This morning at breakfast, June asked me--and the table in general--what "you people" were going to do for the holiday. She didn't sound confrontational, more like amused, but a strange tension fell across many of the senior students within earshot.
"What?" she said. "Did I say something wrong?"
"Not exactly wrong," said Ollie, who was sitting next to me. "More like not done. You asked what's going to happen. Novices usually don't."
"We don't?" asked a novice whose name I didn't know at the end of the table.
"Do you?" asked Ollie, amused.
"No, I guess I don't," the man said, wonderingly. The pressure to not ask does descent slowly, gradually, and you don't really notice how deep it was until you leave.
"Why not?" asked June, of Ollie.
"Well, frankly, it makes you easier to fool," he explained.
"A lot of what we do around here is based on the principles of stage magic," Ollie, who is a stage magician, said. "And those kinds of tricks are easier if the audience isn't asking how it's done. It's not malicious, or anything like that. It's a way to get you to realize things--it's easier if what they're doing is a surprise. Like a gift to you, in a way."
And he "produced" a yellow rose from somewhere near June's head and then gave it to her, trying to be gallant. He has been trying to work magic into conversation, the way Allen does, but doesn't quite have the knack of combining the two smoothly yet. June blushed prettily and Allen, who was sitting next to her, gave Ollie an inscrutable, appraising look.
"So, we're not supposed to ask questions?" asked June, sounding concerned.
"No, that's not it," said Allen. "To be clear, we can still surprise you even if you do try to figure out what we're doing."
And at that moment, I am not kidding--though Allen didn't move a muscle, wasn't sitting next to Ollie, or even across from him, and hadn't been near him the whole time we'd been sitting together--Ollie suddenly had an animal inside his shirt. He did what anybody would--shrieked, and made an abortive grabs at the thing, and then froze.
"I don't want to hurt it," he said, tensely.
Allen nodded, calmly, and whistled. A ferret poked its small head up through Ollie's collar, looked towards Allen, found him, climbed out, leaped to the table, from there to Allen's shoulder, and then climbed down his shirt front to his lap. Then it stood up, its paws on Allen's chest, and man and animal greeted each other. Then Allen looked up and across at Ollie.
"What?" he said, a little defensively. "I had to make sure you were obviously surprised, or they'd think we planned it."
Just then, the head waiter called for silence.
"Any announcements?" A couple of hands shot up, waiting to be called on.
(Much laughter and applause)
"Has anyone seen The Encyclopedia of Herbal Magic? It's been missing since at least Saturday."
"Talk to Waverly--she's out this week, though."
"In that case--anyone who wants to do something for Waverly's birthday next month, get with me after."
"Anything else? Anyone? Ok, Charlie?"
And Charlie stood up, looking stiff, awkward, and authoritative anyway.
"Anyone up for an egg-hunt today?" A round of cheers went up from the more senior students. "All right. This year we'll do the hunt starting right after breakfast. You have till lunch. I want teams of two, all of you. You each get a camera and a note-pad--come see me for them when you're ready. Your assignment is to take pictures of as many active nests as you can before lunch, when you'll turn your cameras and notes in to me. Write down why you think the nest is active and where on campus it is. It doesn't have to have eggs in it at the moment and it doesn't have to be a bird's nest, but it does have to be in use and you can't disturb the occupant. If you disturb your subjects I will know, and I will deduct points. If you take a picture of a nest that isn't active, I will know and I will deduct points. You get one point for each nest you get, one more point for each nest you get before anybody else--there's a time-stamp on the picture--and extra credit for artistic merit. And there's a prize at the end. May the best naturalist win. Oh, and, uh, there's a feast or something for lunch. Meet back here at 12 noon, sharp."
And he sat down. The head waiter dismissed us, and instantly the noise volume in the room swelled. June turned to me.
"Do you want to be partners for the egg-hunt?" she asked.
"Sure," I told her. "But wouldn't you rather have a chance to win?"
"Why can't I win with you? You're the naturalist."
"I'm a naturalist. I've already won, is the thing. And I know where most of the nests are already. I want to give other people a shot at the prize."
"Ok, so, you take the pictures, I'll find the eggs."
And so it was.
It's been chilly lately, and there was some slushy snow on the ground in patches. It actually looked like it was going to rain, for a while, around ten o'clock, but it didn't. I did find a few--June talked me into showing her where the barred owl nest is, and the ravens' nest, and I warned her off of a drey (a squirrel's nest) she found, because I happen to know it's not occupied. But she found three over-wintering spider egg-cases and suggested we get a picture of the bee hives, which had slipped my mind. We got pictures of the chicken house and its eggs, of course, but so did everybody else and we weren't first. But nobody got any of our spider nests.
It added up to seven nests total, counting the hive and the henhouse each as one, as Charlie does, plus three points for firsts, and artistic merit for one of my spider pictures, which I'm very proud of. We won, by two points.
I think Rick and his partner would have won--they were certainly serious about trying--but after getting several firsts, their camera malfunctioned and the only totaled four shots the whole morning.
"I only judge results, not effort," Charlie said, for the benefit of Rick's yearling partner, who was indignant and aggrieved. "Get used to it."
There were several others who came close to our score, too, and one team who found more active nests than we did, but got two points deducted for disturbing wildlife, and one more for photographing an inactive nest.
Anyway, we won. And we would not have won without June's spider nests, which together gave us seven points, so I felt good about that. I would have felt like cheating if we'd won on my account. It's not that I'm all that much better than everybody, it's that I've been watching the animals here since we got back.I've had a head start.
The prize, which Charlie gave out at dinner (also a feast), after the afternoon of publicly reviewing the pictures and notes, plus a kind of celebratory slide show of the best pictures, was a necklace for June and a chaplet for me.
A chaplet is a set of prayer beads. The Rosary is one kind, but there are others. Lots of religions have them.
The necklace is strung with green and blue beads and what looks like fragments of egg shell, though they're actually curved pieces of sea glass (or possibly custom-blasted pieces of fresh glass, shaped for the project, because they really do look like they add up to an egg) and then at the bottom is a pendent of a small upward-flying, dark blue glass bird. The chaplet is a single string of seven differently-colored spheres, separated by smaller beats, with a flying bird figure (that matches the one on the necklace) at one end, except the string has a clasp at each end. The small beads vary in length, which changes the flexibility of the string, so that when you clasp the ends together, you get, not a circle, but an ellipse, an egg-shape.
June was astounded.
"I thought he was going to give us trinkets, or a five-dollar gift-certificate to something," she exclaimed. "These are exquisite."
"They probably did cost him five dollars," I ventured. "He stalks yard sales and flea markets all year to find the perfect thing. I've heard that some of them have later been valued at thousands of dollars. Others...have not been. But, either way, no one has ever sold one."
"No, I wouldn't think. These are marvelous."
"See? It's not just Allen and his sleight-of-hand that can surprise us."