Miss peregrines home for.., p.12
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.12

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  Miss Peregrine clapped her hands as if breaking a spell. “Ah, well,” she said, “it can’t be helped.”

  I followed her out of the room to the staircase. Miss Peregrine climbed it with grim resolve, holding the banister with both hands to pull herself up one step at a time, refusing any help. When we reached the landing, she led me down the hall to the library. It looked like a real classroom now, with desks arranged in a row and a chalkboard in one corner and books dusted and organized on the shelves. Miss Peregrine pointed to a desk and said, “Sit,” so I squeezed into it. She took her place at the front of the room and faced me.

  “Allow me to give you a brief primer. I think you’ll find the answers to most of your questions contained herein.”

  “Okay.”

  “The composition of the human species is infinitely more diverse than most humans suspect,” she began. “The real taxonomy of Homo sapiens is a secret known to only a few, of whom you will now be one. At base, it is a simple dichotomy: there are the coerlfolc, the teeming mass of common people who make up humanity’s great bulk, and there is the hidden branch—the crypto-sapiens, if you will—who are called syndrigast, or “peculiar spirit” in the venerable language of my ancestors. As you have no doubt surmised, we here are of the latter type.”

  I bobbed my head as if I understood, though she’d already lost me. Hoping to slow her down a little, I asked a question.

  “But why don’t people know about you? Are you the only ones?”

  “There are peculiars all over the world,” she said, “though our numbers are much diminished from what they once were. Those who remain live in hiding, as we do.” She lapsed into a soft regretful voice. “There was a time when we could mix openly with common folk. In some corners of the world we were regarded as shamans and mystics, consulted in times of trouble. A few cultures have retained this harmonious relationship with our people, though only in places where both modernity and the major religions have failed to gain a foothold, such as the black-magic island of Ambrym in the New Hebrides. But the larger world turned against us long ago. The Muslims drove us out. The Christians burned us as witches. Even the pagans of Wales and Ireland eventually decided that we were all malevolent faeries and shape-shifting ghosts.”

  “So why didn’t you just—I don’t know—make your own country somewhere? Go and live by yourselves?”

  “If only it had been that simple,” she said. “Peculiar traits often skip a generation, or ten. Peculiar children are not always, or even usually, born to peculiar parents, and peculiar parents do not always, or even usually, bear peculiar children. Can you imagine, in a world so afraid of otherness, why this would be a danger to all peculiar-kind?”

  “Because normal parents would be freaked out if their kids started to, like, throw fire?”

  “Exactly, Mr. Portman. The peculiar offspring of common parents are often abused and neglected in the most horrific ways. It wasn’t so many centuries ago that the parents of peculiar children simply assumed that their ‘real’ sons or daughters had been made off with and replaced with changelings—that is, enchanted and malevolent, not to mention entirely fictitious, lookalikes—which in darker times was considered a license to abandon the poor children, if not kill them outright.”

  “That’s awful.”

  “Extremely. Something had to be done, so people like myself created places where young peculiars could live apart from common folk—physically and temporally isolated enclaves like this one, of which I am enormously proud.”

  “People like yourself?”

  “We peculiars are blessed with skills that common people lack, as infinite in combination and variety as others are in the pigmentation of their skin or the appearance of their facial features. That said, some skills are common, like reading thoughts, and others are rare, such as the way I can manipulate time.”

  “Time? I thought you turned into a bird.”

  “To be sure, and therein lies the key to my skill. Only birds can manipulate time. Therefore, all time manipulators must be able to take the form of a bird.”

  She said this so seriously, so matter-of-factly, that it took me a moment to process. “Birds … are time travelers?” I felt a goofy smile spread across my face.

  Miss Peregrine nodded soberly. “Most, however, slip back and forth only occasionally, by accident. We who can manipulate time fields consciously—and not only for ourselves, but for others—are known as ymbrynes. We create temporal loops in which peculiar folk can live indefinitely.”

  “A loop,” I repeated, remembering my grandfather’s command: find the bird, in the loop. “Is that what this place is?”

  “Yes. Though you may better know it as the third of September, 1940.”

  I leaned toward her over the little desk. “What do you mean? It’s only the one day? It repeats?”

  “Over and over, though our experience of it is continuous. Otherwise we would have no memory of the last, oh, seventy years that we’ve resided here.”

  “That’s amazing,” I said.

  “Of course, we were here on Cairnholm a decade or more before the third of September, 1940—physically isolated, thanks to the island’s unique geography—but it wasn’t until that date that we also needed temporal isolation.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Because otherwise we all would’ve been killed.”

  “By the bomb.”

  “Assuredly so.”

  I gazed at the surface of the desk. It was all starting to make sense—though just barely. “Are there other loops besides this one?”

  “Many,” she said, “and nearly all the ymbrynes who mother over them are friends of mine. Let me see: There’s Miss Gannett in Ireland, in June of 1770; Miss Nightjar in Swansea on April 3, 1901; Miss Avocet and Miss Bunting together in Derbyshire on Saint Swithin’s Day of 1867; Miss Treecreeper I don’t remember where exactly—oh, and dear Miss Finch. Somewhere I have a lovely photograph of her.”

  Miss Peregrine wrestled a massive photo album down from a shelf and set it before me on the desk. She leaned over my shoulder as she turned the stiff pages, looking for a certain picture but pausing to linger over others, her voice tinged with dreamy nostalgia. As they flicked by I recognized photos from the smashed trunk in the basement and from my grandfather’s cigar box. Miss Peregrine had collected them all. It was strange to think that she’d shown these same pictures to my grandfather all those years ago, when he was my age—maybe right here in this room, at this desk—and now she was showing them to me, as if somehow I’d stepped into his past.

  Finally she came to a photo of an ethereal-looking woman with a plump little bird perched on her hand, and said, “This is Miss Finch and her auntie, Miss Finch.” The woman and the bird seemed to be communicating.

  “How could you tell them apart?” I asked.

  “The elder Miss Finch preferred to stay a finch most all of the time. Which was just as well, really. She never was much of a conversationalist.”

  Miss Peregrine turned a few more pages, this time landing on a group portrait of women and children gathered humorlessly around a paper moon.

  “Ah, yes! I’d nearly forgotten about this one.” She slipped the photo out of its album sleeve and held it up reverently. “The lady in front there, that’s Miss Avocet. She’s as close to royalty as we peculiars have. They tried for fifty years to elect her leader of the Council of Ymbrynes, but she would never give up teaching at the academy she and Miss Bunting founded. Today there’s not an ymbryne worth her wings who didn’t pass under Miss Avocet’s tutelage at one time, myself included! In fact, if you look closely you might recognize that little girl in the glasses.”

  I squinted. The face she pointed to was dark and slightly blurred. “Is that you?”

  “I was one of the youngest Miss Avocet ever took on,” she said proudly.

  “What about the boys in the picture?” I said. “They look even younger than you.”

  Miss Peregrine’s expression darkened
. “You’re referring to my misguided brothers. Rather than split us up, they came along to the academy with me. Mollycoddled like a pair of little princes, they were. I dare say it’s what turned them rotten.”

  “They weren’t ymbrynes?”

  “Oh, no,” she huffed. “Only women are born ymbrynes, and thank heaven for that! Males lack the seriousness of temperament required of persons with such grave responsibilities. We ymbrynes must scour the countryside for young peculiars in need, steer clear of those who would do us harm, and keep our wards fed, clothed, hidden, and steeped in the lore of our people. And as if that weren’t enough, we must also ensure that our loops reset each day like clockwork.”

  “What happens if they don’t?”

  She raised a fluttering hand to her brow and staggered back, pantomiming horror. “Catastrophe, cataclysm, disaster! I dare not even think of it. Fortunately, the mechanism by which loops are reset is a simple one: One of us must cross through the entryway every so often. This keeps it pliable, you see. The ingress point is a bit like a hole in fresh dough; if you don’t poke a finger into it now and then the thing may just close up on its own. And if there’s no ingress or egress—no valve through which may be vented the various pressures that accrue naturally in a closed temporal system—” She made a little poof! gesture with her hands, as if miming the explosion of a firecracker. “Well, the whole thing becomes unstable.”

  She bent over the album again and riffled through its pages. “Speaking of which, I may have a picture of—yes, here it is. An ingress point if ever there was one!” She pulled another picture from its sleeve. “This is Miss Finch and one of her wards in the magnificent entryway to Miss Finch’s loop, in a rarely used portion of the London Underground. When it resets, the tunnel fills with the most terrific glow. I’ve always thought our own rather modest by comparison,” she said with a hint of envy.

  “Just to make sure I understand,” I said. “If today is September third, 1940, then tomorrow is … also September third?”

  “Well, for a few of the loop’s twenty-four hours it’s September second, but, yes, it’s the third.”

  “So tomorrow never comes.”

  “In a manner of speaking.”

  Outside, a distant clap of what sounded like thunder echoed, and the darkening window rattled in its frame. Miss Peregrine looked up and again drew out her watch.

  “I’m afraid that’s all the time I have at the moment. I do hope you’ll stay for supper.”

  I said that I would; that my father might be wondering where I was hardly crossed my mind. I squeezed out from behind the desk and began following her to the door, but then another question occurred to me, one that had been nagging at me for a long time.

  “Was my grandfather really running from the Nazis when he came here?”

  “He was,” she said. “A number of children came to us during those awful years leading up to the war. There was so much upheaval.” She looked pained, as if the memory was still fresh. “I found Abraham at a camp for displaced persons on the mainland. He was a poor, tortured boy, but so strong. I knew at once that he belonged with us.”

  I felt relieved; at least that part of his life was as I had understood it to be. There was one more thing I wanted to ask, though, and I didn’t quite know how to put it.

  “Was he—my grandfather—was he like …”

  “Like us?”

  I nodded.

  She smiled strangely. “He was like you, Jacob.” And she turned and hobbled toward the stairs.

  * * *

  Miss Peregrine insisted that I wash off the bog mud before sitting down to dinner, and asked Emma to run me a bath. I think she hoped that by talking to me a little, Emma would start to feel better. But she wouldn’t even look at me. I watched as she ran cold water into the tub and then warmed it with her bare hands, swirling them around until steam rose.

  “That is awesome,” I said. But she left without saying a word in response.

  Once I’d turned the water thoroughly brown, I toweled off and found a change of clothes hanging from the back of the door—baggy tweed pants, a button-up shirt, and a pair of suspenders that were far too short but that I couldn’t figure out how to adjust. I was left with the choice of wearing the pants either around my ankles or hitched up to my bellybutton. I decided the latter was the lesser of evils, so I went downstairs to have what would likely be the strangest meal of my life while dressed like a clown without makeup.

  Dinner was a dizzying blur of names and faces, many of them half-remembered from photographs and my grandfather’s long-ago descriptions. When I came into the dining room, the kids, who’d been clamoring noisily for seats around the long table, froze and stared at me. I got the feeling they didn’t get a lot of dinner guests. Miss Peregrine, already seated at the head of the table, stood up and used the sudden quiet as an opportunity to introduce me.

  “For those of you who haven’t already had the pleasure of meeting him,” she announced, “this is Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. He is our honored guest and has come a very long way to be here. I hope you will treat him accordingly.” Then she pointed to each person in the room and recited their names, most of which I immediately forgot, as happens when I’m nervous. The introductions were followed by a barrage of questions, which Miss Peregrine batted away with rapid-fire efficiency.

  “Is Jacob going to stay with us?”

  “Not to my knowledge.”

  “Where’s Abe?”

  “Abe is busy in America.”

  “Why does Jacob got Victor’s trousers on?”

  “Victor doesn’t need them anymore, and Mr. Portman’s are being washed.”

  “What’s Abe doing in America?”

  At this question I saw Emma, who had been glowering in a corner, rise from her chair and stalk out of the room. The others, apparently used to her volatile moods, paid no attention.

  “Never mind what Abe’s doing,” Miss Peregrine snapped.

  “When’s he coming back?”

  “Never mind that, too. Now let’s eat!”

  Everyone stampeded to their seats. Thinking I’d found an empty chair, I went to sit and felt a fork jab my thigh. “Excuse me!” cried Millard. But Miss Peregrine made him give it up anyway, sending him out to put on clothes.

  “How many times must I tell you,” she called after him, “polite persons do not take their supper in the nude!”

  Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops so that you couldn’t see what was inside, sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner.

  “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried.

  “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown; a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter; a bowl of steamed mussels; platters of roasted vegetables; loaves of bread still cooling from the oven; and all manner of jellies and sauces I didn’t recognize but that looked delicious. It all glowed invitingly in the flicker of gaslight lamps, a world away from the oily stews of indeterminate origin I’d been choking down at the Priest Hole. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and proceeded to stuff myself silly.

  It shouldn’t have surprised me that peculiar children have peculiar eating habits, but between forkfuls of food I found myself sneaking glances around the room. Olive the levitating girl had to be belted into a chair screwed to the floor so that she wouldn’t float up to the ceiling. So the rest of us wouldn’t be plagued by insects, Hugh, the boy who had bees living in his stomach, ate under a large mosquito net at a table for one in the corner. Claire, a doll-like girl with immaculate golden curls, sat next to Miss Peregrine but ate not a morsel.

  “Aren’t you hungry?” I asked her.

  “Claire don’t eat with the rest of us,” Hugh volunteered, a bee esca
ping from his mouth. “She’s embarrassed.”

  “I am not!” she said, glaring at him.

  “Yeah? Then eat something!”

  “No one here is embarrassed of their gift,” Miss Peregrine said. “Miss Densmore simply prefers to dine alone. Isn’t that right, Miss Densmore?”

  The girl stared at the empty place before her, clearly wishing that all the attention would vanish.

  “Claire has a backmouth,” explained Millard, who sat beside me now in a smoking jacket (and nothing else).

  “A what?”

  “Go on, show him!” someone said. Soon everyone at the table was pressuring Claire to eat something. And finally, just to shut them up, she did.

  A leg of goose was set before her. She turned around in her chair, and gripping its arms she bent over backward, dipping the back of her head to the plate. I heard a distinct smacking sound, and when she lifted her head again a giant bite had disappeared from the goose leg. Beneath her golden hair was a set of sharp-toothed jaws. Suddenly, I understood the strange picture of Claire that I’d seen in Miss Peregrine’s album, to which the photographer had devoted two panels: one for her daintily pretty face and another for the curls that so thoroughly masked the back of her head.

  Claire turned forward and crossed her arms, annoyed that she’d let herself be talked into such a humiliating demonstration. She sat in silence while the others peppered me with questions. After Miss Peregrine had dismissed a few more about my grandfather, the children turned to other subjects. They seemed especially interested in what life in the twenty-first century was like.

  “What sort of flying motorcars do you have?” asked a pubescent boy named Horace, who wore a dark suit that made him look like an apprentice undertaker.

  “None,” I said. “Not yet, anyway.”

  “Have they built cities on the moon?” another boy asked hopefully.

  “We left some garbage and a flag there in the sixties, but that’s about it.”

 
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