Out of Oz, Page 46Gregory Maguire
Then those massive ankles, clad in boots like iron socks, twisted and buckled. The considerable weight of Madame Chortlebush fell upon Rain, who could barely keep from collapsing. Tip ran to help, and he and Scarly and Rain lowered the teacher to the pavement. A clerk outside Blackhole’s, covering the books on a pushcart in front in the event of rain, hurried over, too.
“She’s had news of some sort,” explained Scarly.
The clerk didn’t have to abide by the niceties of St. Prowd’s. He glanced at the folded sheet and said, “Quite quite dreadful. Her brother on the mountain front has taken a bullet.”
“Taken it where?” said Scarly, though Rain could guess, and by the look on his face, Tip could too.
“Taken it to hell, I suspect. Look, we can’t have fainting ladies on the pavement in front of the shop. Business is poorly enough as it is. I’ll whistle for a carriage over to Railway Square, and you can get her back to St. Prowd’s, if that’s where she goes.”
Someone came out with smelling salts. A passing student who studied magic tried to cast a charm of cheer, which made everyone’s noses dribble for a few moments but produced no other discernible effect. The clerk returned with the hired carriage. Wordless and shaken, Madame Chortlebush was helped aboard, and Scarly clambered in after her to see her home.
“Mind the girls are safe, will you, Pit, there’s a good lad,” murmured Madame Chortlebush through her tears as the landau bounced off.
It would have been easy enough for Tip to lead the girls back at a clip, since after months of pilfering and loitering he knew the streets of Shiz well. The skies, though, chose to open just then, with renewed vigor after the morning of sunny respite.
“What’ll I do?” he asked Rain, as the troupe of twelve huddled under an awning, pushing the elderly and indigent out into the downpour where they belonged.
“I saw a charabanc of some sort stationed at Railway Square,” she said. “If it’s still free, I bet we could all squeeze in.”
Tip ran for it. The girls continued to squeal or feel faint or profess to be quite vexed indeed. The omnibus was less capacious than it had looked, and instead of four horses for which it had been designed, its shaft and harnesses were fitted to two world-weary donkeys.
“I can take ten of you, no more,” said the driver, a thin mean man with toothbrush mustachios and a sorry case of pinkeye.
“Surely you can manage eleven?” said Tip. “There are eleven girls, and this isn’t a downpour but a deluge.”
“I’ll take ten, or none. It ought to be six, but as these young ladies are all asparagus stalks I’ll make an exception. I’ll make four exceptions. But I won’t kill my beasts for you lot. It’s always the last young miss who hobbles the enterprise. Call it superstition, them’s my terms.”
Tip looked out of ideas. “It’s all right,” said Rain. “I’ll walk.”
So off went the driver, promising to deliver the scholars to the front door of St. Prowd’s within half an hour. Rain and Tip stood a foot or two from each other, soaking but hardly chilled, looking and feeling clueless.
Rain said, “It’s not going to let up for a while, by the looks of it. If we’re going to get in trouble anyway, let’s duck into that shop around the corner. SKURVY BASTARD’S.”
They found it was closed and the storefront for lease. But the one past the newsagent’s, which said BROKEN THINGS OF NO USE TO ANYONE BUT YOU, looked open.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter if I’m fired, as I never applied for the job in the first place,” agreed Tip at last, and they splashed through the gauze of rain and stamped through the puddles, and hurtled down the slick stone steps into the basement shop.
It was empty of customers, but at the sound of the bell on the door the proprietor emerged through a curtain of strung grommets, washers, nuts, and crimped watch springs. It was a male Bear, thinner than a Bear ought to be. A Bear brought down by hunger and stooped, maybe arthritic too, with age. He wore a shaggy bathrobe and had a muffler wrapped around his throat.
“Well, that’s a nice pair of water rats the gutter has splashed down my steps this time,” he said, not unkindly. “How may I be of service?”
“We’re ducking the rain, actually,” said Tip.
“Ducks like rain, but I take your point. Be my guest. If you find something of interest, sing out. In the meantime, don’t mind me; I’ll settle myself here and read the racing forms.”
In time their eyes became accustomed to the gloom. “Of course, Loyal Oz wouldn’t dare race talking Animals now,” said the Bear. “These are antique forms. I just like to see if I can find any of my relatives. It makes me happy to see them referred to in print. I found one reference to my old auntie Groyleen, who I thought had perished in the skirmishes following the Mayonnaise Affair. She must be dead by now, of course, but in the form she was handicapped at seven to one, not bad for an old dame as she must have been even then. Don’t mind me, I’m mumbling.”
They wandered about. The ceiling was low, and many of the items were tall, so the high bookcases or old apothecaire’s cabinets or postal boxes or discarded card catalogs, grouped back to back, built a series of chambers and secret vaults. It reminded Rain of something, but she couldn’t think what. “Look, a set of wizard’s globes,” said Tip. “They must have had their ether extinguished or they’d be valuable. Valuable and dangerous.”
Rain thought, but she didn’t ask, How do you know what they are? “Here’s a set of illuminatums,” she said, reading the cover. “Views of Barbaric Ugabu, with Discreet Commentary by a Missionary.” She wasn’t too old yet to stop being proud of how well she could read.
“Your wares come from all over,” said Tip to the Bear.
“So do my clients,” he replied.
“And this is a stuffed scissor bird. I think they’re extinct now.”
“Well, that one is extinct, anyway.”
The Bear shuffled to his feet and poured himself a cup of tea. “You’re standing on a flying carpet,” he said.
“Is that so?” asked Tip and Rain at once.
“Assuredly so. Full of flies.”
Oh, but the place was musty. In one alcove a number of old tiktok contrivances stood in various stages of evisceration for spare parts. “The tiktok revolution never quite happened, no matter what the Tin Woodman said,” commented the Bear. “Who needs a rebellion in labor when honest laborers are hunting for a job? I’m speaking of humans, of course; most of the Animal workforce migrated to Munchkinland during the Wizard’s reign. If they could afford the punishing fees to process their applications.”
Rain guessed that the Bear wasn’t one of them. “You’re doing all right,” she said, unargumentatively.
“I’m one of the luckier ones,” he replied. “I suffer a sort of amnesia, you see, and I am happiest among artifacts and antiques. Times gone by are more comforting. I don’t understand these days.”
“Not many do,” murmured Tip.
They came across a creature made of skarkbone ribs and hooks. Some of it must be missing, for it was impossible to imagine how it might have stayed erect. In another corner, more or less intact, was a carved wooden man, quite tall, with an enormous porcelain pumpkin balanced on skinny shoulders. “That one arrived with an actual pumpkin head,” said the Bear, watching them over the tops of his spectacles. “Too many mice were making a home in his brains, though, and the pumpkin rotted. As my skull has done too. So when I came across that dreadful piece of porcelain I couldn’t resist sticking it on top of the wooden man, in memory of whatever weird individual that tiktok thing once was. Jack Pumpkinhead, a certain rural type.”
“It can’t be tiktok without gears and sprockets and flywheels, can it?” asked Rain, remembering what she had seen of the Clock of the Time Dragon.
“There’s more than one way to animate a life story,” remarked the Bear.
Next to the pumpkin head stood a squat little copper beast on casters. A perfectly round copper cranium perched atop its round body
. After scraping with their fingernails, they could make out the words SMITH AND TINKER’S MECHANICAL MAN on a plate corroded with green blisters. Under that an additional plate had been added, in engraver’s boilerplate: PROP OF M MORRIBLE, CRAGE HALL.
He’d been messed with quite a bit. Snippers or loppers of some sort had opened his upper chest. Inside lay the dusty fragments of oraculum vials as well as coils and batteries disfigured with mouse droppings. When Rain stood back to get a look at the whole of him, for he was short and overshadowed by the others, she almost blushed. Part of the abdominal plate had come away, and a five-inch screw to which a couple of nuts were attached hung down obscenely between what you might call his legs.
“Look, we can do a Butter and Eggs lesson,” she said. Before she remembered that Tip had not been in the class, she’d cupped the rusty ribbed metal piece in her hand and tilted it forward.
“Clever girl,” said Tip as Rain’s action wore through a weak bit of the sheathing, and the screw came off in her palm.
“Don’t break the merchandise,” called the Bear mildly, but he was only responding to the creak of old metal. At his desk behind his stacks of junk he was now shuffling through ancient newsfolds and reading aloud predictions of long dead weather.
Rain’s manipulation had unstuck some narrow compartment in the tiktok creature’s undercarriage. A rusty drawer with thin black metal edges shot forward and fell on the floor. “We should leave before I bring down the house,” said Rain. “I’m a right danger.”
Tip knelt and fingered the dark recess. “Something’s wedged in here,” he said.
He worried out a narrow packet of black cloth. “Treasure,” said Rain, realizing that she knew the word but not, in fact, what might qualify as treasure in anyone else’s mind other than hers. She thought of that tiny perfect inch-high horse on its single curlicue leg, carved in miniature into a stone at the Chancel of the Ladyfish. The horse like a question mark. Why hadn’t she taken that as something to collect?
“Now what’ve we here,” murmured Tip, unfolding the cloth.
Not too much—nothing like treasure according to Rain. A small rusted dirk with black stains streaked upon the blade. A set of skeleton keys. Some scraps of pink thread that might once have been rose petals? And a bit of vellum, about five inches square, folded into eight or twelve sections.
It was too dark to look at it right here. Besides, they both felt responsible. They brought it to the counter and told the Bear what had happened.
“Well, let’s see what you’ve got there,” he said, putting aside the bits and bobs, and with his shaking paws he tenderly unfolded the parchment. “Looks to me like an old map,” he said. “Sadly, not a treasure map, as children would like. Let’s have a peep.” He adjusted his spectacles. “Hmmm. Seems to be a standard issue map out of some department of government ordinances. Maybe about the time of Ozma Glamouranda? To judge by the typography? But let me find my magnifying lens.” After a search he located the instrument on top of a pile of about forty children’s novels, a matched set that made a column halfway to the ceiling beams. “Now. We shall see what we shall see.”
“What if we bring the light closer?” asked Tip.
“My gentle friend, you are the very light of intelligence yourself. Bring the lamp. On a day this gloomy we need all the light we can find.”
A second look at the map showed it clearly to be Oz before the secession of Munchkinland. The EC wasn’t even called the Emerald City yet. It was an obscure hamlet assigned the name of Nubbly Meadows. However, the general outlines of the counties of Oz seemed more or less correct. Gillikin and Munchkinland sported the greatest number of towns marked out, and the Quadling Country was represented by a single graphic smear simulating a coarse picture of marshland. The Vinkus was called “Winkie Country” and in ink someone had scrawled below, “Utter wildness, don’t bother.” On the left-hand margin, beyond the ring of deserts indicated by a profusion of mechanically applied dots, that same hand had written “water?” and a printer’s hand-stamp of a whorled shell appeared like a messy thumbprint.
“That’s nice,” said Tip, pointing to the picture.
“You always liked my shell,” said Rain, remembering now that he had been cradling it the night she had discovered him in her wardrobe.
Near Center Munch, in Munchkinland, Rain thought at first she spied another shell, one standing on its tip. Or maybe not. Anyway, some kind of squiggly funnel, appended by hand in quick slashes of brownish ink, with an exclamation point beside it. The punctuation mark was underlined thrice.
“This is an admirable little map,” concluded the Bear. He ran his paw over the Great Gillikin Forest. “I hail from up this way, long ago. Look, does that tiny line read ‘Here there be Bears’? I feel positively anointed with a personal history. Somewhere in that thicket of identical trees I imagine Ursaless, the Queen of the Northern Bears, holding court, as it was back in my day. No,” he said, “I’m afraid you may not buy this thing. It has put me in mind of my past, and that happens all too seldom. If you come back tomorrow I won’t remember you were here today, and if you find this map on top of a chest of drawers I’ll probably sell it to you. Happily. But tonight I’m going to look at this and dream of my home, and better days long gone.”
The rain was still pelting down, but the drops were less forceful, less like hail. “We should go,” said Rain. They made their good-byes to the Bear, who already seemed to have forgotten them a little. As they went up the steps Tip took her hand for a moment.
“Why do you like shells?” she asked, the first thing that came to her mind in the panic of being touched on purpose.
“I like anything that is home to a secret life,” he said. “I always liked nests, and eggs, and the discarded skins of snakes, and shells, and chrysalises.”
“We should have bought you that flying carpet,” she said. “Full of flies.”
The joke wasn’t any funnier the second time than the first, and Tip let her hand go. They walked back to St. Prowd’s in silence to find that the girls had not been hijacked for ransom, Tip was not in line for a prison sentence or a dismissal, and Madame Chortlebush had departed already for her family home, to comfort her grieving parents.
If Miss Ironish noticed that Rain had been out alone with a boy, she chose to muscle her disapproval down. More likely, thought Rain, she doesn’t really care what happens to any child whose parents don’t bother to show up during Visitation Day.
But then, come to think of it, Tip himself had shown up on Visitation Day. A fairly acceptable substitution, under the circumstances.
Rain thought, it’s almost as if Tip and I got too close, that day in the storm, in the shop of the absentminded Bear. But he grabbed my hand, not I his. Now he seems … aloof. Unmoored. Like one of those floating islands that had occasionally drifted by on Restwater and, catching in some eddy invisible from shore, gently spun in place for a couple of months. Out of reach. Tip was in perfect sight, all aspects of him, just … just further out.
For a mean moment she thought that he might be taking up with Scarly in the kitchens, a nearer and maybe more approachable friend. But that kind of thinking was solid St. Prowd’s girl attitude. Why shouldn’t he chum around with Scarly if he liked her, and she was right there, shuttling between Miss Ironish and Cook? Why should it bother Rain?
She attended to her lessons the best she could. She did better and better at them. The weather brightened. She was finishing her first full year with something that approximated honors. Astounding, given the paucity of her primary schooling. Miss Ironish remarked, “You’ve gone from preverbal to canny in record time,” though it didn’t entirely sound like a compliment.
Soon the school was abuzz with plans for the annual festival of Scandal, a city-wide hullaballoo dating to pre-Wizardic days but suppressed during his realm, due to excessive merriment and mild bawd. At recess older girls nattered to the newbies about it. A King and Queen of Scandal were elected from
among the most smoldering of college students at Shiz. Comic pillorings of local magistrates and fellows at college were promised, as well as mock public punishments of random attractive passersby, administered with sprayed water or cushiony paddles. Food stalls everywhere. When the sun went down, candles would be lit in colored lanterns, magicking up the leafed-out tree boughs of Railway Square and Ticknor Circus. Music to dance by, to thrill by, to ignore. And the girls would be allowed to attend for a while, even to wander about, always under the hawkish eyes of their teachers of course.
The closer the day arrived, the less Rain was sure she wanted to attend. She hardly understood frivolity. The way everyone laughed when a bird shat once on Madame Chard’s hat—but then even Madame Chard laughed. Rain had thought it was neither funny nor not-funny. Women wear hats, birds excrete. The comedy of it seemed impoverished. Therefore, the idea of manufactured hilarity, having a good time by design or intention—well, bizarre. If not impossible or counterintuitive.
Still, she supposed, since she couldn’t grasp the concept, perhaps that was good enough reason to agree to attend. Something new to learn. She could always beg off early and sneak away. Ever since the day of the rainstorm she seemed to have a special dispensation for roaming by herself, as if she alone of all the St. Prowd’s girls was homely enough not to need close supervision on the street. She looked at herself in the mirror. She seemed merely to exist, neither prettier than an umbrella rack or a potted palm, nor less pretty.
Tip met her in a hallway between lessons; he was carrying a valise to Miss Ironish’s study. “Are you going to lark about tomorrow at that silly festival?” she asked him.
“I’ll have to wait to get my instructions for the day,” he said. “Miss Ironish may be going to see her brother, who has been given a few days off from his training exercises. He is hoping for a pass to the Emerald City for some rest and recovery. I may be required to accompany her as a chaperone.”