The bird was dead. Jane squatted down beside it, her trainers nudging the brown leaves. Its head lolled to one side, the dull red gash visible on its white bib. A magpie. One for sorrow. Instinctively, she scanned the tree canopy for its mate. Her mother wouldn’t rest until she had located the mate of every magpie she saw. The only time she hadn’t found one was on the day that Jane’s father died.
She strained to hear a calling, the plaintive cry of an abandoned partner but there was nothing. She straightened up, stepped back onto the path and shivered. She was out later than usual, her routine knocked off kilter by an unexpected order at work earlier in the week which had consumed her every waking thought. It had slipped her mind that the changing season meant the nights were drawing in rapidly. The sky above the trees still looked bright but in the wood the undergrowth was merging with the shadows.
She wished she had a high-visibility vest on for the second half of her walk where the path led onto the road. More immediately, she wished she had a torch. She glanced back at the magpie, and feeling the need to acknowledge the loss, saluted, as her mother had always done. Good morning, Mr. Magpie. She set off at a brisk pace, her pedometer clicking on her waistband. Worried by the failing light, she jogged a hundred paces and then slowed for a hundred walking steps, scouts’ pace. As she caught her breath after the unaccustomed exertion, she saw another one. Like the first, it was just off the path, partially covered by leaves. Even in the twilight the birds’ eyes caught her attention. Like the first time, she couldn’t resist a closer look and again, she saw it had been shot. There was nothing more to glean from the second corpse than there had been from the first. She spent less time lingering over this one. Two for joy.
She really hoped so, but this didn’t feel great. She managed a little salute as she fell back into step. Despite the failing light, the third one-three for a girl-was easy to see, spread out in front of her on the path. She stepped over it, gingerly, feeling her heart race. There was no red stain this time, just a dark, vibrating cluster of flies. She felt the sour acid rising in her throat. She walked backwards a few paces, unable to take her eyes off it. As she turned she saw the fourth-the one for the boy– a few yards down the left-hand fork in the path. She had never been down the path before, always assuming it was a service track, but now she couldn’t stop herself; it twisted sharply to the right and then again to the left.
Five for silver was in front of her when she rounded the bend. She looked up. The path ended about ten yards ahead, at a fence. Hanging from the gate was the sixth for gold, swaying backwards and forwards, glinting in the light of the lamp above the door of the cottage behind it. Hesitantly, she walked to the gate and pushed it open. Her mouth was dry. The cottage was in darkness, apart from the outside light. Squinting, she could see torn curtains at the windows, nearly opaque with accumulated dirt. As she scanned the building looking for a clue as to why she had been brought here, she saw them. At the window to the right of the front door there were two faces, pushed up against the glass, banging frantically with their hands.
A young boy and a slightly older girl, petrified. She sprinted to the window but when she got there they were gone. Cupping her hands around her eyes, she pressed up against the glass. An empty room. She slapped on the window with her palms. No response.
Shouting now, urgent screams, she ran to the front door, banging on it with her fists. Trying to see where they had gone, she turned away from the cottage and scanned the darkness, frantically. Nothing. She ran to the corner of the cottage, then around to the back, calling out, stumbling on the accumulated detritus, and then back again to the front of the cottage, despairing. They found her body on the front step, the bird laid out across her abdomen. Both had been shot. The detective inspector declared it a strange case. The headlines screamed “Murder at the Derelict Cottage”.
Her husband couldn’t understand why she had been there. She had just gone for a walk to clear her head. She was always so careful. Seven for a secret never to be told.