A musician sat on his violin case, wrapped in a white-feathered coat, waiting for his love. It was late evening, and summer, still early enough for birdsong. A spider spun its web between his knees.
Something honked. He looked up. An ancient blue car idled in front of him, revealing itself in time with the settling dust. He stood, breaking the web. The car window hummed down and a woman leaned far over the passenger seat.
"Need a ride?" She was tall, middle-aged, with a crewcut bleached white.
“It’s about time.” The musician remembered her, or someone very like her. But her black, wondrous, waist-length hair: it was all gone.
He raised one hand. "Why did you cut your hair?"
They drove the summer road. The woman laughed repeatedly, a melodious twitter that turned to smoke before he could hum it back.
“Why did you cut off your hair?” he said.
She extended a long hand with iridescent rings at each knuckle. The musician used her fingers to brush away the remaining strands of web on his pants. He dropped her hand and put on his feathery coat, exposing the violin case.
She opened a window, reached for a grey toque, unrolled it over her peroxide buzzcut. The musician gripped the case and stared sidelong. “When?”
"How old were you when you cut your hair?"
"I have no idea. How old were you?"
How old? There were nights when fiery blue cyclones had whirled through the kitchen and scorched all his love's instruments—the piano, the drums, this violin right here in his lap.
Melody rained from the car’s overhead speakers, distant fiddle over piano and drums. The musician opened his violin case and poured iridescent powder into his palm, pressing the grains along each wrinkle and line.
She glanced at his hand. "My old lover used to grind a blue-green ash from the bones and feathers of burnt magpies." Her voice drifted. "He usually traveled south in winter, but on occasion far, far north."
She clinked two rings. "Before."
"When?" He began to pluck the feathers from his coat.
She smiled. “I was a scientist. Ornithology. But he came to visit, and then I was no longer..." She put a finger to her lips; her teeth clicked around a ring. “Understand?”
The musician funnelled powder with one hand and plucked feathers with the other. "What did you become?"
She stroked her lip. "For many years I have chased a tribe of pure white magpies.”
He continued to pluck and pour.
"My methods have changed,” she said. “Understand? I realized not a month ago—" She turned to him, eyes flooded. "These white magpies. Before they lost all their feathers, they lived here."
"Here? Where is—" The musician leaned forward to grip the glovebox handle.
She wasn't laughing. "In a fit of rage, he burned them completely black. Now they have a complex musical language."
He clicked the handle, pushed the glovebox back and forth.
“They are wonderful mimics," she continued.
He tugged at the glovebox.
"I've watched them imitate an entire orchestra. Understand?"
The glovebox plunked open and a bale of black hair spilled out across the musician’s lap.
"I am speaking of black magpies," she said. "Not white."
The musician exhaled, one long breath; he gathered the hair, strand upon strand. She smiled or frowned, half a berry lip turned upward. The music sizzled to a hiss.
She watched him, one hand on the wheel. He hated her silence.
"Then how long have you been chasing magpies?" he said.
"How long." She flicked her eyes to the rearview mirror. At once she braked and turned sharply, lifting a cloud of dust and grit that jingled across the roof and hood. She stomped; the car sped north.
“When did you cut your hair?” said the musician.
She did not answer.
“I understand.” He cast his powder out the open window, then his plucked feathers, finally her cut hair. When he dared look in the mirror, all three were still airborne, flying south in a whorl so mingled he could not tell them apart.
Randy Schroeder is the author of many short stories and of Crooked Timber: Seven Suburban Faerie Tales, almost all under the pseudonym A.M. Arruin. He currently lives in the Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta, where the water is sometimes potable. His story, "Baby Bakes Valhalla" appeared in Issue #3 of The Cafe Irreal; "Mart of Darkness" in Issue #36; and "Movements" in Issue #42.