The footsteps hurried closer, quicker, slower, then quicker still, and Clementine sat and watched, but all she saw was the grass moving this way and that, as though the wind was blowing but it could not decide in which direction to blow.
Now, this way, now that, a furrow of flattered grass creeping nearer, and nearer, and “oh, dear,” sighed Clementine, certain that she was probably about to be eaten by something invisible, which, she decided as the footsteps stopped in front of her, might be preferable, because if she was inside the stomach of something invisible, then she too would be invisible and that in itself might be a relief.
But, instead, the footsteps moved around her until they had formed a complete circle and stopped in front of her.
“Hello?” She said, to the air itself, and then, when no reply came, she ventured, “I’m Clementine,” because surely she couldn’t upset anyone with her name alone, and then, because she simply had to know her fate, and asking directly seemed the best way of obtaining this knowledge, she asked, “are you going to eat me?”
But the moment she asked, right where there had been nothing but the flattened grass before, now there was a bird, standing on legs like twigs with a big black beak and gloss-black feathers.
She sat up, straighter, leaned forward and asked, “you’re a bird, aren’t you?” because she wasn’t quite sure whether or not it was safe to assume something that seemed so obvious.
“Sometimes,” the bird replied, eyeing her with glittering black eyes.
“What do you mean, sometimes?” Clementine asked warily, and thinking, though she had learned about cut fingers and bottles marked poison, she hadn’t read anything at all about invisible birds that may or may not eat little girls.
“Sometimes I am a bird,” said the bird, “and sometimes I am a woman,” and sure enough, the bird became a woman, right there in front of her, and so quickly that she didn’t see it happen at all. One moment there was a bird in front of her, and now there was a woman, a very tall woman who moved like trees in a gentle breeze and her clothes were blue-black like her feathers had been, her skin as white as the porcelain dish that Clementine had been collecting strawberries in only the day before, and her lips as red as the berries therein.
“How did you make yourself invisible?” Clementine asked, and the bird woman looked momentarily confused, and then rather cross.
“Invisible?” She repeated, “I thank you not to be so very rude. I have never been invisible in all my life,” she folded her arms across her chest and two little soft feathers fluttered to the ground.
“But you were invisible,” Clementine paused, “just now, I watched your footsteps, they came in from over there, walked all the way around me and stopped right where you’re standing now.”
“Ah,” the bird-woman drew in a breath, “that was not me, that was you,” she said, as simply as if she had just called a tree a tree or a spade a spade.
Clementine began to shake her head and protest, but the bird-woman raised a hand and Clementine found herself silenced immediately. Her voice simply stopped coming, even though for a moment her lips were still moving.
“Those were your footsteps,” the bird-woman said again, “you were feeling sorry for yourself, were you not?”
Clementine cleared her throat, “yes,” she said, hesitantly.
“There you have it,” the bird-woman exclaimed, unfolding her arms and placing her hands on her hips, expelling another little flurry of feathers into the grass. But Clementine was quite sure she didn’t have it at all, and the bird-woman sighed again, a great heaving sigh that seemed to rustle the leaves in the trees.
“You were feeling sorry for yourself,” she repeated, beginning again, attempting a little more clarity this time, “all the little girls, and all the little boys, and the men, and the women, and all those in between, who begin to feel sorry for themselves, who lose hope,” she paused for effect, “become invisible,” she concluded, again, as if this was the most obvious statement in the world.
“They don’t where I come from,” said Clementine, rather sure of herself, but then, as she thought about it further, she realised she was becoming less and less sure about it, and, as she thought even more about it, she remembered all of the times that she had felt sorry for herself in the past and her sister had refused to play with her and had in fact ignored her altogether, and she found herself deciding that actually, this might very well be true.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” she said eventually, and the bird-woman gave a great slow, rather wise nod of her rather beautiful head, and smiled again.
“It is always within your best interest never to expect anything, and certainly never to expect anything unexpected, that way, nothing unexpected can ever happen,” she said with a shrug, and began to pace among the trees, and Clementine was sure she caught the glimpse of twigs, leaves, and little gaping yellow beaks within the dark curls of hair that were piled up on top of her head.
“I see,” said Clementine, though she wasn’t quite sure that she saw at all, and was fast becoming tired of not having any idea at all about what was happening.
“Do you have a name?” she ventured, assuming (wrongly) that this might be a rather sensible and not-too-confusing question to ask, and the bird woman smiled wider now, slowly, cocked her head to one side, her eyes glittering as they had done when she had landed in front of her as a bird.
“I am in possession of a name, yes,” she said, somewhat proudly and somewhat smugly.
“Will you tell me what it is?” Clementine asked when the bird-woman said no more, but the bird-woman frowned, quickly, a frown that turned into a glare.
“Certainly not,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “I shan’t have you stealing it.”
“But I already have a name,” insisted Clementine.
“You might very well have a name now, but you keep feeling sorry for yourself and you’ll lose that too, just like you have your footsteps, then you really will be completely invisible,” the bird-woman clapped her hands together suddenly, and a rustle of twittering went off in her hair, and a flurry of feathers in all colours like a firework shot out from between her hands, “poof,” she said, “like that, and you’ll be nobody at all.”
And just as she said it, Clementine could feel her name slipping off of her one letter after the next, like the taking off of a coat, she could feel it coming undone, from her head, down her arms, and then disappearing altogether.
“How do I get myself back?” She asked, suddenly rather more worried than she had been when she thought she at the very least still had her name.
“Your name, I should start by picking the right letters from the Alphabet tree, and keeping them in your pocket so that you always know where they are. That way you’re much less likely to lose them.”
“The Alphabet tree?” Clementine asked, uncertainly.
“Over there,” the bird-woman gestured into the depths of the forest behind her to where the sun shone down in a patch where only one single tree grew, decorated all over with tiny multicolour buds.
“But be careful when you pick them, the ‘E’s can be particularly thorny, and do it quickly,” she advised, “the tree grows in the garden of The Silent Minority, and if he sees you pinching letters from his tree, well…” she left the sentence to hang in mid-air for a moment and simply gave a little pursed-lipped-shrug, “nobody will hear the end of it if that happens,” she sighed.
“And my footsteps?” Clementine, or rather the girl who would be called Clementine if her name hadn’t fallen off her, asked, glancing toward the forest to see if she could catch a glimpse of The Silent Minority.
“Retrace your steps,” the bird-woman said casually, “chances are they haven’t gone very far, and the likelihood is that they, and you, are still very much where you left yourself.”
Clementine drew in a breath, and let it all out in one go, “thank you,” she said, “I’ll do that,” and she set off quietly past the bird-woman, who was now not there just as suddenly as she had been there, and ventured toward the clearing in the forest to find the letters of her name, which she would keep better hold of from now on, now that she knew how easy it was to lose, she thought, catching the flash of something white behind a tree in the distance.