18 | Linguist | Anxious resting face
Um... Any thoughts?
Written By: Helen Grant
June 15, 2015
It was Mme Dubois who was generally in charge of the long, unspeakably cold rambles through 6e arrondissement, and while in all other respects she was not a great conversationalist, it was she who instilled into the girls that fearful mantra: "Do not make eye contact with the witches."
She would not bark it, like other teachers. She did not speak in the shard-of-glass tones of Mme Lacroix, she did not use the booming, diaphragm-shuddering expression of Mme Moulin, but her words carried all the same, rippling in the rainwater between the flagstones, fluttering in the breeze with the pale green leaves on the plane trees, hissing in the fearful whispers of the train of students behind her.
Don't look at them.
The girls were uniquely obedient. The crocodile of plum-caped, silver-badged young women would snake through the backstreets towards the Seine and, on crossing one particular and unavoidable band of dwellings, fourteen pairs of eyes would flick to the ground. They had time only to register a flash of dark feathers, sometimes a slender hand clasped around the handle of a woven basket, and within five minutes they were out into civilisation again with only a faint, lingering smell of jasmine in their noses.
Mme Dubois considered it a great achievement that after thirty-eight years of teaching and walking there had never been an incident under her watch. There had been no accidents.
Then one day Charlotte Maudy looked up.
It was not an act of stupidity on her part, or recklessness. She had not embarked on the morning's walk with the intention of rebellion; indeed, she had been making a supreme effort all week at staying on the good side of all seven Mmes following a particularly painful bout of incidents regarding her needlework and then her watercolours.
But she had undergone something of a growth spurt over the past few months since she'd joined L’Ecole des Mortelles Distinguées, or perhaps it was a growth explosion, and was now at least nine tenths limbs, and she just tripped, when the girls were very nearly halfway through Rue de Plumes.
And Charlotte looked up.
Initially she thought maybe she'd got away with it, as not only had she not been vaporised on the spot, but also Mme Dubois did not appear to have noticed anything awry, and the gnarled old teacher's gaze was fixed firmly to the ground. The witching quarter, now that she could see it properly, see more than just up to the kerb, was not at all as she'd expected, and really quite ordinary-looking. The houses on either side were covered in clean white stucco, the shutters were newly-painted and brightly coloured, and the window boxes bulged with clusters of pink and blue flowers. Nothing primitive about it at all, actually.
Then Charlotte really did do something reckless, and turned her head to the left to peer into a quaint little doorway.
She found herself staring straight into a pair of dark, beady eyes.
The owner of the eyes was most definitely a witch, a female, with smooth, tea-coloured skin up to the collarbone, and then bronze feathers and a long, silvery beak.
Charlotte forgot herself and froze mid-step. Mme Dubois’ leathery hand shot out of nowhere and forced her newest pupil's head down towards the pavement. "Stupid girl! Do you yearn for death?"
The line of cloaked, bird-like pupils tumbled into each other, quivering and shuddering in confusion and terror, clattering over each other's heels and unable to look up to see where they were going.
"Keep walking!" Mme Dubois snapped, and set off at a cracking pace so that the girls had to squint from under bent heads to keep up with her.
They spewed into the main square, a shivering, gibbering mess of cloaks and fluttering lips, tripping and crashing into frosty coffee tables and chairs. The maitre d'hôtel scuttled over to the cordon at the edge of his restaurant and caught Mme Dubois’ skinny elbow just as her knees buckled under her.
“Can I help you, Madame?”
“We just had a nasty encounter with one of the … creatures.”
“… seven seconds. Is that enough, do you think?”
The waiter followed her gaze over to one of the girls, who stood apart from the rest, strangely still. Tall, thin girl; flimsy, like a dandelion.
“She really looked?”
“Yes. Could you send a message to the ministry, now?”
“Of course Madame,” said the waiter, and disappeared inside.
Mme Dubois steadied herself on the menu board for a second. She started forward towards Mlle Maudy, then stopped short, because the girl had dipped her fingers into her pocket and pulled out a handful of inky black feathers.