“You’ve become callous,” remarked Little Daffy. “‘Only a few soldiers die a week?’ Time was you and I would go out on the battlefield and tend to the sick, and care about it.”
“Don’t hector me. I care as much as I can, but I don’t spend energy caring about things I cannot resolve. I tend to my maunts and keep us out of harm’s way. Right now I’m feeding the hungry and harboring enemies of the state. I can’t do all that and work in international diplomacy too. Pass me the butter pot.”
The Lion said, “Look, we have a little girl here. Surely she deserves a roof over her head for one night? We’ve been on the road a week or more.”
“Don’t think I haven’t guessed who she is,” said Sister Doctor. “I’m trying to protect you all. Have you no sense? Or do you really not believe me?” She sighed, and then slipped off the starched yoke of her religious garb, and without evidence of humility or shame she let the bib of her garment slip down almost to her nipple. The scar on her shoulder was rippled, a plum color, like congealed tadmuck. Glossy and hideous. “Do you remember how Mother Yackle went blind? These men don’t come to play parlor games. I am trying in as calm a voice as I can to tell you that you’re in danger at Apple Press Farm. They know from that fellow Trism that you were here once, Liir and Candle, and they suspect this will be one of the places you might return. They’ve turned the house inside out three times thinking they might yet find the Grimmerie on the premises. We’ve had to put it to rights as best we could, over and over again. Thank the Unnamed God for Sister Sawblade, that’s what I say.”
She dressed herself again and concluded her sermon. “Even the house might be bugged. Do you know what I mean? We have a weird infestation of woggle-bugs. I’m told there is some thought they can be communicated with—don’t ask me how. My capacity for comprehending mystery doesn’t extend to science, only to faith. But I can’t be sure they aren’t capable somehow of alerting the next contingent of investigators that you were in residence, were I to make a mistake of mercy and let you in. You see,” she finished, “you can’t stay. For our sake, but also for your own good. Tonight, all right, to the barn, but quietly. For the sake of a croupy child. After dark. I’ll take Sister Manure off muckout detail. But tomorrow you’ll be on your way. No one will be the wiser, no one but me and the donkey. And I can stand anything.”
“She can,” said Little Daffy miserably, when she had gone. “I don’t like the old bitch anymore, but she’s a tough little biscuit, and she means what she says. Anyone else in Oz would crack under torture before she did.”
Before dawn. At the sound of maunts beginning their devotional song, Sister Doctor nipped in with a cornucopia of supplies the travelers could use during the next stage of their journey. She refused to advise them which way to go or what to do. “I don’t want to know if you have the Grimmerie with you,” she told them. “However, I do believe it’s time to lose the Clock. You’d move faster without it, and what good is it doing you now?”
Liir pondered the question as they slipped away, unheeded, from Apple Press Farm. Here he had learned to love a woman—to love this wife, this mother of their child—and even more, he had learned to love at all. He had felt a pang at coming near, had been afraid, however stiff his face and controlled his upper lip, that he would mourn for the lost simpleton he’d once been. He needn’t have worried. Leaving Apple Press Farm, his mind returned to the present and the future as they headed north into drier air.
Iskinaary had kept silent while on the farm. Liir remembered only after they’d left it that the Goose, too, had been there before. Falling into step with the Bird, Liir asked him what he had concluded about the maunt’s revelations.
“I could have finished off an entire generation of woggle-bugs in an afternoon’s work,” said the Goose. “I should have thought that might be apparent, but did anyone ask me for help? Noooooo. Just a silly Goose, old Iskinaary.”
“You can be some help now, and take to the wing,” said Liir. “Do a little scouting for us. Sister Doctor’s caution seemed well founded. Some pots can take years to come to the boil, but when they do, the scalding is ferocious.”
“I’ll do that,” said the Goose. “For you. For you and Candle. Oh, and for the girl too, I suppose. By extension. Though I wish she would show a little more oomph. I don’t mean to be cruel, but she’s a bit slow out of the eggshell, isn’t she?”
“I’d go do that surveillance right now before you get an additional thrust to your liftoff by a boot in the behind,” said Liir, and Iskinaary obliged.
And then Liir thought: How are we ever going to protect her?
They walked single file. The farther from Apple Press Farm, the farther apart from one another they straggled. Even Tay kept a little distance from Rain. It was as if they had all taken in the message that there would be no safe harbor for them, not while the world was at war—so, presumably, not ever.
Liir tried to remember being Rain’s age—eight, nine, ten. Whatever it was. He had been in Kiamo Ko at that age, playing with Nor, surely? Or had Nor already been taken away by Cherrystone and his men? In any case, he’d been alone in his life, as alone as Rain seemed to be. He’d lived with his mother, with the Wicked Witch of the West (which might be the name of any mother, all mothers, he realized), but he’d lived apart, not unlike the way Rain kept apart from him and Candle. Of course Elphaba had shown little interest in him. Or if she had shown some kind of interest, he’d been too dull to read it as such—the way, presumably, Rain was too dull to recognize Liir’s love, even passion, for her.
What a mystery we are to ourselves, even as we go on, learning more, sorting it out a little.
The further on we go, the more meaning there is, but the less articulable. You live your life, and the older you get—the more specificity you harvest—the more precious becomes every ounce and spasm. Your life and times don’t drain of meaning because they become more contradictory, ornamented by paradox, inexplicable. Rather the opposite, maybe. The less explicable, the more meaning. The less like a mathematics equation (a sum game); the more like music (significant secret).
Would he ever know anything about Rain? Or would he have to accept that he would live in a world adjacent to hers, with her tantalizingly nearby, but a mystery always, growing into her own inviolable individuality?
Maybe it had been better, he caught himself thinking, if he had kept her close to his side, for even if she’d been ripped from his arms at the age of six, she would have known six good years of close fatherly affection—
No, he couldn’t think that; he couldn’t bear to. Even in an alternate history. He couldn’t tolerate the thought of her being taken from him. Even though he’d given her away.
There she loped, scuffing up snow, head down between her shoulders. He could walk the rest of his life. He would never catch up to her.
Iskinaary returned. “She was more right than she knew, that old crow,” he told Liir. “Menaciers four miles along, and on the very path we’re trudging. We’ll have to turn off. There’s a parallel track a mile to the west that looks less traveled; we should divert across country to it at once.”
They began to turn the Clock.
“We’re adjusting further and further off our goal,” complained Mr. Boss, but Brrr was hauling the cart, not him. And the Lion never minded veering off any track that led straight into the sights of marksmen.
“Later we’ll compensate and arc back eastward. If we continue to believe we should try to steal across the border into Munchkinland and be present to defend Dorothy,” said Brrr. “Though perhaps she won’t need our help. She seems to come equipped with all kinds of fatal architecture attached to her. First a farmhouse, and now this giant wrought-iron birdcage or whatever it is she was trapped in. The girl does wreak havoc on the physical universe. Why is that?”
“Shhh,” said Liir. “The soldiers may have fanned out since Iskinaary saw them half an hour ago.”
“I doubt they have,” sa
id the Goose. “They were playing cards. Five Hand Slut, if I could read the markings, though I don’t have the eye of an eagle. They didn’t look in any particular hurry, but I’ll go take another gander. If you hear a gunshot and a strangulated cry for ‘peace among all nations! peace in our time,’ find my corpse and turn me into a Goose-feather bolster, and use me to suffocate one of our foes.” He looked proud at the thought. “We have so many.”
Liir said, “Are you going to continue to plan your own memorial service or are you going to go on a reconnaissance mission for us?”
“That Dosey has made you all military again. If I were a different sort of Goose I’d find it kind of sexy,” said Iskinaary, and took off.
For the next ten days or so Iskinaary became their early warning system. Not until he came back from his rounds and sounded the all clear would they advance another three or four miles.
Liir hauled the Grimmerie on his back. When he tried to put it in a drawer in the Clock, or on a shelf, the drawer wouldn’t open or the shelf broke. The shutters wouldn’t latch, due to new swelling in the jambs. Even in its paralysis the Clock managed to have an opinion. The Clock didn’t want the Grimmerie anymore.
A winning tribe of pygmy warthogs came through one day, snuffling around the wheels of the conveyance and peeing all over the place. Tay hissed and leapt upon the dragon’s dead snout, and the Lion went upright even in his shafts, spooked. The wagon rocked and tilted and looked about to smash to one side till Nor whipped off her shawl. She gave the warthogs a cotton lashing at which they merely laughed before continuing to rootle on through the undergrowth.
Another afternoon, the companions surprised a bear doing something downright pornographic with a beeless hive of honey. Brrr almost said “Cubbins?” in case it was his old friend—but a Gillikin Bear wouldn’t have wandered this far south, and since this bear showed no capacity for shame he couldn’t be a talking Bear.
Nor took off her shawl again and wrapped it around Rain’s head, making a blinder for her eyes so she wouldn’t too closely examine the inappropriate.
“Really, that’s disgusting,” said Little Daffy. “Wildlife.”
“Disgusting? Inventive.” Mr. Boss had perked up for the first time in weeks, and he nudged his wife. “Maybe if we ever get to a trading post we can invest in a pot of honey, honey, and have a honeymoon.”
The Goose had become a bard of advice. “Good spot to camp,” he would report, or “Long slope ahead; we’ll have to take it slow.” Or “Rainclouds on the horizon; better stop the afternoon here where the fir branches will give us cover.” Or even “Skarks passing behind us, let’s pick up the speed in case they decide they want Lion steaks for supper.”
Day after day. The winter waned, but reluctantly, with glacial speed. Finally, the beginning of woodland blossom, those brave early ground-level markers like filarettes and snowdrops.
One afternoon Iskinaary reported that they were nearing the edge of a great lake. At first the companions imagined they might have veered back toward the east. But Iskinaary said he could see no sign of habitation, no coracles or villages. Just barren cliffs around flat black water bereft of whitecaps. Devoid even of avian populations. “Kellswater, then,” said the dwarf. “Uck. I’ve seen it once or twice before. It gives me the creeps.”
“Why?” asked Rain, whose experience of lakes had only involved Restwater.
“It’s a dead lake, dead as doormats. Nothing swims in it. Neither fish nor frog. Nothing living floats upon it, not a water skeetle or a lily pad.”
“We should make a swift detour,” said Nor. “That time the Munchkinlander rebels forced the EC Messiars back into Kellswater, the soldiers didn’t so much drown as—as melt. Kellswater possesses some of the properties of acid. Cold acid. It pulled their skin from their bones even as they thrashed, we were told.”
“Well, that puts the tin hat on our hopes to practice our synchronized swimming,” said Brrr. “Oh well. No matter what they say about me in the columns, I never fancied prancing about the beach in a singlet and a cache-sex.”
“How could a lake be dead?” asked Rain. “Or how could it be alive, either?”
Little Daffy said, “Someone in the tribe of the Scrow told me that legend suggests Kumbricia the demon-goddess lives there. Or died there. Or something. Maybe she only has a summer home. I don’t remember.”
“Who is Kumbricia?”
“Stop,” said Candle. “Children don’t need to know stories like that.”
“Yes, they do,” said the Goose. “Kumbricia, little gosling, is the opposite number to Lurline, in the oldest tales of Oz. She is the hex, she is the curse, she’s always implicated when things go wrong…”
“She’s there when the shoelace snaps as you’re trying to outrun the horsemen of the plains,” said Nor.
“She’s what breathes the pox on the wheezy child for whom the poultice, oddly, won’t work,” said Little Daffy.
“She is the itch where you can’t quite reach,” said Mr. Boss.
“Stop,” said Candle. “I mean it.”
“Not before my turn,” said the Lion. “Kumbricia is the way the whole world arches its eyebrow at you before it smacks you down. Where is she, you ask? Not in the lake. Not in the pox. Not in the shoelace or the horse hooves. She’s in the interference of effects, nothing more than that. In the crossroads of possibility, giggling through her nose at us.”
“You’ll slice open the child with that nonsense!” Candle yelled at them. They almost laughed to hear her raise her high ribbony voice, but the expression on her face stopped them.
Apologetically, even though he hadn’t joined in, Liir said, “But then, on the other hand, there’s Lurlina. The soul of … of grace … grace, and—”
Mr. Boss wasn’t daunted by Candle. “No one believes in Lurline. A goddess of goodness? Forget it. She’s been taking a cigarette break since the year dot. She’s as gone as the Unnamed God. Pretty enough in the stories, to be sure, but once she finished breathing green into every corner of Oz, she vanished. No return in the second act, I’m afraid.”
“What you hate is the world,” said Mr. Boss placidly. “We’re just as blameless in talking about it as the pox is blameless, or the shoelace. What you hate is that your child is stuck here. Well, get used to it. The only exit is the final one.”
“To the bosom of Lurline,” muttered Little Daffy.
“And a scratchy bosom it is, I bet,” said the dwarf.
Liir opened his mouth again but found he couldn’t say anything more. There was no apology for the way the world worked. Only accommodation to it, while at the same time committing—somehow—not to give up. Not to give up on Rain, and her chances—whatever they might be. In fact, not to give up on anyone.
“I want to see the dead lake,” said Rain.
“Can’t hurt you if you don’t go near it,” said the dwarf.
But they’d been walking as they talked, and suddenly Kellswater opened up before them. The greyness of it under a fine blue sky seemed to deaden the entire district. The forest wouldn’t grow within a hundred yards of it. The margins of sand and tumbles of rock were desolate. No yellow pipers, no reeds, no bouncing sand-sprites. No breeze, no reflections. A scent of salt and iron, perhaps.
“I know a lot of families that would pay good cash to send their kids to a summer camp pitched on this shore,” murmured Mr. Boss.
“Enough, you,” said Little Daffy. “Do stop. It’s too hideous. Somehow.”
Iskinaary took wing again and circled about. They waited safely back on a limestone promontory some twenty feet above the lake. The Goose rose, banked, rose again. When he returned, he seemed shaken. “One senses almost a magnetic pull,” he told them. “On a sunny day I usually can ride the updrafts over a body of water, but this water works to the contrary. Let’s not linger here.”
Which way looks safest?” asked Liir.
“Northeast,” replied Iskinaary. “Keeping the lake on our left. We’ll come upon the oakhair forest that spans the divide between Kellswater and Restwater. That’s as far as we go together. If the forest isn’t filled with border patrols, those heading for a rescue mission might slip eastward here and find themselves back in Munchkinland, back near the banks of Restwater. With another big push. Shall we?”
They should, yes. They would. As they turned about to leave Kellswater behind, however, a couple of stray warthogs who must have been following them these past few days came charging up the slope from the underbrush.
The warthogs of Kumbricia: innocently troublesome, like all aspects of the world.
They darted beneath the cart and between the legs of the Lion, spooking him badly but spooking Tay worse. They caught the otter for a moment, pinned him to the ground on the edge of the bluff, and played with him prettily as they readied to gore him. Brrr twisted in his shafts. The others screamed and waved their arms. Rain dashed forward, between the grunting terrors, and thwacked one of them over the forehead with her shell. It didn’t break, but blood gushed forth from an eye socket of that creature.
The rice otter broke free and dove for Rain’s leg, snaking up her thigh onto her shoulders. The second hog charged Rain. The Lion was nearest and the first to arrive in defense. Shooting his claws, he raked half the pelt off the warthog, which grunted in fury and surprise. Rain fell back into the arms of Candle and Liir. As the Lion twisted about to check for the first warthog, in case it was readying for another feint, the Clock on the wagon overbalanced. The replacement axle, carved from the sallowwood dragon wing, buckled at last. A wheel caved inward. The snout of the dragon reared up at the sky as if trying, one final time, to escape its tethered post upon this theater of doom. Its broken wings flapped, but there was no wind to catch, not in this open air tomb-land. Slowly, and then faster the Clock hurtled down the slope toward Kellswater. Wheels and shaft, temple of fate adorned with a clock face at midnight and dragon up top—and the Lion still laced to it.