Bird Talk was first published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #33.
Here’s an extract from the beginning of the story:
Roger followed Constable Will as he pushed his heavy frame through the weeds that choked the muddy alley. The constable turned to whisper to Roger, “The bird-catcher said he delivered to number twelve didn’t he?” An unpleasant smell of stale alcohol and spicy sausage wafted from the constable’s mouth to lay siege to Roger’s nostrils. He tried to ignore the foul smell of the man’s breath. He disliked being in the constable’s company, but any hardship today would be worthwhile if they caught a necromancer.
“Yes. I have been counting the houses, it’s the next one.”
The constable looked worried. “If it’s magic, a witch like, will she know we’re coming? What if we’re set on by devils?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” said Roger.
“It doesn’t?” The constable shrugged. “Well, a priest like you should know.”
Truthfully, Roger worried that he didn’t really know how any of it worked. The books he had read only told part of the story and left him with questions that he couldn’t find an answer to. During his informal studies he had grasped some basic principles, and for a moment he even thought about explaining that they were looking not for a witch but for a necromancer, one who summoned evil spirits, and that not all magic was witchcraft. But looking at the constable’s squat thick skull he decided he would be wasting his breath.
Constable Will pointed up the alley. “There’s a crack in the fence here, let’s see if anything’s going on.” The constable shuffled his ungainly body along the wooden fence and beckoned for Roger to follow. The fence was in need of repair. It had a large crack where a board had fallen away through which they could get a view of the backyard.
They both tried to peer through the fence. The constable elbowed Roger sharply. “Let me look first, I’m an officer of the law.”
“Poop poop,” went something that sounded like a bird.
“What can you see?” asked Roger.
“There’s a woman and she’s got this funny orange bird in her hand, talking to it. Can you hear?” whispered the Constable.
Roger crouched behind him and stretched his neck towards the fence to listen. He heard the soft voice of a woman, speaking solemnly as if reciting a prayer:
“By Mary, mother of God, and all the angels I command you to obey me. Fly and sing your song to the one I love.”
Roger’s pulse leapt. “That’s sorcery alright,” he whispered. “What is she doing now, let me see.”
“No time for that,” said the constable. He shoved Roger aside, raised a heavily-shod foot and kicked down the flimsy fence that hid them.
“By the saints!” said the constable. “It’s Margery Haukwake. The Abbot is just going to love me when I bring you in.” As he laughed, his head rolled on his thick neck with pleasure.
With most of the fence gone, Roger could see the whole of the backyard. The woman had turned round, an expression of disbelief on her pretty soft face. The same face he had been admiring everyday for almost a year since he started as chantry priest at St. Peter’s church. On her hand perched a brightly-coloured orange bird, a fan shaped crest jutting from the top of its head. The bird looked at the newcomers with nervous enquiry.
“Get out of my yard,” shouted Margery. “You have no business here.”
“Your big house on the market square not good enough for you Margery?” said the constable. “Your father would be interested to know about this wouldn’t he? Do you bring men here?” The constable stepped towards Margery and tried to grab her arm. She spun on her heel and moved towards the back door of the house, the bird, still perched on her hand, fluttered its wings slightly but otherwise remained still.
“I’ll forget what I saw and heard though, if you give me a peck on the cheek,” said the constable.
“Get out, you disgusting oaf.” Margery indicated the gap in the fence as the constable’s best exit. As she did so she saw Roger. “Who’s that lurking in the alley? Tell him to piss off too.”
Roger stepped forward into the yard. Margery‘s red lips twisted in anger.
“You! What are you doing here? I thought I paid you to pray for my mother, not spy on me?”
Roger began to stutter an answer, but the constable spoke first and louder.
“You’re a witch this priest says. You’re conjuring that bird to do wickedness. All fits into place now, you dirty wench. No wonder you can’t get a man, and that your family is so rich. And you know what, I’m glad I didn’t have you when I had the chance. I’d have been nothing but a plaything of Satan by now, no doubt.”
Roger gulped down a chunk of vomit at the back of his throat, as he thought about gruesome Constable Will with his beloved Margery. He wanted to lash out at Will, but panic stopped him.
Now Margery turned her anger on him.
“What’s your game Roger Draper? Why have you brought the constable here? Do you think you’re not paid enough for the one mass you sing a day?”
“I made a mistake, I don’t mean to offend. This has all been a terrible mistake,” said Roger.
“Hold on there, priest, that’s not what you said previously,” said Constable Will. “You’ve been plaguing me for days with your funny ideas about witching and sorcery, all sorts of accusations flying around. Then, this morning you tell me you have evidence that’s on firm foundation. So I listened this time, I’m a fair man. You said there was a man selling birds in the market, and that he’d sold a particular type of bird that morning that’s only used by those that hold with the devilish kind. I reckon the bird in question is this here odd orange bird. Am I wrong?”
“Well…” Roger tried to think of what to say. The sale of a special creature like a hoopoe was the evidence that he had been hoping to come across for a long time. He had thought that at last someone in authority would take notice of the evil sorcery happening in St. Dunstan’s.
Then, at that moment, Margery raised her hand and threw the bird into the grey sky above. The bird, surprised at its sudden release, took a moment to open its wings, but then flapped them hard with slow deliberate strokes and propelled itself up into the air. The black and white stripes of its wings were soon high above the three people standing in the backyard of the house.
“What are you doing, that’s evidence!” shouted Constable Will.
“It just took off, I’m not its owner,” said Margery. “The bird must have escaped from somewhere and flown here. I was just feeding it. There’s no crime against that, is there constable?” Margery’s voice was less angry now. She smiled at Constable Will.
“Don’t think you’re getting away with this. We also heard you saying words of witchcraft to the bird, conjuring it like a demon. This priest, Roger Draper of St. Peter’s, confirmed that it was sorcery you were saying.”
Margery’s nostrils flared and she cast a hateful glance at Roger. He felt like his heart had caved in. How could he ever win her love now?
“Well there’s no bird here anymore Will Penny, so where’s your evidence?”
“My own eyes and my own recollections of what I saw and heard, Mistress Haukwake. You are going to hang for this and I’ll be glad to see it.”
“No, no this is all wrong,” said Roger. “What she said could have been a prayer I am sure of it.”
“A prayer to a bird? Is that what they teach new priests now?” Constable Will laughed. He took out the long heavy stick from the loop that hung off his belt. “Now Margery are you going to come quietly or are we going to have to cause you some pain first?”
Roger stepped between the constable and the woman, his arms raised defensively. “Stop, don’t hurt her.”
“You stupid soft puppy,” said the constable. He swung his club above his head hard and fast. Roger ducked to one side, but the hard wood still caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder knocking him sprawling to the ground. He was face down and he couldn’t lift himself up. Through ringing ears he could hear the constable speaking.
“Come along then Margery, you seen what happened to him, you should be a bit more clever. Still time you know, let’s go inside and I’ll show you what a real man’s like, then forget all…”
The constable’s words came to a stop with a dull thud. Roger looked up to see a man holding the constable’s body from behind and gently laying it down. The constable’s eyes flickered for a moment and then, giving up consciousness, shut.