As a spider, Rain thought Mr. Boss and Little Daffy looked like tiny little matching grandparents, sour as mutual crab apples. They looked like they were playing at living. Or was this living? Rain wasn’t sure. She stayed out of the dwarf’s way as much as she could.
She heard Brrr and Ilianora talk quietly, out of range of the dwarf and the Munchkin, but not out of the range of a spider’s attention. Ilianora proposed that, given the Clock’s new reticence, being married was a legitimate diversion for a dwarf at loose ends. Surely?
“That attitude toward marriage makes of our union a slight mockery, don’t you think?” Brrr purred Ilianora up the side of her neck. “Anyway, they’re at it like a tomcat and the parish whore. Every night. It’s embarrassing.”
“He’s got to do something. He’s not the type to take up knitting by a fireside, is he?”
Rain turned her head. The dwarf was pitching a penknife into a tree trunk at forty feet. His face was sweaty, his raveling beard in need of a shampoo. He didn’t look as if he would favor doing piecework.
“At least he’s stopped fussing so much over Rain,” continued Ilianora. “The book’s told us what to do—stick together, head south—but not why. You and I aren’t captives, though. If you have any other ambitions once we ditch the Grimmerie somewhere safe, spell them out.”
Do I care what they do? wondered Rain, and couldn’t think of an answer.
“I can’t go back to the Emerald City unless I’m willing to hand over the Grimmerie to them,” said Brrr. “Otherwise I’ll be thrown in Southstairs, and it won’t be pretty. You’ve told me how unpretty it would be, in no uncertain terms.”
“I don’t want to talk about Southstairs.” Ilianora’s face turned a shade of stubbornness no spider had ever seen before. “I was asking you about your ambitions. No interest in your companions on the Yellow Brick Road? That Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman?”
“The Scarecrow has all but disappeared. I suppose straw succumbs to mold and weevils. And last I heard, the Tin Woodman is still a labor agitator in Shiz. Wish he could organize our mechanical conscience here. Fat chance of that. Really, that Matter of Dorothy was a sorry passage, let me tell you. In a generally sorry life.”
“Mine hardly prettier. After prison, to slip from doing resistance work into writing fanciful stories for a while. The dilettante’s gavotte, I think one would call it.”
Rain saw their faces screw up more complicated, pancakes trying to become soufflés. Faces bloated, contorted, deflated, endlessly in disguise. Tiresome but curious.
“That General Cherrystone at Mockbeggar Hall?” Brrr spoke in a softer voice; he didn’t know spiders have good hearing. “Cherrystone was the one who kidnapped you when you weren’t that much older than Rain is now. He didn’t recognize you all grown up, I know. But do you feel—in that vault of your heart—the yearning for vengeance?”
Ilianora held her tongue for what seemed to Rain like a couple of years, but finally she spoke. “We took a risk walking into Mockbeggar Hall carrying the Grimmerie right under Cherrystone’s nose. I believed Mr. Boss when he said the book was only on temporary loan to Lady Glinda. Getting it safely out of there, away from Cherrystone’s hands, seemed the more crucial objective. If the day arrives when I’m ready to take vengeance on him for slaughter—of my family—well, I suspect I’ll know it. It’ll come clear to me, privately, all in good time.”
Secret knowledge, thought Rain. My head hurts.
“As for now,” continued Ilianora, “let history have its way: I’m only a bystander. A dandelion, a spider, nothing more.”
“We aren’t aimless. We have a goal,” the Lion reminded her. “We’re keeping the Grimmerie out of the hands of the Emperor of Oz. We’re heading south, as the book advised. And, incidentally, whether Mr. Boss likes it or not, we’re rescuing the girl.”
At this they both looked up at her, and Rain found the spiderweb too thin between them. It had become a gunsight that focused her in its crosshairs. Their look of affection was brazen. To break the spell of their myopia, to divert them, she brayed, “I want to keep reading but we got no books. You write stories? Write me some words I can practice on.”
“I don’t write anymore,” said Ilianora in one of those voices. “Ask someone else.”
“Who’s to ask?” Rain felt fussed and hot. “The world en’t gonna write nothing for me. No words in the clouds. No printed page among these dead leaves. Can a spider write letters in a web?”
“What nonsense,” said the dwarf from his distance, pitching his knife through the web a few feet above her head, severing a prominent girder so it collapsed like shucked stockings. “That would be some spider.”
They didn’t dawdle but they moved without haste. The Lion had concluded that attention must still be centered upon the battle for Restwater, since goons with guns hadn’t shown up yet. A few days on, as they entered the hardscrabble terrain known as the Disappointments, they spotted the next oddkin, the latest of Oz’s free-range lunatiktoks. “It was ever thus,” the dwarf averred.
“No, war is driving the entire country nuts,” replied the Lion.
The creature seemed to be a woman, sitting in the only tree on this wide stony plain. She held an umbrella for shade and protection from the rains. Evidence of a cookfire in one direction, a latrine in the other. The place was open enough to appear attractive to lightning. Perhaps she wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.
She scrambled down when they approached and stood her ground. She wore what had once been a rather fine dress of white duck with cerulean blue piping, though the skirt had gone grey and brown. That’s a useful camouflage, thought Brrr. A starched blue bib rode against her bosom. Her shoes were torn open at the toe. “Hail,” she said, and stuck her arm out in a salute, and chopped it once or twice. Her eyes wobbled like puddings not fully set.
The hair piled up on her head reminded Rain of a bird’s nest; the girl half expected a beaky face to peer out from above. She all but clapped with joy.
“Let me guess. You are the Queen of the Disappointments,” said the dwarf. “Well, given our recent history, we must be your loyal subjects.” He spat, but not too rudely.
She looked left and right as if someone might be listening. She appeared familiar to Brrr, but he imagined that most loopy individuals seem recognizable. They mirror the less resolved aspects of ourselves back at us, and the shock of recognition—of ourselves in their eyes—is a cruel dig.
“Are you all right?” asked Ilianora. Ever the tender hand, especially for a female in trouble, Brrr knew.
The woman cawed and flapped her arms. They saw she had stitched some sort of a blanket of feathers to her white serge sleeves.
“Wingses!” said Rain happily.
“She’s so far round the bend, she’s back home already,” muttered Mr. Boss.
“Hush, husband,” said Little Daffy. “Hold your snickering; she’s dehydrated. In need of salts, powder of cinnabar, a tiny dose. Also a brew of yellowroot and garlic to take care of the conjunctivitis.” She dove her hands into her waistband, inspecting the contents of pockets sewn on the inside of her skirt. She had, after all, been a professional apothecaire. “Heat up some water in the pot, Ilianora, and I’ll shave up a few herbs and hairy tubers for the poor Bird Woman.”
The woman wasn’t much frightened by them. After several sips of something red and cloudy that Mr. Boss offered from his private flask, she blinked and rubbed dust out of her eyes as if she were just coming up to room temperature. When she opened her mouth, it was not to twitter but to speak more or less like a fellow citizen. “God damn fuckheads,” she said. “Give me some more of that juice.”
“That’s the ticket,” said Mr. Boss, obliging.
She lifted her chin at the Clock. “What’s that thing, then? A portable guillotine?”
“That’s as good a word for it as any,” said the dwarf. “A cabinet of marvels, once upon a better time.”
The Bird Woman looked it
up and down and walked around it on her toes. That accounts for the condition of the boots, Brrr thought.
“No. I know what this is. I’ve heard tell of it. Never thought it would feature in my path. It’s the Clock of the Time Dragon, isn’t it? What are you doing dragging it out here in Forsaken Acres?” She ruffled her wings as she stepped about, like a marabou stork.
“Brought it here to die,” he said. “And what are you doing here?”
“Oh, more or less the same thing,” she replied. “Isn’t that the general ambition of living things?”
“Hush, there’s a child,” said Ilianora.
The Bird Woman peered at her. “So there is. How grotesque.” She put out a hand and rubbed the side of the Clock. “I figured this sort of entertainment went out once they started doing girlie shows in Ticknor Circus.”
Mr. Boss made a point of humphing. “This isn’t a sort of anything. It’s sui generis.”
She took on the expression of a crazed docent. “You’re small and barky but you don’t know everything. This Clock is the latest and maybe the most famous of a long line of tiktok extravaganzas. They used to circulate several hundred years ago in the hamlets of Gillikin, telling stories of the Unnamed God. Such contrivances specialized in the conversion stories of the Saints. Saint Mettorix of Mount Runcible, who was martyred when a coven of witches flew overhead and dropped frozen cantaloupes onto his scalp. Saint Aelphaba of the Waterfall, you probably have heard of her. Hidden from sight for decades, emergent at last, in some versions. Also Saint Glinda.”
“I know the tale of Saint Glinda, thank you for nothing,” said Little Daffy. “I spent my professional life in the mauntery of Saint Glinda in the Shale Shallows.”
“A sordid little tale of grace through glamour,” said the Bird Woman dismissively. “Then, little by little, as unionism rooted more deeply in the provinces, the tiktok trade became secular, pretending toward prophecy and secret-spilling.”
“We specialized in history and prophecy in conjunction with civic conscience.” Mr. Boss sounds like a traveling salesman, thought Brrr.
“Charlatanism,” insisted the Bird Woman. “And sometimes dangerous. The masters of traveling companies used to send their acolytes ahead to sniff out local gossip, so the puppets could be seen to imitate the bellyaches of real life.”
“I never needed to do that,” said Mr. Boss. “Different organizing principle entirely. Real magic, if you don’t mind. The rough stuff.”
“You only carried on all these years because there was a tradition to hide behind,” said the harridan. “You’re the last one and you stick out like a sore behind. People have got to be asking why. Especially in times like this.”
“Doesn’t matter what people say. Anyway, you’re right about one thing: this famous Clock has had it. The tok is divorced from the tik.”
“It’s not dead yet,” she said.
“I didn’t come for a second opinion,” said the dwarf. “What are you, a witch doctor?”
“I know a thing or two about spells, as it happens.”
“Who are you?”
“I used to have a name, and it used to be Grayce Graeling. But without a social circle, a name quickly becomes moot, I realized. So never mind about me.”
“How do you know about spells?” asked Ilianora. “Seems to be a dying art in Oz.”
“What do you expect, with the Emperor wanting to husband all the magic in his own treasury?” chirped the Bird Woman. “It’s not going to work, of course. Magic doesn’t follow those rules. It carves its own channels. But why don’t you fire this thing up and show me what you’ve got?”
“I told you, it’s paralyzed. Maybe dead,” said Mr. Boss.
“Can you fly?” asked Rain.
“It isn’t dead. I should know. I could tell you a thing or two about spells. I taught magic once, I was on the faculty at Shiz several yonks ago. I was never very skilled, mind you, but I was a devoted teacher to my girls, and I picked up more than anyone credited.”
“The entire former faculty of Shiz seems to retire to the suburbs,” observed Brrr. “Did you know a Professor Lenx? And Mister Mikko?”
“I knew how to lace up a boot from across a room,” she said. “I knew how to produce crumpets and tea in fifteen seconds, for when a trustee arrived unexpectedly in one’s chambers. I knew that Elphaba Thropp, once upon a while.”
“Oh, sure you did,” said Mr. Boss. “Seems like everyone in Oz knew her. Can’t walk across the street without running into someone from the alumnae association. By the math of it, there were seventy thousand people who entered Shiz that year with her.”
“How high can you fly?” asked Rain.
“She wasn’t so special,” said the Bird Woman, picking a nit from her feathers and looking at it with something like avarice. She didn’t eat it, just flicked it off her thumb. “She was an ordinary girl with a talent for mischief and more serious complexion issues than sick bay knew what to do with. What happened to her in the end was a crime.”
“What happens to all of us in the end is a crime,” said Mr. Boss. “Take it up with the authorities.”
“I tell you, this instrument isn’t quite done,” she insisted. “Or maybe it’s just responding to me and my long dormant talents. Open it up. I haven’t had an entertainment in months.”
“What are you doing here? Did you fly here?” asked Rain.
The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and turned to Ilianora. “Well, Miss Mistress of the Mysteries, unstrap the belts, like the good old times. I’ll wind up some cranks and see if she responds.”
“Do you live in a nest?” Rain asked.
“Hush, child, don’t ask personal questions,” said the Lion.
“That’s the only kind I have,” said Rain.
“I know you,” said the Bird Woman to Brrr.
“You worked for the Emperor. You scab.”
“I was in a bit of a legal squeeze. That’s all over now.”
Hunching down before the stage, she paid Brrr no further attention. Rain went and squatted next to her, and tried to angle her elbows out to mimic the Bird Woman. “Can you lay an egg?”
“Any eggs get laid around here, let the dragon do it,” said Mr. Boss, huffing. “Well, what do you know. Some phantom juice left in the gears, after all. You aren’t as flighty as you seem, Queen Birdbrain.”
“I could paint stationery with butterflies and lilac sprays and shit like that,” said the Bird Woman, “without picking up a paintbrush. I wasn’t good at controlling the flow of watercolors, though. They tended to puddle.”
“Don’t we all. Grab your privates and say your prayers, folks. Here she goes.” The dwarf went round to release some final clasps and rebalance the counterweights. “What do you say,” he called, “if it comes to life and tells us to give the girl to the hermit lady as a present? We’ll call it magic, eh?”
Rain looked around. Her expression was intense and occluded. “He doesn’t mean it,” said the Lion, without conviction.
A wobble, a spasm, the sound of a pendulum wide of its arc and striking the casing. The shutters folded back, courtesy of magnets on tracks. Brrr and Ilianora exchanged glances. This should cheer up the dwarf.
“If today’s matinee has anything about the Emperor in it, I’m walking out, and I want a full refund,” declared the woman who had been Grayce Graeling.
“Shhh,” said Rain.
The dragon at the top of the cabinet moved one of his wings in a stiff way, as if arthritis had set in. His head rolled. One eye had become loose in its socket, for the look was cross-eyed and almost comical. Little Daffy began to giggle, but Ilianora put her hand on the woman’s wrist. The dwarf wouldn’t like to hear laughter. The Clock wasn’t a device for comedy.
The main stage whitened with a camphorous fog. A backdrop unrolled but got stuck halfway down. Hanging in midair against another scrim, one of rushes and cattails, the scene was of a tiled floor in
some loggia. Brrr muttered to Ilianora, “Should someone go forward and give it a tug?” but she shook her head.
On an invisible track a cradle came forward, rocking. An ornate was carved on its headboard. Over it stood a puppet of a roundish man with a pair of oily mustaches ornamentally twirled in bygone fashion. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, possibly signaling grief. The sound that came was less nasal than industrial, like a train whistle. He didn’t notice. He was just a puppet on rusty wires.
He was moving, he was turning this way and that, but he was just a puppet. He had no life. Brrr could tell that Rain was disappointed.
Down from the fly space dropped a cutout of a hot-air balloon with a smooth-cheeked charlatan grinning and waving a cigar. “It’s the arrival of the Wizard,” said Brrr. “I’d know any cartoon of him, for in real life he was hardly more than a cartoon.”
Ilianora turned her back.
“The mustached marionette below must be Pastorius, the Ozma Regent,” decided Brrr.
“Who’s that?” asked Rain.
“The father of Ozma, the infant queen of Oz when the Wizard arrived. She was just a baby, see, and her father was to rule in her place until she grew old enough to take the throne. Shhh, and watch.”
The Ozma Regent picked up his motherless infant. He carried the bundle of swaddle to stage right.
Out from the wings hobbled a creature dressed in a cloak all of sticks, small sticks bound together with thread. Her head was carved from a rutabaga and the stain had darkened, so she looked like a creature made entirely of wood. She wore a pale red scarf pulled over her head and tied at the nape of her twiggy hair. She lurched and grinned—her teeth were made of old piano keys, four times too large for her face, and yellowed, foxed with age—but the grip with which she yanked the baby from the father was fierce. She backed up off the stage in a crude motion. A duck walking backward: impossible.
“Some local wet nurse to lend a helping—” began Brrr, not liking the menace of this twig witch. Everyone who tries to help a child is a kidnapper in the last analysis, he thought.