The Story of a Magpie

A sorrow and a secret never to be told

She had chosen the disguise of an itinerant seamstress.  Her fingers were nimble and she worked quickly.  She could repair a garment, strengthening its material and restitching its seams in a few minutes.  This was the time of hard labour; a time when a working day was as hard on clothing as it was on the people.  A seamstress of such skill was sure to be welcomed.

She travelled with a wagon on which the tools of her cloaking trade were on full display.  The weapons of her real trade were hidden beneath an assortment of cloth, designed to distract the onlooker with its colour and pattern.

The wagon creaked as it climbed to the highest point of the hill. It tipped suddenly forward and she could see the town of Chipping Campden floating amongst the green fields beneath her.

Her nimble eye, driven by an instinct that had been moulded since the time of her first memories, searched over the rooftops of the town, from one end to the other.  Her attention flew lightly across the central and adjoining streets of the town, looking for the buildings that sheltered the insects, the contagion the Deputy Lieutenant had portrayed time and again to her.

****

Chipping Campden had grown wealthy by being wrapped in the wool trade. But around the wrap of wool was a still deeper padding of mistrust of the outsider.

It was the servant to the one of the wealthy wool merchants who first saw her.  The beautifully carved front of the merchant’s house was one of the first she reached as her wagon negotiated the steep slope into the town.  By the time she reached the market hall, at the very centre of the town, there were at least two of those townspeople in a position of influence who had been alerted.

She stopped the wagon on the edge of the central square and waited until one of the town officials came across the street towards here.  It was the High Councillor as she imagined it would be.  A town with reason to fear the outsider, but without the permissions to build defensive walls, will instead curtain itself with a solid barricade of regulation and, if you are the High Councillor, you will buttress that further with permits and paperwork.

It was known amongst the Guild of Magpies as ‘hanging out’.  It was about being in the right place at the right time, chirping openly and pleasantly and, above all, looking and listening.  Of course in order to ‘hang out’ you had to find the right people to be ‘hung out’ with.

She addressed the High Councillor in a well-formed manner, whilst he scrutinised the signatures on her travel and trade permits.

‘I have many examples of my skilled needle work, she said.  ‘I can take a garment of the most humble material and cover it with a brilliance of colour and dignity that denotes the taste and position of any important official.’

Her words falling on his ears, supported with the evidence of the needle work that she had spread out across the gate of the wagon, inspired the High Councillor in the same way that honey inspires a bear or, perhaps, as a fallen apple inspires a magpie.

****

She left the town a month later, knowing the quality of the material evidence which she had gleaned and secreted away in her storage box.  It was a heavy and profitable haul.  ‘Chipping Campden,’ she mused as the wagon began its slow climb back onto the top of the Cotswold hills, ‘is the sort of place where people have forgotten the fear of the Magpie.’

They would remember again when the representatives of the Deputy Lieutenant shortly paid them a visit.  This Magpie had done well and this Magpie would be rewarded.

She felt the slightest regret, like the cold touch of an autumn breeze, as the waggon crested the hill and she could look back again and see the town stretching beneath her.  There were people, whom she had come to know and even respect over the last month, who would suffer because of the contents of the trunk hidden beneath her padded and worked waggon seat.  Perhaps the time had come to move on, to give up the ways of the Magpie. 

She turned away from Chipping Campden and headed South across the crest of the Cotswold hills 

Once, when she had questioned, just for an instant, the nature and notoriety of the Guild of Magpies, her mother had sat her down and said to her, ‘You can only be what you were framed to be.  The quality of a Magpie is defined by the nature of the magpie.  Nobody can gainsay you for such a nature.  Brick is hard because it is a brick.’

She would continue, she decided.  She would fly further on.  She would settle for another rented room in another town where nobody knew her and, most crucially, nobody suspected that it was a Magpie that was calling.