“I’m starting to believe in the Borrowers,” Paris says, “Because a lot of things are going missing around here.”
By “Borrowers,” he is referring to the little people in the Mary Norton story who live beneath the floorboards and make off with all the socks, thimbles, and champagne corks. By “a lot of things” and “missing” he is referring to anything of transitory value about the house that lately cannot be found, such as his permission slip for a field trip to a pumpkin patch that I am supposed to sign and that everyone felt sure they had just seen somewhere which has now mysteriously disappeared.
“Alas,” I say, cocking an eyebrow, “there’s only one.”
We are sitting at the breakfast table. A faint electric whine from above tells us that my husband is brushing his teeth. A bumping on the stairs signals the arrival of Molly and her half-ton backpack.
“Has anyone seen my watch?” Molly asks and whomp goes the backpack as it hits the floor.
“Ask Phoebe,” Paris and Violet say at once.
“Dee-dee?” Molly inquires in her most sugary tones, “Do you have my watch?”
“It’s my watch!” Phoebe replies crossly, hugging a large orange satchel closer to her chest and nearly knocking over her juice.
Molly’s face darkens. She drops her things and advances on the dining table. “Give it to me.”
“Give it to–Mummy!”
“Phoebs,” I say, “Please give Molly her watch.”
“Okay,” the tiny thief replies all mildness, as if unaware of any controversy. She rummages in her bag, pulls out a small stuffed rabbit, the sash to a terrycloth bathrobe, a dog-eared ABC book, the permission slip–
“There it is!” Paris shouts.
–and finally the watch, which she hands to her elder sister. Molly receives the object with exasperation. “Mummy, will you please explain to Phoebe that she is not allowed to take things from other people’s desks?”
“My darling,” I say, drawing succor from my coffee cup, “I have. And I will. Again.” Like King Canute in heels, I have been trying to hold back the tide of thievery, the flood of pilfering, that threatens to wash away all our household’s most precious and useful items. I speak, of course, of Phoebe, the toddler tsunami.
“I have my homework,” this person told me pointedly a few mornings ago, and patted the pocket of her dress.
“Very good,” said I, as I gathered lunchboxes and jackets while simultaneously running a brush through Violet’s hair and loading the dishwasher with cereal bowls. That, at least, is how it seemed.
“My homework,” she nodded with a significant smile.
“Yes, yes,” said I distractedly, herding everyone downstairs, into their shoes, and out the front door. In retrospect I realized that I had been aware at the time that she bore a strange air of suppressed triumph, but the reason for this was not clear until we reached school and she climbed out of the car and something fell out of her pocket on to the asphalt and I realized that she had swiped–
My yells draw the curious looks of well-groomed children and parents unloading their vehicles with the serenity borne of not having a juvenile delinquent in the family.
“Phoebe,” I say urgently, crouching before her, “Never, ever take anything from Mummy’s desk ever again. Do you understand?”
“Okay, Mummy,” she promises gravely, and then flashes a wide smile, and just for an instant I think I perceive–though it’s gone so fast I can’t be absolutely sure–that this smile is ever so faintly tinged with a cool-eyed awareness that she, in the guise of an adorable platinum-haired three-year-old, has once again succeeded in outsmarting me, a much-less adorable and slow-moving senior figure, by half-persuading me that she didn’t know perfectly well what she was doing when she pinched my passport off my desk and slipped it into her pocket (though she cannot of course know precisely what a passport is), when she did.
“That’s all right then,” I say a little shakily, and zip the precious document into a compartment in my handbag.
“We’d better–” I am starting to urge, with a glance at my watch, when, fatally, Phoebe drops her hand ever so casually over her pocket.
“Aha!” I expostulate like a gray-whiskered detective in a period drama. “What else have you got in there?”
Long-lost business cards. A roll of 37-cent stamps. My Visa card. I exchange horrified looks with Molly and Paris, and address the volatile bandit with a reasonable, now-give-me-the-gun attitude.
“Why don’t I take these,” I say, easing the plunder from her grasp, “And you go…I don’t know…do some coloring? Play in the toy kitchen?”
“Yay!” cheers the degenerate. She relinquishes the loot and, as we all walk towards the school, actually has the nerve to jig about like any normal, adorable, platinum-haired three-year-old.
It is true that like certain benighted countries, most children go through a period of collectivization mania. What’s yours is theirs, and if sometimes goods must be forcibly appropriated, well, that is to be regretted. Molly used to collect gravel; Paris had a fondness for Styrofoam cups, elastic bands, and bottle caps; their friend Flora was a lawbreaking lifter of lunchboxes. This highly acquisitive phase ends for most children around their sixth birthday; for the truly criminal few, sadly, that’s when the real robbery begins.
The other children and I resolve to frisk Phoebe before attempting to walk out the front door in future, and by the time everyone gets home from school, this latest incident is almost forgotten.
Paris’s friend Emma comes over to play. Violet and Molly hang around in the kitchen with me while I cook the children’s supper, a complicated Italian meat pie that I am supposed to assemble in the style of a pizza. From the dining room comes loud laughing, and I go out to investigate.
Paris is giggling and waving his arms. “Emma and I are playing a game where we’re statues,” he says excitedly. “And somebody spilled wine on us? And we came alive!” He grins at his friend. “We’re attached to the wall–”
“We’re murals,” Emma puts in, more to him than to me.
“Yeah, murals. It’s like this.” Paris pulls a weapon made of Tinkertoys out of his pocket, and instantly he and Emma look wide-eyed at each other and frieze in place. After a moment, according to some inner script, they spring to life and dash away laughing up the stairs past Phoebe, who is slowly trundling down.
“Happy birthday to Mummy…” comes the voice of innocence, “…happy birthday to you.” Arriving at my side, she holds out to me a pink baby blanket wrapped around some sort of rectangular object.
“It’s a present!” says she with a brilliant smile.
“What is it?” coo I, the sap, unwrapping the blanket. The fabric sticks slightly to whatever is inside, which is oddly cold, which is, in fact–
“Frozen salmon,” I sigh. “That’s where it went.”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.