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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.9

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 9


Margaret and the Moth Tree

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  “Come on, Margaret!” said Pip.

  Margaret smiled. Then shaking her worries from her head as best she could, she rose to join them.


  A Very Important Visit

  Miss Switch, when faced with life’s troubles, would always react in the same way: she would hold a grudge. In fact, grudge holding was one of her greatest talents, and ever since the disaster of the hair tonic she had decided to hold one against the entire world.

  An anxious silence had fallen over the orphanage, broken only by the sound of the Matron’s moody footfalls coming around a corner and of orphans scampering out of sight like skittish rabbits.

  There was no sign that anything would disrupt her nasty mood until two days later, when the telephone rang.

  “Good morning, Hopeton Orphanage. This is the Matron speaking,” said Miss Switch in her syrupy telephone-answering voice.

  “Good morning! It’s Hannah calling,” said the soft voice of Hannah Tender.

  “Hannah. How nice,” said Miss Switch. “Does this mean I’m to expect a new arrival at the orphanage?”

  “No, I’m calling because I have some rather exciting news,” said Hannah.

  “Oh?” said the Switch, examining her nail polish.

  “I’d love to come by and tell it to you in person.”

  “Of course. It’s always a pleasure.”

  “Wonderful! I’ll see you soon,” said Hannah, and she hung up.

  Rolling her eyes, Switch went and found her thin, golden whistle. She gave it a halfhearted blow, then yawned. Hannah always did such tiresome things, like talking about philanthropy and hugging the orphans.

  Half an hour later when Hannah pulled up to the house in the C.L.C.’s pink car, Miss Switch ushered her onto the porch where an elaborate tea had been laid out.

  “How lovely! You really didn’t have to, just for me,” said Hannah.

  “No trouble,” said Switch, slouching into her chair. People often say “no trouble” to be polite, but in this case it really had been no trouble. Five dregs had run themselves ragged preparing the tea while Switch took her time selecting the day’s outfit. She had settled upon one of her plainer aprons and accessorized it with a dusting of soot across her arms.

  “I’ve just been cleaning the fireplaces,” she told Hannah. “The darling orphans are playing in the garden.”

  This was true, as the orphans had indeed been ordered to play Duck, Duck, Goose by the rosebushes. But whenever the Pets chose a dreg to be “goose,” they would whack them on the head as hard as they could, giving the dreg a nasty headache.

  Margaret had already been picked, so as she sat there holding her throbbing head, she concentrated on eavesdropping.

  “Wouldn’t the children like some of this?” Hannah was saying.

  “They’ve already eaten. Chocolate pancakes with bacon,” Switch said. “And fruit,” she added.

  “Oh, I see,” said Hannah, with just a hint of a frown. “Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I’m happy to be the one to tell you, on behalf of the Concerned Ladies’ Club, that you have been chosen to receive an Award of Service. You are the Caregiver of the Year!”

  At these words, Switch looked up at Hannah in surprise.

  “What does that mean?” she said.

  “Well, in a few days you’ll be given a special medal, and there’ll be speeches. All the members of the C.L.C. will be there, and the Mayor, too.”

  “Oh, Hannah!” said Switch, sitting up straight and beaming. She seemed suddenly much younger. “Goodness me! How very, very kind. How unexpected! Do you think there’ll be a photographer?”

  Miss Switch had several different smiles. She put them on at different times as it suited her, just like her collection of tattered aprons. There was her motherly smile, which she used in front of the Concerned Ladies and on adoption days. There was her carnivorous smile, which she used to terrorize dregs before bringing them to tears. And there was her dazzling smile, which she used to stupefy clueless members of the public. But this one, rarely seen, was a genuine one. And a genuine smile, especially on someone so beautiful, is hard not to return.

  “That’s a marvelous idea,” said Hannah, smiling back.

  A less kind person than Hannah might have felt jealous that she wasn’t the one being rewarded for her hard work. But Hannah was the sort of person who felt glad for other people’s good fortune. This unselfishness, in Switch’s view, was one of her more irritating qualities.

  “GOOSE!” came Lacey’s violent scream from the garden, followed by a loud cry of pain.

  “Well! I’d better let you get back to the children,” said Hannah, finishing her tea.

  “Yes, they can get a tad boisterous, dear things.”

  Hannah and Switch said their goodbyes. And Hannah, her head full of ideas for Switch’s big day, headed back to the pink car.

  But when Hannah looked back over her shoulder to wave, she saw that Switch hadn’t moved. The Matron was still standing on the porch, staring out in front of her with a strange look in her eyes.

  The youthful look of happiness that had lit up her face a moment before was gone. The look she wore now was fierce and triumphant. It only lasted a second or two before Switch glided down the porch steps toward the garden. And as Hannah drove away down the dusty road, she thought she must have imagined it.


  Two Orphans

  A long time before our story takes place, another little girl lived in the very same orphanage where our Margaret found herself a prisoner. Just like Margaret, she was not a child praised for her looks, but she had a sweet little heart. Her name was Hannah Tender.

  The orphanage was a very different place in Hannah’s time. The biggest difference was that there was no tyrannical Matron tormenting children at every waking hour. Instead, the elderly and well-educated Professor Thrumble ran things.

  Switch, as you may have noticed, didn’t teach the orphans much of anything. The Master, however, thought that textbooks, appendices and dictionaries were the most important things in life.

  He had been quite an old man already when the orphanage was built, and by the time Hannah arrived, his bushy eyebrows had turned bright white and his voice was even more gravelly than before. The unfortunate thing was, the older the Master became, the longer and more random his lessons were.

  “You there,” he would say to Hannah. “Shannon, isn’t it? Come along, it’s time for a lesson.”

  Every day he would gather Hannah and the other orphans together, and every day they would have to sit through dreadfully dull lectures about things like the history of the cabbage. He would go on for hours, sometimes long into the night, until the children laid their heads on their desks and fell fast asleep from boredom.

  But aside from Professor Thrumble’s never-ending lessons, the children of the orphanage were mostly left to themselves.

  As Hannah grew older, she began to notice that the pretty little girls and handsome young boys were adopted and taken away from the orphanage while she, for some reason, was always overlooked.

  “It is clear to me based on my education that if you were better looking you’d have parents by now,” the Master said absently one day. “Why don’t you try looking better?”

  So Hannah tried to stand up straighter, and comb her hair, and smile as much as she possibly could. Yet still no one chose her. But just like Margaret, Hannah tried to make the best of her situation.

  Hannah’s best friend was another overlooked girl called Angelica. Angelica had stringy, mud-colored hair, spotty skin and crooked front teeth that were far too big for her mouth. And while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, there wasn’t a single parent who would behold her for more than a few moments before moving their gaze to a more attractive child.

But neither Hannah nor Angelica cared what the other looked like. Together they found little ways to make life in the orphanage more bearable, like passing silly notes to each other during Professor Thrumble’s lessons and playing make-believe for hours on end. Their favorite game was imagining what it would be like to be adopted by loving parents and taken to wonderful homes.

  “Maybe I could be adopted by a king,” Angelica would say. “And I would become a princess.”

  “Maybe I would have a baby brother or sister who could be my friend,” Hannah would say. “And I’d never have to be lonely again.”

  “Maybe I’ll grow up to be beautiful,” Angelica would say. “And everyone will love me.”

  There are many dreams that don’t mean a thing. Dreams about taking a ferry to the Arctic to meet the Prime Minister, or being chased around your kindergarten classroom by an angry dentist, for instance, probably mean very little.

  But the kind of dream you keep deep inside your heart to remind yourself of what you hope and wish for, the kind of dream you whisper into your pillow every night before you fall asleep — that kind of dream can feed a whole treeful of moths, and it can mean a great deal.

  As often happens with children, Hannah and Angelica grew up.

  Hannah didn’t change very much on the outside. What she did do was make several more good friends among the other orphans and discover that she had a large supply of kindness in her heart.

  When new children arrived at the orphanage, Hannah liked nothing more than to make them feel welcome. She would walk with them to the Master’s lectures, or sit with them at mealtimes, or smile at them when she passed them in the hall.

  Unlike Hannah, Angelica changed a lot on the outside. For one thing, her mouth grew to make room for her teeth, which no longer looked quite so large or crooked. And when Angelica discovered that the other orphans had stopped picking on her as a result, it gave her a wonderful feeling. So while Hannah was off making new friends, Angelica was busy going through each of her features and thinking of ways she could improve them.

  When Hannah and Angelica were old enough to set out on their own, Hannah moved to the very town where you first saw her and found a job in philanthropy. This allowed her to keep helping children as lonesome as she had once been, which filled her life with happiness.

  But Angelica moved to a big city, where she got a job at a dressmaker’s shop. As soon as she had saved enough money, she bought herself a mouthful of braces to straighten out her teeth, and expensive skin cream to smooth out her complexion, and every other product she could think of that might help her appearance. When she had saved up some more money, she went to a beauty parlor and had her mud-colored hair dyed blonde.

  And when she began to notice people stopping in their tracks just to stare at her, she knew that the thing she had dreamed of every night of her life had come true.

  She had grown up beautiful.

  Have you put the pieces together? Can you guess what happened next to the orphan called Angelica, one day as she was on her way to work?

  “Excusez-moi!” said a glamorous woman, rushing up to her on the street.

  “What’s your name, dah-ling?” said a man with a ponytail who was with her.

  “It’s Angelica,” said Angelica. “Angelica Switch.”

  You see, no one pops into the world filled with fury and hate, like a rotten wormy apple. Just as every story has a villain, every villain has a story. Sometimes the rottenness seeps in slowly over many lonesome years. But other times, through the words of a cruel photographer and the sudden loss of a dream, it rushes in all at once, like water through a broken dam.

  These were the memories that were flitting around in Miss Switch’s mind as she watched Hannah’s car drive off down the dusty road. But instead of paying them any attention, she brushed them away as if they were nothing more than bothersome cobwebs, and didn’t think of them again.


  The Derangement of Toby Bobbins

  When something happens that is the exact opposite of what you would expect, that is called irony.

  The Titanic being nicknamed “Unsinkable” was ironic, because the last thing you’d expect an unsinkable ship to do is spring a leak on her first voyage at sea. Chopping off your hair and selling it to a wigmaker to buy your best friend a new baseball is ironic if your friend just sold her bat to buy you a new hairbrush.

  Miss Switch being given an award for Caregiver of the Year was ironic because, as you know, Miss Switch was unfit to care for a tomato plant, much less a child.

  But Miss Switch was untroubled by irony. Even when she was to be given an award for kindness, she had no problem acting as unkindly as possible. So the very next morning when Lacey bounded up the stairs yelling that Toby Bobbins had ruined the Matron’s best silk dress in the laundry tubs, Switch emerged from her room feeling just as unkind as ever.

  Working the tubs was one of the worst jobs a dreg could get. There were ten massive tubs deep in the bowels of the orphanage, each with a wooden step-ladder that wobbled when you went up it. On tub duty, the first thing you had to do was pour soap and bleach and chemicals into the scalding water, then try not to burn yourself as you loaded in the dirty clothes. Once this was done, you had to stand for hours in the steamy, smelly basement, stirring the tubs with a long wooden paddle to make sure everything washed evenly.

  Toby, who had been working the tubs for a good four hours that morning, had become so tired and dizzy from the smell of bleach that he’d fallen asleep at his post and forgotten to stir the delicate clothes.

  When Switch stepped into the laundry room and saw her expensive dress reduced to a dripping pile of tatters, she was secretly delighted. This may seem like a very odd reaction, as Switch dearly loved owning pretty and expensive things. But the more important truth about Switch was this: she loved cruelty more.

  Switch was an artist when it came to punishment, and as her glittering eyes took in the sight of chubby Toby Bobbins and the ruined silk dress, she knew that he was just the inspiration she needed.

  “So,” she said sweetly to the red-faced Toby. “You’ve had yourself a nice little nap, I hear. You’re probably feeling very refreshed.”

  Toby gave a very small nod.

  “I don’t see that you’ll be needing to sleep anymore, will you?” Switch said.

  “Not right now, Miss Switch,” said Toby meekly.

  “Not ever,” smiled the Switch.

  And from that moment on, Toby was forbidden to sleep.

  Switch shut him in a cupboard in the basement, and the Pets were set on a nightly schedule to take turns keeping him awake by poking at him with a long stick whenever he closed his eyes.

  This went on for two nights in a row. And on the morning of the third day, the day of Switch’s award ceremony, when Margaret and Judy brought Toby his breakfast mush, they found him sitting on the floor with an aluminum pot on his head, singing quietly.

  “What do you do with a drunken sailor, just as the sun was ri-sing,” warbled Toby. He stared at Judy, cross-eyed. “Captain!”

  “Oh, no!” Judy gasped in horror. “He’s gone off the edge!”

  “Hey, non-nonny!” sang Toby. “Nifty nonny puffs!”

  And then, without taking even a bite of his breakfast, he closed his eyes, fell flat on the floor and started snoring. No amount of poking and kicking and pinching from the Pets could wake him again.

  News of the breakdown reached Switch, who interrupted her beauty preparations to pay a special visit to Toby’s cupboard. When she saw how successful her punishment had been, she was absolutely delighted. Laughing as if the whole thing were a marvelous joke, she waved a hand at Margaret and Judy to have them carry Toby up to his bed.

  That laugh of Switch’s and that casual wave of her hand were so unfeeling that Margaret couldn’t stand it.
She had never been so angry in her entire life.

  Anger was one of the many things Great-aunt Linda hadn’t approved of, along with idle hands and poor table manners. But anger is a perfectly natural emotion, and sometimes it can tell you very important things.

  As Margaret carried Toby up the stairs, she saw the pitiful way his tongue lolled out of his open mouth. She heard the distant peals of Switch’s laughter. And her anger told her she had to do something.

  As every other dreg trudged down to the basement to begin a massive laundry scrubbing for Switch’s big day, Margaret slipped away. And when she was sure no one was looking, she ran out into the bright afternoon, heading for the moth tree.


  The Waking of the Moths

  If you have lived any significant amount of time in this world, you will have noticed that different things come naturally to different types of creatures.

  It is in the nature of a spotted woodpecker, for example, to munch on grubs and worms and to enjoy it immensely, just as it is in the nature of grubs and worms to be munched on by spotted woodpeckers and not to enjoy the experience quite so much. It is in the nature of small infants to cry and make a ruckus whenever they are hungry or moist, just as it is in the nature of airplane passengers to cry and make a ruckus whenever they are seated next to small infants. These are simply the rules of nature.

  There are also some things that do not come naturally. It is not in the nature of small girls, for example, to hear the tiniest and quietest of noises. And it is not in the nature of moths to awaken in broad daylight and tinker in the affairs of humans.

  But there are always exceptions to the rules.

  When Margaret came scrambling through the thorny tunnel, the moths of the tree were fast asleep, and try as she might, she couldn’t rouse them.

  “Flit!” she cried, as she caught sight of the sleeping moth. “Rimblewisp! Everyone, wake up!” But not a single moth stirred.

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