The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels ThereCatherynne M. Valente
Glasswort Groof planted her large, thorny feet. “I told you about the Firstborns. We’re swimming in them! They’re not a bad lot, but I never wanted children. Let my brothers handle that; they love bonnets and bassinets! My bairns keep the Market up all hours with their whining for home. Take one off me and the dress is yours. It’s worth it, trust me—it may seem a pretty, useless bauble, but that’s what they say about upsider boys and girls, and they have some good uses all the same. Aubergine, get out here!”
The bell chimed louder. From behind the stall, a shy thing emerged, quite tall, taller than Saturday, but not by much, with great, sad, dark eyes and a long, thick, curving beak.
“Aubergine’s a Night-Dodo,” Groof said quickly. “Nothing like them for hiding and sneaking about. She’s too old to fob off on a troll who doesn’t know better, and I’ve got two others to feed besides.” The Night-Dodo’s feathers shone a piercing shade of purple, with dark emerald underdown and a showy fall of black tail feathers like a dark fountain. Her legs looked strong, gray as old stone.
“Goblins always hold back the best trick for last!” said Ell.
“I’m not a trick,” said Aubergine softly. Her voice thrummed deep and echoey.
“You take your wares and you take your chances,” Groof shrugged. “I didn’t rhyme once when I offered her, if that’s worth a thing. Why should I cheat? I have a good sterling Hour in my sack! My Market’s starting to perk up already!” The wood of the stall smoothed and polished itself, looking as proud as wood can look.
“Oh, Ell, she’s just a poor lost thing!” said September, and held out her hand to the bird. September had no natural defense against lost things, being one herself. She could not quite have put it into words, but she felt profoundly, at the bottom of her new, shining heart, that she could find lost things. She could make them un-lost if she were brave enough. After all, if enough lost things band together, even in the darkest depths, they aren’t really lost at all anymore. “Even for nothing, I’d take her along as far as the capital,” September said finally, and the Night-Dodo, ever so lightly and briefly, pressed her big beak into her palm.
Saturday kicked the earth. Perhaps he did not want company, either.
“I’d have bought the dress.” He sighed. “I could’ve. He never bought you anything, but I could.”
Aubergine nosed September’s shoulder with her great dark beak, and suddenly the Watchful Dress hung snug and soft on September’s body, as though it had been made for her and her alone. The wine-colored coat wrinkled with distaste, most perturbed at suddenly being draped over an obvious intruder. The coat immediately puffed out and grew long to hide the dress, cinching tight.
Four tickets rested snugly in its pocket.
THE NIGHT-DODO’S QUIET TALE
In Which Our Motley Gang Travels to the City by Eel, Meets Someone They Do Not Expect, and Hears a Sad Tale Involving Guns, Dodo Racing, and Goblin Bargains
The Market and Glasswort Groof disappeared in a pop of smoke and spangle.
The four of them stood on a station platform, railroad bells ringing madly around them. A kind of wet thunder shook the planks of the station. They did not even get a chance to say a proper word to each other before a great, salty, steaming rush of water splashed and surged across the black ground below the platform. It flowed indigo and frothing, a narrow, sudden river—and on the river rode high the Weeping Eel. He slowed to a perfect, graceful stop.
He was, quite clearly, an Electrick Eel. Longer and taller than a train, his livid lavender flesh lit up with hundreds of balls of crackling peacock-colored electricity floating like balloons on his flanks. Wafting, delicate pale fins floated out on either side beneath the electricks, fully as long as his body. His enormous, gentle, smooth face bore stout whiskers that glowed with light, blinking on and off to signal that he had docked at the station. His immense translucent eyes, half covered by heavy, bruise-colored lids, overflowed with indigo tears, spilling onto the earth to make his own watery tracks.
His name was Bertram.
All along his endless back folk crowded with suitcases and valises, laughing and drinking and discussing what seemed to be very important subjects with much gesturing. Tea-and-luncheon carts rolled back and forth, and various brownies and selkies and bluecaps hollered for service. They seemed to all be having a lovely picnic on the Eel’s back as he traveled along.
And on the head of the Weeping Eel, a beautiful orange lamp floated, pale green legs descending from her base and pale green arms extending out of the crown of the lantern. A green tassel hung down around her knees. If in the history of anything, a lamp ever smiled, this one did, and in the soft, fleshy side of the Eel, a little staircase formed to let them up.
“Gleam!” September cried, and fell into the green arms of her friend. Several passengers burst into applause, though they were not sure why, really; it just seemed like a good time for it, while they were having such a jolly afternoon. Among the nixies and nymphs, however, glowered one or two boys with dark horses’ heads, and they watched September with baleful eyes, neither clapping nor speaking.
“But you’re not a shadow!” September said finally, when the hugging had worn itself out, and Ell and Saturday had had their turns. Aubergine hung back shyly. With a choked sob, the Weeping Eel began to move again, smoothly sailing down the track of its own tears.
Elegant, golden writing spooled across the face of the orange lantern.
I don’t have a shadow anymore.
“Whyever not? Did you trade it away like I did? It hurts dreadfully, doesn’t it?”
“Oh.” September colored. She had actually forgotten.
My light went out. You can’t have a shadow without light.
“But you’re all right now!” said Ell. “Remember, we went to see the Trifle-Wights in Cockaigne together. We did just as you asked, September: We took her to see the world. Or some of it. The world is very big.”
Yes. Big and wide and wild.
But my light was out. I could not be a lamp without my light.
And the shadows kept falling into the ground.
So I followed them.
Wherever they were going, that was the place for me.
Where no one needed light.
“Poor Gleam!” September exclaimed. “I’m so sorry, it’s only that it took so long to get back, and everything was so terribly complicated once I got here…”
The golden writing interrupted her, streaming around the skin of the lamp with excitement.
I am happy, September!
I met the Weeping Eel, and he was so lonely,
without a conductor
to talk to him and tell him stories.
Everyone just uses him the way they used to use me,
when I was just a lamp.
Bertram’s really a very interesting fellow.
He likes to play checkers.
And now I get to see everything.
All of Fairyland-Below, one station after another!
It’s wonderful here, September, you’ll see.
Almost everything is over a hundred years old.
I am so useful.
I am not alone.
And neither is he.
“It must be nice,” said Aubergine suddenly, “to have a friend like that, and like things so much.”
“How far is it to Tain, Gleam?” A-Through-L asked, his chest swelled up, full of happiness for her. “So many things in the underworld seem to begin with rather late letters in the alphabet.”
But it was Aubergine who answered. “Tain is Pandemonium’s shadow. It moves with the capital of Fairyland-Above.” She blushed. A creeping frost spread over her feathers. “Or it did. Pandemonium isn’t moving anymore. I’m…I’m sure you all know that. Even before the shadows started falling, Tain was always here, a perfect shadow of the city above. It used to be the Marketplace watering hole. They’d s
nug up all round it and sell anything to everyone. But after a while, the big city stopped moving, and Tain did, too. We’ll be there presently. The Eel wouldn’t let all these people miss the Revel.”
“How can you tell what time it is? There’s no sun!” September said, for she felt she needed a good dose of sunshine. The gloaming and moonlight made her feel heavy and sharp all at once. She missed her usual feeling.
“How do you tell time with the sun?” asked Aubergine innocently. “The crystal moon makes it easy—look up, it’s half past ten in the evening.”
They did look up and saw that a rosy dark shadow shone faintly on the surface of the moon: X. It flickered faintly, not quite bold and true yet.
Gleam tucked her arms and legs back inside her lantern and floated down to discuss something with her enormous friend, and the foursome settled in on the not-at-all-unpleasant skin of the Weeping Eel, which kindly made slightly moist lavender seats and cushions for them. The tea cart came trundling up, but September had had quite enough tea. She asked for a nice mustard sandwich after Ell assured her everything was quite safe when not purveyed by Goblins. She got, instead, a towering confection that might have thought about becoming a sandwich at one point, but had gotten greater ambitions along the way. Sweet ice-colored leaves layered upon dark, smoky spreads and oozing honey-cream, with black plums and blacker figs and very blackest inkfruit peeking out, crushed between slices of something that was decidedly not bread. It was fluffy and wholesome-seeming, but dove-gray, and tasted a little of pastry and a little of cider and a little of snow.
“Do you know,” said September as she ate her sandwich thoughtfully and carefully, sharing with Aubergine and Saturday by turns, “everyone seems to know what they are about but me! When I met the Sibyl, she said that she guarded doorways even when she was a little girl, younger than I! And Glasswort Groof went hunting her Market when she was a maid, and even Gleam has grown up and gotten a profession. I suppose I ought to be thinking about that sort of thing, but I’ve no idea what I shall do when I am grown! I don’t suppose there is much call for Knights or Bishops or Heroines in Omaha or even Chicago. And I’m sure other girls are much better at it than I. I don’t believe I have done anything forever and ever the way the Sibyl did.” September turned to the Night-Dodo, about whom she really was terrifically curious, but had not wanted to be rude. “Do you know what you’ll do now that you’re free of Groof? Not that she was so bad. She seemed rather nice. Because, you know,” she cleared her throat, slightly embarrassed, “where I come from, Dodos are somewhat…extinct.”
This was a very impolite thing for September to say, and she oughtn’t have brought it up until they were better acquainted, but the Night-Dodo just nodded sadly, fluffed her feathers, and settled down on her haunches. September noticed that Aubergine was shaped a little like Ell, squat on two powerful legs, only excepting a different sort of tail and scales and a fiery breath.
“It’s very far from here, where I was born,” she said shyly. “In the city of the Dodos, which is called Walghvogel, far away over the Bitter Stout Lagoon where the dunkel-fish sing, further than the Squash-flower Desert where the giant Alifanfaron dwells with his beautiful wife, further even than the Isles of the Lotus-Eaters or the Balalaika Wood on the shores of the Forgetful Sea.”
“Is Fairyland-Below so big?” asked September wonderingly. And how deep does it go, if there is a Prince sleeping at the bottom of it?
“As big as Fairyland. It must be—they are twins, mirrors, each country with its mate up above and down below. But Walghvogel is hidden well, in the center of the Forgetful Sea, on a sweet island full of juicy grasses and gnarled, spindly tambalacoque trees that bear good berries and fat seeds. In the center of the island stands a small mountain of which we are very proud, with many caves for hiding in. When the wind goes howling through Walghvogel, the mountain sings. Sweet September, Dodos are extinct everywhere, or very nearly. Only on Walghvogel do we live and squawk and waddle as we will. Everywhere else, men hunted us most fierce, for our eggs.”
“Are they marvelous in some fashion?” said Ell’s shadow, eager to add to his knowledge of things that began with D.
“I will not say, Mr. Wyvern, for that very thing was so desired by all that they drove us into the sea to get at our nests, shot us from our beloved tambalacoque trees, cracked the shells of our young and fried them in skillets. No, I cannot tell the secret now. But it happened that Wuff, the Great Ancestor, for whom my mother was named, fled from a boisterous hunt and came upon a cleft in the mountains where he lived. Standing in the cleft was a most beautiful lady, so beautiful that even though Wuff knew to fear people, he did not run from her. She wore a silver soldier’s coat, and a silver pith helmet, and a silver sash, and silver snowshoes. She had long silver hair and silver skin and sat upon a great tiger, who, strangely enough, did not terrify bold Wuff either. And she said, ‘You seem a poor and beset little beast. How would you like to come away with me and be safe forever?’ Well, Wuff squawked his most secret and alarming squawk, which would call his flock even from the highest crags, and they came running. The lot of them squeezed through the cleft after the tiger’s tail just as the first shots of the hunting party spattered the side of the mountain. And that is how Dodos came to Fairyland.”
“It must have been the Silver Wind!” said September joyfully. Again, the passengers behind her burst into applause and cheering, as if they shared her glee. Again, the horse-headed boys merely stared. September remembered all the colored Winds from Westerly, not only Green but Blue and Black and Silver and Red and Gold. Silver had gotten into some sort of trouble, if she recalled it right. Oh! But hadn’t the lady in the rowboat had silver skin and silver hair? Perhaps she had come by Wind the second time, too, and not even known it!
“Really, they’re so excited to be Eeling along they’d cheer at anything,” groused Saturday.
“Oh, I wonder if the Green Wind has a shadow I might meet here in Fairyland-Below?” said September. “I do so miss him, and he has been nowhere to see me, which I think is a bit rude, but Wind manners are like that I suppose. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a billow of wind cast a shadow, so I oughtn’t get my hopes up. Still, how wonderful that we both came into Fairyland by Wind!”
Aubergine clucked mournfully. “Oh, but upsider-child, it was worse in Fairyland! For Fairies do love to gamble. They cozened Wuff and just about all the rest into becoming mounts for their Oathorn Races, which used to be held every full moon round a great track that ran the border of Fairyland. That is how fast Dodos could run, once upon a time. Racing Dodos was all the rage in Fairy society. Such saddles they made, dripping with fringe and lace and boughs of cherries, piled up so high with magic carpets and cushions and chairs enchanted for every kind of advantage that the Fairy Jockey and her Dodo never had to formally meet. They raced poor Wuff until, on the last lap of the Creamclot Derby, his heart just burst. His Jockey, a blackthorn Oread who flaunted her one-sixteenth Mabish blood to anyone who asked and most who didn’t, came tumbling down off her high seat and broke her neck. The Fairies howled for Dodo blood, for vengeance is also a great hobby of Fairies, even if they didn’t care much for the dead maid in question. In the stables that night, Wuff’s sister Scuff called all the flock together, and they made their desperate choice: They flew south for Asphodel and disappeared under the world forever, carrying their magnificent saddles with them, mercifully empty.
The saddles still rest in Walghvogel, a little orchard of Fairy furniture where we bring our chicks to tell them the tale. So that they know they must keep silent and secret in the center of the Forgetful Sea, the only safe place in all the worlds.”
“The Fairies don’t hold Races anymore,” began Ell quietly.
“Good,” finished Aubergine for him. She had no interest in the strange mystery of the Fairies’ disappearance—as far as she was concerned, they could disappear forever.
“But if it is so secret and safe, how did you
end up traded to a Goblin?” asked Saturday. The gentle darkness flew by outside the light of the Eel’s Electricks. The great beast swayed lightly from side to side.
“Well, that’s the trouble with Goblin Markets and Bones’ Desires.” The frosty blush crept up Aubergine’s throat again. “They can find you anywhere. Scruff and her band, their legs still powerful but awfully sore and broken from use, had hardly roosted in Fairyland-Below before the Markets scented them and came running. Well, we didn’t want any dresses or spinning wheels or magic shoes or philtres or powders or even fruit—well, we did want fruit, really, but we had learned a little of Fairy food by then. The Markets howled and whined, but cleared off. Leaving only Glasswort Groof and her Bone’s Desire.”
September held her breath. “What did she offer you?”
Aubergine’s tears finally fell, spilling onto the lilac skin of the Weeping Eel and trickling off to join his own tears on the great salt track below.
“Walghvogel,” she whispered. “I have described it to you—but I have never been there. Glasswort had it in one of her booths—the only booth—when the others scattered and left her knowing she had the only thing we truly needed. It sat in miniature on her violet velvet pillow: the tambalacoque trees, the mountain full of caves, the sweet grass, the freshwater ponds. And all in the midst of the Forgetful Sea, so that anyone who did find it would forget it by the time she reached shore again. It was perfect. A place to rest. But how,” the Night-Dodo’s gaze turned back where they had come, toward the Goblin and the stalls that had long vanished in the Eel’s rushing progress. “How could we pay for it? Those were heady days, the days of the Bustard’s Market (the Bull and the Bear are nothing to the mad prosperity of a Bustard), and Groof didn’t want kisses, she didn’t want time, and, oh, we had tears to enrich the lowliest sprite, but, no. She wanted a Firstborn. A Firstborn female, of course. No one in Fairyland yet knew the secret of the egg, but the Goblins knew others wanted it, so it must be valuable. Groof would have it first of all Goblins, and there was no dissuading her. You cannot blame anyone for what happened next. For Walghvogel, anything would have been a bargain.