My mother, Kim; my sister, Heather; and me in Kitzbühel, Austria, where we spent the summer of 1952.
I was thirteen about to turn fourteen in the Autumn of 1952, when I was enrolled in “La Châtaigneraie,” an all-boys, Swiss boarding school located near the small village of Coppêt between Geneva and Lausanne—an enrollment that felt more like abandonment, like being sentenced to a life term in prison. Although much detail has faded with the years, some is still clear.
La Châtaigneraie, my old boarding school, is in the foreground, whereas the village of Coppêt and Lake Geneva are in the background.
I went to the orthodontist every other week, which necessitated my walking from school into the village and back. It was quite pleasant walking to the village in the morning, but the trips home at night were another story.
The graveled country road from the village lay though vineyards, where in summer there hung such an abundance of plump, sweet grapes ripening in the sun that it seemed the vines would surely rip loose from the great expanses of heavy wire holding them in rows like soldiers. But with the full moon of winter peering knowingly through its halo in the silent fog, casting just enough light to suggest what might be, yet not enough to show what really was, my imagination ran wild. For then, the vines, with their naked, twisted skeletons hanging in rows, look like ghouls with contorted arms outstretched in crucifixion.
The suspense of the whole, dreadful trip was heightened as I passed the old barn, from whose dark hulk issued little moans and sighs, like breathing. Passing the barn under the very best of circumstances covered me goose-bumps, but my hair fairly stood on end when, as happened now and then, a pair cats decided to fight just as I was sneaking—as quietly as possible—past the sullen outline around whose groaning frame swirled the fog.
Suddenly, out of the gloom, a cat growled and screamed its anger, then another, and the barn seemed to writhe as though the fog’s probing fingers were tickling it as the cold north wind began to blow. I, in turn, was instantly airborne, my feet barely touching the gravel, my lungs burning with fire as I sped into the night, pursued by the panic of my imagination. I hated those trips almost as much as I hated that school, where I felt like a prisoner condemned to life in exile.
It was the second year I’d been abandoned in a European boarding school with European customs and, all too often, the rich-boy’s snobbery, which I neither understood nor liked. But there I was with seventy other boys and nowhere to go, except inside of myself, where I became a prisoner of my own distrust and sense of hopelessness. That’s when I met Magpie, who touched me with healing.
I first saw Magpie as one of five greenish eggs blotched with brown in a neat, mud-cut nest lined with rootlets and grasses. The nest, located in the center of a bulky mass of sticks, was high in the crotch of a beech tree whose massive, cool, green crown reached well beyond the second story of the school dormitory.
I couldn’t climb the tree from the ground because its huge trunk was too big and smooth to allow me any kind of a grip, and the first branches were far too high for me to reach. Besides, the nest, which I could just see through the leaves from my second-story window, was my secret. To reach it, therefore, I climbed out of my window and precariously inched my way along the gutter across the slippery tile roof of smooth, gray slate to an overhanging branch into which I climbed.
To get into the tree unseen, I ate supper quickly and dash to my room the instant we were excused. Climbing onto the roof, I held my breath, trying not to look down, as I moved along the gutter and into the tree, where I was safe. No one would even think of looking for me there, because the tree seemed impossible to climb without a long ladder, and there was none leaning against it.
There were five eggs in the nest already the first time I looked into it. I watched the eggs until they hatched and five ungainly, naked, pop-eyed birds lay helplessly in its bottom. Over the following days, Magpie and his siblings grew, and their nakedness was covered with down. Eventually, a little black began showing through the whitish fluff as his down was increasingly replaced with the beginnings of magnificent white and iridescent-black feathers.
One day, while admiring Magpie, I decided to keep him as a pet because I was feeling exceedingly lonely, isolated, trapped, and powerless in the wretched school. So, cloaked in the utmost secrecy, I smuggled him into my room. Secrecy was important, first because no pets were allowed in school and second because there was a bounty of one Swiss franc paid for each pair of magpie’s feet—a bounty paid because magpies helped themselves to farmers’ crops, especially cherries.
My immediate dilemma was that I had absolutely no idea what to feed Magpie. I tried worms, but he didn’t like them. Next I tried catching small frogs in the stream running through a patch of trees at the edge of the school’s farm, but he didn’t like them either, even when diced. Then I found two things he dearly loved—grasshoppers and cherries. So late each afternoon after classes, I caught enough grasshoppers in the nearby field to fill two jars, and each evening, just after dark, I raid the cherry tree growing at the edge of the school’s huge vegetable garden. And Magpie grew rapidly.
Grasshoppers were in a never-ending supply throughout the spring and early summer, so Magpie’s larder was always full. Though I had no idea whether he would tire of grasshoppers before he was old enough to fend for himself, he never refused one unless he was so stuffed he simply couldn’t eat another.
Magpie’s water was in a jar lid on my desk. When he was fully grown and his lid was empty, he would pick it up by its edge with his beak and walked back and forth in front of me until I stop whatever I was doing and filled it.
Although Magpie slept on a small branch fastened to the wall in the corner of my room over a piece of paper, he was free to move about at will. And move he did. His small “calling cards” showed me where in our room he had been. Fortunately, every boy in the school was responsible for cleaning his own room, which meant that Magpie and I had a relative degree of safety. My main problem was trying to keep him quiet when we were in the room together, because his voice, which he exercised often, bordered on raucous.
When the boys, whose rooms were adjacent to mine, found out about Magpie, they were sworn to absolute secrecy under the threat of a severe beating. For their part, however, they saw Magpie as a challenge to the authority of the school administration, particularly the old headmaster, Monsieur Schwartz, whom we all despise for his stingy ways and inflexible ideas about rules, regulations, and discipline. For me, this allegiance was a blessing because the boys acted as lookouts whenever I took Magpie out of my room.
I had Magpie only a short time when, as his only responsible parent, I realized its time to teach him to fly. His flying lessons were simple. I threw him into the air, and he practiced flying on his way to the ground. We practice for several days with some small signs of progress until, to my surprise and immense joy, he suddenly ceased fluttering earthward and flew a short distance. From then on he learned fast, and before long he was flying around my head and shoulders as I ran to give him exercise.
One day I decide it was time Magpie had a bath. So, after posting lookouts, I snuck him into the lavatory, where I partly fill a basin and let him splash around in it. As it turned out, he loved baths. The only problem was that I didn’t know much about bird’s feathers, causing me to almost kill Magpie with love and ignorance.
Seeing how much he loved a bath, I reason that, because I use soap to clean myself, Magpie could do the same, which turned into an unforeseen horror. Instead of splashing, and talking, and coming out fluffy and shiny, Magpie was instantly water logged and wet to the skin. The soap had removed all the protective oil from his feathers. He looked awful, and I felt even worse. I scooped him into a towel and began drying him off, a much longer process than I could have imagined.
After drying him as best I could, I rushed him into our room, turned on my extendible desk lamp, and put him under its warmth. And there he sat, a shivering, soggy bundle of misery, until he was dry enough to begin fluffing his feathers and carefully replacing their oily coating. When he was through preening and was once again fluffy and shiny, my heart swelled with joy and immense relief.
I stopped feeding Magpie when he began flying out the window to find his own food. He would come back to our room whenever he chose to visit or sleep, so I kept the window open. As he became more independent, it was harder to keep his presence a secret, and I began to worry that someone would shoot him for the bounty.
Finally, I could no longer keep a full-grown, magnificent Magpie a secret, even amidst a group of boys sworn to secrecy; thus Magpie became the mascot in my wing of the dormitory. And then he started flying around outside the windows of the dining hall until one of the boys would sneak over and open a window to let him in, whereupon he would immediately fly to my shoulder. This got us both thrown out of the dining hall by that miserable, old headmaster, Monsieur Schwartz.
My friendship with Magpie was short-lived, only three or four months. As summer vacation was about to start, Magpie was killed, and the boys and I were all sure that he was shot by Monsieur Schwartz. We knew he had been killed for the bounty because, when he didn’t come into my room to sleep, the boys and I went looking for him—and we found his legless body under a pine tree not far from our dormitory.
Billy, my first-grade friend, had died of a gun-shot would only two years earlier (when we were he was 12 years old and I was 11), shattering my whole world. I hadn’t understood why he’d been alive one minute—and dead the next. Then Magpie was brutally shot and mutilated for money.
I was enraged with hatred not only for Monsieur Schwartz but also for a humanity that seemed to be completely enmeshed in its own greedy, economic syste, and its inability to treat beautiful animals, such as magpies, as though they mattered. Only the passage of years and a gradual maturing in my view of human frailties—including my own—finally erased my bitterness.
Today, I’m not even sure it was Monsieur Schwartz who shot Magpie. In my desperate pain of once again having my world wrenched askew by a death I didn’t understand and for which I saw no reason, I probably accused Monsieur Schwartz falsely.
As it turned out, however, Magpie’s death brought pain not only to me but also to every boy in my wing of the dormitory who had dared to stand lookout, while I hustled Magpie into the lavatory for his thrice weekly baths. What had started out as a challenge to Monsieur Schwartz’s authority and autocratic rule had become an oath of loyalty to several of the boys who had learned to love Magpie and on whose shoulders Magpie was quite willing to sit, whose ears he was quite willing to gently peck, and whose hair he was quite willing to not-so-gently pull.
Magpie’s death taught me a hard lesson, the feeling of isolation. So long as Magpie was alive, the boys were interested in being around me, but their interest disappeared when Magpie’s legless body was found, and I discovered once again what I had learned in the German boarding school, just how little I had in common with my peers.
Nevertheless, Magpie had given me a wonderful gift. Caring for him had helped me to begin trusting love again. I still marvel that one small black and white bird could have had such a profound healing influence in my life.
Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.