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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.7

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 7

 

Margaret and the Moth Tree
 


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  The more insults Pip hurled at Switch, the less gloomy Margaret’s mood became. Her grin grew into a wide smile, and her smile burst into a giggle. And soon, in the very spot in her mind where her fear of Switch had been, Margaret found there was no fear at all. In its place was something she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a glimmering bit of hope.

  Sometimes, improving things just a little makes a great deal of difference. It occurred to Margaret that if the other orphans could only laugh, perhaps they, too, could be a little less afraid. Perhaps the gloom of the Hopeton Orphanage could be broken, even if just for a moment. And as Margaret imagined grins and smiles on the faces of the other orphans, she knew just what would make them smile the most.

  There was one person who deserved to be laughed at more than any other: the same person who had laughed at each of them so often. The same person who had tricked and taunted and tortured them, and kept every good thing for herself.

  Margaret decided it was time for things to change. And she thought she knew exactly how to manage it.

  “Magazines,” she said aloud.

  “What’s that?” said Pip.

  A great and clever plan had formed in Margaret’s head.

  ~~~

  Each morning after breakfast, Miss Switch would go into her study and read a stack of fashion magazines. And every time she opened a shiny new magazine, she always flipped right to the back to check the horoscopes.

  A horoscope, in case you didn’t know, is an extremely vague piece of advice given from one perfect stranger to another. While any reasonable person knows to pay horoscopes no attention at all, gullible people will always obey them no matter how silly their advice may be.

  It was well known among the orphans that Switch took her horoscopes very seriously, and it was this fact that formed the basis of Margaret’s great and clever plan.

  Before the night was through, she had crept to Switch’s study and scooped up a large stack of old magazines. She sacrificed her few hours of sleep to search through the horoscopes with Pip, and by sunrise they had found exactly the ones they needed. Tearing out the pages very carefully, Margaret tucked them into the sleeve of her dress.

  When the mailman arrived that morning, leaving Switch’s new magazines on the front doorstep, Margaret was there to snatch them up. She clipped out the horoscope pages, and with the glue that Switch sometimes used to stick children’s hands together, she pasted the old ones in their place.

  The first horoscope now read, “Bad luck awaits if the little things distract you.”

  The second one said, “See a penny, pick it up.”

  And the last horoscope said, “Climb to the highest peak.”

  These were the messages Miss Switch read in her study that day, after Margaret had replaced the glossy magazines on the doorstep.

  And Miss Switch, who was always on the lookout for bad luck, read them over three times.

  It just so happened that her peaceful reading was interrupted very suddenly by a loud clattering noise outside her study door. When Switch threw the door open, she saw tiny Timothy Smealing struggling with a large tray of noisy dishes.

  “The little things …” she hissed, remembering her horoscope and realizing with horror that she’d just been distracted by one.

  “Lacey!” she shrieked. “Dregs! Listen up. If I hear so much as a peep or see so much as a finger from any of you today, I’ll tie your feet to the ceiling like mistletoe and leave you there for a week! I don’t want to be distracted by a single one of you! Is that understood?”

  “Yes, Miss Switch,” chimed the children.

  “Was that a peep?!” screeched the Switch. “I can still see you!”

  Without another word, the children bolted from sight.

  Miss Switch sighed. “Much better,” she said to no one. “Don’t any of you show your spotty faces again until tomorrow morning. Or else.”

  None of the orphans made even the smallest sound in response.

  The rest of the day consisted of a great deal of hiding and shushing among the orphans as Miss Switch moved through different rooms of the house.

  Nothing interesting happened until just after dinnertime, when Miss Switch went upstairs for a soak in her private bathtub. The children who had been hiding in the kitchen slowly came out from behind their curtains and cupboards and began quietly preparing their dinners of cold mush.

  But Margaret was doing something else. She was waiting just outside Switch’s bedroom door, holding a small handful of pennies she’d collected from a crow’s nest in the brush.

  When she heard the Matron’s footsteps approaching, she placed a single shiny penny just outside Switch’s door and sprinted down the hall in the direction of the attic.

  When Switch reached the top of the stairs, her eyes fell on the penny. She snatched it up greedily, remembering her horoscope, and just as she did so she noticed another penny lying only a few feet away.

  “How delightful!” she said aloud, feeling sure that if one penny was good luck, two would be even better. She picked up the second penny, only to spot another tiny glint farther down the hall by the attic stairs. She was just pocketing the third penny, when another caught the light a few stairs up.

  Switch followed the trail of pennies, feeling both incredibly lucky and vaguely surprised that she had never noticed so many pennies lying around before. Then she came to a penny in the middle of the attic floor. It seemed to be the last one, and it was sitting next to the ladder that led up to the roof.

  Margaret, who was watching from behind a dusty old wardrobe, held her breath to see if the last part of her plan would work.

  Switch looked to the right, then the left, then directly behind her. And then she remembered what her last horoscope had said.

  Climb to the highest peak.

  She looked up.

  The trapdoor to the roof was directly above her head. It had a long string attached to the handle so that you could pull the door closed from inside, and the string was swaying slowly back and forth in a draft of cold air.

  Without a moment’s thought, Miss Switch climbed up the ladder and pushed open the trapdoor.

  Leaving Margaret’s shoulder, Pip flew after the Matron as she stepped onto the windy roof and began scanning for pennies. The moment her back was turned to the trapdoor, he zipped back inside.

  “Now!” he cried.

  Miss Switch, of course, couldn’t hear him. But Margaret could.

  She dashed across the attic to the ladder, climbed up it, and yanked hard on the dangling string. The trapdoor came slamming down with a bang, and Margaret slid the latch that locked it from the inside.

  The Switch was trapped! And as Margaret darted back to her hiding place, she could hear the Matron screaming to be let back in.

  When the other orphans began tiptoeing up to the attic to see what all the ruckus was about, Margaret stepped out from behind the wardrobe and blended into the back of the growing crowd.

  “You, dreg!” Lacey hissed, pointing at Judy. “Go up there and see what Miss Switch wants.”

  “She said she didn’t want to see us,” Judy said, shaking her head. “She said she’d hang us up like mistletoe.”

  And though Lacey kept trying to get the dregs to open the door, she didn’t dare do it herself for fear of disobeying Miss Switch’s orders.

  It is a very satisfying thing to see people get a taste of their own medicine. Even though Switch screamed like a banshee all through the rainy night, and even though her fancy gown was soaked through, and even though the next morning she was hacking and sneezing with a terrible cold, there was no one for her to punish. They had all, as Lacey explained nervously when she let Switch in, only been following the Matron’s own command.

  By mid-morning chores, the tale had become very popular.


  “The whole night!” whispered Vickram Skitter.

  “In the rain,” whispered Phoebe Frizzleton.

  “In her evening dress!” giggled Bessie Blotchly.

  The rooftop story was told again and again, and every time, it brought little smiles to the faces of the orphans.

  And early the next morning when the mailman came by, he wondered why the trash cans were so full of magazines.

  CHAPTER 19

  The Nimblers

  When Margaret Grey was growing up, she had all the exciting “firsts” that other children have.

  There was the first time she read a book by herself, the first time she tied her own shoes and the first time she wrote the alphabet in cursive letters. But every time Margaret did one of these clever things and toddled over to inform her aunt, Great-aunt Linda would tell her not to blow her own horn. This had confused Margaret at first, since she couldn’t play the horn or any other musical instrument.

  What Great-aunt Linda had meant is that small children shouldn’t brag about their accomplishments. Bragging and boasting and blowing your own horn all mean the same thing, but no matter what you call it,it was a thing young Margaret was never allowed to do.

  When the rooftop plot went off without a hitch, Margaret felt enormously happy and relieved. But even if she hadn’t been forbidden to speak to the other orphans, it would never have occurred to her to blow her own horn.

  “It’s Whatsit!” shrieked Flit, when Margaret crawled through the tunnel to the moth tree the following night.

  “Margaret?” came Pip’s voice from up in the tree.

  “Hello!” Margaret called, climbing up to him.

  As she settled herself on a sturdy branch, letting her legs dangle, she saw that Pip was surrounded by a group of moths. They all seemed to be waiting for her, and they all looked very excited.

  “Margaret’s here!”

  “Let’s hear the story!”

  “She’s my Margaret,” Pip said importantly, taking his place on her shoulder, “so I’ll be the one to ask. Tell the story, Margaret!”

  Contrary to Great-aunt Linda’s idea of correct manners, in the moth world, blowing your own horn is not at all impolite. In fact, it is expected. After a round of Billabump or Light-Hopping or Whirlawhoomps, moths will sit around and brag about their brilliance for hours on end. A good boaster is highly respected, because in the moth world boasting is really like a game in itself.

  Encouraged by Pip, Margaret launched into the tale of Switch on the roof. As she told her story, the crowd of moths grew so that soon the entire tree had gathered to hear her.

  “Nicely played!” said a moth called Milliwisp, when she came to the end.

  “Well snuck!” said a moth called Putterwing.

  “I was there, too!” said Pip. He was just explaining the important role he had played with the trapdoor, when he stopped speaking very suddenly. He was perfectly still for several seconds. And then his wings began to twitch.

  “What’s wrong?” said Margaret.

  Looking around, she noticed that all the other moths had frozen, too, their wings quivering with energy just like Pip’s. Then, everyone began talking at once.

  “They’re back!”

  “Good Nimblers tonight!”

  “What’s going on?” said Margaret.

  “Can’t you smell them?” said Pip.

  Margaret sniffed the air, but all she could smell was the pleasant mossy scent of the green dome. She frowned and looked back at Pip, but he was gone.

  In seconds, the tree had come alive with moths flying up from every branch. They zipped away through the branches to the outside, until only Margaret and the caterpillars were left.

  Margaret jumped down from her branch and scrambled through the tunnel. When she emerged onto the grass, the moths were shouting and laughing together in a great busy cloud.

  “I smell a good one!”

  “Quick, catch it!”

  “Mmm! Tasty!”

  High in the air, the moths looped and zigzagged in unison, as if they were chasing some invisible thing.

  Margaret gazed up at the beautiful sight, watching in wonder for several minutes.

  She was still trying to make out what the game was, when the strange chase ended as suddenly as it had begun. The pattern broke apart and, one by one, the moths turned to head back to the tree.

  “What was that all about?” asked Margaret, as Pip fluttered down to sit on her shoulder.

  “Didn’t you see the Nimblers?” said Pip, as if she ought to know what that meant. “They were delicious tonight!”

  Margaret shrugged. “What’s a Nimbler?”

  “Don’t you know?”

  She shook her head.

  “How funny! A Nimbler is — well it’s a sort of shimmery cloud thing. You have to be nimbler than it is if you want to catch it.”

  “You eat them?” said Margaret.

  “What else would we do with them?” said Pip. “They’re scrumptious! Much better than nectar.”

  “What do they taste like?”

  “Oh, all sorts of things. Honey and pinecones and berries, and cinnamon and licorice and peppermint …”

  Uncoiling his straw-like tongue, Pip made a hungry, slurping noise. Margaret felt her own mouth watering.

  “We hadn’t had good ones in ages, only rotten ones. Those kind make you sick. Then last night when I got back from your orfallidge, the sky was full of tasty ones! And again tonight!”

  “I still don’t understand,” she said. “What are they?”

  “Well, they come from your head, don’t they?”

  “They what?!” cried Margaret.

  “You know,” Pip said. “Humans and dogs and bears and creatures like that. They come from your head when you’re deep asleep. When you’re tossing and turning and muttering to yourself.”

  “Oh,” said Margaret slowly. “Do you mean a dream?”

  “I don’t know,” said Pip. “Do they float up and dance around in the air?”

  “I didn’t think they did,” said Margaret, feeling rather amazed.

  But of course, it’s nearly impossible to watch yourself sleeping, as anyone who’s tried will know. Even if you could watch yourself sleep, you still wouldn’t be able to see what the moths see.

  Margaret had discovered at last the most important truth about moths. They are good at games and good at doing nothing at all. They are good at being happy and good at laughing. They are skilled boasters, and they are wonderfully good listeners.

  But of all the wonderful truths about them, the most wonderful is this: they are the only creatures to know the colors and tastes of dreams.

  CHAPTER 20

  The Pettish Dreg

  Miss Switch had ordered that no one was permitted to speak of her night on the rooftop ever again. And yet, to her deep annoyance, she had a strange suspicion that her orders were being disobeyed.

  She couldn’t help noticing that there was altogether too much giggling and smiling going on. Too much disgusting cheeriness. It simply wouldn’t do.

  Try as she might to forget her humiliation, every giggle and grin was a tiny reminder of the rain-soaked rooftop, and these reminders put her in a very foul mood indeed.

  As you know, Switch liked to divide the world neatly into two groups: those with her own divine good looks and those without. You also know that she always judged people on first impressions. What you have yet to know, however, is that just as the existence of the dreggish Pet Agatha Spink always nagged at the back of Switch’s mind, there was also a Pettish dreg in the orphanage whose presence unnerved her even more.

  Helen Ravish was a sweet-tempered girl with very long, very lovely hair. But on the day she arrived at the Hopeton Orphanage, her mouth had sproute
d cold sores, her long hair was a matted nest and her eyes were bright red from crying over the loss of her parents. So it was only fitting that Switch had her thrown in with the rest of the dregs.

  But the problem was, Helen Ravish was rather nice looking now. Even nicer looking than many of the Pets. This complicated things terribly for Switch, who couldn’t help but admire Helen’s lovely hair but was never able to admit it.

  Helen had no way of knowing just how much her lovely hair irked the Matron. And she had no way of knowing that wearing her hair in a beautiful plaited braid was the worst thing she could have possibly done after Switch’s ordeal on the roof. But just because you have no way of knowing something doesn’t mean you won’t get walloped for it.

  Two days after the embarrassment of the rooftop, Helen was sent upstairs with a basket of ribbons and bows, which she carried to Switch’s private sitting room. Lacey and two other Pets were on sewing duty, pinning the seam of a dress. And Miss Switch, who was in the dress, happened to look down just as Helen entered the room.

  “Scat, dreg,” mumbled Lacey, who had a needle between her teeth.

  Helen set down the basket and turned to leave.

  “What a lovely braid, Helen,” purred Miss Switch.

  “Thank you,” said Helen very quietly.

  “It looks quite pretty, don’t you think?”

  “Yes,” said Helen, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth, realizing what she’d just said.

  “So,” said the Switch. “You think you look pretty, then? You think that a dreg like you is allowed to be pretty?”

  “No — no, I don’t!” said Helen, beginning to tremble.

  Switch took a step forward, knocking the Pets and their sewing needles to the ground. She looked into Helen’s frightened eyes, and Helen saw the Matron’s face darken like an angry thundercloud.

  “You probably think you’re quite fashionable,” said the Switch very quietly. Reaching a hand into the sewing basket, she removed a pair of long silver scissors.

 
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