The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Page 4Catherynne M. Valente
Most houses worth their windows have basements, and the world does, too. Dark spaces under the busy rooms, lit only with lightbulbs hanging by the ceiling from lonely cords at the bottoms of creaky staircases. The world keeps a great number of things down there—liqueurs and black beers brewing for summer, barrels of potatoes and apples, jams glowing like muddled gems in their jars, meats curing, pickles pickling, bundles of long green herbs, everything working, everything steeping, everything waiting for spring. So, too, are there boxes kept down in the cellar of the world, all nicely labeled with pretty handwriting, all the things the dear old planet packed away from its previous lives, pyramids and ziggurats and marble columns, castles and towers and burial mounds, pagodas and main streets and the East India Trading Company. All of it just sleeping down there in the dark, tucked away safely, until a fuse blows in the upper house and somebody, a little girl, perhaps, has to venture down those creaky stairs and across the lumpy earthen floor to turn the light on once more.
Fairyland-Below is such a cellar, and the Sibyl is that little gray door, so small you might miss it, if you were not already looking so carefully.
The land between Moonkin Hill and Asphodel is called the Upside-Down. No one ever named it that in an official capacity—no one ever cut a ribbon over the place and put in a plaque. But everyone who passed through called it so—and September did, too. So would you, if you found yourself wandering around in it, for it looked just as though some mischief-minded giant had ripped up the land and put it back inside out and upside down. Roots grew up like trees from soil as rich and soft as whipped butter; bright orange carrots and golden onions and purple turnips and ruby beets sprang up everywhere like hard, squat flowers. Here and there yawning pits opened up where hills might properly have risen. Even more rarely, the foundations of little houses sat squarely on the ground, a glimpse of their green or blue porches just showing, disappearing down into the earth like crowns of radishes. A low mist gathered, dampening September and everything else. The mist, too, traveled upside down, but that makes little difference when it comes to mist.
A road wound through the Upside-Down, made all of bright, cheerful blue cobblestones. The painted side faced down, and September walked upon naked gray stones. She tried to be cheerful, but the mist dispirited her. How she would have preferred to ride through this sad, backward place upon Ell’s bright red back! Fairyland seemed altogether stranger and colder and more foreign than it had before—was that September’s doing? Or worse, was this the natural state of Fairyland, to which it returned when the Marquess left her throne, no longer demanding that it make itself into a marvelous place for children to love?
She could not believe that. She would not. Countries had regions, after all, and how foreign would her own world seem if she returned to Alaska rather than dear, familiar Nebraska? It was winter in Fairyland now, that was all, winter in a province or state or county far from the sea. And not the pristine snowy winter, either, but the muddy, wet sort that meant spring was coming, spring was right around the corner. Winter is always hungry and lean, and the worst of it comes right before the end. September cheered herself with these thoughts as she walked through the rows of root vegetables with their showy colors glinting in the mist. She thought, briefly, of simply tearing out a ration card and magicking herself to Ell’s side—but no. Wasting rations hastens hunger, Mrs. Bowman always said when a poor soul had no more bread cards and the month only half done. September would have to spend her magic ration carefully. She would have to save it, as her mother had saved all those sugar cards to make her birthday cake. She would spend her magic only when the time was right.
September bent and snapped off a carrot, munching it as she went. It was quite the most carrot-like of any carrot she had ever tasted. It tasted like the thing other carrots meant to copy. She picked a few onions and put them in her pockets for roasting later. Sooner or later, she would get to make that fire; September had little doubt.
Once—but only once—September thought she saw someone on the upside-down road with her. She could hardly make them in the low, glittery fog, but someone had been there, a rider in gray. She thought she glimpsed long, silver hair flying. She thought she heard four huge, soft paws hitting the cobblestones in a slow, steady rhythm. September called out after the shape in the mist, but it did not answer her, and the thing it rode upon—something enormous and muscled and striped—sped off into the clouds. She might have run, might have tried to catch them, to best her performance in the wheat field, if Asphodel had not reared up out of the drizzling, smoky wet and caught her swiftly in its tangled streets.
The sun always shines in Asphodel. Hanging big and golden-red as a pendant in the sky, it hands down its warm gifts as to no other city. September blinked and squinted in the sudden brilliance, shading her eyes. Behind her, a wall of swirling fog hung as if nothing unusual had happened, and what was she looking at, really? But having stepped upon the great avenue of Asphodel, September bathed in sunshine. All around her, the city rose up into the cloudless air, busy, shadowless, dazzlingly bright.
Asphodel was a city of stairs. Seven spiral staircases wound up from the street like skyscrapers, so huge that in each pale, marble-veined step, September could see windows and doors with folk bustling in and out of them. Little black sleighs ran up and down the bannisters, carrying passengers and bags of letters and parcels from one gargantuan step to another. Smaller staircases dotted side roads and alleys. Cupboards opened in their bases out of which bakers or tinkers or umbrella makers waved their wares. Some of the stairs whorled with delicate ironwork, some creaked in the pleasant wind, their paint peeling, their steps dotted with dear little domestic window boxes dripping with green herbs and chartreuse flowers. Though each staircase towered and loomed, September had a strange feeling that they were not meant to go up, but rather down. If she had been big enough to walk down those giant’s stairs, she imagined that she would be compelled to begin at their heights and walk downward, to the place where the steps disappeared into the earth. She felt certain for no particular reason that the natural direction of travel in Asphodel was not to ascend but to descend. It was a strange feeling, like suddenly becoming aware of gravity in a social way, sitting down to tea with it and learning its family history.
No one took the smallest notice of September as she walked among the great staircases. She thought of asking after the Sibyl from any number of fauns or duck-footed girls with mossy hair that she happened by, but everyone seemed so furiously busy that she felt rude even thinking of interrupting them. As she passed a pale-green spiral staircase, a handsome brown bear with a golden belt on climbed into one of the black sleighs and told it very loudly and clearly, “Eighteenth stair, second landing, please. And make it half speed; I’ve a bellyache from all that honey-beer down on twelve. S’Henry Hop’s birthday lunch. I hate birthday lunches. Spoils the whole office with silliness.”
The sleigh rolled smoothly up the bannister, and the bear settled back for a little nap. An empty sleigh clattered down the other jade-colored bannister and waited, empty, patient. September looked around. No one got in or even looked at the lovely thing, with its curling runners and silver ferns and little flowers embossed on the door. Carefully, as if it might bite her or, more likely, that someone would suddenly tell her she wasn’t allowed, September opened the sleigh door and sat down on the plush green seat.
“I’d like to see the Sibyl, please,” she said slowly and clearly, though not as loudly as the bear.
The black sleigh bounced harshly, once, twice. September winced, sure she had broken it. Instead, as she clung to the smooth, curved bow of the thing, it detached from its bannister and unspooled four long, indigo vines from its belly. The vines splayed out on the ground like feet, and thick, fuzzy lemony-white flowers opened up where toes might usually find themselves. The sleigh rose up totteringly on its new curlicue legs and, with a jostling, cheerful gait, darted off between the staircases, the sun glinting on its dark body
The Sibyl did not live in a staircase. The black sleigh brought September far beyond the city center to a square of thick grass full of violet and pink crocuses. Hunched up against the beginnings of a stony crag sat a great red cube the size of a house with a filigree brass gate closed firmly over its open end. The sleigh bounced again as if to discharge itself of its responsibility and jogged back off toward Asphodel proper.
September approached the cube gingerly and hooked her fingers into the swooping metallic patterns of the gate. She peered inside but saw only a vague redness.
“Hello?” she called. “Is the Sibyl at home?”
No answer came.
September looked around for a bell-pull or a door knocker or something whose job it might be to let visitors in. She saw nothing, only the scarlet cube standing improbably in that open field like a dropped toy. Finally, ducking around to the side of the square, her fingers fell upon a row of huge pearly buttons, ringed in gold and written upon with bold red letters. September gasped with wonder.
The Sibyl lived in an elevator.
The buttons read:
THE SIBYL OF COMFORT
THE SIBYL OF COMEUPPANCE
THE SIBYL OF CRUEL-BUT-TRUE
THE SIBYL OF COMPLEXITY
September hesitated. She did not need to be comforted nor, precisely, did she feel she deserved it. She thought she probably ought to choose comeuppance, but she was already trying to make it right! She did not want her punishment now, before she had even a chance to fix it all! September frowned; she probably did need to hear things which were cruel but true. If they were true it did not matter if they were cruel, even if all her mistakes were laid out before her like rings in a jeweler’s box. But she could not bear it, quite. She could not bring herself to volunteer for cruelty. That left only the last.
“Well, surely everything is always more complicated than it seems, and if the Sibyl can help unravel it, that would be best. But what if it means the Sibyl will make it all more complicated? What if it means I shall not be able to understand her at all?”
But her finger had chosen before her head could catch up, and the button depressed with a very satisfying click. She dashed around to the gate just as it rattled open and the most extraordinary creature appeared, seated upon an elevator operator’s red velvet stool.
The Sibyl’s face was not a person’s face. It was a perfectly round disc, like a mask, but without a head behind it. Two thin rectangles served for eyes, and a larger one opened up where her mouth should be. The disc of her face was half gold and half silver, and all around it a lion’s mane of leaves and branches and boughs, each one half gold and half silver, sprouted and glittered around her strange, flat head. Her body had odd carved half-silver and half-golden joints, like a marionette, and she wore a sweeping sort of short gold-and-silver dress that looked like what little girls wore in paintings of ancient times. But September saw no strings and no one else in the red elevator, and the disc of the Sibyl’s face made her shiver in the sun and clench up her toes in her shoes.
“Are you a Terrible Engine?” September whispered. “Like Betsy Basilstalk’s gargoyle or Death’s mushroom lady? Is there someone else back there hiding behind you, someone less frightening and more friendly?”
The Sibyl tipped her head down to look at her, and nothing gleamed in the black bars of her eyes. Her voice emerged from the slash of her mouth, echoing, as if from somewhere very far away.
“No, child. I am only myself. Some things are just what they appear to be. I am the Sibyl, and you are September. Now come in out of the light and have a cup of tea.”
September stepped into the great elevator. The gate closed behind her and a momentary panic rose up in September’s breast—the elevator was a cage and she was caught in it. But the Sibyl touched the walls as she walked into her house, and wherever her hand fell a pearly button lit up with a number on it, illuminating the room like welcoming lamps. 6, 7, 9, 3, 12. The inside of the elevator shone with redness everywhere: red couches, red chaises, red tables, red curtains. The Sibyl settled into a red armchair whose back had creases like a seashell. Before her a little red tea service had already been laid out on a low table the color of a sunset. Above her head a jeweled brass half circle hung on the wall—an elevator arrow, and it pointed toward the second floor. But the room and its clutter seemed a bit shabby and threadbare, patches of worn velvet and tarnished brass, as though once it had all been much grander. Even the Sibyl’s terrible face, now that September felt she could bear to look at it for a full moment, was peeling a little at the edges, and thin cracks shone in its surface.
All around the chair and the table and the tea service and the couches, the elevator was filled with the most extraordinary heaps of junk. Weapons glinted everywhere—swords and maces and cudgels and bows and arrows, daggers and shields and tridents and nets. Besides these September saw armor and jewelry, bucklers and tiaras, helmets and rings, greaves and bracelets. An immense necklace of blue stones lay draped over a long golden rod, and both of these rested against a woman’s dark breastplate. Clothing peeked out here and there, plates and bowls and long plaits of shining hair only a little less bright than the metal, bound beautifully with ribbon and arranged in careful coils. In the midst of all this, September sat frozen on a soft red couch made for a girl just her size.
The Sibyl poured tea from a carnelian pot with a little three-headed stone dog prancing on the lid. One of the dog’s legs had gotten snapped off in some tea-related incident years past. The liquid splashed purple and steaming into a ruby cup. The parchment tag of a tea bag dangled from the lip of the cup. In square, elegant writing it said:
All little girls are terrible.
“Are your sisters about?” September asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking. She felt suddenly that she had chosen dreadfully wrong, that this alien, faceless woman did not mean well to anyone. Taiga had called her an awful old lady, and perhaps she was right.
“The Sibyl of Comfort, perhaps? I’ll take Cruel-but-True if I have to.”
The Sibyl laughed, and it came out all wrong, jangling, crashing, crackling somewhere inside her strange body.
“There is only me, girl. My name is Slant, and I am all the Sibyls. You only had to choose which me to talk to, for, you know, we all change our manners, depending on who has come to chat. One doesn’t behave at all the same way to a grandfather as to a bosom friend, to a professor as to a curious niece. I was impressed with your choice, so if you take it back now, then I shall have to be disappointed in you, and make you write ‘I Shall Not Chicken Out’ a thousand times.”
“Why…why would you be impressed? It’s only that I could not bear the others. It was cowardly, really.”
The Sibyl’s head turned slowly to one side, and kept on turning until it had rotated all the way around like a wheel. “Most people don’t like complexity. They would prefer the world to be simple. For example, a child is whisked away to a magical land and saves it, and all is well forever after. Or a child goes to school and grows up and gets married and has children, and those children have children, and everyone enjoys the same cake for Christmas every year and all is well forever after. You could get yourself a sieve the size of the sea, sift through half the world, and still find not two together who would choose a complex world over a simple one. And yet, I am a Sibyl. Complexity is my stock in trade.”
“What is a Sibyl, exactly?”
“A Sibyl is a door shaped like a girl.” Slant sipped her tea. September could hear it trickling down her metallic throat like a rain down a spout. It was a pretty answer, but she did not understand it.
“And how do you…get into that line of work?”
September believed the Sibyl might have smiled, if her mouth worked that way.
“How do you get any job? Aptitude and luck! Why, when I was a girl, I would stand at the threshold of my bedroom for hours with a straight back and clear eyes. When my father came to
bring my lunch, I would make him answer three questions before I let him pour my juice. When my governess came to give me a bath, I insisted that she give me seven objects before I let her enter my room. When I grew a little older, and had suitors, I demanded from them rings from the bottom of the sea, or a sword from the depths of the desert, or a golden bough and a thick golden fleece, too, before I allowed even one kiss. Some girls have to go to college to discover what they are good at; some are born doing what they must without even truly knowing why. I felt a hole in my heart shaped like a dark door I needed to guard. I had felt it since I was a baby and asked my mother to solve an impossible riddle before I would let her nurse me. By the time I was grown, I had turned the whole of our house into a labyrinth to which only I had the map. I asked high prices for directions to the kitchen, blood and troths. My parents very sweetly and with much patience asked me to seek out employment before they went mad. So I went searching all over Fairyland, high and low and middling, seeking the door that fit my heart. You know how questing goes. You can’t explain it to anyone else; it would be like telling them your dreams. I looked under a rock, but it was not there. I looked behind a tree, but it was not there, either. Finally I found Asphodel. The ground is thin here, and a little cave greeted me with all the joy a hollow rock can manage. A thousand years later, most breaths spent in Asphodel are concerned with trade with and transit to Fairyland-Below. The Sibyl industry has boomed all over Fairyland, in fact. There are two other gates now, two! I have even heard of a third in Pandemonium itself. What a degenerate age we live in! But still, I was first, and that counts for something.”
“You’re a thousand years old?”
“Close enough for mythic work. A Sibyl must be more or less permanent, like the door she serves. The door keeps her living, for it loves her and needs her, and she loves and needs it.”
“Is that why you look…the way you do?”