The Headless Cupid
DAVID OFTEN WONDERED ABOUT HOW HE HAPPENED TO BE SITTING THERE on the stair landing, within arm’s reach of the headless cupid, at the very moment when his stepmother left Westerly House to bring Amanda home.
When Molly appeared at the foot of the stairs, David knew she was leaving because she had her shoes on and there was no paint on her hands and clothes. Molly, who at that time had been David’s stepmother for about three weeks, was an artist, and around the house she dressed like an artist, very informally.
“Oh, there you are,” she said to David. “I’m going now to pick up Amanda. Would you keep an eye on the kids while I’m gone? They were down by the swing a minute ago.”
David said he would and Molly left, smiling back at him from the doorway. He sat a minute longer enjoying the deep silence of the big old house, empty now except for him. Even then, before
anything happened, he felt there was something unusual about that spot on the landing. There was a central feeling about it, as if it were the heart of the old house. It was also a good vantage point, with a view of lots of doors and hallway, both upstairs and down.
David got up after a while and went outside and found his little brother and sisters. He pushed them in the swing until he got tired and then he took them all upstairs to the room that he shared with his brother, Blair. The kids got out some toys, and after they’d settled down, David took a book and stretched out on the window seat where he could see the driveway. He read some, but mostly he watched for Molly’s car and wondered about the future—and Amanda.
Amanda, who was Molly’s twelve-year-old daughter, had been staying with her own father since before Dad and Molly’s wedding; but now she was coming to live with her mother and the Stanley family. Suddenly to get an older sister—David was still eleven—after so many years of being the oldest, would make anybody wonder about the future. And David had a strong feeling that Amanda might give a person more to wonder about than the average stepsister.
That feeling about Amanda came partly from a few specific clues, but mostly from a premonition. Premonitions ran in David’s family—on his mother’s side—and the one David had about Amanda was one of the strongest he’d ever had. What it felt like was a warning, a warning to expect some drastic differences when Amanda joined the Stanley family.
Some of the specific clues came from little things Molly or David’s dad had let slip, but the strongest one came from one particular
facial expression. The expression had been on Amanda’s face the only time David had ever met her.
David had only met Amanda once because, in all the time Dad and Molly had been going together, Amanda had managed not to be around very much. Of course Dad had seen her; but whenever something was planned for both families, Amanda usually had something terribly important come up—like a test to study for, or a sudden attack of stomach flu. All but one time when they’d all gone to the zoo together, way back when Dad and Molly had first met.
David hadn’t paid much attention to Amanda that afternoon because he had had no idea then that she was going to be his stepsister, and besides he’d been busy keeping Blair away from the animals. Blair and most animals understood each other, so there really hadn’t been too much danger—except from the zoo-keepers, who didn’t understand about Blair at all.
David did recall saying “Hello” to Amanda when his father introduced them—and Amanda not saying anything. He could conjure up a vague picture of brownish hair and a red dress, but what he could remember best was the expression on Amanda’s face. She had looked at him that same way every time he got near her all afternoon. It was the kind of look, that when people keep doing it at you, you start feeling you ought to check the bottom of your shoes—particularly when you’re at the zoo. David had checked and his shoes were all right, but he hadn’t forgotten that expression.
All of David’s clues, and instincts, seemed to indicate that he
should be prepared for almost anything, and he thought he was; he hoped he was. When Molly’s little VW finally turned off the highway onto the long dusty driveway, David got up on his knees on the window seat and unlatched the window. He opened it just wide enough to see out through the crack. The glass in the old lattice windows was wavy and not much good for looking through when you were interested in details.
The car pulled up in front of the veranda steps, and for several minutes no one got out. David supposed that Molly and Amanda were in the midst of a discussion. Obviously they would have a lot to talk about. Since they’d seen each other, Dad and Molly had gotten married, gone away on a honeymoon, and come back and moved all their stuff and all the Stanley kids into the old Westerly house in the country—which happened to be the only house they could find that was big and cheap enough. And all that time Amanda had been staying with her own father in Southern California.
David was still waiting and watching when, in the room behind him, there was a loud clatter followed by a scream that sounded like a stepped-on cat. David could guess what had happened without even turning around. The last time he’d checked the kids, Janie had been building something in the corner, Esther had been cleaning the floor with her toy vacuum, and Blair had been curled up on David’s bed fast asleep. Now Esther came running and climbed up beside David, and across the room Janie was standing up slowly with a clenched jaw and mean-looking eyes. Esther crawled behind David and peeked out at Janie who, as usual, was getting ready to throw things.
“Stop that, Janie,” David said. “Put that down. What’s the matter?”
“Tesser kicked over my horse corral,” Janie said, between tight teeth. Tesser was what Esther had named herself before she could pronounce Esther.
“No,” Esther said from behind David. “I didn’t kick over it. I fell over it.”
Janie kept coming. “Janie,” David said, “if you throw that horse, you’ll break it.”
“You’ll break Tesser,” Esther said.
David laughed, and, after a moment, Janie looked at the china horse in her hand, and the red started going out of her face. David turned back to the window, thinking that Amanda was probably in the house and he’d missed seeing her, but she wasn’t. Both Molly and Amanda were still sitting in the convertible. Just about then the door on Molly’s side banged open, and Molly jumped out. She slammed the door behind her and walked fast across the driveway and up the steps, leaving Amanda sitting alone in the car. David couldn’t see Molly’s face very well, but something about the way she held her head and shoulders made him wonder if she were crying.
For another minute or two Amanda went on sitting in the car; but then her door opened very slowly and deliberately, and she got out. As soon as David got a good look at her, he leaned forward quickly, squeezing Esther into the corner of the window seat.
“Wow!” he said under his breath. Esther heard him and she shoved under his arm so that her face was under his in the crack of the window.
“Wow!” Esther said. “What’s that?”
David didn’t answer until Esther banged her head back against his chin and got his attention. “What’s that?” she asked again.
“That?” David shook his head slowly. “That’s our new sister, Tesser.” And they both went on staring.
For the first second or two he’d actually thought there were a bunch of springs and wires coming out of Amanda’s head, but then he realized it was only her hair. It seemed to be braided in dozens of long tight braids and some of them were looped around and fastened back to her head. The rest of her was almost covered by a huge bright colored shawl with a shaggy fringe, except for down below her knees, where something black with a crooked hem was hanging. She stood still for a minute after she got out of the car, looking after her mother; and David could see most of her face. He remembered, seeing her again, some things he’d forgotten—the very dark eyebrows, smallish nose, and the way her mouth moved now and then into what looked like an upside-down smile. But he didn’t remember the spot in the middle of her forehead. It seemed to be shaped like a triangle, and when she moved, it caught and reflected the light like a tiny mirror.
She stood for a minute staring after her mother with her mouth in the upside-down smile, and then she turned back to the car. First she got out something that looked like a large dome-shaped cage covered with a beach towel, and then a couple of big suitcases. Next she opened the trunk and began lifting out boxes, lots of cardboard boxes that seemed to be filled with something very heavy. She put all the boxes and suitcases and the big cage together at the side of
the driveway. She was getting two smaller cages out, when her eyes flicked upwards, and for a moment David wondered if she’d seen him in the crack of the window. But she only went on with what she was doing until everything was gathered together beside the driveway. She turned then, slowly and deliberately, and looked directly at David and Esther. There was no doubt about it. She went on looking long enough for David to be sure she really knew they were there, and then she nodded and made a motion with her hand. Both the nod and the wave meant, “Come here.”
David jumped. He jumped back from the window and shut it. Esther looked up at him questioningly.
“That new sister said—like this,” Esther said, making a “come here” motion with her hand.
“Yeah,” David said. “I know.” He opened the window again and leaned out. “Wha—who—d-did you want me?” he called.
Amanda tucked her lips in the upside-down smile and nodded, very slowly and definitely. She motioned towards the pile of boxes and bags. David got the point.
“Okay,” he called. “I’ll be right down.”
“Right down,” Esther said. She slid off the window seat, too.
David looked at her and frowned, but then he shrugged. If he stopped to argue with her, Janie would be sure to get interested, and Blair might even wake up and want to come along. And to have just one tag-along would be better than to have all three.
David nodded at Esther and said to Janie, “I’m going down to help carry boxes and things.”
Janie only glanced at them and then went on rebuilding her
horse corral. David had put it that way on purpose, so as not to arouse her interest, and it worked. Everyone in the whole family was sick of carrying boxes and things.
On the way down the curving staircase David held Esther’s hand because if you didn’t she still had to put both feet on each stair, and it took forever; but as soon as they reached the bottom he pulled his hand away. He knew from experience that some people his own age thought it was funny the way the little Stanley kids followed him around and hung on him. Of course there was a reason for it—even before she died over a year before, their mother had been sick for a long time, and a lot of the time the kids hadn’t had anyone else to hang on. But you couldn’t go around explaining that to everyone.
David cringed inwardly remembering the time Esther had called him Mommy, right in front of a guy he used to know named Skip Hunter. Esther hadn’t meant to, of course. She was very young at the time, and Mommy was one of the few words she knew. But Skip had made a big thing out of it, and a bunch of his friends had called David “Mommy” for a long time.
Esther was still tagging along, a few feet behind, when David went down the porch steps. He could see from there that the spot on Amanda’s forehead was a triangle of some kind of metallic substance, which seemed to change colors when you looked at it from different angles. Amanda stood perfectly still watching them come, with only her eyes moving from David to Esther and back again—a long blank look from unblinking eyes.
“Hi,” David said; but Amanda went on staring silently for so long that he began to wonder if she was still going to refuse to speak to him, even now that they had to live in the same house. It was so weird that David had to concentrate to keep his hands and face from doing nervous twitchy things while he waited.
At last Amanda sighed and said, “You’re David,” making the words a part of the sigh.
Because he was so glad to have the creepy silence over with, David nodded much too enthusiastically.
“And that one?” Amanda said, pointing at Esther. “Which one is that one?”
Because of the tone of Amanda’s voice, David checked Esther out to see if there was something wrong with her, like maybe her nose was running or she’d forgotten some of her clothes; but everything seemed to be in order. Esther wasn’t particularly gorgeous, but she looked about average for a four-year-old girl—short and solid with straight brown hair and fat pink cheeks.
“That’s—” he started, but Esther drowned him out.
“That’s Tesser,” she said, pointing at herself right between the eyes.
“What did she say?” Amanda asked.
“She said Tesser,” David said. “That’s what she calls herself.”
Amanda looked a little bit more interested than David had seen her look before. “Why does she do that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” David said. “Why do you call yourself Tesser?”
“Because I am Tesser,” Esther said.
“It’s the way she pronounces Esther,” David explained.
“Oh,” Amanda shrugged, “is that all. I thought maybe it was her spiritual name.”
“Her what?” David asked.
“Her spiritual name.”
“Oh,” David said.
Esther was jerking on the back of his shirt. He told her to stop and pushed her hand away, but she started in again. Finally he said, “What is it?” and she motioned with her finger for him to lean over.
“Whisper,” she said.
David sighed. Esther never screamed and threw things like Janie, but she was terribly determined. He knew he might as well let her whisper or she’d go on asking for hundreds of times. He squatted down so she could reach his ear, and she leaned over and went, “Whizawhizawhiza,” in it. You never could understand a word of Esther’s whispers, but this time it was pretty plain what she meant, because she kept pointing at Amanda’s head.
“I think she wants to know about your hair, or that thing on your forehead,” he said.
“My hair?” Amanda said, as if there weren’t anything unusual about it at all.
“Why it’s all—uh, all in those tight braids.”
“Oh that,” Amanda said. “That’s part of my ceremonial costume. So’s this,” she added, pointing to the triangle on her forehead. “This is my center of power.”
“Power?” David was starting to ask, when suddenly Esther gave
an excited squeal. She had lifted the corner of the beach towel and was peeking into the dome-shaped cage.
“It’s a bird,” she said. “David, look. It’s a great big bird.”
“Yeah,” David said. “It sure is. It looks like a crow. Isn’t it a crow?”
Amanda picked up the cage and wrapped the towel back around it. “Not exactly,” she said. “I’ll carry the cages, and you can carry that box of books.” She pointed to Esther. “And you carry that little train case.”
The box of books was big and very heavy. David staggered a little going up the stairs. Behind him, Amanda was carrying the big cage in one hand and one of the little cages in the other. Behind them both, Esther came slowly, one step at a time.
When they got to the room that Molly had chosen for Amanda, David sat down on the box he’d been carrying to catch his breath. It was a small room but interesting, with dormer windows and a ceiling that slanted in all directions. Amanda looked around, blank-faced and cool-eyed as ever. David couldn’t begin to guess if she liked the room or not.
He remembered then what he’d been about to ask before they started upstairs. “What did you mean—‘not exactly’?” he said. “It’s either a crow or it isn’t. How come it’s ‘not exactly’ a crow?”
Amanda unwrapped the beach towel, and the crow sidled across its perch and pecked viciously at her fingers. “It’s not exactly a crow,” she said, “because it’s actually a familiar spirit. I don’t suppose you’ve heard the term before, but this crow is my Familiar.”