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Out of Oz


  She stood, but shrugged. “I don’t know how to read, Mum.”

  “I can find it,” called Miss Murth.

  “She’ll do it,” said Glinda tartly. “Child, there is an engraving on the page just under the masthead. You do know what a prettibell looks like, don’t you? A blossom like a kind of grubby little chewed sock?”

  Cherrystone was laughing. “They are your passion. You speak with the sour affection of the convert.”

  “Do as I say, Rain.” Glinda felt herself flushing and hoped it didn’t show in the lamplight. “I tell you, Traper, you abuse my ability to entertain when you reduce me to such a staff.”

  “Your prettibells will likely suffer this year,” he admitted. “Sorry about that. Where are they in the garden, so we can avoid them?”

  He almost had her there. “I can’t discuss it any longer. It’s too vexing to think of them in extremis. There’s a dormant polder of them out beyond the little village of Zimmerstorm. Won’t you allow Puggles to escort me to check on them?” There was no such polder. But if she could get out for a day on a false pretense, she might gain a better sense of what was going on.

  “It may be possible. Depending.”

  Rain clambered back over the sill with several papers. “Not sure which one you want, so here is the lot.”

  “I don’t want to look at them anymore. I’ve become distressed by the thought of them. You may return these.”

  “No, wait,” said Cherrystone. He took several papers from Rain and studied the headlines. Then he turned the front page so the girl could see it and said, “Do you know your letters?”

  “No, sir. I don’t, sir.”

  “Why not?”

  “Never had none to teach me, sir.”

  “Your mother doesn’t know how to read?”

  “If you remember, Cherrystone,” said Glinda, “you required me to dismiss almost everyone.”

  “You kept a girl from leaving with her mother?”

  “Well. Actually, the child is an orphan. I look after her out of charity. Don’t pick your fingernails, Rain.”

  “But you don’t teach her the alphabet.” Cherrystone sounded incredulous.

  “I can’t do everything. I have prettibells to propagate. Until recently I didn’t know this girl by name, so how could I know if she could read or not? Perhaps it’s time for the cheese board. Rain, clear the plates.”

  “I’ll take them through,” called Miss Murth, stifling a shadowed yawn.

  “My granddaughter is learning her letters,” said the General. “Letters are a kind of magic, Rain. Coming together, they spell words, and words then are a kind of spell, too.”

  “She doesn’t want to learn to read. She wants to carry those plates to the window. Leave her be, Traper.” But Glinda was now on this. Could she play the hand? She’d never been good at bluffing when the local gentry came by for a couple of rubbers of Three-Hand Snuckett.

  She picked up one of the papers and pretended to look at it for the article on prettibells, and then she moved the paper up close until it almost touched her lips. A little blind, to buy her some time, while Cherrystone asked the girl, “What does this letter look like? This thing?”

  Rain said, “It looks like a stick for finding water with.”

  “Doesn’t it just. It is called Y.”

  “Why?”

  “Indeed.”

  “Too too touching,” said Glinda, “but I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. Our broomgirl is thicker than mud on the moor. Now, Rain, unless you want to annoy me, leave the General alone. He is a busy man and he needs his cheese.”

  “I have the board,” called Miss Murth through the lace, which was now swaying in a stiffer wind off the lake. “A nice Arjiki goat-cheese and a Munchkinlander corriale, and an aged Zimmersweet made with the ash layer. Though one corner may be the wrong color of mold; it’s hard to tell in this light.”

  “Would you like to learn to read, Rain?” asked Cherrystone.

  “Do you specialize in impossible tasks?” interrupted Glinda. “You might as well ask a rural Munchkin-wife if she would like to brush the teeth of a mature draffe. The little scold can’t reach and she won’t reach no matter how many lessons in growing taller you squander upon her.”

  “My granddaughter is seven and she can read,” said Cherrystone. “How old are you, Rain?”

  “Now you’re impertinent. Rain, go with Miss Murth.” The girl shrugged and slung one leg over the windowsill. Straddling it, her hair fallen back about her neck, she reviewed the diners on the roof of the porch. Looking at the girl’s curious expression, with a certain thrill Glinda thought: she’s learning to read already. Letters are only the half of it.

  She kept the paper over her face to hide her tiny twitch of triumph. What if Rain could be taught to read? She might sidle places in the house no one else could visit. Peer at maps. Directives to the field officers. Might be risky, but still…

  When the girl had gone, and they had demolished a good deal of the cheese and two glasses of port each, Glinda returned to the subject to clinch the deal. “Do you want to help me survive the boredom of this incarceration, Traper? Shall we enter into a little wager? I’ll wager you can’t teach our broomgirl to read by the end of the summer. That is, assuming your tasks will keep you here all summer.”

  “About our tenure here, I can make no comment. But I’ve had a grand time helping my daughters learn to read, when I was home on leave, and my granddaughter too. I can make of your stupid little maid a capable reader of simple texts in a month or two. By Summersend, anyway, if we’re here that long. It’s a deal.”

  She raised her glass; the edges chinked to seal the wager.

  “But you must have a challenge of your own,” he said. “I shall dare you to … oh, what is it you can’t do? Is there anything?”

  She hoped he wouldn’t say generate a new strain of prettibell. “I’ve always had Chef, of one name or another,” she said. “I suppose I could enter into the fun of it and learn to prepare a meal on my own.”

  “It’s a deal,” he said, and the glasses chinked again. “But really?” he added, as he stood to go. “Even in childhood you had a chef?”

  “Mumsy was an Upland,” she said, as if that explained it.

  “But didn’t you linger in kitchens and pick things up, as all small children do? Even I did that.”

  “I don’t recall much of my childhood,” she told him. “It’s been such a full rich life ever since, I haven’t felt the need to dwell on that simpler time. Life, with whatever it has brought—university one decade, the Throne Ministry of Oz the next. The cultivation of roses and prettibells one year, house arrest another—well, daily life has always seemed distracting enough. Childhood? It’s a myth.”

  “Good night, Lady Glinda. And thank you for a very pleasant evening. I shall send for your chambergirl in the next day or two.”

  It was late. She dismissed Miss Murth and the girl, but not before thanking Rain for her help. Then Glinda prepared herself for bed. She didn’t need to check with the little mirror to see herself smiling. She believed she had won the hand.

  Though as she settled herself upon the pillows, she found herself thinking about childhood. Had she meant what she had said? Had her own childhood really evaporated as thoroughly as all that? Or had she merely forgotten to pay it any attention once she’d left it behind and headed off to school in Shiz?

  8.

  The third, and as far as she could figure, the last of her early memories. Though who knows the architecture of the mind, and whether the arches that open upon discrete episodes are ordered in any way sequentially?

  Probably they are not.

  Still, this was a memory of autumn. Either it was actual autumn or she was dressing her few memories in contrasting colors, the better to render them distinctive.

  Apple trees? Yes, apples. An orchard hugging a slope. Hesitating in its ascent, the incline leveled off several times—built up manually, to accommodate carts, or
maybe the hill just preferred itself like that. This was her only memory to begin with the setting first, and with her entering the place, rather than with herself central as a maypole and the situation emanating from her.

  She was wandering about the contorted trunks, trees twisted in their growth by a constant upsweep of wind from the valley. (So there must have been a valley. What lay below? A house? A village? A river? Why were memories so independent? So jealous of corroborating detail?)

  Windfalls jeweled the grass, the colors of russet, burgundy, limeberry, freckled yellow. Fruit hung in the boughs like Lurlinemas ornaments. Leaves twitched as if signaling to one another: she approaches.

  Around a certain tree she came upon a wounded bird humped in the grass like an overturned spindle. At first she thought it had bruised its head in an accident, twisted its neck. She had never seen a side-beak merin before.

  The eye above the treacherous beak stared at her. She felt herself being pulled into the bird’s gaze, sacrificing her own centrality for a moment. She felt she was being seen and understood by the merin.

  The merin is a waterbird, distant cousin to the duck and the swan, though devoid of both the duck’s work ethic and the swan’s narcissism. The unusual bill swivels sideways to filch morsels from other birds. When not in use the beak, on a double-hinged jaw, can swing and tuck backward into creamy neck feathers so that in flight the merin resembles a coat-knob with wings. This merin, the color of a stag-head beetle, didn’t store its beak in its ruff. It merely looked at her and opened its mouth as if to speak.

  She hadn’t yet known that some creatures can speak. She did not learn it now—at least not through evidence. But she could tell by the serrated stroke of remark, by the waterfowl’s stuttery smoker’s vowels, that the merin had something specific to say.

  She tried to lift the bird but it wouldn’t let her. The subsequent scratches on her forearms, chalk marks at first, slowly beaded up. Crimson stitches on an ivory bolster.

  She said, “You’re hurt, but hurting me back won’t help you any.”

  It humped itself a few inches away, as much by willpower as by mortal strength, and regarded her with need and fury.

  “If I can’t pick you up and take you—”

  But where would she have taken it? To some house, some village, some river?

  She rolled an apple at it in case it liked apples. The merin knocked it away savagely.

  Then—so why did she remember any of this?—she took care of it. She didn’t remember how, just that she did. She found a way to feed it for a while until it had gathered its strength.

  Say what you know.

  I remember pulling a golden minnow or smelt from my pocket, still flapping, as if I had just rescued it from the weir, and feeding it to the merin. I remember how the fishlette flopped in the beak, dropped in the grass, and with what acumen and zip the merin retrieved it, and swallowed it whole.

  But what a patently false memory this was. The rescue of an ice-bound fish happened in winter. The merin’s recuperation from some unknown attack or disease clearly happened in the autumn—all those apples decorating the memory.

  So—if the oldest memories could contaminate one another, could prove impossible—what good was memory at all?

  Was that why she remembered nothing more?

  Except that when the merin had recovered its nerve and its composure, it staggered to its bandy legs and rushed at her, clacking its beak like scissors. Until it pivoted. Like a one-legged man picking up his false leg and tucking it under his arm before hopping to bed, the merin swung its beak into place. Then the bird raised its weird puppet-head and opened its wings. She could see that one wing had been wrenched at; its feathers thinned. An ugly viscous patch glistened on the leading edge like wet shellac.

  And still it somehow managed to launch itself. It battered through branches as it learned how to fly all over again, with new strength in its left wing correcting what it had lost in its right. Lopsidedly it lifted along the slopes of air that mimicked the steps of terraced orchard below. It wheeled against silver blue, heading for something beyond the scope of memory to imagine.

  To climb up the invisible staircases of the sky—!

  Without benefit of a mouth, which was in storage, it said to her, one way or the other, “Remember.”

  9.

  Cherrystone was true to his word. The next morning he sent an underling to collect Rain for her first lesson in reading. It would take place in the Opaline Salon. Safe enough. Miss Murth reported that the door had been left ajar, as if for Lady Glinda or her minions to be able to check for impropriety.

  “Is that so. Well, then, be a dear, Murthy, and nip down there to investigate, just in case,” said Glinda.

  “Lady Glinda. I do many things and I do them well, but I do not nip.”

  Rain returned an hour later not visibly glorified with learning. She trotted off to water the potted prettibells in the south porch, since Glinda now felt obliged to keep the damn things alive.

  Chef sent word that his supplies of potatoes had been appropriated. Also three whole smoked haunches of skark and a pair of hams. Would Lady Glinda settle for a lunch of coddled eggs and new carrots?

  Miss Murth had a headache and retired for the afternoon.

  Glinda walked the length of her apartments. Since Mockbeggar Hall crowned a headland, it enjoyed water views from three directions. Westward Glinda could see a flock of geese. Out the front windows she spied a lone tugboat plying the waves. Easterly, several stacks of smudgy smoke unfurled from an indeterminate source.

  She rang for Puggles. “They’re not burning Zimmerstorm, surely?” she asked.

  “I can’t say for certain, Mum,” he replied. “All our kitchen deliveries are now handled through an EC lout who acts mute. Perhaps he is. He is called Private Private, and he doesn’t speak to us or anyone else, near as I can tell. So I can get no word out of him.”

  “This is intolerable.” She tried to summon Cherrystone, but the guard who seemed permanently stationed in the banquet hall replied, “He’s not at home, Mum.”

  “Of course he’s not at home,” she snapped. “His home is someplace else. This is my home. Where is he?”

  “Privileged information, I’m afraid, Mum.”

  “I’m not Mum to you, laddie. Address me as Lady Glinda or Lady Chuffrey. Who are you?”

  “Privileged information, Mum.”

  She almost hit him. But Cherrystone came swooping in, pretty as you please, through the kitchens. “I thought I heard your voice,” he said, like a husband returning from an afternoon shooting grouse. She almost felt he was going to swing across the room and plant a kiss on her cheek.

  “Traper. I need a word. Privately.”

  He shrugged. “As you know, privacy doesn’t do either of our reputations any good.”

  “This is war, Traper. Reputations be damned.”

  “As you wish.” He made a gesture and the Menacier skated away.

  She told him she wanted to know what was burning to the east. “Oh, that? It’s the cotton harvest, I’m afraid. The holdings between here and Zimmerstorm.”

  She gasped. “You must be mad. What has cotton ever done to you?”

  “Oh, very little. Cotton is blameless, I admit.”

  “What is the point? Just to deprive the farmers of their cash crop? They sell to mills in Gillikin, you must know that. You’ll force up the price of cotton in Loyal Oz. That’s madness pure and simple.”

  “Maybe there was a population of boll weevils doing the nasty on that farm.”

  “I’ll say. Are you trying to foment the farmers into attacking you here? The Battle of Mockbeggar Hall? Seriously. Traper. I want an explanation.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think you’d become the Good Witch of Munchkinland, Lady Glinda. They already have a pretender to the position of Eminence squatting up there in Colwen Grounds, I’m told.”

  “And I have friends in the neighborhood.”

  “
Among cotton farmers? Please.”

  It was a stretch; she saw that. She tried again. “Those farmers supply you and me both with dairy and grain and who knows what else. You’re playing with fire, General. Rather literally, I’m afraid.”

  “Well.” He poured himself a small portion of her brandy. Before lunch! He offered her a glass. She didn’t acknowledge his offer. “The truth is, the boys are antsy. Soldiers like to be on the move, and they’re going slightly stir-crazy. They need to be kept busy. A little burning of fields is a useful exercise. Gets them out and working.”

  She stared at him as if he were mad.

  He added, “You haven’t had sons, you wouldn’t get it. Soldiers like to destroy as well as to build.”

  She was flummoxed. “If you’re going to be here for months, what will you do—scorch the entire district?”

  “Maybe we’ll take up lowland sports. Like hip-sprung dancing, the way the old ones do in the pub in Zimmerstorm. Or darts.” He was being amused by her consternation. “Or I could teach my men to speak Qua’ati, perhaps. By the way, your Rain made a creditable start at learning her letters this morning.”

  “I need a carriage.”

  “There’s nothing available today.”

  “You’ll have to locate me one. I have an appointment. I’m leaving directly after luncheon.”

  “I can’t spare a driver.”

  “I’ll have Puggles or Chef. They’ll know how to manage a team.”

  She turned to leave as he was speaking. “Where is your appointment?”

  “East of the cotton fields,” she replied. “I haven’t decided the exact destination.”

  Somewhat to her surprise, when she descended the stairs in her wine-colored summer cloak with the musset panels, the front doors were open and the Menacier from the banquet hall was waiting. “The name is Zackers, Lady Glinda,” he said with crystalline politeness. “I have orders to accommodate you within reason, and to turn back if you cannot be reasoned with.”

 

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