It all began when Catherine came to talk about the Elders' Project. Of course that's not what Catherine would say. She'd say it began in a time that is yesterday and tomorrow and eternally present. But then Catherine's a storyteller. I'm not a storyteller. I'm just the guy it happened to.
Anyway, there we all were in that dead time just after lunch, a little pale sunlight trying to push its way into Class 7R. Miss Raynham had set out a chair for Catherine and patted its seat to make her sit down. She'd said "Ahem" and begun to scratch her head. None of us likes it when Miss Raynham scratches her head. Her thin gray hair barely covers her very white scalp. The merest touch of a fingernail on that creepy skull showers her shoulders with dandruff. Niker says if she ever loses her job as a teacher she could earn a living making snowdrifts for the movies. When I told my mum that story (and I made the story mainly about Niker) Mum said: "That's nothing." Apparently, when she was at school, they had a teacher called Miss Cathart, who used to spit down the sleeves of her cardigan. Miss Cathart's cardigans, Mum says, were the crocheted sort. Loosely knitted. With holes in. So the spit ran out.
This is the problem with stories. They run on. So- to begin again: Miss Raynham says: "Ahem." And then. "This is Catherine. Catherine erm . . ."
"Deneuve," says Niker.
"Of Aragon," says Derek.
"Parr," says Weasel.
You can see we've been learning about Henry VIII. Well, everyone but Niker has.
"Class," says Miss Raynham, and she shifts downwind--fast. She's big, Miss Raynham, corpulent, a blob on legs. But she moves like a spider. One minute she's standing at the front of the class with a smile and a piece of chalk and the next thing you know, she's zigzagged to your desk and the chalk is in your neck. Or Niker's neck in this case.
"Catherine Fenn," continues Miss Raynham without a pause, "has come to speak to us about the Elders' Project. Catherine?"
Attention transfers at once to the front of the class. Catherine is youngish, in her twenties probably, little, dark, and she seems at rather a loss. Her long hair is piled up on her head and held in place with a moon and stars clip. Only the clip isn't doing a very good job and most of the hair is making a bid for freedom down Catherine's back. She's wearing those brightly colored clothes that look like you've dipped them at random in three different vats of dye and--as yet--she hasn't said anything.
"Catherine," repeats Miss Raynham with that scratch and that edgy irritation we all know so well.
"Hello," says Catherine at last.
"Hello, Catherine," says the class.
She shifts position, as though she's Goldilocks and she can't get comfortable in Mummy Bear's chair. "Thank you for letting me be here."
"Oh boy," says Niker, and then seems to choke. Could be the chalk at his throat.
"I . . . ," begins Catherine, but Miss Raynham's patience is at an end. She strides to the front of the class.
"Catherine is a storyteller. We're very fortunate to have her on loan from Icarus, an arts organization working with people in the community. Catherine is going to lead a project between children from this class and the residents of the Mayfield Rest Home."
"Is that the barmy bin?" asks Weasel.
"No, Wesley, it is not the barmy bin. And it is partly to counter such ignorant attitudes about the senior members of our society that this project is being undertaken. Now, since we apparently need to return to basics, can anyone tell me what a rest home is?"
Niker's hand goes up. "It's a vegetable shop," he says.
"Jonathan Niker. Explain yourself."
"Well, my aunt Maisie was there and she was a vegetable."
"In a time that was yesterday and tomorrow and eternally present," says Catherine suddenly, "there lived a prince who had been silent for as long as anyone could remember." Her voice is so low and urgent that even Niker doesn't say "Fat chance." "And," Catherine continues, "his mother the Queen was heartbroken at her son's muteness and the King heartbroken at his wife's grief. So it was that, on the Prince's eighteenth birthday, the King issued a proclamation saying that any man or woman who could make the Prince speak would receive the richest reward in the kingdom. However, the penalty for those who tried and failed would be instant death."
"Cool," says Weasel.
"They tell nursery stories in the nursery," says Niker, twirling the sharp point of a pencil in the palm of his hand.
"Does that mean," Catherine asks, faster than Miss Raynham, "you think this class is too grown up for such tales?"
"Yes," says Niker. "Except"--he scans his fellow pupils--"maybe Norbert there."
Norbert is the class squit. He's thin and gangly, his arms and legs like white string loosely knotted at the elbows and knees. His head is too big for his body, and where other people have hair, he has this yellow, fluffy duck's down. His eyes are blue, though it's difficult to see that through the thick glass of his spectacles. If you take his specs off him, and people do, he looks startled. Naked. His real name isn't Norbert, it's Robert. Robert Nobel. But I don't think anyone's ever called him that. In kindergarten, when his hair was even more yellow than it is now, they called him Chick or Chickie. Even Mrs. Morgan. But since Niker arrived in school, it's been Norbert. Norbert No-Bel. Norbert No-Bells-at-All. Norbert No-Brain. Norbert No-Bottle. I don't suppose Johnny Niker, who has curly dark hair, green eyes and a fluid, athletic body, has ever imagined what it would be like to look out at the world through Norbert No-Bottle's spectacles. But I have. Because I am Norbert No-Bottle.
"Personally," says Catherine, "I think one never grows out of fairy tales. I think fairy tales contain all of the ways we sort experience, good and bad. In fact, I think stories are the most important form of communication we as human beings have."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Feather Boy by Nicky Singer. Copyright © 2002 by Nicky Singer. Excerpted by permission of Listening Library (Audio), a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.