The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 7Catherynne M. Valente
Cutty Soames nodded. His cutlass shone. “Not being King is like a chain round your neck. It’s the only way to be sure you can always do just as you desire.”
“But what do you desire that you can’t have without a crown? None of you are starving. You all wear jewels and smell wonderful and live in splendid houses. What do you want to do that you cannot?”
“Nothing just now,” admitted Cutty. “But there could always be something.”
The members of the Once and Future Club left the knot that had formed at the First Stone’s bar and settled into a number of chairs and sofas. September sat gingerly on a pale blue-and-gold seat that looked like it had escaped from someone’s dining table.
“So.” September sighed, tucking into her water and moss. “I have to race.”
“Obviously,” sighed Madame Tanaquill. “The Stoat of Arms ought to have told you. I shall strangle all of them when I see them next. I haven’t strangled the Stoat for centuries. It’ll be just like old times.”
“Please don’t strangle anyone! I’m sure they meant to tell me. It’s been a busy day! I can hardly keep my feet under me I’m so tired! All right then. I have to race the ancient Kings and Queens of Fairyland this Thursday morning at eight o’clock, which is before breakfast. I don’t suppose any of you would tell me where the Heart of Fairyland is? Just to make it fair.”
“I haven’t the first idea,” said the Prime Minister of Fairyland, shrugging.
“They don’t even know what it is,” yawned Iago, who had snoozed through their quarreling, curled up by the fireplace.
“Well, that’s the trick of it,” said Cutty Soames a bit guiltily. “If we knew, it wouldn’t be much of a race. I suppose it could be anything: a doorknob, a bag of wind, a jeweled necklace, a rhinoceros…”
“A hot air balloon, a spinning wheel, a tear from the eye of a phoenix, a bicycle pump…,” added Pinecrack.
“An egg with a needle inside, a book that reads itself, a golden ball, a golden toad, a golden sword with a golden toad’s soul in the blade…,” Thrum growled. “Or a great lot of things scattered all over the blasted place.”
“We don’t know.” Madame Tanaquill silenced them all with a glance. “Some of us have ideas—some of us have moronic ideas—but we don’t know.”
A small shadow fell over Iago’s green-yellow eyes and the glowing hearth. A girl’s shadow.
“I know,” said the Marquess. She stepped into the room imperiously, as though she had never for a moment ceased to own those chairs, those lamps, that fireplace, even the glasses and plates.
Madame Tanaquill rolled her eyes. “Oh, do shut up.”
The Marquess knelt beside Iago and stroked his ears. He purred in delight. “I do know what it is. Perhaps the rest of you spent your time in the Briary counting your gold or your servants or your toenail clippings, but I did not. Even before my first reign, Queen Mallow’s reign, I was a student of Dry Magic and Dry means books. I know more about Fairyland than any of you could scrape off the floors of your glitter-rotted minds. Even you, Foxy. I’ll meet you all at Mummery with pots of tea and a footbath ready, and when you’ve had a nice rest, you can all go hang. Coming back the first time was so hard, so difficult. But this? This is easy. This is nothing. This is a postmistress’s work. Get the package, deliver it, collect postage fee, which, in this case, is my crown.” She looked straight at September. “You wicked little thief.”
“It’s sweet when humans try to lie,” Crunchcrab sneered. “They’re such amateurs. You’re nothing but a filthy farmer’s daughter and the only thing you know is what to feed a cow. I don’t know why anyone is pretending we don’t know what will happen on Thursday. Tanaquill will win and grind all our faces into the dirt, and we’ll have to call her Your Highness for a thousand years. That is how the world works. The worst wins. I wasn’t bad enough, that’s where I went wrong. And you? You’re not even on the books, Missie Marquess.”
The Marquess’s hair flushed deep cerulean blue, like the underside of the sea. She smiled. It was a smile that grew in the grinning, deeper and wider and kinder and brighter, until September shuddered. She remembered that smile. It froze her bones.
“And you are a Ferryman who abandoned his boat. You ought to be ashamed. Do you even know where she’s anchored? I do. Starfish have chewed halfway through the hull, giant seagulls have pecked out the portholes, and there’s a family of sea lions living in the captain’s cabin. That poor ship. I’ve half a mind to mend her myself.”
Anyone else might have ignored her, or scoffed at her, for it would never list among the immortal lines of villainous banter. But Charles Crunchcrab the First flushed deeply, horror and shame flooding his face. His eyes filled with hot tears. The Ferryman of the Barleybroom said no more.
“Now,” said the Marquess cheerfully, her hair brightening to gold. “I should very much like a drink.”
But as September watched her stare down the First Stone until he put a little sand in a cup and dropped it in front of her, she thought that the Marquess had no better idea than any of them. After all, she knew a little about pretending to be brave when the fear in you has eaten up half your heart.
* * *
September left the Once and Future Club exhausted, hardly able to stand in her mary janes. The Green Wind was not waiting to guide her to her bedroom, nor the Stoat of Arms nor Saturday nor A-Through-L nor even the stuffed wombat. She stood alone in the Briary. All she could hear was its quiet, steady blooming.
“Sleep, Briary,” she whispered. “Show me where I sleep.”
For a moment, the hallway remained a hallway, long and green and silent. Then, a slender row of pale silver flowers sprang up beneath her feet. It whirled forward, each blossom sprouting as September put her foot to it. She laughed and ran along the silver path, her tiredness all gone, racing the flowers down staircases and round pillars, under buttresses and through doors wide and small. Finally, the silver blossoms came up short in a wine cellar deep within the Briary, at the edge of a trapdoor with a bronze pull-ring bolted into it. September felt very uncertain that this was meant to be her bedroom, but the flowers seemed insistent, waving back and forth all round the door in the floor.
“All right, all right!” said September, and pulled up the ring. She saw nothing inside but a soft half-light. She thought, for a moment, of climbing through all the dark doors of Fairyland Below until she found a Minotaur. She thought of wriggling into the hole at the top of Moonkin Hill. September took a breath. “All of that turned out reasonably well, I suppose!” And she crawled down into the light, toes pointed like a dancing girl’s.
There was a moon in September’s bedroom. It shone down on a lush green valley full of long grass and glowing lacy mushrooms and more of those tiny silver flowers growing everywhere. The night sky soared overhead, black and full of stars like city lights, but somehow she knew she was not really outside. A little green hill on one side of the valley peeled back like covers of a delicious soft bed, inviting her to lie down. There was a stone well nearby; its pail sloshed with warm milk. Night birds whistled lullabies—lullabies she knew, involving biplanes of paper and ink. The air hung warm and sleepy all around her. This was Fairyland, some secret, loving heart of Fairyland where she was meant to sleep safely, where the strange wedding of a country and its Queen would take place.
September, though she did not feel at all sure about sleeping inside a hill, crawled into the grass and the silver flowers. She wished she were in the grand billiards room with Ell and Saturday and the rest. But she pulled up the hill over her shoulder. She did not feel squelchy mud on her toes and her knees, but soft, familiar sheets. September rested her head on a pillow of moss and slept the deepest sleep she had known since long before the Green Wind came to her window and showed her how to ride a Leopard.
SISTERS OUGHTN’T KEEP SECRETS
In Which Certain Ladies Make Their Own Way
Let us leave September to sleep for a litt
le while. She has earned it—it’s ever so tiring to be suddenly in charge of a story when you have become quite accustomed to the story happening to you, rather than you happening to it. And besides, Kings and Queens are the most trying of people. There are far too many of them about for anyone’s comfort and peace of mind. Why, we have hardly gotten to catch our breath! Let us sit down together for a moment, and I shall pour you a glass of whatever you like best. You may hold my hand if you wish, I don’t mind. I shouldn’t want you to feel alone.
Now that we have made ourselves quite comfortable, I must tell you—we have forgotten about something important. I’m sure you did not mean to, and I certainly did not. It is only that so many exciting things have happened that we did not notice. Let us peer beneath the sofa cushions and beneath the bed for it. Let us jostle the curtains and lift up the tablecloth. We shall get ourselves into trouble if we do not find it. For this tale began in Nebraska, and we have not so much as glanced Omaha-way in ever so long. It is hard to remember to go knocking at a farmhouse door when so many palace doors await—but a door is a door, and a door is always an adventure.
In this particular farmhouse, which I expect you know nearly as well as I do by now, two women were standing in the kitchen. They looked terribly alike, as they always had, even as children. The same dark hair and dark eyes and fierce set of their jaws, just the same as September’s eyes and hair and jaw. Their names were Susan Jane and Margaret. They were sisters. And one of them had just said something very odd indeed. Margaret touched her sister’s cheek gently. She smiled, a smile that startled and teased and danced.
“Listen to me, Susie,” Aunt Margaret whispered, so that only they two could hear. “I know where September is.”
“How could you? Why wouldn’t you tell me at once?” said Susan Jane.
“Listen to me very carefully. Whatever I say, you must believe me, even if it sounds like the most ridiculous thing a person has said in the whole history of the world. Do you promise?”
“Yes,” said September’s mother.
Margaret found herself suddenly very afraid. There were words she had never said aloud to her sister before, or even to anyone in the state of Nebraska or the country of America. Words she knew weren’t safe to say, words more powerful than thunder. Aunt Margaret had led a life filled with secrets, and that is a very hard habit to break, even if you badly want to break it. So for a good while she said nothing, because she could not make herself say the thing she had kept hidden at the bottom of her heart for so long. Finally, she let a long breath out through her nose and wrestled her secret out into the little midnight kitchen.
“September is in a place called Fairyland. It’s very far away, farther away than any place you can think of, and then farther away still. It’s a storybook place. A place that’s met magic and shaken its hand. Now, I know this because … because I’ve been to Fairyland, too. All those times I said I was going to Paris or Turkey or Morocco or Mongolia? I’ve been lying up, down, and all around, Susie. Where would a woman like me get the money to visit Paris? No. I’ve never been to France. Never been to much of anywhere. Except this place. And I think you remember. I think you remember when I was little and I would run off into the woods and you couldn’t find me all day and into the night, even though you knew I’d run into the woods and the woods weren’t all that terribly big to begin with. I think you remember green shadows under the kitchen window, and the sound of a cat far bigger than ours purring at the door.”
“Fairyland. A real place called Fairyland.” And it seemed to Susan Jane that she did remember, a little. She did remember her sister whispering in the dark, chasing butterflies that weren’t butterflies at all, the shape of a man at the window in green jodhpurs and green snowshoes …
“Very, very real. The realest. The first time I went I was nine years old. A man all in green flew up to the second-story window in our old house on a flying leopard and said: You seem like a mad and mischievous enough child, how would you like to come away with me on the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the Tattersall Tundra that lies near the pole of Fairyland? And once he said it, I did feel mad and mischievous, and I did want to see what a Tattersall Tundra was, and I jumped out of that window as fast as you can say your own name.”
“Weren’t you afraid of a strange man at the window?”
“Well, I reasoned later that anyone who can win the love of a flying leopard has to be mostly all right. And he was. I rode on the back of a great arctic fox and wore trousers and fell in with the Tobogganeers, a band of snowy Stregas who keep their freezers stocked with magic. I learned to change myself into a polar bear and a manticore and a snow-scarab. And that was only the first time. I know it sounds mad but you promised to believe me. Time’s got its hat on funny over there, so I could play in Fairyland for months and still come home for dinner with new ribbons in my hair. Only it wasn’t play, exactly. I have another name when I’m there. I have a little house in the mountains. I’ve … done terrible things and I’ve done things so grand I wish I could throw a parade down Farnam Street in my own honor.”
“Has September done terrible things?”
“Oh, I’d imagine she has. And wonderful things. Fairyland has a weakness for the dramatic. I don’t know exactly; we’ve never been there at the same time. But I’ve heard her name whispered and hollered. I suspect she’s been there a few times by now. I know the look in her eye. It’s the look in my eye.”
“And is that why? Is that why September’s gone to this Fairyland, because you went? Did you take her there?”
“Oh no, Susie. That’s not how it works. Fairyland comes to you. I didn’t have a thing to do with it. It just happened that way. There’s … there’s a weak place in the world, I think. Near here. More people go through than you think. I used to always worry you’d stumble in somehow and I’d have to share. Oh, that’s terrible of me, I know, but all little girls are terrible, sometimes. Anyway, I always came back. September’s always come back, too, because you have to come back. Humans don’t much get to stay. They don’t even get to say when they come and go. Except me.”
Susan Jane looked at her sister as though she had never met the woman before. “Why you?”
Margaret smiled softly. A smile full of pride that didn’t want to seem proud. “I did Fairyland a favor once. I was rewarded.”
Aunt Margaret touched the ring on her right hand. It was an interlocking silver puzzle ring she’d brought back from Turkey when September was only little. It had four rings with ridges and engravings and patterns on them. If you turned and twisted them just right, they snapped together to become one single, complete ring.
“I promised I would believe you. I promised I would believe you.” Susan Jane said it a few more times, so that it would become true.
“Do you want to go to Fairyland, Susie? I should have asked you before, I know. Sisters oughtn’t keep secrets. Only it was such a good secret.”
“Oh yes,” breathed September’s mother.
THE CANTANKEROUS DERBY
In Which the Race Begins
Before anything else can happen, I must tell you a few things about Fairyland races. Fairylanders are simply mad for games and contests and races of all sorts, and thus, everyone knows the rules and nobody will bother much explaining them to one another. But I am rather kinder than most sportsmen and all referees, so I shall bring you up to speed while the early Thursday morning shadows and a few centaurs gather together all the things a healthy, happy race needs to grow up thrilling and swift.
Have you ever been to a racetrack? In the world where you and I keep our galoshes, they are very odd places. Someone fires a gun and a number of horses or cars or people run as fast as they can in a great long circle, and they go round and round and round and everyone cheers and cheers until another somebody waves a specially colored flag, and then whichever speedster barrels past the flag first wins. Folk dress in all manner of finery and wonderful hats to go
and watch the races, but only if it’s horses doing the barreling that day. This, at least, is understandable, for horses, in secret, love hats more than any other creature. It is a horse’s tragedy that they can never properly wear one.
To my mind, Fairyland races are much more sensible. The racetrack is the size of the world. Racers may barrel anywhere on any steed—over the Candelabra Desert or the Tattersall Tundra, across the Perverse and Perilous Sea, through the Worsted Wood, to the tops of the Pickapart Mountains or the Peppercorn Pyramids, down to the bottom of the Obstreperous Ocean where the Octopus Assassins lie in wait, even into Fairyland-Below or up to the Moon. And instead of racing a horse against a horse or a car against a car or a lady against a lady, Fairyland races ladies against chariots, centaurs against cheetahs, carriages against flying carpets, phoenixes against Dodos. You see, Fairyland long ago determined that Yetis were faster than anyone else and lost interest in races where the speediest always won. Now the race goes to the cleverest, the luckiest, the most reckless, and the most wanton. Nothing is banned, everything is allowed, and anyone with a crumb of wisdom to spare stays indoors until it is all over.
But wisdom is for owls and Oxford professors! Let us go to the races! You may wear your finest or your foulest, overalls or opulence. I believe I shall wear a hat, for I look splendid in them, but if they make your forehead itch, that’s perfectly all right. Picnicking is certainly allowed and I should never let you go hungry. Folk sit anywhere they please to sip their lemonades and catch a glimpse of the race as it goes by. Perhaps we will snag a seat in the Tulipbulb Amphitheatres of the Springtime Parish, or the beechwood bleachers of the Autumn Provinces. Perhaps we might gather with the gargoyles on the rooftops of Pandemonium, lay out a nice comfy lawn chair on the banks of the Barleybroom, or pitch a tent under a staircase in Asphodel. This is the first way in which Fairylanders love to gamble on a race. The racetrack covers every part of Fairyland, and so do the grandstands. Everyone hopes they have staked a claim on the very patch of glowerwheat on which something exciting will happen, but who can say? Where you and I keep our wallets, there is only one way to gamble on a race. Who shall win? Who shall lose? Give the nice man your money, and maybe you’ll get it back, but probably you won’t, because most things in any world are tricks, whether they are horse races, elections, or books about faraway and unrealistic places. But in Fairyland, gambling is an ancient and revered art. Fairy bookmakers won’t take gold or silver at all. They prefer something more personal.