The elderly, crippled, deaf, nearly blind ex-Captain of a magpie flock battles to regain the leadership.
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In Britain and Ireland, many people believe - though some pretend they don’t - that the sighting of one magpie presages bad luck, and two mean good luck. Here is the full range of magpie prophecies.
One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl, four for a boy,
(Or: Three for a wedding, four for to die)
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told,
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird you must not miss.
The unnamed Captain of a flock of magpies has ended the tradition of Mortal Combat for leadership out of a respect for life, especially his own.
When the innovative Kawa mounts a successful - but bloodless - Challenge, Flock take a major step up the evolution ladder.
On Kawa’s heroic death, the compassionate Ghareel, the first female captain, elevates Flock from mere folklore into legend.
The Fall from such a height is precipitous. Can the elderly, crippled, deaf, nearly blind ex-Captain - now with a newly minted name - restore Flock to their former glory?
"Knowing next to nothing about the author, I would make the following assumption: he is a poet. I may be wrong, but he definitely has a skill with poetry that even comes out in the prose sections of this book.
"Utmost Magpie, by some descriptions, is political satire. I must say, though, that whatever it was satirizing completely shot right over my head. But, like a good story, it was still readable and enjoyable. Maybe when you read it, you'll get it. But if you don't, you'll still probably like it."
aethercowboy, LibraryThing, 14 December 2009
Intention-crouched for takeoff following Morning Orders, they paused a breath and gazed at me to pack their Captain’s features in their memories and judge his fighting form. The sweet, heavy smell of blood that had awakened me clogged their nostrils, too. I had stared so at my Captain twenty seasons past, before I bloodied beak and claw to prove his day was ended, and my own star risen.
Spring – a time for change and new life. Challenge rode the blood-scent. Dusk would see me torn from Captain’s Perch or reaffirmed as Flock’s leader. While brain is bonny and chance a fine thing, we learn egg-wet in the nest:
Beak to beak,
Claw to claw,
Size and speed
Make the Law.
Little could we guess that Law and Flock were poised to spring a mighty leap up the evolution ladder. Though maybe Kawa knew or even planned. He had prompted a seemingly random series of shoves and reperchings before Morning Orders. As a result, with half of Flock launched and out of sight, he now stood opposite me in the centre of an Eight-For-A-Wish.
I had never seen a bird make an unOrdered Wish formation before. Wishes are a human weakness. We birds take life as it comes and deal with it as we can. Besides, Law said it was the other way around. Destiny makes things happen, the Voice of the Source of All Knowledge passes news of the day’s destiny to magpie flocks each morning through their captain’s mouth (Morning Orders), and the magpies forward the Messages to people. Destiny caused Messages, not the reverse, according to Law. But even Law is flexible. Otherwise, there could be no progress.
Kawa stood a head taller and half a tail longer than his Captain. Twelve seasons earlier we had thought his egg was a cuckoo’s. Just the sight of his magnificent tail set some of the females to producing eggs. His size gave him preference over which he would fertilize, and he had laid the foundations for three nests that I knew of.
Kawa’s Wish-Eight scattered to their Missions in the first silver light of dawn. Three egg-heavy and lightly Assigned hens trailed after Kawa to get an early Four-For-A-Boy out of the way so they could spend more time feeding. I had left my own schedule loose in order to fly back-up on the first-year adults, in case the rising of the sap diverted their attention from duty. I followed Kawa and his harem.
I stopped for a smoke at the chimney on my One-For-Sorrow house, which provided a vantage point out of the sight of Kawa’s targets. I fluffed my feathers and warmed up while the smoke dazed my unwanted passengers and loosened their hold. They dropped with tiny sizzles into the fire.
Two of Kawa’s admirers landed in the lower branches of a young lilac tree in the garden behind the target house. They insulted each other at the tops of their voices, attracting the attention of the cat at the back door. The cat’s tail jerked as he watched the two birds perched so close to the ground and apparently oblivious to him. He licked his lips and crouched toward the lilac.
A pregnant woman came to the open kitchen window and smiled at the latest reassuring Two-For-Joy. But I wondered why Kawa was wasting time. Morning Orders had called for a Four, not a Two, although the Two was at least not false.
With the Two Message acknowledged, the third female fluttered aggressively into the tree, startling one of the original two onto a higher branch, and Kawa swooped into an upper branch. The cat’s tail quivered in ecstasy. The woman clapped her hands in joy. The cat snapped his head around and glared disapprovingly at her. The woman held a small girl up to the window.
“See the magpies, Mary Lou?”
“How many magpies are there?”
“One, fwee, fie, fo fo a boy.”
“That’s right. You’re going to have a little baby brother.”
With the Four acknowledged, duty was done, but Kawa wasn’t finished. He hopped down a branch and told the others to move anti-sunwise. The cat whirled his head around as the birds wheeled. He began his stalk. They reversed and wheeled sunwise, wheeled again, then again. The cat’s head spun jerkily.
On a low branch, with the egg-heavy females safely out of reach, Kawa started a loud discussion in Old Tongue, which all animals and human babies speak, about whether the cat was the ugliest and stupidest in the neighbourhood, or only the ugliest. He was voted both. Then Kawa’s harem competed to describe the cat with insults foul beyond human imagination, based on external evidence of internal malfunctions.
Mary Lou was wide-eyed and scandalized with the half-comprehension of a baby/child losing Old Tongue as she learned Human. The cat switched his tail, vibrating with embarrassed rage, and pounced from beyond his range. He hung by a claw for a moment on the branch where Kawa had been a heartbeat earlier. The birds mobbed him with close passes and laughter until he dropped, reeling, and staggered to a sunny spot near the back door.
“Poor kitty,” the woman laughed. She should have seen me when I was Kawa’s age. I used more females, a bigger and cleverer cat and a smaller tree in my survival practice and anti-predator training.
“Meet you at the side of the road for breakfast some day soon, Speedy,” Kawa shouted to the cat, as the four winged their way to a feeding tree out of human sight – to avoid false Messages – and full of protein-rich, egg-building, sperm-producing caterpillars. The cat never looked at another bird. He was killed by a car a few weeks later. Messages normally predict events only one turn of the earth in advance. Was Kawa guessing, or had he also caught the faint Four-for-to-Die alternative I heard from the Voice?