The audience burst into uproarious applause. Millard tipped his hat.
“For our first illusion, I will produce Miss Peregrine herself!” He ducked behind the curtain and emerged a moment later, a folded sheet draped over one arm and a peregrine falcon perched on the other. He nodded to the orchestra, which lurched into a kind of wheezing carnival music.
Emma elbowed me. “Watch this,” she whispered.
Millard set the falcon down and held the sheet in front, screening the bird from the audience. He began counting backward. “Three, two, one!”
On “one” I heard the unmistakable flap of wings and then saw Miss Peregrine’s head—her human head—pop up from behind the sheet to even more uproarious applause. Her hair was mussed and I could only see her from the shoulders up; she seemed to be naked behind the sheet. Apparently, when you change into a bird, your clothes don’t go along for the ride. Taking the edges of the sheet, she wrapped it chastely around herself.
“Mr. Portman!” she said, peering down at me from the stage. “I’m so happy you’ve returned. This is a little exhibition we used to tour around the Continent back in the halcyon days. I thought you might find it instructive.” And then she swept offstage in a flourish, heading into the house to retrieve her clothes.
One after another, the peculiar children came out of the audience and took the stage, each with an act of their own. Millard removed his tuxedo so that he was completely invisible and juggled glass bottles. Olive removed her leaden shoes and performed a gravity-defying gymnastics routine on a set of parallel bars. Emma made fire, swallowed it, then blew it out again without burning herself. I applauded until I thought my hands would blister.
When Emma returned to her seat, I turned to her and said, “I don’t understand. You performed this for people?”
“Of course,” she replied.
“Of course, normal people. Why would peculiars pay to see things they can do themselves?”
“But wouldn’t this, like, blow your cover?”
She chuckled. “Nobody suspected a thing,” she said. “People come to sideshows to see stunts and tricks and what-all, and as far as anybody knew that’s exactly what we showed them.”
“So you were hiding in plain sight.”
“Used to be the way most peculiars made a living,” she said.
“And no one ever caught on?”
“Once in a while we’d get some knob-head backstage asking nosey questions, which is why there’d always be a strong-arm on hand to toss them out on their bums. Speak of the devil—here she is now!”
Up on stage, a mannish-looking girl was dragging a boulder the size of a small refrigerator out from behind the curtain. “She may not be the sharpest tool in the woodshed,” Emma whispered, “but she’s got a massive heart and she’d go to the grave for her mates. We’re thick as thieves, Bronwyn and me.”
Someone had passed around a stack of promotional cards Miss Peregrine had used to advertise their act. It reached me with Bronwyn’s card on top. In her picture she stood barefoot, challenging the camera with an icy stare. Emblazoned across the back was THE AMAZING STRONG-GIRL OF SWANSEA!
“Why isn’t she lifting a boulder, if that’s what she does on stage?” I asked.
“She was in a foul mood because the Bird made her ‘dress like a lady’ for the picture. She refused to lift so much as a hatbox.”
“Looks like she drew the line at wearing shoes, too.”
“She generally does.”
Bronwyn finished dragging the rock to the middle of the stage, and for an awkward moment she just stared into the crowd, as if someone had told her to pause for dramatic effect. Then she bent down and gripped the rock between her big hands and slowly lifted it above her head. Everyone clapped and hooted, the kids’ enthusiasm undimmed though they’d probably seen her do this trick a thousand times. It was almost like being at a pep rally for a school I didn’t attend.
Bronwyn yawned and walked off with the boulder tucked under one arm. Then the wild-haired girl took the stage. Her name was Fiona, Emma said. She stood facing the crowd behind a planter filled with dirt, her hands raised above it like a conductor. The orchestra began to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” (as well as they could, anyway), and Fiona pawed the air above the planter, her face contorted in effort and concentration. As the song crescendoed, a row of daisies poked up from the dirt and unfurled toward her hands. It was like one of those fast-motion videos of plants blooming, except she seemed to be reeling the flowers up from their loamy bed by invisible strings. The kids ate it up, jumping out of their seats to cheer her on.
Emma flipped through the stack of postcards to Fiona’s. “Her card’s my favorite,” she said. “We worked for days on her costume.”
I looked at it. She was dressed like a beggar girl and stood holding a chicken. “What’s she supposed to be?” I asked. “A homeless farmer?”
Emma pinched me. “She’s meant to look natural, like a savage-type person. Jill of the Jungle, we called her.”
“Is she really from the jungle?”
“She’s from Ireland.”
“Are there a lot of chickens in the jungle?”
She pinched me again. While we’d been whispering, Hugh had joined Fiona on stage. He stood with his mouth open, letting bees fly out to pollinate the flowers that Fiona had grown, like a weird mating ritual.
“What else does Fiona grow besides bushes and flowers?”
“All these vegetables,” Emma said, gesturing to the garden beds in the yard. “And trees, sometimes.”
“Really? Whole trees?”
She sorted through the postcards again. “Sometimes we’ll play Jill and the Beanstalk. Someone will grab hold of one of the saplings at the edge of the woods and we’ll see how high Fiona can get it to go while we’re riding it.” She arrived at the photo she’d been hunting for and tapped it with her finger. “That was the record,” she said proudly. “Twenty meters.”
“You guys get pretty bored around here, huh?”
She moved to pinch me again but I blocked her hand. I’m no expert on girls, but when one tries to pinch you four times, I’m pretty sure that’s flirting.
There were a few more acts after Fiona and Hugh left the stage but by then the kids were getting antsy, and soon we dispersed to spend the rest of the day in summery bliss: lazing in the sun sipping limeade; playing croquet; tending to gardens that, thanks to Fiona, hardly needed tending; discussing our options for lunch. I wanted to ask Miss Peregrine more about my grandfather—a subject I avoided with Emma, who turned morose at any mention of his name—but the headmistress had gone to conduct a lesson in the study for the younger kids. It seemed like I had plenty of time, though, and the languid pace and midday heat sapped my will to do anything more taxing than wander the grounds in dreamy amazement.