The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 20Catherynne M. Valente
September frowned. All the while the Greatvole had been complaining, she’d been carefully, quietly fetching her flapjacks and cordial from their luggage. She paused with flask and plate in hand. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly. Whatever Thrum was doing at that moment, she felt sure it had nothing to do with bone-beer. “You’ve been asleep for a thousand years.” It seemed safer on the whole not to mention to a resentful behemoth that Thrum had come back from the dead along with everyone else and was therefore huntable and findable, so long as he had not had any dueling mishaps yet.
“Perhaps,” September said, hoping to sound both polite and commanding, “you might take us to the Worsted Wood? We need to move quickly, or I wouldn’t ask. You seem terribly fast and strong. If you took us under the ground instead of over it, we might make it in time to win the Cantankerous Derby.”
The Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern slowed and stopped. This took many miles, for anything as large as a Greatvole cannot go from top volespeed to zero in less than seven leagues.
“Oh,” Brunhilda said, her voice clogged up with sorrow. “A thousand years? Why didn’t anyone wake me? I suppose erosion will have spoiled my best work by now. The sea and the wind and the heat and the snow will have taken the edges off my crags and the colors off my canyons. A thousand years is a long time to go without basic maintenance. I meant to keep it all tidy and fresh, once I’d finished. I meant to finish.”
September did not think. She acted, and thought about it later, and had a little quiver, because the Greatvole could have eaten her and everyone she loved and asked for dessert. She tapped Ell’s knee. The Wyverary flew her gently down from the skull of the Greatvole, with Blunderbuss and Saturday following behind. She steadied her heart and strode up to the salt-jeweled beast’s huge face. You can stop up hurts, if you are Queen, she thought, and her heart beat madly in her chest.
“Brunhilda, Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern, I am September, the Engineer. Which is to say, Queen of Fairyland and all Her Kingdoms. It is my duty as Queen to send you right back to sleep with no supper. In fact, I am the only ruler of Fairyland in a thousand years to fail to keep you conked out. And I have to get you back to bed, because otherwise you’re going to start erasing villages again, and I daresay villages like to stay where they’re put.”
The Greatvole started to growl again, but September held up her hands. Her eyes shone with the strange feeling of knowing the right thing to do. If she’d only known it, she looked very like a certain Changeling troll had done on a playground in Chicago, talking to a boy who wanted very much to hit him.
“Brunhilda, thank you,” September said, and into her voice she put all the warmth she’d ever heard from her mother and her father and Ell and Saturday and Aunt Margaret and Aubergine and the Whelk of the Moon. “Fairyland is the most beautiful place anyone could want. I love it awfully. I love the Candelabra Desert and the Worsted Wood and the Perverse and Perilous Sea and every island in it. I love the Barleybroom and Pandemonium and the way you can follow a mountain road all the way to the Moon. I came across the whole universe just to see it. Most of the time, it’s so wonderful, it stops me missing my home and my family and everything I ever loved before I met Fairyland. Most of the time. “
“I made that mountain,” the Greatvole said shyly. “It was so hard to get the curls of her hair right.”
“I know you did.” September smiled, though she didn’t know that mountain had curly hair, for she’d never seen it from far off, only from its peak. “You did so well. But just now, Fairyland is in the middle of a rather sprawling mess, and if you start fixing up your work like I know you want to, no one will understand that you’re only trying to make it perfect. They’ll send the bees after you again. Now, I don’t want to put you to sleep. I hate the taste of these dry flapjacks anyhow. But I shall have to unless you do as I ask.”
The Greatvole gnawed on a bit of tunnel and waited.
“Let Fairyland stay. Brunhilda, it is finished. It’s finished and wonderful and none of us want it any different. Even the bits that the sea and the wind and a lot of revolutions have worn off and broken off and blown off—Fairyland wouldn’t be quite as lovely without her broken bits. So don’t sleep—just rest. Enjoy some bone-beer of your own. And when this is all done I promise to call down to Voleworld and you can come up and start a new geography in some place that hasn’t got a village yet. We’ll pick it out together. No bees, no bears, no one to tell you what fjord to put where. And before you rest, take us where we need to go, so that I can keep my crown and my promise.”
The Greatvole gnawed some more.
“Fine. But I hate fjords. Snap off one of my whiskers—the smallest one you can find or you won’t be able to fit your little hands around it. Take it and when you want me, when it’s time for my triumphant new archipelago … or maybe a chain of volcanoes … well, just stick it in the ground and call my name.”
The whisker was as long as a black crystal sword in September’s hand. She slid it into a sudden sheath in the Watchful Dress and looked at a clutch of dark tunnel entrances in the wall of Voleworld. The Greatvole bored happily through the earth up ahead of them, leaving them to their choice. Each had a neat wooden hatch with large, well-made words burned into it:
TO WIN THE DAY
TO WIN THE HAND
TO WIN AGAINST ODDS
TO WIN THE WAR
September did not have to think twice.
THE HOURGLASS WASTE
In Which Lions Attack, Songs Are Sung in French, and Everyone Misses Something Deathly Important, Except for the Dog
It is always difficult to believe that while we are having our own adventures, others are behaving with just as much derring-do and flash and swashing of the buckles as we. It is especially hard for children to believe that their parents might be off performing their own astonishing feats of Grown-Upedness whilst their little ones are battling ferocious octopi under the sea. But it is true. The Land of Parents is strange and full of peril.
September’s family sped through Fairyland on a sleigh drawn by six hippopotami named for her grandfather’s liquor cabinet. Aunt Margaret’s hippos were much faster than the kind you and I have seen in the zoo. They are much faster than cheetahs or hawks, and a bit slower than the newest and most modern of trains. They flew through the Inksop Marshes and the Candelabra Desert, through the Worsted Wood and the Springtime Quarter where the Marquess had slept for years. They spent a night in the shadow of the Peppercorn Pyramids. Susan Jane made a respectable campfire out of a few of the daggers from fallen redcroak branches, and a bit of black, crumbled pyramid. They sang one another songs and Fenris howled, for he longed to be included. Owen sang them a lovely French song he had learned at the front, though it made him sad and Susan Jane had to hold him tight until he fell asleep.
In the night, they were menaced by two blue lions, grown thin and rangy without anyone to feed them. September’s father socked one in the jaw. September’s mother flung one of the daggers she’d squirreled away from the dagger-tree at the other’s shoulder. But when the lions saw Aunt Margaret, they whined and shook their heads and backed away, their blue tongues lolling.
“Madame Pearl,” they whispered in terror, and bolted back across the meadow.
“Is that what they call you here?” Susan Jane said as they tried to go back to sleep.
“Yes. Margaret means ‘Pearl’ in Greek, you know. I thought it sounded very romantic. And at the time, I was living on the Moon, the great big Pearl in the sky.”
“It must be nice to give yourself a fancy new name,” September’s mother yawned. “I always thought I could do with something grander than Susan.”
* * *
In the morning, the galloping liquor cabinet pulled them past Flegethon City where the ifrits live and burn. When the suburban flames died out, they found themselves in a vast, pale, barren wilderness. The land thirsted, the stones were tall and thin, the color of snow. The air grew ho
t and still and heavy all round. And everywhere they saw hourglasses filled with sands of darkest red and green and blue and violet—some tiny, wedged between boulders, some so huge that a mountaineer might think them a proper challenge. Greenwich Mean Time was born here, in the Hourglass Waste. Margaret seemed suddenly very sullen and sour. She begged her hippos to run faster. Over the next hill there’s water and glowerwheat, my loves, I promise!
Soon enough they did top the next hill and down into a valley full of wheat with little gas flames burning at their tips. The sun began to set, turning the sky a wild scarlet. Susan Jane and Owen looked up at Fairyland’s Moons rising in the east. One’s so much smaller than the other, September’s father thought. How strange!
As they left the Hourglass Waste behind them, a gust of wind billowed through two chalky crags. An hourglass sloshing with pomegranate-red sand lay snugly between them, half buried in the white dust of the Waste. The breeze blew the dust away from the glass and the wood and the crags, up and into the sunset and over the glowerwheat.
The hourglass had a brass plaque on it. Neither Margaret nor September’s parents nor the hippopotami saw it. Fenris did, but he could not tell anyone, though he yipped valiantly. The plaque read:
SEPTEMBER MORNING BELL
And its sand had nearly run out.
THE BRAVE AND THE BONKERS
In Which Blunderbuss Goes Home, Everyone Eats and Yells a Great Deal, and September Jousts a Dinosaur on Wombat-Back
They climbed out of the earth into a hot, tangled, green-golden valley. The sun crackled and popped on the oddest plants: fire-colored flowers shaped like great thick stacks of ice cream scoops, whippy vines heavy with ripe, black-skinned passionfruit oozing seeds, long, hot pink blossoms hanging like tongues from the branches of macadamia trees, big glossy quandong fruits dropping softly now and then from ashy, squat trees, skinny orange yams pushing up half out of the ground. September and Saturday put their hands over their noses.
“But this isn’t the Worsted Wood at all!” cried September. Her frustration felt like a bellyful of boulders. Would they never get on the right track? She reached back for Saturday’s hand.
“If we win, you will…” But he couldn’t think of how to finish.
September touched his face. “Just hold on, Saturday. We’ll find out what’s wrong.”
A-Through-L howled. “There’s no woolly trees or pumpkin pies or anything! Where are we?”
Blunderbuss opened her nostrils wide and sucked in the scents of the place that was decidedly not the Worsted Wood.
“Slap my bony rump if that’s not the best whiff I’ve ever gulped! What’s your problem? Come on, you dags! Open your mouths and huff! Chew on that air! Each breath’s as good as a meal! You don’t know, it might be the Wood! Maybe the spriggans have redecorated since you last popped by. I’m sure it is! You said the Worsted Wood was beautiful—isn’t this beautiful?”
Blunderbuss wasn’t wrong. The smell of the place was wonderful—rich and sweet and savory and sharp. But it was so strong. September felt faint, as though a bushel of apples had pummeled her head. The scrap-yarn wombat scampered on ahead.
“Are those blue tongues? Ell, you gotta try these! They turn your tongue blue, see?” She dove headfirst into a thicket of electric-blue berries and came up sticking out her scrap-yarn tongue, stained ultramarine with juice. Ell adjusted his sea-glass spectacles and checked his turnip pocket watch.
“It’s quarter past that rotted bit there,” he fretted. “Hadn’t we better figure out where we are and get back to the Derby? Someone could cross the finish line anytime and we wouldn’t even know unless Ajax sent us a note! We have to go!”
“I know! I know!” Blunderbuss danced from paw to paw, hardly able to contain herself. “But … but we’re here. Now! What if we never find it again? Even though you won’t let me have my turn with the specs, let us DEDUCE the STUFFING out of it, mon ami! Whaddowe got? Quandongs?” She snarfed a big red one off a bush. “Check. Macadamias? Check. Passionfruits?” She ripped a dozen off their vines and gobbled them down. “Huge spanking check! Emu apples, golden wattles, blue tongues, warrigal greens? Cram ’em in your face! Top-shelf digging dirt? Oh yes, we have some right here! And if that’s not enough, look, look, follow me!”
The scrap-yarn wombat leapt out of the brush and scurried up over a hill covered in blue tongue berries. Her paws left wet prints full of smashed cerulean fruit. They scrambled up after her. Blunderbuss was already crowing and jigging and spinning around three times in excitement. She bent down and bit the earth, to show that she liked a thing, and that she thought a thing was delicious, and that she thought it was hers.
“We’re in the Land of Wom!” Blunderbuss roared.
September got herself up to the top of the hill, slipping on berries all the way. She looked down into the north end of the valley. A village spread out as happily as a cat in a sunbeam. It was a shantytown, full of clapboard houses and peeling boardwalks and rusty nails and swinging signs. Warm wind whistled through the slats of the buildings. But the slats and boards and posts and roofs were all painted like the night sky. Deep black and blue and burning stars, white comets and tiny, twinkling red planets. I’ve never seen painting like that, September thought to herself. Even that fellow in Rome couldn’t make that bakery look so exactly like the Milky Way.
“I’m home! Me! Blunderbuss! The Great Chicago Wombat! What are the odds?”
September smiled. She thought of the door she’d chosen and was glad for Buss. But she’d chosen to win against odds—Oddson. She’d thought it would take them right where they needed to go. But why would the Heart of Fairyland be hiding in the Land of Wom? This couldn’t be right. “Buss, if you’re from Chicago, how do you know we’re in Wom?”
Blunderbuss puffed out her chest proudly. “When Hawthorn asked me to come to life, he specifically said: Please wake up right now this moment and be alive like Scratch and be a real wombat and be able to talk and walk and bite and do marvelous things like firing passionfruits and horseshoes and whiskey bottles out of your mouth at our enemies and singing the ancient songs of the Land of Wom, which we both know is the most beautiful Land that ever was a Land. He’s a very polite boy and he thought of everything and now I am HOME and HOME means BITES, FOODS, and OTHER WOMBATS. Last one to Wom is a kangaroo!”
“Wait, Buss, we can’t stay! Wait!” September protested.
But off she ran, and off they all ran after her. They couldn’t leave her if they wanted to—if they got to Mummery without their steed, they’d be disqualified anyway. Saturday laughed madly and spun around a few times of his own on the way into town, without a care. September was all care, but she resolved not to show it. Not yet. Everyone deserves to go home and feel happy about it when they get there, she thought. Everyone. Queens shouldn’t worry or whine, should they? We can’t be so badly off. It’s not halftime yet. Ajax said at halftime we all swap places.
Blunderbuss tumbled into the center of town, her hugeness throwing shadows up against the night-sky shacks.
“Whoa there, cobber!” a handsome, furry wombat hollered from a twilit rocking chair on a starry porch. The sign over his head read PUDDING-FOR-ALL GENERAL STORE. He wore a smart waistcoat and small, round sunglasses. “Slow yourself down, how about that?”
For a moment, September thought Blunderbuss was going to cry. She scrunched up her diamond-shaped magenta button eye, and then her thick brass button eye. She wrinkled up her nose and shook her head bullishly from side to side. She got so choked up she couldn’t say a thing, which was certainly a first. The scrap-yarn wombat had never met a claw-and-fur wombat before.
The other wombat pulled a carrot-cob pipe out of his waistcoat pocket and lit it without a match. He had a bit of Wombat Magic and didn’t mind showing off. “No need to go thundering about like your arse’s on fire. Ruddy tourists. No respect for anyone. Go on, get your postcards and be on your way, thank you!”
s finally found her voice. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a wombat!”
“Oh, come off yourself, you are not,” scoffed the furry fellow.
“I am so! Look at my teeth!” Blunderbuss bared her cloak-clasp teeth, which only seemed to make the other wombat uncomfortable.
“If you’re a wombat, I’m a cockatoo!”
“She’s the most wombat I’ve ever known,” A-Through-L said with all the sternness any Wyvern can command. If only he had not had a turnip tied round his waist, even a mountain would have cowered.
The wombat spat onto his veranda. “You’re made out of yarn and you’re the size of a rhinoceros. I know wombats are the greatest animals ever invented, and it’s only natural you should want to be one, but you’re embarrassing yourself, mate.”
Blunderbuss gritted her teeth. She strode proudly over to the Puddings-For-All General Store and pointed one fuzzy lilac-colored paw at the wombat in the rocking chair. “You listen here, Little Lord Much-a-Much. I am from Chicago and in Chicago, all wombats are made of yarn and the size of rhinoceroses! Is this how you say how-do to out-of-town cousins? I always heard the Fairyland branch of the family were nice as raisins, but you’re just a cheeky little runted bear cub and I shall tell everyone so when I get back.” She was, of course, quite right. Being the only wombat in Chicago, all wombats in the city looked just like her.
The wombat creaked back and forth on his spangled rocker, puffing on his pipe. Then he burst out of the chair and off the porch, giving Blunderbuss’s paw a great, solid bite. Buss didn’t yelp. She grinned like Christmas.