The day was bright and cold and Opal wished for her coat, but she said nothing.
Teacher left the door open a crack so she could see a sliver of the classroom. The sound of soapstone pencils clicking out their sums on slate tablets drifted out the door and stopped at the edge of the cold. Teacher sat on the top step and sat Opal down beside her. “Now, Miss,” Teacher began. “We need to talk.”
Opal stared at her, waiting. Teacher’s voice was softer now.
She leaned in close to Opal. “I know you have just moved here and things must be very different from your old home.”
Opal nodded, her dark curls bouncing on her shoulders. “What is that, Teacher?” Opal asked. She was looking at Teacher’s mouth. Opal placed her fingers on Teacher’s lips.
“Opal –” she started, taking Opal’s hand in her own and pulling it away.
“Your breath,” Opal said sniffing. “It has lovely smells. Like the Papa’s mouth. Like tobacco and like – something in Sadie McKibben’s kitchen – like cloves!”
Teacher smiled a thinnish smile, and pulled away. Opal noticed her hand drift to the pocket in her skirt where her fingertips brushed the soft rectangular bulge, about the size of a deck of playing cards. Opal wondered what was hidden there, but thought it impolite to ask Teacher to share her secret, as they were just new friends. Teacher let her hand rest on the wooden planks of the porch, and cleared her throat. “I also know you are a very smart girl. How old are you, Opal?”
“I did have my very special birthday some weeks before. I am six years and twelve days old, and Brave Horatius is also six on the same day, and – look! Oh, look, Teacher!”
Opal bolted off the steps and hit the hardpacked ground running.
Teacher reached out to grab her arm, but she missed. “Opal! Come back here!”
Opal was already halfway across the yard sprinting toward the privy, her calico dress and white apron flying out behind her. The scrawny cat hunched over the field mouse it had trapped between its paws and looked up at Opal, its ears pinned to the sides of its head, Opal stopped when she reached the corner of the outhouse. “Caligula!” she said in a small voice.
“Opal, don’t you touch that filthy cat!” Teacher said, but Opal was on a mission.
“Silly old Caligula, you don’t want to eat dear Felix, no!” Opal said, her hands on her white-stockinged knees. “Here now…” She bent down and stroked the head of the old warrior cat she had named during her first week at the Walden schoolhouse. With her left hand she reached down and scooped up the tiny field mouse. He had no visible wounds, but Opal could feel him trembling. She placed him in her deep apron pocket. From her other large pocket she retrieved several strips of meat. “I did bring you bits of bacon, dear Caligula. I already had stops for prayers of thanks before I did come to the school, so eat, eat!”
Opal looked back at Teacher and smiled. “Felix will be fine,” she said with a smile. Teacher stood on the top step. Her hand was on the rail, her mouth agape like the muzzle of a loaded blunderbuss which had failed to spark. Opal had seen pictures in one of the thin books on Teacher’s desk. Teacher sat as Opal walked back to her, lifting the gray mouse from her pocket and holding it so close his whiskers tickled her nose.
“Yes, yes,” Opal said quietly. “I know it hurt, but you’ll be all better when we get home and we can have readings from the Mama’s book and some fine cheese. That’s why I told you not to leave your nest, dear Felix.” She sat down beside Teacher, who closed her mouth and blinked. The door behind them creaked. Without taking her eyes off Opal, Teacher reached back and rapped the hardwood planks three sharp knocks – immediately, Opal heard several pair of highlace shoes scurry back to their assigned seats.
“Opal, you named the mouse?” Teacher finally managed to say. Opal could tell from the sound of Teacher’s voice that she did not have knowings of mouse names. “What did you name him?”
“Why, Felix, of course. Felix Mendelssohn.”
“You’ve heard of Felix Mendelssohn?”
“Oh yes. He is here!” Opal said, smiling and lifting the mouse for Teacher to see. “I did find him in his abiding place beside the old stump in the lane where the leaves whisper this very day. He was cold and so I put him in my warm pocket and made a nest for him there,” she said, pointing to the privy.
“Yes, I see,” Teacher said, folding her hands in her lap. “Where did you hear about Felix Mendelssohn, Opal?” Opal was stroking Felix Mendelssohn’s fur, looking into his eyes, listening. “Opal?” Teacher asked.
“Angel Father did read him to me from the book of great men.”
“You mentioned another name – Brave…”
“Brave Horatius, my dear dog,” she said. Opal sat up straight and spoke to Felix Mendelssohn in a deeper voice, the voice of Angel Father,
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.”
“But my brave Horatius does have both his brown eyes.” A cold breeze ruffled her curls and Opal looked up at the treetops across the road. “No tree here is chataigner,” she said, almost in a whisper. “But any way we do have the foret de Montmorency, dear Felix Mendelssohn, and that is what we may call it if we wish, and Sadie McKibben said so in blessings!”
Teacher closed her mouth again.
“It’s the air,” Opal said softly, looking up at Teacher.
“The air. It’s cold and will give your tongue dry feels if you leave your mouth open for counting.
Opal looked down, but her eyes were watching Teacher’s hands. One of them moved back to the secret inside her dress pocket.
“Do you have longings for your tidy home?” Opal asked, looking up at Teacher. Her voice was tender and pure. “I long for mine. I have secrets too,” she said, touching the Teacher’s pocket. Teacher took Opal’s hand in her own. Opal saw pink color her cheeks. She continued. “At the end of this long day, I would go to my tidy home and pull the curtains closed, and open my box of secrets and count all my blessings. That I would do at gray twilight time.” Opal looked at the Teacher’s pocket, then whispered, “I won’t tell your secret. Forever. That’s what friends do,” she said. “Sadie McKibben says it is so and she is always truthful.”
Teacher stood slowly. “You know what I think?” she asked, brushing off her dress. Opal shook her head. “I think Sadie McKibben has a very special friend,” she said, and she touched Opal’s nose. Opal smiled, and together they returned to the classroom.