The chronicles of harris.., p.6
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       The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, p.6
 

           Chris Van Allsburg
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  But no monsoon was on the way to save Henry's house. It was about to burn to the ground with Henry in it, unless this mouse and boa had a plan. Henry had no plan, not a single thought in his head, except to follow the singing animals that he had given life to, and on whom he was now depending for his rescue.

  As the mouse hopped and the boa slithered downstairs to the main floor, they waded into a rousing chorus of "Come on, baby, light my fire."

  Henry didn't hear, wasn't listening. None of this was to his liking. He had moved into this house specifically to avoid the intrusion of life into fantasy. Over the years he had endured more than enough forced and unwanted choices, heaped upon more unwanted choices, leading to even more unintended, unwanted choices. Now he was finished with choices. Except what story to tell, what animal to focus on, what twist of overworked, long-favored surprise endings to spring on his young readers? And after that, what brush to apply with which color to what quality of paper. His work—that, and that alone—had become his life.

  So he was in no mind to deal with a house burning down around him. If choices had to be made, Henry trusted the mouse and the boa to make them.

  But where were they all headed now? As the smoke thickened and began to trail Henry, the mouse, and the boa downstairs, the cellar door swung open and down into its dark, cool depths Henry descended. No smoke yet. In fact, cool, still calmly cool, as if in defiance of all that was burning above. The cellar door blew shut behind Henry and his creatures, leaving them in darkness. A single shaft of light eased only slightly Henry's wariness of the darkened, hulking shapes and forbidding silhouettes that were everywhere before him. In the far wall, lit by the glow cast from the window, Henry was able to make out the tiny door that he had never been able to pry open. It was toward this door that he saw the mouse and the boa heading. And then they were at the door ... and gone. Through, under, or over the door? "Wait!" cried Henry. "What do I do now?"

  A voice behind the door yelled, "Is that you, Henry?" He recognized it immediately. It was the voice of Lena the Lioness, the way she sounded in his imagination when he wrote and drew his bestseller, A Lioness in Summer.

  "Well, I must say it took you long enough!" came a second voice, familiar from the months spent making up lines inside his head. It was Wesley Worm, the hero of his popular picture book The Worm Returns.

  All of these voices, dozens now jabbering, mixed with animal sounds: oinking, quacking, barking, meowing, honking, mooing ... an entire menagerie shouted as they quacked and meowed and mooed: "Henry!" "It's Henry!" "About time, Henry!"

  Henry coughed. Smoke had begun to seep in from upstairs. It curled under the cellar door. But it was that other door, the tiny mystery door, that held Henry's attention. It seemed to grow brighter as the smoke advanced. "Good heavens!" Henry said aloud. "There's a message here!" He clapped his hands at the joy of self-discovery. "What I've tried to avoid my entire working life—and look what I've done!"

  He took a further careful step downstairs. "I've set a trap for myself, and I'm walking right into it!" He clapped his hands twice now, as if in applause for the conclusion he was reaching. "I made this whole thing up to conceal the obvious: that I am dying. I have constructed a clever little story, laced with all my skills of fantasy and misdirection, to bring me to this door and to deliver the message that I could not accept in any other form. I have turned my death into a children's story. Oh, I am a much better writer than I ever imagined!"

  Feeling an excitement he hadn't known since he was a little boy, Henry descended the last of the steps, nervously advancing toward his port of entry. His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.

  The Harp

  So it's true, he thought, it's really true.

  THE HARP

  LINDA SUE PARK

  The old magician took off his cape slowly.

  He had earned it, the ancient green cape bestowed on him in gratitude for his life's work. There was a scroll as well, inscribed with real gold leaf. For distinguished service to humankind.

  It hadn't been easy, serving humankind in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The problems in every corner of the world had been endless and at times seemingly insurmountable. But the hardest part of his job was that very few people believed in magic anymore.

  Which meant that he and his colleagues could not perform the sweeping dramatic acts that had made magicians, witches, wizards, mages, seers, and shamans renowned and revered over the millennia of human existence. These days, they would be laughed at as charlatans or crackpots. Or worse.

  Instead, they had to work in secret and with stealth. Good timing, coincidence, serendipity: the tools of the modern magician's trade. The rain that doused a spark before it became a forest fire. A better-than-average harvest. A long-lost friend found via an Internet search for kumquats. There had been times when he longed to put together something a bit more dramatic, but he had stifled that desire for the greater good.

  Now he would retire for a well-earned rest, and work perhaps just a little magic closer to home.

  ***

  Emma and Frances were taking one of their bicker walks in the woods not far from their home. They went for bicker walks regularly—several times a week, in fact. The sisters bickered constantly, the full range from snide twits to wide-open, full-throttle arguments. Especially in the summer, when they were home together for long hours. Whenever one parent or the other got tired of hearing them, they were told, TAKE YOURSELVES AND YOUR BICKERING OUT OF THE HOUSE THIS INSTANT.

  Today, by the time the girls reached the path into the woods, they had completely forgotten the cause of this particular walk, having already embarked on a new bicker.

  "I get the first one."

  "Why should you get it? I want it just as much as you do."

  "I want it more."

  "No, I want it more."

  "How do you know how much I want it? You think you know everything."

  They were arguing about who got to pick the first blackberry. But it was only June, too early for blackberries, which meant that they were bickering over something that didn't even exist yet.

  Emma was almost twelve and would be in sixth grade in the fall. Before this particular walk, she would have said that she didn't believe in magic. Frances, two years younger, would have said she wasn't sure.

  One minute they were ambling toward a stand of brambles; the next they were in a cave. A man stood before them with a harp at his side.

  Emma blinked several times. This can't be happening, she thought. And then: What a cliched thing to think. But anyway, it must be a dream, so I'll go with it for now.

  Except for his sudden presence, there was nothing terribly frightening about the man. He was rather ordinary-looking—medium height, with a tanned complexion, gray hair, and dark eyes—the only unusual thing about him being his cape. It had some fraying around the edges, but was a cheerful green hue, between lime and emerald. Emma thought a black cape might have been scarier, if scary was the effect he was going for.

  It took him only moments to cast the spell, which he did by whirling the cape around his body and over his head several times. Frances made a noise of admiration, and Emma sensed that her sister was longing to try cape-whirling herself. Then the magician handed Emma a scroll and vanished, having said not a word.

  Emma immediately began reading aloud from the parchment:

  The spell will be broken when Frances learns to play the harp well enough to satisfy the conditions set by the writer William Congreve, who wrote: "Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

  You are permitted to leave the cave as necessary, but do not attempt to leave the woods.

  You are in a bubble of time. Your family will not miss you: Time will pass much more slowly for them than for you.

  "Emma?"

  It was Frances's voice, but it came from the ground near Emma's feet. Emma looked down and let out a screech of horror.
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  Frances had been turned into a frog.

  ***

  Emma screeched a few more times and hyperventilated. Frances hopped madly around the cave.

  After this reasonable interval of panic, the sisters (If your sister has been turned into a frog, she's still your sister, isn't she?) decided together that neither of them was dreaming. They calmed down, doing their best to think brave thoughts. Emma: I have to figure this out and take care of Frances. Frances: I've always been the adventurous one. I have to keep my head here, or else Emma will really freak out.

  Their first plan was to try to leave the woods, Emma carrying Frances in the palm of her hand. They smacked right into an invisible barrier, like a force field in science-fiction movies. After some exploration, they determined that the barrier had a rough circumference of perhaps a hundred yards, with the stream marking part of it—which Frances discovered by jumping in from one bank and trying to jump out the other side.

  Wham into the force field, splash back into the stream.

  Escape thus stymied, the sisters turned to the other terms of the spell. Emma was in her second year of violin lessons, but a violin was very different from a harp. She had never even seen a harp up close. Still, she knew more about music than Frances did.

  Wham into the force field, splash back into the stream. Frances had never played a musical instrument. She had just finished third grade and would not begin music lessons until fourth.

  Besides which, she was now a frog.

  ***

  "No! I won't go! You can't make me!" Brian slammed his bedroom door, then kicked it a few times.

  Wham into the force field, splash back into the stream. What he'd said wasn't true. Dad could indeed make him stay with Gramps for the summer.

  Mom would at least have listened. She had always done her best to treat him like a sixth-grader, not a baby. But she probably would have sided with Dad in the end, and then Brian would have been mad at both of them.

  No, that didn't make any sense either. If Mom were still alive, there wouldn't be any talk about Brian living with Gramps all summer.

  Gramps had brought up the idea at Mom's funeral in February.

  "It'll do you good," Gramps said.

  "How could living in the middle of nowhere do me any good?" Brian yelled. Right there in the funeral home. Everyone stared, then turned away uneasily.

  Brian stormed out of the building. Unable to think of what else to do, he sat in the car and missed the whole service. Missed his chance to say a last goodbye to Mom.

  A whole summer where he didn't know anyone, miles away from anything to do. It was typical of the way his life was going these days. He had gotten in trouble at school several times for cutting classes. He'd quit playing soccer right before he would have gotten kicked off the team for yelling at everyone—the refs and the opponents and his teammates too. He had driven away his friends one by one with his angry outbursts and overall surliness.

  And Dad thought Brian spent too much time on the computer or playing video games. Dad was always nagging at him to get outside, ride his bike, do something.

  Gramps didn't have a computer or a game system. He didn't even have a television.

  "Radio and good books," Gramps always said. "Don't need more than that."

  It was going to be the worst summer of Brian's life.

  ***

  Gramps himself was okay, as grownups went. Brian didn't really know him all that well. He didn't talk much and neither did Brian, which seemed to suit both of them. And things began to look up a little the day after Brian's dad left to go back to the city.

  "Thought we'd go to the animal shelter," Gramps said at the breakfast table. "Been meaning to get a dog. Now's as good a time as any."

  Brian sat up straight for the first time in months. He had always wanted a dog, but pets weren't allowed in the apartment where he and Dad lived.

  "It'll have to stay here when you go back," Gramps said.

  Of course. No good news without bad to go with it.

  There were fifteen dogs in the shelter. All of them were sort of something—sort of spaniel, sort of retriever, sort of terrier. Each dog nosed through the bars of its cage and wagged its tail when Brian approached. How was he ever going to choose?

  Three times he went around the crates—and was no closer to a decision than when he began. At one point Brian looked up to see every single dog staring at him, and he could have sworn they all had hope in their eyes.

  Brian felt confusion first, followed by the familiar warmth of anger stirring inside him. I thought this would be fun! But now I don't know what to do—I can't pick one over another. I hate this!

  "This is stupid," he said to Gramps. "It's gonna be your dog—you should choose."

  Gramps gazed at him steadily. "I don't care. You pick."

  Brian turned away, glaring at the floor. He hated when people said that— I don't care—it always made him want to shout, "CARE! WHY DON'T YOU CARE?" It seemed like there were so many things people didn't care about. Like all these dogs...

  An idea hit him.

  A really good idea.

  "The dogs," he said to the volunteer, "out of all of them, which one is—I mean, is there one who ... whose time is almost up?"

  The woman pointed without hesitation. "That one," she said. "He's been here for almost a month."

  A tan and gray dog—white face, pointed ears and snout. A sort-of husky.

  "He came in off the street, no tags," the woman said. "That means you get to name him whatever you want."

  She opened the cage and the dog trotted right to Brian. He knelt down and scratched it behind the ears.

  "Hey there," Brian said softly. "Wanna come home with us?"

  The dog whined a little and wagged his tail. He looked at Brian as if trying to tell him something.

  "Douglas," Brian said. The name had popped into his head out of the blue.

  He looked up at Gramps; it would be Gramps's dog after Brian left. "Is that okay?"

  "Douglas," Gramps said slowly, as if he were tasting the name. Then a little louder: "Douglas?"

  The dog turned his head to look at Gramps.

  "He already knows his name," the volunteer said with a grin. "You could call him Dougie for short, maybe."

  Brian wanted to point out that Dougie was hardly any shorter than Douglas, but he decided not to. She was only trying to be nice.

  And not five minutes after they got back to Gramps's place, it turned out that Dougie was a pretty good name after all. Because after the dog marked the whole back yard, he started to dig.

  He dug, and dug, and dug.

  Dougie.

  ***

  On the very first day of harp practice, Frances pointed out the obvious.

  "I can't play the normal way," she said. "My arms—er, my front legs aren't long enough to get at the strings from both sides."

  She plucked at the bottom of one string, which gave out a dismal twang, then hopped up on the frame and stretched for the higher strings.

  "This is impossible," she complained. "I can't even reach all of them."

  After some discussion, the sisters decided that nothing in the rules barred Emma from helping Frances. After all, it was Emma who had carried the harp out of the cave and placed it on a flat rock next to the stream so Frances could have easy access to the water when she wanted a quick dip or a drink.

  "Gotta stay hydrated," Frances said, exercising her newly acquired frog instincts.

  And of course, Emma needed to teach Frances the basics of music.

  Now she picked Frances up and stood next to the harp.

  "Look," Emma said. "I can hold my hands like this"—she spread them about eight inches apart—"and you can hop from one to the other, and I can move them to put you wherever you want to be."

  This strategy enabled Frances to reach all the strings. The next task was to figure out how she could elicit a true note from the harp. It required delicate maneuvering for Frances to pl
uck a string with a webbed toe. She also found it difficult to keep her throat from puffing out. When her throat touched a vibrating string, not only did the sound die, but her whole head twangled and twizzered.

  "Put me down," Frances said at the end of the first day. She flopped on the ground, exhausted. "I've never been so tired in my whole life. Will you catch me some flies, please? The bluey-green ones are the nicest."

  "Yuck," Emma said. "Catch your own flies."

  Cue noisy bickering, which lasted until Frances splashed off in a huff.

  After a week, Frances could pluck out a recognizable rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"—and Emma was so sick of hearing it that she had to remind herself not to clench her fists. Frances might not be able to land easily on a fist and might fall; in the worst-case bad-timing scenario, Emma could end up with a handful of squashed frog-sister. So she gritted her teeth instead.

  "But it doesn't sound like a harp," Frances said. "It just sounds like plucking. Harp music, it should have parts where, you know, you play a whole bunch of the strings fast, so it sounds like—like a waterfall or something."

  "Glissando," Emma said. "You're right." For the next several days, the sisters developed and practiced a glissando technique. It involved Frances extending one toe to rake over the strings while Emma moved her hand back and forth.

  Glissandos were hard on poor Frances. Her whole body juddered bone-shakingly each time. She developed blisters on her toes, and the webs of her feet got all stretched out.

  "It's all right for you," Frances grumbled. "You're not a frog."

  Emma had no answer to that.

  ***

  Dougie's enthusiasm for digging seemed boundless. But he wouldn't dig just anywhere. He would trot around, sniff here and there, paw at the ground a little, and often reject a spot, followed by more trotting and sniffing. He left behind a landscape comprising holes of various sizes, mounds of grass and leaves mixed with soil, and patches of plowed-up earth. Gramps's yard both front and back looked like the site of a major archaeological dig.

 
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