An Untitled Story (With Birds)
by Rachel Heffington
“The world, my dear, is very full of things you shouldn't touch.” Miss Crust's voice curled back on itself, purring. She pulled her crotchety old fingers through Maribelle's hair.
“Ow!” Maribelle yowled. She didn't think Miss Crust pulled her hair on purpose, but she certainly didn't not pull it on purpose. That was the point on which Maribelle took issue with her nurse.
“Is it my fault if you got half a jar of molasses stuck in it? Your hair's more tangled than a weaver-bird's nest.”
Maribelle wouldn't know. Weaver birds weren't her area of expertise, though they were her father's and Miss Crust's. Her father and Miss Crust were very well-known ornithologists – bird people. They were the sort of important people other important people came to if they had questions about puffin migration (“Do puffins migrate?”) or parrot-speech (“Just how many words can the average parrot learn in its lifetime?”) or the habits of displaced bluebirds. How Miss Crust went from studying birds to untangling Maribelle's hair, Maribelle didn't know. She wasn't quite sure where her father had picked up Miss Crust. Miss Crust just had always been. Maribelle couldn't remember a time when Miss Crust hadn't been part of life at 34 Bleaking Street. In her earliest memories there was sunlight, plenty of dust-motes swirling glitter-like through the beams, and Miss Crust. Funny enough, there was never a memory of a mother. Just Miss Crust, Assisting. She was very good at Assistance – Assisting Father with bird-work and Maribelle with tangled hair and grammar-work and stains on the fronts of her dresses. Sometimes Maribelle thought she might like to do with a bit less Assistance. Maybe only on Tuesdays, because Tuesdays generally weren't the best day of the week. Miss Crust could be on-call the rest of the time and only Assist when Maribelle really wanted her.
“What happened to my mother?” Maribelle asked suddenly. Miss Crust's finger twitched through Maribelle's hair, not in a surprised way but in a “Dear heavens, this again?” way.
“Died,” Miss Crust answered.
“From what?” Of course she knew – galloping consumption – but it was needful to hear it again, just to remind her that there had been a mother once upon a time. It bothered Maribelle sometimes, how often she nearly forgot most kids had two parents.
Here it came -
“Galloping consumption,” Miss Crust said.
There it was.
“Now you,” she pulled Maribelle upright off the stool and smacked her bottom, “get downstairs. Your father wants to speak with you before he leaves.”
Glad to be free of the dreadful hairbrush, Maribelle skibbled out the nursery door and wandered down their great big staircase, pausing on her favorite steps as she went. Her favorite steps were as follows:
The reasons why were these:
The twentieth was the step at the landing with a peculiar, round window looking out onto a bit of scrappy yard and a trashcan that always had a cat of some color turned upside down, fishing for something inside it.
The sixteenth step was exactly halfway which, as anyone can tell you, is a special place.
And the eighth step was the step whereupon Maribelle's front teeth had been knocked out when she tripped on it two years ago. There had been no other six year old girls missing both their front teeth that year so though it had given her a bit of lisp, Maribelle thought the distinction quite worth the trouble of pronouncing “stork,” “sausage,” and other like words.
Maribelle tromped into Father's study without knocking. She never knocked, on principle. People seemed to stop doing interesting things when you knocked first. It was much more gratifying to throw open a door and see someone look like they'd seen a ghost. Maybe you'd see where they hid those scrumptious chocolates, or maybe you'd hear things they wouldn't otherwise have told a little girl. And Maribelle did very much like to know. Knowing was probably the thing she liked most in the world, besides maybe chocolate ice cream and splashing in puddles barefoot when she ought to have worn boots.
Father sat at his desk, balding head between his bird-claw hands. He looked up as she came in. Pale gray daylight flashed at her off the little round lenses of his glasses.
“Hi,” Maribelle offered.
“Oh. Hello, Maribelle.”
“Miss Crust said you wanted me?”
Father perked up a little and ran his fingers through his hair. Two grayish-black puffs of it stuck out on either side of his head and made him look like a ruffled owl. The top of his head was utterly bald. “Just so, my dearling.”
When he put out his hand, she walked to him and settled her little palm in his bigger one. Hot. Dry. Shaky. That was Father's hand. Not liking to keep hers there very long, Maribelle gave Father a quick smile and put her hand in her pocket where he wouldn't think to ask for it again.
“Been studyin' birds?” she inquired.
“Oh, hrm. Birds, birds. Is there anything like birds in the world?” Father's lenses flashed again and his smile was a little less hampered than usual. He did so like birds.
Maribelle wanted to help him in any way she could to not seem so picked-over and trembly. “Well, Miss Crust says there was a sort of dinosaur way back in the dinosaur-days that flew like a bird.” It mightn't help much but Father might find it interesting, and that would at least distract him from whatever it was he worried over.
“Oh, ha!” Father chortled. “Ha! Ha!”
Like a jay, Maribelle thought. Crisp and short and unaccustomed. She liked to think of Father as all sorts of birds. He laughed like a jay and looked like an owl. He walked like a heron and spoke like a wren in terse, tentative chirps. She liked to watch him and he liked to watch birds. It helped to pass the time in the few months of the year when they weren't bopping around the Congo or Peru or someplace.