The letter from outside came on Mum's birthday.
Mum didn't like a lot of fussing over on her birthday, but she couldn't hide the fact that she loved getting gifts. I'd thought for some time about what I could make for Mum, and at last hit upon the perfect gift: a hand-drawn family portrait, using the colored pencils the Hibbards had given me. There were no portraits in our house, but this was hardly unusual; Corey had produced few portrait painters, and none of quality. Photographs required technology and materials only outsiders could provide, so they never really caught on either.
Mum often wished aloud that she had a likeness of her own mother, my grandmother, who died just before I was born. "She had such a gentle face," she would sigh. "Gentle ways, too. She would have loved having a granddaughter. When you were born it just felt right to give you her name. And you do resemble her, especially around the eyes. But as much as I try to keep her face fresh in my mind, I'm starting to forget it."
I couldn't draw my grandmother's face, but I was sure I could draw my family. I could get the shape of Dad's nose and the curl of his mouth, Mum's dark hair and high cheekbones, even the annoying little pouches that formed under my eyes when I smiled. Mum would love it. I started to make a few surreptitious sketches, trying to find the best way to show all three of us in one portrait.
Meanwhile I still had to come up with some activities Keefe and I could do together, and something told me that sketching his portrait wasn't going to cut it for an evening's entertainment. I knew what kinds of things outsiders did on dates, and I knew what kinds of things were done within the Conscient when boys and girls started stepping out, but how many of them were compatible? There really wasn't anyone I could confide in, at least not in Corey. Maybe I'd talk to Mrs. Sanger on my next visit to the village.
On top of all this, Mrs. Townley was still tutoring me in concept introduction theory during the day and having me practice with her at night. I could tell I was starting to toughen up, needing less sleep than I had before, although I tended to fall into a coma on weekends -- my body's effort to catch up, I guessed. Sometimes weariness would get the better of me, though, so that I found I was having a harder time thinking clearly and juggling all responsibilities at once.
The night before Mum's birthday, I was out doing the rounds with Mrs. Townley and we'd stopped at the Flint house. Over time Mrs. Townley had been giving me more and more teaching tasks, and that night I was responsible for introducing more of the times tables to Finlay's little sister, Renee. Her mind was very different from Finlay's -- it was the easiest thing in the world to slide ideas into his head, but Renee was stubborn and resistant to ideas, especially to math. We'd gotten all the way to the 7 tables, but for some reason she had a few answers wrong in her head. I'd tried to transpose her "7 times 8 is 65" to "7 times 8 is 56," three nights in a row, but her mind was clinging to the answer it preferred.
How do I fix this? I asked Mrs. Townley, showing her the problem. Renee just isn't giving up on it.
Mrs. Townley frowned. Well, child, she replied, in a situation like this where a mind is resisting the right answer, there is a way to make it right. It's not the most elegant solution, mind you, but... And she guided me to the spot where Renee was clinging to her wrong answer and, clean and clear and quick, she wiped it away. It left a fresh translucent space behind, something like a scar. And it dully occurred to me that I'd seen something like that before.
Don't just stand there gawping, child! Mrs. Townley's thoughts rang in my head. Get the right answer into her mind while the getting's good! And I shook myself free of my musing and dropped "7 times 8 is 56" into the spot where the wrong answer had been. It didn't quite match up with the other ones, the ones Renee had learned properly on her own, but at least it wasn't wrong any more and we could move on to the next house.
The next day, during tutoring, my curiosity got the better of me. "What was that thing you did to Renee's mind last night?" I asked Mrs. Townley.
"That's called a fade, child," she replied. "It's a way of erasing a memory. I can show you how it's done, but I don't recommend that you use it often in teaching. It's a powerful tool with the ability to do serious damage, especially to an older mind." She sighed. "And if you aren't very precise and very careful, you can fade the wrong memories by accident."
I winced. "How often does that happen?"
"Not very often. As I say, the fade isn't commonly used in teaching. The only reason I thought to use it on Renee is because her mind is very tightly wound. It's critical for her to have all the basic knowledge correct and in its proper place. Too many wrong answers could twist her mind right out of kilter, heaven forbid."
About that time Peck began cawing raucously for his elevenses, and Mrs. Townley excused herself to make us a snack, so I opened my commonplace-book and got back to work on the family portrait for Mum. It just needed a few finishing touches at that point; I figured I'd have it ready to give to Mum by suppertime. I'd decided on a slightly asymmetrical portrait, with Dad to the left, Mum to the right, and me just right of center, closer to Mum than to Dad. It was turning out well enough, although I still wasn't completely pleased with the way I'd drawn myself. But Mum would probably say that was my vanity acting up.
There was a knock at the front door. I did a quick mental check -- Gerry Putnam -- and was on my way to answer it, but Mrs. Townley swept past me faster than I thought she was capable of moving. She opened the door, took the letter from Mr. Putnam's hands, held it up so that Peck could see.
"Thank you for your service, Gerry," she said, very softly, and Mr. Putnam nodded and went away down the front steps, and Mrs. Townley shut the door quietly after him. She went back to the kitchen without a word.
Most of us didn't get mail from outside. Tom Herrick had his business address, and occasionally people like Mum, who traveled outside, would send picture postcards home via the "General Delivery, Corey, MA" address, but that was about it. I wondered who on earth would be sending Mrs. Townley a letter, and what made her so keen to read it out of my sight.
After a long time, during which I finished the portrait, started some new sketches in the commonplace-book, and wrote up a list of possible things to do with Keefe, Mrs. Townley returned with a tray of cheese and homemade crackers. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her mind was a stone wall.
"Bad news?" I asked.
Mrs. Townley sat down slowly. "My dear," she said, "I know I'm already prevailing upon you for much of your time, but I wonder if I could ask another favor."
"Happy to help," I said, almost automatically. "What do you need?"
"I'll be going on a trip out of town tomorrow, and I won't be able to take Peck with me. Would you be willing to watch him while I'm gone?" Before I had time to respond, she went on, "He's not hard to tend. He eats what we eat and he sleeps in his own nest. He's used to staying around here most of the time. You'd just need to come over here once a day and give him some food and companionship. I'll be gone only a few weeks at most."
"But... where are you going?" I asked.
Mrs. Townley said nothing at first. She passed me a plate with a pat of soft cheese on it, then the crackers, and I began to think she wasn't going to answer at all. But then, as I took my first bite, she said, "I know you have your secrets, my dear."
I nearly choked. "What?"
"You have secrets, child. There's no need to pretend otherwise. One of them is called Keefe Godwin, if you require specifics." Peck's eyes stared brightly at me, and I could feel myself blush. "Now, I've made it possible for you to keep your secrets. Let me keep some of my own."
I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to pry, I told Mrs. Townley, but the wall stayed firmly in place. The conversation was over -- and, directly after elevenses, so was tutoring for the day, hours before she usually gave me leave to go home.
My thoughts hurt, and I decided I could do with a little meandering. So I took the long way around toward home, walking swiftly and letting ideas coalesce gradually in my mind like butter in a churn.
Mrs. Townley was leaving Corey, in all likelihood because of something in the letter she'd received. Whatever it was had upset her. But who could have written her from outside? She had no living relatives, and she'd never mentioned any business with outsiders. In fact, she seemed to have a very low opinion of outsiders in general. So who was writing to her? And what had the letter said?
I passed by Jed Conant, Corey's own Pied Piper, hooting out a new tune on his ocarina and followed by a dozen giggling, dancing children. For a few seconds I fell within the sound of his spell-song and danced nimbly and helplessly like the rest, but soon broke free and continued on my way. Jed was usually good fun, but I was in no mood to watch him prank some hapless person with his dancing spells today.
Where was she going, that she couldn't take Peck with her? And how would she get there without the use of his sight? It was all very irregular. I wished there were someone I could talk to about all this. Not long ago it would've been Dad or Mum. Mum was sensible, and Dad was good at figuring things out. But since I'd started shading my mind from them, I was afraid to let down the wall in case I revealed certain things -- Keefe, for instance, or the skills I was learning from Mrs. Townley. It was as though I'd stranded myself on a rock in the middle of a treacherous river, unable to fly, not strong enough to swim to shore.
That evening I made supper instead of Mum, to give her a day off. When we'd cleared off the supper dishes, Dad presented her with a new sewing box with a beautifully carved lid, and she made much of it and kissed him for his trouble. Then I proudly brought down my gift, finally finished and wrapped up in one of my scarves. Mum smiled like a child as she opened it.
"Oh," she said as she realized what it was, and the smile drained away. "Oh, darling. It's beautiful. It's just--" and suddenly the tears welled up in her eyes, and she turned her head away from the portrait and began to sob as though her heart would break.
"Mum! What's wrong?" My stomach felt like a pit of ice. "Should I take it away?"
"No, no, not at all, please." Dad put his arm around Mum, steadying her, and with some effort she composed herself. "I don't even know why I'm crying. I must be getting old." She sniffled and gave me a smile. "It's a beautiful likeness -- of all of us. I'm so proud. Thank you, sweetheart." She gave me a hug -- a real, strong hug, to show she really was pleased. And while I was washing up, she sat at the kitchen table and looked at the portrait.
She was still looking at it when I went upstairs.