend to me this past while. I can talk to her.” He chuckled again. “Sometimes, she replies. She has a way of making her thoughts known.”
Once Ian’s mother had cleared away the dishes, his father announced that they should be on their way.
“The roads are a mess, and I don’t want to be stuck in the mud again.” He looked through the window at the imposing sky. “Thunder clouds are coming this way.”
Maggie sat on the peak of the roof squawking and bobbing madly, as the family opened the doors of the car. Uncle Sy gazed up at her.
“Maggie, girl, come down and say farewell to our guests.” He held out his fist and she swooped down, landing gently. She stagger-walked, up and down Uncle Sy’s arm, bobbing and squawking. “Odd,” Uncle Sy said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was worried.”
Ian’s father placed a foot in the car and began to lower himself to the seat. Maggie flew from Uncle Sy’s arm and circled him, flapping her wings. The man raised his arms in defence. She landed on his raised forearm and squawked several times then flew to Ian and perched on his shoulder, nuzzling his ear.
“Very odd behaviour, Maggie girl,” Uncle Sy said, walking toward Ian and tussling his hair. “She likes you, son!”
Ian raised his hand and hesitantly stroked her breast with his knuckle. Maggie rolled her beak along his cheek as if to kiss him, emitting a soft sound that sounded affectionate.
“She’s lovely,” Ian whispered, awestruck.
“Ian!” his father snapped. “Get in the car before she jinxes our journey.”
“She’s just a bird,” Uncle Sy said, offering his fist to Maggie.
Maggie looked at Ian twisting her head left and right, then hopped onto the offered fist. Her black eyes seemed fixed on Ian as he climbed into the car.
“Come back!” Maggie called; her voice lost in the revving of the Austin’s motor. “Come back!”
When Ian’s father backed the vehicle out of the drive and into the lane, Maggie took flight and circled the car, cawing insistently.
“She doesn’t want us to leave,” Ian said, turning to wave farewell to Uncle Sy through the back window.
“Turn around and sit down,” Ian’s father snapped again. “The sooner we get away from that harbinger of bad news, the better.”
Ian felt the car accelerate. He watched Maggie through the windows until she disappeared from view.
“Must you drive so fast?” Ian’s mother asked.
“I want to get home before the rain starts,” his father replied. “The way those clouds are roiling, the rain could be heavy.”
“I don’t know that Maggie’s bad,” Ian’s mother said a few minutes later, as if she’d been contemplating the afternoon. “It seems to me that she didn’t want us to go. As if she was trying to tell us not to.” She shook her head, patting the hat pinned to her hair. “Perhaps, she was only after my hat pin after all!”
In that moment, the car lurched forcing mother and son to brace themselves.
“Dear, really, must you drive so fast?”
Ian’s father didn’t answer.
A few miles further along, menacing clouds consumed the remaining daylight. Half-penny sized plops of rain banged on the car and filled the ruts with water. A loud clap of thunder startled them. Its lightning companion slashed the road ahead of them, illuminating a darting red deer. Ian’s father swerved, losing control when the tires of the speeding vehicle bounced out of the muddy ruts.
The Austin catapulted into the forest that ran alongside the roadway. Ian watched through the front window screen as the airborne vehicle crashed through shrubbery, bouncing wildly until its left headlight collided with the thick trunk of an oak tree. In the next instant, Ian felt his body hurl into the side window and slide to the roof. He felt the car twice roll side-over-side and come to an abrupt halt. Through a window, he saw the Austin’s nose embedded in the silt of a fast-moving stream.
In the stillness that followed, Ian felt for a throbbing pain above his right eye and saw blood on his hand when he pulled it away. He scrambled onto his knees.
“Mother! Father!” he cried, but they didn’t answer. He shook their shoulders trying to stir them, but neither moved. He saw the glassy shimmer of water creeping into the nose of the car, rising quickly.
“I must get help,” he muttered, panic settling into his bones. As his brain fought to find clarity, he thought he heard squawking – Maggie’s squawking.
“Maggie!” he cried, lowering the back window.
When he tried to crawl through the open window, the car shifted on the unstable bank, throwing him back into the seat. He grabbed the window frame and pulled himself up again, tumbling through the opening and into the oozing mud. Maggie squawked at him from her perch on an upturned tire, as if to encourage him. She flew toward him, circling. Then, she flew toward the road, and back to him. After repeating her pattern twice more, Ian realized that she wanted him to follow her.
“You’re right, Maggie,” he said. “We must get help!”
Ian staggered after Maggie, toward a dark house a few yards along the lane. A tall hedgerow encircled the property, casting ominous shadows in the yard. He pushed open a rusty gate, revealing a path that led to an unlit portico.
“Hello!” Ian called banging on the door. “Hello! Please! I need help! There’s been an accident! My parents are hurt!” He continued to bang until light flickered through a window.
“Who is it?” a voice demanded. Ian shouted his plea for help again. The door creaked open, revealing a miniature wrinkled face haloed in snow-white hair. A gnarled hand beckoned him inside.
“My husband is speaking with the police,” the elderly woman said. “Please come in.”
Maggie squawked from a branch above Ian’s head. When he looked up, she twisted her head from side to side, as if to warn against entering the house. Her black eyes gleamed in the light from the doorway.
“I can’t,” Ian replied, raising his hand to his injured temple. His head pounded. “I’m going back. I’m worried about my parents.”
“As you wish, young man,” an elderly gentleman answered. “I’ve called the police. Help is on the way. What were you folks thinking driving in this foul weather?”
“We were visiting my great uncle Sy,” Ian replied. “It’s my birthday and I wanted to spend it with him.” Ian’s eyes widened with realization, and tears sprang forth. “This is my fault! I insisted that we visit! If I had just gone to the films like they asked, this wouldn’t have happened.” Ian lost control and burst into sobs.
“Now, now,” said the elderly woman, extending an arm as if to invite him inside. “It’s not your fault. These things happen. Come. I’ll make us some tea. You must be chilled.”
From her perch on the tree, Maggie began bobbing and squawking again.
“I’d better not,” Ian said, swiping at his tears. “I need to get back to the car.” Remembering his manners, he thanked them and asked whether they might know his uncle.
“Yes, we do,” the woman said. “Shall we call him for you? Tell him what’s happened?”
“Yes, please,” Ian replied.
He scurried along the path, through the gate and down the lane. As he approached the point at which the car had left the road, bright lights came toward him. He waved them to a halt and explained to a policeman what had happened. He watched as two policemen and ambulance attendants hastened down the embankment. Then, he stood in the lane hugging himself to still his shivers and waited. Maggie sat on a branch near his shoulder, watching.
To Ian, it seemed a long time before one of the policemen returned to the lane. A minute later, the two shielded their eyes to the bright headlights of Uncle Sy’s rusty green lorry, rolling to a stop at the side of the lane. The old man jumped out and ran toward Ian. Maggie squawked a greeting.
“What’s happened here?” Uncle Sy exclaimed.
The policeman took command of the conversation, informing Ian and his uncle that Ian’s father was dead, and that the medic advised his mother may not survive her injuries. As Ian absorbed the shock of the news, his elder wrapped great arms around him, cocooning him in warmth and safety. Ian sobbed uncontrollably. Tears trickled down Uncle Sy’s cheeks.
“Farewell!” Maggie squawked from a nearby perch. “Farewell!” she said again, lowering her head, as if in mourning.
“They’re coming up now,” the policeman said, spying movement on the bank. “The boy shouldn’t be here.”
“Come,” Uncle Sy said, turning Ian toward his truck.
“No!” Ian shouted. “I can’t leave them!”
“Son,” the officer said, “they’re in pretty rough shape. Go with your uncle. Tomorrow, he can bring you to the station.”
“Home!” Maggie said, hoping on the perch.
Uncle Sy helped Ian into the truck and headed back along the mud-slicked lane. Maggie flew ahead of the lorry, the white of her wings gleaming in the headlight rays. Ian snuggled into his uncle’s shoulder, weary with sorrow.
“Look, son,” Uncle Sy said, his voice weighed with worry and sadness, “Maggie’s leading us home.”