by Marielle Miller
"People has no business in our swamp."
Magpie stomped down the dusty street, kicking up stones and dust devils. Crystals and baubles dangled and jangled from her ragged clothes.
"Oughta listen to us, 'stead of thinkin' we're crazy." She looked angrily around at the villagers. Each in turn averted their eyes as her gaze turned in their direction.
"Yeah, ya oughta feel guilty." She saw Teddy Miller giggle to Jimmy Horn behind his hand as she passed them by. Magpie spun around, screaming at them. "Stay outa our swamp! Ya got no business there! It's dangerous!" Magpie spat on the ground and stomped on by, leaving Teddy and Jimmy staring at her, in spite of her tiny stature.
"How'd you know it was us out there?" Jimmy laughed. "Did some squirrel tell you?" He raised his upper lip off his teeth, stuck out his jaw, and chittered with his tongue.
"What's that, little squirrel?" Teddy leaned over, until Jimmy was chittering into his ear. "Really? Teddy and Jimmy are in the swamp? Oh no! Why that's terrible!" The boys bent over, laughing.
“Oh wait! No. You told yourself." Teddy looked dreamily to his right and squeaked. "Boys in swamp again." He looked to his left and mimed Magpie. "Them boys is gonna get in real trouble some day. Guess I gotta do my voooodooooo again." On the words Voodoo he wiggled his fingers in the air. The boys grabbed their sides as their laughter doubled.
A blue jay lifted from the roof across the street, screeching wildly, and flew at the boys. Their laughter died as they threw their hands over their heads and ducked away.
Jimmy grabbed Timmy's arm and they ran down the street. "Don't you be sending your devil creatures after us, Magpie! You're crazy! I'm glad Ma and Pa sent you away. One of these days this town's going to burn you at the stake!"
The blue jay spun and flew off in the opposite direction.
Magpie grumbled all the way into the hills on the other side of the village. It was miles from her swamp, so she had lots of time to complain. As she tromped along, squirrels and rabbits scuttled out of her way, following her with their eyes from safe retreats.
"I tries, honest," the little voice pleaded.
Magpie shook her head. "Aw, 'tain't yer fault," she replied consolingly. "Stupid people never listen."
Inside the cave, Magpie rummaged around. Stones glistened like rainbows around her and her heart began to slow.
"We needs good gift. Or, Essie be real mad."
Magpie heaved a labored sigh. "I know. Stupid boys. They was just as stupid in school. It was them that started callin' me 'Magpie' back after Ma and Pa disappeared into the swamp and I went to live with Jimmy's parents."
"Hehehe…Not blame them."
Magpie got up and moved a little deeper into the cave. Her baubles jingled, making her chuckle. "S'pose not. All these baubles."
"Yes, bau…balls; and we talking."
"It was the talkin' made the Horns turn against me. An' them boys what spread the rumors. When Mrs. Horn started crossin' herself every time she saw me, I knew I couldn't stay livin' with 'em anymore. Sent me away nothin'. Ah! Here we go. Here's a real beauty, ya think?"
"Ooooo, yes, I likes that one."
"Well I hope Essie likes it." Magpie turned the multi-colored stone in a random beam of sunlight drifting through the entrance. Rainbows glittered through it and danced on the walls of the cave. "Nearly as good as ours." She patted the lump in the pouch hanging from her waist cord. Putting the new stone into the pouch, she headed back through the village for the swamp, ignoring the glares from the townsfolk and the shiver between her shoulder blades.
Water lilies and swamp grass dragged at Magpie's ragged skirt in the thigh-deep marsh. She stopped occasionally, dipping her hand into the water, so the reeds could wash against them.
Minnows kissed the bubbles on her fingers and butterflies landed on her hand to drink the moisture.
"Think Ma an' Pa came this way?" She cocked her head, taking in her surroundings.
"I not 'members. Too little."
Magpie frowned. "Yeah. Me too." She sank ankle-deep into the silt that slipped between her toes. Her sandals hung around her neck, tied together by their laces. Had she been any bigger than 5' 3" and "Pictish," as Ma used to say, she feared she would have been too heavy to make her way without submerging into the swamp bed, becoming Essie's victim instead of appeaser. Gnats hovered around her face, and she gently waved them aside. Peep frogs chorused around her, adding to the bird song here and there in the branches above.
She paused for a moment, stretching her hand out to the trees, whose branches gently brushed her arms. A green heron lifted from a nearby perch with a "kyow" and settled on her shoulder. The extra weight pushed her feet farther into the marsh bed. Magpie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting the swamp comfort and strengthen her for her mission.
As she approached the southern end of the swamp, the heron left her to return to its perch, and she slowed her pace to a crawl. Eyes wide and ears alert, she watched and waited.
"Woundn' haf ta be here if those folk would jus' listen to us. Cain't stand this. It ain't safe for us neither."
"I protects you. No worry.” A splash made her jump and she shrank away from it. “Aw, you scares me." She frowned at the offending frog, singing from a nearby lily. "Joking? Well, not funny." She took the new stone from her pouch, clutching and worrying it. "Where is you, Essee?" Her voice hardly rose above the whisper of the trees.
She tried to pretend that standing in the water too long caused her trembling, but she knew better. She cocked her head. Though the swamp was a very still place, it had its own life and sounds: the songs of birds and frogs, buzzing insects, even the water had its own voice. Magpie knew all of them. Any change seemed like thunder. They were all missing. The swamp was silent. The air steamed, nearly choking her. Her eyes darted back and forth. No gnats. No frogs. Ahead of her, the water rippled. Her heart jumped. She nearly lost her balance.
"Es—Essee?" Around her the trees moved. "Essee. We…we sorry. We tries keep them out. But boys, they's…dummies. They doesn't know better." The rippling water moved toward Magpie. She fought the urge to turn and run, fought to appear strong. If she failed—well, she just wouldn't. Not that time.
"We has something for you, Essee." Magpie smiled weakly and held out the colorful stone. The rippling stopped two yards away. "You like?" The water rippled in reply.
Magpie tossed the stone. The water swirled, rising to form a spout, into which the stone disappeared. The vortex dropped into the swamp, dying back to ripples, then retreated slowly away. The swamp again sang its song, alive with the sounds of its teeming life. Magpie took a deep breath, trembling as she watched Essee disappear into the distance.
Magpie was sleeping off a headache the next morning, so the blue jay's shriek of alarm pierced her head like an awl. She stomped into the village to see if it was true. The bird flew ahead of her over the rooftops.
"I cain't believe this! What're they up to? I jus' tole 'em yesterday." The villagers watched her pass by. "What're ya starin' at!" Magpie glared. Odd. They made no warding signs, did not avert their gaze. "Wha's up with these folk?"
Sheriff Michael Barklay came out of the jail house and stood at the door, shuffling his feet. A brown cat, the town mouser, ran past Magpie with a yowl and rubbed against his leg, then turned and mewed at Magpie.
"Been lookin' fer me, Sheriff?"
Michael blinked. "Umm…I was just getting ready to get up a posse and come get you, Mag—Miss Julie."
"'Miss Julie'? Huh. Mus' be 'portant." She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot.
Michael glanced away and quickly back. "I'm afraid it is."
"When'd they go in?" Magpie waited as Michael removed his hat, scratched his head, and replaced the hat.
"Guess I should be used to you knowing what's on my mind by now." He glanced up at the sun. "Three-four hours ago, as near as we can figure."
"Four hours?! Ya let them boys get off inta the swamp for four hours?"
"Magpie, we didn't let them. They just went."
"Oh, now it's Magpie." She waved her hand at him in dismissal. "Naw, I don' mind. I'm more used to being called Magpie than Miss Julie anyway."
"Magpie, I know as well as you how dangerous the swamp is."
Magpie frowned. She remembered attempting to bribe Essee into sparing his daughter Angie three years earlier, but in spite of her efforts, they had been too late.
"I don't want to ask you to go in there, but you know the swamp better than anyone. We need to find those boys. Don't want another tragedy."
Magpie nodded. "Angie." My fault.
They had found the little girl in the swamp babbling incoherently, drained of her spirit. She still wandered the village, ward of the entire town, singing broken songs and reciting verses only she understood.
"That and your folks, Magpie." He looked like he wanted to say more.
"Now, my folks' disappearance had nothin' to do with what happened to Angie." Or Essee. “They was jus’ careless.”
"How do you know that?"
Magpie looked away. "Just know," she whispered. She took a deep breath and looked around. "All right. Gotta go to m' cave first, though."
"Magpie, we don't have time for that." Magpie glared. "We don't have time not to go." The cat mewed at the sheriff's feet.
Magpie petted the cat. "We tries, little one. We tries." She looked up at the sheriff.
"Sheriff, I need baubles. Sparkles. Anythin' the lady folk can come up with—an' don' ask why. Jus' get 'em." Michael cocked his head at Magpie, but went off to do her bidding. "Callin' me late. Always callin' me late. Jus' like with Angie. Be a miracle if we save them boys."
The brown cat rubbed against Magpie, purring. She reached down and gave the cat an ear rub. "Me too."
Magpie searched her cave. Nothing there was as good as the stone she had found the day before. It got harder each time to find something suitable. "Wish they'd jus' stay away. I wouldn' have this problem. Good Lord, help me. I don' know if I can appease her this time.
"Look more. Must. Find something."
"Come on, Magpie," Michael called from the cave mouth. "Hurry up."
"I'm hurryin' as fast as I can," she yelled. "You mind yer business an' I'll mind mine. Git those men folk ready to go." Magpie wrung her hands and looked around again. "Maybe more than one." She grabbed several beautiful stones and rushed out.
Magpie walked in the center of the line, with ten men on either side. They were having trouble making headway. Their boots sucked in the swamp silt with every step.
"Tole 'em to take off their shoes. Be lucky if everyone makes it outa here alive." She looked over at Michael. "Remember—"
Michael glanced at her. "I know, Magpie. When we get close, we're to stand back and let you 'do all the talking.' Whatever that means."
"You'll know soon enough. An' don' shake yer head at me—'less you want me to go back an' let ya do this all on yer own."
"Don't get in a twit, Magpie."
"Not in a twit." Magpie weighed the pouch holding the stones and baubles. "Jus' really worried."
"Yeah. Me too."
They continued in silence, scanning the murky water, moving closer and closer to the southern end of the swamp. Jitters crawled up and down Magpie's spine, stronger than ever before. It was not a good sign. She stopped and put her hand up. Everyone stopped at the signal.
"What is it?" Michael asked. Magpie cocked her head in response. Michael did the same. "It's quiet. I mean really quiet."
They waited. Magpie crept slowly forward. She could hardly breathe in the stifling air. Ahead of her, the water began to ripple.
Minnows scattered, collecting again around Magpies feet, in her shadow.
"Essee?" The trees leaned in toward Magpie. The ripples widened.
"Essee, where boys?"
Michael looked around. "Who you talking to?"
"Shhh!" Magpie waved a hand at him. Ahead, the water began to bubble. She turned back to the foaming water.
"Essee, men just helping. Mean no harm. Where boys?"
The water began to boil and rise up. Within the translucent, murky water, Teddy and Jimmy stared, terrified.
"My God!" Michael gasped.
Magpie turned on him. "Ya want them boys or not?"
Michael's mouth gaped, but no words came out. He just nodded. "Then keep quiet!" Magpie shook her head, then turned back to Essee. The water began to spin around the boys. It looked like they were screaming—or trying to.
"No! You no have them, Essee! Not like Angie. She baby. Like Julie." Tears formed in Magpie's eyes. The vortex became a roaring torrent. "No! Not too late! Not like before," Magpie cried. "I bring gift—for boys. Always give something!" She stared at the boys' gaping mouths.
"You not want boys, Essee. Take gifts. Please." Magpie rummaged in the pouch, pulling out fists full of shiny things. "Presents. For boys," she pleaded. "Nice things. See?" Magpie held out the beautiful stones and all the baubles the sheriff had collected from the villagers. The water spun faster, showering Magpie and several of the posse. Jimmy and Teddy's arms and legs broke the surface of the spout, flailing about.
"No! Not take them, Essee!" Tears streamed down Magpie's face. She reached into her own pouch and pulled out her most precious stone. "Here! You take! My best. You have. Give boys!" Magpie threw all the treasures into the vortex, but the water continued to spin and boil. She dropped to her knees in the swamp silt, water up to her waist, and sobbed.
"Why? Why do this?"
The vortex roared.
"I not go! Not fair! I saved her. Julie died if not help." Magpie hung her head and whimpered. "She need me." She looked back to the vortex. "I not mean stay. But it so beautiful—" Magpie spread her arms wide. "—all this." The vortex thundered in Magpie's ears. She threw her head back and screamed, "No! Not want go back!"
The water roiled and twisted around the bodies of the two boys. The trees bent in toward the turmoil and rustled. Magpie cocked her head, listening.
"Yes?" Magpie paused, staring at the vortex. "Both boys—and Julie. Her too." The vortex whined. Magpie bowed her head, taking a sobbing gasp. She blinked away her tears, nodded, then whispered, "Yes."
Taking a deep breath, Magpie stood and walked toward the boiling vortex. She reached in and took Teddy and Jimmy's hands. They stepped from the spout as easily as leaving a room, staring blankly around. Michael and the team grabbed them and pulled them away from the vortex. Magpie continued forward.
"Magpie, No!" Michael yelled.
Magpie stepped into the vortex and spun crazily into the water. The spout died and dropped back into the swamp. Wind whipped up around them. The trees rustled and stood upright. The wind died, the swamp rippled still, and Magpie's form floated just below the surface. Three men rushed forward and snatched her from the water. For a moment she lay still. Then she coughed and sputtered, spewing water over her rescuers.
Michael hurried to her side and took her hand. "Magpie, you okay?"
"Magpie?" Magpie coughed again and looked around, dazed. "She's gone. Where am I?"
Michael frowned at her. "Gone? What—" A sapling rustled beside him. He looked at it wide-eyed, then back to Magpie.
"You hear that?"
Magpie wiped her wet hair from her face. "Hear what? Why?"
"Oh, nothing." He cocked his head and stared at Magpie. "I just thought I heard someone whisper, 'Take care of her'."
Michael picked Magpie up, cradling her in his arms. On an impulse, he turned to the sapling. "Don't worry. I will." The little tree's leaves rippled, then went still.