The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Page 5Catherynne M. Valente
The Sibyl Slant stared out of her slit eyes, the disc of her face showing no feeling at all. “Do you suppose you will look the same when you are an old woman as you do now? Most folk have three faces—the face they get when they’re children, the face they own when they’re grown, and the face they’ve earned when they’re old. But when you live as long as I have, you get many more. I look nothing like I did when I was a wee thing of thirteen. You get the face you build your whole life, with work and loving and grieving and laughing and frowning. I’ve stood between the above world and the below world for an age. Some men get pocket watches when they have worked for fifty years. Think of my face as a thousand-year watch. Now, if we’ve done with introducing ourselves—by which I mean I have introduced myself and you’ve said very little, but I forgive you, since I know all about you, anyway—come sit on my lap and take your medicine like a good girl.”
September found herself climbing up into the Sibyl’s flat gold-and-silver lap before she could even protest that she was far too big for laps and, anyway, what did she mean by medicine? She felt very strange, sitting there. Slant had no smell at all, the way her father smelled of pencils and chalk from his classroom, but also good, warm sunshine and the little tang of cologne he liked to wear. The way her mother smelled of axle grease and steel and also of hot bread and loving. The smell of loving is a difficult one to describe, but if you think of the times when someone has held you close and made you safe, you will remember how it smells just as well as I do.
Slant smelled like nothing.
The Sibyl lifted a comb from a table that had certainly not been there before. The long gray comb prickled with gray gems: cloudy, milky stones and smoky, glimmery ones; clear, watery ones; and pearls with a silvery sheen. The teeth of the comb were mirrors, and September saw her own face briefly before the Sibyl began, absurdly, to comb her hair. It did not hurt, even though September’s brown hair was very tangled indeed.
“What are you doing?” she asked uncertainly. “Am I that untidy?”
“I am combing the sun out of your hair, child. It is a necessary step in sending you below Fairyland. You’ve lived in the sun your whole life—it’s all through you, bright and warm and dazzling. The people of Fairyland-Below have never seen the sun, or if they have, they’ve used very broad straw hats and scarves and dark glasses to keep themselves from being burned up. We have to make you presentable to the underworld. We have to make sure you’re wearing this season’s colors, and this season is always the dark of winter. Underworlds are sensitive beasts. You don’t want to rub their fur the wrong way. Besides, all that sun and safety and life you’ve stored up will be no use to you down there. You’d be like a rich woman dropped into the darkest jungle. The wild striped cats don’t know what diamonds are. They’d only see something shining where nothing ought to shine.” The Sibyl paused in her combing. “Are you afraid of going below? I am always curious.”
September considered this. “No,” she said finally. “I shall not be afraid of anything I haven’t even seen yet. If Fairyland-Below is a terrible place, well, I shall feel sorry for it. But it might be a wonderful place! Just because the wild striped cats don’t know what diamonds are doesn’t mean they’re vicious; it just means they have wildcat sorts of wants and wealth and ways of thinking, and perhaps I could learn them and be a little wilder and cattier and stripier myself. Besides, I haven’t yet met anyone who’s actually been to Fairyland-Below. Oh, I know Neep said there were devils and dragons—but my best friends in all the world are a Marid and a Wyvern, and anyone in Omaha who met them would call them a devil and a dragon, because they wouldn’t know any better! Fairyland itself frightened me at first, after all. It’s only that I wish I did not have to do it all alone. Last time, I had such marvelous friends. I don’t suppose…you would want to come with me, and be my companion, and tell me things I will promise to find extraordinary, and fight by my side?”
The Sibyl resumed her combing, stroke by long, steady stroke. “No,” she said. “I do not go in, I only guard the door. I have never even wanted to. The threshold is my country, the place which is neither here nor there.”
“Sibyl, what do you want?”
“I want to live,” the Sibyl said, and her voice rang rich and full. “I want to keep on living forever and watching heroes and fools and knights go up and down, into the world and out. I want to keep being myself and mind the work that minds me. Work is not always a hard thing that looms over your years. Sometimes, work is the gift of the world to the wanting.” At that, Slant patted September’s hair and returned the comb to the table—but in the mirrored teeth, September saw herself and gasped. Her hair was no longer chocolate brown but perfect, curling black, the black of the dark beneath the stairs, as black as if she had never stood in the sun her whole life, and all through it ran stripes of blue and violet, shadowy, twilit, wintry colors.
“I look like a…” But she had no words. I look like a Fairy. I look like the Marquess. “…a mad and savage thing,” she finished in a whisper.
“You’ll fit right in,” said the Sibyl.
“Will you make me solve a riddle or answer questions before I go in? I am not very good at riddles, you know. I’m better at blood and troths.”
“No, no. That’s for those who don’t know what they’re looking for. Who feel empty, needy, and think a quest will fill them up. I give them riddles and questions and blood and troths so that they will be forced to think about who they are, and who they might like to be, which helps them a great deal in the existential sense. But you know why you are going below. And thank goodness! Nothing is more tedious than dropping broad mystical hints for wizards and knights with skulls like paperweights. ‘Do you think you might want to discover that you had the power in you all along? Hm? Could shorten the trip.’ They never listen. No, what I want is this: Before you go, you must take up one of these objects and claim it as your own. The choice is yours alone.”
September shuffled her feet and looked around at the piles of glittering junk around her. “I thought,” she said meekly, remembering her books of myth, in which ladies were always leaving their necklaces and crowns and lords were always leaving their swords as tribute, “folk were meant to leave things behind when they went into the underworld.”
“It used to work that way,” admitted the Sibyl. “It’s the proper sort of thing. But the trouble is, when they leave their sacred objects, I’m left with a whole mess of stuff I have no use at all for. Good for them—they learn not to rely on their blades or their jewels or their instruments of power, but for me it’s just a lot of clutter to clean up. After a thousand years, you can see it heaps up something monstrous and there’s just no safe way to dispose of magical items like these. I met up with the other Sibyls a few centuries back—and wasn’t that a sullen meeting!—and we decided that the only thing for it was to change our policy. Now you have to take something, and maybe in another thousand years I’ll have space for a nice bookshelf.”
September looked around. The swords shone suggestively. Swords were useful, certainly, but she did not relish the idea of taking up another knight’s bosom friend, a sword no doubt accustomed to another hand, and to being wielded with skill and authority. She did not really even look at the jewels. They might be magical, might even be pendants of such piquant power that they bore names of their own, but September was a plain and practical girl. And her plain and practical gaze fell upon something else, something dull and without glitter, but something she could use.
Out of the heap of heroic leftovers, from beneath the wide necklace of blue stones, September pulled a long coat. She had been shivering for days in her birthday dress, and it would no doubt be colder underneath the world. A girl raised on the prairies does not turn away from a good warm coat, and this one was made of ancient, beaten beast-hide, dyed a deep, dark shade, and dyed many times over, the color of old wine. Creases and long marks like blade-blows crisscrossed the cloth. Around the neck, a ruff of black and silve
r fur puffed invitingly. September felt a pang as she ran her hand over the long coat. She recalled her emerald-colored smoking jacket, and how it had loved her and tried its best to be everything she needed. She could not imagine where it might be now, if it had fallen off between the worlds or found its way back to the Green Wind somehow. She wished it well, and in her heart whispered, I am sorry, jacket! I shall always love you best, but I am cold and you are not here.
She pulled the wine-colored coat on. It did not immediately tighten or lengthen to fit her as the emerald smoking jacket had. Instead, it seemed to regard the new creature within it coldly, guardedly, as if thinking, Who are you, and are you worthy of me? September hoped that she was, that whoever had owned the coat before had been someone she had a hope of matching for bravery and wiles. The fur felt silky and soft against her cheek, and she tightened the coat herself. September felt taller in the coat, sharper, more ready. She felt like Taiga with her reindeer-skin on, armored and eager to bite things. She grinned, and somehow she felt the coat was grinning slyly with her.
The Sibyl stood from her chair and pivoted smartly to one side, like a door swinging on its hinges. Behind her, a crevice opened in the wall of the scarlet elevator, a stony, lightless crack. A long staircase disappeared down into it, curving away into the shadows.
YOU ARE FREE BEASTS
In Which September Leaves Fairyland-Above, Encounters an Old Friend, Learns a Bit of Local Politics, and Changes into Something Very Exciting, but Only Briefly
The stairway wound around and around. The wooden steps creaked beneath September’s feet. Several slats were missing, crumbled away with age and use. Just as her eyes adjusted to the total dark, little freckles of light spattered the gloom before her. As she went deeper, September saw that they were stars, small but bright, hanging like old lightbulbs from the stony ceiling, dangling on spangled, bristly cables. They lent a dim, fitful light, but no warmth. The bannisters of the staircase prickled with frost. September trailed her hand along the cave wall. I am not afraid, she reminded herself. Who knows what lies at the bottom of these steps? And just as she thought this, her idle hand found a smooth, slick handle set into the wall, the kind that forms a huge switch with which someone might start a very great machine. September could just barely see the ornate handle in the dark. It made her think of the one that, when flipped, animated Frankenstein’s monster in the film her mother quite regretted taking her to. For a week afterward, September had run about the house, turning on the lights in every room and booming out what she considered a very scientific and professional cackle.
September threw the switch. She could hardly have done otherwise—the handle invited her hand, carved delicately but with a real heft to the wood, as perfect and solid and enticing as if it had been made just for her. Some switches must be flipped, and some children cannot help turning off to on and on to off, just to see what will happen.
This is what happened:
The lights came on.
Fairyland-Below lit up at the bottom of the staircase like a field of fireflies: Streetlights flared; house-windows flushed ruddy and warm. A million glittering specks of light and sound flowed out as far as September could see and further, not one city, but many, and farms between them, a patchwork of rich, neatly divided lands. She stood as if on a cliff, surveying the whole of a nation. Above it all, a crystal globe hung down on its own huge, gnarled cable. The black, slippery rope disappeared up into a gentle, dewy mist. The great lamp glowed at half wax, a giant artificial moon that turned the silent underground blackness into a perpetual violet-silver twilight. On its crystalline face, a ghostly smoke-colored Roman numeral glowed: XII.
September could no longer see the walls or ceiling of the cave, only sky and hills and solemn pearl-colored pine trees, as though this were the upper world, and the Fairyland she had known only a dream. Voices filled the silence as quickly as light had filled the dark, and bits of music, too: an accordion sputtering here, a horn sounding far off. Behind her, the long staircase wound up and up, vanishing away in the distance. Below her, only a few landings down, a pretty courtyard spread out, dotted with graceful statues and a little fountain gurgling inky water. She had not seen how close she was to the bottom in the dark! A park bench all of ancient bone perched invitingly next to the fountain, so that one might sit and look out at the view and have an agreeable lunch.
And off in the corner of the courtyard, rather poorly hidden by a statue of a jester juggling little jeweled planets with rings of copper and brass, stood a very familiar shape. A shape with wings, and an extremely long tail, and great hindlegs, but no forelegs.
“Ell!” September cried, and her heart ran all the way down the steps ahead of her, around and around, until she could barrel across the courtyard and throw her arms around the Wyverary’s thick, scaly neck.
We may forgive her for not seeing it right away. In the gentle twilight of the crystal moon, many things look dark and indistinct. And September was so terribly glad to discover her friend waiting for her after all that she clung to him for a long time without opening her eyes, relief flooding through her like a sudden summer rainstorm. But eventually she did open her eyes, and step back, and realize the truth of it: The creature she hugged so fiercely was not A-Through-L, her beloved Wyverary, but his shadow.
“Hello, September,” said Ell’s shadow, gently, shyly, the rough, happy baroom of his voice soft and humble, as if certain that any moment he would be scolded. He seemed solid enough when she hugged him, but his skin no longer gleamed scarlet and orange. It rippled in shades of black and violet and blue, shimmering and moving together the way a shadow does when it is cast upon deep water. His eyes glowed kindly in the gloam, dark and soft and unsure.
“Oh, September, you mustn’t look at me like that,” he sighed. “I know I am not your Ell—I haven’t big blue eyes or a fiery orange stripe on my chest. I haven’t a smile that just makes you want to hug me. But I have been your Ell’s shadow all his life. I lay there on the grass below him when you met, and on the Briary grounds when we found Saturday in his cage, and on the muffin-streets in the Autumn Provinces when you got so sick. I worried with him for you. I lay on the cold stones in the Lonely Gaol, and I was there at the end when you rescued us. I have always been there, and I love you just the same as he did. My father was a Library’s shadow, and I also know all the things that begin with A-Through-L. I could be just as good to you as he was, if you can overlook the fact that I am not really him at all, which I admit is a hurdle.”
September stared at him, how he ducked his head so shyly and seemed almost frightened of her. If she frowned at him she thought he might actually run away. She wanted to think this was her Wyvern. She wanted him to be A-Through-L, so she could stop feeling so alone. But when she tried to hold out her hand to him once more, she found she could not quite. “Where is Ell, then?”
“In the Civic Library of Broceliande, I expect. He’s, or, well, we’ve got an internship and a Studying Curse from Abecedaria, the Catalogue Imp. After you left, we, well, he felt it’d be best to perform a few Literary and Typographical Quests before presenting himself to the Municipal Library of Fairyland. Even the Civic Library spoke gruffly to him, for Libraries can get very stuck in their ways and hostile to new folk, especially when new folk breathe fire at the Special Collections. But we got a lunch break every day and read the new editions before anyone. We were happy, though we missed you with a fierceness. We kept a file of wonderful objects and happenings called Things to Show September When She Gets Back. But one day when we were shelving the new A. Amblygonite Workbook of Queer Physicks, Vermillion Edition, which has to go quite high up so little ones won’t get ahold of it and make trouble, I fell off of myself. Of him. Of A-Through-L. Pronouns are a tough nut when there are two of you! I can’t describe it better. It didn’t hurt; I felt a strong sucking, as though a drain had opened up in my chest. One moment I was in the Library, the next I was half flying and half tumblin
g head over tail above the cities down here, and many other shadows fell after me, like black rain.”
The shadow-Ell shifted from one violet foot to the other.
“At first, I was very upset. I’d lived with my brother since we were born! What would I do without him? I only knew how to stomp when he stomped, sing when he sang, roast shadow-apples with my gloomy breath when he roasted real ones with his flame. Do you see? Even I thought of him as real, and me as false. My wings, my scales, my apples—I didn’t even know how to say mine back then! Everything was his. Well, that’s not right at all. I’m talking to you. I am an A-Through-L, even if I am not the A-Through-L. And who is to say I am not the A-Through-L, and he my shadow—if a rather solid and scarlet-colored one? That’s what Halloween says, anyway. Shadow Physicks are fearfully complicated. A. Amblygonite has no idea. When I finally landed safely down here, I found I was solid, and hungry, and ready to turn flips in the air of my own making! Ready to do my own sorts of magic! Ready to stand on my head if I liked, and speak without him speaking first! I was so happy, September. I cried a little, I’m not ashamed to say. And Halloween said, ‘Be your own body. I’ve vanished your chains, just like that! Jump and dance if you want. Bite and bellow if you want. You are free beasts.’”
September winced. She did not want to ask. She knew already. “Who is Halloween?” she whispered.
Shadow-Ell uncoiled his neck and turned in a circle, dancing a strange umbral dance. “Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What You Please, and Night’s Best Girl.” The Wyverary stopped. “Why, she’s you, September. The shadow the Glashtyn took down below. She says when the parties are, and how to ride them true.”
September pressed her lips together. It is very hard to know what to do when your shadow has gotten loose in the world. Just think, if another version of you, who had not really listened when your parents tried to teach you things, or when you were punished, or when the rules were read out, decided to run off and take a holiday from being sweet and caring about anything at all? What could you possibly say to your wilder and more wicked self, to make your wanton half behave?