There was a soft tapping at the door just after lunchturn. Nina’s mother stood up from the flutezinc dining room table to answer it. She opened the door and then stood frozen in surprise.
Dampened from the other end of the wooden farmhouse, there was brief exchange of pleasantries and voices.
“Palime, who is it?” Zip asked, after finishing the bite he was chewing. A crumb fell on the table. Nina winced. She’d have to clean that up later.
“You’ll never guess,” she yelled back. Nina looked up because her mother wasn’t really the kind to use a falsetto sing-songy voice like that: she was a very serious person. “Our new neighbors are visiting! They’ve brought us a gift.”
“Oh!” her father said, standing up from the table and brushing off his overalls. A look of brief regret crossed his face as he looked down at his clothes. He then frowned, tugged his shirt down, straightened up and strode to the front door.
Nina trailed behind them, keeping a distance out of both curiosity and nervousness. Palime shot a private, tense look back at her husband. Her eyebrows were pulled down and the skin around her eyes and mouth looked tight. Her nose and whiskers were twitching fiercely, betraying her anxiety.
When she turned back around, that was all erased and she was nothing but smiles.
“Please, come in.”
A family of cuckoo birds spilled into their home. They were all dressed in worn old-fashioned looking clothes that might have all been handmade and they were draped in turquoise ribbons and scarves. A mother, maybe an aunt, and their three children.
When they came inside, the mother curtsied to Palime. She offered her some kind of warm pie in a tin.
“Looks lovely! What is it?”
“Dreamquat. We grew them ourselves.”
Suddenly, they all gathered round and began dancing around each other. They lifted their legs in prancing high steps, lifted wings and spread them back and forth, turning their heads to match the direction. They wove in and out between each other with practiced steps, clapped, spun, and then everyone extended their feathers toward Nina’s family.
Nina laughed in delight. She had never seen something like this before. It seemed magical. Her parents applauded politely, unsure of how to react to something like this.
“It’s our traditional welcome dance. You can dance there if you like, we can teach your girl. We would like to invite you to Festival of Respect at the harvest square. You know of it?”
“Yes, I can find it,” her father said.
“I hope you have much luck and bountiful harvest. We would all honored if you come. We have more gifts, if you want.”
“Oh, no, this is so much already,” Palime protested.
The mother smacked the wing of one of the smallest reaching for a flower in a vase on the table, with a hissed rebuke: “No touching. Not yours.”
“Please, let me introduce ourselves. I am Ewoska, this is my sister Nislora, the children Sly, Biko, and Erol.”
Her father seemed in more familiar territory now. “I’m Zip, this is my wife Palime, and this is our child Nina.”
Nina didn’t interfere, just scuffed her paw a little at the wrinkle in the rug. She made a little bow when her name was said. When guests were over, the grown-ups talked. That was how it was. She should be seen and not heard. She knelt down and rolled a wooden wagon toy around.
One of the young birds, a girl in a dress, winked at her. Nina blinked nervously and looked away. They never got visitors, except for family and official appointments with a doctor.
The cuckoo aunt swept up her mother’s hands into her wingtips and shook them. “Do you have a pet?”
“A pet animal?”
“Yes, a treasured animal.”
Zip frowned a little. “We have livestock and pollinators. They’re n-”
“-Very good pets,” Palime smoothly cut in. “I remember the festival now. It’s been so long. I think I only went once. We’ll bring a pet, if you will bring the ribbon.”
The aunt’s face lit up with pure joy and recognition. “Yes! It is good to rekindle. Please eat the pie, while it is still hot. It’s not as good the next day. I hope you like it. It was nice to meet you.”
“Such a pleasure,” Palime oozed.
“We won’t overstay. Hope to see you there.”
The cuckoo aunt began to usher her sister and gathered up the children, who were starting to disperse and look bored, then herself out of the house. The door closed a little too hard and Nina winced. Everything was really, really quiet now.
They didn’t actually talk about until dinner was cleaned up, the food put away, and the pie put on the table. Nina started to get a knife to cut a piece, then put the knife back down. No one else had gotten a piece so she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to yet.
Didn’t anyone want the delicious-smelling pie?
It was driving her crazy.
Nina ended up just leaving the pie there and warming up the basin with boiling water instead, like she usually would. The routine was broken, though, and her mother never came in with the soap and the towels. She had to get them herself. It felt weird.
Her father and mother talked with lowered voices, like they didn’t want her to hear. So she strained with all her might to hear all of it, of course.
“They’re just passing through, dear. They seemed harmless. Wasn’t the dance and pie really something?”
“You don’t understand, it’s because you haven’t lived here your whole life. I have. You took my name and the farm, so you listen to me on this now. Those people, some of them can’t be trusted. They take children. It’s no good, nothing good can come of it.”
“How many do you personally know?”
There was an apoplectic cough, somewhere between a gagging noise of incredulity and a tiff of rage.
“Enough you should trust me! You are a stranger here.”
“Keep it down, please. The kid?”
“Sorry.” Whispers. Nothing more was said.
Nina dipped her finger in the water of the bath. Still too hot to immerse herself yet. Her stomach felt wiggly and she was upset. She really wanted to go to that festival of animals and it sounded like her mother didn’t want them to go after all.
She thought the new neighbors and pie were nice.