The girl who fell beneat.., p.15
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.15

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  “We lost you in the book,” Saturday panted with effort. “And we must have been too slow climbing down, because the whole thing closed up right around us! Maybe the door went off into another volume while we were inside.” He shuddered. “Oh!” he suddenly cried, and then blushed slightly blue with embarrassment. “I forgot.”

  The Marid shut his eyes and opened his hands, turning his palms up. “I wish for all of us to be free of the wall,” he said calmly.

  And they were. The Wyverary and the Night-Dodo stood next to Saturday in a neat little line.

  “But you haven’t been wrestled!” September cried.

  “I told you, I don’t have to do that kind of awfulness here,” Saturday shrugged. “I just Want it badly enough, and it happens!”

  “Then why can’t I just want things badly enough? Why can’t I just want us to the Sleeping Prince, or even better, want to know how to put myself back together with my shadow?” September kept herself from stamping her foot in frustration, but only barely. How could things be so easy for him and so hard for her?

  Aubergine fluffed her violet-green feathers. “Because you haven’t got a shadow,” she said. “You can’t do magic.”

  A-Through-L nodded. “You’d never notice what was wrong unless you tried something really savage or magical, but the wild bits of you have been shrinking up and blowing away bit by bit. It’s only that you don’t really need them in Nebraska. You probably just thought you were growing up. It’s an easy mistake.”

  “I think I ought to say what parts of me I need and where!”

  “But it’s all right, September! We can do any sort of magic to you. We’ll help. Anything you need done, just ask your boys, and we’ll be ready with a wish or a spell.”

  September frowned. She did not feel like anything had gone missing inside her. But hadn’t she wondered if staying shadowless so long would cause any trouble? Didn’t it make sense that if Fairyland-Above was losing its magic to Fairyland-Below, she would lose something, too, having lost her shadow before anyone?

  “I shall do what needs doing myself, thank you,” September said finally. “And I’ll ask you kindly to stop telling me what I need and what will be wonderful just as soon as I agree with you! And most importantly to stop turning me into things I didn’t ask to be and kissing me when I didn’t ask to be kissed! You stole my First Kiss from me, Saturday. I haven’t forgiven you just because I haven’t had a shout about it yet. I’ve been busy! But I think I’m the only one who gets a say about when I get kissed or turned into a beast! Not that it wasn’t nice to be a Wyvern or a Fairy. I’m not saying it wasn’t nice.” September could not help adding the apology. But she would absolutely not go meekly along relying on everyone else to fight and speak and wish for her. She would not have things done to her when she could do them on her own! She’d done plenty—and shouldn’t Ell know that? Perhaps only her own dear red Ell would understand that she could not just let everyone else do her work for her. Her mother did not just hope some other man would come along and take up the work that needed doing in her factory. She did it herself, and so would September. She reached into the pocket of the wine-colored coat and came out with her magic ration book.

  “Take me to the Prince!” she said plainly and loudly, before anyone could protest. September ripped off one of the ration cards. With a wisp of green smoke, it vanished in her hand, leaving a sharp smell of sunny grasses and warm winds behind.

  A new shaft opened up in the mine, just in front of them, breaking the amethyst and gold veins in two. It gaped wide, leading down into blackness. September looked back at all of them defiantly.

  “Are you all coming? Or do you want to sit around jawing about nonsense?” She remembered her manners and turned to the Järlhopp. “Thank you kindly, Gneiss. I shall not forget you, I am sure!”

  “Halloo!” cried Gneiss. His blue fur rippled. “Are you a ruby? Or a tourmaline?”

  September bent down and picked up a tiny fleck of sunstone. “Remember me, Gneiss. If you want to. It’s up to you. Everyone should get to choose their own way, and that’s all I mean by yelling. But I shall choose to remember you, and it would be nice if it went both ways. That’s how it generally goes in my country.” But does it? September thought. If a body is hurt, they try to forget the person who hurt them and never think about the pain again. Remembering aches, like when I remember my father. It’d be so much easier to never wonder about him. I’m sure he remembers my face, but it’s hard to remember his, when he’s been gone so long! Perhaps memory is a thing that everyone involved has to work at, like stitching up a big quilt out of everything that ever happened to you.

  The Järlhopp took the stone happily, and stuck it onto his Clutch between a piece of jade and a tiger’s eye. September hugged him quickly, and then, rather more terrified than she was willing to let anyone see, jumped into the mine shaft with both feet.

  “Good-bye, September,” said the blue kangaroo.

  The others, after only a moment’s shocked pause, jumped in after her.

  CHAPTER XIII

  EVEN THE FLOWERS ARE DUCHESSES

  In Which September Loses Her Temper, Learns Something Rather Important About Magic-Handling, and Dances Very Nicely Indeed

  Somewhere in the mine shaft everything flipped upside down so that when September emerged into an empty field, she sprang up out of a stone well and landed neatly on her feet. Saturday and Aubergine shot up after her like cannonballs. A-Through-L got stuck briefly, but with a little wriggling and squashing, popped out in a tangle of dark claws, snarled whiskers, and a slightly kinked tail.

  The field spread around them, quite bare and lonely. Black soil ran on in every direction, freshly turned. Here and there, green shoots poked sleepily out of the soil, so pale they shone nearly white. September peered into the gloaming.

  “Is that a house? I think it’s a house,” she said doubtfully. She strode off after it, however, still smarting somewhat and eager to show that she was just as wild as she wanted to be, whether here or in Nebraska. Aubergine hooted mournfully, for she had not done anything to offend, but still worried that she might have somehow gotten lumped in with the others and was making herself quite wretched over it. She even tried to fly and distance herself from them, only succeeding in a few long, respectable jumps. Saturday and A-Through-L followed gamely. But something made September stop a good ways off from the place. A chill rippled over her skin.

  It was a house, though a terribly shabby one. It might once have been grand—cupolas like great splintered heads of garlic squatted on top of graying wooden towers. Its clapboards and its window frames and its big cellar doors were all the same gray, petrified color. September knew just that shade of gray from every abandoned farm house on the prairie. Every ruined corn patch that had gone to dust and sent its people packing just about the time September was busy being born. In fact, the whole place looked as though someone had turned the lights off back home. It could have been any farmstead for a hundred miles around September’s house, only painted black and empty and starlit.

  A wind picked up, and September knew that sound, too, the howling, hollow noise of the night rushing through an empty broken house. She could not see the crystal moon anymore—tall, jagged hills hunched up on the north end of the field, and only the light of the wired stars lit that lonely place.

  “I don’t think anyone lives here,” Aubergine said softly.

  “But I used my ration card,” September insisted. “We have to be going the right way. This should be the Prince’s house.”

  “Don’t worry, darling,” Saturday said, putting a warm hand on her shoulder. “I can wish us aright.” He paused, biting his violet-black lip. “But only if you want me to. We can even wrestle for it, if it will make you feel better.”

  September ignored him for a moment. “Maybe we’re at the bottom of the world already. It’s certainly barren and empty enough.” She did not like to think of Prince Myrrh in that dreadful house. Even if he was wi
cked or lazy or brutish, no one should have to sleep forever in a place like that.

  The door of the farm house cracked open. The owner of the house peered out, and then came into the gilded, misty light. It was a man, a tall man with skinny legs and arms. As the starlight dappled the roof and the furrows and the man, September saw that he was not just skinny; his long fingers were straw-colored bones with no skin on them. Stringy roots fell in fringes from his sleeves. The naked bones of his feet gleamed greenish and strong. His suit peeled and crinkled, made of delicate purple onionskins.

  His head was an enormous golden onion with no eyes or mouth.

  As they watched him, the Onion-Man began to dance, first to one side, then to another, holding his arms above his head and bringing them down with a sharp sudden snap, moving his hips to some unseen onion-music. He ducked his golden head and threw it back, spinning around three times before stopping to sniff the air, though he had no nose to sniff with.

  A rumbling filled the night. A grinding, growling sound, growing near. Aubergine ducked behind September, who put her arms around the bird’s neck without thinking. A-Though-L looked down in surprise. Perhaps he expected, being very large and good for hiding behind, that September would turn to him for comfort. But she was bigger than she had been, and the older, wiser part of her thought first of comforting the Night-Dodo before comforting herself.

  But when the Alleyman’s truck came around the skinny, stony black road they had not even seen winding around the farm’s crumbly edges, poor September did inch nearer—only a little, for she had not yet forgiven him—to the shadow of her Wyverary. She tried to be brave, tried not to be afraid of that glittering heap of candy-cane lights rolling toward them. Ell put his long blue-violet tail around girl and bird, coiling it tight. They kept silent and hunched down, holding their breath. Ell’s and Saturday’s shadowy bodies faded into the night, and Aubergine had already gone half invisible with standing so still and quiet. Only September stood out in the lightless field, in her wine-colored coat and her copper-colored dress.

  The Onion-Man saw what had come for him. He danced anyway. Up went his arms, out went his graceful long bony legs, bending at the knee, pointing at the toe. He made a ballet dancer’s leap, and then spread his skeleton’s arms wide, nodding his onion-skull from side to side. The truck stopped. The dark door of the cab opened, and the red cap floated out, its twin feathers like knives stuck into the scarlet felt. The Onion-Man kept dancing, his steps growing more frantic, his leaps higher and more desperate.

  “He’s going to take his shadow, isn’t he?” whispered September.

  No one said anything. They all knew. Saturday and Ell stared at their feet.

  The red hat bobbed and nodded in time with the onion-man, dancing with him. In his invisible hands, the Woeful Wimble and the Sundering Siphon gleamed. With every turn and pirouette, the red hat came closer. But September thought there was a reluctance to its movement. It approached slowly, though it didn’t need to; it dipped and shook from side to side as though the invisible head beneath it were shaking no.

  The hard strange voice stood up inside September once more. It stood very tall and straight in her chest, and the voice also said, No. September let go of Aubergine and pushed Ell’s tail out of the way. She marched across the furrows and the crumbly dry soil, terribly afraid and terribly angry.

  “You stop it!” she cried, and the onion-dancer stopped. The red hat stopped. They both turned to look at her in dumbfounded amazement. “He’s never done anything to you, Mr. Red Hat, and that makes you a bully. Don’t you touch him!” The red hat did not move so much as a feather. “Oh, I know I’m not terrifying like you and I can’t order people about like Halloween, but I’ll have you know my dress is very fierce indeed, and I’m mad enough to burst! I’m the one who put a stop to the Marquess, and she scared me much worse than you do, so if you know what’s good for you, you’ll just turn around and go back where you came from!” This was not true at all, but it sounded very fine, so September stuck by it. The red hat looked back toward his truck uncertainly. Then it turned back to September. She could almost feel the invisible body beneath it staring at her. She felt suddenly ridiculous in her ball gown and her fine coat and the great jewel at her throat and her blue-and-lilac-streaked hair. But she would not let the Alleyman make her feel small. She would not.

  And then she felt her Ell’s great strong presence beside her, and Saturday slipped his hand in hers. Oh. Oh. They would not abandon her. Of course, they would not. How silly she had been. They were her friends—they had always been. Friends can go odd on you and do things you don’t like, but that doesn’t make them strangers.

  “Oh, I hate you!” September cried, her voice deep and loud with the strength of her folk around her. “Get out of here, you dreadful thing!”

  And, somehow, for some unfathomable reason, in the face of them all, the Alleyman did. The red hat recoiled from her like a struck animal. It shook from side to side as if trying to clear its invisible head. The red hat dropped suddenly, and September knew, somehow, that the Lutin under that cap had fallen to his knees in some private trouble. It trembled below her gaze for a long moment.

  Then, without a word, it simply rose and floated back inside the truck. The Alleyman’s truck ambled away down the skinny stony road, and September tried to calm her hammering heart. Aubergine came slowly into sight, the wired stars reflecting on her huge beak. The Onion-Man stood, for once, quite still. September tried to guess his thoughts, but his faceless head offered no sign.

  Suddenly, she felt a lurching commotion in the pockets of the wine-colored coat. September reached in to see what was the matter. The flaps of the coat rustled and shook as the three small onions she had taken so long ago from the Upside-Downs leapt past her hands and out of the coat, landing joyfully on the ground.

  Three little lavender-and-yellow onions rolled to the dancer. They ringed him in a circle, rolling through the dark earth, spinning with plea sure. The onion-headed man bent down and put his bone-hands to them, full of affection, brushing the tuft of onionskin at their heads. They rolled over like round puppies so that he could stroke their plump bellies. Finally, they bounced up and toddled into the gray house.

  “I didn’t know they were yours,” September said by way of apology.

  The Onion-Man bent down, for he was awfully tall. He took September’s cheeks in his skeletal hands and pressed his onion-face to her forehead. September’s eyes filled up with burning tears—as they always did at home when she chopped onions for Sunday soup. The Onion-Man began to move his feet from side to side again, dropping his shoulders and fanning his fingers against her cheeks, tapping out a rhythm. She found that though bones were certainly a little unsettling, they were warm and smelled like growing things and not dead things at all.

  “You seem very nice, Mr. Onion,” she said. “But I do wish I knew why my ration card sent me here. I said I wanted to get to the Prince, and I don’t suppose you are anything of the sort.”

  “But he is a Prince, a bit,” said Saturday. “The way Teatime is a Duke and his wife’s a Vicereine. The onions love him—and look!”

  Beneath the Onion-Man’s tapping feet, tiny pale green shoots were wriggling up out of the dark soil, swaying a little to the pattern of his dance.

  “You have to be very specific when it comes to magic,” A-Through-L said sheepishly. “You must say things as carefully as you can. Magic is like a machine that only does exactly what you tell it to do. So you have to speak to it in a way it can understand. And magic only understands you if you spell it out slowly. And use small words. You didn’t tell the card which Prince or how quickly you wanted to go. For all we know this is the shortest path—or it thought you meant our fragrant friend here! Or perhaps the Alleyman is some sort of Prince, too. The word Prince is very open-ended. You can’t really trust anything that far down in the alphabet.”

  “I do believe everyone in Fairyland-Below is royalty!” September exclaimed. “Q
ueens and Princes and Vicereines and Emperors—it’s like visiting Europe!”

  Aubergine nodded. “That’s how it is in underworlds. And more so, the deeper you go. Even the flowers are Duchesses, in the deepest dells. Even the raspberries are Khans. In the beginning of the beginning, all the Kings and Queens of Fairyland came from Below. When they needed an Empress or a Tsar, they went to a certain frozen lake in the Hoarfrost Desert, cut a hole in the ice, and sunk a silver pole they called the Kingfisher into the frigid water. All through Fairyland-Below, we would see the great hook descending toward us, and the bait on the hook would tell us what sort of ruler they had in mind. A crown of rowan branches for a Fairy Queen, of obsidian for a Dark Lord, of iron for a Human Hero. It could be anything. So all of us had to be ready. Any day, someone could be called to duty. Everyone had to practice princely ways.”

  The onion-dancer did not especially seem to care about Aubergine’s history lesson. He pulled at September’s hands, lifting his arm to twirl her underneath. He prodded her to dance with him, and extended one long arm to invite the others, too. Saturday was already sweeping his arms overhead and making the most curious shapes with his slender limbs, grinning with delight. His eyes flowed with tears, too—they all wept, and laughed at their weeping, for the onion-fumes grew stronger the more excitedly he danced. Ell rocked from hind leg to hind leg, curling and uncurling his tail in an elegant motion. Even Aubergine, her feathers blushing a frosty shade, fluffed up her feathers, flared her wings, and began to hop in an odd but not unlovely dance.

  “Come on, September,” pleaded Saturday, and the Onion-Man pleaded, too, in his silent way. He was happy, she could see. He had been spared. And though she was deathly shy of dancing, though she could not bring herself to at the Revel, there in the dark, September joined the little tribe in a silent, joyful dance. They held hands and spun in circles, laughing and crying and jumping and somersaulting like little children. And everywhere the onion-dancer stepped, shoots came up out of the ground, growing and curlicuing and corkscrewing upward until the five of them danced in an onion forest, the tops of the trees unfurling strange leaves to catch the starlight.

 
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