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The Last Slice of Rainbow

Joan Aiken





  The Last Slice of Rainbow

  And Other Stories

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Margaret Walty

  To Eleanor-Jane, Gabriel and Charlotte


  The Last Slice of Rainbow

  Clem’s Dream

  A Leaf in the Shape of a Key

  The Queen with Screaming Hair

  The Tree That Loved a Girl

  Lost—One Pair of Legs

  The Voice in the Shell

  The Spider in the Bath

  Think of a Word

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  The Last Slice of Rainbow

  JASON WALKED HOME FROM SCHOOL every day along the side of a steep grassy valley, where harebells grew and sheep nibbled. As he walked, he always whistled. Jason could whistle more tunes than anybody else at school, and he could remember every tune that he had ever heard. That was because he had been born in a windmill, just at the moment when the wind changed from south to west. He could see the wind, as it blew; and that is a thing not many people can do. He could see patterns in the stars, too, and hear the sea muttering charms as it crept up the beach.

  One day, as Jason walked home along the grassy path, he heard the west wind wailing and sighing. “Oh, woe, woe! Oh, bother and blow! I’ve forgotten how it goes!”

  “What have you forgotten, Wind?” asked Jason, turning to look at the wind. It was all brown and blue and wavery, with splashes of gold.

  “My tune! I’ve forgotten my favorite tune! Oh, woe and blow!”

  “The one that goes like this?” said Jason, and he whistled.

  The wind was delighted. “That’s it! That’s the one! Clever Jason!” And it flipped about him, teasing but kindly, turning up his collar, ruffling his hair. “I’ll give you a present,” it sang, to the tune Jason had whistled. “What shall it be? A golden lock and a silver key?”

  Jason couldn’t think what use in the world those things would be, so he said quickly, “Oh, please, I’d like a rainbow of my very own to keep.”

  For, in the grassy valley, there were often beautiful rainbows to be seen, but they never lasted long enough for Jason.

  “A rainbow of your own? That’s a hard one,” said the wind. “A very hard one. You must take a pail and walk up over the moor until you come to Peacock Force. Catch a whole pailful of spray from the waterfall. That will take you a long time. But when you have the pail full to the brim, you may find somebody in it who might be willing to give you a rainbow.”

  Luckily the next day was Saturday. Jason took a pail, and his lunch, and walked over the moor till he came to the waterfall that was called Peacock Force because the water, as it dashed over the cliff, made a cloud of spray in which wonderful peacock colors shone and glimmered.

  All day Jason stood by the fall, getting soaked, catching the spray in his pail. At last, just at sunset, he had the whole pail filled, right to the brim. And now, in the pail, he saw something that swam swiftly round and round—something that glimmered in brilliant rainbow colors.

  It was a small fish.

  “Who are you?” said Jason.

  “I am the Genius of the Waterfall. Put me back! You have no right to keep me. Put me back and I’ll reward you with a gift.”

  “Yes,” said Jason quickly, “yes, I’ll put you back, and please may I have a rainbow of my very own, to keep in my pocket.”

  “Humph!” said the Genius. “I’ll give you a rainbow, but whether you will be able to keep it is another matter. Rainbows are not easy to keep. I’ll be surprised if you can even carry it home. However, here you are.”

  And the Genius leapt out of Jason’s pail, in a high soaring leap, back into its waterfall, and as it did so, a rainbow poured out of the spray and into Jason’s pail, following the course of the fish’s leap.

  “Oh, how beautiful!” breathed Jason, and he took the rainbow from the pail, holding it in his two hands like a scarf, and gazed at its dazzling colors. Then he rolled it up carefully and put it in his pocket.

  He started walking home.

  There was a wood on his way, and in a dark place among the trees he heard somebody crying pitifully. He went to see what was the matter, and found a badger in a trap.

  “Boy, dear, dear boy,” groaned the badger, “let me out, let me out, or men will come with dogs and kill me.”

  “How can I let you out? I’d be glad to, but the trap needs a key.”

  “Push in the end of that rainbow I can see in your pocket—you’ll be able to wedge open the trap.”

  Sure enough, when Jason pushed the end of the rainbow between the jaws of the trap, they sprang open, and the badger was able to clamber out. He made off at a lumbering trot, before the men and dogs could come. “Thanks, thanks,” he gasped over his shoulder—then he was gone, down his hole.

  Jason rolled up the rainbow and put it back in his pocket; but a large piece had been torn off by the sharp teeth of the trap, and it blew away.

  On the edge of the wood was a little house where old Mrs. Widdows lived. She had a very sour nature. If children’s balls bounced into her garden, she baked them in her oven until they turned to coal. Everything she ate was black—burnt toast, black tea, black pudding, black olives. She called to Jason, “Boy, will you give me a piece of that rainbow I see sticking out of your pocket? I’m very ill. The doctor says I need a rainbow pudding to make me better.”

  Jason didn’t much want to give Mrs. Widdows a piece of his rainbow; but she did look ill and poorly, so, rather slowly, he walked into her kitchen, where she cut off a large bit of the rainbow with a bread knife. Then she made a stiff batter, with hot milk and flour and a pinch of salt, stirred in the piece of rainbow, and cooked the mixture. She let it get cold and cut it into slices and ate them with butter and sugar. Jason had a small slice too. It was delicious.

  “That’s the best thing I’ve eaten for a year,” said Mrs. Widdows. “I’m tired of black bread and black coffee and black grapes. I can feel this pudding doing me good.”

  She did look better. Her cheeks were pink and she almost smiled. As for Jason, after he had eaten his small slice he grew three inches.

  “You’d better not have any more,” said Mrs. Widdows.

  Jason put the last piece of rainbow back in his pocket.

  There wasn’t a lot left now.

  As he drew near the windmill where he lived, his sister Tilly ran out to meet him. She tripped over a rock and fell, gashing her leg. Blood poured out of it, and Tilly, who was only four, began to wail. “Oh, oh, my leg, my leg, my leg! It hurts dreadfully. Oh Jason, please bandage it, please!”

  Well, what could he do? Jason pulled the rest of the rainbow from his pocket and wrapped it around Tilly’s leg. There was just enough. He tore off a tiny scrap, which he kept in his hand.

  Tilly was in rapture with the rainbow around her leg. “Oh! How beautiful! And it has quite stopped the bleeding!” She danced away to show everybody her wonderful rainbow-colored leg.

  Jason was left looking rather sadly at the tiny shred of rainbow between his thumb and finger. He heard a whisper in his ear, and turned to see the west wind frolicking about the hillside, all yellow and brown and rose-colored.

  “Well?” said the west wind. “The Genius of the Waterfall did warn you that rainbows are hard to keep! And even without a rainbow, you are a very lucky boy. You can see the pattern of the stars, and hear my song, and you have grown three inches
in one day.”

  “That’s true,” said Jason.

  “Hold out your hand,” said the wind.

  Jason held out his hand, with the piece of rainbow in it, and the wind blew, as you blow on a fire to make it burn bright. As it blew, the piece of rainbow grew and grew, from Jason’s palm, until it lifted up, arching into the topmost corner of the sky; not just a single rainbow, but a double one, with a second rainbow underneath that, the biggest and most brilliant that Jason had ever beheld. Many birds were so astonished at the sight that they stopped flying and fell to the ground, or collided with each other in midair.

  Then the rainbow melted and was gone.

  “Never mind!” said the west wind. “There will be another rainbow tomorrow; or if not tomorrow, next week.”

  “And I did have it in my pocket,” said Jason.

  Then he went in for his tea.

  Clem’s Dream

  CLEM WOKE UP IN HIS sunny bedroom and cried out, “Oh, I have lost my dream! And it was such a beautiful dream! It sang, and shouted, and glittered, and sparkled—and I’ve lost it! Somebody pulled it away, out of reach, just as I woke up!”

  He looked around—at his bed, his toys, his chair, his open window with the trees outside.

  “Somebody must have come in through the window, and they’ve stolen my dream!”

  He asked the Slipper Fairy, “Did you see who stole my dream?”

  But the Slipper Fairy had been fast asleep, curled up in his slipper with her head in the toe. She had seen nobody.

  He asked the Toothbrush Fairy, “Did you see who stole my dream?”

  But the Toothbrush Fairy had been standing on one leg, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. She had seen nothing.

  Clem asked the Bathmat Fairy. He asked the Soap Fairy. He asked the Curtain Fairy. He asked the Clock Fairy.

  None of them had seen the person who had stolen his dream.

  He asked the Water Fairy, “Did you see the person who stole my dream?”

  “Look under your pillow, willow, willow, willow!” sang the Water Fairy. “Open your own mouth and look in, in, in, in! Then, then you’ll know, ho, ho, ho, ho!”

  Clem looked under his pillow. He found a silver coin.

  He climbed on a chair and looked in the glass, opening his mouth as wide as it would go.

  He saw a hole, where a tooth used to be.

  “The Tooth Fairy must have come while I was asleep. She took my tooth, and paid for it with a silver coin. She must have taken my dream, too. But she had no right to do that.”

  At breakfast, Clem asked, “How can I get my dream back from the Tooth Fairy?”

  The Milk Fairy said, “She lives far, far away, on Moon Island, which is the other side of everywhere.”

  The Bread Fairy said, “She lives in a castle made of teeth, at the top of a high cliff.”

  The Apple Fairy said, “You will have to take her a present. Something round and white. Otherwise she will never give back your dream.”

  Clem went into the garden. He said, “How can I find my way to Moon Island, on the other side of everywhere? And what present can I take the Tooth Fairy?”

  “Go up to the top of the hill, the hill, the hill, the hill,” sang the Grass Fairy, “and put your arms around the stone, the stone, the stone that stands there. If your fingers can touch each other, around the other side, then the stone will grant your wish.”

  So Clem ran up to the top of the green, grassy hill.

  There stood an old gray stone, tall as a Christmas tree. Clem tried to put his arms around it. But his arms would not quite reach; his fingers would not quite touch.

  “You need to grow, to grow, to grow, to grow,” sang the Grass Fairy. “Ask my sisters to help you, help you, help you, help you.”

  So Clem ran back to the house and called for help. The Bread Fairy, the Water Fairy, the Milk Fairy, and the Apple Fairy all came to the top of the hill and helped him. They pulled him longways, they pulled him sideways. By and by, when they had pulled and pulled and pulled, he was able to make his fingers meet around the other side of the old gray stone.

  “Now you may have your wish,” said the Stone Fairy.

  “I wish for a boat,” said Clem, “to take me to the Tooth Fairy’s castle on Moon Island, on the other side of everywhere.”

  A laurel leaf fell into the brook, and grew till it was big as a boat. Clem stepped into it.

  “Away you go, you go, you go, you go,” sang the Water Fairy, and the boat floated away with Clem, down the brook, along the river, and into the wide, wide sea.

  The sea is all made of dreams. Looking down into the deep water, Clem could see many, many dreams. They gleamed and shifted under his boat like leaves made of glass—gold, green, black, and silver. But nowhere could Clem see his own dream, nowhere in all the wide sea.

  The boat traveled on, day after day, night after night.

  In the distance, Clem saw many monsters. There was the Spinach Monster, all greeny-black, the Shoelace Monster, all tangly, the Stair Monster, all cornery, the Seaweed Monster, all crackly, and the Sponge Monster, all soggy.

  But the Water Fairy tossed handfuls of water at them, and they did not dare come too near.

  At last the boat came to Moon Island, on the other side of everywhere. Moon Island is round as a wheel. Its rocky beaches are covered with oysters, and black stones as big as apples. Up above are high white cliffs. And on top of the highest cliff of all stands the Tooth Fairy’s castle, which is all made out of teeth.

  “How shall I ever manage to climb up that cliff?” said Clem. “And what present can I take the Tooth Fairy so that she will give me back my dream?”

  “Sing a song to the oysters on the beach,” the Water Fairy told him. “They are very fond of songs.”

  So Clem sang:

  “Night sky

  Drifting by,

  How can I climb the rock so high?

  Moon beam,

  Star gleam,

  Where shall I find my stolen dream?”

  All the oysters on the beach sighed with pleasure, and opened their shells to listen to Clem’s song.

  The King of the Oysters said, “Stoop down, Clem, feel with your finger inside my shell, and you will find a pearl. Take it to the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps she will give you back your dream.”

  Clem stooped and gently poked his finger inside the big oyster shell. There he found a pearl as big as a plum. It just fitted in the palm of his hand. He also picked up one of the round black stones off the beach.

  “Thank you!” he said to the King of the Oysters. “That was kind of you. I will take this beautiful pearl to the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps she will give me back my dream. But how shall I ever climb up this high cliff?”

  “Sing your song again, again, again,” sang the Water Fairy. “And perhaps somebody else will help you.”

  So Clem sang:

  “Night, sleep,

  Ocean deep,

  How shall I climb the cliff so steep?

  Rain, mist,

  Snow, frost,

  How shall I find my dream that’s lost?”

  Then snowflakes came pattering down out of the sky and built Clem a staircase of white steps that led, back and forth, back and forth, crisscross, all the way up the high cliff.

  And so Clem was able to climb up, step by step, step by step, until he came to the very top, where the Tooth Fairy’s castle was perched.

  The door was made of driftwood, white as paper.

  Clem knocked on the door with his black stone. When he shook the stone, it rattled, as if it held loose teeth inside it.

  Clem knocked once. He knocked twice. He knocked three times.

  “Who is banging on my door?” cried an angry voice.

  “It’s me, Clem! I have come to ask for my dream!�

  Slowly the door opened, and the Tooth Fairy looked out.

  The Tooth Fairy is the oldest fairy in the world. Before the last dragon turned to stone, she was building her castle, and she will be building it when the seeds from the last thistle fly off into space. Her eyes are like balls of snow, and her hands are like bunches of thorns. Her feet are like roots. Her teeth are like icicles.

  “Who are you?” said the Tooth Fairy. “How dare you come knocking at my door? I never give back a tooth. Never!”

  “I’m Clem. And I don’t want my tooth back. I want my dream back!”

  The Tooth Fairy gave Clem a crafty look.

  “How can you be certain that I have your dream?”

  “I’m certain,” said Clem.

  “And if I have it, here in my castle, how can you find it?”

  “I’ll know it when I see it,” said Clem.

  “Oh, very well. You may come in and look for it. But you may stay only seven minutes.”

  So Clem went into the Tooth Fairy’s castle—along wide halls and into huge rooms.

  The fairy shut the door behind him, and pulled the bolt, which was made from a serpent’s tooth.

  Clem wandered all over the castle—up winding stairways, around corners, through galleries, up onto the tops of towers, out on balconies, down into cellars, under arches, across courtyards.

  Everything was white, and there was not a single sound to be heard. Not a mouse, not a bird.

  He began to fear that he would never find his dream.

  “You have had six minutes!” called the Tooth Fairy.

  Her voice rang like a bell in the hollow castle.

  But then, just after that, Clem heard the tiniest tinkle, like water dripping into a pool.

  “Look up,” whispered the Water Fairy. “Look up, up, up, up!”

  Clem looked up, into a round, empty tower. And high, high, high, high, far, far up, he saw something flutter—something that gleamed, and twinkled, and shone, and sparkled.