The girl who fell beneat.., p.20
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.20

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  A high wall greeted them, the only object for miles. It did not look like the little wall September had tripped over when she entered Fairyland. It looked infinitely older, of a stone that probably remembered when the moon was just a baby. Weather and abuse had lashed the rocks and left them crumbling here, impenetrable there. As with any wall that has the gall to stand in the middle of nowhere with nobody guarding it, folk had written things on it, painted and chiseled their names or some little message, a thousand years of graffiti. Some were little more than signs and sigils, as old as writing itself. Some September could read, even if she didn’t understand most of them.

  Philadelphia 9 Million Miles That-a-Way. Beware of Dog. Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. No Trespassing—This Means You. I Miss My Mother. Theseus Was Here. I Told You Not to Turn Around—You Never Listened to Me. No Parking Any Time. Never Let ’Em Take Your Necklace.

  September ran her hands across the letters.

  “Look here,” the Minotaur said imperiously, and September did not argue. In the midst of the wall she saw a hole, a crack in the stone. It looked as though someone had put their fist through the wall—its edges sheared off broken and ugly, covered in pale moss, sharp and ragged. Up above it someone had written in childlike handwriting, “Why Did the Chicken Cross Fairyland?”

  “Is that the way to the Prince?” she asked. “Will I look through and see him?”

  The Minotaur said nothing, only continued to point. When September still hesitated, the beast put her hand on the girl’s neck, hard and unignorable, rough and hot. She pushed her down before the hole in the wall. September stumbled to her knees and peered through it. This is what she saw: A field of warm, rich grain, still tinged with green, a May field, and a sweet little house at one end of it—why, it was her own house! And the lights were on! And there! Could those be the shadows of her mother and her dog moving behind the distant curtains? It looked like early evening, only a few minutes after she’d left. September laughed and tried to wave to her mother through the hole in the world. The Minotaur stayed her hand.

  “No one can see or hear you—yet. There is no wall on the other side of the wall. Only a world. You will not believe me, but that is a part of Fairyland-Above, in the far, far west of the land.”

  “But that’s my house! I can see it! There, in the yard, that’s my bicycle with the basket! There’s the milkman’s empty bottles!”

  “It is what Fairyland-Above is becoming, without her shadows, without her magic,” said Left softly. “More and more ordinary, more and more usual, more and more like your world, where you cannot plant poems or turn into a Wyvern or build cities out of bread. Very soon now Fairyland will be little more than another part of your world. Maybe a pretty one, but it will have lost all that made it different. You might say it will have lost its Queerness. Belinda Cabbage would say so. Without the shadows and their sorceries and their wildness, the borders are disappearing, and soon enough this wall itself will just fade away into nothing but a nice May field full of waving grass.”

  September tried to imagine Fairyland stuck into her world like a pushpin. A place that would seem like it had always been there, wedged between Kansas and Colorado, perhaps. Another one of the Dakotas. A magicless new prairie stretching on forever.

  The Minotaur went on. “And the people of Fairyland, well—perhaps you will remember that the tall, skinny farmer is really a Spriggan, or the short, fat fish-seller was once a Goblin girl, or that the bicycle leaning against your house used to ride wild with her brothers on the high plain. But no one else will know.” Left paused, her hand softening. She stroked September’s hair instead of pressing her cheek against the stone. She looked back over her immense shoulder at the shadow of the Marquess and played her trump card. “Her desires will come to pass, in an odd and slantwise way—no child will go between earth and Fairyland, because there will no longer be any Fairyland to go to.”

  September shook her head. “I would never let this happen—I mean, Halloween wouldn’t. She’s still me. I’m part of her, I am her. She’d never want a thing like this, because I’d never want it!”

  The Minotaur sighed. “She is so full of Want and Need that the magic of it fills her up like a jar packed with fireflies. She is your shadow, after all. She is you, if you had never learned that sometimes you don’t get what you want. If you had never learned about consequences. Halloween thinks Fairyland-Below will be safe. She thinks if she can pull enough shadows down, we’ll stay put down here while the rest floats off. We’ll anchor ourselves, the sheer weight of all of us. She doesn’t care a bit for the rest, only for her people—an admirable trait in a Queen, really. Not all have it. Oh, and perhaps we will stay, for a little while. But Fairyland-Above is so terribly heavy. Eventually it will drag us through, too. We’ll become beetles and worms and moles, moving in the dark under the mundane world.”

  The shadow of the Marquess looked troubled, blue storms moving across her face. Iago nudged her with his broad dark head. “No more fairies making mischief, spoiling beer and cream, stealing children, eating souls. No more humans meddling with Fairyland, mucking up its politics and tracking mud all over the floor.” Grief quivered in her voice, real grief. “Why does that hurt me so? It made me feel so happy once. So safe and warm.”

  “I thought you would come to me knowing this,” said Left. “I thought we would battle, as a Minotaur likes to do. Then you would show yourself worthy (perhaps I would even let you win a little), and I would have given you a helmet to wear, to show my favor.”

  September threw off the Minotaur’s hand. Her eyes blazed. The hot and furious thing sizzled in her once more. Why did everyone keep assuming she couldn’t do anything for herself? “If you want to fight, I will fight you. I am not strong or tall, and it would be completely unfair, but nothing is fair, ever, and I have already wrestled a Marid nearly to death, so I’ll take you if that’s how I keep this from happening.”

  The Rivet Gun stirred at her hip. Its pneumatic tube snaked around her waist and snuffled like a little puppy, searching for something. It crawled up her chest and found the Järlhopp’s Clutch. The end of the tube smacked gleefully and widened like a serpent’s mouth to engulf the pendant. September drew the gun. Her hand barely shook at all as she aimed it at the Minotaur—but she could not aim for her heart as she thought she probably ought to. At the last moment, her own heart quailed: We could talk it out! This will only make her angry! You can’t just shoot people—that’s not fair fighting! But September had already pulled the trigger. If she was to fight, the hard, strange, new part of her meant to win.

  A bubbling boom erupted from the mouth of the Rivet Gun. A creamy orange cannonball made of all the things that had ever happened to September exploded into the Minotaur’s muscled thigh.

  The Minotaur studied her for a long while. Blood streamed down her leg, but she didn’t seem to notice it. “Good girl,” she said finally.

  September shook a little with the force of having had to do such a thing when she didn’t really want to fight anyone at all. She made fists with her hands, and then let go, covering her face with them instead. All that she had done to keep Fairyland whole, to keep it connected to her own world—and now her shadow would finish the job.

  The hole in the Minotaur’s leg stopped bleeding. The creamy orange light of September’s memories spread all around her great leg. The wound grew wider and wider and taller and taller until the Minotaur had vanished, and all that was left was the hole the Rivet Gun had made, rimmed in creamy orange fire.

  On the other side, September could see nothing at all.

  CHAPTER XVIII

  EVERYONE’S HOUSE

  In Which an Unopenable Box Is Opened, an Unbreakable Bier Is Broken, a Tapir Gloats Rather More Than Is Polite, and a Thing Lost Is Found

  When September stepped through the fiery wound, she squeezed her eyes shut, bracing herself for something to leap out and fight her for real and true.

  Nothing happened. She ope
ned her eyes. Still nothing.

  Maud and Iago still stood near her, just behind, as a shadow will, which September did not like in the least. The Minotaur had gone. The rushing wind and the smell of hardy, tangly moor-flowers had gone, too. Instead, all around them stood a silent, dark house. Shadows—the usual, flat, soft kind that can’t talk—hung everywhere. September reached blindly and found the bannister to a flight of stairs which she seemed to be coming down. She stepped out into the front room of the house, where a big, threadbare couch sat invitingly. A tall, walnut-wood radio stood quiet and dark in the corner.

  “Why, it’s my house!” September cried. Her voice sounded very loud in the empty place. “There’s our old radio—and look! The sink is still full of pink-and-yellow teacups!”

  “No,” whispered the shadow of the Marquess. “It’s my house. There’s Father’s broken rocking chair, and his liquor cabinet still full up, and tomato soup still on the stove.”

  September looked where the shadow pointed, but she did not see any rocking chair, nor any liquor cabinet, nor any pot of soup.

  “But look, here’s Mother’s umbrella in the stand, and still wet! And my own books on the table. I’m sure the sunflowers I planted will be just coming up outside the window, you’ll see—”

  But when September went to the window she didn’t see her baby sunflowers peeking up their little heads. She saw a yawning, endless cavern full of glittering stalactites, such a profound red that they might have been black, but for a strange torchlight that showed the bloody color within. A narrow, milky river rippled through a colossal cavern, spilling down in waterfalls where rocks had sheared off or worn away. Gnarled, leafless trees bent and groaned over its current, bearing pomegranates so big you could hardly put your arms around them if you tried.

  September gasped, and ran to the kitchen window—there, there she would see her own long prairie, the one she’d stared at so often in the evenings that she knew every furry head of wheat. Where the Green Wind had come for her, and asked her if she wanted to go to Fairyland. But outside that window roared a black and shoreless sea, its waves thundering so tall that should they ever break, September had no doubt the whole world would drown. But they never did break, only rolled on forever.

  September dashed upstairs to her own bedroom, where her own bed lay neatly made and her own clothes hung in the closet. Outside the window was nothing but a field of stars dropping down into nothing, no land, no moon, no sun, just stars flaming on as far as any eye could see.

  “You’re both wrong,” Iago said behind her. The pair had followed her up into her room, just as hushed as air. The Marquess looked as though she might cry. She held her arms tight to her chest. “It’s my old house in Nephelo, where I was a kitten before I took up with the Red Wind and became a more cosmopolitan cat. There’s my cloud-bed with all the nice little cumulus pillows I loved, and my mist-mirror where I groomed myself to be so handsome, and I don’t know how either of you can have missed the lightning-hearth downstairs, with a nice fat cloud-roast turning over it.”

  “Father will be home,” the Marquess said, and she sounded so small and afraid September could not believe this was the same girl who had ruled Fairyland with her gloved fists.

  But September thought she had the puzzle licked. “If you see your own room, and I see mine, and Iago sees his, perhaps we are not really at home, any of us. There’s lizards in Africa that can change color whenever they like, to hide or to make other lizards like them better. Maybe this house is trying to get us to like it—or hiding from us what it really looks like. Maybe…maybe we’ve got here at last, and at the bottom of the world there’s a place that looks like everyone’s house all at once, because the world has got to have a house just like a person. And the house the world lives in would have to have every other house inside it! And outside…” September refused to look at the dizzying plain of stars again. “Outside all the bits of Fairyland-Below crowd in on top of it, because we’re under everything. Or maybe they’re not even Fairyland-Below, but other underworlds, like A-Through-L said. Underworlds all the way down.”

  But the shadow of the Marquess was not listening to her. She looked out the bedroom door toward the stairs they’d come up, and before September had finished being very clever if she said so herself, Maud had started down the steps again. The Marquess said nothing, just went down the stairs and around the bannister and through the kitchen to the cellar door. September hurried after her, shivering with an eerie sort of familiarness. Even if she believed all the things she’d thought about the place, it was her house. She’d put up pickles with her mother in that cellar last fall. She’d left that pan soaking in the sink, and that teakettle ready for a nice pot. But it stood so empty and awfully dark, with no one inside and no sound, not even of the little dog scrabbling about looking for treats.

  The Marquess put her hand on the doorknob. The radio crackled to life, and all of them jumped, startled, their hearts beating wildly. A voice crackled and popped from within.

  “…missing in France after hostilities erupted outside Strasbourg. Early casualty reports are grim—”

  September snapped it off. She barely heard the words, the blood in her face beat so hard and hot. No one said this was a bad place, she told herself. No one said the bottom of the world was somewhere terrible. It’s only dark, and dark’s not so frightening. Everything’s dark in Fairyland-Below. That doesn’t mean it’s wicked.

  The Marquess—Maud—started down the cellar stairs. The old wood creaked loudly under her feet, and louder still under Iago’s paws as he padded after her. September wanted to just let the Marquess go. If she was going to be rude and wander off when any fool could see they ought to stick together, well, what did she expect from a girl like that? But the cellar, even back at home, with a good lantern and her mother at her side, still scared her a bit. So terribly dark and full of dust and spiders! And they were not at home, no matter how home-like it looked. And so September went down into the blackness, because she could not let another girl go alone.

  This is what comes of having a heart, even a very small and young one. It causes no end of trouble, and that’s the truth.

  The cellar of the house at the bottom of the world looked like any cellar you have ever seen. Full of old, forgotten things or else things put away for a cold, needful day. Jars of pickles and bottles of liquor and jams, each neatly labeled: Idun’s Apple Butter, Bacchus’s Best Blackberry Wine, Eve’s Blue Ribbon Fig Jelly, Kali’s Red-Hot Pickled Peppers. Stacks of old newspapers moldered away, their headlines growing dark moss. A hurricane lamp resting on a great sack of Coyote’s Extra-Fine Cornmeal Flour flickered, guttered, and flared up again, showing Brobdingnagian cobwebs and crowded shelves and the Marquess and her Panther—and a large, long steamer trunk in the middle of the floor. It sat up on wooden pallets, to keep it off the earthen floor in rains and snows. Brass studs stubbled all over it; a brass lock bigger than a hog’s head kept it locked tight.

  “An unopenable box on an unbreakable bier,” September said softly. It just felt right, to whisper in such a cellar. “Though it doesn’t look very unbreakable to me, I must say.”

  The Marquess stared at it. “I thought I heard something,” she said. “Something rustling down here. Something…chewing. But there’s no one here. Surely, we can’t get any lower than this. It’s the bottom of the bottom of the world.”

  And then September heard it, too: a strange little mumbling chewing sound in the dark. Like a mouse gnawing at something far too big for it. Iago growled deep in his throat and wiggled down on his haunches, his eyes flashing. He crept forward on his belly, sniffing at a barrel labeled Ratatosk’s High-Yield World-Tree Seeds. His whiskers twitched; his tail snapped from side to side.

  “Oh, lay off it,” came a low, chuckling voice from behind the barrel. “Call off your cat and I’ll come out. Don’t you growl at me that way, young Sir. I’ll have your ears.”

  Iago stood up and returned to his mistress, flowing
around her and arching his back to rub against her shoulder. When he’d settled beside her, a large tapir emerged from behind the seed-store.

  September, having grown up in farm country, could not be expected to know what a tapir was. The Marquess knew, as she knew all the creatures she had once ruled, though she thought of it by its proper name. For it was not only a tapir, which would be unusual enough, but a Baku. September thought it looked like a cross between a pig and an anteater. It had a long, velvety, double-barreled snout like a miniature elephant’s trunk, bright little eyes, dark purple fur with wild red stripes down its back, and round mousy ears.

  “You interrupted my supper,” it complained. “Such a lovely one, too. He was dreaming of his mother. Those are always juicy meals, with all the fixings.”

  “You eat dreams?” September said, and not without some wonder.

  “Naturally,” said the tapir, licking its snout. “Everyone does.”

  “I don’t!”

  The tapir rubbed its cheek on the steamer trunk. “’Course you do. If you didn’t sleep and dream, you’d get sick and eventually you’d die. Dreams keep the heart alive, just like your boring old suppers keep your body alive. Just because you’re ignorant of how your own self works, doesn’t mean you ought to get snooty about how I make my way.”

  “I never remember my dreams,” said the shadow of the Marquess quietly.

  “You must have rich, tasty ones then. When you can’t remember a dream, it’s because a Baku ate it. We leave plenty for you to keep your health up, don’t worry. We’re very careful, just like a good farmer is careful how many cows he slaughters for meat and how many he keeps for milk. But people all look like cows to a Baku, just bursting with sweet cream.”

  September thought she ought to introduce herself and the Marquess and the Panther, but when she began to do it, the tapir snorted. A little cloud of dirt puffed up from the earth below that powerful snort.

 
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