“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.”
“I was afraid of this,” she said. “I warned him not to leave.” She made tight fists around the knitting needles in her lap, as if considering who to stab with them. “And then to make his poor grandson bear the awful news back to us.”
I could understand her anger. I’d been through it myself. I tried to comfort her, reciting all the reassuring half-truths my parents and Dr. Golan had spun during my blackest moments last fall: “It was time for him to go. He was lonely. My grandma had been dead a lot of years already, and his mind wasn’t sharp anymore. He was always forgetting things, getting mixed up. That’s why he was out in the woods in the first place.”
Miss Peregrine nodded sadly. “He let himself grow old.”
“He was lucky in a way. It wasn’t long and drawn-out. No months in a hospital hooked up to machines.” That was ridiculous, of course—his death had been needless, obscene—but I think it made us both feel a little better to say it.
Setting aside her needlework, Miss Peregrine rose and hobbled to the window. Her gait was rigid and awkward, as if one of her legs were shorter than the other.
She looked out at the yard, at the kids playing. “The children mustn’t hear of this,” she said. “Not yet, at least. It would only upset them.”
“Okay. Whatever you think.”
She stood quietly at the glass for a while, her shoulders trembling. When she finally turned to face me again, she was composed and businesslike. “Well, Mr. Portman,” she said briskly, “I think you’ve been adequately interrogated. You must have questions of your own.”
“Only about a thousand.”
She pulled a watch from her pocket and consulted it. “We have some time before supper-hour. I hope that will prove sufficient to enlighten you.”
Miss Peregrine paused and cocked her head. Abruptly, she strode to the sitting room door and threw it open to find Emma crouched on the other side, her face red and streaked with tears. She’d heard everything.
“Miss Bloom! Have you been eavesdropping?”
Emma struggled to her feet, letting out a sob.
“Polite persons do not listen to conversations that were not meant for—” but Emma was already running from of the room, and Miss Peregrine cut herself short with a frustrated sigh. “That was most unfortunate. I’m afraid she’s quite sensitive as regards your grandfather.”
“I noticed,” I said. “Why? Were they …?”
“When Abraham left to fight in the war, he took all our hearts with him, but Miss Bloom’s especially. Yes, they were admirers, paramours, sweethearts.”
I began to understand why Emma had been so reluctant to believe me; it would mean, in all likelihood, that I was here to deliver bad news about my grandfather.
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.”
“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.”