Out of Oz, Page 40Gregory Maguire
“All due deference, and so on,” Liir said, “we’re only asking for the charm, if you care to give it. We’ll figure out on our own how to raise her safely.”
“Perhaps you’re right to resist my counsel. I am among those fathers who sometimes eat the eggs in the nest. I’ll restrict myself to the question of disguise and leave you to fail with your daughter on your own schedule.”
They discussed for a time where Rain might most safely be brought up. Candle, though paler than some, had the Quadling ruddiness. At best Quadlings were second-class citizens in the Emerald City, when they bothered to try to settle there. Winkies from any tribe were considered barbarians. And Liir, despite his Vinkus father and his green-skinned mother, had skin color that betrayed Elphaba’s Munchkinlander ancestry, an easily pocked and sunburnt pinky-cream. So the sheer fact of population figures—Gillikinese and Munchkinlanders far outnumbering other ethnicities and races in Oz—meant that the choice for Rain was clear. If she could be pale, she’d have a wider range of places to hide without being noticed.
The Fox sat with Liir and Candle in the stifling sun, as the distance wavered with heat and insects. He reassured them the Serpent was a good sort. A short way off, under a tree heavy with persimmons, the Serpent writhed around Rain. Sometimes he rose erect on his ribs, hissing; sometimes he wreathed around her on the ground. Still hissing.
When he was done, they saw he’d shed his own skin too. He was now the color of library paste, like a worm unused to sunlight. “Call it sympathy,” he told them, when they gaped. “Call it catharsis. When one of us changes, we are all changed.”
And so was Rain changed. An ugly, ordinary, safely bleached child sleeping in her wraps, unaware of what had gone on, but comfortable in the nest of crushed grass and the pulp of overripe fruit through which the Serpent had slithered.
Neither Fox nor Serpent would take payment, nor would they tell their names. “She has a future you don’t like, you’d seek us out and sue us,” said the Fox. “There are no guarantees so there is no fee. We help because you needed help. The transaction is done.”
“I will wrinkle myself back toward green,” said the Serpent, “but unless I am mistaken your daughter will find herself set for some time to come. Remember what I said about the butterfly, though, and consider how you can best protect your tadpole. She is still green inside, and if she is related to the Witch they will be looking for her. No child can thrive if it is predestined to be a pariah. I think of this sometimes, consolingly, when I’m about to gobble my own unborn young.”
“You could save them yourself,” said Candle, a little late. “Why don’t you change their colors?”
“I see you take my point,” he said. “A young serpent, even if she wears a coat done up like wrapping paper at Lurlinemas, can never pass as anything but a serpent.”
With that the Fox and the Serpent left them. Three days later, for no good reason, the family was stopped on the road by a drunk and disorderly band of Munchkinlander militants. Released after questioning, Liir and Candle were spooked enough to feel the truth of the Serpent’s words. They were all still targets, no matter how disguised. Liir had flown against the Emperor of Oz recently enough to be tagged as an enemy of the state. If he had made it so easily into Munchkinland, so could the Emperor’s agents. For the baby’s safety, then, because Mockbeggar Hall was not far off, they decided that Liir should approach Lady Glinda and ask her to raise Elphaba’s granddaughter until such time as it might be safe for her to emerge.
All this behind them. Family stories never told. The long years of hiding out without their daughter at the abandoned chapel in the hills above the Sleeve of Ghastille. Hoping perhaps the Emperor might be successful at confiscating that bloody Grimmerie and so lift part of the reason for their going to ground. Hoping that Rain was growing up happy and blameless. Learning to live without her, their primary satisfaction being to speculate on her safety.
Then, with Rain’s unexpected arrival in the company of the Cowardly Lion, the dwarf and his Munchkinlander mistress, Liir and Candle had taken up the welcome and exhausting job of worrying about their daughter more specifically but not more daily than they’d been doing already. And the resentments that they’d been able to ignore at the birth of their daughter, twelve years ago, began to seem current again. Maybe even to hurt more, this time.
“The promise and trouble your child will bring.” Nastoya had said that to Candle, and she’d never told Liir. About that, about Trism—about herself, deep down. A cold scorch Liir felt in his gut.
In Nether How, now, standing at the table. Unable to sit down. Looking away from Candle to hold from quivering with anger.
As years pass, and the abundance of the future is depleted, the crux of old mistakes and the cost of old choices are ever recalibrated. Resentment, the interest in umbrage derived from being wronged, is computed minute by minute, savagely, however you try to ignore it.
The pall clouded the household like smoke due to a blocked flue.
Liir and Candle didn’t quite make up. Some fights between couples don’t so much roil to a climax as settle somehow in an unnegotiated standoff. Neither “affable truce” nor “benefit-of-the-doubt stalemate” quite describes it. Liir and Candle kept to their tasks and to their promises, spoken and unspoken, to each other. They doubted that Rain ever noticed the formalizing silence that threatened to codify as policy between them.
Nor and Iskinaary, not ones to make common cause, fell to discussing the change in the household mood. They weren’t privy to the unspoken complaints. But something needed to be done.
Eventually the Goose thought up an idea, and Nor proposed it: they might pack up some bedrolls before the summer came to a close and make the trek partway up the nearest of the Great Kells where they could harvest a stash of wild ruby tomatoes. Dried, they lasted a year, and augmented any cold winter dish with a flavor of summer.
The family set out. It wasn’t a successful trip, too cold and blustery for so early in the fall. When they arrived at the trove they found some mountain greedyguts had already ravaged the plot. They came home sore, weary, empty-handed, and quieter than before. Iskinaary and Nor, walking behind, shrugged at each other. Well, we tried.
Rain of course seemed to notice nothing, just kept on. She was collecting acorns and hazelnuts. They rattled in her pockets when she skipped ahead.
The family returned to Nether How at the Five Lakes, to the sentry house, as they called it, because from the front door they could see the nearest northerly lake and from the opposite door they could glimpse the southern one. They found that their home had been ransacked in their absence. They figured Agroya as the culprit. Probably he’d circled back after Nor had said good-bye to him. He’d hung out on one of the hills above the lake, waiting for a day when the lack of smoke from a breakfast fire announced the absence of tenants. Four pewter spoons that Little Daffy and Mr. Boss had given them were missing, and a sack of flour and another of salt. Liir’s best skinning knife, and his only razor.
The broom was still incarcerated in the ceiling, they assumed, since they saw no sign of boards having been prised off and replaced. Candle’s domingon hung on the wall. Half out of its sack, the Grimmerie lay on the table in full view. It must not have appealed to the thief.
Still, whether or not the Grimmerie had been recognized, someone knew it was there. It could be described for someone else to identify. Someone knew that Rain was there. More had been stolen from them than spoons and a razor, flour and salt.
Why does the day with the brightest blue sky come tagged with a hint of foreboding? Maybe it’s only the ordinary knowledge of transience—all comes to dust, to rot, to rust, to the moth. That sort of thing. Or maybe it’s that beauty itself is invisible to mortal eyes unless it’s accompanied by some sickly sweet eschatological stink.
The uneasiness they felt after the discovery of the Grimmerie by some stranger only grew by the day. Whoever had looked at it may have know
n what it was but been scared to take it. Or may have seen something uncanny in it, and fled. If the thief was Agroya—well, as he’d told them, he trafficked in news. The word was out, or would be soon. Too soon.
Iskinaary took it upon himself to do some reconnaissance work. Loyal as he was to Liir, he had a healthy respect for his own neck, too. He didn’t want to end up as a platter of Goose-breast unless there were no alternatives.
He came winging back in the middle of a spectacular afternoon. Rain was collecting milkweed pods from a scrap of meadow near the north lake. The women were cording wool. Liir heard Iskinaary clear his throat in the southern dooryard, and he came out into the light, into the aroma of piney resin. Sunlight steeping on dropped brown needles.
At the Goose’s expression, Liir said, “Let me guess. You saw a bug who had lost a leg in battle, and you know the end times have arrived.”
“Don’t make fun of me till you hear what I have to say,” snapped Iskinaary, trying to catch his breath. “All right then. About ten miles to the south of First Lake, I came upon a band of trolls—Glikkuns, I suppose—who had made common cause with an extended family of tree elves.”
Liir raised an eyebrow.
“I know, it sounds preposterous. Neither Glikkuns nor elves like society other than their own. The Glikkuns are suspicious of all talking Animals and wouldn’t speak to me, but elves chatter inanely. They told me what they were doing.”
“Coming here to rape and pillage, I presume.”
“No. And of course I didn’t let on there was a homestead here. But I heard that some of the trolls are becoming unhappy over the alliance they made with La Mombey and the Munchkinlanders. They’re beginning to think their ruler, Sakkali Oafish, was hasty, and that the Glikkus will become a plunderpot of Munchkinland much as Munchkinland felt itself to be a plunderpot of the EC. Ripe for despoiling and primed for heavy taxation, et cetera. And of course the emeralds in the Scalps, controlled by the trolls for time out of mind, would go far toward helping Munchkinland pay for the armies they’ve been maintaining. So this breakaway band of trolls wants none of it. They’re scouting out other mining possibilities in the Vinkus.”
“I doubt they’ll find much here,” said Liir, “but then, a stone looks pretty much like a rock to me. Maybe we’ve been harvesting potatoes in fields of gold nuggets, and I never noticed.”
“You’re missing the point. Trolls with elves? Listen—”
“I agree, an unlikely alliance. I only ever met one elf, a sort of gibbertyflibbet named Jibbidee. I don’t suppose he was among them?”
“I didn’t ask for their identification papers. Will you listen? The elves said that the second front of the war—the one opened up in the Madeleines—has disturbed their natural habitat. The Animal army of the Munchkinlanders has been particularly destructive. So some of the elves are looking west to see if it’s safe to settle around here. They’re traveling with the Glikkuns because you can always trust a troll in a fight.”
“What’s in it for the Glikkuns?”
“Nothing more than food, it seems. The Glikkuns are cow people; if they’re not down in their emerald mines they’re tending their cattle. They don’t know how to make anything to eat except for cheese and curds and yogurt. Foraging in the forest is beyond their ken, and it’s what tree elves do best. And all elves love to cook. I’d have thought this was common knowledge.”
“I never got any formal schooling,” said Liir. “But whether elves are natural gourmands hardly seems something for you to be gabbling about, all out of breath. Do you want some water?”
“I heard a troll addressing one of the elves as I was getting ready to leave. He said a heavy bounty had been put upon the discovery of a certain book of magic lost a few years back but almost certain to be hidden, uncorrupted, somewhere in the outback of Oz. A magic book might extend the variety of their menus. He was only joking, I think, but if marginalized populations like itinerant elves and disaffected Glikkuns know to be on the lookout for a book like the Grimmerie, I would say our recent kindness to that Scrow robber, Agroya, was a mistake.”
Liir was inclined to discount anything overheard between Glikkuns and tree elves. Still, he had to agree that the hemorrhaging of public funds due to the cost of this unwinnable war could only revive the fervor to find the Grimmerie. A fervor both parties would share. The book could supply a crucial advantage to whichever side got access to its unparalleled supply of spells. “I hope you don’t think we need to pack up and become traveling musicians or something like that,” said Liir. “I’ve come to consider Nether How a blissful place. Relatively speaking.”
“You’re not listening, are you. Your enemies have finally added it up. The tree elves and Glikkuns know that the book is expected to be found with a green-skinned girl the age of Rain. The powers that be remember the Conference of the Birds a decade ago, in which you and I both flew, cawing out ‘Elphaba lives!’ over the Emerald City. Only they don’t read it as political theater anymore. They think it was prophecy. Or that’s what they say. Maybe when your honey boy Trism was set upon by the Emperor’s soldiers, they beat out of him word of the green-skinned daughter.”
“He wasn’t here when she was born—” began Liir, but stopped. Candle hadn’t said when Trism was or wasn’t at Apple Press Farm. Maybe Trism had seen little green Rain even before Liir had taken her into his own arms.
“It doesn’t matter how they know,” said Iskinaary. “It could have been some oracle, it could have been some Wood Thrush squealing in exchange for clemency. What matters is that they’ve put it together. The conjunction in your household of a twelve-year-old girl and the Grimmerie is, I fear, a dangerous giveway.”
“If I could read the book, I might find a spell to make it invisible,” said Liir. “But I can’t read it.”
“Have you let Rain try?”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“You don’t trust her. Nice father.”
“I don’t know what damage the book might do to her. I certainly couldn’t risk it.”
“Well, what do you propose we do?”
Not for the first time, Liir wondered just what he’d done to deserve the Goose’s loyalty. Iskinaary could take wing any day he liked. But he lived without family or flock, dogging Liir’s years like a retainer. “We’ll wait until my sister and my wife wake up, and we’ll talk it over with them.”
“They won’t ask my opinion,” said the Goose, “but I’ll give it anyway. Birds beware roosting in the same nest for more than a season. It may be time—”
Rain was hurrying around the house, Tay at her heels as usual, so Iskinaary stopped. “You’re a whip-poor-will in a hurry,” said the Goose.
“Some tree elves are bathing down on the shore of the south lake. I haven’t seen a tree elf since I lived at Mockbeggar, and then only once, from far off. These ones are singing some song and their voices come over the water like crinkly paper music. Don’t you hear it?”
The Goose and the man exchanged glances. Once more needing to be the heavy, the Anvil of the Law, Liir said as mildly as he could, “I don’t think you better go there, sweetie.”
“Oh, I’ll just—”
“He said no,” snapped the Goose, and dove at the girl’s legs. And maybe that’s why he stays around, thought Liir. He’s willing to provide that bite of discipline I can’t manage.
It was summer, they needed no fire. They kept Rain indoors and quiet while the elves were in the neighborhood. “Sort out your collections,” said Liir. “No, you can’t bring a sack of rocks with you, or a cup of acorns. Take your favorite out of each collection and leave the rest behind. We’ll come back and get them another time. Hush your crying. We’re trying to draw no attention to ourselves. To keep still, like little mice under the eyes of a hawk.”
As far as the family knew, the tree elves and the renegade trolls never did take the measure of the hearthhold at Nether How. But after a full day of discussion and two days of preparation,
the family was ready to leave their cottage home.
Heavy hearts, heavy tread, but very light luggage. They took little with them. The broom they would trust to the eaves, but they couldn’t leave the book. Maybe they’d come across Mr. Boss and somehow persuade him to take the Grimmerie back. Holding it from all those avaricious and willing readers of magic was taking its toll.
They started their trek on foot. They’d span the Vinkus River and then the Gillikin River before they’d need to say their good-byes.
Crossing the Vinkus looked problematic until they met a boatman. He charged punitively to steer his small vessel across the waters pummeling down from the slopes of the Kells, but he delivered them safely. On the other side, they found that the crescent of land between the Vinkus and the quieter Gillikin River was now under cultivation. Perhaps, Liir guessed, Loyal Oz was trying to make a go of supplying its own needs of wheat, corn, barley. A few grousing laborers disabused Liir of any notion of success, though. The storms that blew high over Nether How settled down here, and the snow came early and stayed deep.
At a crossroads of sorts on this undulating river plain, wagon carts rolling by from six or eight different directions, in and out as if along spokes of a wheel, the family members made their good-byes. Briskly, to the point. In a sense, they all followed Rain’s lead, her brusqueness steadying the adults, helping them avoid long faces and soggy remarks.
“You are a child of Oz,” said Liir to his daughter. “Your mother is Quadling, your grandmother was a Munchkinlander, and your grandfather from the Vinkus. You can go anywhere in Oz. You can be home anywhere.”
Liir turned north toward Kiamo Ko. The Grimmerie was under his arm. Iskinaary hustled like a civil servant self-importantly at his side. Candle—resentful but understanding of their strategy—walked a few steps ahead. Liir could see her try to control the shaking of her shoulders. He thought, Anyone who can be home anywhere really has no home at all.