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Prose

Mince Meat for Magpies

24 October 2018

I watch as the bus coughs black and bunny-hops back onto the road. Oliver is sitting in his ute on the other side of the street, looking on as I manhandle my two suitcases onto the bitumen. Dusk is falling, and my bags are heavy. I dawdle across the road.

“Oliver!”

He raises his hands, shrugs. I lose my grip on the handle of the larger suitcase and let it drop across the middle lines.

“Help me!”

He rolls his eyes and gets out of his vehicle. “God, you’re hopeless.”

I leave the larger suitcase and take the little one to the ute. “No, I’m just weak.”

Oliver picks up the suitcase from where I’ve left it in the middle of the road. He swings it casually by his side and tosses it into the tray. I struggle with the little one.

“God, just get in the ute.” He takes the bag from me. I pass him my backpack. He throws it.

The local radio is playing. I change it before Oliver folds himself into the driver’s seat. He changes it back without comment.

“Did Mum leave a note?”

“Yep.”

“Can you read what it says?”

“Nope.”

Oliver drives us home, spinning out in the gravel and fishtailing up the driveway. The dogs bark from their kennels on the deck. We get out of the ute and Oliver walks towards the house. I stand beside the ute staring at my jumbled bags. Oliver stops on the lawn and exclaims again, “God!” He carries my bags inside.

We lean over the island bench and decipher Mum’s handwriting:

Water inside plants Mon, Thurs, Fri

Wash school uniform Wed, Sun

Water outside pot plants twice a week

Take dogs for walk morning + night

Cat gets wet food every 2nd night. Dry food other nights. No breakfast.

And in Dad’s handwriting underneath:

Mince meat for magpies.

“I thought the magpie died?”

Oliver makes himself a Milo. “It did. I found it drowned in the pool.”

“How’d you know it was the magpie?”

Oliver shrugs as he stirs the Milo. “Only a pet magpie would drown in a pool.”

He takes the Milo over to the fireplace where the grey cat is stretched asleep. He leaves the Milo tin open, the milk on the bench. I follow him and sink into an armchair.

“What magpies is Dad feeding now?”

Oliver looks at me over his glass. “All of them.”

 

The next morning, Oliver stands in the kitchen in his school uniform, shaking a box of grey powder into a mixing bowl.

“Protein powder? Bulking up?”

He frowns. “No, it’s magpie mix.”

“What’s magpie mix?”

Oliver plunges his hands into the bowl and squelches the meat through his fingers. “I don’t know, Dad mixes it with the mince meat.”

I make coffee as Oliver rolls the mince meat into spheres between his palms. “Keep the cat inside.”

I scoop the complaining cat into my arms and cradle it like a baby. Oliver stands outside the kitchen door, throwing the mince meat balls out onto the lawn. One magpie appears, then two, three, swooping in on the easy breakfast. More magpies swoop from the sky until the lawn is dotted with them. Oliver throws the last ball and comes inside.

“Are you serious?” I say, staring out at the magpies.

“Yeah?”

“That’s a lot of magpies. I mean, that’s way too many magpies.”

 

I text Oliver to bring Indian home for dinner. Lentil curry + eggplant curry + naan + rice + whatever you want. Pls.

He texts back, Which Indian place?

Whichever is better of the two.

I shut the shop a few minutes early and take the dogs for a walk when I get home. Archer barks and Mabel jiggles with excitement. A car comes careening up the dirt road, kicking up dust.

I wait till it settles and walk home. Oliver is reheating the take-away container by container.

“Why don’t you heat them all up at once?”

Oliver slams the microwave door shut. “God, that’s not how microwaves work.” He presses start and the microwave whirrs. “It obviously takes longer for them to heat up that way.”

“Okay. Do you want Coke?”

“Yeah.”

I run across the lawn to the shed, ramming my hip against the door to get it open. I collect six cans from the shed fridge so I won’t have to come back for a while. I cradle the cold cans against my chest and pull the shed door shut behind me with a spare finger. Walking back across the lawn, a shiver goes down my spine and my thighs go tight with fear. I turn around, certain I am being watched. But it’s only Dad’s car and Oliver’s ute parked side by side. Somewhere down the paddock, a fox barks in a gully. The gum tree at the gate rattles its leaves. I dart back to the house, breathless.

 

“NOOOOOO.”

I pull out my earphones, turn towards the kitchen.

“NOOOOOO.”

I pause my music and save my essay. “Oliver?” I leave my laptop on the coffee table. “What’s wrong?”

Oliver is standing in front of the open freezer, clutching a container of mince meat. “Did you buy this?” He waves the frozen meat at me. I take a step back.

“No.”

Oliver slams the container on the island bench. “God!”

“What?”

“It’s $4 mince. It’s so shit.”

I pick up the mince in its home-brand packaging. The $4 is encased in a yellow star.

“Why would Dad want me to eat shit mince?”

The freezer starts to beep, alerting us to its open door. I search through the compartments and find another block of mince. The sticker is red and says $16. I slam it beside the $4 mince.

“The cheap one is obviously for the magpies,” I say, putting it back in the freezer. “God!”

I go back to my essay and Oliver makes himself a shepherd’s pie.

 

The cat weaves itself around my legs as I make coffee. The coffee beans I brought with me from Melbourne are starting to run low.

“Watch out,” I say to the cat, as I cut open a new carton of soy milk and get the dairy milk out of the fridge for Oliver’s coffee. “I’ll step on you.”

The cat meows, offended, and goes to sit beside the door.

“You can’t go outside, not until Oliver feeds the—”

Outside the glass door is a neat row of magpies, staring in at me. I frown. The toaster pops. I look away from their beady glares and jolt in surprise. The windowsills are lined with magpies. Magpie after magpie after magpie. Even young ones, with their soft grey bellies. A big magpie on the windowsill closest to the kitchen sink pecks the glass once. I try to remember the last time we fed them.

“Oliver?”

“What?” he calls from somewhere deeper in the house.

“Have you been feeding the magpies?”

Silence.

“Oliver?”

“No, have you?”

He wanders into the kitchen, combing his wet hair.

“What the heck?”

I pass him his coffee. “I know. Can you feed them?”

“There’s no mince defrosted. I’ll feed them tomorrow.”

“Sure, okay.”

We stand in the kitchen and drink coffee, trying to avoid eye contact with the magpies. Oliver shakes his head. “Nope, I’m going to drink this in my bedroom.”

He shouts and immediately returns. “They’re watching from my bedroom window as well.”

 

That night, while we are eating dinner, there is a scratching on the roof.

“Possums?” I drink from my glass of water. We’ve run out of Coke.

Oliver frowns. The scratching gets louder, like a thousand tiny feet scampering. “That’s not possums.”

We both push our chairs out hastily and head outside. Oliver brings a torch. I fold my arms over my chest as my teeth start to chatter in the cold. Oliver shines the torch onto the roof.

“God.”

The roof is swarming with magpies, a mass of black and white and glints of beak. They ruffle their feathers under the torchlight. Oliver picks up a football he left on the lawn and tosses it onto the roof. It clangs on the corrugated iron but the magpies aren’t spooked. They stare down at us silently.

“I’m Skyping Dad.”

Oliver follows me inside and we spend 15 minutes attempting to find a strong enough Wi-Fi signal. Dad’s face blurs onto the screen.

“Dad?”

“Look where we are!” He flips his phone camera so we can see a pixelated image of two pints of Guinness on a bar.

“Cool pub, Dad. So, Oliver forgot to feed the magpies—”

The image of the beers drops out. We call again, but the internet isn’t strong enough. The scratching on the roof gets louder.

 

Oliver takes the dogs for a walk in the morning. I defrost the packet of $4 mince in the microwave and make coffee. Oliver comes sprinting down the driveway, the dogs racing in front of him in a panic. He throws open the front door and the dogs skitter in around his feet. The cat hisses under the kitchen table as the dogs bark wildly.

Oliver has a line of blood trekking down the side of his face. “They were waiting for me at the gate.”

“What, who were?”

“The magpies.”

I pass him a clean tea towel and he presses it against the cut on his forehead. I frown. His blonde hair is slowly turning red. I push him into a chair at the table and search through his hair. His scalp is covered in tiny cuts.

“Oh shit, Ollie. They got you good.”

I hastily mix the magpie powder in with the mince and ball it in the palm of my hands. Not daring to leave the safety of the house, I stand at the back door and lob them onto the lawn. The scratching on the roof ceases as the magpies descend on the mince. But the number of magpies has grown so substantially that there is barely a beakful for each bird. I shut the door. The magpies snap their heads around to watch me.

I get ready for work, shutting the frosted bathroom window so the magpie on the windowsill can’t see me brush my teeth. Oliver paces the house, tapping on the windows and glass doors, but the magpies don’t budge.

“How are you going to make it to the car?” he asks.

I look at the car, parked on the other side of the lawn. “I’ll make a run for it.”

“Here.” Oliver places his Akubra on my head. “And wear sunglasses so they can’t get at your eyes.”

“Okay.” I collect the car keys and sunglasses.

“You ready?” Oliver has his hand on the door handle. I nod. He opens the door and I dash outside into a whirlwind of feathers and beaks and scratching feet. A magpie flies straight at my chest and collides with a thump. I gasp in pain but manage to make it into the car. I look back at the house. Oliver is standing behind the glass door, his left hand raised in a forlorn wave.

I turn the car on. All the magpies return to their positions staking out the house, except for one, which stands on my windscreen wipers. It cocks its head to the side and begins to peck. I panic and flip the wipers on. The magpie doesn’t budge. It rides up and down, up and down, its beak screeching against the glass like fingernails down a chalkboard.

 

While I’m at work, Oliver calls Dad and Dad messages me.

O says the magpies are bad. He wants to shoot to spook them off. Don’t let him.

Okay, I reply.

It would be like shooting at your siblings.

I don’t respond, but I screenshot the conversation and send it to Oliver. He sends me a photo of his rifle lying on the kitchen table.

Don’t.

Too late.

When I get home I expect to see carnage, but the magpies are still circling the house and Oliver is pacing inside.

“I shot into the sky all afternoon, but it didn’t spook them at all.”

“You didn’t shoot at them?”

“No, Dad loves them too much.”

We cook dinner and I stare out the kitchen windows. The darkness shifts and moves, heavy with magpies. I heap mashed potato onto plates and turn the stovetop off.

“Um, Alaina?”

I turn from draining the peas. Oliver is pointing at the wood fired heater in the lounge room. The soot is stirring.

“Is that a—”

The magpie flaps its wings in the heater and knocks into the glass door. I drop the colander. Peas scatter across the kitchen floor.

“How do we get it out of there without it killing us? How did it even get down the chimney?”

With a flurry of feathers, another magpie drops out of the chimney into the fireplace. They both start bumping in sync against the glass. The handle to the heater rattles. I flick through the calendar on the bench. Three more days till Mum and Dad return. We won’t survive another three days if the magpies infiltrate the house.

“I think we should leave.”

Oliver nods. He his holding the potato masher tight in his fist. Another magpie is flapping in the fireplace. The handle is shaking.

“Do you reckon we have time to pack some—”

The heater door bursts open and the magpies reel out, spouting soot. Oliver and I scream. Oliver bats at the birds with the potato masher. We scramble towards the front door, arms folded over our heads, scattering peas.

“The cat!” I glance towards the lounge where the cat is usually sprawled in the sun.

“She’s outside!” Oliver yells back as he opens the front door. A wave of magpies swamps us. The air is alive with them.

“C’mon!” Oliver grabs my hand and drags me across the deck. We run. I can hear him whistling for the dogs to follow. We sprint across the lawn. The cloud of magpies thins. Oliver checks both the cars but the keys are in the house in the coin bowl. I look back at the house—it is filled with birds, like an overpopulated aviary in a park. They are tearing apart the furniture, flying madly into the pendant lights. Somehow they’ve got the fridge door open and are tossing the food around. Three magpies are standing in the doorway, chests puffed out. The one in the middle snaps its beak. Once. Twice.

Oliver and I keep running.


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