Naomi was a sick child, she was told. From birth, her mother and father bid her safe travels to the afterlife every time they lowered her shriveled infant body into the cradle. She’d surely die of the plague, like most the village did. She’d die fast as any, they told her, for her sick stretched down to the bones. Probably deeper—a crippling, blackened snarl shooting straight from her soul. So, she learned to walk counting to last steps, learned to talk in rasps and coughs. She leaned into a limp, and by thirteen she hobbled to the swamp and mingled with the toads. She’d lie on the soft loam and let them croak atop her bare feet and arms and face, and when warts sprouted by the dozens, she wasn’t unpleased. The villagers were sure the plague had finally taken hold, bursting through her skin.
By fourteen, she spent days at the swamp practicing lying still as death, so still the magpies swooped then circled then landed upon her and built nests in the crooks of her limbs. She tested her death mimicry, letting elbows and armpits and finger webbings brim with their thatched bramble nests. Their claws hooked her skin and drew blood, and she waited for them to mince her body into carrion. Yet still, sickly Naomi didn’t die. Instead, eggs hatched in her arms. This was the first promise of life she’d ever known, and she wanted more than anything to satisfy the hatchlings’ chirping hunger. She walked the village streets adorned in nests, the parliament of magpies escorting her in a dark cloud, a sure signal to the villagers that the plague had arrived.
By fifteen, she befriended the woodsmen hacking their way through the forest on the village outskirts. A sickly girl had to make herself valuable if she planned to keep on living and now she had her magpies to feed. She delivered the woodsmen stews she’d lug in a black cauldron. After the men overcame the terrible sight of Naomi’s hideous warts and melted wax visage, they welcomed her visits. They taught her the angle at which to swing an axe to carve a proper tree wedge, to orchestrate collapse. They encouraged her to take the other side of their saws when they felled the golden oaks and blood maples too wide for even the two tallest woodsmen to encircle in a hug. Her hands blistered and then hardened into knotted leather. When a healthy-sized blood maple toppled onto her leg, the woodsmen had no choice but to chop the leg off lest the wolves rip her flesh to ribbons. Naomi hardly hissed when they cauterized her thigh nub with their finest hatchet head. After all, at least none of her magpies had been injured. After all, she’d always been sick. A scorched stump couldn’t harm her blackened soul.
At sixteen, she trained magpies to carry letters home from the woodsmen, to their dear daughters begging them: Don’t plague-die before I return to hold you, and if you survive, my dear, don’t wind up like Naomi. The magpie message service proved lucrative. The business sailed smoothly, until one day an unruly magpie—unsatisfied with his nightcrawler portion—attacked Naomi’s face and gouged out her eye. She forgave the magpie his greed, which was, after all, part of natural survival, and in apology, the bird brought her cattails and oak leaves to bandage her eye until the pus hardened into scar.
Naomi grew from a sick child to a sick woman, and rather than marry her, as her parents prayed, the men preferred to drink and spit with her. When they were plenty drunk she’d pull back the cattail eye bandage to reveal the yellowed scars and then thump her thigh-stump on the bar. They’d laugh together at the weak-stomached men who vomited their hard-earned whiskey so readily. Naomi laughed the longest, a grit-graveled bellow hardened by the cigarettes she hand-rolled and chain-smoked, and she’d whistle for a pair of magpies to flap across the bar and deliver the weak retcher a fresh whiskey.
The village women never invited Naomi to their silk-glove-sampling parties or their corset-lacing soirées, which were necessary distractions from the weekly plague fatalities. Their interactions with Naomi were constrained to necessity: when they needed to magpie-fly a message out about another death. Secretly, the women would linger after the magpie’s departure, so Naomi could teach them how to fire her flintlock or how to trap and skin a woodchuck or how to touch one’s self under the petticoat to feel the little death the woodsmen could rarely induce. Wrapped in her arms, surrounded by nests and egg hatchings, they inquired in whispers: How do you cheat your death?
When Naomi’s hair molted at twenty-two, she shaved her scalp and tattooed there a maze so intricate only two women and one man had ever traced with their fingertips a correct path from her left ear to right, and only then because the magpies had blurted guidance from their treetops. Naomi subsisted on cigarettes and whiskey and hardtack and raw rutabaga, and by twenty-five, she’d abused her teeth so cruelly that only seven remained, as yellowed as corn kernels. The town’s children would open their mouths and point and hope she’d bless them with a grotesque display. Of course, she always obliged, allowing the littlest ones to touch and count her teeth, and the big ones to trace her scalp maze. Every child deserved a distraction from their parents’ and siblings’ and kith’s deaths. Naomi’s sickness fascinated, and her breath always smelled of peppermint and dirt and smoke.
Naomi’s mother was shocked into two days of silence when the plague took her husband before her sickly daughter. Soon after, the mother died alone while Naomi was out exterminating a scourge of tree lizards who were threatening her magpies’ favorite birch tree roosts. After she found her mother’s body, she burned her childhood home and her parents inside.
The plague surged and half the village died sweating blood, but Naomi’s putrid soul remained unbothered. When the trees and crops blighted with black smut, the village ached over sickly Naomi’s survival.
They tried shouting from their windows, but Naomi could barely hear through the greenish wax crusting her ears. They dared not face her, for fear of contagion. They decided, finally, to catch her magpies and affix scrolls to their feet. When they flocked home, Naomi read one note after another, all the same message, repeated fifty-nine times: How has your death not come? She wrote back, fifty-nine times with fifty-nine red twines around fifty-nine magpie legs: I am too sick to ever leave.
Naomi was unstoppably sickly, worse every day, but this had never slowed her. She persisted in the forest hovel she’d thatched from woodsmen scrap timber and swamp moss and her old cradle and a multitude of castoff nests. Even from afar, she sensed her village’s desperation—such opportunity. Though she could do them no good, she could profit from selling comforting lies.
She used her magpie messaging savings to lease a storefront in the village center. There she offered palm readings and fortune telling and hexes. Her new business flourished. Though she had no talent in the mystical arts, she was believed. Everyone trusts a sickly woman’s mysticism. Her most popular product was foretelling a villager’s demise. She invented beautiful deaths for each one—carriage crash, a scorned lover’s knife to the lungs, silk scarf strangulation, falling star head bludgeoning, falling tree, falling bookcases, wolf rending, bear claws, spider venom, bison trampling, a slip in the tub with a bash to the skull. To one she predicted they’d swoop over a cliff edge and never land and falling would be grand as the glory of flying. Always a surprise, always sudden, and, most importantly, never the sickness of plague. The villagers savored the promise of a quick death. Sickly Naomi had revived death’s thrill.
But only so many lives exist to be doomed, and so she diversified into restorative tonic apothecary. Her recipes consisted of elk urine and frog blood and her own spit and a sprig of crushed mint to give the impression of an effort to conceal a horrid flavor. The poor attempt at concealing the acrid flavor built trust, because poor sickly Naomi seemed to be trying so hard to soften the disgust of efficacy. She couldn’t bottle fast enough. And when one of the woodsmen’s missing hands regenerated, Naomi was as surprised as any villager. The villagers began to line up outside her door daily, hours before opening.
The trouble was supplying demand. So Naomi summoned her magpie parliament and employed them in gathering whatever fluid they could stow in their gullets, just teaspoonfuls of miscellany: pond scum, maple sap, woodsman sweat, owl feces, mermaid tears, asp venom, robin egg yolk, raccoon ejaculate, fawn blood. Soon, though, the magpie’s ingredient gathering produced tonics a tad too sweet, a nudge toward the culinary, and the villagers grew suspicious that Naomi was withholding the best recipe for herself.
Yes, they had noticed her accruing wealth, the coins strewn across her countertops, their coins. The barters, too, heaped in the corners of her apothecary: bags of black sheep wool, cords from the woodsmen, tarnished watches and rings and bangles peeled from the dead, baskets filled with souring eggs, bushels of every fruit and herb she could ever want but which she never used. Naomi was surely the richest and sickliest woman in town.
Insurrection began innocuously, as it often does. The villagers planned only to steal her recipes, vowed not to disturb a single magpie feather. Naomi was never to know anyone had so much as breathed in her shop. But after six nights turning up empty hands, they theorized she must’ve memorized her recipes and masticated the inked paper. This act of selfish proprietorship offended the villagers. Had they not spent every extra coin at her shop? Yet still she held out on them. No one had died as beautifully as she’d predicted. Just more and more and more of the same death. Even that hand-regenerating woodsmen had been swept into plague sleep. Only Naomi remained unscathed and better off than ever.
The villagers struck against sickly Naomi, who, they’d decided was not nearly as sickly as she pretended. They couldn’t simply murder her, since they needed her healing secrets, and destroying her shop could prevent her from producing what they needed. What remained, then, was torture.
When Naomi found a smattering of feathers tarred to her shop sign, her seven yellow teeth throbbed immediately. Worse was finding her garden planted with their feet, rooted in soil by the tarsus, claws curled toward the clouds. Their beaks were sprinkled in a circle around her bed, her quilts stuffed with hearts and livers and crops and gizzards and thumb-sized lungs. She climbed into bed, amongst the now-cold viscera of her beloveds. She pulled the covers under her chin, hoped her body could bring them back some final warmth, and she wept.
What is one so sickly to do when confronted by such travesty? The end of her thigh stump tingled. A phantom eye swiveled in her scarred socket. The lines of her scalp maze blazed as if freshly needled. Her kinked spine bolted straight. Her sick body compelled her. She set to work boiling. All went into the cauldron, all the magpie parts, all the villager barters, every oddity collected from her birds. She brewed a tremendous heat, and when the miasmic bubbling reached its peak frothing, she climbed inside. She nestled in the bubbles, within the viscous concoction consisting of all she knew. The scald cradled her like her parents never had, licking her skin like no lover ever had, stripping her flesh in a rapturous desire to merge with her body. The boiling continued two nights, until finally she pulled her thigh-stump over the cauldron lip. Her sickly skin, she noticed, had gained a shine—her warts now transformed into pearls. The end of her stump glistened like polished silver. In the mirror, she saw that her empty eye socket shimmered and her scalp maze radiated, but best of all were the magpie feathers springing from her shoulder blades. Not wings, of course. She could not fly. She did, however, now wear the magpie’s slick quills, and though she could not fly today didn’t mean at some point in eternity flying would still be impossible.
She spent another day bare-skinned while she bottled. She filled every container she could find, every tonic bottle left in storage, every cup and saucer and specimen tray. Her newest tonic glowed sickly as her—a luminescent brown like sunset over festering swamp water. She knew the villagers would be attracted to the appalling appearance. They’d believe Naomi was offering them every ounce of truth.
Naomi didn’t expect much. She never had. Her only planned revenge was to separate the villagers from their last coins. Perhaps a few would slip into mild desperation. The village did flock to the store, lining up outside, fidgeting at their tunic hems while she made a prolonged slouch toward the deadbolt to open her store. Within minutes, she’d sold every bottle, which the villagers violently suckled in the street just outside her door. They guzzled like desert-dying women and men. Then they smashed the bottles on the cobblestone road and galloped off, hooting with glee.
Despite her low expectations, Naomi was rewarded by more than just the villagers’ last coins when a magpie landed at her windowsill. It cawed thrice and pecked at her glass, and her warts warmed at the hope that one of her magpies had survived the villagers’ genocide. When a second magpie landed, she grasped her maze scalp. Then a third, a fourth, soon a dozen, soon each sill crowded with tar-black tails and ivory breasts. But on close inspection, she didn’t recognize a single bird’s markings. These were new birds. These were something else.
Instead of markings she recognized, she noted an unavian yearning. Each bead bird eye stared, obsessing, accusing. They didn’t carry the snap-short attention spans natural to birds—always worm flesh to hunt, always carrion to clench in talons. No, these birds awaited only her. These birds exposed their desperation. Just like the villagers who had crowded her storefront.
It didn’t take long to prove her suspicion. She limped into the town square, a massive feathered shadow swirling above her. There she found pools of fabric, dresses and pantaloons and petticoats and tunics and robes, and nested in the middle of each pile sat empty boots. Her new magpies circled her—the woodsmen and drunkards and corseted ladies and children who’d counted her teeth. They’d follow her anywhere, for she’d transformed them. She’d finally concocted a tonic with a splendid healing that turned each of the idiot villagers into a bird, and thus they’d never die from plague. Their deaths would all be unpredicted.
For months, perhaps for years, Naomi stalked her empty town, her new magpies swarming behind her like a wave that refused to collapse. No longer was Naomi the sickliest child the town had ever seen. She was now the only one. The sickliest and equally the most brilliant, most radiant, damnedest, cruelest, kindest, wisest, darkest and lightest, gorgeous and disgusting, the healthiest and only commander of a human-souled magpie parliament. She passed by windows, always empty, and saw only her reflection. She used her fingernails, grown long as talons, to etch her own hideous portrait into each pane. Eventually, the entire village brimmed with her scowl, with her pleasure. Only her and the birds, who she trained to bow at her feet, to count her heartbeats. When commanded, they clenched her skin and stub wings in their claws and lifted her skyward, floating, swooping over a cliff edge, falling in glory, so sickly above all and ever after.
Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com