A new short story; it’ll only be up for four weeks, so if you want to read it for free, now’s your chance!
A Little Bird Told Me
by Robin Wood
I was just starting to knit the lace trim on a cap for the newest baby, when a little blue bird with a yellow head and white bib flew through my open window. It settled on the footstool next to me, hopped up down a couple of times, and then plunked right down on its tail feathers, sticking its little twig legs straight out in front of it.
As soon as it did, it’s legs grew longer and thicker, while its body stretched up, the feathers sank into her arms, and her face changed from a bird to a girl. In a moment, my fourteen year old great-granddaughter, Sophie, was sitting there, with her blond curls, a blue dress with a white collar, and a scab on one brown knee. Her eyes were still bright black, and still laughed at me.
I have no idea why she sits down like that to change. I find it much more comfortable, not to mention graceful, to change while standing. But grace wasn’t high on Sophie’s priority list.
“Hi Grandnana!” she said. “Do you have any cookies?” And she hopped off the stool and went into the pantry to investigate.
I only had three children, but between them, they presented me with 9 grandchildren, and so far I have 21 great grandchildren and 3 great-great grandchildren with no end in sight. All of these people feel free to drop in unannounced at any hour of the day or night. I do love them, but I tell you true, some days I think about going to live at the bottom of the sea just to get a little peace! Except I’m sure they would find me before I had a chance to unpack.
When I was young, and just had the three, I worked very hard to make sure everything was always even. If I made Gertie a new dress, I made one for Caroline, too, and a shirt and tie for Albert.
I tried to keep that up with the grandchildren, at first. But the day baby Ellie came crying because her little hands were cold, and I realized if I stuck to “everyone equally” I’d have to knit 9 pairs of mittens to give one toddler warm fingers, I gave it up. I made one tiny pair, and stopped worrying about the others.
Now I give to each what each one needs. If one needs more than the others, that’s for the gods to sort out. None are left wanting, and none have piles of things they will never use.
They help themselves to whatever food I have whenever they come over, though. All of them. I try to keep lots on hand. Anything I especially want to eat, I disguise. They think I have a fondness for particularly stinky cheese, and I’m not about to disabuse them of that notion.
On this occasion, Sophie’s voice rang out, “Chicken pie! That’s even better than cookies. I’m starving.” She wandered back out, with a generous slice on one of my good dishes, her mouth already full.
“Not that I’m not glad to see you,” I said, “but to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” I didn’t bother to mention she wasn’t using an everyday dish. I gave up that battle long ago.
She swallowed, and waved her fork airily, scattering pastry crumbs. “Oh, Mom’s started spring cleaning, so I thought I’d get out of there.”
“Didn’t it occur to you that your mom might want your help with the cleaning?” I asked.
“Sure! That’s why I left,” she chomped down on another forkful of pie. “I’ve cleaned enough for one day, and she’s nuts on the topic. No one will ever see the top of the cupboards.”
I let that pass, too, along with speaking with her mouth full. Her mother could teach her all of that. I was tired.
I was also not going to get any more knitting done. It was a new pattern that I hadn’t memorized yet, and counting stitches to follow written instructions was not going to be possible. I made a note of which row and stitch I was on, and folded the knitting neatly into the pattern, setting it aside for later, while Sophie polished off the pie.
When she was done, she licked the plate. Disgusting, but flattering in its way.
I got out some piecework to sew, while she mounted another raid on my pantry. She came back with a slice of cake, on the same plate. I suppose she thought it was “clean enough.”
She ate that without a word, while I sewed squares of bright cotton together with a quarter inch seam. Something was bothering her. If I didn’t push, she’d tell me what it was. I suspected that was the main reason for her visit, although avoiding housework had certainly played a part.
When the cake was gone, she got up without a word, went into the kitchen, washed the dish and fork, and put them in the rack to dry. Without being asked. Whatever was bugging her, it was bad.
Then she came back, reached into the work basket, and took out a block to sew. I keep them there, pinned together in order, for just such an occurrence. And my own convenience too, of course. She threaded a needle, and got to work.
Outside, the bees hummed around the window box, birds sang, and the creek chuckled to itself as it hurried to its eventual appointment with the sea. The only sound inside was the clock ticking.
I finished my nine-patch block, and started another. Sophie got the first three patches of hers sewn, and reached for the clapper board to set the seam.
“Grandnana, have you ever made a bad promise?”
“A bad promise?”
She sighed deeply. “Yeah. There’s this girl in my class at school. I don’t know her all that well. She doesn’t really have any friends, and I guess I felt sorry for more than anything else.”
She set the seams, and put the row aside, picking up the next two squares to sew. Not the way I’d do it. I sew all three rows before setting the seams. But her way would finish the block, and was only a little more work.
“Anyway, she asked if I’d help with a spell, and I said yes without asking what kind of spell it is.” She shook her curls away from her face, and looked up at me. “I know that was dumb, but I never thought it was going to be anything but a common, simple spell!”
“I take it that’s not what she wanted.”
Her mouth twisted, she looked back down, and jabbed the needle viciously into the cloth. “Not hardly. There is this new boy, called Mitt, who is really handsome. I mean, if you picture masculine handsomnimity, he’d be what you imagined. He’s rich, too. His Dad owns this big business or something. Anyway, they moved into that huge house on Chestnut, and he gets a ride to school in a limo with a chauffeur and everything.
“No one knows what he’s doing at our school. You’d expect him to be at a ritzy boarding school or something. Apparently he was, but his family missed him too much. Or maybe he wasn’t fully appreciated there. Or something. No one knows the real story.”
I could see where this was headed, but I waited for her to tell me.
“Anyway,” she dropped the sewing into her lap, heedless of the needle, and scrubbed her face with both hands. “This girl, Chrissy, decided she is in love with him. She wants help with a love spell. I tried to tell her she doesn’t know him. I tried to tell her how spells like that bind people, and it’s coercion and wrong, and how when the victim finds out, and he will, he will hate and resent you forever. I tried to explain how horrible it is to be bound to someone who hates and resents you.”
She dropped her hands, and grabbed her skirt, twisting it while staring at me with anguished eyes. “I tried every way I know, Grandnana, and she *still* insists she wants to do the spell!”
I reached over, and picked up the needle from her lap. She had missed running it into her hand by about half an inch. She glanced down as I did, saw how narrow her escape had been, and made a face.
“I don’t know what to do! I can’t let her do the spell, and she says she can’t anyway without my help. Her spells all fizzle, except the really simple ones.”
I used the needle to catch the patches she was sewing, and lifted them out of the way before she tangled the thread or did herself an injury. I put it back with the rest of that patch, and laid my own aside too. She just waited, looking at me with a tortured expression. Finally I said, “Then don’t help her.”
“But I gave my word!”
“You did. But you didn’t know what you were promising. Would you have promised if you had known?”
She shook her head violently, curls whipping everywhere. “No, never!”
“So promising was a mistake?”
“In the worst way! I wish like everything I’d asked her what spell, first!”
I nodded. “I’m sure you do. Would keeping that promise make the original mistake better, or worse?”
“Only about a quadrillion times worse!”
“Then break the promise.”
“But…. I thought breaking a promise is a horrible thing! You have to keep your word. It’s your honor and your bond!”
I reached out my arms, and she came and sat in my lap, great gangly girl that she is. I wrapped my arms around her, and held her close. “It is, honey bunch, and you must never break it simply because keeping it is inconvenient, or because you have found a different thing you would rather do, or because you are angry at the person you gave your word to, or afraid keeping it will be hard.
“But sometimes you find that it was a mistake to give your word in the first place. Sometimes, you’ll be coerced. Sometimes someone will lie about the circumstances, or about what they are asking for. Sometimes you simply won’t have all the information, like this time.
“In all those cases, and probably more, keeping your word will make a bad situation worse. When there is no good choice, always choose the path that will cause the least harm.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m going to go back and tell her I won’t help. She’ll tell everyone I broke my word, and people might hate me. But that’s better than helping to ruin two whole lives.”
I rocked her gently. “She might not tell anyone. Telling them will reveal the kind of spell she had planned. But if she does, even if you choose not to explain why, and you could certainly do that, people will get over it. They always do, eventually.”
She nodded, reached up, and kissed my cheek. “Thanks, Grandnana. I knew you would be able to help me.” As annoying as my family can be, they all know exactly how to melt my heart.
I had just finished threading the ribbon through the cap for the newest baby when a little bird flew through my window.
It was Sophie again.
“Hi Grandnana!” She headed into the pantry. “Guess what! Oh! Donuts! Yumm!”
She came out, with a donut in each hand, spewing powdered sugar with every word. “You know that new boy I told you about? Mitt? Well…” She settled on the footstool, and looked up at me, eyes glowing, “It turns out he was expelled from that fancy school for ‘excessive cruelty’.” She put half a donut in her mouth, and chewed with great satisfaction. “He was caught torturing a puppy,” she scowled fiercely, “can you imagine? They took it away, and it’s going to be okay, and it has new owners now.” Her face cleared, and she popped the other half of the donut into her mouth. “But it turns out he’s just as mean and nasty as he can be, and he’s been expelled from our school, too.” She finished the other donut in three bites, and licked her fingers.
“Chrissy told me she is *so* glad that I didn’t help her with that love spell. Can you imagine being bound to someone like that? And she says she’s swearing off compulsion spells for life.”
She wiped her hands on her skirt, and gave me a very satisfied look. “So that turned out better than I expected! I’m so happy I came to you!” She hopped up, and went back into the pantry. “Ewww. There’s that horrible cheese again. Got any roast beef?”
I’m glad she came over too. And I’m glad she doesn’t like stinky cheese. I’m planning to have that leftover beef for my supper.
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