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The Silly-Questions Cure

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Minerva Thimblesmith thought too much. At nine years old, she was quite nearly out of books in her school library to read, and every book in her parents' rather small collection had been read through at least twice, even the phone book. The third grade was largely tedious, and while Minerva could certainly play nicely with the other children of the neighborhood, she was more often found simply watching them play, as if in study. And as Minerva thought very earnestly about whatever had managed to hold her attention -- the latest book, a confusing bit of an arithmetic lesson, a game of baseball -- her thoughts emerged as a tangle of disorganized questions, often very strange ones to those who weren't living in Minerva's head. A typical afternoon might find Minerva asking why they called it "long division," if there was such a thing as short division, why it was that the girls in their books always wore such long heavy dresses even when they worked on farms all day, just what was a "hempshaw" and how was it different from a haystack, and why baseball gave you four balls and only three strikes. There were days when Minerva asked more questions than she said anything else.

Minerva's friends took this sort of thing in stride, because she was a nice girl underneath it all and good fun when she decided to play and not just ask questions about the game. Minerva's teacher tried hard to answer her, mostly, and did her best to gently ignore her otherwise. It was Mr. and Mrs. Thimblesmith who had the most trouble dealing with their daughter. They were rather placid people, people who prided themselves on thinking just enough for a given task and not any further, and using a minimum of imagination in the process. (They were not great readers; their daughter was called "Minerva" after a great-aunt, not a goddess.) A particularly long evening of questions about the phone book -- why were there so many people named Smith? Did everyone smith things, back when people were being given names? Did their family used to smith thimbles? -- sent Mrs. Thimblesmith to the phone in the morning, thinking of the only hope she knew of in the neighborhood. "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? We hear so much about your miracle cures for difficult children. Can you do anything about a child who asks silly questions?"

"Oh," said the cheerful voice on the other end of the line, "is this little Minerva? Such a delightful child."

"She's a lovely child, but she's always asking us rather silly things. I'm worried it's going to get her in trouble at school. How is she ever going to focus?"

"Hmm. Well, I may have something for her, if you're worried. Send her here after school, please, and I'll have a talk with her."

Minerva Thimblesmith came home quite promptly after school that day, and was sent just as promptly to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's little upside-down house. She was frowning a bit, thinking of the library book that she'd just found and was hoping to read, somewhere with peace and quiet. It was a cloudy day, and as Minerva walked, she thought about all the shapes the clouds made. Why were they fat little puffs, like kittens, on some days, and flat sheets like blankets on others? She quite nearly crashed into the door of the upside-down house, still squinting at the clouds, but the small smiling shape of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stood waiting for her instead.

Minerva looked up at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle uncertainly. A serious-looking child with a round face and large round glasses, which only made her look more like a surprised owl, Minerva could only think of punishment when she thought of being "cured." She waited very quietly for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to speak.

"Hello, Minerva," said Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. "Are you feeling all right?"

"... yes?"

"Would you come with me, please? There's something I'd like to show you."

As a child unused to leaving messes, Minerva was unused to "something I'd like to show you" leading to punishment, and so she felt a little better as she let Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle lead her through the upside-down house. As she felt better, her mind began to wander again. "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, how do you get electricity? Doesn't it have to flow up in this house? How does it do that?"

"Power has conduits, dear," replied Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle with a smile. "It's all very difficult to explain, but you might understand someday. Here we are."

The room to which Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle had led Minerva was towards the back of the upside-down house: an upside-down library, with bookshelves running from the floor above to the ceiling below. (If you looked just at the bookshelves, it was hard to tell the room was upside down. Bookshelves are funny that way.) It was more books than Minerva had ever seen in one place at one time, and it was quite lovely.

"Your mother called me," said Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, "and told me that you should be cured of asking silly questions. I have many magical cures for this sort of thing. I have a powder that makes you speak every question you think, a whole flood of them, until you learn to pick and choose your words. That might have worked, although it's a very noisy, troublesome sort of cure. There's also a pill that gives you the answer to every question you think, so quickly that you feel almost ashamed that you ever asked. That pill can be very useful, but it cures one of wanting to ask questions, which is a worse disease than asking silly questions. Truth be told," she said, "I don't think asking silly questions is such a serious disease. It means you're trying to think about things, and that's a great deal better than not thinking. Minerva, do you find yourself with anything really interesting to think about?"

Minerva Thimblesmith, who was bored and restless in ways she didn't even understand, thought about this. "Not all the time. So many things are... just so. The way I'm told they are, and nobody tells me differently."

"Ah, yes. I believe I see the problem. You've got a bad case of Nothing-Good-To-Think-About, and I think I have a cure for you, Minerva. Would you like to learn magic? It is interesting, very diverting, and somewhat difficult. You will always have many things to think about. All I ask is that you come to see me every afternoon and tell me every question you have about the work I give you."

"Of course I would like to learn magic," said Minerva, with the sincerity of someone who has been asked a very simple silly question. "How do I learn? Do I have to get a broom and a cat? Daddy says he's allergic to cats so we can't have one in the house."

"You can have a toad instead, if you like, but that comes later. For now, I would like you to take this book." Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stood on her tiptoes to retrieve a book from a library shelf. It was a neat little blue-bound book, the sort that could have come from the school library, and printed in gold on the front was AN INTRODUCTION TO MAGIC. "Read one chapter a night, take notes on what you think, and come talk to me about it. Bring your notes and questions."

"I will!" Minerva took the book and tucked it into her schoolbag, next to her library book, which seemed a bit smaller and less exciting by comparison. "Will I know magic when I'm done with it?"

"Perhaps not quite yet. It's only an introduction. We'll see as we go. Would you like to start reading now? I'll bring you some tea and cookies. This is an eating-allowed library, as long as you're careful."

Minerva nodded, and she sat down on the ceiling to pull out her book. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle gave her a warm smile and stepped outside, heading back towards the kitchen.

It had been a very long while since Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle had a potential apprentice. In this guise, they hardly seemed to flock to her as they had when she wore other faces; it seemed that the witch as Crone, in her full power and fury, attracted students more than the kindly Mother with her tea and magical medicines. So it went. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was more satisfied this way, using kinder stories as conduits, with only the bare minimum of suffering necessary for the magic to function. There always had to be some, unfortunately -- a cost she would have to teach Minerva eventually. Power always required its cost.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle walked through her upside-down house, scaling the doorways instead of using her stairs, focusing on the old disorientation of it all. You had to be disoriented to keep focus, like a top spinning on a table, and that would be another lesson to teach Minerva. The upside-down house was a bit more pleasant a path to that focus than the chicken legs had been. She'd never quite gotten her feet under her, in those days of her unwitting apprenticeship. Minerva's might be kinder, if the fates allowed.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was not the sort to think about her past; there was simply too much of it to focus on it long. If she intended to train Minerva, though, she would have to remember those girlhood days of duty and restlessness. She herself had once been a textbook case of Nothing-Good-to-Think-About, hadn't she? Right down to the silly questions. It was a marvel that her stepmother hadn't sent her into the forest earlier... ah, but this wasn't the time. This was a time for tea and cookies for her new student.

Meanwhile, in the library, Minerva Thimblesmith had begun her education. In ten pages, she had twenty-five questions written down in her neat hand -- and not a one of them was silly.