Victor walked out from behind the bar, starting to regain his strength. He went over to the pool table. It looked as though a game was in play: balls were strewn about, a cue lay on the table and another leaned upright against a corner pocket. Victor ran his hand over the soft, green surface.
“Well, at least I know what the curse is. Now I just need to break it. Am I supposed to get rid of all that castor oil? I’m sure as hell not going to drink it.”
He rolled one of the billiard balls back and forward under his fingers, then gave it a push. It travelled without a sound over the cloth, until it clicked against a ball at the other and of the table. A melodious whistle called behind Victor from above, and then stopped. He stood still; the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. An identical whistle responded from above on the opposite side of the room, in front of him. It was a distinct sound, and one he well knew. With a slow, steady movement, he raised his head and looked to where the second whistle had sounded. High up near the ceiling, in the corner, a gum tree branch protruded from the wall. It extended about a foot, then divided into two shorter branches from which a long mass of leaves dangled. Sitting in the fork of the branch was what looked like a clump of small, curved sticks and dry grass.
“Please don’t be a nest,” whispered Victor.
From above the clump appeared a small, black face with a grey beak. It turned side-on to stare one-eyed at Victor, revealing a snow white splash down the back of its neck. Victor gulped. A whistle sang behind him, which was soon joined by another, and another. The avian chorus grew louder, and he turned around, his eyes scanning the edges of the ceiling. Six eucalyptus branches pierced the walls high above, each branch home to a nesting magpie.
For a long, tense minute, Victor remained still, monitoring the birds. Their calls quietened and became less frequent, and they made little movement but for the occasional adjustment of a wayward twig in their nests. For all the appearance of peace, however, the birds’ cold stares did not leave Victor for a second. He began edging his way around the pool table, taking small, even sidesteps. His hands gripped the pool table cushion either side behind him, while his buttocks dragged along the rail. As he neared the corner pocket, his knuckles brushed against a ball on the table. With his eyes still focused on the threat above, his right hand fumbled for the ball and took hold of it, gripping it as if to throw it. One magpie made a short call and jumped to the edge of its nest. Victor stopped. The bird leaned forward and tilted its head. After an uneventful pause, Victor resumed his painstaking escape. He rounded the corner, and had to turn to face the end of the table front-on in order to keep watch on the bird perched above. Making this change of position, Victor lifted his right hand from the table, removing the ball from the playing surface. The perched magpie dived from its nest, spread its wings, and made a kamikaze run straight for him; he dropped the ball on the felt and crouched behind the table in terror. Just as he ducked below the rail, a loud snap passed within inches above his head, accompanied by a short whoosh of wind that almost blew him off balance. The magpie landed on the floor nearby. Victor gaped at the feathered berserker, which had grown during its rapid flight to the size of a pelican. It stared back at him for a moment in complete indifference, struck its dagger-like beak against the tiles twice, and then flapped away. Victor watched as the bird returned to its nest.
“Unbelievable,” he gasped.
The magpie shrank to normal size as it flew, making a lap around the ceiling before alighting on its branch. It looked at Victor, whistled, and then nestled itself in a dense mess of twigs and straw.
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