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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.11

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 11


Margaret and the Moth Tree

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  “It’s time,” Margaret said to Judy, who hadn’t heard any of that. “Judy, go to the roof and give Phoebe the signal.” Judy nodded and darted from the room.

  “Okay, Pip,” Margaret whispered. “Send the alert.”

  What happened next inside the room would have made the most serious person you know burst out laughing.

  Miss Switch was sitting at her vanity table wearing a girlish blue dress that puffed out at her knees in a very charming way. She was just putting a delicate pink blush on the apples of her cheeks when a strange knocking sound drifted down from the chimney at the other side of the room. When the knocking continued, she frowned, walked over to the fireplace, and stuck her head in to investigate.

  As she peered up the chimney, the knocking was joined by other sounds: a scraping noise, and a soft sort of fluttering. Bewildered, she stuck her head farther in. Before she knew what was happening, before she could even think about pulling herself back, a gigantic puff of black soot came shooting down from up above.

  “Eeugh!” cried the Matron, covering her eyes with her hands and hacking. The soot was plastered across her face. It was buried in her golden hair. It was stuck in her teeth, and in her eyelashes, and up her nose, and smudged all across the front of her dress.

  She broke into a sneezing fit, staggering backwards.

  But this indignity was only the beginning.

  “Games afoot!” came a mothish voice that Margaret could hear and the Switch could not.

  Zooming down the chimney and out of the fireplace came a moth, covered in dark soot.

  “Get away!” Switch shrieked, as it flew straight toward her and started flapping around her head.

  But the moth did not get away. And to Switch’s horror, a hundred more of the sooty moths came flying from the chimney, encircling her in a cloud of fluttering gray wings.

  Dipping their feet in an open pot of face cream, one by one the moths swooped down to land on her, leaving gooey footprints across her face and arms. Flailing her arms in a panic, Switch began to shriek and run from one side of the room to the other.

  Through it all, Margaret watched at the keyhole.

  “She’s on the run!” said Pip, squeezing under the door. “That’s your cue.”

  Margaret began knocking loudly on the Matron’s door.

  “Miss Switch!” she called. “Is everything all right? I heard a scream.”

  The bedroom door swung open, and it took every ounce of Margaret’s self-control not to burst out laughing.

  The Matron stood in the doorway, covered from head to toe with dust and soot and goo. Her hair was sticking out wildly and her eyes were bulging with fear.

  “Bugs!” cried the Switch frantically. “My room is infested!” And then, seeing who it was standing at the door, she tried to compose herself.

  “Dreg! Get in there right now and fix it.”

  Margaret dashed into the room, and the moths circled around her, cheering.

  “I tagged its nose!” said one.

  “I got it on the bum!” said another.

  “I think we’re winning!” said another.

  “Ten points!” cried another, who sounded like Flit.

  Margaret smiled at the circling moths and gave a quick nod toward Switch’s open window.

  At her signal, a second wave of moths came swooping in through the window. Unlike the others, they were free from soot, but each was carrying a long silken string with a single caterpillar hanging from the bottom.

  “Hi, Margaret!” called the caterpillars.

  A moment later the moths had landed on Switch’s jewelry case, and the caterpillars set to work fastening their threads to her ropes of pearls and diamonds. When the moths took flight again, the jewels took flight with them, hanging from the bottoms of the silken threads. For while a single moth is just strong enough to carry one small blue Plurpil, hundreds of moths can carry much more.

  “Oh no!” Margaret called out. “Miss Switch, your jewels!”

  When Switch turned to look, what she saw made her blood run cold. The vile bugs were flying toward the window, carrying off her glittering necklaces.

  “Thieves!” bellowed the Switch. “I’m being robbed!”

  “Quick,” Margaret cried. “We have to catch them!”

  With a nod at the moths, she began grabbing the jewels from the air. Switch hesitated, then darted back across the room. And with the triumphant cheers of the moths spurring her on, Margaret began draping layers of necklaces around the Matron’s long neck.

  “Faster, dreg!” Switch screeched, as Margaret hurried to empty the jewelry case.

  “That’s everything!” she said.

  Without so much as a glance in Margaret’s direction, the soot-covered Switch ran from the room, leaving Margaret to hurry along behind her.

  Through the orphanage they went, through the ornate sitting room, past the bedrooms of the orphans and down the front stairs. But when they reached the bottom, Switch froze. The dregs were waiting for her in the front hall.

  There was shocked silence for several moments as the dregs stared at the grimy, goggle-eyed Matron. Then from somewhere in the crowd came a tiny giggle. The giggle spread and grew, and soon the entire room was giggling, then laughing, then roaring at the sooty sight before them.

  “Quiet!” hissed the Switch in her threateningly low voice.

  But the roar of the dregs kept getting louder.

  “Stop laughing right now! Stop it or I’ll feed you all to the hobos!” she shouted.

  But her threats were drowned out by the glee of the children. Several of them had fallen to the ground with laughter and were kicking their feet in the air.

  Rage filled Switch’s heart, and as she stared around at the orphans in fury, her gaze fell on Judy giggling loudly near the front of the group.

  “I SAID QUIET!” Switch screamed hysterically, and grabbing Judy by the arm, she lifted her high in the air.

  “Don’t!” cried Margaret, grabbing hold of Switch’s other arm to stop her.

  But Switch threw Margaret off wildly and began to shake poor Judy.

  “How dare you laugh at me?! You’re worthless! You’re pointless! You’re nothing but a dreg!”

  Just as she raised a hand to strike the dangling girl, a different sound cut through all the laughter and screaming and chaos.


  The voice was loud and booming, and as the children all turned toward it, they saw standing in the front door the commanding presence of the Sheriff.

  And standing just behind him, staring in at the dreadful scene, were Gertrude, Prudie, Hannah, a dozen townspeople and three newspaper reporters with flashbulb cameras.


  The Unmasking

  Do you know the feeling you get right before a china plate smashes to the ground? Unless you are in a Greek restaurant, this is a very tense sort of feeling to have. It was just this feeling that hung in the air for a split second before the cameras began madly flashing at the soot-covered, orphan-shaking, bejeweled Miss Switch.

  At first Switch didn’t seem to be able to move. She stood frozen in her bizarre pose and stared back at the shocked people in the doorway. But then she dropped Judy and turned to the Sheriff.

  “Sheriff, I can explain!” she gasped.

  This time, it was Margaret who wouldn’t let her finish.

  “She’s a thief!” Margaret cried.

  The Hopetoners gasped, and Margaret took a step forward.

  “She’s stolen all your money to buy those jewels, and she treats us like slaves!”

  “It’s true!” cried the other orphans.

  “She starves us!”

  “She tortures us!”

  “She calls us dregs!”

bsp; Every orphan in the hall was nodding and holding up bruised, pinched arms.

  “No!” Switch cried desperately. “The dear children are only joking with you. We were playing a game, you see, and I was playing the wicked witch.”

  But the Sheriff’s face had darkened. “There’s nothing worse than a thief,” he said, shaking his head. “But you, Miss Switch, are a thief and a liar.”

  The white-haired Mayor Picklewort emerged from the crowd, clutching a golden trophy. “We can’t give an award to a thieving liar!”

  “I should think not, Harold!” said Gertrude. “It would be the absolute opposite of procedure!”

  “How could someone so beautiful do something so dreadful?” asked Prudie, looking horrified.

  “Margaret!” said Hannah, running inside to pull Margaret into a hug. “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you!”

  In another moment, the rest of the crowd had rushed into the house to hug and comfort the other orphans.

  “Poor little ragamuffins!” they cried.

  “Such sweet little things!”

  Some of the townspeople found that they didn’t want to stop hugging the orphans, and so they adopted them on the spot.

  One couple fell instantly in love with poor, brave Judy and asked her if she wanted them for parents, which she did. Sarah Pottley went home with a lonely lady whose children were all grown up and living far away. And bleary-eyed Toby Bobbins, who had finally woken from his long sleep and come stumbling down the stairs, captured the heart of a plump grandmotherly woman. She asked him to be her new son, and he agreed, so long as laundry wasn’t one of his chores.

  The remaining townspeople turned their attention to Miss Switch.

  “Despicable!” muttered one well-dressed lady in a fancy hat. “To think that all our generous donations went right into her greedy hands!”

  “It’s unthinkable,” said old Mayor Picklewort. “After all our good philanthropy! Don’t anyone tell the Munsfielders about this.”

  The Concerned Ladies were the most horrified of all.

  “This calls for an emergency meeting,” said Prudie.

  “It’s not in the schedule,” Gertrude said, checking her day planner. “But I suppose we can make an exception. Our first order of business will be to decide what to do with the Caregiver of the Year Award. It would seem very ironic to give it to Miss Switch, under the circumstances.”

  “Shouldn’t we decide what to do about the orphans first?” said Hannah. “They’re going to need someone to look after them.”

  “Yes, she’s right,” said Prudie. “Children mustn’t be left without supervision.”

  “I’ll put an ad in the newspaper right away,” said Gertrude.

  “That won’t be necessary,” said Hannah. “I’d like to volunteer for the job.”

  Gertrude and Prudie looked at her in surprise.

  “But you’re not well educated,” said Gertrude. “How will you teach the children about economics?”

  “And you’re not very glamorous,” said Prudie. “How will the children look up to you?”

  “I think I’ll manage,” said Hannah. “Don’t you agree, children?”

  With a great roar of joy, the children agreed. And right then and there, Hannah Tender was declared the new Matron of the Hopeton Orphanage.

  And what of the soot-smeared Switch? The Miss Switch who had once been so beautiful and terrifying?

  She seemed to have deflated completely. As she stood there staring at the hall full of embracing adults and children, she felt utterly unimportant. The Sheriff took her by the arm and led her away, and none of the orphans ever saw her face again.

  And as beautiful and villainous as Angelica Switch had become, she looked in that moment more like the ugly little orphan she had once been, alone and ignored.


  On Endings

  Writers, philosophers and great-aunts have said a great many things about endings. Things like, “All’s well that ends well” and “Every end is a new beginning” and “When you close a door, you open a window.” But when endings happen to people in real life, no one gives much thought to all ending well, or new beginnings, or doors and windows. This is because people’s lives are far too untidy for real endings and beginnings.

  It is better, perhaps, to simply say what happened.

  The Nimblers that floated above the Hopeton Orphanage that first night were sweeter than they had ever been. The moths zoomed and careened and twirled about, drinking in the wild, delicious flavors until the sun came up. Then they fluttered contentedly back to their tree, hiccupping and dizzy. And from that night on, the story of the Greatest Game was told again and again, with new heroic details added at every telling.

  Hannah became a very good Matron, just as you might have supposed. Her first order of business was the Pets, who were raving hysterically about a monster in the hallway, and whom Hannah sent straight to bed with cold compresses. Then Switch’s hoard of treasures was sold, and the money was used to buy the clothes and books and toys that the poor trusting mailman thought he’d been delivering all along. Mush was banned from the menu, and the orphans were at last given some education, though not so much as to put them to sleep.

  Every so often, Hannah did pay a visit to her old schoolmate Angelica. She was the only visitor Switch ever had, and it was hard, at first, to find anything to talk about. But slowly, as time went by, Hannah began to recognize her old friend again. The bleach grew out of Switch’s hair, and her makeup didn’t seem so heavy as before. While Hannah was never quite sure if her visits were wholly welcome, over time Switch’s rude remarks did seem to lessen. Eventually, the two of them could sit together, if not comfortably, at least cordially.

  And the life of Margaret Grey, which had been so quiet and so unusual, became more like other children’s lives.

  As soon as the other orphans didn’t have to pretend she was invisible, Margaret made friends.

  There were still unpleasant people like Lacey to deal with, but they lost their taste for bullying somewhat when they found that bad behavior now earned them extra chores.

  Margaret’s world became louder than it had ever been. After ten years without any brothers or sisters, she now had lots of people to shout and scream and holler with. And as Hannah encouraged outdoor games on fine afternoons, there was a lot of hollering to be had.

  If this were a proper world, Margaret would have surely gained all these delightful things and still have been able to keep the good parts of her old life. Her retreats to the moth tree would have been filled with the happiness that spilled over from her everyday life.

  But no one can live between two worlds forever, however much they might like to.

  The more friends Margaret made, the more she ran and played and laughed, the harder it was for her to hear the tiny sounds that used to come so easily to her. And though she still snuck off every night to visit the moths, their voices were growing quieter and quieter.

  One afternoon as the orphans were whooping through the yard in a loud game of tag, a car pulled up on the dusty road, and from inside came a kind-looking woman and a man with a warm smile.

  Within an hour, Margaret’s life had taken a very wonderful new turn. And a few minutes later, her cheeks aching from so many smiles, Margaret ran as fast as she could to the moth tree.

  “Pip!” she called as she rushed inside. “Pip, wake up! I’ve been adopted!”

  Pip fluttered sleepily down from the upper branches of the tree and dropped into the palm of Margaret’s open hand.

  “By parents?” he cried.

  “Yes!” said Margaret.

  Margaret beamed, and Pip congratulated, and it was the happiest either of them had ever been.

  “You’ll come, won’t you?” said Margaret, after a minute. “You’ll co
me live in town, too?”

  “Oh!” said Pip. “But Margaret, I couldn’t live in a town.”

  “What do you mean?” said Margaret. “Of course you could. It can be like an adventure!”

  “An awfully big one …” Pip said, and his voice was so quiet that the blowing of the wind almost blocked it out.

  Margaret opened her mouth to argue, but then she looked at her friend and saw, for the first time in a very long time, just how small a creature he was. And then her throat felt very tight.

  It is an inconvenient thing, in moments when you most need to tell someone something, that your eyes begin to burn and words seem to get stuck in your throat. Margaret wanted to tell Pip many things: how he and the moths had saved them all; how, if not for them, she would have had a very different life. But she could only manage to say one thing.

  “I’ll remember you always,” said Margaret. “You’re my first friend.”

  She could barely hear Pip’s next words, and she had to concentrate every bit of her energy on her ears just to make them out. When she did, they were barely louder than the rustle of the leaves.

  “And you’re my Margaret.”

  She looked down at the small gray creature in her hand, and he looked up at her. Leaning forward, she gave him a soft kiss on the tip of his wing, and he tilted his head to her. Then he did three fantastic loop-de-loops in the air and flew up into the treetop.

  When Margaret crawled through the brush and out into the day, she ran into the open arms of her new parents. They drove down the dusty road away from the orphanage, away from the waving orphans and Hannah’s smiling face, and away from the tree that held Margaret’s secret. And that was the first day of what would be a very loving and wonderful new life.

  But whenever Margaret saw a pair of tiny wings flutter by, or touched the bark of a gnarled old tree, she thought of her first friend.

  Whenever she felt lonely or sad, she would go to a green place, away from the clatter and noise of the city. She would close her eyes, and she would stay very still. And she would listen.

  And sometimes, from very far off, she could swear she heard the laughing voices of the moths.

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