“They’re going to feed us to their dogs!” she said. “They’re going to shoot holes in us and take Miss Peregrine away!”
Bronwyn scooted next to her and wrapped the little girl in a bear hug. “Please, Claire! You’ve got to think about something else!”
“I’m truh-trying!” she wailed.
Claire squeezed her eyes shut, drew in a deep breath, and held it until she looked like a balloon about to pop—then burst into a fit of gasping cough-sobs that were louder than ever.
Enoch clapped his hands over her mouths. “Shhhhhhh!”
“I’m suh-suh-sorry!” she blubbered. “Muh-maybe if I could hear a story … one of the tuh-Tales …”
“Not this again,” said Millard. “I’m beginning to wish we’d lost those damned books at sea with the rest of our things!”
Miss Peregrine spoke up—inasmuch as she was able to—hopping atop Bronwyn’s trunk and tapping it with her beak. Inside, along with the rest of our meager possessions, were the Tales.
“I’m with Miss P,” said Enoch. “It’s worth a try—anything to stop her bawling!”
“All right then, little one,” Bronwyn said, “but just one tale, and you’ve got to promise to stop crying!”
“I pruh-promise,” Claire sniffled.
Bronwyn opened the trunk and pulled out a waterlogged volume of Tales of the Peculiar. Emma scooted close and lit the tiniest wisp of flame on her fingertip to read by. Then Miss Peregrine, apparently impatient to pacify Claire, took one edge of the book’s cover in her beak and opened it to a seemingly random chapter. In a hushed voice, Bronwyn began to read.
“Once upon a peculiar time, in a forest deep and ancient, there roamed a great many animals. There were rabbits and deer and foxes, just as there are in every forest, but there were animals of a less common sort, too, like stilt-legged grimbears and two-headed lynxes and talking emu-raffes. These peculiar animals were a favorite target of hunters, who loved to shoot them and mount them on walls and show them off to their hunter friends, but loved even more to sell them to zookeepers, who would lock them in cages and charge money to view them. Now, you might think it would be far better to be locked in a cage than to be shot and mounted upon a wall, but peculiar creatures must roam free to be happy, and after a while the spirits of caged ones wither, and they begin to envy their wall-mounted friends.”
“This is a sad story,” Claire groused. “Tell a different one.”
“I like it,” said Enoch. “Tell more about the shooting and mounting.”
Bronwyn ignored them both. “Now this was an age when giants still roamed the Earth,” she went on, “as they did in the long-ago Aldinn times, though they were few in number and diminishing. And it just so happened that one of these giants lived near the forest, and he was very kind and spoke very softly and ate only plants and his name was Cuthbert. One day Cuthbert came into the forest to gather berries, and there saw a hunter hunting an emu-raffe. Being the kindly giant that he was, Cuthbert picked up the little ’raffe by the scruff of its long neck, and by standing up to his full height, on tiptoe, which he rarely did because it made all his old bones crackle, Cuthbert was able to reach up very high and deposit the emu-raffe on a mountaintop, well out of danger. Then, just for good measure, he squashed the hunter to jelly between his toes.
“Word of Cuthbert’s kindness spread throughout the forest, and soon peculiar animals were coming to him every day, asking to be lifted up to the mountaintop and out of danger. And Cuthbert said, ‘I’ll protect you, little brothers and sisters. All I ask in return is that you talk to me and keep me company. There aren’t many giants left in the world, and I get lonely from time to time.’
“And they said, ‘Of course, Cuthbert, we will.’
“So every day Cuthbert saved more peculiar animals from the hunters, lifting them up to the mountain by the scruffs of their necks, until there was a whole peculiar menagerie up there. And the animals were happy there because they could finally live in peace, and Cuthbert was happy, too, because if he stood on his tiptoes and rested his chin on the top of the mountain he could talk to his new friends all he liked. Then one morning a witch came to see Cuthbert. He was bathing in a little lake in the shadow of the mountain when she said to him, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got to turn you into stone now.’
“ ‘Why would you do something like that?’ asked the giant. ‘I’m very kindly. A helping sort of giant.’
“And she said, ‘I was hired by the family of the hunter you squashed.’
“ ‘Ah,’ he replied. ‘Forgot about him.’
“ ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ the witch said again, and then she waved a birch branch at him and poor Cuthbert turned to stone.
“All of the sudden Cuthbert became very heavy—so heavy that he began to sink into the lake. He sank and sank and didn’t stop sinking until he was covered in water all the way up to his neck. His animal friends saw what was happening, and though they felt terrible about it, they decided they could do nothing to help him.
“ ‘I know you can’t save me,’ Cuthbert shouted up to his friends, ‘but at least come and talk to me! I’m stuck down here, and so very lonely!’
“ ‘But if we come down there the hunters will shoot us!’ they called back.
“Cuthbert knew they were right, but still he pleaded with them.
“ ‘Talk to me!’ he cried. ‘Please come and talk to me!’
“The animals tried singing and shouting to poor Cuthbert from the safety of their mountaintop, but they were too distant and their voices too small, so that even to Cuthbert and his giant ears they sounded quieter than the whisper of leaves in the wind.
“ ‘Talk to me!’ he begged. ‘Come and talk to me!’
“But they never did. And he was still crying when his throat turned to stone like the rest of him. The end.”
Bronwyn closed the book.
Claire looked appalled. “That’s it?”
Enoch began to laugh.
“That’s it,” Bronwyn said.
“That’s a terrible story,” said Claire. “Tell another one!”
“A story’s a story,” said Emma, “and now it’s time for bed.”
Claire pouted, but she had stopped crying, so the tale had served its purpose.