She is exactly the sort of girl you would expect this would happen to; soft and slender and pale as moonlight. She is so gentle, and so good, that in winter the snowflakes will not land on her lovely skin for fear of chilling her. Her voice is as sweet as ripe fruit. Her teeth are pearls. She is the fairy princess of your childhood dreaming. She is the apple of her father’s eye, the comfort of his widowhood and a balm to his failing health. Picture them, by the fire, this girl as bright as a fallen star, humbly resigned to a life of genteel poverty with her good and noble Daddy.
Or, she could be the squint-eyed harelipped miscalculation of her father’s intemperance. And perhaps she is not allowed to sit near the fire because her birthmark frightens her brothers and sisters so, and perhaps she climbs up into the attic and howls at the moon and snatches doves from the rafters and cracks their pretty necks for the fun of it. Perhaps her father beats her, perhaps she hits him back.
Or have it another way. She is completely unremarkable. Neither above or below reproach. The adequate daughter of a man who was rich and felt he ought to be richer still. It doesn’t matter a damn now, certainly not to her. As soon as he determined the route of her life, she threw herself from the top of the cattle shed.
There are a thousand reasons you might betray your own child. Here are a few: fear, contempt, shame, disgust, licentiousness, foolishness, pride, avarice, grief, madness, anger, tradition, piety and most grievous of all, wealth. Her father will comfort himself with the knowledge that implicit in generation is the outstanding payment. Wasn’t the girl’s own dead mother brought to him in just such a match? There is such a thing as duty. This is the pigheaded reasoning that builds empires.
I won’t be fooled, however much he weeps and cries and claims to love his Beauty, his Baby, his Pet. I will not give her father the chance to convince you that he has done it all for good, to save her from poverty or himself from death. The sight of him makes me furious. I cannot put pretty words in his mouth. Instead I will tell you that this girl’s father desires one or several useless things and deemed them equivalent to the loss of his rosy cheeked, clubfooted helpmate.
The leap from the cattle shed does no real harm, a bed of nettles and briars cushions her fall and her twelve handsome brothers drag her barbed and burning and babbling back to her father’s table. Someone gives her whiskey neat, someone bars the door. She is reasoned with.
Perhaps her father fills the wash basin and holds her head beneath the swill, dipping her again and again and again until at last she wheezes yes, yes, please stop. Perhaps, at the sight of his tears, she acquiesces and kisses his face and the faces of her brothers because she truly is as good and pure as wild honey. Or perhaps she is silent and accepts her fate, because she has learned the measure of her worth from his flawed arithmetic. Either way, the Magpie acquires his bride.
It is hard to say what use a girl is to a beast. Perhaps he is a prince in disguise, who has seen in her lamb’s heart the means by which his curse will be broken, so that he can return at last to his beloved parents. Perhaps she is of no use. An ornament, who will sit prettily among the stolen cameos and strings of pearls in his ragged nest, a little novelty, to peck and scratch at. Perhaps it was loneliness which sent him to her father’s door one evening, in his fine tuxedo, after the stupid old man had made too great a nuisance of himself in the Magpie’s wood. One reason looks much like the other. All I know is that it is strange and chilling to think of a creature like that, a creature who is willing to name a price. She is bought and sold on his inscrutable desire.
People talk, of course they do. The women shun her in the post office and the little children spit at her in the street. The priest turns her away from Mass. The lion may lie down with the lamb, but it is a sin against God for a woman to copulate with the beasts of the field. In spite of this the local farmers and businessmen and councillors arrive by night at the cottage door. They shake hands with her father and eye the dresser, giddy under the weight of new crockery and the fine weave of his tweed jacket. Daddy has become every inch the country squire. They ignore the girl’s trembling hands as she pours their whiskey, they drink deeply, they drink all night, they congratulate him on his good fortune.
He will marry her on May Day. A brief courtship then, already the buds are beginning to burst on the boughs. He visits her on Sundays, and brings her wildflowers from his home in the woods, though these are sweeter and fuller than any she has ever seen. Utterly ostentatious. Her twelve sisters all sigh and weep to see such pretty blooms. Or perhaps they weep to see how their beautiful, hideous baby sister is so completely fucked. Or perhaps it’s just relief, they nestle together on the chaise and coo softly, for they are the pigeons who have escaped the pie. I never judge them harshly.
A trousseau is ordered, he pays for it all and no expense spared. Silks from Paris, furs from London, jewels from places she can’t point to on a map, mile upon impossible mile of exquisite lace from Dublin. It is the furs that set her off though. When she opens the pinstriped box and peels back the tissue paper, her sisters gasp and begin to stroke the worldly remains of some poor murdered brute. The girl, who hasn’t spoken in weeks, hasn’t said a word since her own mouth betrayed her with its yes yes please stop, now begins to laugh. The sound makes her sisters recoil from her as quickly as if she had vomited all over the pretty pelts. Then in a voice as keen as a diamond she asks “Does he think to make me an animal too?”
I have loved men and women, whose hearts were Chinese boxes, open meadows, fast flowing rivers, locked doors, hospital waiting rooms. I will tell you this, because it is the only thing I know for certain. Loving and being loved are two entirely separate countries. Being loved is like looking at yourself in a dusty mirror in a room lit with candles, pleasant and comforting, especially as your skin starts to wrinkle and sag. But loving breaks every mirror in the house. You cannot change someone by loving them and it is cruel, unbearably cruel, to teach your daughters that their love will make men of beasts.
The wedding day arrives. Her brothers have kept watch all night, to see that she will not try to escape. And now she calls for whiskey as her sisters pull her from the bed. She is drunk as a fish, laughing and whooping by the time they’ve filled the tub with tepid water. They scrub her skin until it is raw and red and she sings and splashes and shames them all by heaving a leg over each side of the tub and proudly, furiously displaying her sex. Perhaps it gives her sisters some comfort to think that she has gone completely mad or was perhaps always secretly disgusting, and as such, equal to her fate.
They towel her off, then get to work delousing her and arranging all six foot of her golden hair into a marvellous braid, threaded with pink satin ribbons and rubies fat as hen’s eggs. They pour her into her white silk bridal gown. They festoon her with flowers. I will not tell you that she looks beautiful. I will not tell you that she doesn’t. Even the lousiest chef knows to dress the chicken with herbs and lemon before he cooks it.
The ceremony is a simple affair, beneath the trees in the dark heart of the woods. A cousin of his, a grizzled Crow plays the celebrant. Many of his relatives have come. They are raucous throughout, they chatter and click from the branches of an old beech tree. Now and again, they shit in a perfunctory way on the heads of her family, who sit on the ground in their finery. Her father cries, as well he might. The Bride’s eyes are glazed and sleepy, she sways, she has never been drunk before. But as the ceremony closes with a shrill squawk from Cousin Crow, she begins to tremble and look desperately at her father as if she had believed, against all evidence to the contrary, that at last he would save her.
The wedding breakfast is held in the Bride’s family home and the modest kitchen is cramped with brothers and sisters and birds. The Magpies settle on top of the dressers, where they peck and shit and screech and click and are continually menaced by the two plump house cats. The Bride and Groom sit at the head of the table, which groans under the weight of the feast. The Bride’s father sits beside her and takes her hand, but she will not look at him. He has the good sense now, to look a little ashamed. Though his appetite is unaffected. The Bride will not eat. Her sisters heap her plate with marzipan and nuts, they extol the virtues of the meat pie, but the bride declines with a curl of her hare lip.
The mood has begun to sour a little, her brothers are arguing about money, which they have begun to do increasingly often. And her sisters have begun to cry quietly into their sauerkraut, a display brought on by a profusion of alcohol and a not unreasonable sense of impending doom. The Bride is unmoved. Suddenly, seemingly without provocation, the groom hops onto the table. A stricken silence falls over the party. He sidesteps the plates of teacakes and the jug of orange juice and gently picks up – really you wouldn’t think it possible for such a sharp beak to be so gentle – a soft, perfect peach. Then he skitters in his ungainly, gambolling way, towards his young Bride. The air quivers, as slowly, slowly, the way deep sea divers come to the surface, the Bride looks at her groom. He flaps his wings a little, then he drops the peach in her lap.
The Bride stands, one bleary-eyed brother follows, but is jerked back to his seat. This is not a toast. The Bride holds the peach in her clenched fist. She looks at her family, she is furious and beautiful and they cannot look her in the eye. Peach juice begins to dribble down her fingers and onto her gown. She looks at her father, he smiles and blinks his rheumy eyes, he is about to speak. She spits in his face. She lets the peach splatter on the flagstone. She departs in a confusion of feathers.
Night falls. Her wedding night. Perhaps the Magpie does become a prince, or perhaps she too becomes a Magpie and will soon be delighted by her clutch of pretty eggs. Perhaps she takes his neck in her hands and snaps it.