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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

Catherynne M. Valente

  Saturday bolted into the waves, leaping up in the air, spinning round twice, and plunging into the foam and the tide. He stayed down for ages and ages, far longer than September could, even on her best day at her best swim meet. When he finally came up again, he looked quite different. September realized that in all the time she had known the Marid, she had never once seen him at ease. Not really. Now that he had his ocean around him, every tiny part of him relaxed. He matched the ocean world like one shining button in an endless, flowing blue coat.

  “Watch this!” Saturday grinned. He crouched down, balancing on the pads of his bare blue feet. He made a little coaxing, shushing, trilling noise in the back of his throat. “Come on, then,” he said gently, sweetly, as though calling a kitten stuck up in a tree.

  The Marid stroked the sand softly—and seashells sprang up under his fingers. Hot-pink scallop shells shone wetly against the jet-black sand. Turquoise cockleshells rose up, too, and lemony-bright hermit crab shells, spiny tangerine conches, little spiraling brindled snail shells, spotted cowrie shells, and big bronze geoduck shells. (A geoduck is a terrifyingly large and opinionated clam that lives both in Fairyland and, curiously, in the part of the world where your intrepid narrator was a child.) Saturday clapped his hands, pleased with himself, for he had felt just the teensiest bit uncertain that it would work. He hadn’t done it in so long.

  Saturday pressed his fingertips against the shells like the keys of a very odd piano. His hands flew over them, tapping in some sort of order that September could not guess at. Each shell yelped when he touched it, but their yelps sounded like whale songs and buoy bells bonging away together. When he finished, the waves began to churn and froth and bubble. Something glassy broke the surface, and kept on breaking until it broke free.

  “What did I tell you? A Bathysphere, scrubbed up and ready, just for us.”

  It was a bathtub.

  A burly, walloping bathtub, bronze and deep and wide, with fierce claw feet. The back of the thing rose high up so that you could rest against it, and a curving glass dome closed in the Bathysphere so that dryhairs like September could ride inside and not drown.

  “We won’t fit in there,” Blunderbuss said doubtfully. “And anyway I’m made of wool. If I go swimming, I’ll shrink. And I like being big! I’ve gotten used to it already because it is the best and I am also the best so I ought to be big.”

  A-Through-L nodded vigorously. “Shrinking is the most dreadful thing,” he said from experience. “It feels like disappearing. You lose yourself, inch by inch. Don’t do it, Buss.”

  “We’ll stay,” the scrap-yarn wombat said firmly. “You go paddle about in your supersecret lair of secretness and we’ll just lie out in the sun and discuss Agatha Christie and eat coconuts—ALL THE COCONUTS.”

  “Are you certain you’ll be all right?” September said. “I don’t want to leave you! Awful things happen when we’re apart, Ell. What if one of the other racers comes and you have to duel?”

  The wombat and the Wyverary leapt up into the sky together, circling, jostling, bonking their heads together, and tumbling back down laughing. The ground shook. “Look at us! We’d knock down the sun if it gave us the side-eye!” Blunderbuss rolled around in the sand, kicking her stubby feet into the air.

  Ell shrugged down their traveling bag so that September could pack herself the royal supper, just in case. “Besides, you’re the racer, September. If Tanaquill or Crunchcrab come whinging by, we’ll just wave and have another coconut. If you’re not here, Meridian’s an unoccupied square.”

  I have read a number of stories in which the hero strides boldly and bravely into the next adventure, never once turning to look back. September looked back several times. Over her shoulder, over the lip of the Bathysphere, once or twice turning completely around and opening her mouth to speak, to say that she’d thought of some way to cram them all in—but she hadn’t thought of it, and couldn’t say much of anything. This was their only lead. If they didn’t go to Mumkeep Reef, they might as well give up and go see what was playing at the cinema in Pandemonium.

  “Please be here when we get back,” September whispered instead.

  A-Through-L beamed at her, flaring his crimson wings in the sunshine.

  “I am always here when you get back, small fey. Haven’t you learned anything?”

  * * *

  The Bathysphere picked up its clawfeet like a prancing stallion and clopped into the rippling water. It was quite roomy enough for September and Saturday to sit side by side. Each of them could reach the controls—a bank of bronze brush-handles, soap spigots, hot and cold taps, squeeze bulbs like the ones on old-fashioned bottles of perfume, and several dials showing depth, water pressure, distance to destination, and temperature.

  Without thinking, September reached out and picked up two polished pearl soap dishes. She held one to her ear and spoke into the other:

  “Mumkeep Reef, please.”

  Then, she pushed the down-bubble-bath brush forward, slowly but confidently. The Bathysphere surged over the continental shelf of Fairyland and sank pleasantly into the free ocean.

  “What are you doing?” cried Saturday. “I haven’t told you how to drive it yet! You could have grabbed the wrong nozzle! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to snap,” he said hurriedly, and caught her hand up in his. “You frightened me, is all! You were made for the sky and the grass and the open plain—the Sea can hurt you so much more than she can hurt me. How did you know what to do?”

  September stared at him.

  “The Bathysphere told me. Didn’t you hear?”

  “I didn’t hear anything, Tem,” Saturday answered, and he did not like his answer one bit. His eyes filled up with worry like tide pools. September had always been so wonderfully bullheaded. She didn’t imagine things or make jokes at his expense. “Perhaps the Derby is too much, the pressure of it … perhaps we need to sleep.”

  But September refused to nap. She stared hurtfully at him. The moment the glass dome had closed over their heads, a clear, bright voice had spoken and explained everything. It had. She wasn’t hearing things.

  “Well, the Bathysphere wished us a good morning, told us to keep our hands and feet inside him at all times, and asked where we were off to this fine day. Also his name is Fizzwilliam. He comes from a large family in the P&P—that’s Perverse and Perilous, I’d guess. He’s the middle child, but he got quite a lot of love from all sides. He lost a sister in the mer-wars and thinks of her every year around this time. Oh, and he likes jellyfish for his suppers and his favorite color is yellow, but not that nasty sickly yellow some sea sponges have, the smashing bright yellow of bananafish.”

  Saturday frowned deeply. “September, Bathyspheres don’t talk. Marids invented them—so we could invite friends to tea without killing them. Marids have a terrible habit of falling in love with dryhairs.” He blushed, a deeper blue.

  “Sure they talk! Or this one does! Saturday, I sat down and Fizzwilliam piped up at once! And then I looked at the controls and it just made sense that the dishes were meant for talking back to him and the down-bubble-bath brush was the one on the left. You brake with the handle on the right and reverse with the one in the middle, and you steer with the hot and cold taps. Am I right? I am right. How would I know all that about Fizzwilliam’s family if he hadn’t told me?”

  What did it matter, if they were speeding on ahead? If she was happy, and trying to win, trying to stay? But Saturday could not help arguing. Some people must always argue, or they don’t feel right in their skin. “You could have made it up. To tease me.”

  September gave him a pointed look. “When have I ever fibbed to you, Mr. Suspicious? I even told you the truth about my First Kiss, and I didn’t have to do that at all. I always tell you the big, snagged-up truth.”

  A cloud crept into Saturday’s eyes. “Your First Kiss? When was that?”

  September punched his shoulder playfully. “Ha-ha. Your shadow kissed me without asking when I met
him in Fairyland-Below. You must remember. I gave you my Second Kiss right away. You got my Third Kiss, too. But you asked. You wrote on a little card in blue ink: I should like to kiss you if you want to be kissed, and you like me in a kissing kind of way, and not only in an adventuring way.”

  “Yes, of course I remember,” Saturday murmured, and rubbed the tops of his arms, as he did whenever he got nervous. “I was very careful with my penmanship.” But he didn’t sound certain about it at all.

  September sighed and looked out into the bubbling turquoise water, growing deeper and darker blue as they sank, streaming ahead toward Mumkeep Reef. “I do wish we could go faster! The Derby will go on without us up there and I’ll bet the Rex Tyrannosaur can run frightfully quick. Oh! Fizzwilliam says that if we look out the port side, we can see the county of Ys, which used to cozy up to the east coast of Fairyland, but got in a quarrel with the Pickapart Mountains and huffed off to have its own fun on the ocean floor.”

  “Bathyspheres don’t talk,” Saturday repeated stubbornly.

  “Well, maybe you just never bothered to talk to them,” September said, more snappishly than she would have liked. But she could hear Fizzwilliam! His voice sounded fresh and clean and warm, with a little saucy lilt to it, as though Fizzwilliam had seen many things in his life, and most of them shocking. She heard it as loudly as Saturday’s. She stared out the window at the lights of Ys, a shimmering web of street lamps like miniature castles, marquee lights in the theatre district advertising the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Bream, and well-dressed lanternfish strolling to work with important papers tucked under their fins. Both of them brooded separately, until September decided to change the subject so that they could brood together.

  “You talk about the Sea in such a familiar way. I can hear you put a capital letter on it!”

  “Well, she is my grandmother. She’s all Marids’ grandmother. I suppose you know your grandmothers well?”

  September picked at the hem of her emerald-colored smoking jacket. The jacket did not mind. “One of them. The other one died before I was born. It must be nice, to have a grandparent who can never die.”

  “She’s not all warm currents and friendly whales. The Sea is very old and very set in her ways and very … particular about her housekeeping. She’s a terrible hoarder. She steals everything she can get her waves on and she won’t let go of even one doubloon, so it gets terribly cluttered. No one’s ever dared to try to take anything out of Mumkeep Reef.”

  “The grandmother I know, that’s on my father’s side, she hates anyone touching her things. She doesn’t trust the banks anymore, so she keeps all her money and anything else valuable in a tin box under her bed and she says if anyone tries to swipe it she’ll tie a sheriff round their necks and throw them in the river. I do miss her awfully. And my father. And even the teacups in the sink.”

  “That’s just how it is with mine,” said Saturday, all happiness again, eager to change the subject.

  “Do we mean to take something, then?” September asked.

  “If there’s something to take. I’ll apologize at Abyssmas dinner. We’ve always been her favorites, we Marids. She’ll forgive me. Probably. I should bring her a box of corsairs. They’re her favorite.”

  “Will it be difficult?”

  “I don’t know. I’ve never stolen anything before.” And Saturday gave her a circus-boy grin, a hey-watch-me-do-a-trick sidelong something that September loved best of all his hundreds of smiles.

  September sat up very straight. “Fizzwilliam says he loves us and wants us to be safe and also he has sighted several unsavory creatures below us, port and starboard. He does not love them.”

  Saturday sighed. “That will be the Pieces of Eight. I didn’t want to say. I thought they might have gotten lazy and would just let us steam past. I didn’t want you to worry. It’ll be all right! They’re only mostly furious.”

  “What does any of that mean?”

  “The Pieces of Eight guard Mumkeep Reef. The Octopus Assassins. A very ancient guild. Masters of the Octopunch and the Luminous Eight-Armed Thrill-Throttle. They’re actually nonapuses—nine arms. But when they pass their initiations, they always come out of the Grueling Grotto with eight. No one knows the fate of the ninth arm. It is one of their marauding mysteries.”

  Saturday reached forward and pressed one of the bronze soap spigots on Fizzwilliam’s dash. It was all over before September could ask where Saturday was going: a hatch opened in the glass dome, Saturday snatched one of the pearl dishes, shot up out of the Bathysphere and into the open sea, and the hatch sealed up again, leaving September alone and only slightly drenched.

  She pressed her nose to Fizzwilliam’s glass dome. All below her, spread out across the ocean floor, lay Mumkeep Reef. Coral branched and braided and knotted and sprawled, forming itself into a maze of staircases and grottos, spires and catacombs, peaked huts with the lights on inside, pits and vaults and great fields of waving anemones like a siren’s long hair. On every prong or shard of coral September saw a ship skewered, galleons and skiffs and dhows, even a few Bathyspheres like theirs. And everywhere else lay rusted boxes teeming with barnacles, bottles crammed full of unread messages, steamer trunks packed long ago with love and lost at sea, lockers and safes and cabinets and caskets. And treasure chests, the very kind every pirate draws in his notebook while his teacher tries to get him to agree that i comes before e except after c. Saturday darted and dove above the reef, swimming as easily as September could laugh.

  But in and among all these locked-up, gnarled, crumbling wonders, she saw hundred of glass jars. Jar after jar after jar, every one open and every one aimed at them like an angry cannon.

  And every one filled with a furious octopus.



  In Which September and Saturday Tell a Lie to Avoid Death by Octopus, Meet an Out-of-Work Cuttlefish, Take in a Show, and Get Matching Tattoos

  Four Pieces of Eight fired themselves at Saturday, exploding out of their jars, cannons of fiery-colored, tentacled hate.

  “HALT!” trumpeted the lead octopus, a stream of bubbles punctuating her sentences.

  Saturday came up short, floating in the deep blue sea, everything lit by the unearthly glow of Mumkeep Reef.

  “Not you,” the Octopus Assassin sneered. “I have no quarrel with you, Marid. Enjoy your visit to Mumkeep, leave a donation in Anne Bonny’s skull—you’ll find it over by the wreck of the Revenge.” The octopi fell into formation around September’s Bathysphere, flaring their fiery limbs, ready to drag her down at one word from their captain. “Her. How dare you bring a dryhair here? I can smell the dirt on her from here. She does not belong! She’s already seen more than any dreary two-arm should!”

  The others snapped their sharp cerulean beaks at her. They fanned out, whipping the water into white foam. The Bathysphere clanged and shuddered as an octopus lashed its tentacles around the glass dome. Another wrapped its arms around the bronze bottom of the tub. They began to drag Fizzwilliam down, down, down to the sharp crags of Mumkeep. September yelped, gripping the broom handles, trying valiantly to pull up. All she could hear was Fizzwilliam’s terrified, chattering cries as he tried to jerk free of the marauders.

  “Drown her!” one hissed.

  “Crack that tub like an abalone!” bayed another.

  “If she can breathe water, she can stay. If not? Too bad!”

  “Pull her out and give her the Luminous Eight-Handed Thrill-Throttle!” They all agreed.

  The Bathysphere crunched into the plain of anemones. September could feel Fizzwilliam’s bruises and bent clawfeet. “We’ll get you free and safe again,” September promised him. “You’ll see your brothers and sisters again and they won’t even notice the dents!” Fizzwilliam assured her in his gleaming voice that it was not in the least her fault. He should have asked for anti-octopus modifications for Abyssmas.

  The leader swirled over the top of the Bathysphere. She
snapped her tentacles together and flung them out again in fury. “I am Hugger-Muggery, High Assassin of the Pieces of Eight! I personally throttled Scylla, Charybdis, and Mr. David Jones and they thanked me for the privilege! You have but two choices, biped! Come into the open water and show me you are a creature of the Sea, even though you’ve got dirt and drought written all over you, or let me in.” She coiled and uncoiled those flame-bright tentacles to show that September would not enjoy it if she chose the latter.

  “She will do no such thing,” Saturday said.

  “Don’t make a ruckus in your grandmother’s house, Marid!” Hugger-Muggery’s huge, round black eyes narrowed in her bulblike head. “She likes her quiet. She does not like clumsy cows chewing on her china!”

  “I’m not a cow!” September said finally. It is very hard to get a word in edgewise with octopi. They love to talk. Only manatees love it more.

  Hugger-Muggery dismissed her with one tentacle. “All dryhairs look the same. Cow, cheetah, wallaby, who cares?”

  “September has every right to visit Mumkeep,” Saturday continued as though no one had said a single thing—though September could hear the tremble in his voice. “She is my wife. By law, she owns half my secrets. I have brought her to meet my grandmother. Isn’t that what a good grandson does?”

  September held her breath. She was not anyone’s wife, thank you very much. But the way Saturday said it, wife sounded like something exciting, something daring, something a bit scoundrelly, like pirate or bandit. And they were bandits, of course. Come to steal the Heart of Fairyland.