All outward appearances suggested she would fit right in. Strawberry blonde braids. Blue eyes. A button nose. Proportions carefully traced between the extremes of plump and lean.
Yet Maggie was spending her first year of school utterly alone.
Her father had done his best to solve the problem by inviting a procession of classmates over. She wore her dress with a big red bow blooming from the waist and tiny cherries dancing along the folds of the skirt. There were dolls and a blue china tea set to play with. For lunch, he served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches immaculately shaven of their crusty beards.
Still, none of the girls ever returned. And they continued to snub her on the playground. Somehow they could tell she was different, and they didn’t like it one bit.
It was time for plan B.
“My little pearl, we must make some friends for you.”
“But we have already tried, Daddy!” The bridge of her button nose buckled in protest.
“No, I mean like this.”
He reached down to open the bottom drawer of his desk and took out a lacquered case of colored pencils. They were the silver-wrapped ones he used for work. As he lifted the lid she wondered at their tall and pointed bodies standing in rows, like proud warriors. He scanned the rainbow of lead, all the while stroking his wiry red beard. When he found the color he was looking for, a cobalt blue, he pulled it from the tin and began drawing on the pad in front of him. She climbed onto his lap for a better view.
First a light teardrop appeared, tipped over, as though a gust of side wind had ripped it from a cheek and was dragging it across the paper.
Next, another teardrop double the size was sketched just below and a little to the right of the first one. This one was tipped over in the opposite direction.
Then a miniature teardrop took shape right inside the giant one, following its exact outline.
“It’s a bird!” she shouted, squeezing her palms together in excitement. His whiskery cheeks lifted in a smile as he defined the beak, added a crest on its head, some feathers on the wing and a pair of matching legs and feet. Finally he stamped down the dot of the pupil, and the two sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating the drawing.
Soon there was a rustling of the paper. A wing fluttered, an eye winked, and one scrawny leg stretched off the page, followed by the other. Before the girl’s widening eyes, the little bird had crept into a third dimension and began hopping around on the desk. It chirped twice and stood perfectly still, staring intently at its creator.
Dad gave a slight nod of permission to the newborn creature, and it flew in one gentle arc up to his daughter’s shoulder. Maggie gasped, startled by the unexpected presence that had settled upon her. But as she exhaled, her breath unraveled into a stream of giggles. Miniscule claws were just barely pricking through the fabric of her puff sleeve, tickling her skin.
“Surely he has a name, he whispered. “What must it be?”
She closed her eyes and as he watched her he imagined wheels turning diligently behind those lids.
“Frank”, she responded. Her eyes popped open and she turned her head towards her shoulder. “Frank, let’s go outside.” The bird cocked its head to one side as she spoke, then sang a short, shrill note of affirmation.
The pair spent the entire afternoon in back. Every now and then the man would look up from his work and peer out to see the girl running back and forth in the yard, pausing here and there to pick dandelions or examine an insect, and Frank flitting around just above her, a floating shadow. The newfound companions scurried back into the house just as the last bright corner of sky was being swallowed by the rising tide of nightly ink.
Thank goodness the next day was a Saturday, because disaster had struck overnight and Maggie would not have been in any kind of shape to attend school. Something had happened to Frank.
She had told him to sleep on the windowsill because she was worried she might crush him as she slept. Her father had told her she must keep her bedroom window closed at all times, but for the very first time she disobeyed him. Frank simply had to catch up with the other birds in the neighborhood.
And then, during the night, an uninvited storm paid a brief visit to the area, its gusts of wind steering rain right through Maggie’s open window. In the morning, all that remained on the sill was a cobalt blue puddle of water.
“Please don’t cry, my little pearl,” Father pleaded. “We can make you another friend.”
“The same thing will just happen again, Daddy!” The rims of her eyes and her nose screamed scarlet. “I will just lose more friends.”
“No, honey. There are ways to make them last.” He sighed, smoothing his feral eyebrows with a thumb and index finger. “I don’t know why I didn’t do this for you a long time ago. I know this loneliness you’re feeling all too well.”
She opened her mouth to ask how, but again his voice was the one to fill the room.
“Just give me a week. I will fix everything.”
Considering the circumstances, her patience was commendable. As promised, for seven days she did not step one foot into Dad’s studio nor did she ask him when he would be finished. Not even once. She did, however, lie for hours in front of the crack at the base of the studio door, peering at the floor inside. While she chewed on a wisp of her sunny hair, she would scrutinize every detail of the furry slippers that hibernated under the desk or pace around the room.
“Go play, Maggie dear. I’ll take a break soon.”
But she couldn’t. She felt a life taking shape behind that door and it was already keeping her company.
On the final day, at about 4 or so in the afternoon, a little body was finally surrendering to the temptation of sleep upon the wood floor in the hall. This urge did not last long. A triumphant cry slipped through the crack and shook it awake.
“Voila, my little pearl, I have finished!”
Maggie scrambled to her feet and flung the door open. Dad was there with a paintbrush in hand and an entire palette of stains decorating his shirt, pants and arms. Next to him stood a girl. Another girl.
Yes, her undulating black hair was shaped into a short bob. Her face was punctuated with green eyes and a pointed nose. Yet otherwise it was just like peering into a mirror.
“You see? Certain media, like paint and varnish, will bring you a more vivid, more durable effect.” Now Father had placed his arm around the new girl’s shoulder and was coaxing her forward.
“Surely she has a name, he whispered to Maggie. “What must it be?”