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The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  “What’s a human? Is it like a toad? Can I ride one?”

  The Red Wind pondered. “A human is a know-it-all ape who got so good at magic, it thought there was nothing special about the way it behaved and then forgot magic ever existed in the first place. And you should most definitely try to saddle one up.”

  “But what if I want to go home?”

  “Don’t worry, my little lump of rock. Everybody gets a chance to choose. Or else where would irony come from?”

  And indeed, in the rippling red clouds above everything, a great number of treetops began to peek out. They were all very tall and very lush: great umbrellas of glossy leaves, lacy branches twisting and toppling together, cupolas of orange and fuchsia flowers, obelisks of braided beanstalks, huge domes like the ones Hawthorn had seen in his picture book about Pandemonium, but made of climbing roses and hanging bananas and iridescent turquoise bubbles that would not pop, even when they tumbled into thorns. Just the sort of place where the wind stills, grows sleepy, turns around in a few lazy circles, and settles down for a nap in a sunbeam. Everything was hot and wet and alive, like the inside of a summer raindrop.

  “Welcome, Hawthorn, dear as vino and veritas, to the Rhyming Jungle, where the Six Winds spend their holidays.”

  Hawthorn thought his Toad would very much have liked the place. He liked it himself, but decided not to tell.

  The Red Wind and Hawthorn entered the Rhyming Jungle smoothly, the Panther of Rough Storms being extra careful not to jostle the landing. They soared down the Sestina Shunpike, where wide-winged haiku-hawks darted and sang: five trilling notes, then seven, then five again. The Panther of Rough Storms purred and snapped his jaws at them. Sunlight rushed and rippled down the paths of the forest the way rivers run through the cities you and I have seen.

  “Why is it called the Rhyming Jungle? A jungle can’t rhyme,” Hawthorn said sullenly, refusing to give the Red Wind the satisfaction of being impressed.

  “Look around you, little blind mouse! Everything rhymes! There’s the Guava Grove on the edge of Lava Cove, the Savannah of Bananas, beaches full of peaches, moonflowers growing in the evening hours. And look there! The pink-backed snake basks in the shade of the ink-black mandrake, the cuckoos in the bamboo, the wide-mouthed frogs in the seaside bogs, the crocodiles sleeping in the hollyhock isles, the ocelots among the apricots, the mistletoe twists round branches of pistachio, the plum trees gossip with the gum trees, dryads tango through the mangoes—and when night falls, the fruit bats and the muskrats and the wildcats and the wombats hold their wild sabbats on their thorny ziggurat! If you look closely at the world, you will see that it is made of nothing but interlocking verses. For everything that is, there is a mirror and a match, a rhyme and a rhythm. Ask me instead what does not rhyme? That would be easier.”

  Hawthorn looked down at the seething poem beneath him. “But…but there’s a herd of elephants eating cashew leaves. And capybaras with their cheeks full of sarsaparilla roots. Kumquats next to cinnamon trees and an avocado grove with mosquitoes and coconuts and tapirs and orchids mixed in. Those don’t rhyme at all.”

  “The Jungle enjoys a spot of free verse from time to time. Don’t nitpick, it’s a very unattractive trait.”

  The Panther padded down softly and trotted off into a thicket of coffee berries and rosy cherries. They were heading for a shimmering clearing at the end of the Shunpike, so thick with ferns and wild purple flowers that Hawthorn could not see right away that the ground beneath was not green, but a bold, cheerful blue. As they drew nearer, the little troll looked down upon a lovely strange sort of painting in the earth: Grass and vines and fallen fruits and old leaves and gnarled roots and wet, clayey mud grew and corkscrewed and scattered and fell and twisted and squelched in a hundred colors—a map of the world made of the world itself. The blue grasses made a flowing ocean; little heaps of papayas and tangerines clustered into continents, great red tree roots showed safe sailing routes, and a thousand brilliant flowers floated in the grass like islands in the sea. Across the middle of it all lay a path of perfectly even, flat, glistening obsidian stones. Hawthorn could see his face in their black, glassy surfaces, broken into a dozen other Hawthorns.

  “What are those?” he whispered, entranced by the stones and the boy trapped inside them. The continents looked nothing like his book of maps at home. His book was gigantic and red, and therefore one of his favorite toys. Best of all, if you stepped on a page and said the right words, you could go right into the talking desert or candy-cane towers it showed. His mother hadn’t shown him the word yet, but Hawthorn felt certain she was keeping it in the high kitchen cabinet he could not reach, behind the baking soda and the belladonna. Pretty soon he’d be big enough. But this! This map had so much ocean! And all the land looked like a great broken puzzle, as though if you squeezed them all together they would fit precisely, shore to shore, and make a picture of something else.

  “Those are the Equator, my dulcet demon. And we can’t get very far without an Equator, so do stop gawping at them.” The Red Wind dismounted with a gallant sweep of her leg and lifted the troll from the Panther of Rough Storms, letting him squish his toes in the blue mud. She looked him over. “Do see to your hair. It’s sticking up dreadfully in front.”

  Hawthorn blushed—trolls blush a very fetching shade of chartreuse—and squashed his forelock down hurriedly with one hand.

  “But that’s not right! Everyone knows the Equator is a great fat serpent who lays around the whole world and bites her own tail and keeps us all safe from marauding meridians,” he spluttered quickly, embarrassed. He did so love to be right. It was his third favorite thing, after fire and his mother.

  “Don’t be silly, child. The Equator is a dotted line on a map. It marks the widest part of the earth, midway between the North Pole and the South Pole. Serpents! Why, I’ve never heard such a thing!” But her dark eyes twinkled, and her red mouth quirked as though she was, somewhere deep inside, laughing at him. Perhaps the snake was hiding off further in the Jungle, smirking too, holding her giant breath to keep from being discovered.

  Hawthorn felt quite shy in front of the mossy map. Being a troll, he loved the earth. A troll’s love for the earth is a peculiar thing—it is something like the way you and I love our parents and our dogs and our favorite novels and the stuffed rabbits we have had since we were in our cradles and the very best thing we have ever done with our own two hands, all smashed up together in a rough, enormous ball of feeling the size of a planet. But this wasn’t his earth. He felt as though he were being introduced to the beautiful cousin of his best friend. All his skin flushed and tingled. He felt faint. Perhaps it was only that he hadn’t eaten anything since supper last night and the Jungle was so wickedly hot and wet and close. Being a Changeling was, so far, very tiring work.

  “Are they going to come alive?” Hawthorn peered closer at the dark stones. “Or grow legs and dance? Or tell us fell secrets from the deep and loamy vaults of lizard-time?”

  “You’re going to have to start a sort of backward, old-fashioned sort of thinking, I’m afraid.” The Red Wind picked at her sleeve shamefacedly. “Not everything is going to be always alive the way you and I are. Not everything has a dance or a secret or a song locked up inside it. Where you are going, a map is just a map. If it has any magic, it is a simple one: A map shows maybes. Maybe you will climb the Himalayas or sail the Mississippi. Maybe you will see Paris; maybe you will eat wolf stew in Siberia. A map shows the way to everything. No more and no less. But it cannot choose between Annapurna and Missouri. That is your job. If you want the job, that is.”

  The Red Wind turned to him with a very serious expression on her lovely face. She crouched down so that they could look each other in the eye directly, troll to wind. “When you make a choice,” she said, “how do you do it, my stroppy, surly, splendid lamb? Think of all the things you have chosen in your little life, from porridge or parrot pie for breakfast to whether or not to bother with learning to wa
lk. How did you pick the pie and the trip-trapping upon the bridge?”

  Hawthorn shuffled his large, mossy, bare feet on the brilliant blue grass of the blooming map. “Well…you start with fretting,” he said finally. “If you don’t give a thing a proper fret it’ll never come out right. I know that from my own belly, which always makes a feeling like falling when it doesn’t know what to do. And then…well, my mother says everything in the world is a boxing match in your heart, between Boldness and Not-Boldness. You let them holler inside you and wallop each other with Arguments For and Against. Then you end by betting on one or the other and that’s how things get decided.” He thought about it for a moment. “If you’re my father you bet on Not-Boldness, Being Safe, with a bridge over your head and a good beefy riddle in your pocket. If you’re my mother, you bet on Boldness. Mummy says a choice is a bet you make with the world, and a gambler drinks better than a spendthrift. And all the while it’s happening you have a stomachache.”

  “And who do you take after?”

  Hawthorn thought back to his garnet nursery, his great toad, his father and his hat, his mother and her pot, the family bridge, with its good, creamy mortar and nice thick stones and new riddles every year. He thought of everything that had ever happened since he had been born, which was really not so many things, but to Hawthorn was the whole of the universe.

  “I don’t know!” he cried. “I mostly take after my Toad, I think.”

  The Red Wind grinned, her red lips curling under her red mask. She looked as though she had been given a present just specially for her, all wrapped up in red. “Oh, my darling stumpy mushroom-lad! Quite so! And a toad means adventure. A toad means starting out a nasty clammy little thing and turning into a prince. A toad means sticking your tongue out as far as it can go and gobbling up everything it touches. A toad means golden balls and wells and cursed princesses and archery contests and swelling music and flowers falling from towers and the enchanted bowers of fair maids! Choose, Hawthorn, the Toad’s True Son—a life in the tourist industry, sticking close to home, trip-trapping poor backpackers who never harmed you, or a life of strange lands, wild wandering, splendid machines, and deeds of daring?”

  Hawthorn hopped from foot to foot, quivering and sweating and furrowing his brow. He could feel his fret starting up in him like a sour green balloon, slowly filling and growing. He could see the gorgeous land the Red Wind spoke of on one side of his heart, opening up like a book of many colors, like his book of maps, wonderful, new—and on the other side he saw his beloved whale-skull bed and the opal porridge his father boiled up on Thursday mornings and the dear, familiar shops of Skaldtown all lit up for the holidays. The Equator glittered beneath his feet. Each stone seemed as deep as the sea, as a dark, dark door, a tunnel, through which the troll knew he would find another Hawthorn, a boy he could not even imagine right now, who had chosen adventure and towers and flowers and whatever bowers were, who had a gleam in his eye like a lad who had placed his bet and won.

  Hawthorn wanted to meet that boy awfully.

  The Red Wind gently pulled a strand of Hawthorn’s mossy hair free of his nightclothes. “A choice is like a jigsaw puzzle, darling troll. Your worries are the corner pieces, and your hopes are the edge pieces, and you, Hawthorn, dearest of boys, are the middle pieces, all funny-shaped and stubborn. But the picture, the picture was there all along, just waiting for you to get on with it. Now, grab hold of that bit of grass. That one there, under the guavas. Get your nails underneath, that’s a lad.”

  Hawthorn, his fret still squeaking and swelling, did as he was told. He squooshed his thick fingers into the Jungle earth. It was as soft and sweet as warm chocolate. He felt a hard lip and hauled on it—the edge of the blue grass, the edge of the map, came up in his hand. The Red Wind had snatched up a stretch of cantaloupe-continent, and as Hawthorn watched, she heaved it up, up, up, over her head. The Panther of Rough Storms bit a pale swath of moonflower-arctic in his black muzzle and yanked it free. The troll gritted his sharp teeth and pulled harder, hardest, until his scrap of sea came up as well, and they all three tripped and tumbled toward each other, dragging the grass and flowers and stones behind them like capes, until suddenly all was dark. The boiling sun was gone. They crouched together, breathing fast, huddled inside the bundle of the world like a fort of blankets. The rich smell of flowers and roots and soil and growing, living, rhyming things swirled and danced in the shadows. Hawthorn’s fret popped in an emerald burst. He peered at the Wind and her Panther with great bright crimson eyes like nursery-garnets and Redcaps and poison apples.

  “There isn’t really a choice, is there?” he whispered. “Adventure cheats. It’s so much shinier and louder than Not-Adventure.”

  Solemnly, the Red Wind held out her free hand to the troll in pajamas. With the other hand, she held the world together.

  “Aren’t you the cleverest thing,” she said, and pulled him in close to her scarlet side, to her Panther, to the Equator, and the infinite sea of maybes she clutched in one strong, red fist.



  In Which Hawthorn Chooses Between a Variety of Attractive Packaging Options, Meets a Certain Benjamin Franklin, and Receives a Commemorative Stamp

  I have told you three times that the world is a house—and everyone knows a thing you say three times must be true. But now I shall tell you how the world is shaped for the fourth time.

  Fours are a funny business. No one ever gets four wishes from a genie in a great brass coffeepot. Nobody demands you perform four tasks to be done in order to win the heart of a rhinoceros, or accepts four gifts from the suspiciously overeager witch at the bottom of a well. A joke repeated three times is a satisfaction, four tires the patience and the jaw. I have never heard hide nor hair of the fourth blind mouse, nor what the fourth little pig might have found left over to build his house with when his brothers had done. The fourth wish, the fourth gift, the fourth mouse—they live outside the story of stories, outside the rules. Anything might happen to that poor white-eyed creature nosing in the dark. She might find herself crowned Queen of the Kingdom of Drywall and rule with an iron paw. One simply cannot know what to expect. Not even me—and I know quite a lot of things concerning stories, as well as the care and keeping of royal mice.

  But we are seasoned travelers, you and I. We have gone together every which where: into the front parlor of our own dear planet, full of diamonds and dinosaur bones and Canadian geese and the Cathedral of Notre Dame and ballpoint pens. We have crept up into the lush, painted bedroom of Fairyland and bounced upon the bed until feathers flew. We have slipped through the cluttered closets between worlds, down into the dark cellar of the underworld, up onto the roof to see the lost baseballs and fallen stars and astronauts left all about. We have sailed and spelunked and flown hand in hand—we have even walked on the Moon. How wonderfully expert we have become at the whole business! We know just where our traveling socks are kept. At the drop of a page, we polish our passports and pack our overcoats and turn up the collars on our rather fetching matched luggage. We shall go to the Country of Four together! What fun it shall be! The Country of Three is such a safe place, after all. It is so comforting to know that the third house always stands fast, no matter how the wolf blows. But the fourth? Who can tell?

  This time I shall not lead you into a new corner of the house of the world. We know it so well by now, after all. We know where the Fairies live and where the shadows fall, where the cobwebs really ought to be cleaned up if anyone ever gets around to it, where a window is loose, where a door creaks. We are annoyed by the stove that will not light, by the weeds in the garden, by that ungodly mess in the closet. A thing too familiar becomes invisible.

  It is time for us to Go Out.

  But do not fear, even if it is colder outside than you might prefer, if Spring has been once again rudely tardy, if the trees only have a breath of green at their tips like a fine lady’s jade rings, if the sun is pale and h
igh and makes you squint, if the wind, for there is always wind, bites and pierces deep. Tug up your best coat round your neck and tie your longest scarf tight. You may hold my hand if you like. I promise, it is good for your health to step outside the house of the world. After all, we are not going far.

  Only so far as the mailbox.

  When one wraps oneself up in a blanket of earth, one expects, quite rightly, to find oneself underground when all is wrapped and done. But when Hawthorn opened his eyes (which he had scrunched up tight in case of a frightful rush of air, a bang or a flash, any jostling or walloping that might accompany a crossing of, or indeed a burrowing into, the Equator) he stood outside, on a pleasant, clipped lawn, with a number of respectable hedges and flowerbeds about. The sun sparkled in a cloudless sky; a brisk breeze ruffled rows of several-colored tulips in neat beds. Hawthorn shaded his eyes, dazzled. Before him rose quite the largest building he had ever seen. Troll architecture is mainly accomplished by having a good long talk with a hill or a swamp about the marvelous advantages to be found in doors, windows, and indoor plumbing. But this was a palace. Twelve black columns rose up, all tangled round with golden moss and briars bursting into deep violet roses and deep violet quill-pens, their feathers drooping elegantly toward the grand steps. A great triangular roof capped the columns. Beautiful carvings danced upon it, a parade of dashing daredevils: Peasants and princes and spriggans and salamanders, fairies and firebirds and fauns, maidens in armor and maidens in chariots, strange, smartly suited folk with plain faces and more buttons on their coats than anyone needs, horses and dogs, clerks with sharp pens, all laughing as though they had heard the same excellent joke. All passing parcels and letters between them, some secret and furtive, some open and glad. And below this stone gathering, bright blue letters read: