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Welcome to Pecky’s book review (Photo: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal)
Welcome to Pecky’s book review (Photo: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 16, 2022

Pecky the magpie reviews The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey

Welcome to Pecky’s book review (Photo: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal)
Welcome to Pecky’s book review (Photo: Florence Charvin / Design: Archi Banal)

In Catherine Chidgey’s latest novel The Axeman’s Carnival, the story is told by a compelling magpie called Tama. We called upon writer Marty Smith to nudge her magpie, Pecky, to review Tama’s work.

 My human is reading to me on the steps in the sun, because she loves me. 

But it’s not … no, sliding into trance, Tama, cold change coming in from the South, a whiff of offal pit floating on the wind. Sky drawing down dark and grim over Marnie’s farm. 

Little bird I still am, and I oh, I couldn’t drift, Tama, ear and eye all around for danger, scaredy-bird, distressed right from the start. You are right not to trust him. I can see it coming.

Oh, oh, tight in my throat.

Poor baby Tama in the blank-wall-angle house, flying blind, bashing into corners. 

Oh, fluttery-scared at the dead birds in the freezer, I shriek Alarm! and lift up when he lifts the thing —

Bang on! with the sound of the skid and slide across the slippy lid, I think, Just right! as I thud-pound down to crouch in beside you, dusty behind the cylinder. Tama-too-small to see slippery surfaces in humans. Glass and mirrors.

True-clear the sounds down the valley when she takes you back, songs of low-nothing birds, dogs on their chains, and the quad bike, (I was lost from a farm) —my heart clutching like claws. 

Too-small Tama, to be left out on your own reeking of humans.

Too-sad Tama, perched far below the rest of the birds, keeping a sight-line to the yolk-yellow house. 

Do you think your father doesn’t see?

Glee! delight! when your father’s eyes light up blood-red in the sun. Ha, pierce human eyes! Drink their blood! Wind them up, Tama, it thrills them to believe we carry a drop of devil’s blood glowing ruby on our tongues. Enchantment! Raking up embers of spells, by the pricking of my thumbs, a prick of blood, the dark shadow drifting.  

Messages we bring.

Keep to your kind, Tama. Like to like. When your birds turn their backs on you one by one, tainted Tama, oh, unease, unease — my heart grows small and hides. 

Things do not go well for birds who go to humans of their own accord. (This is not true, says my human, those are other birds from far away.)

There you go building your nest, oh Tama gone-alone, winding the stems of the-way-of-the-wild through the solid blocks of the-way-of-the-house. 

Criss cross, leaving air. 

The strand, Tama, of Marnie’s hair — that you weave as lining, in and out, the ties of Marnie’s fertilised egg and its broken yolk, dead mothers and living mothers and babies and death by … did you have to be so rough? Does the male have to be so cruel?   

One for sorrow.

The pattern is set. Naked dead women all over TV, powerless women all over the net. Wring your neck, run you down, your father is watching, watching. You hear his messages. Wilful Tama. You bet your pretty neck he knows who it is in your scrambled-egg house. You bet your pretty neck is an alarm, Tama, oh Tama, in the smashed-yellow house, your eye swivelling, my neck feathers pricking.

The Secretary, what does she know of the air and the bird? We see small and we hear. Saying you don’t understand what you say. Your voice is true, true. Messages you bring. 

The author, and Marty Smith (Photo: Florence Charvin)

OF COURSE you mean what you say when you over-excite and shriek out your splats of shit. You stack up those words on purpose, I cackle and chortle but shut up, shut up 

SHUT UP! 

Helpless dead women all over TV, naked dead women all caught in the net. 

All caught up, Tama, nothing good can come. Stuffing the soft centre of your nest, right round the bed and Marnie. Money Marnie, money Marnie. Aren’t you her little boy? 

The whole world watching your tricks, vain Tama. Showing off. Puffed yourself up to fly on the air in a Superman cape, and you thought to tag onto the flock? Oho. Your sister followed every trick your father taught, she could take the sting from the wasp, but would she listen? Missed the twisty sting of a human trick, down, down she goes. 

— Tama! When humans take birds, something always gets caught in the cross.

Criss cross. Leave some room for air. 

The inter-connected-net. Stick-you-to-the-net trap. Marnie got stuck right in, eh? Just like the trap your sister sits in. Lured to it bit by bit like the bits of bacon that banged her into a trap. Delicious cherries. There she sits while the world flies by, deceiving herself. 

Just like Marnie. 

Rob’s not the only jealous one, you, with your strutting and prancing, your tricks and your jokes. Your revenge of restless, reckless prattle. Riding on a witch’s tongue, Tama. Blue-black at her white waist. Stench of offal pit on the air. 

Seven for a secret never to be told.

Tears at the graveside. Priest chanting spell at the offal hole, Dust to dust. Watch out for ashiness. The beautiful box of the beautiful body (did you see the Crown Jewels? Stole a shiny diamond the size of an egg, talk about the pot calling the kettle black.) 

Joy-screech of glee, Oh! Enchantment! when you tease and scream at the internet team on the Greeting card shoot. Bunch of cunts. I gobble down every reckless wicked language string, oh joy sounds, go on, go on— Oh, AHA! HA! I shrieked with delight, splat! —Take that!

Shouldn’t shit in your own nest, Tama. You’ve fouled up the way-of-the-home with sticky-beak visitors. Nothing good can come, it’s turning very Grimm. Needles and wickedness. Beside myself, I shriek out, Kidnap! Murder! Nevermore!

Woe, and all that, if they weren’t so stupid. (Mmm snappity-snap, tasted her blood). 

You’re easily trapped, Tama. Too big for your boots. They lead you so easily in, all the cages clanging shut. Did you listen? 

The dark shape of your father passing over. 

Thirteen beware, it’s the devil himself.

The dog, Help, digging frantically for something that isn’t there.

Dark threads of mothers. Ange-I’m-just-down-the-road. Twisty, twisty Ange. 

Have you seen the muscles on the man? That’s their mother, Barbara. Live currents. 

Tick. Tick. Tick. 

The shears buzz and hum, heat builds and the rain never comes.  

Frayed with tension like the cable on the wool press, my heart scraping and thuddy.

Thirsty, he is. The fires are building. Drive a man to fever pitch, the farm running down. The magpies in the pines, watching the broken-egg house. 

Old Quardle-do knew a thing or two.

Uh-huh, I think, the pattern is set. The woman always aborts the escape. We can’t afford to lose any, said Rob. We’ve had enough abortions. 

Sick-stinking carnival, feral and stabbery jostle-needling. You bet your pretty neck.

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men 

couldn’t put Humpty together again. 

Shut up shut up shut up will you never shut up 

the air thick with the singing of the blade, sharpening, sharpening, sparks spitting out into the tinder-dry air. 

I fluff my feathers out, shrink into myself, my head right in my chest and I stare. My horror right down to my pin-pricks.

Oh, Tama.

Pecky in close-up (Photo: Marty Smith)

BONUS CONTENT

Tama the magpie insisted on having the last word and so offered us exclusive rights to publish his Summer playlist:

With long hot days just around the corner, when you can spread yourself out on the ground and let the heat burrow in between every feather and lie there in a sun trance so your owners panic when they find you and think you’re dead, it’s time to think about a summer soundtrack. Here are a few of my favourites.

1  Adele, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, because she just gets heartbreak. Unlike me, she can’t sing two notes at once, but she gives it a good try and you have to admire her for that. 

2  Milli Vanilli, ‘Baby Don’t Forget My Number’. It’s hard to choose my favourite song by this iconic duo – Rob and Fab could do unbelievable things with their voices, and in terms of style it’s hard to go past an oversized sports jacket teamed with a sassy bike short (unkempt youth of today, take note). If I have to narrow it down to a single track, though, this one really showcases MV’s incredible vocal resourcefulness. (Should I get braids?)

3  Miley Cyrus, ‘Wrecking Ball’. I too would like to smash things up while dressed in men’s underwear.

4  Waltzing Matilda, in recognition of my Australian lineage. I’m not sure what a billabong is, but I can’t stop saying it. Billabong. Billabong. Billabong. Billabong.

5  Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’. A pretty song that made a lot of older women cry when Mitchell butchered it this year at a folk festival. My menopausal secretary blubbed through the whole sorry YouTube clip. Unlike Joni Mitchell, I have an eye on each side of my head, so I really can see things from both sides. 

6  Bruce Springsteen, ‘I’m On Fire’. Haunting and atmospheric, it’s two-and-a-half moody minutes about a paedophile who experiences spontaneous human combustion. 

7  David Hasselhoff’s cover of ‘Head On’ by the Jesus and Mary Chain, liked tens of times online. The Hoff is huge in Germany, like me, and this version of the song features excellent diction teamed with a thrust and peppiness entirely lacking in the original effort.

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (THWUP, $35) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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