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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 19

Catherynne M. Valente


  September bit her lip. “Ell … did you steal that book from the Great Grand Library?”

  The Wyverary let his whisker-mustache drop instantly. His eyes filled up with hurt. “How can you ask me that? September! I would never steal a book! I wouldn’t even take a book from a cabinet marked Free Books unless I could track down the owner and make sure I was really allowed to. I would especially never steal a book from my Gigi!” Ell blushed. It went all the way up his cheeks and over the top of his head, turning him cantaloupe-colored as it went. “She said I could call her that,” he whispered. “It stands for Great Grandmother. I know I ought to have come as soon as I heard Greenwich Mean Time sounding off at you, but I couldn’t stop looking at the Human section. So many books I’d never heard of! So many titles I couldn’t understand? What’s a Wuthering? Why is it Important to Be Earnest? I am always earnest. Why would anyone not be? I tried to skim a few of them even though I know they’re Special Collections and I oughtn’t go grubbing them up without a librarian present, but I was so excited, and I was very careful, and claws aren’t nearly so grubby as fingers and I just wanted to find out about the House of Mirth so badly, because it sounds like a wonderful place. And just as I was about to find out what was so great about Mr. Gatsby, a great huge candlestick with no candles in it leaned over and rested itself against my shoulder in just the gentlest way. Like when you lean your head against my shin sometimes. And the Great Grand Library whispered to me, because that’s any library’s favorite way of talking. She said…” A-Through-L had to stop for a moment. Turquoise tears swam up in his eyes. “She said I was a good librarian. She said my father would be so proud of me if he could have seen my alphabetizing and my powerful shhh and the size of my tail. She said I could visit her anytime I wanted and call her Gigi and next time she would make me cookies and let me use the Old Stamp. That’s the first one Gigi ever had. Christopher Wren made it for her out of mushroom. It’s her way of saying she trusts me, you see. The Old Stamp is very delicate. And I am very big.” Blunderbuss sopped up his tears with her paw. She understood all about this sort of thing. She wanted the boy who made her to be proud of her, too. Ell made a sound between a laugh and a hiccup. “And then she said that as she’d missed all my birthdays, I could take one book to be my very own. My book. I’ve never owned a book before. A library’s books belong to the library, not the librarian. She said I could have any one I wanted except The Canterbury Tales, as that one’s her favorite.”

  “Why on earth did you pick Agatha Christie?” asked September, who thought murder mysteries were a little ghastly, though whenever her mother finished one, she snatched it right up.

  Ell toed the sand bashfully. “Well … it sounded very exciting. And it had a lot of exclamation points in it, which is one of the signs of an excellent book. And I didn’t like how Mr. Gatsby talked to people, when I was flipping through it. But mostly, mostly everything was blue on the front. And I like blue.”

  The Wyverary looked fondly at Saturday, who smiled uncertainly back.

  “Don’t even try to get it off him. You’d think it was his egg.” The scrap-yarn wombat munched resentfully on a fresh coconut.

  Ell raced on. “But don’t you see? We know how to solve a mystery now. We know the method. We know the rules. We’ve taken the case, Buss and me, and we mean to solve it. We’ll find the Heart of Fairyland before you can say denouement! It’s all in here.” He tapped the cover of The Mystery of the Blue Train with one claw—but gently, so as not to damage the dust jacket. “I’ve got everything we need: the pince-nez, the mustache, the patent leather shoes—well, I don’t know what patent leather is, but my claws are black and shiny and at the ends of my feet so I think that’s good enough, and I managed to make up for it with the turnip pocket watch.” He displayed the purple turnip hanging from his belt, which he’d sliced so that it could open on a hinge and stuck a piece of coconut shell into the meat of the turnip as a sundial. “That part seemed odd to me, but I was very careful to do just as Monsieur Poirot does. When it comes to magical talismans, you can never tell which bit does the heavy lifting. You can never leave anything out.”

  September had never had a watch of her own, so she couldn’t tell her friend that people used to call certain kinds of pocket watches turnips on account of their shapes, and because turnip is more fun to say than watch. But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we? Ell did his best—and I couldn’t bear to break it to him. Could you?

  “We take turns with the talismans,” Blunderbuss said pointedly. “One of us might catch something the other missed.”

  September shook her head in disbelief. “All right, I give in. What have you deduced, Mr. P? Where is the Heart of Fairyland?”

  Blunderbuss and A-Through-L looked eagerly at each other.

  “If we examine the evidence,” Ell began.

  “And retrace our steps,” continued the wombat.

  “The Marquess has it,” they said together, and with finality.

  “What?” September cried. “She can’t! It’s too soon! I didn’t even get a chance! Do you know where she is? Can we get it back from her?”

  Saturday blinked slowly in the sun. He hadn’t said a word for a long while. The Marid shook his head from side to side like a dazed bull. He sighed, sat down on the black sand, and put his hands in his lap. And then he said an awful thing:

  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Who is the Marquess?”

  September’s eyes widened and a whole rush of words scrambled over themselves to get out of her first, but she didn’t get a chance to say any single one of them. The black sand beneath them tilted sickeningly. The coconut trees began to swing wildly back and forth. Then the thirsthorn hedges burst into showers of fresh water. Then the floatberry brambles snapped and rolled down the beachhead. Ell and Blunderbuss began to run, and then lift off into the air. Whatever was coming, they did not want it to catch them!

  A great dark shape broke the sands like a whale’s back breaking the waves. September could not think of anything to compare it to. As big as the Briary. As big as the Jarlhopp’s mines below the world. As big as a newborn moon. Chunks of hard, sharp red crystal covered the shape, a red so deep it looked black until the sun hit it and sent a dizzying dance of maroon prisms bouncing through the air. But beneath the red-black diamond nuggets, soft, sleek fur stuck out like grass breaking through cobblestones to grow in the sun. The shape shuddered and disappeared beneath the sand.

  When it rose again, the Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern seized them all in its impossible mouth and dove deep down into the earth.

  CHAPTER XIV

  A DETOUR THROUGH VOLEWORLD

  In Which September Rides a Greatvole under the World, Saturday Cuts His Hair, and Blunderbuss Loses Several Toes

  You and I have traveled together often, to places both odd and outlandish—and sometimes spectacular. We are no strangers to the underground! We have run headlong down to Fairyland-Below and learned to like it there! We danced in the capital and had tea with a Minotaur. We have no fear of the dark or the deep! I’d wager you didn’t even gasp when the Greatvole snatched up September and her friends and dove beneath the sand! Instead, you clapped your hands and said: Oh, I am glad! Fairyland-Below is a very exciting place and I shall be happy to see it again!

  But voles, even Greatvoles, do not live in Fairyland-Below.

  Let us think of Fairyland as a staggeringly magnificent cake, one with three layers and far too many frosting flowers and glacé strawberries and fondant ripples and flaming plums all over it. Let us take a great swaggering knife between us—it will take both our hands—and slice it open to see what we can see inside. For that is all a story is, my dears: a knife that cuts the world into pieces small enough to eat.

  All that icing and candied madness on top is the land we’ve wandered through so far, Pandemonium and the Autumn Provinces and Meridian and even the Whelk of the Moon. Below that we should find a scrumptious dark slab of cakey chocolate earth where fol
k can plant their carrot seeds and pear trees. If we cut deeper, we should find another slab, thick and moist and full of shadowy sugar and delicious adventures, and that is Fairyland-Below. Further and farther than that, we should at last come to the last morsels of cake: the rock and magma and the very sort of hot, spinning core you’ve seen in your geography classes. Of course, in Fairyland, the core is not only a superheated ball of magnetized metals, but also the Nickelodeon, a red-hot city of lavalings living the lavish life.

  Perhaps you have now realized that voles and other creatures of the Digging Class would not dive all the way down to the sparkling cities of Fairyland-Below. They chew through the earthy cake where seeds sprout and worms and beetles and pill bugs and ants and grubs and anything else that loves to crawl crawls their best. The Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern swam through the earth like a cuttlefish through the water. Her paws paddled gracefully through the loam and the clay. Her tail swept back and forth with the powerful rhythm of a shark. The Greatvole moved so fast you and I would hardly glimpse her passing, the way subway trains clip by in the dark so quick that all you catch is a long stripe of light. And so September opened her mouth to scream—and only got a single horrid gulp of dirt before the dark, wet mud vanished and they could all see and breathe quite easily again.

  For you cannot bake a three-layer cake with nothing at all to stick them together! Between those wonderful layers of Fairyland’s geographical trifle lie ribbons of berries and syrup and still more frosting: the secret caves and grottoes of Voleworld.

  Voleworld is a paradise for all who love to dig—wide enough and high enough for any bulldozing beast. Friendly work lamps twisted into chandeliers light the shadows into a warm, homey glow. Mudpaintings of great diggers dot the walls: Grundler the Mad Mole, Electro-Hare the Holy Holer, Whistlepig the Grandhog, Spadeheart the Bombastic Bilby Rat. Here is where the diggers come to rest. You’ll find a thousand taverns made of shovels and picks battened together, bathhouses hammered out of gold pans and roofed in dud dynamite sticks, and drill-bit dance halls playing all the underground hits on a dirt bottle organ. And, most importantly, Voleworld lies beneath the whole of Fairyland, connecting each acre with each county. Get down into Voleworld and you can get anywhere else you like quicker than an earthworm’s wriggle. Which is why the devoted diggers tell no one about their home, and make certain that no exit or entrance is labeled sensibly.

  September, Saturday, Ell, and Blunderbuss opened their eyes to see everything I have just told you streaming past on either side. The portrait of Electro-Hare, the Shovel and Headlamp Inn, the Ruby Rake Night Club, the tunnels leading every which where which wheres can wind. All four of them had the same urgent idea at once: Somebody else’s mouth was no place to be. The Greatvole had September by the back of her emerald smoking jacket, Saturday by his topknot, Ell by his turnip pocket watch, and Blunderbuss by her little fuzzy woolen tail and one hind leg. The emerald-colored smoking jacket split hurriedly down the back so as not to be the cause of its owner’s death. Coats have a strict honor code, and any one failing to protect its owner from rain, snow, hail, or ravening rodents shall be made into overalls at once.

  September scrambled up the Greatvole’s onyx teeth and over the top of her nose, grappling onto the red-black crystals to haul herself up. Saturday made no time for a first, second, or third thought: He whicked out a little pair of scissors from his trousers and cut his splendid topknot in half, climbing up after September. Ell looked worriedly at Blunderbuss. He could bite off his watch fob, no problem. But where would that leave the scrap-yarn wombat? She didn’t have any scissors, but even if she had, the loss of a leg would hurt her pride so. The Wyverary twisted round so that his snout poked right up against the greatsnout of the Greatvole. Ell had not met many folk bigger than himself, and if it were not very urgent, he’d sit his red haunches down for a long chat. But it was very urgent, and so the Wyverary took a short, shallow breath—enough to scald, but not to roast—and blew a bubbling burp of indigo flame straight into the left nostril of the Greatvole.

  The creature roared indignantly and opened its mouth to give whatever had bothered it a good, deep bite. Ell and Blunderbuss flew up and over those smoking nostrils in a flash of orange and red, tumbling over the Greatvole’s eyebrows and skull, down her neck and black salt spine, and into a shallow space between her shoulder blades where September and Saturday sat on their knees, catching their breath. The emerald smoking jacket had already seamed itself back up into a fetching short emerald-colored bolero jacket, so that September could move about freely and not get a sash snagged on any vole parts. Two large, pearly tears dropped from Saturday’s eyes as he felt back for his proud topknot and found only a ragged, sawed-off ponytail. All September wanted to do was shake him until he explained why he couldn’t remember the most important things that had ever happened to them, but there was no time, no time. And the wombat was on fire.

  September leapt forward and batted at Blunderbuss’s hind leg, which smoked and crackled like a broiling Christmas ham.

  “Watch where you aim that fire hose, you great red lunkhead! Clodhopper! Donkey! Sir Oafington of Oaf Hall!” the wombat hollered and hawed, trying to stub out her paw on the Greatvole’s back like a cigar. Ell’s whiskers drooped. Saturday sniffled and puffed out his cheeks, then blew a ball of glittering sea foam at the half-cooked wombat-shank. September had seen him do that from a trapeze platform once, with a smile on his face that would blind every star in the sky. But now he did it with no more pomp than a winter’s cough. The foam sizzled as it hit blackened wool, but the embers died out, leaving only steam. Saturday fell back against Ell, exhausted, curling into a little blue ball.

  Blunderbuss waggled her hind paw, trying to get a look at the damage. September could see stuffing coming out, but she didn’t want to embarrass Blunderbuss by saying anything. Then the wombat saw A-Through-L’s miserable, embarrassed eyes, pleading forgiveness with every long eyelash.

  “Oh, come on, don’t be such a Sensitive Susie! I’ve called you worse over the question of Poirot’s mustache! You know I never mean it. You’re my Sir Oafington and I like you better than all the clowncakes in Oaf Hall. In the Land of Wom, that’s just how we talk to our families! You gotta be nice to strangers even when they are the worst, because they don’t know you well enough to understand how shut your big face can mean I’ve missed you more than the whole world can know. Come on! Call me something! You can do it!”

  A-Through-L stared at his feet. He did try. But all that came out was “You have very nice eyes.”

  Blunderbuss blinked her very nice eyes. “Ooof. Don’t worry about it, not everyone’s got the knack. Thanks for the escape, Inspector Ell-O. Now where the devil is this ripsnorter taking us?”

  September wiped her hands on her legs. The Watchful Dress, though currently shaped like sensible work trousers, did not appreciate it. Mud came off her palms—they were all quite grimy, really. But little black crystals tumbled free as well, pieces of the huge dark rough-cut gems crusting over the creature’s mammoth body. September picked a little crystal up and tasted it gingerly.

  “Salt!” she exclaimed. And then understood. “Oh … oh no. I thought we’d only been gone a few hours! But you said … you said we were under the sea all night and into the next afternoon. I didn’t have my breakfast! I didn’t eat my flapjacks or my cordial! This is the Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern and she’s woken from her thousand-year slumber!”

  “My name is Brunhilda,” the Greatvole rumbled, like continents crashing together. “If you wouldn’t mind shifting, I’ve got a nerve just there, and you’re pinching it.”

  They scrambled to move out of their little shallow between two shoulder blades, farther up so they nestled against the nape of her neck. The ride was much rougher up there. September clung on desperately as the Greatvole stretched her long-sleepy muscles.

  “Are you … are you going to devour the world and chew on its bones?” Ell asked carefully.

  T
he Greatvole snorted. The roofs of Voleworld’s taverns and inns fluttered with the force of her breath. “Not today, if that’s all right by you. Worlds give me heartburn. They stick in the gullet something fierce. But thank you for assuming the worst, it’s not at all painful to be wakened by ignorant prejudices!”

  “I’m sorry! It’s only that I read all about you when I was a hatchling. You start with G! And all the encyclopedias in my father’s stacks agree that you nearly destroyed Fairyland with your terrible digging and chewing and tunneling, until the Rex Tyrannosaur hit you over the head with a mountain and sent the honeybees of Wallowdream to sting you to sleep.”

  “Such a lot of fuss over a few earthquakes! Nobody talks about how beautiful my new mountain ranges looked, or the new ski resort opportunities I opened up every time I broke the surface and shoved up fresh slopes, or how nicely a bottomless chasm goes with any city, no matter the style. Or all the jewels and gold I spat out when I got done chewing through a desert! Or the absolute fact that without me, Fairyland would still be a big flat boring nix and naught full of crabgrass and dust, fit for nothing but lawn chairs! I tunneled out everything here! S’why they call it Voleworld and not Rabbitworld or Meerkatworld. Every time you relax in a lovely valley or tightrope between two towering crags, you ought to thank your lucky geography for Brunhilda the Greatvole! But no! Instead, they all whined and bawled like a bunch of babies because good design takes risks. Because I erased a few rough drafts when anyone could see farming villages just don’t go with tundra ecosystems! Let me be a lesson to you, kiddies—keep your dreams small. Build your own house and they’ll praise you staircase to windows. Build your own world and you’ll get all the thanks a mouse gives a snake. So yes, then Thrum the Rex Tyrannosaur sent all those bees after me and I’m sure he had a grand old party with all his Uptop friends, telling vicious vole jokes and congratulating themselves on getting a spanking-new topography for the bargain price of a vole’s pride. Maybe he’s still lording it on his Cretaceous Throne, guzzling bone-beer and admiring the swanky cave I made for him.”