The ink of the night hadn’t fully faded, in fact the sun would not be up for several hours still. But that never mattered. He liked to be up early, and so they were up early. Every morning.
The knuckles on Ariette’s fingers were magenta and smooth; they didn’t crack any more but they still stung as she rinsed out the washcloth into the bucket of murky water between her knees. She chided herself for leaving it last time; some of it was already practically baked on. Taking the rough brush she scuffed backwards and forwards rhythmically, evening off the lumps of the topmost ridges and sending a wave of brown liquid under the door of the fridge.
“Do you want some milk to go on that love?”
He’d got used to helping himself. His favourite was a combination of Rice Crispies, Lucky Charms and a Sainsburys own brand box of something called Wheatie Frogs, little strawberry-jam filled characters that he liked to prise open and lick from the inside.
“Ice cream. Alright.”
She steadied her hand on the dining chair as she got up so as not to slip. The lid of the chest freezer in the corner stuck tight and she had to heave it open with both arms. Inside boxes of ice cream, from the cheap and lurid 5 litre tubs of raspberry ripple to the artisanal cartons of madagascan vanilla, stood four feet deep. Luckily the chocolate cookie crunch was on top.
“No not wrigglies again, we’ve already had some late last night remember? Look at the floor, it’s still a mess.”
She was getting exasperated more quickly these days.
“But surely that was enough…’
The frogs he’d been grasping in each of his hot little fists exploded, sending a spark of red outwards in both directions. Sticky rivulets ran over his tiny fingers. His mouth was a straight line.
Ariette sighed and walked over to the pantry. She took out a deep plastic tub that she had intended to use one day to home-brew beer. One heavy scoop filled the plate so that no white remained. She’d learned to open the windows first and only then the door, so she could retreat behind it. With the door open the kitchen filled with its first glimmer of morning light. And with it two dozen magpies, crows, and rooks; a cloud of blue-black, honking, shrieking, flapping, thrashing, frenzied talons catching on frantic wings.
She lost sight of him then, in his booster chair in the middle of a tornado of feathers like a great shoal of mackerel, as the birds descended on the plate of undulating mealworms on the table. She wouldn’t have known if he’d been devoured by the cloud if it wasn’t for the giggle cutting through the cawing. The happy giggling of her sweet darling boy.
In days gone by it would be the typesetter who took each letter one by one and carefully placed it on the board, a considered process that invited deliberation, but now it was a moment’s work for the sub-editor to tap out the headline and submit it to the printer’s before deadline. Oliver Kempson hadn’t written the story with quite that angle, but he’d been working in tabloids long enough to know headlines were a separate entity, and far beyond his powers of influence. The brief had been an arch, ‘page-10 style’ story, wacky and provincial, an apparently fanciful link to the occult almost an afterthought. But when the leader of the opposition took the biggest poll lead of the campaign after an eviscerating speech at a newly-unionised Amazon warehouse, the Sun suddenly found itself with one of those slow news days that required something flashy. A few stories were always kept in reserve for just such a purpose. And so it was that day the British public were informed that ‘BOY, 4, HAS MARK OF THE DEVIL’
Below the headline was a photo of a little boy, clothed only from the waist down, held in the arms of his unpictured mother. A red-bordered circle picked out and enlarged this ‘devil’s mark’ just above the boy’s navel; a pink circular welt with two perpendicular lines running outwards and bisecting the middle. The copy detailed his mother’s discovery of the marks and quoted her at length: “Just looking at it makes me feel sick, thinking something unnatural had visited my James. Something or someone made the sign on him but no one can tell me how.” Oliver was rather astonished to see that the boy’s face was unpixelated.
Immediately a slew of MPs whose interests were in media policy began to publicly proclaim the article irresponsible. A columnist at the Guardian wrote that the publishing of the child’s face, along with his name, was completely unjustifiable and ‘the most crass piece of journalism [she’d] seen in a long while.’ The deputy leader of the opposition, who was about to chair a committee on press regulation, tweeted at the Sun’s editor: ‘Did I wake up in the 17th century? This poor boy didn’t deserve this. The mainstream press has a duty of care or it’s no longer fit for purpose.’ The matter was promptly referred to the Press Complaints Commission.
On Facebook memes quickly circulated of little James Orton superimposed on the poster for the film The Omen. Underneath someone had written ‘that feeling when Rosemary should have aborted the baby…’ and had, apparently never having seen the film, added emojis of a bulb of garlic and a stake. Others expressed outrage. How did the boy come to have such a specific mark on his stomach? Could it be from a hot hob ring or a fire grate? Where was his dad when all this was going on? Social services ought to be checking on that mother, looks pretty dodgy if you ask me. Even if it did just appear what kind of mother lets her child be splashed across the newspaper like that? Is she on benefits? I’m willing to bet you get a fair bit for the front page of the Sun!
Ariette had no warning of the publication, having spoken with a Mr Kempson on the phone only once some twelve weeks prior. In fact once the cash came through she’d taken the pictures down and forgotten all about it. Sure they’d been shared a bit and attracted a good few comments but, as she’d told the reporter, it hardly felt newsworthy. She’d made sure everyone knew she thought of the whole thing as a slightly bemusing yarn. The mark had hardly lasted a fortnight anyway.
James’ litany of injuries that first day were mostly unseen. The angry scratch on his cheek was noticeable of course, but it wasn’t until the next morning that the bruises flowered. Sprays of chrysanthemums in blue and purple across his thighs and buttocks, little pink camellias studded the fatness of his underarms. They faded like real petals too, turning yellow and brown as they died.
The banner on the gates of Sunflowers Nursery in Stixwould, Lincolnshire claimed to be the ‘very best place for your child to begin their lifelong love of learning!’ though the village was so small as to have no competition. Ariette already knew by name every child at Sunflowers before James had enrolled so she thought it wouldn’t be difficult to find out who was to blame for his injuries. She hadn’t expected it to be most of the class.
“How on earth is this allowed to happen? Don’t you watch them for God’s sake?” she railed at a teary-eyed childcare assistant, settling into her theme of dereliction of duty so thoroughly that she didn’t register when James tugged loose from her hand.
James tottered down the school steps and along the wood-chip path. He’d spotted his best friend Lucy and wanted to show her his new plastic dragon, waving it energetically to get her attention. Before he could reach her the little girl spun on her heels.
“Mummy says you’re bad. I can’t share things with you anymore.”
Looking up Ariette noticed them then. Even from this distance she could sense the tension in the conversation of the two four year olds. The stiffness in their bearing made them look oddly adult, like two combatants in a drawn out divorce. Abruptly Lucy ran to where her mother’s car was parked and got inside. Ariette gave a small wave and a smile but couldn’t see any response from behind the wheel. Usually she’d have a good chat with Tina at the gates but today she hadn’t even got out of the car.
When James came running back red-faced she was sure he was about to wail and cry. But he didn’t. It took him all of his focus but James decided right then that crying wasn’t for him anymore.
“Are you okay poppet?”
“Let’s go home now mummy.”
Part of her was loath to do it but she could see the reasoning in keeping James off for a couple of days. She rang Mr Newsom and switched her shifts round at the garden centre so she could stay home. She hoped he wouldn’t see her as unreliable and take it out on her hours next month. She needed all the hours she could get.
They’d played in the park, making sure James’ dragon got a turn on the slide, the roundabout and each of the swings, and were on the walk home when they saw that a wedding was taking place at St Margaret’s. She thought she recognised the bride as the older sister of one of the Saturday girls at Newsom’s. Bright sunny day like this, paper confetti whipped up by the honeyed breeze, she smiled widely at the postcard image.
It’s funny how kids can sense excitement in the air. Ariette was sure James didn’t really know what a wedding was but at the first tinkle of organ music he’d immediately unlinked his hand from hers and ran to the privet-hedged railings, bobbing up and down like a pipit to get a better view.
“Best get back son,” she heard the man say as she was approaching. In coattails and a black hat he looked likely to be the father of the bride. “Come on, get back now, this isn’t for you.”
Ariette’s face fell back to neutral.
“He just wants to look. He’s interested. No harm in that is there?”
“No harm? This is a religious service Miss. A family day. I know who you are. Now I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of it but I’d rather not take the chance, not on our Heather’s day.”
Boiling blood rushed to her face.
“Heartless old…He’s just a little boy!”
The man looked James directly in the eye. Though at four James was a beginner in the English language, and especially unaccustomed to strange adults talking to him, with their shifting lilts and changing intonations that seemed to somehow give the few words he did know a whole separate meaning, he knew immediately that the man in the funny tall hat wasn’t being kind with his.
The first bird came at night. She was a magpie, she said.
“Hello magpie,” said James. “I like your shiny beak.”
[Thank you James, that is very kind of you to say. It is very sharp and I use it to catch things.]
[Oh, anything I want! I like to collect things. And it’s very good for snatching tasty worms.]
[Ha ha, yes, I expect you don’t like worms much do you. But you know I also use my beak for catching bad things. Bad people. I don’t like it when people are mean.]
“I hate mean peoples! I wish they would go away forever!”
[Do you know any bad people James?]
The boy nodded emphatically. He pulled the covers of his duvet down and his knees up to his chin. He was suddenly warm and sticky with all the excitement. The bird, which had perched on the bedpost near his feet, hopped up onto his knee. She looked funny bobbing like that and he giggled.
[Would you like to stop them being mean James?]
He nodded again. He reached across his pillow and placed his dragon onto his other knee. It was roughly the same size as the magpie. She was so pretty; close up her black parts weren’t black at all, but a shimmering purple and blue. It dazzled him and his mouth lulled dumbly open.
“Can I stroke your wing?” he asked the magpie in his quietest voice, feeling suddenly embarrassed by her luxuriant beauty. Her eyes were bright black and busy around the room, and they fixed on him then.
[Of course you can James. Let me get closer.]
The magpie leapt onto James’s chest. Panic briefly rose in his throat as he saw the long talons suddenly trained on his delicate flesh. But he needn’t have worried. She landed perfectly and her small weight pressing down on his light summer pyjamas was painless. With her dextrous beak it was quick work to shuffle his top up, revealing his belly. The down on her head brushing against his skin felt warm and soft. He watched then as she found the mark. It had long since faded from an angry raised blemish to a very pale pink but wasn’t quite yet invisible. Each talon spread out sidewards, holding her gently in place while she nosed into position. All he could feel was her tiny tongue lapping against him. It barely felt like sucking at all.
James felt a delectable heaviness, and with a warm milk coursing through his veins he lay his head back, enclosed the magpie in the covers and fell back to sleep.
The newlyweds had taken a short honeymoon up to the Yorkshire Dales. Ancient tradition held that young lovers who jumped together over the Strid, a point where two great boulders kissed across the torrid churn of the River Wharfe in the dark hills of Bolton Abbey, would stay together forever. Heather made the jump easily and waited for her new husband on the opposite bank as he began to take his run up. It was a loud caw and a black blur that interrupted his flight path mid-air. Though he windmilled his arms there was nothing on which to grasp and he tumbled into the rushing waters below. Heather skittered on her backside attempting to lower herself down to where she’d last seen his outstretched arm in the froth, but immediately the water snatched her under. Floodwater of unprecedented levels had swelled the river just hours before. Six days later two bodies were found ten miles downstream in a weir near Addingham.
The aneurysm that had spent most of a decade ballooning the internal carotid artery of the bride’s father began to degrade the remaining structural integrity of the arterial walls further over the course of the four weeks after learning of his daughter’s death, culminating in a massive hemorrhagic rupture in the man’s parietal lobe. He lived but could no longer speak. Any comfort to be gained from articulating his grief was lost to him.
Changing from the Piccadilly to the Central line at Holborn, Oliver Kempson glimpsed the words ‘OF THE DEVIL’ under the various detritus that collects alongside the track in the platform gap. The pang it gave him wasn’t guilt exactly – that single mum had been paid well hadn’t she, and anyway these parochial types from the bog counties are really just looking for their moment in the spotlight – rather a mild agitation that was closer to a wince. It was just a tad embarrassing. But a front page is a front page; circulation had been given a noticeable bump and he could take that to the Spectator or maybe even the Telegraph one day.
He was irritated by the number of tourists on the platform, they really shouldn’t be allowed at rush hour. A school group all dressed in little high-vis vests filed through the train doors with him as he got on, surrounding him completely. A smaller group of neon children ran along the platform jockeyed by a dumpy and harried-looking young teacher, who was wearing no makeup and screeching “Get on! Get on!” like a mad harpie. For fuck’s sake, at this point it was better just to get off.
It was the strangest thing; pigeons on the tube, sure, but a half dozen crows? They came seemingly out of nowhere and flapped up centimetres from his face so that he felt the breeze as they disappeared down the tunnel. Looking down then he saw the wire on his £650 Sennheiser headphones had caught between the carriage doors as they closed. He tugged and all that achieved was to release more wire; the jack was too big to come out and was stuck fast. The train took off slowly and, panicking now, he walked up the platform with it, pulling harder. People moved out of his way and watched. Someone laughed. Another shouted “Let it go mate!”
Fury coursed through him as he accepted, half way along the platform and running now, he’d have to take the hit. Fucking kids! He pulled the earpieces off his head ready to chuck them down to the tracks when the wire caught on his throat. Horrified he scrabbled to untangle himself, his fingers white and claw-like at his neck. It was knotted fast. Less than two seconds later he was propelled from the platform. The young teacher was nearest the window against which the head bounced once before it fell beneath the tracks.
Stixwould is surrounded almost totally by flat green pasture but the forest which backs on to the nursery to the north of the village is braided with thicket and largely impassable, at least by anything larger than a small child. At its centre is the old cisterian priory, a twelfth-century edifice that once housed an order of nuns until it was violently suppressed in 1539. The secluded rubble now makes for a hospitable rookery.
Chicken wire fences are impenetrable to small bumbling hands but not so much to small clever beaks. It was a bright but windy day, the type of wind that envelopes and carries away unusual noises. The first two children were delighted by the sparkling things and hungry at the promise of more.
[It isn’t far] she said.
The ice cream had been left to melt and James was drawing pictures in it with his fingers. Ariette could tell he was nearing that pitch of boredom in four-year-olds where mania ignites. The stomping, strutting, the hitting and the smashing. Stixwould didn’t have a lot in the way of kids’ activities, at least not many that weren’t supported by the parish of St Margaret’s or housed in the church hall.
“Maybe we can call on Lucy today, see if she would like to play?” she said brightly.
“Lucy gone now. I sent her to the forest.”
He splatted his hand down in the creamy puddle on the table. Ariette adjusted her face around the news. With practice her smile had become less an involuntary communication of social information and more a rigid muscle memory.
“But poppet who will you play with when all the…there aren’t many left n-”
The birds on the windowsill outside began to gently tap their beaks on the glass.
She’d never liked birds. Those great big crows in particular were horrible. Horror films, all that, she’d never got it. Why would you enjoy being scared? People today are obsessed with all that spooky stuff. You just need to look on Facebook. She remembered that reporter, Kempson, had been nonplussed with her story, not unkind but bored certainly, uninterested. He kept calling her ‘Harriet.’ Clearly he didn’t believe a word of it. They both knew it was a transaction.
She planned to put most of the money away for James anyway. It’s just he was shooting up so quickly. His last pair of shoes had lasted barely two months. And really was it so terrible to want a nice haircut for herself? It had been so long! It was a conversation she’d had with herself so many times as she eyed the increasingly unfamiliar woman in the mirror, a woman who was absently holding the hairdryer aloft, firing it into the air until the front was very hot…
“Well nevermind love, I’m sure we can think of something fun to do, just the two of us!”
…before pressing it against her son’s tummy for just a few seconds.
Hollie Starling is a writer and folklorist from the North East of England. Her debut non-fiction book The Bleeding Tree will be published by Penguin Random House / Rider Books in Spring 2023. She is Assistant Librarian at the British Museum for the departments of the Middle East, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, and Greece and Rome. This gives her lots of source material for her page, Folk Horror Magpie (“collecting trinkets and curios of the folk horror tradition”) which can be found on Twitter and Instagram @folkhorrormagpie.