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"There's a naked Chinese lady sleeping near
that big tree."
"Oh, Grace." Margaret Fletcher squinted
at the sun-blurred image of her daughter. Even with the darkest prescription
sunglasses she could buy, a cloudless summer afternoon always gave her a headache.
"I swear." Grace ran back to the picnic
table. Her mud-brown hair was a tangle of leaves and grass.
Margaret lifted her ever-ready brush as Grace
submitted patiently to the eternal chore of grooming. She wondered if Grace
felt as hot and sticky in her miniature pink overalls as she did in her
lightest cotton pants and T-shirt.
"I wish you'd let me braid your hair,
chipmunk," she said. "You'd look cute."
"Braids are for sissies." Grace leaped
out of the brush's clutches and looked at her mother with earnest dark eyes.
"Won't you at least come look?"
"Look at what, sweetheart?"
Grace sighed with exasperation at the infinite obtuseness of adults. "At the naked Chinese lady!”
“Didn't your teacher tell you not to make up things
anymore? She said you scared some of the other children pretty badly."
Margaret jammed the brush back into the wicker basket and hoped that Grace
would refrain from cartwheels and headstands long enough to make the effort of
untangling her hair worthwhile.
"Those are just spooky stories. Old Corelli's
jealous because she can't think them up."
"Ms. Corelli, and she's younger than I
"OK, I'm sorry. But I'm not making it up this
time." Grace folded her arms stubbornly.
"Well, let's go have a look." Margaret
stood and wrapped the remnants of their lunch in the plastic tablecloth and
shoved it into the basket. Hugging the basket in her arms she followed her
daughter into the woods. She expected a cry of April Fool! and a cascade
of giggles at any moment, despite the fact that this was the middle of July.
Grace paid little attention to clocks and calendars.
The tree Grace led her to was an enormous oak,
ancient and twisted, yet still vigorous with lush foliage. It towered over
surrounding pines and maples like a shepherd protecting its flock. If someone
were really hiding under its shade, she would be well-hidden from prying eyes
by a maze of saplings and bushes; but not, apparently, from Grace's curious
wanderings. Margaret felt like an intruder violating the sanctity of this dark
patch of wildwood, so near the sculptured grass and domesticated trees of the
"There," Grace said triumphantly. "I
told you I was telling the truth." She pointed at what was undeniably a
young Asian-featured woman lying in the shadow of the oak. She was, as Grace
had insisted, entirely innocent of clothing.
Margaret dropped the basket and pushed her way
through a tangle of vines, stepping slowly and holding her breath the way she
would approach a wounded animal. Thorns bit at her skin, as if they were
protecting an enchanted princess.
The woman was small and slender, possibly still in
her teens. Shining black hair flowed over her shoulders and covered part of her
body in a strange sort of half-modesty. Just as Margaret wondered if she and
Grace should simply walk quietly away the woman opened her eyes.
"Are you all right?" Margaret said.
"Did someone --" She couldn't force out the terrible word she was
thinking. "Did someone hurt you?"
The woman blinked. She moved her lips and murmured
meaningless syllables that sounded like birdsong. She seemed to be struggling
with the concept of speech.
"Who are you?" Grace asked with the
shameless curiosity of childhood.
The woman was silent for a moment, as if she were
considering the question seriously. She seemed to be searching for the answer
from the air.
"Dulcifer," she said softly.
Margaret almost forgot her anxiety in wonder at the
woman's voice. It was as if a flute had spoken to her.
Dulcifer sat up and glanced at her surroundings.
She showed no embarrassment at her nudity. She touched the tree, the grass, and
the leaves, as if she were experiencing them for the first time. Margaret
wasn't sure if she was an eccentric nature-lover or the victim of some
terrible, mind-numbing trauma.
"Where are your clothes?" Grace asked.
"I don't have any." Dulcifer laughed. The
sound was painfully sweet.
"Do you need help?" Margaret tried to
concentrate on the problem at hand and avoid drowning in Dulcifer's voice.
"I don't know," Dulcifer said. She wore a
I suppose that means yes, Margaret thought ruefully. I wonder what I'm getting myself into here. She scrambled back
through the bushes to the basket and pulled the tablecloth out of it, letting
the remains of lunch tumble where they might. Ignoring her scratches, she
hurried to offer it to Dulcifer. "You better cover yourself up and come
Dulcifer stood and accepted the tablecloth as if it
were a precious gift. She wrapped it around her body like a child playing
"You're pretty," Grace said cheerfully.
That's why I'm so scared. People hurt
beautiful things. Margaret took
Dulcifer's hand. I can't help wondering
who hurt this lovely creature so badly to make her act this way.
Dulcifer followed them meekly back to the park.
Margaret wished she would say Goodbye,
nice to meet you, and walk away. Either that, or simply run off like a wild
animal. But Dulcifer seemed content to remain with them forever.
"Where do you live?" Grace said. She
seemed delighted by her new friend and unafraid of her odd behavior.
Dulcifer shrugged. "Here."
Now what does that mean? Margaret wondered. "Do you have any
relatives? Anyone you might want to see?"
"I don't think so." Dulcifer's face held
a certain emptiness, but not the blankness of an simple mind. She was obviously
not intellectually deficient in any way. She spoke clearly and carefully. Her
eyes were bright and full of curiosity as they walked back to Margaret's car.
She settled into the back seat awkwardly, as if she had never seen an
automobile before, but soon sat calmly.
Margaret drove the few miles home in silence. Her
daughter sat in the back next to Dulcifer and spoke softly with her, laughing
brightly at whispered confidences. It was as if they shared a secret language.
Ginger and Lemonade greeted them when they arrived.
The two marmalade cats meowed loudly as Margaret stepped out of the car. Grace
squatted to pet them. As Dulcifer approached, Ginger scooted for the cat door
while Lemonade rolled on her back.
"They're sisters, but they act
different," Grace explained. "Ginger's scared of everybody, and
Lemonade loves everybody. That's why Lemonade's chubby and Ginger's
Dulcifer knelt and stroked the cat's orange and
white belly in obvious fascination. Lemonade purred in ecstasy while Grace
beamed. The three of them were creatures that Margaret would never fully
"We better get inside and get you some real
clothes," she said. Lemonade stood, walked to the cat door with great
dignity, and pawed her way through. Margaret unlocked the front door with a
hand that was not as steady as she wished. She led Dulcifer to Nate's room and
rummaged through the chaos of his closet. At last she came up with a clean but
wrinkled Led Zeppelin T-shirt and an old pair of jeans. Dulcifer seemed
confused at first, but with a little encouragement she soon understood what was
expected of her.
Nate's clothes, snug for a slim sixteen-year-old
boy, were far too large for her. Margaret helped her roll up her pants legs and
tied one of Nate's belts around her waist as tightly as she could. The T-shirt
hung almost to her knees.
Grace ran into the room with a pair of her favorite
flip-flops in her hand. "I'll bet you could fit into these."
Dulcifer slipped them on without prodding. She
acted as if clothing were no longer a mystery. The rubber sandals were only
slightly too small for her. She now looked like a street waif taken in by a
charitable suburban family. In stark contrast, her silken hair fell down her
back nearly to the floor.
Margaret sighed. She knew she should have called
the police long ago, for Dulcifer's own sake. She was obviously in need of
professional help. Yet somehow Margaret was reluctant to release this winsome
stranger to the cold care of the authorities.
"How old are you?" Grace said.
"I'm not sure," Dulcifer said. "I think I'm new."
Odd choice of words, Margaret noted.
"What do you like to do?" Grace seemed
ready to pester their guest with questions for the rest of the day. Dulcifer
kept her expression of calm patience.
"I sing." Dulcifer closed her eyes and
sang a single note, a wordless sound that lasted less than a second. Margaret
felt like fainting. Grace simply stood still and stared with her mouth open.
By the time she had recovered her wits, the memory
of Dulcifer's voice had already faded from Margaret's mind. It left a mental
echo in her head, a vague sensation like an afterimage she couldn't identify.
"Wow," Grace said.
"Wow indeed." Margaret shook her head and
tried to clear the cobwebs from it. "How did you do that?"
Dulcifer shrugged. "I sing."
"Sing some more," Grace begged.
Margaret held up her hands. "I think we all
need a rest after that."
"Please?" Grace's eyes showed the hunger
of an addict.
"Let's wait until everybody's home, OK? I want
to talk to Dad about this."
"Oh." Grace lowered her head.
Margaret spent over an hour learning almost nothing
else about Dulcifer before she heard David's car pull up in the driveway. Her
son bounced in first.
"Boy, I’m exhausted. If I have to lift one
more case of Coke --" He stopped short when he saw the woman wearing
his clothes. "Uh, hi."
"Nate, this is Dulcifer." Margaret felt
odd making a formal introduction of this enigma to him.
"Sorry, what was the name again?"
"Dulcifer," she said, in that soft,
haunting voice. "I think that is what you would call me."
David walked in with his hands full of grocery
sacks. "Hey, I could use a little help, troops. Not all at once,
now." His eyes opened wide as he spied their visitor. "Oops! Didn't
know we had a guest. This one of your schoolmates, Nate?" He looked at her
curiously. "The grunge look, right?"
"Those are my clothes, Dad." Nate glanced
at his mother and sister. "What's going on here?"
Margaret sighed. This wasn't going to be easy to
Grace took Dulcifer's hand. "We found her in
the park. She was naked. That's why we gave her your clothes."
Nate blushed. "Quit making up lies."
"She's telling the truth," Margaret said.
"Dulcifer's lost or has amnesia or something. I didn't know what else to
do but bring her here."
"Have you contacted anybody yet?" David frowned. "Obviously not. Well, I guess you were too upset. I'll take care of it." He smiled at Dulcifer. "Don't worry. We'll get some help for you."
"Wait, David." Margaret seized his arm as
he reached for the telephone. I want you to hear something first." She
turned to Dulcifer. "Please sing for us."
Dulcifer inhaled deeply and sang.
Her first notes were high and sweet, like the
laughter of a waterfall. Soon the melody slowed to a lullaby as soft as falling
snow. She sang in words from a language unlike any they had ever heard.
Margaret forced part of her attention away from the
hypnotic song and studied the reactions of her family. Nate seemed to be in a
state of shock, staring at Dulcifer as if she were a mythical beast. David's
eyes were closed, a smile of gentle bliss on his face. Grace hugged her new
friend with unadulterated joy. Margaret realized that her own emotions were a
mixture of all of these things, with other feelings not so easily named.
Dulcifer's song quickened into a wild dance.
Margaret felt her body tremble with its frenzied rhythms. She wanted to run
into the wilderness and abandon every trace of civilization. She wanted to
follow that voice forever.
With one last, heartbreaking note the song ended.
Dulcifer seemed unaffected by the miracle she had wrought, as if it had taken
"Jesus," Nate said. His forehead gleamed
with sweat. David blinked and leaned against the wall. The grocery bags lay
forgotten on the floor. Grace collapsed, sound asleep.
Margaret realized that her heart was racing and
that she was gasping for breath. She tried to concentrate on returning to her
"We better get Grace to bed," she said.
Her voice sounded weak and edgy.
"Yeah," Nate said quickly. He pulled
Grace to her feet and led her, still half-asleep, to her bedroom.
David stepped into the dining room. He pulled a
chair away from the table and collapsed into it. He looked at Margaret as if
she held the secret to all of life's mysteries.
"What just happened here?" he said
”I'm sorry. I should have warned you."
Margaret glanced at Dulcifer, who smiled at her innocently. "I only had a
taste of her voice before. I didn't realize a full song would be so . . ."
There was no word.
"What are you?" David asked her.
"I don't know."
"Maybe she's having a fugue state,"
Margaret said. "Possibly in response to some sort of trauma."
David lifted his eyebrows. "I'm glad you took
Margaret shook her head. "A bachelor's degree
isn't going to help matters much. Besides, how can you explain that
"Right." He frowned and stared at Dulcifer. For a moment Margaret saw a strange resemblance between the two, both of them with eyes and hair as dark as night. He leaned back in the chair. "So, what do we do with you?"
There was no answer. Dulcifer seemed perfectly
happy to remain where she was.
"You still think we need to go to the
police?" Margaret asked.
"Hell, no. This isn't just some runaway
teenager. You heard that song. Look, I know a little bit about music."
David smiled at his own modesty. He spent most of his free time collecting CD's
and attending concerts. "I've heard recordings of the greatest singers of
all time. I've heard Tibetan monks who can chant more than one note at a time.
Dulcifer's singing ability simply isn't within human capacity."
"But she's here. She's real." Margaret
doubted her own words.
"Remember what it was like?" David closed
his eyes. "That wasn't just the most beautiful voice we've ever heard.
That was the most beautiful voice anyone has ever heard. It tore into our
"Good music does that, doesn't it?"
"Of course, but not like this." David
suddenly seemed very weary. "I still remember the first time I heard 'The
Swan,' by Saint-Saens. It's a heartbreakingly lovely piece of music. But it
doesn't have the same effect as one note of Dulcifer's song. I felt I might
literally die when it ended."
Margaret turned to Dulcifer. "Do you have any
idea what you did to us?"
"I’m beginning to understand. I'm sorry if I hurt you." Her gaze seemed focused on something very far away. "I remember singing for many, and making them very happy. Not like you. Not like this." She lifted her arms, as if she were seeing them for the first time.
"I have to admit that you are no ordinary
human being," David said.
"Wait a minute. What are we talking about
here? Do you think she's some kind of alien halfbreed? An elf or a pixie?"
"You make it sound silly. But it's not a joke.
You heard that voice."
Dulcifer watched them with an expression of calm
interest. She seemed like an empress studying the strange inhabitants of her
David stood. "I'll start on dinner. Suddenly
I'm starving. What do you like to eat, Dulcifer?"
"I don't know."
"I could have told you she would say
that." Margaret started out of the room. "I'll get the kids
ready." She realized that she was looking for an excuse to escape
Dulcifer's placid gaze.
Grace was curled up on her bed, softly snoring.
Margaret had to shake her awake.
"You don't usually take naps, chipmunk."
"Dulcifer made me tired."
"Well, change your clothes and wash up. We're
going to have the whole family together for a real meal. That doesn't happen
Grace nodded in sleepy agreement. Margaret walked down the hall to Nate's room. He was hard at work on a page of calculus.
"Dad's getting dinner ready. Try to finish what
you're working on."
"Almost done. Last problem." Nate looked
up at her. "I thought I'd go meet some of the guys tonight, maybe grab a
pizza and a movie and head over to Ed's place."
"Does he know about this plan yet?"
"Well, no, but he's all alone out there while
his folks are on some cruise somewhere. He said we could come over any
time." Nate shut his textbook and stuffed his papers in his desk.
"I thought you'd want to talk with our
visitor. She's not someone you meet every day, you know."
"Yeah. She scares me. I don't want to be
Margaret placed her hand on his shoulder. “Go
ahead and have a good time."
By the time Grace was ready David had prepared an
elaborate meal of tomato soup with saffron, zucchini and green beans with
garlic and freshly ground black pepper, parmesan chicken, and his famous
Roquefort salad. Margaret understood that he was trying to impress a very
Dulcifer devoured the soup and vegetables with
amazement, but refused the meat and cheese after one taste. The family's
conversation was painfully formal during the meal, and Dulcifer said little. At
the end of the evening, Margaret offered the spare bed in Grace's room to her.
Grace was thrilled. Later that night she saw them together in the guest bed,
her daughter wrapped in Dulcifer's arms. Somehow she knew that Grace was safer
there than anywhere else on Earth.
|A Felony of Birds|
|The Greer Agency|
|A Fisherman's Guide to Bottomdwellers|