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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.6

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 6


Margaret and the Moth Tree

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  “Of course I am,” Margaret said.

  The moth gave a shout of surprise, fluttering into the air.

  “Quick, Pip!” cried the second voice from up above. “It’s probably planning to gobble you up!”

  “No I’m not!” said Margaret.

  “Get away from it, Pip!” said the first voice. “If we leave it alone, it’ll have to go away.”

  But the moth called Pip had landed on the tree trunk just above Margaret’s head and was looking down at her curiously.

  “I don’t know,” said the moth. “It doesn’t look so bad to me. Why don’t we try talking to it?”

  “We can’t do that!”

  “I’m not going to hurt you,” said Margaret.

  “You keep away from him!” cried the first voice. “See, Pip, you’re encouraging it. Don’t say another word!”

  But as Margaret watched, the small moth fluttered lower down, settling in a sliver of moonlight near her face.

  She could see now that he had two glittering, unblinking eyes, a pair of waving feelers that were reaching out toward her, three pairs of legs and two beautiful dusty gray wings. His head was cocked on one side, and he seemed to be studying Margaret’s features just as she was studying his.

  “I’m Margaret,” said Margaret, remembering her manners.

  “Pipperflit,” said the moth, with a flit of his wings. “But you can call me Pip. You’re not going to gobble me up, are you?”

  “No, of course not!” said Margaret.

  “Good,” said Pip. “You know, I didn’t think humans could hear us.”

  “I didn’t think moths could talk,” said Margaret.

  “Didn’t you? How funny!” The moth crawled along a branch until he was perched right in front of Margaret’s nose. “Where did you come from?” he said.

  “From the orphanage.”

  “Oh,” said Pip. He was silent for a moment, and then nodded quickly. “Oh, yes, the orfallidge. I see. What’s that?”

  “It’s a place for orphans. Children with no parents.”

  Pip looked up at her in amazement. “No parents!” he cried. “But where in the world did you come from?”

  “No, no!” Margaret said. “We had parents once, just not anymore. Now we only have the Switch.”

  “Oh, yes, the Switch. I understand,” said Pip, nodding. Then a few moments later, “What’s a Switch?”

  “She’s horrible,” Margaret said.

  Just then, two more moths came fluttering down from the upper branches of the tree.

  “Now you’ve done it!” one of them said, fluttering its wings in agitation. “Now that you’ve talked to it, it will probably stay here forever!”

  “Don’t be such a stinkbeetle!” said Pip. “I’m only being friendly. Anyway, it’s called Margaret. This is Rimblewisp, and that’s Flitterwing,” said Pip to Margaret. “Rimb and Flit for short.”

  The two new moths landed on the branch, then tilted their heads to one side just as Pip had done.

  “Whatsit?” said Flit.

  “Hmph,” said Rimb. “Why’s it so big?”

  “Hello,” said Margaret, feeling rather silly. “I won’t stay forever. I promise.”

  “There, you see!” said Pip. “It’s only visiting.”

  “Well, it still seems very odd. Where did it come from?”

  “The orfallidge,” Pip said.

  “Oh,” said Rimb. The moth named Flit nodded.

  Margaret only smiled. And as she sat there in the tree, talking with the moths in the dark of night, Margaret Grey became one of the few people in the world ever to discover the truth about moths.


  The Truth about Moths

  While the sight of a butterfly sets people to skipping around with nets, the sight of a moth most often inspires shrieks and fainting fits. Indeed, you may think that moths are nothing more than unfashionable butterflies — drab, ugly creatures to be ignored or run away from. But the truth about moths is much more wonderful.

  If you were to sit and watch a moth for a whole day, it might look as if it were doing nothing at all. But the night is a different matter entirely. Nighttime is when the moths come alive.

  As soon as the sun has set and the moths emerge from their nooks and corners, they have only one purpose until the next day’s sunrise: to have as much fun as they possibly can.

  They will play and fly and flutter in the moonlight until they are nearly breathless, stopping only for a sip of nectar or a drop of dew, then they will loop and spin and whirl until they’re ready to collapse with happiness. So you can’t blame them, really, for being quite tired out by morning, content to rest up quietly until the next night’s festivities.

  The other thing that moths are doing in the daytime is thinking up clever new games to impress their friends. Moths are very competitive, you see, and love nothing more than to show off.

  You may have seen them at a game called Light-Hopping, which is one of the oldest and most popular moth games. Every time a moth spots a light or a lamppost, he will race to it as fast as possible. The last one to hop on the light is It, and that moth has to tag one of his friends, do three quick loop-de-loops and touch the light again before his friend can tag him back. This game is so popular that moths will even practice at it all alone, just to be ready when the time comes for a real match. And it is so popular that even the rumors of great danger posed by mysterious lights known as candles cannot stop them from playing it.

  They have other games, too. There is Hoverpik, where moths fly in formation to make shapes that the others guess at, and Billabump, which is a flying form of leapfrog. In fact, Margaret had interrupted a game of Billabump between Pip, Rimb and Flit that was taking place on the lawn. When the three moths had heard Margaret’s footsteps approaching, they’d abandoned their game and fled into the tree.

  There are very few events that can cause moths to abandon a game before it’s finished. On rare occasions, a silently swooping owl or a sudden hailstorm might cause moths to take cover inside their tree.

  On one infamous night many years before, a barefoot dreg named Sally Winkleson had shuffled through the yard in her nightgown, fast asleep. She had walked straight through a game of Hoverpik, stopped in her tracks, and then turned around and marched back to the orphanage, pausing once to ask, “Which way to the cheese factory?” But the appearance of Margaret, wide-awake and curious, was the first of its kind.

  These were some of the marvelous things she discovered listening to Pip, Rimb and Flit, as she took in the sights and sounds of the moth tree for the first time.

  “Games afoot!” called a voice suddenly from outside. “Whirlawhoomps!”

  The wings of the three moths began to twitch. Then, without a word, they flew upward out of the branches and into the night.

  Margaret scrambled after them, back through the makeshift tunnel in the brush. And what she saw when she emerged made her gasp for the second time that night.

  More moths had come out of hiding. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, flitting through the air in chaotic loops and twirls. The sky was alive with moths at play.

  At first she didn’t see a pattern in it, but after sitting quietly for a few minutes, she began to understand.

  Whirlawhoomps is a moth game played late in the spring, when the most impatient of the moths have emerged from their cocoons and the slow movers are still enjoying their time as caterpillars.

  To play, each moth pairs up with a caterpillar, who spins a small thread of silk. Together they fasten one end of the thread around a small blue berry, which the moths call Plurpils. Once the Plurpil is fastened, the moth carries the other end of the thread with its front legs and takes off into the air.

  And that is when the fun really starts.

; The goal of Whirlawhoomps is to swing your Plurpil so that it squishes into another moth, marking them with blue juice. As soon as that happens, the moth who has been squished on is Out for the rest of the round, and the moth who’s done the squishing zips off to look for their next target.

  Margaret, sitting cross-legged at the foot of the brush, hardly knew where to look. Her eyes darted between loop-de-loops, and swinging Plurpils, and zooming and zipping moths. She popped a handful of Plurpils into her mouth from time to time, and they tasted tangy and sweet. She sat there quietly in the grass for what seemed like no time at all, until finally she began to yawn. Only then did she notice the dawn creeping over the horizon.

  “Oh!” she said, jumping to her feet. “I should go.”

  “Why?” said Pip. “The game’s not over.”

  “I’m sorry, but I need to get back.“

  “Back to the orfallidge?” piped up Flit.

  “Yes,” said Margaret. “Back there.”

  “See you, Whatsit!” said Flit.

  “You’ll come back tomorrow, won’t you, Margaret?” said Pip.

  Margaret smiled. “I will,” she said.

  And she ran back to the orphanage.



  The Margaret Grey who climbed back into bed was not the same Margaret Grey who had snuck away from the orphanage in the dead of night a few short hours before. Even though her eyes were still tired, her clothes were still gray and scratchy and her stomach was still hungry, Margaret had changed on the inside.

  Now she had a secret, which was something Switch couldn’t take away from her. From that day onward, Margaret crept from her bed every night and ran softly out of the orphanage to meet with Pip and the other moths. And in those few wonderful hours before she collapsed back to sleep, she could forget about her life of drudgery.

  “It’s Margaret of the orfallidge!” Pip would cry when he saw her coming, and he and the other moths would welcome her into the tree as if she were a very large and distant cousin.

  Margaret’s secret made her daytime hours more bearable, too.

  Even as she was forced to use a moldy toothbrush to scrape gunk out from between the kitchen tiles, she imagined she was crawling through the thorny tunnel to the moth tree. Even as she forced spoonfuls of cold mush into her mouth, she remembered the taste of the tangy blue Plurpils. And even as she spent hours beating dust out of the curtains with a large racket, she imagined she was talking with Pip, and everything seemed much better.

  Any place you can go to escape from the pinches and punishments of the world is called a sanctuary, and this is just what Margaret had found in the moth tree. But the trouble with sanctuaries is that sooner or later you have to leave them.

  One blustery morning when Margaret was put on mush-making duty in the kitchen, something happened that pulled her out of hers.

  Mush making was a particularly boring chore that involved taking big bricks of packed oats, squishing them in a bowl, and pouring warm water onto them to make the tasteless mush that was served to the dregs at mealtimes.

  Margaret was sitting on a small stool, squishing oats and thinking of the previous night’s game of Hoverpik, when an enormous crash shattered the silence in the kitchen. Looking over, she saw a terrified red-haired girl holding a silver tray and standing over a mess of broken china.

  “You clumsy lunkhead!” shouted Lacey, who appeared a moment later from the hall. “You’ve done it now! Miss Switch will have your skin for this!” Grabbing the girl by one ear, she dragged her out of the room.

  Margaret and the other children followed, keeping a safe distance. When they reached the front hall, Lacey began shrieking at the top of her lungs up the stairs. “Miss Switch! Miss Switch, come quickly!”

  After a few moments, a door opened somewhere on the upper floor and Miss Switch swept into view at the top of the staircase. “Lacey, dear,” she said, her eyes gleaming. “What have I told you about shouting?”

  “This dreg ruined your china tea set, Miss Switch!” Lacey said quickly, shoving the red-haired girl forward. “The stupid scab smashed it!”

  Switch shot an icy glare at the unfortunate girl. “Sarah Pottley, isn’t it?” Her voice grew horribly quiet. “This isn’t the first time we’ve suffered from your buffoonery.” A dead silence fell across the room, and all eyes turned toward Switch.

  “I’m — I’m sorry,” Sarah was spluttering, her eyes wide with terror. “So s-s-sorry!”

  Miss Switch raised one perfectly manicured finger, and the girl fell silent. “I think, my dear,” she said, gliding slowly down the stairs, “that you need to be taught a lesson.”

  “Please!” begged Sarah Pottley, her whole body trembling. “Please, no!”

  Miss Switch smiled a terrible smile. “But my dear child,” she said, her voice mocking and sickly sweet. “How else will anything get through that thick head of yours?” Darting down the remaining stairs, she grasped the trembling girl by the arm. “Come along, children. We’re going up.”

  With a few strides of her long legs, Switch pulled the unfortunate Sarah Pottley up the stairs and around the corner. The other children ran to keep up as she strode down the hall, past the orphans’ bedrooms and up another flight of stairs.

  “Where’s she going?” Margaret heard someone whisper behind her.

  “The attic,” she heard Judy answer.

  “Oh, no!” another boy gasped. “Not the window!”

  Spanning the attic wall was an enormous window, which Switch threw open to reveal the steep drop down to the yard below. A strong cold wind came whipping in. Still smiling her malicious smile, the Matron pushed Sarah Pottley toward the open window.

  “Now,” Switch hissed with delight. “Out you go, dreg.”

  Shaking uncontrollably, Sarah took a step forward and then turned back in fear. “Please,” she begged. “D-don’t make me — ”

  “You have to learn, my dear, the dangers of smashing things to smithereens on the ground,” Switch said. When the girl still didn’t move, Switch raised her voice to a terrible pitch and shouted, “Out!”

  Bursting into tears, Sarah took one shaky step, then another, then reached out a hand to grab hold of the windowsill and hoist herself onto the ledge.

  “Almost there,” Switch said. Then with a sudden thrust, she pushed Sarah over the ledge. The children gasped, and Sarah screamed as she plummeted out of the window.

  “No!” Margaret barely stopped herself from crying aloud. But when she rushed forward with the rest of the children to peer over the sill, she saw that Sarah had landed on a small ledge that jutted out from the building.

  “Pull me back!” Sarah cried, her frizzy red hair whipping in the strong wind. “Please, I’m going to slip!”

  “You should be fine if you hold very still,” Switch said gleefully, “and keep your stupid mouth shut.”

  “The wind is too strong!” Sarah shouted, and Margaret could see that powerful gusts were pushing and pulling at the frantic girl, making her sway alarmingly.

  “Don’t be so dramatic,” Switch said, her smile widening. “I think this is the perfect place for you to stand quietly and think about what you’ve done.”

  Margaret looked around the attic and saw that the other orphans were watching Sarah’s plight in helpless silence.

  “Please!” Sarah Pottley’s voice cried again. “Somebody help!”

  But for poor Sarah Pottley, there was no help to be found. There was only the Switch. Turning back to the horrified children, the Matron beckoned Lacey to her side. “You can let her in,” the Switch said, her voice cool, “after sundown.”

  “Yes, Miss Switch.” Lacey gave a small curtsy as Miss Switch swept back down the stairs. Then with a satisfied glare at the rest of the children, Lacey pulled the window shutters
closed with a bang.

  “Back to work, dregs!” she snarled, shoving them down the attic stairs.

  Back to work they went, quiet and fearful. And for the rest of the day, they tried in vain to ignore the cries of distress that drifted down from the attic.

  Even Margaret, with her secret supply of happy thoughts, couldn’t block out the distant screams. Sarah Pottley’s torment had intruded on her sanctuary.

  Margaret’s heart filled with sadness at each pitiful wail, because while Margaret was lucky enough to have a wonderful secret all her own, she knew Sarah Pottley had nothing to distract herself from the thought of being smashed to smithereens.

  This quality is one of the basic ways to spot good people with kind hearts. It is called sympathy, and people who have it make up for all the bullies of this world, who feel nothing at all.


  A Run of Bad Luck

  When Margaret ran to the moth tree that night, she could barely contain the awful feelings that had stayed with her all through the day. Bursting through the tunnel in the brush, she told Pip exactly what Switch had done to poor Sarah Pottley.

  “That stinkbeetle! That swindleswine!” he cried, zipping around in a fury.

  Margaret nodded grimly. Switch had spent the afternoon catching up on her reading, reclining on a silk chaise with a large stack of fashion magazines. To all appearances, she was completely unmoved by the cries of fear that drifted down from above, her only reaction to each of the unfortunate dreg’s wails being a casual flip of a glossy page.

  As Margaret described the whole of that dreadful day, Pip grew very quiet, his wings twitching as though he were about to fly off for a game of Billabump.

  “Dungwaddler!” he cried instead. “That’s what she is!”

  He flitted around the tree, hurling more and more insults at the absent Switch, until Margaret grinned in spite of herself.

  Calling the Matron names was something Margaret had never thought she would do, as Great-aunt Linda had taught her never to criticize her elders. But when dealing with an elder who is also a terrifying bully, a good bout of name calling can be a very useful exercise. This is because as soon as you can laugh at a thing you’ve been afraid of, you begin to whittle away at its fearsomeness.

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