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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 21

Catherynne M. Valente

  “You should have said! I’ve always wanted to meet a Batty from … Chicago, was it? Well, I’m a mad old duffer, ask anyone, but I own up when I’m wrong. Of course you’re one of us! No one but a wombat could disrespect me so lovingly! Welcome! I’m called Conker, this is my store—Oy, Bluestocking!” Conker yelled into the shop. “Come meet the biggest Batty you’ll ever see! Now, there’s not room for you inside, I’m afraid, and you do seem to have a lot of friends, and that one’s a bit … well, he’s a bit all over Wyvern for my comfort, but you won’t want to stay out in the sun and roast. Let’s get you into the Night-Barn! It’s where we have our after-dinner dances and our pre-lunch layabouts. Hurry now, you great hippo, you’ll want to meet everyone!”

  “Not everyone,” whispered September. “Please. The Derby.”

  “Just let me have a minute,” pleaded the wombat. “A minute at home. Don’t you want a minute at home?”

  September suddenly felt so tired she wanted to lie down in the road and pull it up over her like her bed under the Briary. Home. Home, with Mom and Dad and oranges and a cake in the icebox. Home.

  “I’m starving!” said Saturday, and bolted off toward the barn. “The Derby will keep! Just a bunch of silly running around anyway!”

  Where was her Saturday? What had happened to him? They should never have gone to Mumkeep Reef, September thought, and that was the truth.

  They walked down the wide wombat road, past star-spattered signs that told them all about Dog’s Breakfast Bakery, the Happy Shovel Tool Repair (A Happy Shovel Is a Dirty Shovel!), and Bustnose’s Fine Joolery, a cozy moonlit inn called The Courageous Quokka attached to a less cozy but much larger pub called The Querulous Quokka (known jointly as the Brave and the Bonkers, for no one had time to say all that mess together), Tugboat’s Terrific Tobaccos and Constitutional Law Shoppe, and dozens of little sturdy black and blue houses gleaming with constellations. The great glittering barn at the end of the road opened up invitingly, full of shade and the bustle of wombats. Long garlands of macadamia flowers hung on the walls, fine cool dirt covered the floor, and the stars on the rafters lit it all in soft silver. As she stepped through the door frame, September touched the barn-boards with her bare hand—and snatched her hand away as though it had scalded her. The Night-Barn had no wood in it at all. The slats were slick and hard and blisteringly cold. She could feel the frozen winds of space howling through them, the winds she had felt tearing at her on the Moon. She almost thought, if she leaned too hard, she would fall into the ragged, beaten boards and tumble into the naked black sky.

  The wombats had built their town out of the night itself.

  “Are Chicago wombats nocturnal?” Conker asked politely. “We figured a ways back it made no sense to confine your loafing, feasting, digging, and dancing to the nighttime! You lose fifty percent of your fossicking time that way! S’why we built our little town of Nightgown, so we could have our comfortable dark all round anytime we liked and not lose a moment of puttering and prattling. Best village in Wom, no competition! Plus, when you think about it, if you’re nocturnal, you can only have supper, dinner, a nightcap, and a midnight snack. Really limits your gorging options, yeah? Stick around in the daytime and you get breakfast, lunch, tea, and afternoon nibblies as well!”

  “But when do you sleep?” asked Blunderbuss, who had never heard that she was meant to be nocturnal in the first place.

  “We wombatnap now. Screamingly efficient. Fifteen minutes an hour will keep you sharp!” Conker hopped up, grabbed a rope hanging from a big, dented bell, and swung back and forth, ringing the thing within an inch of its life. Wombats banged open their doors all over town, wriggling their soft noses in the wind and trotting on down toward the barn, laughing roughly and growling and biting one another as they came.

  “Here we go! Here’s our mob! Blunderbuss—and what a great big chomp of a name that is!—this is Shilling, she’s our candle maker, and here’s Meatpie and Snagger, our glassblowing brothers, Bluestocking, my wife, the mudbrained buffoon of my heart, Oatmeal, our tinker, Banjo, the town poet, Chicory, our dressmaker, Fair Dinkum, the town beauty, Watchpot, our soup maker, Gregory, well, Wom only knows what you do around here…”

  And on and on they came, each large and bright-furred and loud, each terrified for a moment of Blunderbuss and A-Through-L, then rambunctiously affectionate once all had been explained. September and Saturday and Ell said more Hellos and How Do You Dos in a quarter of an hour than they thought they’d said yet in their life.

  Conker crooned in delight as a particularly robust wombat wearing a powdered judge’s wig made her entrance. “And this, Blunderbuss, this is Tugboat, our Tobacconist and leader of all the nations of Wom! We’ll show you how we do our governmenting after tea.”

  As the scrap-yarn wombat was busy impressing everyone by telling them she already knew of the Fair and Just Tugboat and how she chewed up the laws suggested by the wombattery at large and spit them at the wall, keeping what stuck and chucking the rest, Conker and Meatpie and a bright yellow wombat named Lollygag made the tea. They stuffed pawfuls of tea leaves into tin buckets, filled them with hot water from an enormous simmering pot at the back of the barn, and holding their waistcoats out of the way with one paw, swung the pails around their heads frightfully fast to get it all steeping.

  “How do you choose a Tobacconist?” Saturday asked. He popped a gooseberry into his blue mouth.

  “Only because in Fairyland proper they apparently do it by running all over the place like a madwoman’s laundry,” Blunderbuss said with a giggle, munching on a heap of golden wattle-flowers.

  “Eh,” yawned Conker as he poured the tea into a long starry trough so they could all drink as equals, “she wanted to? And no one else minded?”

  Tugboat laughed gruntingly. “These bludgers don’t like the taste of the laws. Oh, they’re nasty, they taste like sour nuts and bitter old stinky fur and being responsible for things! Waa, waa, waa! Gnawknuckle over there took one lick of the Law for Fair Distribution of Gravy and sicked up all over the place like a picky little baby. They taste fine to me! Fine as a yam in a pot that says ALL FOR TUGBOAT on it!”

  “I like the taste of anything,” Blunderbuss gruffed happily.

  “I bet you do, you great fat Sunday roast! Ah, but that’s the trait of a true wombat. Good to know even the Chicago mob shares our values! Unconquerable Bellies! Mighty Bities! Stiff Upper Pouches! That was my campaign slogan, you know. Pickiness is for mammals! We are marsupials! And you can’t make a marsupial without soup, and it is time for my soup, and I want my soup. Watchpot! Soup me!”

  The Tobacconist of the Land of Wom trundled off to the soup barrels.

  “Did you hear, September?” whispered a breathless Blunderbuss. “She called me a great fat Sunday roast! Tugboat the Tobacconist called me a fat glob of meat!”

  “Congratulations?” ventured September. “Can we ask the way to the Worsted Wood? Or is that only polite after tea?”

  “I swear, you lot never listen to a word I say. That means she thinks I’m beautiful and wonderful and practically her daughter and I should definitely, definitely come round for All Bowls Day this year—that’s in November. You can come, too, I’m sure she won’t mind—”

  A vicious, booming roar crashed through the Night-Barn. It rang in September’s ears. Ell groaned, digging at his. Saturday spun to defend himself, drawing his scissors and holding his breath. The wombats of Nightgown lifted their noses and snuffled at the sound, mildly interested.

  “Just knock, how about that?” Conker hollered. He waddled over and flung the barn doors open.

  Outside stood Thrum, the Rex Tyrannosaur, his teeth out and his eyes blazing. His green-black scales shone darkly in the sunshine.

  “Thrum! What are you doing here?” September’s ideas of what was sensible and what wasn’t shoved her right out of being scared. “What could you possibly be doing here? We didn’t even mean to come here! Did you actually come looking for the Heart of
Fairyland in a wombat town?”

  The tyrannosaurus looked a little shamefaced—but only a little, for dinosaurs would rather drown in tar than admit they’re wrong. That unfortunate attitude played a key role in their extinction. Naturally, they have steadfastly refused to own up to it, so I cannot tell you where it all went reptiles-up.

  “A Heart is meat,” Thrum said stubbornly. “No one knows more about food than wombats. They might know. You don’t know anything!”

  September laughed in his face. “Wow, you really have no ideas, do you? And I thought we were bungling the whole thing!”

  Ajax Oddson’s voice filled the air above Nightgown. “My, oh my! What have I got in my sights? A couple of brawlers raring to fight! Let’s all get our napkins for…”

  “See what you’ve done now?” September sighed. She had had enough of dueling, and dueling a dinosaur was just ridiculous. Absurd! Her sense of sensibility would not accept it. But the green and violet fireworks burst into the sky once more, showering the Night-Barn with sparks that reflected in the deep sky of its beams. They spelled out the words:

  The Duel du Jour!

  “A duel?” said Conker. “In Nightgown?”

  “Like a boxing match or with swords and that?” asked Meatpie. “Or a joust?”

  “Who cares?” Tugboat yelled. “Looks like my shop’s got the best seats! I’ve got corncakes and pepper pies for all! And a jug of sunshine!” Sunshine is what wombats call their local home brew. It would knock all of our grandfathers clean over with one sip.

  Conker and Bluestocking hurried back to their own porch. The Nightgown mob rushed to safe cover—so long as the safe cover offered a good view.

  “We’ve got prime front-row rump-space!” Bluestocking called out in her best hawking voice. “Sunshine and sausages! A cup for sevenpenny, a link for two Tugbits!”

  The familiar judge’s frame shimmered into the air a few feet above the dusty road. Wreathed grasses and gooseberries braided up into a ring around a terrible pale face covered in tattoos. Vicious magenta eyes glowed with hate. Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth opened his mouth and screamed wretchedly at them. His gold teeth, his gold tongue, his gold lips reflected the black night-boards of the town.

  “Well, hello, you old worn-out baseball!” chuffed Blunderbuss. She turned to the stands confidentially. “He got turned into a baseball and sixth graders hit him with sticks. It was excellent.” Tugboat and Conker tittered on their porches. “How are things? Horrible? Good, good. We’ve got a drawer we can forget you in if you’re feeling homesick!”

  “Is it time for physical education?” he thundered at them, and his voice held none of the uncertainty and fear it had when he asked Hawthorn and Tamburlaine that question in the moments after he’d dragged them all into Fairyland. Now it was simply his own brutish joke. “I choose now, yes? You have to pay attention to me now. You have to do what I say. You can’t just stand around sniffing your own rot and pretending to ignore me! You will obey me, and I will eat up your obedience, because after all these years I am starving for it, you whining, breakable nothings.”

  September felt her stomach give up stomaching and crawl into her toes to die. For the first time, she thought she might have gotten lucky, only having to deal with the Marquess when she first came. What awful had that creature done when he ruled? Who could ever have defeated him?

  “It’s a duel, not a lecture, Goldmouth,” the Rex Tyrannosaur growled. “We ignored you because you always do this—you drone on about yourself for hours and then start eating people. I eat people, too, I’m not saying I don’t! But I have manners. I don’t dominate the conversation with my own problems. I listen. I let them talk about their lives, their fears, their new poems, their clever little ways of organizing their desks at home, and then I eat them. And that? That there? That’s what you call class, King Baseball.”

  But September could see Thrum’s massive legs tremble a little, his long tail twitch. Even he was afraid of Goldmouth, the great dinosaur lord. But if he showed his terror, that would mean admitting he was weak, and that was far too much like admitting he was wrong to be borne.

  Goldmouth flushed with rage. He lunged forward, trying to break out of the doppelgänger’s frame and into the Land of Wom by sheer force of will and weight of skull. But he could not. “I am going to set you on fire, lizard. Once you kill that tiny girl. I am going to set you on fire in Runnymede Square and all the mammals will cheer.” The clurichaun turned his monstrous head to September. His voice grew so low and grinding that she could feel her bones bending under it. “For weapons, weakling, I choose Biting. Eating. Gnashing.” September looked at the tyrannosaurus rex standing across from her on the road. He grinned, showing teeth like jagged arrowheads. Goldmouth laughed and the laugh of Gratchling Goldmouth sounded like the death of hope. Then his laugh died and he spoke just like all the insipid gym teachers he’d had to suffer through during the years of his imprisonment in the school bag of Thomas Rood, the Changeling boy who now called himself Hawthorn the troll. “Good luck, try your best, and don’t forget to have fun!”

  September shook her head. The sheer unfairness of it prickled her skin into goose bumps, ever so much worse than a silly Latin verb. She ran her tongue over her small, flat teeth. They wouldn’t even leave a mark in Thrum’s hide.

  “I’ll roast him!” Ell offered.

  “No,” said September feebly. “We can only use the chosen weapons—I don’t even know if your fire would work on the dueling ground. Magic gets all turned around in here.”

  The Wyverary took a deep breath and tried a gout of flame—but nothing came. Ajax had given much thought to armoring his dear, treasured rules.

  “Just run,” begged Saturday, though he knew she wouldn’t, that she barely knew how anymore. If he didn’t know much, he knew that. If we win, she will … what was it?

  September looked up at the sun, the bright clouds, the night-sky shops of Wom, the blue tongue berries growing on the hillsides, her wonderful, beautiful Wyverary, her beloved Saturday. She looked at all the round, sweet faces of the watching wombat mob.

  “I’ll only go home if I lose,” she told herself. “Oddson said. Back to wherever I came from. It’s just the most painful bus ticket home you can imagine, that’s all.” She drew the Greatvole’s crystal whisker from its sheath and tested its sharpness.

  “I don’t want you to go home,” Ell said miserably, brushing her cheek with his scarlet muzzle. “I want this to be home. I want us to be home.”

  The Rex Tyrannosaur clawed the earth with his razor-tipped feet. Saliva dripped from his teeth. “You’ll be old again. You only got young when the Dodo’s Egg broke and when you lose, everything goes back into the shell. Everything. You’ll go home and you won’t be able to come back and you’ll be old and used up and no one will even know your face.”

  His words hit her heart and snapped against it. And somehow, her fear snapped in half, too. The dinosaur towered over her. He could swallow her in one bite. His claws could rip her apart without so much as a wink and a wave. And all he could think of to threaten her with was getting old in her own home.

  September laughed at the tyrannosaurus. She saw him flinch. Her laughter was as good as a weapon, sometimes. She could hold it in front of her and it would stop even the lizard king. “Forty’s not the worst thing to happen to anyone,” she said, pointing her whisker at his eye. “And if I turn forty again today, then that makes today my birthday, and on my birthday, I get whatever I want.”

  She turned and kissed Saturday’s lips, Ell’s nose, Saturday again. And again. The tattoos along her arm felt hot and alive.

  “I love you,” she said. “I love you and I’m not sorry for anything and nothing could ever be as good as us again in all the worlds that ever were. I’ll find a way back. I will. We saw our daughter, after all, didn’t we? On the Gears of the World. That means it’s not over.”

  For a terrible moment, September looked into Saturday’s deep black eyes and knew
he had no idea what she was talking about. All she saw there was a keen and interested boy about to watch a duel. But he kissed her back, and it was a kiss full of their history. The sun must have slanted strangely, that’s all. Oh, but, September, it wasn’t the sun, and a kiss may hide a thousand troubles.

  Blunderbuss nosed up behind her, grabbing her by the scruff of the neck and tossing her up onto her own broad, woolly back.

  “Buss, you don’t have to. You’ll get hurt. Let me down.” September stroked her ear, though. She felt very warmly toward everyone, now she was certain to lose.

  “Don’t be stupid, Lady Stuff-Up! Without me, you can’t even reach his kneecap. You will be an actual, no-fooling ankle-biter. This is my moment to shine like yarn never shone before! And it doesn’t break any rules because I’m just your bloody steed, aren’t I? In the Land of Wom, we bite to show we like a thing. And that we don’t like a thing. And that we think a thing is delicious. And that we think it is ours. Because anything you bite is yours, everyone knows that. We bite when we are angry and hungry and joyful and excited to go home and frightened of wild dinosaurs and because it is Tuesday but also because Saturday and Ell are watching and especially when we are DELIGHTED but NERVOUS. Nothing says I am having feelings like a bite.” The scrap-yarn wombat leaned round and, ever so softly, bit September’s toes. She hoped Hawthorn would not be too jealous.

  September blinked and blinked, but she gave up and admitted she was crying. “This doesn’t make you a steed,” she said, and steadied her whisker-sword in her fist.

  “I know that, goofball. I will NEVER be a steed. But I am a COMBAT WOMBAT and I bite for Wom!”

  Blunderbuss charged the Rex Tyrannosaur at full speed, hollering ancient Wom battle songs that brought tears to the eyes of Tugboat, Conker, Bluestocking, Meatpie, and even Gregory. Thrum bent his huge head and thundered at them, kicking potholes into the road and roaring fit to wake the hills themselves. September hoisted her whisker like a jousting lance. Maybe it’s not teeth exactly, but it’ll bite when I stick him with it, she thought desperately.