When the last cottages had disappeared behind us, we slipped quietly from the wagon and then crossed the ridge on foot in the direction of the forest. Emma walked on one side of me, silent and brooding, never letting go of my arm, while on the other Millard hummed to himself and kicked at stones. I was nervous and baffled and queasily excited all at the same time. Part of me felt like something momentous was about to happen. The other part of me expected to wake up at any moment, to come out of this fever dream or stress episode or whatever it was and wake up with may face in a puddle of drool on the Smart Aid break room table and think, Well, that was strange, and then return to the boring old business of being me.
But I didn’t wake up. We just kept walking, the girl who could make fire with her hands and the invisible boy and me. We walked through the woods, where the path was as wide and clear as any trail in a national park, then emerged onto a broad expanse of lawn blooming with flowers and striped with neat gardens. We’d reached the house.
I gazed at it in wonder—not because it was awful, but because it was beautiful. There wasn’t a shingle out of place or a broken window. Turrets and chimneys that had slumped lazily on the house I remembered now pointed confidently toward the sky. The forest that had seemed to devour its walls stood at a respectful distance.
I was led down a flagstone path and up a set of freshly painted steps to the porch. Emma no longer seemed to regard me as the threat she once did, but before going inside she tied my hands behind me—I think just for the sake of appearances. She was playing the returning hunter, and I was the captured prey. She was about to take me inside when Millard stopped her.
“His shoes are caked with filth,” he said. “Can’t have him tracking in mud. The Bird’ll have an attack.” So, as my captors waited, I removed my shoes and socks, also stained with mud. Then Millard suggested I roll up the cuffs of my jeans so they wouldn’t drag on the carpet, and I did, and Emma grabbed me impatiently and yanked me through the door.
We proceeded down a hall I remembered being almost impassably clogged with broken furniture, past the staircase, now gleaming with varnish, curious faces peeking at me through the banisters, through the dining room. The snowfall of plaster was gone; in its place was a long wooden table ringed by chairs. It was the same house I’d explored, but everything had been restored to order. Where I remembered patinas of green mold there was wallpaper and wainscoting and cheerful shades of paint. Flowers were arranged in vases. Sagging piles of rotted wood and fabric had rebuilt themselves into fainting couches and armchairs, and sunlight streamed through high windows once so grimy I’d thought they were blacked out.
Finally we came to a small room that looked out onto the back. “Keep hold of him while I inform the headmistress,” Emma said to Millard, and I felt his hand grasp my elbow. When she left, it fell away.
“You’re not afraid I’ll eat your brain or something?” I asked him.
I turned to the window and gazed out in wonder. The yard was full of children, almost all of whom I recognized from yellowed photographs. Some lazed under shade trees; others tossed a ball and chased one another past flowerbeds exploding with color. It was exactly the paradise my grandfather had described. This was the enchanted island; these were the magical children. If I was dreaming, I no longer wanted to wake up. Or at least not anytime soon.
Out on the grassy pitch, someone kicked a ball too hard, and it flew up into a giant topiary animal and got stuck. Arranged all in a row were several of these animal bushes—fantastic creatures as tall as the house, standing guard against the woods—including a winged griffin, a rearing centaur, and a mermaid. Chasing after their lost ball, a pair of teenage boys ran to the base of the centaur, followed by a young girl. I instantly recognized her as the “levitating girl” from my grandfather’s pictures, only now she wasn’t levitating. She walked slowly, every plodding step a chore, anchored to the ground as if by some surplus of gravity.
When she reached the boys she raised her arms and they looped a rope around her waist. She slipped carefully out of her shoes and then bobbed up in the air like a balloon. It was astonishing. She rose until the rope around her waist went taut, then hovered ten feet off the ground, held by the two boys.
The girl said something and the boys nodded and began letting out the rope. She rose slowly up the side of the centaur; when she was level with its chest she reached into the branches for the ball, but it was stuck deep inside. She looked down and shook her head, and the boys reeled her down to the ground, where she stepped back into her weighted shoes and untied the rope.
“Enjoying the show?” asked Millard. I nodded silently. “There are far easier ways to retrieve that ball,” he said, “but they know they have an audience.”
Outside, a second girl was approaching the centaur. She was in her late teens and wild looking, her hair a nest well on its way to becoming dreadlocks. She bent down, took hold of the topiary’s long leafy tail and wrapped it around her arm, then closed her eyes as if concentrating. A moment later I saw the centaur’s hand move. I stared through the glass, fixed on that patch of green, thinking it must’ve been the breeze, but then each of its fingers flexed as if sensation were slowly returning to them. I watched, astonished, as the centaur’s huge arm bent at the elbow and reached into its own chest, plucked out the ball, and tossed it back to the cheering kids. As the game resumed, the wild-haired girl dropped the centaur’s tail, and it went still once more.
Millard’s breath fogged the window by me. I turned to him in amazement. “I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but what are you people?”
“We’re peculiar,” he replied, sounding a bit puzzled. “Aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Why have you let go of him?” a voice behind us demanded, and I turned to see Emma standing in the doorway. “Oh, never mind,” she said, coming over to grab the rope. “Come on. The headmistress will see you now.”
* * *
We walked through the house, past more curious eyes peeping through door cracks and from behind sofas, and into a sunny sitting room, where on an elaborate Persian rug, in a high-backed chair, a distinguished-looking lady sat knitting. She was dressed head to toe in black, her hair pinned in a perfectly round knot atop her head, with lace gloves and a high-collared blouse fastened tightly at her throat—as fastidiously neat as the house itself. I could’ve guessed who she was even if I hadn’t remembered her picture from those I’d found in the smashed trunk. This was Miss Peregrine.
Emma guided me onto the rug and cleared her throat, and the steady rhythm of Miss Peregrine’s needles came to a halt.
“Good afternoon,” the lady said, looking up. “You must be Jacob.”
Emma gaped at her. “How do you know his—”
“My name is Headmistress Peregrine,” she said, holding up a finger to silence Emma, “or if you prefer, since you are not currently under my care, Miss Peregrine. Pleased to finally meet you.”
Miss Peregrine dangled a gloved hand in my direction and, when I failed to take it, noticed the rope that bound my wrists.
“Miss Bloom!” she cried. “What is the meaning of this? Is that any way to treat a guest? Free him at once!”
“But Headmistress! He’s a snoop and a liar and I don’t know what else!” Casting a mistrustful glance at me, Emma whispered something in Miss Peregrine’s ear.
“Why, Miss Bloom,” said Miss Peregrine, letting out a booming laugh. “What undiluted balderdash! If this boy were a wight you’d already be stewing in his soup kettle. Of course he’s Abraham Portman’s grandson. Just look at him!”
I felt a flush of relief; maybe I wouldn’t have to explain myself after all. She’d been expecting me!
Emma began to protest, but Miss Peregrine shut her down with a withering glare. “Oh, all right,” Emma sighed, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And with a few tugs at the knot, the rope fell away.
“You’ll have to pardon Miss Bloom,” said Miss Peregrine as I rubbed at my chafed wrists. “She has a certain flair for the dramatic.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
Emma scowled. “If he’s who he says he is, then why don’t he know the first thing about loops—or even what year he’s in? Go on, ask him!”
“Why doesn’t he know,” Miss Peregrine corrected. “And the only person whom I’ll be subjecting to questioning is you, tomorrow afternoon, regarding the proper use of grammatical tenses!”
“Now, if you don’t mind,” Miss Peregrine said, “I need to have a word with Mr. Portman in private.”
The girl knew it was useless to argue. She sighed and went to the door, but before leaving turned to give me one last look over her shoulder. On her face was an expression I hadn’t seen from her before: concern.
“You, too, Mr. Nullings!” Miss Peregrine called out. “Polite persons do not eavesdrop on the conversations of others!”
“I was only lingering to inquire if you should like some tea,” said Millard, who I got the feeling was a bit of a suck-up.
“We should not, thank you,” Miss Peregrine answered curtly. I heard Millard’s bare feet slap away across the floorboards, and the door swung shut behind him.
“I would ask you to sit,” said Miss Peregrine, gesturing at a cushy chair behind me, “but you appear to be encrusted with filth.” Instead I knelt on the floor, feeling like a pilgrim begging advice from an all-knowing oracle.
“You’ve been on the island for several days now,” Miss Peregrine said. “Why have you dawdled so long before paying us a visit?”
“I didn’t know you were here,” I said. “How’d you know I was?”
“I’ve been watching you. You’ve seen me as well, though perhaps you didn’t realize it. I had assumed my alternate form.” She reached up and pulled a long gray feather from her hair. “It’s vastly preferable to assume the shape of a bird when observing humans,” she explained.
My jaw dropped. “That was you in my room this morning?” I said. “The hawk?”
“The falcon,” she corrected. “A peregrine, naturally.”
“Then it’s true!” I said. “You are the Bird!”
“It’s a moniker I tolerate but do not encourage,” she replied. “Now, to my question,” continued Miss Peregrine. “What on earth were you searching for in that depressing old wreck of a house?”
“You,” I replied, and her eyes widened a bit. “I didn’t know how to find you. I only figured out yesterday that you were all—”
And then I paused, realizing how strange my next words would sound. “I didn’t realize you were dead.”
She flashed me a tight smile. “My goodness. Hasn’t your grandfather told you anything about his old friends?”
“Some things. But for a long time I thought they were fairy tales.”
“I see,” she replied.
“I hope that doesn’t offend you.”
“It’s a little surprising, that’s all. But in general that is how we prefer to be thought of, for it tends to keep away unwanted visitors. These days fewer and fewer people believe in those things—fairies and goblins and all such nonsense—and thus common folk no longer make much of an effort to seek us out. That makes our lives a good bit easier. Ghost stories and scary old houses have served us well, too—though not, apparently, in your case.” She smiled. “Lion-heartedness must run in your family.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said with a nervous laugh, though in truth I felt as if I might pass out at any moment.
“In any case, as regards this place,” she said, gesturing grandly. “As a child you believed your grandfather was ‘making it all up,’ as they say? Feeding you a great walloping pack of lies. Is that right?”
“Not lies exactly, but—”
“Fictions, whoppers, paradiddles—whatever terminology you like. When did you realize Abraham was telling you the truth?”
“Well,” I said, staring at the labyrinth of interlocking patterns woven into the carpet, “I guess I’m just realizing it now.”
Miss Peregrine, who had been so animated, seemed to fade a little. “Oh my, I see.” And then her expression turned grim, as if, in the brief silence between us, she had intuited the terrible thing I’d come to tell her. And yet I still had to find a way to say it aloud.
“I think he wanted to explain everything,” I said, “but he waited too long. So he sent me here to find you instead.” I pulled the crumpled letter out of my jacket. “This is yours. It’s what brought me here.”
She smoothed it carefully over the arm of her chair and held it up, moving her lips as she read. “How ungraceful! the way I practically beg him for a reply.” She shook her head, wistful for a moment. “We were always so desperate for news of Abe. I asked him once if he should like to worry me to death, the way he insisted on living out in the open like that. He could be so deucedly stubborn!”
She refolded the letter into its envelope, and a dark cloud seemed to pass over her. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”
I nodded. Haltingly, I told her what had happened—that is, I told her the story the cops had settled on and that, after a great deal of counseling, I, too, had come to believe. To keep from crying, I gave her only the broad strokes: He lived on the rural outskirts of town; we’d just been through a drought and the woods were full of starving, desperate animals; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “He shouldn’t have been living alone,” I explained, “but like you said, he was stubborn.”