“So why didn’t you just—I don’t know—make your own country somewhere? Go and live by yourselves?”
“If only it had been that simple,” she said. “Peculiar traits often skip a generation, or ten. Peculiar children are not always, or even usually, born to peculiar parents, and peculiar parents do not always, or even usually, bear peculiar children. Can you imagine, in a world so afraid of otherness, why this would be a danger to all peculiar-kind?”
“Because normal parents would be freaked out if their kids started to, like, throw fire?”
“Exactly, Mr. Portman. The peculiar offspring of common parents are often abused and neglected in the most horrific ways. It wasn’t so many centuries ago that the parents of peculiar children simply assumed that their ‘real’ sons or daughters had been made off with and replaced with changelings—that is, enchanted and malevolent, not to mention entirely fictitious, lookalikes—which in darker times was considered a license to abandon the poor children, if not kill them outright.”
“Extremely. Something had to be done, so people like myself created places where young peculiars could live apart from common folk—physically and temporally isolated enclaves like this one, of which I am enormously proud.”
“People like yourself?”
“We peculiars are blessed with skills that common people lack, as infinite in combination and variety as others are in the pigmentation of their skin or the appearance of their facial features. That said, some skills are common, like reading thoughts, and others are rare, such as the way I can manipulate time.”
“Time? I thought you turned into a bird.”
“To be sure, and therein lies the key to my skill. Only birds can manipulate time. Therefore, all time manipulators must be able to take the form of a bird.”
She said this so seriously, so matter-of-factly, that it took me a moment to process. “Birds … are time travelers?” I felt a goofy smile spread across my face.
Miss Peregrine nodded soberly. “Most, however, slip back and forth only occasionally, by accident. We who can manipulate time fields consciously—and not only for ourselves, but for others—are known as ymbrynes. We create temporal loops in which peculiar folk can live indefinitely.”
“A loop,” I repeated, remembering my grandfather’s command: find the bird, in the loop. “Is that what this place is?”
“Yes. Though you may better know it as the third of September, 1940.”
I leaned toward her over the little desk. “What do you mean? It’s only the one day? It repeats?”
“Over and over, though our experience of it is continuous. Otherwise we would have no memory of the last, oh, seventy years that we’ve resided here.”
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“Of course, we were here on Cairnholm a decade or more before the third of September, 1940—physically isolated, thanks to the island’s unique geography—but it wasn’t until that date that we also needed temporal isolation.”
“Because otherwise we all would’ve been killed.”
“By the bomb.”
I gazed at the surface of the desk. It was all starting to make sense—though just barely. “Are there other loops besides this one?”
“Many,” she said, “and nearly all the ymbrynes who mother over them are friends of mine. Let me see: There’s Miss Gannett in Ireland, in June of 1770; Miss Nightjar in Swansea on April 3, 1901; Miss Avocet and Miss Bunting together in Derbyshire on Saint Swithin’s Day of 1867; Miss Treecreeper I don’t remember where exactly—oh, and dear Miss Finch. Somewhere I have a lovely photograph of her.”
Miss Peregrine wrestled a massive photo album down from a shelf and set it before me on the desk. She leaned over my shoulder as she turned the stiff pages, looking for a certain picture but pausing to linger over others, her voice tinged with dreamy nostalgia. As they flicked by I recognized photos from the smashed trunk in the basement and from my grandfather’s cigar box. Miss Peregrine had collected them all. It was strange to think that she’d shown these same pictures to my grandfather all those years ago, when he was my age—maybe right here in this room, at this desk—and now she was showing them to me, as if somehow I’d stepped into his past.
Finally she came to a photo of an ethereal-looking woman with a plump little bird perched on her hand, and said, “This is Miss Finch and her auntie, Miss Finch.” The woman and the bird seemed to be communicating.
“How could you tell them apart?” I asked.
“The elder Miss Finch preferred to stay a finch most all of the time. Which was just as well, really. She never was much of a conversationalist.”
Miss Peregrine turned a few more pages, this time landing on a group portrait of women and children gathered humorlessly around a paper moon.
“Ah, yes! I’d nearly forgotten about this one.” She slipped the photo out of its album sleeve and held it up reverently. “The lady in front there, that’s Miss Avocet. She’s as close to royalty as we peculiars have. They tried for fifty years to elect her leader of the Council of Ymbrynes, but she would never give up teaching at the academy she and Miss Bunting founded. Today there’s not an ymbryne worth her wings who didn’t pass under Miss Avocet’s tutelage at one time, myself included! In fact, if you look closely you might recognize that little girl in the glasses.”
I squinted. The face she pointed to was dark and slightly blurred. “Is that you?”
“I was one of the youngest Miss Avocet ever took on,” she said proudly.
“What about the boys in the picture?” I said. “They look even younger than you.”
Miss Peregrine’s expression darkened. “You’re referring to my misguided brothers. Rather than split us up, they came along to the academy with me. Mollycoddled like a pair of little princes, they were. I dare say it’s what turned them rotten.”
“They weren’t ymbrynes?”
“Oh, no,” she huffed. “Only women are born ymbrynes, and thank heaven for that! Males lack the seriousness of temperament required of persons with such grave responsibilities. We ymbrynes must scour the countryside for young peculiars in need, steer clear of those who would do us harm, and keep our wards fed, clothed, hidden, and steeped in the lore of our people. And as if that weren’t enough, we must also ensure that our loops reset each day like clockwork.”