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Three Christmases with Miss Honey

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When Matilda was six, she had her first Christmas.

She knew the holiday in theory, of course, gleaned from background details in Dickens and from the telly Christmas dramas that made Mrs. Wormwood cry. But this time Christmas was real, and it was hers. She went to the market with Miss Honey and helped choose a goose. "A whole goose, just for two people?" Miss Honey asked.

"A whole goose," Matilda said firmly. "To make up for all the Christmas geese we've never eaten. We can save the leftovers, can't we, Miss Honey?"

And Miss Honey agreed that they could. There were Brussels sprouts, too, and roast potatoes, and between Miss Honey and Matilda they made quite a good plum pudding.

This Christmas, half the presents were for Matilda: a tartan plaid scarf; a wool coat a bit bigger and a bit heavier than the last; a book of Browning, Robert. "He wrote terribly funny poems about people," Miss Honey said. "They're all real as real, and you'd not like them very much if they were you neighbors, but he makes them funny."

"I'm sure I shall enjoy it," Matilda said, whilst thinking privately that she'd like Mr. Browning to have a try at a poem about her parents.

But although, as she sang a beautiful old carol in church as loudly as she could, she thought how dull her mother would say it was, and although she knew the bored noises her brother would make over her presents -- fine for him to say; during shopping season the Wormwoods, as usual, remembered their son rather more often than their daughter -- mostly Matilda didn't think very much about her family at all.

That was a reason it was so lovely living with Miss Honey, Matilda thought sleepily on Christmas night, sitting warm and comfortable in front of the fireplace. She swished the last of the cider in her mug and nestled a little deeper under Miss Honey's arm. It was lovely because now her family was someone she liked.

***

When Matilda was ten, she had her first magical Christmas.

It wasn't really magic, because Matilda was too sensible to believe in magic, but the nearest thing to -- she'd never found a better word for her power that she'd had so short a time. Nothing in her physics books explained it. She wondered sometimes if she'd made up that flying feeling, if the spilt water and the ghostly chalked message were tricks she'd played on herself as much as on Miss Trunchbull. Mostly she didn't think of it at all; she'd begun the violin and was experimenting with translating Latin poetry, and whatever wondrous thing had happened to her showed no signs of happening again.

But it did, and this is how. At ten, Matilda was still terribly small, even for her age, and yet just big enough that she couldn't sit on Miss Honey's shoulders anymore to lift the star to the top of the Christmas tree.

"We'll get my stool," Miss Honey said. "If you stand tip-toe on that..."

While Miss Honey went to get it, Matilda contemplated the star. It lay atop the empty garland box, inert, as motionless as you'd expect a Christmas star of wire and shiny paper and sparkly beads to be. Except, as Matilda watched, the stubborn, childish grasp of gravity let the star go. Almost before she knew it, the star had floated up and settled gently onto the top of the tree.

It had been so easy, Matilda hardly realized she'd done it.

"You didn't need the stool after all," said Miss Honey. Then she frowned, perplexed, at Matilda, still sitting in the big stuffed chair that was just hers.

"I just needed my eyeballs," Matilda said. She lifted her fingers to her lids. They weren't any warmer than normal. The sparkling, flying feeling from before was there, swirling pleasantly in her skull but not nearly so strong as she remembered.

"Oh." Miss Honey sat in the chair across from Matilda. "Oh my."

Matilda considered the last strand of garland, waiting for Miss Honey to string it around the top branches. It took barely a thought before one end danced upright, a cobra swaying on end. Then the other. Then it rose, whole, like a miniature Chinese dragon, and draped itself gracefully around the top of the tree.

"It's easy," Matilda said. She turned to the table, where she'd arranged the silverware half an hour before. She couldn't see them from the chair, but she knew how they lay. After a pause, a fork rose into sight. Then a spoon, whisking coquettishly around the fork. Matilda whistled the opening strains of the Blue Danube, and together fork and spoon swayed in time. When Matilda let the tune fade, the silverware stilled, finally dropping almost soundlessly onto the tablecloth.

"It's easy," Matilda repeated. All the same, she felt a little tired. She sat back in her big stuffed chair.

"Well," said Miss Honey. She rose and left the room. In a little bit she came back with tea, a cup for her and a cup for Matilda. Miss Honey sat and wrapped both hands around her teacup. "Well."

"Are you frightened?"

"Not frightened." Miss Honey lifted the tea to her mouth and sipped. When she lowered the cup, she was smiling. "But I am a little surprised. You have plenty to keep you busy now, and I didn't expect your powers to come back yet, if ever."

"I didn't either," said Matilda, which was a very short way of saying that she hadn't been completely sure she'd ever had them in the first place. Which was silly, of course, because she knew the difference between things that it was pleasant to think had happened and things that had actually happened, and the terrible fright she'd given Miss Trunchbull had certainly actually happened. "Miss Honey, what should I do now?"

"What do you mean?" said Miss Honey, with an expression common among Primary School teachers: a particular lift of her eyebrows that said she knew perfectly well what Matilda meant, but wanted to make sure Matilda knew herself.

"Before, I used my powers for something. To get rid of horrible Miss Trunchbull, and rescue your house for you. But I don't need them now -- do I?"

"I don't know, Matilda. You're a marvel, even without your powers."

"Yes," said Matilda. She'd accepted that that was true, but she didn't see much point in thinking on it. "But..."

"Maybe there's something else you're meant to do?"

"Maybe," said Matilda, a little doubtfully. "I'll have to think about it."

And Miss Honey, who by then knew Matilda's expressions very well, too, changed the subject to Christmas cookies and said no more about it.

Matilda did think about it. She thought about it over bowls of cookie batter, while singing carols in church, and during the Queen's Christmas address. She also tried a few experiments with the stirring spoon and the television controls. It was certain: her powers were back.

But all that thought hadn't brought her any nearer to understanding what she should do.

"Wait," said Miss Honey. "It's much easier to not do a thing than to undo it. If there's something you ought to do with your powers, I expect you'll find it out."

So Matilda waited.

There was the time when she helped Mr. Trilby, still headmaster of Crunchem Hall, lift his tyre out of an awful pothole. He went home and marveled to his wife about how many muscles he'd developed just by exercising with his weights. I can move very large things, Matilda thought.

Another time, Miss Honey remembered when they were halfway to London that she'd left water heating on the stove at home. As they raced back, Matilda closed her eyes and thought very hard, and when they finally burst into the kitchen Miss Honey found the burner cooling and the water boiled almost gone. I can turn a knob even at a very long distance, Matilda thought.

But those were little things, and though Matilda and Miss Honey spoke of the powers now and again, they couldn't come any nearer to an answer.

Then, on the morning of her birthday, Matilda awoke to an owl pecking at her window. Tied to its leg was an invitation to a school with a very strange name.

And it turned out it had been magic after all.

***

When Matilda was eleven, she stepped off the train into the village station, all covered in bows and wreaths for Christmastime, and looked for Miss Honey. She hadn't seen Miss Honey -- or the village, either -- for four months.

She'd written, of course. She'd told Miss Honey about her friends: Violet, who was so meticulous and good with potions; Bardia, who first greeted Matilda by saying she'd heard she was terribly clever, and then, in as cheerful and friendly a manner a person could, had beat her at chess three times in a row; Rupert, whose glasses nearly fell off his face every time he rediscovered another lost spell in the ancient texts he loved even more than Matilda did. They were all very different, all terribly clever, whatever Bardia said, and all made Matilda feel rather less extraordinary than usual, which she liked. Mostly.

She'd written, too, about how easily she handled a broom. And how she'd been banned from flying games when it was discovered she nudged other players out of the way without even realizing it. 'Wild magic,' her teachers called it, and she was learning to control it, but still: no flying games.

And Miss Honey's letters had all been very pleasant and comforting and cheerful, but Scotland was so terribly far away, and four months was a long time to go without seeing the good humor that sparkled blue in Miss Honey's eyes.

As Matilda had watched out the passenger car window, every passing fencepost looked a little more familiar, bringing her a little closer to home. Now here she was, feet walking the comfortable old brick, and oh how very much did she want to see Miss Honey's face.

And there was Miss Honey, sweater cranberry-red, earrings hung with bells that jingled as she turned -- Primary School teachers are very fond of novelty earrings -- and Matilda found herself, for the first time in her life, grown suddenly shy. She had risen a full inch while she was away, and she'd been banned from flying games, and really, four months was a very long time.

"There you are," said Miss Honey, seeing her at last, and then Matilda was running and wrapping her arms around Miss Honey and thinking, never mind the presents and the Queen's address. This was Christmas.

The End