Inkpot
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Inkpot

Magpies

by Ben Wright

“What are those birds?” I ask my girlfriend when she gets home from work.

“What birds?” She asks back. She puts down her purse and looks through the pile of mail.

“Those ones,” I say, indicating the activity outside the window. There must be half a dozen or so, but it’s hard to keep count as they keep flapping up into the trees or down to peck at something invisible in the grass. She glances up for a moment and returns to what she’s doing.

“The black and white ones?” She asks.

“Well, that’s just it. I’ve been watching them out the window while I work. If you look closely, you’ll notice they’re not actually black. It’s this shiny blue-green color. Like an oil spill or something, you know?”

She heads to the bedroom to change out of her work clothes. “They’re very pretty. Looks like they’re wearing little tuxedos.”

“Right?” I respond, trying not to let the conversation die. “The white tails are so striking. It kinda reminds me of the red-winged blackbirds we have back home, but obviously different, right?” She only grunts out a response. “I wonder if they’re some kind of crow or something. Like in that family? They’re supposed to be really smart.” Silence. “I think I remember reading something about ravens being almost as smart as apes or dolphins. Isn’t that wild?” She has almost finished changing into sweats and a hoodie at this point. “You know, I thought about putting a piece of bread on the balcony to see if they take it.”

“I thought bread was bad for birds,” she says as she walks past me, staring at her phone.

“Yeah, no, you’re right,” I say with a chuckle.

“I’m hungry. What do you want to eat?”

The evening passes as most do. We choose a show to watch on Netflix, reheat some leftovers for dinner. We watch and eat, then we watch and look at our phones. It’s this same quiet, comfortable routine we’ve developed over the months of social distancing together. It’s actually nice at this point. We’ve grown insulated together. Occasionally one of our parents or siblings will call, and we’ll talk about work or the weather, skirting around uncomfortable conversations about politics.

As the television drones on with some reality show contestant pleading their case as to why they should be allowed to stay on for another week, she sits on her side of the couch while looking at social media. I pull my phone out too and search for pictures of local birds. I look through images of black-billed magpies, and they look close enough in my estimation. I show her one picture that seems particularly accurate and she agrees. We don’t have them back home, but here, west of the Rockies, they are quite common.

The next morning, as I read through work emails, I see the magpies outside again. It’s a bit overcast outside, but I decide to fill my coffee cup and finish it off on the balcony. It’s chilly, so I take a couple of blankets, one for me and one for the dog. Thankful for the offering, he hops up onto the other chair. It’s quiet, aside from the small noises the birds make. Most of the neighbors are away at work or school, though others are likely stuck at home like I am. I can hear someone in the distance, around the side of the apartment building, encourage her dog to relieve itself. The magpies don’t seem to mind, and neither do I.

During the summer, the view mostly consists of the large tree whose branches end just a couple of feet from our building. But its leaves have all fallen off, so the mountains are visible in the distance, though slightly obscured by the clouds hanging low in the sky. They were part of the draw of this apartment building: quiet, mountain view, close to shopping and dining (not like we’re doing much of that anyway). I wonder if anyone is up there, if they ever look down into the valley and wonder about our lives. If they had a strong enough telescope, could they see me sitting here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee and looking back at them?

The woman and her dog round the corner, and the magpies flap their way back up into the tree, socially distancing from her and her dog, but not each other. They crowd two or three to a branch looking down at the walkers, patiently waiting for them to pass. The dog grunts at them intimidatingly, but the woman doesn’t seem to have noticed. She looks up at me and my dog, though. She waves politely and nods her head. Just a simple greeting between neighbors — nothing more, nothing less. I return the nod and hold my mug up as if toasting. I have never seen her before, at least not that I’ve noticed. I’ve barely talked to any strangers in months now. I suppose that’s not all bad.

My dog takes notice of the other one. He doesn’t slack in his guard duties. I shush him and snap my fingers, but he’s not likely to stop until the other dog is out of sight. I don’t want to seem rude, so I tell him to go inside. I pick up the blankets and follow him. When I put them down, I remember my coffee and go back outside to get it. When I do, the woman and her dog are gone, likely rounded the other corner of the building. But the magpies are back on the ground, pecking here and there.

Photo by Natasha Miller on Unsplash

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Ben Wright

Ben Wright

6 Followers

Kansas raised, Utah resident. MFA and adjunct professor