The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 22Catherynne M. Valente
Perhaps if she had jousted a dinosaur five years ago, September would have closed her eyes at the last moment. But she kept them open now. Some things are so big and frightening you’ve got to get big to face them. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, she thought to the rhythm of the wombat’s gallop. Home to Mother and Papa and home to the teacups and the dog and school and you’ll find a way back someday. Someday, someday, someday.
September kept her eyes open and her sword straight and she rammed that whisker right into Thrum’s thick, scaly hide, a perfect hit, in the middle of his narrow breast. It bent against his ribs and vibrated out of her hand. The tyrannosaurus howled and snapped at her with all the strength of his primordial jaws—and missed. Blunderbuss dodged and careened and jogged off past the great lizard with a whisker sticking out of his chest.
“Brilliant job, Rexy! You fight like a fossil!” said the wombat madly, laughing, the battle riding so high in her heart that she did not notice the long wound in her flank where Thrum had caught her. Stuffing puffed out. Yarn began to unravel. She didn’t even slow down, swinging round for another pass.
September drew her wrench from the depths of the Watchful Dress. It gleamed in the sun as it had the day she pulled it from the casket in the Worsted Wood. Blunderbuss sang out the ancient Wom songs of defiance, which roused the hearts of Oatmeal, Snagger, Shilling, Watchpot, Banjo, and even the beautiful Fair Dinkum to bursting. Home, September thought, to the beat of Blunderbuss’s mighty paws. Home to Aunt Margaret and my own bed and oranges for breakfast and algebra and the daisies under the kitchen window where the Green Wind came.
This time, when the Rex Tyrannosaur tried to slash at her with his jaws, September swung her wrench back like a bat and brought it crashing against his snout. Several teeth went flying into the sunshine, twinkling like broken glass. The jarring blow shook her wrench out of her hands. It went tumbling across the dirt. Thrum roared in agony. Goldmouth roared outrage from his judge’s box. Blood showered the dry earth. The wombats roared from their night-porches.
“A cracking cart-wheeler!”
“What a drive! Full points!”
“Ooh, she’s got an arm on her!”
Blunderbuss cackled. She skidded around, not feeling the new cut on her rump in the least. Stuffing puffed behind her like steam from a train engine. “Home run!” she yelled. “Get yer peanuts, get yer popcorn, get yer souvenir dinosaur teeth! Come on, girl, don’t stop now, just one more go and we’ve got him!”
“I don’t have any more weapons, Buss!” September hissed. But they all heard her. The Watchful Dress had only a pair of short bandit’s daggers to offer, no use at all against dinosaurs.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” the scrap-yarn wombat said, stalwart and bold. “You’ve got me. Only I feel a bit funny in the tum. Uff. And if I go in for the bite he’ll get me good and I probably … I probably … well! Never mind!” And she warbled out one last ancient and sorrowful song of Wom, full of longing and stubbornness and hunger.
“Right!” cried Tugboat, the Great Tobacconist of Wom. She leapt over the rail of her porch. “Are we going to let a measly T. Rex come in and bash up our family?”
“NO!” snarled the nation of Wom as one.
“We are wombats! We bite! We claw! We dig! AND NO ONE INTERRUPTS OUR FAMILY DINNER!” Tugboat got her paws under her, hurtling toward the Rex Tyrannosaur at furious speed. Behind her rode a hundred wombats snorting the glorious anthem of the Infinite Mob as they made their town shake. Tugboat screamed to the skies: “FOR WOM! FOR CHICAGO! FOR MOB AND FOR NIGHTGOWN! FOR BLUNDERBUSS THE BRAVE AND SEPTEMBER THE BONKERS AND FAIRYLAND NEVERENDING!”
The wave of wombats slammed against Thrum and swarmed over his legs, his haunches, biting into his belly, gnashing his tail, climbing up to the top of his ponderous skull and dragging him down, down to the dust and the street and the legends of Nightgown ever after. Goldmouth bellowed powerlessly, beating his red-threaded fists against the doppelgänger’s spell, cursing viciously, swearing all their deaths.
But when the Rex Tyrannosaur hit the earth, he was nothing more than the dry bones he had been before the Derby ever dreamed of beginning.
September dismounted and pulled the Greatvole’s black whisker from a long, petrified rib. As she slid it back into the Watchful Dress’s sheath, Ajax Oddson’s voice bonged out through the streets of Wom like the bells of a church no one ever asked for. September could barely hear him over the cheers of the wombats and A-Through-L and Saturday and her own relieved, giddy cries, which she wanted to stop making, for they surely sounded silly, but could not, because she was alive and an alive thing wants to make noise.
“The old Cretaceous tango plays out like always! Mammals: on top! Reptiles: boo-hoo! Now, I think you’ve all had far too easy a time of it! I’m falling down on the job if you look so pleased with yourselves! Are you ready for a taste of the old Blue Hen double-cross? It’s Halftime! ONE, TWO, THREE! Everyone switch places!”
The Land of Wom disappeared around them like a curtain falling.
A TROLL IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH
In Which September Woos an Alphabet, Answers a Riddle, and Judges a Duel, While Charles Darwin Rides to the Rescue
They landed hard in a chilly meadow, nothing like the wild, thick tangle of the Land of Wom. Soft green hillocks flowed all around them, full of wild violets and clear rivers and sturdy stone bridges. Rather a lot of rivers. Rather a lot of bridges. In fact, the meadowy hills seemed completely crosshatched with brooks and streams, and each one had a strong stone bridge over it that looked as though it had stood since the invention of both stones and streams. Everywhere that did not have a river running through it or a bridge arching over it was peppered with odd clay cones sticking up out of the ground like toadstools. One pair of cones had a sign leaning against it:
WELCOME TO SKALDTOWN
“Come here, Blunderbuss,” September said. She had found a curved twig among the violets. She bent it against her finger to bend the end into a tighter curl.
“What? No! I don’t want to.” But the scrap-yarn wombat lay on her side in the grass, horribly wounded, panting with pain. Her stuffing puffed out in a dozen places, her foot half burnt off, yet still she whined and protested. “What’s that you wanna stick me with? Don’t let this whole Queen idea get lodged in your head, girlie. You’re not the Queen of me. I don’t like sticks. They snag on me and unravel bits.”
“You’re already unraveled to bits. I want to help. I can help. Please let me?” September said sweetly. “You helped me, after all.”
The scrap-yarn wombat lumbered over to her and plonked down on the grass.
“I did good, didn’t I? Praise me, please. I want to be praised. Did you hear them say my name? Yours, too. Oh, I feel bad. Is it bad? I’ll never not feel bad again! I think I might throw up.”
September went round to her hind foot and gathered up the loose yarn. She pushed the half-scorched stuffing back into Blunderbuss’s paw and began to crochet up the wound with her new wooden hook. She’d never crocheted a thing before—her mother knitted. But suddenly it made perfect sense. She looked at Blunderbuss’s leg and knew loads of stitches and tricks, like she’d always known them. When she finished with the foot, she began on the long slash through poor Buss’s flank. That was harder going, as she had no spare yarn to work into the split stitches. The emerald-colored smoking jacket gave it a serious think and slowly spooled out some of its sash into a long green thread. September took it up gratefully and knotted it into place. The smoking jacket winced, but felt proud.
“Can someone tell me what’s going on?” Saturday asked plaintively. “You were talking about somebody called the Marquess before that vole nabbed us. Who is that? And why is there a wombat here? Why don’t we ever get any time just the three of us?”
September and A-Through-L exchanged glances. She began working on the gouges Blunderbuss had taken on her other side. She packed in
the stuffing without a word, and only gasped a little when she saw the muscle of the scrap-yarn wombat’s heart peeking through: a rolled-up piece of notebook paper that read Dear Blunderbuss: Please be wild and wonderful … She covered it with an extra half-treble stitch, and then a bobble on top so no one would ever again see her secret core.
“How can you forget the Marquess, Saturday?” September said, hoping her voice did not shake. “She caught you and locked you in a lobster cage so you could grant her wishes. She put you in the Lonely Gaol and I had to get you out. You know who the Marquess is. You’ve always known. Better than me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Marid said stubbornly. He kicked something away with his foot. It skittered through the grass.
“Come on, Mr. Blue,” Blunderbuss coaxed. “You know me! We stayed up all night playing wrackjack our first night in the Briary, when Miss Important over there went to her little club meeting. I won best of a hundred and one. You had to give me your earring. You asked me what a wombat wants with a single earring and I said same thing anybody wants: to look gorgeous and dangerous at the same time!”
Saturday looked at her blankly. September knotted off the wombat’s new foot and chewed off the yarn-end with her teeth. Blunderbuss waggled her ear, shaking off a most annoying buzzing thing.
“Saturday,” whispered A-Through-L. His orange eyes swam with tears. “Oh, Saturday. We went to the Moon together. Just you and me. When she left us and there was no one else. Blue and red forever, you said. Forever.”
“I’m sorry,” Saturday whispered. “I don’t … did I go to the Moon?”
“But you remember me, don’t you?” September said without much hope.
The Marid squinted at her through the dazzling sunlight. He tugged at his shorn topknot. “Yes,” he said finally. “September. We rode a bicycle.”
“A velocipede,” September corrected, her eyes filling with tears. Something nuzzled against her calf.
“It’s the book bear,” Ell whispered. “He got bitten. At the Great Grand Library, remember? He touched The History of Fairyland and Greenwich Mean Time sicced a book bear on him. The bite has been chewing through him, through his memory and his history. It’s mixing up his continuity. Mangling his words. Eating up his narrative. His story. What’s a boy without his story? No one. In another day he won’t know his own name. We’ve got to get him to a copy editor before it’s too late.”
“Well, you won’t find one here!” a voice hissed from under the nearest bridge. “Go fall apart somewhere else! I don’t want my sequence of events unsequenced or my vowels disemvoweled or my consonants disconsolate!”
A-Through-L got down on his belly and peered through the grass under the bridge, quite terrifying the troll who worked there. A large red lizard face appearing suddenly at your office window would put anyone off their day. The troll wore a long, mulled-wine-colored magician’s cloak and a sleeping cap with gleaming symbols stitched all over it. His face was nearly all nose and moss, and his strong shoulders could have out-lifted Atlas. The troll yelped and waved his huge hands in front of his face.
“Who’s that trip-trapping on my bridge?” he tried to bellow, but his heart wasn’t in it. He hadn’t started right, and now the whole rhythm of the thing was ruined.
“Me!” cried the Wyverary. “A-Through-L, if you please. But I don’t trip-trap. I sort of boom-crush and pound-smash.”
“Very well, but please no crushing, this is a family bridge and I don’t want it pounded. My name is Hemlock and you must answer my riddle if you wish to cross my bridge!” The troll cleared his throat and spoke with elaborately trilled r’s. “Until I am measured, I cannot be known, yet how you will miss me, when I have flown!”
“But I don’t want to cross your bridge,” began Ell.
“Time!” September didn’t look back as she called Brother Tinpan’s answer over her shoulder. She touched Saturday’s face gently.
“You can’t forget,” she whispered to him. “It’s all too much to forget.”
She reached down to flick something off her ankle—an ant or a moth or a bit of dandelion fluff. Spring was coming in Fairyland. It had gotten almost too hot for a jacket, smoking or otherwise. But the little creature crawling up her leg was not an ant or a moth or a bit of dandelion fluff. It was a tintype letter S, and it was snuggling up against her and purring contentedly.
Hemlock sighed, wholly unaware that a little block of tin with a raised letter S carved on it in a rather Gothic style was trying desperately to make friends with September. “Tourists are getting too clever,” the troll groaned. “I remember the days when a top-shelf conundrum like that would get you written up in the folktales. Now everyone’s heard your best before you get out of bed in the morning. My brother Monkshood got so fed up with losing the game he’s started asking for state capitals. My wife says we oughta switch over to differential equations. But I’m a classicist, me. I’ll still be singing the golden oldies when the worms are trip-trapping over my head. I like it when the answer is Time. It always is, anyway.” The troll rubbed his boulderlike nose with one mossy wrist. “That was the riddle I asked the day I lost my son. I ask it once a day so he knows I still love him, even though everyone knows the answer. I’m a weepy old billy goat when you come down to it. That’s the trouble with being a troll. You can’t forget any ruddy thing, any more than a rock can forget its own hardness.”
The tintype letter S hopped up onto September’s hand like a parakeet. It danced a happy tinny dance. Its fellows, seeing S had got an in with the long-haired lady, came bouncing through the grass on the corners of their blocks: a wooden letter T, a bronze B, a silver F, a stone Z, and a gleaming golden E.
“You’ve got an infestation,” Blunderbuss said.
“What’s wrong with them? What are they?” September chewed on her lip. You oughtn’t show your fear when strange beasts come round. The letters Y, K, and V rolled up her arms under her hair. I shan’t be afraid of a bunch of letters! A Queen wouldn’t be afraid of anything—oh, but if that’s the size of it I shan’t ever be Queen. But a great lot of letters are just words, and I like words. The bigger and longer the better. H, C, and M clattered into her lap.
Hemlock chuckled. “They’re an alphabet! They run wild round these parts, always have. Some grow enormous, up in the higher elevations. Ideograms and hieroglyphics as tall as a horse’s shoulder. But here in Skaldtown we mostly get the wee ones. Italics and umlauts and the like. Aren’t they precious? I found a little nest of Cyrillics in my rafters last week. Tufa, that’s one of the three Primeval Trolls, hunted one down in the beginning of the world and taught it to turn into language. Nowadays they don’t need to be taught—though you get more slang than proper sentence structure. Huh. It likes you. That’s funny. I’ve only ever seen alphabets cuddle up to trolls before. Little traitors,” he added fondly. He narrowed his eyes. “What did you do? Did you use a big word or a lot of subclauses in your sentences?”
“Velocipede.” September shrugged. “I don’t think that’s such a big word.”
Suddenly, all the sound in Skaldtown snuffed out. September couldn’t hear A-Through-L listing off his best words or Hemlock applauding, nor Blunderbuss snuffling at her crocheted foot, nor Saturday asking if someone couldn’t please tell him what a velocipede was. It was on the tip of his tongue, only he felt so tired.
No, all September could see now was Ajax Oddson, the Dandy made of racing silks, floating in front of her.
“The Cantankerous Derby cordially requests the presence of September at a duel currently in progress! Get your judging wig on, my gallant girl, my shrew of shrewdness! It’s time for…”
And September saw a glittering purple ocean spread out before her, lying over the grassy hills and stone bridges of Skaldtown like a movie projection. A glorious galleon at full sail sliced through the surf toward a sun-colored Roc named Wenceslas. Above them all, green fireworks shot into the air, exploding into the words:
p; A Duel Delights Forever!
Beneath the flickering image, September could see her friends leap up and call her name frantically—but their lips moved without a sound.
“I’m all right!” she yelled back, hoping that they could hear her. “I’ve got to judge a duel! Maybe it’ll be quick…”
Ajax’s voice rang all round her head like broken church bell. He sounded so excited, September had to laugh. He really loves all this, she thought. This is the best day of his life.
“Today our swashbuckling scrappers are hashing it out on the Perverse and Perilous Sea! On the giant red bird we have Charles Crunchcrab the First! Looking resplendent on the Coblynow flagship, the H.M.S. Chimbley’s Revenge, meet the Changeling Squad of Hawthorn and Tamburlaine! Oh, but I do think you’ve already met!”
September waved joyfully at Hawthorn and Tam. She could see them quite clearly if she turned toward their ship, as though she’d stood on the rail herself. They leapt about on the deck of the Chimbley’s Revenge, wearing Cutty Soames’s fabulously feathered tricorns and his best rapiers. Scratch danced out behind them, wearing his pirate’s hat jauntily askew on his gramophone bell.
“I thought you left him behind!” called September.
Tamburlaine laughed and wound his crank. Scratch sang out in the voice of the siren who sang the greens back at the Briary:
Can’t keep a good devil down, sweetheart
Can’t keep a good devil down!
The more you try to make him frown
Clip his wings and take his crown
He’ll roar right back and paint the town
No, you can’t keep a good devil down, my love
You can’t keep a good devil down!
“He stowed away, the rascal!” Hawthorn cried. He looked happier than September had ever seen him, his cheeks whipped red by the wind, his hair tangled and mussed, his eyes glistening and giddy. “We’ve been doing fantastically, how about you? We beat Piebald and the Knight Quotidian—he was dreadful, you’d never believe it. The soul of a scrub-brush and the mind of a to-do list!”