Petal had lived among Mortals before. Very briefly, and a very long time ago.
It was when the village had just begun to be built. She was curious about it, and went to watch. A good deal of digging went on, as with rabbits, but the creatures building were most certainly not rabbits.
It was her first sighting of Big Folk.
Her curiosity grew, until she got closer and closer, hovering invisible above it all, until she got a bit too close to a pile of strange objects that had a debilitating effect, and she lost her strength and fell among them. Then one of the big folk picked one of the objects up, and she happened to be caught in it. He then began pounding on a building with it, and it was dreadful. She cried out to him to stop it, very weakly, but he did not seem to hear her.
It was her first encounter with iron.
Then a smaller member of their race came and picked up the hammer after the bigger fellow laid it down, and examined it closely. She called to him, feeling her strength draining more and more until it seemed she could not even raise her voice, and she wondered if she would expire like an insect.
Then it spoke.
Daddy, this squeaks!
Nonsense, me lad, Daddy said. Hammers don't squeak. They go blam blam BLAM! Didn't yer hear?
It's a squeakin' Dad, listen.
But instead of checking, Daddy went inside the round door, and the offspring followed him in, where a female was using a bundle of long straws tied to a long stick on the floor, and a much smaller female sat holding what appeared to be a babe but it did not move or cry. She watched the lad with interest as he waved the hammer about. Then she would try it out.
This time Petal became dislodged from it.
She flew toward the door, but realized the hinges were of iron.
She was trapped inside the burrow. But at least she was alive.
The wall-holes all had curved iron things hung in them. This family was taking no chances letting Fairies in.
She would have to attach herself to someone, and when that person went out, she would go out also.
She chose the little one holding the inanimate babe. The child was closest to the door at the moment.
'Tis almost time for supper, the older female called out. Ferris, Meggy, go out and get washed up now.
So there was Petal's chance to escape. And yet, she was intrigued. She wished to stay and observe for a while.
Daddy took the two offsprings outside where he pulled up water from a deep hole in the ground. Soon the children were rubbing it on their faces, and the boy threw some at the girl, which made her squeal and cry out.
Daddy, he splashed meeee!
Ferris, leave your sister alone afore I knuckle yer head, Daddy said, sounding angry.
Baby, Ferris said, and Daddy brought his knuckles down on his head. Ow! The boy cried rubbing the top of his head and screwing up his face.
Petal noticed that all three had squigglies all over their heads, as well as on their feet. She decided it looked attractive, so she made her own hair so, before she remembered that they could not see her.
They all went back indoors, where the older female, whom the others called Mummy, was setting things on a platform with long legs. A pleasant smell permeated the air. Then all sat down on two shorter platforms on shorter legs, and began eating. Mummy told Ferris not to take such big bites, and then she told Meggy not to play with her food. Daddy was taking bigger bites than anyone, but Mummy did not tell him not to do so. Petal, invisible, went about sampling bits of the food, finding that some of it appealed to her. Once more Ferris saw fit to annoy his sister, putting his fingers in the corners of his mouth and pulling it to the sides, crossing his eyes, then pulling them downward at the outer corners and flicking his tongue like a snake.
Ferris-lad, your face will freeze that way, Mummy said. Petal stared at him, waiting to see his face freeze, but it did not happen. Meggy's lower lip protruded and her eyes got wet.
Someone is likely not to get any arfters, Daddy said looking sternly at Ferris. Petal once more was puzzled, wondering what this could mean.
Then Mummy brought in something on a large disk, with red berries on the top. She cut it into wedges and put one on each plate, then took a silver vessel and poured thick white stuff all over each wedge, and the children's eyes widened in evident delight.
And Ferris's face did not freeze. It looked quite warm, in fact.
But then he put a blob of white stuff on his tongue, and a small berry on top of that, and extended it toward Meggy, rolling his eyes around and around and pulling his ears outward, and Petal had a sudden inspiration. She waved her hand, and suddenly Ferris's face stuck, his tongue still protruding, his eyeballs fixed looking upward.
Mummy, look! Meggy exclaimed, pointing at her brother. Mummy looked, frowning. Ferris made a strange noise but spoke no words.
Ferris-lad, stop that at once, Mummy said, but the boy could only make more noises.
Upon me word, his face IS froze, Daddy exclaimed, looking upon his son with fearful eyes.
Meggy giggled. Mummy looked sharply at her, and the giggle died. That was a pity; it was such a lovely sound.
Ferris, I said stop it, Mummy said. And once more he made the noise.
He truly is froze, Hanna, Daddy said. Look, he can't blink. Something is goin' on.
Petal was puzzled at this other name for Mummy. Why did she have two names?
I want to try it, Meggy said. Mummy-Hanna looked sharply at her once more as the child's chubby forefinger made as if to dip itself in the white stuff.
Petal decided the joke had gone on long enough, and she unfroze Ferris's face. He began to whimper a bit.
Something queer is goin' on, Daddy said, and I mean to get to the bottom of it.
Never mind it, dear, Mummy said. He was just bein' silly, like usual. Ferris-lad, sit up and eat yer cake before I take and throw it to the pig.
Later on Mummy put the remains of the supper into a large container, and carried it outside. Since the handle of it was iron, Petal did not go with her. She remained in the cooking-room, looking at the dishes piled into a very large wooden bowl—or tub. They were smeared over with food and smelled rather badly, so Petal decided to clean them and surprise Mummy when she came back. She waved a hand over them, and behold, they were sparkling, and then she piled them nicely, plates on one stack, cups in another, bowls, eating-sticks, all in neat piles.
Then she went into the other big room, and saw Daddy sitting and putting some dead grass into a tiny cup attached to a curved tube. He set the grass on fire, then put the tube in his mouth, and watched little Meggy holding her false baby and rocking it in her arms. He seemed to have a soft glow about him. Then Ferris came in, making a whistling sound through puckered lips. He carried something on a string. It consisted of pieces of wood held together with bits of metal, and she saw that it was meant to represent a person, just as the cloth thing Meggy held represented an infant. Ferris dangled his wooden person and shook it, making it click and clack, appearing to dance, and he made it dance on Daddy's feet, then on Meggy's head, and she cried out and slapped it away, and Daddy told him to stop picking on his sister or he'd take that thing away and put it in the fire.
And once more Petal had an inspiration, and she caused the string holding it to break so that the wooden dancer fell to the floor, then sprang up and began to dance on its own, all about the room. The children gasped, and Daddy sat transfixed, as it leaped up on articles of furniture and danced on them. Then Meggy laughed in delight, and Ferris's face nearly froze again, and the cup of burning grass Daddy held in his mouth fell into his lap. He came untransfixed then as the ashes fell onto his breeches, and picked it up and knocked the ashes into a little bowl beside him, but he did not take his eyes off the wooden thing. Finally it came back to Ferris, who backed off from it fearfully, and collapsed once more in front of him.
Somethin' mighty queer is goin' on, Daddy exclaimed. I must of left a pony-shoe off one of the winders. I better go and check on it.
Mummy came in just then, saying Who done the dishes? Ferdy, was that you?
So Daddy did have another name also.
And Petal noticed then that Mummy's belly was a bit large for the rest of her, and she smiled gently as she divined the reason. She also noticed that although Mummy was a good bit plump, she had a pretty face and rosy cheeks and sparkling big brown eyes, and a ready smile particularly when she watched her family. And the squigglies on her head were bound into a coil at the back of her neck, and partially covered with something white and ruffled.
After the children were taken to their nesting-places, Mummy sat near Daddy and took a thin pointed silver object with string connected to it, and with this she made two pieces of cloth stick together. So that was how clothing was made, thought Petal. It looked a slow and tedious process, but Mummy seemed to enjoy it somehow. Daddy said he must go and purchase some more pony-shoes from the blacksmith tomorrow, while Mummy told him smiling that he was pulling her leg. Another puzzlement, since he was doing nothing of the sort, but he only made a little snorting noise, and said he saw what he saw. Petal almost giggled then.
Later she left them talking quietly and went into the children's room. They lay asleep in the two nesting-places, Meggy still clutching her false baby, and Ferris had a cloth bear-cub in his arm, to Petal's surprise. She smelled iron, and saw two iron bowls under the beds. She realized she would have to go out soon, but not before bestowing some dreams on the children. She turned Meggy's doll into a real babe, and put it into her arms so she might have a taste of what it would be like to hold the new little brother or sister she would soon have. And she brought Ferris's wooden dancer to life once more, and the bear also, so that they danced with each other, and Ferris watched with wonder until he too felt drawn to dance, and they capered over a flowering meadow while Meggy rocked the babe in her arms beside a silvery streamlet where fishes came and nibbled at her toes in the whispering water.
And Petal let them see her only in those dreams.
Soon she found a nesting-place in Mummy's basket of cloth-scraps, Mummy and Daddy having gone to their nest as well. Before they retired, she gave them a dream also, in which they saw a blessing fall upon their home, and the apple-trees grew thick and high, and the berries in the garden especially red and plump and sweet, the cow gave so much milk they could scarcely use it all and had to sell some, and the hens laid so many eggs that many had to be sold also.
And so they found it when they all awoke next day. Not all at once, but gradually, and Daddy forgot about buying the pony-shoes and instead, at Petal's unseen bidding, constructed a swing in a high tree and a box full of river-sand, and in a few days the children were playing together more nicely, Ferris less inclined to tease his sister, and Meggy less apt to cry and whine over small things. It seemed they all sensed Petal's presence, and a spirit of joy and gladness pervaded like the freshness of the early morning.
And at last as she took her final leave a week later, she noticed a piece of wood out by the path to the burrow, which had some writing on it: THE TOOKS. The letters were drawn very badly, and she had no idea what the words meant. Yet it seemed important, so she waved her hand, and the letters became beautiful and graceful, with little dots within the circles like berries on little cakes, and the S with a long tail like a pretty snake, twining protectively about the other letters.
She would visit other families from time to time, yet it was this one to which she returned, feeling compelled somehow; it seemed this one was chosen for something, although it would be many, many years before she knew. She saw the farm flourish and become fertile and lush, and the family grew wealthy and yet always willing to help out their less fortunate neighbors. She saw Ferris and Meggy and the other children that came along grow and marry and have children of their own. And one of the descendents would be he who became her husband.
And when she told Valerian his face would freeze if he persisted in contorting it at his sisters, he stopped, for he knew that it would, for absolute certain, if only for a time....