The shrieking jolts me awake before sunrise. I crank the window shut, crawl back under the covers and pull a pillow over my head, but I can still hear the magpies. I should have known they were coming. All spring I watched their parents build a nest in the spruce tree behind our house in Calgary. Swooping across the yard, snapping branches from my prized birch tree. Bloody bandits. Now, in early July, the magpies have multiplied into a throng of rowdy teenagers.
Bleary-eyed, I sit at the computer to find out how long this adolescence will last. For two months in early summer, Wikipedia says, black-billed magpie fledglings feed with adults before they join other juveniles. Theirs is one of the longest post-fledgling dependency periods for any corvid.
~ ~ ~
I spend the July long weekend with my mother. I am a middle-aged woman: I should know how to behave. Still, our conversation swerves into squawking. I pick at my mother’s hardening convictions, and she pokes back. My teenage self jangles inside me, gleeful, brassy. Don’t be cheeky, my mother scolded when I was a girl. Now tight-lipped, she disappears down the hall to her room. Take the high road. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. I scavenge my mother’s old advice and toss it aside.
What am I doing? The oldest child, the responsible, compliant daughter. Growing up, I balked at my mother’s exacting specifications – how to dress, how to spend my spare time – but I didn’t pick fights. Now, I am the one who holds her to account, telling her where, since my father died, I think she should live, which of her opinions she should say out loud and which she should keep to herself. She bristles, bolts, shuts herself in her room, while I – so clever, so foolish – convince myself I am smarter than she is.
~ ~ ~
White splotches of bird shit stain the patio paving stones, the cedar chairs, the teak table. Hooligans tagging my yard with guano. I go for a walk to escape the racket and find myself humming Ian Tyson’s song. Magpie, you’re an early riser. Magpie, you’re a bold chastiser. By the time I head home, I’m crooning the chorus. Holy Moses magpie, I am you – you are me.
Then, striding up the driveway, I see the black cloud of birds on the birch tree. Twenty magpies, maybe more, their voices clanging against the sky. Hands on hips, I stare them down. What are they screeching about now? It’s cacophony, not music tamed into 4/4 time. I am you, you are me? Bullshit.
The wind shifts and the magpies take wing. In the lawn, a long black tail feather. Its pointed white end pierces the ground like a spear.
~ ~ ~
My mother-in-law visits. She follows my hands as I talk, distracted by their swoops and dives. You get that from your mother, she once observed. One more habit that crossed the semi-permeable mother-daughter membrane. Next to my mother-in-law, I am large and loud, noisy with opinions and attitude. She keeps her hands still. For her, each sentence is a careful exertion.
I try to quiet my flapping arms, contain my magpie self, shrink the large space I claim as my natural habitat.
“You’re so confident,” my mother-in-law told me not long ago.
Little does she know. My children have left home and I have few distractions, but my work has stalled. My notebook fills with false starts, abandoned middles, dead ends. And then there is the ragged relationship with my mother. What if there is only this endless shrieking?
~ ~ ~
Outside of summer months, magpies roost together and generally get along rather well… In the summer, though, everything changes…Noisy squabbles among magpie families are common at this time of year. The causes of these are mostly territorial… During summer months… this sense of territory persists for weeks beyond nesting season and sometimes even deep into autumn.
~ ~ ~
Territory. It’s so easy to stumble into the old battle lines. As an adolescent, I measured myself against my mother. On the outside, I must have looked like her: capable, self-assured, intent on excellence. But inside I was tentative, cautious, ill at ease. As a teenager, I held my mother responsible for my wobbly self, for casting such a big shadow. I vowed my life would never look like hers. In high school, I placed a copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch on my bedside table. The bronzed female torso on the cover was a manifesto, a badge of membership in a club I knew my mother would never join. Home from university in the summer, I dared her to call herself a feminist, and she brushed me off, resisting my irksome labels.
I pull my copy of The Female Eunuch from a high dusty shelf. The binding falls apart when I open the book and shards of yellowed glue scatter on the floor. The pages are clean: no dog-eared corners, no comments blooming in the margins, no visible traces of my cocky adolescent self. Only the emptiness of my bravado.
I skim Greer’s text but can’t find a place to land. She writes in a foreign tongue. As the book crumbles in my hands, I see what I have become: a mother and a wife living in a house in the suburbs, a station wagon parked on the driveway. A woman who snatches time around the edges of her domestic life to do her own work. A woman who occupies the same territory as her mother.
~ ~ ~
Magpies on the front lawn. Black heads bob, long ludicrous tails wag. The birds stride across the grass, entirely at ease with their magpie selves.
~ ~ ~
There is no getting rid of magpies. One spring, I held the extension ladder while my husband dismantled a nest high in a mature spruce. Twigs and branches drifted down and scattered on the lawn around me. The next day, the birds came back, undeterred. They balanced branches mid-flight like circus performers. Their iridescent costumes gleamed.
A neighbour tells me a laser pointer scares the magpies away. A Buddhist friend confesses he uses a slingshot. A birder instructs me to addle the eggs. A quick shake or two will do the trick. The parents will continue to sit on the eggs, she assures me, but nothing will hatch. If that fails, string a dead magpie up in the yard. She hears it works like a charm.
That spring, my husband and I hoisted the ladder two more times before giving up, giving in to the magpies and their invasion. Now, I read on a naturalist’s blog that there is little to be done to stop the noise of magpie season.
~ ~ ~
A childhood memory. At the breakfast table, I catch my mother staring into space. Her face drains and flattens, her eyes go glassy and distant. Alarmed, I raise my voice – Mom! – and yank her attention back to the table. I think of her now, widowed after fifty years of marriage. I have never asked her what this latest transition feels like, the solitary days, the endless evenings. I am at once curious about what lies beneath the surface, and afraid. In the grip of that old adolescent instinct, I turn my head away to stop my mother’s life from spilling into mine.
~ ~ ~
Magpies line up on the back fence. I try to pick out the parents from their teenage offspring, but to my eye, they all look the same. Human adolescence, an expert says, can be described as “a transitional stage with uncertain boundaries.” It is hard to know when adolescence begins or ends: “its inception and termination are difficult to determine.”
~ ~ ~
If my mother noticed aspects of her adolescent self in mid-life, if she ever sensed the veneer of maturity wearing thin, she kept it to herself. Certain, creative and energetic, she has always been engaged in a big project. Not a hobby or pastime: an organizing principle. Learning a new language, starting a business from scratch, taming an acre of wilderness. The steeper the slope, the better.
I can’t bring myself to tell her that in my fifties, in this summer of my life, I am struggling the same way I did as a teenager. Who am I? What do I want to be? I don’t want a pep talk, my mother’s polished backward glance. I strut and crow, keep my own counsel. I will figure things out for myself.
I am adult; I am adolescent.
~ ~ ~
Mid-summer, I drift awake. The yard is unusually quiet. Close by, a red-wing blackbird trills, testing the air. A short reprieve. A sign that the young magpies are growing up, moving on. Making room for other, sweeter-sounding birds.
~ ~ ~
There was a long period of peace in my relationship with my mother. At eighteen, I moved away from home and we left the tensions behind. At university, I tore open my mother’s letters, hungry for the news she wrote from the other side of the continent in her neat, cheerful handwriting. I wrote pages back: bold reports, and confidences; entreaties for her sensible advice. A new landscape opened up between us, ample and marvelous. More than enough sky for both of us.
After university, I returned to my hometown, married and raised two children in a house not far from where I grew up and where my parents still lived. In those years, my mother and I protected the precious space between our lives. Still, when I felt the swell of one her grand ventures, the familiar noise started up inside me. Next to her ambitious, sure-footed plans, my aspirations were only dreams, ill-defined and fragile.
~ ~ ~
A hawk stands in a circle of black and white feathers on the rain-soaked lawn. It tugs at a fresh kill, the magpie’s scarlet flesh glistens. Later, I wander outside and examine the remains: a lone black claw, a hollow leg bone stripped of flesh, a bare, delicate skull. A lone wasp lingers over the magpie carcass, a slow, attentive exploration.
~ ~ ~
My mother tells a story about a cocktail party in the Seventies, an event attended by professional men and their wives. A man introduced himself and asked her what she did. My mother replied without missing a beat.
“I’m a plumber.”
The man raised his eyebrows, and she smiled back, brazen, mischievous.
“I spend my days on call, fixing leaks, unplugging backups.”
She laughs when she remembers the story, delighted all these years later with her cheeky repartee.
“Such a ridiculous question. As if you could know all about a person by finding out what they do. If I told him the truth and said I was a housewife, the conversation would have been over” – her palms slap the table – “like that.”
My mother doesn’t go to cocktail parties anymore. She lives in the country. Dressing up means a clean pair of jeans, a pressed cotton shirt and a fresh ball cap. The other day, I helped her load a stepladder into the bed of her pickup truck. She had siding to stain, high under the eaves of her house. She shrugged off my concern and then, I did, too. I stood back as she placed her gloved hands on the tailgate and her feet on the bumper, swinging one leg then the other over the tailgate in a careful, confident choreography. I kept quiet and watched my seventy-seven-year-old mother hoisting herself into the back of a Ford 250, showing me how to grow old.
~ ~ ~
Early October. I walk beside the ponds in the park near my house. I slow my pace and inhale the tang of decaying leaves. Where the path turns, a strange sound comes from the woods. I stop. The warbling is low in the throat. As the voice rises and falls, it sounds almost human. My eyes adjust to the dappled light. A lone magpie perches in the bottom branches of a spruce. The bird goes quiet and, eye-to-eye, we take each other’s measure.
On the way home, the fragments of an old story give rise to something new.
Quotations come from Brent Johner’s “Magpies Make Noise – Sorry”; and Marisen Mwale’s “Adolescence and Adolescent Psychology: Introductory Considerations”.