Short Subjects on an Eye: Bird-Person (9)

Maggie as half a bird with her mother's medal. Captioned In Bird Culture, We Steal Shit.

Add 12 oz. canned chicken or tuna for a delightful meal surprise!

Add 12 oz. ground beef or lamb for a delightful meal surprise!

Hyacinth looked back and forth between the boxes, holding one in each hand. She had seen boxed noodles and cans of things in the pantry so she had sent Ann to work. Ann had two shows on Sigurd’s Day, and Milo had taken a half shift earlier, and Hyacinth thought that was enough to deal with. It didn’t look like she needed shopping. Now she’d left it until six, and what she had in the pantry was two boxes of mismatched noodles. She needed two boxes to feed the house. The General could eat pigeons, or both she and Maggie might hit up a restaurant, but that left Barnaby and Room 101 and Erik and Mordecai and herself. That was at least a box and a half. Ann might be hungry when she got back, too.

Barnaby and Room 101 could not leave the house. The last time she had taken Barnaby to a restaurant he had bossed his way into the kitchen and began reorganizing the food and the utensils in avant garde ways (the fresh produce in the oven and the dishes in the refrigerator, for instance). There were more pressing issues with Room 101. Erik was certainly not ready for public display and Mordecai had scarcely been out of his room since his run-in with the police. So, she could leave the General in charge of things here and go shopping or purchase takeout herself, or try to convince the General to go shopping or purchase takeout.

Or she was going to have to combine Cheesy Broccoli with Spicy Chili for what was truly going to be a meal surprise. She only had the one casserole, and it had to go in the oven. People kept bringing her food and metal and ice but no one thought to bring her a stove. (Not a big one like the one they’d ripped out of here during the siege, she wouldn’t expect that much, but a little one with charcoal. That wouldn’t be too much, would it?)

She found the chalk and prepared to write it on the board: SMALL STOVE. Not that it would help for tonight, but…

“Miss Hyacinth?” Maggie said.

“Yeah, hon?” Maybe Mordecai could do something about the noodles, if she could get him out of his room.

“Erik can’t have his new eye yet, but it’s going to take a long time to make one. Is that right?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Gold is best for things because it doesn’t tarnish or rust. Is that right, too?”

“Absolutely.” That was a bright child. Always picking things up.

Magnificent laid an enormous soldier’s medal on the kitchen counter in front of her. It was round, flat, and suspended from a tricolor ribbon in the colors of the Marselline flag: purple, white, and green. The whole thing was gold.

“Holy shit! Maggie!” said Hyacinth. She picked it up by the ribbon. Oh, no, wait. The weight was all wrong, and when she touched the metal she knew it instantly. Pinchbeck. “Oh.” And then she read the words on the front, For Exemplary Service to Man and Empire. In sharp relief, a long-haired woman in a classical dress was holding up a wreath of cherry blossoms.

“Holy shit! Maggie!” Hyacinth reiterated. Then she saw Maggie. She had run out of swearing and she could only say, “Ahh!” and back her hip into the kitchen counter.

“It’s not forever, Miss Hyacinth. I’m just stuck for a little. I can still talk and everything.” She had one pigtail, and the left half of her was still appreciably smooth and brown. On the right, her hair had gone to long glossy black feathers. They stuck up and fanned like one of those stupidly-fashionable hats David was always coveting (he couldn’t bear to cover his beautiful hair, it was a real conundrum). On her neck and the left side of her face they faded to pinions and some of her skin was still visible. There appeared to be more feathers poking out of the sleeve of her dress. Her legs seemed all right, but Hyacinth had a morbid curiosity about what she might be hiding in her left shoe. For all that, her eyes were the most jarring. The left was bright red with a tiny black pupil in the exact center. The right had gone entirely black.

“Maggie, can you see like that?”

“Yes, Miss Hyacinth,” she replied. “It’s a little bit different. My mother says my visual acuity may be based on movement.”

“Oh,” said Hyacinth. “Oh, yeah. Great.” She sat down at the table and let the object she was holding clunk down on the surface in front of her. Maggie pointed a finger at it.

“Miss Hyacinth, can we talk about that? I’m a little scared if Erik comes out he might see me. I don’t know if he remembers.”

“Oh, the medal!” said Hyacinth. Gods forbid they should forget about the medal. The medal was worse than the feathers. She had known about the feathers. She held the gold disk in both hands, carefully. “Maggie, where did you get it?”

“My mother had it in a box under the mattress,” Magnificent said.

“Maggie, do you even know what this thing is?”

“Yes, Miss Hyacinth.” She folded her hands behind her back and straightened as if to recite. “It’s an Imperial Medal of Honor. There is a certificate in the box that the Emperor signed. There’s also a picture of him giving it to her. There’s no sound but it still moves. You can see flashbulbs going off.”

“Maggie, I, um…” Where could she even begin with how unwise of a decision this was? Didn’t this child know her mother? “It’s… It’s not real gold. It’s fake. It’s a kind of brass, so it does tarnish. It’s worth very much more as a medal like it is.”

Maggie nodded. To the best of her ability, she was frowning. You could only see half of it.

“I really think you’d better put it back…” She lifted it gingerly by the ribbon. “How did you get it out of there, anyway?”

“Carefully,” Maggie replied. She didn’t reach out to take the medal. “Miss Hyacinth? Do you think you’ll get a lot of real gold to make an eye when my daddy gets back?”

“Well, no,” Hyacinth admitted. “I thought we would probably use copper and steel. Or, we could have very cheap gold, but that doesn’t hold up very well, either.”

“So it would tarnish anyway?”

“I suppose. I mean, he’ll have to keep it oiled, and in a glass with oil when he’s not using it.”

“I wish you would consider using it for his eye, then. My mother had that when Erik got hurt. If you knew she had that, you could have used it to fix him, and that would have hurt him a lot less than what you had to use. Isn’t that right?”

“Well…” Yes. Pinchbeck was copper and zinc, good, strong metal. Superior in every way to tin alloyed with antimony. Antimony was poisonous — not like lead, you get get away with a little antimony — and adjusting to that was especially difficult. Also, if ever some well-meaning physician should try Erik on tartar emetic, that would kill him. (Gods, I’ve got to do something about that. He needs a bracelet or something.) “If… If she told me about it, I probably would have used it a long time ago,” Hyacinth hedged. “Or when those girls came here and they were all burned.”

“But it would have been helping somebody instead of under the bed?”

“Well, yeah.”

Magnificent nodded. She folded her small, gloved hands in front of her. “It is my considered opinion that you should use that for Erik, Miss Hyacinth. Please, will you?”

“I… Maggie, I think you’re right about all of that, but your mother, your mother…” Your mother will kill every last one of us, burn down the house and blight the ground upon which it stood so that naught may ever grow here again. “Your mother saved that a long time and I think she’ll be very upset when she finds it gone.”

“I know she will be, Miss Hyacinth. I won’t let her find it. I’m going to tell her it was me and I’m going to tell her why I did it.”

Hyacinth made a jagged, bewildered noise and dropped the hand holding the medal to her side. She didn’t dare drop the medal. Pinchbeck might scratch. “You mean… when she’s old?” the poleaxed woman managed at last.

“No, Miss Hyacinth. Right after you say you can use it.”

“Kah,” said Hyacinth, or something like it.

“Miss Hyacinth, my mother won’t hurt me,” Maggie said. “She can make things so I don’t like them and she can try to make me sorry, but I won’t be sorry about this. I don’t mind if I can’t leave the house for a year and I have to be half a bird the whole time and I can’t even talk.” She frowned and cast her glance aside. “I just hope she doesn’t say I can’t see Erik anymore.”

“I won’t let her say that,” Hyacinth replied. She wasn’t willing to slay dragons for pinchbeck, but she would be right in there was flaming sword and adamant shield for Erik’s well-being. “Erik needs you right now. Er…” She shook her head. “Maybe not right now.”

“No, Miss Hyacinth,” Maggie replied placidly. “Then that’s all I’m worried about. Will you use the medal?”

Hyacinth sighed. “You’ve got me in a corner, Maggie. I’m a lot more worried about it than you are, but I’ll use it.”

“I think you should hide it for right now,” Maggie said. “In case my mother doesn’t think I’m right right away.”

“You think she will?” said Hyacinth. “I mean, ever?”

“Yes, Miss Hyacinth. I am right,” Magnificent said.

Hyacinth opened a kitchen drawer and dangled the medal above it.

“No, please. I think she could find it there if she was mad enough.”

“How…” said Hyacinth. She shut her eyes and shook her head. She could picture the General rifling every drawer in the house without lifting a finger. She opened the drawer with her purse in it, but that was only one more layer of protection. With sudden resolve she tucked it down the front of her dress. She winced. It was cold.

Maggie was eyeing her critically.

“You don’t really think she could find it there?” said Hyacinth.

“I don’t know, but I’m not totally sure she couldn’t.”

Hyacinth snatched her purse out of the drawer. “You know, I was going to get takeout for dinner anyway. Maggie, what would you like? You pick.”

Magnificent smiled sadly and shook her head. “Thank you, Miss Hyacinth, but I’m certain I won’t be allowed to have any of it.”

Hyacinth flinched and nodded. “You’re a very brave girl, Maggie. I’m a little frightened of what you’re going to grow up to be.”

The child beamed. (Hyacinth noticed with horror that half of her teeth had gone as well.) “Thank you very much, Miss Hyacinth.”

“Will you look out the front window and wait until I’m past Swan’s Neck before you tell your mother? I-I’m a little worried she’ll sense where it is and set it on fire. I suppose that’s silly.” She attempted a laugh.

“No, Miss Hyacinth,” Maggie said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Hyacinth kept touching her chest like someone with a delicate heart condition the whole time she was gone. When she returned with boxed meals in paper bags, every drawer in the kitchen was open. (Over the next few days, she would discover that every drawer in the house had been opened, as well as all the boxes, even the sealed ones, and one very unfortunate mouse.) Mordecai met her at his bedroom door and informed her that his table had broken in two and scared the hell out of him. Ann returned that night to find her shoes scattered all over the floor. At the top of the house, when accepting his boxed meal, Barnaby complained of an ill wind that had unsettled his papers and demanded sage sticks immediately if not sooner. Hyacinth denied him the right to set anything on fire in that rat’s nest of his and he threw his dinner at her. Later she brought him cheese and crackers and the sage from the spice cabinet and this was accepted.

There was nothing from Room 101 on the matter, but naturally there wouldn’t be.

And that was it. She heard no more about it.

She didn’t see Maggie very much for a while, though.

After waiting two days for potential fallout — and saying a quick prayer at the shrine — she showed Milo the medal and they began work on an eye.

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