Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
Woodpecker! says Margot.
That’s an easy one, I laugh, with peach juice running down my chin.
Croo, croo, says another bird and I shout, Dove!
I usually win at this game. Maman knows all the bird calls and she used to teach me: cuckoo, crow, blackbird, seagull, song thrush . . . She taught me the feathers too. Birds leave their feathers lying around all the time, like presents. In the days when Maman sang and baked cakes we would come out together on treasure hunts, collecting feathers and flowers. Back at home we stuck them on to paper and Maman put them on the fridge with magnets, or pinned them to the walls.
Margot and I point our ears to the sky, listening for more birds, trying to untangle their calls. It is quite complicated and keeps us very busy until a long fat hornet arrives, hovering and buzzing around my face. I jump on to my feet. Margot becomes bossy again.
Come on, quickly, she says, now we must wash our hands and faces. She takes my sticky hand and leads me down to the stream. We crouch down at the edge of the brown water and rinse our fingers in the reflections of trees, scattering half-made tadpole-frogs under the rocks.
The rocks look different, says Margot. What’s wrong with them?
They’re out of the water, I say. It’s because it’s summer.
I know about summer, of course, says Margot, and rain and snow and mountains, but it isn’t just that they are out of the water. They have moved. Look.
Rocks don’t move, I say. But I take a few steps backwards just in case. From further back I can see the pattern. The big rocks that were dotted around the stream before are now zigzagging from one side to the other, from the low meadow into the low pasture. They are making the water slow down, pool up against them and run off the sides. In the still water in the middle, pond skaters spin around in circles on the surface while silvery water boatmen and tiny fish glitter underneath.
Stepping stones! I shout. Let’s go! And I rush to the water’s edge, sticking out my arms ready to balance my way across.
Rocks that move, says Margot quietly.
Yes, I say. I step back again.
Margot is right. Something is wrong with rocks that move. I look at the stepping stones again. Seven big stones that look very heavy. Too heavy for children to carry.
It must have been a witch, I say.
Witches don’t exist, says Margot.
On the other side of the stream there are evening primroses. I want to go and get them.
It was a witch, I say. Look at the flowers.
Witches do that, they put things you want in places you shouldn’t go. They make houses out of cakes to catch you and then they put you in cages to fatten you up.
Flowers aren’t cakes. What do you want the flowers for? says Margot.
For making Maman happy with.
Do you think they would make her happy?
Well, they’re yellow, I say. I don’t know. Maybe nothing will make her happy.
That’s just silly, says Margot. There are more than a thousand things in the world and one of them must make Maman happy.
But how do we know which one?
Exactly! says Margot. This is our new challenge. We are going to use our cleverness to make Maman happy again. We will start by trying yellow flowers.
OK, I’ll go and get some, I say. But then I stop again. No, I’ve changed my mind.
It wasn’t a witch! says Margot.
I’m not going! If it wasn’t a witch then who was it? I say. It could only have been a grownup, but grownups don’t come down here. Even Josette just calls the donkeys when it’s their feeding time and they go and meet her up by the fence.
No grownups at all? says Margot.
I think about it. The only grownup I’ve ever seen down here is the man who made the dragging footprints in the snow.
The first time we saw him I was four years old. Maman had just come home from the hospital and was staying in bed. Papa was spraying the peaches because he didn’t know what else to do. That’s what he said. We couldn’t stay with Papa, and Maman was in a terrible mood, so we went to see if the donkeys were in a good one, which they were. We stayed all day in the low meadow, and late in the afternoon he came. We were sitting under the white mulberry tree, being doctors and nurses. The leaves are big and the tree also had hundreds of white berries. It makes a good hospital but was also useful for hiding. The branches hang very low, close to the ground, so we felt quite safe.
We peered out, watching the stranger like spies. The man was half-hopping as though he had a stone in his shoe, and a red dog was walking by his side. I wasn’t happy about the man but I liked his dog. I could tell it was a kind one, staying with his person like that when he would probably rather have been chasing smells.
Just when I thought they were about to turn and go the dog barked three times, making me jump, and ran over to the mulberry tree. He came straight underneath and nosed us with his wet face. The dog was quite thin and slinky and friendly-looking. His tail was a flapping floppy brush. I wanted to pat the dog, but if it didn’t go away I was sure the man would follow.
Shoo! I whispered, and waved my hands at it.
Buzz off! said Margot, making a cross face.
The dog stepped back from us, sniffing the air, but he didn’t buzz off. Instead he had a snack, eating a few of the lowest mulberries, nipping them straight off the tree. The man’s feet had been still all this time, just standing, pointing towards us, but not moving. Then he bent down to his shoe, maybe looking for the stone, and for a moment he seemed to be looking right at us. I stayed as still as a statue, and closed my eyes to a squint. The man squinted too. His face was very hairy, except above one ear where a big patch of hair was missing and the skin was red-brown like a chestnut. I held my breath, my heart thumping against my ribs. But then he stood up again, his face was gone and he whistled for the dog, who nudged me one last time with his nose then ran back to the man’s heel.
He was here last winter too when the snow came. I was following my footprints from the day before, trying to put my feet in them without making any new ones. Margot was lagging behind, stepping slowly and carefully on the new snow trying not to make prints. She’s very good at that, better than me.
I saw them first: big fresh footprints with zigzag bottoms, half of them normal and half of them stretched and blurry. Next to them were a patter of paw prints, all heading down to the stream. I was examining them more closely when I heard the snow crunching ahead of me and when I looked up he was close, making the same pattern but coming back up the hill. Each step of his scrapy walk made a small pile of snow. The red dog was still at his feet but this time covered in a layer of frost like icing on a cake.
I stood still, watching them walk towards me. The man limped, his dog trotted, I thought about running away.
Don’t worry, said Margot, he looks rather stupid. If he tries to kidnap us we will easily be able to trick him. Pull a fierce face, she said.
She said it really loud and I was sure that the man was going to do a big wicked laugh and say, Oh, do you really think so? But he didn’t. I don’t think he heard.
He came right up to us, smiling all the time, his face bristly with grey, his eyes dark and sparkly on the inside but wrinkled on the outside with two eyelids on each eye, one at the top and one at the bottom.
My bone was itching terribly; I remember because it was inside my two T-shirts and my jumper and my coat so I couldn’t scratch it. There is a place on my arm where it was broken when I was a baby. Maman told me that, although you can’t see anything on the skin. If I’m nervous, the bone inside itches like mad. As the man shuffled closer I thought I might have to take my clothes off, right there in the snow, just to rub at the burning itch. I was starting to unzip my coat when the man passed right by me.
He didn’t stop, just nodded at us and kept going, following his own footsteps back up out of the meadow, his red dog taking a last look at us as they approached the road.
See, said Margot, he’s terrified of us.
I grinned behind his shuffling back, proud and relieved.
That night I told Papa about the man. How his footprints were ragged, how his dog was always by his side like magic. I told him how we had scared him off with our best worst faces.
Pivoine, he said (because that is the other one of my names), children shouldn’t go wandering in the meadows alone.
I laughed at him then, but he pulled me up on to his lap and stared me right in the eye with his serious face.
I mean it, Pea; please promise me you won’t go down there alone.
I promise, I said, and snuggled into his arms.
I didn’t tell Papa how the man touched my pink hat with his black glove as he passed.
These are the rules of hide and seek. First, you have to play in the right place. It’s no use playing in the middle of the meadow, or near the donkeys’ stable. If you do that it’s too easy and soon you have to choose a different game. No, you need to have different places to hide. The other rule is that the person counting must not peek through their fingers. Not even slightly.
Me and Margot are looking for the right starting place. It is early morning, not too hot yet, and crickets crackle like popcorn around our feet as we go. When we get to the dirt-track crossroads we stop and look for the place where the big spider has made her web right across the path. We don’t want to break it.
Here it is, stretched like laundry between tall blades of grass. The crickets are popping all about and some land on my arms and on my clothes. I never have time to touch them, though, before they spring right off again.
It is not long before one lands in the web. There it goes, a chubby little green one, kicking its long back legs and making the web swing like a hammock. The spider hurries over as we watch. She is big and fat and yellow like a stripy apricot. She cuts around the cricket and spins it in silk. Then she mends her web again. It goes very fast. We watch her finish all her jobs and go back to the middle of her web. She will catch lots of crickets and she will wrap them all up. I know because we have watched her now for three days. She is never hungry in the morning. Then, when the sun drops behind the trees on the banks of the stream, sending their shadows rolling out across the low meadow, we will pass her on our way home, and she will be eating her supper.
If we are lucky, when we get home, Maman will have had some sleep and we can have our supper too. Most nights the baby in Maman’s tummy does not sleep, but does somersaults instead. This means Maman is awake too, because how could you sleep with someone doing their exercises inside you? In the mornings Maman is usually cross about everything. This morning she was in such a mood. She came downstairs at breakfast time and made coffee without saying a word. She took it back to her bedroom with a piece of toast. She will eat it in bed, with four pillows behind her, waiting for the baby to get tired, and then, I hope, she will sleep too.
Further down into the meadow we find the perfect spot to play. There are lots of different paths to take and trees and bales of hay to hide behind.
OK, says Margot. I’m going to hide first.
That means I am counting. I can count to over one hundred but for this game I only count to eleven. When I have finished – and I do not peek through my fingers, not even slightly – I look around. I can’t see Margot, but I can hear her easily. She is hiding by the cherry tree in the corner of the meadow. There are no cherries on it now, but the rotten ones and lots of stones are scattered all around nearby. She is making too much noise because the grey donkey has followed her and is snuffling her for food. It tickles when they do that. I run over, laughing.
I found you! I sing, but she looks at me with her serious face as though she had never been hiding at all.
Welcome to the library, says Margot in a very important voice. Today we are only allowed to choose one book, and it was my turn. I have chosen this book. It is about skeletons.
She holds up the book. It is a pretend one, of course.
I know about skeletons. Once I went to a museum and saw dinosaur skeletons. They are like jigsaw puzzles for scientists. Scientists are people who do experiments, and jigsaws made of bones.
Are they dinosaur skeletons? I ask Margot.
The dinosaurs are dead, she says. They did used to exist, not like witches, but now they are all dead.
Why are they dead? I ask.
Please don’t interrupt, says Margot. Everybody will be dead one day, but for now it’s just the dinosaurs and Papa.
And the baby, I add.
Well, yes, and the baby, she says.
Did they have skeletons?
Yes, of course, everything has a skeleton, says Margot. Please concentrate.
So, she says, this is how you make a skeleton. When you get old you grow into a maman, and after that you get very old, with the wrinkles, then you die. Margot pauses.
Then what? I ask.
Then you stop talking and then you are a skeleton and then there is a big party with sandwiches, but not as much cake as at Christmas. And then you get born again like a baby and a policeman comes and pumps you up to be a grownup size.