Excerpt #1

 

Chapter Two: Fairy Wings Tied over Her Sweatshirt

 

 

          One would think a man with a name like “Mr. Crow” would look something like a crow: all dressed in black, hunched and shuffling, with a squawking voice and a beak-like nose, and maybe, in extreme cases, feathers; but Mr. Crow was nothing like that. He was a neat, slender man in his forties with an open, boyish face and short brown hair that made stiff little waves above his high forehead, and whose smile revealed a prominent gap between his front teeth. Rather than wearing black, he wore a well-tailored suit in a light conservative gray. Two men, also in gray suits and looking like burly lawyers, sat at either end of the couch.

          When Mother Merry entered, Mr. Crow was standing, studying the titles on Mother Merry’s bookshelf.

          “Hello!” he said brightly. “You must be...” he glanced out the open the doorway, remembering the sign outside the office, “Mother Merry Chaos...? Seriously?”

          “Close enough,” Mother Merry said. “You must be Mr. Crow.”

          “I am.”

          “What a coincidence, Mr. Crow, you have the same name as that billionaire fellow from Crow Industries,” Mother Merry added.

          “That is me, actually,” he said. “One in the same.”

          “Well, I’ve seen his picture in the paper, and I daresay you look just like him. Do sit,” Mother Merry said, sitting behind her desk. “Now that you are here, how may I help you?”

          “Actually, I was wondering how I could help you.” Mr. Crow held out his hand, and one of the burly suits filled it with some papers. “The land on which this abbey sits is next door to my research facility, which I need to expand. It is my intent to purchase the abbey and the grounds.” He placed one of the papers on Mother Merry’s desk, turning it around so she could read it. “This is the sum we are prepared to offer.”

          Mother Merry peered at the paper for a very long time through her horn-rimmed glasses.

          “That’s a lot of money, Mr. Crow,” Mother Merry said. “I’m afraid there’s no way we could afford this.”

          There was a pause while Mr. Crow sorted this out. The two gray suits on the sofa glanced at each other.

          “Mother Superior, you misunderstand,” Mr. Crow said with an uneasy little chuckle. “This is the sum we intend to pay you.”

          Mother Merry blinked, looked down at the paper again. “Ah. That’s very generous of you, Mr. Crow, but whatever for?”

          Mr. Crow hesitated again, then spoke very slowly and clearly. “My company would like to buy Edgecliff Abbey.”

          “I see, Mr. Crow,” Mother Merry said easily. “However, Edgecliff Abbey is not for sale.” She handed back the papers. “Thank you for stopping by.”

          Mr. Crow grinned his gap-toothed grin as if he’d just gotten a very funny joke.

          “Mother Superior, I suppose you expect me to say that everything is for sale at the right price -- but I know that is not true. Love, loyalty, and so forth, cannot be bought. However, Edgecliff Abbey is a cluster of old buildings on thirty-three acres of land -- and those, most certainly, are saleable items at the right price.”

          “No, Mr. Crow, they are not,” Mother Merry replied. “Buildings and land are what Edgecliff Abbey is made of, but not what it is. And that is certainly not for sale, even at the generous amount you have offered.”

          Mr. Crow sat, fastidiously hitching up his pants legs as he did so. “All right,” he said equably. “Just so we’re both on the same page, here: what, precisely, is Edgecliff Abbey?”

          “A home, Mr. Crow,” Mother Merry said. “A last refuge for children unwanted anywhere else. You see, Mr. Crow, Edgecliff Abbey is dedicated to providing a home to children who have none; but more than that, we are here to mold young girls into women of poise and virtue--”

          At this moment, a naked wet ten-year-old blonde girl ran pelting down the corridor past Mother Merry’s open door, shrieking, “NO BATH! NO BATH! NO BATH!” Running after her were four other girls, also wet, also naked but for what modesty hastily-wrapped towels could provide, in hot pursuit. Last to run past was a tall nun, fully dressed in a traditional -- though also soaking wet -- nun’s habit, shouting, “Gretchen! Come back here directly, and have your bath!”

          “--inner strength, productive members of society,” Mother Merry continued dauntlessly, “imbued with traditional values of elegance and decorum--”

          From the hallway came the sounds of a scuffle and some furniture overturning -- the blonde girl had evidently run out of corridor and been cornered. The group trotted back the other way past the open door, the tall nun and the four other girls ferrying the struggling blonde girl back to the bath.

          “NO BATH! NO BATH! NO BATH!” the blonde girl howled.

          “--modesty, piety, proper etiquette, and good citizenship,” Mother Merry finished.

          “So I see,” Mr. Crow said. “Fortunately, it’s only the land that I want.”

          “And I am telling you, Mr. Crow, that you cannot have it.”

          Mr. Crow did his pause-and-smile thing again. The two bruisers in expensive suits shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “I do not like hearing that phrase, Mother Superior.”

          “How unfortunate,” Mother Merry replied. “I rather enjoyed saying it.”

          “But surely, with the money I am offering, you can buy a better facility for your children in another location, someplace not quite so remote, or so run down, or... so in a place where I want to build.”

          “I am quite sure we could,” Mother Merry said, “but that option is not available to us, Mr. Crow. All philosophy aside, I meant it when I said the abbey is not for sale. The founder of this abbey, Hieronymus Edgecliff, deeded this land to the Sisters of St. Basilia on the condition that we act as caretakers of this property in perpetuity.”

          Mother Merry gestured to the portrait of Hieronymus Edgecliff that hung on the far wall. It was an odd painting; the mutton-chopped Hieronymus had a startled look on his face, as if the portrait were painted from the point-of-view of an oncoming train.

          “The Abbey and its grounds are still property of his estate, and the terms of his will were judged valid and legally binding. The Sisters of St. Basilia are not the owners, we are merely stewards.”

          Mr. Crow shifted more comfortably in his seat, and smiled again. “I am familiar with the Edgecliff estate,” he said. “For the past four years, I have been in contact with them, attempting to purchase this property. However, at each turn, I was -- thwarted by their insistence that the sale of the property could only be authorized by the legal stewards of the grounds. And who are these stewards? I asked. They answered: An obscure order of nuns who had not set foot on the property for fifty years, and had no plans of ever returning. Now, imagine my -- delight when I learned that the Sisters of St. Basilia had returned to Edgecliff Abbey. So now, here sit I, in the presence of the Mother Superior, with one question: as stewards of this property, do you or do you not have the legal authority to sell me Edgecliff Abbey?”

          Mother Merry pursed her lips and shrugged. “No idea,” she said. “However, I do know that the Sisters of St. Basilia swore a sacred oath over a hundred years ago to care for Edgecliff Abbey, and that I intend to honor that oath, Mr. Crow.”

          “Then perhaps you can enlighten me, because I can not understand why,” Mr. Crow remarked, “Hieronymus Edgecliff would give over ownership of such a valuable piece of real estate to an order of nuns.”

          “Because here in these woods,” Mother Merry said, “Hieronymus Edgecliff met an angel.”

          Mr. Crow blinked. “A what?”

          “An angel, Mr. Crow. You know, wings, halo, one of those. There’s a small statue somewhere on the grounds marking the spot, but bless me if I can find it.”

          “That’s a charming story, Mother Superior,” Mr. Crow said. “However, up until just a few weeks ago, the Sisters of St. Basilia had abandoned this place. It’s been empty longer than I have been alive. Not very attentive stewards, I would say.”

          “You are exactly right, Mr. Crow. To our shame, Edgecliff Abbey was ordered closed fifty years ago and the Sisters had no choice but to leave. I worked and prayed and petitioned for ten years to get the abbey re-opened, so that we may perform our duties and fulfill our oath.”

          “Just out of curiosity, Mother Superior,” Mr. Crow asked casually, “exactly who ordered it closed in the first place? And whose permission did you need to re-open it?”

          “The archbishop, of course,” Mother Merry answered. “The Sisters of St. Basilia are under the command of the church. Archbishop Beaumont ordered the abbey permanently closed fifty years ago, following a series of incidents I will not go into. It was his successor, Archbishop Edwards, who finally gave us permission to re-open it, and even he took ten years to convince.”

          “And -- again out of curiosity -- what convinced him?”

          “I did,” Mother Merry said simply. “I told him that I would administer the place personally, and take full responsibility for the abbey’s management.”

          Mr. Crow seemed to chew on this thought for a while, then stood. “Well,” he said brightly, “I find all this very interesting, but allow me to speak bluntly: I do not believe in angels, Mother Superior, I believe in what men and women can build with their own hands. I do not believe that a ‘last refuge’ for a small number of cast-off children is a better use for this land than a research facility that will employ hundreds of men and women and generate millions in revenue. I do not believe that refusing to sell me these grounds based on a dead man’s delusion is either a wise or responsible action for the stewards of these grounds to take. Lastly, I do not believe that working against me and being my enemy is a better choice for you than working with me and being my friend. Just so that we understand one another, Mother Superior.”

          Mother Merry considered what Mr. Crow had said, and smiled. “Do be careful on your way out, Mr. Crow,” she said, “the floor’s wet.”

 

          The downstairs bath: Picture, if you dare, a steamy dungeon of rough-cut wooden beams interlaced with black iron pipe work, rows of claw-footed bathtubs standing like cauldrons under high-set windows of frosted glass. Can you hear the soft echoing slap of small wet feet against the cold concrete floor, the groan and retch of plumbing brought back to life after fifty years of idleness, the abrasive hiss of rusty well-water spraying from corroded brass showerheads? Can you smell the smells of dampness and soap and the feel of coarse towels against skin? And let us not forget that small sense of victory one gets from getting clean, however briefly. Once Gretchen had been subdued and returned to the bath chamber, the rest of bath night went relatively smoothly, and the girls toweled themselves in little private stalls while Gretchen (grumbling “Gretchen not like bath!”) shook herself dry, dousing Sister Dominique, who was trying to assist her.

          Dinner:

          “Um, what’s the gray slab?” Mopsy asked.

          “Salisbury steak,” the cafeteria lady replied.

          “And the gray gravel?”

          “Mashed potatoes.”

          “And the gray sludge?”

          “Spinach.”

          “Any other choice?”

          “Hunger.”

          Mopsy put out her tray, and tried not to wince at the dead slaps of food dumped on the plate. The slice of Salisbury steak was as stiff as a section of ceiling tile.

          “What to drink?” the cafeteria lady demanded.

          “How about,” Mopsy replied, trying to get into the spirit of the thing, “some cloudy lukewarm tap water from the maintenance-closet sink?”

          The cafeteria lady gave her a cup of instant juice that looked as though someone had mixed leftover orange, lime, and grape flavors with too much water. The resulting mixture was a color that Mopsy had no name for.

          “Close enough.”

          The cafeteria section was a big room, but there was only one table. Mopsy sat down between Kiku and Gretchen, the furthest distance she could find from Elsbeth. Everyone was just staring at their trays.

          Kiku closed her eyes and clapped her hands. “Itadakimasu!” she sang. The other girls just stared at her.

          “OK, I’ll ask,” Mopsy said at length. “What the deuce was that about?”

          “Japanese grace,” Kiku explained, blushing. “We give thanks to all the work that went into preparing this food, the farmers for growing our rice and vegetables, the fisherman for catching our fish. . .”

          “The grave-robbers for digging up this meat,” Elsbeth suggested.

          “Is it not a custom in America to pray before a meal?” Kiku asked.

          Mopsy looked down at the contents of her tray. “And after, sometimes.”

          Nephri prodded her meat dubiously. “Uncle Shabakto?” she whispered. She looked up shyly. “Sorry. This is what he looked like after they mummified him.”

          Kiku sawed at her Salisbury steak, succeeding only in wearing the teeth off of her little plastic knife. “Excuse me, but I always thought American food was, um, softer than this.”

          The only person with nothing to say was Gretchen, who’d put her head down and was working her way steadily through her meal, eating with her fingers.

          “Gretchen,” Elsbeth said, “how can you eat this stuff?”

          Gretchen looked up from her plate. “This is food. Not good food, but — food. Food is for eating.”

          Elsbeth pushed her tray away. “I’d rather go hungry.”

          “No,” Gretchen said firmly. “Elsbeth not rather go hungry.”

          Elsbeth sneered. “What?”

          “Elsbeth ever go hungry?” Gretchen asked. “Five days, six days? Gretchen has. Three winters ago, before Gretchen come to live in the people-world, bad winter, bad hunting, no food. Five days, six days, nothing to eat, nothing.” Gretchen had stopped eating to talk; she looked down at the table, remembering. “So cold. So weak. Wolf pack finally found a deer carcass, frozen, many-many days old. Pack did not complain. Even here in the people-world, children go hungry every day. Elsbeth-Gretchen-Kiku-Nephri-Mopsy don’t have to.” She went back to working on her plate. “Bad food is better than no food. Gretchen knows.”

          The other girls stared at her a long time. It was the longest speech any of them had ever heard from her. One by one, they grimly bent their heads to their meals and began to eat.

 

          After gnawing down their dinner and keeping it down through sheer force of will, they were met by Sister Dominique and escorted to the recreation room, where they were to have free time until bedtime.

          “I apologize that the room is in such disrepair,” Sister Dominique remarked. “We have not yet gotten round to fixing it up, but it’s on our short list of things to do.”

          She tried a smile, but it wouldn’t stick to her face. Evidently the short list of things to do was quite long, and there must have been a long list of things to do as well, which was even longer.

          The room had a threadbare green carpet and some sagging sofas, a few mismatched old lamps, a pool table with a lumpy felt and no balls or cue sticks, a dartboard with no darts, a ping-pong table that leaned on bent legs, and an ancient wood console television that, when turned on, dimmed the lights and blew sparks until Sister Dominique frantically yanked the cord out of the wall.

          “Perhaps we should retire to the library,” Sister Dominique suggested, shakily, “where we might find some nice, quiet, non-sparking books to read...”

          The library was, each of the girls decided privately, a pretty cool room: it had a twelve-foot ceiling and curving walls and a fireplace and padded reading nooks tucked into cozy corners or under vast windows of antique rippled glass. The curving walls had built-in bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and a pair of spiral staircases led to a catwalk halfway up the wall to reach the higher shelves. The rest of the bookcases formed a dense maze that spread out into several dark and silent outer rooms. However, like the rest of the abbey, the evidence of fifty years of abandonment and neglect was obvious: cracked windows, collapsed shelves, and a musty smell of disuse. There was one other feature in which the library was obviously, even painfully, deficient.

          “Where are the books?” Mopsy asked.

          “Most of the books were removed when the abbey was first closed,” Sister Dominique explained. “There are some books still around, here and there. We just need to look for them. We are acquiring more books but, well... it’s on the rather longer list of things to do.”

          The girls sat themselves around the reading area.

          Mother Merry poked her head around the doorway, said, “Ah, there you all are,” and walked in. “I would like to introduce our two volunteers,” she continued. “They will be staying here throughout the school term, helping out with you girls, and Sister Dominique and I are thrilled to have them aboard. Miss Nicole, Miss Dana, do come in.”

          The first girl to walk in was a pink‑and‑blonde angel whose smile was so bright that anyone within fifty feet of her teeth was obliged to squint. She wore a snug pink sweater and a pleated skirt, and walked in with such pent‑up energy she looked as if she might just go critical and burst into spontaneous cheerleading. 1950’s‑era surfer bands would have fought each other with chainsaws to write a song about her.

          “Hello, I’m Miss Nicole!” she gushed, her smile traversing the room like a searchlight. “Mother Superior told me all about you, and I’m so thrilled to meet with such...” Her gaze panned over the stoic and slightly nauseated faces of the five children, ending with Mopsy’s disturbing mismatched stare. She stopped cold for a moment, but recovered. “... such, um, delightful young ladies.”

          Elsbeth coughed a little cough that sounded suspiciously like the word “freaks.”

          “I just know we’ll all get along wonderfully,” Miss Nicole continued, oblivious, “and I cannot wait for all the adventures we’ll share! And I just know that Miss Dana is thrilled as well.” Nicole looked about the room, her smile losing a few megawatts of brightness. “Um, Miss Dana...?”

          All eyes scanned the room for Miss Dana, eventually finding a figure slouched against the other wall. No one had seen her come in; in fact, it almost felt as if someone had left the room instead. Miss Dana was waif-thin and chalk-pale, with lank black hair that fell over her face, leaving only one dark‑lashed blue eye peering out. 1950’s surfer bands would not have written any songs about her, but maybe a musical group with the word “death” somewhere in their name might have been convinced to throw the word “Dana” in among some crashing guitar noises.

          “Hi,” she said, her voice surprisingly soft and feminine.

          “Right... Um, anyway, Sister tells me your TV is broken and you have nothing to do,” Miss Nicole said with a theatrical little pout. “Well then it’s lucky for you we’re here, because Miss Dana and I have planned a fun-fun-fun evening!”

         Miss Dana looked over at Miss Nicole with a “we have?” look in her one visible eye.

          “You stay here and we’ll be right back!” Miss Nicole practically bounced out of the room, stopping only to collect Miss Dana. “Come on, Dana, I brought all the stuff!” she said to her cohort in a whisper loud enough to echo throughout the library. She left the room, dragging Miss Dana along, whose eye had a look of alarm in it.

          “I will leave you to it,” Mother Merry said. “I have some matters to which I must attend. Sister Dominic--”

          “Dominique,” Sister Dominique corrected her.

          “--you’re in charge.” Mother Merry paused at the door. “Oh, and see me later about that burning smell in the recreation room...”

          “Yes, Mother Superior,” Sister Dominique mumbled.

          The children listened to Nicole and Dana shuffling around just out of sight behind the open doorway, Miss Nicole’s hissed instructions, and the occasional grunt of protest from Miss Dana.

          Miss Nicole reappeared, wearing a glittering plastic tiara, white gloves, and a frilly skirt over her pleated one, holding a book of children’s stories in her hands.

          “Hello, children!” Miss Nicole trilled. “I am the Princess of Stories, and Miss Nicole sent me to entertain you tonight!”

          Silence. Elsbeth’s look of disgust could have killed a charging rhinoceros; Gretchen frantically tried to figure out which limb she needed to chew off in order to escape; Nephri was scowling with concentration, trying to decide if Miss Nicole could actually be a princess, and if so, from which dynasty; Kiku was discreetly searching the other girls’ faces for clues, wondering if this was some American “cosplay” thing she did not understand, or merely advanced mental illness on display; and Mopsy decided to turn into mist and seep out under the doorway, but couldn’t remember precisely how to do that.

          “And here to help me tonight is my friend, the Story Fairy!” Miss Nicole continued, gesturing to the open door. Nothing happened. “The Story Fairy!” she said again. She beckoned with increasingly urgent jerks of her head, until she stood and bodily dragged Miss Dana -- resplendent in a pair of fairy wings tied over her sweatshirt and holding a plastic wand with a rhinestone-encrusted star at the end -- into the room.

          “Look, kids, it’s the Story Fairy! Say hello to the children, Story Fairy!”

          Miss Dana sank into a low crouch and shifted her head so her hair covered both eyes. The words “somebody kill me” mumbled out from under.

          “So before we begin,” the Princess of Stories continued, “do any of you delightful young ladies have any questions?”

          Elsbeth raised a hand. “Yes. Have either of you sought professional help?”

          “Oh, but we are professionals, silly, just you wait and see!” Miss Nicole said. “Now, Story Fairy, you must tap the storybook with your magic wand, and let the magic of the stories come to life!”

          Miss Dana’s eye reappeared from under her hair to spear Miss Nicole with an “are you serious?” look, then she gave in and hit the book with a listless swat of her wand, sending a loose rhinestone flying.

          “And our first story tonight,” the Princess of Stories began, opening her book, “is the ‘Three Little Pigs.’” She cleared of her throat, and began in an overly-dramatic voice: “There once were three little pigs, all brothers, who lived in the woods...”

          “Um, if I may interrupt for a moment, Miss, um, Princess,” Sister Dominique said, with the air of a person trying to stop a train wreck by stepping onto the tracks with her hands out. “You may have noticed that our girls are fifth-graders. That story may be a bit young for them, perhaps? I’m sure, if we search around a bit, we could find a more advanced book that we can all enjoy.”

          “Oh, but Sister, these stories are fun for children of all ages,” Miss Nicole replied, undeflected. “Plus they teach important moral lessons.”

          Miss Nicole (sorry, the Princess of Stories) plowed onward with an emotional rendition of the Three Little Pigs. In her favor, Gretchen and Nephri had never heard it, and listened attentively; Gretchen in particular when she found out there was a wolf in it.

          “And so the other two pigs went to live with their brother, who had built his house of brick. When the big bad wolf appeared, he went up to the door and said,” and here Miss Nicole went into her deep, gruff, wolf-voice, “‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me in,’ he growled.” Then she went into her twee piggy voice, “‘Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!’ said the three little pigs. So the wolf said, ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!’...”

          Gretchen, who had become increasingly confused and agitated as the story wore on, finally spoke up. “No!” she barked.

          Miss Nicole did a double-take that, had it been accompanied by a sound-effect, would have sounded like a needle scraping across a record. “Um, excuse me?”

          “Wolves don’t hunt like that!” Gretchen said emphatically.

          “Well, um,” Miss Nicole began, but got no further.

          She looked over to the Story Fairy for help, but Miss Dana was sitting on the floor with her legs out, her single visible eye looking on with amusement.

          Gretchen scooted forward, studying the illustration intently.

          “Set up an ambush,” she said, pointing. “Main group here, concealed in the bushes, downwind so pigs don’t smell us. Second group here. Pack leader here. Second group attacks back door. Pigs try to escape through front door. Pounce!”

          “Um, Gretchen, dear,” Miss Nicole said, “I think you’re missing the point...”

          “No, wait, that’d work,” Mopsy said, studying Gretchen’s plan. “Look, the minute the pigs got five feet from the door they’d be cut off from the safety of the house.”

          “And the pack leader would drive them right into the wolves concealed in the bushes,” Nephri noted.

          “Excellent strategy,” Kiku remarked, nodding. “The great samurai general Tokugawa used a similar approach during the siege of Osaka castle.”

          “Looks like pork chops for dinner tonight,” Elsbeth said.

          “Perhaps something else,” Miss Nicole said hurriedly, pulling the book away and flipping the page. “Ah, ‘The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,’” she said.

          Miss Nicole proceeded to relate, in verse and primitive sign language, how an itsy-bitsy spider repeatedly crawled up a waterspout, only to be washed away again and again by the rain.

          “Such a pointless cycle of meaningless activity,” Mopsy mumbled, “symbolic of humanity’s futile struggle against a cold, unfeeling universe.”

          “Um, how about this story,” Miss Nicole said, a note of desperation creeping into her voice. “Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her-- yes, um, Kiku?”

          “Please excuse my poor English,” Kiku said, “but what is a ‘tuffet’?”

          “Her butt,” Mopsy said. She noticed everyone looking at her. “What? She sat on her butt.”

          Elsbeth sniffed. “It’s probably a small decorative garden bench,” she said, “and I bet it’s really supposed to be pronounced ‘tuff-FAY’ like it’s French or something.”

          “Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet...” Miss Nicole bulled through, resolutely.

          “Tuff-FAY,” Elsbeth corrected her.

          “...eating her curds and whey...”

          “Looks like goop,” Mopsy remarked, looking at the illustration.

          “Please excuse me,” Kiku said, “but what are ‘curds’?”

          “Nomadic people native to the Caucasus plateau in southwest Asia,” Elsbeth answered.

          “And ‘whey’?” Kiku asked.

          “Tells how heavy something is!” Gretchen said, pleased she knew the answer to something.

          Kiku scowled, thoroughly confused.

          “Get to the part with the spider,” Mopsy prompted.

          “Along came a spider,” Miss Nicole continued, “who sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away!”

          “Arachnophobia,” Kiku intoned, nodding. “Fear of spiders. A terrible affliction.”

          “Does it say what kind of spider?” Nephri asked. “In Nubia we had tarantulas as big as your head. There’s one type we call the ‘horse-killer’ -- even crocodiles run from it. One of those would certainly frighten me away.”

          “Do they look like this?” Mopsy asked, pulling the book away from Miss Nicole and showing Nephri the illustration.

          “No,” Nephri conceded. “They do not wear little bowties.”

          Gretchen looked over the spider curiously. “This spider same spider from before?” she asked.

          “What do you mean?” Kiku asked.

          “Up the waterspout?” Gretchen asked. “Itsy-bitsy?”

          “Hey, maybe,” Mopsy said.

          “Then he is probably just wet,” Nephri said, “and crawled up on the tuffet to get dry.”

          “Tuff-FAY,” Elsbeth insisted.

          “And this Muffet girl screams and flings her goop and runs away from him,” Mopsy said. “What a little wench.”

          “Unforgivably rude!” Kiku agreed.

          “She deserves a kick in her tuffet,” Nephri added.

          “Tuff-FAY,” Elsbeth said.

          “How about another story?” Miss Nicole chirped, snatching the book back with a bit more violence than she intended.

          The girls listened intently, but at the end, Mopsy had one observation.

          “I’m just saying,” Mopsy was just saying, “I mean, think about it: lips red as blood, skin white as snow, she’s dead in a glass coffin, then she comes back...”

          “Snow White was not a VAMPIRE!” Miss Nicole shrieked. She calmed herself with a visible effort, then continued: “Ah! Here’s a story that all young girls enjoy,” she said, defying any contradiction, “‘Cinderella.’”

          Miss Nicole launched into the classic tale with a desperate gusto, and this time there were no interruptions. Perhaps the girls had gotten the idea that the Princess of Stories might just explode if they continued to interrupt, or perhaps the story of the orphaned child forced to live among the ashes cut a bit too close to their current situation. However, near the end, there was one question that needed answering.

          “This always bothered me,” Elsbeth said. “The Prince would marry whichever girl fit her foot in the glass slipper? That’s what he wanted? Little feet?

          “Sounds like this Prince was a bit weird,” Mopsy remarked.

          “No, this is quite true!” Kiku piped up. “In Japan, a woman’s beauty was traditionally measured by the smallness of her feet. The practice started in China, many centuries ago. Parents would bind the feet of female children with tight bandages to keep them from growing. It was cruel, and a woman with bound feet would never walk properly, but women with tiny feet were highly prized and considered most beautiful.” Kiku sighed, and continued bitterly, “I, however, will never be beautiful, because my feet are already far too big.”

          “Oh, Kiku, that is not true,” Miss Nicole said, tucking her perfect little size-fours under her chair and out of sight. “Your feet are small and lovely. Tell you what,” she continued, closing the book. “Perhaps Sister Dominique is right, these stories are a bit too young for you. Why don’t you and Elsbeth look for some other storybooks for us to enjoy.”

          Elsbeth sighed and stood. “Come on, Koo-Koo,” she said, “let’s all four of us go look for some other books.”

          “All four of us?” Kiku asked, standing.

          “Yes,” Elsbeth replied. “Me, your big ugly feet, and you.”

          “How cruel is my fate, to have such big ugly feet,” Kiku said, following. “And my name is pronounced ‘Kiku.’ It means ‘chrysanthemum.’ Very feminine. Very traditional.”

          They headed out toward one of the darkened outer rooms. It took them a while to work their way through the maze of bookshelves, but after a short time, the rest of the group saw a stuttering light go on in one of the far rooms.

          Miss Nicole was letting Gretchen paw through the book, pointing out illustrations of interest. Gretchen’s face became more and more neutral -- her version of a frown -- as she scanned the stories.

          “Why is the wolf always bad?” she asked quietly.

          “Oh, because wolves are big and scary and wicked!” Miss Nicole said. “They’d eat you up as soon as look at you!”

          Gretchen’s face had gone completely stony, and Sister Dominique had her hand up to her mouth, afraid of how Gretchen might react. But Gretchen simply put the book back in Miss Nicole’s hands and retreated to her seat, looking at nothing.

          “Um, Gretchen, dear...?” Miss Nicole said, horrified that she’d wounded Gretchen’s feelings but clueless as to how.

          “Um, perhaps Mother Superior neglected to mention Gretchen’s special circumstances,” Sister Dominique began, but a soft voice interrupted her.

          “Because people are afraid, that’s why.”

          Everyone looked over at Miss Dana, who was sitting on the floor, forgotten by everyone. She shifted her head, and her eye peeped out from behind her hair, looking at Gretchen.

          “The people who made up those stories were simple villagers and herdsmen,” Miss Dana explained. “The only wolves they ever saw were vicious ones that came out from the forests to invade their towns and farms. Did you notice that in the stories the wolves are always alone? What wolf hunts alone? Most likely these were rabid animals, driven out of their packs.”

          Gretchen looked up and met Miss Dana’s eye.

          “Rabies is a horrible disease, makes an animal crazy, scary, unpredictable,” Miss Dana continued. “But that was the only wolf the story writers knew, so when they needed a threat, something scary for a story, they put in a wolf. Sure, real wolves are powerful and dangerous, but not crazy. Someone who acts crazy and scary isn’t a good representative of their species, y’know?” At this, her eye threw a meaningful look at Miss Nicole, who was in hushed conversation with Sister Dominique. “Some of us know better. I think wolves are kind of cool, myself.”

          Gretchen looked up at Miss Dana, her stone look softening, when Miss Nicole chimed in.

          “Gretchen, dear, I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” Miss Nicole crooned, agonized. “I was talking about the made-up wolves in the stories, not about your, um, wolf-mommy and wolf-daddy. If you can forgive me, I’d still like to be your friend.”

          Gretchen glanced over at Miss Dana, who gave her a single, subtle nod.

          “OK!” Gretchen said, and bounded over to page through the book again as if the past five minutes had never happened.

          “One thing I’ve learned about Gretchen,” Sister Dominique observed, “is that she appears incapable of holding a grudge. Something we in the ‘people-world’ could stand to learn.”

          There was a commotion from the far room.

          “Mopsy, dear,” Sister Dominique said, “why don’t you go see what’s become of Elsbeth and Kiku?”

          “Because I don’t care what’s become of Elsbeth and Kiku,” Mopsy said simply. Sister Dominique gave her a look that Mopsy didn’t think her kindly face could make, and Mopsy hopped to her feet and said, “Sorry, thought it was a real question. If I do not return, avenge my death.”

 

          In the far room, Elsbeth was leaning against the wall twirling an old-fashioned key on her finger. Across from her was a tall bookcase with a set of closed doors, rocking violently.

          “I don’t know, Kiku,” Elsbeth was saying, in tones of mock effort. “The key just won’t turn, it must be stuck!”

          “Try jiggling it!” came Kiku’s agitated voice from inside the bookcase. The doors rattled. “Get me out of here!”

          “Honestly, Koo-koo,” Elsbeth said. “How are you going to explain to Mother Superior you got yourself locked in a bookcase?”

          “You said there were books in here!” Kiku protested, “and that I should go in because I am smaller! How could you let the doors close on me like that? And my name is pronounced ‘Kiku’!”

          “Sister would like to know what’s going on here,” Mopsy said. “And I bet Kiku would, too.”

          “It means ‘chrysanthemum’!” Kiku shouted from inside the bookcase. “Very feminine! Very traditional!”

          “The key still won’t turn!” Elsbeth said, admiring the key placidly. Her voice was full of concern, but her face wasn’t. “You just stay there, I’ll go find Sister Dominique...”

          Hrng! Never mind that,” Kiku said, “stand away from the doors!”

          “What?” Elsbeth said.

          HIIIYAAAAA!

          With a loud crash, the doors blew off their hinges as if they’d been dynamited, followed by Kiku’s small and lovely foot. The foot withdrew, and Kiku emerged from the darkness of the bookcase.

          Elsbeth was stupidly holding the key in her hand. Kiku’s eyes went from the key, to Elsbeth’s surprised face, to Mopsy. Recovering, Elsbeth stuffed the key into Mopsy’s hand.

          “She did it!” Elsbeth said, pointing.

          Kiku’s face darkened. Her voice, when she spoke, was a deadly hiss: “So! I suppose you found locking me in the bookcase very amusing! I thought you two were my friends, and you conspire against me!”

          “Me?” Mopsy said. “I just got here.”

          “Outrageous!” Kiku exclaimed. “Inexcusable!”

          “Put a sock in it, Koo-koo,” Elsbeth said. “I really was trying to turn the key, I just backed away when you said to get away from the doors, and took the key with me by accident.”

          I-do-not-believe-you!” Kiku said angrily.

          It was Elsbeth’s turn to get angry. “Are you calling me a liar?” she demanded.

          “I am!”

          Mopsy, meanwhile, had stopped watching the argument and was looking curiously at something behind Kiku.

          “Um, excuse me--” Mopsy mumbled, but the other girls ignored her.

          “Is that so?” Elsbeth said. “How about I bounce you on your little samurai head?”

          “I would like to see you try, you--” and then Kiku spat out a string of rapid-fire Japanese that did not need translation for anyone to know she was calling Elsbeth some very rude names.

          “--but if I may interrupt a moment--” Mopsy continued.

          “Oh, yeah?” Elsbeth said. “Bring it, you little ninja-com-poop, I’ll punt you all the way back to Tokyo!”

          I-am-not-from-Tokyo!” Kiku shrieked, “I am from a small village in Iga Prefecture!”

          “--I have something to say that will settle this argument.” Mopsy finished.

          Kiku and Elsbeth whirled on Mopsy. “WHAT?” they yelled in unison.

          “The bookcase is about to fall on us,” Mopsy said.

          On cue, there was an ominous groan from the bookcase. Kiku, who had her back to it, whipped around; the three girls watched as the tall bookcase rocked back and forth, then started a majestic descent toward the very spot where they were standing.

          Kiku turned around again. “Elsbeth, I suggest we continue our disagreement from a place of safety!”

          “I’m with you,” Elsbeth agreed.

          The two girls bolted for the doorway, leaving Mopsy standing there. Mopsy went “Hey!” and turned to join them, but as the bookcase tipped forward, a heavy old book slid off the top of the bookcase and hit Mopsy in the midriff. She caught it out of instinct and fell on her backside with an “oof!” The book fell open in her lap, and a random line of print appeared in Mopsy’s view:

 

          A warm breeze, scented with honeysuckle, blew across the edge of the enchanted forest.

 

          She felt it: a warm breeze puffed across her face and stirred her hair, the smell of flowers filled her nose, and she could hear the rustle of trees. It was just a split-second flash, like a snapshot.

          Then the bookcase fell.

          MOPSY!” Kiku and Elsbeth screamed from the doorway, then covered their eyes as the bookcase came down with a huge crash.

          A white-hot rush of terror and disbelief washed over Elsbeth and Kiku, until they heard Mopsy’s mumbling voice say, “Hey guys, look at this...”

          They opened their eyes. The heavy bookcase had hit the opposite wall and smashed a hole clean through it, hanging up on the debris and stopping an inch from Mopsy’s head. Mopsy was sitting where she had landed, covered in plaster dust, looking at an old book in her lap, completely oblivious to her near-miss with crushing book-case death.

          “It’s a book,” she said.

          And so it was: a large, heavy volume with a plain red cover, with no title or author printed on the cover or spine, and the first ten pages or so appeared to have been torn out.

          Mopsy scuttled out from under the bookcase on both knees and one hand, clutching the book to her chest with the other. The other two girls ran up to meet her halfway.

          “You are unhurt?” Kiku asked urgently.

          “Idiot,” Elsbeth said. “Why didn’t you run when we did?”

          “Never mind that, check this out,” Mopsy said, standing. She opened the book in front of Elsbeth and Kiku. Another random line of print appeared in their line of vision:

 

          The valley was filled with the rumble of thundering hooves.

 

          They heard the galloping horses, felt the rumble under their feet, felt the rush of wind through their hair. Mopsy shut the book again, and it was gone.

          The other two girls blinked.

          “Hey, I felt it,” Elsbeth marveled. “It was like horseback riding.”

          “How did you do that?” Kiku asked.

          Mopsy did her little one-shoulder shrug. “It’s the book, I guess.”

          Gretchen and Nephri appeared in the doorway.

          “What happened?” Nephri asked. “We heard a noise.”

          “Big loud crashy sound!” Gretchen said.

          “Get in here and look at this,” Elsbeth said. “Mopsy, show them the book.”

          Mopsy opened the book again.

 

          The dragon swooped, breathing fire.

 

          The five girls ducked as they sensed something huge and powerful zooming just over their heads, saw the shadow race over where they stood, felt the blast of heat from dragon fire against their face. Mopsy shut the book and the sensation stopped.

          Gretchen jumped back. “Big flying lizard!” she barked.

          Nephri was touching her face. She’d felt the heat. “Wow! Is this a modern thing, like television?”

          “No, not even TV can do that,” Elsbeth remarked.

          “It’s this book,” Mopsy said. “It was way up on top of the bookcase. Pretty cool, huh?”

          Whether or not the other girls thought it was pretty cool would have to wait. The sound of running feet, followed by a short shriek, interrupted them from the doorway.

          “Oh mercy!” Sister Dominique exclaimed breathlessly. She took in the devastation with eyes widening to the size of soup plates. “Are you children all right? What in heaven’s name happened here?” she demanded.

          “Um, we found a book, Sister,” Mopsy said.

          The other girls nodded and pointed to the book in Mopsy’s hands, helpfully.

          “How did the bookcase fall?” Sister Dominique asked.

          “It was Kiku’s fault,” Elsbeth said. “She kicked the doors off.”

          “Because you locked me inside it!” Kiku retorted angrily.

          The two girls erupted into an argument, but Sister Dominique cut them off instantly.

          “Now both of you listen to me!” she said, with a sharpness that shocked the both of them into silence. “I do not care whose fault it is! You could have been seriously injured! And just look at the amount of damage you’ve caused! How am I going to explain this to Mother Superior? When she sees this she -- she -- she’s standing right behind me, isn’t she?”

          Sure enough, Mother Merry stood framed in the doorway. She walked in without a word, picking her way carefully around the debris.

          “Was anyone hurt?” she asked simply.

          “No, Mother Superior,” Sister Dominique said.

          “Good, then,” Mother Merry said.

          Nicole and Dana appeared. Nicole had her hand over her mouth, but it took Dana a moment to take in the scene; she saw what had happened and gasped, her one visible eye staring at the plaster-dust-covered Mopsy, looking horrified. Mother Merry put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

          “Do not concern yourself, Dana,” Mother Merry said. “The children have not been injured.” Mother Merry looked into Dana’s face -- or what was available of it behind her hair. Dana nodded.

          Mother Merry turned and looked down at the five girls. It was like being in the focus of a blurry laser. She reached down and gently, but firmly, took the book from Mopsy’s hands. She examined it briefly, then tucked it under arm, and turned to leave.

          Mopsy saw the wondrous book leaving and piped, “Mother Superior...!”

          Mother Merry turned to her, expectantly.

          Mopsy made the words come out of her mouth: “May we have our book back?”

          “You may not,” Mother Merry replied. “I’d think we’ve had enough entertainment for one evening. Get yourselves to bed.”

          Mother Merry turned and walked out the door, Dana watching her owlishly. As Mother Merry stepped over the threshold, carrying the book away, the bookcase collapsed the rest of the way to the ground, splintering into its component boards.