The next day, Teacher sent a note home with Opal, asking for a visit with the Papa after school. He came home early from the mill, dressed in his nicest suit, and walked the short distance to the schoolhouse where he met Teacher inside after she had dismissed the rest of the class.
Teacher stood in front of her desk, leaning back against it, her arms folded.
Opal could just see her through the crack in the front door. The Papa had told her to stay on the schoolhouse steps while he spoke with Teacher inside. The Man Who Wears White sat on the steps, leaning back against the rail. Opal turned away from the door to give him considerations. He was marking his marks on paper again.
He looked up with kindness looks in his eyes. Only now he was changed – now and for all the coming days he was the Man Who Wears Gray Neckties and is Kind to Mice. He must know good printing, Opal thought, because he uses so much paper, and paper costs money. All the other children wanted to write with real ink on real paper, but she preferred the clack-scritch of the soft soapstone pencils on the slate tablets. It reminded her of the sound fairies make when they skate on the ice pond.
Gray Neckties looked up from his markings. “What do you see, Princess?” he whispered. “Can you hear?”
“I haven’t met you yet,” she whispered.
“I know,” he said. He smiled. “But we will soon, won’t we? Can you hear? Can you hear the Papa?”
Opal nodded, and placed her index finger against her lips. She turned back to look through the crack in the door.
The Papa stood in front of Teacher, holding his hat in his hand. His hair neatly trimmed, parted razor-straight on the left side. His mustache was closely cropped. His voice came out low and even. “Opal has an active imagination, Mrs. Daugherty.”
Opal pressed her ear to the crack in the door so she could hear better.
“She is precocious, Mr. Whiteley.”
“Precoshus,” Opal mouthed, and smiled. It was a delicious word.
“Yes,” the Papa answered. “And she does have a love for animals, I…”
“She’s named every animal in Walden, Mr. Whiteley, and she has regular conversations with most of them.”
“Her uncle Henry – actually, he’s her great-uncle – encourages her, I’m afraid. Telling her tall tales and such. Well-educated and all, but…anyway, now we’re here in Walden he won’t be visiting, so things might settle a bit. I’ll speak to her, ma’am. I apologize for any inconvenience or embarrassment.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not angry with Opal. But she’s different from the other girls. From all the children, actually. She’s the most intelligent child in the class and she doesn’t belong in the first level. I’m going to recommend she be moved up.”
“Moved up?” the Papa said. “I don’t understand.”
Teacher softened. “Opal gets in trouble because she’s bored,” she said.
Opal could tell Teacher was trying not to sound like Teacher to the Papa. But she knew that working with the mill people strained Teacher’s patience. The Papa wasn’t like most of the mill folk. But Teacher thought he was. She could hear it in her voice.
Teacher breathed in and out in a slow way. “Her imagination takes her places that I believe are as real to her as this desk, or that hat in your hand, and sometimes she – well, she stays there a while, if you take my meaning.”
The Papa turned his hat in his hand and made a clicking sound with his tongue. Teacher cleared her throat in her putting-up-with way, and adjusted her glasses with the tips of her fingers.
“Mr. Whiteley. Do you read to her?”
“I, well, yes. I read to her. Usually, at night after work. Or tell her make up stories.”
“But you do read?” she asked.
Opal moved to the next crack in the door to get a better see. The way Teacher looked at the Papa reminded Opal of Caligula and Felix. The way the people who wore white looked at her in the other place. Teacher waited, her chin tilted, as a faint blush rose up the back of the Papa’s neck, past his starched collar. He knew lots of books, but Opal could see he was embarrassed that Teacher thought he didn’t.
She studied Teacher. Teacher’s thinks were as clear as cold water. She looked hard at the Papa – the way people did when they learned that he has Indian blood. It colored the way Teacher talked. When she asked, “But you do read?” it sounded more like, “But you can read, can’t you, you ignorant Canuck?” Opal had heard people call the Papa an “ignorant Canuck” when they thought he wasn’t listening, but he was. That’s how Teacher sounded, like that’s what she thought, and what she said couldn’t hide it. Her words sounded like they had been dipped in vinegar. And Opal could see – her words made the Papa feel stupid and small. Teacher had talked vinegar words to other big folks in Cottage Grove. They were all mice. And she was Caligula.
“Mrs. Daugherty,” the Papa said, his voice low and hesitant, “I don’t see what where my reading…”
“Please, Mr. Whiteley. I don’t mean to pry, but it’s important. Let me be more specific. Have you read The Lays of Rome to Opal?”
The Papa fingered the brim of his hat, turning it in his calloused hands, and his eyes looked looks into her. His fingers relaxed slowly, barely holding onto the hat, and Opal could tell from the tilt of his head, he was staring past her into heaven. Opal knew the Papa’s looks, and how they sometimes gave the Mama uncomfortables. Just like Teacher. It was, Opal thought, why he wasn’t at the house they lived in all the time.
Teacher moved her hand to her throat. “Mr. Whiteley – I’m sorry. The Lays of Rome, by Lord Macaulay. She was quoting it just two days ago – an entire stanza on the warrior Horatius. I read it myself to students in second term, but I haven’t read it to this class yet.”
The Papa lowered his head. “Hmm. I haven’t read Macaulay to Opal. Could have been Lizzie read it to her, though.” This last bit trailed off. Teacher remained quiet, watching, giving him time. Opal knew the Papa liked to listen to the riviére hum inside the banks – a gentle, thinking song he carried with him all day long – that’s what he was doing now, quiet as Felix Mendelssohn in her pocket. Staring through the crack in the door, and looking at the Papa’s back, Opal could just see the corners of his mustache lifted briefly and settled. A small puff of air escaped his nose. Opal smiled. It was the sound the Papa makes when he’s found an answer that amuses him because he failed to see it sooner. He shook his head once, then lifted it, and Opal could tell from Teacher’s expression that he was looking her in the eye.
“Where do you keep your book, Mrs. Simpson?”
Opal pressed her face to the door, trying to see more of the room on the other side. “He knows,” she whispered. She turned to Gray Neckties. “He knows.”
Gray Neckties didn’t look up from making his marks. “Mm-hmm,” he murmured. Opal turned back to the crack in the door.
“The Lays? Why?” Teacher narrowed her eyes. “You think Opal…?” she started, but stopped herself and pulled a volume from the row of books lined up neatly on her desk, and turned it in her hands as if she were seeing it for the first time.
The Papa’s voice bounced off the empty chairs and plank walls, though he spoke softly. “Opal’s a reader, Mrs. Simpson. Ever since she was about three. Not fast, mind, but she cobbles words from the sounds and letters. I figure it’s one of the reasons she talks like she does – half grownup, half child. And she always marks her place,” he said, making a small gesture toward the book with his hat.
Mrs. Simpson lifted the ribbon mark of the crimson, vellum-bound copy of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s, The Lays of Rome, and slipped her finger between the onionskin pages. They crinkled as she turned them. She stopped and drew in a breath at the twenty-seventh stanza – the one that read, “Then out spake brave Horatius…” Something fluttered from between the pages and fell to the floor. Mr. Whiteley picked it up carefully, holding it as if the fragile thing might disintegrate in his rough hands. It was a butterfly’s wing.