Between Tribes

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In the park a few blocks behind our house there is a family of magpies that I am sure have lived there for generations. When we decided to downsize and move further out into the suburbs, I started visiting them all the time. Well, not them specifically. Their nest is on my walking route, the same one I have taken for five years. From time to time I find the bodies of their elders littered across the lawn, and their newborns hatched and writhing in their nests. Whenever I go by, a black-and-white bird the size of a quail squats down and stomps about my feet, closely followed by her offspring. Holding a cup of coffee I say things like who’s a pretty birdy into my collar, not wanting the clusters of families around the place to think I’m a lonely weirdo. In the warmer months the bougainvillea flares into a brilliant purple along the back fence, and the wet grass is filled with the throng of crying insects.

When it was getting on to September a few years back, I realised I hadn’t taken my walking route in months, which for me was a record, even for winter. I set an alarm for the next morning, and rose unusually early. From the bed my wife asked drowsily if I could bring back some milk, she still caught somewhere between our world and a dream.

As I entered the park, walking under a blazing pink sky, I felt something slashing at my head. For a moment I thought it may have been a flurry of sharp hailstones. I jerked up and saw a black blur swoop across my vision. Not hail, I thought, and twisted around. A magpie was circling me, now pecking and scratching furiously at my skull. My breath was caught in my chest. Did they not recognise me? Had another family moved in during the winter? Panicked, I hobbled towards the street, the skin on my head flayed and torn away in sheets.

I don’t remember stopping at the 7/11 on the way home, but I must have done, because when I walked in my wife called for tea from upstairs, and I made it with milk, the way she likes it. I stood there in the vast kitchen watching it cloud the dark brew. The cats came and arched their backs against my leg.

‘Honey,’ she said as I climbed back into bed, ‘What’s this?’

Slicked across the top of the tea was a dark red pall that spread to the edges of the mug. ‘And it’s in yours too,’ she said. ‘And it’s on your shirt! My god, are you bleeding?’ I looked down at my shirt and the bed sheets. It was running down my face and onto my clothes. ‘You are! My god, what happened? Honey? My god.’

I looked up into her eyes and just about fell to pieces.