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Authors: Tor Seidler

Firstborn

BOOK: Firstborn
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IN REMEMBRANCE OF

J
EAN
C
RAIGHEAD
G
EORGE

1

“COME SEE, MAX!” MY MOTHER
cried. “Max, come see!”

My father landed on the rim of the nest and held something over me in his black beak. I'd just broken through my shell. There were several other grayish-green shells around me, all still intact. I craned my neck, grabbed the morsel out of my father's beak, and gulped it down.

“Isn't she the most adorable little magpie in the whole world?” my mother crooned. “Cute, cute, cute! What shall we call her?”

“Up to you, Mag,” said my father. “You did most of the work.”

“How about Maggie?”

“Perfect.”

I gawped at them in disbelief. Here I was, a minute-old magpie, with a mother named Mag and a father named Max, and they were calling me Maggie! My only consolation was that they weren't much more imaginative with my five siblings. As my brothers and sisters hatched around me, they were dubbed Mark, Marge, Mandy, Mack, and Matt.

On a brighter note, I wasn't just first out of the egg—I was also the first of the brood to make it to the edge of the nest.

“What's this place called?” I asked, looking out.

“Home,” my mother said. “Isn't it glorious, glorious, glorious?”

It was quite a view, though of course I had little to compare it to.

“What are those green things?” I said, peering straight down.

“Branches. We're in a pine tree.”

She pointed out other pine trees, a farmhouse, a smaller structure called a henhouse, a bigger one called a barn, and two tall things with egg-shaped tops called silos. Between the silos was a glittering ribbon of blue. In the distance there were fenced-in fields, some trees with leaves instead of needles, and vast expanses of open range.

“What are the four-legged beasts?” I asked.

“Cattle.”

“Where's their nest?”

“There,” she said, pointing her beak at the barn.

The small boxlike thing on top of the barn was called a cupola, and the thing on top of that was a weather vane. The weather vane had a bird perched on it.

“Is that a magpie?” I asked.

“That homely old thing? He's a crow.”

Hopping onto the sunny side of the nest, my mother spread her wings and flicked her tail.

“You're the most beautiful ma in the world,” cooed my brother Matt.

How many mothers did he know, I wondered—though, in fact, ours was pretty striking. Her black-and-white plumage had a hint of iridescent green, and her tail was long and graceful.

She and my father devoted the next few days to bringing us lovely insects and succulent bits of carrion. As our fluff turned to feathers, our parents warned us of creatures to avoid once we left the nest. “Keep a sharp eye out for eagles and foxes.” “Watch out for hawks and coyotes.” “Foxes and housecats.” “Coyotes and rattlesnakes and eagles.” “Did we mention foxes?”

As we grew, the nest got more and more cramped, and despite the looming perils, I yearned to be free of it. But the only way out of the nest was by air, and my first attempt at flying was a disaster. If not for a well-placed bough, I'd have broken my neck. I did better on my second try, however, and by the time I was a month old, I was giving my siblings flying lessons.

Life without wings must be a bitter thing. You'd miss out on not only the freedom, but the perspective. Flying lets you see from close up or far away. You can zoom up to things and, if you don't like the look of them, zoom away. At first I steered well clear of cattle. They're enormous, and smelly. But one day I saw my father alight on one. I fluttered down and landed gingerly beside him.

“They're so dull, they don't mind,” he said. “Dig in, Maggie.”

The beast was covered with ticks. It was a feast.

Horses and dogs pick up ticks as well, but horses are less docile than cattle, with dangerous tails, and dogs are absolute monsters, to be avoided at all cost. Though humans pick up fewer ticks, I developed a soft spot for them anyway. The silly creatures were always discarding tasty garbage.

By summer my whole clutch had left the nest for good. Sadly, the creek that wound between the silos dried up, so we had to drink from the cattle trough. Blech! And except for a few trees, the whole landscape turned dull brown, with dust devils swirling across it. Then came winter, and everything turned stark white. The days were short and cold, the nights long and even colder.

The cattle huddled in the barn. One day I noticed steam leaking out of the cupola. The homely old crow was still on the weather vane, and he was more than twice my size, but crows hadn't been on my parents' list of creatures to avoid, and I couldn't see why he should hog all the heat. Besides, I'd become as handsome as my mother, and I figured he might be flattered by a visit from someone so much better-looking.

I flew over and landed on the cupola. The steam felt wonderful, even if it stank, but the crow glared down from the weather vane.

“Scram,” he said.

“Why?” I said. “There's plenty of room.”

“I can't abide magpies.”

“What's wrong with magpies?”

“They're empty-headed chatterboxes.”

“Who says?”

“Ask anybody.”

I flew off and found a starling perched on the ice-glazed swing set behind the farmhouse.

“What sort of reputation do magpies have?” I asked.

“Thieving hoarders,” the starling said.

This wasn't very flattering, but at least it didn't confirm the crow. I flew over to a thrush poking around by the garbage cans behind the house and asked her the same question.

“Empty-headed chatterboxes,” she said.

I gulped.

A buzzard on a telephone pole gave me the same answer. I returned to my favorite ponderosa pine to nurse my bruised ego. At sunset I tucked my head under my wing as usual, but I couldn't sleep. Thinking back, I realized my parents and siblings did chatter a lot. I remembered my mother calling home “glorious, glorious, glorious.” Now that I'd experienced a sweltering, dull-brown summer and a snowy, sub-zero winter, I had to question that. But even if some magpies didn't think before they spoke, did that mean
I
was like that?

In the morning I flew to the cupola, determined to prove the crow wrong, but he wasn't on the weather vane. While I was basking in the smelly warmth, I spotted him down below, walking out from between two bulging roots of an old cottonwood tree. I figured he must have a food cache there. Out on the sunstruck snow he opened his impressive wings and pushed off.

The lower part of the weather vane was four arrows pointing in different directions. The top part was shaped like a horse. The horse moved in the wind and squeaked when the crow landed on it.

“Scat,” the crow said.

I ignored him. He ruffed up his feathers, doubling his size. I crouched, ready to take off. Down below, a door banged. A human came out of the farmhouse, followed by a dog. They got into one of their vehicles. It rumbled to life, spewing a bluish cloud into the clear air, and rolled away, the tires kicking up the dry snow just as they kicked up the dust in the summer. At the end of a long straightaway the vehicle passed through a gate and turned left.

By the time the vehicle was out of sight, the crow had deflated to his normal size. I stayed put for about an hour, till I was nice and toasty, before flying away.

When I returned to the cupola the next morning, the crow was gone again. Like the day before, he soon emerged from his food cache under the cottonwood and flapped up to the weather vane. He gave me a sour look but didn't ruff up his feathers. I warmed myself for an hour or so, keeping my beak resolutely shut.

This went on for a week. I never said a word on the cupola—till one day a sharp cracking sound startled me into blurting out, “What was that?”

“A rifle,” the crow said.

Not wanting to sound empty-headed, I didn't ask what this was. Before long a human wearing a cap with earflaps came hustling around the side of the barn. Earflaps lifted a long, glinting thing to his shoulder, and another crack rang out.

“Missed again,” the crow said, chuckling.

A flash of red crossed one of the snowy fields.

“There was a fox in the henhouse,” the crow said.

So that was a fox, I thought, remembering my parents' warnings.

The next morning I had to wait out a blizzard, and by the time I arrived at the cupola, the crow was on his weather vane. He didn't look particularly annoyed, so I asked him his name.

“Jackson,” he grunted. “You?”

“Maggie.”

“Maggie the magpie?”

“I know,” I said with a sigh.

The next day was too windy to do anything but huddle on the lee side of my ponderosa pine. But the wind died down overnight, and the following day I rejoined the crow atop the barn.

“Quite a blow,” he commented.

Though the temperature was well below zero, I sensed him thawing toward me. “How long have you lived at home, Jackson?” I asked.

“At home?”

“Here. This place.”

“You mean the Triple Bar T?”

“The Triple Bar T?”

“You never checked the gate?”

I did now, flying straight out the long driveway. Over the gate was a sign emblazoned with: ≡ T.

The next day I asked him what the weather vane was for, and he used it to teach me north from south and east from west. To the south there were large bumps on the horizon. These were called the Beartooth Mountains. Beyond them was a place called Wyoming. I asked if Wyoming was as big as the Triple Bar T.

BOOK: Firstborn
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ads

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