Coming down the sweeping staircase, Sanaam had snagged Hyacinth in the front room and put in an urgent request for something to do. In the second week of his visits, when there was a second week, Maggie was allowed abbreviated lessons, but she still had to have some lessons. Without much money, and without either his wife or his daughter to play with, he found himself at loose ends.
Hyacinth was stumped, too. Sanaam mainly provided purchasing power, the ability to lift things and a cool head in a crisis. Barring some new emergency, all she could think to do was maybe send him after that one tin snowflake that wouldn’t die — even if he would knock over half the furniture in the front room attempting to catch it. The rest of the house was in pretty good shape, all things considered. The roof was still on!
“I dunno, I guess you could go down to the park with…”
The door to Room 102 banged open. The General threw one small shoe with a black bow and scored a direct hit on the back of Sanaam’s bald head. When he turned in confusion, she aimed the second one at his face.
He managed to dodge it. He had good reflexes, for obvious reasons.
It was neither anticipated nor required that he ask what the hell was going on.
“You!” said the General, cold enough to spit ice cubes. “This is all your fault! You and that damn nickname!”
When he followed after her — either to make another attempt at asking what the hell was going on or to prevent her from gathering more shoes, he wasn’t sure which — he found a black and white magpie fluttering excitedly against the bedroom window.
C’mon! C’mon! Let me out!
Sanaam beamed. In his family, this sort of thing had to pass for first words and first steps and riding a bicycle — or at least be added to them. He’d been there for the steps and words, but he’d missed the bicycle. (She stole one and hid it and figured it out for herself. It was not possible to keep a bicycle in Hyacinth’s house.) He was glad to have been here for this. Oh, man, I wish I had a camera… He was going to have to bring an extra sinq for the photobooth when he got pictures to show her grandparents.
The magpie made a reasonable attempt at sustained flight and managed to work its way up to Sanaam’s shoulder, where it alighted, digging in its claws.
“You forgot your shoes, Mag-Pirate,” he informed her. He pet her conical beak with a finger and she clattered at him like a twig against a picket fence.
“Oh my gods,” said the General, pressing her eyes against the palm of her hand as if stricken with a migraine headache. “What does a magpie even eat? Seed? Do they eat seed?”
“Magpies are like people,” Sanaam said, investigating his daughter’s wings. A little over a two-foot wingspan, which was big for a magpie, as seven feet was a bit large for a golden eagle. “They eat anything.”
“Unwholesome,” the General said.
“Efficient!” Sanaam replied. He offered his arm and Maggie hopped on to it. She was much lighter than her mother, and much safer. Her claws just prickled. Only a man with a death wish would offer an eagle his bare arm.
The General had also noted the difference. Hence the shoes.”What on earth is she supposed to do that way?” she demanded of her husband. “How is she supposed to defend herself?”
“Magpies seem to do all right for themselves, sir,” Sanaam said. “They’re clever. She’ll do well in a city, short wingspan for in between buildings, and she’s much more dexterous… She could pick locks!”
Maggie took off with much fluttering and difficulty and attempted a frenetic circuit of the room.
“Pick locks, Captain?” cried the General. She waved an absent hand at her daughter as she might shoo a mosquito. “Why should she turn into a damned magpie to pick locks? She has hands!”
“Flying locks?” said Sanaam.
“Levitation spells!” said the General.
“Flying locks during a magic storm?”
“Captain,” said the General, “if my daughter should ever be in a position to pick flying locks during a magic storm, while she is coincidentally already a magpie, because the storm would negate her ability to change as well as do levitation spells, I will eat my own hat!”
“Even the feathers?” Sanaam said, grinning. Maggie had left a few flecks of down in the air. He blew a breath on one.
“Especially the feathers! Magnificent, get away from the window! I have told you once, you are not going out of the house like that!” As if she were wearing too much makeup and perfume instead of being (in her mother’s opinion) too small and delicate a bird.
Maggie landed on the dresser, cocked her head curiously to one side, then sized up a half-empty waterglass and knocked it onto the floor.
“See?” Sanaam said, retrieving it. “Dexterous.”
“I could have done that!” the General said.
“If you tried to land on that dresser, you would’ve done that whether you wanted to or not,” Sanaam replied.
Maggie made another near sweep around her mother’s head and pecked her in the nose.
“Magnificent, I will buy a cage at a pet store and put you in it! Because apparently I have that option now!” she added at a snarl.
“Try it and I’ll put you in jesses, sir,” Sanaam said. He offered his arm again, so Maggie could have another go at a precision landing.
“You will dare no such thing!”
“Nor will you put my daughter in a cage. Come on, Mag-Pirate. Let’s see what you can do in the front room. There’s a lot more airspace…” Sanaam exited the bedroom bearing his daughter before him like a standard on a shield.
“Huh,” said Hyacinth on the stairs. “Yeah, I guess that explains it. Good job, Maggie.”
Maggie made her best effort at a chirp.
Maggie was hopping up and down on the kitchen table and attempting to negotiate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The rest of the household (save Milo, he was at work, and Barnaby, he already knew and he didn’t care) were acquainting themselves with her.
Erik was particularly delighted.
“Maggie, here. See what you can do with this.” He popped out his eye with a click and set it on the table.
Maggie had already proven her ability to shred paper, manipulate small objects and land on the second floor railing. She obligingly nudged Erik’s eye around on the table like a football, using her beak.
“Magnificent!” said the General. “Stop wasting more calories and eat!”
“She can always make it up when she changes back, sir,” Sanaam said. He had promised to take everyone for ice cream and celebrate later.
“She needs to learn how to eat now! Eating as a bird is difficult, Captain. You lack lips and teeth.”
Not to mention hands. Maggie was trying to shred her sandwich as she had shredded the paper, standing on it with one foot and tearing with her beak. This was marginally successful. She had to tip back her head to swallow. Before resuming the sandwich, she picked up Erik’s eye with her claw and handed it back to him.
He giggled and replaced it. “You’re really great at stuff, Maggie.”
She chattered at him.
“You know,” said Mordecai. “Magpies are mimics. I believe they can learn to talk.”
“Oh, that’s convenient, sir!” Sanaam said. “She can do surveillance and make reports without changing back.”
“Even if they can be taught human speech, I doubt they are very articulate,” the General said, but she felt somewhat mollified. At least a magpie could do something, even if it wasn’t clawing out people’s eyes.
She will have to learn to do magic that way, the General thought. If only to protect herself. We will begin immediately…
Maggie accidentally got a chunk of sandwich down her crop and horked it back up on the table.
We will begin tomorrow, the General amended.
Maggie remained in bird form long enough to scare the hell out of Milo when he got home from the factory. Somebody really should have thought better of it. A person of normal constitution could not be expected to gracefully handle a large magpie swooping down on them indoors, and Milo was still trying to unpack his Yule experience during most of his waking hours. He ran himself into the doorframe attempting to escape and Hyacinth insisted upon checking him for a broken nose, which only upset him more.
Ann was a great deal more supportive when she came down and happy to accompany the household for ice cream. She did have to excuse herself midway through a chocolate sundae to dab some makeup on a developing black eye. She reserved half of her sundae and brought it home in a paper carton for Milo, which he was permitted to eat in his room while holding an ice bag against his face to minimize swelling.
Maggie was forbidden from turning into a bird again until she had gained the weight back, but after dinner and ice cream that couldn’t be much longer. Maybe a couple of days with extra helpings and not too much activity.
Erik and Maggie were sitting on the basement floor in their nightclothes. Since Maggie didn’t sleep in the bedroom while her daddy was home, this afforded the opportunity for some post-bedtime talking and messing around — until Erik’s uncle peeped down for about the third time and said, “Come on, Erik. Seriously,” or words to the effect.
Milo was down there, too, but Erik and Maggie knew to leave him alone and Milo knew they knew that and he really wanted to play with his toy dog — and think about stuff someplace he didn’t have Ann bothering him in the mirror.
I don’t know… I like having my present. I didn’t like opening my present… Because it had eyes, but it wasn’t real eyes so it was okay. And I was scared Hyacinth would think I didn’t like it and be unhappy, but she wasn’t… But how was I supposed to know it would be okay? Does everybody else just know that? Or don’t they care…?
“So your hands are wings and you have to pick up everything with your toes?” Erik said.
“Yeah,” said Maggie. “Or my beak.”
“But your toes look like hands,” Erik said, examining Maggie’s current toes, which did not.
“But they’re still my toes,” said Maggie. She wiggled them. “They’re homologous structures. That means it’s all the same bones and tendons and things, they’re just shaped different. Hand bones are in wings. I have a book with diagrams. I could show you…”
“That’s okay.” Maggie’s books were upstairs, not in the basement. Getting anywhere near an adult at this point would be asking to be put to bed. “Maybe tomorrow. What’s it like flying?”
Maggie squirmed. “It’s embarrassing. I get really tired because I’m not doing it right. I think it looks funny. I’m not good at it.” She grinned. “But it’s really, really neat. Yeah. I feel way lighter. Even if I’m not flying, I feel like I could. It’s like when the music’s really good and you want to dance.”
“Was it really hard to learn turning into a bird?” Erik asked. He knew she’d been practicing it a long time, since before when he got hurt, and he thought he remembered her screwing it up a few times.
“Oh yeah,” she replied instantly. “You have to learn, like, crazy math and magic before you even try. Mom had me turning paper clips into needles for-practically-ever, and Hyacinth was always taking them. Then it was mice. I killed a whole lot of mice, Erik.”
Erik cringed. “Did it have to be… real mice?” Maggie’s mom used to cut the mice open, someone just told him that. Ah. Do you see, Magnificent? You have fatally altered the structure of the heart.
“Yeah. I had to learn how to do it on living things. Even if there was a fake mouse with all the right muscles and organs and stuff, inanimate objects don’t have alma. You have to calculate for the alma. …And then even when you know what you’re doing, it all has to be exactly right. I forgot my shoes,” she added with a frown.
“Alma is like a soul, right?” said Erik.
“A soul is a theoretical construct,” Magnificent declared, loud and clear as if repeating a lesson. She was. “Alma is concrete and measurable. There are very few religions that allow for plants or insects having a soul. An afterlife is not required to account for the existence of alma. It dissipates upon death, and can be used to power magical items. Small appliances can be run on the strength of animal sacrifices. Human blood, being high in alma, can be employed to make batteries.” Maggie paused and considered. “My daddy said maybe he’d have to sell some blood to buy all the ice cream. I’m not sure he’s kidding.”
Erik wasn’t really intending to start a conversation on dead mice, blood and souls.”Do you think I could learn how to be a bird?” He didn’t want to ask before, because Maggie’s mom was there. He thought the General might tell him he was too dumb to learn that, or she might offer to teach him, and he didn’t want to learn from her.
“Oh, man,” said Maggie, painfully. She thought Erik was too dumb to learn that, but she didn’t want to say it. Where would you even start to teach Erik magic? Where would you start to teach him math? She wasn’t sure she could trust him with a times table, let alone equations. “I dunno, Erik. It would be hard. You’d have to learn a lot of other stuff first. I was doing the thing with the paper clips by the time I was your age… And you’d have to kill mice.” She didn’t want him to ask her for bird lessons. He’d be really bad at it and she’d have to tell him so. “And it hurts. Not now that I know how to do it, but when I used to screw it up? When the spell fails, it’s like you get hit in the chest with a hammer, a big one. And when it works but it’s wrong…” She winced, recalling the feeling of pinions stuck in the flesh of her arms, and the hinges of her knees straining backwards, with the tendons screaming… “Erik, it’s no fun.”
Erik didn’t get quite all of that, but he knew Maggie wasn’t lying. And he felt worried for her. She wasn’t just upstairs reading books and doing boring stuff, she was upstairs doing stuff that hurt her (and mice)? “Why do you have to… learn how to… do it if it’s… hard and it… hurts?”
Maggie shrugged. She had gotten used to stuff being hard and hurting a long time ago. That was just how things were, especially really neat stuff she wanted to do. Like turning into a bird, or stealing her mother’s Imperial Medal of Honor. If you wanted to do it, you put up with the hard stuff. If you didn’t want to put up with the hard stuff, well, tough shit. Do you want to do it or not?
She thought probably she could’ve gotten out of the house as a bird if she really wanted to, no matter what her mom said. She could change and do it right now, if she really wanted to. But it didn’t seem worth it. What would be the point?
Erik’s uncle peered down from the top of the stairs, “Dear one, it’s past your bedtime. Come on, let’s brush your teeth.”
“Okay!” said Erik.
“He’s still being nice, you’ve got, like, another ten minutes,” Maggie said.
“Yeah, I know,” said Erik, making no effort to leave or even move.
“I guess I learn how to do hard stuff in case I need it,” Maggie said. “When something bad happens and it’s really important, there isn’t any time to learn. I have to learn it now, and practice it, and get really good at it, so I can do it when it really matters. Like my mom in the war. People would’ve died if she wasn’t really smart and good at hard things, lots more people.”
“It’s so you can save people,” Erik said.
“Yeah… Or even just so I can save me.” She grinned. “Because I’m really awesome and I have to stay alive so I can save lots of people later.”
“It’s responsible,” Erik said. “Like, you look both ways before you cross the street. It keeps you safe, and no one gets hurt because of you.”
“Yeah,” said Maggie. “You gotta pull your own weight.” Her daddy taught her that, although she thought it was partly because he didn’t like carrying her suitcase. Don’t pack more than you can carry, Mag-Pirate.
“I don’t think I do that,” Erik said. Never mind that he didn’t even have a suitcase.
“Come on, Erik, seriously,” Maggie said. “You held a god for two weeks. You saved your uncle. I haven’t ever done anything like that.”
Erik fiddled with the buttons on his nightshirt. “It wasn’t because I practiced it and got good at it, though. I was just lucky. I’m not really good at anything. You’re good at a lot.”
“But you were super brave and it was super hard,” Maggie said.
“Yeah, I guess.” He extended his bare leg and pressed the ball of his foot against hers, green skin touching brown. She was a little warmer than him. He smiled. “You’re not lots bigger than me,” he said.
“I still am a little,” Maggie said. She matched her heel to his and fanned her toes. “I’m gonna stay bigger than you. I’ll be tall like my daddy.”
“You’re not bigger when you’re a bird.”
“I’m a pretty big bird,” Maggie said. She nodded once slowly, sizing him up. “I bet I could take you.”
“Do you think could could… carry me?” Erik asked breathlessly.
“Erik, I don’t think my mom could carry you!” Maggie said. “That’s basic weight ratios! Does it look like I could carry you?”
“I was just kinda hoping,” Erik said. He looked down, and then up again. “Maggie, do you think you could… learn to be a… dragon?”
“Come on, Erik, I really mean it this time!” Mordecai said at the top of the stairs.
Maybe five minutes later, Milo abandoned his sketched plans, having made his best attempt at a ‘sit up and beg’ gear. He thought it would be rude to try testing the function while Maggie was trying to sleep, and it was already rude having the lights on. He waved them out on his way up the stairs, overriding the spells, so she wouldn’t have to wait for them to notice no one was walking around anymore. He took his skinless gear-filled dog with him. He was fond of it.
I guess I don’t hate Yule. I guess Yule is okay. Some of it.
I hate Maggie being a bird, though, he decided, touching a finger to the bruise beneath his eye. Except the part where there was ice cream. And I guess it’s neat how her toes work. I’d like to draw that. And she’d probably be soft if I petted her — but I’m not going to!
“Uncle,” said Erik, who had managed to delay his bedtime until his uncle’s approximate bedtime, so they were both lying in beds in the dark.
“Hmm?” said Mordecai, already nervous. Erik always held the hard questions for in bed in the dark. Where do babies come from? How come you cry in your sleep sometimes? When there were other people around, he was safe.
“Maggie knows how to do a lot of stuff, you know? Not just turning into a bird, a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah,” said Mordecai. “Her mother is pretty hard on her.” He wasn’t sure he approved of Maggie turning into a bird at nine years old. Shouldn’t that wait until her bones were finished growing, at least? “All those lessons.”
“I don’t know how to do a lot of stuff,” Erik said. “I’m not really good at stuff.”
“Erik, you do know a lot of stuff, for a seven-year-old, and you’re learning all the time. It’s not fair to compare yourself to Maggie. Maggie’s mother is insane.”
“Yeah, I know,” Erik said. “I don’t want lessons like that and I don’t want to learn how to be a bird, but… I want to learn how to do stuff so I know how. So I can if I need to. So I can help.”
“Yes…” said Mordecai, weakly. It was hard to argue with that, and he was too worried to try putting something together. I don’t want you to have to help! That’s dangerous! Which was true, but not fair to say.
“Do you think you could teach me…”
Oh, and here it is, thought Mordecai. He’d been waiting for this ever since he’d told Erik about Seth. He’d been waiting for this ever since Erik got back from Auntie Enora. And what was he going to say?
Yes. Of course he would say yes. Yes, I will teach you everything I know about calling gods, because if I don’t, I know you’re going to try it anyway, and at least this way I have some control over it. At least this way I can try to keep you safe.
“…how to play violin?”
“What?” said Mordecai. He threw down the bedclothes and sat up. He couldn’t have that right. It didn’t even make sense. What violin?
“Violin?” he said.
Erik sat up too. “Yeah,” he said. “I know I’m little for it, but it’s not like Julia. I’m big enough to hold a violin, and do the strings.” He stretched out his arm and made the motion of it. “And if I can play violin when I grow up, I can make money for stuff.” He smiled and turned his head aside, showing his bare socket. “And I like violin. I like when you play.”
“Oh, dear one!” Mordecai embraced him. “Yes! Of course I’ll teach you to play violin! Right now if you want to!”
“Uncle, I think it’s bedtime,” Erik said, muffled in his shirt.
A couple of days later, Erik also asked about learning how to call gods, and Mordecai said yes to that, too.
When Sanaam’s two weeks’ vacation was over, he wrestled his trunk back onto the bus and trundled his way down to the harbor. In the trunk, he had a couple new sweaters, several photostrips of Maggie in a sleeveless dress and headscarf with various toys (and one of her as a bird) and some of Milo’s sketches of how bird feet and wings worked, drawn from life. In his pocket was a cheap metal compass that always pointed home. On the finger of his left hand was a ring of sending. He was accompanied by a golden eagle and a magpie.
The magpie was allowed to alight on his shoulder. The golden eagle knew better than to try.
“Had we better start saluting magpies now, too, Cap?” Bill asked him.
“Maybe just large ones,” Sanaam said, watching his wife and daughter depart — in bird form. It saved on bus fare.
“…If you don’t want them to steal from you,” he added with a grin. Maggie seemed to have gone off with his wallet, which was clearly a prank. It was empty, anyway.