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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 11

Catherynne M. Valente


  The Great Grand Library picked up her studs and her door frame and high-tailed it south, looking for a better life. Now, a hut, no matter how good-hearted and sturdy-souled, has little use for candlesticks (all houses, huts, shacks, and bungalows can see perfectly well in the dark, though mansions have a terrible fear of it). Nor does she need much in the way of porridge bowls. A house eats only evening hours, the smells of baking things, and wood polish. And even if she did decide to give food a go, she would not start with porridge, which is horrid. This left the Great Grand Library, neither great nor grand nor a library quite yet, with her single solitary book. She sat down to read it in a patch of poor raven-chewed sunshine, and when she finished, she read it all over again. By the time she had finished her fourth reading, the hut looked up and realized that a gnome had wandered into it and lain down to sleep. When the gnome awoke, it unpacked its belongings, which included two more books. When the gnome left for an exciting business opportunity in the brand-new baby city of Pandemonium, the hut hid all three books from him and kept them for herself.

  And so it went. The hut prowled all over Fairyland, enticing Fairies and spriggans and hobgoblins and wights to move in and move out, and each time, the hut stole their books, and her collection grew. She read every last book and then started over from the first one, the were-mammoths’ book, again and again. Finally, she got so heavy with the weight of her books that she could not prowl any longer, and the place where she plopped down at last is the place where she still sits.

  The heart of Meridian is a hut that wanted to be a library when it grew up.

  And that is just what September and her friends saw when they appeared, rather suddenly and with a loud chuh-chunk stamping sound, in the middle of the Great Grand Library. They landed in the Mystery section, which had once been a tiny kitchen where were-mammoth children had laughed and refused to eat their greens and gotten porridge all over their antlers. Now it had a ceiling like an overgrown cathedral, tangled up in flying buttresses and skylights and study desks zooming and darting to and fro like warplanes. But there were still a number of sinks and china cabinets and sideboards and tables with dinner plates laid out, though they had no beef or cheese on them, only more books, piled forty volumes high. The Mystery section is also the theatre district—for all of the town of Meridian is contained within the Great Grand Library, safe and sound and snug behind a wall of bookshelves, just as a medieval village bunkers down within a wall of bricks.

  Ell could hardly stand still—so he didn’t. He leapt into the air, soaring up the stacks past the buttresses and the spitfire study desks with their green lamps blazing.

  “Wait!” called September. They had to stay together—who knew how far Tanaquill and the others might have gotten by now?

  “Looking for clues!” he shouted down while he darted all round the tip-top shelves, where there are precisely no books on the Heart of Fairyland. Human novels are kept on the top shelves of the Mystery section. The Great Grand Library did not have many books from the human world. She had to wait until some traveler who happened to bring along a paperback dropped it or traded it for a fourth wish or left it carelessly on a bedside table—with the spine split and pages dog-eared! The Library’s spies could never stand such abuse. Whenever she heard a book cry out in vain, the Great Grand Library sent someone to liberate it on the double quick. This is just what happens when you cannot find the book you were only just yesterday eagerly reading.

  “Agatha Christie!” Ell cried. “Jules Verne! A whole mess of people called Brontë! I’ve never heard of any of these! They definitely sound magical. September! Are these friends of yours? Do you know them? Oh, I want to read all of them!”

  But September could not answer. She was busy being glared at with cold ferocity by a gigantic brass ball. The ball, greened over with age, had two suspicious eyes carved into it and a narrow, pinched mouth. Numbers, both Roman and regular, were etched all over the rest of it, framed by a fan of hour hands from an antique clock like a peacock’s tail. It could raise and lower itself on a long brass pole in the center of the room.

  “Do you have a library card?” the ball hissed down.

  “N-no?” September called up.

  “Then you are not allowed! Intruder! Brigand! Tourist! Begone or I shall set the book bears on you! Vandal! Hoodlum! Critic!” The brass ball spun furiously round his pole. “Ooh, I’ll bet you scribble in the margins, don’t you? You fiend! You devil! I can see it in your beady little non-spectacled eyes! You’re just the type of monster who uses an innocent book to prop open a door or straighten a table with a wobbly leg. Or maybe you only read magazines? Savage!”

  “Oh, get off yourself,” barked Blunderbuss. “I’ve eaten more books than you’ve shelved in your whole weird pinball life and I enjoyed every last one, thanks very much.”

  “EATEN?!” screeched the brass ball.

  “Yes, eaten! How else do you think a wombat reads? I never trust my eyeballs. I trust my belly. Chomp, chomp, chomp, ooh, the vizier did it, what a surprise! Yum, yum, so that’s how you build a transistor radio! Bring on the poetry for dessert! Now quit your wheezing and introduce yourself like a civilized person. Ball. Thing.”

  The brass ball shot down the length of his pole to get a better glaring position. September and Saturday might once have shrunk away from his outraged gaze, but they stood up straight to him.

  “I am Greenwich Mean Time, thank you very much, Guardian of the Great Grand Library, Overdue Books Reconnaissance Officer, and Chief Babysitter to the Prime Meridian. That’s Latitude and Longitude’s strapping lad. They go out on the town so much these days—and they’ll leave their boy with me until he learns to stop pulling the Equator’s tail. I’ll ask you not to make any sort of ruckus, or you’ll wake him from his nap. And I will also thank you to leave, for you have no card, and therefore you are trespassing, and therefore you are my enemy!”

  September stepped forward and refused to be shamed. “My name is September, this is Saturday and Blunderbuss. We do not use books as doorstoppers nor scribble in the margins, and we came with a Librarian, a member of the Catalogue. He’s just up there, the bright red fellow scarfing up Jane Austen.” September pointed toward the ceiling, where Ell was flipping pages at speed with one delicate claw. He looked up, chagrined, blushing orange. “We are racing in the Cantankerous Derby, and we need your help. Or somebody’s help. Where might we find the Reference Desk?”

  As Ell descended through the Human section, past Biographies, Autobiographies, and Crypto-Biographies, past Histories, Lies, and Assorted Trickeries and back down into the Mystery Kitchen, one of the airborne study desks detached from its unit and zoomed down after him. An Oxtongue Fairyish Dictionary lay open on it, the pages riffling like propeller blades, its green pull-chain lamp flashing like the lights on the tips of aeroplane wings. They landed neatly side by side.

  “No, no! Bad desk!” screeched Greenwich Mean Time. “They don’t belong! Don’t answer their questions! Get back up there and get ready for Re-shelving Maneuvers!”

  But the Reference Desk did not budge. It tilted upward at A-Through-L, thought for a moment, and then purred, rubbing affectionately against his great scarlet leg. A-Through-L reached up under to the patch of rough fur that covered the place where his wing joined his body, where they’d secured their little bit of luggage for the race, since Ell could carry a giant’s suitcase and hardly feel a thing. The Wyverary, after a moment’s fiddling, produced a large copper shield on a heavy chain. He whirled it round his neck in one practiced movement.

  “I have a card, Mr. Greenwich,” said the Wyverary proudly, “and I am quite sure you will find my account current and in the black, with not so much as a whisker overdue.”

  The brass ball scowled at Ell’s shield, which showed the sharp crescent of Fairyland’s Moon resting on its side, full of books, surrounded by a ring of all the letters in the alphabet.

  Greenwich sighed flamboyantly. “Oh, very well. I did so want to thr
ow someone to the bears today. It’s a thankless life I lead! Fine! If you must insist on speaking to me and being alive and wanting things and all that rot, so be it. As I have said, I am Greenwich Mean Time. I safeguard the Library’s Time. I am the most precise, the most exact, the most correct timepiece ever born! I was the first colt sired by Piebald, the Stallion of Time, and I came of age in the harsh climes of the Hourglass Waste. I hunted wild chronologies and drank from the Ticking Stream, which turns the wheel of the Bygones Mill. Christopher Wren himself lassoed me while I slept and brought me to Meridian to look after the Library. I hate him for it and love him for it by turns—this is a loving century, but soon I will spit at his portrait again! I keep the Watch. I set the Due Dates and the Hours of Business. My precise and impeccable calculations determine how long any one person with jam on their fingers is allowed to spend in the Special Collections Pantry. My left cheek is tracking the time for the Cantankerous Derby as we speak.”

  Saturday leaned forward eagerly. “How are we doing? Has anyone won yet? Are we behind or ahead of the pack?”

  “Won? Aren’t you an impatient little inkblot! There’s plenty of time yet for winning and for losing. I would say you’re a little behind the pace, though I’m not meant to tell you any such thing. But I do like folk to know when they’re failing. But I won’t say more! No! I alone hold the time! All Fairyland clocks take their measure from me!”

  “All clocks?” said September sharply, recalling a room in the Lonely Gaol crammed to the ceiling with clocks of every kind, each clock belonging to a human child in Fairyland …

  “ALL. And don’t think your Hourglass has stopped, young lady. Plink, plink, plink go the sands!” Greenwich Mean Time laughed cruelly. His clock-hand tail shook with delight.

  “I don’t know why you need to be quite so mean,” Saturday scowled defensively.

  The brass ball grew serious and quiet. “All time is mean, young man. It takes and does not give, it rushes when you wish it would linger and drags when you wish it would fly. It flows sullenly, only in one direction, when it might take a thousand turns. You cannot get anything back once time has taken it. Time cheats and steals and lies and kills. If anyone could arrest it, they would have time behind bars faster than you can check your watch.”

  September felt very hot in the dim light of the Mystery Kitchen. I got something back from time, she thought. But it’s all jumbled up. When I was old I felt young, I felt myself, as I am now, and whenever I looked into a mirror I got a shock like a bit of lightning in my cheeks. But now that I am young again, I feel old, I feel myself, as I was when I was the Spinster, quite grown up.

  Yes, September. We have all of us got it jumbled up. You never feel so grown up as when you are eleven, and never so young and unsure as when you are forty. That is why time is a rotten jokester and no one ought to let him in to dinner.

  “We need to find the Heart of Fairyland,” September said. “We thought it might be here, in the middle of everything.”

  “Well, you’re wrong,” snapped the brass ball. A bit of the green verdigris on his forehead crumbled off. “Isn’t it fun to be wrong? No, it is not. But it is fun to watch someone else be wrong.”

  But the Reference Desk looked up at Ell with its large, innocent green lamp shining. It closed the Oxtongue Fairyish Dictionary with a heavy thunk. When it opened the ponderous book again, it was no longer a dictionary of any sort, but something called The History of Fairyland: A How-To Guide. It looked very old but very well cared for, the kind of book that would spend most of its time asleep in a glass case.

  “Oh, you vicious little flirt!” breathed Greenwich Mean Time. “They don’t even have gloves on! You put that back.” The Reference Desk straightened its legs, refusing to be shamed. “Young lady, if you so much as dream of putting a bare finger on one page of that volume I shall have the book bears on you before you can footnote!”

  “What are book bears?” said September irritably. “You seem to be very fond of them.”

  “No one is fond of them,” groaned Ell. “When I worked in the Lopsided Library I learned to be vigilant! Once, I stayed up for three days and three nights, armed only with my flame and my claws, to keep them out. All the while I could hear them scratching at the door, fiddling with the window locks, trying to scrabble down the chimneys! I roasted one just as he was ruining a thesaurus.”

  “But what are they, you great red slowpoke?” growled Blunderbuss.

  The Wyverary lowered his head so that his dancing orange eyes could get right up close to September. “September, have you ever been reading along in a lovely book, impatient to get to the next exciting bit, when out of nowhere you noticed that some word or other was spelled entirely wrong? Or the quotation marks faced the wrong way? Or came across a scene where a fellow’s eyes were suddenly blue, when they’d been green up till now? Or perhaps you wanted very much to know what happened to the lady in plaid from Chapter Three, but the author seemed to have forgotten all about her and you never found out?”

  “I suppose,” September answered slowly.

  “Well, that’s all the book bears’ fault! All books are born perfect, you see. Sometimes they stay perfect, but really, rather more often than anyone would like, the book bears get to them. They’re tiny bears the color of pages with a million teeth and clever claws. They sneak in at night and chew through the pages of a book, gnawing and munching and gulping. They nibble a letter or two out of words and leave behind…” Ell shuddered. “Typos. They dig into the paragraphs and mix up details so that the fellow with green eyes wakes up one day with blue ones. They chew through plots until the story doesn’t hang together quite right anymore. They’re a menace! And once a bear has gotten to one copy of a book, they can just tunnel right through to all the other copies, leaving their messes all over the place for poor copy editors to clean up! All Librarians gird themselves against book bears like doctors wear masks to keep out the plague. I’ve had nightmares! I dream I’m covered in them, and they keep chomping off the letters in my name until I’m C-Through-J and I don’t even know what the Barleybroom’s called anymore!”

  Greenwich Mean Time nodded approvingly. “Quite right! But the Great Grand Library came to a truce with the bears long ago, and now the bears of Meridian only devour our enemies—the untidy, the tardy, and the careless! At one word from me they will swarm over you, gobbling up your continuity, carving up your history, scrambling up the letters of you until you forget how to spell your own soul! I’ve got a cave full of them in the Satire Cellar and they’re very hungry.”

  “We’ll be careful,” said Saturday, and bent to The History of Fairyland: A How-To Guide. “Could we see the H section, please?” he asked the Reference Desk politely. The pages flew. “Hags, Various. Hats, Notable. Hallowmere, Halloween—look, September! You’re in here!” September leaned over to see a beautiful illustration of her shadow in the deepest of black inks, dancing on the fields of Fairyland-Below. She blushed, feeling both proud and caught in the act of dabbling with history, which surely carried some penalty, somewhere along the way. “Happenstance, Harrowing, Hart, White. Hart, Black. Hart, Red. Hart, Motley. There are a lot of harts in here. I thought they were extinct. Ah. Heart.”

  September didn’t know what she’d hoped to find. A full-color illustration, along with a map, a train schedule, and a packed lunch? Maybe a note congratulating them for being so clever as to look it up in the Library rather than skipping all over deserts and fens prying up rocks to peer under. But the ancient book offered none of these. The entry was short. It had no pictures. Saturday read it out loud:

  “Once upon a time, there was a young and beautiful world called Fairyland. Fairyland lived all alone and liked it that way, for it meant she got to go to stay out dancing with the galaxies as long as she liked, eat any travelers she wanted to without cleaning up after herself, and leave the magic on night and day and no one could tell her otherwise. But though Fairyland lived alone, she had many friends: the Sun and the M
oon and the Stars, the many Winds, the Four Directions and their cousins the Seasons, Time and the Sea and Fate and Death and Chaos and Physicks and Luck. Each and every one of these loved to get dressed up in their finest costumes and come round for visits. The Sun would sit on the sofa devouring seed cake. Chaos would drink up all the milk while East and West and North and South played cards. The Moon would dance with the Sea and whisper in her ear, and the Winds would dance with Physicks and Death and Fate would argue until their arguing started to look like dancing, too. Time would always try to behave himself, but Luck always got him to laugh. In this way, Fairyland lived happily for eons upon eons, and all she ever worried about was whether or not she had made enough biscuits for all.

  “But one evening, Fate brought a guest to meet Fairyland—another world, like herself, but not very like herself at all. The new world was a good guest, and brought presents: a beautiful basket with Change inside. All night long, Fairyland talked to her new friend, asked if his cup needed filling, impressed him with her wild ways and her rough manners and her clever schemes. They danced together on a carpet of snow. Everyone watched, and everyone worried for Fairyland, for this new world was surely a bit of a rake, or else Fate would not have made friends with him. But they felt silly the next morning. For a long while yet, all went along as it always had. Fairyland lived more freely and lushly and joyfully than ever. The new world visited her often, always with gifts, and whenever Fairyland saw her suitor, she smiled and the whole of heaven and earth burst into flame and flower.