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The Coming of the Fairies (Excerpt)by Niko Silvester
Nobody paid any heed to Morgan or the voices she heard.
"Look at stupid John O'Brien," said one. It was the voice of a bully, young and male, with a scant Newfoundland accent.
"What've ya got there, simple John?" This voice was similar to the first, except the boy's voice was higher, and whiny.
Morgan looked up and down Water Street, St John's. People hurried along the road and in and out of shops in the midst of wartime bustle. It was, July 8 1941, Morgan's first day in Newfoundland. She had just arrived by boat from the mainland, having come to live with her father, an American Army officer who was stationed at a US military base in town.
"Come on Johnny O, show us what ya got." This was another voice, accented like the others, but much closer to the deeper tones it would have when its owner was a man.
"Fairies take your voice?" said the first boy.
Morgan took a hesitant step down the passage between brick-and-stone buildings. The voices and words that issued from the alley sounded like taunting, which meant there was someone to be taunted. Her older brother Donal would have told her to mind her own business, and then would've gone to investigate the possible injustice himself. But Donal had run off to England to join the Royal Air Force to help stop Hitler and his Nazis overrunning the world, so Morgan had to think and act for herself.
"Come on John, bye. Let's see what you've got. Or have the Good People taken the rest of your wits?"
The answer, slow in coming, was softly spoken, as by someone not used to being heard. Or by someone who generally tried not to be heard. The voice was thick with an accent that could have come straight from Ireland. A country boy, Morgan thought.
"I'm just takin' a few snaps, is all," said the voice. "No harm done."
Morgan approached the end of the passage and peered around the corner. There was a narrow space between the buildings fronting Water Street and those that faced the harbour. Room for storing odd bits of wood, a pile of leftover brick, and a few crates containing less identifiable objects.
"Takin' photographs in a wet hole like this?" said the largest of the three bullies. He couldn't have been much older than the others, nor much older than Morgan, but his developing muscles matched his deepening voice.
"He has got no wits left," said the boy with the whiny voice, elbowing the larger boy.
"Seen any fairies lately?" asked the third of the three bullies, the boy Morgan had heard speak first.
"Aye, were ya takin' snaps of the Good People?" asked Deep Voice.
The three boys had their backs to Morgan, and were arrayed in such a way that Morgan couldn't see the object of their scorn. But then Deep Voice shifted in place, and there was John O'Brien, Morgan assumed, backed up against the far wall. He was considerably smaller than the other boys, almost as short as Morgan, and he clutched a boxy brown object to his chest.
He had dark hair so in need of trimming that it obscured his eyes, especially with his shoulders hunched and his head ducked as it was. He glanced up and saw Morgan watching, and flashed her a crooked grin that was completely at odds to his subservient posture. Morgan caught a glimpse of one of his smoke grey eyes before the boy ducked his head again.
"No harm," repeated John, as if he were as witless as the other boys accused him of being. "I'll be on me way now." He made as if to walk between the other boys, but the middle of the three, Whiny Voice, put out a hand to stop him.
Deep Voice said, "I wants to see what you've got," and snatched the box-shaped object from John O'Brien. Morgan could see now that the object was a Brownie box camera. It was not an expensive item, but from the way John watched the other boy handle it, it was obviously something treasured. The big boy turned it over in his hands to look at it from all sides.
"It's a camera," said John, as if he were reporting a great discovery that he wanted to please everyone. Morgan thought for a moment that he was a simple as the other boys said, but then she pictured the mischievous grin he'd given her, and looked more closely at the worry on his face. Perhaps the idiocy was an act, a way of getting the other boys to leave him alone. If that was the case, she thought, it didn't work very well.
She didn't like to see anyone bullied. "Wait and see what's what," Donal would have said. She waited to see what would happen.
"I knows what it is, gommil," said Deep Voice. Morgan didn't know what a gommil was, but she'd be willing to guess it meant something like "moron" or "idiot." Deep Voice had found the latches that opened the camera for loading film. He was partly turned towards her, so Morgan could only see a little of the side of his face, but it looked like he was smiling a broad, wicked grin. John looked worried.
"Don't open that," John said.
Deep Voice undid the latches and the other two bullies laughed.
"Open it!" urged Whiny Voice. He stretched out the word "open" so long that Morgan cringed.
"Do you think I should?" asked Deep Voice, feigning uncertainty. "It might upset poor addled John, here." He cocked his head towards John, pretending to consider what he should do. Then, with a sudden movement, he opened the camera and pulled out the spool of film inside. The silvery celluloid ribbon uncoiled to the packed dirt at the boy's feet.
"You--" John choked off whatever name he'd been about to call Deep Voice. Instead he launched himself at the other boy in a frenzy of kicking feet and jabbing fists.
Deep Voice stepped back in surprise and dropped the camera when he flung up his hands to defend himself. The smaller boy had the advantage of speed and anger, but Morgan thought both advantages would wear off quickly.
She sighed. She'd have to do something now. She smoothed down the front of her bottle green linen skirt and adjusted the matching hat on her curly red hair. The other two boys had joined the assault on John, who was beginning to lose his momentum. He was still fighting, but he was also starting to reel from the fists of the bullies.
Morgan took a firm grip on her bottle green handbag--an accessory her mother had always insisted she never be without, though Morgan would as soon have left it behind--and stepped out of the shelter of the wall. None of the boys noticed her, making her surprise attack all the more effective. They noticed her soon enough, when the sharp corner of her handbag caught one boy on the cheek, and the thick heel of her shoe crushed down on another boy's foot.
Some boys would never have thought of hitting a girl. If that had been the case here, Morgan would have been able to wade into the fray and extract the picked-upon boy, John, and leave, all without hardly mussing her clothes. But that didn't happen. Morgan soon found herself hatless and bruised, yelling like a banshee and laying about herself with her handbag in one hand and a hatpin in the other.
It didn't do much good in the end. She got in her share of licks, as did John, but they were small, and it was three against two.
It was with relief, then, that Morgan heard an adult bellow from the end of the passage, and watched the three bullies limp away. She leaned against the wall rubbing a sore elbow and looking about for her hat. Everything hurt. There was just time for John to hand her her hat and snatch up his abused camera before they were both caught by the collar and hauled around to face their rescuer.
"Dad!" shrieked Morgan. The tall man in the US Army officer's uniform let go of her and she flung herself against him. It wasn't the best way to meet after not seeing him for months, but she didn't care.
"What were you up to, Miss Reilly?" asked her father sternly.
Before she could answer, John spoke up. "Some boys from school were after cornering me, Captain Reilly, and--"
"I didn't ask you, John O'Brien," said Morgan's father. He gave John a shake, then let him go. Morgan was only a little surprised to find her father knew the boy. She should have recognized the name. John looked mournfully at his camera. The door that opened for loading and unloading film had broken right off when Deep Voice dropped it.
"It's all right, Dad," Morgan said. "Some other boys were picking on him, and I tried to help."
"It's not all right," said Captain Reilly, trying to brush dirt from his daughter's jacket. "You're a mess. Is this how you want to look when you meet Seumas and Kate O'Brien? They're expecting a proper young lady, not a brawling street waif." Morgan snuck a glance at John, while her father continued on about how she should have waited for him at the wharf, and what were their hosts going to think of her now.
John was smoothing the ruined film between his fingers. Morgan could see a muddy footprint on it. John glanced up at the building next to them. There was a rickety fire escape attached to the wall, and on the fire escape, almost hidden in one corner against the uneven stone of the wall, was a nest of sticks. Whatever might have been sitting on the nest had long since flown away, probably when the loud-voiced bullies first cornered John. That must be what he had been "takin' a few snaps" of.
"Are you listening?" demanded Captain Reilly.
"Yes, Dad," said Morgan, though she hadn't been.
"Well, let's go get your luggage, then. You too, John."
Morgan and John followed Captain Reilly back out onto Water Street.
"So you're Captain Reilly's girl," said John.
"It's me aunt and uncle's house you'll be staying at. Where your da lives."
Supper that evening was awkward. Everyone was on their best manners, trying to make a good impression. Despite their earlier alliance against the bullies, John felt clumsy around Morgan. He was never socially elegant, despite Aunt Kate's best attempts to make him acceptable. Under pressure he tended to blurt out the most inane things.
"Have you seen any fairies yet?" he had asked Morgan, and everyone at the table turned to stare at him. It was meant to be a friendly, teasing question, but then John remembered that the boys had been taunting him about having his wits stolen by the Good People when Morgan first met him. She was going to think he was off his head for sure, just like everyone else did.
"Are there any nearby?" Morgan asked politely, after glancing first at her father, perhaps hoping he would tell her what to do.
John knew he should just mumble something to be polite and then keep his mouth firmly shut, but he seemed to have lost control of his voice. "Fairy Meadow over by Long Pond is supposed to be t'ick with fairies." His accent was getting thick again, despite his attempts to modulate it to a level acceptable to Aunt Kate. His aunt frowned at him across the table.
"Perhaps you can show me sometime," said Morgan, still polite.
"Maybe after church on Sunday," suggested Uncle Seumas, always eager for a chance to send John off out of the way somewhere. Despite his success as a merchant, Uncle Seumas was not known for his ability to relate to anyone under twenty years old. A trip to Long Pond and Fairy Meadow might occupy them for an entire day, if they took lunch along.
"Church?" said Morgan, hesitantly. She glanced at her father again. Captain Reilly frowned slightly, but didn't say anything.
"Yes," said Aunt Kate, getting up from the table to fetch more potatoes. "We go to the Salvation Army Church. We expect you'll want to come with us. At least at first, until you can find a church that suits you."
"Ah," said Morgan. John thought she was searching for a response that wouldn't offend. He went to church with his aunt and uncle, though his mother and father had not been Salvation Army. They'd always gone to the Catholic Church in Ferryland.
"What denomination are you, Morgan?" asked Aunt Kate.
Again, Morgan glanced at her father.
"Your father works Sundays, of course," said Uncle Seumas. "No rest for the military during wartime."
The United States was neutral in the war, but the Americans had permission to build bases in Newfoundland. John had figured out weeks ago that Morgan's father only went to the US Army Command Post on Sundays to avoid going to church, not because he had to work.
"Actually, I've never been big on church at all," said Morgan. "In fact, I've never been."
"Never been to church!" Aunt Kate's shock was obvious. "William Reilly, you never told me your daughter was a heathen."
When the scandal over church was settled—by Morgan's father informing her she could learn much by attending, and to church she would go--Morgan retreated to the top--floor room that was to be hers while she lived in the O'Brien household.
She unpacked her luggage and carefully stowed her things in the dresser that stood against one wall of her room. There was no closet in the room, only the bed, the dresser and the tiniest wardrobe she had ever seen. She hadn't packed many dresses and skirts, but those she did have barely fit in. Once her coat was in, the clothing was so tightly packed it was going to be difficult to get things out again.
With her things put away and her cases stowed under the bed, Morgan sat down and looked out the window. It was a good thing she was short, because this floor of the house had an extremely low ceiling. Her father couldn't even stand up straight here. A half-storey he'd called it last time he'd written her. The house is three-and-a-half storeys tall, but has a lovely view of the harbour, he'd written. Her room wasn't the one with the lovely view. It looked out onto another street and all she could see was the front of another row of houses across from theirs. Because of the steepness of the hill, that other row of houses blocked all but the smallest sliver of sky from her view.
John's aunt and uncle were so distant with their nephew that he might have been a guest instead of their ward. He was supposed to be a half-wit, though he was in the same grade at school as other boys his age. And Morgan had seen him in his room as she passed by; he was studying his broken camera with what looked to her like keen intelligence. On his dresser was a beautiful sepia-toned photograph of a small, dark-haired woman who must be his mother. Another photograph, slightly blurry, showed the same woman standing next to a man and a small dark-haired boy of around four years old.
He had heavy black curtains that could be drawn to cover his window and door so that he could use his bedroom as a darkroom for developing his photographs. When she first saw them, Morgan thought they were blackout curtains like the ones people in England had to use so that German planes flying over at night wouldn't know where to drop their bombs. Someday soon, they might need such curtains in St John's.
Morgan had noticed that ever since they had returned from fetching her baggage from the ship, John had avoided her. She had even tried starting a conversation, but John had stood with his head cocked, as though he were listing to something else entirely. He walked away without saying anything, while Morgan was in mid-sentence. She had liked John at first, but now she wondered if the things her father had told her about him--how he was half-crazy and thought he had been stolen by fairies when he was little--might be true.
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