The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels ThereCatherynne M. Valente
September smiled at her wonderful friends, in all their colors and bright eyes and gentle ways. “You know, in Fairyland-Above they said that the underworld was full of devils and dragons. But it isn’t so at all! Folk are just folk, wherever you go, and it’s only a nasty sort of person who thinks a body’s a devil just because they come from another country and have different notions. It’s wild and quick and bold down here, but I like wild things and quick things and bold things, too.”
Saturday put his hand on her shoulder, and they looked out over the underground ocean toward Walghvogel, far off and invisible. September’s heart swelled; it beat hot and happy.
“I’m sorry,” the Marid said gently. “I mean well. You can’t see that now, but you will. It’ll all be wonderful, and we’ll live together in a house of pumpkin and gold.”
“I’ll live there, too,” said Ell, tears forming in his great dark eyes. “And bring you all the books in all the world.”
“What are you talking about?” September laughed.
But she did not get her answer. Instead, before the Oat Knight could cry out or Aubergine could step between them, her beloved Saturday looked longingly into her eyes, kissed her cheek, and pushed her as hard as he could.
September fell, too shocked to scream, into the foaming depths of the Forgetful Sea.
In Which We Return to Our Friends Wit and Study, Who Discover a Number of Things Familiar to Us, but Not to Them, and Pass Over Something Tremendously Alarming Without Noticing It at All
What have our two humble crows been doing all this while, you ask? Have they been lolling about in the clouds or have they been eaten up by some Fairy beast?
I shall tell you, for we are becoming good friends, you and I, and friends may tell each other anything.
Wit and Study flew high and wide over Fairyland. They marveled at what they saw passing by below them. A country all of Autumn and one all of Winter, side by side! A herd of bicycles snorting like bison! A city all of silk and cotton and corduroy without any stones at all! In the late, golden afternoon, a whole flock of cast-iron ducks flew past them in a sharp, impressive V, quacking out a merry hello.
“What an extraordinary place this is, Study!” Wit exclaimed to his sister as they passed over a trio of witches brandishing wands that looked very like—but no, it couldn’t be!—long wooden kitchen spoons. “I think I should like to live here forever!”
“I wonder if there are any crows here, or if we should be the first?” mused Study. “Perhaps here, in the future, crows will set aside berries and grasshoppers for Uncle Wit and Auntie Study! Wouldn’t that be a thing to caw home about?”
Wit laughed, which for a crow is a loud, rough sound. Crows look down a bit on birds that make pretty, trilling sounds. Pandering to humans, they say. Just shameless.
The pair of them saw the sea coming up ahead over the curve of the world. Violet waves crashed onto a beach covered in glittering golden junk. Their crow-hearts quickened and the shine and shimmer of the shore made them quite drunk. Their bellies rumbled for the very delicious fish that surely swam very close to the surface in this country, having no idea that two sleek and clever hunters were on their way. Wit and Study flew faster still.
They passed over a meadow full of tiny red flowers. Wit darted down to snap up a fat orange-and-green-striped caterpillar, which he shared with his sister. Study hung behind to peck at a tree full of juicy persimmons that did not taste terribly like persimmons at all. When she caught up to her brother, she brought him a thick scrap of fruit to thank him for the caterpillar. Wit and Study cared for each other a great deal. Crows have dark, vast, secret hearts.
Heading off toward the seashore, where with their keen eyes they could already see fish leaping up out of the water and sceptres crusted with jewels spangling on the beach, the crows passed over a curious sight. They did not give it much mind, since this strange foreign place seemed to be full of every mad and nonsensical thing.
It was a street sign, the same official-looking bright green and white that they knew well from perching on them back home in our world. It was an intersection. One sign said, 13TH STREET. One said, FARNUM STREET.
“Why, didn’t we eat a mouse on Farnum Street just Sunday last?” Wit cawed.
“Perhaps we’re coming around home again,” Study sang. “But not before I get a good scavenge on!” She swooped and circled further toward the sea, faster and faster.
Neither Wit nor Study could possibly have known that only a few hours before, it had looked entirely different, with four signs which read:
TO LOSE YOUR WAY
TO LOSE YOUR LIFE
TO LOSE YOUR MIND
TO LOSE YOUR HEART
TEMPORARY MAD ASSISTANT
In Which September Gets Some Experience with Deep-Sea Diving, Fairy History, and Practickal Physicks
September plunged through the waves.
The Forgetful Sea grew dark quickly and totally once the moonlight ceased to pierce the water. The cold tide pulled at her with biting fingers, yanking her hair back to get at her face, her mouth, her nose, to get inside her and scrub her clean. Still, September was a good swimmer and had managed to get a deep breath before she splashed down. She kicked powerfully up toward the surface, but her strokes only sunk her deeper into the chill ocean. Very soon she would not have enough breath to get back, but the harder she swam, the faster she fell.
The top layer of her skirt, a gauzy golden veil, snapped up swiftly and covered her face. September clawed at it, panicking. But the skirt flattened against her face like a glittering mask, sweeping back over her skull, flowing up into her nose and down into her mouth. She tried to keep her precious breath, but she couldn’t help choking on the fabric as it wormed into her. September braced for the end, for the fast inrushing of salt water and then, well, blackness and as little pain as possible, she hoped. Now that she was certainly going to die, September felt reasonably calm about it. She thought of the fish she had caught and killed on that other Fairyland sea. Poor fish! Perhaps you can laugh at the joke—both of us perished on the sea. Some sailor I turned out to be!
September squeezed her eyes shut. Any moment, the ocean would swallow her just as she had swallowed that sad little fish so long ago.
But she could breathe! As easily as if she stood on land in the sunshine with a stiff breeze blowing. The skirt masked her face from the cold water, sending blessed air down into her lungs. The rest of the Watchful Dress swelled up around her like a bright balloon, to keep her safe and the pressure of all those heaps of water off her poor bones. It warmed and glowed slightly with the heat it gave to her clammy skin. The wine-colored coat stretched grumpily around the clever, clever dress. Thank you, Glasswort Groof! September thought giddily, relief seeping through her along with the warmth.
Far down below her, September saw a pale, fitful light. At first, she could not be sure it was anything but a great fish flitting by, but as she kicked downward toward it, it grew brighter. Since I can’t swim up, I might as well swim down, she thought. Avogadra said I’d have to go very far down, sooner or later. Might as well be sooner.
The Watchful Dress spat out streams of bubbles, sucking in jets of water through the sleeves and propelling her along as best it could. Still, the light lay deep down at the bottom of the Forgetful Sea, and September’s arms and legs ached from swimming. Saturday pushed me. Her mind insisted on bringing up this subject. She did not want to think about it. He meant to kill me. September tried to focus on the light, but her thoughts would not obey her. No, not kill me—make me forget. Forget everything. He said we’d live together in a house of pumpkin and gold—yes, once I couldn’t remember why I’d come to Fairyland-Below, or recall Fairyland-Above, or even Omaha and Mother and Father and any reason not to live in Tain and feast every night! How could he? That’s as bad as killing, to take away everything a person is. September had never been betrayed before. She did not even kno
w what to call the feeling in her chest, so bitter and sour.
Poor child. There is always a first time, and it is never the last time.
But why can I remember that he did it? Aubergine said even the sea spray makes the head fuzzy. But I remember it perfectly! And all the rest, too! Why, I have never been so clear about things! The light shone strong and steady now, a warm, ruddy light spilling up from the ocean floor. It lit every part of September in her balloon-dress and deep-water diving skirt. She was falling very fast. The Watchful Dress spat out a powerful jet from her sleeves and her collar.
The light twitched and wriggled in the dark—September could almost touch it. She kicked harder, swimming after it, and in a moment or two, she could see that the light was a lantern, clutched in the tiny hand of a Monaciello.
Avogadra swam ahead, lighting the way, encased in a smart diving suit with a huge bell for her hat. She held her lantern out to show September the path through the sea. At sorest need, when a brother passed beyond all human aid, we’d come in the dark and show them the way out. That was what Monaciello did, their oldest instinct and profession. A tear fell onto September’s cheek. The skirt of the Watchful Dress drank it up and wicked it away.
Avogadra set down on a sandy, empty seafloor, where a glass hatch rose up before her in a little dome. She knocked three times on it with her lantern, and then the little monk vanished, leaving September alone on the endless wasteland at the bottom of the ocean.
It doesn’t matter what Saturday did or Ell, either. I have to keep going. A Monaciello would keep going, no matter what.
The hatch had a glass wheel, like the steering wheel of a great ship. Warm, buttery, rosy light flowed through the frosty, ice-patched glass. September felt sure what ever lay inside the hatch was much better and more friendly to the body of a young girl than the dark freeze of the Forgetful Sea. And besides, Avogadra had brought her here. This was the way out. The way home. September reached out to turn the wheel. The Watchful Dress had made its sleeves into coppery-red gloves for her when it swelled up. And a good thing, too, for even through the gloves the wheel was so cold as to turn any girl-skin that touched it black and dead.
September leaned her weight into the wheel and pushed as hard as she could. It did not even creak. A few shards of ice broke off and floated slowly upward. She tried again, wincing beneath her golden mask. It refused to budge, as stubborn as a pickle jar. She took hold of a glass spoke to go again.
Beside her hands appeared two new ones—silky, strong, dark-green hands, made of nothing but the long rope-belt of the Watchful Dress. The two of them pushed the wheel, straining. The Dress tore a little, and then a little more.
Whips of wine-colored leather shot out and wrapped tight around the smooth handle of the wheel. The tails of September’s coat, feeling much put upon, shoved with such a force that it nearly knocked September off her feet. But the wheel moved. It ground around in a slow circle, ice splintering off of the thing and drifting up through the miles of black water. The wheel groaned and squeaked in protest. September feared the whole sea would rush in once she opened it, but she could not see how else to manage. She lifted the hatch—and the Forgetful Sea minded its manners.
September sighed with her whole self and climbed down into the hole at the bottom of the sea.
September fell, soaking wet, out of the ceiling of a house and landed roughly on a long worktable. It creaked under her weight, but held. Several pieces of metal and ceramic made themselves understood underneath her, poking her spine and her shoulders. Her vision spun, gone hazy with the sudden taste of real air and absence of a half a mile of ocean pressing in on her. A large, greasy hand grabbed hers and pulled her upright. September pulled the sodden Dress off of her face.
A woman looked at her with curiosity, and for an awful, brilliant, dizzying moment, September thought it was her mother. She had a broad, dear face creased with dirt and motor oil, friendly green eyes, and her hair pulled back in a short ponytail, tied up in a kerchief. Her shoulders squared broad and strong, her fingernails black with work grime. She wore a dark-blue boiler suit with lapels that had probably been crisp and dapper before she’d gone crawling through some huge infernal engine to find the erring part. The suit had a name tag that read: B. Cabbage.
But it was not her mother. A pair of iridescent wings poked through the woman’s work dress, like a luna moth’s wings, with long, drooping tips. So much black machine grease and dust and soot clotted those wings that September could not be quite sure what color they were underneath it all. She took a ragged breath as the hope went out of her that somehow her mother was here with her, impossibly, in Fairyland. Machines and pieces of machines, devices, pumps, motors, wheels, and gears and broken bits of bearings, shafts, cranks, and rods crowded the room on every surface. A small path had been cleared through the floor, but no other inch of space spared.
The Fairy reached into her breast pocket and took out a measuring tape. She hooked the business end into September’s shoe and snapped out a length, all the way up to the crown of her head. She put her thumb on the measurement and peered at it.
“One hundred and twenty-odd centimeters,” B. Cabbage said to herself. “Thirteen years, born under the sign of the Bull, carrying 2.3 kilograms of hardship and sorrow, rather a lot for your age, second seasonal cycle, recent contact with harsh Q-rays. Missing .00021 of total body weight due to shadow surgery, memory excised via Ocean one hour, fifty-two minutes, and seventeen seconds ago, replaced by Järlhopp Clutch one hour, fifty-two minutes and six teen seconds ago, unit reads thirty-seven percent Gumption by volume.”
The Clutch! September’s hand flew to Gneiss’s pendant hanging around her neck. It pulsed warm in her hand. Saturday hadn’t known about it. He hadn’t guessed she had such a thing.
“You can tell all that about me from your measuring tape?”
“Well, I use the metric system. It’s the only way to get really exact numbers.” The Fairy stuck out her calloused hand. “Belinda Cabbage, Mad Scientist and Proprietor.”
“September. I’m…sorry about your roof.” Where had she heard the name Belinda Cabbage before?
Belinda Cabbage looked up over September’s head. The ceiling, though showing several alarming blast-scars, seemed no worse for wear and entirely hatchless.
“Looks all right to me.” The Fairy shrugged. All the same, she selected a piece of equipment from the table, one cluttered with delicate colorful antennae and ampules of liquid with varying numbers of bubbles in them. Several etched lines marked measurements on their surfaces. B. Cabbage shook it vigorously, then held the device up to the ceiling and waited for the bubbles to settle. The antennae spun—some of them looked like they might have once belonged to a snail or three.
“Wondrous strange!” Cabbage exclaimed. “Where did you say you came from?”
“I didn’t, but I came through a hatch at the bottom of the Forgetful Sea.”
Belinda Cabbage smacked her free hand against her forehead. It left a sooty print. “My foot! I must have left it there! What a menace that ocean is, I tell you what! The Forgetful Sea is miles and miles from here, girl. And then miles more! But I think, I think I might have collected samples, oh, it couldn’t have been more than a hundred years ago, and it was so much easier to open up a squidhole than to walk all that way. Ugh, who wants to walk when you can tentacle?”
“Oh, well, you’ll be familiar with the basic Physicks of wyrmholes I’m sure. You need a frightful lot of equipment to manage one; the grocery list is hideous. Bee-souls, eel-hearts, about six liters of gnome ointment, a hair off of the head of Cutty Soames, and that old pirate never falls asleep, no matter how much gloamgrog he drinks—and that’s just for the preliminaries! Anyone with a beaker full of sense goes for squid-holes instead. You need a Dread Device and several willing field mice, that’s all!” She gestured at a bluish, fleshy sort of engine the size of a bread box. It had been shoved absentmindedly on top of a st
ack of journals and manuals. Under its eerily undulating skin, toothy gears spun. Several long fleshy tubes extended from its face and hung limply down the stack of books to lie dormant on the table, their ends capped with glass. Inside the glass, tiny, sweet-faced mice slept curled up with their tails in their paws. “A wyrmhole just goes from one place to another place. Dull as a street. A squidhole starts in one place—like my shop here—and goes to five to ten other places, depending on how many field mice you managed to get. I suspect I left an end open, and I do apologize for that—sloppy of me, truly sloppy.”
September did not like the look of the Dread Device. She felt it prudent to change the subject. And suddenly, she did remember where she had heard the name before. She closed her Clutch in her hand. “I heard about you on the radio,” September said. “But I thought you lived in Fairyland-Above. ‘Belinda Cabbage’s Hard-Wear Shoppe, bringing you all the latest in Mad Scientific Equipment.’”
“That’s me!” The Fairy agreed with a wide, frank smile. “And I do, or I did. But my Narrative Barometer started reading Imminent Katabasis Event, and I knew it was time to go underground.” This time, Belinda Cabbage pointed at a smart brass dial on the wall, sealed in a glass bell. It had hands like a clock’s, though there seemed to be at least seven or eight of them, and possible readings of Katabasis, Anabasis, Incoming Hero(ine), Musical Thrones, Kidnapping, Locked Room Mystery, Coming of Age, Treasure Hunt, Epic, War Saga, Edda, and many others in concentric rings so small September could not read them. “I built it to track Pandemonium, so I could get home whenever I needed to. But then Pandemonium stopped moving around, and it seemed a bit useless—but I never throw anything away. Jolly way of behaving, no matter what my assistants might say! Want not, waste not! And a good thing too. Imminent Katabasis Event means something’s going on Down Below, because Katabasis means a journey to the underworld. It means put your business trousers on and head underground! I don’t mean to suggest you didn’t know that! It’s only that I am also a Mad Professor, and I often teach, so I’m used to explaining things. Just raise your hand if you don’t understand. Anysquid! I’ve been investigating the shadows and building and thinking down here. I think better by myself, anyway. Broke my heart to leave Eva Lovewool, my first assistant and an Extremely Mad Scientist in her own right. Heart of my heart, that girl. Handsome as an armoire and twice as useful! But she’ll keep the roof on the place till things sort themselves out.”