You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty
family was first brought to my notice by the depth to which the
parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.
Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's
"The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,"
THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, 1905
"Can fairies get sick like people can?"
The little boy was barely taller than the reference desk, and his straight blond hair looked as if he had combed it himself. The part zigzagged like a bolt of lightning from a cowlick at the crown of his head to just above his temple where an errant lock of hair kept falling over his eyes. Megan Clark, assistant reference librarian temporarily in charge during the noon hour, and at five foot two in her shoes, not much taller than the boy on the other side of the desk, knew the minute she looked into his worried blue eyes that she would not send to the children's department. As good as it was, and Megan conceded that the Amarillo Public Library's Children's Department was one of the best in the state, it still was, well, a children's department, and this little boy's question, at least to him needed a grownup's answer.
Slipping out of the hollow rectangle that was the reference desk, and resisting the urge to brush the youngster's hair out of his eyes. Megan cleared her throat, then spoke in the same brisk tone she used with adults. Al least she tried to sound brisk, but Ryan Stevens told her she sounded sweet instead. Megan hated sweet nearly as much as she hated cute, having heard both adjectives applied to her since she was a toddler and her hair grew in very red and very curly. Her lack of height was an added curse. No one took seriously a short, cute, sweet
woman under the age of one hundred. Probably not even then.
"I don't think anyone has ever asked me that question before, so I'll have to research it. Shall we begin with the encyclopedia? I always like to get sort of a general overview of the subject before consulting specific reference books. Don't you?"
The little boy shrugged his shoulders. "Guess so. Just as long as it tells about fairies and witches. I know about witches. They're mean. I saw a witch one time. She hurted a lady."
"Is that so?" asked Megan, thinking the child had a serious problems distinguishing reality from fantasy. He would probably grow up to be an award-winning novelist.
"She had a cape and everything. But she didn't have a pointed hat. Don't witches wear pointed hats?"
"I guess according to tradition they do, but it depends. I've studied cultures where a witch is called a shaman and wears no hat at all."
The boy looked dubious. "Ain't much of a witch, then. You sure you know about witches and stuff?"
Megan wondered if tall women had their credibility questioned by six-year-olds. Probably not. Even moronic statements sounded credible if uttered by a tall person instead of a short, cute redhead. Life was not fair. And the shorter you were, the less fair it was. Megan lifted the F volume of the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA and opened it to the pertinent article. "It says here that fairies are immortal. Do you know what immortal means?"
The boy wiped his nose on his coat sleeve. Megan couldn't help noticing that the sleeves were not only frayed, but too long for his skinny arms. "I heard the word on a scary movie about vampires. . . " His voice trailed off.
"At least popular culture increases vocabulary even if it doesn't instill and enlightened value system."
"Uh?" as the boy, wrinkling his brow.
"Never Mind," Megan said "Being an anthropologist, I sometimes make statements on culture without thinking. It's an impulsive thing."
"Uh?" asked the boy again, the worried expression in his blue eyes increasing by the second.
Megan shook her head. "Immortal means that you live forever. . . "
"But Dracula always dies and he's immortal," protested the boy. "If he goes outside after the sun comes up, or if somebody sticks a stake in his heart while he's asleep. Can you kill fairies with a stake?"
"Thank God I turned down a position as a children's librarian." Megan mumbled under her breath before speaking aloud. "There's a difference between vampires and fairies. Vampires were people like you and me before they turned into vampires. Fairies are born fairies. So fairies are immortal, but vampires aren't really because they were once people, and if fairies are truly immortal, they they can't die and they can't get get sick. So the answer to your question is no, a fairy can't get sick."
The youngster frowned, and Megan wondered if he believed her. Actually, she thought her argument was logical--for a discussion about imaginary creature.
Suddenly the little boy smiled, revealing a gap where a front tooth should be. "I told my mama she was wrong when she said the tooth fairy was sick and it wouldn't do no good to put my tooth under the pillow, 'cause there won't be no money there when I wake up. I'm gonna go tell her right now. He turned and scampered toward the front door, leaving Megan with a premonition that she had just set a helpless kid up for the biggest disillusionment of his life.
"Wait!" she shouted, ignoring the uneasy stirring of patrons shocked by the sound of a raised voice.
Startled, the youngster whirled around like a dervish and streaked back toward her.
"I've got something for you. A fairy left it with me," she said, slipping back inside the reference desk. Kneeling down, she grabbed her purse and pawed through her wallet looking for the five-dollar bill she had been saving to spend at the Time and Again Bookstore. A little boy's illusions were more important than whether she bought five used mysteries or only one.
Stuffing the bill into an envelope, she stood up and looked sternly at the boy. The tooth fairy left this with me last night when everyone had gone home. She told me a little boy with blue eyes and blond hair would ask about her, and that I was to give him this envelope."
You sure she wasn't the witch?"
"She had long beautiful blond hair and wore silvery clothes," said Megan, wincing as she reinforced a sexist stereotype, but it was for a good cause.
"I got blue eyes," said the little boy, staring fixedly at the envelope.
Megan nodded her head. "I can see that, but how do I know you're the right little boy?"
"I asked about the tooth fairy."
"Tell me your name," ordered Megan.
"That's the name the tooth fairy told me," said Megan, handing him the envelope. "So you must be the right little boy."
He dug in his pocket and stretched out his curled-up fist. "Don't you want my tooth? The tooth fairy might be mad if I didn't leave my tooth."
"So did you accept his offering?"
asked Ryan Stevens, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet
on the corner of his desk where a dent in its surface just fit the
right heel of his Tony Lama boots.
Certain men physically exemplified the culture into which they were born. Megan thought not for the first time, that Ryan Stevens was one such man. His family had ranched in the Texas Panhandle for more than a century, ever since General Ranald S. MacKenzie finally defeated the Comanches in the last battle of the Red River War, and Ryan Stevens looked born to wear the Levis, boots, and the silver belly Stetson of a Texas rancher, to ride and rope, brand and herd. He was six feet of broad-shouldered muscle, rugged features, wavy black hair going silver at the temples, and electric blue eyes with crinkly lines at the corners. He was the romantic loner, the wandering knight on horseback, the subject of late-night erotic fantasies indulged in by women of any age between puberty and menopause.
Which to Megan proved just how undependable appearances are.
In reality, Ryan Stevens was a forty-five year-old widower with four mostly grown children, curator of history at the Panhandle-Plains Museum, and allergic to horses. He was a disappointment to his family, who quietly passed the reins of ranch management to his younger brother. His aging father concluded there was a glitch in Ryan's DNA. It was the only respectable explanation for a rancher's son, a native-born Texan, who couldn't stand next to a horse with sneezing.
In Megan's opinion, she and Ryan Stevens were two of a kind, both masquerading in false colors. The masquerade created a bond between them more durable than sexual attraction, which in Megan's experience seldom survived morning breath or gastrointestinal emissions. She and Ryan were bosom companions and best
friends, and she could not imagine it otherwise.
"Of course I accepted," said Megan, digging Jared's tooth out of her pocket.
"It's a very fine example of the left deciduous incisor of a young homo sapiens. See how the roots are completely dissolved, allowing it to fall or be greatly pulled from the gum to make way for the erupting mature tooth. Also notice that it is quite small and more yellowish in color than an adult incisor."
"In other words, it's the front tooth of a little boy."
Megan frowned at him. For a reputable historian and museum curator, both very serious professions, Dr. Ryan Stevens was sometimes entirely too fond of levity.
"That's what I said, although I
didn't mention gender since one can't deduce male from female by
examining deciduous incisors of young children. I can only
assume it is from the jaw of a young male because Jared Johnson
told me so. Scientifically I can't prove that, but circumstantial
evidence--the gap where an incisor would ordinarily be--supports
my conclusion that Jared Johnson was telling the truth, and this
incisor"--she held it between two fingers and waved it in front
of Ryan's face--"is, or was, his."
Ryan sank farther into his chair in a boneless way that always reminded Megan of a cat seeking a comfortable position. "You don't need to be defensive with me. I accept your authority on the subject of bones. If you had told me it was the left front molar of an ape, I would have believe you."
"You shouldn't. To begin with, it's not nearly large enough for an ape. And I'm not being defensive. I'm being specific."
"You always defensive when you're speaking professionally, Megan."
He was right, but she saw no need to concede the argument without defending her position. A short person learned to defend herself early and often. "You would be too, if you looked like me!"
"You mean?" Ryan asked, raising one eyebrow.
Megan nodded, wrinkling her forehead in a way her mother swore would make her look old before her time. "The C word."
Ryan lifted his feet off the desk and sat up, folding his hands and leaning forward. Megan braced herself for a professional lecture. For as long as she had known Ryan Stevens, which was most of her life from the age of five until the age of seventeen, when she left for Austin and the University of Texas, he had always folded his hands before delivering a lecture aimed at correcting what he saw as inappropriate behavior, attitudes, or beliefs. Living next door and being best friends with Ryan's oldest daughter, Evin, Megan had observed these lectures firsthand. They always left her feeling grateful that her mother advocated the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child school of discipline. a spanking cleared the air without any lingering confusion over the nature of cause and effect, right and wrong, good and evil. It was also quick. Ryan, on the other hand, practiced discipline as a cross between exorcism and positive thinking, a sort of Father Damian-meets Norman Vincent Peal-Approach in which evil is defeated by talking it to death.
Ryan cleared his throat. "Age has taught me one unpleasant fact about my fellow man--speaking generically, of course--and that is the low esteem in which the average person holds an educated woman. We, and I'm speaking generically again, since I find women as guilty as men, hold our stereotypes close to our hearts,
and one of our favorite stereotypes is that beauty and brains are incompatible. I hope, Megan that your being defensive in my presence doesn't mean that you think I'm guilty of believing that particular stereotype, because you are the last woman to whom I would apply it. You are one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable young women I know, and only a damn fool would doubt it, and I don't happen to be a damn fool."
Megan swallowed in an attempt to relieve the stinging in her throat. She doubted that she would ever receive such a compliment again. Too bad that Ryan missed the point in his lecture, a common failing according to his daughter Evin.
"If I fit that stereotype--if I was beautiful--then people would pay attention to what I said because I was beautiful. Beauty is always listened to; otherwise ad agencies would use ugly women to see perfume. But I'm"--she swallowed again, then drew a deep breath to force the hated word out of her mouth--"I'm cute! Add to that fact that I'm five feet, two inches tall only if I wear shoes with very thick soles, and my hair is not only red, it red and curly. And I'm only twenty-six years old. If all that wasn't bad enough, I can't step outside in the sun without freckles pooping out like mushrooms in a damp cellar."
"I don't think that's a good metaphor--" began Ryan.
"Oh, be quiet! I didn't interrupt your lecture, so don't you interrupt mine. Now where was I? Oh, yes, freckles. I have freckles."
"Actually, you don't" said Ryan. "Not many anyway, just a few across the nose."
"Ryan, do you remember when we went rock climbing in Palo Duro Canyon last month, the day you slipped and broke your wrist--do you remember how speckled I was after just a few minutes in the sun?"
"At the time I was more focused on my pain than your nose."
"Trust me. I was speckled. Don't you remember last summer, when we went water skiing at Lake Meredith and you fell and your ski flipped up and broke your nose--don't you remember freckles popping to the surface on my shoulders before I even had a chance to get my swimsuit wet?"
"My nose was bleeding at the time, Megan. I didn't pay much attention to your shoulders."
"You ought to be more observant, Ryan; then you would appreciate what I'm talking about. I can't count the number of older library patrons who address me as 'sweetie' or 'honey.'"
"I guess they never heard of sexual harassment suits."
"I can't sue an old man taped to an oxygen tank for harassment, Ryan. Or one who uses a walker, either. Besides, in the culture of their childhood, such endearments were not derogatory. But it illustrates what I'm saying, that no one takes Dr. Megan Clark, Ph.D. in Forensic Anthropology, serious. And if I dare mention my specialty, all I get are blank stares--disbelieving stares! No one is willing to admit a woman who looks like me is a paleopathologist--that is, if they know what one is, and most don't. You know what one of my regulars told me yesterday? That I should have majored in education so I could always find a job. If I had wanted to work with rug rats I would have taken the position as children's librarian when it was offered."
"Why didn't you?" asked Ryan. "The "The way you handled that little boy this afternoon was brilliant. You're a natural with kids."
"Why? Because I'm their size?" Megan waved her hands in the air. "Ryan think about it! It's bad enough that I look like I do, but can you imagine what NATURAL GEOGRAPHIC would say is they read on my resume that I was a kiddie librarian? Would they trust the autopsy of King Tut to somebody whose only job since graduating was as a kiddie librarian?"
"Are you planning to autopsy King Tut?"
"No! Even though I could do a more competent autopsy than the one done on Tut in the 1920s. But I'm just using that scenario as an example. You see my point, don't you? As an assistant reference librarian, I at least work with the genealogy society at their monthly meetings. Genealogy is human cultural past. Of a sort. Helping look up census records on ancestors may be far removed from digging human remains, but it's closer to my profession than reading GOODNIGHT MOON to pre-schoolers. It's the best I can do until I figure out a way of
earning a living as a paleopathologist. The problem is that there aren't many mummies in Amarillo requiring autopsies."
Megan paced Ryan study, stepping around or over the books stacked at random on the floor. "The problem with me is that I'm bored. There's just so much rock climbing and water skiing and canoeing I can do."
Ryan cleared his throat. "About the canoe, Megan. I feel I ought to pay for the damage since I was the one who ran it into the dock. I never knew canoes were so fragile."
"And I ought to pay for your stitches since going canoeing was my idea. How long before your hair grows back? Did the doctor say?"
Ryan felt the back of his head. "I have a little fuzz already, so I think it'll grow in quickly."
"I have a new project for us, Ryan."
"If it's skydiving, I'll pass."
Skydiving? Don't be ridiculous. That's dangerous unless you know what you're doing. No, I've signed up for a readers' club, a mystery discussion group, Ryan! Isn't that terrific? I love mysteries!"
Megan stopped her pacing and leaned over his desk, apprehensive at his continued silence and the odd expression of cautious disbelief on his face. She was so used to his company that she hadn't considered that her new enthusiasm might not appeal to him. "You will come with me, won't you, Ryan? As much as we both
love to read, I thought this would be a natural fit for us."
Ryan slid down in his chair and laced his fingers behind his neck. He tilted his head back and studied the authentic pressed-tin ceiling of his study. The ceiling was not original with his depression-era cottage, be salvage from an old hardware store in Chillicothe, Texas. As an archaeologist and anthropologist, Megan appreciate this remnant of America's architectural past, but failed to be mesmerized by it as Ryan seemed to be. Ask him a question and he studied that ceiling as though he found the answer there. When she was a little girl, Megan always wondered if there was invisible writing on the ceiling that only he could see.
Ryan lowered his head, sat up straight, and looked her. "So we'll go to this bookstore and sit on chairs and just talk? No hanging suspended from a cliff a thousand feet in the air? No balancing on wooden skis behind a boat traveling at the speed of sound? No rowing a twenty-foot boat that's only eighteen inches wide? The most dangerous thing that might happen to us is a paper cut?"
"That's absolutely the only risk, I promise."