Most stories that involve kings, queens, and servants will tell the tale of a lowly helper rising above their status to become one of them; Cinderella, Rapunzel, Kate Middleton to name just a few. This is not one of those stories. Instead, here we have a tale of greed, of the dire consequences of murder and messing with royalty. Royalty which, as we find out, have paranormal allies. It is this notion of revenge, along with the facets of mystery and the twist on class warfare, that sets this nursery rhyme even more apart from the standard, feel-good fare.
It is no spoiler to say that this is the tale of a mere sixpence; a small amount that all is risked on, yet enough to bring the downfall of our antagonist. A tale of thievery then, but while we know the motive, we the reader are left ignorant on who the would-be thief is right until the end, with the opening scene just a frustrating glimpse of their intent and character.
All we are taught at first is that this money launderer is brazen, and cold, someone who would cheerfully sing of their stolen sixpence while they carry out their heinous acts. It is fortunate we are left little time to be only annoyed at them, then, as the story quickly turns to the macabre; the first of series of plot twists we never see coming, and not one we expect from a nursery rhyme.
Like so many stories before, we would at this point expect to see the part of the tale where the crook uses their ill-gotten gains on personal comforts, a story device used to make us loath this villain, to make them less likable as a character despite their joyful outlook. But this story reminds us that it is not like other rhymes, and it instead gives the reader even more reason to be repulsed by the protagonist other than from just dislike or annoyance.
To have such a thing daintily served to the king, to have paranormal events described in that way also speaks to how the king reacted
As the thief sings their song, we are told of a pocket full rye, which seems out of place at first before we realise with creeping dread why the thief would carry such grain around; dozens of black birds, horrifically baked in a pie, the rye used to lure them to be trapped and killed for their meat. The sixpence, no doubt given to the thief to buy proper meat, pocketed instead. What we thought was one crime now becomes three. A simple thief becomes a murderer.
Revulsion is all that you are left with, a desire to see this retch brought to justice, but in knowing the fate of the birds, it provides us with the first potential clue as to the identity of the villain. If a pie was cooked, is it a chef we wonder eagerly? They would have the means, for sure, and if so, who do they work for to be motivated to steal money from? If not them, are they accomplices?
With no answers immediately given, we're left with a sense of injustice that there is nothing more on offer; with two major plot twists already, we expected there to be some sort of reward. But disappointment over not knowing the thief's identity soon turns to surprise as the story dives head-first into the paranormal; something we admit we should have seen coming with the plot already within the realm of the macabre, but it speaks to the mastery of the author in their ability to seamlessly introduce new elements without any warning.
In a scene where we are already shocked to discover how the meat was used, we are offered a vision that would be familiar in a horror movie as the ghosts of the innocent ravens burst forth from the pie in song. This song sings loudly to the torment of the birds, of accusations and revenge, with each strike of the knife through the pie crust evoking a desire to see a knife in the heart of their killer. The voices of four and twenty murdered birds scream out in pain for justice.
However, as if the tormented souls of birds were not enough, yet another major plot twist happens, for it is here we learn that this cook, this baker of black birds, works for no more than the king himself! With this simple revelation, told in such a blasé way, almost as an afterthought, an entire realm of possibilities opens up to the reader. To know now where the sixpence came from, who was being stolen from, and who the villain was working for leaves the reader reeling. A dainty thing indeed we told, no small occurrence we are assured; a joke, surely?
To have such a thing daintily served to the king, to have paranormal events described in that way also speaks to how the king reacted; there was no recoil from him at the sight nor sound, nor any condemnation made, not even a murmur. Instead nothing further is heard from him as the scene ends, and here we realise that a king that would consider such a vision as dainty says much of his character.
While we are no closer to the revelation of who stole from him, such a cold response suggests the potential of a story of class struggle; are we so wrong to judge this 'thief'? Is the king so beloved or are they a tyrant and as such deserving of having their wealth stolen, their food corrupted with false meat? If the thief merely sticking it to an oppressive overlord and as such should be cheered on?
Like any good thriller, the story brings the journey to its climax in a seemingly mild and sedate manner, but still steeped in mystery. But as it closes out, we are finally presented with scenes that provide some resolution of ideas the reader will have managed to tease out of author up to this point.
With the king being in the counting house, counting out his money, we are made to ask again if this man is a tyrant; is his money honestly gained? Is he merely performing budgetary tasks as all kings would, or is he gleefully tallying the loot from years of suppression? As it is only him who is mentioned in the room, along with his non-reaction to the ghosts of the birds, we begin to suspect the later; a cold king, someone who can somehow call upon the supernatural to provide him information of those who wrong him.
Upon realising the king has such shadows in his character, we also start to feel a little empathy for the would-be thief, and so wonder if their actions could be considered justified, even believe for a moment that they will emerge victorious and righteous somehow. But is stealing from the king enough to justify the slaughter of so many black birds?
Knowing the nature of supernatural thrillers, we had an idea that the answer would be 'No'; to mess with a force that can summon the ghosts as witnesses rarely ends well. And knowing this, a new realisation that whoever the thief may be, their sentence shall be swift and dark. This story will not be one of lower classes overcoming their oppressors; there is no fairy tale ending that will be found here.
The following scene puts any suspicion of the chef being our bad guy in doubt as the story shifts for the first time to the queen. The introduction of a new character so late in a story tends to add confusion if not handled right by an author, and while the queen is an obvious plot device, it doesn't distract from the story at all. It is not like the reader would have any reason to think the king would not have a queen; indeed, it would be improbable that they wouldn't, or that not having one would have been of so little import to have not been mentioned earlier.
As it is, with the queen in the parlour, eating bread and honey, the question around the chef's guilt is brought into in focus. After all, if such a baker that would be so evil as to trick the king and bake him a pie of bird meat, he would have ample opportunity to corrupt the treats consumed by the queen. True, it is a tenuous line of reasoning, but enough to lead the reader down another path, a sign that the author still has the reader trapped in a world of uncertainty.
If you have not read this nursery rhyme, you may want to finish here as we are about to talk of the ending, so as they say: major spoiler alert.
The story climaxes in an otherwise scene of normality. With the author having already introduced one new character late in the story, the reader thinks nothing of a new one appearing as they embark on the final lines. A maid, in the garden, hanging out the clothes of the king and queen, performing her duties seemingly oblivious of the events around her.
At least, so we are to believe, for out of nowhere a shadow descends on her from above, and in that moment the reader is given the answer to the perennial question of who done it. When down comes a black bird and pecks off her nose, her lies of innocent servitude and loyalty are made plain to see. The spirits of the slain black birds finally have their revenge, a price paid in blood, enacted out by their still living brother. There's no remorse for her after knowing what she has done, no sympathy for any class struggle she represented; merely a satisfying sense of justice having been served.
It is somewhat disappointing however that that is where the story ends, not just because we lament the finishing of a riveting tale, but we are never privy to the fate of the maid at the hands of the king. With such a bloody scare, the king would have been in no doubt as to who was stealing his money and feeding him bird meat. But such as it is, and we are grateful for the story that we had.