The girl who fell beneat.., p.11
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.11

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  “All the Dodonas brought their firstborn squabs for Groof to choose from. My mother tried to hide me, to give me a great long tail so I would look like a Dodono, but Groof is a canny buyer, and she was not fooled. She looked at me and only me. We both stood very still.”

  September and Saturday and Ell sat very still, too, holding their breath, even though they knew how the story must end. The passengers behind them craned forward to hear.

  “Well, the trouble is, you’re right, September. Sometimes you know what you are when you are very young. Not always—don’t worry yourself, kind sunny-girl! But sometimes. And I was even then a prodigy of Quiet Physicks. I stood very still, and this was a mistake, for when I stand very still—not only very still but the stillest it is possible to stand—strange things occur. Sometimes I vanish. Sometimes I become a statue of black marble. Sometimes I glow with a terrible light that freezes all it touches, so that those things become as still as I. A true Master may control it and do so much more. In my time with my Goblin mistress, I have become a Journeyman only, though no Quiet Quorum would acclaim me. I vanished, and Glasswort crowed delight.

  “Groof raised me as her own. She stayed up all night and drank pennywine and stole stamps from any poor postman she came across—but she wasn’t cruel. She named me for her favorite vegetable, along with Parsnip the Ouphe-lad and Endive the Greencap-girl, who she’d got in other bargains. She taught me to count currency and follow the speculations and futures Markets and her own Loud Magic—which I was always hopeless at. You cannot go against your nature. This was, naturally, before the Market crashed and we Firstborns lost all our value.

  “In the end, Groof chose me, my flock got Walghvogel and a fleet, sleek Goblin Schooner to take them there without suffering the effects of the Forgetful Sea. I turned to my mother who was also named Wuff. I said good-bye. Quietly.”

  CHAPTER IX

  THE WOEFUL WIMBLE

  In Which a Friend Bids Farewell, the Capital City Is Explored, an Enemy Is Sighted, and September Has a Lesson in Both Underworld Geography and Quiet Physicks

  Folk flowed off of the Eel as if in a single body. Bells and guitars struck up; a chorus or three rose then died as the revelers’ hearts lifted and they descended upon the city in a colorful, delighted cloud. Nearly everyone pulled a mask down over their features as soon as their feet hit the road. When the gates of Tain opened, a wave of music boomed out, so sweet and dark and strange it caught September’s breath and tied it in a bow.

  “Come with us, Gleam,” she said finally, looking back up at the lavender wall of Bertram the Weeping Eel and the crackling light of his electric globes. The orange lantern hanging near his great sad eyes looped her golden writing once more.

  I cannot.

  I am happy.

  I have my Eel and the whole world to see yet.

  One day I shall turn two hundred.

  And what adventures then!

  Do well, September.

  You always have.

  Don’t let them tell you you haven’t.

  September knuckled tears out of her eyes. She missed her friend, who had once held her in the dark. Who would hold her now? Her new friends carried darkness with them, and she had hoped—oh, she had hoped for a little light. But one of them, at least, should know where she stood in the world, and that was enough.

  Oh, September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you. Like whiskey and voting, it is a dangerous and heady business, as heavy as years. If I could keep your little tribe together forever, I would. I do so want to be generous. But some stories sprout bright vines that tendril off beyond our sight, carrying the folk we love best with them, and if I knew how to accept that with grace, I would share the secret. Perhaps this will help, if we whisper it to our September, as she watches her friend dwindle in the gloamy lilac breeze, borne away on a track of quicksilver tears: “So much light, sweet girl, begins in the dark.”

  If Pandemonium is a city of silk and soft cloth, Tain is a city of stone.

  The frothing tear-tracks of the Weeping Eel still trickled and eddied in the main station long after Bertram and Gleam had surged away. The station glimmered empty and clean, a fragile-looking building of a pale-blue cream stuff that might have been spun sugar, but A-Through-L knew better.

  “That’s lace agate—that’s what it is. There’s brothers, up northways, in the Pillow Bobbin Alps—they spin it out from the raw stone on great diamond wheels, just like it’s wool. Spin it so fine you can pass the agate through a needle or so thick you can build a cottage out of it for wintering. Nothing like it. They say the brothers met the Fates once, and they had a spinning contest.”

  “Who won?” asked Saturday, lighting off the swirling stone pattern of the station platform with his shadowy feet.

  “It’s still going,” shrugged Ell, and floated off of the platform on his shadowy wings. “Shall I tell you about Tain, September, before we go in?” The gates stood open and inviting, and they could see a long silver road leading into a lane full of shops, packed with people in red silk and high feathered hats. Masks of long bony noses and arched black eyes peeked around the corners. Bronze-beaked bird masks glittered; hard-cheeked tragedy masks glowed. Some had long horns like unicorns or antelopes; some boasted wild straw hair knotted through with black stones. Yet though a sweet dark music played from some unseen tower, though the air fairly fogged with excitement, the place seemed oddly quiet.

  The moon showed a pale, barely visible IX.

  “It begins with T, though!” September protested. She touched her hair self-consciously, suddenly reminded how black and streaked with electric colors it had become. What must she look like among all these wild folk? The red coat pulled close around her, as if to say, We look just fine, thank you very much.

  “Cross-reference!” A-Through-L said happily. “You taught me, remember? Fairyland-Below is F and B, and Capital is C, and I’ve got it: Tain!” His black face and violet whiskers and big dark eyes shone, so eager to have this moment with her just as it had been before, to experience it again, but this time for himself and not as a silent shadow, to wrap it up and hold it to his heart the way he imagined the other Ell had. He didn’t even wait for an answer. “The Capital of Fairyland-Below is fed by two rivers, the Amaranthine and the Gingerfog, both of which roll down from the Phlegethon in the Firehorse Wastes. It consists of four districts, Glassgarlic, Anisegloam, Gallopgrue, and Nightonion. Population estimate: unstable and unavailable. The highest point is Shearcoil, a hollow narwhal horn which houses the Physickists’ Rookery, the lowest is the Nuno’s Hollow, and mind your feet around their grave-mounds, no matter how easy you might think it to steal black honey from their hives. Common imports: rice, lodestones, rain, spare engines, unwanted children, spring maidens, heroes with something to prove, ghosts, and shadows. Common exports: magic, tea, coffee, and pomegranates. The two rivers cross in the center of the city, where the royal residence, called the Trefoil, stands on high amarine legs (that’s a gem that looks like an ice-cream cone, September, all pinkish purple and yellow) and tapers into a sharp-pointed tower, a patchwork of every sort of metal except iron: bronze and copper and gold and silver and embertin and beetlelead besides. Two great pearl leaves, one white, one black, open forth from it, descending into staircases that end in the great Floatstone Pavilion. Hard to miss!”

  “Thank you, Ell,” said September simply. It was too much to think, how different and yet alike this place could be from Pandemonium! Her mind spun, and she wanted Gleam’s pale green arms to hold her.

  But the shadow of A-Through-L fretted. “You’re supposed to say ‘skip to the part where it says I am this many miles from a girl named September.’ Or at least, ‘skip to some part since it’s zero miles and we’re here.’ You let me get through so much of it without interrupting! That’s not right at all!”

  “I shall interrupt more in the future, just to make yo
u happy, Ell.” September smiled and wanted to hug him and comfort him, because he was not so unlike the Wyverary she adored. She did not, then thought better of it and did. His shadowy skin beamed warmth. All four of them stepped together under the filigree agate gate into Tain.

  Just as they did, a grinding, jingling noise erupted from the crowd ahead of them. A weird, dreadful sort of concertina played—not badly or without skill, but with so much dread in every note that Ell hid his face behind September, which did not hide him in the least, and Saturday grabbed her hand. Aubergine stood very still, so terribly, awfully still that when September turned to include her in their family embrace, the Night-Dodo had disappeared.

  The crowd parted. Feathers and hats and even shoes were left where they lay as a great dark truck came creaking up the silver road of the capital. It was a Fairy truck, no doubt, covered in mad rainbows of lights, some colors September could not even put a name to—perhaps viollow, or crimsilver, or oreen. Brambles, their vines speckled with glowworms, and vast dark flowers wrapped over the bed like the canvases on army trucks. The headlights were glass globes with flickering gray candles floating in them. The engine, if it had one, made no sound, but the dark-green squash-rind wheels made wet crunching sounds on the street, and the terrible concertina played on.

  “Whoever is driving that cannot be here for the Revel,” said September. “I don’t believe whoever is driving that could Revel about anything, ever.” And indeed, when she peered with all her might, September could not see a driver in the cab of the Fairy truck, only a strange pointed red hat with two long striped feathers in it, floating where a head should be.

  From beside her, where Aubergine had recently stood, came a low Dodo’s voice.

  “That’s the Alleyman,” it whispered.

  The truck rolled to a stop. From the top of the brambly canvas, a long silvery ladder grew like something alive, higher and higher and higher. It did not have a color, really, but glowed like water. Finally, the door of the truck opened, and the red hat emerged, looking redder now that September could see it clearly. The two feathers stood up high like horns, pheasant’s feathers, or perhaps some strange, awful parrot’s. The hat moved up the ladder, and the rungs creaked as though someone’s heavy feet climbed them, but no feet did. The ladder had grown so high that September and all the rest of Tain had to crane their necks and shade their eyes to see where it might end. The red hat floated somewhere up beyond where they could see, in the heights of Fairyland-Below, where its ceiling met the floor of the world above.

  Aubergine whispered, drawing invisibly nearer to September so that she could feel her soft feathers on her bare hand, but still, the Night-Dodo could not be seen. “Listen. He is taking out his Woeful Wimble. The stars glint on its blackbone handle. He got it from Halloween as a birthday present, along with the other, the Sundering Siphon, and a belt of custard glass to hang them on either side of his hips like pistols. These are his tools; these are his emblems. The Alleyman is putting the Wimble against the rock ceiling of the world. The Wimble bites in, then he begins to turn the crank. One, twice, three times, he turns it. A crack opens, not very big, no wider than your littlest finger. Under the crack, the Alleyman presses the belly of the Sundering Siphon, and a shadow flows in like smoke. The shadow flows down and drifts through the crystal belly of the Siphon and further down, down past the ladder until some kind or unkind wind catches it and it goes to find its place in Fairyland-Below.”

  “How can you see all that? I can’t even see his hat!” Saturday whispered.

  “I listen,” whispered Aubergine, even more softly. “That, too, is part of Quiet Physicks. A very difficult part, which I studied under the Great Gramophone of Baritone Gulch while my Goblin mistress sold him a pelican. If you can learn to listen deeply and completely, listen not only to words and sounds but also to the pneumo-dynamicks of hearts and light, the partickles of sorrow and gladness, the subtle fluid dynamicks of regret, there is nothing you cannot uncover. I listened to the stars reflecting, the Wimble turning, the shadow falling, and the slow, steady breath of the Alleyman. He weeps as he turns the Wimble, you know. He weeps as the shadows seep through. He thinks no one hears, but I hear. The Alleyman is a Lutin, a kind of invisible hobgoblin whose red hat is like his heart. It is his strength and his self, the only part of him he wears where anyone can see it. And a Lutin weeping is the quietest weeping of all. Invisible tears from an invisible man.”

  The ladder receded, sliding back into the truck, and the red hat came with it. Somewhere off behind him, a black wisp floated off to its destiny. All around, September saw folk clutching their bodies, their bellies and backs, sweating and trying desperately to remain silent. The shadows looked unconcerned and impatient, but the rest of Tain trembled. The red hat paused at the cab of his bony black truck, as if appraising them all. No one breathed. Then, it lowered into the driver’s seat, and on those acorn-squash wheels the Alleyman trundled, slowly, away.

  “Surely,” said September as shaking breaths sucked in all round and nervous laughter wriggled out over the street, “surely, he cannot hurt anyone down here. He’s taking shadows from Fairyland-Above and that is terrible. It must be stopped, but who could he harm in Tain?”

  A-Through-L stared at her, a little shamefaced and a little defiant, his tail whipping back and forth like a cat’s. “Well, you know, there’s plenty who live here who aren’t shadows. Like any place. The Duke of Teatime and Aubergine and Glasswort Groof and all of them. The Glashtyn. Nunos. And sometimes, just sometimes, not terribly often, you know? The Alleyman takes their shadows, too.”

  “They want to keep their magic,” mumbled Saturday. “You can’t blame them. But when the Alleyman comes, it’s better just to hold still until it’s over.”

  September thought this a sad, rotten thing to say. She remembered the awful sawing that cut her own shadow from her, and she might have dwelt on that terrible pain and what it cost her, had not the Revelers struck up their singing and laughing and talking and dancing once more. They shouted and whooped even louder than before, dancing as if to erase the memory of the Alleyman and his great dark wheels.

  Aubergine, feather by feather, reappeared, her solemn dark eyes shining.

  CHAPTER X

  THE REVEL

  In Which September Learns a Great Deal, the Queen Engages, a Feast Is Demolished, and the Wild Revel Finally Begins, but Not Necessarily in that Order

  I find it reasonable to suppose that some of you, dear readers, have been to a party or two in your young lives. Perhaps you were given a sparkly hat and a bag full of little toys. Perhaps cake was served, and ice cream, too. If you went to especially good parties, you might have played games and won prizes, or watched a fellow in funny clothes pull doves out of his sleeves or make a puppet dance or even play a song on a banjo or guitar or accordion. No doubt you had far too much to eat and drink and needed a good nap after the whole affair.

  But you have never been to a Revel.

  A Revel is to a party—even that very best party with the doves and the puppets and the accordion—as a tiny, gentle green lizard licking his eyeball on a hot stone is to the Queen of Dragons in full flight, wings out, breath ignited, singing the songs of her nation.

  And before every Revel comes a Feast.

  The central boulevard of Tain, which A-Through-L could have told them was called Fool’s Silver, erupted with long tables full of the delights of a dozen cuisines. Goblin tarts and Nuno honey in rock-crystal jars, steaming Spriggan pies of heartberry and blisspeach and pumpkin and moonkin that got bigger and smaller as you grasped for them, green and healthful Gnome soups overflowing with hexweed, passionpoppy leaves, thrallbulbs, memory-mums, and ropes of good, sweet basil and sage. Glashtyn oatcakes and hay-muffins with golden crusts, Dryad rain-stews and sunnydaise sauces, braided flame-bread for Ifrits and seastone pastries for Marids, genuine cloud-roasts and piles of grilled dunkel-fish and the Järlhoppes’ special feverblossom coffee. The Scotch-wights had been sav
ing their best Pining Peat for the occasion—and of course the Wyverns’ beloved radishes scattered here and there on the tables like drops of blood, among charm-tortes shaped just exactly like old books, brown and buttered and crackling.

  September saw on the table nearest her a great orange-chiffon pumpkin soup with candied almonds, orange sauce in a moat around a castle of carrots and sweet potatoes, and a chocolate cake so rich and dense and moist it shone black and wet the crimson doily beneath it, and the pale plate. It shamed her mother’s cake and September blushed. The frosting sparkled in rosettes and ribbons. And all around the plate was written in very nice handwriting indeed: Everything Must Be Paid For, Sooner Or Later. September ran her fingers over the letters. Was it the same hand as the Duke’s tea-tag? She could not tell.

  To say they ate well is to gloss over the hunger and glee with which the whole of Tain devoured their favorites and new delectables, not minding the mess they made, pitching crusts and rinds at one another, toasting everything they could think of. “Here’s to the life of a Gnome!” from one table, “Cheers for my Goblin love!” from another, “Hurrah for the health of all shadows!” from still a third. “So long as they don’t crowd my bogs!” bellowed back a teetering Scotch-wight. And from every table, every cup, “Long Live the Hollow Queen, All Hallow’s Girl!”

  Mischief, too, was on the menu. The watery shadow of a Naiad touched the red clay cup belonging to the bald, golden-scaled girl next to her with the tip of her rippling finger. Blue sparks fountained out, and the wine foamed over, each bubble tipped with a tiny sapphire. The scaly maid yelped, giggled, and then drank it down in one gulp, whereupon her face vanished and blossomed into an elephant’s huge, trunked head—though still covered in golden scales, and her eyes flashed garnet flames. She trumpeted, and marigold petals flew from her trunk, becoming tiny scarlet sparrows as they fell onto the shoulders of the crowd. The sparrows sang riotously and disappeared altogether with a loud crash of unseen cymbals. The Revelers burst into applause, and the Naiad’s shadow blushed a pearly gray.

 
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