• 13 Ways of Looking at a Magpie

    Monica Youn

    Winter 2023

    One for sorrow,
    Two for joy,
    Three for a girl,
    Four for a boy,
    Five for silver,
    Six for gold,
    Seven for a secret never to be told.
    Eight for a wish,
    Nine for a kiss,
    Ten a surprise you should be careful not to
    Eleven for health,
    Twelve for wealth,
    Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.


    “Mag” for Margaret, a chattering woman, a scold.

    “Pied,” as in parti-colored.

    The offspring of a dove and a raven, not to be trusted.

    Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who was brought in to take the rats, but left with all the children.

    “Pie” because you never know what’s inside one; they’ll eat anything, you know.


    Although magpies mate for life, a female magpie can “divorce” a male in favor of one who holds a larger territory.

    So, upon meeting a single magpie, it’s polite to say:

       Good morning, Mr. Magpie, and is your lady wife at home?

    Thus to suggest that even if the magpie has been rejected, at least this humiliation is not yet publicly known.


    In the Korean story when the king told the lovers that they must be parted, exiling them to opposite ends of the sky, it was the magpies who volunteered to make a bridge of their bodies, once a year, so that the lovers could meet.

    Did the lovers hesitate—not quite meeting the magpie’s eyes—before accepting the magpie’s offer, knowing that their black backs would make for treacherous footing in the night?

    A former constitutional lawyer and the daughter of Korean immigrants, Monica Youn is an associate professor of English at UC Irvine. Her fourth book FROM FROM is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2023.

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