The girl who fell beneat.., p.2
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.2

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  Her book lay forgotten on the suddenly empty grass of our world. A sudden wind, smelling ever so faintly of every green thing, of mint and rosemary and fresh hay, turned the pages faster and faster, as if in a hurry to find out the end.

  September’s mother stepped out of the house, looking for her daughter, her eyes puffy with tears. But there was no girl in the wheat anymore, only three brand-new books, a bit of toffee still in its wax wrapper, and a pair of crows winging off, cawing after a rowboat that had already vanished ahead of them.

  Behind her, the walnut radio snapped and spit.

  CHAPTER II

  SHADOWS IN THE FOREST

  In Which September Discovers a Forest of Glass, Applies Extremely Practical Skills to It, Encounters a Rather Unfriendly Reindeer, and Finds that Something Has Gone Terribly Awry in Fairyland

  September looked up from the pale grass. She stood shakily, rubbing her bruised shins. The border between our world and Fairyland had not been kind to her this time, a girl alone, with no green-suited protector to push her through all the checkpoints with no damage done. September wiped her nose and looked about to see where she had got herself.

  A forest rose up around her. Bright afternoon sunshine shone through it, turning every branch to flame and gold and sparkling purple prisms—for every tall tree was made of twisted, wavering, wild, and lumpy glass. Glass roots humped up and dove down into the snowy earth; glass leaves moved and jingled against one another like tiny sleigh bells. Bright pink birds darted in to snap at the glass berries with their round green beaks. They trilled triumph with deep alto voices that sounded like nothing so much as Gotitgotitgotit and Strangegirl! Strangegirl! What a desolate and cold and beautiful place those birds lived in! Tangled white underbrush flowed up around gnarled and fiery oaks. Glass dew shivered from leaves and glass moss crushed delicately beneath her feet. In clutches here and there, tiny silver-blue glass flowers peeked up from inside rings of red-gold glass mushrooms.

  September laughed. I’m back, oh, I’m back! She whirled around with her arms out and then clasped them to her mouth—her laughter echoed strangely in the glass wood. It wasn’t an ugly sound. Actually, she rather liked it, like talking into a seashell. Oh, I’m here! I’m really here and it is the best of birthday presents!

  “Hullo, Fairyland!” she cried. Her echo splashed out through the air like bright paint.

  Strangegirl! Strangegirl! answered the pink-and-green birds. Gotitgotitgotit!

  September laughed again. She reached up to a low branch where one of the birds was watching her with curious glassy eyes. It reached out an iridescent claw to her.

  “Hullo, Bird!” she said happily. “I have come back and everything is just as strange and marvelous as I remembered! If the girls at school could see this place, it would shut them right up, I don’t mind telling you. Can you talk? Can you tell me everything that’s happened since I’ve been gone? Is everything lovely now? Have the Fairies come back? Are there country dances every night and a pot of cocoa on every table? If you can’t talk, that’s all right, but if you can, you ought to! Talking is frightful fun, when you’re cheerful. And I am cheerful! Oh, I am, Bird. Ever so cheerful.” September laughed a third time. After so long keeping to herself and tending her secret quietly, all these words just bubbled up out of her like cool golden champagne.

  But the laugh caught in her throat. Perhaps no one else could have seen it so quickly, or been so chilled by the sight, having lived with such a thing herself for so long.

  The bird had no shadow.

  It cocked its head at her, and if it could talk it decided not to. It sprang off to hunt a glass worm or three. September looked at the frosty meadows, at the hillsides, at the mushrooms and flowers. Her stomach turned over and hid under her ribs.

  Nothing had a shadow. Not the trees, not the grass, not the pretty green chests of the other birds still watching her, wondering what was the matter.

  A glass leaf fell and drifted slowly to earth, casting no dark shape beneath it.

  The low little wall September had tripped over ran as far as she could peer in both directions. Pale bluish moss stuck out of every crack in its dark face like unruly hair. The deep black glass stones shone. Veins of white crystal shot through them. The forest of reflections showered her with doubled and tripled light, little rainbows and long shafts of bloody orange. September shut her eyes several times and opened them again, just to be sure, just to be certain she was back in Fairyland, that she wasn’t simply knocked silly by her fall. And then one last time, to be sure that the shadows really were gone. A loud sigh teakettled out of her. Her cheeks glowed as pink as the birds above and the leaves on the little glass-maples.

  And yet even with a sense of wrongness spreading out all through the shadowless forest, September could not help still feeling full and warm and joyful. She could not help running her mind over a wonderful thought, over and over, like a smooth, shiny stone: I am here, I am home, no one forgot me, and I am not eighty yet.

  September spun about suddenly, looking for A-Through-L and Saturday and Gleam and the Green Wind. Surely, they had got word she was coming and would meet her! With a grand picnic and news and old jokes. But she found herself quite alone, save for the rosy-colored birds staring curiously at the loud thing suddenly taking up space in their forest, and a couple of long yellow clouds hanging in the sky.

  “Well,” September explained sheepishly to the birds, “I suppose that would be asking rather a lot, to have it all arranged like a tea party for me, with all my friends here and waiting!” A big male bird whistled, shaking his splendid tail feathers. “I expect I’m in some exciting outer province of Fairyland and will have to find my way on my lonesome. The train doesn’t drop you at your house, see! You must sometimes get a lift from someone kindly!” A smaller bird with a splash of black on her chest looked dubious.

  September recalled that Pandemonium, the capital of Fairyland, did not rest in any one place. It moved about quite a bit in order to satisfy the needs of anyone looking for it. She had only to behave as a heroine would behave, to look stalwart and true, to brandish something bravely, and surely she would find herself back in those wonderful tubs kept by the soap golem Lye, making herself clean and ready to enter the great city. A-through-L would be living in Pandemonium, September guessed, working happily for his grandfather, the Municipal Library of Fairyland. Saturday would be visiting his grandmother, the ocean, every summer, and otherwise busy growing up, just as she had been. She felt no worry at all on that account. They would be together soon. They would discover what had happened to the shadows of the forest, and they would solve it all up in time for dinner the way her mother solved the endless sniffles and coughs of Mr. Albert’s car.

  September set off with a straight back, her birthday dress wrinkling in the breeze. It was her mother’s dress, really, taken in and mercilessly hemmed until it fit her, a pretty shade of red that you could almost call orange, and September did. She fairly glowed in the pale glass forest, a little flame walking through the white grass and translucent trunks. Without shadows, light seemed able to reach everywhere. The brightness of the forest floor forced September to squint. But as the sun sank like a scarlet weight in the sky, the wood grew cold and the trees lost their spectacular colors. All around her the world went blue and silver as the stars came out and the moon came up and on and on she walked—very stalwart, very brave, but very much without encountering Pandemonium.

  The soap golem loved the Marquess, though, September thought. And the Marquess is gone. I saw her fall into a deep sleep; I saw the Panther of Rough Storms carry her off. Perhaps there are no tubs to wash your courage in any longer. Perhaps there is no Lye. Perhaps Pandemonium stays in one place now. Who knows what has happened in Fairyland since I have been studying algebra and spending Sundays by the fire?

  September looked about for the pink birds, of whom she felt very fond since they were her only company, but they had gone to their nests. She strained to hear o
wls but none hooted to fill the silent evening. Milky moonlight spilled through the glass oaks and glass elms and glass pines.

  “I suppose I shall have to spend the night,” September sighed, and shivered, for her birthday dress was a springtime thing and not meant for sleeping on the cold ground. But she was older now than she had been when first she landed on the shore of Fairyland, and squared herself to the night without complaint. She hunted out a nice patch of even grass surrounded by a gentle fence of glass birches, protected on three sides, and resolved to make it her bed. September gathered several little glass sticks and piled them together, scraping away most of the lemony-smelling grass beneath them. Blue-black earth showed, and she smelled fresh, rich dirt. She stripped off glass bark and lay the curling peels against her sticks to make a little glass pyramid. She wedged dry grass into her kindling and judged it a passable job—if only she had matchsticks. September had read of cowboys and other interesting folk using two stones to make fire, though she remained doubtful that she had all the information necessary on that score. Nevertheless, she hunted out two good, smooth, dark stones, not glass but honest rock, and gave them a mighty whack, one against the other. It made a frightful sound that echoed all through the wood, like a bone bursting. September tried again, and again got nothing but a loud crack that vibrated in her hands. On the third strike, she missed and mashed one of her fingers. She sucked it painfully. It did not help to consider that the trouble of making fire was a constant one in human history. This was not a human place—could she not find a bush that grew nice fat pipes or matchbook flowers, or better yet, a sort of enchanter who might wave her hand and produce a crackling blaze with a pot of stew over it for good mea sure?

  Nursing her finger still, September looked out through the thin mist and saw a glow off in the night, in the space between the trees. It flared red and orange.

  Fire, yes, and not far!

  “Is anyone there?” called September. Her voice sounded thin in the glassy wood.

  After a long while, an answer came. “Someone, maybe.”

  “I see you’ve something red and orange and flamey, and if you’d be so kind, I could use a bit of it to keep warm and cook my supper, if I should find anything to eat here.”

  “You a hunter, then?” said the voice, and the voice was full of fear and hope and wanting and hating in a way September had never heard before.

  “No, no!” she said quickly. “Well, I killed a fish once. So perhaps I’m a fisherman, though you wouldn’t call someone who only ever made bread once a baker! I only thought maybe I could make a mushy soup out of any glass potatoes or glass beans I might happen upon, if I was very lucky. I’d planned to use a big leaf as a cup for cooking. It’s glass, see, so it mightn’t burn, if I was careful.” September felt proud of her inventiveness—several things had gone missing from her plan, namely potatoes or beans or apples, but the plan itself held solid in her head. The fire was paramount; the fire would show the forest her mettle.

  The red flamey glow came closer and closer until September could see that it was really just a tiny speck of a little coal inside a pipe with a very big bowl. The pipe belonged to a young girl, who clamped it between her teeth. The girl had white hair, white as the grass. The moonlight turned it silvery blue. Her eyes showed dark and quite big. Her clothes were all soft pale fur and glass-bark, her belt a chain of rough violet stones. The girl’s big dark eyes showed deep worry.

  And in the folds of her pale hair, two short, soft antlers branched up, and two long, soft, black ears stuck out, rather like a deer’s, their insides gleaming clean and lavender in the night. The girl looked September over unhurriedly, her soft face taking on a wary, haunted cant. She sucked deeply on her pipe. It glowed red, orange, red again.

  “Name’s Taiga,” she said finally, clenching her pipe in her teeth and extending a hand. She wore a flaxen glove with the fingers cut off. “Neveryoumind that mess.” The strange girl nodded at the lonely pieces of September’s camp. “Come with me to the hill and we’ll feed you up.”

  September must have looked stricken, for Taiga hastened to add, “Oh, it would have been a good fire, girl, no mistaking it. Top craftsmanship. But you won’t find eatables this far in, and there’s always hunters everywhere, just looking for…well, looking to shoot themselves a wife, if you’ll pardon my cursing.”

  September knew a number of curse words, most of which she heard the girls at school saying in the bathrooms, in hushed voices, as if the words could make things happen just by being spoken, as if they were fairy words, and had to be handled just so. She had not heard the deer-girl use any of them.

  “Cursing? Do you mean hunter?” It was her best guess, for Taiga had grimaced when she used it, as though the word hurt her to say.

  “Nope,” said Taiga, kicking the dirt with one boot. “I mean wife.”

  CHAPTER III

  THE REINDEER OF MOONKIN HILL

  In Which September Considers the Problem of Marriage, Learns How to Travel to the Moon, Eats Fairy Food (Again), Listens to the Radio, and Resolves to Mend Fairyland as Best She Can

  September hugged her elbows. She and Taiga had been walking for some time without speaking. The stars had trudged down toward dawn in their sparkling train. She wanted to talk—the talk boiled inside her like a pot left on just forever with no one minding it. She wanted to ask how things in Fairyland had gone since she’d left. She wanted to ask where she was relative to the Autumn Provinces or the Lonely Gaol—north, south? A hundred miles? A thousand? She even wanted to throw her arms around the deer-girl, who was so obviously magical, so clearly Fairylike, and laugh and cry out, Do you know who I am? I’m the girl who saved Fairyland!

  September blushed in the dark. That seemed suddenly a rather rotten thing to say, and she took it back without ever having uttered the thing. Taiga kept on as the land got hillier and the glass trees began to get friends of solid, honest wood, black and white. She said nothing, but she said nothing in a particularly pointed and solemn and deliberate way that made September say nothing, too.

  Finally, the grass humped up into a great hillock, looking quite like an elephant had been buried there—and not the runt of its litter, either. Big, glossy fruits ran all over the hill, their vines trailing after them. September could not tell what color they might be in the daytime—for now they glowed a shimmery, snowy blue.

  “Go on, have one,” Taiga said, and for the first time she smiled a little. September knew that smile. It was the smile a farmer wears when the crop is good and she knows it, so good it’ll take all the ribbons at the county fair, but manners say she’s got to look humble in front of company. “Best moonkins east of Asphodel, and don’t let anyone tell you different. They’ll be gone in the morning, so eat up while they’ve got a ripening on.”

  September crawled partway up the hill and found a small one, small enough that no one might call her greedy. She cradled it in her skirt and started back down—but Taiga took a running start and darted past her, straight to the top. She sprang into the air with a great bounding leap, flipped over, and dove right down into the earth.

  “Oh!” September cried.

  There was nothing for it—she followed Taiga up the hill, making her way between giant, shining moonkins. Glassy vines tangled everywhere, tripping up her feet. When she finally reached the crest, September saw where the deer-girl had gone. Someone had cut a hole in the top of the hill, a ragged, dark hole in the dirt, with bits of root and stone showing through, and grass flowing in after. September judged it big enough for a girl, though not for a man.

  Much as she would have liked to somersault and dive like a lovely gymnast, headfirst into the deeps, September did not know how to flip like that. She wanted to, longed to feel her body turn in the air that way. Her new, headless heart said, No trouble! We can do it! But her sensible old legs would not obey. Instead, she put her pale fruit into the pocket of her dress, got down on her stomach, and wriggled in backward. Her bare legs dangled into whateve
r empty space the hill contained. September squeezed her eyes shut, holding her breath, clutching the grass until the last moment—and popped through with a slightly moist sucking noise.

  She fell about two feet.

  September opened her eyes, first one, then the other. She was standing on a tall bookcase, and just below it stood a smaller one, and then a smaller one again, and another, and another, a neat little curving staircase of books down from the cathedral ceiling of the moonkin hill. Down below, several girls and boys like Taiga paused in their work to look up at the newcomer. Some of them wove lichen fronds into great blankets. Some of them boiled a creamy stew full of moonkin vines that smelled strange but not unpleasant, like peppermint and good thick potatoes. Some had on glasses and worried away at accountants’ books, some refilled the oil in pretty little lamps, some relaxed, blowing smoke from their pipes. The coziness of the scene quite overpowered September, whose feet and fingers still tingled with numb coldness. Here and there peeked everything that made a house feel alive, paintings on the walls and rugs on the floor and a sideboard with china and an overstuffed chair that didn’t match anything else. Everyone had very delicate, very bare feet.

  “I daresay doors are more efficient.” September laughed as she made her way down. “They aren’t hard to make, either. Not much more than a hinge and a knob.”

  Taiga held up a hand to help September off of the last shelf.

  “Hunters can use doors. This way we’re safe.”

  “You keep talking about hunters! We didn’t see one on the way here and really, I can’t believe someone would hunt a girl! I don’t think girls make very good roasts or coats.”

 
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