The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way HomeCatherynne M. Valente
The Pieces of Eight stared in at September. “She’s not your wife,” Hugger-Muggery finally said. “Where’s her tattoos?”
Saturday rolled his eyes to show how little he cared for the objections of octopi. “She can’t get tattooed without the cuttlefish’s approval, you soft-headed bully. We’ve only just wed. In the Autumn Provinces, in the Worsted Wood. I put a wreath of kelp round her neck, and she painted her name upon my eyelids. She wore green; I wore blue. We danced for three days, my wife and I—along with a Wyverary, a wombat, a Dodo, a family of trolls, a matchstick girl, a gramophone, a whole gang of shadows, a Yeti and his dog, a talking lamp, Winds of every color, a wairwulf and both his wives. Seventeen versions of me were there, along with her parents and mine and a pooka and Ajax Oddson, the greatest Racemaster who ever lived. We told each other our true names and fell asleep among our friends, covered in moonlight and the silver comfort of the right ending. She is my wife and I am her own and you were not invited. Leave us alone.”
September’s heart shook within her. The way he spoke sounded strange to her. It did not sound like a lie. It did not sound like a clever trick played with sly glee. It did not have his circus grin peeking out on one side. It sounded just the way it did when her father told someone how he had married her mother. It sounded like a memory. But it had never happened. Of course it had never happened! They’d never even met a troll before Hawthorn came galumphing into the Redrum Cellar. She would remember painting her name on anyone’s eyelids, let alone Saturday’s delicate blue lashes. But she knew his voice like her own, and somehow, she knew he wasn’t lying to the furious eight-armed assassins. And September remembered the little girl they’d seen that long-ago night on the Gears of the World, the girl with pale blue skin and a mole on her left cheek. Saturday had called her their daughter, come to visit them in the past as Marid children always do. September could hardly speak.
“Did you truly marry a saber-toothed tiger?” the Octopus Assassin asked Saturday incredulously.
“I’m not a saber-toothed tiger,” said September through gritted, non-saber teeth.
“Close enough!” snapped Hugger-Muggery. “If you’re hitched, she won’t mind letting the cuttlefish ink her properly.”
“That’s why we came,” Saturday lied boldly.
“Only take us quickly,” September said. “We haven’t much time.”
Hugger-Muggery narrowed her watery eyes. “What’s the hurry, hm?”
The Cantankerous Derby, September thought. My crown running away from me. The thought surprised her. She touched the circlet of jeweled keys on her head. If it is my crown. Maybe there is someone better, in all that crowd in the Plaited Plaza. Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, or Sadie Spleenwort, or the Green Wind. Oh, I wish I were back in the Redrum Cellar! I couldn’t leave, but I knew what was right and what was wrong!
But she lied along with Saturday: “No hurry! I’m just … eager to meet a real live cuttlefish!”
The Octopus Assassin snorted bubbles. “Dryhairs. We will escort you, obviously. I never trust anyone with greater or fewer limbs than myself. How can I? I see the world in eights—eight directions, eight seasons, eight virtues, and eight deadly sins. Eight is holy! Eight is supreme! Who knows how a bear like you sees? In twos, for your weak arms? In fours, for arms and skinny legs together? Your ugly hard head makes five extremities, but then you have ten fingers and ten toes. In your murky mind, are there ten seasons? Twenty directions on a compass rose? There can never be peace between us! The best we can hope for is … curiosity. I have only felt curiosity for one dryhair in my life—Woofwarp, the Spider-Monk of the Torii Orchards. He was the boiling hot green of an emperor tetra fish and his venom could lay waste to a thousand fugu! I taught him our ways and he taught me the devastating Flying Snowstorm Spinneret Strangler. We saw the eights of the universe eye to eye to eye to eye. But I had to abandon him. He would not leave his rickety orange gates for the excitement of Ys or even the mysteries of Mumkeep. So what? I don’t cry about it! Only dryhairs cry. When they feel hurt, they stop fooling themselves that anyone can truly survive on land and the Sea pours out of them. It’s beautiful, but they forget quickly. Dryhairs come and go like punches in the wind! Only the Sea lasts!”
Hugger-Muggery shot forward through the water like an eight-armed orange bullet. When she drew up her tentacles, she looked like a flower. When she snapped them back again, she became a spear. The other Octopus Assassins dragged the Bathysphere along behind, even though September kept trying to explain that Fizzwilliam would be more than happy to provide his own propulsion. They ignored her with the kind of brute force only an octopus can muster.
September could see a hundred things she wanted to investigate pass by on the ocean floor below. How could so many ships have wrecked in the whole history of the world? After half so many, September thought people might have considered giving up the naval life. Strange fish moved between safes and lockers and sunken chests of drawers. Their snouts and gills glowed in brilliant shades of purple or yellow or electric blue, but they wore robes spun from rough brown kelp, belted with ropes from the riggings of all those dead ships. Fizzwilliam gave up on convincing the Pieces of Eight to let him drive his own self. He told her that the creatures in robes were monkfish. They tended the vast loot of Mumkeep Reef, kept an accurate count, and formed a number of societies to discuss the best pieces and what they might mean, as well as to drink a great deal of brine brandy and tell jokes about squid.
“We ought to talk to them,” September whispered. “Surely, they’d know where to look for Fairyland’s Heart.”
Fizzwilliam laughed. When a Bathysphere laughs, it sounds like water trickling down through a golden drain. He would not explain what he found so funny, but I shall tell you. The idea that a Monkfish would answer any question put to it is quite, quite absurd. They speak only in riddles—well, that’s fine enough! Most monks do. But a Monkfish speaks only in the answers to riddles, and this makes them intolerably annoying. All wise fish avoid them.
The cuttlefish lived in a dark, pitted corner of Mumkeep Reef. Dragon-eye coral twisted up into sloping, pointed shapes very much like a certain opera house in Australia that would not be built for many years yet. (All coral in every world think of Australia the way that you and I think of Mesopotamia—it is the ancestral paradise of their civilization and they send it Valentines each February.) Orange cup corals held little scraps of light like lime peels. Peach-colored staghorn corals snaked out into shelves, ladders, and baskets full of glass pots of green-blue cuttlefish ink. Inside the coral opera house rested a gargantuan cuttlefish, her great sad W-shaped eyes rimmed with incandescent ultramarine like spectacular eyeliner. But cuttlefish eyes only look sad. It’s the shape that does it. But they are secretly the happiest of all cephalopods—only no one believes it, for they always look as though they were about to burst into tears from the weight of all the sorrow in the world. But truthfully, they were probably just thinking of an especially rude joke.
Unless you are a sushi chef or a marine biologist, you have probably never seen a cuttlefish. September certainly hadn’t. Up till then, she had thought orca whales or perhaps the Portuguese man-of-war she had seen in one of her father’s books were the prettiest things that lived in the sea. In one second, on the far north cropping of Mumkeep Reef, she changed her mind.
A cuttlefish has a head like a particularly soft, glum, toothless crocodile. Really, they’ve got a great lot of short tentacles for a face, but that frightens people and puts them off their dinner, so they hold them all together to look friendlier when company happens by. A cuttlefish has a body like a lovely colorful teardrop-shaped blanket with graceful veils running all round the border. They’ve got stripes like zebras, three hearts, and best of all, they can be any color they like at any time. The skin of a cuttlefish is like a screen in a cinema, and they can show anything they please on their big, silky backs. (In fact, it’s on account of an encounter with a cuttlefish that the Marquess acquired
her kaleidoscope hair—though it was terribly embarrassing for her and she made me swear not to tell.)
We have cuttlefish in our world, of course. But they all came from Fairyland, just the way your restless narrator came from the west coast of her country, but made her house on the east coast of it. Nothing like cuttlefish can happen without magic. Cuttlefish are extremely intrepid explorers, and they came to our oceans seeking newer, ruder jokes and found they liked it quite well. September thought something that handsome ought to have a fancy name, like the Reef and the brass ball in Meridian and even she herself did. But a cuttlefish is such an astonishing thing that giving them a frilly title would be as silly as a peacock wearing a ball gown.
A Monkfish with a face colored like candy canes walked peacefully among the coral. You’ll notice I did not say he swam. He used his brawny tail to walk in a shuffling fashion, the way human monks sometimes do. He had once been told by a fisherman that it was much holier to move that way. Honestly, that fisherman had gone a bit mad. But if you squint, you can see it his way: Whatever is hardest is often holiest.
“Hello,” September said shyly. Radiant things made her shy in the same way that selfish things made her cross. Probably the cuttlefish couldn’t even hear her inside Fizzwilliam.
The cuttlefish answered by rearranging the lights on her lovely striped skin into a glimmering image, all fuzzy at the edges: an ultraviolet child running up to a neon yellow child and leaping into their arms so hard they both fell over into an absinthe-colored puddle. Hello.
Saturday smoothed his topknot without quite knowing he’d done it. Everyone wants to impress cuttlefish, which is perfectly all right because cuttlefish love to be impressed. She turned her glittering, mournful eyes to the Marid. He longed to stroke the creature and tell it all was well, really it was. “I want you to meet my wife, September,” he said in a voice too soft to bruise the sensitive creature any further.
How far will we have to go with this? September thought. I’ve only just made it back to seventeen years old—I don’t want to accidentally trip and fall and get up married.
The cuttlefish’s skin flushed pale, erasing the leaping neon children. Several images flickered by: a vermilion hand with a ring on the left finger, a coppery Fairy leaping over a broom, an azure arm with tattoos snaking around it. Weddings are nice.
Hugger-Muggery tapped her tentacles impatiently against the staghorn coral. “Get on with it! Poseidon save me from the slowness of hedgehogs. She came to get inked.”
September rolled her eyes. “For crying out loud, I’m not a hedgehog. That’s not even close!”
The Octopus Assassin squinted her bulging eyes. “Are you sure?”
The other flame-bright octopi released the Bathysphere from their snaking arms. Fizzwilliam floated free. September could feel his relief tingling in her hands and feet. Saturday kicked his long legs twice and drew up close. He put his cobalt hand on the glass of the Bathysphere.
“If she accepts you,” he said, “then the Sea accepts you, and you’ll be part of the family. Able to share all we have, so long as you share what you have. We make our lives into a potluck dinner—everyone brings their best with lots of pepper and no one goes hungry. Or lonely.”
September searched his eyes for a conspiratorial glint. Show me we’re only playing, she thought. Wink at me. Raise your eyebrow. Tug on your ear. But she could see only Saturday, as he always was, earnest as the North Star, without a lie in his bones. September winked. See? Reassure me. But he only pointed at a bronze shaving cup on Fizzwilliam’s control board. The bottom of it had a fine mesh. A handsome shave brush with a wooden handle and lionfish-spine bristles rested inside. September picked it up. She had seen her father shave many, many times. She knew how it was done. But she could not think what the purpose might be. She hadn’t any whiskers. And the lionfish spines looked quite poisonous, all striped like a copperhead snake. She sighed. In for a penny, in for a purple cuttlefish. Whatever’s gotten into Saturday, he would never do anything to hurt me. But as she reached for the brush, September remembered Saturday’s shadow, pushing her into the Sea of Forgetting, not sorry at all, watching her sink down into the black.
Just as she had watched her father do in the upstairs bathroom, September swirled and squooshed the brush in the cup. Father, are you all right without me there to record your temperature and read to you when your leg hurts? Oh, please be all right! A bright foam slushed up from the spines, the color of the inside of an avocado, if it had caught on fire. She looked at Saturday questioningly. He only nodded at her—and there it was. A little wink. A wink that said: We will trick our way to the finish line, octopus by octopus.
The foam smelled of hot, unripe fruit and sizzling seeds that would burn your tongue. Mercifully, Fizzwilliam’s fresh, soothing voice filled her ears, telling her not to be a Suspicious Sue, that everything that made a Bathysphere run was squeaky clean and pure as a bar of soap milled on a summer cloud. Lionfish spines are only venomous when they’re attached, the Bathysphere explained. They have to want to poison you. It’s the wanting that makes the poison.
September felt a wonderful calm. She didn’t know why she hadn’t always consulted machines whenever something troubled her. They had such a comforting way about them. She gave the brush one more fatherly swish-swirl and blinked back tears of missing him and daubed it all round her chin and her chops and down her smooth, slender neck. She made sure to get her upper lip, for she had a horror of mustaches. Her father had grown one when she was four and she’d cried for a week because a stranger with a slug on his mouth was sitting in the good chair. One evening in the Redcaps’ Cellar, they had played Truth or Truth (you cannot dare much in prison) and Saturday had confessed that he could not grow a mustache or a beard, for Marids are part dolphin, and their skin will not cooperate. She had felt secretly joyful, and poured him a cup of red rum with extra cherries in without telling him why.
Tropical green foam dripped from September’s face. She looked down at the cup and the brush. Fizzwilliam began to tell her what to do, but somehow, she knew before he got four words out. She held the cup over her mouth and knocked three times on the bottom with the knob of the shave brush. At once, the foam hardened a little and the cup softened a lot. They flowed together and rippled out over her face in fine, sparkling trickles, like tears flowing upward. For a moment, fear stiffened September’s body like cold lightning cracking open every vein at the same time. The ooze crept up over her mouth and her nose, then into her eyes and her ears. She didn’t want to breathe it in, she would surely choke—but it gave her no choice. September breathed in—and she could breathe in quite well! She breathed in and felt the gunk toughen up, growing stiff and glossy. The wreckage of her first shave covered her whole head in a hard shell. She wore a beautiful copper-green mask sculpted into a perfect likeness of her own dear, familiar face, down to the mole on her left cheek and the last curls of her hair.
Fizzwilliam lowered his glass dome and the Sea spilled in, filling up his tub and swallowing up September as fast as a hiccup. The water rushed over September, colder than she expected, and heavier. It felt nothing like the rivers and lakes back home, and nothing like the Perverse and Perilous Sea, either. The Obstreperous Ocean held on to her tight. It felt like nothing so much as her own mother, holding her with firm hands in the public swimming pool when she was hardly more than a baby, keeping her safe and buoyant in the sun, showing her the marvelousness of water without letting her know how deep and dark such a brightness could get. The mask let her breathe like a Marid, and September had always been a wonderful swimmer. She frog-legged out of the Bathysphere and into Mumkeep Reef, feeling the salt water against her skin. The emerald-colored smoking jacket did not greet getting dunked with quite so much delight. It spoke urgently to the Watchful Dress, and the pair of them sleeked themselves down into a tight, smooth suit like sealskin, stretching to cover both fingers and toes.
The cuttlefish watched Sept
ember turn a somersault in the water, just for the feeling of doing it. She played all her colors across her skin, making mystic patterns of unguessable meaning, tsunamis of gold and rust and indigo, luminous galaxies containing all the wisdom of the infinite universe bursting open and drifting apart, then knotting together again into thick electric fists. September stopped her somersault and stared in awe. Tears rose beneath her mask. It was like looking at a star writing its last poem. Saturday’s chest ached for the endless, profound sorrow in the cuttlefish’s W-shaped eyes.
“I’m just kidding,” the cuttlefish said, and laughed uproariously. “I can talk! I just love to put on a show. You can take the cuttlefish off the stage, but you can’t pry the stage off the cuttlefish, am I right?”
September felt quite glad of the mask just then. A mask cannot show disappointment. “But the lights…,” she said. “The tsunamis, the galaxies…”
The cuttlefish preened, ruffling the veils along the sides of her body. “Pretty good, aren’t I? Would you say ‘a boffo performance’? What about ‘a tour de force’? Maybe ‘a star-making turn’? I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I do need the love of the critics! The piping hot ardor of the audience! The generous salt of approval!”
“It brought the house down,” September said generously, though she still felt a bit cheated. But that is the way of theatre, girl. It is everything, and then the curtain comes down and all you’ve got left is a program and a half-eaten chocolate. But September did so love to give somebody what they wanted. Most of the time, it was much easier than holding it back.
“I’ll take that and live on it for a year, young penguin!” The cuttlefish smiled. This involved opening up her a face into its many thick, short tentacles and waggling them vigorously. It is rather hideous.
Hugger-Muggery leapt at the chance to prove herself the smarter of the two tentacled monsters present.