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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

Catherynne M. Valente

  “Oy! Bilge-rat!” he shouted. The Night Wagon came about sharply, pointing its sea horse nose at the cause of this new ruckus. “Yes, you! Bilge-rat! You scurrilous scurvy-sore! You preening putrid princess! Why don’t you come out of that gloomy-two-shoes merry-go-round pony and scrub our bricks like the filthy chimney brush you are?”

  Cutty Soames, Captain of the Coblynows, fixed the boy with a stare like a walked plank. Shall I tell you what lay smoldering behind that stare? Duel or no duel, he meant to murder that child. The worst lashings come from a truthful whip: Thousands of years ago, the Coblynows had indeed been born from chimneys, bound to them like a dryad to her tree, forced to keep house for people with no personal hygiene at all. When Cutty took the helm of Fairyland, he and his boys smashed every chimney in the kingdom, broke every brush over their knees, rubbed every slovenly Fairy’s nose in soot until they promised to clean their chimneys twice a year as they’d repeatedly been told. It was the greatest day in Coblynow history. Cutty forbade anyone to speak of the Brick and Mortar Years forever after, and the Coblynows took to the high seas, where they could live in the open air and never let the fires of their plundering go out and never pick up after themselves or anyone else again. And no one had spoken of those dark days since. They hadn’t dared. Until this miserable brine shrimp of a lad.

  “You heard me!” the little blue guttersnipe brayed again. “Who’s a fussy ’fraidy-crab who won’t get his toesies wet? It’s you, sir!”

  But not the same guttersnipe. This one was seven or eight. The one who’d called Cutty a bilge-rat was still thumbing his nose over the top of their pathetic brick wall. The one calling him a ’fraidy-crab was flashing in and out of the arches of Mumkeep Reef like a tropical fish.

  “Boiler-brained grog-for-guts!” giggled another child, much older, nearly twelve.

  “Spoiled spaniel of the seven seas!” hooted a fourth, a bouncing three-year-old Saturday with seaweed in his long hair. He didn’t even have a topknot yet.

  “Lime-loving lackspine buccane’er-do-well!” howled yet a fifth tittering, mocking blue nine-year-old Marid backstroking casually through the current. Cutty found that one particularly unnecessary. He had to love limes or else lose his teeth to scurvy! How was he to help the plain facts of naval life?

  September crowed delight. They were surrounded by a school of Saturdays, darting, flashing, firing through the brine like blue arrows. Some were younger than the first Little S, hardly more than babies, some were old enough to have grown their topknots long, though none older than twelve, the age when Saturday met his mother and gave her a daisy. All the Saturdays her Marid had ever been, all coming out of time to help her like an army of love.

  Words came on in September’s head like cinema lights. She’d heard them as she was falling asleep at a play her mother took her to see long ago. A girl wore a boy’s clothes and spent most of her time running around a forest not knowing anything about anything. She’d not thought of the words in years. She’d liked them because they had thou in them, which she thought the fanciest word anyone could wear, and still did. And with all the Saturdays wheeling about, spitting gobs of derision at the pirate king, they shook themselves awake in her head.

  September climbed up to the top of the wall and yelled: “Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous!”

  The Sea seethed. Froth churned; the sand convulsed. The bandaged cow-riding giants and their burning badgers ceased banging away at the brick wall and skittered back as Little S’s army came leaping out of every ripple of salt water. Great black, mostly toothless bilge-rats stampeded out of the sandbars wearing tricorns and long velvet coats and dashing rapiers on their hips. They held their tails like cat-o’-nines at the ready, thin and whippy and covered with scurvy sores. Behind them came the archers: well-brushed spaniels with curled ears and silk ribbons in their tails, notching chimney brushes into crab-claw crossbows. The pups remarked to their brothers in arms that their breakfast bones had not been quite so thick or so many as yesterday, but that Mumsy had promised they could all sleep on the bed tonight, so they might forgive her if she gave up some table scraps. And finally, the cavalry made their entrance. Out of the shipwrecks of Mumkeep Reef climbed a regiment of putrid princesses, skeletons in ragged, rotten gowns and tall, pointed hats covered in starfish and musketball holes. Their sea-slime hair oozed down their backs in oily braids. They wore sea slug rings on their bony fingers and sea cucumber necklaces round their bony spines. The princesses whistled to a herd of dejected merry-go-round ponies with grog-barrel cannons strapped to their saddles. The ponies sighed and bounced to their mistresses, using their carousel poles like pogo sticks. The ponies accepted their fates. What was the point of it all? They’d never know. The princesses mounted up, drawing cutlasses of their own, plundered from their own ships for one last charge.

  A bilge-rat lifted a golden boiler-valve to his lips and blew through it like a hunting horn. The giants roared; the demonic cows threw themselves against the scurvy rats. The spoiled spaniels let fly a volley of chimney brushes that pierced badger after badger as they fell, the dogs howling and congratulating one another on each palpable hit. The princesses galloped full tilt, singing a ghostly war shanty, swinging their blades at giant knee and cow throat and badger snout without a care which was which.

  In the midst of the fight, one last warrior hopped onto the field: a toad as big as a siege tower, its violet-and-green skin oozing exotic poisons. It fired its long pink tongue at the knees of one of the tallest giants, wrapped it round twice, and hauled him down onto the seafloor with a tremendous crash. The toad then turned and hopped back into the darker waters beyond the dueling ground, dragging her catch triumphantly behind her. In the wake of the toad, the furious waters went white with action. September could see nothing in the fizzing, boiling brine.

  When the thrashing foam cleared, not one slimy braid off the skull of one putrid, valiant princess nor one bandage off the head of a giant remained. The round was a draw.

  “No!” cried September. How could anything stand against rats and dogs and princesses and an incredible venomous toad? All those Saturdays had come—they ought to have won it. They were meant to have won it. Whenever another Saturday had turned up before, they’d always been on the right path.

  But the Little S’s were all gone. So was the kindly brick wall that had looked after them so well.

  “That’s how we are,” Big S said with a sigh. “Now you see us, now you don’t. Their time only swam alongside ours for a moment. Like ships passing overhead. They tried. I tried. We tried.”

  “It’s all right,” September whispered, and pinched Saturday’s chin as they sometimes did when they didn’t know what to say to make things seem good again. “I have to do it myself. That’s what a Queen does. She saves herself.”

  “You’re a grubby cheat,” Cutty Soames gloated, sure they were spent. He pulled the levers of his black sea horse so he could get a closer look at his winnings. What burned behind his gaze now was victory. He didn’t even bother calling her something outlandish. It was over. The wench had nothing. He had won. “Nothing but a silly little girl playing dress up.”

  A dress appeared in the water, swinging over an invisible clothes hanger. A frilly, lacy, poufy dress that looked like a cupcake had fallen icing-first into a drawer full of fake plastic jewels. A custard-colored beaver-fur cape hung over its shoulders. Slowly, menacingly, the dress unwound its strands of plastic jewels. It drifted toward September, taking its time.

  September shook her head. She gave several strong kicks, rising up to the bubble glass eye that looked right into the Night Wagon’s cabin. The dress flounced after her.

  “Am not,” she called to Cutty Soames, and laughed in his face. “Not silly, not little, not playing. Look at me, you old tyrant!” September held out her cuttlefished arm. “I’ve got a tattoo! I’m a freak. I’m a weirdo. I’m the crazy, nitwit Queen of Fairyland! So go soak your head.”

  And in that moment, she did
want to be Queen. She wanted to be Queen so that no one like Cutty Soames could ever steal a potato or call a girl names ever again. The lace dress never got near her. The waters of Mumkeep Reef spun into a whirlpool, and out of the eye of the whirlpool flew a straitjacket. The kind of awful coat you only wear if you are Harry Houdini or a patient in the sort of dreadful places they sometimes put girls who cannot behave primly or properly. This one wasn’t hospital white, though. It had tattoos inked all over it: hearts with arrows through them, mermaids, anchors, hula dancers, five-pointed stars, roses, dragons, and, in big block letters, the words Mom and Dad and Victory.

  The straitjacket unbuckled its clasps, unlocked its locks, and swept up the lace dress into its long arms. It squeezed tight, tighter, tighter still, until the dress-up gown disappeared in a puff of old perfume.

  * * *

  Brother Tinpan brought September what was left of Cutty Soames, Captain of the Coblynows: a weathered, ancient coin with a star on one side and a ship at full sail on the other. A sevenpence coin from Cutty’s own reign. September took it, but she didn’t like it. Just because he was a tyrant didn’t mean she felt happy about sending him back to Fiddler’s Green or Davy Jones’ Locker or wherever Fairyland pirates stashed their last treasure. Saturday leaned his head on her shoulder. September finished the dregs of her regicider, for it was surely nearing dinnertime on land. She nodded to the Monkfish, who regarded her with soft black eyes.

  “I feel foolish, just asking after all this ruckus like I’m wanting directions to the general store. But I’ve got to, so I’m asking. Brother Tinpan, is there a piece of Fairyland’s Heart in Mumkeep Reef? It was broken a long time ago, and I’ve got to gather it all up again, but I haven’t even found one measly shard of the thing, and it’s getting rather late in the day.”

  Brother Tinpan touched September’s hand with his candy-cane-striped fin.

  “A rainbow,” he said, and swam back to Sepia Siphuncle and the hidden wonders of Mumkeep Reef, still hidden.

  “I’m rubbish at riddles,” September said, sighing, flipping the coin over her fingers a few times, a trick she’d learned from her father.

  Saturday looked up through the miles of water, toward the sun and the shore and the rest of everything. “I like them. The one he meant goes It’s red and purple, orange and green, and no one can touch it, not even the Queen.” He said nothing for a long time. “I was wrong. And now we’re so far behind.”



  In Which September and Saturday Are Reunited with Their Friends, A-Through-L and Blunderbuss Become Detectives, and Everyone Gets Eaten by a Vole

  Fizzwilliam let them off just where he’d found them and bid a fond farewell. He bent his front clawfeet forward in the surf, bowing at the knee like a dapper parade horse. His farewell sounded like a hot bath filling up to the brim, though, of course, only September heard it. She left her diving mask—now an unassuming shaving cup once more, on the captain’s seat. The Bathysphere disappeared beneath a cresting wave. The girl and the Marid looked up the beach strand, searching for a big red shape and a big orange shape somewhere in the shade of the green palms.

  They didn’t have to look long. It’s not so hard to find a Wyverary and a giant wombat. Even if they were no bigger than a boy and a girl, you need only make a beeline for whoever is making the most wholehearted hullabaloo about some thing or other they have just set their love on.

  “Halloo!” A-Through-L called down the sand. He lay on his back under a canopy of palm and papaya and breadfruit trees, his wings stretched out lazily, one powerful leg crossed over the other, surrounded by a small mountain range of coconut shells and papaya skins and breadfruit crusts with jam still freshly oozing out of them.

  “What time do you call this?” Blunderbuss growled. She meant it to sound endearingly mum-like, but wombat mums are very growly, so it came out rather ferociously. She didn’t notice anything the matter. To a wombat, a growl sounds like love. “We’ve got to keep moving, you two!”

  September and Saturday clambered up the black sand beachhead. Neither Ell nor Blunderbuss got up to greet them, being very full of fruit and very caged in by the remains of their lunch. The scrap-yarn wombat stretched out, hoisting up one of Ell’s scarlet wings with her left forepaw to make a beach umbrella for herself. September kicked her way past the mounds of coconuts and fruit peels. She followed that long Wyvern tail until it became a Wyvern—a Wyvern wearing the most astonishing contraption on his familiar, friendly face.

  “What … what are you wearing, Ell?” asked September, not wanting to offend if her friend had decided to try a new look.

  The Wyverary had found two large pieces of sea glass and wrapped them all round with floatberry briars so that they would sit more or less straight on his muzzle. Leftover lengths of vine drooped down among his whiskers while the berries bobbed in the air at the ends of their curly stems like butterscotch-colored balloons. He’d also tied a length of brandybean vine round his waist like a bathrobe belt and hung a plump purple turnip from the thing. Ell peered over the rims of his new spectacles, looking entirely pleased with himself.

  “It’s my pince-nez! All great detectives wear them, you know.” Ell grinned toothily. “Essential for Seeing Through Subterfuge and the Art of Observation!”

  “It’s my turn, Ell,” yipped Blunderbuss. “Hand over the nosepincher and let me have a go! I’ve got a theory about that Oddson fellow. Top to bottom suspicious, wouldn’t you say, monsieur?”

  “Indubitably, madame,” Ell replied gravely. He waggled his whiskers, curling them up like a waxed mustache. “But I think you’ll find I’ve got another ten minutes!”

  “We can’t spare ten minutes,” Saturday said miserably. “We didn’t find anything at Mumkeep Reef. We’re no better off than when we started. I bet Charlie Crunchcrab’s got farther along than us by now.”

  “You found a tattoo,” Blunderbuss chirped approvingly. She shook off the peels and shells and started stomping up the beach. “Nice!”

  September squeezed a last bit of water out of her hair, running after the wombat. Ell thundered behind.

  “Where are you going? We haven’t decided our next move!”

  “Our next move is to move. Can’t stay in one place! Ell and I hashed it out while I had the pince-nez and we agree: next stop, the Worsted Wood. Where you got your wrench! That casket makes the Queen’s sword, stands to reason it’s necessary for becoming Queen. Maybe it’s a piece of the Heart of Fairyland! And if not, the spriggans might know. Ell says they have a university, and that’s where people keep their smarts.”

  A-Through-L picked September up in one claw and twisted round to put her on his back. Then, he snatched up Saturday in the same fashion. “It’s far, but we can make up time if we don’t stop to sleep, or for anything else. From this minute, no stopping till spriggans! We saw Goldmouth run by with a bundle under his arm—we hid, because he is dreadful, and I think you would be upset if you came back and found us bleeding. Though we would win, of course, in a fight! But we would probably get very bruised.” His turnip banged against his knees as Ell ran.

  September wrinkled her brow doubtfully. “Detectives? The Worsted Wood? What on earth are you two talking about?”

  “We only left you for a few hours,” marveled Saturday.

  “If that’s what you call ‘all day and all night and half the next day,’” Blunderbuss grumbled. “We had to slap up some sort of fun. And lucky for you we did!”

  “We’ve been reading!” Ell whooped. He pointed his nose toward their luggage. A small blue book peeked out from beneath the lid. A mightily abused dust jacket clung on to the cover for dear life. It showed two men in blue uniforms looking very concerned about a lovely young lady lying on a blue sofa. Above their heads, September read:



  Ell rattled on as they ran. “Well, I have, mainly.
Buss wanted to eat it, which I have tried to tell her is a completely wrongheaded way to go about literature-ing. She said I was being culturally insensitive and a complete dunce. But one of her favorite dunces, so that’s nice.”

  The scrap-yarn wombat hid her face in a heap of papaya. “Aw, don’t be sore, Ell. I’m only rude to my nearest and nearest. Anyway, I should’ve remembered. Wombats start with W. You gotta learn our p’s and q’s the slow way.”

  “We agreed the fairest fix was for me to read aloud. After all, if Buss did it her way, there wouldn’t be any story leftover for me. So I did and we loved it so much I read it all through again and then we had a long discussion over our fourth dinner about the themes and imagery and metaphors—”

  “Don’t trust metaphors,” the wombat snorted. “If you let things start claiming to mean other things, there’s no limit on how many things they can mean! Madness! I am a stonking big knitted wombat, Ell is part Wyvern and part Library, and that’s that. We don’t mean anything but us and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise!”

  “I mean lots of things, thank you kindly,” the Wyverary said, without the littlest spot of anger in his voice. They had clearly got their teeth into that argument many times in the night. “Anyhow, the point is, we’ve talked it over, and we’ve decided to become detectives.”

  Blunderbuss nodded her woolly head enthusiastically. “We’re on the case! The Case of the Hijacked Heart!”

  “So you don’t have to worry anymore! We’ve learned so much I feel dizzy! We are much more interesting beasts than when you left us. Now we know all about Mysteries, Deduction, Motives, Mistaken Identities, Jewel Thieves, Belgian People, Steam Trains, Red Herrings, Heiresses, Chloroform, Ballerinas, Cigarettes, Rubies, England, Femme Fatales, and Boy Femme Fatales Though There Doesn’t Seem to Be a Word for That but There Should Be. Honestly, September, you never told me half of what your world gets up to! I told you all about mine, but you kept all this fantastic stuff in your back pocket. It’s not fair. But it’s amazing! I want to know more! Do all human men have splendid mustaches, or is it only Monsieur Poirot?” And he gave her a jaunty smile, curling his whiskers once more into a perfect, bright orange petit handlebar mustache.