Avaric gave way to Jemmsy, the first human Brrr could remember meeting—a humble soldier of the Wizard of Oz. The Lion’s first friend, so his first betrayal. What made Brrr think he could care for a little girl, even for a while? Doing damage—that was the Lion’s métier.
Jemmsy flew apart into ashes. In the Lion’s hypnogogic paralysis, Jemmsy resembled the swarm of Ozmists, said to be fragments of ghost who haunted the Great Gillikin Forest. What had they asked? “Tell us if the Wizard is still ruling Oz.” And Cubbins, the boy-sheriff of the Northern Bears, had asked them a return question: “Tell us if Ozma is alive.”
Why didn’t hooded phantasms in their sepulchral moan ever ask, “Tell us if salted butter is better than unsalted in a recipe for a Shiz mincemeat pasty?” Prophetic questions and answers only cared about rules—powers, thrones, pushiness.
Cubbins faded away into a pattern of sedges and paisleys. Brrr was nearly asleep, and then a thought of the ancient oracle known as Yackle intruded upon the artsiness of the mind yielding to dream.
She was so robust in his thoughts that he sat bolt upright. That cunning fiend! In his mind she was more demanding than ever. “Take care of the girl,” she’d hectored him not six months ago. “I need you to stand for her, if she needs standing for.” She’d been talking about the child of Liir and Candle. None other than Elphaba’s granddaughter. But was this girl who showed up—Rain—the right one? The Clock seemed leery of her, according to the dwarf. And Brrr couldn’t be sure. He lay down again. Behind his closed eyelids, as the girl stretched and rubbed against his spine and rolled over, he tried to imagine her as green, though in daylight she seemed the same filmy milkweed color of so many Munchkinlanders and Gillikinese.
Clocks are color-blind, thought Brrr. Let the Clock recover its spring and go back to being the conscience of Oz. It can sort out Rain’s reality. I’m too tired.
All his previous disasters danced attendance upon him now, a big lousy finish. That nightly inquisition, as character relievedly dissolves into oblivion: Who are you really? The Lion had a wife with whom he didn’t sleep, not only for the problem of incompatible proportions but because Ilianora was stitched into a finalizing virginity. The Lion had fixated on many humans and Animals alike, and loved only one, Muhlama H’aekeem, an Ivory Tiger. That had gone nowhere in a hurry. Had he sired litters? No. His part in the Matter of Dorothy and the death of the Wicked Witch of the West was puzzling to all, himself included—was he an enemy of the state? Or a hero of the nation? Or just an empty space in the world wearing an acceptably impressive mane—that was how he accounted for himself, up and down and be done with it.
So maybe he wasn’t capable, he concluded, of fulfilling Yackle’s request of him. “Take care of the girl.” Why should he? Elphaba had done him no favors, unless you believed those who said he’d been a Lion cub in Shiz, and she and her friends had rescued him from some unsavory experiment in a lab. No way to prove it, of course.
But here was Rain, in her sleep, rudely scratching herself between her buttocks. The Lion could feel the girl’s spindly arm. His spine and hers, back to back.
But why wasn’t he capable? Come on. Lady Glinda had looked after Rain without drawing attention to the matter. And face it, Lady Glinda was hardly Old Mother Glee from the operettas. If Glinda could manage, couldn’t Brrr? With Ilianora’s help? With or without the dwarf’s help, the Clock’s advice?
But the Clock had gone somnolent, Brrr remembered. A conscience in a coma.
But but but. The endless clockwork spin of self-doubt.
He had come to no conclusion in his roundabout reflections. Sleep rescued him temporarily from the obligation to fret about it any longer.
The new others were still asleep. Rain picked her way around them: the white-haired woman with the hard-soft face, the goldeny Lion, the little mean man. Also the seven acolytes of the Clock, who were tickling one another in their sleep, she thought.
She didn’t miss Glinda. She didn’t miss Puggles. She half expected Miss Murth to be lurking under the pines with a face flannel at the ready, but when Murthy didn’t show up Rain pushed on. She was intent on climbing back up to the lookout to see what could still be seen of the dragons in the water.
Her mind for a path was clever enough. The light rowed like slanted oars along the way, showing her how to go. It felt good to be out in the world. Not dangerous at all, no matter what Miss Murth had kept saying, especially lately.
Ah, the lake. At this hour its surface steamed black-silver. Green glowed on the hills. Green painted the southern coves like a skin of algae. She noticed smoke above Zimmerstorm, though she was too young to wonder if it signified the remains of a town burned in reprisal. She couldn’t see the mansard roofs of Mockbeggar Hall, and she didn’t think to look for them.
The dragons were gone. The ice was gone. The ruins of one ship drifted like a broken island. Two of the ships were yoked and listing. The fourth ship was gone, maybe sunk entirely, or paddled to port somewhere out of sight.
She was sorry for the ships but sorrier for the dragons. She bet no one had asked them if they was interested in swimming boats around. She had helped to ice them in—somehow she knew that. She didn’t know the word ashamed, or even the notion, but she felt punky and wished it hadn’t happened. Lady Glinda was in trouble and there weren’t no other way; but still.
The bits of timber on water looked like broken letters.
This reminded her of the word man. Cherrystone. Once he had found a book with big letters—whether it was for children or for blindish adults she didn’t know—and he had sat it on his knee facing her. She hunched on the floor. He’d taken out his littlish silvery dagger and had used it as a pointer. What’s that? The E. What’s that? The I? No, the other one. The L. Right? Right. And this? The, um, the one like an E. The F! E-L-F? Can you spell it so far?
She could, but for some reason she’d shaken her head. She hadn’t wanted this to go too fast.
Now she saw a big stick and went to pick it up so she could scrape letters into the pine needles. How to spell sorry? The stick wiggled off and she chased it. She knew it had become a snake, but maybe it would hold still and be a stick for her. Maybe it could spell better than she could. “Wait.”
It hustled away, but slower, she thought; it was considering her plea. Then it paused and turned its needle head. It was allover green except where it wanted to be brown. Its eye—she could only see one—was a tight shiny opaque black lentil.
She said, “Did you wriggle up from the water this morning? Do you know what happened down there? Is those dragons friends of yours? Is any of them okay?”
The snake lowered its head, perhaps in mourning.
“One of ’em flied away. Did you see that part?”
The snake didn’t move, but Rain thought it maybe looked a little interested.
“Oh, it did. I en’t got any notion where it flied itself off to. Out beyond the shores over that way.”
The snake seemed to be trying to turn a different color, to blend in with the bit of lichen on one side and a scrap of stone on the other, but it was slow work. She squatted down to watch it go. “Whoa-ey. I din’t know snakes could shift to green and back agin.”
The creature’s lidless eyes were baleful and patient. “A lot could go green if they tried harder,” it said. “Keep it in mind.” Rain reared back, never having met a talking Snake before, nor heard of one even. She thought they were only storylike. The Snake finished its conversion to camouflage, and she couldn’t see it anymore.
She missed the Snake but she appreciated the advice. “Right-o,” she said to where it had been. “Oh and—sorry.”
Rain told them about the ships all ruined, and the dragons, dead or fled. The companions looked at Mr. Boss. He just shrugged.
“Assuming most of the soldiers survived and regrouped on shore, Cherrystone’s first order of business will be to find us,” said Brrr. Patient as a marmoreal Lion. Tho
ugh he was finding it hard not to scream. “The Clock predicted a watery rout, remember? And Cherrystone might guess we had a mighty charm for making it come true. We really can’t hang around waiting for the Clock to stamp our hall slip.”
“Hey, the Lion’s right. We’ve been romping back and forth across hostile ground for the better part of a year now.” This from a boy with a chestnut mop. Brrr had never heard him speak before. “With that watery zoo in flames last night, we’re going to be everyone’s first target of revenge.”
The towhead said, “And how. Thankth to the bloody Clock’th little prophethy to the military. That wath a collathal fucking mithtake, that wath.”
Yet another virgin opinion: “It’s time we decided which way—”
The dwarf interrupted the boy. “When you start to think about deciding, it’s time for you to decide to leave.”
“Maybe we will,” groused a fourth fellow. “Being wanted in military sabotage is different from being a hand servant to Fate.”
“And you can’t risk bossing Fate around,” spat the dwarf. “You’re going to second-guess me, get out. I mean it.”
The speaker, a kid shaggy with corkscrews of cobalt black, lost a measure of his resolve. He backed up a step, as if to give the dwarf room to back down too.
“I’m not stopping you,” said Mr. Boss, “nor you other fellows. We’ve managed for years either to negotiate a kind of diplomatic immunity or to squelch out of any cowpie we happen to step into. Our stretch of luck might be over, though. Get used to it or get another hobby.”
“But luck, what is luck, up next to Fate—” The boys couldn’t wriggle out of the propaganda snarled around their hearts.
“Save yourselves. Last one to leave, put out the moon. You too, daughter.” The dwarf pointed a gnarled forefinger at Ilianora. “Nothing’s holding you here.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she responded. “Yet.”
The lads were packed up and ready to leave within the hour. Abandoning their orange camisoles, they hoisted rucksacks on their backs and tied civilian kerchiefs at their necks. They figured to strike out north across the Pine Barrens, avoiding militias of either stripe.
Brrr thought it best. These boys hadn’t signed on to become agents provocateurs in some accidental war. Most of the lads had wanted merely to see the world and to claim their importance as acolytes of history. Or to postpone indenture in some family grocery or gravel-and-sand concern.
“You’re next,” said the dwarf. “Out. Vamoose. Scrammylegs.”
“Not without you,” said Ilianora. “Mr. Boss, you’re not yourself.”
“I’m not going anywhere with that ruinous child,” said Mr. Boss.
“If we leave, you’re not going anywhere, period,” observed Brrr. “You just dismissed your backup labor force, and I’m the only one left who can drag that Clock. Unless you’re ready to walk away from it.”
“Curses,” bellowed the dwarf, and demonstrated some.
“Hush,” said Ilianora. “If they’ve really decided to hunt us down, you’ll only pinpoint our location for them.”
The dwarf went and sat under the wagon.
“I’m all packed,” said the Lion to his spouse. “Nothing holding us, I think. Since we seem to be dismissed.”
“He rescued me,” said Ilianora. “I can’t just leave him over this slight difference of opinion.”
“Why en’t you ask the Clock?” suggested Rain. “If you talked nice to it? What’s its name, anyway?”
Ilianora gave the wrinkled wince that, in her, passed for a grin. “Oswald. But I think of it as Oswalda.”
Rain went to look at it. “It en’t very breathy,” she admitted, but she walked about it, giving it the benefit of the doubt. From beneath, the dwarf pitched stones at her scraped ankles.
Brrr saw the dragon as a cutthroat charm, a vulgar but effective contrivance of tiktok ingenuity designed to remind gullible audiences of the archaic folk belief known as the Time Dragon. Though himself reared without such nonsense—because self-reared—the Lion had learned of Oz’s origin legends well enough. The snot-fired underground creature, asleep in some unreachable cavern, dreaming the universe from its beginning. A fiery fatalism.
And not the only type of fatalism to grip Oz. Other more phlegmatic theories proposed existence as the result of some unholy combustion of oils and embers. Even today, some peasants credited their filthy lot to the dilettantism of Lurline, the Fairy Queen, trying her hand at creating a world. And eggheads smart enough to suffer gout or glaucoma argued that life was a benighted experiment in ethics or cruelty invented by the Unnamed God. But the dragon story was older—so old in folk knowledge that the dragon had no name. Oswald was a nom de théâtre: deep fate is always run from behind the curtain, from which we are asked to divert our attention.
Today the dragon of the Clock was inert. A clapped-out heap of oxidizing technology. Could it be a disguise? Oswald had so often seemed a half-creature, sinister in its apparent sense of impulse, decided in its attitude toward wrong and right. The dragon’s head had rotated like the headlamp of some pedicycle rollicking down the college lanes of Shiz. The jaws snapped in four different positions. None of them smiling. When did conscience smile?
“It looks deaded out,” concluded Rain, cheerfully enough.
“Rain, a little less noise,” suggested the Lion. No sense in salting the dwarf’s wounds.
“Why en’t we hunting in the Grimmerie for words to wake ’m up?”
“Suddenly we’re a democratic synod? That’s what having children does for you? Remind me to neuter myself with a grapefruit spoon.” But with what Ilianora had been through, that remark was thoughtless, and despite his distress the dwarf caught himself. “Oh, all right. But I’m not promising to play by any suggestion a stupid book makes, magic or not.”
He got the Grimmerie out of a drawer that opened with a pop, as if it had been eager to deliver the book to Rain. “Reading never did much for me, in my line of work,” he grumphed.
Ilianora spread her shawl on the needled ground, and Mr. Boss dumped the book upon it. “I don’t like to touch the Grimmerie,” said the woman, but Rain knelt down before the tome. She put her hands on the cover as if she’d like to hug the thing, and opened the great lid of it.
“It feels hummy. Like moss with sugarbees in it,” she said.
“And you look like clot without the cream.” The dwarf snorted. “Find what you need to find and close the damn thing up again. It makes me nervous. This book isn’t for the likes of us to examine. We’re just the keepers.”
“Maybe the world is changing,” said the Lion, “and it’s up to us now.”
The dwarf stifled himself as Rain turned the versos. Today each page seemed made of a different sort of paper. Different colors and weights, sieved and pressed with a variety of trash: rag content and straw, string and fuse. To Brrr’s eye the hand-lettered words seemed overly hooked and pronged, a foreign language if not, indeed, a foreign alphabet. Though his spectacles needed updating. Sometimes the marginalia designs appeared engaged and in motion, flat little theater pieces performing for themselves. On other pages a single portrait without caption stared out, its eyes moving as the page lifted, wavered, settled, was covered by the next. “How do we even know what we’re looking for?” asked the Lion.
“When we find it,” said Rain. Simple enough.
Brrr saw it before she did. They had come upon a page that seemed sheathed in ice or glass, across which embossed patterns of frost and snowflake were wheeling, interleaving the way, presumably, the cogs of the Clock did when the Clock was in fettle. The paper glinted with sparkles as of light on snow. Rain said, “Is this calling winter upon water?”
“Who knows?” said Brrr. “No text I can recognize, unless the snowflakes are their own prose. The book has stopped riffling itself, though. Seems to be the destination page, anyway.”
The girl agreed; she
clasped her hands over the page eagerly as if to warm herself on a winter’s afternoon. “Where is my mittens?” she murmured, almost to herself.
The snowflake patterns pulled apart like theater curtains, revealing a dark blue background that filled the whole page, like a night sky during Lurlinemas. Stars shone in midnight ink. “If this is an advertisement for classes in faith formation, honeyclams, I’m taking a match to the whole damn thing,” whispered Mr. Boss.
“Shut up,” said Brrr politely.
A single dot of white began to grow larger, as if nearing from a great distance across the heavens. It looked like a sort of snow globe, of the type Brrr had seen in the shops at holidays. An ice bubble, maybe? A perfect crystal drop. Hovering. It swelled almost to the margins of the page. When it stopped, they could see that the globe was clear, and a hunched figure imprisoned within.
“The Z in the O,” said Rain.
They couldn’t quite tell who it was.
“It’s meant to be Lady Glinda,” said Mr. Boss, despite himself. “People said she used to come and go by bubble. Though it was really a White Pfenix.”
“No, it’s meant to be Elphaba, only you can’t see she’s green,” said Ilianora, “not behind that icy white window. It reminds me of her crystal globe at Kiamo Ko.”
“It’s neither.” The Lion didn’t know why he felt so decisive about it. “It’s Yackle. Old Mother Yackle, the senile sage of the mauntery. She’s the one who took up lodging within these very pages, if you recall. And the glass ball—maybe that’s what’s become of Shadowpuppet—Malky, the glass cat. It has swallowed her up as if she were a bird. Well, she had those wings, remember.”
The figure—it was surely a she—pointed out at them as if she could see them from the book. One finger at Brrr, one at Ilianora, one at the dwarf, and one at Rain. With her other hand she collected four upright fingers and bunched them together like asparagus spears tied with string. She gripped them, indicating—quite cleary—together. Together.