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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.5

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 5


Margaret and the Moth Tree

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  The Dreg Who Didn’t Exist

  When the mousy girl called Judy told Margaret to keep her head down and try not to get noticed, it was for a very good reason. Drawing attention to yourself when Miss Switch was around, whether through a tiny hint of cheekiness or a grand act of rebellion, meant you were in for punishment.

  “So,” said Switch in her purring voice when she returned from the porch. “You like to blab, do you? You like to chit-chat with policemen?” Her glittering eyes pierced Margaret’s, and the corners of her mouth turned slowly up. “Well, blabby dregs must learn to shut their mouths.”

  She turned to the other orphans.

  “Those are the last words anyone is to speak to this dreg,” she said coolly. “If any of you so much as whisper to her, I’ll tape your mouth shut for a month.”

  “Yes, Miss Switch,” said the orphans.

  “And you,” she turned to Margaret, “had best not make another sound for the rest of your pitiful life, or I’ll feed you to a pack of coyotes.”

  Miss Switch unplugged the telephone and locked it away in her bedroom. And from that day on, the others acted as if Margaret wasn’t there.

  She was made to do her chores completely on her own. Instead of screaming their orders at her in the usual way, the Pets would silently swat her on the head, shove a rag or broom at her and point in the direction she was to go. Her bed was moved out of the dregs’ room into the hallway, where it caught a very chilly draft. And at mealtimes her food was put out on the porch, where she had to sit and eat it all alone.

  Through it all, no one spoke a single word to her, not even Judy. To add injury to insult, the Pets gave her extra pinches to make up for their usual name calling.

  It is a very unpleasant thing, being treated like you don’t exist. A person with a weaker disposition than Margaret might think that they’d turned invisible without noticing, and would have to check a mirror every five minutes to be sure they were still there.

  Margaret, though, kept her wits about her. No matter how much she was pinched and poked and prodded, she was careful never to make the slightest peep. In fact, after going a full day without saying a word to anyone, she was beginning to think she could bear her punishment quite well.

  On Margaret’s second day of silence, however, word went round that the Hopeton Orphanage was to receive two very special visitors: parents.

  The arrival of potential parents at the orphanage was always a momentous occasion, because the thought of parents awakened a flutter of hope in every orphan. Unfortunately for the dregs, this hope was short-lived.

  Every time a new couple came calling, Miss Switch would arrange the orphans in neat rows in the front hall, placing all of her most charming Pets in the very front. That way, they were the first ones the visitors saw when they stepped into the room.

  She would coach the Pets on how to smile in the most adorable way and to give proper bows and curtseys. Then, at the back of the room, she would arrange the dregs.

  “They’d have to be dotty to look at any of you,” Switch would say with a glare. “But if they do, don’t even think about saying something stupid. I can promise that you’ll regret it later.”

  On this particular day, as the orphans stood in their rows wearing their red and blue coveralls, Margaret was tucked away in the very farthest corner of the room behind lanky Phoebe Frizzleton, whose poufy hair was blocking Margaret’s face.

  As the sound of a car engine came drifting through the window, Miss Switch appeared in a plain brown dress and a frilly white apron and made one final inspection of the Pets in the front row. Peering around Phoebe’s shoulder, Margaret could see the curly-haired boy called Christopher Thrashley standing front and center, with Lacey at his side.

  Switch disappeared from the room, and a few moments later she returned with a sweet-looking woman in a polka-dot dress and a man with a neat mustache.

  “These are the orphans,” Miss Switch said with a sweep of her arm, as she led the couple before the waiting children.

  “Oh!” cried the woman, whose eyes immediately fell on Christopher Thrashley.

  “Indeed,” said the man, who looked as though he thought this fact was rather obvious.

  “Please take your time,” said Miss Switch. “And feel free to ask me any questions. I have the personal histories of each child available should you wish to read them.”

  The couple walked slowly along the first row of children before the sweet-faced woman came to a stop in front of Christopher.

  “Hello, dear,” she said. “What’s your name?”

  “I’m Christopher,” he said, with a charming little bow. “It’s very lovely to meet you!”

  The woman beamed with delight and cast a quick glance at her husband, who nodded approvingly.

  Beneath their smiles, the other orphans breathed a sigh of disappointment.

  But just at that moment, an unexpected thing happened. Phoebe Frizzleton’s poufy hair, which had been hanging down in front of Margaret’s face, tickled her nose in precisely the wrong way, and Margaret gave a very loud, very high-pitched sneeze.

  Every face in the room, including those of the man and woman, turned to look at Margaret, who clapped both of her hands over her mouth.

  “Bless you, child!” said the woman, sweetly. “Martin, your hankie.”

  The man pulled a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket and edged between the rows of children to offer it to Margaret. “Here you are, little girl.”

  With a small curtsy, Margaret took it.

  “And what might your name be?” asked the man.

  Margaret opened her mouth to answer, but just at that moment, she caught a glimpse of Miss Switch. The Matron was standing behind the man and the woman, just out of sight so that neither of them could see her. And her face was wearing an expression so frightening that Margaret didn’t dare utter a single sound.

  She froze, looking up at the friendly man with her mouth half open, then pressed her lips tightly together and dropped her eyes to the floor.

  “That child,” Miss Switch said in a mock whisper, the sweetness in her face restored, “has a history of loopiness, I’m afraid. Runs in the family. It’s best not to upset her.”

  “Oh!” said the man, staring at Margaret in shock and backing away quickly.

  “Well, what about this one, Miss Switch?” asked the woman, pointing back to Christopher Thrashley.

  Miss Switch smiled. “Christopher is one of our most popular and well-behaved children. You won’t find a more adorable child anywhere, I assure you.”

  At a final nod from the friendly man, the sweet-faced woman smiled with delight. “We’ll take him!” she said.

  But Margaret barely heard what happened next. As Christopher whooped and ran into the arms of his new parents, all Margaret could hear were the words she wished she could have said to the friendly man and woman.

  “My name is Margaret Grey,” she would have said. “I’m not loopy, it’s just that I can’t make a sound or I’ll be fed to the coyotes. Please take me far away from here.”

  But of course, the man and the woman couldn’t read minds.

  The papers were signed. And as the new family said their goodbyes and climbed into their car and drove away down the dirt road, Margaret stared intently downwards, her eyes blurry with tears.



  Margaret’s Great-aunt Linda had often said, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” which was her way of saying that you should try to make the best of a bad situation. However, a far more useful saying would be, “If life gives you lemons, water, sugar, a pitcher and a long spoon to stir with, make lemonade.” Everyone knows that if life gives you lemons alone it is just bad luck, and th
e most you can do is try to trade them for something better.

  But if life gives you lemons and you are already in possession of water, sugar, a pitcher and a long spoon to stir with, that is something else entirely. That is serendipity.

  Margaret Grey had lived in silence once before. And because she had once lived in silence, her new punishment — though she didn’t realize it yet — was a stroke of serendipity.

  Even though she was very lonesome without anyone to speak to, and even though her arms became bruised and sore from all the pinches, Margaret found that the quiet was strangely familiar. As day after day went by without even a hint of conversation, she began to notice a very odd thing.

  The first time it happened, she was dusting the kitchen rafters from the top of a teetering ladder. As she swept her duster across a cobwebby beam, sending a great cloud of dust into the air, she heard —


  Margaret nearly fell off her ladder, because for a split second, she thought she’d heard a sneeze coming from a spider’s web.

  That’s ridiculous, she told herself, giving her head a shake. No one can hear a spider sneeze.

  But a few days later, it happened again. She was sweeping under the kitchen table, cleaning up after Miss Switch’s afternoon feast, when from somewhere in the walls —


  Margaret bumped her head on the underside of the table. She could have sworn she’d heard the growl of a tiny mousy stomach.

  That’s absurd, she reminded herself, rubbing her sore head. No one can hear a mouse’s hungry belly.

  But with every passing day, it happened more and more.

  She would be scrubbing the front steps and hear a crow land on the roof. She would be cleaning the Pets’ bedroom upstairs and hear two dregs whispering all the way down in the basement.

  Margaret knew these events were ridiculous. She knew they were absurd. She knew that, in a sensible world, they simply couldn’t be. But just because something is absurd or ridiculous doesn’t stop it from being true. And as the very smallest of sounds continued to trickle in, she realized what was happening.

  She was hearing things no one else could hear.

  Without even noticing she was doing it, Margaret had started to listen again. You see, there are some talents that can never really be lost. They are only hiding, like a sleeping turtle in its shell, waiting to be coaxed out and used again.

  As Margaret went mutely about her tasks, she soon discovered something else: she could control her talent. When she focused all her attention on her ears, she felt them open to the faintest and tiniest hints of sound.

  At first it was only by closing her eyes and holding very still that she was able to do it perfectly. But late at night when everyone else was asleep, she practiced, and soon even with her eyes open or her hands busy at chores, she could focus her ears as easily as anything.

  And the more she focused, the more she heard.

  One evening, just as dusk was falling, Margaret was kneeling in the vegetable patch in the yard behind the orphanage. But rather than feeling lonesome and sad as she yanked spiky weeds from the rows of tomato plants, she was focusing her attention on her ears.

  A hummingbird hovered nearby, and she heard each whir of its tiny wings.

  A mole crawled by under the ground, and she heard its breath puff in and out.

  A breeze blew across a clump of dandelions, and she heard each fluffy seed break off and float away on the wind.

  “Wake up!” cried a very small voice.

  Margaret looked up in surprise, wondering who had spoken, but no one was there.

  “Come on, Pip, or we’ll start without you!” cried the voice.

  Margaret got to her feet and whirled around.

  At the back of the vegetable patch was a trellis fence grown over with snap peas, and it was from this direction that the voice had come.

  There was nothing behind the trellis, Margaret knew. Only a stretch of overgrown grass and the row of bushes that marked the end of the orphanage grounds. Unlike the front of the property, which was kept neatly trimmed and pruned to impress visitors, this part of the yard wasn’t tended at all, since no one ever bothered to go there.

  Margaret peered through a gap in the trellis, and sure enough, there wasn’t a soul in sight.

  “I’m coming!” called a new tiny voice.

  “Hello?” cried Margaret. The voice sounded as though it must be right in front of her. “Who’s there?”

  But in that moment, Margaret had lost her focus, and her ears had closed up again as though someone had snapped a pair of earmuffs over them. Listen as she might, she didn’t hear the mysterious voices again.


  The Thorny Brush

  Later that night, after Margaret had finished her chores and collapsed in her chilly bed in the hallway, she could think of nothing but the two strange voices.

  The only people who could hear voices from nowhere, she had been brought up to believe, were people who’d gone a bit dotty in the head. But Margaret didn’t feel any more dotty than usual. And as she lay there, tossing and turning in the cold, she realized something.

  Quite accidentally, Miss Switch had given her an opportunity.

  Now that her bed was separate from the others, there was no one around to see her come and go. There was no creaking bedroom door to alert the Pets. And there was no reason she could think of not to return to the yard to seek out the voices once again.

  As everyone else lay sleeping, Margaret threw off her covers and laced up her shoes. She tiptoed from her bed and crept down the hallway, past the Pets’ door and down the stairs. She crept through the kitchen and, very quietly, let herself out through the back door. Then she waited, wondering if anyone would come chasing after her to snatch her back inside. When no one did, she ran out into the moonlit yard.

  Margaret ran through the garden, passing patches of carrots and turnips, all the way to the trellis fence with its trailing pea vines. But this time, she went around it. When she came to the other side, she felt her heart beat a little faster.

  She was standing on the overgrown lawn on the other side of the trellis. Before her, a cool wind was blowing through the tall grass, and at the far end of the lawn, a tangle of bushes rose up in shadow.

  “Hello?” she called, walking slowly forward.

  All she could hear was the wind in the grass.

  The bushes were gray in the moonlight, twisted and thorny and rather frightening. They had been left to grow wild for so long that they had joined together into a brush, too thick to see through and too tall to see over, with sharp branches that swayed in the wind as if clawing at the air.

  Margaret came to the center of the lawn and stopped. She shivered, gazing up at the looming brush, then closed her eyes to calm her nerves. And it was then, with the swaying grass tickling her legs and the wind rustling her hair, that she heard the strange voices for the second time.

  “Is it still there?” said a small voice. “What’s it doing?”

  “Just standing around,” said another.

  Margaret’s eyes snapped open. Just as before, there was no one in sight, but she was sure this time — the voices had come from the enormous brush.

  She took a step closer. As she did, she saw that in the bottom branches in the very center of the tangled brush, there was a gap.

  The gap wasn’t very large or very noticeable, but when she crouched down, she saw that it was just big enough for a raccoon or a fox or, perhaps, a very small girl. She pushed aside one thorny branch, then another, and soon the gap had widened enough for her to squeeze through it.

  Slowly, Margaret reached her hand inside. Her hand was shortly followed by her wrist. Then her elbow, her shoulder, and finally her head. Carefully clearing a way through the brush, Margaret craw
led deeper in. Then, quite suddenly, the branches gave way to open space, and Margaret looked up with a gasp.

  The dense brush had been hiding something. At the heart of the growth of bushes, there was a tree.

  The tree had a wrinkly, moss-covered trunk and a thick net of intertwined branches that fell all the way down to the ground. Margaret blinked several times, getting used to the dimness, and saw that she was in a sort of hollow that had formed between the branches and the trunk. When she breathed in, she inhaled a rich, mossy smell.

  It was so lovely that she forgot to be puzzled. She forgot all about being dotty in the head. Gazing around at the beautiful, hidden chamber in the tree, Margaret listened.

  She heard the call of a distant bird, and the soft breathing of the sleeping children in the orphanage.

  She heard the parting of two clouds far overhead, and the dust blowing out on the road.

  And when she concentrated very hard, she could even hear the leaves growing on the tree.

  “Stay very still, Pipperflit,” said a small voice. “Maybe it’ll leave.”

  “No, Pip, fly away!” said another tiny voice. “It looks like a gobbler!”

  Margaret looked down and saw a small shadowy creature sitting on a low branch near her right hand.

  It was a moth.


  The Moth Tree

  “What’s it doing, do you think?” said the moth.

  “Maybe it’s lost?” said the first voice.

  “Maybe it’s sleepwalking?” said the second.

  Margaret thought about this. But when she rubbed her eyes and gave her arm a good pinch, she seemed to be very much awake. She bent down to get a closer look at the moth, and the moth flattened its wings against the tree branch and held perfectly still.

  For several moments, neither of them moved.

  “Do you think …” the moth said at last, “do you think maybe it’s listening to us?”

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