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Out of Oz, Page 18

Gregory Maguire


  Pastorius turned and made as if to mop his brow in relief, but the Wizard pointed his cigar at the Ozma Regent and cocked his thumb. A little tiny noise of firecracker went off, no louder than an urchin lad’s Celebration Day bombcrack candy. The Regent fell over dead. The cords that had moved the puppet ruler were severed, so he rolled with more than just theatrical gravity. The Wizard put his cigar in his mouth and puffed genuine smoke, but it smelled like bacon. A spark caught on a curtain.

  The Lion didn’t care to preserve any theater of the dramatic arts. Still, the Clock was the hidey-home of the Grimmerie, and he couldn’t stand by and watch that go up in flames. He leaped up and put out the fire by sucking his own tail for a few seconds and applying the wet mass against the nascent flame. The smell was filthy.

  “Show’s over folks,” he said over his shoulder. “There’s nothing to see here. Exit to the left, through the gift shop, and please, not a word to the late afternoon crowd. Don’t spoil it for them.”

  Ilianora turned back. “Did that end as unpersuasively as it began?”

  “Pretty much,” said the Lion.

  “What did it say about the Bird Woman?”

  “That was the funny part,” said Brrr. “It didn’t seem to know she was here.”

  “Like any old spouse,” said Mr. Boss, coming around from behind. “It’s unresponsive. It’s just going through the motions. I bet it showed some tired revelation from decades ago. I hate revivals. What was it about?”

  “The fall of the House of Ozma,” insisted the Bird Woman. “Our sorry history. The Wizard arrived just as Pastorius was packing the infant Ozma away for safekeeping to some old hag. The Wizard did the Ozma Regent in with some sort of firearm. That part is history, the murder of the Regent, I mean. The rest is apocrypha. My guess is that the Wizard probably slaughtered the baby too. Fie, fie on the myth that she’s hidden, sleeping in some cave to return in our darkest hour. How dark does the hour have to get? Bunk. Bunk and hokum and sweet opiate for suffering fools. The Wizard was too canny to let a baby get away under the tinderwood fingertips of some rural wet nurse.”

  “Did you ever meet the Wizard?” asked the dwarf. “That brigand?”

  “I never had the pleasure.” The Bird Woman spat out the word as if it were an insect found swimming in her iced lemon-fresher.

  “He came to Oz looking for the Grimmerie,” said the dwarf. “This book has a mighty broad reputation, to attract miscreants like that from beyond the margins of the known world.”

  “And we lost our royal family in the bargain,” cawed the hermit. “That book has a lot to answer for, and so does whoever stowed it in Oz. To get it safely removed from some other paradise. Not in my backyard, is that the saying? But it got dumped here. And you’re its minder. You should be ashamed.”

  Mr. Boss didn’t like this line of contempt. “But the Clock said nothing about you?” He stroked his beard with both hands. “The Clock is charmed to respond to the stimuli of the audience of the moment. It makes no sense for it to present a repeat performance. It’s never done that before.”

  “It was fun,” said Rain, “but not as good as the dragon in the lake last time.”

  “How long have you been out of touch?” asked the woman. “Do you know what’s going on in the Emerald City?”

  “We’re clueless,” said Brrr. “Surprise us with the truth.”

  “The Emperor of Oz—you know about him? No?”

  “Of course. Shell Thropp. The younger brother of Elphaba and Nessarose. What about him?”

  “He’s issued a proclamation. Your magic dragon couldn’t reveal that to you? Ha. Oh yes, the Emperor has called in to the palace all implements of magic the length and breadth of Oz. Every magic whittling knife, every charmed teapot that never runs dry. Every codex of ancient spells, every gazing ball, every enchanted pickle-fork. He has forbidden magic in Oz.”

  “He can’t do that,” said Brrr, thinking about what he knew of the law—which wasn’t much.

  “He can’t do that,” said Mr. Boss, whose tone implied he meant that the ambition was beyond any emperor, of Oz or other-Oz. “He might as well ask people to part with their ancestors, or the glint in their eyes. Or their skepticism. It’s not gonna happen.”

  “Nonetheless, he has done it.” The Bird Woman began to look twitchy, her eyes went more hooded. “No doubt he’ll send out agents to round up those who taught in college, long ago. For debriefing. And though I spent a stint as an organist at chapel, I’m as much at risk as you are.” She began to shriek like a demented mongoose.

  “Stop that,” said Ilianora. “What difference does it make if you taught magic once, or if you accompanied a choir? You’re here, among friends. We wouldn’t report you even if we were headed north into his receiving parlors. But we’re going south. We have our own reason to stay out of the way of the Emperor and his forces.”

  “He’ll find you, wherever you go.”

  “Oh, we can get pretty damn lost,” said Mr. Boss. “Trust me.”

  “He has no governance over me,” said Little Daffy. “I’m a Munchkinlander.”

  “I’m not anything,” said Rain. “Yet. I’ll be a crow. Can I climb up in your tree with you? Can you teach me to fly?”

  The deranged woman finally looked at the girl. “What are you flailing at me for?”

  “No one gits me anything to read, and I got to practice my letters,” said Rain.

  Something of the teacher she had once been made the Bird Woman glare at them all, as if they’d confessed to abusing the child with castor oil. “I have a pen and a pot of ink. I shall write you your name so you know it when you see it on a writ of arrest. Get away from this lot, child. They’re headed for a cliff edge at quite the gallop.”

  “Oh, look who’s telling the future now,” scoffed the dwarf. “You going to take her off our hands?”

  “Nothing doing,” said Brrr, “if you want to keep having hands, Mr. Boss.”

  The Bird Woman was as good as her word. She wrote a number of words for Rain: the names of Brrr, and Ilianora; of Little Daffy and Mr. Boss; of Rain, too.

  “Anyone else important in your life?”

  Rain shook her head.

  “What about Lady Glinda?” asked Ilianora, but Rain showed no sign of hearing.

  The Bird Woman wrote, finally, Grayce Graeling.

  “That was me before I was a bird,” she told them. “So if they ask you if you ever met me, you can say no.”

  “Is that g-r-a-y or g-r-e-y?” said Brrr, whose spectacles were in his other weskit.

  “The orthographics have it several ways,” she said. “I vary it for reasons of disguise. Now I prefer Graeling, using both vowels, because it sounds more like a bird.”

  “They all sound the same,” said Rain. Grayce Graeling regarded Rain as if she were a conveniently placed spittoon, but she wrote out some extra words on a piece of paper so that Rain could practice reading. “Is this a magic spell?” the girl asked her.

  “Don’t let me get sappy on you, but when you get right down to it, every collection of letters is a magic spell, even if it’s a moronic proclamation by the Emperor. Words have their impact, girl. Mind your manners. I may not know how to fly but I know how to read, and that’s almost the same thing.”

  “I know that,” Rain declared, sourly, grabbing the paper. “I seen some books before.”

  “Even if it’s broken, I’d keep that Clock out of sight, were I you,” warned Grayce Graeling. “The Emperor doesn’t want anyone else to have any toys. You’re courting trouble.”

  “Nosy crow. None of your business,” said Mr. Boss.

  The Bird Woman began to scale her tree. “Mind what I say. I have a friend or two in high places.” She pointed to some birds flailing against the blue, way up there.

  “Are you coming with us too?” asked Rain, who thought she’d discovered the Company’s new everyday trick, collecting lunatics. Behind Grayce Graeling, the other travelers made X-ing gestures at Rain with their ha
nds.

  8.

  Why din’t she come along? She coulda taught us to fly,” groused Rain. “The book said us four,” said Brrr. “Remember? Four fingers, to the south?”

  “Then what about her?” Rain pointed over her shoulder at Little Daffy.

  “The book meant me too,” said Little Daffy. “I was hidden there in that spook-lady’s gesture, probably. The figure you described in the O. I was small, the thumb. You couldn’t see me in the prophecy, but I was there.”

  “The blind, the lame, the halt, the criminally berserk,” said Mr. Boss. “You have to stop somewhere or you don’t have friends, you have a nation.”

  The next day, meandering across the Disappointments, they kept looking back to make sure the Bird Woman wasn’t pacing after them. “Is them her friends?” Rain asked, over and over, of any local wren or raven, until the others stopped answering and the girl fell silent.

  They paused for supper when the heat of the day finally began to lift a little. As the adult females organized a meal, the Lion rested his sore muscles and slept quickly, deftly, for a few minutes. Then he told them, “I emerge from my snooze remembering who the Bird Woman is. Or was.”

  “Ozma herself, that’s it,” said Little Daffy. “A hundred years old but holding the line nicely. Am I right? Ya think?”

  “She was the archivist in Shiz who helped me look at Madame Morrible’s papers,” said Brrr. “A gibbertyflibbet if ever I saw one, the kind of person who enters a café with such fluster and alarm one would think she’d never been out in a public space before. Frankly, I doubt she possesses enough talent at spells to have had to bother going dotty at the Emperor’s prohibition of magic.”

  The dwarf lit his pipe and drew on it, releasing an odor of cherry tobacco cut with heart-of-waxroot. “Never underestimate the capacity of a magician to go dotty. Occupational hazard.”

  “Maybe news has gotten out somehow. News that the Grimmerie has emerged from hiding. Makes me nervous, this impounding of sorcerers’ tools. If the Emperor has lowered a moratorium on items of magic, on the practicing of spells—if Shell has called for a surrender of instruments and such—perhaps he’s trying to coax the Grimmerie in by default.”

  “Or make its presence in a barren landscape glow and shriek, so he can find it more easily,” said Mr. Boss. “I take your point. Our instruction to move south may prove to have been sound. We’ll keep going.

  “But not tonight,” he said to Rain, who hopped up and was ready to run ahead. She was happy with her scrap of paper. Ilianora had shown her how to fold it into a paper missile, and Rain had spent the afternoon launching it and chasing it, finding it and trying to read it, launching it and chasing it again. “Settle down, you ragamunchkin. There’s no moon this time of month, so no night travel. We’ll take our rest in the cool and move again in the morning.”

  “Read me what’s on the back,” Rain asked of Ilianora.

  Brrr watched his common-trust wife unfold the chevron of paper. The Bird Woman’s handwriting was on one side, but the other side had print upon it. It was a page ripped from a book. A normal book. Without its own shifting editorial policy toward each specific audience.

  “What do you know,” said Ilianora. “A scrap of an old tale. One of the fabliaux, one of the long-ago tales. They tell them at harvest festivals and bedtimes. This is one of the stories of Lurline, the Fairy Queen, and her bosom companion, Preenella.”

  “One of them?”

  “Oh, there are dozens. I think.” She squinted; the light from the fire wasn’t strong. “I think this is the one where they meet what’s-his-name.”

  Brrr felt uncomfortable when confronted with the lore of childhood. It always made him want to sass someone, or fart like a pricklehog. He knew why: as a cub, he’d never had someone to tell him stories of Lurline, Preenella, and Skellybones Fur-Cloak, or whatever his name was. Not, Brrr supposed, that he’d missed much. While Ilianora tried to remember the full tale—the page apparently only gave some segment of the narrative—Brrr watched Rain attend, with yawns and solemn fierce eyes. She probably hasn’t had much of a childhood either, he thought. But there was still time. She was a fledgling.

  By the time Ilianora was done, the fire had died down, and the dwarf and his Munchkin wife had cozied off for privacy. Rain took herself a few feet into the dark, to have a last pee. Ilianora murmured to Brrr, “What did you think of my storytelling?”

  The Lion whispered, “Did you make that up?”

  She nodded, shyly. “Most of it. Not the characters—not the famous ones, Lurline and Preenella and old Skellybones. But the rest.”

  He looked in Rain’s direction, out of caution. “You have a knack.”

  She laughed. “You weren’t listening, were you?”

  “It took me back,” he said, and that was true enough.

  Rain returned and settled down, pulling the hemp-wool blanket to her chin. This beastly hot summer wouldn’t last forever, said the night; perhaps the stars will turn into snowflakes and fall before dawn. It happens one night or another, eclipsing another summer night of youth. Snow on the blooms.

  A few bugs beezled along, chirring their wings and sounding their sirens. An owl made a remark from miles off, but no one replied, except Rain, who murmured, “Lion?”

  For some reason he loved, loved when she called him Lion. Loved it. When she avoided reminding him he was Brrr, the creature with the sad history of being known as Cowardly—Cowardly his professional name, just about—but chose to say simply: Lion. His head reared back a few inches (these days his eyes didn’t always like the distance they had to take to focus on someone speaking). “What do you want, girl?”

  “Is Lurline real in the world? And those others?”

  It was almost a question about the sleep-world, he thought; she’d drifted far enough along. Still, he loved her too much to lie to her. What did one say? He tried to catch Ilianora’s eye for help, but she had put on her veil and was in her own distance.

  He would lower his voice in case, as he paused, she’d already slipped off to sleep. But when he said, “Well? What do you think?” she murmured something he couldn’t quite hear. He thought she might have said, “I can wait to find out.” Then again, she may have said something else.

  In time, she would probably know the answer more richly than he ever would. The thought afforded him comfort, and on that he rested all night.

  9.

  The Kells began to loom up before them. The Lion said, “I’m not going to drag this caboose up the sides of those bluffs. Get yourself another workhorse, Mr. Boss. The book’s advice seemed to suggest we go south.”

  “To get around them, we’ll have to head a little east, then,” said the dwarf. “It’ll take us into the southeast margins of Munchkinland, but we’ll meet up with the lower branch of the Yellow Brick Road eventually and then we can plunge to the south.”

  “When precisely will we have gone south enough?” asked Ilianora. “Or are we now wandering to take in the views?”

  “We’re putting as much distance as we can between us and the menace of the Emperor,” said the dwarf. “The EC never cared for Quadling Country except for the swamp rubies. And the taxes, when they could be collected. But given a war with Munchkinland, they’ll be letting the Quadling muckfolk lie fallow. A brief holiday from imperial oppression. We’ll be safer there. Can hide like pinworms in a sow’s bowels, like the book told us.”

  Rain said, “The book didn’t suggest anything.”

  They looked at her.

  “It was the person in the book,” she explained. “And en’t it possible she weren’t saying ‘go south’ but only ‘get back’? Like, um, ‘get back from this book, it’s too dangerous?’ ”

  “Oh, the Clock already told us who’s dangerous,” said Mr. Boss. “Keep your mouth shut. What makes you think you can read better than we can?”

  They settled into a better pace, but a certain germ of doubt attended their progress.

  As the weather
finally cooled off, Rain was working on her letters. Little by little she figured out how to form them into words. She wrote comments by placing broken twigs on the ground. RAIN HERE. And TODAY. And WHO. And SORRY. She made words with pebbles on the beds of streams, big words that someone with an eye for stony language might see one day. WATER RISE she wrote, and WATER FALL. Rather expressing the obvious, thought Brrr, but he was as proud of her as if she’d been translating Ugabumish or inventing river charms.

  The occasional farmstead gave way to the occasional hamlet, with its own chapel and grange, its antiquated shrines to Lurlina, its stables and inns and the unexpected tearoom. They passed farmers and tinkers on the rutted tracks. By stature they were Munchkins (“Munchkinoid,” suggested the dwarf, who was one to talk), but they seemed equable and not especially xenophobic. Little Daffy splinted someone’s shabby forearm, dosed someone with rickets, and pulled a tooth from the wobbly head of an old crone. Everyone nearly gagged, but the grandmammy smiled with a bloody gap the size of an orange when the job was done, and she invited them home for tooth soup. An offer they declined.

  News of the troubles to the north was thin. One farmer asserted that the whole lake of Restwater had fallen to the invaders. “Any word of Lady Glinda?” asked Brrr.

  The man was startled. “Haven’t heard of her since the turtles’ anniversary swim meet. Is she still alive?”

  “Well, that’s what I was wondering.”

  “Scratch my behind with a bear claw. I got no possible idea if it’s so or no. Why would she be dead? Other than, you know, death?”

  On they trudged. The month being Yellowtime, their hours rounded golden, when the sun was out. But hours can’t dawdle—they only seem to. The leaves began to fall and the branches to show their arteries against the clouds.

  Finally they reached the Yellow Brick Road. It was ill tended, here; the occasional blown tree or stream overrunning its banks made passage slow. The stretch was clearly untraveled. That night they camped in a copse of white birches whose peeling bark revealed eyes that seemed to be trying to memorize them.