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The Milk House: Counting magpies

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 October 2021

And here I am, leaning out the window, shouting at birds again.

The weather in west Ireland doesn’t need many adjectives throughout the year, the label “gray” taking care of most days.

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There will be weeklong stretches in the summer that will be cloudy without much wind, varying temperature or even humidity. On days like these, it feels like there is no climate at all, only gray. There are trees outside the small room I write in. When I look at them, I am glad they are there to see – but at the same time they remind me how I used to mock those living in cities, so deprived of the natural world they actually appreciated a stupid tree.

The room I write in is rented. I have now come to know that a career in writing is not just governed by how well you write but by what you write. Despite my mother’s pleas, I have avoided commercial fiction and writing the types of books writers can make money on. I can’t even blame having a small publisher on the fact that I write about farmers because every time I go to town, I pass by a best-seller in the window about a farmer’s daughter who had angst going to university. For some reason, I had decided to write experimental farm fiction. And for that reason, the room I write in is rented.

It has been 15 years since I first lived in Ireland. One of the things I noticed right away were the magpies. I vaguely remember some nursery rhyme as a child mentioning them being baked into a pie or something, but that was my only knowledge of them. They are a big, confident bird with bold colors and a way of moving that tends to draw attention to themselves. Indeed, I’ve come to find out when a magpie touches down nearby, the locals notice them.

When you’re new to a country, you tend to hear the same stories over and over again for a while. In that way, I learned the myths about magpies, how they are attracted to shiny things and have been brash enough to steal jewelry off of women. Some say they have even plucked out people’s eyes because they were attracted to the brightness. Years later, I played on a local softball team and saw our first baseman turn to wave at a space of grass where there was only one bird. She blushed and then explained after the inning that she never misses a chance to wave at magpies, lest she not have good luck.

Mostly what one hears about magpies, however, is the meaning behind how many a person sees at once: one for sadness, two for joy, three for girl and four for boy. The first couple of birds to land in front of you determine your immediate future, and the next ones the sex of your unborn child. I’ve heard it debated whether magpies have to be on a rooftop, a telephone wire or simply within view. I thought it was cute how the Irish kept such myths alive and seemed to half-believe in them. It felt like local color. However, after living here several different times and most of the last decade, I too found myself alert to how many black-white-blue-green birds are around me at any one time.

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It must have been a one-magpie day when my fiancée told me she wants to leave the biomedical engineering field for social work. She took up engineering because it came easy to her. Now, however, she doesn’t find any meaning in it and thinks it’s better to follow a passion regardless of the salary, like I have done. I told her I was jealous she did something that provided an income. Keeping me alive already made her one of the biggest patrons of the arts in town. What more meaning did she need?

These days, I find myself startled when a magpie lands on the rooftop in front of me. I immediately start looking for another one. Somehow, the magpie species has subtly pushed itself into my understanding of how the world works. I tell them the myth isn’t real or that they’re not going to get me this time. Sometimes I stand up and shout at them from my small room.

There are times my fiancée and I can laugh at how behind we are in life. We are not married, do not have kids and don’t have the type of jobs we want – and despite all of that, we’re still getting older. We tell ourselves: Who has it all anyway, and what is normal? Sometimes, though, lying in bed on a Sunday night, such thoughts get the better of us. Like most people, we wonder if we’ll get the things we want.

I’ve never actually tried to figure out if my fortune has ever changed because of the magpies I’ve seen. However, by the same token, I have never been able to disregard them either. In that way, I suppose, I have joined the locals in their superstition. In the end, it probably says more about humans than it does about the birds. In counting magpies, we reveal just how fragile we all are. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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