The Magpie Magician

The Magpie Magician

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A Short Story By Manelle Oliphant

I wove my way through the entranced crowd. “Entranced” is what Mr. Marlowe called their state of mind at this point in the show. He liked big words. Nobody in the crowd noticed me. They never did. He made sure they didn’t.

Mr. Marlowe’s voice boomed over our heads. “And now, gentle folk and friends, it is time for me to leave you!”

The crowd wilted. They hated it when the show ended.

I slid between two corpulent men who smelled like old fish so I would be in place when he finished.

“I only ask, if you’ve enjoyed yourselves today please show your appreciation in the usual manner.” Marlowe pulled his hat from his head and turned it upside down. He nodded at it meaningfully and looked at the crowd. They chuckled. That’s when, as magpies flew around him, Marlowe the Magician disappeared in a puff of smoke. The lone hat was all that remained on the portable stage.

The crowd gasped and clapped. Many made their way forward to drop a few pennies in the hat.

I waited with the birds. From our pre-arranged spot, we made sure no one tried to steal anything. Once the crowd dispersed I picked up the hat. Coins chinked inside. It sounded like it hadn’t been a bad day, not a great day either. But these coins didn’t actually matter. I poured the money into a small purse and tapped the hat three times with the pointer finger on my right hand. Then set it back on the stage.

The hat melted downward and the stage shrunk, as they became a common looking carpetbag. I scooped it up with a small grunt; stages are rather heavy in my experience. Then I trotted around the nearest building into a small alley. It smelled like rotten meat and old spinach.

Mr. Marlowe waited halfway down behind a large rectangular rubbish bin. When I arrived he held out his hand. I placed the purse in it. He shook it and his mouth twitched. He’d most likely made the same assessment I had, not a bad day but not great either. He turned toward the alley’s center, placed the open purse on his flat palm and stretched out his arm, a signal for the birds.

Magpies flew toward us from every direction. One by one they dropped coins into the purse. Each coin gleamed with a rainbow of colors. When they dropped into the purse it sounded like jingle bells.

The magpies collected each coin from the crowd’s expressions, possessions, and gestures. When the magician exclaimed, “Hold your loved ones safe,” who looked at whom? When Marlowe talked about the satisfaction of a day’s hard work, who cheered and who grumbled? Who held their money tight and didn’t trust others? All these little things gave away the people’s thoughts, and Mr. Marlowe had trained the birds to gather them up.

There were lots of coins today. Mr. Marlowe grinned. This crowd’s secrets now belonged to the Magpie Magician.

When the purse was full, Mr. Marlowe cinched it tight and strode toward the back of the alley. “Home now, Girl.”

I scrambled after him with the carpetbag in my arms. “Girl” is what he called me, “Girl”, or “the girl”, or “the child”. I didn’t know my name or if I even had one. I didn’t know his real name either, it was one of his secrets. Names, he told me, gave you power over a person.

Would knowing my name give me more power over me? I imagined it would. I wanted the power to say to myself, “You can do hard things. You’re so-and-so and that means… well something.” I didn’t know what that something would be, but if I knew my name then I felt things would be different. 

Well, anyhow, Mr. Marlowe had piles and piles of secrets and he only trusted me with one, the location of home. To get there and get inside you must follow a very specific route.

1. Left at the north corner of the candle factory.

2. Right three times around Betty’s Fishery and Restaurant.

3. Straight on until you find the abandoned cigar shop.

4. Stand directly under the “I” as you enter the building.

5. Turn widdershins as you walk through the door.

If I managed it, the carpeted oak stairs would appear in front of me and I was home. If I messed up somewhere, I had to go back to the candle factory and start again. That hadn’t happened for about a year. A fact I was quite proud of. Mr. Marlowe never got it wrong of course.

The birds knew another method to find the house. Maybe they could see through magic because they never took our route, but, they were always perched in the window and on the ceiling’s beams when we got home.

I followed Mr. Marlowe up the stairs and plopped the carpetbag by the door. I stretched my aching arms, grateful to be home. I was so preoccupied by this task that I didn’t notice right away we had a visitor.

“How did you get in?” It was Mr. Marlowe’s angry voice.

A tall, thin woman sat in Mr. Marlowe’s favorite chair, the red one by the fireplace with the high back. She wore a smart navy walking dress. Her plumed hat matched the dress. She obviously had a lot of money.

She stood up. “It took work to figure it out. The doorway trick was the hardest part but when one is determined…” Her voice rolled out into the room like honey. It made me want to fall asleep, or wash my hands. I couldn’t decide.

Mr. Marlowe didn’t answer right away. He stood with his jaw clenched. In my case this look was usually followed by a kick to my rear and a, “Get out of here.” I didn’t think this lady would get the same treatment.

The woman’s head tilted and she smiled, amused. “Is this how you treat all your guests?”

I looked at Mr. Marlowe. “I don’t have guests.” His voice sounded flat.

“What about the people I’ve seen coming and going downstairs?”

“Those aren’t guests. They are clients. Neither do they know where I live.”

The woman smiled again. “I am aware. I’ve questioned many of them. They have no idea you own this building and that it looks abandoned by design. Imagine if they knew all their secrets were stored right above their heads.” She stepped up to Mr. Marlowe and pulled the purse from his pocket. He scowled but didn’t stop her. She loosened the strings and put her gray-gloved hand inside.

She pulled out one of the special coins and held it toward the light. On it’s surface was a moving picture of a teenage girl, not much older than me. She walked through the market, made sure no one was looking and pocketed a few apples from a fruit stand. It was a pretty good secret but not one Mr. Marlowe could make much money with. He would probably discard it. When the image started to repeat our guest dropped the coin back in the purse. She stirred the coins around with her hand and the sound of bells filled the air. “It looks as if it was a good day.”

The sound made the magpies shift above us.

She closed the purse and tossed it back to Mr. Marlowe. She took her seat and motioned toward the other chair. My chair. It was smaller, made of wood, and had a cushion.

I’d never seen Mr. Marlowe sit there before, but he sat. “What do you want?”

“Mr. Marlowe, you can’t have imagined– after being in business for many years— that you wouldn’t one day have the pleasure of being blackmailed yourself.”  She paused. He glowered. “Why don’t you have your girl make some tea?” she emphasized the word your and looked at me for longer than normal. “It will make our chat more interesting.”

Not knowing what to do, I hadn’t yet moved from the entrance. Mr. Marlowe nodded at me. I trotted across the room toward the kitchen. Mr. Marlowe and the guest watched me go. I got the idea they waited for me to leave the room before the conversation began in earnest. I didn’t mind. It was easy to hear from the kitchen.

Quiet as a cat I filled the teakettle. I placed it on the ever-burning stove — a spell Mr. Marlowe invented before my memory began — and tiptoed to the door.

“Mr. Marlowe, last time we met you knew my deepest secret and held all the power.” It was the woman’s voice. “I know you think this is a game at which you can’t lose, but let me assure you, you are about to.”

“Lady Parish, I still know your father’s real name, and your less than savory beginnings. How have things changed?” I could picture Mr. Marlowe in my mind. He would be sitting with his back straight and hands steepled in front of his heart.

“Things have changed because I know your deepest secrets, and I plan to use them to get mine back.”

“My secrets are well protected. Even the child doesn’t know them.”

“So you say.”

The teakettle whistled. Before I could take care of it, a gloved hand covered my mouth, and another circled my waist. Whoever held me was quite large. I couldn’t move nor could anyone hear my muffled screams.

The man hauled me toward the stove and knocked the teakettle from it with his elbow. The whistling stopped. He kicked the door open so he could pull me into the sitting room. He dragged me forward and positioned us next to the lady.

As we entered I heard the lady say. “I know two of your most crucial secrets.”

Mr. Marlowe sat rigid. He glanced at me and away again. “If you think the girl is my secret ,think again. Toss her in the river for all I care.”

“Now, Mr. Marlowe, I’m not a stupid woman. Most of us who’ve dealt with you have guessed the child is your daughter. That’s not a secret. I also know you love her, though you pretend not to. But, most important, I know her name. Your facade of nonchalance won’t work today. If you want her back in a similar condition —that is to say, alive— I recommend you retrieve my secret.”

Mr. Marlowe’s hand tightened around the chair’s arms. “You said you know two secrets about me?” 

“Yes. Birth records are useful when one needs information like a father’s name. Mr. Marshall.”

Mr. Marlowe turned a sort of marshmallow color. “What do you plan to do with this information?”

“I’m going to use it of course.” The woman turned toward me. “Miss Magpie Marshall, go sit in the window with the birds.” She flicked her left pointer finger. Pressure built behind my ears. The man holding me let go and I walked to the window. I scrambled up and sat. My bum hung out over the street and my feet dangled into the room.

“Magpie come.” Mr. Marlowe said. I felt pressure again but this time is was different. It was more familiar, something I felt every day. I moved to climb down.

“Magpie stop” said the woman.

I stopped.

I peered over my shoulder. Mr. Marlowe had concealed our living quarters with magic. Thus, it looked like I floated three stories above the road in nothing but air. I closed my eyes and turned back around.

My brain reeled. I’d often heard Mr. Marlowe talk to and command the birds. I’d never thought about it as anything other than that. As I sat in the window with my backside dangling over the road things clicked into place.

1. When Mr. Marlowe commanded I felt the need to do what he said but it was a familiar sort of feeling. Not the way I felt when the woman did it. Thus, Mr. Marlowe had done it before, many times. Maybe from the day I was born, if he was my father like the lady said.

2. Mr. Marlowe commanded using the word “birds” and the word “magpie”. I thought he always meant the birds but he must have also meant me.

I watched the two magicians. I couldn’t see Mr. Marlowe’s face but his hand twitched. It was an odd sort of movement that looked familiar. He’d extended his pinky and ring finger and his hand flicked from side to side. Was he attempting a spell?

The woman continued to talk. “Not teaching the girl her own name gave you a lot of power over her. But, it has also left her vulnerable to attack from others like me. She can’t counteract me. Give me my secret and I won’t command her to pitch herself out the window.”

Mr. Marlowe’s hand still moved back and forth. “She knows her name now.”

“Well it’s too bad she doesn’t know how to save herself isn’t it?”

I rolled Mr. Marlowe’s words around in my mind. He was right. I knew my name.

3. My name is Magpie Marshall.

Mr. Marlowe lunged toward me.

The woman made a gesture with her hands. “Oliver Marshall freeze!”

Mr. Marlowe stopped. Through frozen lips he muttered. “I know my own name. You can’t control me for long.”

“Long enough, since you can’t use your hands. Magpie turn around.”

That pressure came again. I decided not to do what the lady said. I gripped the window frame and tried to scoot forward into the room. My name is Magpie Marshall. My name is Magpie Marshall. The pressure grew stronger. I gritted my teeth. It felt like an elephant danced on my head. I gave up and turned around. The pressure eased. Now, I stared at my feet and down, down, down, to the graveled road three stories below. It didn’t look like a comfortable landing.

“Now, Mr. Marshall please retrieve my secret.” 

The room was silent for a moment. Was Mr. Marlowe thinking?  Or maybe he waited for the woman to release him from the spell?

“Birds,” said Mr. Marlowe’s voice. I knew he’d also done a hand motion. Magic often took both.

The sound of bells followed beating magpie wings and Mr. Marlowe’s voice. “Here you are. Release the gir–.”

“Oliver Marshall freeze.” I imagined the woman taking the secret and examining it to see that it was hers. “I would say it was lovely doing business with you, but it wasn’t. You’ve put me through years of misery. Now I’ll return the favor. Magpie Marshall, jump.”

The pressure built again as I clung to the window. My name is Magpie Marshall. My name is Magpie Marshall. Like before the pressure became intolerable. I was going to fall because I didn’t know enough about magic! I pushed against the window frame, but I also wanted to let go and jump. My name is Magpie Marshall. How could I not know? I’ve lived with a magician my whole life. Magpie Marshall. Magpie Marshall…that’s when one more thing clicked into place.

4. Mr. Marlowe had shown me the way to save myself.

With one hand I pushed against the window frame so I wouldn’t fall. With the other I let go of the window, extended my pinky and ring finger and flicked my hand from side to side. Exactly as I’d seen Mr. Marlowe do earlier.  I shouted, “I’m Magpie Marshall and I won’t jump!”

The pressure eased. My straining hand pushed me backward. I fell into the room on my bum.

I stood and looked around. Mr. Marlowe was still frozen. The woman stared at me dumbfounded. Her thug looked bored.

I spread my arms out wide, the way I’d seen Mr. Marlowe do many times. “Birds!”   

The birds flew toward our unwanted guests and chased them out the door in a fluttering cloud of black feathers.

I took a deep breath. I’d learned a few things growing up in a magician’s house.

Mr. Marlowe and I locked eyes. A strange mix of emotions trembled through me.

1. I’d believed I was an orphan but I wasn’t. That made me want to learn more.

2. He’d lied to me and controlled me my whole life. That made me want to punch his gut and give his favorite shoes to a stray dog.

3. I’d almost died but I was alive. That made me want to cry with relief.

I took a breath instead and thought. You can do hard things. You’re Magpie Marshall and that means you have the power to save yourself.

Mr. Marlowe came unstuck and tumbled forward before he caught his balance. “Countering that spell is a beast. I hate doing magic without my hands.” He paused looked around the house and took a deep breath. “Since she knows our names it’s best if we don’t stay.”

The others he’d blackmailed would come wanting their secrets returned as well.

Mr. Marlowe took a breath and kept talking in his abrupt way. “Besides, its time you meet your grandparents. They live in the country. It should be safe there for a while.”

“Your parents?”

“No, your mother’s.”

I nodded. All this new info—the knowledge of who I was— would take time to sink in. “Why am I called Magpie?”

“It was your mother’s choice. She loved magpies. Thought they were smart.”

I nodded. There was nothing else to say.

“You are you know.”

I looked back at him. “Excuse me?”

“You’re smart. Your mother was right. I hoped you’d figure out the counter spell and you did.”

“Ok.” That was something, I guess, but it would have been better not to be forced at the outset. He seemed like a different person now. Or was it me that was different? I knew who I was now. I had a name, an unsavory father, and somewhere, grandparents.  Not all this new knowledge was happy but it was something. Something was better than the nothing I had before.

“Gather up any things you want. The birds will be back soon. We’ll leave when they arrive.”

I looked around the house. It was the only one I could remember living in and I wasn’t sure if I would like to leave. You can do hard things. You’re Magpie Marshall and that means you have the power to move on. Right now, I wanted to meet my grandparents. Thus, that’s what I would choose to do. I turned away from Mr. Marlowe and walked to my bedroom to pack.

The End

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Manelle is a professional illustrator and writer. She's illustrated over ten children's books and she loves stories. When she reads a novel it becomes impossible to get anything else done until the end of the story.

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