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Out of Oz, Page 7

Gregory Maguire

  “I have nearly no sense of reason,” she told him, “so be forewarned.”

  It wasn’t her best carriage but it was better than nothing. Miss Murth had brought a fan, but the breeze off the lake was strong this afternoon and the horseflies mercifully few. What a treat to hear the trap clicketing along on the abalone drive, and then the softer sound it made in summer dust when they passed through the front gates of Mockbeggar and turned east along the lake road. Lady Glinda hadn’t really felt imprisoned yet, but her release was more welcome than she’d anticipated.

  The road rose and fell as the low hills of the Pine Barrens to the north approached the lake. This part of Oz had been farmed for hundreds of years. Some tedious old geezer at a dinner party once had told Glinda that the Munchkins of antiquity had settled here first before colonizing the breadbasket of Oz to the northeast. How anyone could deduce such a thing seemed dubious to her, though in time her eye for architecture began to assemble clues that supported his thesis. And, she had to acknowledge, the fecundity of this district would have appealed to any wandering troll or trollop.

  How she’d come to love Restwater. As if she didn’t see it every day from her chambers, she marveled once again. Every bend in the road, every dip after every rise, bringing new vistas of blue shattered by sunlight. Blue between the pines, one shade; blue between the birches, another. Blue in chips and fragments; blue opening up. If there were such a place as heaven, she thought, it could do worse than modeling itself on the road from Mockbeggar to Zimmerstorm.

  All too soon, however, she began to smell the stench of char, and most of those blues went brown with heavy hovering smoke, a kind of industrial fog. She coughed, and Murth coughed, and their eyes stung and then ran. “Shall I turn back, for your health, Mum?” asked Private Zackers.

  “Press on.”

  The fields were destroyed. At least—she peered through the streams in her eyes—at least the outbuildings and farmsteads seemed standing. Those visible from the road, anyway.

  What had those farmers done? Where had they gone while their livelihoods were being torched?

  The carriage passed a vegetable garden that for the fun of it, she guessed, had also been ravaged. A scarecrow shrugged its shoulders at the sky, presiding over ruin, as if asking the Unnamed God the reason for such wantonness.

  Murth’s tears were real tears. She was a fool, after all, if a dear one. For herself, Glinda felt ready to take some training with a halberd.

  Before long—not soon enough—they had cleared the worst of the damage and were beginning the descent into Zimmerstorm. Its town hall steeple, its pitched roofs clad in the blue-grey tiles of the region—it all looked more or less correct. A mercy.

  Glinda directed Zackers to halt the trap in the village square. “We shall take our tea, my companion and I,” she told Zackers. “Your company is not required.”

  He stood on guard at the street door of the local tearoom anyway.

  Then Lady Glinda had the most unfortunate experience of realizing—very slowly, picking up cues as if they were bug bites—that the residents of Zimmerstorm didn’t fully believe the testimony of those who’d been dismissed from Mockbeggar. They harbored a suspicion that Lady Glinda was in collusion with the occupiers.

  She could hardly blame them. She was Gillikinese herself, of course, and she had had high-ranking association with the Emerald City. And she couldn’t mount an explanation in public—former Throne Ministers didn’t do that. Besides, who would believe her? She just had to sit in stony silence as the cabbage-faced Munchkinlander hostess grunted and scowled and made as if to dump the tea in her lap. “A biscuit,” Glinda begged.

  “No biscuits,” snapped the proprietress. “Your military friendsies scarfed ’em all up. For ’emselves.”

  “Perhaps a roundlet of toast?” wondered Miss Murth.

  The toast came about twenty minutes later. It had been burnt inedible. As burnt as the cotton fields.

  “Perhaps a constitutional,” suggested Lady Glinda.

  “That’s five farthings, Mum,” said Sour Peasant Woman.

  Lady Glinda wasn’t in the habit of carrying coin. Miss Murth had none to carry. How embarrassing to have to petition Private Zackers to pay the establishment. I won’t make that mistake again, Glinda thought.

  Still, while Zackers was settling up, Glinda and Murth got ahead of him, across the village square. A miniature escape! Oh, hilarity.

  “Into the lending library, Murthy,” said Glinda. “Quickly now. Move your arthritic hips or I’ll run you down.”

  The librarian was a retired Munchkin on a stool. She recognized him though she didn’t know his name. “I’m looking to borrow a book that can teach one the essentials of preparing a meal,” she said. “For dining, I mean. For human dining.”

  “Books en’t going to teach that, Lady Glinda,” he said. “Mothers teach that. Closest I can help you with is a volume on animal husbandry, which has an illustrated index on slaughtering your own livestock.”

  “I think not,” she murmured. Turning, she saw a notice board behind his desk. A scroll was posted with nails. She peered at it. A crude drawing with a handwritten announcement. She hadn’t brought her reading glasses. “Miss Murth, can you decipher that message?” she asked.

  Miss Murth could not. “You want something read, you should’ve brought Rain,” she said, somewhat cruelly.

  “I can read that for you, Lady Glinda,” said the librarian. “It says that the Clock of the Time Dragon is coming through in the next week or so, weather and the military situation permitting.”

  “It looks like a chapel on wheels of some sort.”

  “It’s an entertainment, Mum. Sort of a puppet show for adults. You en’t never seen it?”

  “Nor heard of it.” She intended frost in her tone, but thought better of it. “My dear man, would you tell the managers of this traveling enterprise to make their way to Mockbeggar Hall? I do believe that if the soldiers had something to look forward to, we might keep them from doing any more damage than they have already done, for instance, today.”

  Luckily, this Munchkinlander wasn’t as suspicious as the tea-wife in the shop. “Can’t say them traveling clocksters will listen to me,” he replied. “But I can pass on the word and see what they’ll do. They operate with cheeky diplomatic immunity, far as I’ve heard. Cross these parts every few years, don’t matter if it’s Wicked Witch of the East or the old Eminent Thropp or that mean old Zombie Mombey in charge. They seem pretty fearless. I’ll give ’em your message.”

  “You’re too kind,” she told him. Here came Private Zackers, looking red under the collar.

  “You were nice to my sister, that time she lay in childbirth a month too long,” said the librarian softly. “You put a cloth to her brow. Don’t pretend you forget.”

  She turned away, confused by an accusation of charity. “How impertinent!” hissed Murth on her behalf.


  Day after day as different plantings came to flower, blossoms patterned the gardens and the meadows with a shifting palette. Now the eggy frill of late forsythia, now the fringe of fern. Now the periwinkle mycassandrum on the hillsides, until pale daisies overtook the lavender, and then wild dusteria the daisies. The leaves on the trees flexed their palms wider. Let me in, said the sun. Let me out, said the tree.

  Beyond the reflecting pool, the topiary hedges thickened into rooms again, chambers of green set round with statues, plinths, benches of marble carved to look like rural twigwork. Once the daily cloudburst had passed, Glinda often grabbed a parasol and picked her way through the maze. Miss Murth had an allergy to the mites that came out of the ivy after a downpour so she stayed inside, and Glinda got herself a little privacy. The Green Parlor, as they called it, was considered an extension of her private chambers, so she had no cause to worry about some wayward soldier interrupting her meditations.

  She was surprised, therefore, one afternoon about a week later, to come upon a dwarf with a hoary beard sitt
ing upon the drum of an aesthetically collapsed column.

  “I beg your pardon.” Her tone was High Frost.

  “No offense taken,” he told her, lighting a pipe with a long stem.

  “This is a private garden.”

  “You’d better take yourself off, then.” He winked at her. The nerve. “Or should I say, All the better for a private conversation.”

  “Do you know who I am?”

  “Glinda, or else I made a wrong turn,” he answered. “Easy enough to do in a hedge maze. Especially for a dwarf.”

  “I’ll set the dogs on you unless you leave.”

  He looked up over the tops of his spectacles. “That’s a sour welcome considering you called for me. You don’t remember we’ve met before? Or is it, Seen one dwarf, seen ’em all? They all look alike to me?”

  “Forgive me. I’m not myself. I no longer have the staff to hand me notes of reference.” She peered at him sideways. “Oh. I see. You’re with that circus. That pantomime troupe. No?”

  “We prefer to think of ourselves as social critics. The conscience of Oz. But we take any cash comes our way, so you can call us dancing bears or moral vivisectionists, whatever you like. Makes no difference to me.”

  He gave his name as Mr. Boss, which rang no bells with her.

  “How did you know how to find me in the maze?” she asked.

  He laughed. “Oh, knowing things; that’s my line of work, missy.”

  “Well … thank you for coming, I suppose. I had thought maybe you could put on a performance or rally or sing-along, whatever, to entertain the men garrisoned here. Is that the sort of thing you do?”

  “I do anything that suits me. But it can be made my while, I think.”

  “Well, what do you charge?”

  “I’ll let you know. Can you show me the setup?”

  “First remind me how we came to meet the first time. For the life of me I can’t recall.”

  He didn’t comply with her request. “You must meet so many dwarfs in your line of work. Let’s go.”

  She didn’t like to be seen taking the air with a dwarf, but she supposed she had no choice. And really, she thought, what do I care what soldiers think? Bloody hell. They’ve spent the week burning cotton fields.

  But she did care, which was annoying.

  Still, she ushered Mr. Boss out of the Green Parlor. The dwarf breathed noisily and spat his tobacco into the prettibells.

  In the widest open space among the farm buildings, where two stables and three barns and some carriage sheds fronted a sort of ellipse, Private Zackers showed up to refuse her further access. “I have no interest in the barns right now, Zackers,” she told him. “I’m engaging a troupe of traveling players and I’m examining the barnyard as a possible venue.”

  “Has the General approved this?” asked Zackers.

  She made a disagreeable face. “I’m not submitting to him for reimbursement, Zackers; there’s nothing to approve. I’m supplying my uninvited guests with a little weekend entertainment. I am the lady of Mockbeggar Hall, after all.” She turned to the dwarf. “What do you think?”

  “Some can sit in the upper windows and get a balcony view,” he said. “Shall we say sunset tomorrow?”

  “How will I reach you in case plans need to be changed?”

  “You won’t need to reach me.”

  He was confident. As well he might be: Cherrystone had no objection. “I saw posters mounted on various kiosks in Zimmerstorm and Haventhur,” he said. “I’d been wondering what it was all about. Bring it on.”

  So, ten days after the burning of the first cotton field, Glinda left Miss Murth and Chef and Rain behind. They could keep an eye on the silver if nothing else. She accepted the arm Puggles extended to her because the cobbles were uneven. Cherrystone had arranged a chair for her—one of the precious bon Scavella chairs from the Hall of Painted Arches!—but she pretended not to be outraged.

  Men surrounded her in jostling, good-natured mumble. The ones nearer the appointed arena had brought cloaks upon which to sit, but most of the fellows stood, arms about one another’s shoulders, or leaned against the various walls. Several hay carts provided mezzanine seating, while other fellows appeared in the hay doors under the peaks of the barn roofs. From a height sometimes known as the gods they swung their heels and hooted at their buddies.

  General Cherrystone hauled out a camp chair for himself. He sat some distance away from her, as was correct. She nodded, acknowledging him briefly before turning her attention to nothing of interest in her purse.

  Just as the sun was slotting between two hills to the east, raging the lake with ruddy copper, she heard the sound of wheels on stone from around the edge of the farthest barn. This was the signal, apparently, for soldiers to light some torches. Within a few moments the last of day became the first of night, a magic as peculiar and welcome as any other.

  A wheeled monstrosity of some sort emerged. Nothing less than a small building erected on a dray. Between the shafts, where one might expect a team of horses or donkeys, a lion strained, head down, mane over his eyes. The temple of entertainment was accompanied by a number of young men in tangerine tunics, black scarfs covering their noses and mouths. A slim white-haired woman in a golden veil struck a set of chimes with a mallet. She looked spiky and consumptive. The dwarf drew up the rear, banging a drum almost as big as he was.

  Glinda hoped she wasn’t going to ask to be converted. She didn’t have much to be converted from. She began to wish she’d sat farther back. Now where had she met that dwarf before? She’d been racking her brains for a day and had turned up no clue. She supposed, not for the first time, that she didn’t have a whole lot of brains to rack. Or was she at the age already when memory begins to fail? She couldn’t remember.

  The lion muttered something to the veiled woman. So it was a Lion, then. Curious. Most respectable Animals wouldn’t be seen doing menial labor like pulling a cart, but perhaps this was a sort of penance. Glinda knew that Animals in Munchkinland fared no better than Animals in Loyal Oz; you rarely saw a professional Animal on the shores of Restwater. But then her social circuit was circumscribed by her position; who knew what Animals might be getting up to in the back of beyond? All kinds of unsavory mischief. She preferred not to contemplate it; life at Mockbeggar these days was vexing enough.

  She turned her attention to the performance. Things were starting up.

  The jittery-totteriness of it. A sort of omphalos made of wood, capped by the semblance of a dragon. Its countenance was lurid, its eyes glowed red, like embers. Clever and banal. Long struts carved of sallowwood flexed to suggest the limbs of a bat. When the dragon shifted its wings to reveal a clock-face, the sound of leathery creases shifting was like wet laundry on the line, flumping in a stiff wind.

  So this was the Clock of the Time Dragon. Ready for all manner of foldiddy-doodle.

  Then the facade of the great structure along the length of the cart, the long side, began to separate into segments. It folded back cunningly, the best of tiktok play. Small stagelets receded or nested against each other. Protrusions locked into recesses. The whole thing was a set of shutters collapsing against one another like a sentient puzzle.

  All this clockwork commotion revealed a central arena, cloaked from view by a curtain as broad as two bed linens hemmed together. The drape must be stiffened with wooden braces. The surface of the cloth was painted with a fanciful map of Oz. More iconography than geography. The Emerald City glowed in the middle through some apparatus of backlighting; a loose approximation of the four main counties fanned out to the margins. Gillikin to the north, Quadling Country to the south, the Vinkus to the west, and Munchkinland—the Free State of Munchkinland, for her pains!—to the east.

  She was sitting close enough to peer at the margins of the map. The outlying colonies and satrapies of Ugabu and the Glikkus. A few arrows pointing, variously, away, off margin, to countries across the band of deserts that isolated the giant Oz as competently as a rin
g of seas might, were seas anything other than a mystical notion of everlastingness.

  Some sort of music began. She was dimly aware that the boys in their sunset robes had picked up nose whistles and cymberines, tympani and strikes. Someone drew a bow across a squash-bellied violastrum. Someone lit a muskwax-taper that smelled of rose blossoms. To a man, the soldiers squatted, relaxing on their haunches; this was well done enough to be convincing before it had even begun.

  Cherrystone, she saw, was lighting a cigarette.

  The dwarf gave a bow at the close of the prelude. The curtain rose on a lighted stage as the yard appreciably darkened by three or four degrees of violet.

  A couple of figures strutted lazily onstage. What were they called again? Homunculards. Puppets on strings. Marionettes, that was it. They were meant to resemble the Messiars and Menaciers squatting in the barnyard of Mockbeggar Hall, no doubt. They were hale and fit, and their ash limbs had been carved to exaggerate military physique. Waists tapered to pencil points, while biceps and buttocks and pectorals were all globular as oranges. Faces were blank but rosy-cheeked, and one chin had a sticking plaster across it, suggesting a soldier so young he was still learning how to shave.

  The two soldiers sauntered across the stage, looking hither and yon. Lights came up further to reveal the painted backdrop, which seemed to be a field of corn or wheat or cotton. A rough fence, a scarecrow, a few squiggles of bird painted in the sky across fat clouds in summersweet blue.

  What craft the handlers showed! The puppet soldiers were bored. They whistled (how did they do that?). They kicked an imaginary stone back and forth. Funny how in the telling of it, thought Glinda, in the arc of the leading foot and the posture of the defense, the presence of the implied stone seemed as real, or even realer, than the puppet fellows themselves.

  The puppets soon tired of kick-the-pebble. They approached the front of the stage and looked out at the audience, but it was clear they weren’t peering at real soldiers in the gloaming. One of the carved Menaciers put a palm to his eyebrows as if shielding it from sun while he scanned the horizon. The other knelt down and dipped his hand a little below stage level, and the audience heard the sound of water swishing about. The puppet guard was meant to be on the shores of Restwater.