The magpies were in the road, pecking at something on the hot tarmac.
I was on my way to Gran’s to mow her lawn and weed the flower beds. She loved her garden but arthritis meant she couldn’t do more than sit and watch me work, making sure I didn’t remove anything that was meant to be there. Gramps had died the year before and she missed him terribly as I knew would miss her before long. I liked hearing about her life and she seemed to enjoy hearing about the boring minutia of mine.
The magpies flew off cackling and settled beyond the pavement’s edge, waiting for me to ride on.
They’d been pecking at a starling. It lay on its back, beak opening and closing. I lay my bike on the road and crouched down, wondering if I could get it to the vets. The magpies renewed their staccato racket. I moved my hands to either side of the starling and it jabbed its beak at me, light sparking in the dulling black of its eyes. As it moved the iridescent green of the chest feathers swelled and came apart, revealing a mess of bubble-gum innards laced with red.
I stood up, feeling dizzy. The magpies hopped in agitation, beaks glistening. I scraped a handful of gravel from the road and flung it. They flew off to take up a new position on a nearby fence. I looked down at the dying starling, its beak gasping, knowing there was no hope. I looked around. There was no-one, it was down to me. I took a step forward and the bird rallied, trying to squawk. I brought my trainer down but the sole glanced off the creature’s head. It went into spasms, the last of its vitality raging in a pointless attempt to live. The wings flailed as it tried to move across the dusty road, guts trailing behind. I tried again and this time there was a crunch and when the heel of my shoe came away the bird was still, its head flattened, obliterated.
I tried to scrape the brains off my shoe and then rode the last twenty yards to Gran’s house. The magpies descended before I was even out of sight. I propped my bike and sat down on the bench. Now that I was away from the road and passers-by I put my head in my hands and sobbed.
After drying my eyes I knocked on the door, wondering if Gran would be able to tell I’d been crying. She looked down from the step, her smile turning to a frown before she leaned forward to put her arms around me. I could feel her hand on the back of my head as she pressed me to her bosom, to her fluttering heart, but all I could think of was the magpies and the crushed skull of the starling, its brains still embedded in the treads of my shoes.