When Ruth was seven years old, her Great-aunt Alice gave her an origami nun for her birthday. Ruth had other presents too – an art box full of different colored paints and ten brushes in different sizes, a red and yellow Swatch watch, a charm bracelet, and a set of children’s books, including Charlotte’s Web, which was her favorite. Ruth was the sort of child who didn’t mind reading books over again. That was part of the fun.
The origami nun made her smile the most. She wasn’t large. In fact she was very small, about twice as tall as Ruth’s thumb, and no wider. She was angular and made with stiff paper that was black on the outside, and white on the inside. Ruth could see this by the edge of white under the nun’s face. She didn’t want to take the nun apart to find out for sure but that was what she thought, as she turned the present over and over in her hands.
When Great-aunt Alice saw how happy Ruth was with the nun, she smiled too. Whenever Great-aunt Alice smiled, her skin creased into a pattern of wrinkles and her eyes seemed to disappear.
“Do you like the nun, my darling?” Great-aunt Alice asked.
Ruth smiled and nodded so hard, she felt her head might fall off.
She didn’t answer in words. For the fact of the matter was that Ruth couldn’t speak. She was mute.
If she needed to say something she mimed or wrote things down. Ruth was quick at writing and most people were happy to wait for her to finish. Only a few walked away. Also, she didn’t have anything wrong with her hearing and it was funny how often people who didn’t know her didn’t understand that. They thought mute also meant deaf or stupid, or maybe both. Ruth didn’t much like those people, and was glad when they walked away.
Ruth looked at the nun again, and carefully held her in her hands so she wouldn’t crumple the delicate paper. How beautiful she was; so calm and still. Perhaps the nun was from a silent order. Great-aunt Alice told her about the silent orders, and Ruth liked the idea adults could do things where they didn’t have to talk. Sometimes she thought the whole world was full of talking and she knew she could never be part of that. Just at that moment, the sun shone through her bedroom window and she was certain the nun winked at her. Even though she didn’t have any eyes, or any Ruth could see.
She pointed at the nun and looked up at her great-aunt.
“I’m so glad you like her,” said Great-aunt Alice. “She was a pleasure to make for you, and really, in many ways, she made herself. She’s special, you see.”
Great-aunt Alice loved origami and spent hours folding paper into impossible shapes. In the past she had made frogs and swans, salt-and-pepper pots and tractors, cottages and telescopes. Ruth loved watching her aunt make them, and had even made some herself but they were never as good as her great-aunt’s. She wasn’t sure her fingers were the right shape, being short and stubby compared to Great-aunt Alice’s long, thin ones. But she kept trying and that was what counted most of all.
Ruth wondered if she should tell her great-aunt about the nun winking but decided to wait until later. She wanted to see if the nun would do it again.
First of all, she had to eat her birthday breakfast. It was part of the fun of the day and something her great-aunt and she had already talked about. So she washed quickly and put on her clothes, while Great-aunt Alice combed her hair, and dealt with the daily problem of her hairpins.
Nobody else Ruth knew had so many hairpins as her great-aunt. They were scattered across the dressing table and the carpet, they could be found in drawers and hidden in the duvet too. Once, Ruth had even found one behind the photograph of Great-uncle Robert on the wall, when she’d been looking for secret hiding places. She hadn’t found one of those but she’d found the lost hairpin. It had held fast to her finger while she climbed down from the chair, and she removed it and placed it back amongst its friends on the dressing table, all sparkling and golden. She hoped it wouldn’t get lost again.
So on this special day, Ruth pulled on her clothes as quickly as possible, remembering to place the origami nun carefully into her skirt pocket. Ruth then ran to her great-aunt’s room. There, she sat down on what her great-aunt called the “lazy seat,” and watched as her great-aunt pinned up her hair.
Every day the look was different, Ruth was sure of that. Sometimes her great-aunt made her hair into a high tower, and sometimes into a big bun at the back of her head, at other times she made it into a tulip shape, and sometimes into a plait. Great-aunt Alice could do all these things because her hair was very straight, very white and, most important of all, very long. It grew all the way down to her bottom and when she had it loose she could even sit on it, which Ruth always found amazing. When her great-aunt was a young girl, her hair had been a deep golden color. Ruth knew that was true as she’d seen the photographs in the big album kept in their living room. It had only turned white when Great-uncle Robert died, something that had happened long before Ruth was born.
Ruth’s own hair was a dull brown and naturally curly, and never grew very long. This was sad in some ways, like being unable to talk, but there were some things you could never change about yourself and therefore had to learn to love. That’s what Great-aunt Alice said, anyway. Ruth was still learning that lesson, though she had to admit that not spending a lot of time on her hair gave her more time for other things, like thinking and practicing her origami.
And not being able to talk meant she saw things more clearly, like the blue and pink of dawn skies, the sparkling dance of the streams in the park, and the glittering black of the blackbird who lived in the garden. In fact, now she thought about it, the origami nun reminded her of the blackbird. Maybe that was why she already loved her so much.
Today, Great-aunt Alice smiled and began arranging her long hair in Ruth’s favorite design – a thick white plait curled round and round on the back of her head. First, her fingers plaited her hair from the top to the very bottom and then secured it all with a pink elastic band, not a strand out of place. Then she began twisting the hair around at the back of her head, and securing it with her precious hairpins every few seconds. The gold pins shone against her silver hair. Finally, it was done, a great mound of hair and pins that looked like a sparkler on fireworks’ night. Ruth smiled and pointed. She thought how pretty her great-aunt looked, and hoped one day she might be that pretty, too.
After that, the two of them walked downstairs to the kitchen. Ruth loved the bright yellow cabinets and bright yellow table. They made her feel happy and full of sunshine. Usually, she helped her great-aunt get the breakfast things ready. Great-aunt Alice made toast, and Ruth put the butter, jam, and marmalade on the table, along with mugs and plates, knives and teaspoons. She liked making things look neat. On schooldays, like today, they always had a boiled egg, but Ruth didn’t like making her toast into soldiers for dunking into the egg yolk. She loved the tangy taste of orange marmalade on her toast instead. It was her great-aunt who loved the yolk.
Today was different. It was her birthday, so Ruth could choose something special. She sat in her chair, the one with the picture of a smiling cat on the back, and thought about what she should eat. Great-aunt Alice stood near the kettle and waited.
Ruth didn’t want to rush, as the decision was a big one. Grown-ups were always telling her breakfast should never be missed, and a birthday breakfast was even more important, so she had to get it right. But she didn’t want to keep her great-aunt waiting, so after a few moments she smiled and pointed at the cupboard with the muffins. She knew they were there because she’d seen Great-aunt Alice bake them yesterday. They were blueberry, her favorite. Soon, a slab of golden butter joined the muffins on the table, along with the orange juice her great-aunt squeezed, and of course, the toast and marmalade. A perfect birthday breakfast. It made Ruth smile, and all the more as she knew she’d need to keep a special memory of it with her during the day.
Her great-aunt sat with her as they ate their special meal but she also made herself a mug of black coffee. Ruth hated coffee. She thought it tasted bitter, like mud, and she was more than happy with her fruit juice. Every now and then Great-aunt Alice would hum a few snatches of songs she’d learned when she was younger.
Ruth knew the names of them by heart, though she couldn’t make the sounds. Her aunt hummed Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel; the Beatles’ Hey Jude; and, her great-aunt’s favorite, the Carpenters’ Top of the World. Ruth loved the last song best because the tune made her feel like dancing. The other two were more wintry. There was also a funny song that Great-aunt Alice liked to sing that went like this:
Old Tom Cat sat on the wall,
his feet were full of blisters.
He picked his nose with a rusty nail
and the wind went through his whiskers.
That one always made Ruth laugh silently because it was rude. Soon, her face was smeared with butter, as she bit into her blueberry muffin, and toast crumbs were all over the table. Great-aunt Alice blew the crumbs at Ruth, who made a funny face and blew them back.
From there, the game began. Great-aunt blew the crumbs again and Ruth blew them back a second time, and they did this over and over again until the crumbs were a mixed-up pattern right in the middle of the table. Ruth knew the game was over when Great-aunt Alice sat up straight and stared at the crumbs. This was the sign for Ruth to be as still as the smallest mouse in the garden, and wait for her great-aunt to speak. Because Great-aunt Alice read toast crumbs the way other grown-ups read tea-leaves, and Ruth knew exactly which one she believed.
“There will be a great joy today,” Great-aunt said, “followed by sorrow, and then joy. There will be darkness and light, and there will be goodness too, from an unexpected place.”
She stopped but Ruth waited. She knew there would be more and, sure enough, it wasn’t long in coming.
“Celebrations,” her great-aunt continued. “A very special one, but we know what that means, don’t we, my dear? Your birthday. Then a terrible fight but it won’t be long before it’s over, and then there will be a surprising gift. That’s good. Gifts are perfect for birthdays. For a while everything will be dark, then the light will arrive, and that’s when the goodness happens. A very special sort of goodness, from …”
She stopped again. Ruth leaned over the table and tapped her great-aunt’s arm, which was her special sign for asking someone to pay attention to her, or to carry on what they were doing, but Great-aunt Alice smiled and shook her head.
“Oh no, my dear,” she said. “You can’t find out about that until it happens. It’s a secret, a good one, not a bad one, and if you knew what it was, then it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?”
Just as she finished speaking, the origami nun in Ruth’s pocket jumped and Ruth gasped. When she took out the tiny figure, she was sure the nun was smiling but when she blinked and looked again, she could see nothing odd about it. It was a nun made of paper, that was all.
Great-aunt Alice harrumphed but in a jokey way, not in a way that meant Ruth was in trouble.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You young people… you should really pay more attention to what’s in front of your nose. The world is full of magic and wonder, and we must never forget it. But come on, you have to get to school even though it’s your birthday, and I have to have time to make your special tea. So shake a leg and don’t shilly-shally, all of life’s ahead, so don’t dilly-dally!”