The chronicles of harris.., p.5
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       The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, p.5

           Chris Van Allsburg
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  When morning dawned, the storm had lifted. Gilbert went to his window to see the stupid blue sky with its awful yellow sun and realized that his father was now gone forever and ever, to the end of time.


  Emmy and her brothers were queasy of him for the first week of summer, playing with him as though he were made of china or tainted with plague. But by the second week, they were back to something like normal, scampering up the trees and down the cliffs, ranging farther and farther afield on their bicycles.

  Most of all, they were playing down at the switchyards, the old rail line that ran out from the disused freight docks a few miles down the beach from their houses. Señor and Mrs. Curie didn't know what to do with him that summer, lacking any direction from Father, and so Gilbert made the most of it, taking the Limburghers out on longer and longer trips, their packs bursting with food and water and useful tools: screwdrivers, crowbars, cans of oil.

  Someone probably owned the switchyard, but whoever that was, he was far away and had shown no interest in it in Gilbert's lifetime. It had been decades since the freighters came into this harbor and freight trains had taken their cargos off into the land on the rusted rails. The rusted padlocks on the utility sheds crumbled and fell to bits at the lightest touch from the crowbars; the doors squealed open on their ancient hinges.

  Inside, the cobwebby, musty gloom yielded a million treasures: old timetables, a telegraph rig, stiff denim coveralls with material as thick as the hall carpet at home, ancient whiskey bottles, a leather-bound journal that went to powder when they touched it, and...

  A handcar.

  "It'll never work," said Emmy. "That thing's older than the dinosaurs. It's practically rusted through!"

  Gilbert pretended he hadn't heard her. He wished he could move the car a little closer to the grimy windows. It was almost impossible to make sense of in the deep shadows of the shed. He pushed hard on the handle, putting his weight into it. It gave a groan, a squeal, and another groan. Then it moved an inch. That was a magic inch! He got his oilcan and lavishly applied the forty-weight oil to every bearing he could find. Neils and Erwin held the lamp. Emmy leaned in closer. He pushed the handle again. Another groan, and a much higher squeal, and the handle sank under his weight. The handcar rumbled forward, almost crushing Emmy's foot—if she hadn't been so quick to leap back, she'd have been crippled. She didn't seem to mind. She, her brothers, and Gilbert were all staring at the handcar as if to say, "Where have you been all my life?"


  They christened it Kalamazoo and they worked with oil and muscle until they had moved it right up to the doorway. It cut their fingers to ribbons and turned their shins into fields of bruises, but it was all worth it because of what it promised: motion without end.

  The track in the switchyard went in two directions. Inland, toward the nation and its hurrying progress and its infinite hunger for materials and blood and work. And out to sea, stretching out on a rockbed across the harbor, to the breakers where the great boats that were too large for the shallow harbor used to tie up to offload. Once they had bullied Kalamazoo onto the tracks—using blocks, winches, levers, and a total disregard for their own safety—they stood to either side of its bogey handle and stared from side to side. Each knew what the others were thinking: Do we pump for the land, or pump for the sea?

  "Tomorrow," Gilbert said. It was the end of August now, and lessons would soon begin again, and each day felt like something was drawing to a close. "Tomorrow," Gilbert said. "We'll decide tomorrow. Bring supplies."

  That night, by unspoken agreement, they all packed their treasures. Gilbert laid out his sailor suit—his father bought him a new one every year—and his book about time and space and stuffed a picnic blanket with Mrs. Curie's preserves, hardtack bread, jars of lemonade, and apples from the cellar. Mrs. Curie—three quarters deaf—slept through his raid. Gilbert then went to his father's study and took the spyglass that had belonged to his grandfather, who had also been lost at sea. He opened the small oak box holding Grandad's sextant, but as he'd never mastered it, he set it down. He took his father's enormous silver-chased turnip watch, and tried on his rain boots and discovered that they fit. The last time he'd tried them on, he could have gotten both feet into one of them. Time had passed without his noticing, but his feet had noticed.

  He hauled the bundles out to the hedgerow at the bottom of the driveway, and then he put himself to bed and in an instant he was asleep. An instant later, the sun was shining on his face. He woke, put on his sailor suit, went downstairs, and shouted hello to Mrs. Curie, who smiled a misty smile to see him in his sailor suit. She gave him hotcakes with butter and cherries from the tree behind Senor's shed, a glass of milk and a mountain of fried potatoes. He ate until his stomach wouldn't hold any more, said goodbye to her, and walked to the bottom of the hedgerow to retrieve his secret bundle. He wrestled it into his bike's basket and wobbled down to the Limburghers' gate to meet his friends, each with a bundle and a bike.

  The half-hour ride to the switchyard took so little time that it was over even before Gilbert had a chance to think about what he was doing. Time was going by too fast for thoughts now, like a train that had hit its speed and could now only be perceived as a blur of passing cars and a racket of wheels and steam.

  Kalamazoo was still beaded with dew as they began to unload their bundles onto its platform. Gilbert set his down at the end farthest from the sea, and Emmy set hers down at the end farthest from the land, and when they stood to either side of the pump handle, it was clear that Emmy wanted to push for the land while Gilbert wanted to push them out to sea. Naturally.

  Emmy looked at Gilbert and Gilbert looked at Emmy. Gilbert took out his grandfather's spyglass, lifted off the leather cap from the business end, extended it, and pointed it out to sea, sweeping from side to side, looking farther than he'd ever seen. Wordlessly, he held it out to Emmy, who turned around to face the bay and swept it with the telescope. Then she handed it off to Neils and Erwin, who took their turns.

  Nothing more had to be said. They leaned together into the stiff lever that controlled Kalamazoo's direction of travel, threw it into position, and set to pumping out to sea.


  What the spyglass showed: waves and waves, and waves and waves, and, farther along, the curvature of the planet itself as it warped toward Europe and Africa and the rest of the world. It showed a spit of land, graced with an ancient and crumbling sea fort, shrouded in mist and overgrown with the weeds and trees of long disuse. And beyond it, waves and more waves.

  The gentle sea breeze turned into a stiff wind once they'd pumped for an hour, the handcart at first rolling slowly on the complaining wheels. Then, as the rust flaked off the axles and the bearings found their old accommodations, they spun against one another easily. The pumping was still hard work, and even though they traded off, the children soon grew tired and sore and Emmy called for a rest stop and a snack.

  As they munched their sandwiches, Gilbert had a flash. "We could use this for a sail," he said, nudging his picnic blanket with one toe. Neils and Erwin—whose shorter arms suffered more from the pumping labor—loved the idea, and set to rigging a mast from their fishing poles and the long crowbar they'd lashed to Kalamazoo's side. Emmy and Gilbert let them do the work, watching with the wisdom of age, eating sandwiches and enjoying the breeze that dried their sweat.

  As they started up again, Kalamazoo seemed as refreshed from the rest as they were, and it rolled more easily than ever, the sail bellied out before the mast. When Gilbert and Emmy stopped to trade pumping duties back to the twins, Kalamazoo continued to roll, propelled by the stiff wind alone. All four children made themselves comfortable at the back of the pump car and allowed the time and the space to whip past them as they would.


  "We're moving through space like time," Gilbert said.

  Emmy quirked her mouth at him, a familiar no-nonsense look that he ignored.

  "We are," he said. "We
are moving in a straight line, from behind to in front, at a rate we can't control. Off to the sides are spaces we could move through, but we're not. We're on these rails, and we can't go sideways, can't go back, can't go up or down. We can't control our speed. We are space's slaves. This is just how we move through time."

  Emmy shook her head. Neils seemed excited by the idea, though, and he nudged his twin and they muttered in their curious twinnish dialect to one another.

  The sea fort was visible with the naked eye now, and with the spyglass, Gilbert could make out its brickwork and the streaks of guano that ran down its cracked walls. The rails ran right up to the fort—last used as a customs inspection point—and past it to the hidden docks on the other side of the spit.

  "Better hope that the wind shifts," Emmy said, holding a wetted finger up to check the breeze.

  "Otherwise we're going to have a devil of a time pumping ourselves home in time for supper."

  Gilbert drew out the turnip watch, which he'd set this morning by the big grandfather clock in the front hall, carefully winding its spring. He opened its face and checked the second hand. It seemed to be spinning a little more slowly, but that could have been his imagination. According to the watch, it was nearly eleven, and they'd been on the rails for three hours. "I think we'll make the fort in time for lunch," he said. At the mention of food, Neils and Erwin clamored for snacks, and Emmy found them cookies she'd snitched from the big jar in the Limburgher kitchen.

  Gilbert looked at the watch for a moment. The second hand had stopped moving. He held it up to his ear, and it wasn't precisely ticking any longer, but rather making a sound like a truck-wheel spinning in spring mud. He closed the lid again, and held it so tight that the intricate scrolling on the case dug into his palm.

  Time passed.


  And then it didn't.


  And then it did again.

  "Oh!" said Neils and Erwin together.

  To either side of the car, stretching into infinity, were more tracks, running across the endless harbor, each with its own car, its own sail, its own children. Some were edging ahead of them. Some were going backwards. A racket overhead had them all look up at once, at the tracks there, too, the rails and the cars and the Limburghers and the Gilberts in them. Some children were older. Some were younger. One Gilbert was weeping. One was a girl.

  Gilbert waved his hand, and a hundred Gilberts waved back. One made a rude gesture.

  "Oh!" said Emmy. To her right, another Emmy was offering her a sandwich. She took it and handed over the last of her cookies and Emmy smiled at herself and said thank you as politely as you could wonder.

  "Sideways is sideways," Neils and Erwin said together. Emmy and Gilbert nodded.

  Gilbert pulled out his spyglass and looked ahead at the fort. All the rails converged on it, but without ever meeting. And some stretched beyond. And out there, somewhere, there was time like space and space like time. And somewhere there was a father on a ship that weathered a storm rather than succumbed to it.

  Gilbert turned to his friends and shook each of their hands in turn. Neils was crying a little. Emmy gave Gilbert a friendly punch in the shoulder and then a hug.

  There was another Kalamazoo to the right, and Gilbert was pretty sure he could easily make the leap from his car to it. And then to the next car, and the next. And beyond, into the infinite sideways.

  If there was an answer, he'd find it there.

  Uninvited Guests

  His heart was pounding.

  He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.



  Henry was startled, but not that surprised by the appearance of a singing mouse in his studio. After all, he was a children's book writer and illustrator. He had been writing and drawing stories about talking and singing mice, bears, pigs, ducks, dogs, cats, mules, donkeys, elephants, foxes, sharks, whales, eagles, and owls, as well as chattering flowers, chairs, tables, and once an entire avenue of three-bedroom houses that wouldn't keep still.

  It was his own three-bedroom house in which the singing mouse displayed itself to Henry. The event occurred sometime after his wife had taken his two boys off on vacation—a vacation that had now lasted over a year—complaining that she could no longer stand living in this house, stacked with children's paraphernalia long after their own two boys had reached adolescence, cramped with odds and ends that began as research for his picture books and ended up as living room décor, bedroom flotsam, kitchen gewgaws, and bathroom clutter. Building blocks of all colors rising to the ceiling, toy cars of different makes and sizes, three sets of toy trains, crossing back and forth in all of the upstairs rooms: bedrooms, bathrooms, and Henry's studio. Stuffed animals, including a life-size elephant, a hippopotamus, a camel, and a zebra. Stuffed life-size dolls based on animal characters that Henry had created so many years ago, he couldn't remember their names. And most irritating of all to his wife, Wilma, the artifact that drove her to leave the house and never return until Henry did something about it (which he refused to do), was the 150-foot-long boa constrictor, so real-looking that it frightened his wife and disturbed the dreams of his teenage boys. The snake, four inches in diameter and dyed in incandescent colors, ran from Henry's studio upstairs, downstairs into the living room, across to the kitchen, and down into the cellar, where its head came to rest against a tiny oak door in the stone basement wall that Henry had tried but had never been able to open. Behind the door, Henry smelled chicken soup.

  His wife's last act before driving off with the children was to take the ax Henry used to chop firewood and make piecemeal out of all 150 feet of stuffed boa constrictor, from its head in the basement cellar to its tail in Henry's studio. Then she gathered her sons in the family station wagon and took off on their permanent vacation.

  Henry regretted their departure, but not quite as much as the passing of his favorite boa—who now, fifteen months after his dismemberment—reappeared whole again, in fine fettle, curled comfily around the talking mouse, the two of them singing an off-key but exuberant version of "Puff the Magic Dragon."

  Henry viewed this apparition with equanimity. He had been living inside his head for so long that he was comfortable with the ridiculous and completely at ease with the absurd. Incoherence shaped the day-to-day state of his mind, a fact of life that had upset his family but felt absolutely right to Henry.

  He loved what didn't fit, didn't make sense, wasn't efficient, structured, or orderly. He distrusted order. His mind was a mess, his graying hair uncut and uncombed, a messy growth that hid a messier mind. His implausible brain delighted in the unlikely sight and sound that had taken up residence in his studio: these two creatures, a perfect match for the imaginings of a children's book author and illustrator, who were harmonizing favorite songs from Henry's childhood, moving on from "Puff the Magic Dragon" to "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and then to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

  "Who are you?" Henry demanded, and then corrected himself. "I know very well who you are: Monte the Mouse from my first book, The Mouse Who Ate Caviar, and Bobo the Boa from Mr. Snake Goes to Town, one of my worst books, maybe one of the worst picture books ever written. Why have you come back to sing for me? What is it you are trying to convey by singing my childhood favorites? Are you going to sing 'Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it's off to work we go'? Please, don't! Is there some hidden meaning to your weird and mysterious appearance? A message, perhaps? Please tell me you didn't come here with a message! I despise messages! I have never written a book with a message. My whole life has been in pursuit of an existence without messages, without well-meaning advice, without improving my mind, without meeting and fleeing from that which is good for me, will change me for the better, convert me, inspire me. I wish for nothing but to be left to myself and my characters, of which you are two, but certainly not my most successful two. What does it mean? Wait, I take it back! I don't want to know what anything means! I only care about silliness, g
oofiness, slapstick, and childhood before the age of seven and a half. And I smell smoke! Why do I smell smoke? Is that another illusion?"

  But no! Sadly not. Henry looked away from the singing mouse and boa to see that his studio had caught fire. The candle he lit every morning at seven a.m. when he entered his studio to work, the candle that set his mood to his happy past—the games and play and running around he remembered from childhood—that burning candle had somehow come in contact with sketches Henry had tossed aside earlier. Apparently he'd tossed them into the lit candle, which ignited the sketch paper and set his studio on fire. Henry might have noticed the fire early enough to do something about it, except for the distraction of the singing mouse and boa constrictor, who were now leading him out of the smoke-filled studio as they sang and danced their way downstairs to "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream."

  Henry could not see that well anymore—the smoke was thick, the smell was sickening—and he could not think (well, he could never think). He didn't try to call for help or contain the fire; he didn't believe that to be appropriate behavior. What he deemed appropriate was to follow the singing and dancing creatures of his own invention to wherever they led him.

  And why not? He had spent half a lifetime directing creatures he had made up into hapless and hilarious situations. Why shouldn't they turn the tables? And what better time than now? He was old, and getting older by the minute, and had been abandoned by his family. (Or had he abandoned them? Now was not the time to resolve the question.)

  Because now Henry's universe was burning! Like Henry's picture book of fifteen years ago, The Firehouse Fire, in which feckless firefighters (dogs and cats) got in one another's way as they battled the blaze that would have consumed their firehouse if not for the good luck of a sudden monsoon that flooded the premises. The firehouse sailed away in a gumbo of helplessly confused fireanimals.

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