First draft—it still needs a ton of editing and revision, and it’s also broken up awkwardly, but it’s a start.
The bird scratches away a spot of frost from the windowsill and peers in through the grime on the window. It settles down in the scraped patch. Its eyes flick from side to side.
Through the window, the girl is turned away from the bird. She is down at the fireplace on hands and knees, muttering to herself. The room is darkening by the time she straightens up. She strikes a match and the lamp set in the middle of the table flares up. When she turns around toward the window, the bird on the windowsill outside hops out of sight, fluttering to the patches of frost on the paving stones.
A moment later a woman knocks on the door and comes in without waiting for a reply. The room smells like burning string and wax. It is clean, but musty too. The potbelly stove in the corner is caked in grime. The girl, hearing the door open, spins around with a fire poker in her hand.
“That door was locked!”
The woman smiles and shrugs. “It was.”
The girl’s eyes shift to the door, then back to the woman’s face. “Who are you?”
The woman smiles wider, spreading her arms, sweeping the ends of her shawl through the air.
She won’t believe me if I tell her I’m a fairy, but she won’t believe me if I tell her I’m a bird either.
“I am a helper.”
The girl splutters. “A what? Just—tell me what you want.”
The woman skims across the room, whips the poker from the girl’s hand, and tosses it back onto the hearth where it clatters on the stones.
“I want you to go to the ball.”
Here’s the trouble: I don’t want to go to the ball. When will I ever get another chance to spend a quiet night in this house, even if it’s not really home? I never even said anything about wanting to go. What does this woman want?
She looks like a bird that’s just smashed into a window. She’s wearing a shapeless velvet sack and some sort of embroidered jacket, made out of the same material as our doormat. Her hair and hat are combined together in a lopsided sculpture. What kind of person looks like that?
I try to reason with her again.
“Ma’am, I already told you, I’m not going anywhere tonight. I want to stay home. The door’s right behind you. Get out.”
The bird lady smiles and flaps her hands at me. The smile widens her eyes until they’re perfectly round and glossy, surrounded in the shadows of her face. “Cindy!”
The fact that she knows that old nickname is even weirder than the fact that she’s standing here in the middle of the kitchen floor, despite the fact that I locked the front door.
“What? What do you want?”
She keeps smiling, not taking her eyes off of mine, and tilts her head a little to the side. I don’t know if she’d trying to be creepy or friendly. Then, reaching forward, she takes both of my hands. My palms are coated in dirt and there are layers of it under my fingernails. Her fingers feel like feathers. they brush over my palms, covering them for a moment, and then she lets go.
My hands are spotless. The dirt is gone. There are no scratches anywhere.
I look from my clean hands to the bird lady, then around me at the kitchen, as if I expect the room to start cleaning itself. It doesn’t happen, of course. This bird lady’s got to be either a robber or a magician, or maybe both.
But, looking back at me over her shoulder, she turns toward the basin on the table where a pile of dishes are still waiting to be washed. One by one she takes out the dishes and places them on the cloth laid out on the table. By the time they touch the cloth, they’ve been thoroughly cleaned. All she did was touch them.
With a dramatic wave of her hand, she sends the dishes flying across the room to sort themselves into the cabinets and shelves where they belong, then turns back to me. Smiling her eerie smile, she says,
“Now do you want to go?”
I look at her carefully. She is playing now some sort of trick on my mind. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I’ve seen tricks like this played before.
I touch my hands, then the empty basin on the table. The lady, shaking her head, takes my arm and turns me around to face her.
“Let me show you,” she says.
I try to pull away. I wrestle my arm out of her hands, but her feather fingers have become claws. I can’t make her let go.
The woman moves around the kitchen, swooshing rags, scrubbing the fireplace with a flick of her hand, wiping away dust just by touching her finger to a surface. She dances in slow circles. She swirls through the room. Her dress ripples around her ankles, her shawl floats behind her.
As she spins past me for the tenth time around the kitchen, her hat comes loose from her hair and drifts away on the eddies of breeze to the kitchen table, where it settles. The bird lady doesn’t seem to notice, but I catch sight of a something glossy on the hat.
When her back is turned as she bends over the hearth, I reach for the hat. It’s made of a soft purple felt with flowers all around the brim. The flowers are all dead and shriveled. Tucked into the twine that runs around the brim is a silver hair comb.
This comb is mine. It has my family name engraved into it. I took it with me when I came to work here, not because I’d ever wear it, but because it was the only valuable thing my family owned. I lost it somewhere on the trip from home.
Before the bird lady turns around, I tug the comb out of the twine with a force that rips one of the dead flowers out of its place, then slip it into my apron pocket.
With a squawk and a rush of wind, the bird lady swooshes across the room and grabs both of my arms in her claw hands. She’s smiling a sick smile. Her face is so close to mine that I smell the awful sweetness of her perfume—like flowers, but so strong I can’t breathe.