The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way HomeCatherynne M. Valente
September knelt and picked it up. Its feather was deep indigo, its nib silver. She wanted to leave it where it lay. She wanted to go find an empty bookshelf to curl up in and forget the sight of the Headmistress fading to nothing. But instead, she put the quill in her pocket and stood up straight.
“Ta, then!” chirped Hushnow, and his image puffed out like a film ending.
Saturday sighed in relief. His breath ruffled, ever so slightly, the pages of The History of Fairyland: A How-To Guide.
“Ow!” he yelped, and snatched his thumb to his mouth.
A book bear rose up on its furry hind legs on the edge of the Reference Desk. It licked its chops, hungry for another chomp of Marid.
“What did I tell you?” sighed Greenwich Mean Time. “You’ve only yourself to blame. No breathing on the books!”
“It’s all right,” whispered Saturday. “It’s only a little bite. Good luck to that bear if he wants to start chewing through my history. He’ll never find his way out again! But, September, we have to go. We can’t stay. If the Headmistress got here so quickly, the rest must be far ahead.”
If we win, she will stay, the Marid thought desperately, and told no one how his thumb throbbed and hurt.
In Which Aunt Margaret Shows Off
Parents never take quite the same path as their children through any country at all. This is good and right and proper, though it does make for heated arguments on holidays.
Aunt Margaret did not take Susan Jane and Owen through the Closet Between the Worlds. Nor did she lead them out into the wheat fields and cause them to trip over a stone wall into the Glass Forest. Nor did she show them the place in Mr. Albert’s weathered fence where the world gets thin and you can hop right through. She did as she had always done: twisted the silver rings on her finger into place, counted to three, said Abracadabra, and disappeared. Only this time, she was holding her sister’s hand when she did it, and her sister was holding her husband’s hand, and though they did not notice in the least, a small and amiable dog was chewing nervously on their shoelaces.
Strictly speaking, Margaret didn’t need to say abracadabra. She didn’t need to say anything at all. But she liked a little dash of theatrical flair in everything she did. She’d said it the first time she traveled under her own steam, and the second, and then never given it up. What our Miss Margaret did not know was that she’d been saying abracadabra as a joke for so long that it had become a magical word. It is certainly possible that, after all this time, the magic that took her to Fairyland had gotten so fond of her joke that it would refuse to let her in without its favorite password. For its own part, the word abracadabra very much enjoyed being taken seriously for once. It had had nothing to do but make rabbits go into and come out of cheap top hats for ever so long, even though it came from a language called Aramaic, and therefore had an extremely ancient and noble pedigree.
But Margaret had always said abracadabra and she said it this time. All four of them—Margaret, Susan Jane, Owen, and the dog—faded gently away from the farmhouse outside Omaha, Nebraska, and faded gently into an extraordinary forest throbbing with colors. The trees rose overhead in shades of crimson, tangerine, aquamarine, glittering gold, opal-black. One of the tree trunks was covered with little gloved hands politely offering pots of maple syrup. Bloodred and blood-purple butterflies swarmed over another. Wide, curious green eyes stared from the backs of their wing. Some of the trees burned with a beautiful scarlet fire, and from the flaming trees flaming birds burst up like peacocks startled into fireworks. One even had a Sunday dinner in its branches, porkcones glistening caramelly brown, its cornbread branches oozing butter and honey and mushed peas, its plum pie blossoms dripping crust onto their heads.
“Well, this is new!” exclaimed Aunt Margaret. And it was, for a young girl called Tamburlaine had painted it alive only a little while ago. “This whole forest used to be the very edge of the Tattersall Tundra. I always come out here. How alarming for my poor puppies! They’re used to eating nothing but mice and moss. I’ll bet they’ve gotten fat.” She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled.
The small and amiable dog felt personally insulted by this remark, and yelped indignantly. Now, it is far past time for me to tell you the dog’s name, so I shall do it now and the poor beastie will not have to spend any more pages feeling desperately unimportant. Fenris is a very ferocious name for a pug with a curly tail. But September had given it to him out of her book of mythology when he was a pup and he was very proud of it. There—we’ll have no more sad eyes from you, Fenris!
“Oh, Fenny,” said Susan Jane, and picked him up, which he liked much better than sitting down in the mud where he could get stepped on. Owen scratched the pug behind his ears. Both September’s parents tried not to look too agog at the Painted Forest. They had been to New York City. Owen had seen London and Paris. They were not country rubes. They could handle a tree full of thin Italian daggers. They could handle two moons in the sky. And of course, every girl wants to look just as cosmopolitan as her older sister, even when she is thirty-nine years old and her older sister is forty-three. Susan pocketed a few of the daggers off the tree, for she was a practical woman who liked, better than almost anything, to be prepared.
They could even handle Margaret’s puppies—almost.
A team of six hippopotami pulling a grand sled behind them crashed through the brightly colored woods. Yet not a one of them could be called a proper hippo—one was made all of lavender leather with gold stitching, one all of twisted glass and wire, one of hundreds of brass buttons with flowers and anchors stamped on them, one of tarnished silver with a hinge along her back like a scruff of fur, one of deep red cake with white icing, and one that was all over pictures of bones and muscles and diagrams of knee and elbow joints. They bounded toward Margaret and tackled her in a heap, licking her face and making happy, contented hippopotamus noises. The sleigh managed to keep itself out of the mud, but only barely.
“Maggie,” September’s father cried out. “Are they hurting you?”
September’s mother laughed. “Mags always made friends with monsters. Once she found a scorpion hiding in the mailbox and named it Oscar.”
Margaret snuggled all the hippos and kissed their noses. “I do miss Oscar sometimes,” she said, laughing. “But these aren’t monsters. I made them.” Margaret could not help feeling proud that her family could see at last that she was not the barmy old scatterbrain they took her for—though Susan had never really thought that at all. “An old thaumaturge named Thimbleneed taught me how. Thaumaturges change things into other things, by and large. But you can’t make something out of nothing. There aren’t so many laws here, but that’s one. And all I had were the things in my school satchel when the Golden Wind brought me over on his jaguar. I named them all after the most mysterious and forbidden things I knew at the time—the bottles in Papa’s liquor cabinet.” She giggled as though, somehow, she still thought it was a bit naughty. She patted the hippopotamus made of lavender leather. “Vermouth here I made out of my old diary. She’s got a lock on one side, see? I cut all the brass buttons off the wool coat Grandmother sewed for me to make Beefeater, who is such a worrywart! I always come back, love, and I always will. Blackstrap is my glasses—Mama was so angry when she thought I’d lost them! But I could hardly say I’d turned them into a hippo. Old Kentucky is quite the fiercest one of the lot—I conjured her up out of a slice of your seventh birthday cake wrapped up in wax paper. I’d saved it to eat after school. Do you remember my old silver locket? I kept a little painting I’d done of you and me and Mama inside. Well, that’s Schnapps here, with the hinge on her back. And I suppose it’s time to admit I stole Papa’s anatomy book. I was fascinated by it. All the pictures! They looked like black magic to me. And in the end I turned it into my darling Pálinka.”
The hippos seemed enormously pleased to hear their names and even more pleased to see their Margaret. They rumb
led and cooed and whined at her, and she rumbled and cooed and whined back, for Margaret was entirely fluent in hippopotamus. They sniffed Susan Jane’s and Owen’s hands and Fenris barked a great deal and in a moment or two they were all packed into her sleigh and ready to be off.
My daughter has been here, Susan Jane thought. My daughter has been here and survived because she is brave and smart. I shall be, too.
“Where are we going?” asked September’s father.
Margaret smiled. “There’s a Derby on. We’re going to Mummery.” She snapped her fingers. “Abracadabra!”
Vermouth, Beefeater, Blackstrap, Old Kentucky, Schnapps, and Pálinka sprang up and dashed out of the forest faster than clouds across the sky.
JOURNEY TO MUMKEEP REEF
In Which Saturday Goes Home, Leaves a Wombat and a Wyverary Alone, Though on a Very Nice Beach, While September Meets Both a Bathysphere Named Fizzwilliam and an Alarming Number of Octopuses
Blunderbuss dug in her woolly heels.
“Nope. No, thank you! Not an inch farther till we eat! I know it’s a race but we won’t go far if we start skipping meals. Top athletes eat more than anybody, that’s the truth. If you don’t have dinner, you don’t have anything!”
Reluctantly, September and Saturday laid out their supper under the hundred million stars of Meridian. They congratulated themselves on their practical planning as they set out the plates, the salt and pepper, the bowls and the cups. They’d packed a blanket as well, so that nothing got damp or dirty. For A-Through-L they had a basket of good bitter radishes and a number of lemons, alongside a cold joint of mutton swiped from the Briary stores. Saturday helped himself to a luckfig bun and a parrot pie from the Plaited Plaza carts. September dug through their satchels until she came up with some oranges, arugula, and cinnamon biscuits for Blunderbuss, who also helped herself to most of the clover and nodding little bluebells growing round their picnic blanket.
But for the Queen of Fairyland, for the Engineer, there was only roast legislamb cutlets, gruffragette salad, and somewhat lukewarm regicider. In the early hours before the Derby began, September had filled a hamper with her royal suppers and breakfasts, each wrapped carefully in wax paper or poured into small, sturdy flagons that would not leak. She still wore the crown—she hardly even felt it anymore. But as long as it stayed on her head, she had to make certain the Greatvole and the Wickedest Whale kept dreaming away and not doing whatever dreadful things they waited so eagerly to accomplish. If those meals had ever tasted nice, they certainly did not once they’d gone cold and traveled a thousand miles by Library Catalogue. September sighed and chewed on her rather tough, rubbery cutlets.
“Is your thumb all right, Saturday?” September did not want him to see her worry, for when she was afraid, he got afraid, which made her more afraid still, until they both had to go and sit down in the sun for a while so they did not egg each other on so much.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” the Marid said, and neither did he show a wick of worry on his face. “It doesn’t hurt. It was only one bear, after all. I expect I’ll suffer no worse than a stray exclamation point dangling off my name. Saturday! Sounds rather bombastic, doesn’t it?” But it did hurt. It burned in the dark.
Blunderbuss rolled one of her oranges between her paws playfully, wriggling her haunches. She lobbed it over to Ell, who nudged it back bashfully. “So Fairyland has a broken heart. Poor poppet. But what does that mean for us? Is the Heart in pieces, then? Off crying in different corners, playing sad saxophone music and writing poems? Two pieces? More?”
September sipped her regicider and made a face. It tasted thin and sour. “I think it might mean just that, Blunderbuss. If it means anything.”
Saturday sat up, rubbing his bare blue arms with his hands. “But there has to be a solution—there has to be a Heart to find. Ajax Oddson would never cheat. I’ll believe trickery of anything in Fairyland, but Oddson wouldn’t put his hand in if there wasn’t a way to win. And I had an idea, while I was reading that story in the Library. An idea about where to go next. Only—” The Marid’s shoulders slumped in the starry shadows. The Wolf’s Egg rose over his beautiful shoulders. “Only it’s a little bit selfish. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just want to go home. I can’t tell if I’m on to something or I’m just homesick. We haven’t got much time for mistakes.”
“Home?” asked Ell.
“In the story, one of Fairyland’s friends was the Sea. The Moon danced with the Sea and whispered in her ear, remember? And I thought perhaps … perhaps the Sea knows where Fairyland’s hid her broken heart. Perhaps Fairyland hid her heart down there. Because you can hide anything under the ocean. The Sea knows more secrets than any of us will keep if we lived to be as old as longing. And the Sea’s mysteries aren’t just words or books or locks of hair tied with a ribbon. They’re a place. Mumkeep Reef, down deep in the dark blue barrens of the Obstreperous Ocean. Whenever the Sea finds something she likes, in a pirate ship or a hurricane or a nereid’s hideaway, she makes off with it immediately and stashes it in Mumkeep Reef. I’ve never spoken of it to a … a dryhair. That’s what we call people who don’t have the good sense to live in the ocean. Or the good gills. Mumkeep Reef is the kind of secret that secrets hope to be when they grow up. You can’t ever tell anyone I told you. Even if we don’t give it another thought between us. You can’t even say the word Mumkeep to a dog.”
“We would never!” cried Ell, quite offended at the idea.
“When I was a child, my mother took me to see it. She let me stay and play there for days and days. In the turtleshell vaults and the captains’ chests and the safes with the hexacoral locks. The crabs and the starfish and the shipwrecks and the leviathans whispered with me until I fell asleep and my mother carried me home. What I mean to say is, we could go there. I could take you there. It’s the best place to keep a secret. Meridian is not so far from the ocean. I can hear it. I can smell it. The waves are laughing. But I could be wrong! I could be wrong and we could end up so far behind and the Marquess probably has the Heart by now anyway. I don’t want to be wrong. Not when it’s this important.”
September watched Saturday talk. She loved to watch him talk—the way his eyebrows moved when he meant something sincerely, the way his mouth twitched when he knew something he wouldn’t say, the way he tugged on his topknot when he felt too shy to interrupt but so badly wanted to interrupt that he felt his thoughts coming out of the top of his head. Once, he could hardly get through a sentence without apologizing for it. But you can’t stay bashful once you’ve joined the circus, and he’d learned his voice on the high trapeze.
Still, it was easy to forget that Saturday was not simply a human boy with blue skin. That he had never seen a blackboard or a snowplow or an office building, just as she had never seen a shipwreck or a leviathan or a reef. He was far stranger even than Ell or Blunderbuss. For Marids lived in every direction at once, like the currents and eddies of the sea. A Marid might meet his future or his past walking down any street on any morning, whether or not he had had his coffee yet. They had met his older self on the Moon once, and September had felt as though she might shake apart at the sight of Saturday standing beside himself as though nothing at all could be the matter. They were almost the same age, but even when she had been the Spinster, Saturday had always seemed so much older and so much younger than she.
“Your home is near Meridian?” she said softly.
“Well, if you mean the place where I was born, no. Not even a little. Do you know when we got closest? It’s funny. When the Marquess locked Ell and me into the Lonely Gaol, I could hear the seals barking in my old neighborhood. But look—can’t you see? The silver light where the land meets the sky. That’s the ocean. It’s only a few miles. And if we can get to the shore without too much trouble, I can summon a Bathysphere in two clicks of a dolphin’s tongue. But if I’m wrong, it could cost you the Derby and you’ll never be Queen and you’ll vanish again, like all the li
ghts going off.”
Saturday put his blue hand over his mouth. He hadn’t meant to say all that. But he wasn’t sorry he had. So he smiled, to show he was glad of having told the truth.
“I’m just sure I’m wrong all the time,” September said softly, and she put her hand on his knee. “But I always do it anyway. It’s a good plan.”
Death herself could not say no when Saturday smiled.
* * *
Meridian lies in the warm, wafty lands below the Tropic of Scorpio. Winter snow only comes once every five years, and when it visits, you cannot imagine a more cheerful, polite guest. It brings gifts of ice and Christmas pudding, tidies up after itself without having to be asked, and never overstays its welcome. The moment anyone begins bellyaching about shoveling the walk, Winter has already fetched its hat and coat from the rack in the hall. So the beach that Saturday sought was not a stony, gray, and frozen bluff, though that would have been very romantic in a certain sort of way. They flew through the night, rather than lose time walking over the miles of berry brambles, mango forests, and chartreuse sand dunes. September clung to Ell’s back while Saturday gripped Blunderbuss’s woolly flanks with his knees, and everyone felt very clear on the point that none of this made anyone a steed, it just made them sensible with their resources and admirably efficient people.
The morning sea rolled in, blue and violet with little sharp eddies of pink and green sizzling along through the breakers. Waves crashed and rippled onto a beach that had only once felt cold, in a nightmare when it was young. Coconut trees bent low with fruit. Thirsthorn thickets crowned high dunes like unkempt golden hair, their fruit sloshing with fresh water. Crystal floatberry bushes grew as close as they could to the surf. The first floatberries grew in the rich cumulus fields of Cloud Cuckoo Land, carefully tended by clockwork falcons. The rest of them are always trying to get back home, twisting and curling drifting up into the air, joyfully drinking up the sea mist. The black sand beneath September’s and Saturday’s toes crumbled so soft and fine it felt like walking on top of a chocolate cake. September could not help reaching down and running her fingers through it.